“My attendance at the Swim Miami Open Water race is cursed.”  That is what I thought at 6:00am as a loud thunder shook me from sleep.  Two years ago I had signed up and trained for the 5k, got to the start line only to be postponed and eventually cancelled because of thunderstorms.  I had trained for months and not racing was a huge disappointment. In 2012, I wouldn’t swim in the ocean if it wasn’t crystal clear and flat, which led me to swim countless hours around and around a pool.  I would swim in a circle, never touching the walls and changing directions every fifteen minutes or so.  This was all pre Wolfpack, pre swim coach Lilly, and I felt cheated.

I registered for 2013 but was out of town that weekend.  I remember looking at everyone’s Facebook postings of the race with envy.  I was determined to race it in 2014 so I signed up for the 5k again.   I am a different athlete now: stronger and more confident yet I had been so focused on racing the South Beach Triathlon with Kerry as part of ThumbsUp that I didn’t train diligently for Swim Miami (the races are two weeks apart.)  I could probably handle the 5k (3.1 miles) but wasn’t really psyched to make it happen.  That is when JT, Kerry’s friend who has helped her these past couple of months, mentioned that Kerry bought the kayak we used for the triathlon.

Kerry is quadriplegic, and as she explains, she rarely gets an opportunity to feel movement – something the kayak gives her.

I again feel so very much at home on the water that slipping into the kayak is just like coming home.

I was thrilled and thought I could take her out swimming as I trained for Ironman Arizona.  And then it occurred to me … why not bring Kerry along to the Swim Miami 5k race? I mentioned it to Kerry who jumped on the chance to race again.

Getting organized in the kayak

Getting organized in the kayak

Lilly, my swim coach and ThumbsUp spotter was taking her Tri4Kidz team to a race so she would not be with us.  We reached out to Energy Multisport Coaching, since one of the coaches, Meghan, had worked with Kerry before.  She wouldn’t be able to swim but connected us with Ari, another Energy Coach.  Now with a spotter, we had to get the Race Director on board.

After some detective work, I reached Jonathan Strauss.  When I explained Kerry was quadriplegic and I would pull her in a kayak there was the inevitable pause.  Race Directors genuinely want to have their races accessible to everyone, but they must think of the safety of all swimmers.  I get it.  But that moment of hesitation is always a heart stopper.  Fortunately he got on board rather quickly and we were scheduled.  ThumbsUp would have our second appearance.

Swim Miami is a mile long loop therefore we would swim it three times for the 5k.  The most I had pulled Kerry was half mile, though I had practiced pulling my kids on the kayak for one mile. Our plan was do one loop, and if we felt good, go for another.  Not so deep down I knew we were doing two (and probably so did Kerry).

Yet even if coordinating was simple and I hadn’t invested a lot of time training, the thunder was a bummer. I was close to cancelling, but the weather in Miami is fickle and once the storm passed we could have a gorgeous day.  I knew not only Kerry was looking forward to this, but so were Meghan and Ari.  They WANTED to help, they made us feel as if we were doing them a favor!  Their willingness and enthusiasm made me realize we need to open up ThumbsUp and make it so others can participate as well. But for this race, I had to suck it up and show up.

Energy Multisport Coaching and us! Thank you for the help!

Energy Multisport Coaching and us! Thank you for the help!

I pulled the trigger and began heading to the race site.  Driving over it dawned on me … I’ve never met Ari.  And with all due respect, what if the guy can’t handle it?  What if something happens and he does not know what Kerry can and can’t do?  He doesn’t know her, I don’t know him, what was I thinking?  Was Kerry okay with trusting someone she doesn’t know in the water? I never asked!

But when I got there Ari and Meghan were already inflating the kayak.  They blended into our team as if they knew us forever.  I got body marked and before I knew it we were in the water.

At the start line I spotted my friend Carol, who has come so far in swimming even if she is terrified of it.  And another blogger friend Amy.  Both of them wished me luck and said something along the lines of “if you can I can.”  I love reading Amy because she sounds much more mature and less crazy than me.  So after I crossed looks with them, I  realized many of the swimmers were looking at the three of us.  They were wishing us well and it’s at those moments that I realize the impact ThumbsUp has.  Kerry is a living lesson of determination and inspiration.

At the start line

At the start line

And we were off.

Here is a 34 second video of the start

Though it was a “mass start” it wasn’t an aggressive free for all.  Things were reasonably orderly and we began to pass people.  I was surprised, but then again the current was in our favor.

