SWAMPSCOTT — Swampscott native Craig Lewin endured a shoulder injury and physical exhaustion throughout the night, but was able to successfully complete the grueling 21-mile Catalina Channel swim.
Lewin, 32, started at 11:10 p.m. on July 19 and completed the swim in 11 hours 2 seconds, finishing the following morning at 10:12.
Lewin said his biggest challenge, both physically and mentally, was a shoulder injury he had been dealing with for about six weeks leading up to the California swim. About five hours in, he said his shoulder really started to flare up and during the last two hours, he was pulling through with just one arm.
“But I made a commitment to finish whether it was (with) one arm or two,” he said.
The course stretches from Santa Catalina Island, a rocky island off the California coast, to Los Angeles. The swim starts at Santa Catalina Island, with participants swimming to the mainland. Part of Lewin’s challenge was swimming throughout the night; his usual bedtime is 9 or 10 p.m.
The swim is part of the Triple Crown of open-water swimming. Another leg is the more famous English Channel swim, which is 21 miles from Dover, England to Cap Gris-Nez in France. The other event is the 20 Bridges swim around Manhattan, which is 28.5 miles.
Lewin, who moved to Canton three years ago, aims to complete the Triple Crown. He plans to take on the Manhattan swim in the next year or two, and then take on the English Channel a few years after that.
Lewin, who swam competitively at Swampscott High School and Boston College, founded Endurance Swimming about a decade ago, which is a swim program for triathletes. The open water swimming training for Endurance Swimming is done out of Swampscott, while the pool training is in Peabody.
For the last four or five miles of the Catalina Channel swim, he said he was swimming into a current, which compounded with the shoulder pain, made for a challenging ending.
But he said he got lucky as far as the weather went — the winds were quiet and the water temperature was a comfortable 68 to 70 degrees. Despite the good conditions, Lewin still dealt with being cold for the first couple of hours.
He eventually figured out that he wasn’t actually cold from the water, but from being exhausted, as he would usually be fast asleep on any other night. His brain was telling him it was time to go to sleep, but he was able to snap out of it after the first three hours.
An unusually welcome sensation for him was getting stung by either jellyfish or some other unknown sea creature for about half an hour near the beginning of the race, which was able to keep him awake and alert.
Lewin said his crew also kept him going, not only by feeding him throughout the swim, but keeping the energy level up during a long night. He swam alongside a boat, with a crew that included his mother and father and two friends from college, who were his support swimmers.
There were two kayakers, who alternated throughout the night and the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation observed to make sure it was a certified swim.
Lewin took his feeding every half hour, and then every 15 minutes during the final two hours, which wasn’t so much from a need for nourishment, but rather as a mental pick-me-up and a chance to keep stretching to try to relieve his shoulder pain.
He was also able to keep his mind off of the struggles by focusing on the bioluminescence of the water, which he found meditative. He was in the middle of the ocean when it was pitch black out for half of the swim, which he said felt like floating in the darkness. With each stroke, he could see his arms and bubbles around them light up the water.
To keep up his energy, he said his support swimmers would tell jokes, play loud music, and remind him to have a good time, which included blasting “Good Morning Sunshine,” as the sun came up.
What made for a memorable finish was his support swimmers completing the last mile with him to the mainland. The Catalina Channel observers also let his father and swim coach, another member of his crew, swim the last quarter mile with him, which he said was a nice surprise.
“I was extremely happy and excited about it,” Lewin said. “Physically, I felt great other than the shoulder. I kind of got emotional because I had set out to do this nine or 10 months ago and had been training for it … It’s one of the few events I’ve done that I felt I was proud of it.”
Lewin took on the Catalina Channel because he wanted to test his own limits, and found that he didn’t have the same level of achievement when he wasn’t competing and working out just to stay in shape.
He did some triathlons after college, but after he was hit by a car while riding a bicycle during a competition for the second time, he didn’t want to get on a bike and compete in those events any longer.
To prepare for potentially cold water or unpredictable weather conditions, Lewin underwent about a year of an intense training regimen, which included swimming throughout the winter.
He would sit in ice baths for as long as he could and got into the ocean — he would train at Phillips Beach in Swampscott — in February when the water was in the low 40s and he could only stay in for 20 minutes the first few times. He said before the swim that his biggest mental challenge was being uncomfortable due to being cold.
Lewin would train in four-week blocks, starting back in November with a base period of getting in shape, swimming in the pool for one to two hours a day. As the months went on, his training volume increased. At peak, he would swim 100 miles a month during a four-week training block and 35 to 40 hours in a bulk week.
He said the most important thing for someone taking on the Catalina Channel swim is consistency in training, as it’s not something someone can cram for in the last month. But he said it’s also crucial to have a strong support system.
“I told my support swimmers and everyone in the boat (that) if it wasn’t for them, I wasn’t finishing,” Lewin said.