I woke up this morning having achieved something I wasn’t sure I could do.
Yesterday I competed in the Skaha Lake Ultra Swim – an 11.8 km event in Skaha Lake, BC from Penticton to Okanagan Falls.
I’ve been training for this swim for the last few months. I followed a plan and stuck with it as well as is possible for me to stick to any kind of plan.
I learned so much about myself during the lead up to this event. I learned not only what my body is capable of, but also my mind.
It’s often said that long-distance swimming is more of a mental than a physical game. The long training workouts required for a big distance can be boring, isolating, and frustrating. You are effectively trapped with your thoughts. I’m no stranger to this, especially with the annoying personal issues I am currently working through.
Physically, I knew I was strong enough for the marathon distance after last weekend’s 27.17 km. I had put in the work.
But mentally and emotionally, the work is so different. I have sought to create a positive inside space for myself when swimming. It’s so easy to dwell on what’s not going well because you have so much time alone with your own brain. My work here has been to learn to focus on breathing, the movement of my arms and legs, and the rotation of my body. And to not focus on the things I can’t solve in that moment.
Sometimes it works for me, and sometimes it doesn’t. The work continues, and that is the whole point of it all, really.
Yesterday it did!
The swim started at Skaha Park in Penticton at 7 am. The weather was cooler than it has been recently, but the smoke of 500 forest fires hung heavily in the air.
The atmosphere was lively and positive, as you can see from the group photo taken before we started.
Swimmers and kayakers assembled on the beach to share last minute strategies and plans. I was so lucky to have my friend Christine as my support kayak. Christine drove all the way from Victoria for this event, and I am so grateful for her support and encouragement before, during, and after the swim.
We talked about my nutrition plan – Clif Bloks every 45 minutes with no dolphin tricks required. We plotted the straightaway to Ponderosa Point, and how we would approach each of the landmarks.
I swam my first 3 km the way I always do, easy and relaxed (unless something is chasing me). I focused on the rhythm of my stroke, my excellent tunes, and getting a feel for the water. At 20 degrees Celsius, it was quite a bit warmer than anything I’ve swam in recently. I really noticed the smoke in the air, and I was thankful for the fruity flavour of my Bloks to take away some of the bbq-esque palate of the lake.
At around 3km in, the lake became much more wavy and choppy. I noticed the currents, and imagined that they were pushing me forward toward the finish rather than sideways to the left, which was what was actually happening. Swimming with a kayak is great for keeping a straight line, especially if you follow the rules and follow the kayak. You can imagine that I am very difficult to dance with. Christine was great at keeping me on track and we pushed toward the Point with excellent sightlines and plenty of space around us.
I started to gather steam when my bagel from the night before kicked in around the 5 km mark, which is a hallmark of how my body approaches these swims. Start slow, then start enjoying yourself, and then feel the turbo kick in. I swam past some other yellow-capped competitors, and some swam past me. I didn’t have any feelings about this, because I was thoroughly enjoying myself and felt very strong. I concentrated on keeping high elbows to counter the chop and to save my shoulder strength for the last third of the race.
Once we passed Ponderosa Point, the waves died down and the current toward the finish at Okanagan Falls felt a little stronger. I started to notice the sting when I’d turn my head to breath and realized that I had only applied about 8 km worth of Sport Shield on my neck. The chafing…it burns.
With 3 km to go, I suddenly felt a very sharp cramp in my left calf. Turning over, guzzling water, and relaxing my legs made short work of the dreaded knot, so I only lost about 90 seconds. Swimming with pointed toes causes this very common malady. I mentally said some nice things about my right calf and it didn’t give me any problems. Thanks leg!
The kayaker and swimmer traffic picked up quite a lot into the last few kilometres, with everyone jockeying for position coming into the finish. By this point, I was really feeling my shoulders, and my neck, and my lower back. I was dreaming of spaghetti and hugs and massages and Epson salt. Christine encouraged me to push it and I found some additional reserves deep in the recesses of my body. I lengthened my strokes and pumped up my kick. If a cramp was going to strike, it was going to have to suck some eggs.
I had some trouble seeing the red buoys of the finish until around 500 metres. But when I saw those big bad red babies, I went full on until I was barely horizontal in shallow water. I started to cry into my goggles, heaved myself upright, and ran across the finish like a big bald baby. I accepted my finisher’s medal and ran straight into the arms of Scarlet, who embraced me and absorbed my sobs into her shoulder.
Scarlet was the support kayaker for Mark Steven. Mark finished the race second overall in his age group, and cracked the overall Top 10. What a swimmer! What a team!
I never post my race results (because I don’t want to overthink them), but I will say that I almost made the Top 10 in my age group (40 – 49 women) and came in well under my goal of 4:30:00. And next year, I’ll do it in 3:30:00. The shore, not the sky, is the limit.
What’s next? I have 2 more planned events in September with the Lake Chelan Swim (1.5 miles) and the Serpentine Swim in London, England (2 miles). I will have to adjust my training for the shorter distances and work on leveraging the power of my night-before bagel much earlier in the swim.
Extra special thanks to Christine for being an amazing support. And to Lil and Bill Therriault for letting us stay at your lovely home. And to Mark for adding so much energy and positivity to the day, as usual.
Thanks to the organizers and volunteers for putting on such a memorable event.
And to Scarlet, especially for the hugs.