Judy Caves posts inspirational quotes in her guidance counselor’s office at Seton LaSalle High School.
“Do something today that scares you” jumps out at visitors.
So does “success is not final; failure is not final. It’s the courage to continue that counts.”
Caves certainly abides by those adages.
After completing the frightening task of swimming back-to-back marathon-measuring distances of 19.8 and 13.2 miles, the Mt. Lebanon resident summoned the courage July 27 to finish the 25-kilometer Border Buster. The open-water swim traverses glacier-fed Lake Memphremagog between Newport, Vt., and Magog, Quebec. Caves completed the event in 9 hours, 39 minutes.
The showing came on the heels of the 8 Bridges Hudson River Swim in New York. She clocked 6 hours, 29 minutes during the first-leg of the eight-day June event. She came back the next day and finished her required distance in 4 hours, 30 minutes.
Caves said doing back-to-back marathons was hard because you had to clear the “mental hurdle” of competing in both races and you couldn’t “think about what you did yesterday,” but from a difficulty standpoint they were “easier” than the Border Buster. She felt the Border Buster was her most challenging marathon swim, noting the Hudson River was at least as hard as her swim around Manhattan last summer.
“In this race, there was no tide to push me as we circled from Canada back to United States soil. Cutting across the lake was rough and it took everything I had to get across. The wind can change directions and the waters gets swirly at certain points, particularly from the boat traffic. In the afternoon, I got hit by their wakes several times,” she said.
“A lake,” she added, “seems to have its own personality and no rhythm to it.”
Caves certainly has the rhythm for open-water swimming. Her methodical stroke has been described by observers as akin to “watching a human sewing machine” never faltering in her cadence.
“I have no next gear,” Caves said. “Just the endurance to keep going.”
That’s primarily why Caves was not a successful sprinter while she continued to be a competitive swimmer through her formative years. The 1978 Keystone Oaks High School graduate captained her swim team her senior season and anchored her team’s 4x100-meter relay that competed in the WPIAL championships.
“I was average to slightly above average. Not one of the speedy people,” Caves said. “My endurance and mental game was strong.”
Indeed, it shone forth at Bethany College when she swam on the men’s team because there was no squad for the women. She helped the Bisons score points when they swam in the Presidents’ Athletic Conference against clubs from Grove City, Gannon, Mercyhurst, Hiram and Westminster.
“I didn’t swim there to make a statement. I just loved swimming,” said Caves, who majored in communication because she wanted to pursue a career in advertising and public relations.
“I always swam against guys. Most of the time they would beat me, but I could come in second and third. When I’d get points for the team, that’s when the coaches would make a stink. In the longer events though I had a better chance.”
Caves had a better chance at the masters level, academically and athletically, than she did of landing a job in her coveted career. Two weeks after graduating, she obtained a job selling ads for WKFM. She also helped coach a YMCA swim team in Wheeling. A year later, she was back at Bethany working in the college admissions office. After four years, she became the associate director of admissions at Carnegie Mellon University. During that time period, she attended night school at the University of Pittsburgh and earned a masters degree in education.
After marrying her husband, Norman, and raising two boys – Sam, 26, and Keith, 24 – she has worked as a guidance counselor at Seton LaSalle. During those 13 years, Caves learned about the Mt. Lebanon masters swim program. Within three years, she completed her first long-distance swim – a two-mile trek through Porter’s Cove at Lake Arthur with the University of Pittsburgh’s masters swim team.
“I thought that was pretty cool,” said the 59-year-old swimmer. “I wanted to keep on going.”
And she has.
After a couple years of doing the 4-mile swim in the Chesapeake Bay, she “upped” her game and covered six miles in Lake Michigan. Next, she tackled a 12.5-mile event in Charleston, S.C. Last year, she completed the 28.5-mile New York Open Water Swim that circled around Manhattan.
“After a race my endorphins are so happy,” she said. “I come out of the water wondering what can I do next.”
