The 10th Annual Tampa Bay Swim

My DNF and PR

April 21st, 2007

I don’t know how savvy you are to athletic event lingo but a DNF after your name is most undesirable. DNF stands for Did Not Finish. I met my Waterloo, my first DNF, on Saturday, April 21st, 2007.

In June of 2006, I missed swimming in the Annual Swim Around Key West. This was a major deal for me as I had not missed a swim around this little island since 1991. That translates into fifteen straight years. My first swim was in 1989. I missed in 1990 because it was held on a Sunday. (I have conviction about participating in sporting events on the Lord’s Day.) But from 1991 onwards, I swam in every annual swim around this rock. I even swam in some novel maverick swims that were put on a couple of times. Preparation for the swim gave me a reason to train. Prior to my miss in 2006, I have completed the 12.5 mile swim around Key West a total of 19 times. I don’t think there is anyone who comes close to that. Perhaps next after me is Anna Fugina Pennella, who pioneered the swim.

The reason I didn’t swim in 2006 was due to removal of a bone spur on the upper part of my left shoulder and the reattachment of a ligament the surgeon found after he went in. All went well with the surgery but I felt I didn’t have enough time to heal and I didn’t want to undo the good done. That doesn’t mean I didn’t participate in the 30th Annual Swim; I directed it. Directing this classic event is a gift passed on to me by the race Founder, Ms. Anna, in 2004.

Feeling like a junkie without his fix, I lamented my non-swimming involvement in 2006. The week following, as I swam in my canal, I came up with a strange, compelling concept. I must admit I had this thought in prior times, but now it came to me more powerfully than ever before. The idea was simple, but terrifying. “Why don’t you try to swim around Key West once a month every month for a year?” Interesting notion, but was it realistic? Could my shoulders withstand such use (abuse)? What about the cool water temperatures in the winter months. My blood has thinned having lived down here for 20 years. I knew that the Portuguese Men of War come in on certain winds in the winter months. There were plenty of unknowns. My previous swim were only in May, June or July.

I was sheepish about telling anyone about my idea at first, then I thought I would mention it to people closest to me. My wife and father thought it was loopy, “Why would you want to that?” “Don’t you have any better way to spend your time?” Not the least encouraging. Then I mentioned this scheme to my son-in-law, Terence White. Terence is a runner. He went to college on a running scholarship. He still runs. When I told him, his eyes lit up. He thought it was the coolest idea he had ever heard. I mentioned it to another running friend, Don Nelson. His reaction was likened Terence’s. These two friends were to prove the most encouragement to me over the next year. I would report to them in advance when I planned to do each month’s swim, and then after they would be eager to find out how well it went. There was also Joe Towson, a nine-time Ironman who was always eager to hear about my progress.

I didn’t make my plan known to too many others; I was afraid I would be eating crow. After completing 5 or 6, my confidence began to grow. I began to believe I could complete the year of monthly swims.

In the back of my mind, I had for years thought about attempting to swim the 24 miles across Tampa Bay. That is a huge concept in and of itself. How does one train for such a distance? Maybe you do it by swimming 12.5 miles around Key West each month. Of course you don’t just wake up on a given morning and swim 12.5 miles. You train, you prepare for the day and then you go to do it. I was racking up miles and hours in the water.

In April I turned 57, so I thought if I am ever going to attempt the Tampa Swim, now was the time. The Key West swims were and remain a big deal to me. I swim each one with respect, but I know I can do 12.5 miles. But could I do almost twice that? I tried to imagine swimming around this island twice. Daunting! I did, with fear and trembling, send in my application to Ron Collins. Ron is an English Channel swimmer who directs the Tampa Bay Earth Day Swim.

This year the swim was scheduled for Saturday, April 21st, just 4 days after my birthday. The distance concerned me but nothing concerned me more than the water temperature. I almost missed my Key West swim in February. I attempted a swim and got out after only two miles. I was shivering. With my teeth chattering, I called Terence, who picked me up at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park and drove me back to my car at Smathers beach. The water was about 73 degrees. I am very uncomfortable in cool water. I can’t imagine cold water!

On April 18th, I left Key West alone and drove to Lutz, Florida. This town outside Tampa is the home of my daughter Elizabeth and her husband, Tony Correa. Recently my 20-year-old daughter Christiana moved in with the Correas. Christy consented to kayak for me. Her friend, John Warrenda, was going to join us.

