Alas! It took a year to get a reprieve from Hurricane Matthew, which prevented me from visiting Chattanooga, TN last October. I’ve always wanted to “Swim the Suck” as it is a favorite of many a swimmer. The race is the brainchild of Dr. Karah Nazor, a Chattanooga native. It’s a great testament to the high “fun factor” of an event when the number of volunteer kayakers is greater than the number of swimmers. The check-in line for kayakers and volunteers was considerably longer than that of the swimmers at the Waterhouse Pavilion in downtown Chattanooga on Friday evening. After a catered pasta dinner, Karah explained to the audience the origins of the race. Her grandmother used to go “swim the Suck” as a kid, the Suck being Suck Creek, a tributary of the Tennessee River. I’m glad Karah has kept alive her family’s love for swimming in this gorgeous river.
Swimmers awaited with baited breath the announcement of the water release rate from the Chickamauga Dam, which is located upstream of the race course. The forecast was 19,000 cubic feet per second (cfs), which translates to emptying the volume of a fifth of an Olympic-size pool every second. Yes. That’s a lot of water. According to the race website, the highest release rate was in 2010 at 33,000 cfs and the lowest was last year at 0 to 7,000 cfs. 19,000 cfs would make for a nice push.
The Chickamauga Dam is managed by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). As many large water resources projects in the United States, TVA was authorized by Congress in the 1930s, its main purpose to address issues of navigation, water supply, and flood risk reduction in the Tennessee River Valley. The production of hydropower was added in the 1940s. These missions continue to this day. The Chickamauga Dam protects the city of Chattanooga from flooding. A lock allows vessels to transit across the dam and Route 153 provides for vehicles to transit along it. The dam is a hydroelectric facility that provides electric power to the city of Chattanooga. It creates the Chickamauga Reservoir, which extends 59 miles upriver to the Watts Bar Dam, offering many opportunities for recreation.
The highlight of the evening was Sarah Thomas’s talk. Sarah has completed two of the most epic marathon swims in the history of our sport: 80.0 miles (128.7 km) in Lake Powell in October 2016, for which she won the Marathon Swimmers Federation’s 2016 Solo Swim of the Year award, and 104.6 miles (168.3 km) in Lake Champlain in August of this year. She is certainly one of the greatest swimmers in history. But you wouldn’t know it. Unlike the self-aggrandizing marathon swimming frauds celebrated by media, Sarah was unassuming and honest about her astonishing accomplishments. Sarah requested questions through Facebook and answered them in her talk. My favorite was “Why do it?” Her answer was “To say I did it.” There is a lot of power packed in that short statement. To say one has done something one (or no one) has done before, is a testament to dedication, sacrifice, devotion, focus, and drive. Personally, to be able to say I’ve accomplished a swimming goal makes me feel “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” That, dear readers, makes me extremely happy. There are very many reasons to take on marathon swims, as many as there are bodies of water. I like to think that all of us obtain very personal rewards from it.
On race morning, I drove at oh-dark-hundred to the Tennessee River Gardens, the terminus of our swim. I arrived much too early, but luckily two of my friends from SCAR were there and we chatted while the field filled with cars. Four school buses arrived to pick up swimmers and volunteers and take us to the Suck Creek Boat Ramp, about a half-hour ride.
At the boat ramp, I went over my usual routine of meeting with my pilot, handing over feeds and tracker, and lubing up in baby butt paste. The sky was overcast and the forecast was for it to remain so. The air temperature was 73 °F (22.8 °C) and the water temperature 76 °F (24.4 °C), too warm for me, but as long as the cloud cover remained, I had a good chance of finishing without much misery. After the safety briefing, kayakers entered the water and positioned themselves near four red buoys according to swimmer number. My pilot would be waiting by the first buoy. Swimmers lined up at the boat ramp in numerical order and entered the water. As I dove in, the feeling of warm water on my skin made me doubt my initial forecast of finishing without much misery. The men were wearing pink caps and the women yellow caps, which I found rather confusing in the water. I try to avoid the men, as I am not tall and fending them away requires too much energy. I am not a fan of pink, but neither of yellow. Orange, however, is a great color. While we treaded water waiting for the go signal, we gently floated downstream en masse, like a smattering of petals.
Once the go signal was given, we swam across the river toward a cow floatie near the opposite shore. I really wanted to hug it because I grew up in a farm and am quite fond of cows. However, Karah was using the MSF rules rather than the new USMS rules, which I suppose would’ve allowed for holding on to the floatie. Thankfully, the MSF rules permitted me to keep my dignity intact. I chuckled at the funny floatie and proceeded to swim to the first red buoy, where I found my pilot. Together we headed downstream aided by the current among many other swimmer-pilot pairs. After the race, I checked the flowrates from the dam. It remained at around 18,000 cfs throughout the race, enough to get a nice push, but not enough to feel the waterslide effect of the Hudson two weeks before.
