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My First DNF: SCAR 2017

This is a race repost about my SCAR experience in 2017.

The first day of the trip (Tuesday) was a warm up swim. I was very nervous as the swimmers introduced themselves and prepared to go for a “casual” swim up to the beachy cove in Saguaro Lake. My nervousness stemmed from the anticipation of the cold water, the worry about my speed, and the eventual distance of Apache. I was one of the first people on the dock prepared to jump into the water, but as I got ready, I realized I was scared to jump into the water, and even tried to walk back up to where my things were to go home. Another swimmer caught me turning around on the dock, introduced herself, and convinced me that I’d be fine. Lo and behold, I jumped in and the water was absolutely amazing. The view was gorgeous, all of the swimmers seemed joyful to jump in and do the thing they loved, and excited to start the swim. So, I put my head down and swam. I have to say, I enjoyed myself immensely – meeting the other swimmers, finding the secluded beach, and swimming back in the waves.

At the pre-swim dinner, I got to meet one of my idols, Lynne Cox. My friend Hillary purchased “Swimming to Antarctica” for me sometime last year and since reading it, I used it as a reminder of the strength required to persevere through races, both physical and mental. I got to hug Lynne after the dinner and get my book signed. I don’t remember much else about the dinner because of my excitement of meeting Lynne.

The next morning, my kayaker and I received emails saying the quickest way to the marina of Saguaro Lake was closed due to a brush fire. Our commute doubled, and we were running late. Fortunately, we arrived only slightly late, and were still able to check in and get ready. That morning, I experienced the “hurry up and wait” portion of the logistics of SCAR – getting ready to boat to the start line, getting ready at the staging area, boating to the dam buoys, and finally getting to start.

That first boat ride was exhilarating. We took a speed boat to the staging area (my first ride on a speed boat) and got to see the course. Although I was anxious, by the time we got to the staging area and truly started swim prep, I was ready to get in the water. Through the entire race, my kayaker was the best crew – he made sure I wouldn’t get burned by extensively sun blocking me so I was a solid pasty marshmallow every day. He forgot to sunblock is forearms and ended up getting a pretty fantastic watch burn line that first day.

Getting onto the boat to travel to the buoy start line without my kayaker, I was nervous, but my fellow swimmers were fantastic. I ended up jumping into the water already having fun. We swam to the start buoy, put a hand up showing we were ready, and off we went! My kayaker met up with me shortly after the start, and we got into a smooth rhythm of feeding every half hour and taking the most direct course to the finish line. I was warm, feeling great, and took it easy for this race. I was pleasantly surprised when we turned the corner and saw the buoys of the finish line. Day one was in the bag.

Here are a few photos I dug up from either Saguaro or Canyon - my kayaker didn't have time to whip out a camera on Apache, and the courses look pretty similar for the first 2 days.

After we finished and were boated back to the start line, my kayaker and I ate some great food and talked about sun block strategy for the following day. We drove home, ate a ton more food, and fell asleep (I in the bed, my kayaker on the living room floor) for a couple hours before getting up to eat again and packing for Canyon.

The next day (Day 2 of the swim race), my kayaker and I repeated the same process. I was warned Canyon would be windier and colder than Saguaro, but I wasn’t sure by how much. As I jumped off the boat to swim to the start line, I discovered the water was MUCH colder (54 degrees versus a balmy 60) than Saguaro start, and I panicked a bit. But, I saw and heard other swimmers being shocked by the water too, and I realized we were all in the same situation together. If they could swim, so could I.

My kayaker was an expert navigating Canyon. I was moved from Wave 3 (first day) to Wave 2 for Canyon due to my speed, so I ended up catching some swimmers, and for some of the time, swimming with Abby Fairman. I even led the race for the hottest of seconds, until a few of the faster swimmers passed me, including Abby. There was quite a bit of wind, and a lot of wake from the boats on the lake, but I still felt like I had a strong swim and finished having a great time. It was my first time truly swimming with wind-caused chop and that much wake, so I surprised myself by powering through and adjusting my stroke as needed. When Abby and I had hopped onto the pontoon boat, we found out a rattle snake had swam up with us and was swimming right next to the boat! Definitely wasn’t expecting that form of wildlife.

