MS Marathon: MS Village – Part 2: The Swim

The Night Before

You know you are in for a long swim when you pass a herd of elk on the way to the start line.

It was about 8:00pm, July 19th and Ray and I had been driving along-side the lake toward Heather Campground on an old logging road for what seemed an eternity. I was peering out the window, looking for small islands on the lake that I could use as land marks during the swim. I had been studying the map for weeks. We were about five minutes from the campground when I noticed a small herd (8-10) of elk on the right side of the road. I was glad it wasn’t a family of bears. I wondered who could swim faster, the elk or the bear?

The campsite manager had reserved two fantastic spots for us on the beach by the boat launch. To my surprise, he was also donating the campsites to us – a wonderful act of kindness. A few of our paddlers, Bjarne & Barb and Emma and her mom Erin, had arrived earlier and had set-up camp. Alex, Lauren and Carol arrived soon after we did.

As we unloaded the vehicle all I could think about was ‘will I ever be able to sleep tonight’, which is the worst thing you can think about when you really need to get some sleep. The air was chilled; we decided to sleep in the car. All I can remember from that night is being awake for most of it.

The First Leg

Everyone was up by 5:30 am. The fog had rolled in over-night. Ray, Emma and Lauren prepared their boats, loading them with food and water for the first 15k of the journey while Alex and I prepared for the long swim ahead. Ultra-marathon swimmers often use grease to ward off cold and prevent chafing. Although we were swimming without wetsuits, we opted to not use grease. The water temperature was only a concern for the first 3-6k and chafing is not as much of an issue in fresh water.

We entered the water at 6:30 am. It was cold, about 17 Celsius. Alex and I waded around waist deep while our escort crew (Ray, Emma and Lauren) got comfortable in their boats. The day was just beginning; we had a long way to go.

By 6:40 we were off. Bjarne, Barb, Erin and Carol cheered from the beach as we left. It meant a lot having them there. We would meet up with them later at one of the check points.

Within seconds, the cold water was wrapped around my body causing my core to tingle. The muscles in my arms tightened slowing my movement. I knew that as we moved further up the lake the water would warm. I put the cold out of my mind and swam on.

Just after 7:00am we stopped for our first feeding. I had liquid only (protein & electrolytes) so was able to feed fairly quickly. Alex was about 25 meters ahead of me. I used the opportunity to catch up to her during the brief break. We were soon off swimming again.

There was a small wind pushing us up the lake. The fog was slowly clearing and the air warming. The water was crisp and clear – beautiful! The lake is about 3 kilometers wide and we were about 1 kilometer off the south shore. I could see the tree lines on both sides. It was close to time for our next feed when I saw the power boat with the green flag. Our safety boat with lead safety MJ and her morning crew Denis and Matt was now by our side. We were stopped to feed again at 7:40. This time I had a gel pack with my liquid. We were now about 3 kilometers up the lake – only 31k to go!

To help get through the swim, I had divided it into 3 10k workouts and a 4k cool down. It somehow seemed easier than swimming 34k. The first checkpoint was the Picnic Islands (11k from the start). We reached them at about 9:45; 3 hours after starting. We were 2k ahead of schedule.

The Second Leg

By 11am Alex and I reached the Goose Islands, our first paddler refresh spot. Lauren and Ray headed to shore to swap-off with Barb & Bjarne and Carol. The switch was seamless. Our crew was doing a fabulous job.

The wind had been picking up all morning. Two foot wavelets with scattered white caps were starting to form. I had been feeding on electrolytes and gel packs for close to 5 hours. My stomach was beginning to cramp.

Over the next hour conditions continue to deteriorate. By noon Rock Bay was in sight. We had swum 16.5k. Winds had increased to 20 knots. Waves were now 3 to 5 feet and coming from behind and hitting us on the left pushing us toward the shore. We were losing ground.

By 1:30 workout number 2 was done, we had reached the 20k mark; Gillespie’s Bay. Conditions remained the same. Swimming was tough. Alex and I spotted a family on the shore. We hadn’t seen anyone other than our escort paddlers and safety crew all day. We decided to swim in for a closer look – anything to distract us from the waves. When we were close enough we waved and asked for directions to the narrows.

By 2:00pm we had swum 22k. We had not only lost the 2k gain from the morning but had also fallen an additional 3k behind. I was frustrated by the waves and the cramps in my stomach were getting worse. I couldn’t eat. We started stopping every 15 minutes rather than every half an hour. Every time I looked ahead the land appeared to be moving further away.

The stress from frustration was taking its toll. My arms and legs were starting to tingle – my MS was beginning to kick in. What kept me going at that point was knowing that Alex was in there with me. We had come so far.

The next time I poked my head up my coach Danielle said “they’re just waves Susan.” She was right. There was no need for me to get upset, I just had to buckle down and swim through them. So I did. The tingling went away.

When we were about 1 km from the narrows I spotted a red and white kayak to the right of me. Within no time there was another swimmer in the water. It was Pam. She and Ian had paddled to us in a double boat and Pam had jumped out to join the swim. Her timing was perfect! It was great to have someone else in the water helping motivate us.

The Final Leg

By 2:30pm we had completed 24k and started crossing the narrows to the north shore. I was keen to reach the other side as I knew conditions would be calmer. Once we were around the point things were looking up. Dale, escorted by Carol, had swum over from Gordon Bay – it was so great to see them. We all stopped and chatted for a while. There were now 4 swimmers in the water and we would soon be joined by 2 more. The excitement was building.

We looked for the Scout Guide Camp ahead and choose our next mark. Pam boarded the double kayak and Ian jumped in the water for a bit of a swim. We headed off to meet-up with the next 2 swimmers.

We reached the camp at 4:30. Avila and Lauren, escorted by Shannon, were wading in the water. We all formed a circle, chatted for a bit, and then swam on to meet up with the next group of swimmers on the other side of the south arm. We were 5k from the finish. I had no doubt that Alex and I would make it.

We swam toward the beach at the Education Centre. Len, Carol, Russ (Alex’s dad), Janet and Rod along with their paddler Martin were all in the water waiting to join us. We formed a circle and chatted for a bit. I really enjoyed picking up new swimmers along the way and chatting. It distracted me from what I was doing – swimming a really long way – and turned the event into more of a hang out with friends at the lake.

While we were catching up with one another Martin tipped his kayak. Pam and Ian quickly made a very impressive assisted rescue and then we were all off – headed to the finish line.

I have always been a fan of a hard finishes and today would be no different. I focused in and swam as quickly as I could. My next land mark was a dock which hugged the shore just before the finish line. I could see people standing on it and hear them cheering as I swam by.

With less than 200 meters to go I picked up the pace, and then I saw it, the pole which indicated the entrance to the beach. I headed toward it and swam through the opening between the logs. Once on the other side I tried to change course and head in to shore but I had been swimming for so long along-side the shore I had a hard time changing direction.

By 6:25 we had all landed at on the beach at Lakeview Park. We were done. We made it 🙂

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3 Comments on “MS Marathon: MS Village – Part 2: The Swim”

  1. francine lemaire says:

    Congratulations, incredible acconplissement. Francine

  2. Bev Strueby says:

    Susan you are a true motivator … the epitome of “Mind over matter”, “One foot in front of the other”, “Baby steps” and all of that. So happy you’re a source of motivation for some of us.

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