Sunday, July 28, 2013

END WET 27-mile swim on the Red River

The END WET swim seemed so far away when I registered for it in January. Then, I suddenly found myself in the car driving up I-29 for hours with Paul for a 27-mile swim in the river. It may sound daunting, but I am inspired my many others who have overcome much bigger obstacles to achieve their goals - sometimes that's climbing a mountain or biking 200 miles of gravel, sometimes it's relearning to walk or using a handcycle to cruise across a state. I am blessed to know some incredible people.

When we finally made it to Grand Forks on Thursday night, we checked into the Guest House Inn which had been a Holidome in its former life. I got a kick out of the putt-putt golf and pool in the center of the building with all the hotel rooms around it. This type of hotel was just like a trip to Disney World when I was a kid. Note: I've never been to Disney World.

I left to pick up my friend Tim at the airport. Tim had kindly provided transportation and housing during the Pensacola swim so I was glad to return the favor. He wanted to stop by Mickey D's for a couple of double cheeseburgers before we got back to the hotel, near midnight. How anyone could sleep after chowing down on those burgers is a deep mystery wrapped in an enigma and shrouded in awe.
Tim and I at the Harvest Bakery

The next morning we had a Red River practice swim, so Paul and I took Tim and another guy, Bob, from Iowa City to the swim start. At the river, I saw Karen Zemlin and Patty Hermann, my LA channel swimming class buddies. Patty somehow snagged Martin Strel as her kayaker. Martin is the Yugoslavian Elvis of the long distance river swimming community (a tiny hamlet) -- he's swum the Danube, Yangtze, Mississippi and Amazon rivers.
Morning practice with about half the field.

All in all, there were about a dozen of us who were ready to dunk in the muddy water for a practice swim. Andy - the boy Jesus and race organizer - led us on his stand-up paddleboard (that's a SUP). The water was surprisingly dark, but it didn't taste bad and the current sent us literally sailing down the river. It was so cool to watch the riverbank full of cottonwood trees fly by between each breath. We covered 2 miles in about 30 minutes, which is twice as fast as I normally cover that distance.

When it came time to get out, I was gushing toward the rapids. The current was so fast, I really had to push it to get across and grab the hand of a volunteer to get out. Whew! We then walked along the trail where we would have to get out during the race to by-pass the rapids. The mud was so soft, I sunk down to my ankles, adding kind of an interesting element to the event.

Mud beard.
It was a huge help to have Paul there for morale support and lots of driving. After we did the practice swim, we cleaned up as best we could and collected another swimmer, Matthew, for the ride to Harvest Bakery, a wonderful local bakery and cafe that served as our river swimmin' gang hangout for the weekend. Matthew is from Paul's neck of the woods, Athens, Georgia, and had just graduated from UGA with a major in English. What do you do with an English major? You take a Greyhound bus to Grand Forks, ND, to swim 27 miles in a brown river that's called Red, then take more Greyhound buses to Maine to hike the Appalachian Trail. He said he hoped to make it home by Christmas.

We thought there was going to be an organized meeting, but it turned out we must have beaten the rush. We ordered some sandwiches, chatted with Tim, Bob and Matthew, then headed back to the hotel to clean-up before the REAL meet-n-greet that evening. And "back to the hotel" meant walking to a campsite for Matthew. Hard core, dude.

At the meet-n-greet later that evening, Andy explained the race day agenda, we signed our waiver (will not sue if I get impaled by a dead tree or pick up some mutant river parasite or get my ass kicked by every other swimmer yada, yada, yada...) and we met our support kayakers, in my case - Dave the Amazing. He drove all the way from California just so he could help out. He used to be Andy's roommate
before they sort of grew up and got married (not to each other) and he swam the inaugural event last year. We also picked up swim caps, which I was pleased to find were silicon. Latex caps tend to bug my ears after awhile. I wish I would have gotten a photo of Dan "Mr. Butterfly" Projansky. As if swimming 27 miles in a river isn't wacky enough, he swam the entire race butterfly. 
Andy, the race director and boy Jesus

The Harvest Bakery set out a sumptuous spread of sandwiches, fresh fruits and veggies and the world's most incredible dark chocolate chip and sea salt cookies. Oh.My.Glorious.Heaven - I'd swim 100 miles and battle muskrats for a dozen of those.

Martin Strel introducing his documentary
After the reception, we walked over to the Firehouse - now an Indy Theater to watch Big River Man, a documentary about Martin Strel's epic river swims. He introduced the movie, which was pretty cool. I had a chance to visit with him a little that morning and he's a very nice guy. I love his Yugo accent and I'm impressed with his determination. The documentary noted that Martin got into swimming at a young age -- escaping beatings from his father. He also suffered from mental stress and dementia during his Amazon swim. That he has survived all of this and is a national hero in Yugoslavia and among open water swimmers is impressive and admirable.

We made it back to the hotel about 9:30 and I whipped up my feed bottles for the next morning. Two scoops of Perpetuem in a 32-ounce bottle with water and a splash of V8 Splash will keep me going. I also thought it would be a good idea to include a gel each hour, which as it turned out, wasn't a good idea, but I'll get to that.

