I recently talked with Blair Cannon about his recent swim from Catalina to the mainland. Please join me as we get to know this amazing athlete and even better member of our community.
Craig: What was your athletic background before triathlon?
Blair: Individual sports has been a fabric of my family's existence for generations. My grandfather was a world record holder in track at UC Berkeley (1941). My father is an age group swim coach and 2-time Kona finisher ('82 and '83) and my mom was a national record holder in the 50 and 100-yard freestyle from the age of 12 through college. I started competing in the pool at the age of 5 and was exposed to a number of other sports along the way. I raced on the velodrome from age 9 to 12, ran cross country and track at age 12 to 14, but never left the pool. I was a High-School All-American in the 100-yard breastroke (59.4) , 200 Individual Medley (1:55) and 4x100 free relay and swam all 4 years at UC Irvine (NCAA Div 1) and posted a 44.8 (rolling start) in the 100-yard freestyle.
Craig: How did you evolve into a triathlete and what was your first triathlon?
Blair: When I was 8, I did the swim leg of an Olympic distance triathlon (Castaic Lake 1979) and did my first (solo) Olympic distance triathlon (Castaic Lake) at the age of 11 in (1982). I was a super skinny 11-year old and fairly fit from swimming twice a day, racing on the velodrome and running an occasional foot race. I coated myself, head to toe, in vaseline and swam heads up for the first half of the swim --- partly because it was freezing (60F) and mostly because I was terrified of the (boogie)-man at the bottom of the lake. I remember my dad's friends (4 times my size and training for IM Kona) flying past me half way on the bike course lobbing remarks like... "Cannon? What the hell are you doing out here?!". It turns out that I was 2nd out of the water overall and apparently gave myself a big head start on the bike. I would eventually get passed by more people on the bike course than anyone else in the race (this trend would follow me throughout my triathlon career). I finished the bike at the same time as my father, who tried to encourage me to join him for the run. I told him that I was waiting for my buddy, Tony Germaine, and that I'd see him later. I proceeded to devour 3 bananas, a granola bar and an orange in T2 and then run/walk most of the run course with Tony. When we had the finish line in sight, we decided to make a mad sprint for it and (unintentionally) passed my father in the final few meters. Dad rode his bike home from the race that day and continued training for Kona. Later on that year, I proudly stood on Alii drive and watched him finish his first of 2 Hawaiian Ironmans. Someday, just like my dad, I wanted to be an Ironman.
Craig: You are one of the lucky people to win a lottery slot for Ironman Hawaii. In fact, you won the lottery twice. What were your Hawaiian Ironman experiences like?
Blair: I won a lottery spot and had the opportunity to compete with the best in the sport in both '03 and '04.
In 2003, my 2nd IM-distance ever, I really went after the swim. I was thinking "...this is the chance of a lifetime and who knows if I'll ever be back ---- go for it!" I was absolutely anaerobic within the first couple of minutes as I chased the pros down (they got a ~50 meter head start) and ultimately exited the water in 50 minutes; 20th overall, 1st amateur. The cheers were quickly replaced by shouts of "... on your left" for the next 6 hours. It had been 21 years since my first triathlon, but some things don't change. I finished in 11h10m and went straight to bed.
2004 was much more entertaining. I tried to take a more balanced approach to the race (read: don't sprint the swim, watch my pace and fueling on the bike and put it all out there on the run). Everything was going fine until I got stung on penis (yes, you read that right) by a bee just after the turnaround from Hawi. From experience, I know that I'm highly allergic to bees and needed to back off (the pace) and make sure that I was okay. During my next rolling potty break, I quickly realized that I was in trouble; it felt like I had a flame thrower strapped to my waist. Painful. With 5 miles to go in the run, I opted to stop consuming fluids and reduce the likelihood that I would have to pee again and endure the pain. The next thing I know, I'm in the medical tent staring up at an nurse who said "Blair, you've had two IV bags and seem to be doing much better now. Please, tell me what hurts the most so that I can help you with it". Apparently, she was not prepared to hear that my (penis) was killing me. She gave me a quick laugh, said "that's cute" and had me packed up and out of there in 2 minutes. Finish time: 11h29m.
