Ultra …Swim

Chasing my confidence

3-mile bridge swim in Pensacola, Florida

Cool! …I found something else to love.

And even better, swimming 5K was all it took to shake off the Keys 100-miler DNF and gain some confidence back.  …well, that, and losing my big toenail this morning which pretty much allowed me to equate some mental and emotional finality to the Keys event.

All focus is now firmly on running Western States 100 in exactly one month (June 26).

Can I even swim three miles?

I was a little intimidated when Kid Kahrs and I rolled into Gulf Breeze, Florida, Saturday afternoon.

First of all, as a long distance runner, visualizing 5K in my head seems easy and is much less intimidating than actually seeing it laid out in front of me in a straight line, and second, 90% of the competing athletes that we saw looked like Olympic swimmers with shoulders like coat hangers and abs like TV commercials.

Driving across that bridge really put the distance into perspective for both of us and I think we were both a little sketched at first.

Lots of, “dude,  that’s a long way, man…”

See, I’m not really a “swimmer.” …let alone an “ultraswimmer

I can surf. I grew up in the ocean and I absolutely LOVE the water …especially, the ocean.

Lakes? eh…not-so-much, but even a lake is better than grinding out laps in a pool.

I spent a couple of years as an ocean lifeguard; but, I’ve never swam competitively or with any goal or focus in mind. Swimming was just something fun to do.

About a month ago, I started feeling beaten and battered from all the back-to-back ultrarunning races and decided to start swimming more since my YMCA has a decent pool and the low-impact cross-training would be easy on the joints.

Matt “Kid” Kahrs, a good friend, super-fast ultrarunner and easy athlete to look up to, had been swimming almost exclusively since he can’t run due to a long-standing injury, and I knew that he had planned to try an open water swim somewhere.

I didn’t know where, how long, or really anything about it, but it sounded kinda cool.

All it took was a phone call…

It was on!

The Pensacola 3-Mile Bridge Swim and Aquathon

long 3-mile bridge swim
photo: look how small those boats are, now picture a person swimming from land mass to land mass… then, imagine the 10Kers who same that out-n-back — damn!

The Pensacola 3-mile bridge swim and aquathon had four events:

  1. 1 mile swim
  2. 5K swim (3.1 miles)
  3. 10K swim (6.2 miles)
  4. 5K run, then 5K swim

5K swimmers got in the water at one end of the 3-mile bridge that starts in Pensacola. Swimmers then swim the length of the bridge, crossing the Pensacola Bay, into the ritzy li’l town of Gulf Breeze, Florida.

One added challenge of the race came once you made it to the other side of the Bay. Once you made it 3-miles along the bridge, you weren’t quite finished as you still had to circle a boat dock and small marina for about .1 mile, before making your way to the beaches of the Bay Beach Resort.

The 10K swimmers (which blows my mind by the way) did it out-n-back. Thats a shocking distance to swim to me, but I’m going for it next year!

The 5K run, then swim, would have been cool, but my feet were still all jacked from the Keys 100 foot fiasco, so no running for me.

Um, so, I swam

A swimming race report is tough to write. There is little-to-no interaction with anyone during the event, and you spend the entire time with your face buried in the water, trying to scope out buoys in foggy goggles, and trying not to get kicked in the face.

Actually, once the field spread out, it was rare to have to worry about running into others – or them running into you.

What I loved most about the event was being “in my element.” – I love mountain ultrarunning, trail running and even road running – but they are all stand-ins right now for my true love of surfing.

And with a love for surfing comes a deep desire to be in the water.

When I was swimming that channel, I felt like I was home. I got into a smooth rhythm where I felt like I could just cruise like that forever. Not until the last .1 did I even try to vary my stroke in any way. It was all about making sure that I could both complete the distance, and enjoy myself doing it.

I loved every single second.

The smell of the ocean. The sticky saltwater, the rhythm of stroking and breathing and sighting.

Every time I turned my head to take a breath, I saw blue skies, bright white clouds and the occasional seagull.

The water felt cool and refreshing on my skin, and I could feel my body cutting through the water.

I felt like a dolphin.

