Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Laura Swims Home

Swimming the English Channel, around Manhattan, or across the Catalina Channel was not the swim that made me want to become a marathon swimmer. No, it was a swim that seemed far more personal. The Ederle Swim, a 17-mile swim from Battery Park, New York City (the tip of Manhattan island) to Sandy Hook, New Jersey, a tiny sand spit south of the city. Gertrude Ederle swam this route when she trained for her historic crossing of the English Channel in 1926.
Sandy Hook is a national park and recreation area that still serves as one of the first lines of defense of New York Harbor. I grew up (and Trudy spent her summers as a child) only a few miles away, and spent countless days on the beautiful peninsula. I swam, explored an old gun battery, dissected a shark at marine biology camp, performed in plays, and learned to drive all on this seven mile long sandbar that is the start of the Jersey Shore.
The night that my crossing of Cape Cod Bay was postponed, my friend Rondi Davies of New York Open Water reached out to me, expressing her sadness and understanding how difficult it is when a swim does not go as planned. She asked if there was anything she could do, and I jokingly said that helping me organize an Ederle Swim would be great. She, however, was not joking and said it was a definite possibility. Exhausted from such an emotional couple of days, I said I would sleep on it before we moved ahead. Sure enough, when I awoke that day, “swimming home” was one of the only things on my mind. We began to coordinate the logistics that week, and set our sights on August 28th. Getting back in the pool after the crushing disappointment of my swim being called off was not easy. I wanted to just swim for fun without worry for the rest of the summer, but I now had some serious work to do.
On the morning of August 28th, I jumped off the zodiac right in front of Pier A in Manhattan. After a quick countdown, I was on the move. Terry O’Malley, one of the most experienced kayakers in the area was at my right, and Coach Bonnie, my boyfriend Francis, David Barra, and boat pilot Sean Makofsky were all in the zodiac on my left. We also had a full escort from the NYPD Harbor Patrol and the US Coast Guard Auxiliary. I felt safe and sound, and knew I had to do what Dory said and just keep swimming.
We flew out of the harbor! We made amazing progress, as Terry, Sean, and Dave are expert navigators. But like with any swim, there is always going to be a dark place. Mine occurred as we rounded Brooklyn and the Verrazanno Bridge was in sight. I suddenly felt like I was not getting anywhere, and that it was taking far too long. My mind was filled to the brim with negative thoughts. I was convinced we were going to miss the tide, and the swim would be unsuccessful! In the middle of this mental maelstrom, we also had the task of getting safely across the Ambrose Channel. The Ambrose is one of the busiest shipping channels in the world, and these tankers are not just going to stop for a crazy lady swimming to her hometown. At one point, I had to delay a feed and swim at a full on sprint towards Staten Island to get out of the way of oncoming vessel traffic. It was terrifying, but we got across safely, and were more than halfway there!
The rest of the swim went on without a hitch. My feeds worked well, boat traffic cooperated, and then the best part of all: Terry told me that my family was already on the beach waiting for me. Hearing that filled my heart with more joy than I can possibly describe. I knew this would give me the mental boost I needed to get home. About a quarter mile to go, and I could see them: my mom, sister, and good friends Keith and Tom were all there on that hot and remote beach. I put the kick into high gear, upped my stroke rate, and gunned it for home. As I looked to my left, I could see the hill where we lived, to my left was my crew telling me to keep going and I was almost there. The water was still really deep, and I knew had to wait until I could see sand to even attempt standing up. When I could hear them yelling and saw the murky sand below, I stood up. Landfall. The NYPD blew their air horn, and I was there. I swam home. A dream over four years in the making had come true, and so many of the people that I love were there to see it. I thought that it had taken over 6 hours, so I immediately apologized to my mom and sister for taking so long. They informed me that they actually were afraid they might miss me because I was going so fast. 5 hours and 48 minutes to be precise. The good news kept rolling.
So a summer that started with a major disappointment got to end with my successfully completing the swim that made me want to be a marathon swimmer. The happiness even continued two weeks later when Francis asked me to marry him. He followed my serious but not really serious declaration that I did not want to get married until after I swam home. I really could not ask for a better way to end the summer.
Hold Fast.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Learning Through Failure In The Social Media Age

Learning Through Failure In The Social Media Age

Failure is going to happen. It is a simple fact of life. We don’t like it. It is not fun by any stretch of the imagination. But it will happen. Fortunately, all types of failure, the big and the small, make us better human beings. Our failures and struggles are what shape and mold our personalities. They are the building blocks of both our private and public selves, and the persona that we share with the world. I know that my first ever DNF during Stage 6 of 8 Bridges Hudson River Swim 2014 not only made me a stronger swimmer, but much more compassionate. It was my first realization that I would not complete every swim I attempted.

