I do not even know where to begin with this one. I’ve spent the last few days processing everything that happened in the half hour period it took to complete this challenge and I can honestly say I have never experienced anything like this in my life. I am sorry this post is WAY late. I’ve been traveling for my first event with my new job and didn’t anticipate the lack of Wi-Fi and free time I’d run into.
“Complete the Great Ohio River Swim on September 29th, 2013.” – from Bill Keating, Jr.
The Keatings and the Haydens have a multi-generational history of friendship between our families, and while I will go into greater detail in a few weeks, I will give you a brief background now. He’s just one of those genuinely good people and has subsequently raised his children to be equally genuinely good people. He has a little project of his own that arrives in my email inbox every morning. After turning off my alarm, I start each day with Mr. Keating’s Thought of the Day email, which has actually grown into an incredibly long list of email recipients. It now reaches well over 14,000 people. His emails provide me with little tidbits of inspiration every morning before I start my day. Sometimes they are irrelevant to me, but still positive and thought-provoking. Other times they are exactly what I need to hear to motivate me to tackle certain obstacles in my life. The point is, I have come to rely on them every morning. And even though my parents know that I subscribe, they continue to forward the important ones my way – so on extra special occasions, I receive 3 thoughts of the day…
Mr. Keating also has two daughters. Liz, who is a good friend of mine, and Caroline, who was the inspiration for Learning to Hit the Curve. She completed a challenge project of her own awhile back called the Caroline Challenge. Inspired by what I saw her do, I asked to spin off of her idea and create this weekly adventure you all have come to know.
So the Great Ohio River Swim is an event put on by the Cincinnati Triathalon group and for some reason, 200 plus idiots decide to swim across the Ohio River at the crack of dawn on a random Sunday in September. Super exciting, right? ….right?
There are several reasons why this adventure was completely, utterly, undeniably the worst thing I will have to do in these 52 weeks and, quite possibly, my lifetime.
1) Um. It’s in the Ohio River. At the end of the summer. In the middle of the city. Where boats have been cruising up and down the shore line pretty consistently for the last 130 days, not to mention the year-round barge traffic and variety of other items, critters, bacteria, etc. lurking beneath the surface.
Well. Actually that pretty much sums it up. IT’S DISGUSTING.
So here’s the deal. I have swum competitively since I was about 5 or 6 for my country club, the Anderson Barracudas and in High School for St. Ursula Academy. I wouldn’t say I was ever like Olympian-potential, but I really enjoyed it. The camaraderie of a swim team is different than any other sport. Well, any other sport that I have played. I’d guess gymnastics, track and field or tennis are fairly similar. Your events are mostly individual, but you spend a LOT of downtime at meets just hanging out, your scores affect the success of the entire team and the competition is really with yourself to beat your own times.
I had every intention of spending this summer in training for this event and for next week’s challenge, as well. If anything, I’d say I untrained. I did the exact opposite of what I intended to do and was in absolutely no way, under any circumstances, physically prepared for this. Worse than the physical was the mental. I’d taken walks down by the river to kind of psych myself up for it. All it did was freak me out. Then I started reading. Reading about swimming in open water. Reading about rivers. Reading about the Ohio River.
Then Shark Week happened and I found out sharks can survive in fresh water beause they have a gland in their bodies that puts saline into the water that makes it seem like salt water enabling them to thrive in rivers, lakes and streams. What.
While researching whether or not this was accurate I came across several stories of people dying from acquiring flesh eating bacteria while swimming in freshwater. Then I read about an amoeba that gets sucked up through your nose when swimming/breathing and eats away at your brain because that is its first source of nutrients it meets upon entering your body. You don’t know you have it until 2 days later when you’re a vegetable on life support and it’s too late to save you. THIS REALLY HAPPENS!!!!
The overactive imagination I was blessed with has taken me to some really incredible places. Design school, acting camps, imaginary wonderlands as a child. And now, imminent death in the Ohio River. I couldn’t shake it. I discussed this with Liz who decided to get us nose plugs for the adventure.
So first, the fun part of this weekend… A couple of months ago I was talking to some friends at a dinner party about my blog. My friend Kenneth found this particular challenge so grotesque that he felt I deserved a reward. MidPoint Music Festival was this weekend and, well, you all know how much I dig music festivals…He hooked me up with two VIP passes to the festival and I bopped around taking in the sights and sounds with friends on Friday. The Head and the Heart performed in Washington Park and it was AMAZING!!! We caught the show from the VIP area and back stage.
