‘Through pain, we are able to experience life’: A long distance swimmer’s take on going big

If you’re looking for a shot of motivation, I recommend you read the following interview with long distance swimmer Darren Miller.

Darren, 28, of Pennsylvania, is currently training to be the first swimmer to complete the “Ocean’s Seven” challenge by 2013, a series of swims that will take him across seven of the world’s most difficult channels. He has already completed swims across the English, Catalina and Molokai channels.

The best part about Darren’s goal to complete the “Ocean’s Seven”? He does it all for charity.

ERIC MURTAUGH: Why did you decide to take on the “Ocean’s Seven” challenge?

DARREN MILLER: Since I ran my first marathon in 2008, I have been progressively giving myself more difficult challenges to complete. During this time frame, I have also been inspired by others who have fund-raised significant money to help those less fortunate.

I was blessed to have my English Channel swim privately funded, and be able to establish the Forever Fund at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh with my good friend Cathy Cartieri Mehl. Since late 2009, Team Forever has been able to raise almost $40,000 for the children and families who need it the most.

Our money goes to help families during their time of financial need, by helping pay for the costs associated with a hospital stay: gas for travel, food and lodging costs as well as prescription drug costs. This money goes a long way to help the families who cannot afford to stay with their child during this difficult time.

I put my name in the hat of a dozen or so channel swimmers who are looking to accomplish the Ocean’s Seven, we were blessed to land a full-sponsor (each swim is an average of about $10,000) and a desire to push myself as far as possible.

The primary reason is that I want to push the youth of the country to stay close to God and family, as well as understanding that volunteerism should be a focal point of their lives. We have all been blessed with so much, yet we are all guilty of taking this for granted.

EM: Describe your training regimen.

DM: During the season, I start the heavy training after the first of the year. From there, I progress up to around 60-75,000 yards/week average, to as high as 100,000 yards, prior to tapering down before a channel swim.

Along with swimming, I focus on physical therapy to keep my shoulders going strong, and will supplement training with the occasional weights, running and cycling. I try to get in three long swims (6-24 hours in length, depending on the challenge) before I complete the “main” swim. For example, prior to the English Channel I did the 7.5M Potomac River Swim, the 24M Tampa Bay Marathon Swim and a 24-hour pool fundraiser swim.

These three long swims gave me the confidence, and the mental toughness to know I was ready for England. In the off-season, I do weights, long distance running and cycling to keep my endurance base strong.

EM: You definitely have a “never say quit” mentality. How did you achieve this state of mind?

DM: My mental training has been hardened over several years of endurance athletics. Through pain, we are able to experience life, so by putting myself in some of the most difficult challenges, I am able to develop the confidence to know I can accomplish anything I put my mind to.

As a man of faith, I feel as though I have been blessed with the gift of pushing myself long distances, so in turn I should be using this gift to help inspire and motivate others.

Most people do not associate stubbornness with being a gift; however, when it is used in an effective manner, it is the most powerful tool you can possess. When you set your mind, and your word to accomplish something, you have no choice but to follow through with it—no matter the consequence.

I would rather die doing something I love, than to live my life in fear of risk. It is pretty simple really, when you won’t quit, how can you fail?

EM: Is there ever a moment during your channel swims when you doubt your abilities? Are you ever scared?

DM: In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania we do not have an ocean to train. I do 95% of my training for an ocean swim in a pool, lake or river—the other small amount I do when I travel to change up the scenery.

I cannot replicate a channel swim where I live, but it is through my experiences in life that I can push myself to never quit. I do not doubt my ability to achieve because I believe in myself.

There were times during my Catalina or Molokai swims where I thought about sharks, or box jellyfish, but it would usually pass. What could I do it a Great White attacked me? Nothing.

I can only control how I think and perform, as there is no point in worrying because it is out of my hands. I just apply the “don’t think, just do it” mentality before I start any of my swims.

EM: Describe the challenges associated with accomplishing a channel swim.

