Shout From The Stands: My First Marathon Swim

by SwimSwam Contributors 2

November 02nd, 2018 Lifestyle, Open Water

SwimSwam welcomes reader submissions about all topics aquatic, and if it’s well-written and well-thought, we might just post it under our “Shouts from the Stands” series. We don’t necessarily endorse the content of the Shouts from the Stands posts, and the opinions remain those of their authors. If you have thoughts to share, please send [email protected]

This “Shouts from the Stands” submission comes from Elizabeth Fehr, a member of the Narragansett Ocean Swimming Enthusiasts. 

I moved to Rhode Island three years ago, and up until that point I had never heard of open water swimming. I can still remember the warm August evening when my friend and I were walking down the beach, our eyes on the ocean. Then suddenly I saw something black out in the water—way out. Curious I stared harder, and pointed out the strange figures that were moving around buoys nearly halfway out to sea. “What is that?” I asked her. “Are they dolphins?”

My friend laughed and shook her head. She was familiar with the group that called themselves the Narragansett Ocean Swimming Enthusiasts (NOSE for short). “No. They’re swimmers.”

My interest was piqued immediately. “I want to do that,” I declared.

At that point, I had no idea that swimming was about to take on a major role in my life. The first time I showed up to swim with the group, I was so nervous that I almost turned around and went home before I even introduced myself. But I mustered my courage, grabbed my newly purchased goggles and swim cap and said a quick hello before following three other swimmers out to what they called ‘Buoy Number One’. Swimming out to that buoy I swallowed a lot of brackish seawater, my lungs began to burn, and I could already feel that my arms would be sore the next morning. And that was just the warm-up. I promised myself if I could just survive that one swim that I would never have to go back. And with a great deal of effort, I kept swimming until the others were ready to come in. But I did come back. I came back again, and again, and again. After that first swim, that was it. I was hooked.

I joined a local Masters’ swim team so that I could condition during the winter. And the next summer I was back again. The next winter I continued with the Masters’ team and the next summer I was even stronger than before, and when one of the more experienced swimmers asked if I’d like to join her for a marathon swim my answer was an immediate yes. A marathon swim seemed like such an adventure and I loved swimming in the ocean. So a 10K swim seemed like a natural progression to the one to two miles which we usually did as a group. She kept asking me if I was sure, and I kept affirming my interest. But as the days to the swim grew closer, I started to get nervous. What if I had overestimated my ability? What if the water was too rough? What if I couldn’t finish? Two days before the swim, I was so nervous that I emailed the one person who I knew would tell me the truth; my coach. I wasn’t sure I was up to the challenge, but he was certain that with the long training swims we had done that I could do it. His vote of confidence was all I needed.

The swim was from Mackeral Cove Beach to Fort Getty Beach around what was called Beavertail Point. The day of the swim, conditions were much rougher than expected. There was talk about cancelling, but a lot of planning had gone into the swim. We had hired a boat, worked around seven swimmers schedules, arranged for kayakers, and despite the rough water, it felt like this 10K swim was now or never. The group came to a consensus that we would all swim out to the mouth of the cove, meet our accompanying boats, and then make a game-time decision. As we entered the water, I was nervous and excited. And I immediately began implementing my coach’s advice. “I know I can do this,” I told myself, as I would over and over again throughout the swim.

When we reached the mouth of the cove, everyone was in agreement. The swim was on. After that, I didn’t think about much other than swimming. All of the open water swims, and the Masters’ practices came into play. I still wasn’t anywhere near the fastest swimmer, but my stroke was solid, and I had developed the level of endurance that a marathon swim required. I concentrated on moving forward, and tried to take in the breathtaking scenery as much as I could. I still remember thinking to myself, that there was nowhere else I would rather be. I was in the open ocean, swimming, and the end was nowhere in sight. It was exhilarating.

Every forty minutes the kayakers would come and find us. “It’s time to eat,” my kayaker would say. Then he would toss me either my chocolate almond milk protein shake, a bottle of water, or the coffee mug where I had stashed my Clif Bloks—whatever I preferred. We kept going at a steady pace and instead of hoping for it to be over (as I had feared) I found myself savoring the moment. The swimming was smooth, and I was pacing myself so that I didn’t run out of steam in the middle. I loved gliding through the water, and when I stopped and the kayaker tossed me some sustenance I got to soak in the gorgeous views of the cerulean water, the cobalt trees that stood proudly on shore, and the charcoal rocks which lined our route.

