The Swim Around Key West is a 12.5 mile swim race around, well, Key West.  I signed up for this race in November. I swam 12 miles in one practice when I was 19. I am pretty sure we did it in 4-5 hours.  I was confident I could do it, but perhaps not that fast.  I had no idea what I was in for.


This, of course, is all my husbands fault.  He read about this race in Backpacker magazine and was dumb enough to tell me about it.  It didn’t take me long to talk my friend Jackie into being my Kayaker, or as she refers to herself, “Life Support”.  After all, even if things went badly, we were in Key West, they have LOTS of margaritas!  


We left Charlotte two hours late due to afternoon thunderstorms, not uncommon here in the south.  What was weird, is that even though there were many of us on the plane headed to Key West, they did not hold our second flight out of Miami.  Since we had already paid for a hotel, we decided to cancel our flight and drive the remaining three hours.  At least we wouldn’t have to pay more for a hotel room.  We were told we could pick up our luggage on #25, so while I waited, Jackie rented us a mini-van.  She was back before I knew it and I still didn’t have our luggage. We were told to check with baggage claim.  The lovely lady told us there was nothing she could do.  We talked to 5 different people and got 5 DIFFERENT answers.  We wasted an hour before leaving without our luggage and getting stuck in some wonderful construction traffic.  We finally got to a Chili’s at 11:30 and there was a wait!  So we ate dinner and got to Key West around 3:00 am.


We got up the next morning and headed to the airport, feeling confident our luggage was on the 10AM flight as promised.  Of course it wasn’t.  We ate lunch at the small airport diner while we waited.  After eating, the luggage had still not arrived, so we ran some errands. I needed some zinc oxide, sunglasses and an underwater camera.  (It turns out I wouldn’t really be needing any of those things!)  When we got back to the airport, I ran into a man who said, “They have our luggage! Are you doing the swim?”  This led to some talking about how crappy our flight was, and I was sure I would see him at the pre-race meeting later on.  With luggage in hand, we headed back to the hotel...with most of the day wasted.  


When I got back to the hotel, a nice local man kept offering to carry my bag.  I assured him I could handle it since I was going to be swimming around the entire Island tomorrow.  Another man overheard me and said, “your not Christy, are you?”   How weird! It was Mike from Charlotte whom I had been emailing for a few weeks about the swim.  We never managed to get together before we met in Key West.  Mike offered to take us to drop off our car and take us to the pre-race meeting.  The first good luck we had!


At the meeting, the race director explained everything so well my confidence grew. There weren’t many women in the room and most women appeared to be part of a relay.  More good news for me!  A bunch of us from the Charlotte area went out to dinner at a local pasta place and it was good time!  And here is where the good times end......


We got up the next morning and met Mike who had offered to take us to the swim start.  He said the water was “choppy” and that it just had got finished raining.  Fun.  On our way to the start, it started pouring.  When we got to the race start it was raining so hard we stayed in the car, despite the fact that we had 6 + hours ahead of us in the water.  It finally eased up a bit so we could get our bodies covered with Zinc Oxide, along with our race numbers and a black “S” for solo swimmer.  However, the waves were picking up.  When it was time to start it was raining so hard the kayakers couldn’t see the swimmers and the bull horn start couldn’t be heard.  There was a wave of yelling “GO, GO, START SWIMMING”


I must have misheard some information because I kept trying to swim to Cuba according to my kayaker.  The waves were so big I couldn’t see where I was going and I kept swimming left.  I swam for a bit before my kayaker found me, then she was missing again.  I kept stopping and looking for her, but the waves were so big I couldn’t see her. I was also making it difficult for her to catch me as I was swimming out where the waves were bigger.


Eventually she caught me, after I had thrown up my breakfast.  I was 10 minutes late for my Gatorade and gel. I downed it hoping it would make me feel better.  Wow, I was sooooo wrong.  Another hour later I was feeding the fish.  I threw up multiple times, and my kayaker was concerned and reminded me I shouldn’t be so stubborn.  I wasn’t ready to give up yet.  My goal was to turn the corner of the island, and hope the waves would be calmer and I could get my stomach under control.  Another man had joined up with us, as his boat never showed up.  He kept encouraging me not to quit, but I don’t think he realized how much hurling I had done.


Eventually we got around the first turn, where it was calmer, and I drank some more Gatorade.  This time I kept it in, well, at least for the short time I was still swimming.  But my stomach did not feel any better.  I didn’t really know how much longer I could hang in there.


I was almost to the 4 mile mark at 3:30 minutes (a ridiculously slow pace) and still wasn’t feeling better.  Even though I had used the clear zinc oxide, my kayaker told me I was as white as a ghost. The other man’s boat had shown up, so he took off with them.  At this point the sun had come out, but dark clouds and lightning loomed ahead.  I was hoping for a couple good cracks so I could use the lightning rule to get on dry land and perhaps nurse my stomach back before continuing the swim.


We had just decided to try to make it to the 6 mile mark when I heard a voice from above: “THE SWIM AROUND KEY WEST HAS BEEN CANCELLED, ALL SWIMMERS MUST EXIT THE WATER IMMEDIATELY!”  The Coast Guard had called the race because of too many accidents and close calls.  I was so relieved that I didn’t have to make the decision to quit, but I was also very disappointed.  If I had been feeling better I would have been furious.


On our way to the next beach, the man whom we had helped came back to pick us up.  We left Jackie in the kayak and towed her behind.  This upset the Coast Guard again, so they came and yelled at us for being stupid.  So we got her in the boat and were off to the swim start to see who else may have made it back there already.


There were few people there.  Most were upset, one girl was crying, but most were just shocked.  Everybody had invested so much time training and money to get there; it was certainly understandable how angry everybody was.


We started to hear rumors that some swimmers had not exited the water.  In fact, the race director was still out there swimming!  This made some even more angry, but I was happy for my friends.  Mike had trained very hard for this and he deserved to finish.  Heather and her friend were doing it as a relay, and they weren’t back yet either.  I hoped they would make it, and they did!  Heather’s relay made it in 5:25, I am not sure what Mike’s time was, but he came in not long after.  


I was interested in hearing how they escaped the Coast Guard. Turns out Mike just waited for them to leave and then got back in.  Heather and her partner ripped off their race wrist bands and declared themselves “recreational” swimmers.  


That night at the awards party, every solo swimmer was given a finishers medal since we swam until the coast guard terminated the race.  There was plenty of alcohol and we ended up on Duval Street partying all night.  I am definitely getting too old for that!


We were going to go snorkeling on Sunday, but the weather was crappy all day, so we went shopping instead.  We overslept the next morning and almost missed our flight.  Then when we picked up our luggage in Charlotte, I was not surprised to find my bag missing.  It was the perfect ending to a very bizarre racing trip.

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