Liv and Jenn vs. Lake Michigan: Round 2

As I write this-the ends of my fingertips have blisters, blood scabs over my heels, my lower back and bum is chaffed, and I am forever hungry.  Bottomless pit, I want to eat all day long- FOREVER hungry.

This weekend I embarked on one of many adventures to come: a twenty four-mile training row departing Racine and ending in Milwaukee. My friend Sheena (also a Recovery on Water coach) and her boyfriend Jason offered to be my “pit crew” for the weekend.  We drove up together, Sheena and Jason in one car and Liv and I in the truck. I found myself talking to her a lot. “Hang on girl,” (when going over bumps) and “we’re almost there”, as if the four hundred pound fiberglass hull was anxious to get off the trailer.

To make sure that I was ready for my early morning departure, we spent Friday night with my friend Steve in Racine. Steve is a rowing coach for another team in Chicago—further proving my theory that rowing coaches are as good as it gets. He lives less than a mile from the public boat launch and took us to an awesome restaurant for dinner, “Out of the Pan”. I had great company and food the night before my row—I felt so relaxed. I was anxious and nervous as I left Chicago, but the quaint, charming town of Racine, Wisconsin seemed to make that all melt away.

Saturday morning we left the house and drove by the lake to get to the launch. Still, calm water…total glass! I was elated. My last training row in Waukegan involved four-foot waves, rain, and cold temperatures. Knowing that I’ll encounter all kinds of weather next summer—each experience is valuable…but I wanted to have a good row under my belt to build confidence. I woke up Saturday morning and thought…here’s my chance.

After loading Liv with all my gear and food for the day we put her in the water. I felt good. There were (as usual) many spectators and curious fisherman on my way out of the harbor. People don’t know what to think of Liv when they first see her—and they always want to know more. I guess that’s a good thing!

The first few hours were calm and quiet.  I started by rowing for half hour shifts, giving myself a ten-minute break in between.  I had trouble eating breakfast on land since my stomach was a knot of nerves so I snacked when I got on board.  Rowing away from Racine I had company, a few sailboats and motorboats. I got to Wind Point, my first landmark around 10 am.  From Wind Point I could see a power plant on the coast a few miles away. My company? Gone. There wasn’t a boat in sight and the only thing I could hear was my oars hitting the water. I hopped out of the boat to go for a swim and take a bathroom break. I lost my grip from Liv’s ropes for a moment and my heart started to race in the cool water.  I climbed back in, knowing that Liv would lean into me but wouldn’t flip (another conversation with my boat).  I threw my knee over the wall and brought my body back in, got more food and water and started to row again. The next hour I took my time, I wanted to enjoy the amazing conditions.  The water was green, cool, and peaceful. I couldn’t help but stop to breathe and admire the amazing body of water that so many times we take for granted.  The amazing body of water that can be beautiful one moment and treacherous the next.

