Digging Deep in Arizona
Write-up by Anna-Maria Mullally
This a longer entry than usual in this webbook, in part because it describes four separate marathon swims. Feel free to skim.
In July 2013, on foot of a recommendation from Ned Denison, I was lucky enough to have the chance to crew for Arizona attorney, Kent Nicholas, founder and organizer of the SCAR swim series, on his successful EC attempt. During our week together in Dover I learned lots from Kent and his wife, Candy, about his EC training regime and about the daunting 4 SCAR swims, which Ned himself had completed in the previous May. SCAR is a serendipitously loaded acronym, based on the lake names Saguaro, Canyon, Apache and Roosevelt. The series sounded horrendous or amazing, depending on the strength of your imagination or the scale of your ambition. Four marathon length swims (a swim marathon is any distance over 10k), along four reservoirs on the Salt River, over four baking hot Arizona days. Total distance covered: 41 miles approx. The idea for the swim series was conceived of by Kent, who had been using the lakes to train for his Manhattan Island Marathon Swim. It had occurred to him that it might be possible to do the four lakes as stage swims. He trialled the idea with a small group of local swim friends in 2012 and then in 2013, having acquired the necessary permits and insurance, he launched the first swim series, attracting a field of open-water luminaries such as Grace van der Byl, David Barra, Darren Miller, Elizabeth Fry and others, and, of course, our own Ned.
Having listened to Kent speak about SCAR I plucked up my courage and suggested that I would love to go out to Arizona sometime and kayak one of the swims. I was thrilled when he replied that I should do that. So, when he got in touch the following November and invited me to come out and swim SCAR I was gobsmacked. A latecomer to OW swimming (2010), and a woman of a certain age (very late forties), I had only ever completed a few local Munster swims and though I had upped the mileage a little, (two or three 5ks in summer 2013 and one 8k) outside of the 6 hour swim during Cork Distance Week (Ned’s annual cold water boot camp) and the intensity of Distance Week itself (and I didn’t do all of it) I would not have rated myself as capable of something like SCAR. No false modesty here: in addition to a lack of experience, I have a fairly limited swim technique and partly as a consequence of this, I am also a very slow swimmer – chicken and egg, I guess.
I was chuffed to have been asked, but considered the trip impossible, physically and financially. However Ned, his partner, Catherine and my partner, Darius, and children, all urged me to go for it, saying that I might never get that opportunity again and that Kent wouldn’t have asked if he didn’t think I could do it. I couldn’t wrap my head around this latter reason, but was persuaded by the fact that the invitation mightn’t come a second time. I have two sisters living in Dallas and reckoned that one of them might be up for sharing the adventure, as my kayaker. Each SCAR swimmer has their own kayaker and, additionally, Kent provided boat support to ferry swimmers to and from start and finish points and assist any swimmers who needed to exit early. My sister, Carm (Carmelita) could spare the time, was up for a new challenge, and learned to kayak, in order to escort me throughout the four days.
I trained, mostly on my own, over the winter, but not enough to feel comfortable that I could do the four swims. By March, despite completing an 8 hour pool swim under Coach Eilís’s watchful eye, following many sleepless nights, I had decided that it would be a personal triumph if I managed to complete any of the swims, but would aim to do the first two, take a rest day and then try to complete the fourth and shortest one. I had no clue about a feed schedule, having bumbled my way through the six and the 8 hour on a random mix of High 5 carbs, electrolyte and water. Carol Cashell kindly sorted 3 feed plans for me and her help in this regard was to prove vital. Eilís was watching, but from a distance. I was not part of her marathon squad this year but she was interested to see how I would fare, tackling such a big challenge so soon.
