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 🙂

Quick Links

MS Marathon: MS Village – Part I: the Village

There were a lot of things running through my mind early Saturday evening, July 20th, as I swam to the beach, somehow pulled myself up out of the water and rang the bell on shore to signal I had completed a 34k swim. What stood out the most however, and flooded me with emotion, was that “it takes a village.” This is my story of that village.

In the beginning

The village began to form in December 2012, just after I had announced to one of my coaches, Danielle Brault that I would wanted to swim the length of Lake Cowichan – a 34 kilometer, 10 to 12 hour swim. I wanted to test my MS head on. I had been struggling with speeding up so thought I would try increasing my distance as a way of keeping me motivated in the pool.

Danielle suggested to one of my teammates, Alex Cape, that she jump in. The village was now three.

Over the next several months Alex and I trained as often as we could: Alex in Chilliwack while studying to be a paramedic and myself in Victoria. We shared our weekly workouts, triumphs and challenges with Danielle via email and swam together whenever Alex as in town.

By March we were both swimming well over 30 kilometers a week; more than could be achieved during regular team workouts. I added a 3k swim in advanced my YMCA masters workouts and 3 to 9k swims on Sundays post Victoria Masters swims. Kate Whitaker, Lauren Westmcott, Pam Loadman and Chelsea Flotre swam with me would they could. The village was now 7.

Come April I suffered an acute shoulder injury while canoeing. I was unable to raise my left arm more than 15 degrees and I soon found myself under the care of Sandy Wilson (Arbutus Physiotherapy). Confronted with the possibility that I may not be able to swim for some time, along with the hormonally induced depression from the drop in exercise I sought a few words of wisdom from another of my coaches, Mike Neill (Tyee Aquatic Club and Human Powered Racing). The village was now 9.

Over the next few weeks I kicked as many workouts as I could and spent more time on a spin bike than I thought humanly possible. I needed to keep my fitness level up while my shoulder healed.

May soon rolled around and things were looking up. I slowly worked swimming back into my routine. The timing was perfect. As I increased my volume I was able to shift from the pool to the lake. The change was a welcome one.

Along with my new environment came a new routine and new swim mates. Tuesday and Thursday nights I spent an hour in an outrigger followed by a one hour swim. Lake workouts were Monday, Wednesday and Friday nights for a few hours as well as 4 to 8 hours on Saturday or Sunday. My partner Ray Este kayaked beside me ensuring I stay on course, didn’t swim over anyone or into the occasional dog, keep track of my lap times and provided me with nourishment.

As the length of workouts increased it became more and more difficult for both Alex and I to keep our energy up. By the 4 hour mark we were slowing down significantly. Enter Clint Lien, head-coach of Mercury Rising Triathlon Club. A quick chat about nutritional needs during long events and we had a plan which we tested and then later used during the swim.

I put word out that I was looking for training lap partners and was fortunate to have several friends join me for portions of my workouts. Alex, Kate, Lauren, Pam and Chelsea shifted some of their swims from the pool to the lake. Victoria Masters Rod Carmichael , Len Martel, Bjarne Hansen, Barbara Kay Peck, Eleanor Liddy, David Jara, and others also partook in loops.

The next eight weeks passed quickly. There was little time for anything other than work, swimming and the occasional paddle.

July soon rolled around it was time to work on the logistics of the swim. Len Martel, a good friend from Victoria Masters Swim Club offered to help. Another good friend, MJ vanBergen, offered to assist with safety and feeding. The village now had a major and safety warden.

We launched a facebook event for “a wee little swim across the lake” and invited friends to join the adventure. The village grew. Ten more swimmers, 11 paddlers, a small fleet of boaters complete with coaches and an on-shore crew quickly formed.

Word soon got out about “a wee little swim across a lake” through the village criers. Supporters and spectators began to amass. The village was now ready for the swim.


