On New Year's Day John Fischbach swam from Indiana to Kentucky in 39 degree water and no wetsuit, and he was not alone with this cool adventure. Fischbach doesn't consider himself an exceptional athlete, but he is always looking for some new adventures - ideally cold open water ones. I chatted with him about this and more.
Slowtwitch: Thank you for your time John.
John Fischbach: Thanks for your interest in some cool swimming news from Kentucky.
ST: Did you have any wise words to the outgoing year 2020 as you were about to see the new one?
John: Actually, when I got in the 40F water on January 1st with a swift current, I forgot all about 2020. When I finished rewarming after the swim, I was more optimistic for a better 2021.
ST: Better than what?
John: 2020 was obviously full of many problems - a global pandemic, racial injustice and political division. I hope that we as a society can gain insight and work toward a healthier environment for all.
ST: Have you made any specific resolutions or goals for 2021 and if so, what are they?
John: I am committed to continue swimming with my open water friends in every month of the year and to weekly trail running in Louisville. As far as events go, our English Channel relay is hoping for a second opportunity to swim in June, after COVID-19 cancelled our crossing in 2020. I’m also signed up for the long-course at SwimRun Lake James with partner Jennifer Brey, who is also part of the Kentucky English Channel relay team.
ST: Explain to us how the English Channel Relay works. How many relays participate and how is it structured?
John: Relays consist of up to 6 swimmers that take turns swimming 1-hour legs. Relay members must complete a qualification swim of 2 hours at 61F or less and a medical assessment. Our relay has 5 members and all will swim at least 2 legs and some may get to swim a 3rd leg. It’s not a race per se, as crossings are scheduled during the summer months. The Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation ratifies the swims and only approved pilots may be used. Due to the variable seas and weather, you must be ready to swim anytime during a week period. Our window is in late June when sea temperatures are typically in the mid to upper 50s.
ST: Earlier you mentioned the New Year’s Day swim, and maybe you can tell us more about it?
John: Inspired by Michael Johmann, a Triple Crown Open Water Swimmer and Humanities Professor at University of Louisville, who swam the first documented New Year’s Day solo Indiana to Kentucky crossing in 2018, I joined him in 2019 wearing my SwimRun suit. This year we were joined by SwimSmooth coach Mike Jotautas and we all swam with just regular swim suits, caps and goggles. The Ohio River is typically 39-43F with a current of 2mph on New Year’s Day.
ST: During that Ohio River swim - did you have any moment of weakness or thoughts of just returning to the warm car?
John: With the current at 2mph sideways and the water at 39.9, there's no escape. The quickest way to get out was to swim hard to the KY side.
ST: Where did that water temperature rank in terms of coldest waters you have entered without a wetsuit?
John: Just before the New Year’s Day swim, the local USGS site registered 39.9F. That was the coldest I’ve swum without a wetsuit. We did get practice mile swims in a semi-protected river channel in the low and mid 40s during December.
ST: And what does it take for you to wear a wetsuit?
John: When mandatory SwimRun rules for combined air & water temperatures apply. As the temperature goes down in the fall, we shorten our weekly swims from 60-90 minutes to 25-45 minutes. I enjoy the natural feeling of swimming without a wetsuit and it does make for less gear to carry.
ST: How much do you train a week and how is it spread out? And has that changed recently, independent from COVID-19?
John: When the river is over 60F, I’ll swim three times for 45-60 minutes and one longer swim of 90+ minutes. I do transition to pool swimming in January through March, while watching the conditions to work in short cold swims a couple of times per month. I also do two neighborhood runs of 45 minutes and a weekly trail run of 60 minutes. Luckily COVID-19 has not really affected access to outdoor swimming and running.
ST: When you swim in the pool, how long are your sets?
John: While most of my open water friends swim with organized US Masters teams, I usually swim by myself in the pool. If I’m pressed for time, I’ll swim 30 minutes continuously, being mindful of efficient technique. If I have 45-60 minutes the main set will be 1k with either 200s or 100s with increasing intensity.
ST: But let us talk about COVID-19. How has it impacted you, your daily life and your job?
John: I’m fortunate that everyone in our family has remained healthy. In regard to my work as a realtor, I’m fortunate that real estate is considered an essential activity in Kentucky. We take recommended precautions during showings and are able to use electronic signatures for purchase agreements.
ST: What about pool access?
