Steve Walker - "First to 40" Challenge

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Swim Report: "First to 40" Challenge
by Steve Walker

Location: Aquatic Park, San Francisco, California, USA
Start: December 21, 2017, 05:00 Pacific Standard Time
Finish: December 22, 2017, 20:36 Pacific Standard Time
Distance: 40 miles (80 round-trips between C.A. Thayer and "Flag")
Elapsed: 39 hours, 26 minutes


I've done a few swims. The "First to 40" was harder than any of them.

I needed this swim.

Over the summer, I failed to make it across the Tsugaru Strait in Japan. Twice. My feelings about the swims are complex, but I feel very good about my decision to not go back to try again. Like the movie "War Games," sometimes the winning move it to not play. For me, this also means that I will never complete the Oceans7. I am ok with that. The takeaway is learning from these failures.

I do these swims for me. I don't do them for fame or prize money (ha), for charity, or to get my name on a list somewhere. Part of this is so I can help other people do cool swims—you can always help more if you are more respected in what you do. I swim because I love the community of swimmers around the world, and how collaborative this sport it. I do them because I love to travel. I do them because I love to eat. I do them because I love swimming, and I love the challenge of being in cold water.

Even before I left Japan to come home, I grew. I knew why I was swimming.

But failure still sucks.

I was back home by Halloween. I was pretty wrecked, physically. My shoulders were good, but I'd put in 13.5 hours, finishing with a temperature drop of 6 degrees, down to 57F. Even though I was in a good place mentally, I needed a little time off. I took two weeks completely away. In mid-November, Ryan Dalton, Ryan Nelson, and I had conversations about the Dolphin Club "First to 40." The Dolphin Club has their Polarbear Challenge (for all members, 40 miles over the 3 months of Winter). I was once a member of the Dolphin Club, but found their rules too restrictive, and moved to the South End. Last year, I was the first to 40, but it took me 5 days. The Dolphin Club didn't recognize it, though. That was ok with me, but I had heard that the record was only a little faster.

I talked to Ryan and Ryan each about them going for it. I was game to help crew for either or both of them. I knew I wanted to do it, too, but in mid-November, physically, I wasn't there. I'd do it in 2018.

At Thanksgiving, we were up in Tahoe, and I got in each day. The water was 46F, and each day I swam about 15 minutes. Not far, but it was glorious. The light turned back on. Over the next couple of weeks, I got in the Bay almost every day. On my 50th birthday (December 12), and did my 25th Golden Gate Round Trip (from the Club to Fort Point, and back) as my present to myself. It was also my third GGRT in 4 days. Ryan Nelson had said he couldn't do First-to-40 this year, although I could tell he really wanted to.

I was in. Ryan Dalton had also talked to Catherine Breed, and the three of us were going to share crew, and do it together. Ryan Utsumi had heard that the record was 38 hours (which was not what I'd heard). He reached out to John Ottersberg (a good friend at the Dolphin Club, former president, and English Channel swimmer). I'd heard that the record for the First to 40 was 2 days and 17 hours, and Ryan had heard 2 days 7 hours. John and Rick Avery cleared it up--the record was 2 days, 12 hours.

The Rules

Ryan floated the following rules:

  1. All flags. Thayer to Flag, 1/4 mile. 160 laps, 80x RT. This is what Duke did in his 400+ mile Polarbear (he did 400+ miles in 3 months).
  2. Start at 5am (the Dolphin Club opens at 5am). Swimming through the night is be permitted.

Beyond these, I also followed these rules:

  1. No mudding (propelling oneself using the bottom).
  2. No pushing off anything.
  3. No swim aids of any sort. No wetsuits and one FINA-approved swim suit. One non-insulated cap.
  4. Touchng a person or object is not against the rules, but no swim assistance can be provided or gained.
  5. No hanging on any boat, dock, or other object.
  6. On the flag side, swim to, around, or beyond the flag.
  7. On the Thayer side, swim to within 2-4 feet of the boat.

The Swim

A few days before, both Catherine and Ryan Dalton had to pull out (work and sick, respectively). On the one side, I was really bummed--they are both great friends, and it would have been really fun to swim with them, and we could have shared crew. I would have been fine if either of them set a faster record. Ryan is a formidable swimmer, and Catherine is much faster than I am. This is a collaborative sport, and they're both great friends whom I have incredible respect for. But now, it was just going to be me.