Leaving the airport in Phoenix to head for Mesa where the swimmers were quartered for the first two nights, I was like a kid in a zoo. Real live cacti – everywhere – in the city! And indeed Saguaro (pronounced Soowaro) lake, the setting for the first swim, is named after the ubiquitous Arizona cactus, which, as one of the swimmers pointed out, looked like onlookers cheering the swimmers along. It was an image that sustained us all for the four days. Having had a practice swim in comfortable 20-21C degree water, there, on Tuesday, followed by an evening get-together for all swimmers at the Mesa Country Club, Carm and I mixed feeds and hit the sack. Those nerves and terrors which had kept me awake for many March and April nights had remained behind in Cork after a late April swim. Since then I had been firmly in que sera sera mode and therefore slept well, despite Ned’s best efforts to terrify me with tales of circling buzzards, voracious catfish and his mischievous Youtube links of country folk ‘noodling’. Google it….!
Wednesday – Saguaro (9.5 miles/15.2km. Water Temperature 19 – 20.5 C).
Fig. 1 Saguaro en route to start: Kristin Jones (Alaska, left foreground) and Patty Hermann (Texas, left middle) and a nervous Irish woman (rear).
Following a 6am Mesa meet up we drove out east to the stunningly beautiful Superstition Mountains, a wilderness reserve in the Tonto National Park, where Saguaro and the other lakes are located. We were loaded onto boats and rode, it seemed to me, a long way back up the canyon to start. The penny was dropping. What gets driven up at speed must swim back down the same route, slowly..oops! Would I even make it? Or any of it? Nothing to do but get in and see, having come all that way and owing a debt of gratitude to so many people. Our kayakers assembled a little distance from the startline. We swam back to the buoy line 400 – 500 yards and then turned, Kent counted down and, waters churning with eagerness, we swam off towards kayakers. The field thinned out fairly quickly and I was soon in my habitual back of the class spot. Swimming alone, or far behind other swimmers doesn’t faze me and in fact, Kathryn Mason, a stylish butterflier and a determined Dan Projansky, also swimming fly, were often in view. Kathryn’s rhythmic swishing and her support, a stand-up paddler wearing a kilt and wife-beater, were enough to keep me entertained, along with the awe-inspiring red-yellow-pink canyon walls and rock formations. Indeed, Ned had warned me not to be stopping and admiring the scenery, so I only stopped to feed, however enjoyed the sun-baked, vertiginous eye candy each and every time. Carm was busy figuring out how the feeding pattern would work, as well as navigating the route and the odd headwind. Sometimes there was a patch of shade that provided relief from the sun, though the brief drop in water temperature was a price that had to be paid. Support boaters checked in with her periodically, ensuring that we were doing ok. I felt physically good and determined to make it. When the lake finally opened and I could see the final curve, I was thrilled – I was going to make it. It’s a truism of OW swimming though, that the finish line recedes and the relief flips to anguish. This was a big learning curve for Carm, and for me, and the headwind on the final strait made that curve steeper. I tried out ‘Dig deep’ and surprised myself. There was more there. Yet, as we rounded to the left before the marina and I saw the buoy line it was almost anti-climactic. Still, we had made it – woohoo! Kent and RJ loaded us both onto a pontoon and ferried us back to the start line. I was grateful to them both for their patience as I had made their day longer: I was the last freestyler to finish, in a time of 6 hours 20 minutes – the speedsters were all in in half that time, but there were a few DNFs (cold) too..so, one down.
Lessons learned: Dig deep (usually between 10 and 12k for me, as I now know). The finish recedes. Kayakers need to pee. Feed with the bottle on a leash. It is possible to slag your support off and be slagged, even in Arizona.
P.S. More serendipity: we got to know the warm and funny US marathon swimmer Courtney Moates Paulk and her partner, Matt, over a mountain of Mexican food that evening..
