Catalina Classic Race is a Mental Challenge

This is a story of my first channel crossing on a paddleboard in the Catalina Classic race Sunday, August 29, 2010. 32 miles of open ocean from Catalina Island to the Manhattan Beach pier using your hands and no paddle. 24 miles to the first checkpoint at the R10 buoy and 8 miles along the coast to the finish line at the Manhattan Beach pier.

When people ask me, "do you ever worry about sharks?" my response is always a dismissive laugh and here is why . . . Racing in the open ocean is more of a mental than the physical game as you compete against the elements that you can’t control. Fog, sun, clouds, wind, cold water temps, cold air, swell, current, boat waves, ships, and maybe even sharks if you’re lucky. As my paddling friend Matt Walls describes what it's like to race in the channel on race day, “When you wake up in the morning you don’t know if you are running the Catalina Marathon or the LA Marathon”.

I have done many grueling physical endurance races in my life on land but nothing that has challenged me mentally like a paddling marathon on the ocean. My endurance racing resume up until August 29, 2010, consisted of 15 running marathons (26.2 miles), a 50 mile Catalina double marathon, a 50K race (30 miles with 12,000 ft of climbing), and 2 Ironman triathlons (130 miles).

The euphoria experienced during each finishing line experience cannot be explained in words but here is my best attempt to try it once on my first voyage across the channel. As I paddled during the race I promised myself I would write about the emotional highs and lows during the Catalina Classic race in order to savor the experience for my kids, family, and friends. I was asked on the beach at the finish line by a friend, “was it fun?”. Without hesitation, my answer was, “NO and I will never do it again”. However, as I write this story a few days later I can’t say all of it wasn't fun.

Some parts of the race were fun but it was mostly a brutal mental test that I will remember for the rest of my life. I am very proud to have finished the race and now be apart of an elite crew of crazy watermen who make the journey each year and make the sport look so easy. I am truly humbled by the race pioneers and guys and gals who have finished before me.

I met my wife a few weeks before my first marathon in 1998 and she asked me a very simple question only a few days before it. Why do I do it? My answer to this day is still, “for the mind”. I do love the competition and the goal-setting but most of all I love the euphoric feeling after finishing the race. Competition drives me to train and push harder but most of all I love the camaraderie amongst the competitors. Endurance races can push your body to the limits but at the same time, it cleanses the mind and gives you renewed perspective, appreciation, love, and happiness. I guess you can officially call me an endorphin addict and this is why I seek mental race therapy once a year to clear my mind.

I have always loved swimming laps in the pool for cross-training exercise but I quickly get bored doing flip turns in the pool and I can’t swim for more than an hour. Open water ocean swimming is fantastic as well but it's uncomfortable to be in the ocean by myself swimming alone. Growing up my Dad introduced me to the ocean very early and he would frequently take my brother and I sailing out of Marina Del Rey. We never made the sailing voyage to Catalina but often discussed how dangerous it was if you were caught in bad weather in the channel.

When I first saw a paddleboard on the ocean and I learned that people were crossing the channel to the Catalina it sounded like a challenge I wanted to do someday. I quickly fell in love with the concept of having my own board to discover the ocean and it was the perfect combination of swimming, boating, surfing, and endurance into one sport . . . paddleboarding.

I was introduced to my first paddleboarding experience about 6 years ago after borrowing an old downwind paddleboard and thinking “Ironman me” could do a 3-hour 12-mile race, “cold turkey”. I had never been on a paddleboard in my life and I decided to do my first race of 12 miles which was really stupid. The race was 6 miles upwind to the R10 buoy from the Hermosa Beach pier and 6 miles downwind back. I made it about 4 miles offshore into a cold headwind and with cold water crashing on my body and quickly decided I was too cold to go on. I hailed the lead Body Glove boat as it was passing by to pick me up as it was escorting the race leader back from the R10 buoy. Ok, I failed at my first race and this sport was harder than I thought and now had a new challenge to overcome . . . the ocean elements.

I waited about two years before I finally got the bug to try it again and I purchased my first 17 foot paddleboard from a guy in Malibu. I was hooked and spent a few years learning the technique with the South Bay Donkey's (paddleboard group). Tips like pinkie first to preserve your shoulders (Kyle Daniels), how to catch the tiniest of bumps in water (Matt Walls), how to choose a board that is right for you (Scott Rusher), and finally how to master balance on my knees.