Date and time
I hadn’t swum in four days due to a cold. My coach had advised to stay away from the pool and rest. Heeding his advice paid off because on race day I was feeling great and as a bonus, my stroke also felt great. The initial couple of miles felt crowded as the field of over 100 swimmers spread out. There was virtually no wind. Even so, a distracted stand-up paddler bumped into me, but I pushed her board away. I got into a rhythm from the start, bringing my effort to the point that if I pushed a bit more, I’d feel hot. My pilot stayed next to me most of the time, though sometimes the kayak would lag out of my sight and then catch up.
The river was very placid. Beautiful, green, gentle mountains lined each side. Karah had pointed out landmarks during her briefing, but I didn’t commit them to memory except for TVA’s Racoon Mountain pump house at mile eight. I was content watching the mountains pass by. Sometimes I’d catch a glimpse of turkey vultures circling suspended in thermals. Every so often the high-pitched whine of motorboats cruising along the opposite shore would interrupt my tranquility. At some point a large, black butterfly flew above me, so close I could’ve reached for it. Instead, I backstroked just to watch it flit away. The cloud cover remained, allowing my body temperature to remain in check. A gentle southern breeze caused ripples, which slapped my swim cap. I welcomed the subtle change in the conditions. I was swimming in this state of contentment when I noticed that my pilot hadn’t caught up with me. I looked under my left arm and didn’t spot the kayak. I stopped and turned facing upstream. To my surprise, my pilot, as well as the kayak, were on the safety pontoon boat and the volunteers aboard signaled me to keep swimming. I wondered what had happened.
I disliked the idea of swimming by myself, notwithstanding the fact that the course was well marked with red buoys. I am not afraid of many things, but I am of powerboats. I felt reassured in that there was a swimmer in front of me who was swimming a little slower than I had been, so I matched her speed and stayed behind her pilot. I thought that the pontoon boat crew would come by and pull me out once the volunteers had assisted my pilot. The idea of having my race cut short didn’t really upset me since whatever happened to my pilot was completely out of my control. I hoped my pilot was doing well and that I could somehow continue swimming.
The pontoon boat caught up with me. Thankfully, my pilot was fine, though I later found out a minor injury had been sustained. Apparently the kayak had been swamped by a wake. The volunteers again told me to keep swimming. I was so happy to stay in the water, I failed to ask what the plan was. I had no pilot and no feeds. The last time I had talked to my pilot, I was at the four and a half mile point. I caught up to the swimmer-pilot pair I’d been trailing and stayed behind them again. At that point the river widened and slowed down. The water felt a bit warmer and I felt thirsty. I was still wondering what the plan for me was. I decided that if I felt in an unsafe situation I would signal the pontoon boat or ask any pilot to call for assistance. I was pondering on my situation when I came upon a lonely stand-up paddler. I figured she was probably safety, so I stopped to ask her my position. She indicated five and three quarter miles, which meant I’d been swimming alone for one and a quarter miles. She asked why I was swimming alone and I told her my pilot had fallen in the water. The paddler offered to accompany me for a while and I instantly felt safer. After a short while, the pontoon boat pulled up alongside the paddler and handed her my feeds and tracker. I didn’t see my pilot on the boat. The paddler would escort me for the remainder of the swim. I felt so grateful!
I took some of my cold feed and was able to resume the cruising speed I was maintaining prior to my pilot’s accident. It was very reassuring to have the paddler abreast of me. Her paddling skills were impressive. She would change positions every so often (standing, kneeling, sitting) and would maintain her speed and balance flawlessly. It was a joy to watch her. Now that I was feeling more relaxed, I took the time during feeds to look at the tranquil scenery of the Tennessee River Gorge, strips of limestone peaking close to the tops of green mountains.
When I spotted the Raccoon Mountain Pumped-Storage Plant, I felt elated. At this point, we were hopscotching with another swimmer-pilot pair, the same one I’d been trailing when I was swimming alone. I enjoyed swimming next to the water control structure, its scour wall about 550-ft long. The pumphouse carved within the Raccoon Mountain limestone pumps water from the river to a mountaintop reservoir. During times of peak power demand, water is released from the reservoir through its hydroelectric turbines. The facility generates fourteen times the power of the Chickamauga Dam, though its purpose is to match peak load and serve as a back-up power source.
Past the pumped-storage plant, my paddler handed me a feed and announced it was my last one. The river’s shoreline was protected by rip rap beyond the water control structure. Past the rip rap and the vegetated shoreline stood the Tennessee River Garden’s barge cell and the finish buoy. My hopscotching partner had taken a line closer to the shoreline. I increased my speed for what I judged to be over a mile, just to see if I could beat her to the finish, though I knew she had the advantage of a shorter line. Even so, it felt good to be able to pick it up toward the end of the swim. With about 100 yds to go, I sprinted toward the buoy. My hopscotching partner beat me to it, though. I slapped the buoy with great gusto. There is no better way to finish a 10-mile race than to sprint at the very end. I thanked my paddler for “adopting” me and making my swim possible. Later on I heard from my initial pilot. A full recovery was in order.
