GCBS was the race that made me fall in love with marathon swimming. Granted, GCBS is not considered a marathon swim, but it was the training exclusively for a long-distance swim and spending hours in the open water that enthralled me. Before my first GCBS, I’d done the Swim Miami 5K and it didn’t have the same effect. Perhaps the love affair had to start at a place permanently embedded in my heart.
I ended up in the ambulance after I completed my first GCBS in 2015. Suffice to say that my gut told me not to wear a wetsuit in 76F (24.4C) water, but being a relative newcomer to open water swimming and seeing 600 people wearing neoprene made me think they knew something I didn’t. Truth is my confidence was not high enough for me to believe I could make the crossing in a swimsuit, so I wore the wetsuit and paid for it dearly with a heat injury.
Many have argued that wetsuits are used in this race as safety aids or as a way to promote participation since the race is a fundraiser. Ultimately, it was my decision to enter the lottery and to wear the wetsuit. Because of the heat injury, I learned that my body has an upper temperature limit, one that I keep revising down. I’m still looking for my lower temperature limit. I do not know what that is yet.
Last year I was fortunate to enter GCBS again. That time I wore a speedsuit, which I can now see signals that I still wasn’t so confident in my abilities. I had a good race in tough conditions. Even so, failing to make the crossing in a swimsuit still nagged me.
For a third year in a row I was selected by the lottery. This year the conditions were more favorable: water temperature was 72 to 74F (22.2 to 23.3C) throughout the swim, the lowest of all three installments, and we were starting relatively early compared to the two previous years, which would preclude me from swimming during the hottest part of the day. The air temperature remained between 73 and 74.5F (22.8 and 23.6C). The sky was clear. The bay had a very light chop. ESE to S winds remained under 7 mph and gusts under 9 mph. The stats below are from NOAA’s Annapolis buoy. It was a gorgeous day to be in the water.
For the occasion, I wore my Maryland flag suit. Before starting the race, I felt this might be my last time, so I wanted to pay homage to my adoptive state for fostering my love for the open water. I have gotten used to small races where swimmers understand there is enough room in the water for everyone. Before I set foot on Sandy Point State Park’s red sand, I’d realized I’d become weary of races with hundreds of swimmers. It was bittersweet to acknowledge this would be my last GCBS start as long as I completed the crossing.
The horn went off for the Wave 1 swimmers. I didn’t wait for others to go ahead of me, as I usually do. I waded and then dove into the greenish water. It didn’t taste as salty as other years. My body felt comfortable and limber; I fell into a rhythm with my first stroke. Soon enough I had reached one of the ‘beach ball’ buoys that mark the ‘gate’ where swimmers cross under the northern span of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. I swam along the northern span. My plan was to hold that line until at least the third of 4.4 miles. By then the tide would be pulling me to the south.
The chop was so light I almost wished for last year’s rough chop and pelting spray. It does no good to be in that frame of mind, so I abandoned it. Mile 1 is at the point where the west end of the bridge straightens and one is regaled with the most glorious sight of this swim: the twin spans stretching for three miles, the four suspension towers reaching toward a clear sky, and the Eastern Shore in the distance.
This curve can also be very frustrating. I was constantly bumped into by men in neoprene. When I pass a swimmer, I either go left or right, never over. I consider that lack of sighting sloppy, lazy swimming. Typically I just lean into a swimmer who has just bumped me and the swimmer veers away. I’m short and small compared to most male swimmers, so I’ve learned to defend the space around me. Even so, this race is chockfull of incidents. Last year a man hit my face so hard that my goggles came off and by cheek stung. This year, a man hooked his arm around my neck and pushed my head deep into the water. I instinctively turned toward him and slammed his chest with both my hands in order to cause him to release the hold on my neck. He popped his head up and apologized, but by then I was swimming away from him. My timing chip was about to fall off. I supposed he’d kicked it, but I didn’t feel it at the time. I stopped briefly to readjust it, though I had to repeat the procedure once more during the swim. My heart rate was quite elevated by the adrenaline slug that coursed my body when my head went under. I had already reached one of the massive concrete monoliths and was approaching the shipping channel. I slowed down to let my heart rate settle before picking up the pace again.