For three consequent summers I was always asked by the Donkey’s, “are you going to do the Classic this year”? My response was always, “I will do it when my escort boat crew falls easily into place”. All the stars became aligned in the winter of 2010 as I learned that a good friend Ken Deemer was going to store the Katie B, 45-foot boat in Huntington Beach for the Summer, up from Mexico. I had to take advantage of the opportunity and I no longer had any excuses not to try the race with Ken Deemer as my boat crew. My escort boat was booked and now I had to find the time and discipline to put the training miles in before the race.

I am an avid runner and usually log a minimum of 35 miles per week over about 4 days. I try and do some running crossing training throughout the week on the off days to keep my running legs, lower back, and knees functioning properly as I near the age of 37. Getting older isn’t easier on the body for recovering and paddle cross-training is a key element to recovery. Running is fairly easy to do in Southern California over 365 days per year and there are very few times that the weather was a factor limiting my training.

As a runner, you have much more control over the elements by how I dress and prepare for a marathon. Run in Phoenix and you know what you will get dry hot temperatures. Run in the mountains and the temperatures will have predictable extremes and the oxygen levels will be low. Race in Kona and you know it will be windy, humid, and hot. Physical and mental training preparation is predictable and fairly easy to simulate to give you confidence prior to a race. However, ocean racing is unpredictable and you must be prepared for hundreds of different types of conditions. No day is ever the same on the ocean which makes it exciting but also a challenge.

For almost a century waterman have been crossing and racing in the Catalina channel to the mainland. Some with success and a many have failed. Sharks? Nope, the elements! Fog, sun, clouds, wind, water temp, air temp, swell, current, boat waves and ships. It's a lot to worry about and you don’t have control over anything. The ocean is a highly unpredictable beast and virtually impossible to accurately forecast. It can be brutal on the mind if you are not prepared for the conditions dealt.

Ask any Catalina Classic veteran to describe their channel crossing experience and they always seem to have a sparkle in their eye. The conversation always ends with, “you gotta do it, Jeff”. After three years of trying to master the techniques and learning from all the locals (Donkeys) in the water, I finally could register for the longest race in the US which finished near my home. The Catalina Classic is 32 miles from Two Harbors on Catalina Island to Manhattan Beach pier. The race starts at 6 am and the cut off time is 3 pm at Manhattan Beach pier. Why does the race start in the dark and so early? Elements.

As a 35 mile per week runner, I don’t carry much muscle mass or body fat to keep my core warm and that is an immediate disadvantage in the sport of paddleboarding. Most of the guys and gals in the sport hate running because they usually carry a lot more upper body mass which helps them regulate their core body temperatures. Wetsuits can keep your body warm and prevent you from getting hypothermia but they also slow you down and restrict your movement on the board. They also can work against you when the sun comes out and cause you to overheat. Dehydration then becomes a problem by sweating too much and you can’t drink enough water to stay hydrated.

The summer of 2010 has been one of the coldest summers on record and anyone who has lived in the South Bay can’t remember a summer like it. The ocean water temperature is typically a reliable 67+ degrees throughout the summers and occasionally hits 70 with warmer air temperatures. However, this summer the ocean has averaged about 5 degrees colder than normal and barely hitting 62 degrees. The air temperature in Southern California near the beach averages between 55-65 degrees for 12 months of the year. If the air gets much above or below 57 to 67 it is very rare because of the power of the ocean to regulate the air temperature. This has been “lost summer” without much sunshine as the marine layer has been present almost every day. It played a factor in the training throughout the summer and many racers opted not to do the race because they feared the colder temperatures.

My race weekend started out with a boat ride over to Emerald Bay on the Katie B which is a 45-foot fishing boat with 5 bunks and 2 bathrooms. We strapped my paddleboard to the starboard railing of the boat to save room. On the way over we happened to see several grey whales and a couple of very large blue whales which is extremely rare for Southern Califonia. Was it the colder water possibly keeping them here? As we motored over the water temperatures were reading 59 degrees in the middle of the channel and my fear started to set in. Did I pick the wrong year to do the race?