When I was out there …like, waaaay out there, I felt so vulnerable but so self-sufficient. It was me against the elements. Against mother nature …but not really against her, just experiencing her gifts for individual challenge and personal satisfaction.

In ultrarunning we talk about “respect the distance,” and I don’t think there’s any stronger situational example of such as with swimming. You can’t just stop when you’re in the middle of a channel. It’s tough to “regroup”, and you certainly cannot “grab a chair for 20 minutes.”

Some people get freaked out in open water, because its dark, you can’t see the bottom, and its very possible to “bump into” various sea life; but I couldn’t have been happier in my element.

I didn’t worry at all. I just smiled.

Beautiful, warm sunshine, plus 79 degree water, and light, cool breezes, with half-naked people everywhere is just a flat-out great mix for a wonderful time.


Just get to the halfway point and take it from there

My goal was to simply cruise as easily and rhythmically as possible to the halfway point. From there, I would know if I could complete the distance.

For safety, kayaks followed along, and should swimmers need to bail, they would wave their bright yellow swim caps in the air. Kayaks would then take them to a larger boat for assistance and transportation back; and of course, like an ultramarathon, immediate disqualification.

I didn’t want this to be me, but I was glad the kayaks were there just in case.

I got to the halfway point feeling terrific. I wasn’t tired, but I naturally could feel that I had been swimming for 1.5 miles.

I was no longer concerned about the ability to finish, but I wasn’t going to try to push it either and end up making a fool of myself, so I continued the same cruise-y stroke.

I knew if it got me here, it would get me to the end.

I started to wonder where Matt was and how he was doing and how everything was going for him. I wondered if he was having as much fun as me.

I’m proud to say that I now know that he was doing great and loving it every bit of it just as much as me. It’s always great when both “travelers” feel good and have a good day – makes for a comfortable ride home. {wink}

And there’s the marina

After almost two hours of swimming, I spotted the marina far off in the distance.

I knew I was going to finish, so I kicked it in a little, passing three other swimmers as I pushed around the boat docks and into the beach area.

The clock read 2:07 when I ran under the red finish awning, and I was more-than-pleased as I had expected somewhere around 2:30.

When I swam 1-mile in the pool (which was a mental nightmare counting those laps), I did it in 40 minutes flat, so being able to carry just a blip over that (40:52) for 3.1 miles in open water was a big win for me.

In contrast, Kid Kahrs? …1:34 kids… just like ultrarunning, he’s most likely gonna be a swim phenom, too. He crushes everything he touches and I knew he’d do well. Right on, Kahrs!!!

Oh, to be 29 again…

So, you know what’s next…

Yup, I’m after more of these.

I loved it so much, and I’m built for swimming. I’m thick, with a strong upper body and decent stroke. I might not be fast, yet – or maybe never – but most likely will only improve once I have more than a month of training in the bank. {wink}

I will always love ultrarunning, but swimming is cool too and now I get have more toys in the chest to play with. …until that day comes when I again get to start my morning by checking the surf.

Get some!

Be Sociable, Share!

If you enjoyed this post, please consider to leave a comment or subscribe to the feed and get future articles delivered to your feed reader.


Been lurking on your posts for a while now. Just read your most recent post…anyone willing to put Cat Stevens into a post with ultra running is worthy a comment…hell…a bit more than that. What we do is physical, mental, spiritual and social. Driving ourselves to the brink effects ourselves and everyone around us…hopefully for the better. Finding the edge and then redefining it resurfaces life. I spent lots of time in Pensacola growing up. My now dead grandparents invested much meaningful time with me there. If not for your posts I wouldn’t remember those times with a tear right now. Now, going to swim the out and back in 2012 because of your post. It will be for their memory and of those that went before us.

Keep it up Christian. Your effort does have an impact on the world around you. You make the world better by what you do. We all do.


I don’t. sfair@racepensacola.com is all I have.

Hello Christian ,

Do you have a different email for the Pensacola 3 mile bridge swim race director than sfair@racepensacola.com.

I am considering coming from Lafayette, Lousiiana to do the swim but wanted to visit with the race director before I signed up.

Good luck with your swim!