While crossing the shipping channel, the Wave 2 swimmers caught up with me and once again I was annoyed by people bumping into me. Past the channel is the second mile marker, where the first ‘food boat’ sits. I had put down my suit two 0.5-L silicone bottles filled with hydration mix, so I had no need to stop. The stretch between miles 2 and 3 is always peaceful. By then I had drifted just left of the centerline between the spans. I felt I was swimming alone, something I truly enjoy. Every so often I’d gaze toward the southern span: many swimmers were following that line. Past the second set of towers and mile 3 (and incidentally the second ‘food boat’), the tide started pulling me. I regretted having migrated to the centerline so early. Now I found myself right of center, swimming at 15 to 20 degrees from the southern span. I was steadily making progress, so I maintained my heading. I’d reached the point where the course crosses under the southern span. Unlike previous years, this one was fairly easy: no big waves or eddies to fight. All I had left at this point was the quarter-mile stretch before Hemingway’s Marina. I have true contempt for this part of the race. The water is always shallow and very hot and many swimmers walk. I swam until my fingertips touched bottom. I stood up and crossed the finish line with a smile. At last, I’d crossed the bay following English Channel rules.
Swimming GCBS 2017 was a very different experience than the previous two years. Between this and last year’s installments, I’ve completed six marathon swims. Before GCBS 2016, only one. The long stretches of time in the water have made me a more patient swimmer, which allows me to enjoy immersion more fully. Perhaps that is the ‘swimming to the next feed’ mentality many swimmers speak of. I’m unsure. I broke my feeds by mile given my limited supply of hydration and lack of a watch. In my beginner days, I used to zone out and constantly wonder how much more I had left to swim. Now I’m aware of my surroundings and swim thinking about every breath, every stroke, and every kick as if it were the most natural thing for humans to spend hours immersed in waters, whether they are sweet, salty, or brackish, clear or murky, flat or choppy, in order to go from one point to another, or to start at a point and after a roundabout, return to it.
Glancing back at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge after finishing the race, I felt with certainty that this would be my last crossing. I thanked the Chesapeake Bay for the safe passage she’d just granted me and for the gift of realizing that the open water is where I belong. If the Atlantic Ocean is my father, the Chesapeake Bay is my mother, and as her child she’s telling me it is time to explore other bodies of water.
My SCAR journey started at the shores of Lake Memphremagog in Vermont, during last summer’s Kingdom Swim. Mine was the second ticket to be drawn by Race Director Phil White in a raffle benefiting a local environmental stewardship group. The prizes were entries to prestigious races and events. For reasons incomprehensible to me, the holder of the first ticket didn’t pick SCAR, so I did. At the time, I had only completed two marathon swims, so I considered SCAR much beyond my current abilities; however, time is a friend when it comes to training. Nine months later I was flying into Phoenix, AZ, accompanied by Tam, my friend and teammate from the Palm Beach Wahoo, who’d very graciously agreed to be my pilot.
Both of us got to swim in Saguaro Lake during the fun swim organized by the lovely Patty Hermann. I suggested to rename this the kayaker swim, since for many of these selfless friends this would be the only opportunity to share the water with the swimmers. The water tasted sweet to this Atlantic mermaid and much warmer than I expected at 69F (20.5C). The setting was nothing but gorgeous. This was my first time in Arizona. I couldn’t get enough of the beautiful and stately saguaros standing like sentinels all over the reddish hills and canyons.
The welcome dinner was at the Mesa Country Club. The buzz was that there was a surprise guest speaker. I got a hunch when Kent Nicholas, the creator of SCAR, handed me a copy of Swimming in the Sink, by Lynne Cox. I didn’t find out until Kent introduced her. Lynne spoke about her most famous swims and facing heart disease. Armed with additional inspiration, Tam and I returned to the hotel in Mesa to finish our preparations for the adventure of a lifetime.
S-day – Getting the show on the road
The four SCAR lakes are east of Phoenix. We start at Saguaro, which is due east, and we move further east as the days go by. The lakes generally run east-west, and we always swim from west to east. We still didn’t know this, but this was the easiest morning before a swim. We only had to drive thirty minutes to the Saguaro Lake Marina, which is north of the Stewart Mountain Dam, the finish line. As we drove, we saw a cactus fire that had caused the closure of the highway from Apache Junction, a town were many swimmers were staying. The night before I had prepared my gear: a dry bag with a towel, my giant dry robe, furry boots, and dry clothes; a small bag with essentials (cap, goggles, silicone ear plugs) and other things like baby butt cream, gloves, and a little bottle of Gatorade; and a mesh bag with my bottles, the line to hook the bottles to, baby food, and a spare set of goggles. Tam had the SPOT GPS transmitter and the marine radio.