For me, even though the water was rough, the swim couldn’t have gone smoother until we hit Beavertail Point. I had never swum around the Point before. I had never even seen the Point before. So I was uncertain how much distance I needed to leave between me and the rocky outcrop that I was now in my line of vision. I decided to cut in, and swim closer to the rocks as opposed to staying wide as I saw the swimmers in front of me doing. There were a few fishermen standing on the rocks, and I laughed to myself when I saw them. I wondered if they were surprised when we came swimming past. But just as I was getting a kick out of what those guys must be thinking, I started to see seaweed and rocks below me. And suddenly I found myself in a large school of grey fish with dazzling blue stripes. The fish were mesmerizing and I let myself take a short break in order to watch as they swam all around me. But soon the rocks started to get closer, and with the current and swells I knew I needed to get farther away from the reef.
I started treading water to try and figure out the best direction in which to swim, but the other swimmers had disappeared from view and because of the swells, I couldn’t spot any of the kayakers either. I turned towards Sachem, the sailboat which was our anchor. I guessed that it was roughly a half a mile away. Not sure of how shallow the reef was or how long it went on for, and also not totally positive on which way I needed to go, I made what I thought was the safest decision. If I continued on, I would probably find the kayakers and eventually catch up with the other swimmers, but being on my own in such rough seas made me nervous, and I decided to backtrack by swimming back towards Sachem. It was so large that I could easily spot it and that way I could redirect my course to make a wider turn around the Point. When I made it back to the sailboat my good friend from swim was screaming at me. “Beth! I need you to talk to me. What’s going on? Do you think you’re hypothermic?”

I shook my head. “No! I just got lost!”

She laughed. “We know! We were watching you.”

“Which way do I go?”

She pointed ahead. “Straight!”

I nodded, and with that, I was off. I managed to catch the two men who got ahead of me when I cut too close to the reef, and once again, I found my stride and was stopping every forty minutes for the kayaker to toss me a snack. I had tried my best not to look at my watch for the duration of the swim, and I hadn’t dared to ask how much farther. But as time passed and I logged more and more distance, I decided I wanted to know. I was getting tired, and I needed to know how to pace to make the rest of my swim successful. Popping my head out of the water, I stopped. “How much farther?” I yelled.

“One more mile,” was the response.

What? I couldn’t believe it. I had hoped against hope when I asked that question that we were more than halfway finished. But only one mile to go was amazing news. “Let’s do it!” I screamed back. Everyone laughed and I started pulling harder and kicking faster. There wasn’t the need to conserve energy anymore, so I let myself go all out. For a few minutes, I was flying, until we made a turn towards the harbor and I hit the roughest headwind I’ve ever encountered. We were a mile away, but it was the hardest mile I’ve ever swam. The water rushed towards me with such intensity that plowing through it felt like I was doing nothing more than maintaining my place in what seemed like the middle of the ocean. There was a large building in the distance that I was using to spot, but after ten minutes of battling the current, it seemed no closer than when I started. Half an hour passed and I was still stuck in the washing machine of water. I was so close but at the same time so far from the end.

Up until that point, I had been sure I would make it. But as the relentless current refused to let up, I wondered how much farther I was capable of going. That’s when I really put my coach’s advice into play. After taking a quick break, treading water, and deciding to go for it, I dove down and flutter kicked hard. When I resurfaced I made each pull deeper, and kicked and kicked and kicked. “I can do this,” I told myself. “I know I can do this.” I repeated this in my head with every stroke, and when I got really frustrated I even yelled it under water. I said it over and over and over again. And it turned out, that I was right. It took a long time and some serious swimming, but eventually I found myself swimming right next to the rocks beside the harbor entrance to Fort Getty Beach.

When I finally arrived, I saw many of my fellow swimmers already sitting on shore, waving and clapping as I finished. I wasn’t as out of breath as I expected, and even though it had been overcast when we started, the sun had come out and was shining brightly. “How do you feel?” One of the men asked me as I made my way to shore.

I smiled, remembering that first evening on the beach when I had noticed the open water swimmers nearly halfway out to the horizon line. In that moment I couldn’t have imagined how much that one night would change my life. “Great.”

About Elizabeth Fehr

Elizabeth Fehr lives in Rhode Island. She is a writer, an avid traveler, and a proud member of Narragansett Ocean Swimming Enthusiasts.

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Congrats, enjoyed the read very much, especially on how you overcame non-perfect conditions. I also liked your time with the school of fish and seeing no one and not getting too nervous.


Great story, Beth!