Injury, Motivation, Open Water Swim Journal, Training, Travel

Darkness and Light: a 6-hour swim attempt (Malta post 3 of 3)

This is a post about attempting a six-hour swim in 15°C Mediterranean waters. Much of the post takes place inside my head. The first two paragraphs are repeated from the end of the last post, Systematic Breakdown of Body, Mind, and Limits (Malta post 2 of 3)


SwimTrek coaches Mia and Sakura ready to grease up swimmers before the big swim. (Wait, that's a lie. Sakura wasn't there that day. This photo is from Day 1. Same idea, though, before every swim.)

Coach Andy

Tuesday was the only day for which the plan was not a secret. We all knew going in that Tuesday was the planned 6-hour swim. For some swimmers, this swim was a necessary “qualifying swim” to do a Channel crossing: 6 hours in 15°C water or below. Before arriving in Malta, before experiencing the punishing cold, and before wrecking my body by swimming a total of 5 ½ hours the day before, I thought 6 continuous hours sounded like challenging fun. That is, completely doable. There was no question in my mind that I would be successful in completing it. When I woke up Tuesday morning on the other hand, unable to move my arms, unable to lift my arms over my head, I realized that I would not even be able to try it. I lay in bed disappointed: arms, shoulders, and elbows all in extreme pain. It seemed like a long way to travel for just two days of swimming. But I cheered myself up with the thought of spending the day resting on shore, working on “evening out” my tan. At breakfast with friends, everyone hypothesized what they would be able to do. Alexia, and Peter, both very thin and extremely susceptible to cold, were sure that they would not make all six hours. Ian’s wrists were oddly swollen, and as he struggled to pour himself a glass of juice (it was a big pitcher), he voiced his uncertainty about going for all 6. My roommate Aileen, having woken up next to me with similarly debilitating and depressing shoulder pain was also unsure. Only Scott, both fit and sufficiently plumped-up for the occasion (he’d already put in some effort getting “channel ready” over the past 4 months) seemed confident going in.

We had a brief seminar before the swim on Nick’s 4 Ps: Pee, Poo, Period, Puke. It was lovely. Then the plan for the day: We would swim out front of the hotel in Xlendi bay. To break things up, we would swim the first two hours around the normal loop. The second two hours would be loops out into the rougher water, around a giant reef, marked with a pole. The last two hours would be back around the normal loop. Also, the feed at the 5-hour mark would take place from a boat, instead of right at shore, as it would during an actual channel swim.  It all sounded great, but not applicable to me, as I would not be swimming. As everyone left the seminar to prepare for the swim, I checked in with coach Andy. I told him how I felt and asked him if yesterday’s 3½ hour swim would satisfy the 6 mile swim I needed in order to qualify for my10-mile swim in July. He said that it would. I told him that I didn’t think I could swim at all today. He said that I should just get in and see what I could do. The cold water could loosen things up. I could always get out. They would encourage me to stay in, but would understand if I had to get out. I was skeptical, to say the least.



The group heads out for the six hour swim, looking less than excited or eager.

The group heads out for the six hour swim, looking less than excited or eager.

Coach Cliff ready in a support boat as group begins six hour swim.

The next four hours were, hands down, the darkest hours I have ever spent inside my own head. I discovered aspects of my psyche, to which (whom?) I had not previously been introduced. It unfolded something like this:

With barely enough time to get sunscreen and Vaseline on my body, I waded into the water with the rest of the group to the familiar sounds of Nick yelling, “Everyone in, let’s go! 30 seconds to start!” I wasn’t sure what I was doing— what I was hoping or planning to accomplish. I hadn’t had time to think about it. I was just getting in with everyone else because I have a terribly hard time not doing what everyone else is doing in any kind of physical training activity. As I swam away from shore with the group, I struck up a conversation with myself that would last many hours. It was simple enough to begin with:

Okay. Yes. My arms hurt. My elbows hurt. But I can move them. The cold water is allowing me to move them. And this is nice: the water is clearer than the last time we swam in this bay. There are fewer buoys out too. Oh, and you can see the ropes attaching the buoys to the bottom, so I won’t need to sight so much to avoid colliding with them. That’s a nice surprise. It’s deeper here than I thought it was. Clear water is so much nicer to swim in than murky water.

How long am I going to swim, anyway? I can’t very well come right out after only one 10-minute trip around the bay. I suppose I’ll have to go at least half an hour. But half an hour is as pointless as 10 minutes. Not one time on this trip have we been asked to swim anything less than an hour. So, can I make it an hour? I suppose I can endure this for one hour. Okay. I will swim to the first scheduled feed.

I can hear and see Andy in my head as he describes the perfect stroke; his arms taking strokes in the air, he chants: “Stroke, stroke. Stroke, stroke. Stroke, stroke.” And to the rhythm of my stroke I think:

Stroke, stroke. Stroke, stroke. Yes, Andy. That’s, how. I, swim. Still, hurts. My, arms. Ouch, ouch.

