Me and Beth at the finish... best kayaker ever

Well, I did it! 12.6 miles of open ocean swimming with 8 ins and 8 outs through the surf. This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in water… well honestly at all regardless of whether it was at land or sea. It was substantially harder than my 10 miler in La Jolla at the end of September. I’m feeling equally accomplished and sore right now. The water temp started somewhere around 64 and I would say in spots it ranged down towards 60 with the second half of the race spending most of it’s time down around there. Our initial conditions were calm and glassy but finished with chop and not particularly beneficial currents. It was a pretty brutal swim but I wouldn’t give it up. The experience was amazing and I still can’t believe I managed to pull that off!

In the morning I got up at 4am after of night of not too much sleep. I kept waking up in the middle of the night in anticipation of the day ahead. Once the clock hit 4 for real I got to work getting myself ready. I got my bags squared away and did some do it yourself body marking. I drew the race course on my left forearm (this was ridiculously handy) and then some contact phone numbers on my thigh. I figured if things went sideways midrace I’d be able to call people to help come get me or whatever. Kinda silly, but probably a genius idea.

this is the open water equivalent of writing your heats and lanes on your hand :)

I stayed the night at my friend Robin’s house which is basically square in the middle of the start and finish of the race. I drove from there out to Santa Monica through the empty early morning streets of the West Side of LA and managed to find the pier, but couldn’t figure out how to get to the lot below where I needed to park and where my Kayaker Beth was already waiting for me. We had a quick call and she gave me enough of a clue to figure it out. A few marginally legal U-turns and  good guesses later I was in the lot. I decided that we should toss her kayak in my truck to take to Manhattan Beach so that post race her car would be here to load up and let her drive home whenever she was ready to go. I didn’t know what kind of shape I would be after the swim and figured me trying to strap down and drive a kayak through city traffic back to Manhattan Beach later in the day would probably be a little disastrous. This turned out to be a pretty good plan.

Once we got down to the pier in Manhattan Beach we saw a small progression of swimmers and kayaks bustling about. We unloaded her boat and walked it down to the beach then I ran off to find some parking. Luckily I came prepared with a ton of quarters. The lot they recommended had 10 hour parking, but it required change and there was no change machine to be found. Back at the beach I saw some friends, and Steve Munatones from the Daily News of Open Water Swimming came by to say hi. He gave me some priceless insight to the race course… he told me the trick was to swim to the end of the pier and turn right. It was a little too early for smart-assery, but since I like Steve I let it slide :) After that I found my friend Bekah and got my hands on my packet and timing chip. Since I live like 4 hours away from Santa Monica I couldn’t exactly get my stuff on Friday night so she was cool enough to get that for me when she went to get hers.

my friends are ridiculous... and that's why they're my friends :)

As it got closer to go time we had to get the kayakers in the water. This wasn’t so easy. The water was fairly calm off shore, but we had pretty regular 4-5 footers rolling through. A lot of paddlers were getting flipped in their attempts to get out past the breakers. I was worried about getting Beth out there because she’s really light and doesn’t necessarily have the horsepower for those big bursts of speed required to get out through bigger waves. We made our first attempt and just couldn’t get a break. The current had pushed us too close to the pier to keep trying so we pulled the boat out and walked it further down the beach again to give it another go. I guided the back of the kayak and tried to stabilize it enough to keep her out of trouble. Once we got her past the first line of waves I hung back and read the incoming waves and yelled out directions. It was a little dicey but she got through 2 more lines of waves and out into the flat water… phew!

On the beach they started to line us up and get a head count. As one would expect you kinda want to know how many swimmers are getting in for a 12.6 mile jaunt in the Pacific. It was mainly wetsuited swimmers out there but there were a handful of other swimmers going just skins. I think it was just Me, Bekah, Daniel S. and Colin H. (who was here from England!) who eschewed the warming goodness of a neoprene body casing. Once everyone was present and accounted for we had a bit of a countdown and they cut us loose. Generally I don’t believe in running but I gave it a little jog down to the water since they were filming it… I didn’t want to look all fat and lazy on camera :) Once I was in I washed out my goggles real quick and then worked on swimming to that first buoy. I found Beth just shy of it and got her into position. I like her on my right side so I can see her when I breathe and just a little ahead of me. I was lucky in that we got to practice back in Long Beach around a month ago back so she was used to my stroke and my general demeanor in the water.