We boarded the boats at the public floating dock by the picnic shelters. That’s where we’d mustered the day before for the fun swim. The boats were piloted by friends of Kent’s and they were the nicest people! Some boats were private and some were rented pontoon boats. The boat ride to the start—the Mormon Flat Dam—was my first time in the canyons. Oh, what a sight! There were hundreds of feet tall and every nook and cranny was different from the next. Saguaros grew on the most precarious spots. Our boat captain told us that the ones with arms were at least a hundred years old and could weight thousands of pounds because they’re full of water. Apparently every year poachers die when the saguaros topple over as they try to scoop the saguaros out of the ground. I’d never heard about cactus poaching.
About two miles in, past Ship Rock, the lake widens into a 2.5-mile long stretch that is very flat. Then the lake narrows again and winds in a zigzag to the Mormon Flat Dam’s tailwater. The boat dropped us off at a shady beach. One of Kent’s friends had slept there guarding about 50 kayaks, all tied together. Maybe there’s kayak poaching, who knows! Tam selected a kayak and we began setting it up. Then I got to work on my ‘sun protection.’ I slathered myself up in extra strength baby butt cream. I’m sure I stood out: I looked like Bibendum. Sun safety is important to me. As a sailor I’ve seen too many people get skin cancer due to sun exposure. We spent a long time at the beach waiting for all swimmers to be ferried in. I drank my Gatorade and was feeling so thirsty that I started drinking my extra feed. I made a mental note to bring more Gatorade the next day.
Kent told the swimmers in Wave 1 to board the pontoon boat. I waited with anticipation to turn around a corner and suddenly see the dam. One can feel very small at the toe of a dam. Kent told us to do our warmup swim from the boat to the line of orange safety buoys. We jumped in the green water. I’d measured the water temperature at the beach at 68F (20C), but it felt colder. Once at the buoys, we raised our hands to signal we were ready and Kent blasted the horn. My next stop would be the Stewart Mountain Dam, if I made it. Kent had said we had five and a half hours to finish the race. I’d calculated I needed six. I decided to shelve that thought for the time being and concentrate on the matter at hand: finding Tam.
I found her right away. She said the SPOT wasn’t working and handed it to me. It was impossible to turn on without grabbing the boat, so I just gave it back, bummed my friends wouldn’t be able to follow. I turned back to the business of swimming because that was probably the best thing I could do at that point. I was feeling good and was very entertained by the novelty of swimming in a lake within a canyon. I considered myself very fortunate. I’d had a right shoulder injury the previous month and was still wearing k-tape. Interestingly, my right shoulder felt great, but the left one started hurting after 2.5 miles. I started worrying about an impending collapse of my left shoulder and failing to finish the race, but the lake opened up and I was distracted by the leaders passing by: Stephen Rouch with Sandra Bergquist on his wake. Sandra waved at me and that made me very happy. She’d trained in my team’s pool earlier this year. I decided to ignore my left shoulder.
That wide expanse of lake was warm and that perhaps made that portion of the swim never ending. It was only 2.5 miles long. Up to this point the wind had been calm. When I finally sighted Ship Rock, the wind started picking up a bit. At this point, the lake narrowed again. I was glad to be swimming within the all-encompassing beauty of the canyon once more. A quarter mile into it, I saw heavy smoke; it smelled acrid, like burning plastic. Occasionally power boats went by, some were recreational fishermen’s and others were Kent’s friends’ checking on the swimmers. I was dead certain there was a burning boat around the bend and suddenly I realized we’d have to go around it. I popped my head up and asked Tam, ‘What’s going on?’ She said it was the cactus fire. I didn’t say anything about my imaginary burning boat until after we were done. I coughed. After that, every time I took a feed, I felt it wanting to come back up. I somehow managed to keep my feeds down. A little breaststroke helped.
With about 1.5 mi to go, the lake widened again. Past a rock formation that looked like a sugar loaf, I spotted the marina. Judging by my feed schedule, I was past the cut-off time Kent had indicated. No one seemed keen on pulling me out, so I kept swimming. A second kayaker, Eri Utsonomiya, joined us, since her swimmer was done. It was fun to be flanked by kayaks. In this swim, one doesn’t see the buoys until turning the corner, and once one does, the buoys are a short reach away. I was ready to finish. The water felt warm and I didn’t like it. My stomach was still upset from the smoke. I was the last swimmer to come in that day. I was so happy to see the buoy, I kissed it. I made a promise to myself that I would kiss every finish line buoy I came across.
I got on the boat, happy to have gotten my S. I didn’t particularly care I was last. I’ve been last before and didn’t die because of it. I’d just done something I’d never done before and was feeling a little ‘drunk’ by it. I felt fortunate to be swimming in such a gorgeous setting, surrounded by like-minded people, and having a wholesome time.