My nerves really started to creep up after I arrived on the island and begin to get a feeling for the cold water and air. My first night's sleep was awful even after a few beers and laughs with my crew to calm the nerves. I am not sure if I even slept more the two hours the entire night tossing and turning in my bunk. The next day Ken and I went for a two-hour hike to check out the island which was helpful to take my mind off of the race for a while. It worked for a while but probably wasn’t a good idea considering I had to hike four miles in the hills with flip flops. I forgot my running shoes but needed to get off the boat for a while and stretch the legs.

That evening the pre-race dinner didn’t do a whole lot to calm my nerves sensing the anxiety in the other paddlers. After one night of no sleep, I was still thinking, “this is crazy, this is crazy, this is crazy”. The logical right side of my brain kept questioning if this race is soo fun than why are only 85 guys doing it this year and 50% of the field were rookies? It became apparent that not many people returned to do the Catalina Classic twice and I was about to discover why. Millions of people have done running marathons each year and a few hundred thousand people have done Ironman triathlons. I would bet only a couple of thousand people have ever done the Catalina Classic race. Was I crazy and is there something I don’t know?

I tried to eat the Mexican dinner provided to all of the racers and the boat crew but my stomach was already too nervous to digest anything. After the race directors gave their safety and rules speeches, each racer introduced themselves around the courtyard one by one. “Jeff Cohn from Hermosa Beach and this is my first Classic”. Only a handful of women were in the race and the total race numbers were down from previous years to only 85. Perhaps veterans were taking the year off due to the cold weather. I almost threw up at the end of the safety speech as one of the race directors said with fear in his voice, “there are only two things that scare me in this race . . . fog and hypothermia. Be safe and escort boats keep an eye on your paddler because hypothermia can set in quickly and it's hard to reverse.” Wow, something new to worry about before another horrible night of zero sleep.

The next morning I crawled out of my bunk on the boat after not sleeping for the second night in a row. I tried everything to get my mind off of the race but I just couldn’t stop thinking about what if I am too cold? Should I wear a wetsuit or will I be too warm in it? I had all the confidence in the world that the race was not going to be as physically demanding as a running marathon or Ironman. During training, I had successfully completed a 24-mile paddle three weeks earlier and we averaged 4.8 MPH and my confidence soared. Recovering from this paddle only took a day or two because there wasn’t much impact unlike running.

The fatigue factor during the race shouldn’t be anywhere close to the pounding experienced during a running race. However, I still had many questions about the unknown elements of the race I could not control. Could my body and mind withstand almost 8 hours laying down on the board with a wetsuit top and booties and what would happen if I got cold? Could I digest the food and drink properly?

I woke up at 5am and at 5:45 am my boat stopped in the harbor a few hundred yards offshore. I dropped my board into the water in the middle in the darkness and heard a loud “crunch” as it hit the water. That crunching sound was the bottom of my board landing right on top of the boat ladder which was still out on the landing. It sounded like my board hit the ladder and broke the fin but I checked it and it seemed ok and still functional. What I didn’t know was my board hit the ladder causing a 3-inch gash under my board that could take on water and slows me down. I am so glad I didn’t see the gash on my board before or during the race as I probably would have had another excuse to drop out.

I had two water bottles on the board, some food (Power Gel blocks) in my wetsuit top and my phone in a waterproof case (just in case) as my escort boat dropped me off in the harbor at 5:45 in the dark. As I paddled through the harbor without my prescription glasses to the beach starting line I could see escort boat lights coming at me out of the harbor and I had to quickly dodge them. I glided up to calm beach in the dark and immediately went to sign in and stand by the bonfire to stay warm.

Looking around the bonfire was quite intimidating seeing all of the ghostly faces with sunscreen staring into the fire with a look of fear. While I was warming myself against the “fire of fear” the 5-minute warning from the race director megaphone was given by Kyle Daniels who has won the race multiple times. I could even sense the nervousness in his voice as he was giving the countdown instructions. Kyle wasn’t doing the race this year but was responsible for 85 lives trying to make the crossing and it was going to be a cold day. That would scare the hell out of me as well.

I walked to my board on the beach and stood in knee-deep water before the race starts not knowing I had a 3-inch gash in the bottom of the hull. I found a spot next to 27-time finisher Joe Bark who had a board with tiger stripes. Joe was the same person who shaped my board about 12 years ago. The horn went off at 6am sharp and we were off flying in-between the boats in the harbor. The pace was ridiculously fast as the race leaders were all jockeying for the lead position and the other paddlers behind followed in their wake. We were quickly outside the harbor and into the open ocean that was not looking smooth.