Alex Cape, Janet Bell, Russ Cape, Rod Carmichael, Ian Graeme, Pam Loadman, Len Martel, Carol Pilon, Avila Rhodes, Dale Robinson, Susan Simmons and Lauren Westmacott

Emma Beckwith, Shannon Davis, Ray Este, Martin Figel, Ian Graeme, Bjarne Hansen, Pam Loadman, Carol Pal, Barbara Kay-Peck, Carol Pilon and Lauren Westmacott

Safety, Logistics, Boaters & Coaches
MJ VanBergen, Len Martel, Chris Martel, Denis Martel, Gordon & Caroline Austin, Ed & Carolanne Bonenfant, Rick McPhail and Matt Piechnik
Danielle Brault and Sarah Macdonald, RCMP

On-shore Crew
Carol Martel, Joanne Trottier, Erin Beckwith, Laura Silva and Debbie, Alexa, Chelsea & Cortney Martel

Village Criers
Travis Paterson – Victoria News, Richard Watts – Times Colonist, 89.7FM, Jo-Ann Roberts – All Points West CBC, Lindsay Chung – Cowichan News Leader, Sucheta Singh, Cowichan Valley Citizen, Mike Bishop at 98.7 The Lake

Event Funders
Dalton Smith & the Town of Lake Cowichan, Jim Eddy at Heather Campsite, Bell’s Floring, IRLY Bird

Special thanks all of those who donated their hard earned cash to the swim and Country Grocer Lake Cowichan for feeding all of the swimmers and volunteers after the swim – we were really hungry and are very grateful.

Quick Links

MS Fortune : MS Plea

Every day when I wake up I remind myself that my life with Multiple Sclerosis is a fortunate one. I am fortunate to have found a way to live with my disease. The blindness is gone; I have minimized fatigue by maximizing energy; weakness has been replaced by strength; numbness, tingling, dizziness and poor balance are managed through awareness and acceptance of my body’s limits; and depression has been turned into joy as I am now able to participate in the world around me.

Life is not as fortunate however for a number of people who’s daily life focuses on coping with the disease. Many have cognitive impairments, difficulty speaking and swallowing, sensory impairments, spasms and spasticity, tremors and difficulty walking. Some are in wheel chairs, others are bed-ridden.
Many live in pain.

To help those in my community who are not as fortunate as me I will be swimming the length of Lake Cowichan (34k) on July 20th with my friend Alex Cape and a week later racing 1.5k at the HtO Thetis Lake Swim for MS. I will do both of these things with the hope that I will raise awareness about the disease and funds which will be put toward research and fitness programs for people in my immediate community.

Here is my plea: If you are in a position to help, I ask that you kindly donate to my swims.

MS Body, MS Mind

I spend a lot of time with my head under water these days. It gives me time to think. The thoughts that have entered (or entertained) my mind as of late: what the heck is going on with my body and why do I like having my head under water so much?

In many ways, my thoughts about these questions are helping me prepare for a very long upcoming ultra marathon swim. When I think about my chosen goal while on land, I am frightened by what lay ahead. I am fearful of what it will do to my body; I am afraid I may not have the mental toughness to make it to the other side. When I am in the water however I feel at ease both physically and mentally.

A few days ago I was on my 7th lap around Thetis Lake – just over 10 kilometers into a swim – when I realized – ‘I’m not tired’. I felt relaxed and was quite happy to continue swimming…more…and more. I was fascinated by this. I thought about my physical state 8 years ago when walking a block was a major chore and swimming 10 lengths of a pool required a post 3 hour nap.

As I swam along I could feel the cool water soothing my body and the sun infusing vitamin D through my back. The only thing I could see was my arms in front of me as they entered the water and the water and tree line to the left and right each time I took a breath.

There was no sound other than that of my breathing. There was no negativity from others; no aggression; no violence. I was at peace.

As the day of my event draws nearer, I will keep these thoughts close to me and I will approach my 34k swim the same way I have approached my MS, and that is one stroke at a time in a calm and peaceful state.

MS Madness: Making the Mileage in Maui

One third of the way into my training program for an upcoming iron swim I thought it would be a good time to put my body to a Multiple Sclerosis (MS) stress test. I needed to make sure I was on the right track; that I was training my body to handle the special challenges I will have to face during a 34k swim.

My three big MS concerns: 1) the impact of overheating on performance, 2) my ability to manage fatigue while training at a high volume and 3) the overall impact of the stress of high volume training on my body.

I packed my bathing suit, cap and goggles and headed to Maui for a one week training camp hosted by Infinity Swimming. If you don’t have MS, your likely thinking, “A one-week swim camp in Maui? I can do that, even if I don’t know how to swim.” For those of you who do have MS, you get the challenges and risks that lay ahead: 1) overheating in the tropics and 2) fatigue from travelling & the stress of in a new environment – either of which could trigger an MS attack. Add to this the high volume swim demands of the camp and I would have my perfect MS stress test.

