Friday, January 20, 2012

Interview with best selling novelist and open water swimmer: Matt Bondurant

Matt Bounurant has a new novel out called The Night Swimmer; a beautiful work of Gothic fiction that can be sampled here at Amazon or here at the blog in a previous post: [Link]

Matt exchanged emails with me and we spoke directly about open water swimming.

SCAQ: You have written a new book that has an open water element to it; an island eight miles off the south coast of Ireland called Cape Clear. After doing a Google search on the island, this place is no stranger vicarious swimming. Can you describe what it is like swimming out there: The water temp, the conditions, and especially the tides?

MATT: The waters around Cape Clear and that part of Ireland are some of the most dangerous in the world. It is a veritable ship graveyard out there. The weather is notoriously bad, quick to change, and generally rough all the time. I wanted to try and do a swim from Cape Clear out to the Fastnet Rock Lighthouse (6 mile round trip) which has never been done before, but after consulting local swimmers and others I determined that the chances of getting decent weather would require me spending the whole summer there. The water temp is generally consistent, from the gulf stream effect, usually around 64, dipping lower in the winter. There is a lot of marine life: seals, puffins, sharks, whales, including Killer Whales. The south bay of Cape Clear is a protected harbor with glorious calm (relatively) water, excellent visibility (maybe 20 feet), a beautiful green color, loads of fish, bottom weeds, starfish, etc. It is a very intense place to swim. The is what immediately drew me to this place as a setting for a novel, and it is what compels the narrator of The Night Swimmer, a young woman named Elly.

SCAQ: You placed 2nd in the Beginish Island 4-Mile open water race in Ireland. That is not an easy swim. How did you train for it, what was your strategy and why that race for it is definitely not an easy one?

MATT: Because The Night Swimmer is set in Ireland, with the narrator doing most of her swims off the coast, it seemed natural that I would need some experience in that water, doing that kind of distance.  I have a long history with competitive swimming, and I’d done a variety of triathlons over the last ten years, but I really hadn’t done anything like that distance or in those conditions.  So I just signed up and figured I’d have to deal with it when I got there.

As for training I did a couple warm up swims, including a 5K in Florida – which of course was very different conditions, 80 degree water, 102 air temperature, full sun, I almost got heatstroke – and a few shorter things, just to get a sense of doing some open water distance.  I was swimming at least two sessions a week with a Masters team here in Dallas (Dallas JCC) and then doing at least 2-3 other cardio sessions, usually running or elliptical in the gym along with some weights.  I spent my whole young life looking at the bottom of a pool (as I’m sure many of your readers did) and after I quit my college team I vowed I would never do that many hours in the pool again.  So maybe 3 swim training sessions, perhaps 4K each, is about all I’ll do these days.  I rely on my running and other cardio to make up the gap, and I find that the cross-training method really works well and I don’t get bored or burned out.

My strategy for the Beginish Island race was essentially the same as it is for most of my races: go out fast, die, and then struggle in to the finish.  I was a sprinter in my competitive days, and I am unable to do much in the way of pacing myself.  I always want to go as fast as I can, and I want to try and win.  We were put into waves based on our seed times, and as I just made my time up (I think I said 2 hours) because I’d never done 4 miles in the North Atlantic before, I was put into the very first, or slowest heat.  The water temp was about 62-64, which is pretty damn cold, so when they said go I took off and didn’t look back for a while.  I got way out in front and basically didn’t see another swimmer for the whole race.  There was a long talk before the race about the route and certain reefs, rocks, buoys, currents, and other obstacles, but to be honest that was all forgotten and I was just keeping the island on my left at a reasonable distance and slogging it out.  The western side of the island was horrendous, big swells, spray, currents.  I was swimming up on side of the swells and at the crest I would come out of the water and smack down the other side.  Once my goggles were actually knocked off my face.  Every once in a while I saw a safety boat or kayak but really I had no idea what I was doing or where I was.  The last quarter mile was a real struggle.  I actually stopped and floated on my back for a few minutes, contemplating vomiting or quitting.  But I am a vain creature so I gutted it out to the beach and when they said I was the first swimmer in I couldn’t believe it.  I finished in 1:34, a full half-hour faster than my seed time.  They also told me a seal followed me right at my toes for the last several hundred yards, which is wild.  I guess I’m glad I didn’t know it at the time.

SCAQ: That is so cool! What inspired this work of modern Gothic fiction if I may call it that?

MATT: The book is inspired by Richard Yates’ great novel Revolutionary Road, the short stories and journals of the American writer John Cheever, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  All of these works play a large role in the story.

SCAQ: What was your first open water ocean experience and where?

Like many people my family always went to the beach in the summer.  I’m from Virginia so we went to Virginia Beach, or Ocean City or Rehoboth Beach in Maryland and Delaware.  I always loved the ocean.  I went to graduate school to Florida State in large part because it is about 45 min away from some world-class beaches.  I did a lot of surfing, bodyboarding, bodysurfing, anything in the water.

SCAQ: What is your race day meal, ritual, or process?

MATT: When I did the Beginish Island Swim in Ireland I got up and ate a full Irish breakfast, which is as you likely know a giant plate with fried eggs, three kinds of meat, beans, toast.  Probably not a good idea.  When I did The Around the Rock Alcatraz race last summer I was more conservative, eating a banana and a power bar.  Lots of water and hydrating sports drinks.  I don’t warm up.  Never really did, and I like to save my strength.  I was successful as a sprinter in my youth because I can get my heart rate up very fast.  I figure in a race that is longer than a few minutes I have plenty of time to warm up.  I’m also – unlike my narrator Elly – not very fond of cold water, so I don’t get into it before I have to.

SCAQ: Thank you very much, Matt, thanks for visiting.

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