15| Elaine Howley, marathon swimmer, writer, and artist: Finding her limits at the intersection of hard work and joy

Elaine K. Howley is an avid marathon and ice swimmer who has completed the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming (solo swims across the English Channel and Catalina Channel and a solo circumnavigation of Manhattan Island). She was the first person to swim the 32.3-mile length of Lake Pend Oreille in Northern Idaho and the third person to complete the Triple Crown of Monster Swims (solo lengthwise crossings of Lake Memphremagog in Vermont and Canada; Lake Tahoe in California and Nevada; and Loch Ness in Scotland). She’s also an award-winning freelance journalist and editor based in Boston, Massachusetts.

Connect with Elaine

***Help raise funds to support cancer research and clinical trials for Swim Across America!***
On September 9, 2021, Olympian Elizabeth Beisel (with the help of her incredible support staff) will attempt to be the first woman to swim the 20km (12.4 mile) route from Pt. Judith, RI to Block Island, RI. Elizabeth will adhere to Marathon Swimmers Federation rules throughout the entirety of her swim. The swim will be nonstop and unassisted. Elaine is helping to coordinate this epic swim. 

In this episode, we talked about…

  • How Elaine’s mom’s fear of the water (and sibling rivalry) lead to her early start as a swimmer 
  • How a little friendly bullying got Elaine back to swimming as an adult after a hiatus 
  • How being bullied about her body impacted her down the road
  • Being a bone marrow donor for her younger sister- and how her sister’s untimely death impacted Elaine‘s body image
  • How swimming has helped Elaine’s body image
  • How one comment from a race director got her thinking about swimming the English Channel 
  • Elaine’s basic training principles 
  • The interplay between swimming and creativity
  • The fears, challenges, and joys of open water swimming 
  • Managing chafing 
  • Dealing with the sleep deprivation of marathon swims
  • Using long pool swims to experiment with nutrition 
  • The role of electrolytes in Marathon swimming
  • How to relieve yourself during an open water swim. (Yes, we really went there.)
  • Why Loch Ness was her most challenging marathon swim
  • How Elaine “hazed” her husband when they were newlyweds
  • How to train for a cold water swim 
  • What motivates Elaine to continue to push her limits

I am the product of a lot of hard work and a good bit of stubbornness.

I graduated from Georgetown. I had this beautiful education and no idea what I wanted to do with my life.

[Sport] was a way to prove that even if I was fat I could still do things other people couldn’t.

There’s always that underlying feeling of being a failure and it being so elemental down to my very bone marrow.

I’ve been in therapy almost my entire life but swimming is one of the ways that helps me cope with that. It helped me develop a new relationship with my body beyond what it looks like. As long as I can get from point a to point B under my own power it’s good enough.

I have a big belly. And that’s hard sometimes. There are times when I don’t want to look in the mirror but at the end of the day, I’m still being out thousands of yards a week. You can go, “Oh you want to do a 20-mile swim tomorrow?” Oh okay. No problem. There’s still issues there about my body. I’m trying to learn to be a little bit more accepting. I would never say to somebody else some of the things I say to myself in my head.

I have started to say to myself, you don’t have to prove anything to anybody. If you don’t feel like doing it today go sit in the sauna for 10 minutes and have a nice afternoon.

On Simone Biles: I’m such a fan. I was a fan before but now even more so. I really appreciate her as somebody who does struggle sometimes with mental health issues, feelings of inadequacy, imposter syndrome, and all that stuff. To see someone in such a prominent position using her power in her voice to make it okay for other people to not be okay sometimes- I think that’s just incredible and I think the world of her.

This might’ve been the best piece of advice I’ve ever gotten for a marathon swimming: If you do decide to do the English channel, go to the Catalina channel 1st.

My rule of thumb is whatever distance you’re consistently able to complete in a week you can reasonably expect to finish without major incident in a day.

I’m sure I’ve written and forgotten the next great American novel on my longer swims.

It gets really good when you get into that flow state we are time stops meaning anything… it’s a moving meditation at that point.

If I’m working on a story or something and I’m having trouble coming up with a good lead trying to make sense about something I’ll go for a swim and I come back and it’s there.

I hate jellyfish.

Don’t swim [in open water] alone. It’s a really bad idea.

I like my sleep. I function best on nine hours.

Toilet is going to happen. 

Isn’t it fun being human?

Usually, The best way out is through so just keep on going.

Just keep going until something happens. 

It comes down to following my joy.

A successful day is a day where you’re like, okay I did something good today.

Tom Gompf 
Boston Harbor swim
Boston Light Swim 
Swim Around Key West 
Lynne Cox 
Catalina Channel swim
Lake Pend Oreille swim
Atkinson pool 
Carbo Pro drink 
Ucan sports drink 
Ultima replenishment (electrolytes)
Sarah Thomas 
Craig Lenning
A String in the Harp by Nancy Bond (book)
Run Lola Run (film)
Swedish goggles (Elaine wasn’t kidding, they are hard to find!)

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5 thoughts on “15| Elaine Howley, marathon swimmer, writer, and artist: Finding her limits at the intersection of hard work and joy

  1. Roland Hellwig says:

    Logan Hellwig of Westerly Rhode Island completed the swim from Block Island to Charlestown RI adhering to all marathon Swimmers Federation rules in 4 hours 9 minutes and 20 sections on August 25th 2021.

      • Roland Hellwig says:

        Thank you Pam. Take a look at Althea Mercer Mansolillo, she was incredible and a pioneer. Elizabeth Beisel is swimming for a great cause but it’s most likely that she is not the first woman to make the crossing. Would be a shame if the credit didn’t go to Mrs. Mansolillo.

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