In 2022, I signed up for a series of swims as part of a personal challenge - to swim 100 kilometres in a single season in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont in the United States. You can read more about that here if you like! Locals refer to it as the NEK, or more simply, "The Kingdom". With its rolling hills, forests and waterways, it's simply spectacular, a truly magical place to spend your time.
Here's my report for the second swim in the series, the Willoughby Triple Crossing (25km/15miles).
SET-UP AND START
This is the swim that almost didn't happen. Vermont has been pummelled with rain storms and flooding, and Lake Memphremagog was closed to swimming a couple of weeks before swim day. The race director, Phil White, managed to pivot and within a week, he had made all arrangements to have us moved over to Willoughby. No small feat on his part, and he spread the event over 2 days to make it work, and the 25km/15mile swim took place on Saturday. We would be doing 3 laps of Willoughby. Surrounded by mountains and trees.
The forecast looked great, but when we arrived that morning, the wind was the exact opposite of the forecast, meaning we'd have 2 laps of headwind and 1 easy lap of tailwind. I didn't know at the time, but I'd be pretty grateful for this later on. I met up with Gary on the beach, we got our gear stowed on the kayak, got a hand from Elaine in slathering up with zinc oxide to protect my skin, and chatted with other swimmers while we waited for the start.
The route was simple: leave from the South Beach, head up one side of the lake, clear the water at the North Beach, jump back in and head back down the other side to avoid colliding with other swimmers. Do that again, for 3 lengths of the lake.
I set my intentions the night before the swim: I was going to do as little work on the water as possible. That's right, as little work as possible, I was going to focus on technique and moving forward with ease and efficiency but I was not going to work hard, at all. I was willing to take a hit on the time, in order to see how "just swimming" worked for me. I wanted to treat this like a forever swim, pretend it was much longer than it really was, and make sure I had lots left in the tank when it was over. This swim was going to be part of my final training prep for The Search 40km/25miles in September.
Lap 1 = 1/2 headwind + 1/2 relatively calm waters
I stared out at the dark lake, and remembered that I kinda love wind and waves. I smiled as we set off. I kept my pace between 4-5/10 level of effort, trying to hold back from doing more, to not expend too much energy. I leveraged front quadrant arm rhythm as the waves pushed me back, and focused on my body stability as I moved through the chop. My right arm and shoulder blade were a little tight going into the swim, so I was careful to move gently and check in on my body constantly, adjusting my stroke as needed. All seemed well, and I was properly warmed up after about 45 minutes. By the time we hit the halfway point and the wind calmed down, I was all smiles and happy with how smooth I had felt through the chop. I cleared the water and turned back for lap 2.
Lap 2 = tailwind pretty much the whole way and it sucked a lot
We weren't all that far from the shoreline when I felt the wind pick up at my back, and at first I thought, ok, a little push, nice. But as we headed further down the lake, I noticed my arm recovery was lower, my rhythm was all over the place, I couldn't feel the water anymore. And I felt like we were barely moving forward, I had apparently completely fallen apart. I could see Gary on my right, his paddle was resting across the kayak, his arms folded, he looked like he was nodding off at times. Was I really THAT fucking slow?! Fuck, I thought, look at me, tired already, didn't train enough, nothing we worked on in the pool helped, maybe I'm just not good at this, better tell coach Shannon that it's all just not for me. I felt discouraged and kinda miserable for a pretty long stretch, and considered getting out at the end of the lap.
We weren't far from the second turn at the beach when I started to realize the tailwind had actually picked up quite a lot over the course of this lap, I had been swimming in long rolling waves, tipping me forward and throwing me completely off balance. Maybe that's why Gary wasn't paddling, he didn't have to because the wind was pushing him forward hard. Maybe it was the wind after all, and not me sucking. I remembered something Elaine Howley told Sarah Thomas on her epic 4-way English Channel crossing: we don't make decisions in the dark. So I promised myself not to make any decisions on the beach, instead I boomeranged at the turning point and headed right back into the water before I could let my negative self-talk take over...
Lap 3 = headwinds 3/4 of the way made my heart sing
I can't explain it, headwind is harder and slower, and I shouldn't like it...right? As I walked back into the water I looked out at the length of the lake, the wind really had picked up, I laughed to myself at how much choppier the water was now. Wee-fucking-hoo! Gary was going to have to actually paddle, and I was going to have some fun with it. We had covered 16km/10miles in about 6hrs15mins, I'd proven to myself that I could still make decent time without much effort, so enough of that...it was go time.
I pushed my way back out into the water and dove into the waves, and there it all was, back again: my relaxed arm recovery, my streamline and balance, my stroke rhythm, power on the catch. It didn't take long before everything was back in synch, working in unison, I regained control. I had energy and drive to spare, so I ramped up my output to 6-7/10 for a couple of hours and focused on all the technique work we'd done over the last few months. I was having so much fun, and felt like I was flying through the water. About an hour out from the finish, the wind calmed, and I dropped back down to 5, then 4/10 level of effort, and glided my way into the finish. The air temp dropped, and I could feel the chill on my arms. The last lap took the longest and it was the hardest, but it was also my happiest.
I've been testing SFuels Race+ Drink on my swims this summer, and it worked out really well on this swim. It's made of Highly Branched Cyclic Dextrin (HBCD), which supplies carbs but zero sugar, and fits well with fat adaptation. I had a little stomach bloat, nothing extreme, could just as easily have been due to the volume of fluids too, 8oz every 30 mins.
I started my feeds @ 1 hour, and consume a feed every 30 minutes. Partway through lap 3 (20km/12.6miles) I started feeling full, I had to sip to get it down, instead of chugging. I figured since there wasn't much distance left to go, I started alternating every 30 minutes between a feed and then electrolyte water only. I did run out of energy a little at the end, although that's typical for me during the last hour or so when I know the end is near. I probably should have kept the feeds consistent but after hours of drinking the same stuff, I always seem to reach a point where I just don't want anymore, and, it gets really warm. Yuck. In any case, energy levels were great, I'm on the right track with this product for sure.
Pre-swim, 1 hour before start
o So Good lemon yogurt
o Large coffee with 18% cream
o About 5g carbs, 4g sugar
Fuel - 3.6 x 700ml bottles consumed:
o 2560ml water
o 165g carbs SFuels, 3.5 x Biosteel mango peach
o 44g fat, 0 sugar
Electrolyte water - 1 x 700ml bottle consumed:
o 700ml water
o 1 x Biosteel mango peach
o 2 scoops Ucan pineapple
o 1 carb, 0 sugar
Back at my motel, I peeled off my swimsuit and was a little shocked at how defined my abs were (it's saying a lot, I'm pudgy!). I'd clearly been engaging my core a lot to stabilize in the waves, well damn, I thought, nice!
I got in the shower and stood under the hot water for what felt like forever, and only then did it really hit me. That was a hard swim, really hard, and I nailed everything I had hoped to get out of it. It took me a bit to think through why, but here goes:
- every decision I made about when to ease off or to push hard was correct
- every decision I made to adjust my stroke/pace and protect my body was correct
- my lower back didn't hurt, our technique work over the months had paid off
- I didn't shy away from hard stuff, instead I brought all my focus and effort to the chop
- tailwinds put me into really negative headspace, I'll have to watch for that
- I am much stronger physically/mentally than I give myself credit for
- in retrospect, at the end I still had it in me to do more
And yep, that made me weep in the shower a little. What a swim.