The Swim Around Key West 2022
Sat., June 18, 2022

Why Swim Around An Island?

Back in 2013 I got interested in triathlons. I thought I knew how to swim. But when I decided to hook up with swim coach Bryan Mineo and he asked me to do 25 yards. I made it only halfway across. Holding my breath. With my head up. Splashing like an injured seal. It turns out what I actually knew how to do was dive for pennies in a backyard pool.

Bryan kept at it and I kept learning. There were a lot of ungraceful 300-yard workouts at local aquatic centers. Eventually, I made it through some pool sprint triathlons, then an Olympic tri in a tiny lake nearby.

I remember telling my wife, "One day maybe I can do a half-Ironman." Two years and many, many laps later, I journeyed out to Lake Grapevine to face my fears of open water with Bryan, my new wetsuit, and other newbie  open water swimmers. I eventually made it through Ironman Texas (Austin) 70.3 and finished Ironman Texas (The Woodlands) 140.6 in 2017.

Somewhere along the way, I learned to actually like what had been my weakest sport. I liked the calm, peaceful rhythms, and as someone with an engineering background, I was fascinated by the science and technique. With an Ironman behind me, I wanted to swim farther, faster, and better. I was hooked.

After finishing the Type 1 Diabetes Run Across America, a reporter for Florida Today asked me on the beach at Indiatlantic, FL what I would tackle next. At the time, I told him the truth: a shower, a nap, and a steak. (YellowDog Cafe kindly comped the steak! <3)

But as I stood staring out at the ocean, it left me thinking...why NOT do something in the ocean?

My Type 1 friend and swim mentor Karen had just completed a solo 12.5 mile Swim Around Key West, and after all the training, planning, budgeting, routing, scouting, and outfitting that went into my USA run, I wanted more than anything to do another "big" thing, but one I could train for in a season and complete in one day.

Swimming 12.5 miles isn't easy, especially balancing insulin and fueling; and just the idea of completely encircling an island that's 7 square miles blows my mind a little. I don't know if I can actually do it. But I'm determined to find out, because testing our limits is how we find out where they actually are.

About the Swim Around Key West

The College of the Florida Keys Annual Swim Around Key West is one of two annual 12.5 mile swims around the island. The first ever documented swim around the island was completed by Anna Fugina in 1977 and took 13 hours. Since then, the timing has been adjusted so that tides and currents favor completing the swim in the required 8 hours.

The swim is pretty welcoming to aspiring swimmers and allows an early start for folks who feel they might need the extra time. It also allows visibility buoys, which can be useful if self-rescue is needed.

For the most part, the swim is in relatively shallow waters, with the exception of the waters on either side of Dredger's Key, a naval station connected to the main island by a causeway that prevents a shorter route around the 2.5 mi x 4 mi island.

The Route

Swim Around Key West Route

The 12.5-mile route starts on Smathers Beach and proceeds clockwise around the island, with checkpoints near the harbor between miles 2 and 3, at Fleming Key bridge, and at Cow Key bridge. Making the checkpoints on time is critical, as the tides and currents change later in the day and make finishing difficult if you're not fast enough.

Stuff I Get Asked

Will you the be the first Type 1 to swim around the island? (Spoiler: No.)

Actually, no, and that gives me some relief. I've been preceded by #T1D #diabadasses Karen Lewin, Abby Brau, and Andrew Wallace.

Another team of Type 1s led by Erin Spineto did the race as a relay.

At best I'll be the fourth solo T1D swimmer, and if I finish, almost certainly the slowest.

Each of us has taken a different approach to the challenges of diabetes management on a marathon swim, which include blood sugar testing, basal rate dosing, and fueling strategies.

To my knowledge, I may be the first T1D to attempt the swim wearing an insulin pump, but I'm not sure of that.

Even if not, I'll discover what works for me,  share that knowledge, and maybe someone else will be the wiser for it. Apart from challenging myself personally, sharing that info is what matters to me.

How do you train for a 12.5 mile swim in the ocean?

Not surprisingly, you swim a lot. You learn--as I am still learning--what you are bad at and try to improve by adjusting your technique. In my case, I was too slow. I went to two different swim coaches to try to get faster, only to find that their focus was on "pouring it on" to finish events like Ironmans--something I had already done and which required only 2.4 miles of swimming. In a lake. With no feeding. And no saltwater. 