Stopping after nearly six hours of swimming is not easy. My body went haywire, but not as bad as the Kingdom Swim or my first Chesapeake. Suzie Dods very kindly offered me a sandwich, but the thought of food made me gag. I was a little loopy when I got off the boat. I changed into dry clothes and made myself eat a steak sandwich and drink a Coke from the Which Wich food truck. It tasted like heaven. I felt much better after eating. Then I realized I’d never touched my baby food. I don’t even know why I bother with it. I can’t eat anything solid while I’m swimming.
Back at the hotel, I was very focused. I went through my recovery routine: foam rolling, ibuprofen, Epsom salt bath, a second recovery drink. I had a light dinner of chicken and spinach flatbread. Got my stuff ready for next day and went to bed hoping I’d recover enough overnight to face C-day in the morning feeling better.
I now realize that much of what I was going through was a learning process. I was still worried about how my body would react to four days of swimming such long distances. My biggest training block had been 4.5, 9.1, 6, and 5.5 miles in four consecutive days, but only the 6-mi swim was a tough open water swim. The other aspect I was learning about was how much of stage swimming is a head game. One day at a time, focus on the matter at hand, ignore the stuff that distracts or keeps from doing the tasks that are vital, and improvise/adapt/overcome. Controlling one’s mind while swimming is key. I found that when I was in a tough spot (like the warm open area or the segment with the smoke) it was better to still take in the calming beauty of the adjacent setting and ignore the landmark I was swimming toward until feeding time. Not having to worry where one is headed is a huge reason to love one’s pilot.
C-day, which brought pleasant surprises, was next.
C-day – In love
I didn’t sleep very well; must’ve woken up four times missing the noise of my fan. We loaded all of our gear and luggage in the SUV and headed for Canyon Lake. Our route took us near Apache Junction. Now I was starting to get a taste of how remote the lakes were. The road to Canyon Lake was paved, but it traversed mountains up and down narrow and windy paths. The landscape was gorgeous: saguaro, prickly pear, and cholla cacti everywhere. When I got a first glimpse of the lake, I immediately agreed with the general consensus that it is the most beautiful of all four. It was idyllic. We parked at the Palo Verde Recreation Area and walked down to the boat ramp, which is in a large cove. To the north, canyon walls tower over the entrance to the long section of the lake. To the northwest is the headwater of the Mormon Flat Dam. The day before we had started the swim at its tailwater.
We waited at the boat ramp to be ferried once again to the staging beach near the tailwater of the Horse Mesa Dam. I didn’t chat much on this boat ride because I was taken aback by the sheer beauty of the canyon. I was also looking for goats, which are known to live there, but couldn’t spot any. I hoped that by the end of the swim I’d see at least one. The canyon walls of this lake are much taller than any other. The lake is also very narrow. In my opinion, these two characteristics are what make this lake so incredibly beautiful. Near the staging beach there’s a section where one can see layers of sedimentary rock of many different colors. Some of the layers are more suitable for vegetation growth, so they look light green. Together with the beige, brown, and red layers, they lend the canyon an almost festive look.
We disembarked. Unlike the beach at Saguaro, this one had practically no shade. Being a Florida dweller, the first thing I did was to find a shady spot. I found one in between a bush and a tall rock. While Tam readied the kayak, I covered my skin in my trusty baby butt cream. I’d made the mistake of leaving my sandals in the SUV (I was wearing boots), so I had to walk around barefoot. That made me miserable, because there was a green snake hanging around the nearby bushes and giant red ants practically everywhere. But was got me was not fauna. It was flora. I stepped on a spiky round seed. I felt a spike bore into my skin, but there was nothing I could do about it then. I measured the water temp at the beach at 64F (17.8C). Kent said it was 62F (16.7C). I’d never swum in water that cold. I was intrigued.
Kent called the swimmers in Wave 1 and when he got to my name he said I was the one completely covered in white stuff. I took a curtain bow because what else was I to do when everyone turned to look at me?
I boarded the pontoon boat and Kent took us to the tailwater of the Horse Mesa Dam. I jumped in the water. Oh, boy! It was COLD! It felt like upper 50s. I don’t know how I knew this. I’ve never been in water that cold. The funny thing was that I actually liked it. We repeated yesterday’s starting sequence. Next stop: the Mormon Flat Dam.
I immediately felt fabulous. Whatever pains I had the day before were completely gone. I felt stronger than I was before I injured my right shoulder. I was also swimming a bit faster than usual. I was loving the water and the water was loving me back. I’ve never felt anything like that! I wondered how long I’d be able to keep that pace, but the thought quickly dissolved itself because I was having the time of my life. The splashing water glimmered under the sun. I was swimming through joy.