And so, on the shore of the Tennessee River, my 2017 season came to an end. Ten races, eight of them marathons, two DNFs, ten opportunities to learn something about the sport and about myself. When I look back at this season, I see the immense challenge that SCAR posed, count the many friends I made in Arizona, and dream of Canyon Lake’s water, which gave me all its love, and of the sea of stars above Roosevelt Lake, winking at me while the cold air on my face reminded me I am alive and my life is only mine; I see the mighty Hudson teaching me a lesson in humility just to turn around a few months later to allow me the most fun I’ve ever had swimming downriver, I see the granite buildings of the United States Military Academy rising over a portentous river covered in whitecaps; I feel the playful Memphre dialing down the water temperature so I could finish my longest swim to date; I feel the waves and the swell and the wind off Coney Island; I hear the lovely Chesapeake telling me to explore new waters; and I feel great gratitude toward the paddlers who accompanied me in all of these watery journeys. I hear the ocean calling me by my name and telling me to come back home.
By William Ernest Henley
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
Having no swims between the Border Buster in July and the Suck in October, I was persuaded by a friend into signing up for back-to-back September swims in New York: the Triple Dip, run by CIBBOWS in Coney Island, and the Spuyten Duyvil 10K, run by NYOW in the Hudson River. These swims seemed like a fun way to spend the weekend. Then Hurricane Irma struck Florida. The week leading up to the storm, South Florida became a hysterical madhouse: long lines at the gas stations, hardware stores, and grocery stores. The pre-storm stress was dovetailed by the one brought by watching the path of the storm creeping toward Florida and finally feeling its effects. My neck of the woods was left with downed power lines and trees, though sadly other parts of the state were left in much worse conditions. Once the storm passed, communities grappled with the lack of power and kids enjoyed their break from school. The pools were closed. By the time I had to leave for New York, I was ready for a break from two weeks of constant stress.
I arrived in a very hot New York City on a Friday and on Saturday morning took the subway to Coney Island in Brooklyn. Coney Island features a beach, boardwalk, and amusement park. The Triple Dip is one of the races run by CIBBOWS and offers 1-, 2-, and 3-mile options which start within ten minutes of each other. Capri Djatiasmoro, the affable leader of this cheery pod of swimmers, put on a fun, safe and well-organized race. Close to a hundred swimmers participated.
The morning was foggy, but not enough to obscure the buoys marking the course. The air temperature was 71 F (21.7 C). I measured the water temperature at 70.8 F (21.6 C) at the shore. The safety meeting was held right on time just outside of the New York Aquarium’s Education Hall on the boardwalk. The course for the 3-mile swim was one and a half loops. Swimmers would head south for half a mile, turn at the buoy adjacent to the Steeplechase Pier, swim a mile north, turn at the northernmost buoy, swim a mile south, and finally swim half a mile north and toward the finish line at the beach.
The 3-mile swimmers (pink caps) started in the second wave. The water felt cooler, perhaps in the upper 60s. Because of Hurricane Irma, I hadn’t swum in ten days. My stroke felt terrible. My shipment of contact lenses had also been delayed due to the storm so I had to dig out a pair of ancient prescription goggles. I was certainly glad I hadn’t thrown them away because without those goggles I would’ve strayed from the course as I did on the Potomac last September. I was happy to be swimming in cool saltwater―my favorite kind of water.
Heading south, there was a gentle push from the wind and the waves. After rounding the buoy at the southernmost, I felt the chop, which is always fun to swim against. Rounding the northernmost buoy I was grateful the volunteers in the safety boat offered me water, but I had some Gatorade left in the silicone bottle I stuck inside my suit. Swimming south I had to contend with the swell, which pushed me toward the shore. That was not a good thing, since the beach has rock groins jutting perpendicularly into the water. I passed a couple of two-mile swimmers, but for the most part I was swimming alone. I rounded the southernmost buoy for a second and last time. A volunteer in the safety boat offered me water and this time I took it because I had run out of Gatorade. Swimming into the chop again I caught a flash of what I thought was another pink cap. Soon I heard someone yelling at me from behind. It was one of the swim angels in an orange cap. She was shouting encouragement. I felt somewhat taken aback because I didn’t feel I needed it. I figured the swim angel probably thought I did because I’m a slow swimmer. In any case, I smiled and resumed my swimming but now I was stopping every so often because she kept encouraging me and directing me toward the finish. My rhythm was now lost, but the swim angel was so happy I couldn’t help but feeling happy, too.