To be sure I was taking full advantage of my upcoming test I swam 12k prior to boarding the plane for Maui. This is the most I have swum in a single session and it was designed to kick-start my fatigue. After a quick bite at John’s Place– turns out the Ragin’ Vegan Burrito is a fantastic recovery meal – I headed to the airport for 8 hours of travel and a two hour time zone switch. I arrived in Maui 9:30pm. Greeted by my good friend Len, we headed to Hale Mohalu, my home for the upcoming week.

Day one was a spare day, no scheduled swim. I spent the morning having fun snorkeling with my fantastic house mates – Len, Carol and Diana – and a few other of my favorite pool mates – Kate, Deb and her husband Tracy. I discovered this swimmer is really not meant to wear a lot of equipment in the water and quickly disposed of my wetsuit, snorkel and mask.

The afternoon was used to acclimatize to my new environment and find the fresh mangos, papayas, pineapples, avocados and macadamia nuts I would need to get me through the next few days. In the evening, we headed off to a traditional Luau for Len’s birthday and then back to our Hawaiian home to wait for our 5th housemate, Lauren, who would arrive later that evening.

The camp began early Sunday morning with a 4k open water swim with a Maui swim group at Maluaka Beach Park. The water was much warmer and kinder than the waters of the Strait of Georgia. Marine life was abundant below us. So much so, that we saw a wee little shark along the way. That evening we met at the outdoor pool in Kihei for our first pool swim (3k).

I have a bit of a reputation for being a super planner and border on the side of overtraining – in an over preparing kind of way. That evening I did the math (7k x 6 days=42k) and had a Wahine Diva moment. It simply wasn’t enough as I was already swimming this amount back home.

The next morning I spoke to one of my coaches, Dale Robinson. He offered to open the pool 15 minutes earlier each morning so I could jump in and add 1k to my swims each day. He also offered to stay later if needed. He is an incredibly kind and giving man.

Janet Renner, the Kihei Valley Isle Masters coach and a fantastic open water swimmer with an incredible swim legacy, agreed to let me jump in with her club for a few sessions as well. With the additional swims I would be able to add enough to my volume to test my MS beyond what I had in Victoria.

For a one week period, I woke up each day at 5:20, walked to the Kihei pool and swam from 6:00 to 8:00 am. Evening swims were from 6:15 to 8:00pm.

Here’s a quick look at the kilometers and focus for each day:

Sunday 7k

Open water and Aloha easy swim
Monday 7k Back + Free
Tuesday 8k Distance (1500)
Wednesday 8.8k Distance (fly)
Thursday 8.9k Mid distance (200/400)
Friday 7.8 IM
Saturday 4.5k Best average threshold

Sunday morning was our last official swim as a group and it would be time trial day. I decided on that day I wanted to give something back to the fantastic group of swimmers and coaches who had inspired me so much throughout the week. I dove in for warm-up adding 1.5k to my Maui mileage and spent the next hour photographing my new swim mates in their natural environment – the pool! During that time I had the privilege of witnessing some incredible swims including a number of personal bests.

MS Stress Test Results

Infinity Swimming’s Camp in Maui was the perfect place for me to find out what I needed to know as I prepare for stage 2 of my iron training. Both Dale Robinson and Danielle Brault are incredible coaches (and people) who are truly devoted to the sport and thrive on seeing their swimmers succeed. Swimming under Janet Renner for a brief time was an unexpected bonus.

All of the swimmers added a huge wave of positivity to the experience. When you are with a group of people who enjoy what they are doing and work hard to swim well you can’t help but get caught in their current.

As for my MS here’s what I learned:

  1. Overheating is to be avoided, particularly overheating from threshold training. On the day we worked on best average threshold my arms and legs went numb. Frustrating but it is my reality.
  2. I can manage my fatigue when high volume training. I suspect eating lots of fresh raw food from the vine and massive doses of vitamin D helped. I will increase my vitamin D intake and raw food consumption as part of my training regime.
  3. Over a week I swam 52k. Add the 12k prior to leaving and 1.5k from the last day and my total test volume was 64k – not a lot if you are in your 20s but when you are 48, ugh. The good news is my body can manage the stress of high volume training. The not so good but managable news is I cannot add threshold training at the same time – this is where my MS likes to jump into the mix and stop me in my tracks. I will have to settle for a slower pace.

Mahalo to my coaches, house mates and swim mates in the 808!