Only 52 athletes in the world have successfully completed the Enduroman Arch 2 Arc challenge. And of those 52, only six have finished it without a wetsuit—Jenny (Johnson) Smith, BS’99, is among them.
In August 2022, Smith finished an 87-mile run from London’s Marble Arch to Dover, England; a 21-mile swim across the English Channel (which ends up being much longer due to the tides); and a 181-mile bike ride from Calais, France to Paris’s Arc de Triomphe in 72 hours and 26 minutes.
“I think I understand why I’m the first American [to participate] because logistically, it was really difficult,” she explains. “Normally, people have three different teams. They have a fresh team for the boat and a fresh team on the bike. But I only had my friend Connie, who has her doctorate in physical therapy; my friend Lisa, who’s an amazing park ranger extraordinaire; and then I had my husband, Will Smith, who went through his residency at IU and is an internal medicine pediatric doctor.”
In her rest cities, Calais and Dover, Smith recalls only sleeping an hour or two.
“I knew I had the best people because they all can suffer really well. I had people that could be sleep deprived and still function,” she says.
It wasn’t until around 4:30 a.m. on the bike ride to Paris that she reached an alarming level of exhaustion.
“I had this funny inkling … and I’m like, ‘We haven’t checked in with Max and Zane,’ our sons, who were stateside [in Chattanooga, Tenn.],” she says. “And I was like, “Wait a minute, that’s my little trigger or my alarm that something’s off when I start thinking about them.’”
Registering that her body needed a break, Smith pulled over to the side of the road. Her team assembled a cot and she took “the best 20-minute nap” before jumping back on the bike.
Pushing her physical limits is a mental game Smith finds exhilarating.
“That’s the draw for me,” she says. “That’s why I do these things. You’re pushing yourself to a place you can’t get to any other way. You only have yourself. It’s the ultimate meditation. You have to watch your thoughts, and if something [dark] does come up, you’ve got to deal with it.”
There are a lot of runners and cyclists in the world, but there are very few people who feel comfortable swimming for miles in open water. We were curious. How does she eat in the water? Has she ever encountered sharks? Smith answers all those questions and more in the following conversation.
Tell me a little bit about your younger self. At what age did you start swimming?
Jenny Smith: I started taking swim lessons around five or six. I took lessons at Ben Davis High School and Thatcher Pool on Rockville Road in Indianapolis. My mom is from Hawaii, and I fell in love with the ocean over there at a very young age.
Did your family visit Hawaii every year?
JS: We didn’t go that often. My grandparents had a place down in the Florida Keys. I remember sitting on a stroller looking at the ocean for hours on a boat. They were fishermen. I had no fear of the water at all. It was very calming and relaxing to me. The water [has always been] associated with good times.
Did you swim at IU Bloomington?
JS: No, but I biked in the Little 500 for Phi Mu in 1995. That launched my love for cycling.
When did you complete your first triathlon?
JS: In my early twenties, I [competed in] the Indy Sprint Triathlon at Eagle Creek Park. It was a 500-meter swim, a 10-mile bike ride, and a three-mile run. Since then, I’ve completed a total of six full and five half Ironman Triathlons.
Are you better at swimming, biking, or running?
JS: Swimming. Because it’s almost second nature to me. But I still get on my bike and ride almost every week.
Your sons, Max and Zane, have watched you compete for years. Are they interested in open-water swimming?
JS: No. They’ve both expressed fears about deep water.
That’s a great segue. Tell me about the dangers of open-water swimming.
JS: [I’ll tell you about the time] I swam the Kaiwi Channel. People call it the Channel of Bones. It’s super deep water because it’s not protected by any mainland land. I had swum over 26 miles. I still had probably three or four miles to go. I left the Molokai shore at 6:00 p.m. or so, right at sunset, which is kind of spooky. I’m heading toward Oahu.
I swam all night, and it was the trippiest swim. Whether they were jellyfish or orbs, I’d never seen these kinds of things in the water before. Then, around 8:00 a.m., a tiger shark came up and was right next to me. I thought, “You’re being silly. You haven’t slept in a while.” And then I’m like, “No, that’s definitely a tiger shark right there.” I could see its faded stripes. I could tell you how many teeth it had. My kayaker was to the right of me, and I had snuggled up to him. He couldn’t put his paddle down on his right side because he also had a tiger shark on that side. I [decided] to get out of the water.