How long am I doing this? An hour? Man that sounds lame. Lame, lame. Lame, lame. Stroke, stroke. This, is lame. This, is lame. Stroke, stroke. One, hour. Is, too. Short, short. Too, short.

One hour is obviously too short. Yesterday I was able to swim for two hours in considerable pain. So clearly I can do it today as well. I should swim for two hours today. Two hours is less lame. Less, lame. Two, hours. Two, hours. O, K. Two, hours. Stroke, stroke. Stroke, stroke.

But I don’t really feel like I can swim at all. Maybe I should just go in now. The cold water certainly is letting me move my arms more freely than when I tested them over the side of my bed this morning. But this isn’t fun. My body hurts. Yes. This is stupid. I should go in. No. Obviously I should not go in. Going in is stupid.

But one hour is off the table. It will have to be two hours. Suck it up and swim two hours. But maybe I won’t be able to do two hours.

I see Andy up ahead in one of the support boats.

He’s so smiley. That’s annoying. He’s saying something to swimmers as they pass. Clearly he’s going to talk to me. I should breathe his direction and acknowledge him.

He asks, cheerfully: “How do you feel?” I respond with a noise and implied shrug that clearly mean: “Whatever. Not good. But I’m not going to complain to you. So please accept this grunt, and effortful half-smile. Goodbye.” I swim on, towards the cliffs on the far side of the bay.

The cliffs make me think of when I first arrived. As I swim through the place where I stopped on that first day, to float on my back and laugh at the cliffs—such beautiful cliffs!—my mind goes there completely:

Cliffs. (This photo, by me, was taken at Camino)

These cliffs! These are the cliffs I read about, where birds breed and nest, and “bird-men” used to swing down on ropes to catch them. How did they do that? Not with modern rock-climbing hook thingys. Obviously. Tie the rope to a tree? What a risky thing to do. Life was risky then, though. It was so dangerous to live at all, even in this beautiful place. Especially in this beautiful place. The Ottomans kidnapped the entire population of Gozo at one point. In the 1550s I think. 1560s? 1450s? When did people come back to repopulate Gozo? I wonder how many generations back the taxi driver from the other day can trace his Gozotian heritage. He was so proud of being Gozotian and not Maltese. But all Gozotians must be migrated Maltese, from as early as a few hundred years ago. Whoa. I’m thinking about Gozotian history. And these are the cliffs of Gozo that I see here, right in front of me, when I breathe. I’m swimming by them. I’m in Gozo. These cliffs are beautiful! They made me so happy that first day, and if I remember to notice them, they will still have the same effect. I should do better remembering to notice the cliffs.

I can’t believe that first swim was only four days ago. My body felt really good to be in this water then, where I am again now, by these beautiful cliffs. Now I cannot imagine stopping and playing and floating on my back for pleasure in this cold, uninviting water. That’s a ridiculous, crazy thought. Of course, the water didn’t feel cold then, because I was still in the “honeymoon period,” those first 20 minutes or so of a cold-water swim. I learned that from Nick. I’ve learned a lot in these three days. I learned about the plateau too. I don’t always feel the plateau. I wish I felt the plateau. Maybe on this swim I will feel the plateau.

Approaching the buoy where I would turn in if I were to call it quits, cleared my mind of all lovely, distracting thoughts. Seeing the buoy and shore, the pains in every part of my body came rushing back to center stage in my mind. Wanting badly to go in, I said, quite clearly, to myself:

Do not turn in unless you absolutely cannot go any further. So. Can you take even one more stroke? Yes? Okay, round the buoy and keep going. Do it. Okay, here we go again.

As I headed out for my second time around the bay I realized that I probably would never turn back mid-way around. So if I could get myself to round that buoy, I could probably always do one more go-around. But the journey out always seemed long, and the internal dialogue always began again.

One hour is too short. Can’t do just one hour. That’s a “first day swim.” As in, you just got here, it’s the first day, and so we will ask you to swim for an hour to “ease you into it.” It seemed long at the time—hadn’t felt like “easing” at all—but clearly it was not long. I swam 3½ hours yesterday. One hour is nothing. But also yesterday, a day in which we did challenging things, we also did a two hour swim. So doing a two-hour swim can’t be so lame.

Dammit. Who am I kidding? I’m not going to swim for two hours. My shoulders are killing me. How am I even going to finish out the hour? This, sucks. This, sucks. When I get back to the buoy I’m going in.

And eventually, time and again, I would come to the buoy and I would ask myself, “can you absolutely go no further? Do not stop unless you CANNOT take another stroke.” And every time I returned the question with the same defeated answer, “No. I can go a little further. I can take more strokes.” And so I would round the buoy and feel committed, again, to another10-minute lap.