Thursday – Canyon (My favourite day : 9 miles/ 14.4km. Water temperature 15.5 to 21C)
Fig. 2 At Canyon having a look-see
Day 2 commenced as Day 1, with an early morning assembly, this time at the Canyon marina. Got to know NYer and SCAR personality, Mo Siegel, as we waited to be loaded onto speedboats and ferried up to little beach where kayakers were waiting. I felt ok, not too tired and not too stiff and willing to give it a go, despite the uncertainty of the outcome. Start count over, I hung back, trying to stay out of the people soup as the swimmers milled towards first bend and the waiting kayakers. Today’s emotion was excitement – a new one for me in this particular type of scenario. However, the Canyon Lake water felt much colder than Saguaro. It was in the low to mid-teens Celsius ( for the first couple of hundred yards, according to some of the US swimmers and several of them bailed out, though I did not know this till after). I felt cold for miles. The stiffness and tiredness that I had ducked earlier, came out to play for the first half of the swim, and I was filled with self-doubt and frustration. Time to dig deep again and root out the negativity. Look for the positives: the feeding is going well, the scenery is spectacular, I’m still here, my arms are still turning over, I’ll keep trying..and will look out for those landmarks I noted for myself on the way up. Eventually, my body and mind conjoined in a harmonious state of euphoria – about 5 minutes after a caffeine gel – and I felt compelled to stop and whoop against the canyon walls, something like the Clare shout, and guess what, I was halfway through. I’ve experienced this feeling at other points where I have been in extremis, and pushed through, but never in a sporting context. I felt really good, resumed the banter at feeds with Carm, and pushed on, watching out for a small island/very big rock which you must swim around, keeping it to your left. That’s the two thirds mark and later, I spied a little dock on the right, a mile to a mile and a half from the finish. The finish line was around a sharp turn right and 400 yards up towards the dam wall and buoy line. As at Saguaro there was quite a push against me here. It also felt like a long 400 yards, though I know that I tend to slow down when I see a finish line. Resting on the buoys beaded in front of the dam after 6 hours 36 minutes swimming, I looked up and saw, in the distance, bighorn sheep perched way up on the rockface. Amazing..it felt good to be alive and to be seeing something of other worlds. We snored our way through Wednesday night.
Fig. 3 Carmelita at Canyon Lake
Friday – Apache Lake (17 miles/ 27.3 km. Water Temperatures 18 -20 C).
The notice on the door of the Apache Lake resort invites people to leave their weapons outside the facility. The resort itself was remote and the pitstop en route at the hostile hostelry at Tortilla Flat had us listening out for banjos. The 27 km lake swim fit the imposing picture and only the hardiest were up for it. Over the week, swimmers such as Cliff Crozier, Lisa de Laurentis, Kristin Jones, Anna DeLozier and others had shown themselves to be tough and fast. However, slower swimmers such as Ranie Pearce and Mo Siegel, a veteran swimmer who had passed his sixtieth year some time back, were showing their own kind of tough. Many of us though, had decided not to tackle Apache and, for me, post-swim chat with like-minded folk produced the notion of swimming Canyon as part of a relay team.
Courtney ran the idea by Kent. Ever accommodating, he responded positively and swiftly sorted the logistics. Relay swimmers on the two teams included Jim Fitzpatrick, Cindy Walsh, Janet Kylander Manning, Courtney Moates Paulk, Thomas Kofler and myself – a motley, but up-for-it, crew. We were also joined by Clare-Kelly Barra, a witty Eastender, whose husband, David, the renowned US open-water swimmer, had come out from their home in New York, to do Apache.
Fig. 4 Apache Lake and the cheering Saguaro cacti
As we milled around on a little apron of sand at the start, anointing ourselves with sunscreen, or, in my case applying sunscreen and sudocrem like wet plaster-of–paris, Ranie asked me whether I had re-considered my decision to not swim Apache in full. I was feeling good about having chalked up Saguaro and Canyon, but knew that I‘d already done way more than I was properly prepared for. I told her that I’d be happy with an upper-case S and C, a lower-case a and would hope to claim an upper-case R, to go home having done SCaR…that was a way for me to rationalize my choice and remain content with it. However, this acronymic arrangement vexed Ranie and she took the snap decision to opt out of the relay and go for the full swim. She had her eye on MIMS in July and felt that she’d be more set returning to California having done SCAR. It was a bold choice to make, but the right one for her, as she was capable of it and indeed, she went on to finish in the late evening dusk, followed some time later by gutsy Mo Siegel. He was last to finish, completing in darkness at 11.15 pm, having run out of food and swum in the dark with tinted goggles, intended for protection against the intense glare of the sun.
