MS Marathon: open water swimming and Multiple Sclerosis

I was recently reminded that living with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is like swimming a marathon. As with MS, a marathon swim requires a lot of mental and physical stamina as well as a great deal of planning if you are to make it to the other side. Both also require the foresight to recognize when things aren’t working and the ability to stop and re-plan when needed.

My Strait of Georgia swim began early one Saturday morning. We had been planning and preparing for the swim for months. My partner Ray and three fantastic friends (Karen, Lorraine and MJ) and I hopped on an early morning seaplane from Nanaimo (on Vancouver Island) to Sechelt (on British Columbia’s mainland). Our destination: Davis Inlet, the start line for the annual 34 kilometre swim. Our flight path followed the course route. The sun was shining; the water was calm; conditions were ideal.

After a perfect landing in Sechelt, Jim Close, the race director, drove us to our boat and we loaded up for the race. One of my coaches (Danielle) and a fellow swimmer (Sara) were on shore to see us off. Scott would skipper the boat; Karen, Lorraine and I would be swimming; MJ and Ray were to make sure we remained safe; and Jim would hop in for the ride.

We left the boat launch and 9:00 am and made our way to the start line where we would wait for our companion boat, a great group of swimmers from the Okanagan who were using the swim to help them prepare for the English Channel. Their boat soon joined us and before we could make our way to a nearby sandy beach for the start, one of their swimmers was in the water headed to the rocky shore line. I was the first to swim on our team so jumped in after him so we could start the swim together.

There were rocks and barnacles everywhere. I cut my feet and hands. It wasn’t the start I was hoping for but things soon started looking up as I swam through a school of thousands of small fish.

The water felt beautiful and my stroke felt great. I headed straight for my boat so I could settle in beside her and swim under the watchful eye of my safety crew.

The first thirty minutes felt great. The water was a bit wavy but nothing like the 6 to 7 foot swells the previous year. But then, like an MS attack, out of nowhere, conditions changed. The winds picked up and the waves soon followed. I was on the windward side of the boat and could feel myself being tossed and could see small whitecaps headed for me. I stopped for a time-remaining check with my crew. Five minutes to go and I would swap out with Karen. I counted my strokes to 300 and made my way to the dingy which I would use to get back on board the boat.

I looked back. We were well ahead of the other team. They appeared to have come to a complete stop. We were worried as we had heard they had no previous ocean experience.

Lorraine jumped in lee side of the boat for the next leg. She always looks so comfortable in the water. She swims with a smile and is beautiful to watch. Despite the waves she looked strong and made it look effortless.

The winds continued to increase as did the distance between us and the group from the Okanagan. Karen was next to jump in. Her passion for open water swimming runs deeper than the Strait. You could see the excitement on her face as Lorraine made her way back to the boat. Battling the waves Karen swam steadfast with a flag signal from MJ every 15 minutes to help her along the way.

We each repeated our one hour swims as the wind and waves continued to pick-up. Although the conditions were not ideal we continued to press on, constantly checking safety with Scott and MJ.

We were swimming strong and fast, one hour ahead of the previous year’s relay time. We pulled farther and farther ahead of the Okanagan team and closer and closer toward the Nanaimo shoreline with every stroke. With everything going well decided to send Jim in for a swim. Although he was not an official member of our relay we could see he was keen to jump in the water. Open water swimming is about sharing a passion, and we couldn’t think of anyone we would rather share it with more.

Before I jumped in for my third swim Karen, Lorraine, MJ and I discussed our estimated distance from shore and how we might approach the last leg. We decided I would swim for a half an hour, Karen and Lorraine 45 minutes each, and then me again for 15 minutes with the remainder of the swim being completed by all of us together. It should have worked. But as with my MS, the water doesn’t always cooperate.

I jumped in and swam on the lee side of the boat. I could tell there had been a dramatic change in the water since my previous swim. Waves were coming at me faster and from all directions. My legs were tossed from side to side and I had to carefully time my breathing to ensure I didn’t swallow water. I was able to fight through the water but there in lay the problem: open water swimming should not be a fight.

Lorraine was next in. Karen, MJ and I watched her closely. We could see she too was being tossed. Karen and I compared notes and remarked on how the conditions had worsened from our last swim. Although they did not look as bad as the previous years, the swim somehow felt harder.

We could see a cluster of rocks to the south of us that formed a small razor sharp island. It sat between us and our landing spot. The strong current began to move us to the south and we needed to go west. Our boat was quickly drifting toward the rocks. Scott began showing signs of discomfort. An official small craft warning had been issued.

We were so close to shore we didn’t want to give into the wind. Karen jumped in for her swim. We continued to watch closely. I became increasingly nervous. It is one thing to swim in the middle of the Strait where there are no rocks to crash into, but when you are inland the game changes. With my turn next and Karen continuing to drift toward the rocks, my biggest fear was that I would get caught up in the current and be crushed between the rocks and the boat or drift into a nearby ferry lane. The wind was moving at 17 knots (30k/hr) and the water over 2 knots (over 4k/hour). We were in a swimmers treadmill and sliding closer to the rocks every minute.

Jim and Scott suggested we pull Karen from the water and move to the north. Scott would move us out of harm’s way so we could continue the swim. As we headed north, waves started crashing over the bow of the boat. The wind continued to speed up. For that day, our time in the water had come to an end.

Like my MS, the swim presented me with challenges along the way. And when those challenges put me and my teammates at risk, it was time to stop what we were doing and come up with a new way to deal with our situation. Although we were 4 kilometres short of completing the 34 kilometre crossing, we were not sad. As open water swimmers (and as someone with MS) we know that the most important parts of the journey are enjoying the ride and making it safely back to shore. We did both.

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4 Comments on “MS Marathon: open water swimming and Multiple Sclerosis”

  1. francine lemaire says:

    congratulations on your practically impossible journey, but sometimes, you can not beat mother nature who always has the last word , keep up your hard work ,you are an inspiration to all of us, thank you for sharing Francine

  2. Clare Gomez Edington says:

    Susan,
    You and your team are heroic.! I can’t imagine doing what you do — to swim under such conditions is like climbing Mount Everest. I think of you, and take to heart, your courage and determination whenever I get tired or lack the motivation to do my daily swimming practice of 8 lengths of each stoke and as I practice my dolphin getting ready to relearn the butterfly. What you have achieved, and continue to achieve with your swimming, helps push me to relearn how to swim again.
    The improvements I see in myself, are of course, a direct result of your patient and gentle coaching, but even more so from the amazing example you set for me. Susan, you are an inspiration and an incredible ray of hope to all of us with MS but especially to those of us whom you coach in our Sunday swim group.

    Mahalo,
    Clare

  3. MJ says:

    Susan

    It was extreme pleasure to be a part of this journey and I am so very proud of what you all accomplished.

    Next time mother nature will be with us and not against us.

    MJ

  4. Sue says:

    Wow Susan, what an amazing athlete you and your team are. The training you do including
    your diet and excercise regime prior to taking on a huge swim like that, is so key and something I continue to learn from you !!! Congratulations to you and your team, all my heroes !!
    Two thumbs up to all of you, Sue


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