On race day morning, we met Tim and Bob in the hotel lobby and after a quick stop at Harvest Bakery so I could snag a pastry, we met at the kayak loading spot so we could give our support partners our feeds. Mine conveniently fit in a soft sided cooler full of ice.

Greased up and getting ready to roll.
We then drove over to the start of the race. Twenty-six people of all ages from all over and from 17 to 68 years old. Masters swimmers, and marathon swimmers in particular, don't have a typical physique. Some are pudgy, some are slim, some have well defined muscles and others, like me, look pretty soft.

Andy led us into the water for the start and off we went. Group starts are a battle of arms and legs. I bounced off a couple of other swimmers as we made our way under the first bridge. The first 2 miles went just as fast as our practice swim. I kept an eye on the river side and started swimming a lot closer to the bank so I wouldn't have to fight the current to get out at our walk-around spot.

Some swimmers ran from the portage, but since my goal was simply to get to the finish without injury, I walked it. Dave met me at the top of the hill and we walked together to the kayak spot. I jumped back in the lake and Dave caught up with me shortly afterward.

Dave paddling and me swimming - for 8 hours.
From this point on, it was just a matter of swimming in the current, one arm after the next, for 8 hours. Tim and I kept passing each other for about 3 miles from the kayak loading spot, but he eventually found his mojo and I didn't see him again until the finish line.

So, what's it like to swim in a river? It's awesome. Although I couldn't see anything in the murky water, it's wonderful to watch the trees go by at every breath and get a generous push from the current. I asked Dave to let me know if he spotted any bald eagles. There weren't any during the swim and I didn't see any fish, either.

I was feeling pretty good overall. I had kinesio tape on my shoulders which may have helped prevent some of the shoulder impingement I incurred at the Pensacola swim in May. At about mile 10, my left shoulder started complaining. This is the other shoulder - the one I didn't injure. It wasn't too bad, so I just kept swimming.

Every half hour, Dave would whistle or just toss me my bottle of carbo drink. The bottles stayed nice and cold in that cooler all day long. After a quick chug, and a little stretching in the water, I face planted back into the muddy river and kept swimming - already thinking of the next feed.

Dave did a great job as my support kayaker. There were only a couple of times when I couldn't see him and that was usually because he was texting Paul to report on our progress.

At the 14-mile spot, there was a viewing area where our families and friends could watch us and cheer us on. I saw Paul and gave him the thumbs up.

After Tim passed me by, I didn't see another swimmer until close to the finish. For the next 6 hours, it was just swimming, swimming, swimming with the 30-minute feed schedule. My right shoulder pain continued to get a little worse each hour, but nothing at all like I experienced in Pensacola. I could deal with it.

As we got closer to the finish, I spotted a swimmer ahead of me. I tried to catch her, but was only able to close the gap. I could see the Oslo water tower, so I knew we were close. There was a bridge ahead and assumed the finish spot was probably on the other side. I kicked it up a notch and turned those tired arms like propeller blades.

Getting to the finish was the best feeling in the world. I clocked in at 8:01. Dang - if I'd picked up my pace a little sooner, I could have made it under 8 hours. But that's OK. My mission to finish was accomplished. 
I checked out the scoreboard and was pleased to see I came in 13th out of 26 - right in the middle. Patty did great, too, with a 10th place finish. My friend Karen Zemlin won the race! I heard it was a very close finish between Karen and world class swimmer Jen Schumacher. Way to go, Karen! Sandra Berquist came in 3rd. Top 3 spots won by the ladies - woot woot!

Paul had my recovery drink ready. I drank it all, but then felt like puking it back up about 10 minutes later. The nausea was worse with this race than Pensacola. I've since done some research on feedings during a marathon distance event and I think I was taking in too many calories. I had a gel in addition to my feedings each hour. The body can only absorb about 200 calories an hour during exercise and I was getting in 300 or a little more. No more gels.

The Oslo fitness center (a small gym with ancient equipment and 2 showers) kindly let us get cleaned up in their facility. I had little creases of river dirt all over me and was very grateful for the shower.

Paul drove Tim and me back to the hotel and we relaxed a little before heading downtown for dinner. You'd think I'd be ready to chow down on a 30 oz porterhouse steak, but I was still battling nausea. We found a great little pizza place and enjoyed sitting at a table on the rooftop. 

The next morning, I felt a lot better. I took Tim to the airport and then Paul and I went to the awards ceremony back at the theater. I'm so glad we stayed - we'd thought about heading out after I dropped off Tim. It was great to see the other swimmers in their street clothes - although sometimes it's hard to recognize someone when they're not in a suit, cap and goggles.

Andy had a few kind words for each swimmer as they came to the stage to get their medal. It's a little like being a kid at a local swim meet -- the thrill of getting a medal. I wore mine the rest of the day.

After the ceremony and chatting with the other swimmers, we headed home. It was a long drive, but so well worth it. I'd do this race again next year if I didn't have that English Channel swim on my agenda for next July. That's going to be a bit more strenuous (understatement of the year).

The week following the race, I did nothing. It took a lot out of me and I wanted to give my left shoulder time to heal. Now, it's time to get serious about training for the Channel. 


  1. Molly, what an incredible journey! Congratulations on your big swim :)

  2. Excellent tale of intrigue, adventure and heroics! You keep setting that bar higher and higher. Inspiring to me max!!