We live in an age in which people display all sorts of information on the internet. It is now possible to instantaneously know everything from what your high school math teacher ate for lunch to who ran two marathons in one week. This communication tool is great, but it also will inevitably lead to playing a round of The Compare Game. You know what game I am talking about. The Compare Game is when you see pictures of trips to beautiful places, or posts about engagements, promotions, and speedy marathon times, and think that you are somehow lagging behind. But remember, we very often present our most polished and proud moments on social media. We post the highlight reel, not the practice footage.

To be honest, I want to see more of the practice footage, and with that, more failure. As a marathon swimmer, my day-to-day workouts are not exactly the most exciting thing to write or post about, but every missed interval, botched flip turn, boring set, and mentally difficult practice is what makes success feel good. It’s important to be proud of sticking with it through those moments!

I had hoped to swim from Plymouth, Massachusetts to Provincetown, Massachusetts on July 9, 2016, but the weather had other plans. A strong ENE wind (exactly the direction I was swimming) would have diminished the probability of a successful landing, and also made it dangerous for everyone on the water. We called off the swim. I didn’t have the time, resources, or mental fortitude to organize a second attempt later in the summer, so I decided postpone until next year. I was really disappointed. Crushed, in fact. I didn’t want to leave my bedroom for a few weeks, and tried to tune everything and everyone out. But what helped bring me back to reality was simply time, sleep, and other swimmers. Swimmers who had been there. Swimmers who knew what it feels like to have put your heart and soul into something for months, only to have a change in the wind take it away. Swimmers who said it was okay to never want to swim again. Swimmers who advised me to harness negative energy, and use it to get back in the water stronger and wiser than before. Swimmers who reached out to help me achieve other swim goals (more on that later). This set back is now a big part of my practice footage, part of the greater struggle that will one day lead to not only a successful crossing of Cape Cod Bay, but the other swims on my radar. Right now I want to destroy that footage in a dramatic and fiery fashion, but I have to keep it because the pain will only make the joy of a successful swim (and my highlight reel) more meaningful. Whenever that may be.

Hold Fast,


PS- I apologize for the pretentious title.

Friday, June 24, 2016

How to Deal With "Swim Brain"

This post originally appeared int he 8 Bridges Hudson River Swim blog
That swim you signed up for in December is here. It seemed like such a wonderful idea as snow fell gently outside, while Bing Crosby crooned on the radio, and visions of sugar plums danced in your head. But now, those sugar plums turn to mush, as the Hudson warmed to a nice 70F. 8 Bridges is here, and you can’t help but be a little (or a lot) scared.
Pre-swim nerves are common, understandable, and can help, but the days leading up to a swim can be a game of mental gymnastics I like to call Swim Brain (trademark pending). Swim Brain makes it tough to focus on anything else (school, work, loved ones, not missing your stop on the train) because there is a portion of your brain solely devoted to your swim. It can be awful! As a habitual planner and over thinker, I have a few techniques that help me deal with Swim Brain  that I hope can help you too!
  • DO NOT check Weather.com every five minutes
The weather is out of your control. Worrying about the wind speed and direction will not help at all. It is so tempting to look, but try to avoid it! Rondi and Dave are the most competent race directors on the planet, and will be doing plenty of weather watching for you!
  • Pack and unpack and repack your gear
When you feel the urge to check the weather, go to that swim bag and pack/repack it. It will help you make sure you have everything you need. Spare goggles? Sunscreen? Lucky stuffed pig you’ve had since you were 7… wait, somehow I think that one is just me.
Monmouth County Swimming Championships 1997
  • Make it a Blockbuster night
Sit your butt down and watch a movie! It will help your muscles rest and help your mind focus on something other than the swim ahead. Some personal favorites…
  • Paint with all the colors of the wind
Commune with nature! Sit under your favorite tree. Walk your favorite trail. Take a relaxing, non training dip in the ocean. Get outside and reflect on how beautiful the Earth is, and how lucky we are to get to swim in the most beautiful river in the world!
Grandmother Willow! I’ve come to talk to you!
  • Journal
Why do you think I am writing this right now!? My Swim Brian is off the charts! All I want to do is jump in the water, but I still have days to wait! It will help to get those feelings on paper, and be really fun to read after the swim. It is also a good time to reflect on all the little steps that got you here. All the people you met along the way, the fun and challenging training swims, delicious post-swim meals, the good swims and the bad.
Hopefully some of this helps you as we being the final countdown to 8 Bridges 2016! Wishing you all swift currents, delicious feeds, and a happy swim.
Hold fast,

What’s On the Menu?

