This story was originally published on October 16, 2015.
Despite major efforts to clean up the Three Rivers, many Pittsburghers are still a little leery about taking a dive in themselves. But open-water marathon swimmer Darren Miller—who trains in the Three Rivers—says we need to get over it.
“I’ll tell you what: I get interesting looks. I’ve had the police called on me—the River Rescue—saying that there’s a distressed swimmer out in the waters. That always cracked me up. I always try to get in the mindset of the passerby to think: What about me swimming parallel to shore, upstream, wearing a cap and goggles and a Speedo makes it look like I’m a distressed swimmer? So I think the perception in our city is that we have these Three Rivers, but you should never jump in them—you should only maybe ride a boat in them. But the water is, for the most part, clear. Murky? I don’t know. I really don’t run into any garbage—that’s what a lot of people ask. But the reality is they are actually quite clean. I swim in them all the time, and it’s an absolute blast.”
LISTEN: “What it’s like to swim in the Three Rivers”
“Basically when I do a training swim, I’ll pretty much just walk down to the dock wearing flip flops and a t-shirt and a pair of shorts. Disrobe. Usually kind of hide my stuff as best I can here along the wall and put a towel over top of it. Hop in. Swim. Get out. Dry off. And you look around and, of course, there are people looking at you. And you realize: I’m in downtown Pittsburgh in basically a Speedo, cap and goggles.”
“Coming down to visit my aunt who lives on the North Side, I would cross over the rivers. And I remember as a kid going over the bridges here. And I looked down at the water and I just always wanted to jump in the river and kind of see what it was like. I never really did that growing up now that I’m thinking about it. So one of the first times I remember jumping into the river was I jumped in with two powered boats and a group of kayakers and we went for about a nine-hour swim. Three hours in each of the rivers. I get asked a lot: What do you think about the entire time that you’re out there swimming for 9, 10, 12, 15, 18, 24 hours? And I always tell people: When was the last time you sat alone, for long periods of time, and you just thought about what you are doing and where you want to go with your life? Today, we’re so busy as a culture, I feel like people might have 10 minutes here and there to do that.”
“During a channel swim, we call it ‘feeding.’ Basically you’re fed like a dolphin or a seal off the side of the boat. Every half hour, you’re tossed a bottle on the end of a rope, which is a high-carbohydrate drink. Goo products. Gels. Maybe peanut butter and jelly. Bananas. Maybe even a slice of pizza. It’s about getting as many calories in your system as possible when you’re swimming for that long a period of time. You’re not only pushing yourself forward, but you’re also trying to overcome being cold. Especially in a long distance channel swim, when the water might only be in the 50s, your body is fighting to stay alive. So you do have to eat a lot.”
“Probably the funniest thing is I have more clothes in my closet than my wife does. I have what I call ‘Fat Darren,’ ‘Middle Darren’ and ‘Skinny Darren.’ Most channel swimmers are bigger people. Think about it: You have to have that extra fat to overcome the cold. So I’m going from slim fit to the big and tall store. I mean, there was a guy who was a sumo wrestler—400 and some pounds—he just swam a channel in California. People will look at these swimmers and think there’s no way that person could do that. Meanwhile, they’re out swimming 20, 30, 40 miles in the ocean—pushing themselves in ways that others wouldn’t think is possible.”
Darren Miller is an open-water marathon swimmer who regularly hits the Three Rivers for long-distance training swims. Photo: Lou Blouin
“One thing I’ll always remember: A [swimmer] friend of mine out of Southern California says that the toughest athletes—by far—come from Pittsburgh. And I love that. We get this perception that we are the “Steel Town” and that we have strength and we’re not afraid to push ourselves. And that’s what endurance athletics is all about. And that’s what swimming in these crazy rivers is all about. It’s about pushing yourself and seeing what you’re capable of.”
Darren Miller is an open-water marathon swimmer from Murrysville, Pennsylvania. He’s also the organizer of the Three Rivers Marathon Swim, an event which helps local families cover the costs associated with infant cardiothoracic surgery at the UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. Darren’s story is part of our series of audio postcards called “Our Three Rivers,” exploring the unique people that make up life on the Three Rivers. You can read and listen to more stories here.