I walked out of the water and when I saw my time my heart skipped a beat. It was the worst time for a near 5K I’ve ever had. I don’t get many finisher medals these days, so I was happy with the one I got from CIBBOWS: a little bottle opener shaped like fish bones. Capri told me there was one last swimmer in the water. The fog had not yet lifted. I walked back to Education Hall wrapped in a thermal blanket. Awards were already being delved out. I received an award for being last, not without protesting since I really wasn’t and didn’t want to take the prize from the rightful winner. It was given to me anyway and I hoped the lady still in the water got one, too. I got another award for finishing fourth in my age group. Fourth out of four was quite amusing. The Triple Dip was a fun swim. Most of all, I felt grateful to be back in the water.
NYOW’s Spuyten Duyvil 10K
On Sunday I had the season’s second appointment with the Hudson. Back in June, I attempted Stage 4 of the 8 Bridges Hudson River Swim and did not finish. I had mixed feeling about returning to the Hudson, though given the forecast of light winds, I judged the likelihood of finishing much higher.
On its second installment, the Spuyten Duyvil 10K was purported to be a very fast race. The start was timed to get a good push from the ongoing tide. The race takes its name from the Spuyten Duyvil Creek, which connects the Hudson River to the Harlem River just north of the finish point at La Marina Restaurant in Manhattan. In Dutch, Spuyten Duyvil means spouting devil, a reference to the turbulent flows in the creek before it was channelized from the late 1800s to the early 1900s to accommodate shipping traffic.
On race morning many swimmers congregated at La Marina Restaurant to board the shuttle buses to the starting point a the JFK Marina in Yonkers. Just like the previous day, fog hovered above the water. After preparing for the start, we turned in our bags to be taken back to the restaurant. During the safety meeting, Dave Barra, one of the race directors, announced that a film crew would be documenting the event for a short film for Riverkeeper. The filmmaker, Jon Bowermaster of Hudson River Stories, aims to demonstrate how people can enjoy a much improved Hudson River. I’m looking forward to his piece.
About 200 swimmers were numerically ordered in five waves, slowest to fastest. To my surprise, I was in the second wave. Rondi Davies, Dave’s co-race director, saw swimmers off a the dock. My group gasped when we realized how fast the river pulled the first group of swimmers downstream. The second wave swimmers jumped into the water and laughed while we waited for the go signal and drifted downstream as a group. Soon enough Rondi gave us the go and we took off.
I enjoy seeing how much a body of water can change from one day to the next, from one month to another. Stage 4 was very present in my mind as I started Spuyten Duyvil. The conditions couldn’t have contrasted more. The water was glassy and the wind very light as opposed to the choppy water and the wicked headwind back in June. The water was warmer, which surprised me. Perhaps the Hudson and I would kiss and make up. I swam uninterrupted mile after mile. This was a new and welcome feeling. Whether the Hudson punishes me or carries me gingerly, it always makes me feel like I belong in the water. But not having to stop… who does that? Fish… Mermaids…
Knowing that the deepest part of a river is the fastest, I tried to hug the line of kayaks that herded the swimmers downstream. I saw many swimmers on my left, closer to the shoreline, but I enjoyed my spot since not many swimmers were close to me. Every once in a while the water rippled, but for the most part it was like glass. The kayaks looked like cars driving down a highway that disappeared in a mirage. The George Washington Bridge (a double decked suspension bridge) appeared within the fog. I knew that we wouldn’t swim under it, but its appearance signaled the finish was near. The fog lifted and I immediately felt hot and wished for the race to end. As if summoned, the Spuyten Duyvil Bridge (a railroad swing bridge) and the Henry Hudson Bridge (a steel arch bridge) beyond it appeared on my left. I was ecstatic. The kayakers directed the swimmers toward the restaurant’s marina. We had to make a hard left, otherwise the current would sweep us downstream past the finish.
The timing mats lay on a concrete boat ramp. Swimmers had been warned about how slippery the boat ramp would be. In addition, water chestnuts―an invasive water plant whose fruits have sharp barbs―could make our stepping onto the boat ramp painful. Shuffling was recommended. Well, I tried to stand up and promptly sank into a gelatinous mud. I fell on my butt. I tried to stand again and my knee met the boat ramp’s concrete. Very ungracefully I gained some balance and finally stood up. Rondi gave me a hand and I was able to walk toward the timing mat. I’d finished in less than two hours. That was indeed very amusing. After a quick shower, I enjoyed the perks of finishing a race at La Marina: good drinks and good food. The mood was festive as this was NYOW’s season closer. The winners received awards and all swimmers received glasses emblazoned with the funny logo of the race.
At the end of my swimming weekend in the city, I was glad I returned to the Hudson. If I’m fortunate enough to swim in the river next season, there’ll be no hard feelings, at least on my end. I can only offer the Hudson an honest swim and the Hudson can only give me whatever it’s got in store that day.
And so, the time came for my second toughest challenge of the year: the Border Buster, a 25-km (15.5-mi) loop around the southern end of Lake Memphremagog, starting in Newport, VT, venturing across the border into Canada, and returning to Newport.
