Doug Comstock wrote a book last year called "The Mental Toughness Advantage: A Five-Step Program to Boost Your Resilience and Reach Your Goals."
So when he found himself in the middle of his long-planned Strait of Gibraltar swim recently, nauseous and throwing up, thinking how could he possibly swim for three more hours (He was dry heaving, for crying out loud, and trying to swim at the same time), he thought about his 20-year-old daughter sitting in the boat watching him and he thought about the book.
"When I thought, 'I can't do this,' my brain said, 'You idiot, you just wrote a book on mental toughness. You got to keep on going, you owe it to the people who bought your book,' " Comstock said from Spain.
Comstock, 64, of East Granby, Conn., had already been pulled out of the water twice on other big swims – the Swim Across the Sound from Long Island, N.Y., to Bridgeport, Conn., in 2010 and after 19 miles in the English Channel in 2015.
So he kept thinking, "There's no way I'm being pulled. Here's my poor kid on the boat, I don't want her to see her dad fail. I'm getting to the other side."
And somehow he did, completing the 16 kilometer swim from Tarifa, Spain, to Cires Point, Morocco, in 5 hours, 40 minutes.
"I was using it as a warm-up to go back to the English Channel," Comstock said. "Except it wasn't a warm-up, it was a hard swim."
The Strait of Gilbraltar swim is part of the Ocean Seven Challenge, seven of the hardest channel swims in the world, which includes the English Channel. It's the shortest of the swims but it's in a heavily trafficked shipping lane connecting the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea, the water temperatures are chilly (it was 60 degrees the day Comstock swam) and the currents are strong and shifting. It's also one of the top kiteboarding and windsurfing destinations in the world, which is great for kiteboarders and windsurfers, but not exactly ideal for open water swimmers.
Comstock, who owns AED Service America, a company which maintains automated external defibrillators, is also a motivational speaker about mental toughness and reaching one's goals.
He had finished three Ironman Triathlons, two in Hawaii. After he finished the Ironmans, though, he always felt like he could do more.
But then life got in the way. He got married, had three children, worked and 20 years went by. When a friend of his was crippled by a stroke at a young age, Comstock started to think about things he wanted to do. So he decided to concentrate on his weakest sport – swimming.
His first big attempt was the Swim Across the Sound, a 15.5-mile swim from Port Jefferson, N.Y. to Captain's Cove in Bridgeport. He was pulled from the water after seven hours for being too slow. He learned from that, trained and scheduled an English Channel swim in 2015. He made it 19 of the approximately 21 miles and had to be pulled out of the water after 13 hours and 20 minutes of swimming because a shoulder injury slowed him and he was becoming hypothermic. Conditions were rough that day, Comstock said – only two of the nine swimmers who set out to cross made it.
He wanted to try to cross the Channel again (he plans on going back in July 2020) – and when an opportunity to swim Gibraltar opened up, he jumped at it.
There is only one organization (the Strait of Gibraltar Swimming Association) which handles all the swims, which means people usually swim in teams to accomplish the crossing because there are so few opportunities.
Comstock had two teammates of similar speed and they all went out together at 7:29 a.m. the morning of April 26. It was sunny but chilly and windy – about 55 degrees – so the water was warmer than the air temperature and Comstock was comfortable when he dove in.
He normally would eat a dozen hard-boiled eggs before a big swim, but he only had one that morning because it didn't taste right and when he checked the rest, he discovered they were rotten and he had to eat something different. His first few hours went by easily but then he started to feel bad and he threw up.
"For the next three hours, I was dry heaving when I was swimming," he said.
His leg was cramping, too. For the first few hours, he had been the strongest swimmer but now he was struggling to keep up. He found if he kept his face in the water, he felt better, so he followed the toes of one of the others, veteran English Channel swimmer Sally Minty-Gravett, as she kept the escort boat in sight.
Then the people on the boat told the swimmers they had to pick it up because the tide was going to shift.
"They said, 'If you guys don't pick it up, we're going to have to pull you, we're not going to make the tide," Comstock said. "I swam like Michael Phelps the last 3K. I was not going to be pulled."
The waves got bigger – 4 or 5 feet – as they got closer to Morocco. But they made it.
"I realized I had something in me I never knew was there," Comstock said. "When we were done, I asked, 'How long did we pick it up for, like 20 minutes?' "
Actually, it was more than an hour.
"I had no idea. I just kept thinking, 'I'm not going to be pulled. I'm not going to be pulled. You have to finish that goal.'
"It wasn't an ego thing, as much I as I owe you this – my daughter, my family – because of the two past failures. I felt like I owed people."