Here it is, the story of my Lake Ontario Crossing on August 13, 2012. The long version. 😉
Hard to pick a place to start, because the whole story really started with my first big swim, my attempt at the English Channel in 2006 (34k), then trying for redemption with the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim in 2010 (47k), then using the Tampa Bay Marathon Swim (38k, but called after a huge lightning storm at 25k) and the Swim Around Key West (20k) this year as training swims. Not to mention a year of hard training with Burlington Masters Swim Club with Coach Dave Judd and all my lane-mates there… or, of course, all the swims with LOST Swimming! Actually I was going to have to draw on all that experience, as well as the “learned patience” from other ultra distance events, like Ironman and Marathon des Sables too… because this ended up being the hardest event I’ve ever done… by far.
But to skip past all that, the big weekend finally had arrived after a year of patience and hard training. This weekend is chapter 26 in my book entitled “It seemed like a good idea at the time”. You see, we also had the 5th annual LOST Race and the 1st Annual Masters Swimming Canada 10k National Championship that weekend too! I have chosen that weekend for the LOST Race based on the records I keep for water temperature and weather for the last 7 years of LOST Swimming every weekend. And that is usually the best weekend… the water is usually warm, around 70F/21C… and the late summer thunderstorms haven’t usually started yet. And I figured if it was the right weekend for the LOST Race, then it would be the right weekend for my big swim too.
Well, two things changed this year. One, it was one of the hottest July’s on record. I thought Madhu was being very brave (or nuts) for booking his swim in July… the risk of cold water or the Lake rolling over was much higher… but Madhu is better with cold water than just about anyone I know, so fair enough. Well, as it turns out, the water was warmer in July than I had ever seen it. Madhu’s swim was 76F/24C. Nice. And number two… well, because it had been a hotter July than normal the thunder storms moved in early too. In fact, they started this weekend. Crap.
Now without going over the whole LOST Race and 10k Race… let’s just say those were the two toughest races we’ve ever had for the LOST Race. We found a tiny window of weather that we were able to squeeze them in between the lightning and rain. But the waves were large and rough… as 113 swimmers and about 20 kayakers and boaters will attest to. Hats off to those that completed the two races… very tough 3.8k and 10k swims, no doubt about it. And very stressful for Joe, Melanie, Joanne, Alex, Jenn and myself… but we pulled it off without a hitch. Phew.
Which kinda left me exhausted to start the back half of the weekend… my swim across Lake Ontario. Not an excuse, just the way it worked out.
So that was Saturday. Sunday I rested… while Jenn, the manager for my swim, took care of all the details, with much of the same crew that had worked at putting on the LOST Race, including Alex, Bill, Melanie and Joanne. We met in Port Dalhousie for dinner, which is where the real swim started.
As I said, I’ve learned a few things, usually the hard way, from my various swims and ultra distance races. One I learned (the hard way) from Ironman Canada last year, was never go to bed before a big race without having a couple of beers. Seriously. At IMC I got 1 hour of sleep… and stared at the ceiling for 6 hours. A horrible start to a long day. I knocked back 3 pints with the crew at about 8:30… an extra one just to be safe.
And it was a good call. It was just enough to take the edge off and let me sleep. I crashed for about 4 1/2 hours. Perfect. We woke up at 1:45 am, drove down to the Port Dalhousie Yacht Club and were in the water at 3:15 am… pretty much right on schedule.
The second key thing I’ve learned for long endurance events is to have a good song in your head before you start. And for this I give full credit to my daughter, Jillian. I have a long repertoire of music, but Jill came up with a perfect song that I knew well enough to know at least the chorus, to keep me going… and it was very upbeat and catchy. As Darren and I walked to the boat launch ramp where I was to start, I sang it loud and merrily, to lock it in… while walking through the vacant parking lot… in Port Dalhousie… at 3:00 am… in my speedo. He looked at me a bit strangely. But it was not going to be the last strange thing I’d do in the next several hours. The song was: Save Me San Francisco, by Train. Catchy little ditty… and reminded me of the good years we had when we lived in San Fran too!
