An Interview With Distance Swimmer Matt Moseley

Help save the Colorado River by pledging to support Matt Moseley's 47.5 distance swim through the Canyonlands!

Help save the Colorado River by pledging to support Matt Moseley’s 47.5 distance swim through the Canyonlands!

On July 20, Matt Moseley will take to the water to swim close to 50 miles of the Colorado River to raise support for America’s Most Endangered River. You can pledge to support the swim – all donations will support American Rivers’ work to protect and restore the Colorado River.

We sat down with Matt to learn about his connections to the river, what motivates him, and how he trains for a swim like this.

Tell us about yourself –

In my day job I am a communications strategist and principal at InterMountain Public Affairs in Boulder, Colorado.

Some of my other experiences include being the national field director for Rock the Vote in Los Angeles, deputy press secretary for the Denver Summit of the Eight (G7 Summit) and communications director for Colorado Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald. In 2004 I was a press officer for the United States Olympic Committee at the games in Athens, Greece, and wrote numerous articles for national publications.

I also had the pleasure of working with Hunter S. Thompson and successfully helped free Lisl Auman from a life sentence without parole. When Hunter died I worked with Johnny Depp on the funeral and ash-blast as the family spokesperson and communications director. Based on those experiences I authored Dear Dr. Thompson: Felony Murder, Hunter S. Thompson and the Last Gonzo Campaign, which was a finalist for the Colorado Book Award.

I also recently worked with American Rivers to defeat a hydro project in Aspen.

I grew up in Lafayette, Louisiana and lived in New Orleans. From there I moved to Telluride where I met my wife, Kristin Howse Moseley, who is an attorney specializing in water rights—she will be along for the trip and is well versed in who gets water, when they get it and why they need it. There is a saying in the West, “Whiskey is for drinking. Water is for fighting.”

What inspired you to do this swim?

In some small way I would like for the swim to make the connection between humans and our water. Rivers like the Colorado are the essence of life, but somewhere along the way we have lost what water means.

Besides swimming this stretch before, I was inspired now because of American Rivers designating the Colorado River as the most endangered river in the U.S. I want to do my part to raise awareness about the plight of the Colorado River and the role American Rivers is playing to protect it.

In 2006, I made the first swimming descent of the Colorado River on this stretch – a distance of nearly 50 miles in 16 hours 50 minutes. This swim was listed as one of the Ten Biggest Adventure Moments of 2006 in the Rocky Mountain News. However, the swim was over two days and broken up in smaller segments. I’m returning to the Colorado River this year with a goal of swimming Canyonlands in one day of continuous swimming.

I’ve been open water swimming for a long time. I equate open water swimming with getting off the track and on the trails for running or hiking. In open water we leave the pool and the lanes lines and time clock behind.

We are all descendants of the water and after swimming for long periods one begins to feel that connection. After several hours of swimming all the thoughts wash away and the adventure becomes simply you and the water. We just don’t think about our connection to water anymore and many people think water just comes from the faucet.

Do you have a personal connection to the Colorado River?

After my wife and I met in Telluride about 20 years ago she gave me a canoe as a birthday present and it came with a trip down this stretch of river. We’ve done this trip in some incarnation every year since. Being from Louisiana I never really thought much of Utah, but the beauty, starkness and desolation of canyon country has changed my life. I love river trips because they are so far removed from our daily lives. There is no cash exchanged, no reservations, rental cars, cell phones or any of the other complexities of another kind of trip. I can’t wait to get back.

What’s this stretch of river like?

After the river cascades down from Granby, Colorado through Eagle and Horsetooth Canyon, West Water and into Utah, past Moab and leaves the Rocky Mountains behind, it takes on a different character from the roaring rapids and turns darker brown as it widens out. It is here that the powerful river begins to cut through the Colorado Plateau culminating in the Grand Canyon. The 50 mile stretch I will swim from Potash Point outside of Moab to the confluence of the Green River is a magnificent, lovely stretch of river that is rarely used except by boats getting down to Cataract Canyon. While there are no rapids the river moves as a slow moving serpent carving deep crevasses into the earth. White sand beaches and islands appear around nearly every bend as the high water from the spring runoff recedes. Sheer face canyon walls rise up from the water.

By swimming the river, one becomes part of it. Not merely a spectator. One feels the currents weaving back on itself moving about 1-2 miles per hour. Slow and constant, but extremely powerful.

One stark lesson is that the river is never, ever straight. It is always shucking and jiving as it finds its way. An important factor in a swim like this is to follow the fastest water and the strongest current.

Winding past Pyramid Butte and into the beautiful Loop, where the river weaves back on itself– Then I know we are about 10 miles until the confluence of the Green River and about three hours of swimming left.

