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Taking the Long View of Epic: When Less Is More

Taking Stock

In April 2021, as I stood in the Atlantic Ocean at the finish of my transcontinental run from Disneyland to Disney World looking out to sea, one grand adventure was coming to an end. A USA Today reporter asked me “what’s next?” and I said that a good friend of mine who also has Type 1 diabetes had recently completed a solo swim around Key West, and that I hope to do it also.

I spent a lot of time swim training since then, and as I write this, I can see real progress:

  • I extended my distance from 2.4 miles to 12 miles.
  • I took 30 seconds off my 100-yard pace.
  • I figured out how to use the new official Dexcom widget on my Garmin Fenix 6x to watch my blood sugars when I swim–a BIG deal since one of my greatest fears is going low in the water.
  • I learned how to gulp 12-ounce “feeds” while treading water, which is not as easy as it looks.

I also practiced ocean swimming at Hobie Island Beach with Type 1 diabetic athlete Alan Roig, who graciously volunteered to provide the required kayak support for Key West. I learned about surf and swells and just how bad saltwater tastes. I practiced in windy conditions in the Gulf of Mexico and spent a day scouting the swim course around Key West for landmarks.

But there were still things I hadn’t done:

  • I had swum 10+ miles only three times, only once in open water. When I discovered I burned carbs faster in rough water or when pushing my pace, it sent my fueling and insulin strategy back to the drawing board rather late in the game.
  • My open-water pace under perfect conditions was still not reliably better than 2:50/100 yards, even though my pool pace was fast enough to finish Key West before the tides changed.
  • I had trained only 4 days in the ocean, a few hours each day.

Which, despite all the training, left major questions about what race day would be like.

Focusing on the Big Picture

There’s a trick question I remember from Engineering School. A car and a train approach an intersection at different speeds. You’re asked how fast the car has to go to cross a railroad track just before the train gets there. Most folks jump straight to the math. But the question is really about the wisdom of squeaking across the tracks at the last minute.

Encouraged by my training, I had registered for the 12.5-mile swim back in March. But no matter how I did the math with my base open water pace, fatigue, sighting, current, wind, feeds and so on, nothing ever changed. If my basic swim pace wasn’t faster, I wouldn’t beat the tides or sundown.

Go for It, or Not?

By mid-May, my options were clear and relatively few:

  • Defer until next year. More time to train, but I might not come back faster or stronger.
  • Go for it. Perhaps by some stretch, I might miraculously finish the Big Swim. But if I didn’t make the first cutoff at 5 miles, I’d walk away with nothing much to show for it.
  • Split the difference and switch to the 10K (6.2 mile) swim. It was well within my capabilities. It wasn’t a full circumnavigation of the island, but it was a marathon swim, it would be my first, and hey—I might actually place in my 60+ age group.

Going for the 12.5 was a risky gamble and the odds were not in my favor. By deferring, I’d never know what I could have done. By aiming lower, I could improve my odds and learn more about the Big Swim.

I decided to change my registration to the 10K swim.

Listening to Your Inner Voice

The ethos with sports so often is to push, then push harder, beyond our training, beyond our comfort zone, often to the point where you’re bruised physically, emotionally, and sometimes spiritually. We get so wrapped up in the big victory that we ignore our inner accountant, the one who diligently reminds us that we haven’t closed the gap between goals and current capabilities.

It takes great effort to listen to that quiet inner voice, and not the one screaming from the bleachers to toughen up and grow a pair, especially when you’ve trained all season for something right at the edge of what you can do.

Yet aiming at intermediate goals helps consolidate progress and learning. It gives you a less risky path to prepare physically and mentally for bigger challenges to come.

That was why before my U.S. run, I entered the 100-mile Honey Badger ultra in Kansas first; then the 339-mile RelayIowa; and then ran 850 miles across Texas. I learned a great deal in the process about avoiding injury, fueling for continuous effort, and maintaining a sustainable speed during a grinding physical ordeal. I got to reflect on my progress rather than worry constantly about whether I was ready for my ultimate challenge.

I know that the 10K swim is the right choice right now, just like Kansas and Iowa and Texas were. I am grateful that there was a lower target at Key West to aim at, one that helps prepare me for next year.

But now is not next year. And more than anything, I think, that’s what makes right choices so difficult.