Coach Nick Adams greets swimmers headed in for one-hour feed. (Photo credit: Haruyuki Ishii )

And when the one hour feed came, I swam to shore where I floated on my belly, and supported my body with one hand on the bottom, while I reached up to take a cup of warm Maxim from an outstretched hand. Maybe it was Nick’s. Maybe it was Mia’s. I wasn’t paying attention. Just drinking. Having just finished the first hour, I had a small burst of energy and optimism that made me turn my body and swim back out. And of course, as soon as I was underway, the conversation with myself resumed. My mind jumped back and forth between aches and pains, coldness, and predicating how long I could hold out. Occasionally, another thought would enter my mind, but never for long. At this point, the inside of my head sounded something like this, just stretched out with lots of repetition and often thinking to the rhythm of my stroke:

I can do two hours. Two should definitely be a minimum for today. And if I can do two hours, I should probably be able to do three. And if I can do three, I can certainly do 3½, which would be a second 3½ hour swim, and that was an accomplishment yesterday, so it would also be an accomplishment today. But of course, better yet, I should swim four hours! That is clearly the ultimate goal. Four hours would be a personal record for me. As of yesterday, my personal record is 3½ hours. Today I can set a new record for myself. That would be amazing, actually.

And then suddenly, without warning,

Shit I’m cold. I’m in really, really cold water, and I’m basically naked. Just this 70% nylon/ 30% Lycra suit on between me and the water. But it’s not actually between me and the water, because the water is flowing freely between the suit and me, too. So I’m basically in this really cold water naked. This is so stupid cold. Wait, what was I thinking? Four hours? That’s absurd. There’s no way I’m doing this for four hours. I’m really cold. So, cold. I’m, cold. This, sucks. Stupid, cold.

Anna offers Maxim to Roisin. Ian stands by ready for the next swimmer.

Although the relentless questioning of what I could handle continued, and the constant desire to just head in had to be fought back continuously, I made it to the two hour feed, and headed out for the third hour of swimming. When the swim had been described in the morning, I wasn’t even entertaining the idea of getting this far. But here I was, in the third hour, on my way out to a pole that marked a massive reef. I gave the pole a really wide birth, as I swam around it, as we had been instructed to do in order to avoid an unintended bashing against the reef. It was an amazing sight. As you reached the far edge of the reef and turned, the water on the other side changed to the deepest of blues and looked as if it went down forever. The blue was the exact same color as the vintage Levi’s sweatshirt I got from Josh at Saturdays before coming, and had been wearing on the trip, and had thought I had lost for a few hours the night before, and had been relieved to have found again.

The water was particularly choppy that far out, and I swallowed many facefulls of waves before I figured out how to avoid them, most of the time. Each time I headed out around the reef, I marveled at the beauty of the deep blue water, and I thought about the sweatshirt. I really like that sweatshirt.

Surprisingly, the trip out to the reef through the choppy water became something I looked forward to. Having to focus on the breathing and the waves was hugely distracting. My rambling thoughts never got to take center stage, as center stage was occupied by an urgent and immediate need to stay focused on getting a decent breath. And, as I looked forward to the thought-free, highly-focused and stunningly, breathtakingly beautiful trips out to the reef, I also came to dread the trip back toward the shore-side buoy, along which the water was calmer and the voice in my head again became everything, and I had to battle, battle, battle myself like a crazy person.

Peter and Andreas meet me with warm Maxim and a Hostess-like chocolate cake at the 3-hour feed. This is my first failed attempt at ending my swim.

By the end of three hours, on the way back to the 3-hour feed, I was pretty beat down. The pain and cold had worn me out and I thought: “I think this is it. I’m ready to go in.” Sealing the deal for me was the sight of a number of other swimmers who had already gone in. They were dressed in their cozy warm clothes and were hanging out laughing, at the funniest things in the world, I was sure. I couldn’t help but think: “I want that. That is exactly what I want right now.” When I came in for the feed, it was Andreas and Peter who met me with Maxim and a Hostess-like chocolate-cake roll. I took what they gave me, as a matter of habit, but when they told me how well I was doing, I said, “Thanks. I don’t think I’m going back out.” They responded immediately and enthusiastically with “Of course you are! You most certainly are! You’re doing fantastic! You’re amazing! You’re doing really fantastic, Caitlin.” I didn’t have the energy to fight them. I didn’t have the stomach to eat. Defeated, I spit out the bite of cake in my mouth, hand the rest back to Peter, turn my body and swim back out.

Coach Cliff in the support boat does not give me the response I am looking for when I tell him that my shoulders are hurting.