Now one question I often get is “why aren’t you doing the traditional route that Marilyn Bell swam?” In fact, one member of the governing body for Lake Ontario even told me once that “no one will ever do the LOST Route, the legend of Marilyn Bell is too strong!” Well, being an ultra-endurance athlete, I’m pretty stubborn and dedicated… and I think I tend to be kind of like John Locke, from the TV show LOST, ironically… “Don’t tell me what I can’t do.”
But that really wasn’t my main motivation for choosing this route. As most of you know, I love the whole legend and lore of Marilyn Bell and the “golden era” of marathon swimming and I try to save it, restore it and promote it. It is a huge part of the heritage of marathon swimming, not just in Lake O, but around the world.
However, that is the past… the future of open water swimming in Lake Ontario, I believe, is in LOST Swimming. All 7 of the people training for their Lake O Crossings this year trained with LOST, the largest group of aspirants to attempt the Lake in one year. We have one of the largest masters swim teams in the country, at over 200 swimmers. We’ve had as many as 86 swimmers out for a Saturday morning swim. The LOST Race this year, with 94 swimmers, was the largest race ever held in Lake Ontario.
And Melanie Price was able to prove the naysayers wrong last year… she became the first LOSTie to swim the new LOST Route, from Port Dalhousie to Oakville. Madhu Nagaraja became the second LOSTie to swim the LOST Route. And I was hoping to be the third.
Oh, also… I liked the idea of swimming a marathon… 26.2 miles or 42.2 km. Kinda cool. The distances are all arbitrary anyway, so I planned my route to be exactly the same distance as a running marathon. In swimming a “marathon swim” is usually any distance 10k or longer. I’ve run about 30 marathons… and thought it would be kinda cool to swim one. To paraphrase a line out of ultra marathon runner Dean Karnazes book “RUN!” : “Any idiot can run a marathon… but it takes a special kind of idiot to swim one!” (pic below, meeting Dean at the Boston Marathon!… good book, btw!)
I said a few quick good-byes to all my great crew and even a few crazy friends who came to see me off at 3:00 am (!) in Port Dalhousie. And with that I was off. Singing “Save me San Francisco”… into the pitch black.
Now if this were a run or a triathlon, I could tell you about all the cool things that happened or that I saw. But this is marathon swimming. Nothing much happens. It really is a boring as it sounds. But really boring isn’t the right word, because you aren’t really bored, but you are in a perpetual state of nothing-ness for a long, long time.
You see, unlike any other sport, you are immersed in a whole sensory deprivation situation. Which is why I believe it makes it much harder than the equivalent run, bike or triathlon. You can’t hear anything… except the bubbles rolling by your ears… for over 20 hours. You can’t see anything… except the deep of the Lake, which, when the sun rose, it went from pitch black to a very beautiful Caribbean teal-green… but a long time to look at one color, nonetheless. And if you are lucky, the only thing you feel for over 20 hours is chilly… if you are unlucky, you feel cold. And that just plain sucks.
Interesting thing this year was the controversy over using an mp3 player. It has been allowed on some swims and not on others and was poorly handled. About 3 hours into my swim I got word at one of my feeds that the mp3 players were not allowed… I laughed… nothing like waiting until the last minute to let me know! I wasn’t using one and had no plans to, but a few of the aspirants did. Let me tell you, if you think listening to your ipod on a run helps, you have no idea how much it would help on a really, really long swim! It is a huge aid! So much of this swim is mental and to have your brain otherwise occupied to help let the hours roll by would be the second greatest aid… next only to wearing a wetsuit for warmth, speed and buoyancy! If we could have worn one, I would have gotten an audio book and listened to the whole Harry Potter series… hell, I was in there long enough I could have gotten one of those Rosetta Stone language courses and come out of there speaking Mandarin!
