|Forrest and me just before the start.|
“Ready,” I shouted back.
“Ready swimmers?” he sounded again.
“Ready,” was the reply.
“Go,” he shouted.
And we went.
All of us thrashing the water like old maids beating at an angry snake. Destination: Pat Wilson’s house somewhere near the dam on the other end of Lake Wilson. Time: Early morning of September 15, 2007. Temperature: Dang cold. Event: That Dam Swim, a twelve-mile open-water marathon. Reason: Well, see below.
For me this all started back in mid-June, the 13th to be exact, when on a routine bicycle ride, Brian Waldrop and I went crashing into the pavement at twenty miles per hour. My injuries, besides road rash, were a wounded right elbow (which did my swimming no good) and a sore heel. The sore heel, which at the time seemed the least of my worries, eventually proved to be the worst of my worries, ending my running and darn near driving me crazy. When it became apparent that I would miss some running events very dear and important to me, I began longing for some substitute, some goal, some physical challenge. By chance I ran across That Dam Swim on the internet, and I knew I had found what I was looking for. Immediately this odd race put its hooks into me like a frog-gigger nabbing a big bull. I was caught, hooked, speared, run through.
As we began swimming, some of us solo swimmers and some relay teams, I was immediately distressed over the state of my gastro-intestinal system. With an estimated eight hours of swimming ahead, any discomfort at this point was a major crisis. Added to that problem, I had goggle troubles from the get-go. There is an old dictum never to try anything in a race that you haven’t already done in training. I broke the dictum; I paid a price.
In training, my goggles would drive me nuts after a couple of hours, so before the race, I decided to order a mask thinking one of those would be more comfortable. The mask didn’t arrive until two days before the race, but I wore it at the start anyway. It leaked. It fogged. It mashed down into my left eye. It felt terrible. I screamed. I prayed. I cried. I did have two more pair of goggles in the boat: the pair I had been training with and a brand new pair just like the ones with which I had been training. Forrest, my boat crew, couldn’t find the old pair so he handed me the new pair and, though they were better, they also gave me problems. Finally, in frustration I tore those off my head, sank them in the lake, and swam goggle free for a mile or two. Eventually Forrest adjusted the mask and it then worked flawlessly for the rest of the race.
Besides the goggle issues, I had to attend to necessary business in seventy-five feet of water. Three times! Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention and out of necessity, I invented a completely new stroke. I call it the doo-doo stroke. It’s not pretty and it’s not fun, but it can be done and I did it. After using the stroke the third time, my stomach felt better and finally, three miles into the race, I settled into a swimming rhythm.
Believe it or not, I saw some pretty scenery. When I run, I rarely see anything. When I run, I rarely think anything. However, swimming long distances in a lake leaves one alone with his thoughts. In addition to my thoughts, every breath on my left side revealed a steep rock face disappearing into the water or a thick forest of hardwood trees or a beautiful house built on the lake or birds soaring in the air above.
Feeding proved to be difficult and we were decidedly under practiced at it. In the boat, Forrest possessed a laminated copy of an elaborate feeding schedule I had painstakingly worked out through experimentation on my long training swims and extrapolation from past long runs. Starting at 45:00 minutes, the schedule then dropped to 40, 35, and finally 30 minutes for the remainder of the swim. We forgot the bananas, leaving them in the motel room, and the Cliff Bars proved too difficult to chew in the water. Consequently, over the course we simplified the feeding to Gatorade and Gu with an occasional Advil thrown in.
I suppose it is because my heart rate is a bit lower swimming than while running that I can think in the water. As I stroked away, my mind kept going back over the events that led to Forrest and me being here. The bike crash, of course, was a prime factor. But once the idea of this swim was hatched, there were a host of logistical problems that had to be conquered before the attempt could even be possible. First, there was the issue of a boat escort. Without an escort, no one could participate. I asked my dad. He said no. I asked my wife. She said no. I offered to pay my wife. She still said no. I asked my son. He said yes.
Several miles down the lake, a tugboat with some barges was pushed against the bank. At the start, Pat Wilson told us that he had talked to the boat captain who told him that the boat would be at that spot for two hours. At my second feeding, one hour and twenty minutes into the race, the tugboat was still maybe mile or more up ahead. Knowing I had to clear the boat before he pulled off the bank, I increased my stroke frequency and swam with a sense of urgency. When I got behind the boat, probably some two hundred yards off his stern, it was like swimming in a river. His prop-wash was creating a current far out into the lake. I felt a lot better when I passed by far enough to know that he couldn’t back over me. I looked ahead and way off in the distance was a point of land jutting out into the lake beyond which I could not see. Next objective was to swim to that point.