This post originally appeared in the #TeamSelkie blog
I am taking a page out of fellow #TeamSelkie marathon swimmer Stuart Hacker’s playbook, and writing an informative post on a technical component of marathon swimming. Today’s hot topic: nutrition during a swim, commonly referred to as “feeds.” Feeds are are not one size fits all by any means! Some types of feeds will work great for you, but not so great for other swimmers. This is why it is extremely important to try out your feeds well before a swim, and see how they make you feel. That being said, this advice is based on my own experience, and I am not promoting any particular product or feeding plan.
What are some popular feeds for marathon swimmers? Where do I even start?
Every swimmer is different! Some rely solely on liquid feeds, others eat sport gels, and some eat real solid food, like doughnuts and sardines (true story!). A great place for swimmers to start is with sports gels.. I started with these because they taste great and are easily transported by tucking them in the back of your swim cap (see photos below) or in your suit. This easy means of transport makes them great for events when you don’t have a support boat or kayak, but still may need a little boost. From there, the world is (literally) your oyster! Try anything that you can swim while digesting and tastes good.
Image 20-05-2016 at 10.10 (1)
Image 20-05-2016 at 10.10
Image 20-05-2016 at 10.10 (2)
How should I practice feeding?
Ideally, you should practice feeds in an environment that will closely mimic your swim. You have to be able to eat while treading or laying on your back, what I call otter style. Doing this does take some used to, so try to practice it before your event. If open water is not an option, feeding on the pool deck is fine, just try not to break too many rules. I found that eating a gel in the locker room right before I started my workout, or in the middle of it, worked well.
How often should I feed?
Most swimmers feed every 30 minutes. It really helps break a long swim down into increments. Instead of thinking, “I have hours of swimming ahead of me,” your mindset becomes “Just make it 30 minutes until your next feed.” This is why taste is really important for me. You want to look forward to your feeds! It will really help the mental game. However, this is marathon swimming, and conditions may not always allow a feed, but I do not like to go more than 45 minutes between feeds.
How much should I be consuming per feed?
This is a tough one! Since everybody’s metabolic rate is different, everyone requires a different number of calories. My coach has always told me to feel “topped off,” not hungry, but also not exceedingly full. This is why practicing feeds before a swim is so important. The more practice, you will start to figure out what your body needs. Once you experience a long swim on a nearly empty stomach, you will not make that mistake again.
Laura, what do you eat in the water?
I like my feeds to be easy for my kayaker to handle, but also have some variety. This is a copy of a feed plan from my swims last summer. Color coded!
Feed 1 (0:30)- Carbo Pro/Nuun Tropical
Feed 2 (1:00)- Chia Vitality and Water
Feed 3 (1:30)- Carbo Pro/ Nuun Kona Cola
Feed 4 (2:00)- Applesauce and Water
Feed 5 (2:30)- Carbo Pro/Nuun Tropical
Feed 6 (3:00)- Applesauce and Water
Feed 7 (3:30)- Carbo Pro/ Nuun Kona Cola
Feed 8 (4:00)- Applesauce
Feed 9 (4:30)- Carbo Pro/Nuun Tropical
Feed 10 (5:00)- Peanut Butter M&M’s
Feed 11 (5:30)- Carbo Pro/ Nuun Kona Cola
Feed 12 (6:00)-Carbo Pro/Nuun Tropical
Feed 13 (6:30)-Carbo Pro/ Nuun Kona Cola
Feed 14 (7:00)-Carbo Pro/Nuun Tropical
Feed 15 (7:30)-Carbo Pro/ Nuun Kona Cola
Feed 16 (8:00)-Carbo Pro/Nuun Tropical
Carbo Pro is an amazing carbohydrate drink that mixes with water. It does not have a distinctive flavor, so I like to mix it with Nuun tablets. The tablets provide some vitamins, but most importantly, delicious flavors. The Chia Vitality is for a little bit of protein, and comes in a handy little squeeze packet. My childhood favorite applesauce comes in very handy! I use GoGo Squeeze brand applesauce because they are very easy to eat in the water, and taste great. My favorite feed is peanut butter M&Ms. The amount of joy and excitement that this feed brings after 4 or 5 hours of swimming is almost indescribable. If you find yourself in the States or a duty free shop in an airport, I highly recommend picking them up.
Hold fast,