Tam later told me that one of the kayakers we were close to on S-day asked what was up with me. Tam replied that I was loving the water temperature. I was trying to pass Tom ‘Reptile’ Linthicum when the fastest swimmers passed by. Sandra said hello again as she torpedoed by me. I saw Mark Spratt moving quite well, too. Eventually I caught up to Mo Siegel and passed him. I waved at his kayaker, Eri Utsonomiya. Ahead of me was Meenakshi Pahuja, but I could never catch her.
As I advanced through the canyon, I searched the walls for my goats. So far, no joy. After the five-mile mark, the sky became overcast and I felt the air temperature drop. I was still feeling fantastic, and every once in a while curled my toes to find out if I could feel them. I always could! It made me happy my body was reacting well to the stress I was submitting it to.
We turned southwest into the steepest canyon and the last 1.5 miles before the Mormon Flat Dam. It was like hitting a wall. The headwind and the proximity of the canyon walls made the water very choppy. To make matters even more interesting, a double-decker tour boat passed by. One of the safety boats had flagged her down to indicate the swimmers and kayakers in the water. I stopped to wave at the gawking passengers and they waved back. Soon after, I saw Mo and Eri on the opposite shore. I was taking the shortest line, but he passed me anyway. I put my head down and concentrated on perfect form in order to clear the canyon. The tour boat went by again, but this time I didn’t wave. I was elated when I saw the two white buoys that marked the turn west toward the dam. The water was calmer. I heard Tam yelling at me. Tam never yelled. She had found my goat! It was standing atop the canyon looking down at me. I stopped to laugh. I was so happy! Not only I’d had the swim of my life, I had found my goat, too! And with that happy thought, I swam toward the dam and kissed one of the buoys. Two swimmers came in after me.
I boarded the boat somewhat giddy. I was shivering a bit and had to ask for help to put on my dry robe. Tiffany McQueen was in the boat and told me it was better to take off the suit right away. That bit of information would be very helpful in two days. I was feeling so awesome, I couldn’t believe it. My body didn’t want to go haywire. Halfway through the trip back to the boat ramp, I had stopped shivering.
I got off the boat in my boots and immediately remembered the spike in my foot. I waited at the boat ramp for Tam to arrive and together we packed our gear. I changed at the parking lot. I pulled out three spikes from my foot with Tam’s tweezers. I loved my pilot even more at that moment.
Up to this point things had gone perfectly well, but from here on, things went all wrong. I had been advised not to be on the road to Apache Lake when dark. I had my recovery drink before taking off, but I was hungry. We could’ve stopped at Tortilla Flat, but I was so afraid of the road, I didn’t. It took more than an hour to reach Apache Lake. The road turned into a two-lane dirt road and soon into a one-lane dirt road up and down a mountain. It was a scary drive. I was very calm and Tam distracted me from the very real possibility of an untimely death. I was relieved to check into the hotel at around 1900. Sunset was soon after that. The sole restaurant was closing at 2030, so we had to take quick showers and head over. Tam wasn’t feeling well, so she retired. It took an hour for the food to arrive. I was getting lightheaded. It was past 2030 when I got some food in me, more than five hours after I had stopped swimming. I knew that had been an awful mistake. It was 2100 when I started getting my gear together. I should’ve been sleeping by then. Tam helped me get ready, but I didn’t like that I was going to bed late after being ‘starved’ for five hours, after a meal that was not ideal, to face the longest and toughest swim in the morning. The National Weather Service had already issued a wind advisory. Lights out.
A-day – The lake monster shows its face
My head was not in the game from the instant the alarm went off. I had calculated that on a good day, I’d need 11 hours to finish Apache. I had no idea when we were supposed to start, but assuming it would be no earlier than 1000 and given that sunset was at 1900, I would only have 9 hours. That was simply not enough. I had a guaranteed DNF. So why not trade that for a DNS? I could’ve just as simply stayed in bed. But no, I’m a swimmer. I couldn’t leave Arizona having stared at Apache through the window of my motel room and not swum in its waters.
Then came the internal negotiation. When should I quit? The Apache Lake Marina was at the 9-mile mark. That seemed like a good place to stop. With that thought in mind, I dragged my tired body out of bed.
We were to meet at 0600 at the restaurant, where Kent recognized the intrepid kayakers and gave them SCAR mugs. Food, however, was not ready until 0700. I was aggravated. I could’ve eaten in my room. I could’ve slept some more. No matter. I was already there. When the restaurant doors opened, I smelled bacon and felt sick. The sight of heaping plates of food made matters worse. I managed to eat some oatmeal and half a banana. I was feeling like a Bimmer with cheap gas in the tank. Sputtering. No energy whatsoever. Obviously my recovery from the last two days of swimming had been very poor.