Although Canyon was cold (60-65 degrees once we were away from the starting line), I realized that I had it in me to adjust as necessary, and mentally power through conditions I had never experienced before. My kayaker and I completed the day by driving to the Apache Marina (dirt road, 10 mph) and taking photos along the way.

The third day was a bit of a chaotic nightmare. Some swimmers were told 6:30 AM for the pre-race meeting after they finished Canyon the day before, but the paperwork said 6 AM. Many people were late for the pre-race meeting where they honored the kayakers. All the kayakers got an epic mug. The purpose of thanking the kayakers on Apache day was pretty symbolic… everyone knew that Apache would be tough and long, but at that early hour, we didn’t know how tough it would be, especially on the kayakers.

After the meeting, we had a quick breakfast, and then hopped on the boats to get to the staging area. I was back in Wave 3 for this race for some reason, so I had a lot of time before my heat left the staging area, so I helped bring kayaks down to the water and organize the goods for the other swimmers. I was nervous, and words from another kayaker stuck in my head, “The waters are going to be rough and choppy through the open area of the marina, but will be flat coming into the finish line. You just have to get to the narrower area of the cliffs, and it gets easier.”

We finally got ready for to start the swim, but some of the other heat 3 swimmers were just getting to the staging area, since their boat had taken longer to get through the course. I felt terrible for them – they had very little time to get ready before we got called to hop on the boats to the start buoys. For Apache, I chose to swim with ear plugs, something I rarely do. I usually hate ear plugs because they make my jaw and neck hurt, still let the water in, and end up falling out anyway. But, as I jumped into Apache, they held, and I was thankful I had them. The water was slightly warmer than Canyon, which was unexpected. I had been warned that Apache was usually cold, as well as extremely windy, due to its width and size.

We started off at a slower pace – most swimmers took it easy knowing the wind would stir up the water and exhaust us later. Better to conserve the energy, I thought. Unfortunately, as I’d come to learn, that was a huge mistake.

As we swam into mile 3-4, the wind started to really pick up. By mile 6, my kayaker was already getting tired. There were wide open areas, and the most direct course through the river was to be in the middle of the lake. By the marina (mile 5 or 6?), I was having to slow down to wait for my kayaker, since the wind just kept pushing him backward. I saw other kayakers getting towed forward by motor boats to help keep them with their swimmers. Right by the marina, my kayaker was offered a tow by the speed boat patrolling the course, and he accepted. He handed up his paddle to the speed boat crew and held onto the tow rope. When the speed boat started accelerating, my kayaker saw his kayak starting to flip, so he let go of the tow rope, leaving the speed boat and his paddle moving forward, and himself floating backwards at (what seemed to me) an alarming rate. I saw that he was paddle-less and quickly swam over to the boat, grabbed the paddle, and raced back to catch my kayaker in time to give him back his paddle. All of my swim coach's one arm swimming drills really paid off.

After that failed tow, my kayaker still couldn’t keep up with me due to the waves and headwind. He was getting thrown around and pushed backwards faster than he could paddle. By this time, I had swum 50-100 yards ahead of him, and continued to swim forward. Before the marina, I had noticed the water got colder, and each time I stopped, I would get very cold. 200 yards ahead of my kayaker, I stopped and saw him abandon the race, asking the speed boat to take the feed to me to I would still have a chance of finish. I kept swimming. Ten-15 minutes later, the boat cruised up next to me, fighting the wind. They tried to throw me my feed, but weren’t sure of the process, so they ended up throwing all my tangled feed rope and bottles overboard on top of me, which made it hard for me to give back to them. They told me they would stay ahead of me, watching me and at least 1 other swimmer. I asked if my kayaker was getting another tow, and they told me that he had abandoned, which caused me to panic and start crying pretty hysterically. I was scared of swimming alone – the waves were huge, the water was extremely cold, I couldn’t see where I was going at all, and this meant that I’d have fewer, if any, feeds for the rest of the race. I was already tired and hungry, and now I was discouraged. If I had only swam faster at the start, maybe my kayaker could have gotten ahead of the wind and would have stayed with me, I thought. Maybe we could have beat the 45-50 mph wind gusts?