Although the fourth hour also included the distracting and invigorating trips out to the far reef, inside my head had become a very dark place. I was becoming angry with the situation and seriously wondering why I was still going. The pain in my arms got worse. I felt over it, ready to go in. I saw Cliff in his support boat, and he came over to ask how I was. “My arms are really hurting me,” is what I said, but what I meant was, “I’m done. My arms hurt too much to go on.” Cliff’s response was not what I was looking for. He said that he would radio in to shore to let them know that I needed ibuprofen. The coaches would be ready for me with it by the time I made it in. Again, I felt defeated. I did not think drugs would do anything for me. I wanted them to, but they certainly hadn’t done much the day before. I headed in, but I didn’t plan to take the drugs. Mia handed me a plastic cup with the pills, which I looked at despondently as I said, “No. I don’t think I can swim anymore. I just can’t get my arms high enough out of the water.” Certainly that would do it. They couldn’t send me out if I couldn’t use my arms. Mia smiled and told me to take the drugs. They would help. Just keep swimming. The pain would go away. I thought it was stupid of her to say this with such certainty, when I knew she was wrong. I followed her directions, but felt mad at her for not just listening to me. As I swam away, I made a point of emphasizing just how useless my arms were. That’s right. I pretended that I REALLY couldn’t get them out of the water at all. On each recovery I dragged my arms through the water dramatically so that Mia and the other coaches would realize they were wrong, and would feel bad for telling me I’d be okay. I’m not sure they even noticed.

Having spent the past four hours in a cold, aching body and a dark state of mind, arguing with myself to keep swimming, I felt an odd sense of relief when, about half way around the bay on my last lap of the hour, the pain in my arms increased dramatically. A sudden shift from dull pain to a debilitating, shooting pain was going to end the argument with myself once and for all. It was a consistent shooting nerve pain that stopped me mid-pull on each stroke. In short, I couldn’t pull! Certainly I had to go in if I could not pull. I simply could not swim. As I made my way, painfully, along the cliffs, headed back to shore, my knee started to ache too. That was it. I was done. “I’m falling apart,” I thought. My body was telling me to go no further. I could not ask it to do any more. And what a relief that was. When I got to that buoy, I would not ask myself to round it, because my body was telling me loud and clear: “I will not work for you anymore.”

Also, I was about to complete a four hour swim. Four hours! A personal record. Despite the physical pain, I started to smile. This was good. I had done it. This morning I didn’t think I would get in at all. Now, I had swum for four hours. I felt awesome, amazing even! I knew I needed to strategize how I would exit the water. I decided it was important to not sound at all uncertain. I would be strong, and clear. I would stand up and take off my goggles and walk towards shore. There would be no question about my intention.


Coach Nick, self proclaimed "bad cop," swam with us earlier in the six-hour swim.

And that is exactly what I did. I swam in, stood up, and threw my hands in the air. Beaming, I yelled, “I did it! Four hours! A personal record!!!” Cliff gave me a little cheer, but all other voices and faces said, “No way.” Smiling still, and confident, I ripped off my goggles and walked right past whoever had come out to bring me warm Maxim and a treat. I headed directly for the six concrete steps that led up out of the water. It was at these steps that Nick stopped me. He’s a big guy, wall-like I discovered, if he wants to be. And he said to me, “You’re not getting out now. You have not reached your limit. You have not given all that you have in you to give.”

Ridiculous, I thought, you have not been inside my head these past four hours, you know nothing about what I have given. “I have given everything,” I said, realizing right away how hard it would be to communicate something so personal as hours-long internal conversations.

“No, you haven’t. You still have more in you. Put your goggles back on. You can do it.”

“No.” I was determined to show my intention to stay. I sat down on the second step and explained, “I am done. I have reached my limit. I’m not going back out.”

Anna showed up next to me smiling, saying “Just two more hours and you’re done! Only two more hours.” She sounded crazy to me. I wasn’t even considering another moment, let alone two more hours. Mia chimed in from a few feet away, “Come on now Caitlin. You’re going back out. You’re not done yet.”

I looked at Nick and asked with considerable resentment, “Why are you doing this to me? You let them get out!” I gestured around to the warm, happy swimmers on shore, and followed up with a resounding, “I hate you all.” Anna poked her head in front of mine and said, “but we loooove you.” I wanted to hit her. I considered it. I’m pretty sure I just scowled at her.

“C’mon now,” Nick continued. “Peter’s going to swim with you. Look, he’s got his goggles on. Go with Peter. Just one more lap, with Peter. Go on. Go with Peter.”

I looked, and 15 feet off or so, thigh deep in the water, there he was, my dear friend Peter, dressed in his suit again, goggles on and waiting in the icy water. He was smiling enthusiastically. Is no one on my side? Why is Peter in on this too? I wondered. I looked at Peter and then back to Nick, and announced “I hate Peter.”