I’d had a tough 10-mi race in the Northeast Kingdom last year, though that didn’t dissuade me from returning to this magical corner of the Green Mountain State. The ten miler had been my introduction to the fabulous tribe of marathon swimmers who travel the world in search of challenges in all kinds of waters. Last year, I showed up in Newport knowing no one. This year, I was blessed to have many new friends to connect with. Camaraderie and fellowship abound in the Northeast Kingdom.
I arrived on Thursday evening with enough time to settle in at the Newport City Inn and Suites (where the tribe seemed to have been staying judging by the number of kayak-carrying cars), grab a juicy burger at the Tavern on the Hill while listening to a live band, and go grocery shopping. I joined friends on Friday morning for an easy swim at Lake Memphremagog. Being immersed in water felt fabulous as I hadn’t swum in five days; I’d caught a cold strong enough to sideline me from work. Coach Patrick, in his infinite wisdom, ordered me to stay away from the pool and use the time to sleep. Now, swimming toward the jack-o’-lantern buoy (RD Phil White’s first buoy), I was glad I’d heeded my coach’s orders for I felt rested and I could actually breathe. The water was 72˚F (22.2˚C). I was concerned I’d feel hot during the swim, but I’d brought a fabric cap to replace the race’s silicone one as a heat-management measure. After the swim, we had a wholesome breakfast at The Brown Cow.
I spent the rest of Friday morning organizing my gear and preparing my feeds. Later in the afternoon, I had a delicious lobster roll from the Chowder Shack at the Gateway Center (a visit to New England is incomplete without one), checked in, and boarded the Northern Star cruise boat for a tour or the portion of the course that lies within American waters. I wouldn’t meet up my kayaker until race morning, so I tried my best to memorize landmarks. Identifying them is certainly a much easier task from the upper deck of a cruise boat than from the waterline. My favorite landmarks were Île Ronde, NNW of buoy #15, and the little islands (Black I., Cove I., Bell I., and Gull Rock) near buoys #4, #5, and #6. Île Ronde looked like a cupcake, an easy landmark to recognize. I adore the little islands on the east shore of the lake; colder water surrounds them. My Friday ended with the pasta dinner in the company of friends. I was ready to go to sleep. The border busters had an early start the following morning.
I arrived at Prouty Beach at 0430 on race morning: plenty of time to meet with my kayaker Mark, get gear and feeds ready, ensure my passport was safely stowed in the kayak, and cover in zinc oxide. I have a very fond memory of last year’s Border Buster start. I was camping at Prouty Beach and woke up to the sound of swimmers entering the waters of a very foggy lake; I could’ve sworn the noise had been made by waterfowl. Perhaps that was the moment I decided to enter the Border Buster the following year.
Like last year, the lake was foggy. The 0530 start was delayed not by fog, but by the late appearance of a support boat. Phil indicated that he would try to keep on-land medical support for another half hour, but he wasn’t sure. That was the cue for the start of the mental game. Unlike last year, this year there was a time cutoff of 10.5 hours. I needed that lost half hour. Kayakers were dispatched to the jack-o’-lantern buoy. At 0600, the swimmers were given the go signal. Leaving Prouty Beach, I took with me the nagging thought that I’d be pulled out at some point.
With an air temperature of 48˚F (8.9˚C), the 72˚F (22.2˚C) water felt warm. I was wearing my silicone cap, but had my fabric one at the ready should I need it later in the day. I found Mark by the jack-o’-lantern and we took off toward buoy #1, which was shrouded in fog. By the time we reached buoy #1A, we’d established a ‘battle rhythm’ and the fog had lifted. This was my first race taking feeds every half hour. I’d always fed every twenty minutes due to my heat issues training in Florida. I do love to swim without interruptions; therefore, I found the new regime more suitable because it helped keep my head in the game and my body ‘turning the paddles,’ as my friend Bob—whom I consider a mentor—had told me the previous day. Buoy #2 and its associated light beacon appeared quickly. With buoy #2A came the realization that my legs should be higher. I made an effort to program that new body position in my brain so I wouldn’t have to think about it. I was pleased to reach buoy #3, the turning point for the ten milers. Ahead of us was the border. The thrill of entering Canada swimming, unlike driving or flying like I’d done when I traveled in two previous occasions to Montreal for the Jazz Festival, nearly eclipsed the nagging thought of getting pulled on my final approach to Prouty Beach. Between buoys #3 and #15 lay a vast expanse of glass-like, cooler water that offered no help and no hindrance. However, encountering such conditions is so rare, one would be remiss by failing to enjoy the novelty.
