Marcia Cleveland's Solo Tampa Bay Swim on December 31, 2018
11 hours, 19 minutes
Start: 6:15am at Hotel Magnuson near Skyway Bridge (I-275)
Finish: 5:34pm at Ben T. Davis Beach on Campbell Causeway
Air: 68-83°f Clear & Sunny all day
Water: 66°f, 18°c, 2’ chop until Gandy Bridge
Wind: SSE 6-15 MPH, Gusts to 23MPH (NOAA Climatological Report attached: ncdc.noaa.gov)
Ron Collins – Observer & Swim Organizer,
Sean Gerrard – Boat Captain
Derick Brown – Kayaker
Richard Clifford – Swimmer’s Crew
These notes on my Tampa Bay Swim recall my experiences before, during, and afterward this swim. They aren’t super-elaborate because it’s a long haul in a seemingly wide-open sea until the first bridge, but aspirants may glean helpful information. It’s a challenging swim and a swimmer needs to be in good shape for it. I am grateful to the many people who made this swim possible, especially Ron Collins, and I incorporated support from all areas of my life throughout the 24-mile course.
We arrived in St. Pete Beach in December 29th and got everything ready to go on December 30th. At 5:30am on December 31st, we were at the Hotel Magnuson preparing to get going.
At precisely 6:15am, Ron started the swim and I swam uneventfully in the dark for the hour. The water was bumpy, something I expected until we got around the corner and headed due north into the Bay. At that point, I thought the water had settled down but based on the pictures and videos I saw afterwards, it didn’t. My only view in this vast ocean of a bay was that of my kayaker and escort boat, respectively to my right and left all day, and I sighted off both. Derick, my kayaker, held his line, making our course as straight as possible. It was me, the one who tends to veer towards the right, that made things occasionally harder than necessary, when I would bonk into Derick because I wasn’t paying attention. We had a nice tail wind and current going with us for a while; I simply swam one stroke after another, as I would do for the next several hours. My feed combos were excellent: they went down in abundant quantities and stayed down. This demonstrated a big improvement over my performance in the North Channel last summer, my main point in doing this swim: to figure out my nutrition and regain my confidence, which had been shaken by my North Channel swim.
We used Marcy MacDonald’s tracker (gotta get my own…) and she was Super Fan #1 all day. The day before, she had told me “Be Patient until the 1st bridge, then you’re home free.” This advice was spot on, helping me not to over-swim the first 18 miles. However, I am 100% sure that as we neared the Gandy bridge, I saw that entire bridge take several Beamon-esque leaps backwards, before convincing the Frankland bridge (Bridge #2) to do the same. Both enormous landmarks took forever to pass underneath. When we finally got under each of their spans, Derick and I exchanged well-deserved Air High-5s.
The scenery in the water never changed for me the entire swim: water, sand, an occasional rock, some sea grass, and a few clumps of vegetation. Once the sun came up, the water color went from dark to a mossy green. Later in the afternoon as the sun started to angle down in the sky, the hue changed to a bright yellow-green. At the start, due to the shallow depth, there was a ton of sea grass both on the surface and in the water. It wasn’t an issue since I knew what it was, but a few pieces of sea grass entered my suit during that part of the swim and stowed away to the finish.
I wore my purple Speedo, size 36, from Dave’s Relay on this same course in April 2017, and it got the job done with nary a chafe. I did get a mildly nasty rub on my inner left bicep from where my arm pull connected with my suit seam for 24 miles but nothing that a week’s worth of ointment and band aids couldn’t heal. Before starting, Mark and my friend, Anne Eason, applied sunscreen to all my exposed skin surfaces. On my backside, they plied zinc oxide (in the form of Desitin) from my neck to my ankles. This covering protected my skin from any sunburn.
I wore a green silicone cap with “Laguna Beach/Shaw’s Cove”, a gift from Laura, and in honor of friend, Lynn K, an icon in the OW community, who is facing a challenging journey. I was actively channeling some strong MOJO vibes to SoCal for you, Lynn, during this swim. Be Strong. Under my cap was the usual: ponytail, double barrettes, hairnet. I am considering using crazy glue and/or a soldering iron in rough waves going forward. Mid-1990s haircut: here we come? I started the swim in Clear TYR Nest Pro goggles, with a blue blinky light on the backstrap. When the sun really came up, I changed to mirrors of the same model at the feeding stop, since the day was going to be very sunny. Richard threw me the new pair from the boat and I attached the old ones to the carabiner on the feed bottle so they’d get back to the boat safely. Seamless operation. There were a few times throughout the day that waves slapped me hard enough in the face to dislodge one of the eye sockets; such nonsense ended by the time we (finally!) arrived at the first bridge, when the wind and the current cut out.
A few times I could sense that there was something happy in the water by the joyful expression on Derick’s face, while he actively looked over towards the right. The crew could also see whatever it was; I accurately assumed dolphins. Afterwards Derick told me there were several pods throughout the day that swarmed around us but obliviously onwards I swam. I couldn’t even hear their underwater clicking. When I saw Ron’s videos after the swim, it was clear how close those sea darlings came. I also missed the large Sea Turtle paddling around. All this marine life was probably sent by Dave, still King of the Bay.