Thank you for your help – Steve Howard

I loved reading this article because I could relate to it. I too, did the 5k swim. The aerial picture of the bridge really puts things into prospective. Good luck next year with the 10k swim. I thnk I’m going to stick with the 5k!

[...] some day I’ll feel good enough to take on the Pensacola 3-mile Bridge Swim like this guy. That would be something, though the actual swimming part might not be the challenge; [...]

Sweeeeet. Pensacola’s my old stomping grounds. Grew up there from ’75 on up and traversed that bridge a million times. Quite honestly, it never occurred to me to _swim_ the thing.

I’m like your fast ultrarunner buddy except not as fast, long, or young: cross-training doing laps in the pool while letting a calf tear I suffered during a recent half marathon heal up. I’ve never been a good swimmer and probably never will be, but it’s better than I’d thought it would be. I’ve worked up to 1.2K on my dailies and shooting for a mile here shortly. But 3.1? That’ll be a while.

Great race report! Now you’ve got me thinking about adding open water swims to my running agenda. Though I’m one of “those people” that envision enormous, gaping mouths rushing up from the deep to engulf me. Yeah. On second thought, maybe I should stick to the pool.

[...] more choppy than the Pensacola Bay during last week’s 5K swim along the three-mile bridge. That race had perfect glass conditions, but out here on the East Coast “open ocean” [...]

@Michael – thank you – and in return for you creating the same conditions next year, I’ll swim faster. Cheers!

Christian – this is a wicked-good recap of your experience. It’s not every day someone writes a positive, yet descriptive posting about an event, so you’ve really got my attention here.

On behalf of Steven Fair (event director) and George DeFoy (course director/swim), I want to thank you for participating in the event. I hope we’ll see you next year…we’ll even try to have some of the same conditions available.

Michael Bowen, CRD I (USAT)
Aquathon (Run Course) Director
(Race Operations, Pensacola Race Management, LLC)

@Seth: thanks, good idea. Pool sucks. …well, not “sucks”, but it gets boring and monotonous.

Congrats on finishing the race.
Go out and get yourself the SwiMP3. This will make those hours in the pool go much faster. It’s the best swim-music device I’ve used.

Good job! I am so glad for you and this will be so much better for your body in the long run.

Great job! I’ve been trying to convince myself for 3 years now to do the Lake Chatgue 5k swim. 5k in the pool is one thing. 5k in open water? The immensity of that much water and actually seeing the distance is, you are right, overwhelming. We’ll see. Congrats on the great swim and for finding another endurance fix.

Good job. I’ve done the Big Shoulders 5K swim 3 different times and had a blast; I am signed up again this year.

Great job Christian! I agree with the part about grinding out laps…it is the pits…the open water is so much better. I have been swimming a little…but nothing like this! Thanks for the race report!

good job! glad you made it home with no shark bites.

Right on Christian. I’m so happy you found a great alternative to running. Sounds like you’re to the water as I am to mountain unicycling. It’s good to have a way to mix it up and stay fresh. Congratulations! I’m going to have to hitch a ride with you guys next year and do that 5k swim! I was in the EOD pipeline in my past life BTW so I do know how to swim, just choose not to!

@josh – the one-mile winners were both army EOD guys (22 minutes). I heard they sometimes have to swim from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., never leaving the water.


What, no blisters photos or other gruesome ultrarunning pics? I’m feeling deprived here, dude! What a great event down there, huh? 2hrs for 5k of open swimming is not too shabby, the water there sure beats the might cold Pacific back home. I did a similar event down there years ago when I was a ‘bad-a**’ punk student at Army flight school in Ft Rucker, racing triathlons monthly, etc. The open-water swim (vs. pool or even open lake) just whooped my tail. So good on ya!

You heading for the WS100 training camp?


@john: au natural, baby. I don’t think I’d like it as much with a wetsuit. How many days does one get for 48 miles of swimming? geeeez…

Hey Christian
Good job! My swim time is even slower than you. I do about 48 minutes with a pull buoy. Did you use a wetsuit or au natural?
You could join me for the Double Deca Ironman and check out a true ultra swim (48 miles) followed by 2240 miles of bike and a 524 mile run! ;-)

Leave a comment