Time to train
Before she takes on a new event, Caves puts in the training. While the open-water season typically runs June through August, Caves starts gearing up for her events in January although she swims all year. During the summer months, she will swim at the Mt. Lebanon Swim Center, but once the outdoor pools close, she trains indoors at the high school or at LA Fitness, her home gym.
Caves rises at 4:30 a.m. to attend morning practices and workouts before she heads to school. She swims at least 5,000 yards, five days a week, at Mt. Lebanon. She receives personalized instruction from a trained coach, works on speed and stroke technique. She will complete another practice on her own at LA Fitness, three to four times a week. Her goals are at least 40,000 yards a week. Once she reaches that threshold, she may complete 12,000-16,000 yards over the weekend in preparation for long swims.
She scoffs when her students tell her they are tired.
“They have no earthly idea what they are saying,” she said.
Additionally, friends and acquaintances have no idea what is involved in open water swims.
During her back-to-back marathons, water temperatures hovered at 65 degrees. Rules stipulate no wet suits, so Caves swims in a colorful Speedo and dons a cap and googles. She lathers herself in zinc oxide because regular sun-screen lotion wears off in the water.
“We look interesting when we exit the water,” Caves said with a laugh, “but you really need to protect yourself and your skin.”
Caves is careful to protect her health. While she relishes chocolate-chip cookies, she refrains from alcohol, imbibing in an occasional ‘cold beer’ only ever so often. She treats herself to a smoothie from the Health Bar at LA Fitness after some workouts. A quarter cup of almonds, raspberries and hummus on wheat toast are other indulgences.
“When you exercise as I do, this is what your body really wants, really craves,” she said. “You are exhausting your body of things like potassium so you really take a holistic healing approach because you can’t have sore muscles or get cramps in your calves when you swim.”
Boredom is another enemy of long-distance swimmers. To ward off this nemesis Caves talks to herself, prays and thinks positively.
“My mantra is swim happy,” she said. “It sounds so basic but when you think about open swimming, a lot can go wrong. If you stay in that place, then it’s not going to go well for you. You are not going to have a pleasant experience. When I swim, I think of the so many blessings I have and all that is going well for me. I also think of those less fortunate than me and I pray for them.”
Caves said her swim cadence works well with the “Hail Mary” and some church hymns.
Her extracurricular activity enables Caves to work well with her students at Seton LaSalle. She said there is a correlation between her long-distance swimming and her day-to-day duties of counseling her charges in their chosen careers. She said being patient with her workouts and planning have taught her many things that relate to life.
“If you are a writer, you don’t write a book in one day,” Caves said. “Do things that lead to bigger things. You have to think beyond where you are right now and stick with what you can do because the outcome with be what it will be. You can’t control that but you can do whatever is humanly possible to prepare for your race or your test.
“Obviously, working with teens and obstacles they are coming across, helps me be encouraging to them,” she added. “A lot of people want quick fixes but I tell them to break challenges down to smaller chunks. Get out of bed. Put your feet on floor. Do the next right thing. Brush your teeth. Drive to school.”
Caves said a lot of people are looking for “easy” fixes in their lives.
“You don’t learn anything that way,” she said. “You don’t grow. It’s hard and it takes a long time to understand that concept.”
It has also taken time for Caves to explain to “normal” people how comforting and encouraging open-water swims are for her. She is so keen on the sport that she has set her sights on the SCAR Swim. The four-day event covers four lakes and roughly 40 miles of secluded water in the rugged wilds of Arizona.
“Oh my gosh, I think that would be cool to do. Four marathons in four days,” she said.
Caves admits to having thought about swimming the English Channel. It’s part of the triple crown of open-water swimming along with the Swim Around Manhattan and Catalina.
“I’d really have to think long and hard about the Channel,” Caves said. “Ocean swims present a lot of different things and hurdles that I have not come up against yet. I’m not ready to jump into that, not adapted to it right now, but I have learned never to say never. All these things are scary.”
But then that’s part of lure for Caves because just like her bulletin board quote, she truly does things that scares her.