waiting for the start... green caps are relays, yellow are soloists

That 1st leg to Dockweiler was long as hell! It took me an hour and a half! Way more than a 2.4 mile swim should take me. On the way there I managed to get into an ok rhythm but my left shoulder was bothering me a lot. I had been having issues with it the last couple weeks but I’ve been trying to just work through it. I was pretty concerned that my shoulder might smoke me out of this thing early. I was going to do everything I could to avoid it, I would have kicked on my back if I had to, but I just tried to swim as well as I could in an effort to not make it worse. On that first turn in to go to the beach I had two other guys right there with me in wetsuits. I tried to just hang behind them a bit. It was a little tricky getting out of the water, but on the beach I strolled through the chute and drank a little water and grabbed a banana. I ended up taking my sweet ass time through most of these stations. No running, no rushing. I walked, ate and chatted my way through all of them. Getting back in the water was a little exciting. The waves were pretty healthy here and I got tumbled a little bit trying to get past the breakers. I met Beth back at the turn buoy (which like all the others turned out to be exceptionally far from shore) and had a quick feed then got back to work.

swimming up to the first turn buoy after 2.4 miles

The next leg was to the north end of Dockweiler Beach and this was a 1.8 mile shot. I knew that there was a weird pipe thing on this leg thanks to some input from my Catalina Swim22 swimmer Chris. Although I knew it was there it was still pretty shocking to swim over. During the 2nd Dockweiler leg I had some chaffing issues with my suit on my thighs, not fun. Luckily there was vaseline at all stops. It was a little awkward to lube up my danger zone in front of strangers but what are you going to do right? Despite my best efforts I got pretty chewed up on my thighs, luckily everywhere else came out just fine. Somewhere around here is where I ditched my swim cap. It was pissing me off and I didn’t want to deal with it for another 10 miles. Beth was worried I’d get cold without it, I pointed out thin latex on a bald head isn’t exactly getting much accomplished. I placed it on the blade of her paddle and she tucked it away in a bag on the boat…  I was much happier the rest of the day without it.

On our way to Marina Del Rey there were lots of airplanes overhead. We were even with LAX and nearing where my friend lives. I could recognize the street that leads to her place by the super tall palm trees. I felt encouraged by this… we were getting places! On the way into the beach I had an accidental body surfing adventure… a wave hit me just right and I rolled with it like I would at home in Avila. Not too long later I had second thoughts about this, I was tired and in unfamiliar water… body surfing was probably ill advised 6 miles into a swim! I tried to pull out of the wave and got spun sideways down to the sand below the wave. I came out unscathed but it was a good reminder to avoid any body surfing hot dogging.

swimming under the flight path of LAX

This stage also set me up for the only real cut off time that had to be made in the whole thing. You had to crest the mouth of the Marina Del Rey harbor by 12 noon. I left the beach just south of it near 11 so I had an hour to get this accomplished. I made it no problem time-wise, but this is where the swim got substantially harder.

As we cruised through Marina Del Rey the water started to liven up… a lot. We had a wind driven current pushing towards the rocky breakwater and plenty of chop which up until this point hadn’t really been an issue. The swim down the north edge of the breakwater was such a grind. At the beginning of it it sort of looked like an island with a flag in the middle… this turned out to be an unfortunate optical illusion. As you swam along the wall it just got longer and longer. My shoulders were on fire. We stopped for a feed part of the way down it and it was probably one of my shortest ones of the day because we were drifting towards the rocks and I wanted nothing to do with that! Once we got past the end of the seawall it didn’t get any better. More current and more chop, yay :/ After what seemed like an awkwardly long time for 1.8 miles I hit the turn buoy and did the impressively long swim back to shore. These swims to and from shore were some of the hardest parts of this swim. Even my kayaker had a hard time paddling back to the buoy on some of them!

rounding one of the turn buoys to head for the beach

From this point on the volunteers at the rest stations were all sufficiently freaked out by me. I rolled up overly casual with no wetsuit and no cap like nothing was going on. Everyone wanted to get me a new cap but I had to explain that I took it off on purpose. That didn’t seem to register with most folks. The volunteers at these aid stations were excellent by the way. Always positive… clapping, cheering, some stations had cowbells even! I don’t know where they came from but I’m glad they were all there!

When I got back in the water to swim back to Beth my muscles locked up HARD! My pecs up towards my armpits turned to stone and the muscles that go through the crook of my elbows tightened up big time. I had a feed with Beth at the Kayak and tried to stretch them out a bit but nothing was really working. I figured I needed to just keep swimming because, well, what the hell else was I going to do right? I probably had the pleasure of this sensation for at least a mile. Awesome :/ The tightness in my elbow region never regained that intensity, but it also never completely left for the rest of the swim.

eating and drinking... lots of this went on

Our next stop was Venice Beach and we had to swim over the top of the pier and then in. The pier doesn’t look so big… but if you keep swimming towards it that problem solves itself. It took a while to get there for sure. On the way to the pier I passed 3 dudes according to Beth (I saw nothing at this point, just water and her). I think one was a solo and the other two were relay swimmers. On the beach I saw a guy working on pulling himself out of the race. It was a good reminder that I wasn’t the only one who thought that this was hard. I’m curious how many people didn’t make it, I heard of a fair number of people pulling out or being pulled throughout the day. On my way back into the water and through the waves I ran into Jen from the Swim22 relay. It was quite the fancy meeting you here kind of situation :) No marathon swimming for her today though, she was paddling for a friend.

