As competitive athletes, many of us are searching for meaning in our training and dealing with the unknown with canceled and postponed races. We talked with Jessica Kieras, a licensed Psychologist and ultra swimmer to learn how we can reframe our thoughts and motivation during this unusual time.
Jessica Kieras, ultra swimmer enjoying an open water lake swim.
Zealios: We’re stoked to introduce you to the Team Zealios crew. You have some extremely incredible long swim accomplishments. Can you share how you got into ultra swimming?
Jessica Kieras: I got into ultra swimming because I was looking for a difficult challenge that didn’t have to do with speed, but instead was just about finishing. I grew up swimming competitively, swam in college at Texas A&M, and I was pretty obsessed with always getting faster. In that world, every tenth of a second matters and it can be stressful. I tried some masters open water races as an adult and a few triathlons and found I really liked swimming in open water.
The summer of 2017, I moved to Central Oregon and it occurred to me that I should “swim just to swim”. I spent the summer visiting different lakes and swimming in them with no goal in mind whatsoever. A lot of people were asking me, “What are you training for?" and I thought I should sign up for something so I could have an excuse just to be at the pool and in lakes for hours and hours.
I looked at some different events and chose END-WET, advertised as “the longest swimming race in North America”. It was a daunting 36 miles, but current assisted by The Red River of The North, located between Minnesota and North Dakota. My previous longest swim had been the Portland Bridge Swim, which is just under 11 miles. I actually really enjoyed END-WET and the training process leading up to it, as it was refreshing to be able to disregard the pace clock and just focus on increasing my endurance. I surprised myself by having a lot more energy at the finish than I thought I would which inspired me to try for even bigger challenges.
Z: “Swim just to swim” that’s such a refreshing way of thinking.
What ultra swims have you completed and the distances? Do you have any long swims on your radar for this year or on your bucket list?
JK: After END-WET, I was hooked! I did SCAR, a four day stage race in Arizona, billed as approximately 40 miles in four days and The Catalina Channel, which was 20.5 miles between Catalina Island and California. Some of my long training swims could also be counted as “ultramarathons”, but I did not go through the proper process of documenting them, so they are just considered “adventure swims”. Last summer I swam around Waldo Lake for 10.5 hours to test my cold tolerance and see if I was ready to sign up for the swims I had planned this summer.
The Catalina Channel swim pre-swim meeting with captains, crew, and official observers. Jessica has her back to the camera.
Jessica during the Catalina Channel swim taking a feed break while treading water with boyfriend Dan in the kayak.
During the night part of the Catalina crossing, Jessica had two kayak escorts, one on either side of her. It helped her not run into The Bottom Scratcher escort boat.
I have been really excited about my swims this summer, but whether or not I have the opportunity to do them remains to be seen. If I could save just one person’s life by not swimming, I would do it. However, if the situation is deemed safe, I will be ready to swim.
I was planning on doing a twenty-five mile solo swim course through the three arms of Lake Billy Chinook in Central Oregon. Rather than doing it as an “adventure swim”, I was going to officially document the route through The Marathon Swimming Federation. I had hoped that doing so would inspire other people to do the same route in the future, rather than it being my own private project. The lake re-opened recently, so I am now in the process of considering if such a swim would still make sense. I also planned to swim from Santa Cruz Island to California, across the Santa Barbara Channel in mid-July (19 miles) and a mind-boggling double crossing of the length of Lake Tahoe (42 miles) later in the summer. These are solo swims, where I will be swimming next to a kayak and a boat with a captain, official observers, and one other crew member. Since minimal people are involved, these swims may not be subject to the same cancellations that larger organized events are seeing. I hope I will get these opportunities, but if not, the lake/ocean isn’t going anywhere and I can reschedule.
As for my bucket list swim, I recently took the plunge and put a deposit down on a boat charter for the English Channel in 2022. You have to sign up years in advance and complete a six hour swim at 59 degrees or colder (no wetsuit of course). I wasn’t sure until last summer that I could achieve that level of cold tolerance, but it turns out your body is very good at adapting to the conditions in which you subject yourself. Just like other types of training, you just have to be willing to face the discomfort to force the adaptation.
Z: Speaking of the current state of things, are you currently swimming? If you are, how have you modified your swimming routine/workouts?
JK: I am extremely lucky to have access to a nearby local lake and I set up a backyard recreational pool to swim in against a stretchy tether that allows me to swim in place.
Jessica’s backyard pool, which she has nicknamed, “KB Lake”
When swimming, I used to count meters, but I’ve recently started counting hours in the water. I am trying to build to 18-22 hours per week in the water, in case I get to do my Lake Tahoe double crossing. I’m currently at 14-15 hours per week with a mix of open water and tether-pool workouts. With the public pool closed, I am forced to work on all my weak areas!
My tether pool water has consistently been in the 50s, which is challenging for me for a 1.5-2 hour workout. If I can improve on my ability to tolerate these temperatures, it opens up a world of possibilities for cool swims in the future. The tether pool works my upper body like no normal pool workout can, and I have to try hard the whole practice to keep my heart rate up in order to stay warm.
Dryland is another weak area for me. All my hip, lower back, and core muscles are heartbreakingly weak. Working on these areas is essential for my overall health, which I run the risk of neglecting in favor of my extreme swims.