The confluence of the Green and Colorado River is magical place only accessible by the river. Usually two beaches are formed on each side about a half mile or a mile long form as the rivers meet. My history at the confluence runs deep.

When I swam this river seven years ago–over two days–our night at the confluence was one never to forget. The crew prepared a fine meal of flank steak, black beans and a cilantro lime green chili salsa, which I imagine could be on the menu again. A massive crescent moon hung over the canyon ridge. The big dipper was coming down for scoop. A camp fire sparkled nearby. We had completed our goal and were satisfied. The feeling was powerful. Ancient.

What’s the hardest thing about a swim like this?

Nutrition, support crew, and training are three critical factors in completing this journey.

Nutrition: While I very much enjoy swimming in the open water and sometimes feel like I might be able to swim forever, there is a stark reality that the body just doesn’t have enough fuel. Staying on top of feeding every 20 to 30 minutes from the very beginning is crucial to sustaining the energy to complete the swim. However, in the height of any athletic endeavor the body may not want to take nutrients or the stomach curls up in tight knots. Keeping fed, hydrating often and eating solids at least every hour and a half are the key ingredients to distance swimming. If I bonk at mile 30 then I’m probably done because you can’t recover from that.

Support: The crew and team need to work as a seamless unit with goal of getting through the swim. They are paddling hard for all 16 hours and it is just as taxing on the rowers. The Colorado is a relatively small river and it has a fairly narrow channel as it cuts its way through Canyonlands. It is very easy to get out of the channel into slower waters and the next thing you are walking and pulling the boat across six inches of water over a sandbar.

Training: The final 10 miles or so are going to be very tough no matter how well I’m prepared, but I will be within striking distance. That is where the physical and mental training comes in. It takes a lot more than just strong shoulders to make it. The mental stamina to keep your mind in that space for such a long time is equally important. Part of my strategy is to use as little energy in the first 25 miles and just swim easy, long and strong, let the river do the work. I plan on enjoying it and watching the eagles overhead and the constantly shifting contour of the canyons. I envision about four segments at about three to four hours each. My goal is to complete the swim in under 16 hours.

What do you eat- how do you keep your energy up?

From years of distance swimming and doing races, I have a very specific feeding regimen. Hammer powder mix for endurance, Vitalite mix for electrolytes, plenty of water at least every 25-30 minutes or even more if I feel thirsty. I will consume about half a Roctane endurance gel with most of the feedings. Eat a piece of banana, power bar, tortilla chips, maybe a little ham sandwich every hour and a half. I need to have some kind of solid base or my stomach gets an empty sick feeling. At mile 30 or so, I will likely stop to eat a real lunch.

How do you train for something like this?

I swim with the Boulder Aquatics Masters team and workout 4-6 times a week. Then I supplement my regular training with distance swims. In January I started with 6km, then a few weeks later 8km in a pool. On vacation in Mexico I swam 12k from Sayulita. On June 8th I did a 12.5 mile race around Key West. A few more massive training swims and I will be as ready as I can be.

There is a trick with distance training to go large, but you also can’t rip up your shoulders, so I’ve learned through the years, that there is a patient long term build up to distances. At these distances you have to train for the mental aspect of time and pain tolerance. Maybe you can physically do it, but will it drive you mad? I like to finish well and be strong and feel good—not be crushed.

Also, last May of 2012, my cousin Glynde Mangum and I relayed to complete the second recorded crossing of Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans, Louisiana in a combined time of 12 hours 23 minutes. The 2012 swim helped to raise funds to rebuild the New Canal Lighthouse which had been destroyed during Hurricane Katrina. This isn’t my first swimming rodeo.

Have you had any unexpected/surprising/scary/funny moments on your swims in the past?

I swam the first half of a 26 mile crossing of Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans last May. We experienced terrible weather and 3-5 foot swells and I was swimming at night. At one point around mile 7 or 8 I and angrily told the crew to stop taking pictures because the flashes were bugging me out. It wasn’t a camera the boat captain yelled, it was lightening. I asked if I should get in the boat. He said we would all still be in a lightening storm anyway in the middle of the lake, so we might as well keep swimming because I was probably safer in the water anyway. I tucked my head down and kept going.

There is always the wildlife such as sharks in Key West, jellyfish in Pensacola, alligators in Pontchartrain. I have even seen a Nutria, which really bugged me out. But the Colorado River doesn’t have anything like that down there and I have nothing to worry about. I am honored to be doing this swim on behalf of American Rivers and excited to be back in a place I love. Swim, my brother swim.

And he lowered himself into the water. A proud swimmer. A free man striking out for a new destiny.

– The Secret Sharer by Joseph Conrad