My first IM was Ironman Vineman in 2002 (Finish time: 12h35m). My fourth and most recent IM was in 2006 at Arizona (Finish Time: 11h35m). It was there that I promised myself that I would find a new inspiration before I attempted long distance endurance events; doing it for myself was no longer enough.
Craig: Out of all your career swimming and triathlon races, what single race was your best performance?
Blair: Men's (age 5) 25-yard butterfly. We were lined up behind our lanes ready to go... and then I soiled my Speedo just seconds before the start (read: flu / bad tummy). I quickly emptied my Speedo on the deck, they had me switch lanes, I remained focused and won the race! Secret sauce (no pun intended): I was the only kid that could manage to get across without taking a breath. My mom still denies that the bad tummy episode ever occurred.
Craig: What accomplishment gives you the most pride?
Blair: In 2009, my good friend, Mike Faiola, and I backpacked the John Muir Trail (~200 miles from Tuolumne Meadows to Whitney Portal) in 11.5 days. Nine mountain passes, miles of snow and >60,000 feet of elevation gain (and loss). For me, this was the perfect combination of adventure coupled with an enormous physical and mental challenge.
Craig: How did you get introduced to Monarch School?
Blair: As a board member of the Great Friends Foundation (GFF), I was introduced through mutual friends to Monarch School. There are similarities in what GFF is doing for at-risk youth and what is happening at Monarch School. I have wanted to do the Catalina Channel Swim for awhile, but it wasn’t until I toured the school that I realized what my true motivation was going to be. As soon as I met the kids and understood what they have to go through just to get in the door every day, I wanted to make this swim a successful fundraiser for Monarch and GFF.
Craig: What would you like people to know about Monarch School that they might not be aware of?
Blair: I was shocked to learn that over 13,000 kids are homeless in San Diego County! The Monarch School has a public/private partnership with the San Diego County Office of Education, relies on community outreach to provide such amenities as showers, clean clothes and multiple meals a day, including two dinners a week, for the students. These are the kind of kids that are living with multiple families in a hotel room. They could be living in a car. We know some of the families actually live in the bushes in Balboa Park. These children are in crisis all the time. But when they come to Monarch, unlike going to a regular school, they don’t have to explain why they can’t bring another kid home to meet their parents. At Monarch, everybody understands, so the children feel safe there. The coolest thing is kids are kids. When you see them at Monarch, no one would ever know that they are homeless. They’re eager to learn, happy to be there. They’re upbeat and optimistic.
Monarch School is helping to break the cycle of homelessness by eliminating all barriers to a quality education and regular school attendance and supplementing students’ basic needs, including food, transportation, toiletries, clothing and access to shelter. Monarch is the only public/private school in the US that serves children impacted by homelessness. Monarch School is looking at the future of education and hoping to effect change in education for at-risk youth. I’m really proud to have the Monarch School right here in San Diego and I think everyone else should be as well.
Craig: Tell us what the Great Friends Foundation is about.
Blair: In 2008, Scott Kaplan and Billy Ray Smith (hosts of the Scott and BR show on XX1090 from 6-10AM) founded Great Friends Foundation with the notion of giving back to the San Diego community. We support a diverse community with programs and funding with a special focus on military, education, challenged individuals and low-income families. We created a scholarship program to recognize and support graduating seniors of San Diego County Military. Each year, we give out two $20,000 scholarships to students who excel in leadership, academics and community service; a small way of saying thanks to our military for their service.
Craig: What was your training like to get ready for the Catalina Crossing?
Blair: Fun, and contrary to what I expected, not lonely. There's an enormous community of friendly (pool and ocean) swimmers here in San Diego. I was lucky enough to train with a friend, Derrick Wong, who was the same speed as me and who was preparing to cross Catalina Channel on Sept 14th.
I needed to find a way to get comfortable being in the water for 4+ hours in a variety of conditions -- sans wetsuit. I kept the plan fairly simple. The goal being to ultimately swim 21-miles in one day, I started off by trying to log 21-miles in over a full week. By April, I was swimming +/- 18 miles per week with a longer (8-10km set on Saturdays). By May, I was swimming ~ 5 times per week, almost exclusively in the La Jolla Cove, with my long swim (6 to 8 miles) on Saturday. My longest week was 35 miles (all in the LJ Cove) and my longest swim was 11 miles in 60F water with no wetsuit. I was advised to get a couple of 15-milers in but my shoulders were tender and given my short span by which I could train for this swim, consistency and good health was more important than epic workouts; I didn't want to overtrain. I started my taper 3 weeks out and focused on keeping my feel for the water.
