Won’t Pork Be High: A Year in Review

by Elaine Howley 3

Oh me, oh my

Won’t pork be high

When little pigs

Begin to fly

Elaine K Howley 2013 Athleta Featured AthleteThat’s a little ditty my mom used to say occasionally, in those rare moments when we had a break from the urgency of illness and could pause for a lighthearted moment. I’ve no idea of its real origins, though I’ve conjured a story around it stemming from her rural South Jersey forbearers—superstitious folk who eked out an existence in the sandy soil of the Pine Barrens while dodging Jersey Devils. My grandmother was also prone to trot out a range of nonsensical yet somehow wise utterances regularly. “The hurrier I go, the behinder I get,” she would say as she hustled around the kitchen preparing a big holiday meal. Bizarre, maybe. But she had a point.

As we hurtle towards the end of another year, I’d like to reflect back on 2013. It was a big year for me, one where I definitely took flight (and we know I’m not exactly slender, so the pork reference holds). At the risk of sounding like a self-absorbed and self-congratulatory holiday card, I’d like to crow about some of my prouder moments from the past year.

The first, perhaps most obvious entry to the list is being able to make this list at all. Being selected as an Athleta Featured Athlete for 2013 was one of the top highlights of 2013, even though I actually learned about it in 2012. The honor and opportunity to be able to connect with other like-minded female athletes in such an encouraging online community has been a year-long celebration of power and support, especially when I explored some of the tougher parts of my own experience.

Early in the year, I made a big professional shift, leaping from the security of a steady, but dispiriting, full-time job to take a gamble on doing something I loved. I joined the staff at U.S. Masters Swimming as a part-time associate editor, leaving a stressful corporate job to follow my dream to write for a living. The bet paid off; I’ve since been elevated to full-time and I adore my job and the people I work with. Sometimes taking a big risk—peering over the edge, feeling anxious, but pushing off anyway, hoping your wings catch the updraft—is a good plan.

But sometimes the roll of the dice doesn’t go your way. And that’s OK, too. I took a risk in July by attempting to swim the North Channel. Jellyfish and cold water did me in about halfway through the swim and I had to get out before I’d reached the other side. Disappointing, yes, but I got to see a beautiful part of the world I might otherwise have missed. I learned a lot about myself, my training, and my nutrition, all of which I can apply to future endeavors. Definitely not a wasted effort, and I earned a few feathers for that leap off dry land and into the cold blue yonder.

Elaine Howley

That experience led me to reexamine my training situation, which resulted in positive change. In October, I started training with a new coach. Actually, she’s not new at all, and in fact Chi readers have already met her. I went back to training with Jen Dutton, a fellow marathon swimmer who gets why I do this stuff and understands how I need to prepare for them. I had swum with Jen years ago at a different facility and it’s good to be back working with her again at a nicer pool.

The people who help us achieve our goals are such an important part of our success and our journey. They’re sort of like the training wheels that deploy if our wings falter.

This year, I also got to be part of the journey for some of my swimming friends, too. Most recently, I helped my training partner Jonathan Gladstone prepare for his first attempt at an ice mile, a potentially dangerous 1-mile swim in water colder than 41 degrees in Boston Harbor at the beginning of December. A spell of cold weather had moved in a few days before the swim, and we watched the water temperature drop steadily across the week leading up to the swim. Undeterred, Jonathan launched from the beach on that cold day and swam his heart out. The water was 38 degrees and the air was about 30. Bitterly cold, but at least the wind waited until after the swim to kick up and the snow held off until the following day. Standing on the shore watching Jonathan achieve his goal that I knew he’d worked very hard for was exhilarating, especially knowing that I’d passed along some of the knowledge he needed to get there. His 38-minute mile and quick recovery indicate he was very well prepared for the daunting task of swimming in frigid water. His swim made me proud to be his friend and to have been able to help.

Also joining Jonathan that day, but seeking “Beachmaster for Life” status rather than inclusion in the IISA for an official ice mile, Scott Dalrymple, the groundskeeper at the L Street Bathhouse where we train also swam a mile. I’m terribly proud of him, too, and I’m pleased I was able to lend some advice along his journey, too. Scotty doesn’t come from a competitive swimming background like Jonathan and I and some of the other swimmers who’ve completed ice miles do. But he’s made of some seriously stern South Boston stuff.

