When I was 31, I traveled to Cork, Ireland to study Irish Literature and Travel Writing, as part of a study abroad program through my graduate school program at Texas State University. While I was there, my friend David urged me to sign up for a 2,000-meter swimming race in the River Lee, the body of water that runs through Cork.
Since I’ve been a swimmer most of my life and since I had swam open water races before, including a 5K race in Lake Michigan and a 1.2 mile swim in the Atlantic, I knew it was possible — the distance, the crowd of other swimmers, the movement of the water, how it controls you and not the other way around.
But I hadn’t trained. And I didn’t have a wetsuit (the water was 17 degrees C). And it was raining. And the water was full of shit.
But I swam anyway, and it was the best race of my life even though it was the worst race (time wise).
Here’s my story of swimming in shit — one of the best days of my life.
The Start: Old Distillery on the North Mall
I am standing on a platform in the rain wearing a navy blue swim suit and a white swim cap branded with my race number—41. I jump. I jump again, my arms stretched above my head. I imitate the dive that I’m about to perform. I shake my legs out, one at a time. Right leg first then left then right again. This has been my pre-race routine since I was 8.
I’m used to the nerves. I’m used to the concerns that pop into my head: My goggles will fall off; What if I cramp?; That whiskey from two nights ago. I’m even used to the rain that’s causing some swimmers to panic and back out of the race. I know that once you’re in the water, you won’t feel it.
A minute ago, a marshal led my heat into the crowd to the music of bagpipes. I saw hundreds of spectators lined up along St. Vincent’s Bridge, all holding multi-colored umbrellas, and I felt Irish, as if I belonged here, as if the river had called my name and asked me to come to Cork again for this moment, to throw myself into her, helplessly.
I turn to the girl next to me and say, “My goggles are fogged.”
Swimmers take your marks…
40 meters: St. Vincent’s Bridge
I am swimming eastward through Cork’s River Lee (An Laoi in Irish). Fifty-six miles west of here, in the Gauganberra Mountains, this river begins as a waterfall. Three days ago, I hiked in those mountains; now, I’m drenched in their overflow.
If I imagine a waterfall, if I make this water fall, might I tumble to the finish line, might I finish well?
300 meters: North Gate Bridge
This is a race, a historic race that dates back to 1914—and my mind knows all about races, but today my body does not want to race. Today, my body has to move 2,000 meters (1,700 downstream and 300 upstream), and it won’t move fast enough. I know my arms are moving—but I cannot feel them because the river is so cold.
In 17-degree-celsius water, my Texas-dwelled body is out of place. Before the race, another female swimmer asked me if I was used to “sea” swimming—I guess that depends which sea she was referring to, but I laughed because I know she meant the icy waters of the Atlantic on Ireland’s west coast.
This is not the sea. This is on-the-way-to-the-sea. This is me wishing this was the Gulf of Mexico.
550 meters: Shandon Bridge
I’ve settled into my crawl: left-arm pull, right-arm push; right-arm pull, left-arm push; left-arm pull, right-arm push; breathe. Occasionally, I swim breaststroke to easily see in front of me, although I should be swimming freestyle with my head out of the water.
The people in my heat are far ahead of me now. Every time I lift my head up, I see the splash from their feet. Depressed, I keep pushing and pulling, while my legs kick on two-beats and then cross each other.
When I take a breath, I try to comprehend all the faces that appear within the triangle created by my head, my arm, and the river’s surface. Five thousand people were predicted to line the streets and bridges of Cork to cheer us on. Somewhere in that sea of spectators are my friends. I think I see Stacy’s lime green jacket, but I’m not sure.
Above the water, people could be screaming my name for all I know. Under the water, my hands want to break off my body and explore.
800 meters: Christy Ring Bridge
I did not train for this race, and my body keeps letting me know it.
My sides hurt. So does my neck. I still can’t feel my arms.
950 meters: St. Patrick’s Bridge
I’m passing through another bridge. How many was that?
It is cold and dark here. I cannot see my hand enter the water. I think about just hanging out under here for awhile to rest, my personal aquarium full of Cork’s empty beer cans and sewage.
Ten minutes before the race, one of the event coordinators informed us that there was a problem: Due to the heavy rain, one of the city’s sewage drains was clogged, and therefore sewage was now spilling into part of the river. We all had a personal decision to make, he said. Did we want to swim or would we wimp out?
I wanted to swim.
I regret this, as I drudge through muck I cannot name.
1,300 meters: Brian Boru Bridge
Damn it is cold. The chill creeps through my skin to my bones. I am without a wet suit, and I imagine the one hanging in my closet back in Austin.
I think about Lynne Cox, how I wish my body was like hers. If my body had an even layer of fat along my limbs, if my blood could stay at my core instead of at my skin and it would stay warm, I could swim in the Antarctic as she did.
1,450 meters: Michael Collins Bridge
When will this end? When will I make the turn? I lift my head up and see two men on a big, red raft. Are they here to rescue me?
I imagine them lifting me out of this icy dream and warming me with their colossal arms. I think of my friend David, who is also swimming this race. I wonder how’s he’s doing.
1,700 meters: South Channel
Upstream. My two-beat crossover kick does nothing. It is me and my frozen arms against the River.
1,850 meters: Eamon De Valera Bridge
When I lift my head, I see the finish. I see yellow swim caps bobbing along the water. I know that in 150 meters I’ll be done, but that doesn’t make the distance seem shorter.
My body wants to quit; it’s cold and the River Lee pushes back.
The Finish (2,000 meters): Clontarf Bridge
I touch the barricade. The race is over. I hear my friend John scream my name. I smile and wave. I hear my name again. It’s April and Vanessa. They say I’m their hero. I don’t feel like a hero—at 46.37 minutes, I just swam my slowest 2K ever—but I smile some more.
I realize I have to swim 200 meters more to exit the river. I’m done smiling. My body wants to flop. As I dogpaddle my way to the stairs, a fireman lifts me to dry ground.
When I’m out, my lips are purple, my teeth chatter for fifteen minutes, my body shakes and shakes and shakes.
When I stop shaking, I take a cab back to my apartment. I need a hot shower. It’s a necessity. I had imagined finishing the race and drinking copious amounts of Beamish in celebration. But right now all I want is scalding hot tea and a rain shower on full blast.
Back at my apartment, there isn’t a rain shower. There is a tiny spout in a European bathroom not much larger than one on an airplane. I stand under the stream for a half hour.
Eventually, I feel warm again. I eat. I drink. I retell the story of the race to all my friends. I couldn’t feel my arms. The water was so fucking cold. I can’t believe I literally swam in shit.
The next day, I wake up at 5 a.m. sick to my stomach. I spend the day puking, like from food poisoning. But I know it’s not from food; it’s from the River, from the shit in the river that I swam through yesterday.
I know it, but I don’t care. It was worth it. I’m glad I didn’t wimp out. I’m glad I swam.
And I’d do it again.
Photos by John Wagner