Craig: What was the actual swim like?
Blair: I was filled with anxiety for several weeks beforehand and really wanted to show the kids (at the Monarch School) that we can accomplish anything we want in life if we work hard and stay committed. Frankly, I was afraid of failing and that's not the message I wanted to leave with these kids. This swim was a big stretch for me. I had never swum in the dark before and was concerned about hypothermia. I assembled a crew of close friends that could swim and/or kayak (Lou Wilson, Mike Faiola, Gavin Miller, Derrick Wong and Brian Judd) a couple of officials (including the famous International Hall of Fame channel swimmer, Anne Cleveland) and my 6-month pregnant wife, Kelsey. John Pratt, Producer for XX1090, was also on the boat to capture some video and provide live updates on the radio show. We hired the best crew / boat in the channel swimming business (Outrider, San Pedro), left the dock at 9PM and headed over to Catalina. During the ride over, I tried to sleep (no chance) and thought..."geez, this is a long boat ride". We pulled into Doctor's Cove (an uninhabited cove North of Two Harbors) and backed in as close as we could and got the kayaks and feeding system situated. The cove was smooth, pitch dark and teaming with sealife (seals, flying fish, etc.). The plan was to have my buddy, Lou Wilson, kayak alongside me the whole way (he'd never kayaked before, and was recovering from a major knee surgery two weeks earlier), but I knew he was the man for the job.
My guidance to the crew was to feed me every 30 minutes and don't tell me how I'm doing until I ask. I've always worn a watch in the past, monitored my heart rate, speed, etc., but figured that these things were irrelevant in the channel. I had no idea how long it would take or what it would feel like. I needed to stay in the moment, focus on my fueling, enjoy the adventure and, no matter what... finish! I chose not to wear a watch. My wife, Kelsey, was in charge of keeping time (for feeds) and ensuring that I had a support swimmer in the water when needed. You're allowed to have someone swim alongside you for an hour at a time and no more than 3 times (per swimmer). My crew was ready and I was surprisingly calm.
At midnight, I jumped into the 66F water with my DeSoto Forza tri shorts and swam 100 yards to the beach, stood on dryland and waited for the words from the officials that I could start. "Okay Blair, Go!". I had boat on my left and Lou (the roaving aid station) somewhere on my right. The boat was in charge of navigating the channel accommodating for freighters, changing currents and wind swells. We had a 1/4 moon that night, so it was virtually pitch dark. The color of the sky and the water were the same --- black.
Lou had bottles of water, an Ironman Protein Recovery drink from PowerBar and CarboPro. My default feed was the PowerBar drink unless I shouted something else in between strokes. One-hour into the swim, the water was 61F and my kayaker was having trouble staying in the kayak (it was choppy!) Our feeds were less than smooth in the beginning, but I knew we'd work out the kinks. Each 30 minutes, Lou would turn on his headlamp, signaling "feed time" and drop a bottle in the water alongside me. I'd take a few swags, drop it and keep swimming.
I was mentally prepared to suffer. I just didn't think it would happen so soon. At 2 am, I was not keeping my fuel down (sea sickness), was getting stung by jellyfish, fish were bumping up against me, I took a full feed bottle to the face (read: fat lip) and the water had dropped to 61F (I was cold). My first 2 hours were hard and I still had ~ 4 hours to sunrise and a loooong way to go. This was daunting. Something had to change.
