Delmont endurance swimmer Miller shifts focus to running
Darren Miller is better prepared for the cold water than most of the people who gather at the Mon Wharf for the Polar Bear Club's annual plunge into the Monongahela River on New Year's Day,
But after he became the first person to complete all seven legs of the Ocean's Seven circuit of challenging endurance swims on the first attempt, Miller isn't at his peak as far as cold-water tolerance goes.
The man who spent years conditioning himself with cold showers, ice baths and a thermostat setting that never rose above the 50s now is enjoying hot showers again and thinking of his other athletic love — long-distance running.
Although Miller became the only fourth person to complete the Ocean's Seven challenge when he swam the North Channel — which separates Scotland and Ireland — in August, he's taking a break from endurance swimming.
In November, the Delmont man completed a marathon near Philadelphia and now is training for the Badwater Ultramarathon in California, a 135-mile foot race that starts at 280 feet below sea level in Death Valley and ends atop Mt. Whitney, which at 8,300 feet is the highest peak in California.
Though he has been a lifelong swimmer, Miller would rather be pounding pavement than racking up nautical miles.
“I love running more than I love swimming, which is crazy,” he said. “That runner's high is so much more powerful than anything I've ever felt.”
In fact, it was only an injury that turned him from marathon running to endurance swimming.
When Miller graduated from Penn State in 2005, he said, he felt lost.
“I was 260 pounds and a big meathead. For about two years after that, I was really into heavy weightlifting. At the time, I was drinking and smoking and doing stupid crap,” Miller said. “I was a little lost, I didn't get into the field I (studied for in college), and I didn't know where my life was going at that point.”
In 2007, he started running to get back into shape. Three months later, he signed up for a marathon and completed that.
“It was the first time in my life where I realized I could do something that I didn't think was possible,” Miller said. “That triggered something in me — like, what else could I do?”
He kept running marathons, and by the time he ran in the 2009 Pittsburgh Marathon, he weighed 190 pounds — 70 pounds lighter than his heaviest.
It was during the Pittsburgh Marathon that he fractured a bone in his foot. Although he still completed the marathon, he had to wear a cast boot for months afterward.
Running was out of the question, but swimming wasn't.
Back in the water
For the next four years, Miller — who swam short distances competitively at Franklin Regional and Penn State — focused on swimming and training for the Oceans Seven Challenge, which is a circuit of the most difficult open-water endurance swims.
He said the biggest challenge was adapting his body to colder temperatures. He followed a rigorous regimen to push himself to his greatest potential. Three or four days a week, he would wake early, swim from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m., go to work at PNC Bank at 8 a.m., and then go back to Keystone Lake and swim for another three hours.
Instead of going out on the weekends, he would train at Keystone Lake. He took only ice baths and cold showers to get used to the cold temperatures he'd encounter in the Oceans Seven.
“I get up, and I'm cold. I take a cold shower; then I go swim in the lake,” Miller said.
He kept his house so cold that his friends would have to wear winter coats when visiting.
It was necessary, he said, for the hardening process that prepared not only his body but his psyche for the challenge.
Toughest of the seven
The Ocean's Seven is composed of the English Channel, the Irish Channel, the Cook Strait, the Strait of Gibraltar, the Catalina Channel, the Tsugaru Strait and the Molokai Channel. Of those, the most difficult for Miller was the Tsugaro Strait in the Sea of Japan.
“It was breathing both ways, water was going down my throat, and my tonsils were swelling. It was ugly,” Miller said of his July 14, 2012, swim. “I was expecting to be in the water for seven to eight hours. After seven to eight hours, I remember looking up and being nowhere near the other shore. Needless to say, I swam in place for six hours.”
Miller also said that the pilots were having issues predicting the tides of the water because the body of water was much unknown. “Then the sun drops, and a nice large shark swims right next to me. Then the temperature went from a nice 66 down to about 58,” Miller said. “In the end, they told me I had to sprint. Well, after 14 hours in the water, the last thing you want to be told is that you have to sprint.”
But sprint he did.
“I just gave it everything I had and eventually broke through the currents,” Miller said. “We got near the coast, and the boat wouldn't go any further, and I had to swim in by myself the last 500 yards; it was a very hairy experience over there.”
The second-most challenging was the Molokai Channel in Hawaii. The swim was 27 miles, but that wasn't the challenge for Miller.
“The water was like in elevator action,” he said. “I hadn't slept for two days because of anxiety. I was starting to get seasick.”
Miller was used to flatter waters.
“I remember being about halfway across through the channel. They could tell I was getting a little beaten up. I remember them yelling at me from across the boat, ‘You're an hour under the record!””
The ‘third boat'
Open-water swimming is a lonely affair. Runners can talk to one another, but swimmers have their face submerged, so even though a support boat is alongside, swimmers are alone with their thoughts.
Miller credits the power of visualization for overcoming the difficulty he was facing during the Molokai Channel swim.
“I have a concept called ‘third boat.' Basically, you have the kayak in the water, the support crew and the boat that no one sees. And the power of visualization is what gets me through those dark times. On that (third) boat, I would see my grandparents, my friends, my other friends and people who have passed on. I just get really fired up, the hair on my arms and my neck raise up, I get a few tears in my eyes, and just keep pushing forward.”
Miller draws inspiration from his grandparents — Polish immigrants who “died without two nickels to rub together” but instilled in him a sense of charity — and a Navy Seal who urged him to “do something each and every day that you don't want to do.”
Currently an investment banker with PNC in Murrysville, Miller, 30, is hoping to parlay his experiences into a career in motivational speaking.
He said he is planning to blend the lessons he learned through athletics with what he has learned in the corporate environment to motivate people to push themselves to their furthest potential.
He said he would like to tap motivational speaking to help the Forever Fund, a nonprofit organization that helps families of children who receive treatment at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. So far, his fundraising effort, Team Forever, has collected $75,000 and has helped families from 17 states.
Ever penny raised from his swims has gone to the Forever Fund; Trustmont Group, a financial-services company in Greensburg, has underwritten the cost of his Oceans Seven efforts.
Although Miller is focused on long-distance running, he hasn't turned his back on the sport that brought him headlines and funding for his charity.
On Saturday, he used social media to announce another project: Planning for the 2014 Three Rivers Marathon Swim in Pittsburgh is under way.
Nikki Pena is a freelance writer.