Sarah Wolf had been swimming in Mobile Bay for three and a half hours when the wind shifted.
The exhaust fumes from her support boat blew straight in her face, and because it was the middle of the night, no one on the boat could see what was happening. The exhaust fumes blew in her face for almost an hour, and when the wind shifted again, Wolf vomited the contents of her stomach.
Despite that setback, Wolf said on the phone Tuesday after she finished her swim that it “went better than [she] thought it would.” She explained that throwing up while swimming in open water is very common and you just have to let it happen rather than fight the feeling.
Wolf overcame her only major obstacle during her night swim at Mobile Bay, a 36.4 km swim that she lasted 15:49. She’d spent a lot of time preparing for other factors of the swim that she thought could be potential problems: swimming in the dark and in colder water than she’s used to, as well as the non-stinging jellyfish found in the bay Life.
However, none of these factors became an issue for her when she became the first known person to complete a north-south swim of Mobile Bay, Alabama. She was able to find documentation of east-west swimming in the 1930s and as recently as 2016. The image shows these routes as well as those taken by Wolf.
A diver in college, Wolf didn’t start swimming until her mid-30s when she joined a local championship team. She later visited a friend in Vermont and entered a Swim the Kingdom race with them, which was her first experience of open water swimming. She was hooked.
She started training for this swim last year, training in the pool four times a week and doing longer swims in the lake on weekends. However, an injury derailed her and from last October to this February she could only kick. In that time, she says, she kicked 65,000 times. Though the lengthened timeline was frustrating, she says becoming a better kicker was beneficial to her swimming in the long run.
Wolf’s final preparation for this effort was the Three Rivers Marathon swim. This was the first time she had swum more than 12 hours and it gave her the opportunity to optimize her feeding cycle. The only major difference between this race and Mobile Bay was that Three Rivers had a time limit.
Her swim at Mobile Bay was self-paced, giving her the ability to swim at her own pace. Not having that time limit meant she was redefining success. It wasn’t about how fast she was swimming – it was just about reaching her goal. It was what kept her motivated, even in the last two miles of the swim, which “annoyingly” took her three hours.
Wolf recalled that alongside her sense of purpose, the thought of meatloaf and mashed potatoes kept her going. This swim was the third time in her life that food dragged her to the end, the other times it was at the end of a Grand Canyon hike and during a Century Ride.
After the race, she found out that one of her friend’s children had stayed up all night watching her light blink on the online tracker.
“It was really surprising and really humbling,” she said.
When asked what’s next, Wolf laughed and replied that she was banned from answering that question for another 10 days. However, she admits she has her eye on a swim in the English Channel.
Crosser hopefuls need to book years in advance, so she thinks this would be a good goal to work toward as she ticks other swim styles off her to-do list. Crossing the canal, she says she already plans to bring her mother, who has agreed to make the meatloaf and mashed potatoes that will be waiting for her at the end.