After I secured a boat escort, there were some issues with the boat itself. I own a fifteen horsepower Yamaha, but I decided on just taking a simple trolling motor. Security, as well as ease of towing and launching, were factors in that decision. I purchased two marine batteries, got the tail lights on the trailer fixed, and bought a clip on seat to make things a bit more comfortable for Forrest. Before the race, we only took the boat out one time to practice. Forrest had never operated the boat, so we went to Roebuck Lake where I taught him to drive on water. We even practiced feeding, and I was shocked at how difficult it was. Treading water is not hard, but pulling up one hand, filling that had with a bottle of Gatorade and a packet of Gu, and trying to eat and drink is much more challenging than I ever imagined. The race rules are that solo competitors cannot touch the bottom (no way to do that in Lake Wilson) or the boat or a crew member. Forrest had to hand me my food and drink at the end of a long pole.
Swimming up the lake toward that point eventually became a dreary event. It seemed like I was on a treadmill going nowhere. Eventually I learned to watch things on the bank and to measure my progress by them. Gradually that point did get closer. Since Forrest had my Garmin GPS watch on, I knew exactly how far we had come: 4.7 miles and I had done the doo-doo stroke three times, fought several rounds with my goggles, and passed the tugboat. Now I was getting closer to the big point on the lake.
The logistics for this adventure extended far beyond securing a boat driver and preparing the boat. Before committing to the swim, I was swimming just 6,000 yards per week. My access to a pool (DSU’s) was extremely limited. I had to swim more frequently and work up to much longer distances. After brainstorming, I contacted Jerry Nobile who has a fish farm just outside of Moorhead. He gave me permission to swim any of his ponds at any time. Now I was in business.
But even the simplest of things like driving to Muscle Shoals, Alabama—well-- just driving out of Greenwood, Mississippi proved to be no small chore. Friday morning when we loaded the truck and drove around behind our house to hook up the boat, we found it full of water. This meant we had to remove the plug and bail water for thirty minutes before the boat was light enough for us to hook up to it. We weren’t even out of town before a car full of hysterical people pulled along side of us blowing the horn and pointed frantically towards the back of our truck. It’s just water, I thought and tried to ignore them before I glanced over my shoulder. “Good Godzilla! The boat’s gone!” I shouted. Boat, trailer, all of it gone.
“Oh my God!” Forrest shouted as I did a u-turn on 82 bypass and sped back the other way. When we got on top of the overpass, there she was on the side of the road looking like someone had left her there on purpose. We did another u-turn, hitched that boat in record time, found a high gear and got out of town before the police could discover us. Before we were too far gone, though, I did stop at M&S and purchased a set of safety chains. There are no lessons like the ones you learn the hard way, and I’ll never again pull a trailer without safety chains.
If I can just make it six miles I kept thinking as I stroked along. If I can just make it the first six miles. I looked up to find that finally we were almost to the long sought after point. “See that red triangle sign?” Forrest asked me when I pulled up once to look around.
“That’s the half-way point. That’s six miles.”
I didn’t ask him how he knew the sign was the half-way point. I assumed somebody from another crew told him although I hadn’t seen anyone in a while. But my head was in the water most of the time so what did I know.
“What does the Garmin say?” I asked.
“Five point eight miles.”
Hot dog. That sign IS half way. I had learned from running, from doing twenty-milers alone, that the mind is half the battle and focusing on the distance covered is a huge motivating factor for me. I can rarely think about how far to go, but I’m better served thinking about how far I’ve been. The glass must be half-full.
