That Time I Swam Christina Lake

On September 12, 2020 at 7:10 am, I slunk my shivering, slippery booty into the shallow, South end of Christina Lake and began a 7 hour, 19 km labour of love. Of course, first there was a ceremony involving the unfolding of the Oru Kayak, party beads, an intimate lanolin + zinc + vaseline rubdown, Guitar Hero, the Marathon Swim Foundation Rules, O Canada, and Territory Acknowledgement (in full below).

Ladies starting their engines.

At around 2 pm, I dragged my tired, wrinkly, raisin-y, but very happy body out onto the rocks at the very most North point of the lake, and was showered with hugs and love from some of the very finest people one could ever meet. The kind of people who would also spend 7 hours (or a great portion thereof) supporting a friend with wacky ideas and crazy ambition.

What was it like? What did I think about? Why would I do something like this? Did you poop in the lake? These are the questions I’m most frequently asked.

Well, it was smoky. It didn’t start off so badly, with a morning that wasn’t clear, but wasn’t pea soup thick either. I’ve swam in smoky conditions before (Skaha Ultra 2018), but this year’s US wildfires have had us veritably choking during the last 2 weeks. By the time I reached Texas Point, the smoke was lowering to the lake and it continued to get thicker all afternoon. I could taste it when I breathed.

Despite all that, I felt great during each stage of the swim. I was very conscious of pacing, and I knew that I wanted to maintain a stroke rate of 66 strokes-per-minute for the majority of the swim. Robin and Sue supported me during the first 10 km. They rocked the kayaks with some awesome hair metal, fed me Perpetuem every 30 minutes on schedule, and provided much needed banter and encouragement along the way. It was a pleasure to swim between them and I hope that they will flank me again someday.

Mmm Perpetuem.

I swam past all the swanky cabins of the South end, aiming at the point closest to the Marina, and then Texas Point, where Robin and Sue would paddle in and switch places with Ali, and Mike and Andrea would hop into the boat with Shanna. At the 10 km point, I was still feeling fine! The feeds were going well, I wasn’t feeling any chafing, and I was still able to somersault with joy when appropriate. I was even relaxed enough to pee while swimming, which is a pretty great thing. If you’ve ever had to pee really badly and just said “fuck it” and let it go, that’s what it’s like. Ahhhh.

At some point, I looked up to breathe and was surprised to notice 2 new orange and green kayakers – 2 kayakers I did not expect, but kayakers that I love!! Elaine and Rob appeared as if by magic and made that halfway point push into the next 9 km much easier, since I was so surprised and happy and honoured all at the same time. If you ever think you might need some motivation during an endurance event, just arrange to have some friends surprise you half way.

With Ali in the Oru, ready to guide and feed me, I pushed on toward Deer Point. The push to that Point, which is prominent from the water and looks much closer from Texas Point than it actually is, required a lot of mental gymnastics to just accept and carry on. What did I think about? Well, this is where I start to not think, and instead slide into a semi-meditation of moving arms and kicking legs and consistent bilateral breathing. This is where I start to find a real rhythm, and maybe allow a song in my head (Metronomy’s Reservoir, in this case) to take over a bit. I know that a feed is coming every 30 minutes, but 30 minutes can feel like a long time in the silence of water. I started to really look forward to those feeds. Marathon Swim Foundation rules state that the swimmer cannot touch the kayak under any circumstances, so I showed my appreciation with a little synchro love instead.

Couldn’t point my toe. Avoiding a calf cramp!

By this time, the smoke had lowered and thickened, and I realized that my shoulders were feeling pretty good. My lower back was feeling pretty good. I was still kicking a solid 2 beat. I was looking forward to feeds. I felt like I could swim a lot longer, so I knew that I was going to be able to do it.

And once I knew that I was going to be able to do it, the end of the lake became very far away just to test me. I have a technique when things start to hurt. I think about swimming at Nancy Greene Lake at sunset – my favourite time to swim. I think about how my hands and arms look when they enter the water in the golden light, sparkly and bubbly and effervescent. I imagine filling any part of me that is hurting with those golden bubbles, and how good that feels. It’s the closest physical thing to joy. I fill the hurt with the joy. 🙂

Come on golden bubbles of joy.

I passed the Point and knew I was nearing Shanna’s cabin on the East side. I could see the sandy beach that represents what usually is the end of the lake, approximately 1 km away – but other plans had been made. According to the map, the actual northernmost point of Christina Lake extends a little further up to the entrance to a creek where the salmon spawn at this time of year. The area is marked off by some white buoys. I could see the white buoys for what seemed like a very long time. I did not want to see any salmon making love.

The end of long swims is often like this – you can see the landmark you’re aiming for and your mind starts to mess with you. You think, “that can’t be much further than 500 meters, can it?” and then the next thing you know, you’ve been swimming another half hour and it’s time for another feed.

At long last, I could see humanoid forms on the beach. I could see the white buoys actually getting closer, and I could see Shanna’s boat at the edge. I asked Ali to guide me in, baby, and baby, she guided me through those white buoys into a soupy stew of lily pads and weeds……and finally, THE END!

The end is nigh.

One thing I did wonder while swimming was how I was going to get out if I didn’t finish at the beach. Shorter race events often see one running out of the water to cross the finish line – on land – at the end. These always give me anxiety because sometimes my legs are wobbly after being horizontal for a while and I’m scared of being that person who bails in a very unglamorous yard sale of embarrassment. Not that I expect to be all Baywatch, but I do worry.

Coming in hot.

Luckily, the last 6 metres were 30 cm deep thick, sludgy brown goo. I swam through that goo and slapped my hand on a rock on shore. And that reminds me, I didn’t poop in the lake during this swim, in case you were wondering. But something sure did, up at the North End.