For those that are into indie bands, MPMF is a fabulous opportunity to check out some new acts – both local and from afar- in one small radius. A bunch of local bars open their stages to these performances, drawing in a wide variety of concert-goers. There is an area called Midway that aims to tap into other areas of artistic expression. The street is lined with yellow box trucks and inside each one is a different activity. There is a poetry truck where they have set up tables and couches much like a living room. A group of writers patiently await your entrance to the truck so that they may converse with you briefly, pull some creative inspiration and draft a lyrical masterpiece for you to retrieve 15 minutes later. Naturally, I was intrigued.
I climbed the steps and entered the truck. I met a lovely man named Ben and we sat down to talk. He asked me what some of my interests were and I mentioned photography, writing, cooking – the usual things that pop into my mind like I’m writing a personal ad. Then I told him about Learning to Hit the Curve and he thought that was super cool. We also talked about my volunteering and stuff. Another writer on the couch adjacent to us (who actually wrote my friend Blair’s poem) chimed in and said, “Haha how do you feel about world hunger?” We had a chuckle. He asked what I hoped to achieve from this poem and I said that I wanted it to be “both hilarious and inspirational” and left him to his creative process.
Some of the other box trucks featured “decorate your own koozie” projects, some sort of fine arts creative outlet or photo booths. We took in a show and returned to retrieve my poem from its clothesline.
“How do you feel about world hunger?
I would like this poem to be both inspirational and hilarious. Nailed it.”
Well. Who can top that!? I was very excited with my results. This pretty much summed up our interaction perfectly. Good job, Ben. We called it a fairly early night because I didn’t want to be tired. Same thing the next night, as well. Had SUCH A great time!! THANKS KW!!!!
Back to the swim…
I remember I started swimming for the Anderson Barracudas in elementary school and I was beyond thrilled when they’d bribe us with pizza parties and candy treats for goals met and jobs well done. My mother had a fundamental issue with this, but who cares. TREATS! I recognize these same instincts in my cousin, Bella, as she begins her own competitive swimming career. I asked her if she’d like to swim with me and received an immediate, “NO.” Regardless of my bargaining techniques, the child relentlessly declined my offer. It worked out in the end because she’s only 9 and was unfortunately too young to participate in the GORS with us.
So Liz has purchased nose plugs. Mr. Keating has purchased ear plugs. My father has let me listen to his voicemail from Mr. Keating – sharing bits of advice from his prior experience with the GORS. I have rented a wetsuit (not sure that’s any better) to protect me from the elements (and critters) in the river. Turns out you can’t wear them…I am still nervous as all hell. There is really no other way to describe it. My intention was to spend the summer training for this event and for my next challenge coming up. Incidentally, I actually un-trained. I did the exact opposite of what I’d intended. I have been living it up and now immediately regret that decision. Saturday night I went to bed at a decent hour since I had to be at the Public Landing at 7:15 Sunday morning.
So I went to bed, got very little sleep as I tossed and turned restlessly while visions of horrible river amoeba and school-bus sized fish crossed through my mind. Eventually I laid out my stuff for the race, took two Benadryl and knocked myself out so I could get just a little bit of sleep before the big race.
I woke up and it was still dark. Unmotivated and incredibly unexcited for the morning ahead of me, I changed and dragged myself to the car. Upon exiting my garage I realized that the sun was just starting to come up and it was incredibly beautiful. I haven’t caught a sunrise in a long time and this did not disappoint. It made me feel a little bit better about the day. Funny how looking at something pretty just relaxes me.
I immediately called Liz to see where she and her Dad were. I then discovered the line about 200 people long. Now, logistically, this event is not that complicated. It’s been going on for several years. People sign up, people jump in, people swim, it’s over. What is the point of having me pre-register online if you’re just going to make me stand in this line again? I had brought with me some lovely iridescent goggles and a gold swim cap to match. Much to my disappointment, I was forced to wear the swim cap they had provided for me. It was yellow and did not go with my outfit as I had intended. Yes. I coordinated my goggles and my swim cap for the Great Ohio River Swim. Do you expect anything less of me? I didn’t think so. They also wrote my contestant number REALLY large in Sharpie on my arm. I also wore my GoPro camera on my head for the swim in hopes of getting some good shots of the whole event. I have some editing to do and will add it eventually, but I have been busy with work (!!) and must regrettably inform you that it is not finished yet. However, upon reviewing the footage, I had to relive what happened. I’m not sure if it was harder to watch or actually experience.
