The Swim Around Key West

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 provided 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.

12.5 miles? All at once?

I once got asked this question about my run across the US. And the answer is, I'm breaking my attempt into bite-sized pieces I know I can swallow. Baby steps first.

My ultimate goal is to complete a 12.5 mile swim around the island of Key West. I am hoping to do that in two parts:

First, in 2022, a half-distance 10K (6.2 mile) marathon swim as part of the College of the Florida Keys Open Water Swims event. This will be to establish that I can actually swim 6.2 miles in saltwater, with feeds, chop, currents, balancing blood sugars, and so on all considered.

The second part will hopefully be the full 12.5-mile distance around the island in 2023.

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 be doing this all at once?

Yes. The Swim around Key West is a single-day continuous swim, with no contact with land until the full 12.5 miles are completed. Fuel and hydration are taken by the swimmers while treading water and are typically consumed from plastic widemouth bottles attached to a rope thrown overboard by the supporting kayaker.

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.

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

Sure! As the event date approaches, I'll post links to routes, locations, etc. and suggest what might be the best way to watch.

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

During the event day, I 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 source of information for people struggling with how to balance diabetes and exercise--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: Key West Swim

Once June 18, 2022 rolls around, to view the GPS Tracker History for my swim at 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!).