My three kids had agreed to crew for me. Not an easy job--leaving the house at 3:30am, and going for almost 2 full days with only minimal sleep. Also, Niland, Scott, and Neil had all volunteered to kayak for me, during the hardest parts. Ryan had also said he would buddy swim with me. So, I had crew. I was feeling good, and all I had to do was start swimming at 5am.

The Strategy

I'd thought about the strategy for this type of a swim for a long time (what better to think about during a GGRT?). The plan was to do 6 legs, like this:

  1. 12 miles (around 5 hours) 4 hours rest (an hour of sauna, an 2.5 hours of sleep)
  2. 7 miles (around 3 hours), cumulative 19 miles 3 hours rest
  3. 6 miles (around 3 hours), cumulative 25 miles Sauna for an hour, then sleep to 5am--about 4 hours
  4. 6 miles (around 3 hours), cumulative 31 miles 2 hours rest
  5. 6 miles (around 3 hours), cumulative 37 miles 1 hour rest (just sauna)
  6. 3 miles (or however much was needed, if I was short to finish the 40)

I could take as much time as I wanted between legs, and I could do each as fast or slow as I wanted to. But the faster I swam and the less rest I took, the faster the record would be.

Day 1

I got in at 5am, and swam my first 12 miles. I was a lot colder than I'd expected. The temperature at the dock was 52F. The temp at the flag, though was probably closer to 51. This first 12 miles took me about 5 1/2 hours. I ran into 2 buoys and a boat. I was absolutely cold. I'm guessing my body temp was around 92. I was shaking uncontrollably in the sauna for more than 15 minutes, before I started to gain control.

My son made me a ton of bacon and four eggs, with PB&J on Hawaiian King rolls. It was incredible. I'd also tried something quite different on feeds: candy, pastries, and other sweets. I realized that it is all sugar--why not have the things that I can't eat regularly (I have insulin resistance, so I have to be very careful with sugars and starches, except when I'm swimming). It seemed to be working.

I slept in the back of the car (I have a small SUV). I got up for the next round, and got in the water pretty much on time. My second leg went fine, but 7 miles wasn't going to happen. Scott was there kayaking for me, but at 4 miles, I was already having trouble. I had a little caffeine, and eked out another mile and a half, but 5.5 miles was all I had in me. I'd done it quickly (around 2.5 hours, finishing up around 5:30pm), but again, went into the sauna very, very cold. I had less food this time around (eggs and pastries)--the food was awesome. I knew I had another leg before my longest sleep break, but I was cold. I was at 17.5 miles.

We checked into the Argonaut Hotel, and at around 6:30pm, went to sleep for about an hour. I started back in a little after 8pm, and clocked another 5 miles. I hit the dock on one trip. Again, Scott and caffeine were vitally important--never would have made that 5 miles without both. The kids were great, there for every feed, always positive.

Scott kayaked nearly 20 miles. That's a lot of work.

Again, shivering uncontrollably, Kylie and Ethan made me soup and decaf coffee. I was in the sauna about an hour, then over to the Argonaut for a little over 4 hours, before having to get up and get ready again. The transitions each ate up a little time. Staying in the Argonaut turned out to be a very good idea--I got a real bed, and didn't have to go far.

Day 2

At 5am, I was back in again. Sometime during the evening, I'd decided to change strategies a bit. Early in the swim, I thought about going a little longer and only doing 5 legs instead of 6, and trying to finish in less than 36 hours. That fantasy was long gone now, and being 1.5 miles "behind" schedule, I had to revise. I decided to do 4 legs on Friday (7 times in the water total). I had 17.5 miles to go. I realized I was going to get weaker with each leg, so I decided to go as far as I could in the first leg, then see how best to divide up the last miles.

I got 5.5 miles in on that first leg at 5am. Ryan Nelson found me a little after 6am, and swam with me. There were a ton of people (I hit two that I remember). My throat was starting to get pretty sore and the lining in my mouth was starting to wear away. The chafing on my neck was a very open sore now, about 2 inches in diameter and smaller ones were developing nearby. My forearms were just bundles of pain, and I had pain in both my right upper leg and my right knee. None of these, though were things that could stop me.