The sight of the water at the dock lifted my spirits. Perhaps it was because whitecaps were starting to peak from the surface of the water and that reminded me of all the fun I had racing sailboats in a previous life. We boarded a pontoon boat. As soon as we had put some distance from the dock, the engine coughed and died. Our boat captain and Reptile tried a few things, but the engine repeatedly coughed and died. They decided the fuel line needed to be changed and called one of the dock boys for help. There was quite a bit of excitement as the mechanic switched out the lines and both boats, ours and his, drifted together toward a moored house boat. The mechanic finished the repair just in time to separate the boats and putter away avoiding a collision.
The landscape of Apache was gentler than the previous lakes. The shores were rugged hills rather than canyons. For about half the trip the lake was wide, it narrowed in the remaining half, but it didn’t give one the sense of being funneled. As we neared the tailwater of the Roosevelt Dam, the wind died down almost to the point of stillness at the staging beach. The beach was small and crowded. Because of our boat mishap, Tam and I had to rush our preparations. I was not ready when Ken called my name. I didn’t have time to take the water temperature with Mr. Duck (my thermometer). I made sure I had my cap, goggles, and silicone ear plugs, placed my dry bag in the designated heap, and boarded the pontoon boat. I felt sad as we neared the imposing dam. It’s hard to start something knowing one cannot finish it. After seeing the chop and feeling the winds on the first boat ride, I negotiated down my quitting point to a 10K. I just stared at the concrete dam, rising hundreds of feet before me. Once again, I felt grateful for the opportunity to swim in such a beautiful setting. Kent told us to jump in. The water felt cool and comfortable, perhaps 67F (19.4C). I reached the buoys and continued to stare at the imposing dam until I realized Kent was waiting for me to raise my hand. After he gave the starting signal, I asked Apache for safe passage until it decided it was time for me to quit.
It was calm in the narrow section of the lake, about three miles. Once the lake widened, I felt the heavy chop. Tam was having a hard time moving the kayak forward. When we stopped for feeds, she was immediately swept back. I felt exhausted. I had already swum a 5K and didn’t have the energy to continue. I told Tam I wouldn’t be in the water much longer. She persuaded me to keep going. Interestingly enough, she thought I was swimming well. I looked at track.rs later and corroborated her observation. I was moving very steadily through the chop. I swam for another mile. Still thinking I ought to swim a 10K, I calculated how much longer it would take me. It seemed like a long time to be in the water for a DNF. A volunteer on a pontoon boat offered to fetch my dry bag. I kept on swimming. When I sighted the Burnt Corral Campground, a very clear thought invaded my head: if I continued the swim I would ruin Roosevelt, which was the swim I had looked forward to the most. At that point, I popped my head out of the water and told Tam I was done. She believed me this time.
A nearby safety boat picked me up. Tam would be picked up by another boat. She had a marine radio with her, so I felt confident that if she was in trouble she’d be able to call for help. The volunteer handed me his parka, which was kind because I was covered in zinc oxide, and a towel. I wrapped myself the best I could and we took off in search of the boat with the dry bags. On the way, we picked up two other swimmers. The weather had deteriorated. Now there were mad whitecaps on the water and the wind was blowing harder, buffeting my hood at times. The boat with the dry bags was at the head of the field of swimmers. The swimmers were moving steadily, but the kayakers looked like they were struggling. Some were lagging behind their swimmers. I hoped some of them would make it to the dam. I happily grabbed my dry bag and put on some clothes and my boots. We were dropped off at the marina.
I spent hours there waiting for Tam. She hadn’t turned off the SPOT, so I could see that she was zooming around the lake on my phone. She must’ve been aboard a safety boat. I stopped worrying about her. Swimmers and crews started coming ashore. Some were in good shape, others looked tired, and yet others were suffering from hypothermia. I worried for the swimmers, kayakers, and volunteers on the angry lake.
After Tam came ashore we packed our gear and got cleaned up. I had an early dinner of salmon, mashed potatoes, and green beans. It tasted delicious! I went to bed early. This amazing traveling circus was about to close its doors and I wanted to feel well for my last bow. One thing nagged me: the weather forecast. The winds would be manageable, but the temperature was supposed to drop to 55F while I was swimming Roosevelt. I’d never experienced the cold water/ cold air combo.
R-day – SCAR’s curtain call
I woke up feeling as well as I did on C-day. My body was present; however, my mind was not. I was nervous. I’d never swum in waters in the 60s and air temperatures in the 50s, so I didn’t know how my body would react. So far, the only temperature-related discomfort I’d experienced was at the end of Saguaro, when the water was getting warm. Despite these concerns, I was still looking forward to a beautiful night swim, another first.
