End Wet or How I learnt to stop worrying and love the Swim

EndWet is a 36 mile swim that takes place in North Dakota on the red river. It is the longest single day swim race in the United States and somewhere along the way I decided it would be a good swim to attempt. This decision was made at the end of a good 2017 season in which I was feeling a new found confidence for marathon swimming.

However, as the weeks passed I became highly concerned about my ability to complete the event and began thinking too much. End wet is a tough proposition and as of this past Saturday only 128 people have completed this swim in 7 years. I was concerned about my physical ability as well as my mental ability to swim this event and the length of time it would take. In particular the mental aspect worried me.

As a swim friend pointed out in the days before when I was expressing my worries, “End Wet will be a long day to face yourself, your thoughts, your rawness”.

In the days before leaving for the swim, I spent time reading on the Marathon Swimmers Forum (MSF) about how other swimmers dealt with a DNF (did not finish), to date I have not had a DNF and I was concerned about the psychological effect if this was to happen. Would I just walk away and be done with this element of the swim world or would it make me more committed to prove myself and in my head, others wrong.

Before the swim, I also worried about the thoughts of the swim community, did they think I was being brash jumping from Border Buster 25km to attempting End Wet, would there be a conversation in the background of “I told you so”, “I knew he couldn’t do that”. I do realize from my dealings with the swim community this is unlikely but you can’t always account for your psyche. These were the thing playing in my mind and with that said I just wanted to get to the lead up days of travel and actual swim, the things I can control.

As such, myself and my yacker (James) left Chicago on Thursday night and flew to Fargo where we spent a night. We then picked up a car and drove to the “test swim” on Friday. Here we met up with the fellow swimmers I seem to find myself surrounded by on a regular basis and their respective yackers, Sam, Zach, Kevin, Steve and Ritchie. Myself and James arrived at the test just as they and the other swimmers were getting ready to enter the water. I was encouraged to get in but went with my gut on not swimming 3 miles the day before the event. I did however jump in the river and join them about 1,000 meters from the end, just to get my feet wet.

After, we grabbed a little lunch and checked into the hotel.

Once checked in, it gave me the option to take some control of events. I could line up my feeds (yes to those that have seen the photos I brought a lot), I start this by preparing my drinks of Tailwind Nutrition, I made 13 bottles and filled some with Caffeine Tailwind and some without, we distinguished by the color of the bottle.  I then logically tried to follow with, if I was to feed in addition to the drinks what would I need and how often, from this I made a pile of GU, jelly beans, chewable energy sweets etc. Once all ordered I packed up the bags, this year myself and James decided to try out a Kayak fishing bag which we could lay on top of the kayak so that James could easily lean in and pull out the required bottles and feeds without much exertion. We also agreed a process for used bottles and used some tote bags to store these so that we could avoid any mishaps such as drinking from the Yackers pee bottle (serious concern over 13 hours and limited space. Kayakers deserve much credit).

Once this was all taken care of we headed to the race meeting at which point I will admit to having an upset stomach and having to disappear during much of the talk.  However, in credit to the End North Dakota organizers, they put on a clear event in which they explained the course, the options, expectations, cut offs etc. Once done we headed back to the hotel and I was in bed by 10pm for a 3am wake up.

I got up on the third alarm at about 3.15am, I let James lie a little longer as he had less to prepare than I did. I put the Jammers on, I put the Sol Rx on, I checked and rechecked bags etc.

I thought and posted the following

“Its 3.45am, I have sunscreen on, I am wearing Jammers, I am eating a banana, the lube is at the ready….I need a better hobby”

Then it was time to go.

We got on the shuttle bus at about 4.15am and arrived at the campground at about 5.15am. James and I found his Kayak, I had brought little plastic bags to apply the zinc oxide and Vaseline (the things you learn over time), gave some abuse to Swimstory Sam and Zach, I decided to wear my own cap with a wolf on it rather than the race cap (would prove to be a great decision mentally). At around 5.35am they told us race time would be starting soon. At 5.40am it was go time.

The water was moving fast at this stage which was nice but also meant it took much longer for the Kayakers to find us, as at least in my case I had made much more progress than expected. However, I was not enjoying my swimming at this stage and the various questions about why I was doing this (I can and I get to raise money for dog rescue while doing it) and quitting and failing and hurting arms and my abilities were racing around my mind.

My choice of swim cap kept slipping off my head, I had to stop 3-4 times to fix it but did not want to abandon the cap at this stage for fear of sun shine and a really burnt head. Anyway, we made it to the first feed, I did not say much, I drank, I took something else and I continued on, during the 2nd half hour (I feed every 30 mins) my goggles were hurting my face, they were pressing against my cheek bones and it was just hurting, at the next stop I chose to loosen my goggles which did get rid of the pain. However, this then led to my left goggle leaking, I stopped a few times to try to fix it but it did not improve and I eventually lost my left contact and gave up trying to keep water out of my eye (my eye stayed red for the next 2 days). These things were playing on my mind and I was unhappy.

After stop 3 I tried to refocus, I tried to keep in mind what others had said to me, enjoy the day, enjoy the water (silty, brown, visibility of 10 inches, clean tasting, good temperature all in all my kind of water), stop worrying about other people’s perceptions. What comes next will sound odd to many, in past swims I have been able to hit a certain point where I can empty my mind, I fell asleep during the border buster last year, so I tried to focus on just two things and repeated number 1 to myself constantly

  1. I thought of my cap of the wolf and repeated to myself “Be the Mother Fucking wolf”
  2. Swim, look at kayak, swim look at kayak, there is nothing else.