With 12 miles left, I decided my last 3 legs would be 5 miles, 4 miles, and 3 miles (2.5 hours, rest 2 hours; 2 hours, just take an hour in the sauna, then do the last 1.5 hours). My original (realistic) goal was less than 40 hours (notwithstanding my illusions early in the swim that I'd be able to do less than 36). Hitting the miles on these last 3 legs became really important, mostly because I didn't want to have to get in for another leg.

I started back in at about 10am. Neil kayaked for me on this 5 mile leg. He was great. He and Scott were both so positive. It was great having someone to navigate for me so I didn't have to think about hitting things. It also allowed me to keep my head down and have a better stroke. The poor stroke that caused the nerve issues in Hawaii was gone.

After leg #2 on Friday, I got into the sauna quickly--same as each time before, still shivering uncontrollably but not as bad this time. Not sure why (maybe because it was light the whole leg), but it seemed like this one was a little easier. I got in a quick hour nap.

I was aware of time of day, but things were a bit fuzzy in general. I had planned on 2 miles per hour, but had not really planned on transitions (walking up to the sauna, getting dressed, walking to the hotel, walking back to the club, getting suited up and putting on Vaseline). I was going faster than the 2 miles per hour than I'd planned, so that was keeping me from falling behind with the transition time I hadn’t accounted for. It wouldn't seem like a few extra minutes would make much difference, but 3-6 minutes per mile over 40 miles is a lot of time that really ended up being important.

Leg #3 on Friday came around 4pm, after about an hour of sleep. It was getting harder. Niland was there. Like Scott and Neil, he was awesome, guiding me around buoys and just being positive. Ryan joined me again part way through. I finished up around 6pm.

I got in the sauna for about an hour, then came back down, just before 7pm. There were probably 50 people in the cook shack, and Simon got everyone roused while I was getting lubed up. The chafing on my neck was now a painful wound, about four inches in diameter with more chafing around it. It hurt. My muscles hurt. All of them, but especially my forearms, biceps and triceps. A little after 7pm, I got in.

People ask me what I think about for all this time. Math. Business. How the brain works. Philosophy. When it is not going well, I think about how much further I have to go. When things are really good, I'm just in a zone, in the flow as I've heard people refer to it. Tonight, though, I was just repeating, "stick to the plan." It was hard to not get out every time I past the dock. Really hard. I wanted to get out before I'd even made the first mile on every leg after the first. Having done 6 legs to the point of failure now, I knew I could do it. The mantra was simply, "stick to the plan."

Niland was kayaking for me again for this last 3 miles. Easy. I’ve done 3 miles so many times without thinking. I swam the first 1.5 miles, took a 100mg caffeine Gu, and then Ryan joined me again. We started moving pretty fast. The caffeine was working and Ryan swimming with me was really motivating. Bobby got in for a few minutes with me. Ryan and I were really starting to move fast.

The Last Lap

Coming back in on the last lap, I heard air horns and tons of cheering. There must have been 50 people on the dock. I was stumbling up the beach, but this time not from cold--it was from exhaustion. Ryan and I had sprinted that last half mile.

I dallied for a minute or two, but not long. Someone was helping me. Kylie threw a towel over me. Sue and the kids hugged me. I knew how cold I was. I finished in 39:26 and that last half mile was well under 12 minutes. But I was cold now. Colder than on any of the legs so far. My defenses were down, and I needed to get in the sauna fast.

I'd done it--broken the record by more than 20 hours. Being a bit bold, I predict this record will stand for at least a year!

At the start of the last leg, I realized why this swim was so much harder than anything I’d done before. The other swims were all hard, Juan de Fuca being the hardest before this. That swim was 10.4 miles 46 degrees, and ended with me getting out 4 miles shy of the other side. But this was much harder.

What I now understood was that I swam 7 times at 52 degrees, each time to the point I couldn't swim further. Each leg was harder than the last and I was doing it on very little sleep. Getting in got harder each time, and my mind was harder to control with each leg. My defenses weakened with each leg, and I was colder sooner. My body hurt worse each time and the effects were cumulative.

I’m glad I made it. It is important to have failure in your life, but success is a lot more fun.


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