I confess that waiting all day to get going was a drag. In the morning, I packed my bags so as to cut down on the final packing I’d have to do before leaving for the airport early the next morning. I had eggs and potatoes for a late breakfast, which would be my last meal before the swim. En route to Roosevelt, we stopped at an overlook and stared down at the placid start line of the day before… What a difference a day makes!
The Roosevelt Marina is a floating village joined to land by a 1/3-mi walkway. It’s a long ways with gear bags and tired shoulders. At the bar, I chatted with other swimmers waiting for the pre-race meeting to start. Kent’s last speech was a bit bittersweet. After five days, the traveling circus was closing its doors. One last swim and SCAR 2017 would be history. He handed the coveted black caps to Apache’s four finishers. I was in awe of these intrepid men and women and their tough kayakers.
We boarded the pontoon boats for a tour of the lake and transport to the starting point at the Windy Hill Campground’s Bobcat Boat Ramp, which is about 6 miles east of the dam. I had my sailor hat on, probably because the lake looked like the best of all four for sailing. In fact, I’d seen a few sailboats at the marina. I knew that as soon as the sun went down, the WSW wind (13 mph) would die and the temperature would drop into the upper 50s during the course of my expected four-hour swim. Sunset was at 1908. Depending on the start time, it’d get dark when I was mid-course. We motored toward the Roosevelt Bridge and were told to use the red blinking light atop it as a waypoint. Previous instructions had stated not to use this red light, but rather another at the top of Inspiration Point, west of the bridge. Then we came about and headed east toward the boat ramp. I looked back at the bridge, trying to picture the layline in the dark. The wind would push us north, and if not careful, we could end up behind the land mass of Rock Island, thus obscuring the bridge. As long as the whole arch of the bridge was in sight, I would be certain that our course was correct. The medium chop would make the crossing lively. We rounded the Windy Hill peninsula, which would create a wind shadow for the first mile of the course. Our boat captain pointed to a small island (Shelter Island). We were to round it on its east side and turn west. By this day I’d been looking at all the courses from end to beginning and was now used to it.
At the boat ramp, Tam quickly selected a boat and got to work. I used two strings of rope lights to ‘decorate’ the gunwale of the kayak. I also clipped four green light sticks for the starboard side and four red ones for the port side. Tam affixed our team flag onto the bow. The boat was ready! Now it was my turn. Tam smeared the channel grease all over my body. This time people were noticing me because I was sporting my natural skin color rather than the very fetching white of the baby butt cream. Tam clipped a white LED light stick onto a ribbon on the back of my suit and two small LED white lights onto my goggles at the back of my head. She took off and I realized I hadn’t asked her to turn them on. I had to ask a swimmer to do it. Kent lined us up by number and checked our lights. He wasn’t satisfied with my light stick and called for a chemical one and a safety pin. I panicked. I told him he couldn’t pin the light stick onto my suit. He stared at me like I had escaped from an insane asylum (which was probably right because marathon swimmers do not appear sane in the eyes of the general population!). I explained to him that he had to pin it to the ribbon so that the pin wouldn’t touch my skin. My skin is very sensitive to metal. I cannot imagine all the weird things Kent hears from the swimmers. He’s understanding because he’s a swimmer, too.
Kent told us to wade into the water to knee length. I laughed because I’m so short in comparison to the people standing around me. But it was a nervous laugh. I was still afraid of the drop in temperature. I waited for the blast and off we went. I dove in and the water felt very cold. I guessed 64F, which wasn’t cold at all: the problem was in my mind. I was hyperventilating, but could still swim fast, breathing only on one side, which I don’t normally do, as if sprinting. After a 150 yds or so, I told myself that everything was fine because I knew how to calm down. By the time I rounded the little island, I had found Tam and was breathing normally. I enjoyed the swim in the wind shadow of Windy Hill. Near its tip, the water started getting choppy. I got sandwiched by one swimmer’s kayaker as I was passing him. He was so close, I could’ve touched him. Finally Tam decided to go around them. I passed some swimmers in the chop. It’s so curious to me that the only time I pass people is when it’s choppy.