The next leg of the swim was to another part of Venice beach. It like all the other legs after Marina Del Rey was a total grind even though they were now all down to 1.2 miles a piece. At this rest stop the people working it were totally shocked at how I was doing as a non-wetsuiter. One lady told me that I looked better than anyone else that’s come through there! I figure I may not be fast but I am very cold tolerant… that counts for something right?

From here I only had 2 more stops and they were both in Santa Monica. I could see the pier and this is where I decided that no matter what I could not fail. Nothing could go wrong enough to stop me… unless I was you know, eaten or something like that. I would dolphin kick on my back or breast stroke or whatever for 2.4 miles just to successfully complete this damn thing. Luckily my arms and shoulders were holding together. I was in a lot of pain in that general region but I’m pretty good at ignoring that in the moment. I’m going to be a huge baby about it for the next couple days as I recover however :)

Once we passed through the 1st Santa Monica checkpoint it was clear sailing to the pier. We kept grinding it out and once we got within 500m of the pier the water went from sea green with 10-15 feet of visibility to brown and murky… fun. I put my hand through a couple pieces of trash which was charming, but luckily nothing too gross. As we rounded the top of the pier I started to get really excited on the inside. This thing was finally over… I defeated the coast of LA. At the last turn buoy I had a quick chat with Beth and she paddled down the beach to find somewhere to land her kayak. I swam straight in towards the beach and the big red arch set up for the finish. After stroking though a couple waves I was in water shallow enough that I could stand and walked it the rest of the way in. I saw my friend Robin and my Coach Nancy on the beach cheering for me. I was really stoked to see them, especially seeing as I was finishing waaaay later than I had anticipated. It was 3 o’clock… I had been in the water for just over 8 hours! I plodded through the sand through the arch, took a deep breath and enjoyed the fact that I was done… finally… ahhh. Not too long after we had another finisher. This guy was from Nepal and we saw each other at every rest stop and yelled little hellos and good jobs at each other all day. I’d be going out as he was coming in. We had a little congratulatory hand shake and he went off to celebrate with his friends and family and I went off to rehash the day’s events with mine.


High Five from Brian while my Nepali friend celebrates behind him

Post race I spent time with Nancy and Robin while I tried to figure out what to do with myself now. I wasn’t 100% mentally after the race. It wasn’t from being cold, I felt fine in the temperature department… I was spaced out from the crazy amount of exercise that had just gone down. I mean I was out there for 8+ hours dude! After talking with some race people, my coach, my kayaker and others me and Robin got to work on splitting. My meter down in Manhattan Beach was just about to expire and I really didn’t want a parking ticket to cap off my day. Once I sat down in the car I texted my friend Bekah to see how her swim went since she wasn’t on the beach when I finished. About now is when I started putting it together that I was her ride back to Manhattan Beach… D’oh!!! She’s a lot faster than me and for some reason I just assumed she finished hours ago and left before I got back… like I said, the brain was moving a little slow post race! We turned the car around and reparked next to the pier to scoop her up. While we were there we also picked up various other things I had forgotten at the beach (bottles, goggles, etc.) and I got a finisher’s t-shirt up at the expo that I was unaware of being available previously. On the drive back to Manhattan Beach Bekah and I traded swim stories from our individual excursions while Robin drove us along the coast so we could relive our route backwards and much faster.

dazed and confused with epic goggle lines!

When I got to my truck I found it with no parking ticket on it despite the meter being expired for over an hour, yay! I also found it with my window rolled all the way down on the driver’s side… whoops! I guess I started the day not 100% in the brain department. Amazingly after 11+ hours in underground parking no one messed with it. Everything was still there… awesome. I drove back to Robin’s house and promptly retired to the bath tub for a while. We finished up the evening with some steak, scotch and a huge piece of cake. Perfect. The next morning I repeated my bath tub soak, found some ibuprofen, and made my way to Agoura Hills to see my coach for a while. I showed her pictures and video from the race and talked a little bit about where I go from here… that part remains a work in progress.