John: We have had periods of limited pool access in Kentucky, but pool access has been less of a factor for me as I prefer to swim in the river or nearby lakes. I do live within walking distance of a private swim and tennis club that has a 50m pool with a bubble enclosure and lap lane availability from late morning to mid-afternoon.
ST: Can we be jealous?
John: Sure. We downsized 6 years ago in order to be down the street from a top-notch Swim/Tennis/Fitness club. I like being able to do short workouts on busy days since there’s no commute to the club.
ST: Talk about your athletic background.
John: I was an age-group and high school swimmer, specializing in middle distance freestyle. I then attended the U.S. Naval Academy and served on an Aegis Class Cruiser through the 1990s. Following sea duty I played golf, with a cart and a beer cooler, for about 20 years with no swimming or running. When I got short of breath walking to and from the cart, I decided to incorporate some treadmill walking and jogging. Long story short, I did my first 5k road run in 2009 and moved on to complete 10 different road marathons between 2011 and 2018. After the 10th I decided to try trail running, which I now enjoy over road running for the same reasons that I prefer open water to pool swimming. I swam my first 4k open water event in 2015, and have since completed the 5k Frogman Challenge, Chesapeake Bay Bridge 4.4mi event and the 2019 US Masters 10km Championship in Knoxville, TN. I also completed SwimRun Lake James and SwimRun NC in 2019.
ST: What do you like about the sport of SwimRun?
John: I enjoy the adventure of combining open water swimming with trail running, where every course is different. I also enjoy the team aspect of it, which fosters camaraderie and enhances safety. There’s a certain playfulness in running with your swim gear and swimming with your shoes on. Going forward, I’ll favor events that have challenging swim legs and cool temperatures.
ST: You mentioned the golfing, car and beer cooler days. Are you missing them at all?
John: Not really. I did enjoy spending time with family and friends on the course, but a round takes over 4 hours and there are no endorphins involved with golfing. Trail running and open water swimming without a phone allows me to “unplug” for an hour or two, whereas the phone was always with me in the golf cart. Depending on the weather, we will celebrate after longer group swims with an adult beverage. Locally distilled Kentucky bourbon works well in the spring and fall.
ST: Do you ride a bike too?
John: Yes, but on vacations only. I’ve enjoyed bike tours in Europe, New Orleans and Asheville. Working real estate on weekends allows for a Saturday morning trail run and a Sunday morning open water swim, but not extended rides.
ST: Which events do you still have on your bucket list?
John: I hope our English Channel Relay gets the chance to swim this summer. We’ve gone through the 2 hour qualification swims under 61F in 2019 and 2020, and I know it will be a great shared experience. Eventually, I would like to swim the 28.5 Manhattan Marathon, as I was born there and my grandparents lived there through the 1990s. I’m not super competitive, but I am committed to staying in good enough shape to travel to various open water and SwimRun events into my 70s.
ST: And is the Manhattan Marathon in the Hudson?
John: Yes, in the Hudson, Harlem and East Rivers swimming under 20 bridges including the Brooklyn Bridge. I had a great swim in the Hudson at the 2018 Spuyten Duyvil 10k - organized by NewYorkOpenWater.com.
ST: I did an event before that included a swim in the Hudson, and everyone had to shower before they were let go on their bikes / back out in public, apparently having to do with water quality. Is that at all a concern?
John: The health of the Hudson continues to improve and New York Open Water does a good job of monitoring water quality. That being said, I try my best not to drink any and I also take parking lot “camp” showers after events in the warmer months.
ST: What about events in 2021?
John: In addition to SwimRun Lake James in April and the English Channel Relay (we hope) in June, I’m planning on swimming in the US Masters Ultra Marathon 10 mile event in New Hampshire in late July. I’m also looking forward to our unofficial 10 mile river swims on Memorial Day, July 4th and Labor Day. If all goes well, our group will also participate in an unofficial 13.5-mile swim in Knoxville, TN on Halloween with water temperatures in the upper 50s to low 60s.
ST: Is there anything else we should know?
John: I have friends who can swim faster, longer and in colder water than me, but I really enjoy the camaraderie among the cold water swimmers. We have to depend on each other for safety more than running friends do. To quote another cold water swimmer Martha Wood, “Winter swimming is hard, but pushing through the cold is a key to success when facing challenges in any area of life. Our swims are a reminder of our ability to face life’s trials and come out better for it.” In the end, swimming outdoors year round is a, “resilient statement of who I want to be, a bit eccentric and silly, but also strong and ready to face anything with equanimity.”