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.