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

LP Swims P2P

This post originally appeared in the #TeamSelkie blog

Screenshot 2016-04-07 12.46.58

On July 9, 2016 at 04:00 U.S. Eastern Standard Time, I am plunging into the chilly, dark, and foreboding waters off of Plymouth, Massachusetts, and plan to not set foot on land until I swim 19 miles to Provincetown, Massachusetts. Nineteen miles of salty water, waves, eating every 30 minutes in the water (more on that later!), and critters who will hopefully let me pass through their home peacefully. I come in peace, my aquatic friends!
The P2P Swim or Cape Cod Bay Swim has been on my list of possible swims for about two years. I visited Cape Cod with my family when I was a kid, and fell head-over-heels in love with it. On the Cape, you feel like you are in the woods and on the beach all at the same time. Majestic humpback whales feed off of the plankton rich waters of Stellwagen Bank. Playful seals just hang out on the beach where people sunbathe. Every corner is full of the rich, nautical history of some of U.S.’s oldest settlements. The Cape was heaven on earth for a history-obsessed kid who really just wanted to be in and around the ocean all day every day.
I also had the honor and privilege to be friends and neighbors with Eileen Burke, the first recorded woman to swim across Cape Cod Bay. What are the chances that of all the streets in New York City, I would move to the same one as such an inspiring and accomplished marathon swimmer? We met swimming with CIBBOWS, but most of our time together came on 05:30 train to our respective pools. We talked about school often, since she was a teacher and I created educational videos for a living, but mostly, we talked about swimming and our beloved ocean. Listening to her impressive swim resume was inspiring, but it was the excitement about swimming across Cape Cod Bay that was most infectious.
Eileen passed away in October 2015, after a brave battle against pancreatic cancer, leaving a gaping hole in the New York and Massachusetts open water communities. In addition to her friendship, she did one very important thing for me before she died.  A swim must call to me in an almost primal way before I decide to do it. It is not just because of how physically grueling it is, but because a swim requires everything you have. Marathon swims require months of lonely pool and dryland training, as well as painful (and sometimes gross) trial and error of feeds and goggles and swimsuit tightness. They require a lot of training, and this is all in addition to working a challenging full-time job. Given the time-sucking nature of our chosen extracurricular activity, I don’t think many marathon swimmers can just pick a swim without feeling some sort of connection or sense of purpose for swimming it. I am often asked when I will be swimming better known challenges like the English Channel or Catalina Channel, but in all honesty, those swims are not calling to me right now. But swimming across Cape Cod Bay? That called me. Eileen commanded the swim to call to me.
I have been training in the pool for the past three months, and am really looking forward to getting back in the ocean off Brighton Beach. No, it’s not the Brighton Beach in East Sussex, although if Selkie CEO Jeremy Laming wants to fly me over, I would be more than happy to come swim. 😉
In future posts, I plan to detail who my awesome support crew will be, safety and feed plans, and summaries of my two big prep swims: 6 hours in the Atlantic Ocean and an 18-miler in the Hudson River. I am extremely nervous about swimming in total darkness, the wind not being in my favor, and the aforementioned critters, but excited about the opportunity to swim “America’s Channel,” and once again feel the euphoria that comes with a long swim.
Hold Fast!

The Time I Almost Turned Back

This post originally appeared in the #TeamSelkie blog.