I’m still riding pretty high on the feeling of accomplishing this swim, but whenever you do an open water race this long it’s not an individual event. I have a lot of people to thank for getting me through it. A huge thank you goes to Beth Barnes for kayaking for me. She did an awesome job and I would hire her again in a minute for anything I’m doing in the ocean. She was fantastic. Another thank you to Bekah for talking me into entering the event. When I was just toying with the idea she convinced me that we both needed to swim it… whoops :) Having a friend in the race turned out to be a great motivatory tool in the lead up to the event. She did a great job and I’m proud of both of us for sticking to it and finishing the race. Thanks to my coach Nancy for staying on me from a distance to make sure I was ready to swim this, and for showing up and waiting for me at the finish. It was awesome to hear her yelling for me from the beach when I came out of that last wave in Santa Monica! A big thank you to Robin for housing me for the weekend and taking care of some of the driving while I was still recombobulating post swim. We’ve been friends since high school and she always comes through when I need her. Beyond that, thank you to all of you that left me comments on the blog/facebook/twitter or sent me text messages and emails through the whole thing. All the support and encouragement I get from you guys helps keep me going when I have crazy person ideas like summer open water tours or 12+ mile swims up the coast of LA :)

getting out of the ocean for the last time, waving at Nancy and Robin

24 Responses to “2010 Distance Swim Challenge 12.6 Miler Wrap Up”

  1. IronMike says:

    Congrats dude…holy crap. I’d love to do that race someday…if I can make all the cut-off times!

  2. Evan says:

    Beastly, epic swim. Congrats.

  3. Jinxi says:

    Woo hoo!

    Congratulations, Rob! I’m so proud of you!!

    Love the photos and the video.
    Thanks for the great wrap-up!!!

    High five, mister!

  4. Sheila says:

    Awesome, Rob. Excellent job and really exciting to read about this. My own ocean swims are generally only 1-1.5 miles. Not sure I will ever swim upwards of 10 miles in the ocean, but it is great to read about it and you never know…maybe some day. You make it sound possible.

  5. Lynn K says:

    GREAT recap Rob! Wish my swim-clone could have been there!

  6. Rob D says:

    Mike – thanks buddy! I don’t think you have to sweat the speed on this one, somebody took it all the way to 10 hours and 41 minutes. The main thing is just having the force of will to not stop… which is really hard when they give you all these great opportunities on the beach to sit down and quit.

    Evan – beastly for sure. I think you need to come out and swim this course as Channel prep dude!

    Jinxi – thanks! I can’t wait to see you and Steve again sometime soon… hopefully we cross paths in the SCM pool this year :)

    Sheila – thank you! Most of my training swims are only 1-2 miles, but by stringing together longer and longer events I managed to build up to it… it’s all within reach if you feel the urge to do it! :)

    Lynn – I would have loved to run into you out there! As a bonus you would have had company in the bikini division… Bekah wore one for the 12 miler!

  7. [...] Also read Rob Aquatics’ wrap-up. [...]

  8. Lorie says:

    Good job, dude! I remember seeing you at the start line and my relay teammates and I noticed your map on your arm. We thought it was a great idea! What an accomplishment to do the entire 12.6 mile race! Congratulations!

  9. Rob D says:

    Lorie – awesome! I’m glad somebody recognized the genius of my map drawing :)

  10. Beth Barnes says:

    WOW, what a great story Rob tells about his Distance Challenge swim! A surprisingly great memory for detail as I know, first hand, that it was a stressful swim, long and not without challenge. The currents especially, coming back out from the beach were formidable.

    Rob was/is a star, it was an honor to be his kayaker and be by his side the entire time. He NEVER complained, never grimaced and was always quick with a smile every time I held his feeds out to his appreciative and presumably cold hands. Thanks, Rob, I learned a lot about perseverance, determination and fortitude during our time on the water.

    Swimming, just like any other sport or activity should NEVER define a person. Only the ‘person’ can define the person. The Distance Challenge is just one more way that you’ve defined yourself as the fine man, and friend that everyone knows you to be. It was an honour, thanks for asking ME to be your kayaker.

    By the way…you are definitely Catalina Channel material, please let me be one of the first to know when you schedule your swim!

  11. dale says:

    AWESOME!! Finishing 12 miles of ANYTHING is a tremendous accomplishment!
    Avila Bay Dolphins

  12. Suzie Dods says:

    What a fabulous write up. Funny, informative, well written and wry.
    Great time too by the way. I would’ve been at the back w the 10 hr 41 min swimmer.
    Any time you are in San Fran, come swim w us in SF Bay.