Not missing a beat, Nick just kept it up, “Well Peter doesn’t hate you. Look, he’s got back in just for you. C’mon now. Peter is waiting for you. He’s going in, just for you, Caitlin. Go on. Peter’s waiting. Just one lap with Peter.” Three or four voices around me were repeating little snippets of the same message. “Go with Peter. One lap with Peter.” There was a moment when I considered going back out, leaned forward a little bit, and then remembered how much I absolutely could not swim any further. I sat firmly back down. I also knew that “one more lap,” just meant, “one more lap until we find ourselves right back here pressuring you to get back in again.” I was so spent, so done.

I do not remember what thought passed through my head to inspire me to put my goggles back on. Perhaps there was no thought at all, a blank moment in my tired mind, and it was in that momentary absence of thought that I decided to go with Peter. Whatever the motivation, I put my goggles back on and waded out towards Peter. The two minutes or so that I had sat on the steps had not been friendly to my core body temperature. My teeth were chattering as I walked out to meet him, he who was getting back into the bitter cold water… for me. I knew that I would have to swim extra hard in order to get my body warm again.


This is the part of the post that you have been waiting for, whether you knew it or not. I’m sorry it took so long to get here. This is when something strange and wonderful happens. This is when I experience something that changes the way I think about my mind and it’s relationship to my body. This is when I experience human connection and love in such a raw, and real way that it changes everything, and shakes my world.

But please, let us also pause for just a moment here. It is important to remember something: Although I value this experience enormously, and although I continue to recognize, as I reflect on it weeks later, that it was one of the more powerful experiences of my life, I also know that I was in a very extreme emotional state. The same state, in fact, as the me who named buoys and mistakenly saw them crawling across the water as spiders. Just, you know, keep that in mind.

Still angry as I lowered my body back into the cold waters, back into that horizontal swimming position, I took off with Peter at a fast clip, focused on getting my body temperature up. I kicked hard and I pulled hard. Within minutes I felt entirely different, and before I explain just how I felt, let me explain to what I attribute the change:

Three great swimmers, Andreas, Ian, and Peter, seen here warm (and warming up) after leaving the swim due to unrelenting sickness, tendonitis, and cold.

First, there is Peter. There he was, swimming next to me, mimicking my stroke rate. And for the first time in 4 hours, I was not completely alone. I breathed to the left more often in order to see Peter and it made me smile every time. It was an easy equation: Peter suffered enormously from the cold. Peter had gotten out of this water because of the cold. But Peter had just suited up and returned to this horrible, cold place… for me. Yes, my new friend Peter was enduring this for me. Like an emotional embrace, Peter was supporting me in the simplest of ways, and I was experiencing it as pure love.

And next, there was my increased stroke and kick rate. Focused on warming my body, and distracted by Peter, I swam my hardest. And so instead of backing off when I felt pain in my stroke, or rather, swimming at exactly the rate at which I felt the pain, I swam harder. I physically “pushed through,” and in a way, past the pain. (I guess in actuality I was “pulling” through it.) In retrospect, I imagine each pull as a 180 degree angle: My arm entering the water at 0, and exiting at 180. Thinking about it this way, the pain in my shoulders occurred at about 85-90 degrees. Instead of lingering there, or moving slowly through it as I had been doing previously, I was now passing it quickly, finishing off my pull with a hard, strong stroke. That meant I was getting about 170 degrees of pain-free pulling, coupled with only about 10 degrees of pain, which I sped past anyway. Wait, what pain? I turned my attention to my body for a moment and had a very novel thought: “this just feels like swimming.”

It was at this moment that I noticed the change in my mind. It was no longer dark and claustrophobic, but rather a place overflowing with light. I couldn’t decide which came first, but I attributed the lightness to both Peter’s loving support and company, and my newly pain-free body. My mind was racing with light-filled positive thoughts. I wanted to laugh out loud, I felt high. I thought to myself, “If it feels like this, just like swimming, there’s no reason I can’t swim another two hours. I could swim like this forever. Ha!”

Of course no one on shore, nor even Peter, knew how I was feeling. So, when I arrived again at that pivotal buoy, the “turn in or turn back out” buoy, I turned back out and heard people on shore cheering. Certainly they had been readying themselves for another battle.

Getting lifted out of the darkness by "support swimmers" and amazing friends, Ian and Peter

5-hour feed from side of support boat

The 5-hour feed from the side of a support boat.

Giving the "yep, I'm fine" signal after feeding from the support boat. Andreas is waiting for me (background).