During the winter months, I am primarily focused on pool and dryland training. During these hours solitude, I very often find myself reflecting on my journey as an open water swimmer: the challenges, the triumphs, the countless bowls of oatmeal. The one story that I always find myself coming back to is that of my first open water race on May 27, 2012.
I returned to swimming in the fall of 2011 after a two year hiatus. I was now in a new job with more predictable hours, and was drawn to competing in long distance events after I watched a friend run the New York City Marathon. I joined a pool near my office, swam about 4 days a week, and found a great triathlon training group (Jersey Shore Triathlon Club) to swim with once the water warmed up. The group was hosting a 2K swim called the Lava Swim, and I decided to enter.
Full disclosure, I wore a wetsuit for this race! My marathon swimming friends may be quite shocked at this, but I was training with triathletes, and assumed that a wetsuit came with the territory. And full honesty, I LOVED swimming in it. I was lucky to get a suit that fit me like a glove and made me feel like a superhero! I now swim fully under English Channel apparel rules, but I did have fun with my suit.
After three Saturday open water sessions, it was time to actually race. It was one loop of a very well marked and monitored course in Barnegat Bay. I was very lucky that my mom, sister, and boyfriend all accompanied me to the beach to help cheer me on. After sitting in the rain, shimmying into my sleek Orca wetsuit, and studying the course, I got into the water with butterflies that felt like pterodactyls in my stomach. I had swam the distance in the pool and at my Saturday sessions before, but still could not imagine all of the swimming that lay ahead of me. Could I really do this? What if I got tired? What if I got lost in the scrum and someone whacked me in the face? What if my goggles leaked? When the start gun went off, I put my face in and began to swim, but immediately found myself hyperventilating. I could barely catch my breath. My heart was pounding. I questioned why I was not into a calm hobby like stamp collecting or knitting. I 100% wanted to cry and turn around and head back to the beach. But then, the faces of my mom, sister, and boyfriend came into my mind. What would I tell them if I chickened out and showed up on the beach only a few minutes after the start? They had all gotten up at the crack of dawn to watch the swim. My boyfriend had listened to me talk open water swimming for months. My mom made me an amazing oatmeal dinner the night before! I suddenly began to calm down. My breathing became easier, sighting became easier, my heart rate regulated, and I finally got into my swimming groove.
The rest of the swim was total bliss. I loved every minute of it, and gave it my all. When I finally got to the green buoy and could see the beach, I did my “butterfly dolphin dives,” and made my way up the beach and crossed the finish line. I met my family and savored every embrace. The Lava Swim helped me realize that I could swim through huge jitters, and also helped me discover out what mental games will help me through those tough first 400 meters. It is something that I think every endurance athlete has to figure out at some point in his or her own way. While I am swimming distances several times greater than 2K now, I can’t help but be thankful for the critical lessons learned that day in Barnegat Bay.
Hold Fast,

Out of the Comfort Zone- 2016 USMS One Hour Swim

This post originally appeared in the #TeamSelkie blog.

Out of the comfort zone – Laura ‘Hold Fast’ Picardo #teamselkie

I don’t like being timed. Crazy for a swimmer, right? Those hands on the clock really like to mess with my head. Part of what I love about marathon swimming is that outside of practice sets, the goal when you jump into the water is simple: just keep swimming.
So, when my wonderful coach told me she wanted me to participate in United States Masters Swimming’s (USMS) annual One Hour Swim, I did not exactly bubble with joy. At this point in my open water career, swimming an hour is not super challenging, but swimming an hour in a pool with a timer? Seriously not my thing. But what coach says, I do.
I got to Asphalt Green, an amazing Olympic pool (home of 2012 bronze medalist Lia Neal) on the Upper East Side of Manhattan a little bit before 06:00. Due to pool hours, I didn’t get in a solid warm up. I knew that could mean trouble, but I tried to put that out of my head. My boyfriend and trusty lap counter, Francis, took his position with the stopwatch (he is a marathoner, so he understands early wake-ups and the pressure of timing), and I was off. The beginning was terrible. Absolutely terrible. I just felt tight and those wonderful little voices of doubt permeated my mind. But like in all swims, I calmed down, got into my rhythm, and found my happy place. Mentally, I was still not exactly happy that I was being watched by the specter of the clock, but physically, my body felt amazing. The strength I felt in my shoulders and legs just reminded me that this is what my body is trained and meant to do. It helped me refocus on the swim and not on that unholy timepiece.
As I finished, I felt relief, excitement, and pride that I got out of my comfort zone, and didn’t quit or break down. Even though it was not a major swim, to me it was a major step in getting over some of the self-doubt that I have had about my athletic abilities. It is that feeling of accomplishment that I will be able to take with me as I continue to train for my larger events. I guess that is why my coach wanted me to do it (she is pretty wise). But the best part is that I won’t have to do a USMS One Hour Swim until next year. Yay.
Hold fast.