On Friday, April 20th, we drove to the Sunspree Holiday Inn at the base of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, on the St. Petersburg side. That evening we were to have a pre-race meeting and we were to leave from the beach of the Inn at 7:00AM the next morning. I am amazed that I slept as well as I did in light of what was ahead of me. The mornings were cool. The days would warm up to the upper 70s or 80s, but the temps overnight would fall to the 60s. I knew I was facing an uncomfortable challenge. I was not a happy camper. But here I was.

We were to start at 7:00AM, but for some reason I stood in the water on the shore with 10 other solo swimmers and a handful of relay team people waiting to start. At 7:20AM, we swam. We were heading north. The swim was to conclude at the Ben T. Beach on the Courtney-Campbell Causeway. The water was cold and had a good chop to it.

The evening before, after our meeting I approached one of swimmers who had done this swim more than seven times. In fact, he won it one year. His name was Dave Parcells. I was learning that Dave was a legend among long distance swimmers. He not only completed the English Channel one way, but once did a roundtrip swim in the Channel! As I spoke with Dave, neither he nor I knew it would be his last swim. I asked him if he had any gems of wisdom for me. He recommended that I take it one mile at a time. If I felt I couldn’t go any further, I should tell myself just go one more mile. Try to convince yourself that it is going to get easier.

I was shaking in the water from the very start. I kept telling myself, “It will get warmer as the sun rises. Once the sun is high you will be warmed up. Don’t quit!” Let me tell you, the tricked worked for 11 hours and 25 minutes and 24 seconds. Truth be told I never got any warmer. Burney, my boat escort, guided Christy in the kayak and me in the water for 20 miles in a 19-foot Mako. Burney informed me after I exited the water that the water temperatures shifted back and forth between 66.7 and 71.7 degrees. He further informed me that we were battling head winds of about 25 miles an hour throughout the day, and waves were consistently 3-5 feet. Most tragically, I also learned that Dave Parcells died of a heart attack nine miles into the swim. A lot was happening all around me as I was slugging my way through the water.

Christy will never forget her 20th birthday; she spent it with her Dad, April 21st, 2007. Of the 11 plus hours I was in the water she was in the kayak 9.5 to 10 of those hours. Her friend John took over for about an hour. That is impressive in itself.

I was a DNF. I had made it about 20 miles, just short of the Gandy Causeway. I swam and swam but I wasn’t making any progress in arriving at the Gandy. The tide was flowing against me. In the last hour, the winds picked up even more and Christy couldn’t stay near me. It was about 6:45PM when Burney got my attention. He said the conditions were getting too dangerous. The waves were beginning to swamp his boat. He told me we were going to have to call it a day.

Was I bummed out, devastated? Did I consider myself a failure in my DNF? Of course I would have loved to have arrived at the Courtney-Campbell Causeway, but I didn’t, so … I must say that I learned a lot about myself. I can’t believe I swam as long and as far as I did in such conditions. I can’t believe my shoulders felt so good. I can’t believe I maintained such a positive attitude the whole time. There were times I felt like giving up, but then I would focus on my shoulders. I would say to myself, “These shoulders, they are working like finely oiled machines. You can’t quit.” From my knees to my belly button was frozen, a strange crampiness in my midsection.

The Lord is so good to me. He gave me grace, strength and joy in the midst of this challenge. I am so grateful for the opportunity to have tested myself in this venue. Could I have made it if the conditions were better? We know there are no “could haves.” The day was as it was and I made it as far as I did. However, while I was tired and cold, I still had energy to keep going. I am glad Burney made the decision to “call it a day,” and not me, because I would have kept swimming, even though I was making almost no progress against the tide. I have written after my name DNF, but I wouldn’t have that DNF if I had never entered. I wouldn’t have made my longest swim, yea, my longest ever continuous athletic event. So while I scored a DNF, I also scored some personal records (PR) at the same time.

I want to commend Christy for such a yeoman’s job in the kayak, and I don’t think I could have found a greater escort boat pilot. Burney was so splendid. We exited at the boat ramp near the Gandy Causeway. Burney’s wife, Amy, came to pick us up and tow the boat. I was about blue with cold and they took us to their home. They gave me a dry towel and a hot shower and then some good food. They treated us as family and we got to meet some of their warm and loving neighbors. My daughter Elizabeth joined us at their home; she drove my Ford Explorer from the Sunspree Holiday Inn. Then we drove to her home to rest and worship on the Lord’s Day.

Of the 10 solo swimmers four completed to entire distance. I don’t know anything about any of the others. Next I have my 11th swim around Key West to accomplish. I think I am ready for my month of May swim!