At that moment, I put my head back into the water, and just started cataloging my body. Were my feet ok? Yes, they were cold, but I could still feel them, and they were not in pain. Were my legs ok? Yep. Was my back alright? Tired, sore, but totally functional. Were my shoulders ok? Yep, my training regimen really paid off. My shoulders, despite the wind, waves, and cold, were still good to go. That meant I was physically good to keep swimming. I just had to decide that mentally, I was ready to push forward, tired and alone. I decided then that I wanted to finish – after all, I just had to get to the narrows and the water would calm. I pulled my head up and told the crew in the boat, who had floated back up to me to let me know they could no longer support me, that I was totally fine to finish on my own. They agreed and left me to swim. They had previously mentioned that someone may try to drop a “relief kayaker” in for me (I’m not sure if that happened, but I think I saw Patty Hermann out there for a split second), but unfortunately, within an hour, the speed boat returned and informed me that I had to abandon the race.

The crew told me they were pulling everyone because the water was unsafe – there were no kayakers who could continue on the course, and that no swimmers could finish safely anymore. To make matters harder, there was a fishing competition going on alongside the race, which led to a ton of non-race boats being aloof and on the course. The support volunteers were worried a swimmer would be run over by a fishing boat (or even another support boat) or get lost.

There were simply not enough motorized boats available to support all the swimmers still left in the water without their kayakers, so Kent (race organizer) decided to call it. As I pulled myself into the speed boat, I started to cry, knowing my race record had a DNF (did not finish) for the first time… and it wasn’t because my body or mind had failed. It was because of something out of my control. It was very difficult to accept, especially when I found out I had been about 3 miles away from the finish line.

We picked up two other swimmers, Brad and Mark. Brad had been swimming for 2 hours without a kayaker, and Mark still had a kayaker with him, but they weren’t moving against the wind at all. The kayaker looked pretty exhausted. We boated back to the marina, where madness ensued. People didn’t know where their swimmers or kayakers were, whether they were still in the lake, if anyone had finished, or the conditions of others. I had previously been told that there had been no finishers, but soon discovered that 4 people had finished. I had some strong feelings about the 4 finishers, as I learned some of them had received new kayakers, had been supported by a motor boat, or had other mitigating circumstances.

After dinner that night, I felt a sense of overwhelming failure for not being able to finish my swim. After my rigorous training, I had thought Apache, despite its forecasted difficultly, was in the bag. I felt that the training I had invested so heavily into – the sport that my life surrounded for the past several months – had been an ineffective waste. My kayaker was very patient and eventually calmed me down. That night, I could barely sleep. I was achy, tired, and pretty despondent.

The following morning, my kayaker and I were both up at 4 AM, ready to get moving. We packed up and headed out on the dirt road to Roosevelt. We drove for a pretty long time before we saw the start line for Apache. I couldn’t believe how far I had swam through the wind, chop, and cold. I started to feel better about the experience. At the start line to Apache, we stopped the car and I grabbed a small rock as a memento to the lake that defeated me.

During the drive to Roosevelt, we saw the dam and the next swim’s finish line. We spent the day eating lunch, checking into a new motel, and preparing for the night swim that evening. I thought I had prepared well, but discovered my well-intentioned glow sticks weren’t the right color for night swimming – I had purchased red (my favorite color of light because it doesn't hurt my eyes at night as much), but they barely glowed.

As everyone was boated to the start line, we saw the course and tried to guess how much night swimming we’d have to do. Some people were excited for the darkness, while others, including me, were less eager to spend time under the stars. We were slotted to leave 5 minutes apart in waves, with me in wave 3 again, but upon landing at the staging area/start area (boat launch this time), we saw many swimmers were still missing. It turned out their pontoon had mechanical difficulties, and the third heat ended up waiting on the boat launch for an extra hour after waves 1 and 2 had left. The running joke was that we were all ready for a feed before we had even started the race.

During the wait, there was a lot of commotion because we were including a kid’s race with ours – the kids were doing the same swim we were, but as a relay. So, kayakers and a pontoon boat would accompany them to help with the course and provide the swimmers the relay mechanism.

The race finally started, and I discovered that I much prefer jumping into the water instead of wading in. Jumping gives you a faster kick in the pants, and wading in is like slowly peeling off a band aid. As we got in, there was a bit of trampling, with the kid’s relay having trouble staying in a straight heading. As we met up with our kayakers and started around the first turn of the course, the kid’s kayak(s) were very close to the adult competitors, and the pontoon staging the kid’s relay swimmers was causing a lot of wake. By the end of mile 1, I had been punched in the face by another swimmer, converged on by multiple kayaks, and was in a grumpy mood. I had tweaked my shoulder in an effort to not run over one of the kids as they weaved through the course, and already felt the pain in each stroke on my right side. In addition, I was pretty cold, either due from being tired from the previous days, or from the cold water. I felt the cold was worse than Canyon and Apache, and couldn’t seem to get warm.