I rowed on due north staying further from the coast so that I would row straight to Milwaukee.  While it would be more comfortable to stay with the shore, I would have added to the distance by doing so.  I ate a fruit cup for quick sugar and some trail mix. The power plant on my right was a constant reminder of my progress. I felt like I couldn’t get away from it since I was not only rowing past it, I was also rowing in the direction of Milwaukee (not along the shore). I was on the tail end of the plant  when the wind picked up.  I took strokes north, but the wind pushed me south. I became obsessed with my GPS coordinates.  My strokes would take me decimals north, the wind would push me decimals south. Sometimes my efforts would win and Liv and I would pull ahead, other times the wind and waves would counter my energy. I got scared, and worse: I really had to pee.  Normally I would go in a designated bucket but I forgot it that morning. The clouds filled the sky and the once cool, refreshing water looked cold, dark and scary. I told myself that it would be smart to go now, what if it got worse? So I gathered up my courage and jumped in. I hit my elbow on one of my oars, knocking it down in the water. I panicked. The water was freezing; so cold that I actually had to remind myself aloud why I was in there. “Pee Jenn, Peeeee!!” I gripped the edge of Liv as tight as I could; it’s time to get back in. My legs were like ice and it brought back memories from Waukegan. The part that made it easier in Waukegan was that while I was in the cold water for longer, I had sand to jump and spring from. I was in deep water with a frozen lower half. I was really struggling and started to freak out. I looked around and there was no one in sight. Okay, I have to figure this out. The waves were pushing Liv into me, so when I tried to bring my knee on board, Liv would tip more than usual, more than she did that morning. I thought for a second that if I could swim to the other side the waves might help me, but I wanted to get out of the cold.  It all happened so fast, and all I can remember thinking was—I’m not going to end my row like this.  The water is really cold, I’m really far away from shore—I have to get my body in this boat. Just get it done. Just get yourself in the boat. While this wasn’t ideal (and I would never jump out in heavy winds ever again), I was entirely capable of fixing it.  I am strong enough and smart to get myself out of this situation. I dug deep and threw my knee on top of Liv. I hit the rigger (ouch) and grabbed on to the inside lip of a storage cabin, pulling myself in. I lay on my stomach, on the floor of the rowing cabin for a moment. I was only in the water for a couple of minutes but my body was shaking. I started rowing so that I could warm up when Liv and I had yet another heart to heart. As the waves hit us, Liv reminded me that she was strong and capable (almost offended that I even got scared).

I got my confidence back and started rowing hard.  The decimal game started again, round two. I could see Milwaukee but I knew that the last third of this row was going to be the hardest. The wind blew me out and away from Milwaukee and I was further away from shore than I had been all day. The horizon wasn’t in view and I started to feel sick. I looked to the right so that I could see land in hopes that my seasickness would go away. No dice. I started throwing up on myself. Hello fruitcup, we meet again. I kept rowing because I knew that if I stopped I would lose more and more ground towards my goal. I started taking really deep breaths (it seemed like the right thing to do?!), and tried to stay positive. I made it THIS far, I could SEE Milwaukee, I just had to keep going. I reached for my phone and read all of the encouraging, amazing things that my friends posted on facebook. I read text messages from Ignatius rowers, Recovery on Water rowers, Chicago Rowing Union athletes and friends. I couldn’t give up; nobody was going to let me give up.  This was the hardest part of my row. I had no fuel in my body and I was exhausted from the trauma of my bathroom-break-gone-bad. I talked to Sheena and we agreed that instead of rowing to the furthest north harbor I would row to the south shore harbor. It was still Milwaukee, it was still my goal, and I had accomplished enough for one day.  I rowed into the harbor around 4 pm with a huge smile. I was so happy to see Sheena, it was like we were in third grade and I had been away for summer camp when in reality I saw her that morning.

After we got Liv back on the trailer (many thanks to Jason) I drove to Discovery World to meet the Marquette Crew team.  Kelly Corcoran, a former Ignatius rower that I coached as a novice is now a rower at Marquette. Her rowing team had a fundraiser this spring, an erg-a-thon that lasted 26 hours in support of the Recovery on Water team.  We met to formally accept the check and thank them for their efforts.

What an amazing way to end the day—it all came full circle!  I decided to do this trip to raise funds and awareness for a team that is constantly inspiring me. Every week they come to practice facing the challenge that cancer might come back into their lives. We remind each other that we are capable, we are strong and that we can’t give up.

Thank you for your continued support of ROW and this trip. Please continue to support my efforts by donating online or at the address below and sharing my story with friends and family.

Until next time,



3 comments on “Liv and Jenn vs. Lake Michigan: Round 2

  1. Wow, Jenn. Whenever I feel like I can’t do it for another minute, whatever the “it” is, I’ll think of you on your journey around Lake Michigan. I’m in awe of what you are accomplishing. Thank you for sharing it and for sharing it so eloquently.

    Mazel tov to making your goal this weekend!