Scott and Jon

What’s more, one of the perks of his job is being able to go for an ocean swim whenever he wants. All fall, he trained like a maniac, aiming to be able to swim a mile—eight laps between the fences of the men’s beach at the historic L-Street bathhouse—and by golly he did it. It took him 55 minutes, but he swam strong and steady the whole way.

It may not have been the prettiest mile I’ve ever witnessed, but it may well have been the gutsiest. When you’re dabbling with hypothermia (which you shouldn’t do without the right training and support), a slow mile is a real measure of an individual’s strength; it took a lot more stamina and will power for Scotty to soldier through his 55-minute mile than I needed to cruise through my 29-minute mile last year. They’re two entirely different swims, and I deeply respect the fortitude Scott showed during training and on the day of the event to finish the job. A new Beachmaster now reigns supreme at L Street, famous for the L Street Brownies who set the standard for winter swimming way back in the 1880s. Scott carries on a strong Boston tradition, and is he ever the right man for that job. I just know he’s got some wings hiding there somewhere.

I also helped out at some swims as a volunteer this year, and not to sound preachy, but this is an important part of amateur athletic events. These events simply can’t run without a fleet of volunteers helping out in myriad ways. Every participant should be required to volunteer for other swims as often as they can. This year I wanted to give back to several swims. Among my favorite experiences in 2013 were:

  • Acting as a Swim Angel for Swim Across America’s two Boston area events, helping swimmers be more confident in the water while raising money for local cancer charities.
  • Observing a record-setting cross Cape Cod Bay Swim, a 19-mile jaunt between Plymouth and Provincetown, Mass. Sixty-one-year-old Mo Siegel was the swimmer I documented, and he had a great swim on a beautiful day. His 12 hour 32 minute swim makes him only the sixth person and the oldest swimmer to have crossed what is sometimes called the “American Channel.” It was an honor to be involved with his swim.
  • Assisting Phil White and the gang in Newport, Vt., for the 3rd annual In Search of Memphre swim, a 25-mile monster of a swim between Newport and Magog, Quebec. This year, two swimmers completed crossings of the lake in windy conditions, with one of the swimmers completing an impossible-sounding but record-setting 50-mile double crossing. Take that, Memphre! (Was that a wild boar that just flew past?)

Beach Clean

I also started making more of an effort to leave the beach nicer than when I found it. My husband has always been very good about picking up trash he finds along the shore, but I’m usually less attentive to cleaning up others’ waste. This year I decided to be more vigilant anytime I set foot on the beach. (It’s not wholly altruistic; after all, we swimmers benefit directly from not swimming through trash.) My ocean swim team, the Nahant Knuckleheads, began instituting a monthly beach clean up event—a simple, 30-minute scour of the beach to remove some of the bigger bits of garbage we find. It’s a no brainer, and most of us actually enjoy the task—we’ve found some very interesting things in our travels including a plaster Ganesha idol, which has become our token item. It’s a rallying statue that we now bring to each swim session for good luck. WCBacon

Ganesha isn’t the only added item of good luck and good cheer acquired this year. I also got a delightful new tattoo to commemorate a great year. My tattoo artist, Charon Henning, captured exactly what I was hoping to channel with this, and she dubbed him Wing Commander Bacon. Perfect. I cannot look at him and not smile, Her artwork captures my mom’s saying the way I’ve always seen it in my mind’s eye. Pork is indeed high with WC Bacon around. WC Bacon will remind me to think positively, and give those wings a good shake when the world seems gloomy. How we respond to challenges is ultimately what makes us the people we will become; not that long ago, I thought I’d be an English Channel swimmer/professional writer/sponsored athlete/insert other impossibility only when pigs began flying. Who knew I just needed to give those pink porky-pies a good shove?

The spirit of WC Bacon is to take a risk, seize an opportunity, and reach our goals, no matter how impossible they may seem at first. It sure does look like fun, doesn’t it? 2013 was a great year for me to unfurl my own wings and find an updraft. How about you? What are you most proud of having accomplished in 2013? Shout it from the rooftops (or the comments section below) and let the world know how you shined in 2013. Which wings did you grow and how will you continue to fly in 2014?

Photo Credits: Picture three: Jonathan Gladstone; Tattoo and tattoo photo: Charon Henning

Elaine Howley is a former Division I collegiate swimmer and ocean lifeguard who began competing in long-distance open water events in 2006 on a dare; she hasn’t looked back since, and only trains in the pool when the New England weather turns really beastly. A recent convert to the roller coaster that is ice swimming... more »