Yep, it's true. I'm officially a marathon swimmer. Twice over, in fact. Better yet, I can remember why I'm doing this.
Back in February, I started training for Swim the Suck, a 10-mile swim down the Tennessee River. In April, I found out about the Narwhal Overboard 6-Lake Swim Challenge: Six 10-mile swims in Phoenix-area lakes in the month of May. If I'd known about these sooner, I would have started training earlier to be ready in time. But according to my training plan, my long swims during that time would only range from 4.5 to 5.4 miles. Luckily, I had the option to swim partial distances.
According to my training plan, I was supposed to swim 5 miles on May 13th. As the day got closer, I grew to hate the idea of stopping at the 5-mile mark. There were plenty of people who swam 10-mile challenges who've trained less than I have. I wanted to swim 7.5 miles at this event and 10 miles at the next one.
I told my coach I wanted to swim "more than 5 miles", but I didn't give her a number. She said it was okay. So I planned to go ahead with swimming 7.5 miles. It didn't happen quite that way.
There were a lot of "firsts" on this swim. It was the first time I swam with a kayak escort, and the first time I swam out into the open lake.
I didn't see the course map until a few minutes before we started, and I didn't quite understand it. My husband was kayaking for me. It was his job to navigate, and my job to follow him. But we were both a little confused, so I was trying to "help" at first. (Delightful, I know.)
After about 20 minutes, we got to a section of the course where the route was perfectly obvious. I relaxed and started to enjoy the swim. In fact, I started to really enjoy the swim. Canyon Lake is unbelievably beautiful. As the name implies, the course took us through a narrow canyon. Every time I breathed, I could see the canyon walls and my husband in the kayak. I loved having him with me. As long as he was there, it felt like I could swim forever. I never got lonely, my mind never wandered, and I never went to any dark places.
The water was was 68°F (20°C) at the start with colder spots at the mouth of the canyon and around the dam. That's 6-10 degrees cooler than the other lakes in the area. I felt pretty comfortable, but I threw in a vigorous kick every few strokes to stay warm. Until the sun came out, my hands were stiff. I could bend my fingers, but they felt crunchy.
The swimming part was going really well, but feeding and navigation slowed us down. Fluid intake was fast, but fluid output was slow. And we kept stopping to talk about where we were supposed to turn around. The 10-mile swimmers were way ahead of us, and they were planning to go about a mile further into the canyon than we were. Eventually, they turned around and caught up with us. The support boat escorted us across the canyon, and we started swimming back. We ended up turning at exactly the point we intended.
Phew! Once again, we could just follow the shore without thinking or talking about the course. Boat traffic had gotten heavy by then, and the wake felt violent, crashing against one canyon wall and then the other. Usually wake doesn't bother me. I just relax into it. This time it felt like a challenge. Not unpleasant, but I was definitely fighting it.
When we reached the mouth of the canyon, neither one of us knew where to go. Boat traffic was heavy in every direction, and we didn't think we could cross safely, even with the kayak. Unfortunately, we were in a cold spot while we were trying to make a decision. There was a part of me that knew what to do, but another part of me that didn't want to do it. We should have swam along the shore to the dam and crossed at the dam. But I thought that if I went that way, I'd end up having to swim too far to get back. I didn't remember the dam being part of the course, so I was afraid the boat wouldn't look for us there.
I got out and sat on a rock until the boat came back for us. Not the best decision I could have made, but I can live with it. (These landmarks are marked on the map above.)
Mouth of the canyon.
When the boat came back, they escorted us across the channel and stayed with us until we reached a protected area. This part of the swim felt like any vanilla training swim. My neck and shoulders were a little sore, but I wasn't tired. I felt self-conscious about being so far behind, but I could have kept swimming forever.
By the time we reached the finish, I'd swum 6.5 miles in just under 5 hours. A mile short of my goal, and slower than I would have thought possible.
But overall, I'd call it an unmitigated success. I had fun the whole time, and my husband and I learned a lot about how to do an escorted swim. Also, this was about the same water temperature and the same amount of time I'm expecting for Swim the Suck. It's good to know I can handle it.
Views from the road to Canyon Lake
This was one of the best days of my life so far.
I told my coach I planned to swim the entire 10 miles, but she said no. I was not happy about it, but I trust her judgment. I think she was worried about me getting injured or being to tired to handle my training for the next few weeks. She said I could do 12,000 yards which I rounded up to 7 miles.
This time, I saw the course map a day in advance. It was a straight out-and-back with no need to cross the lake. I mapped out the 7-mile turnaround point, and I could picture the spot exactly.
The water was 74°F (23°C)with cold pockets as low as 71°F. It felt perfectly comfortable, neither hot nor cold. Like my natural habitat.
Things went smoothly, right from the start. My husband and I had figured out a few hand signals and rules of the "road". He led, I followed. Feeds were much faster. And I mastered the art of fluid output.
Warning: I was raised better than this, but I'm going to give some details about Open Water Peeing. Just in case anyone out there needs to know how to do it. I tried to start peeing as soon as I took my feed bottle. I chugged my feed, handed the bottle back to my husband, and continued swimming while peeing. The trick is to swim really slow and keep my legs relaxed. Doing it this way took almost a minute off each stop. [Big apology to my more genteel readers. My mom, in particular.]
According to my Garmin and reports from the other swimmers, the wake was intense. Much worse than it was at Canyon Lake. It never gave me a moment of grief. I felt it lift me up and put me back down. I can see from the Garmin that the wake slowed me down, but I had fun riding the waves.
My husband pointed out a bald eagle perched on a cliff. After awhile, he took flight, and I could spot him while I was breathing.
Shortly after we turned around, our dear friend, Pete, paddled up to us. His swimmer had gotten out at the 5-mile mark, so Pete kayaked back to the finish with us. He made good company for my husband, and I was happy to have him with us. (The picture on the right is me at the turn. I didn't think freshwater marathon swimmers experienced bloating, but my face definitely looks puffy.)
When I saw the landmark that signed one mile to the finish, my heart sank. I never wanted the swim to end.
I ended up swimming 7.8 miles in 4 hours and 37 minutes. (We swam into a few coves that we meant to skip. Hence the extra .8 miles.) Twelve minutes worth of stops including 4 minutes for a photo op. I'd like to hold a 30-minute mile pace on these, but this was good enough to make the cutoff for Swim the Suck without any current assist.
Saguaro Lake shoreline.
Words cannot express what a wonderful experience this was or how grateful I was to be able to do it. The natural beauty, the cool water, the friends, my kayaker/love of my life, a healthy body that can swim well enough to enjoy all this...It's amazing to think it can all fit into one lifetime.
My dad, who's been gone for seven years, would have loved to hear about this new hobby of mine. He was a good swimmer. I'm not sure how he learned, growing up in St. Louis during the depression. I remember him saying that he had to take several buses to get to a pool in thoe days. Despite all that, he could swim all the strokes quite nicely.