Not much of what they counseled me on was  really about ultra endurance.

So as usual, I made up my own training plan. I swam a lot at the lake, in the worst conditions possible--20-30 mph gusts right before a storm (my local kayaker didn't like that), or at the hottest times of the day and the hottest times of the year, in order to test my tolerance for hot water and weakening sunscreen. 

I discovered weaknesses, hacks, and improvements to my technique. I found that I was able to go 3-4 miles without contacting the shore. Then 7 miles. I learned to feed from a bike bottle while treading water, which was a bit like learning to juggle. Since I planned to be in the water for 8 hours, I even had to learn how to pee while swimming. Gross, but it's necessary.

Then winter set in and I was confined to pool training. I worked on eliminating shoulder pain, which was a challenge until I ran into Adam Walker's Ocean Walker technique, a variation on the front crawl that's designed to minimize use of the four little muscles in the rotator cuff by over-rotating the body slightly during the kick portion of the stroke. I was able to drop 20 seconds off my 100-meter time, but I remained slow and I still am.

At this point I'm still not quite sure if I'll finish the Swim Around Key West on time, but I've learned a lot from training for it, and sometimes that really the point of it all.

What (and how) do you eat while swimming? What's your nutrition and hydration plan?

There's rule for marathon swims that's pretty universal: no contact with the support vessel.

That means that EVERYTHING I eat or drink needs to be tossed from the boat, and I need to be able to eat or drink it while either floating on my back or treading water.

Well...trying to eat while flat on your back is a good way to choke, so you do your best to eat while in a slightly sitting position, which means treading water.

It also takes time to eat/drink, so you need to minimize the time you take. On a run, you'd just grab something and keep walking, then take care of your garbage and get running again. For swimming, you can't really stop in any real way. Yes, saltwater is buoyant and you float a bit. But the truth is, you need to fill your mouth as fast as you can with as many calories as you can, along with water, get it over with, and get back on your stomach and resume swimming.

For me, the shortcut was to eliminate solid food. It's less of a choking risk. Some folks eat solid food on swims, and bully for them. For me, I rely on two packets of Untapped Maple Syrup dissolved in water for each feed, which fuels me for about a mile. This all goes into a wide-mouth thumb-release bike bottle attached to a polypropylene heaving rope. We use polypropylene because I learned that both nylon and paracord sink in the water and get tangled in my feet while I'm treading water. Polypropylene rope, on the other hand, floats.

If I need protein, my kayaker pours some whey powder into the bottle. It tastes like a maple syrup shake. If I don't need carbs or protein, we just go with water. 

The other thing I try to do is get a good breakfast with a lot of protein and fat so the fuel stays with me for the long haul and my blood sugar doesn't drop suddenly when I start making a harder effort later in the swim.

How do you stay on top of your blood sugars?

The two-word answer is: Very Carefully.

First, I use the Garmin-Dexcom integration, which is Dexcom's officially-approved way to view blood sugars on smartwatches. They partnered with Garmin on a joint release and promotion of the integration, which is a significant step up from third-party apps like xDrip and Nightscout that require GitHub downloads, builds, and connecting up multiple apps and servers by hand.

In my experience, I've found that the integration works best when the Dexcom CGM transmitter is near, at, or above the surface of the water and I'm using a normal swim stroke that gets the watch out of the water enough to receive a reading. Since I swim in open water and always use a visibility buoy with a built-in sealable dry sack, I put my phone in a drybag inside the dry storage in the buoy. If the system doesn't pick up a reading, it typically buffers it on the transmitter until it can send one to the phone, which shares it with the watch.

My other option--and this is just a common-sense backup strategy, is to train consistently so I know what my blood sugar is going into the water and at each fueling stop, typically around a mile. That's when I usually take in 50g of carbs from either two Untapped maple syrup packets tucked into my jammers or wetsuit, OR have my kayaker toss me a feed bottle with that same amount dissolved in water.

It's hard to tell in cold water if you are sweating or feel shaky, so I look for clues like a sudden degradation in my swimming technique, clenched jaw, or a feeling of doom and gloom; and when in doubt, I get carbs.

What about sharks? Jellyfish? Other animals?

