Caroline Block: Breaking Records & Barriers With Every Stroke

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Photo Courtesy: Elaine Howley

Caroline Block: Breaking Records & Barriers With Every Stroke

Guest Story By Linda Waxman Finkle

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On the north channel, 2019. Photo Courtesy: Ian Conroy

Imagine a sport where the elements and conditions are never the same twice, where there’s no opportunity for recovery, where you need to refuel every 30 minutes, and where, if you stop moving, you’ll lose ground, may become hypothermic – and may be unable to reach shore.

Welcome to ultramarathon swimming, an exercise in physical preparation, mental determination, and sheer force of will that is hard to compare to almost anything else. And, meet Caroline Block, one of its young superstars, who recently swam the length of Lake George twice continuously – covering 64.4 miles, in 52+ hours of nonstop swimming, in high winds, without a wetsuit. Even more impressive, she already holds a Doctorate in Anthropology, and will be taking the bar exam in a few weeks. And she’s deaf.

To fully comprehend how monumental a feat an ultramarathon swim is, let’s break it down. First, ultramarathon swimmers wear only a fabric swimsuit while submerged in cold water for hours on end. They’re subject to wind and currents that push them around, altering the intended course, which sometimes adds hours to the swim. They’re not permitted to touch their accompanying boat or another person, but can accept nourishment, typically in the form of a carbohydrate powder mixed with water – thrown to them from their support boat while they tread water. While that boat guides and protects them (and provides a platform for the observer who ensures that all rules are followed and the swimmer stays safe), the boat’s pilot may have difficulty staying on course, while moving forward at the swimmer’s pace, and is also subject to the effects of wind and tide.

There’s also the question of darkness and wildlife. For ultramarathon swimmers like Caroline Block who undertake lengthy events spanning multiple days, there’s the inevitable nightfall with the correlating drop in temperature to contend with. And, there’s no telling what creatures may be lurking below at any point in the journey. Waves and wind can cause swimmers to ingest too much water, and seasickness is never far away. Swimming in the near weightless environment of the sea or lake for more than two days can also alter blood pressure and cause other physiological changes in the ultramarathon swimmer’s body. Lastly, there’s the isolation and mental challenges associated with being face down in dark, cold water for multiple hours that they must also manage.

Caroline Block swam as a child from ages 8-14, but says that she wasn’t particularly talented. Then, she didn’t swim for 15 years. “I didn’t think I was good enough to swim in college, so I focused on fencing in high school, and went Division I at Princeton University, while majoring in anthropology.” She moved to NYC and worked in investment banking, soon realizing that finance wasn’t for her. Returning to anthropology, she started graduate work at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and traveled between there and NYC for her field work.

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Caroline Block finishing IRONMAN Wisconsin, 2014. Photo Courtesy: Linda Waxman Finkle

During her third year at JHU, she ran her first 5K and soon after decided that she wanted to do an Ironman, which meant that she was getting back in the water. “I was lifeguarding at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan and met open water swimmer, Bonnie Schwartz, who also worked there. She had swum the English Channel solo, and we started talking about that. As a Ph.D. student, you don’t get a lot of perks, but flexibility is one of them. I knew I would have time, and I planned for an English Channel solo, after I finished the Ironman.”

That, right there, is what makes Caroline Block a wildly inspiring world-class athlete. There was no question that she would complete 140.6, and she did Ironman Wisconsin in 2014. There was no fear that she couldn’t finish an English Channel swim, and she did that in 2016. And there was no hesitation about attempting a two-way solo crossing of Lake George. When she hears about or makes a decision about something she wants to try, she figures out how to make it happen, and then makes it happen.

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Hiking the Camino de Santiago in Spain. Photo Courtesy: Linda Waxman Finkle

But planning an English Channel swim, England to France, is not an easy thing to do. Typically, you need to reserve a spot two years in advance because it’s the world’s busiest shipping lane, and the window of time to attempt a crossing is very small when you add in weather conditions. Only a certain number of boats are allowed to accompany someone across the 21-mile waterway. Though Caroline had little experience with long-distance open water swimming, she did her homework, and determined what she needed to do to get ready. Along the way, she made friends who helped guide her, and eventually would point her towards her next big challenge. “I kept meeting people in the community and wanting to spend time with them, and enjoyed the traveling as well. And I kept hearing about the North Channel.”

Swimming across the North Channel, 22 miles from Northern Ireland to Scotland, is far more difficult than an English Channel crossing. The water is colder, weather conditions can be even more formidable, and there are tons of lion’s mane jellyfish – ready to sting indiscriminately. But Caroline Block was lured by the challenge, and in 2016, during the same summer as her English Channel crossing, became the 36th person to swim solo across the North Channel, completing it in less than 15 hours. Feeling great after both swims, she had another thought: What about a two-way on the North Channel? So far, she’s had two unsuccessful attempts, the first time stopping just shy of 29 hours when there was no clear sign as to how many more hours before she could reach land due to treacherous weather conditions. The second time, while on her way back after 26 hours, she chose to stop due to an unusual density of jellyfish. “I’m actually not a big risk taker and am pretty conservative about things like that. But I’m not done with this. It just wasn’t the right day.”

There’s no doubt that Caroline will succeed in completing a double North Channel swim in the future, but that’s not her only goal. After finishing at Cornell Law School in June, she’s currently studying for the bar exam (postponed from July to October due to Covid-19), and moving to NYC this winter to start a new career as a litigator. She’s also a champion for diversity and accessibility. “The fact is that women are the ones doing the most interesting things in open water swimming these days, but there’s still a need to open it up to make it welcoming to underrepresented groups,” she says.

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Kellie Latimer entertains Caroline Block on Lake George. Photo Courtesy: Elaine Howley

And, though she is deaf – just as Gertrude Ederle the first woman to swim the English Channel was – Caroline says that fact has not limited her ability to compete athletically. But, accessibility and attitudes matter, and she says that not everyone is as accommodating as they should be to people who would like to take part in the sport. As to potential communication issues with her own crew when they’re out on the water, they always carry a white board where they can write messages to her.

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Santa Barbara Channel, 2019. Photo Courtesy: Robin Rose

Conditions were so windy on Lake George between September 16-18, that using the white board was out of the question, and then night temperatures dipped into the 40s (water temps were in the upper 60s). None of that stopped Caroline from completing the first two-way crossing of Lake George by any person in history, and only 13 swimmers have swum it one way. She credits her outstanding five-woman crew, and superior piloting by the crew from WaterHorse Adventures (scuba diving center) in Glens Falls, with her success. Caroline Block also established a new world distance record for a multileg lake swim; the third-longest freshwater swim of all-time (behind Sarah Thomas’ – one of her heroes – Lake Champlain and Lake Powell swims), and the seventh longest swim ever by duration.

Whether choosing new swim routes to challenge herself physically, or selecting new career paths to pursue, Caroline Block is driven by an internal fire that no amount of water can extinguish. Her willingness to attempt these seemingly impossible physical achievements, all within a five-year span after years of not swimming, is a testament to courage, belief in herself, and the indomitable spirit that exists within each of us – should we choose to tap into it. Thank you, Caroline, for showing us the way!

Linda Waxman Finkle is a writer, kayaking instructor, and event coordinator in Albany. She also enjoys hiking and cycling, and learning something new each day.

1 comment

  1. Colleen Hazlett

    There’s something in the water to the right?