Done! Complete! I stood up and did not fall over. I waved to my beautiful, cheering friends. Then I got back into the brown goo and Elaine towed me over to the beach, where people hugged me (even though I was covered in brown goo), put beads around my neck, and ushered me into a clean, white bathrobe.

Even a cloud of poop sludge can’t stop me from smiling.

And like that – the swim was over. 19.1 kilometers in 7 hours and 13 seconds. I’ll be submitting my documents to the official bean counter people in the next few weeks, and hopefully the swim will be ratified. That would be exciting. It was a great experience, from the training (trust the training!!), route planning, nutrition planning, support planning, to the delicious huckleberry margaritas served up during our post-swim celebration. I thought about my Dad every time I looked up and saw the sunrise. I slept like a baby that night and ate eggs Benedict the next morning, and then I had another swim.

I must effusively thank my special support squad. Shanna, Ali, Sue, Robin, Mike, Andrea, Elaine, and Rob….I bow down to you like Wayne and Garth before Alice Cooper. You made this swim possible for me. You made this swim amazing for me. Thanks to everyone who followed my little orange dot on the tracker, and sent messages (Ali read them along the way!), and cheered me on. And thanks Shanna for calling Scarlet and my Mum in the middle of the lake so I could hear their voices.

I also want acknowledge that I am grateful to have accomplished this swim on the unceded traditional territories of the Syilx tmixʷ (Okanagan), Okanagan, sngaytskstx tum-xula7xw (Sinixt), and
Ktunaxa ɁamakɁis.

What’s next? A whole bunch of cold water swimming in preparation for a long, cold swim. What else?

Oh, Here I Am

Where did I go? I’m not even sure! Have you seen me?

Oh, here I am, trudging out of the lake covered in weeds, mascara smeared, nipples pointing in opposite directions…and dragging my Swim Buddy behind me like the world’s saddest whoopee cushion. Did you miss me?

The last 7 months have gone by in a blur. I’ve had a lot of blogging false starts. I’ve felt like writing, and then I didn’t. I’d think about a post, and then I’d get busy, and then I’d get hangry, and we all know what happens when I get hangry.

And then a global pandemic happened (WTAF), the pools closed, and I didn’t really know what to do.

This wasn’t in the plan!

I’d been swimming in the most diligent, consistent, and committed fashion of my life. I’d been working with my Kelowna-based coach (the amazing Channel Swimmer Brent Hobbs) to improve my technique (which was apparently “of the 80’s” – go figure!) and increasing my distance weekly: 4 swims a week with one LONG ASS 10 km pool swim on the weekend. I was making regular practices with my local Masters Club, getting workouts in while traveling for work, and even competing in my second Master’s meet in Vernon, BC at the end of January. I smashed my times and really felt on the up and up and up….

My last pool swim in March at the Vancouver Aquatic Centre.

I was focused on swimming a ton of events leading up to the Sri Chinmoy Lake Zurich Swim in August. I had a yoga plan (thanks KERRY!), a strength plan (thanks ANDREA!), plenty of motivation, and even my sandwich-tossing support team figured out (HI SCARLET AND THOMAS!). But when the pools closed, I was at a loss. I figured the best thing to do would be to keep my fitness up, and having a Haus-German with whom to spend much of the lockdown ensured that I got out skiing a lot. Snow is frozen water, after all.

Then all swims were cancelled. I experienced existential grief and angst. I wasn’t easy to get along with. What a year. I was always anxious, always hangry. My gills were closing. 

This coincided with the busiest period I’ve ever had in my career.  Working in education technology means that I have morphed into a 3 inch version of myself who lives in Zoom 12 hours a day and may or may not be wearing pants at any given moment.  I can no longer see more than 2 metres ahead of me, which is ok because that’s how far apart we’re supposed to be anyway.

And then finally, it was mid-May and I decided to stop being such a big girl’s blouse and get in the fucking lake, no matter how cold. 

IT WAS COLD.

SO COLD.

(but I learned that I really, really like it!)

Brrrr

No wetsuit for me – as per Coach Brent. The sanctioned swims I’ve planned do not allow it, so I’ve relegated my sleek Orca rubber to the closet, where it sits in wait and may come in handy for fighting/committing crimes.

Early season training couldn’t come soon enough, and I headed out to Christina Lake as much as possible to test my cold boundaries and gradually increase my time in the water before meeting up with Coach Brent and Channel Swimmer Emilie Epp in Kelowna for the first LONG ASS cold water swim, where I swam for 2.5 hours in 13 degrees. It was exhilarating, even if my hands turned into lobster claws and I couldn’t get my car key in the lock. I couldn’t feel my own face, but that’s ok because we’re not supposed to touch faces anyway. 

As it’s gradually warmed, I’ve had lots of lake time at Christina, Slocan, Okanagan, and Nancy Greene. I did a short bike tour with The German, and I bought a super cool, easily transportable, foldable Oru Kayak to encourage support paddlers to join me in the beautiful BC sunshine (and thunder and lightning and rain….June was pretty wet!).

I’ve finally been able to swim with Coach Brent this week. He took me on a sunset cruise under the Kelowna Bridge (both ways), which was reminiscent of that scene inThe Perfect Storm – and I loved it. We talked about goals – I’m still planning to swim the 18.9 km length of Christina Lake – and one REALLY BIG GOAL that I am not ready to talk about yet.

So much depends on whether the pools open this fall/winter. So much depends on getting more than one hour in a lane.

So much depends on everyone wearing a fucking mask and washing their hands and not partying on houseboats and not hugging each other.

Navigating this new normal is not easy, but doing it in the water is making a lot of difference for me. Better thinking, natural exhaustion, fresh air…

I really missed this. I’m glad to be back. Let’s go for a swim.