A swimmer/kayaker pair moved alongside us for a while. The kayaker was crowding me, but rather than getting upset, I took the opportunity to pull ahead when they stopped for a feeding. My kayaker and I were alone in the water, which is a feeling I enjoy. Our solitude was broken intermittently by an always welcome pair: Kellie and Greg on the pontoon boat that patrolled the northernmost section of the course. It bought me so much joy to watch Kellie wave at me! It also gave me comfort when Greg provided directions to Mark.
Always pointing toward Île Ronde, we crossed the border. ‘Welcome to Canada!’ said Mark. I took a few seconds to observe the border’s features. On the west shore of the lake stands a tiny white building with a red roof. Île Provence rose above the water east of us. The island is carpeted by pines trees except for the location of the border; a swath of land has been clear-cut. We continued our northerly sojourn. A red stick appeared in my field of vision. The water was still so glass-like, it reflected the buoy like a mirror, making the buoy and its reflection appear like a long feature.
I was pleased to have reached my northernmost point after seven miles and celebrated by backstroking around buoy #15. I wondered how many swimmers had rounded the buoy and whether anyone had come up with a more creative celebration. I had the impression that there were two swimmers behind me. I hoped they showed the buoy some appreciation before it was pulled from Canadian waters and brought back onto U.S. soil. Now we turned ESE across the lake toward buoy #16, a stretch of 1.8 miles. I’d seen the buoy the previous day from the cruise boat; however, I’d been facing north. With Greg’s help, we located the buoy and I made a beeline for it. My kayaker and I put a wide gap between each other. I couldn’t resist the pull of a straight line. Past the halfway point, I rounded buoy #16 and turned south. With the feeling of returning to my starting point, the feeling of wonder about my finishing the race intensified. My mind was mercifully distracted by the sight of Île Table à Thé, a tiny island with a beautiful house that appeared to have a Spanish tile roof. The impossibility of finding Spanish tile above latitude 45˚N caused me to doubt my eyesight. Though aided by contact lenses, I decided it should not be trusted. The water surrounding Île Table à Thé was shallow and clear enough to allow me to see the silty, ridged bottom peppered with rocks.
Mark casually mentioned that we’d been in the water for six hours. I had another four hours to go, four and a half if fortune winked at me. Ahead of us was the quartet of small islands whose water I so much enjoy. A seed germinated in my mind: the thought that I would perhaps make it to Prouty Beach. The boot of doubt quickly trampled upon the seedling of success. I had DNFd my previous race. Perhaps I didn’t deserve to finish this one either. But from somewhere in South Florida thoughts sent by two very dear people came to my aid. My coach had said to me, ‘I believe in you’ and my son, ‘Finish.’ Armed with those two thoughts, I resumed what my mentor had told me to do: turn the paddles.
During the cruise, the captain had advised to head for buoy #5 and ignore buoy #4 since it marks the ten-mile course. I couldn’t locate buoy #4, so I assumed it had been pulled out because by that time all the ten milers would’ve passed the islands. We rounded buoy #5. I quickly located buoy #6 by looking for a landmark: a blue mountain with a dip at the top. A friend of mine had aptly named it ‘butt crack mountain.’ I had a chuckle. In my mind, I thanked my friend for providing me with some desperately needed levity.
Now began the most challenging portion of the course: the 2.5-mi stretch between buoys #6 (Bell I.) and #7 (Indian Pt.). Indian Pt. is low and marshy, which makes the identification of the point rather difficult. Past buoy #6 and out of the wind shadow of the islands, a NW wind appeared, which gave me an assist on the way south, but pushed the kayak toward Derby Bay. Once again, a gap appeared between my kayaker and me to the point that the safety boat that patrolled this part of the course presumably told Mark to rein me in because he motioned me to get closer after the exchange. Notwithstanding this warning, the gap kept appearing due to the kayak being swept east. Father Ocean, sensing my growing frustration from afar, summoned a gift: sailboats! Suddenly, many of them crisscrossed the lake, their skippers certainly enjoying the light breeze. The sailboats made my heart flutter and the joyful memories of sailing in Biscayne Bay carried me to Indian Pt. and buoy #7.
With a mile left, the worry of getting pulled returned even stronger than before. A pontoon boat motored near us; it was Phil. I had no intention of asking show much time I had left. I would simply turn the paddles until I reached the beach or Phil ordered me to cease and desist. I considered switching to my fabric cap, for I was getting warm, but abandoned that idea in favor of expediency. A swimmer closer to shore passed us. I worried that the probability of the pontoon boat singling me out was greater now. Once again, Father Ocean sent a harbinger of hope. A delightful sailboat flying a spinnaker in various shades of blue, ran by us. Its beauty obviated the Spartan efficiency of the pontoon boat. We passed buoy #8. Only the Prouty Beach buoy was left and toward it I swam. I rounded it and then and only then I accepted the fact that I wouldn’t be pulled.