Currently, I am able to run a staggering three miles, twice a week and hope to build on that so I can run regularly in the winter. My other sport is rock climbing, so we added a piece of equipment to our porch called a hang-board, so I can do upper body training with that. My boyfriend also made some DIY trx-style rope thingys. I anticipate not being able to swim much this winter due to the pool closures and plan to focus heavily on shoulder injury prevention exercises so that I can quickly ramp up next open water season.
Jessica having some dryland fun. TRX style thingy her boyfriend, Dan, made.
Jessica on a hangboard to improve upper body strength
Z: We all could be using this time to focus on our weaknesses that we often ignore when we’re busy doing our normal schedule and racing.
Most of your swims are solo swims which is A LOT of time alone. What do you think about during these swims?
JK: I truly appreciate the alone time. Since I work as a Psychologist, I spend a lot of time focusing on what people are saying. When I’m swimming, I consider it “mental free time”. It’s such a relief to let my mind wander. I get to do whatever I want. I often sing songs or play games (think of a positive word for each letter of the alphabet). I’ve made up my own swimming-themed lyrics to 99 bottles of beer and written chunks of blog posts in my head. But most of the time is just spent musing about whatever pops up and I love that.
One ethic I really work on is “accepting what is”. I go through a lot of different moods while swimming. If I’m cranky, I just try to allow that and accept that “that’s what’s going on right now”. I don’t spend a lot of energy trying to think about any one thing or trying to force myself into feeling a certain way. Since flow states are usually characterized by “being present with what is”, you have a better chance of getting into one if you focus on allowing, rather than trying to force it.
Z: As a psychologist who has a few athlete clients, and given this unique time with stay at home orders and race cancelations, what advice do you have for the competitive athletes out there feeling a little lost?
JK: This is a tough question as people’s experiences are so variable right now depending on where they live and what their experience is like with the pandemic. At the beginning of the shut down, I was too concerned with the health and safety of loved ones to feel motivated to train and I know many people are currently feeling this way. I took a lot of comfort in advice like, don’t worry about trying to accomplish anything; give yourself time to just adjust and process what is happening. I still agree with this advice.
Other athletes are recognizing that for them, continuing to exercise is helpful for mental stability and is an essential part of coping. Lots of people are really wanting to train or exercise in some way, but finding it difficult to get into a rhythm or be consistently motivated. As endurance athletes, many of us live by our routines, maybe even to the point of compulsivity. You take away those routines, and we’re left with a feeling of loss and being lost.
Consider starting a new routine of some kind, possibly focusing on something you aren’t very good at. Start small and build into it. You will see improvements quickly and that will feel good. While you are doing your new routine, don’t try to force yourself to think or feel something you don’t. Be nice to yourself and accept the feelings you have as valid. We are in unprecedented times, so there is no book written on how you’re supposed to do things right now.
Also, remember that self-compassion is not the same as self-indulgence. Taking a break could be the best thing for some and the worst thing for others. If you think it will help you, give yourself a very gentle kick in the pants to get moving or doing any other activity you suspect will help you feel better, even if it is uncomfortable in the short term. Finally, remember that only you know what you really need. What works for your training pal, role model, or random fellow endurance athlete on the internet, might not be the best thing for you.
Z: Such good advice for all of us to think about.
What do you think as athletes we will take away from this speed bump in the road?
JK: I’ve noticed that a lot of people in my life are really missing swimming. There is a lot of understandable sadness of events being cancelled. Absence makes the heart grow fonder and sometimes it takes losing something you really love, like racing or access to water, to make you realize just how important it is. Something that may seem frivolous to some may be life saving to others.
I also hope we can realize that it is ok to take a break and it’s ok to be flexible with how you connect with exercise, with your body, and with the world around you. Flexibility and resilience are a part of mental toughness and a rigid response to this very intense stressor will not be helpful. Perhaps in the future, we will return with a renewed sense of love and appreciation for sport along with flexibility for our goals and the habits and routines that surround them.
As humans, I hope we can realize how interconnected we are and how our actions affect one another. I hope this will result in an increased appreciation for everyone working hard to contribute to our communities, both inside and out of athletics. We have a tendency to appreciate those who have achieved great things, whether it is in business, athletics, or education, when in reality, everyone is important. You can’t have a thousand person triathlon if only the top three athletes show up. You can’t have a functioning society if only the wealthiest are present. My long swims would not be possible without my crew supporting me “behind the scenes”. Eating a modern diet is not possible without the person stocking our grocery store shelves.
I think endurance sports generally have a high respect for all involved, from the volunteers making events possible to the fastest and slowest finishers. I know we certainly appreciate everyone making the fantastic equipment and products that make our sports not only possible, but also enjoyable. I’d like to see this attitude strengthen within sports and generalize to more of society’s sense of value for people’s contributions.
Z: Lastly, we’d love to hear which Zealios product is your favorite and why!
JK: It’s always tough to choose, but I’m loving the hair products. I have long hair, which can be a real drag to take care of and all the swimming makes it super dry! I noticed a definite decrease in dryness when I switched to the Zealios shampoo and conditioner. Same with the body lotion, it definitely hydrates your skin without being heavy or sticky feeling.
Z: Thank you for sharing your story and thoughts on how we can all stay focused and positive during these unprecedented times.
Follow along on Jessica Kieras' swim adventures at https://oregonlakebagging.wordpress.com/