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Around Coronado - My First Marathon Swim

Scenic, hard work, and totally worth it! Almost 12 miles.

What: Around Coronado Swim, an 18.6k/11.6-mile swim, marathon swim rules (cap, goggles, porous swimsuit)

Where: Coronado, CA – San Diego Bay and Pacific Ocean

When: 3 June, 2021

Who: Heidi Skrzypek (Vashon, WA) and MarySue Balazic (Lake Stevens, WA)

How: With Dan Simonelli of Open Water Swim Academy, his trusty kayaker Jess, our WA open water swim community, some awesome coaches and very supportive husbands!

Having grown up in Coronado, when I think of June, I think of the socked-in marine layer known as the June gloom. Our swim would be no exception; no freak appearance of sun would grace this swim (darn it!). But we have had plenty of grey Northwest days in preparation for this swim and very cold water training. And the air was high 60s. That’s great. Bring it on!

In the weeks leading up to this day, despite all the right amount of training, you can’t help but get anxious. This can take shape in doubting your endurance, thinking of a great white shark attack, getting hypothermia or fear of barfing your guts out with seasickness. Spoiler: NONE OF THESE HAPPENED.  

This would be the longest continuous swim for me. I trained up to the 8-mile mark, and learned afterwards that I needed way more hydration than 45-60-minute-interval feeds were giving me, so for this event decided to fuel up on oatmeal to start and then 90 minutes in to do all warm liquid feeds at 30-minute intervals. Alternating feeds I subsided for this swim on Skratch Labs hot apple cider (hydration dominant) and Skratch Labs Raspberry Superfuel (carb/fuel dominant). I used really cool Takeya double-walled thermal containers which are pricey but well worth it to keep the heat for hours.  I also popped a Stugeron (Cinnazarine), a seasick med I’d picked up for an EC relay in Dover UK), and packed my BlueSeventy Hydravision polarized goggles—perfect for a variable brightness day.

We arrived at Glorietta Bay Park’s boat launch to meet with Dan Simonelli of Open Water Swim Academy and his kayak cohort, Jess Haas. We met at 6 and would swim precisely at 7a. I felt really privileged to have Dan kayaking with us, especially given that we are NOT fast swimmers, knowing damn well they were in for a slow paddle, bless them both! MarySue and I were both in our heads. With so much anticipation built up we just wanted to get in the water and go. Sunscreen, lubed seams, earplugs, cap, goggles, let’s do this thing.

First destination marker: Coronado-San Diego Bay Bridge, launch pad of many suicides since its 1969 opening, and icon of my childhood nightmares (of falling from it, fear of heights, etc). When we approached it, I said “screw you, bridge!” and flipped to backstroke while swimming under it just to face that dread. We also saw my husband, David, good friend, Anne, and MarySue’s sister, Angie, waving from Tidelands Park: yay, stalkers! We threaded a row of moored sailboats and headed into the center of the bay outlet on the downtown approach. To this point, the bay was warm (66-68?) and glassy calm. The closer we swam toward North Island, the choppier and cooler the conditions would become.  Downtown skylines were pretty. The little foot ferry was crossing. All kinds of boats buzzed through. I felt completely safe. You can hear the whirring of boat engines beneath the water, that’s always entertaining.

North Island was really cool. You’re swimming in the presence of history! Mothballed and active battleships are moored at every turn.  Patrol boats whiz past. There was one ship being escorted by tugs that looked angular and stripped down, something more out of Star Wars or Mad Max that turned out to be a fairly new vessel, the USS Gabrielle Giffords! The crew was on deck waving to me and MarySue, and we were totally awestruck. About this time there were some very diesel-like flavors hitting my tongue. Further along the bay we felt a lot of temperature variations, pockets with warm and then surprisingly cold bursts in the high 50s. Dan said, “this is probably the coldest part of the swim right here,” and sure enough, he was right. It began to ease back into low 60s temp in a consistent way. Chop was increasing.

Soon enough we rounded the bend of the North Island and were starting to parallel with what would be Zuniga Jetty. I looked up at Ft. Rosecrans National Cemetery atop Pt Loma and blew kisses to both sets of my late grandparents, who are buried up there. A misty moment, and I drew on their strength to carry me those last four choppy miles.  Lots and lots of rock pilings ran parallel to Pt Loma.  I had no idea how far the jetty went, but it’s impressively long. Weeks earlier I read a story of a migrant boat from Mexico that ran aground nearby. Geez. Then my mind wandered into thinking of all the migrants in the world who never get to practice swimming and swim for their lives in search of opportunity in foreign lands. And that of course rained guilt on me that if some poor soul can get across the Strait of Gibraltar or Baja to San Diego on sheer will then what the hell is my problem worrying about getting around to Coronado beach?! LOL (Kind of the equivalent of being at the dinner table with a plate of food as a kid, knowing there are “kids starving in Africa” so you better damn well eat.)