So we finally got through the line after the sheer brilliance of breaking it into two groups finally occurred to the people running the event. My dad and I are using this as part of his challenge to me so the winner of this was crucial. He received approval from his doctor, after receiving a hip replacement just over a month ago, and agreed to do the swim with me! We headed down to the serpentine wall where we would be pushing off from. By this point, my support crew was in full force. My best friend Christy, cousin Jenny and her daughter Bella, my Aunt Tessie and Aunt Debbie and my Mom were all there to cheer me on. Aunt Tessie was vital in calming me down as I had entered full on irritability and panic mode.
I must also commend my mother on her unwavering patience with me. For some reason, unbeknownst to me, whenever I find myself in high-pressure situations, my mother seems to receive the full brunt of my anxiety, anger, stress, whatever it may be. She takes it in stride and handles it like a champ, though there is no reason she should have to put up with it. I love you and am forever grateful for this, Mom. And I will apologize until the end of time. While it may not always seem like it, you keep me grounded.
My Dad was sitting on the steps looking out at the water so I went down for a quick father-daughter pep talk – he’s great at those! He and Mr. Keating got ready and hopped into the water. Liz and I would start two minutes after the men. They blew a whistle and off they went. I headed down to the water and had to talk myself into jumping in. In the midst of screaming I kinda just threw myself in. And then flailed about trying to scare off any potential creature that might be lurking beneath the surface. I was trying to prepare myself when all of a sudden people started swimming. This was it. I checked the GoPro and pushed off.
About 2 minutes in the worst thing I have ever experienced in my life happened. I somehow took on a huge mouth full, nose-full and lung-full of water. The amoeba immediately entered my mind and I was completely paralyzed with fear. I had an asthma attack which led to an all-out panic attack. Like dangling in the water, screaming for help, couldn’t move panic attack. I honestly thought this was the end. I was going to drown in the Ohio River. That is how unbelievably terrified I was.
A woman blew her little whistle and came over to me in her kayak. She instructed me to climb on the back so they could take me back in. Holy cow I’m having shortness of breath just thinking about this moment again. I informed her that I had to keep going and that stopping was not an option. I cried, I swore, I freaked out. I asked if she would stay with me the whole way and she told me she couldn’t, but then called someone else over to paddle alongside me the remainder for the swim.
This is where Dave comes in. Dave saved my life. Dave was the man in the metal canoe that stayed with me the entire remainder of the race. He was there when I needed a minute to breathe or encouragement. I never regained my breath for the rest of the race. The next 20 minutes felt like the most miserable eternity in all the land. At one point I thought I lost him. I began to panic again…when I heard a reassuring “I’m right here, Katie!” and all was right again. I am not sure if Dave knows what an important part of that experience he was for me, but he literally saved my life and made it possible for me to accomplish something I never dreamed I would.
I continued on, face up out of the water for the remainder of the race, around the green buoy on the Kentucky side and headed back north to the Ohio riverbank. I flipped over and started doing backstroke. This took the strain off my neck from holding my head out of the water and allowed me to relax. I watched the clouds and mentally coached myself the rest of the way. I used the Bridge as a gage to make sure I stayed straight. I realized I was getting close and rolled over onto my stomach. I was almost there.
I looked up to Dave and said, “Thanks Dave!! Couldn’t have done it without you!” He returned the gesture with a smile and a big thumbs up and I kicked my way into the shore. I started to hear the cheers of the crowd and suddenly felt incredibly motivated. I gave it everything I had left to beat two other women into the shore, but didn’t make it across the finish line on land before they did. I climbed out of the water, ripped off my cap and camera and pushed myself across the finish line where I immediately collapsed to the ground. I was shaking and breathless. I thought for sure I was last and that feeling sucked a lot. Then I looked up. There were still like 30 people in the water coming behind me. Though I had not fully regained my ability to breathe, that made me feel incredible. I almost drowned and I still wasn’t last. Awesome.