I decided to focus on the things I could control: my pace, my fueling and most importantly, my attitude. I picked up the pace slightly to generate more heat, I shortened my feeds to ~10 seconds and I started to appreciate the moment. I would send cheerful glances to my wife on the deck while swimming and began thanking my crew. They were doing great. The plankton had bloomed, so everytime my hand entered the water, the phosphorescents would light up and my body was virtually glowing in the dark. Awesome! I decided that the jellyfish were there to help keep me awake and focused. Everything for a reason, right? I re-focused on my technique and focused on what I would need as fuel at my next feed. The support swimmers started their rotations in 1 hour increments. Very helpful. It was 4AM and I was doing better. I wasn't getting any colder and I was getting my calories to stay down. My (pregnant) wife was on the deck at the railing the entire evening where I could see her. Actually, I could see who was getting warmed up to swim, who was probably sleeping and who was tossing their cookies.
At 5:30 am, I could see signs of daylight. I finally asked "so, how I am doing", thinking to myself ... I better be over half way done with this. Lou told me that I was was crushing it and that I had only 2.3 hours to go. Really? That can't be. He must've said 3.3 hours? I double checked at 6AM and my Kelsey told me "good news. You're on track to break the record (8h05m) and that you only have 2 hours to go. Talk about a boost of adrenaline. Wow, I can do this. For the next 10 minutes I swam as hard as I could and then realized... whoa, I've got a long way to go. I reverted back to my pace of 66-70 strokes per minute and kept my head down. Apparently, we had to fight a strong cross current in the last 2-hours, I had to work hard but still felt great. Knowing that I had my wife, family, friends, supporters and the students at the Monarch School counting on me made all the difference. As I approached the rocky shore, I could see that the surf was big, but I was lucky enough to swim in right between sets and scale the rocks without much trouble. I said hello to my family and friends on the shore, did a quick radio interview with Scott and BR and hit the hot tub at the resort for a few minutes.
The swim was officially over, but we still needed to swim back out to the boat, give my wife a big hug and head back to the harbor. In doing so, I managed to get caught inside on a large wave, got tumbled around, hit bottom and broke a couple of ribs. The swim went amazingly well, but similar to the bee sting in Kona, Mother Nature tends to issue friendly reminders that she's in control. A small price to pay for such a rewarding experience.
I am pleased to say that the 21-mile swim is complete (8h18m), awareness has been significantly elevated and we've raised over $110,000! Most importantly, the Monarch Students got the message (literally!). Unbeknownst to me, they were actually sitting in their classrooms listening to the live broadcast of the swim on the Scott and BR Show (XX1090AM) that morning and were excited to hear that THEY were source of my strength and inspiration: "...the motivating factor was, ultimately, that we didn't want to let the kids down".
If you have not yet seen this, please take a moment to check out the Final cut of Cannon Catalina Challenge short documentary: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FgiznY1Q4Tw
Donations are still being accepted at https://www.monarchschools.org/secure/catalina.php.
Craig:Who has been the most inspirational person in your life?
Blair: My grandfather, Fay Froom. Fay was born in Inglewood, CA, attended Hollywood High School and went to UC Berkeley on a basketball scholarship. His freshman year, they invited him to test his talents on the track and he ultimately went on to become a world-class sprinter and anchored the world-record setting 4x400 meter relay (1941). He enlisted in the Navy the day after Pearl Harbor, finished up his last semester and then headed to Northern Africa for WWII. He came home, got married and had 2 daughters. We spent his final moments together in his hospital room earlier this year, watching the Masters (golf) recap on my iPad in the middle of the night. He was a huge golf fan and loved technology. Final question from Grandpa... "How much (for the iPad)?" My response: "$800 Papa". His remark: "Good grief". He was a funny, bright man to the very end. Fay said his goodbye's to the entire family and passed later that morning, but his legacy as a world-class son, athlete, husband, father, grandfather will never be forgotten.
Craig: What are your future athletic goals.
Blair: Next stop: fatherhood! Kelsey and I are expecting our first (daughter) in mid-November. I am told this will be greatest endurance event of my life! ☺ I'd like to get back in the water and test myself at longer distances, but have not yet decided on when or where. Any ideas?
Craig: Blair, I think you’ll need to get your long distance swimming ideas from someone else. On the morning of your Catalina swim I did a 3,300 yard master’s workout with a long IM set. I thought that was brutal until I turned on the radio that morning and heard you complete the 21 mile ocean swim. Thank you so much for sharing your story. You have done great work with the Monarch School and the Great Friends Foundation. The TCSD is proud to have you as a member and I’m proud you are my friend.