Bill Welzien Does Another Marathon In Key West

Courtesy of WOWSA, Key West, Florida.

Bill Welzien has never found any of his 112 career 20.1 km circumnavigation swims around Key West in southern Florida boring, but he shook up his marathon swimming routine a bit towards the end of last year.

He took on the Seven Mile Bridge in the Florida Keys – back and forth.

On November 4th 2019, 69-year-old Welzien completed a two-way crossing along the span of the 7 Mile Bridge. His total swimming distance was 28,511 yards or 16.19 miles (26.07 km), completed in a total 11 hours 19 seconds in the 82.4°F (28°C) water.

Welzien still keeps busy also organizing the 44th Annual Swim Around Key West on June 6th this summer.

Welzien described his round-trip of the Seven Mile Bridge. “On November 1st 2018, I swam the length of the 7 Mile Bridge. After I arrived at Little Duck Key on the west end, I exchanged my swimsuit for my running shorts and shoes. I then ran back across to the Marathon Key side. My return was on the shoulder of the road, against the traffic. The completion of that swim-run was a dream realized.

That was last year.

This year a new dream was before me. On November 4th 2019, I challenged myself with the task of swimming a Bridge Double. I would attempt to swim the length of the bridge both ways. My plan was to start this swim in the same manner as last year’s swim. I would begin on the Marathon Key side of the bridge, swim to the western base on Little Duck Key and then return to the east side. Would I succeed?

Not only had this feat never before been done, I would aver that no one had ever thought to attempt it. I mean why? If you can drive across and back or boat across and back, why expend the energy to swim it? Herein is the reason. Do you realize how hard it is, at this point in history, to do something that has never been tried before, much less to accomplish it?

As I approach my 70th birthday, I am still eager to get as much through the window before it closes altogether. This was a dream.

To train for this swim, I continued my 20.1 km circumnavigation swims around Key West. On May 19th 2018, I completed my 100th lap around the island. I continued, finishing that year with Swim #105. Swim #106 (in 6 hours 29 minutes 37 seconds) was swum on April 18th 2019, the day after my 69th birthday. Swim #107 (in 6 hours 38 minutes 19 seconds) took place at the 43rd Annual Swim Around Key West on June 1st. June 16th afforded the occasion to swim #108 (in 7 hours 5 minutes 35 seconds) and #109 (7 hours 16 minutes 28 seconds) was swum on June 18th. Each of these swims had my eldest son, David Welzien at my side in a kayak. He provided me with protection from inattentive water vessel operators and dutifully fed me my nutritional drink bottles.

My long-distance swim project went silent until swim #110 on September 27th. This time, my daughter Abigail White paddled next to me. I clocked 6 hours 22.15 minutes. It was at this point I began to think and pray seriously about my intentions to try a double of the 7 Mile Bridge. I purposed to swim 2 trips around Key West and then go for the dream.

On October 12th, I swam swim #111 in 6 hours 59.51 minutes with David once again at my side. On October 28th, I completed #112 in 6 hours 45.24 minutes with my good friend Captain Don Nelson kayaking for me.

I felt ready. But the waters that run under the 7 Mile Bridge are very different from the waters around Key West. Key West swims are swum best in and around New and Full moon phases. If the tides are played right, the swimmer can find some help swimming through the Key West Harbor and then the Cow Key Channel back to the Atlantic Ocean.

The tides that run under the 7 Mile Bridge are another animal altogether. They hit the swimmer at the side. So, you are either being pushed in or out. Either out to the Atlantic or into the Gulf of Mexico. In this case, swimming on a neap tide makes most sense. The meaning of a neap tide is this: “During the moon’s quarter phases the sun and moon work at right angles, causing the bulges to cancel each other. The result is a smaller difference between high and low tides and is known as a neap tide. Neap tides are especially weak tides. They occur when the gravitational forces of the Moon and the Sun are perpendicular to one another (with respect to the Earth). Neap tides occur during quarter moons.”

Since my last swim in November was on a New Moon, that meant we need to come up with a swim the very next week. Otherwise, we would have to wait another two weeks. With the water beginning to cool down, I wasn’t excited to wait another three weeks. To wait also meant I would need to do another swim around Key West to keep trained. I was very eager to get this done.

I passed the ball to my dear friend, Captain Don Nelson. I asked him to analyze the tide chart and come up with a date and start time. Don provided the brains for my last year one-way swim across the span of the 7 Mile Bridge. I trusted that he could work his magic again.

On Thursday morning October 31st, I received the call from Don and the date was…Monday, November 4th. I asked, “Wow. So soon?” I had just swam Swim #112 around the Island that October 28th. Now, exactly one week later, I would be attempting the double around the Bridge. We had a measly 4 days to get our act together. That didn’t give us much time to put this swim together. We needed a boat and crew. We set to prayerful scrambling.

In God’s providence, some friends were visiting that Thursday evening. When I mentioned my idea of the swim and the need of a boat, Warren thought pursuing a rental boat would be the best idea. He then offered to cover the cost. Don spent Saturday tracking down a rental and found a boat he thought would be ideal. Still better, it was very close to the start/finish area. My eldest son David was free from work and willing to kayak. While I appreciated David’s willingness, I didn’t want to have him trapped in a kayak for 9-10 hours. I prayed and asked the Lord to please provide another crew member. I needed someone who could kayak. I thought if David and another could swap out, it would be more freeing for the kayaker to know it was a temporary sentence. Plus, the off-duty kayaker could keep Don company as he piloted the boat.