So I just kept swimming on and on. From this feed to the next one, 30 minutes apart, a solid, Goldilocks interval for me. Everything was going well with my pace, the current, the wind, and my support vessels. Thoughts seeped in early on such as, “Now I’m on track to finish in sub-10 hours.” Later, when I started slowing down a bit as we approached the Gandy bridge, these thoughts started shifting to “I know I can finish and that is ALL that matters so shut up and swim.” But, remembering Marcy’s words, “Once you get to the first bridge you’re home free…” and hearing from Richard all the good karma being sent from so many family and friends who were following this swim, my spirits stayed buoyed and I continued forward, one stroke at a time. The fact that I needed increasingly frequent backstroke breaks to get air during the final 3 miles of the swim - a first - struck me as odd but I just kept swimming. I needed these breaks and knew they would be key to finishing. Richard told me there was an “army” of well-wishers assembled at the finish, giving me something to look forward to, and I swam towards them.
In retrospect, I had breathing difficulties for the final six miles, in the sense that I gradually couldn’t take a deep breath and it was inhibiting my ability to swim any faster. This situation compounded itself the longer I stayed in. It was like being in a pool that was shocked. I have never had breathing difficulties before in a swim and I hadn’t swallowed any substantial amount of water to cause such an effect so I can only conclude it was something environmental that created this condition.
Although I wouldn’t finish this swim at a furious pace combined with a mad dash up the beach, I would finish. As we approached the beach, I kept looking down for when it was shallow enough to stand: I promised myself I’d walk at that point. That point came about 200 yards from land so I stood up. Ron yelled from the boat, “Don’t walk yet. There are a lot of rocks and there may be some sea urchins. You need to swim.” So, I did as I was told, and in fact, the water got deeper again. Finally, a smooth, rock-less, critter-less sandy bottom appeared and I walked the final 50 yards or so to the finish. I thanked the 2 teen gals standing in the water marshalling my finish to make sure no one touched me until I got to “where there is no water in front,” the official end of a marathon swim. I even managed to run the last few steps out of the water, into Mark’s arms holding a dry towel for me. As he wrapped me up, I told him how hard it was, while the media zoomed in our happy, private moment. Everyone was so nice and applauded my accomplishment. Ron gave me a finisher’s plaque during the many photo ops. I said to the mass of media cameras for all the New Year’s Eve viewers to contemplate, “Set a goal. It doesn’t have to be big but set one.” Who knows if my words will have any effect on anyone watching? Marcy called and we chatted as the sun set on 2018: Thank you, MerSister, for all all all your advice, support, and love. You were with me all the way and you can share in the combined success of this swim because it TAKES A VILLAGE EVERY TIME and EVERY BIG SWIM IS HARD.
The night before the swim, I slept reasonably well, 6-7 hours, and woke up a few minutes before the alarm went off… with a sore throat. I told no one because today was the day; SHOWTIME! By the end of the day, my throat felt worse and the 11+ hour dousing of salt water probably didn’t help matters but I would live, aided by many throat lozenges over the next few days.
Richard and I had gone over the feeds, the feeding program, and the equipment the day before the swim. After the swim, he was constructively critical of all my methods, delivering his critique in a way that makes me think progressively rather than get defensive. I need to whittle down my on-boat swim equipment to essentials. Bringing 2 extra bathing caps will probably suffice, versus the 6 I had packed, was one such example. Are six pairs of goggles really necessary? Probably not… Attaining the happy medium between Fibber McGee’s Closet (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h9FGC68YcwM) and a scene of desolation (https://yourshot.nationalgeographic.com/photos/10250038/) is needed.
My feed plan for Tampa was better than in the North Channel because I was drinking 10-12 ounces (30-35 ml) of fluid at every single feed, versus the 4 ounces (12 ml) I took in during my NC feeds. Instead of focusing on speed (Sub-1:00 feeds), I focused on consumption, therefore took 1-2 minutes on most feeding stops. The plan I wrote out for Richard ahead of the swim needs more flexibility, based on mood and current level of performance. This plan is attached separated, and Richard recorded what he actually gave me.
The new bottles I got at GNC, with wider openings were good except that they opened a few times when thrown to me, thus risking the feed being fouled by sea water – NOT GOOD! The delivery system was spot on: Bottles were thrown to me on lines attached to carabiners. Two bottles could be delivered at once this way. To get me the feeding gels, they were under rubber bracelets wrapped around the feed bottles. However, after a few feeds during which the Gels fell off and were lost, Richard or Ron started to pass me the gels directly from the boat. I would suck it down fast then thrown the empty gel pack back to the boat. Gotta figure out a better delivery system.
I took one Aleve gel capsule just before the start, and then one again at 5 hours and 8 hours. Richard dropped these capsules directly into my mouth from the boat. He always had a GNC bottle of water at the ready and I drank from it often, at the end of feeds usually.
One Rubbermaid bottle held mint-flavored mouthwash and was attached to the same line as the main feed bottle. Swigging mouthwash at the end of a feed helps reduce any swelling in my mouth from the salt water.
Also, during our post-swim analysis, Richard encouraged me to determine if I am getting too much sugar during a swim, especially processed sugar, so this process continues to be refined going forward. I introduced a few new things to my feeding plan this swim:
Snack Pack Pudding mixed with Cold Brew Tea. I LOVE LOVE LOVE this mix and it was my treat.*
Peanut Butter and Agave Sandwiches, with the crusts cut off because crusts take too long to chew. I am not doing sandwiches again because the bread simply takes too long to consume.
Richard started to add Agave to my Endurox feeds at 7 ½ hours. This really bolstered my energy, it’s easy on my stomach, and easily transported.
Tampa Bay is a good swim, a hard swim, not for those easily deterred. It is a good tune up in many ways for many other marathon swims, including the English Channel. Thanks to my crew, Derick, Ron, Sean, and Richard, and to Mark, Julia, Sam, Anne, Marcy, Gail Hamel, and my Mom, for all your support and encouragement in getting me to the finish line. And thank you, Dave Parcells, for guiding me along the way.