I've actually had some discussions with folks who live near the ocean and are in the water every day. Here's my take on things:

  1. Don't act like a frightened seal. That's why a lot of surfing wetsuits come in bright colors and not black, and also why thrashing in the water is not a good idea. Animals can tell if you're panicking.
  2. Get a SharkBanz
  3. Avoid shark-infested waters and mating or migration season. Think about it from the shark's perspective: if you're busy mating or moving to a new home for the winter, do you REALLY want to deal with an intruder?
  4. Don't swim in the Keys in the winter during Man-o-War season.

But most of that is kind of obvious. The reality is that the race is conducted at a time when the wildlife, if left undisturbed, is most likely to see you as a curiosity and keep its distance.

When I did a training swim in Miami in April 2022, I got to see half a dozen grouper, a manta ray, and a manatee. Nobody gave me any trouble.

That said, you learn to be careful and stay out of the way of wildlife. Don't touch or step on anything you don't recognize as safe. 

How does swimming in the ocean differ from a lake or pool?

First of all, it's a heck of a lot saltier.

During practice I found it to be somewhat more buoyant and it made the feeds a little easier. But it was so incredibly salty that my body soaked up a lot of water, I got "salt mouth", and the constant rolling waves were disorienting when the ocean wasn't calm. It can be hard to tell up from down, and it's easy to just stare at the ocean floor and think you're going in a straight line when you're actually going in circles or getting moved by waves and current.

My first impression of the ocean was: dang, the water is clear. And it wasn't really that clear--just not sandy and murky like the lakes I'm used to. It can be hypnotizing, especially when you see animals. That makes up for getting tossed so much at times.

In both lake swimming and the ocean, you have to "sight"--that is, find a place to swim to and check in every so often that you're actually going there--by lifting your head up a little and looking around. It can slow you down a bit, so you look for ways to not take too long doing it and try not to get your head that far out of the water. In the ocean, it can be difficult on a windy day to sight over the waves (a 15-20 mph wind can produce 1.5-2 ft swells) and it can get easy to lose sight of your kayaker.

And that's on a safe swim beach with light to moderate surf. Unless you are truly at the top of your game, if it's a good surfing day, it's probably a bad swimming day.

I want to come watch? How do I do that?

It depends on what you mean by watch.

There are good places on the island to watch from the shore:

  • Smathers Beach (starting line)
  • Anywhere along the south coast
  • Ft. Zachary Taylor Park (SW corner)
  • Cruise ship docks (mile marker 3)
  • Mallory Square
  • Shopping area near Key West Bight
  • Sidewalk at N. Roosevelt Blvd
  • Cow Key Bridge
  • Sidewalk at S. Roosevelt Blvd

Car parking is spotty and expensive in Key West. That's why you see a lot of people on bikes, motorcycles, scooters, and small electric cars.

If by watch, you mean to take a boat out and follow the swimmers, I'd recommend against it, as the boat channel is partly closed on race day for swimmer safety and you'll probably just be in the way. But I can't stop you from going out there anyway. Keep in mind that the water can get quite shallow and the bridges are quite low.

A final note: lodging in Key West is limited and expensive. Keep that in mind.

I want to follow you remotely. How do I do that?

On race day, my kayaker will have a Garmin InReach satellite tracking beacon. We'll post a tracking link on the main page.

Do you need anything? How can I support you?

What I really value most, as corny as it sounds, is your faith in the indomitable human spirit and your own ability to handle what T1D throws at you or your loved ones. If you took that home and bottled it, then paid it forward, I'd feel like I'd accomplished my goal,

The van is well-stocked and we're not generally in need of supplies.

I'm self-funded, but you can contribute to me directly if you feel like it.

My ultimate dream is to provide a free, practical resource for people right after diagnosis - to close that last mile between "You're diabetic" and "How will I ever do anything active again?" In the mean time, though, we can help each other.

Right now, you can point people to one or all of these Facebook groups: Type 1 Diabetic Athletes, TypeOneRun and its many local chapters, the local chapters of my own Diabetes & Exercise Alliance, and the Diabetic Ultra Endurance Athletes Facebook group. There are many more, around the world, but these will get any T1 off to a good start.

You can also support one of these non-profits that help us thrive, fight discrimination, and look for better treatment and cures.

Live Tracker: Swim Around Key West

Once June 18th 2022 rolls around, to view the GPS Tracker History for my swim around Key West, click GPS Track and filter for Custom Date Range: 06/18/2022 to 06/18/2022. To see the Race Report, click Race Report (when it's up--and it won't be until I get back from Key West!).