My youngest daughter Jane was scheduled to work that day. While in our evening Sunday worship service, Jane received a text from her co-worker asking her if she could switch days. Immediately after the service Jane approached me with a smile. She could fill the role of kayaker. All the parts were in place. Hallelujah.

After fulfilling my pastoral duties that Lord’s Day, I headed home. It was time to mix my drinks. Next, I secured the kayak atop my van. I packed my goggles, a few Clif Bars and my SolRx clear zinc SPF 50. I grabbed a change of clothes for after the swim. I had everything laid out. I didn’t want to be preparing in the morning. We needed a quick escape.

Since Jane lives at home, we only needed to wait for David. We were to meet Don at the marina behind Porky’s Bayside restaurant at 6:30 am. We arrived about 15 minutes before Don, unloaded the van and loaded the boat with our provisions. Once Captain Don was aboard, we motored to the start point. I got out of the boat at the shore near the Sunset Grill located on the Ocean side of the Bridge. We unloaded the kayak from the boat and set it in the water. We offered up a prayer. Then took a photo. At 7:10 am, I took my first stroke swimming with the rising sun behind me. On my left was the wide ocean and on my right was the iconic 7 Mile Bridge.

As I swam, the tide pushed me out to sea. According to our plan, the tide would go slack in about 2 hours, then slowly begin pushing me toward the Gulf of Mexico. There was a bit of chop to the water. My first mile went very quickly. The mile calculator on my Garmin 935 went off at about 30 minutes. I was encouraged. We had some wind at my back. Then trouble raised its ugly head. At about 40 minutes into the swim, I saw my first moon jellyfish. Then more. Pretty soon I was dodging them. I had one hit me on the cheek. Very unpleasant. Thankfully, they disappeared about midway across. I arrived at my desired destination in about 4 hours and 45 minutes. That was about 15 minutes slower than my solo crossing on November 1st 2019. I will take it.

According to the open water rules, in multiple crossings, the swimmer is required to exit the water at the end of each lap. The exit must be under the swimmer’s own power and a photo is to be taken on dry ground. The swimmer is allowed to eat and drink whatever is desired, but must be back in the water within 10 minutes. During this 10-minute break, the swimmer is not allowed to be touched or touch another human being.

After eating a Clif Bar and a full sport bottle of Hammer Perpetuem (Hammer Perpetuem has been my staple for ages), I was back in the water in 6 minutes. The tide was still flowing into the Gulf. I looked up as I went under the new Bridge and then the Henry Flagler original completed in 1912.

My return would be on the Gulf side. I had new perspectives. Instead of the new bridge on my right, now it was the old Bridge. I also had new challenges. That former tail wind was now a head wind. Additionally, the incoming tide that Captain Don expected would go slack and then reverse kept on coming in. That meant, as I sought to swim straight, I was being pushed off course further away from the Bridge. The further out I’d go, the further I will eventually need swim back in.

As I glanced back over my right shoulder, I could see the sun lowering in the western sky. I also noted that my time per mile was slowing. The tide had pushed me so far into the Gulf that when I angled back to the Marathon base of the Bridge, I was now swimming against the current. My last 2 or so miles were against the current. The moon jellies once again grew thick. I hit one firmly with my right arm and I jumped. The startle was so great that my left calf muscle immediately became one massive knot. Now I felt the pain from the sting and the cramped muscle. I tried to relax and after about a minute my calf relaxed enough that I could begin kicking again. I soldiered on.

About a mile or so from the finish, Don and Jane were forced to abandon David and me. He had to have the rental boat back before dark. Now the sun had set. Due to the time change, the daylight was an hour less than the day before. In the dark, it was near impossible to judge my distance from the finish mark. I do not relish swimming in the dark. There were the moon jellies, and didn’t I hear somewhere that the sharks come in after sunset to feed? I had zero visibility as I looked through my goggles into the water. One thing I knew, and that is this: I had put in a lot of time and energy and I was not about to quit so close to shore. I had invested too much into this dream.

I put my head down and swam through the dark against the current with all my might for the next 30-45 minutes until the sea wall came into sight. I knew I had to be getting closer. I could see the sea wall. I swam even harder. And then…I touched it. I had done it. I had swum a round trip swim around the 7 Mile Bridge.

I was shaking as I attempted to mount the seawall to exit the water. David offered me a hand which I refused. I found an area where the wall was broken down and climbed out. There I was on terra firma. I stood on the earth trembling from caloric deficiency. David was on the phone to Don. Good news. The owners from the Marina were coming to fetch us in their pontoon boat. Moments later, they appeared with Jane and Don aboard.

We loaded the kayak onto the pontoon and then David and I got aboard. I didn’t know if I should throw up. My stomach was a bit queasy and I was trembling. Don gave me his long sleeve shirt. Thankfully, it was a short distance to where we launched and where our vans were parked. The owners of the boat treated me like a celebrity. They wanted their photo taken with me. So, we spent a few minutes taking photos. I was so happy it was over. I knew I needed to eat some real food. So, I treated the crew to a hearty meal at a local restaurant. I must admit I felt much better after eating.

As we headed home, my daughter drove my van. David kept her company. I slept in the back seat.

I am so grateful to Captain Don, to my son, David, and youngest daughter, Jane,who not only indulged me in my dream, but who helped make it a reality. I thank Warren and Lori Slabaugh whoso graciously paid for the boat rental. What a blessing. Most of all I thank my Lord Jesus Christ, who strengthens me and enabled me to finish this course.”

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