Swimming END-WET

When I first heard of end wet, I assumed it was a stage race. Who would be crazy enough to swim 36 miles in one day? Little did I know there is a group of insane people out there who actually enjoy swimming that distance (or further). Not just at END-WET, but all over the world. I am overwhelmingly proud to say I am now one of those crazy people. END-WET is a downstream river race in The Red River of the North near Grand Forks, North Dakota. It is not a stage race. It is 36 miles in one, solid day. 

Full disclosure: I actually wrote a lot of this in my head while swimming the race. There’s not much else to do, so I decided to multitask. It took about four hours to really calm down and settle into a good rhythm. It’s not that I was swimming hard the first four hours, but I reminded myself of a Labrador puppy, excitedly stroking my way through the waters. I made a concerted effort to relax my breathing and slow down, making the most of every stroke.

As I swam, I checked out the surrounding scenery. The Red River of the North is not all that wide, making it possible to admire the lush, green banks on either side. The water itself is very murky, or “turbid” (if you want to sound more technical). Visibility is about 8 inches (or less?). I could not see any part of my body as I was swimming, just brown. Very brown. It tasted earthy and clean, but with no trace of chemical of agricultural runoff smell. You also don’t want to know what came out of my nose after the swim. The current was strong at the beginning, less apparent in the middle (but still fast enough to allow me to hold 20 minute miles, when I don’t normally come close to that), and fast again in the last few miles.

This is a pretty typical scene along the river.

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The water was intermittently glassy (as shown above) and slightly choppy. The chop wasn’t bad, but it always took me by surprise. We figured out later that it was due to the river changing direction and being suddenly exposed to winds.

If you are thinking of doing this event, check out the very helpful graph in the END-WET course book book online that shows the speed of the river each year and the average pace of the swimmers who finished. The tricky thing is that you don’t get to know how fast the current will be until a few days before the event. It was considerably slower until a rainstorm hit the week before, dumping a bunch of new water into the area and causing the river to pick up speed. I heard from a local volunteer that the river is fed from shallow creeks and irrigation canals, where the water sits and warms in the sun before emptying into the river. For that reason, the water warms up quite quickly and was around 73 degrees on race day—much warmer than the low 60s of the lakes in Oregon at this time of year.

Within a few hours, everyone else was either ahead or behind, and I really had no idea where I was in the pack. I thought about it (for about 5 hours) and finally concluded there must be at least half the swimmers (10) in front of me. I found this thought to be highly liberating—no point in rushing when there are probably ten people ahead of me and ten people behind me. I might as well just relax and enjoy the whole experience.

I had not come to the race to race. I had come to the race to not race. I know that sounds weird, but I had thought a lot about my reasons for doing this. I even wrote an entry about it, which you can read here. I wanted to find out what would happen if I swam that long. My reasons for doing it didn’t have anything to do with competition. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy getting after it in a good solid 10k, but this “race” was about something different for me. It was important for me to fully accept my speed the way it is and (for once) not try to be a faster swimmer. During the course of the event, I fell in love with this mentality. There were some moments when spotting other kayak-swimmer teams in the distance, where my competitive brain tried to hop in the driver’s seat. I am happy and proud to say that I let that go and reconnected with my desire to swim my own event and let everyone else do the same.

Here I am, while pondering all of these things.

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I’d like to tell some exciting stories about what happened during the event, but actually, not much happened at all. Twenty minutes went by, I had some sports drink. “How are you feeling?” Dan asked. Thumbs up, I said, with my thumb. My mouth was full of a sports top water bottle. I went back to swimming. Twenty minutes went by. “How are you feeling?” asked Dan. Thumbs up. Another twenty minutes. I wish I could tell you what point during the race this occurred, but it was pretty much the entire time.

At some point, my left wrist hurt for a few hours. I’m not exactly sure why, but I noticed I was bending it funny as it was coming out of the water. Fine. Thinking about keeping it straight gave me something to focus on. Then the tops of my feet began to ache. Of all the things that could hurt, I pondered, why the tops of my feet? Later, I talked with another swimmer, Cheryl, about it. She explained that this is a very common issue in marathon swimmers, because when you train in a pool, your feet get a break and a stretch every 25-50 meters, when you do a flip turn and push off the wall. But during a long open water race, your toes stay pointed for the entire time, never getting a break and get sore and achey. She suggested doing “egg beater” kicking while taking a drink break next time.

By that time, I had already decided I really liked Cheryl’s philosophy on marathon swimming in general. We had run into her and her husband, Chris the day before the race and discussed non-competitive attitudes toward marathon swimming. “It’s not about how fast you are,” she said. “It’s about each person achieving their individual goal for that day. For a lot of people the first goal is just to finish the race,” she said. “That’s my goal,” I replied, excited about this idea. “I just want to finish and have a good time.”