We set off on our pontoon, with a very cheery Courtney Paulk at the helm and began to sort ourselves into pairs. It quickly became clear though that some of the swimmers did not want to do a full relay, for reasons both practical and whimsical. Some sat it out and one went home, so, the two teams became one. In the end Courtney, Janet, Thomas and myself did most of the swimming, accompanied by two kayakers, Conrad and Don. Matt Paulk did the bulk of pontoon steering and kept a benign eye on the shenanigans that can ensue when a small group of people are on a boat for a day.
Mid-way through we were joined by David Barra who had set out to swim Apache, but had had to pull out because of tendon problems. Despite his difficulties, including a long wait for his clothes to arrive to our pontoon, he added to the fun and got stuck into to the relay project, as did Clare, who had swum a leg for us early on and kept us in stitches for most of the trip. As evening began to draw in and the sun to drop, the canyons were cooling and we were wilting. Thomas and myself were in the water for the final leg. I was tired, the mood not helped by the disappearing sun and the inevitable ever-receding buoy line. However the shouts of encouragement from the pontoon were incredibly uplifting and even more positive was Thomas’s suggestion that we touch the finishing line together. He too, was tired, and cold, and slowing his speed down to stay at my pace would have made him even colder. That knowledge put a positive pressure on me, as I didn’t dawdle, as I sometimes do, and plugged away to make it to the line which we touched together to finish the relay in a time of 8 eight hours 8 minutes.
Fig. 5 Apache finish with Thomas Kofler
We swam back to the pontoon and those swimmers who were coldest zipped home in a speedboat, the rest of us doubled back to see how Ranie and Mo were doing and whether or not they needed anything. As we chugged through the darkness we saw first Ranie, but only courtesy of her well-lit kayaker and then some distance further back, Mo, again only as a well-lit implication, verified by his stalwart support.
We were the last to return, as happened all week, and sank our gnashers into some Mexican food, before sliding into bed. The Apache resort and its staff had turned out warm and welcoming, the stay and swim good fun. Now though, I had mixed feelings about Roosevelt, as the body had suddenly become weary, perhaps knowing that the end was in sight, yet that I still had to work hard.
Saturday – Roosevelt Lake (6 miles/ 10k)
As this was to be a night swim, the start was later in the day, which meant a more leisurely roll out of the scratcher. We had arranged to give a lift to Katherine Mason, the Australian butterflier, living in London, and so, eventually the three of us set off along the miles of dirt road that lead to Roosevelt. That journey was one of the most visually spectacular I have ever taken in my life. The road coiled through a rugged red landscape, dotted with the by-now familiar cacti and contoured by crags. It was how I imagine Mars might like look – with vegetation. It was utterly self-contained, either side of the human communications trail of road and telecoms…a glance to the left or right and untamed nature undulated warmly, calmly getting on with it. I would like to have explored, but there were few options for pulling over and time was marching on.
As it turned out we reached the marina in plenty of time and so we sat around and chatted under a tree before assembling to head to the swim start. At this point Kent asked for volunteers to travel there in the back of a U-Haul, as there would not be scope for all the vehicles to access the slipway…Along with other game souls Carm and myself piled into the back of the U-Haul. Once at Roosevelt we milled around trying to stay out of the boiling eye of the sun..kayaks were checked, swimmers slathered in suncream, safety talk over, one more glug of water…and we were ready to go. Courtney and Ranie had decided to flank me for the start of the swim, gallantly and with that great US courtesy that is so warm. We were to swim toward a reed bed, cross through it at a clear point and our kayaks would be waiting on the other side. I was feeling tired and anxious that I would be delaying the start for Courtney and Ranie, but I didn’t want to refuse their escort. In the event it sorted itself out, I swam away from the start so slowly that they were compelled pretty quickly to move on and so once we cleared the reed bed that was the last I saw of them. For the first time in a race I was battling with my head from the start. Something Ned had said had stuck with me and that is that he had found Roosevelt the most difficult of all swims, even though it was the shortest. He said that it was because it was the final swim and that he was well and truly exhausted by the time he reached it. He had given me tremendous encouragement before the trip, so I tried to draw on that. However, I hadn’t planned on swimming on Apache day, but I had and now my chickens were coming home to