I still didn’t trust Ari so I kept looking back.  I could see Kerry but not her head: her life jacket was upright but her head was to the side and I couldn’t see it … she was headless Kerry and it was a terribly eery view.   I thought there was no way she could be okay like that, was Ari checking in?  What if she needed something but he wasn’t paying attention? .  I stopped again to look back right when Ari was checking in with her, turns out she was comfortable (though I still don’t understand how), and he was constantly vigilant.  I was the only one worried. I also realized that in the middle of the bay there was little we could do if Kerry was uncomfortable so I kept swimming.  

From Kerry:

I can hear Ari gulp for air as he turns his head with his stroke… though he checks in often,the sound, a little disconcerting at first, reassures me he is always at my side.

I can see the Miami Yacht Club, which hosted the Swim, from my bedroom. I have lived here since 1988, but the water level view gives me an exciting new perspective on this very familiar area, that is what I can see of it through the goggles. I need to search for goggles of my own, preferably ones with windshield wipers to clear away the drops blurring my vision…or, if they don’t exist, invent them!

At times I can hear people cheering from the boats anchored along the bay.  Right as we were passing a particularly loud one I looked up and GULP.  I swallowed a seemingly gigantic amount of sea water.  Yuck.  I coughed, gagged, and for a second couldn’t swallow or breathe.  I had to stop and cough to get that in or out of my system.  I heard someone from the boat yell and ask if I was okay.  I was … but ugh. Gross.

As we turned to head back to shore the current was stronger, and we were no longer gliding effortlessly.  My strategy was to draft behind other swimmers, but I could feel the kayak begin to tug me.  It wasn’t terrible but it was no longer smooth sailing.

I didn’t have a watch so I am not sure how long that first mile took.  It seemed fast and when I stopped at the last buoy to check if we should keep going or head to the finish line both Ari and Kerry gave me a ThumbsUp.  We headed to loop number two after we took some water and I had a gel for energy.  One advantage of swimming with the kayak is that I have a personal storage space!

JT caught a picture of us starting mile two.

JT caught a picture of us starting mile two.

Things continued to feel decent  through loop two and we still passed people though we were also often passed.  As we hit the turn to face the current, things began to feel harder.  I was getting tired, and the tugging of the kayak took a toll on my neck and lower back. We were one and a half miles into the swim, more than I had ever done.  I avoided stopping or slowing down.  If I did, once I started again the kayak jolted back before moving forward, and that would screw up my neck even more. Also, by then I had witnessed Ari in action and trusted that he would let me know if they needed something.

Even so, I had thoughts of going for the third mile.  I didn’t have any more nutrition and my neck was bothering me but I knew that if we really wanted to we would make it.  Yet I just couldn’t come up with a good reason to do it.  “Because we can” did not seem like a good enough reason to risk injuring my neck right as my triathlon season is ramping up in preparation for a half ironman distance race in May, and Ironman Arizona in November.

So we called it a day and headed to shore.  We were greeted by cheers, medals, and an in water interview.  We got the kayak out of the water, Kerry out of the kayak, and celebrated. 

Heading out of the water

Heading out of the water

I was happy with 2 miles, though the overachiever in me was slightly disappointed.  It’s hard to know which voice to listen to.  The conservative one leans toward self preservation, while the competitive one leads to breaking barriers.  As I type this with my sore neck, I am confident I made the right call, though I know Kerry probably would’ve liked to get going, and Ari was such a good sport he would’ve come with us.  Yet if the point was to get Kerry out there, and inspire others around us, then our job was done wether we did two or ten miles!

Medal happy!

Medal happy! Thank you so much Ari, for not hesitating to help us and being a fantastic and helpful team player!

This from Kerry:

While I know that both Cristina, Ari and I might have liked to finish the full 5K course, this is what sticks in my mind: Of all the people who congratulated me, the most unforgettable one is Riley, a beautiful, slight-framed boy with long dark wavey hair and big eyes, wearing the same medal around his neck that I’m wearing, the medal we got for our participation in the race. He stands a little ways away and doesn’t say much more. Coaxed by JT, he does shake my hand, timidly, and tells us his name, that he loves to swim and run. Then he disappears into the crowd, before I can thank him or signal JT to take a ThumbsUp photo of the two of us. For a reason I have yet to fully comprehend, I am deeply moved by this simple gesture that showed he was able to overcome his shyness. I think of the joy I get from the fact that Cristina’s sons Dreamer and Feareless are now so completely comfortable with me. They compete to be the one who pushes my chair or locks it into place in the van… and I am very pleased. It was definitely a ThumbsUp day! Thank you, Riley! Thank you, Dreamer and Fearless! Thank you everyone, who “gets” ThumbsUp!

And even if I still haven’t officially swam a 5k race, I feel vindicated with Swim Miami.  I raced it the best way I know how … with my friends and my ThumbsUp.