  13. Rob D says:

    Beth – thank you again for paddling for me… having you in the water made my life so much easier! Whatever the next big salt water excursion turns out to be you’ll know right away!!!

    Dale – thank you! I couldn’t have done it without all the time I spent out with the Avila Dolphins getting comfortable in the ocean and building my cold water tolerance!

    Suzie – thank you for the kind words! I’m hoping to do more swimming in SF in the coming year so hopefully we cross paths sometime soon!

  14. Congratulations. You not only looked calm and composed at the start but you also looked remarkably fresh at the finish. You were studly out there – at all levels. Thank you very much for your detailed report.

    Before the start, I figured you needed no navigational assistance – you and Beth seemed to have it all together.

    However, in the future, given those same conditions, I would recommend that swimmers traverse the course a bit inside, closer to the surf zone where the water was moving northward faster than the outside (where it was still moving northward). I figured with the faces of the waves going in that direction, everyone knew that navigational hint.

    If you believe navigational assistance would be appreciated by any or all of the competitors, just tell me and we can provide that information in the final pre-race briefing. I provided just general comments because I thought, especially with experienced kayakers, the swimmers like to keep their navigational advantages and strategies to themselves in a competitive setting. That is part of the beauty of open water swimming that I think many masters swimmers enjoy and talk about – trying to figure out the best tangents and course to take given a certain set of dynamic elements in open water swimming competitions.

    The surface chop seemed fairly minimal as I look at your photos and videos above … I hope the same conditions are there for next year’s race. It could be a long day next year if the currents are oncoming, whitecaps develop and the surf is pumping.

    Also, FYI – I will be adding the non-wetsuit winners and their times to the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame record list and the Open Water Source world record list of open water events.

  15. Colin Hill says:

    I really enjoyed reading the article and as a fellow non wetsuit swimming I agree with your observations on the water temp, definatley swam into some cooler water. Was a great event and Impleased we got to meet up on the start line.
    Great video clip from Beth, well done you.
    All the best and hope to come bAck out to the USA again soon to swim.
    Colin Hill

  16. Rob D says:

    Thanks Steve, I’m happy that I managed to hold it together for 8 hours in the water! And I’m happy with the job you guys did on race day keeping things safe and on track. I think the race briefing you guys gave was fine, your go out and turn right advice was pretty spot on :) I didn’t realize swimming it in closer was an option though. I assumed we were supposed to roughly keep in line with the buoys marking our course.

    I don’t think I have any pictures or video of when the chop was at its worst. Things were mellowing out a little by the time we hit the Santa Monica pier, but out around Marina Del Rey it got ugly. Admittedly it wasn’t anywhere near the worst I’ve seen on a race this year, but the chop with all other factors combined made this a really hard swim. Seriously though, if those currents were supposed to be favorable I don’t want to see what unfavorable looks like!

    Colin – great to meet you on the beach! I look forward to running into you in the ocean again sometime soon!

  17. El Sharko says:


    Sounds like a fun and transforming swim….This seems like a work up to something grander???

    I am curious as to why at 60f that so many were wearing wet suits

  18. Rob D says:

    El Sharko – I may be en route to something a little more serious… I’m still working through it in my head but I think I have something fun brewing

    The race didn’t really make a big deal about wearing wetsuits so I guess the majority of people went with the speed advantage and the comfort/heat thing since we weren’t really going to be broken into separate divisions anyways.

  19. Great job, Rob! Are you ready for Catalina now? :-)

  20. Oh yeah, look at all the shark baited wetsuiters out there! They have NOTHING on us lol!

  21. Rob D says:

    Thanks Natalie! There’s that “C” word again… we’ll see about Catalina, I mean it is right there and all :)

    I’m ok with the wetsuiters, it would have been a lot lonelier out there without them… plus they look more like delicious seals than I do

  22. Rob,
    This is an amazing accomplishment! I must say that this is incredibly inspirational. Congratulations to you and your training staff and race crew! I have made the decision to train for the Swim Around Key West which is 12 miles as well in sweltering sun and 80 degree water…yuck! I have so many things I want to say right now but am so filled with inspiration from your race write up that I cannot put it into words now. I will print out your race writeup and post it up as training inspiration until race day. I hope you decide to do the FT lauderdale Rough water race on Jan 2nd (should be about 65 degree water) and then the Swim Around Key West! Again congratulations Rob!

  23. Oh I forgot to say…..FREAKIN’ AWESOME!!!!!!! ha ha ha

  24. Rob D says:

    Manuel thanks dude! I’m stoked to hear my little adventure is fueling yours!!! Good luck with Key West… that might be a good one for this coming year… the water is too hot, but I’d be in Key West which kind of balances things out :)