I breaststroked on my approach to the beach to avoid the tall submerged vegetation. With about ten yards to go, the water became so shallow it was not possible to continue swimming. I knelt, wary of standing after being in the water for what I thought was nearly ten hours. The volunteers beckoned me toward the ‘line in the sand.’ Feeling no lightheadedness, I stood up, and after thanking Mark, I waded out of the water and crossed the finish line. Bob, whom I was so glad to see, handed me a ‘woodal’ and informed me that I’d finished in 10:27 with three minutes to spare.
Stopping is often a tough affair. I tried to help my kayaker land on shore but bending at the waist proved to cause lightheadedness. An angel named Elaine came to my rescue and assisted my kayaker while I retrieved my drybag and cooler so we could transfer my gear and most importantly, my passport. I struggled to the picnic shelter to get some food. My body was sore and didn’t seem to know whether to feel cold or hot. My blood sugar was dropping, which added to my lightheadedness. I had a recovery drink and a burger and waddled to the bath house in order to get the zinc oxide off me. Once cleaned up, I returned to the motel to change and go back to the beach for the party. By the time I got a glass of the aptly named Border Buster hard cider I was so keen on trying, I had started to feel well enough to enjoy the company of my friends, delicious food, and good music. Phil knows how to put on a fun party.
On Sunday, I partook on two established post-swim traditions: ice cream with a friend at Tim and Doug’s and a recovery swim in Lake Willoughby. The drive to Lake Willoughby is quite scenic. Route 5A offers gorgeous vistas of the mountains in which the lake is nestled. The South Beach, across from the White Caps Campground, offers a stunning view of the lake and clear, cool water to soothe aching shoulders. After a day of serious swimming, frolicking among the wavelets of Lake Willoughby felt wonderful.
For two consecutive years, the waters of Lake Memphremagog have been good to me. As I left Prouty Beach after the party, I thought of the irony of the order of things. I had wanted to enter the Border Buster to prepare for Apache (the A in SCAR), but as it turned out, I had the opportunity to enter SCAR prior to the Border Buster. After completing the Border Buster, my longest swim to date, I can attest that I had no idea what it would have taken to swim Apache, which I DNFd. Conversely, Saguaro, Canyon, and Roosevelt (the S, C, and R in SCAR) mentally prepared me to swim the Border Buster. Even with two DNFs, it has been a fantastic year. I’ve learned countless lessons since I swam the Kingdom Swim’s ten miler last summer. As the sun sets on another magical swim in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, I feel waves of gratitude toward the kayakers and volunteers who’ve supported me, my friends, my mentor, my awesome coach, the young ones at home, and the race directors that create opportunities for swimmers to continue their love affair with water.
Whenever I plan for a swim in a new body of water, I feel a certain reservation. Shall I trust these waters? Will they welcome me? The wisdom and experiences shared by other swimmers might give me an inkling of the kind of reception I might expect, but there is no telling until the moment the waters and I meet. Some waters have an instant chemistry with a swimmer. Perhaps the setting, the color, taste, and smell—even the weight—of the water, the way the sun reflects on the surface, or the latent power of endless water molecules moving in unison make a swimmer fall in love instantly. But other times, waters can be reserved and mysterious, not wanting to open up to a relationship, at least not right away. The latter is the case of the Mighty Hudson and me.
Encouraged by a dear friend, I decided to include one of the 8 Bridges swims in my season. 8 Bridges is a favorite of the marathon swimming community for the immense challenge it represents—at 120 miles the longest stage swim in the world—but also due to its impeccable organization and dedicated volunteers. My friend suggested Stages 3, 4, or 6 were more suitable for a newcomer. Being a fool for scenery, I picked Stage 4. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity swim by the U.S. Military Academy. The U.S. Army has been a part of my family for three generations.
Most people think of the city whenever New York is mentioned, but what they’re omitting is the natural beauty of upstate New York. The Hudson River Valley has always been a favorite of mine. Driving to the Garrison Metro-North Station through winding roads lined with lush trees was a beautiful prelude to what I expected would be a beautiful swim. The morning of Stage 4 was misty, with air temperatures in the lower 70s (21˚C). A group of about 50 people—swimmers, kayakers, and volunteers—boarded the train en route to Beacon, our starting point. From the Beacon Station one can see the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge in the distance.
Next to the ferry dock is a boat house where the kayaks were stored after Stage 3. While the kayakers readied their craft, swimmers handed them their feeds and gear. By day four, many swimmers had already established a routine with their kayakers, particularly the intrepid nine who were swimming all seven stages. The through swimmers were five Americans, three Brazilians, and one Mexican, and one could tell these people had already forged a bond among themselves. One couldn’t find a more fun elite group of swimmers. I felt fortunate to be starting that day, not only because I’d be swimming for the first time in the Hudson and seeing West Point from the water, but also because there were many friends who were starting with me or volunteering, swimmers whom I’d met in Vermont and Arizona during the past year. I love the traveling circus atmosphere.