So what do you think about? Hell, I don’t know… what did you think about for the last 21 hours?! Tough to recall. But I remember a few little snippets. And snippets is all they really are, because you really can only remember about 10 seconds back and think 10 seconds ahead when you are swimming. I remember thinking:
- good god… I better make this… because I never want to have to do this again.
- THESE are the “good ol’ days”
- is the weather changing… again.
- I hate chop.
- I hate big waves.
- is the sun ever going to come out?
- I hope to hell that rain storm doesn’t come over here.
- I hope to hell that rain storm doesn’t have any lightning in it… cause I’m not gettin’ out!
- “I’ve been stop, I’ve been go… I’ve been yes and I’ve been oh hell no… I’ve been rock and roll and disco… won’t you save me San Francisco… I’ve been reggae and calypso… won’t you save me San Francisco”. (hey, only knew the chorus… after 21 hours of the chorus… I wasn’t sure by the end if I loved that song or hated it!)
- how much longer is it until my next feed?
- I wonder what Jenn, Maisey and Alex are laughing about?
- if I had 9k to go at my last feed… and I’m doing 2k per hour… then I’ve got 4.5 more freakin’ hours out here… shit. (turns out my math was wrong, I had more time to go than that!)
- for some reason the lyrics (not the song though?!) from an old Billy Joel song came into my head that I quite liked… from “Only the Good Die Young”, kind of a morbid song to think of when you are doing an ultra distance swim, but I figured I was safe… I’m too old to die young now anyway… but the lyrics reminded me of my core group of buddies on this adventure and the running group where all this started… you might remember the lyrics: “You mighta heard I run with a dangerous crowd… we ain’t too pretty, we ain’t too proud… we might be laughin’ a bit too loud…ah, but that never hurt no one… Darling, only the good die young… only the good die young… and they say there’s a Heaven for those who will wait… and some say it’s better… but I say it ain’t… I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints…. the sinners are much more fun…You know that only the good die young! (what can I tell you… some of the conversations with myself where longer than others!)
- Alex and the crew in the zodiac even made up a few games to play on the white board… like “name that TV show, hang-man style”… “Nurse Jackie” was a tough one… so was “What… is the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?”… ya hafta be a Monty Python fan for that… that was an easy one… “African or European!”
- telling Alex as we passed my milestone swims: 5:45 Key West, 6:00 EC and Lake O test swims, Tampa Bay 6:30, Manhattan 8:45, then at 12:07 John held up the white board… I was now into my longest swim every, surpassing my English Channel swim… little did I know I still had 9 hours to go!
My feeds were still going really well. 1 Carboom power gel… a big mouthful of Gatorade and Carbo Pro… every 1/2 hour. That was it. I wasn’t throwing up… and I wasn’t bonking… all a guy could hope for. Oh, so if you do the math… that’s 41 gels. Yum. That’s gotta be some kinda record.
The water started out at about 73F/22C and finished around 68F/20C, that’s a great swimming temperature… the English Channel had been about 60F… but that was only for 12 hours (although they did pull me out unconscious and severely hypothermic)… when you are in 70F water for over 20 hours your body is going to eventually revert closer and closer to that temperature. And what it does is steal the blood from other parts of your body to keep your body core and vital organs warm. Steals the blood from your legs for example. So, as my pacers told me later, I was all kinds of unnatural colors by the end. My legs and face where ghostly white… and my back was purple. With no blood going to my legs… they began to sink. Of course, I couldn’t see or feel them, so I didn’t realize that my legs where creating such a drag… which was what was slowing me down. That… and the waves were really building.
As I kept recalculating my time and distance I got more and more frustrated and mad. I even snapped at Alex, Jenn and Colleen when I asked how much further? And they said 9k! WHAT?!?! At that point I was thinking I had about 4k left! A big set back.