If you are in the lead or near the front of the pack the water is smoother and you can carve out your own path in the non-drafting race. However, if you are in the middle of the back of the pack you have to deal with the chop from other paddlers in front of you and the 100 escort boat waves. Every race I have done it has been annoying to have to deal with the chop from the faster paddlers and I can’t seem to get to my knees comfortably without feeling like I am going to fall off in the waves. Usually, the chop clears up after a few miles as the spacing between the racers increases.

However, this race was different because it had 100 escort boats creating chop and moving all over the channel. Not to mention the headwind and the swells that were converging. Shorter races near-shore usually don’t have this problem in the morning with only one lead boat and a couple of emergency boats if needed. Another element I forgot to consider that might create some issues with trying to stay warm. It was bumpy and I couldn’t get a good rhythm in the cold sloppy water. I surrendered the fact that I am going to stay paddling on my stomach for a few hours and quickly gave up the idea of trying to stay with the guys around me. I was getting tired of being in the same position on my stomach and typically spent 50% of my time or more on my knees in training.

The boat waves were difficult to deal with because they are spaced too closely together and it became impossible to gain any momentum going over the top of them. There were big boats and lots of small boats creating the chop and they were mostly all ahead of me. Boat chop makes it extremely difficult to get to my knees and use my running legs and quads to go faster. However, swell waves are great regardless of direction because they are spaced farther apart and I can ride up and down them for momentum. The only way to deal with boat waves is to go through them if you have a "knifey" board nose. Some of the faster guys just seem to go over them. After about two hours of choppy boat waves, I began to realize there was also a headwind building into my face.

Wind can be your best friend and also your worst enemy on the ocean. A tailwind is amazing if it’s blowing in the direction you are going and can be a lot of fun. However, a side or headwind can be horrendous and cause you to lose significant speed and body heat. In my case warmth was my biggest concern as the wind splashed 59-degree water right on my legs, face, and arms. It also leaked right into my wetsuit top and into my biking shorts with ease. I was getting cold quickly and with every paddle stroke, another splash of cold water hit my entire body. After about two hours I started to shiver on the board and began thinking about what the race directors said their biggest worry was . . . “hypothermia”.

Hypothermia starts with the body shaking and ends in death if you don’t get your temperature regulated quickly. The rational right side of my brain kept saying, “Jeff stop and put on the wetsuit so you can see your wife and kids again”. The irrational ego left side of my brain kept saying, “Jeff you are not paddling hard enough to stay warm, a wetsuit might be too warm and might take you 15 minutes to put on and your goal is seven hours”. I soon realized I was torturing myself and wanted to try and have good memories of the race. Maybe this is what water-boarding prisoners in Guantanamo Bay were like?

During the second hour, my memory became a little foggy but my math skills were still pretty sharp. My boat crew looked concerned as it took me about two hours to go eight miles and I was only through one-quarter of the race. I was going to be in the water for eight hours. My boat crew explained to me that we had only gone eight miles in two hours and averaging only 4 MPH. This was very discouraging considering my target was 4.8 MPH after numerous training paddles where I had averaged well above 4.5 MPH for many miles. A 7-hour goal of 4.5 MPH to average seemed very reasonable during training if conditions permitted. I became extremely upset and kept wondering what I was doing wrong.

The winner of the race typically averages 5.8 MPH which gets him to the finish line in 5 hours and 30 minutes. The difference of 1 MPH in the race is well over an hour in this long-distance race. Every .1 MPH speed is a big deal in a sport where board shape, training mileage & technique play a big factor in speed. It finally hit me about two hours into the race and that I was expending more energy trying to stay warm versus propelling myself forward through the water and it was time to put the wetsuit on. No matter how hard I paddled on my knees I could not forget about being cold and wanted to drop out of the race. However, I knew I would regret it and have to come back to attempt the race again.

Unfortunately, I trusted my training experience more than I trusted the common sense of my boat crew and I didn’t put on the full wetsuit before the race start. However, I did compromise with them slightly and put on my booties to try and keep my extremities warm which helped for a while. I kept telling myself that I have paddled in the middle of the winter without a wetsuit in 55-degree water with the dun out and wind for hours and wasn’t cold until I stopped. Just keep going and the energy you create by paddling will keep you warm. Also, stop looking at your boat captain who is sitting up on the top deck with a ski hat and winter jacket on looking very warm and cozy.