Believe it or not, there’s more. Because, as if my mind had not been sufficiently blown, things just got more amazing. And how is that possible? It’s simple: Ian. While Peter and I were swimming, Ian had also gotten back in the water, and as Peter and I rounded the buoy, he joined us. And so now here I was, sandwiched in between two new friends who were enduring extreme cold (Peter) and wrist pain (Ian)… FOR ME. Backing up for a second, I will explain that my relationship with Ian was quite different from mine with Peter. I had never helped to bring Ian out of a freezing, dark pit of lonely agony, as I had Peter the day before. So there was no way Ian felt even a little bit like he owed me anything. And to be entirely honest here, you could say I had a “wee” crush on the guy. So, you know, my heart did summersaults each time I breathed and saw these amazing men supporting and swimming with me. It was a life-affirming feeling, to know that people could care so much and give so much of themselves… to me. I teared up a little in my goggles. And then, I’m sorry, you won’t believe this, but it got even better, because those little tears rolled around inside my goggles and polished them perfectly clean, bringing the world and all it’s beauty into even sharper focus, literally.

Eventually Peter dropped off and it was just Ian and me. And when Ian dropped off a lap later, I felt ready to tackle the last hour and a half. I focused on keeping the light in my mind, and swimming hard. I was pretty sure I could ride the high for a long, long time, certainly two hours would be easy. But then, just as I began swimming by myself again, Andreas showed up beside me. I didn’t know Andreas nearly as well, but was pleasantly surprised to find this kind, quiet man joining me in support. He swam next to or very near me for the rest of the swim. When it came time for the 5-hour feed from the side of the boat, I was doing fine, but Andreas didn’t approach the boat for food or drink. That’s when I remembered that Andreas had been feeling sick since yesterday. I was again floored by the support shown to me by others who were suffering in their own ways.

Me, happily stuffing face with "buiscuits," after completing the 6-hour swim.

Me, happily stuffing face with "biscuits," after completing the 6-hour swim.

The last two laps (20 minutes) were filled only with thoughts of food. I called out to Cliff as I passed his boat, “I want fish and chips!” But by the next time I came around, I realized I needed something simpler, “No. I just want bread. And a Coke. I never drink coke!” I was feeling the excitement building in my mind. I was about to finish. This whole thing was about to be over. And I felt good, hungry, but otherwise good. Go figure. I was about to complete the 6th hour of the six-hour swim.

For the whole of those last two hours with Peter, Ian, and Andreas at my side, I just felt like I was swimming. Which, in its simplicity, was huge. The light in my mind never dimmed, and the strength I felt did not diminish. My mind had been fully and completely blown.


The group after the six-hour swim: Thomas, Andreas, Ian, Me, Scott (lower), Peter, Chris, Jim, Alexia, Anna, Ellery, Front: Roisin, Becky, Miyuki, Aileen.

My heroes: Andreas, Peter, and Ian.

There was much excitement among the group at the end of the 6 hours. Those who had gotten out, got back in to swim the last lap with my roommate Aileen (who also did all 6! Yay Aileen!) Overwhelmed with feelings of excitement and accomplishment, we gathered by the stairs and exchanged hugs and smiles, and posed for a picture. It was finally over. As soon as I saw Peter and Ian, I gushed, trying to explain to them how huge their support had been, just what they had enabled me to do. Peter said stupid things like, “it was you who did the swimming,” when I told him that I never could have done six hours without him.

Afterward, I got a lot of folks saying things to me like, “Don’t you feel great that you swam for six hours?” And “How does it feel, to have done all six hours?” It was hard to explain, and not what anyone wanted to hear, but all I could think was that it didn’t mean so much to me that I had accomplished six hours. I was completely amazed and proud and ecstatic that I had accomplished those first four hours. Those were hard and I couldn’t believe that I’d swam through them. After that though, about those last two hours, the feelings that I had were not at all about what I had accomplished. They were entirely about the kindness and generosity that others had shown me, and the amazing way that made me feel.


With my dear roommate Aileen. (Notice blue sweatshirt around my waist!)

As folks stood on shore pulling on their layers of warm clothes, Nick announced that we would be meeting in 20 minutes for a seminar. At first I thought it was a joke. I went back to my room, lay down, and went to sleep. I was not going to go to the seminar. No one, not even myself, was going to argue with me about that. I slept soundly until dinner.


The next day was April 20th, the 6th year anniversary of the day my dad died. As I reflected on the amazing feeling of support that I experienced on April 19th, it all fit together. It was a wonderful reminder of what it felt like to be supported so completely by my father.

The next day, April 20th, I took this picture of the group off of Camino.

That is the end of this epic post. So sorry it took so long to finish this story. I hope you can see why it did. I will still post about some things that came up on the trip (like salt-mouth!), but this is the end of the story. I hope you enjoyed it. Thank you for reading this far. Also, FYI, I am always appreciative of comments, as I never know who has been here.

NOTE: Unless otherwise noted, all photos were taken by coach Nick Adams. Photos of Nick were taken by whoever he handed his camera off to.


