Anytime you’re trailed by a couple of sharks during a record-breaking marathon swim, you’re gonna get the attention of the media. Such is the case for swimmer (and former pro triathete) Meredith Novack, who’s had Sports Illustrated, internatonal wire services and, um, Huffington Post calling.
On Sunday, Sept. 22nd, the 37-year-old Novack broke the standing record a 20-mile out-and-back swim of the Auau Channel, between Lanai and Maui in 11 hours, one minute. The swim beat the previous record (Peter Attia, 11:45) by 44 minutes.
LAVA chatted with Novack about the experience, highlighted by (unbeknownst to her) the presence of a pair of tiger sharks.
LAVA: Many don’t know you raced as a pro triathete years ago. In fact, you and I first met when you were part of Brett Sutton’s team camps in the Philippines.
Novack: I began racing triathlon when I was 20 and knew right away I wanted to be a pro in early 1990s. It was a different process getting your pro card back then; you had to write USAT and they had a committee and decided whether you could be a pro or not. I was 21 or 22 and was considered way too young.
So I turned pro at age 25 and raced pro til I was 30, representing the U.S. and the Philippines. Won a couple small events and top 5s at ITU points races. I was, at best, a 2:10 Olympic-distance. (laughs) I always thought the swim was too short!
LAVA: You recently moved to Hawaii?
Novack: Well, I moved to Hawaii last year; I was in and out for the last four years. Finally made the official move, working on writing a book and looking for sponsorship opportunities.
LAVA: What piqued this interest in swimming the Auau Channel?
Novack: About 10 or 11 months ago, I was trying to figure out what channel I wanted to swim. I have a strong swim background and really wanted to be a marathon swimmer. The one that spoke to me was the double. It was because I didn’t know if I could do it. I’d swam up to 8 miles, but honestly didn’t know what it’d be like to swim 20 miles. But I felt I could break the record.
LAVA: Tell us a bit about the training that one executes in the lead up to a 20-mile open-water swim.
Novack: I did over 220 morning swim practices, and 16 four- to seven-hour swims. I did a few of what I call “Meredith Doubles,” where you swim in pool and take it over to the ocean. I trained so much, I just really wanted to make it as hard as I could on myself. I respect the ocean and respected the distance, and wanted to be confident.
I did a bunch of other swim events leading up as well, like the North Shore Swim Series out of Oahu. I trained with the University of Hawaii masters swim team and Wakikiki Swim Club.
LAVA: How’d you come up with your training program?
Novack: I’ve been a coach for more than 14 years, so I wrote my own program. I did consult with the best channel swimmers, though. I contacted Trent Grimsey, who has the record in English Channel and he was helpful. All the Hawaii challen swimmers were helpful. It’s really a family, just like in triathlon.
LAVA: Was it what you expected conditions-wise?
Novack: On the way back, I didn’t know how close I was to my time goals because we hit a lot of chop, like, three-foot waves. The current started going sideways. It was hard to gauge.
LAVA: What was your fueling strategy?
Novack: I drank water and Gatorade, ate PowerBars, PowerGels, Gala apples and honeywheat pretzels. I did have some Coca Cola after five or six hours.
LAVA: How did you mentally pass the time when you were between the islands, just looking at deep blue ahead, below and behind?
Novack: I prayed a lot. Everybody knows Maui is famous for its sharks. I either had lull anxiety or high anxiety. It wasn’t an event you could ever relax, even though it was divinely beautiful. The first four hours, it was calm. But it demanded a lot of attentoon. I just focused on moving forward. That was the message; if going through adversity, just move forward. I got into a zone.
LAVA: And on that subject of sharks, you had a few in tow. And these aren’t harmless leopard sharks, or benign whitetip reef sharks, but the aggressive tiger sharks.
Novack: You want the real story? What’s out there has been twisted a bit.
Novack: On the way back, before the halfway point, Jennifer, one of my crew members, was kayaking and saw a shark tailing me. She made a signal to the boat that there was one in the area—you know, the universal sign for shark (a palm extended vertically over the top of they head-ed) When she did it, I breathed and I glimpsed. She saw me—and she gave me huge thumbs up and started cheering. And everybody started cheering wildly. I was like ‘ok…. they’re cheering, must be all good. Let’s go!’” That was the first time.
The second time, I was at a feed break. I stopped every 30 minutes after first hour to take food. Dan, one of the other guys in my crew, jumped in with me, as I’d gotten nervous at a few stops and and insisted he jump in; we figure if a shark is going to attack, it would be more likely with one in the water than with two.
When I stopped for my feed, they were doing a switch out of kayakers. I handed someone my water bottle, then started swimming. The second another crew member, Bill, jumped out, he almost landed on a 15-foot shark. He tried to climb back into the kayak, which wasn’t working at all.
Everyone around me now knows something is really wrong. Bill starts yelling and sprinted to the boat, which was 20 yards away. They hauled him up and initiated an emergenct plan. Jen grabbed a rifle, and the crew called the Coast Guard and Coast the Maui Patrol. The shark went around the back of the boat, and they said it was 10 foot long. I was swimming, unaware, with my kayaker and the Shark Shield around me. At that point for them, it was a split decision; shoot or don’t shoot. The shark darted back toward the kayak. It was two feet from the kayak and the Shark Shield zapped it.
LAVA: So that bit of technology literally saved you. What does it do?
Novack: It emits a sonar pulse that effectively hurts the shark’s nose…. They won’t come within several yards of you when it’s turned on. It worked.
And I was just swimming. I never knew. I stopped about five seconds after the commotion, and Dan looks at me calmly and says “you look great!” I think they did absolutely the right thing by not telling me; had he told me, we would have stopped. No question.
LAVA: And then, finally, landfall, right?
Novack. Sorta. It wasn’t quite over. When we got back to Lanai, the current pushed us 1000 meters away from the intended finish. It’s really remote and there’s coral all over. You can’t just swim in. I got in, but one of my swimmers got beat up… but she’s ok.
LAVA: Do you have more swim challenges on the horizon?
Novack: That was the first one—I can’t stop now! I want to do more marathon swim and adventure swims. Id love to be the first person to swim around Oahu. We could make it a huge event, really tie in community and charity. But I’m looking for the right corporate sponsors.
Beyond that, I’m also doing a book about the last year. We’ve had 50 countries and over a million read about it online, which is exciting. But to reveal so many of the details, I want to share it.
LAVA: When does the swim become “official?”
Novack: Probably next week, through the Hawaii Swimming Channel Association, and the World Open Water Swimming Association.
LAVA: We’ll see you kicking around Kona during race week for the Hawaii Ironman, yes?
Novack: Yep; I’ll be hanging around the ON Running booth again this year.