At mile 2.8, I had stopped to feed and was pretty whiny with my kayaker. He encouraged me to keep going, so I kept swimming as the sun started to set. By mile 3.5, I was miserable. I started to panic during sunset/twilight, as I’ve never done a night swim before. I was extremely cold, to the point of not being able to feel my hands and feet, and feeling pretty uncomfortable. At one point, I actually pulled my head out of the water and asked to be pulled from the race. I had never been so miserable or cold on a swim in my life. My kayaker told me my stroke count was still within normal limits, I wasn’t exhibiting any signs of hypothermia, and I should keep going. With his encouragement, I plopped my head back in and kept swimming.

As night fell, I realized my kayaker and I hadn’t discussed how he would signal feeds to me in the dark. Moreover, our equipment wasn’t the best for night swimming, and I was getting blinded by his headlamp and kayak lantern. He wanted to keep me very close, so each breath I took to look towards the kayak made me very disoriented from the blinding effects of all the light. Still, we tried to shut the lights off, and it made me even more scared, so we decided blinded was better than scared. I ended up dictating the feed schedule – we fed when I was hungry, tired, or demoralized. My kayaker kept pushing us along, telling me how close I was to the bridge (and after that, the dam), and the water even warmed up ever so slightly a mile from the finish. Finally, we swam under the iconic bridge, and the sight was very beautiful. Laid in front of a backdrop of stars, the bridge’s outline was huge and daunting from where I was in the water – something I’ll never forget. Within a quarter mile after that, I saw the finish buoys and was so relieved. I had never before asked to be pulled from a race, but as I finished, I felt both pathetic (for asking to be pulled in the shortest race at SCAR) and accomplished (SCAR was finally over).

I’m glad my kayaker pushed me to finish; he made sure I was physically sound and kept me going, which isn’t something every kayaker would do. During the swim, every time I had complained about how bad I felt, he was quick to tell me how great I was doing, and how much he loved me. Even though I felt I had nothing left, his belief in me was empowering, and I’m so glad I didn’t pull myself out.

I ended up swimming through an immense amount of crud at the finish. In fact, after getting back to the hotel room, I took off my suit to have a thin brown layer everywhere my suit touched my body… just of dirt, twigs, and other filth.

That night, I went to the lobby/bar of the motel to get Wi-Fi to tell my parents about the race, and ended up meeting a handful of very excited drunk fishermen who had heard of the SCAR swim and wanted to hear about it from me. I got a standing ovation from these 8 people when I told them I had just finished the race that night. I felt really proud, and their enthusiasm was contagious. Even though I felt really miserable through the night swim, it felt pretty worth it sitting at the bar and telling these very drunk people what it was like to battle the winds of Apache, snake through Canyon, and finish a swim at night. I realized that I accomplished something most people couldn’t even imagine doing in their lives, and felt really proud of myself.

Posting about this swim years later, I continue to have mixed feelings about my DNF at Apache. I currently coach other swimmers, and am race directing, so I'm experiencing a lot of variables that I previously didn't acknowledge or respect as a swimmer who hadn't kayaked for anyone before. I've since returned to SCAR as a kayaker for all 4 days, and felt so blessed to have been able to experience the Salt River from above and below the water. I was able to rely on my experience as a swimmer to explain the course and adjust conditions/feeds for my swimmer that I crewed for. I have also been able to incorporate discussing DNFs into my coaching sphere as a possibility to prepare for. The empathy I built for swimmers, kayakers, race organizers, and other crew as a result of my experiences in SCAR has helped me become a more realistic and effective trainer, swimmer, and crew member.

If you're considering entering the SCAR lottery as a swimmer, I would encourage you to volunteer as a paddler for the event first. You get to see the courses and experience the varying conditions, which will lead you to be the world's most understanding swimmer (rather than being a grumpypants like me and blaming my kayaker for Apache for a long time). Heck, I recommend volunteering or crewing for every race you want to enter (and for some, it's a great way to get a spot the following year)!

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