This approach seemed to work, I found myself in a rhythm which never left me for the next 11 hours and a calm state of mind that never left.

Let me add, I don’t really know what the chant means but it worked.

At the 15-mile mark or the distance of Border Buster, we had the option of doing a feed change out so James took this option to swap out the used bottles and pick up 6 fresh feed bottles that we had left at the start point to be brought here. We went through this point at about 5 hours, which gave me a nice psychological boost of being 3mph for first 5 hours and knowing we were 3hrs 40 mins ahead of the cut-off at this first check point.  While James did the swap out I just kept swimming.

We also discovered during a feed the GU does not float, you learn something new every swim.

The next milestone I cared about was being under 20 miles, cause then we were down to only “2 Swim the Sucks” left to swim. At each feed by this point I was doing math, ok 20 miles to go 11 hours to do it. I gradually watched the miles go down, with about 12 miles to go James told me I had this, it was good to hear but not words I would let come from my mouth until the last 1000 meters. During the period of 18-10 miles, I went back and forth with another swimmer Rachel with us passing each other depending on feeds etc., we also had a few chats during this time.

At around the 7.5 mile mark, I noticed we had lost Rachel though James assured me he had seen her and the kayak and they were ok and still swimming. I also knew at this point I had less than 3 hours of swimming at current pace and about 6-7 hours to get it done. If it all went wrong, I decided in my head that even with one arm (if it came to it) I could do a mile an hour.  Thankfully that was not needed. My feeds also became longer at this stage as to be plainly honest, the finish time no longer was an influence, I had some chats with James. James did his best to steer me away from the trees etc. which we joked about and that per his comment I was purposefully aiming for them. I will explain this though, I treat my kayaker and his kayak as the tractor beam, I do my best to stay within 5-10 feet of him always, so if he veers in I don’t necessarily move unless he gets real close, however this led to problems when he wanted me to avoid trees 😊 which we just about managed to do.

I continued to watch the miles disappear, it was nice when we got to the 3-mile mark where others had got in the previous day and it was even nicer when we got to the point that I got in. I did at this stage think about my mantra again and I don’t know if it was exhaustion but I will admit to getting a little teary but I composed myself for the last few strokes. As we approached the end dock I breast stroked and asked if it was “too late to quit”. I decided it was best to touch the dock. Kevin was on dock and recording my final few strokes and taking pictures and he was accompanied by fellow swimmer Zach and his dad Steve. The race director told me to be careful as I tried to step up on deck and I will admit I found it a little hard to stand initially, he gave me his hand to grab on to and we made our way on to dry land.

“It’s all a mind game and the willingness to suffer until your feet touch dry land”

I was also a little delirious at his point and un sure on my feet, I was asked if I wanted to sit, I did not, I was asked if I wanted a cookie, yes, I did. However, a lot of these first few mins out of the water are lacking clarity right now. I thanked James again and helped him empty our stuff from the kayak. I asked Kevin to post a photo to my Facebook page so people would know I was done and I texted my wife Erin. I was not aware until this point that our track.rs had gone dead at mile 21 and while I can be a little blasé about the swims I am becoming more aware of the stress this can cause family and friends when I do these things.

We made the decision that Sam was far enough out that we could go back to the hotel and grab a shower and clean up, which was a really good idea, though I did advise James and Kevin that I would not be locking the bathroom door in case I slipped or anything else happened.

We then went back to the water, to welcome Sam in and then went and got some food at the event organized bar and had what I will describe as a glorious burger.

I have debated the inclusion of the following or not… Sat night.

Sat night was rough, there were aches and pains and I don’t believe in ignoring any of this as it is how you learn.

I did not sleep well, I woke at 1am sweating and at least to my state my forehead felt like I had a fever, I woke at 3am craving sugar and found an unopened bag on Sour jellies which I ate the whole bag of, I woke at 5am to use the facilities and found myself shaking and teeth chattering, I woke at about 7.30am and with the aches and pains decided I was up but just lay there. I have since discussed with another swimmer and he had similar experiences sat night.

Around 10am we left the hotel to get a tea and muffin before meeting Sam, Zach, Steve, Kevin and Ritchie for lunch.

I must give a shout out to the town of grand forks which was friendly, had good food and things to do, including going to the cinema on Sunday.

So, what have I learnt, a fellow swimmer advised me that you don’t come out of these long events the same swimmer that you went in and I understand what she means now.

Luckily my kayaker James has now been with me through 3 marathon swims and we are both quite analytical people, by Sunday morning we were discussing improvements in our process. Though in this event he highlighted my performance and behavior had changed from some previous events. Even though this swim was over 4 hours longer than I have ever swum before I never whines or complained and while I am the first to admit I am not fast, he never saw a drop in tempo during actual swim periods. So we are both learning about the in swim needs and process.

I also learnt the following, I can swim further than I thought, I am mentally stronger in the water than I thought, I am physically stronger in the water than I thought, I swim better when I stop worrying and I don’t know what my limits are yet, maybe I will never know as I really don’t know what is next, I have not worked out that bit of the puzzle.Someone told me to find something that excites me and right now I am looking for that again.

Thanks

A Somewhat Adequate Swimmer

4 thoughts on “End Wet or How I learnt to stop worrying and love the Swim

  1. Congratulations on your swim and thank you for taking us along for the ride! Beautifully written. I agree–you never come out of a long swim the same person!!! 🙂 Finz up!

    Liked by 1 person

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