DM: The toughest challenge is to overcome the anxiety associated with looking across a large body of water, sometimes not being able to see the other side, and believing you can make the crossing.

The physical side is the heavy mileage, but many more swimmers have been defeated in a channel swim due to their inability to overcome their mental fears. Don’t get me wrong, as some just do not take the challenge seriously and under-train, but I would say the vast majority of defeated channel swimmers come down to their mental tenacity.

When you worry, and create a negative outlook, it is simple to feel how quickly your body can go downhill. You have to have a lifestyle which supports training for such an adventure. Your family and friends have to be there for support when you are feeling exhausted (as you will throughout the training) as well as providing support during your crossing.

The financial means are also a challenge, as most people cannot afford the cost of a $10,000 channel swim, especially if you are traveling half-way around the world to accomplish your goal.

Overcoming the fear of swimming with sharks and deadly jellyfish in the middle of the night is a tricky one as well.

EM: Do you have a support crew with you during your channel swims?

DM:

1. Pilot and crew

2. 1-2 marathon swimming observers (might come from a federation or association)

3. 2-3 personal crew members to help with feedings and basic needs of the swimmer

4. 1-2 kayakers if your swim requires the assistance in the water with you

For example, on my Catalina Channel swim, there were 4 boat crew members, 4 crew members, 2 kayakers and 2 observers—12 in total during my crossing. This is not normal, however I would guess an average of 6-8 people are needed to complete a crossing safely.

EM: Suppose someone is considering doing something big in life, but they hold back for whatever reason. Do you have any advice for them to get over that hump and just do it?

DM: Quit thinking so much. The longer you ponder “what if,” the less of a chance you are going to want to take the risk. What do you have to lose by bettering your lifestyle through exercise, and strengthening your will and desire to achieve?

If you are a parent, what better example of pursuing and accomplishing your goal could you give your child? Teach them to believe in themselves, and not let the outside world influence what they should become.

If you are role model for youth, then again, inspire and motivate them to want to achieve their dreams. Marathon swimming is a phenomenal way to teach others that anything is possible. If you are having doubts, then start small and work your way up to the top. Not everyone will jump into this sport the way some have, so it is OK to start smaller, just never loose sight of the goal!

Once you have the confidence necessary to attempt a channel crossing, it will be the most rewarding experience of your life, because you will accomplish something you at one point might have believed impossible. So exciting…

EM: How did people react when you told them you were taking on the “Ocean’s Seven” challenge?

DM: Most people find what I do as crazy, which I can understand, but my biggest challenge is getting the media to focus on the important point—this is being done to help others.

I could care less about having my name in the papers, but I know it is necessary if I want to attract the necessary attention to get my story in front of the mass public. We cannot make changes if we sit on the sidelines and watch life pass us by.

The family and friends are supportive yet cautious due to the danger. The public is very supportive and always want to know what is new with my next swim.

EM: What is it like swimming long distances, both physically and mentally?

DM: It takes a special breed of person to want to swim for many hours, through some of the most difficult waterways in the world, all while in the constant presence of potentially dangerous wildlife.

I always get the, “I could not swim a mile to save my life!” to which I respond, “You could if you believed it to be possible!”

Ultra distance athletics are all the same, as you have to be willing to put in the time and effort. Just because you were a Division I swimmer in college, does not mean you should you be able to complete a channel, and just the same if you were not a Division I swimmer, should you ever count yourself out.

My body structure was meant for being a linebacker, not a swimmer. It is my mental tenacity that allows me to accomplish what I do, and just enjoy the adventure along the way!

Physically, marathon swimming can be quite painful, but it is the mental side that allows you to carry on through the pain, or quit because you don’t believe it can be done. It is the challenge that drives us, and the love for the water which keeps me going through the journey! It is an awesome sport where you meet some of the greatest people in the world.

Visit Darren’s website at www.darren-miller.com, where you can make a donation to Team Forever and learn more about his next big swim.

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8 comments

    1. Yeah, I think if you ever find yourself doubting your abilities or lacking motivation, you should check in with people like Darren.

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