About Caitlin Rosen


43 thoughts on “Darkness and Light: a 6-hour swim attempt (Malta post 3 of 3)

  1. Wow, Caitlin. What an inspiring and beautiful post. That is an incredible accomplishment, both physically and mentally. And such a sweet tribute to your dad at the end. The whole thing brought me to tears. I know…
    Anyway, congratulations! You are a total stud muffin(ette).

    Posted by Sarah | May 12, 2011, 7:56 am
    • Sarah, how did you possibly read that so fast? Thank you for sharing your reaction with me. I really hope to see you soon. (BTW, you were, in large part, my inspiration to start blogging. So, thank you!)

      Posted by caitlinrosen | May 12, 2011, 7:59 am
      • C, I’ve loved reading your blog – recalling mostly with a smile what we did, saw, felt, ate, drank etc during the first two instalments but the third, that was fascinating, especially your internal dialogue which was so much more profound than mine. Although I do remember a point of clarity when it became doable and I was similarly overcome by the support and generosity of our fellow SwimTrekkers especially Anna and then the others at the end of the 6 hours, that was so incredible and very unexpected. Plus having you as a roommate made the whole Gozo experience that much more special. Thanks and I’ll see you in July. Ax

        Posted by Aileen | May 12, 2011, 3:06 pm
      • Yes! There were other swimmers in the group who provided similar inspiration to other struggling folks. Thank you for bringing that up. Anna played a huge role that day for a lot of us, I think.
        You are amazing, Aileen. Thank you for being an inspirational roommate!

        Posted by caitlinrosen | May 13, 2011, 4:02 pm
  2. Thank you Caitlin. That was a hard and wonderful thing you did. This is a very very moving account.

    Posted by Tony | May 12, 2011, 1:59 pm
  3. Ugh, Crying now. You are incredible, Caitlin. What an experience to have both physically and emotionally. I am truly inspired by you.

    Posted by Heather | May 12, 2011, 7:33 pm
    • You inspired me, Heather, early on, to do what seemed impossible. You probably never knew what a big effect your cross-country bike tour had on me. I often thought of it as I decided to take on new challenges. Thank you!

      Posted by caitlinrosen | May 13, 2011, 3:58 pm
  4. You are amazing! Truly amazing. I feel so lucky just to get to read your account of this experience.

    Posted by bianca | May 13, 2011, 1:03 am
  5. Beautiful story, Caitlin. You have found your voice for sure. What unimaginable physical challenges you endured, only to be matched with the constant inner mind battles. Wow… Congratulations!

    Posted by Jill McKinstry | May 13, 2011, 6:02 am
  6. Oh sweetheart. It has taken a bit of time but I can finally see through the tears well enough to type. Such a powerful story, and, as Jill says, a voice that is powerful as well. I especially appreciate your bravery as you share with us the pronouncements of your ‘inner child.’ I won’t bore you with another ‘I’m so proud of you’…because I find myself saying that kind of often. I’ll just be smiling and smiling all day. Thanks, sweetie. Thanks.

    Posted by Mama Rosen | May 13, 2011, 4:03 pm
    • Wow. Lots of talk of tears. This was really not my intention, people. C’mon, toughen up everyone!
      Also, is there something I am forgetting? My “inner child?” What did she say?
      Also, thank you for such a nice comment. I’m glad the post will keep you smiling.

      Posted by caitlinrosen | May 13, 2011, 4:55 pm
      • ok. so the ‘inner child’ is referring to your saying things like ‘I hate Peter.’ And I did smile all day whenever I thought of you.

        Posted by Mama Rosen | May 14, 2011, 5:58 am
  7. Wow, that is a really powerful and inspiring story Caitlin. I just wiped away a tear. Thanks so much for sharing it.

    Posted by Leah | May 13, 2011, 7:09 pm
  8. I did this trip a few years ago – your description has brought back both pains in my upper arms, but also a large smile at the memory of achieving so much. Thanks for sharing.

    Posted by Carl Reynolds | May 18, 2011, 3:28 pm
  9. Great stuff Caitlin! Well swum and full marks for taking Kingdom swim qualification to the extreme! You must have swum 10 miles or more that last day. Caught your blog from a link from the Swimtrek newsletter and I’ve been reading with great interest. My wife and I did a Swimtrek in Gozo 2 years ago (I remember Mia, the reef, the pole and the blue), we’re Brits but live in the USA (biscuits vs cookies, boy vs boo-ee, cozzie vs suit), I get the shoulder pain, and we’re also doing the kingdom swim in July. I’m guessing you won’t be in the wetsuit division then? ;-) See you in July with a Swimtrek swim cap!

    Posted by Andy J | May 18, 2011, 5:06 pm
    • Hi Andy! Thanks for writing. How fun that you will be at the Kingdom swim this summer too. Definitely no wetsuit for me.You?