Now I was in open water and feeling the effect of the full blown chop. I was worried because Tam was slightly behind me. I didn’t feel cold at all; that was promising. I was very focused on my stroke. The sun went down and the wind died gradually, just as I had expected. It took about twenty minutes to start feeling the cold air on my arms. Then Tam said we’d gone more than four miles and were close to the bridge. In the twilight, I could only see the left side of the bridge and panicked. As I had expected, we were getting pushed off course. I told Tam we needed to see the whole bridge. I started again, but I confess I was trying to lead her. I had to stop for her to catch up. She told me I needed to stay with her and I did, but I checked the bridge as if sighting a buoy. I had to work hard at getting my head back in the game. I tried a few things, but the one that finally worked was to repeat one of my favorite mantras (improvise, adapt, overcome). We were indeed close to Rock Island because the water warmed up. Later I verified that in track.rs. The air was much colder, but I still wasn’t cold. The last one and a half miles of the swim were magical. I was very focused on reaching the bridge, so focused that my feeds were gulps. But the sky! Oh, my! It was littered with stars! The quarter moon was out. I love looking up at bridges from the water. With the starry backdrop, the arched bridge was one of the most beautiful sights I’d ever seen. What a gift! What a lovely reward! I thanked Roosevelt for a safe passage. All I had left was 300 yds or so of swimming through twigs or wood chips (I’m unsure). I touched the line of buoys and I was done. I lingered for Tam to take pictures. All that worrying and I never got cold! I kissed the buoy and swam around the two safety boats. Tam took off for the public boat ramp at the Roosevelt Lake Marina, about one and three quarters of a mile away.
I couldn’t get any purchase on the boat’s ladder because it was angled in. The boat captain, a huge man, grabbed me by the arm and pulled me up as if I was a young child. I couldn’t believe his strength. The second I set foot on the boat, I started shivering uncontrollably. I pulled down the straps of my suit while the boat captain took my dry robe out of the dry bag. Sue Croft, the lovely British swimmer who’d just come in before me, helped me put my boots on and zip up my dry robe. Then I stripped the suit off under the robe. That was the best I could do. I couldn’t put a pair of pants on. I could barely talk.
Other swimmers boarded the boat and prepared for the ride back to the marina. I hugged Kent and thanked him for such a wonderful experience and for the assistance from his friends. Then he said something really nice to me: that I could do anything now. I believed him. After I took my place on the private boat that would transfer us to the marina, I looked at the gorgeous sky and felt incredibly thankful to be able to enjoy the beautiful waters of Arizona surrounded by passionate people. Swimming in the open water makes my soul happy.
SCAR didn’t turn out exactly as I had expected, but in some aspects it turned out better. I found out I love swimming in cold water, which is not surprising since I cannot tolerate warm water, but I loved the fact that my body seems to love it, too. I’m also tougher than I thought I was, though Apache is a tossup. I was trying to be realistic on that one. After getting my S, C, and R, I can say I’m a better swimmer than I was before.
My deep gratitude goes out to Kent for putting together the best swimming experience I’ve ever had. This is a swim that runs off love for this passionate sport. Seeing family members and friends working hard to make these five days in the High Country a challenging and worthwhile experience for marathon swimmers from all over the world, speaks volumes about Kent’s dedication. I’d love to come back to crew for a friend.
Many friends were instrumental in making SCAR a personal success: my pilot Tam Burton, my coach Patrick Billingsley, and fellow marathon swimmers Ed Riley and Mark Spratt. Tam trained for months in Florida waters to be able to handle her maiden piloting adventure. She enjoyed Arizona as much as I did. My coach Patrick has taken a personal interest in making me a better swimmer. That’s nothing but a labor of love. His guidance is priceless. Ed and Mark shared everything they know about stage swimming and don’t get tired of my many questions. This wonderful experience wouldn’t have been so without their advice.
The idea of doing SCAR was born out of the enthusiasm I felt while reading Stephen Key’s account. He’s also put together a map that is nothing but gold when it comes to understanding the logistics involved.
Finally, if I have any advice to dole out is with regards to swimmer/kayaker safety. As a sailor and a person who’s lost a family member to drowning, my message to anyone considering this swim is to be responsible for your safety and that of your kayaker. At night, you should want your kayak to be seen on the water. Get lights. Lots of lights. You should figure out ahead of time how to attach lights to your suit and bring anything you need with you. I was surprised to see swimmers who didn’t know how to do this or didn’t have string or safety pins. Finally, buy, borrow, or rent a marine radio to provide to your kayaker. If you or your kayaker encounters an emergency situation, your kayaker will want to be able to communicate with the people who can render assistance. Kent has plenty of them on the water.
I suppose I could also say something about training. What worked for me was back-to-back long swims (4-5 hrs) every other weekend and strength training 2-3 times a week. Yoga is great to keep your body limber.
The Arizona sun has set on the biggest challenge of the season. My next swims are in the waters of my beloved Chesapeake Bay and the legendary Hudson River. This mermaid can’t wait…