roost. The Roosevelt swim became tougher as the evening shadows lengthened. The water grew very choppy and the struggle through the chop was arduous and never-ending. I had no idea what progress we were making and though I could see Katherine peacefully and persistently butterflying to my right for a couple of hours and Thomas ahead to my left, as night drew in both had passed out of sight and it was just Carm and myself. My food wasn’t staying down well, I felt sickened by it and sick of it and a Neurofen that I had taken for pain relief, was sticking in my throat, threatening to make its way back up and out into the dark chop. Carm had had to struggle for hours through the chop too, and had found sorting the feeds whilst being buffeted about, difficult. We were both tired and the ‘Are we there yet?’ feelings I’d had at each swim were tinged with despair and impatience on this night. Everybody had said how the night swim would be beautiful, that the Arizona night sky and its plethora of starry inhabitants would lighten the soul of even the weariest swimmer. Not me. It was my second ever-night swim; I’d swum a brief preparatory night swim at Sandycove, with Carol, Eoin, Maeve and Gordon just before heading to Arizona, but I knew then and I knew now that darkness was not a problem. What undid me were two things: one) the searing pain in both shoulders was something I had never experienced before and I was genuinely concerned that I was doing serious damage to them. Secondly, I had realised after a time that Carm and myself weren’t alone, very discreetly and patiently, and well off to the right a crew support boat had been gliding along for hours in the darkness. This began to bother me as I felt guilty about keeping them out so late. I was also irritated that I was being watched as I made tortuously slow progress. I could see the lights of the dam and knew that it couldn’t be too far, knew also though that distances could be deceptive. When another support boat came with a message from Kent to Carm that I had about an hour to go and a little over a mile, my spirits dropped completely. I’d been in the water for around 6 hours already and even by my slow standards, and taking into account the delay afforded by the chop and the wind, it was still an abominably slow time. I asked Carm how late it was and she told me that it was 11.15pm. In an instant I made the decision to get out. I was injured, slow, holding people up – and for what? To prove to myself and others that I could do a third solo swim – at whose expense? Once the decision was made I was ok with it, which confirmed that it was the right thing to do. I’d never bailed out of any swim before and I knew that I wouldn’t have reached this decision-making point unless the disadvantages of continuing outweighed the advantages. Carm, I think, was relieved not to have to continue, though she never once complained, despite having spent more hours on the water across the week, than any of the other kayakers. She made her way back into the marina nearby and I was scooped up into the soothing and generous hospitality of Arizonan, Danny Page and his partner, Becca and their very concerned chocolate Labrador, Gunner. They were the people who had been supporting Carm and myself all along and they were so patient and kind when I boarded their boat, assuring me that they didn’t mind the late hour and that they would have supported me as long as I needed. I learned another lesson there and then and that is, when you have confidence in your support crew, then you should not let their discomfort affect your progress. Having stretched the times all week for the support, I had allowed guilt to get the better of me. It’s important here though to recognize that the people who provide support are during that time genuinely selfless and willing to forego their time and comfort for your success. In the case of the support at SCAR, from what I can gather it was largely voluntary too, which made it even more special. Phil White from Vermont and his kayakers and Kent’s small dedicated army from Arizona made the event as much as the scenery, the swims and the stellar swimmers.
Fig. 6 Kent Nicholas (L) and Phil White (standing) and Pinky the flamingo, Phil’s close associate, keeping a watchful eye on the swimmers.
I have unfinished business in Arizona. I came home with an S and a C an ‘a ‘ and an ‘r’ , a sackful of good memories, some new friends, a lot of very useful experiences, and two very sore shoulders which a few weeks of physio have helped to sort out. One of these years I’ll make it back there…Having looked at the age profile of the swimmers I know that I have a few years to go before I’ll need to slow it down, or more appropriately in my case, shorten it….though age has nothing to do with attitude and that’s what open water swimming does, it buffs, shines and polishes attitude into something transformative, allowing us to exceed ourselves no matter how modest or great the circumstances – and surely that is a fortunate way to be, no matter what age you are when you first experience it.