So with departed military veteran grandparents and swimming migrant children looming over my soul, I spilled out into the open ocean around the final rock pile of the jetty with its moaning intermittent warning horn, stared down that last 3+ miles to the Coronado Shores’ last southerly tower, and had zero doubt I would finish. Home stretch, right?! MarySue wasn’t far behind with Jess taking care of her, and her pace was plodding along consistently. I felt good about her swim, too, even though I didn’t confer with her at the time. The sightseeing fun was definitely behind us and it was head-down-n-jam time!

I will admit, I got a little cold here. Jaw tensed and I felt a shiver setting in. Maybe it was there for a while and I only noticed it on a feed break.  More wind hit as we crept into midday on the Pacific Ocean proper, and the chop was chopping. I hate and I LOVE rough water swimming at the same time! I am able to kick into high gear and assume a different body position when things get crappier. And the cross training I’d been doing at Vashon Strong allowed me the glute and core strength to really kick and not fatigue (thank you Coach Maya and your $#@# weighted squats and dead lifts)! I asked Dan about the possibility of swimming ahead a bit to retain my body heat. In the bay, I stuck with MarySue as a true tandem (side by side-ish is the preferred mode). Out here in the ocean, I felt the urgency to move out. Later, in the very last stretch, Dan said it would be possible to go for it. The swell was 3.5-4 feet, and the winds about 10 mph, and from the jetty to the very end it was hilarious at one moment to see the white towers and the next be on the ass end of swell (aka sight line occluded). Rise and fall, disappear and reappear. Eventually you just keep sighting on the kayak because those towers look close even at 3 miles away. They aren’t close. Keep swimming.

From growing up on this beach I can also confidently say the shoreline water runs North always! Some swells and other conditions affect the severity of it, but plan on a challenge heading south in front of Coronado beach no matter what. It’s a fact. I appreciated that we stayed in the deep until getting closer to the towers. But then, edging in at the towers seemingly took forever.

Mile 10 is when the lats and the pecs got very sore, and on the feed breaks I also pulled in my legs for a lower back stretch—whining, I’m sure. Dan just smiled, graciously having everything ready for me just as I’d asked, and kindly offering insight. For instance, my Gu mocha “treat”: Maybe just take half of it and not the whole thing. He was right. Good call. I had started already getting a little “salt tongue”/canker sore action and could hardly taste anything. It felt like paste even washed down with a warm feed. There’s a reason his swims have had a 100% success rate; he just knows his swimmers because he IS a swimmer. There’s something hyper intuitive about Dan I can’t explain. But I’m grateful for it. MarySue and I both did EC relay qualifiers with him in March so we knew his groove and he knew ours. We are just greenhorns!

Mile 11 is when I start to feel a stabbing pain in my right shoulder (long head of the biceps tendon to be exact). I tried to think of form, elbows up, but instead I executed lob after lob on the right. Stuff was just getting tired. Thoughts were: I’m still moving forward fine, just ugly recoveries. Kick is great. Core is firm. Rotation may have flattened. Almost there. By now Dan tells me there’s a crowd on the beach at the finish area. And soon, “okay, you can swim straight in now,” with instructions for the finish. I had no idea I was right outside the wave line until I was starting to catch a wave! A little bodysurfing assist felt awesome. Shore crew recorded the finish. Family and friends awaited at the end. I did it! A leisurely six hours, 51 min. My first official marathon swim on the books and a good distance at that, in the place I once called home. MarySue wasn't far behind, and once ashore she--in true MarySue style--starts beachcombing before crossing the finish cone, picks up a sand dollar and holds it triumphantly as she ambles to the finish! We did it. All the worry for nothing, because we did the prep. Lots and lots of prep. If you are thinking of a first marathon swim to cut your teeth on, this is not the easiest but it's a great one. Just connect with the Open Water Swim Academy on FB and let Dan and his team do the rest. These are private, for-hire, year round arrangements. 

PS: I also took medication during this swim, for neuropathic pain caused by a combination of c-spine cord lesions and disc compression on C4-5 nerve roots. It wasn’t til April my neurology team was able to give me a steroid injection into the lower neck, which helped some of the excruciating down-the-arm-to-the-thumb pain I’ve had for months. The injection came along with a warning that it could exacerbate MS symptoms. I wasn’t trying to hear that. The shot did help some, but I am still very much in need of Neurontin. Dan was very accommodating in making sure I took my prescription from the kayak (plus Advil). I mention this in case someone reading thinks that their RX might be a deterrent; don’t let it be!

Long read. Long swim! Tick that box. Onward!

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