Friday night before the race, we met at Ricatoni’s Restaurant in downtown Florence. Let me tell you, Florence, Alabama is a beautiful town and Ricatoni’s is a neat place. My instructions were to show up at 6:30 and tell the waiter that I was with the swim. When I did so, Forrest and I were led to the back of the restaurant and ushered up a long flight of stairs which led to a rough but neat-looking loft. There we found tables set up and our meal was being prepared, and while we stood around other participants began to trickle in. Soon the place was bursting at the seams with swimmers, paddlers, and the local swim club members. I met a lady named Squealy Mason from Birmingham, Alabama. She was one of those people who never met a stranger. We talked about training and she found it fascinating that I did the bulk of my training in Jerry Nobile’s catfish pond. Several people thought that was interesting. When asked if I had ever encountered fish in the water, I told them a couple of stories. First, I told about the time a catfish ran into my hand while I was swimming. It startled me so severely and I flinched so violently that both hamstrings cramped up. Then I told them about being attacked en masse by a whole herd of hungry catfish. I explained how the fish are fed by a truck that throws out their food in the form of pellets and when the pellets start hitting the water, the fish swarm to the top. Once I was swimming when it began to rain, and the fish, apparently thinking they were being fed, swarmed me like a huge school of piranha trying to bite my flesh off. Squealy’s eyes got as big as tennis balls. The way she and some others looked at me, I could tell that they thought either I was a wildman, a liar, or definitely someone abnormal. Maybe all three. Later I heard Squealy talking to one of the race officials. “I’m terrified of catfish,” she was telling him. “That man over there,” she said pointing to me, “almost got eaten alive by a whole school of them!”
If I can just make seven miles. I feel better than at the start. No bowel issues. Well, not the bowel issues I was having, but I was feeling a bit queasy from the chop. The wind was from the north at ten to fifteen miles per hour. This created choppy water that made me feel as if I might get nauseous. But I’m stroking steadily. Forrest is doing a good job. I’m past the big point. As we rounded the point, I began to notice people on their decks, which came out over the water, and I wondered what they thought of this spectacle. Did they even know a race was going on or did they think these people in orange swim caps followed by boats were eccentric swimmers out for a daily workout? The volume of time was starting to work on me. I began to wonder why I was doing this. My biking buddies are doing an MS 150. I could be with them right now. We could be talking and drafting one another and . . . . Forget it Zane. You are here. Keep swimming. I knew from experience that my wonderings of “why?” would disappear if I could just make it to the finish. I wasn’t really having fun, but I was sure that getting out of the water at the end would be a thrill. That was a lesson I had learned at other endurance events I had completed.
My son had made our reservations since he works for Hampton Inn in Greenwood, so we got a really good rate. It turns out that the Hampton Inn there is not too far from Ricatoni’s or the boat landing where we would launch the next day. That’s one of the things we did after arriving and checking in. First, we took a nap, and then we found the boat landing and a place to eat breakfast the next morning.
I made seven miles, but I was starting to get tired. Overall I felt fine, better even than at the start. I had discovered that breathing on one side only helped keep me from feeling sick to my stomach. Normally, I liked to breathe every third stroke, but with the choppy water, that was too much head movement. Breathing on one side reduced my head movement and prevented the motion sickness that was threatening my well-being. Overall, I was feeling fine, but my arms and shoulders were beginning to feel the strain. If I can just make eight miles. Eight miles. I am trained for this. I can do this. I have a right to expect my body to go this far. Eight miles. I kept swimming, feeling good but with tired arms and shoulders.
We were up at 4:00 a.m. the morning of the race. By the time we dressed, got all of our gear together, hooked the boat up, and made it to the Waffle House it was already a quarter till five. We ate and arrived at the launching area a bit early. This was intentional because I’m such a sorry trailer backer that I wanted to have the boat launched before anyone could show up and watch. We succeeded in launching the boat without an audience, and I sat in the truck while Forrest was just gone. Twenty minutes later, he popped up at the truck out of breath.
“I bailed out the boat. You didn’t put the plug in and it almost sank.”
“Oh great. What else can happen?” I shouldn’t have asked because I was destined find out.
I got my last feeding at 8.6 miles. It was Gatorade and Gu and absolutely delicious. After that, Forrest started to lag behind me. At first, this irritated me, but then I realized what was happening. The battery was dying. He had swapped the first one out at about 4.something. Oh God, please. Let it last. Let it last. If I can just make 9 miles. I’m almost there. Nine miles. Nine miles is three fourths of the way. I thought about my training. I knew I was under trained for this, but I had done as much as possible after I had committed to the race. The other solo swimmers I talked to at the pre-race meeting had all trained specifically about a year for this event. I had only known about it for seven weeks. My longest training swim was 11,000 yards, about half the distance. I was forced to stop that day because of an aching right triceps muscle. That same triceps was now starting to ache. I didn’t mind suffering, but if that triceps tore, I could never swim three miles with one arm. Please, God, Just give me three more miles. I looked around and saw that Forrest was falling farther and farther behind me. Race officials had made it very plain at the pre-race meeting that if anyone’s boat failed, that swimmer was out of the race. “No escort, no swim.” I understood their rational for the rule, but how can a man swim this far and quit because of mechanical failure? I looked back again. Forrest was dead in the water and the wind had blown him into the bank. I was now an illegal swimmer subject to disqualification. But there was no way I was going to stop. Please God, help me.