But it was about that time when the pacers started to kick in. To call them “pacers” isn’t really accurate… it has nothing to do with “pacing”… they sure weren’t propelling me up to their speed… and they had a hard time going as slow as me! What they should be called is “Company Keepers”… they just make you feel better when you are out there tired, cold and alone. When you are that physically and mentally exhausted, you don’t think well and you are much more emotional. Seeing a familiar smilin’ face… really makes a difference. Pretty much all my crew paced… which was awesome. When my daughters, Jillian (14) and Maisey (17) got in with me, I told Alex, Bill and Shaun “this feels like my Gordie Howe moment!” My girls didn’t know that Gordie Howe was one of the greatest hockey players of all time, and his real claim to fame was that he played in the NHL in 5 decades… and even got to play on the same team as his two sons!
Dylan and Joanne had elected to stay ashore, Dylan had to work that day and Jo was too nervous. But that made it even more special when I was feeding and feeling a bit down and frustrated when all of a sudden Joanne popped up in the water next to me to pace! I was shocked and overjoyed! It really did help. Apparently Tyler had zipped in and picked her up… plus he needed to get more gels! I kind of felt bad that all 3 of my girls where out here and Dylan wasn’t, but someone had to handle the land crew. So you can imagine my surprise when at the next feed Dylan popped up all smiley next to me too! That was cool! Apparently, Madhu and Jackie had jumped right in on a moments notice to take over organizing the land crew so Dyl and Jo could come out! Woo hoo!
Only 5 hours to go. Crap.
I can’t tell you how hard it was for those last few hours. Honestly I don’t know how I made it. I just kept going. If I had had a sore shoulder or my nutrition was off or I had been too cold or had some decent reason… I probably would have stopped. But truth is my body was holding together okay… I was just really exhausted. Long past my mental and physical limits. I had nothing left.
But after I had totally given up and wasn’t even calculating anything and just didn’t care anymore… the end came into sight. I had hoped that if I had gotten in before 8:30 it would be cool, as it would still be light… but that had long since come and gone… so I figured if I was in by 10:00 there would still be some people that would stick around… that came and went too… by 11:00 I really didn’t think there would be anyone there… and by almost midnight I knew everyone would have left. But 3 of my 4 boats pulled ahead with just a little bit left and tied up at the pier, so that would be pretty cool, at least they could see their mission through, as I’m sure it was a mission for them too, and watch me finish. And for the first time in over 20 hours, I was now confident that I was going to make it.
On my very last feed, Alex and Jenn said “you can touch the pier and be done… that’s only 700 meters!”… I said “NO!… I’ve come this far, I’m not cutting it short now!” They thought that was pretty funny, because even though they new that each 100 meters was a gargantuan effort… they new I was pretty stubborn too. “Okay… then you’ve got 1 K left?!”… “Fine… let’s go!”
And just before I started out on my last leg… Alex said “hey… can you hear that?” The water and air was now pitch black again and had gone pancake flat… and across the water I could hear a crowd cheering! I was genuinely surprised. “wow… cool.” And swam off for my final leg of the adventure.
The crowd, which I was told later was a couple hundred people, had driven a couple cars onto the beach and turned on the headlights and I followed them straight in. I was told later, as I didn’t see it, that there was a bit of theatrical overkill upon my arrival. The headlights created a spotlight in the darkness… and apparently two beautiful white swans swam into the light… they swam together… their necks made a heart shape… and they kissed… they swam away… and I swam into the light. Maybe a bit of overkill, but honestly I didn’t arrange it!
I recall getting about 15 feet from shore and could stand up in waist deep water… for the first time in 20 hours and 52 minutes… and saying “wow… shouldn’t all you people be in bed now?!”
They told me to swim all the way in, to within about 3 feet of the shore, because those ghastly white legs weren’t really doing a great job at keeping the rest of me supported and I stumbled across the finish line before anyone touched me, to make it official!
