‘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.

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Thru-hike the PCT: ‘Best to do it earlier rather than later in life’

Jack Ross and his wife Barb must like each other. After all, they’re still married after a thru-hike on the Pacific Crest Trail.

Jack was nice enough to answer a few questions about life on the PCT, deep snowpacks, solitude, readjustments to home, and more.

Eric Murtaugh: Why did you decide to thru-hike the PCT?

Jack Ross: I read a National Geographic article from the late ’70s long ago that described it. Then the topic always came up when we were backpacking with friends. It was always in the back of my mind.

Plus, I wanted to do something really big and challenging in my lifetime and hiking the PCT is really big! It wasn’t on Barb’s bucket list but she signed on anyway (and logged over 1,000 miles before dropping out due to injury).

Jack and Barb on the PCT near Mt. Jefferson in Oregon.

EM: Take us through the preparation and planning stage of a PCT thru-hike.

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Meet Victor, Amazon guide extraordinaire.  Here he’s posing with a rainbow boa.

Victor hails from Puerto Maldonado, a sweltering jungle town on the confluence of the mighty Madre de Dios River and the Tambopata River.

You should see this guy work. He’s in the zone in the jungle.  Comfortable. Quiet. Relaxed. Picking up on every minute movement, sound, and reflection.

To watch a man so entirely in tune with his natural surroundings is a thing of beauty.

Once, while hiking, he stopped suddenly, sniffing the air.  What is it, we asked.  Pigs, he whispered. He could smell them. I looked everywhere.  No pigs to be found.

I walked right by that snake he’s holding.  She blended in perfectly with her surroundings, just another extension of jungle mass.

These guides work their asses off.  I noticed that in both Central and South America.

"Hello little baby." Is it poisonous? "Yes." Jesus, dude, put that thing down!

Inevitably, your guide will talk about how very rarely he’s able to spend quality time with his family.  Normally they have but 3, maybe 4 days off per month, and even then they’re wiped out and totally exhausted.

On our way back to Puerto Maldonado (a 3 to 4 hour boat ride on the Tambopata, depending on which way you’re headed), Victor was noticeably excited to spend a few hours with his family before he picked up the next tour group from the airport.  It was his daughter’s birthday.  She, like most girls in the area, demanded a clown.

I believe as travelers that we can help put an end to guides being torn away from their families for so long.  Their services are vastly useful.  Their time, valuable.  In the end, money talks.

By the way, Victor, if you’re reading this, we do remember that you asked us to send these photos to you for your Facebook page.  In fact, I’ll do that now.  After all, they are pretty killer shots.

And no, you’re not going to get me to hold those snakes.  Nice try, buddy.