Christy sat down beside me to congratulate me and bring me down to center. I sat there staring at the water and the people that continued to come in. And then I started crying. I was crying because I was happy it was over, terrified from what I had just experienced and proud of myself for continuing even though I didn’t think I could do it. And she just sat there with me, talking me through it. She and I lived together for three years and, during this time period, she developed the ability to tolerate my crap and bring me back down to level, much like my mother does. She knows exactly what I need when I’m in a tizzy and sits quietly with me until I regain my composure. I think having her by my side is the only thing that fully helped me catch my breath. Love you, Chris. Thank you so much for getting up early and coming to cheer me on.
Liz joined me as well. They gave me water and as I drank it my hands shook violently, making it difficult to get the bottle to my mouth. I kept replaying the moment where I flailed about over and over in my mind. I survived and I honestly thought I never would. The rest of my family congratulated me and told me how proud they were. Aunt Debbie was totally jazzed and that really helped a lot. I saw her hop up and down and clap her hands and it made me smile, something I desperately needed. I feel terrible because Mr. Keating came over to congratulate me and all I could think was that I had literally almost died. Sure, I’ve had that fear before, but I have never ACTUALLY narrowly avoided drowning. That keeps crossing my mind and keeps shaking me. I’m very proud of what I accomplished and I’m still very surprised I did it.
In the end, all of the gross things that were freaking me out were the least of my worries. I saw not one single other life form while I was in the river. Hell, I couldn’t see anything at all. Not even my own hand a foot in front of me. The water was a “lovely shade of brown.” The problem here is that no amount of preparation could have made me comfortable with this challenge. It is literally the hardest and scariest thing I have EVER DONE IN MY LIFE. I watched the footage to decide whether or not I should add it to the blog. Upon reviewing the footage, I had to relive what happened. I’m not sure if it was harder to watch or actually experience. The shortness of breath, the panic, the feelings I experienced during that moment of sheer panic when I couldn’t breathe – couldn’t move, dangling helplessly in the middle of the Ohio Freaking River. I never want to know that feeling again. When I watched it, it all came back.
I haven’t been that uncomfortable or scared in a long time. That just made me realize something. I am actually sitting on my plane on my way to my first event in Philadelphia for my new job and it just occurred to me how much more comfortable I was when I was literally about to jump out of a plane a couple of weeks ago than I am at this particular moment. As we cruise through some cumulus clouds, causing the plane to jerk with turbulence, I grip the arm rests, stiffen up into the back of my chair and search for the reassuring smile of the flight attendant. This smile is usually accompanied with an extra package of biscoff cookies…I have no shame. They’re delicious. I was in a place of total peace right before I cruised at 120 miles per hour toward the ground. Right now, same altitude, no comfort. Swimming – something I am more than familiar with – total panic. I wonder what this says about me…
I went home and took three showers and a fabulous bubble bath to reward myself (and relax after tumultuous morning) and still didn’t feel clean, though the river authorities SWORE we could drink the water…not buying it.
Mr. Keating, I must thank you for extending this challenge to me. While I hated almost every last second of it, it pushed me to the limits. It was easily the most difficult, most trying and most thought provoking challenge I’ll complete this year. Thank you for participating with me. And finally, thank you for providing me with your daily bits of inspiration. They are the absolute best way to start my day.
(If you’d like to be added to this list let me know and I’ll tell you how to get in touch with him.)
Here are the race results:
The times came in and Mr. Keating beat Liz and my Dad beat me. We now owe them breakfast and breakfast dessert, per our usual tradition.
Bill Keating, Jr. 8th place overall, first in his age group. 12.40.8
Caroline Keating, 14.06.9
Liz Keating, 14.46.6
John Hayden, 22.24.2
Katie Hayden, 22.35.8
I may have lost amongst the five of us, but I’m just thrilled I wasn’t the last person in the river… Although, Dad, I did have that whole near-drowning incident which I’d guess took up AT LEAST a minute of my time. I’m gonna say I beat you. Rematch? In a chlorinated POOL?
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?
Katie, Having experienced this challenge with you, I can honestly say that I am VERY proud of you. I know how scared I was, and can only imagine the sheer courage and determination it took for you to complete it. Believe me, I had my own panic attack out there, so don’t feel in any way inferior that you had yours! This was a challenge on a level most people can’t even imagine. I am privileged to have been able to experience it with you, and immensely impressed with your depth of spirit and commitment! Well done! Your Proud Papa