When I had first contacted Pat Wilson of the Shoals Sharks Masters Swim Club to inquire of the swim, he asked me about my training. “Maybe you need to get up a relay team and then build up to the solo swim next year,” he told me. Clearly he did not think I could do it. When I told my wife about my plans she said, “I don’t think you can do it.” When I told my bicycle buddies about the race, they just sort of looked at me. “You know the English Channel is only twenty-one miles,” Davo finally said somberly. When I showed the information sheet about the race to my swim coach at Delta State, his only reply was, “This is crazy!” When I talked on the phone with a participant from last year’s race and he asked about my training, he said, “Maybe it’s not your year.” As the race got closer and Penny and I were driving home from a daytrip to Jackson, the subject came up. “This is the craziest thing you’ve ever done,” she said. After a few moments of silence, I responded, “You’re right. This is the craziest thing I have ever done.” And I wondered myself if I was reaching too far. Could I really do this?
This IS the craziest thing I’ve ever done. Why didn’t I listen? Dang it, I ain’t stopping. At that point, I thought about people: Cagri, my swim coach at Delta State who said this was crazy; Jerry Nobile, whose catfish pond I did my open water training in; my brother Quinton, who asked me how in the world does anyone swim twelve miles?; my wife, who said I couldn’t do it; Petya, my former Masters swim coach who still seemed to be interested in my swimming; Pat Wilson; people at work; people at church; my biking buddies; my mom and dad; all of these folks knew I was doing this and they would all ask me what happened. How could I tell them I didn’t make it? I have to finish, I have to. I knew Forrest would call the race’s safety director. And I also knew they would come for him and me both. I swam awhile and then looked back and saw a ski boat tying Forrest on to their boat. Boy that was fast. They’ll be coming for me next. I swam harder. The closer I get, the more likely they are to let me finish. I ain’t getting in that boat. Swim hard. I looked back and they were about the same distance behind me. I swam some more and looked back again. What’s going on back there? They’re not getting any closer. My gain. Swim. I’m over ten miles for sure. If I can just make eleven.
Later I found out that the boat which rescued Forrest was a relay team. I beat a whole relay team. It was Squealy’s team and after the race I rubbed it in. Then a large pontoon boat came motoring up with its bow pointed straight for me. It’s them. I could see the That Dam Swim T-shirts they were wearing. They are going to tell me to get in the boat. I can’t do it. They’re probably pretty pissed. My argument is: Which one of you would have stopped? How can you swim this far and quit? I was imagining a giant argument with the race officials. They would disqualify me and tell me never to come back to their race again. You could have been killed by a bass boat out there swimming all alone. You knew the rules. You were to stop when your escort lost power. But I would counter, Which one of you would have swum that far and stopped?
As the boat drew closer I became nervous. I recognized the man and woman. They were not members of the Swim Club, but instead were volunteers who had already crewed a relay team. Still they’re going to tell me to get in the boat.
“We’ve been sent out here,” the woman yelled at me when they got close enough, “to be your escort to the finish.”
“How far?” I asked.
“You’ve got about three fourths of a mile to go,” the man yelled back.
I started swimming but while I did, my chest convulsed as I silently wept. I’m going to make it. I’m going to make it. And they know where Pat Wilson lives. I’m not in trouble. I’m going to make it. The big pontoon boat blocked off a lot of the chop and gave me smoother water in which to swim. I swam harder than I did anytime of the race. For at least a mile I swam hard and then pulled up.
“You’ve got about a half a mile to go,” the man said.
I hope he knows where Pat Wilson lives. I swam on.
I pulled up again. The man was up front on the deck of his boat. “Over there,” he said pointing up into a cove. “See that dock with the people standing on it? That’s the finish. They’re waiting on you.”
And there it was 200 yards away. I savored that last little swim. This was my Olympics, my Mount Everest, my English Channel.
Thank you Jesus.