All of the other swimmers and kayakers I met were great as well. At the pre-race meeting, I met Sam. He and John had started a Facebook group called, “swimstory”. Sam explained the attitude of swim story is to be positive and supportive of each other’s swim experiences. He invited me to join the group and I left the meeting feeling a sense of being welcomed and included. It felt great. Meeting the other swimmers set the stage for me to honor the mental goals of swimming my own event that I had set previously.

I thought about all of these things and the people I met while I swam along, while I wrote parts of this blog entry in my head, while nothing much happened.

After awhile, something happened. The something was that it was time for my 8 hour coca-cola treat. In preparing for the mental aspect of the event, I had asked a swim buddy, Linsey for some advice. Linsey is a world-class, professional ironman triathlete and all-around awesome person. Who better to ask about advice coping with the mental side of long distance racing, than someone who does it all the time. “Caffeine really helps,” she said. “I have a coke at hour 6.” She went on to explain that the new, sweet taste is a morale booster after drinking nothing but sports drink the whole race. I have to say, I looked forward to it for hours and when it was finally time, it really was exciting. Dan had opened it earlier in the day to let the bubbles out, so it wouldn’t cause a lot of burping. He tossed it to me and it very nearly hit me in the face. Apparently my reflexes were still good, because I somehow managed to dodge it. Grabbing it, I twisted the top off, floated on my back and slurped it down greedily. I kept swimming. Life was good.

By then, I started to wonder if Dan was getting bored. After all, he was sitting in the kayak the whole time, faithfully stopping me every 20 minutes to throw water bottles at me. I didn’t think my thumb-based conversation every twenty minutes was very stimulating for him. Occasionally, Joy-the-nice-paddleboarder would pass by and they would chat. We sat next to Joy on the bus ride, so we were already thinking of her as our friend. Hey, there’s our friend, I would say to myself when she would come into view again. She had signed up to volunteer for the race, but had a couple swimmers cancel, so she was “floating” (literally and figuratively), helping anyone who might need it. She would drop back occasionally and chat with Dan and be a general morale booster. With all the monotony, a friendly face can go a long way.

Here we are, cruising along. Photo Credit Joy Foley (aka Joy-the-nice-paddleboarder).

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Around mile 28 (with 8 miles left to go), it occurred to me that I was over halfway. Ok, it might have occurred to me before that, but it really sunk in around that time. We looked for the “last chance” check point, which we had erroneously assumed was a bridge. It was just a place where you could get your boat out, if you needed to call it a day. So we were confused when we didn’t see it. By then, I was most of the way done with my favorite long distance mental activity: singing “99 bottles of beer on the wall” to myself underwater. I had such a nice time going through it, that I wanted to do it again. Instead of sticking with beer on the wall, I made up some new lyrics. I am very proud of them. They go like this:

99 strokes left to go in this mile, 99 strokes left in this mile, Good technique, relax for awhile, 98 strokes left to go in this mile.

By the time I finished the song there were only 6 miles left. I felt suddenly confused. Only 6 miles left? So we’re already almost done, I thought with an odd sense of sadness. Then, I mentally shook myself. 6 miles is a 10k. All of the 10k Friday workouts I had done came rushing back to me. Some of them were quite grueling. Ok. We had a 10k left. I could speed up and make it harder if I wanted. I needed to make up new lyrics to my song:

99 strokes left to go in this race, 99 strokes in this race, Good technique, pick up the pace, 98 strokes left to go in this race.

Somewhere in there, we found ourselves passing the starting point of the 3 mile test swim I had done the day before with some of the other swimmers. It was all familiar territory now, and I remembered how fast the current had been at the end of the course the day before. Excited, I continued to pull hard and make my way toward the finish. As we passed under a bridge, I flipped over to do backstroke and look at the bridge underneath. People waved to me as I backstroked out the other side. Thanks for cheering, you guys are awesome! I said to them with my thumb (pointing up), while backstroking with the other arm. It made me feel good that they were cheering and it was just the boost I needed the finish the rest of the way strong.

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“Helllloooooo dock!” I said, as I put my hand on the first solid thing other than my water bottles since 5:30 that morning. I was greeted by the swimmers who had finished before me (there were only three, instead of ten), and some very helpful race volunteers. “How was it?” someone asked. “It was great,” I grinned. “I’d do it again, but not today!”

The swim did leave me wanting more. I had prepared myself to swim for up to 16 hours and the whole thing had taken a mere 10 hours and 49 minutes (that pesky current–just kidding, just kidding). I’m not sure yet what is next. I have the Applegate 10k in a few weeks and then the Elk Lake swim series after that. A lot of the long swims I am interested in have colder water, so I plan to spend the summer challenging myself in colder temperatures and getting back into the ice bath this winter. More fun adventures to come!

Are you thinking about swimming END-WET? Check out all of the information on the website and read the race reports from previous years. Check out some of my new friends’ race reports from this year. Here is Sam’s story and John’s story story. Also check out my entry on how I trained for it.

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