      Would love to meet up and swap stories if you are interested. Perhaps you and your wife would like to get dinner with me and my mom-kayaker, and my two swim buddies and their husband-kayakers on the night before the swim. If you are interested, reply with your email address (I won’t publish the comment)and I’ll be in touch.

      Happy training!

      Posted by Caitlin Rosen | May 18, 2011, 6:14 pm
  10. Hi Caitlin, congratulations on a great swim and a terrific blog. I was about to book up for the same trip next year. I am intrigued to know how much swimming you had been doing leading up to the trip? JO

    Posted by John Offenbach | May 19, 2011, 10:04 am
    • Hi John,
      I had been swimming consistently for a few years (2-3x/week), but began “training” and upping the yardage a few months prior. In February I hurt my foot and was sick, so I swam very, very little. Despite better intentions, I really only had March and the first week of April to put in the time. If you look at this post you can see a picture of my training log. I would have liked to have put in even more time/yardage, but this is the reality of what I got in. You should definitely book the trip. It was, hands down, the most powerful experience of my life.
      Good luck to you,

      Posted by Caitlin Rosen | May 19, 2011, 2:57 pm
  11. Caitlin — I just read all nine postings. Your story is remarkable and moving — and the way you tell it no less so. The description of the loving support you received, first from your father and then from fellow swimmers Peter, Ian and Andreas, affected me strongly. You and Hannah are together my daily inspiration.

    Posted by Richard Monroe | May 23, 2011, 9:51 pm
  12. I went on my first Swim Trek in 2010 to the BVIs and without even doing a fraction of what you did, I still share many similar thoughts about accomplishing more than I thought I could, how great it was to NOT know what was coming next, the amazing support and bonding and emotion you feel for the people swimming alongside of you, etc. This was REALLY great to read, and inspiring too. Thanks for sharing with another swimming Rosen. :)

    Posted by Liz Rosen | May 24, 2011, 2:52 am
  13. You are the most incedible half-woman half-fish I know. I still want a swim lesson someday.

    Posted by Aron | May 25, 2011, 5:14 pm
  14. I just discovered your blog and really enjoyed reading about your swimtrek in Malta. That’s really hard core! Really great insight into full on long distance open water swimming training. Sorry to hear it was so tough, but how rewarding and what an accomplishment! I am actually going on my first swimtrek in a few weeks – the Turkey one – not as full on as your one. But still will be challenging for me (about 5-6km daily, for a week). Good luck with your swimming endeavours!

    Posted by Alei | September 7, 2011, 11:08 pm
  15. Freaking awesome read. And congrats. The way you felt (mentally) after 3-4 hours is the way I feel at the start of all my swims, from 2-10K. I get over it quickly, thank God!
    Also glad to read that the “practice” I get in prior, pizza, chocolate, (good) beer, all will help once I start swimming past 3 hours. ;)
    Thanks very much for writing all your experiences down. I feel I owe you some money; I learned more about marathon swimming from reading your SwimTrek blog entries than any books I’ve read!
    Cheers from Moscow, and congrats again,

    Posted by IronMike | September 24, 2011, 12:42 am
  16. Wow, awe inspiring! I’ve just booked for the same trip next year. I have a feeling I might remember this post….

    Posted by Barnaby | November 14, 2011, 10:41 am
  17. this was so beautiful, caitlin

    Posted by Ken Shih | January 18, 2012, 12:02 am
  18. A really encouraging (for me) post. thanks for taking the time to really describe your internal monologue. It really is similar to mine, and it is helpful to see how you battled past certain sticking points. I am not swimming your kinds of distances and times but the struggle is always internal and mental, isn’t it?

    Posted by swimdaily | January 25, 2012, 11:04 pm
    • Yes! Even in an hour long pool swim…
      I am happy to hear that you got something out of the post. I am glad I took the time to describe the internal monologue too, as I’m sure I would not remember it or the accompanying emotions had I not. Writing is powerful like that.
      Best of luck to you in your swimming endeavors.

      Posted by Caitlin Rosen | January 26, 2012, 9:07 am
  19. Just reread this and still love it!! Just relayed the English channel – hats off again for your 6 hour and continued adventures in the water!!

    Posted by Emily | August 20, 2012, 10:45 am
  20. Just came across this via marathonswimmers. What an incredible, and yet so credible, read! You really depicted what can go on inside the head while swimming. And my longest swim is probably only half that time! Well done. And thanks.

    Posted by Claire | September 6, 2012, 7:34 am


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About Me

Caitlin Rosen I learned to swim as a wee one from my dad, who didn't really swim himself, but was tall enough and encouraging enough to send me back and forth to the side of a pool. There were also the terrifyingly wonderful trips on his shoulders out into crashing ocean surf, which instilled in me a fear and respect for the rising and falling, tempestuous beast, on whom he repeatedly admonished us kids to never, ever turn our backs. Read more...

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