Being cold is an awful feeling and I may be scared forever based on this experience in the cold ocean. I knew I was starting to get incoherent when my boat crew asked where my wetsuit was and I said to them “you have it”. They found my suit finally and it took me almost 15 minutes to put it on while shivering. After ten minutes of paddling in the wetsuit, I felt my body temperature come back to normal as I continued on the journey to the mainland.

Wearing a wetsuit can be great to keep you warm but it reduces your mobility, reach and requires more energy with each stroke. Unfortunately, I had not trained with a wetsuit on and I was using my Orca triathlon swimming wetsuit that fits perfectly 5 years ago when my upper body was not bulked up from paddling. The wetsuit is also designed to work best with a small amount of cold water flowing through it during a swim. The fit was way too tight and restricted my reach with each stroke on my stomach. Getting to my knees was even harder with the restrictions the wetsuit created on my lower body.

I prefer paddling a few hundred strokes on my knees, followed by a few hundred strokes on my stomach. Paddling on your knees relieves my shoulders and arms temporarily while using the strongest muscles in my body my running legs. It does require more energy and typically you can go a lot faster having two hands enter the water at once. It is similar to the butterfly stroke in the pool.

While paddling on my stomach (which I hate) there were times I would lay my head on the board and only look up every few minutes just to see where I was going. My boat kept telling me that when my head was on the board I would speed up a few tenths of a MPH and I was going faster for some reason. I tried keeping my eyes closed for a while and while taking mini naps while paddling to shut my mind down and relax. I tried napping during a race while paddling which I thought was cool at the time. The lack of sleep from the previous two nights was creeping up on me quickly and I was mentally exhausted from all the pre-race anxiety.

Sometime during the third hour of the race, my body went from freezing to now sweating in my wetsuit. I started getting overheated and my mind quickly shifted to thinking about hypothermia to dehydration in the fourth hour of the race. I tried removing the wetsuit from my upper body as I started chafing around my chest and started slowing down a lot with the restrictions. It was easy to remove from my arms and chest while stopped and I tied the sleeves around my waist. As the suit was tied around my waist it bunched up around my stomach and made me have a hard time digesting food and drinking. I also didn’t realize that the wetsuit had rubbed off all of the thick sunscreen I put on at 5:30am.

I was near the breaking point again and sobbing on my board. I was exhausted by the changing conditions and not being able to decide what to wear to make me comfortable paddling from the remaining four hours. Should I stop and put sunscreen on my back again that was frying off the sun and reflection from the ocean? Tears were streaming down my face and I wanted to drop out in the fourth hour but this time as I started throwing up my drink and couldn't eat anything that tasted good to give me energy. I felt like I was going insane.

All I wanted to do was hug my wife and kids. I couldn’t get my family out of my mind which made even more tears flow down from my face. Crying on the ocean is not exactly recommended as a solution for someone trying to stay hydrated and already surrounded by saltwater. I have a history of getting migraine headaches from stress and dehydration and I could feel one coming on.

I decided to call my wife with the phone on the front of my board to get some motivation to finish. I had used my mobile phone several times while on speaker in the waterproof case before and I could do it without using my hands. My wife loves it when I call on the ocean and it makes her feel better to know when I will be home and where I am. I pushed the phone to dial and hit the speakerphone. Then I thought twice and hung up because if she hears me suffering the sadness in my voice she is going to worry even more and question my boat crew. Maybe even send the Coast Guard helicopter. Not a good idea and I quickly hung up. My lonely journey through the open ocean continued on.

Paddling alone in the ocean for more than a couple hours when you are not feeling well is like being in hell. Typically when I go out to paddle on my own I stay close to shore and find people to chat within the water. I do this partly for safety but it’s also more comfortable with more people around you. Everyone in the small paddle community of the South Bay knows each other and it's just not that fun to paddle by yourself for more than an hour. Music helps cure the boredom and fatigue but it will only get you through a couple of hours alone. After the first four hours alone my motivation quickly turned to complete the damn race. I thought to myself I never want to do this again!