After checking in with my gracious pilot, Lizzy, I covered any exposed skin with zinc oxide. The day was overcast, but avoiding any potential sunburn is always a priority. The swimmers boarded Launch 5. We motored over to the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge while the kayakers made their way from the boathouse.
I glanced south at the wide river. In the background, the Hudson Highlands were shrouded by the lifting fog. I gazed again at the river. Her gray-green, choppy surface pried my eyes away from anything and anyone. Underneath the waves, I could see the sheer power of the Hudson on its inexorable course south and I understood that it is called mighty because the instant I dove in, she would engulf me and punish me and either humble me or forgive my trespassing and let me go just as easily as it let me in. The mood in the boat was festive, but I’d picked a spot on the port gunwale to take the experience in quietly. Only one other silent swimmer stood beside me. I offered the Hudson a rock I’d picked up on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay the week before. I had forebodings that it wasn’t enough to entice a welcome from the river. Perhaps I should’ve also offered a pink shell from Florida. Neither here nor there, the rock was all I had. I kissed it and threw it overboard.
The captain stopped the boat under the bridge. I looked up at the twin spans and recalled the Chesapeake Bay Bridge fondly. I knew that unlike the Chesapeake, these weren’t known waters; this wouldn’t be an easy swim, but I was determined to find it in me to finish it. Swimmers jumped in the water with glee. I was the last off the boat. Below the surface, the water was dark green and the visibility low. It felt very comfortable at 69˚F (20.6˚C). Lizzy and I found each other right away and soon I heard a loud ‘Go!’ I was grateful I didn’t have any time to consider how the swim would turn out.
Downriver Lizzy and I headed hugging the east bank. She was a fabulous paddler, smooth and steady, keeping her craft pointed on course through chop and wake. Throughout the first four and a half miles of the swim we were hit by unrelenting, deep head-on waves. On my left Lizzy guided me and on my right land features and barges passed by, but these were images that only existed in my subconscious, for I felt I was alone with the river and I belonged in its cool waters and breathing had turned from something vital for land dwellers to something amusing for water beings. The Hudson was punishing me, but she was still letting me through.
Lizzy pointed Bannerman Castle. The river narrowed after another mile at Breakneck Point. As we entered the Highlands the waves calmed. Further downriver, the wind died in the shadow of West Point. When we reached World’s End, just before passing West Point, we crossed the channel over to the western riverbank. Now the river enticed me with pleasantries like a fast current, lenses of cold water, and the magnificent views of the stalwart granite buildings of the Military Academy. The elation was not to last long. As I had expected, once past West Point, at nine and a half miles, the wind picked up and the river renewed her pummeling, invigorated. White caps, fast and shallow, hindered my progress. Every so often my arms would be knocked into a wave, but rather than fight it, I would dolphin through it. Gusts created ripples over the waves and filled the air-water interface with more oxygen than my lungs could breathe. Slowly Lizzy and I traversed the river. I stopped for a feed and looked back toward the Military Academy’s buildings. I was dismayed at how close they still were. Lizzy informed me that we only had two hours left before the tide turned and any remaining swimmers far from the Bear Mountain Bridge would be pulled. I judged I had another five miles left and realized I would never make it. Lizzy and I resumed our toiling while barges placidly sailed by. Lizzy took me into the wind shadow of the small peninsula of Con Hook. My goal was to swim to it so I could at least have a peek at the Bear Mountain Bridge that lay beyond. The safety vessels informed Lizzy the RDs would pull me. I swam nervously waiting for someone to actually tell me to stop. I paused to ask Lizzy when this would occur. She offered I could stop out of my own volition, but I declined. In the shallows near the shoreline the water was warm. My hand touched the bottom and it receded. It felt like a living, gelatinous, dormant creature, which briefly scared me. Lizzy guided me around the north side of the peninsula. Once we turned the corner, the safety vessels were waiting for me. The image of Cerberus appeared in my mind’s eye. I have never accepted defeat so readily. The Bear Mountain Bridge loomed three miles away. I’d swum twelve. The Hudson, gray and angry, impeded the way. I asked Lizzy if I could swim to green marker 35, only because that way I would know the exact endpoint of my swim. It was only fifty yards away, but it took a while to reach it because now I could feel the full brunt of the incoming tide. The Hudson, humoring the idiosyncrasies of an engineer while relishing in her power, declared it was finally time for me to leave. Humbled, I thanked her for the safe passage and touched Lizzy’s kayak. My swim was over.
A few days later, back at my team’s pool in West Palm Beach, I spoke with my dear coach about what this DNF means. He reminded me that I have lofty goals and with those come harder races, some of which I might fail. Improvement is made by taking on races that seem just beyond my reach, not by taking on the ones where I have a high likelihood to succeed. He reminded me of the words of Michael Jordan, whose work ethic and dedication I hold in high regard: ‘I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.’ My coach asked me if I’d do Stage 4 again. I said I would.
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…