I had seen other sharks that morning, and they would just kind of swim by. But this one wasn’t leaving. It was super curious. It was a little nerve-wracking to get back in the water. It’s not the shark you see that’s going to hurt you, it’s the shark you don’t see.
After my interaction with the shark, because it was so non-prompted, I did some research. I found out that it’s your urine that they’re interested in. They don’t know what your urine is. So, now I’m like, “I’m not peeing.”
How did you feel getting in the water the next time?
JS: For my next swim, I went to Anacapa Island, which is one of the Channel Islands of California. The photos are so funny to me now, but you can see the fear on my face. I was so scared. I [ended up swimming] through two different dolphin nurseries. You never see that. I thought, “Okay, I’m all right. It’s okay to be back in the ocean.” It was a nice way to get welcomed.
You never know what’s going to happen. I have friends that swim in these same places and they never see anything. They may see one jellyfish. And I’m like, “Do they look around?” And then I have other friends that’ll put Vaseline in their goggles, so they don’t see anything.
I’ve had seals bump me. I’ve had sea lions underneath me. I kind of feel like I’m a little bit of a Dr. Dolittle out of there. If there’s something out there, I’m going to see it. I’ve seen whales and rays. I’ve been stung by jellyfish in the North Channel from Northern Ireland to Scotland. They have the giant jellyfish called lion’s mane jellyfish out there. I can’t tell you how many times I was stung by those.
And you just pushed through that?
JS: Yeah. The water’s about 52 degrees. Cold. When I got out, I was completely swollen. It’s a 12-hour reaction. You can’t really sit, lay down, sleep, or eat.
The water temperature, that’s what gets most people. The third thing would be the waves and wind. You try to look at the weather and you trust your pilots, but mother nature is mother nature. Sometimes you’re going to have the wind in your face, or the diesel fumes are going to be blowing in your face because that’s just where the boat has to be.
What is your ideal water temperature to swim in? And what do you normally wear in the water?
JS: The temperature I like is around 63 degrees. We have this thing called English Channel swimming rules. You can only wear a swimsuit and have one pair of goggles and one swim cap. You can’t double up your cap, but you can use earplugs.
You don’t wear a wetsuit in 60-degree water?
JS: You can’t. I don’t even own a wetsuit. In the Enduroman Arch 2 Arc, you can wear a wetsuit. I didn’t wear a wetsuit because my friends would hang me by my toes. I mean, it would be blasphemy. Plus, it would be uncomfortable.
Do you eat at any point during a swim?
JS: My feeding plan is so simple. I drink probably 12 ounces of Arizona sweet tea mixed with a carb loader every half hour. The carbs that I use are easily digestible. I do that the entire way on the swim, and it works for me.
Do you hold onto the boat while you’re drinking? Or are you treading water?
JS: English Channel rules say that you can’t touch the boat. Also, if I were to hand you my water bottle and you took it from me, then that could be considered cheating too. Will throws it out on a kite-fishing line and I swim to it. Most swims start at night, so there will usually be some glow sticks hanging off of it.
You want your feeds to be quick because you’ll notice that you go backwards because the tide’s pushing you back. You end up re-swimming at least 400 yards. And I don’t really chit-chat or anything. It’s just “thanks” and “see you in 30 minutes.”
When you’re not training or competing, do you teach open-water swimming?
JS: I’m a meditation and yoga teacher at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. I’m also a swim coach for a club, and I work as a swim guide.
Describe your job as a swim guide.
JS: You are responsible for coordinating the boat pilots and taking care of the clients—making sure they’re safe and having a good time. These swim holidays are all over the world, including Croatia, Greece, Mexico, and the Galápagos.
Living in Tennessee, you’re swimming in lakes and rivers. Do you prefer swimming in freshwater or the ocean?
JS: I would take the ocean in a minute. The Tennessee River has been very kind to me, but freshwater is a little harder on your joints. The salinity of the ocean gives you a bit more buoyancy.