Ironically, my arms and legs were not tired at all and I physically knew I could press on slowly if I could keep food and water in me. I wasn’t pushing as hard as I had in training for fear of bonking or dehydration. I would take a drink of Cytomax, Coke, and water and then try to eat Fig Newtons and Cliff Bars but everything tasted like crap and my stomach immediately rejected it. Maybe it had to do with the fact that I was laying on my stomach for most of the day and I couldn’t digest anything very well. I knew I could only go so far without food from my Ironman experiences but I didn’t know what that breaking point was on a paddleboard. Coke tasted the best and was essential caffeine and sugar I needed to stay sharp. I didn’t mind the puking either for some reason nor did it slow me down. It just flew right out of my mouth and into the water for the fish.

Thankfully my boat was watching me closely and kept asking me if I was peeing to make sure I was hydrated. Eating anything solid was impossible and I just gave up after a while and stuck to drinking my Cytomax energy drink which tasted good and my PowerGel blocks for calories which was probably making me throw up. I had to keep eating if I wanted to maintain the energy output needed to go faster as I was getting warm.

During the fourth hour of the race, the temperatures continued to rise and the wind changed direction. My Orca triathlon wetsuit was too thick and I was really starting to dehydrate as the temperatures continued to get warmer. The wind had permanently changed direction and finally started helping me go faster with less effort. I had to take the suit off and wrap it around my waist and throw a rash guard on to keep from chaffing on my chest. However, this was not comfortable because when I tied the sleeves around my back, the bunched up wetsuit pressed on my stomach as I lay on it. I tried wearing half of the wetsuit but the water was 59 degrees and as I got closer to Palos Verdes my body temperature quickly dropped again.

Now I had to stop for the third time and put the wetsuit back on my arms and chest again to keep from freezing. After two nights of zero sleep and mental exhaustion, I was in race survival mode. All of my race priorities and goals were thrown out of the window. The ocean was winning the battle and had taken my mind to a deep dark lonely place of frustration as I wondered why no one else seems to be having the same problems as they paddled through the cold channel.

My questions were finally answered when fellow South Bay paddling friend, Kevin Kody came up on my tail at about mile 20 which was about 5 hours into the race. I could tell he was all business and quickly picked up the pace to try and drop me since this was his 12th time doing the race. He had a full wetsuit on, GPS, food, and drink onboard while is boat crew was relaxing peacefully on their sailboat. Kevin seemed to have the race formula down and I told myself I had to stick with him as long as I could to get to the finish line.

I have never been so happy to see someone on the ocean as I was on this day. I felt like I had been alone paddling on the ocean for a month and just wanted to see someone to talk with and say hello to remove me from my insanity. I was in a deep dark place for much of the race but now I had someone to talk to and keep my mind focused on the finish line. Kevin was helpful great and listened to my whole experience during the last 5 hours. Somehow talking to him for a few minutes made me forget what I had just come through.

We finally made it to the R10 buoy around noon which was six hours into the race. The clouds, chop, and wind were all completely gone and it was getting very hot. It was a brand new day and a whole new race. The euphoric feeling I had getting to the R10 was great and my boat cheered loudly. It was my first crossing of the channel and that was an accomplishment in itself. I was starting to get dizzy on the board and vertigo was likely setting in. I told Kevin that if I had to drop off between the R10 and the pier at least I made it across the channel. I was mentally much stronger after crossing the R10 checkpoint. I had accomplished one goal and that was my first crossing of the channel and I had someone to share it with.

Paddling alone in the ocean is not very fun and this is one epiphany I had during the race. Much like running in a group, it's easier to pass the time and share your experiences if you have someone or a group to do it with. The repetition and the monotony of doing the same thing for hours are taxing on the mind. At times during the race, I would sign to myself during a 311 song just to pump me up. I had an iPod Shuffle playing in my ears for most of the race which helped some. I didn’t have an appreciation during training how hard it was to paddle by yourself for a long period of time. It's easy to get relaxed when you are alone and start thinking too much how cold you are or how far you have left to go. Going slower by yourself is inevitable.