Words can’t say how exhausted I was… but I’d become accustomed to that… I wasn’t accustomed to the overwhelming feel of joy and warmth from seeing everyone… that feeling was incredible.
Apparently I wasn’t really that warm, Dr John took my temperature that read 31.9C vs normal 37C. That should have had me about unconscious from hypothermia, so I probably wasn’t that cold, but a bit chilly for sure! I was actually fairly coherent, although my speech gave a few people a good laugh… and I clearly recall seeing dozens of smiling faces of family, friends, crew and neighbors. That was cool.
Turns out I was fine. Joanne got me home tucked into bed with a hot water bottle on my belly, some heat packs under my arms and under a mound of blankets. I slept like a baby. I was in incredible pain in all my joints and muscles the next day. I just slept and ate and slept and ate all day… hoping the pain would go away… taking as much ibuprofen as I could. And miraculously by about 5:00 pm on Tuesday… I was fine. It is cool how much quicker one recovers from swimming than any other sport.
PS. Sorry I’ve been off the grid for a while… and thanks to Jayson, Ben, Mike, Mel et al for covering for me in my absence. Big events like this can be taxing on the family and it is all about balance… so given that Joanne’s large birthday that ends in a zero was coming up… and she made it clear she didn’t want a party… and least of all a surprise party… I decided to compromise. On top of the LOST Race, 10k and my Lake O Crossing in the same week, I also surprised Jo with a family vacation for her big birthday. I told the kids we were going away, but not where… so at 4:30 am on Friday they burst into our bedroom (with the video camera) and sang Happy Birthday!… and told Joanne she had 20 minutes to pack! It wasn’t until we got to the check-in at the airport that I finally told everyone that we were going to… the Mayan Riviera for a week!
Sorry it was just a family vacation… wish I could have taken you all with me… maybe next time! haha!
But a special thanks to: Jenn (just the best manager out there… thx!), Alex (coach and one of my best buds!), Melanie (pacing… and the whole LOST Race!), Bill (King of the Zodiac, I’ll be looking for my stripe on the zodiac!), Tony and Shaun (the best father/son – boater and swimmaster in the business!), Tyler (for stepping up and boating for me when I really needed you!… and training!), Michael and crew (for being my beacon, literally!, and guiding me in with your sailboat!), Dr John (for making sure I lived to tell the tale!), Colleen C (for being the Queen of Pacing and asking me if she could be part if this, I’m glad you did!), Cousin Al (for being the first person to ask to be part of the crew… even before I said I was going to do it!), Pete (for being part of the land crew… and MIMS!), Darren (for about one of the most thoughtful emails ever… I hope you do tell your grandkids how you were part of the whole thing! “Thanks for having me on the team. I look forward to the day when I take my grandkids to the lost beach and show them the plaque with your name on it and tell them I was on the crew that helped you get across.”), Jackie (for stepping up as ground crew when we needed you!), Mike (the very best Communications guy out there!), Madhu (for being the most enthusiastic LOSTie going!), all my fellow aspirants (Madhu, Francois, Michele, Amanda, Annaleise, Colleen S… read the quote on the right by Dick Jochums and you’ll know how much I respect each of you… win or lose!), Coach Dave and all my swim buddies at BMSC (for getting me in shape to do this sucker!), Hugh, Geoffrey, Brian and Heather (for being stupid enough to drive down to Port Dalhousie in the middle of the night!… and for being great friends!), Steve and Hermann (for being a couple of my oldest and best buds… it was great to see you at the finish!), Joe (for being Admiral of the LOST Race… in a tough year!), all the volunteers for the LOST Race!… and all the LOSTies out there (for making LOST what it is today… and for joining me for a dip in the Lake once in a while!), everyone who came down to the finish (honestly I wasn’t expecting it… but is was such a great surprise!) Joanne, Dylan, Maisey and Jillian (for loving me… even when I do some really dumb things… although nothing comes to mind right now).
A few other pics… just for fun!