Most of the experienced paddlers recommend that rookies do the Rock to Rock race in June. This race is a warm-up to the Catalina Classic in order to learn about the potential conditions and elements. The R2R race is 22 miles from Two Harbors to Abalone Cove off of PV and typically only takes a little of four hours. Most people use this race as their first channel crossing to learn about temperatures and nutrition but not stubborn me. I always said if I have a bad first channel crossing in the R2R race I will never do it again. So I might as well do the big Catalina race first and not test the waters to see if I can handle it.

After leaving the R10 buoy with Kevin I felt like the sun beating on my wetsuit and the wind seemed like it was going to be at our backs for the rest of the race. I was getting too warm in the wetsuit and was more worried about dehydrating as I was sweating profusely and losing a lot of water. Kevin Kody who was a Catalina Classic veteran for the 12th time explained to me that he had only had two water bottles in the last 5 hours. What was I doing wrong if I had 5 water bottles? Was I drinking too much? I was now warm enough that I had to take the wetsuit and booties off and finish the race comfortably on the board. Unrestricted in the heavy think wetsuit.

For about a sixth time during the race, I had to stop and make a change that I was wearing. This time I took the wetsuit and booties completely off. By now I think I wasted about thirty minutes changing and figuring out the most comfortable thing to wear and just complete the race. I was no longer focused on racing and just enjoying the company and complete the thirty-two-mile adventure. Taking the wetsuit off rejuvenated my spirits and it seemed like a whole new race. I was able to spend a more comfortable time on my knees which is essential to going fast and staying warm. However, I would soon realize the sun was beating down on my bare skin that had no sunscreen on anymore. I was frying in the hot sun reflecting off of the water.

One thing veterans tell you during training is to never look at the Redondo Beach power plant mural or the marina jetty because it will seem like it never gets any closer as you paddle north to Manhattan Beach. However, the clouds were gone and visibility was great to see the smokestacks of El Segundo and the red roof of the Manhattan Beach Pier. The eight miles from the R10 buoy to the Manhattan Beach pier were extremely fast and it went by like a flash. All I could think about was my wife and kids on the beach anxiously waiting to see me. I had been waiting three years to do the race and I was finally about to accomplish a goal that I had feared for so long.

I was inside the last half mile and I could see the large crowd on the beach and on the pier. Kevin counted down the number of strokes left and we were both up on our knees hammering away and gliding into the runners. My adrenaline was pumping hard so I didn’t have to take many strokes before I was launched in a runner. I wanted to finish the race with Kevin because he had helped me come through such a bad patch. Kevin was getting close to one of his personal best times and I wanted to help him achieve it.

After 7 hours and 47 minutes, I was finally back to the beach and I could see my family and finally get warm. The simple things in life . . . warmth and family were within my grasp and it was heavenly. I threw my board to someone on the beach and raised my arms in victory after absorbing a lot of punches from the ocean. My wife was the first person I saw on the beach and she ran up to me and grabbed me for a long long hug. Having your best friend hug you at the finish line after overcoming some very tough mental challenge was the best ever. My four-year-old Nate was on the beach as well and offered a high five. His only question was, “why did you take so long?”. My answer was, “someday I will explain it all to you.” All I wanted to do was stand on land and be wrapped up in warm towels.

My body was shivering on the warm beach in the 75-degree air. My body stopped generating its’ own heat by paddling. As I looked around the beach with bloodshot eyes I began to realize this race is kind of crazy. Everyone looks like a zombie and their brain probably feels much like mine . . . “MUSH”. After being on a boat for 3 days the brain still thinks you are on a boat and keeps rocking back and forth to compensate for your balance. Vertigo is what they call it.

As I write about my emotions and experience during the fifth day of my recovery, my brain still feels mush and my equilibrium is off. I still have the sensation of being on a boat when I wake up in the morning and many times throughout the day. A friend of mine said to me on the beach it will take a while to go away but 5 days is kind of crazy.

Despite having vertigo my mind feels fresh and free of any negative “cobweb” thoughts I might have had prior to the race. The race was one giant brain cleansing and I am still on a high from the finish. I am definitely enjoying the post-race honeymoon and hope it lasts for a long time.

The ocean can take your mind and body to the deepest and darkest of places when it decides to growl. The cold ocean water can strip your body of heat and hope to make you beg for mercy. But when the sun comes out and a friend comes along to keep you company somehow family and friends come vividly into perspective. Why did I do it? For the mind!

A special thanks to my boat crew Ken and Candy Deemer & Jill for making the experience possible.