Thursday, June 8, 2017

I Found It (Chicot Challenge VI)

For several years now I have been looking to see how far I could push myself. A couple of years ago, I did a stage run that lasted for five days. I didn't find it. At my annual Chicot Challenge, I've been upping the ante each year swimming farther and farther. Chicot I was 13.94 miles, Chicot II was 16.0, III 17.7, IV 19, and V was a colossal 22.38. This year I swam 23.8 miles (officially 23.5), and finally, I found it. Really, I did.

I know what you're thinking. You surmise that when the pain and strain of this latest physical ordeal wears off, my brain will "re-crazy" as Katie Horton Jones aptly puts it, and I will start dreaming of a longer swim. Not this time.
Part of the crew and MJ taking notes 
just before the start.



The plan was to be swimming at 5:45. We didn't make it but we did get started at 5:58, the earliest ever. Team Centerville (Gerald and Debbbie Johnson, Kelsey McCain, and Sheila Mitchell) was there along with Justin Nunnery and for the very first time Gerald's brother Gerry who would join us a few hours into our quest. We prayed. MJ Staples, the swim's Independent Observer, took notes and started the timer. The water was 77 degrees and fog covered the face of Lake Chicot as I swam out of Ditch Bayou and headed north. 

Due to the fog and the low light, I couldn't see the opposite side of the lake. The goal was to aim at the farthest point we could see north on the other side. All I could see, however, was fog. Gerald asked me if we wanted to head for that point over there. I told him I couldn't see land but that sounded about right. He led; I followed.

Slowly, the light grew brighter, the fog burned off, and the clouds began to part. The day, which had started with so much suspicion, became beautify and sunny with light winds. Perfect. We made our way up the lake one stroke at a time. For my sanity, I break the swim up into stages, sections. The first section is to make it to the open area, a place where there are not trees along Highway 82. The next stage is downtown Lake Village, then to the Causeway, followed by the State Park and then everything in reverse. 

Still foggy about three miles in.

Gerald stayed on task for about the first six miles which took us a little past Lake Village. MJ Staples, the Independent Observer, replaced him for a short stint as paddler because the boat had to go to town and pick up Gerry who arrived somewhere around 9:30 a.m. and she needed to be with me to observe the swim. She was either in the kayak on the pontoon and even in the water with me the whole day. God bless her.

It gives me joy to look at pics after the swim
and see a happy crew. Thanks, Sheila.

After the boat got back, Sheila Mitchell replaced MJ for her first tour of duty as a full-fledged crew member. I remember telling her to guide me straight to the bridge. Her response was, "What bridge?" I'm not sure I answered. She'll figure it out, I thought. And she did. After thirty minutes or so she said, "I see the bridge." 
"Just give me the ice cream and no one gets hurt."


I used to be terribly afraid of swimming under bridges. Maybe I still am, but I have swum this one so many times that it doesn't bother me anymore. But I am a little leery of this area because it seems to me like a dangerous place. The Causeway Bridge has a little strip of lake running under it that is at most fifty feet wide. A bunch of boats go through there, and I told Sheila to stay near and ask the pontoon to pull in close behind us. Justin dutifully closed the gap and gave me a real sense of safety as we finished the third leg of the journey and began the fourth. 

North of the Causeway, we faced a head chop from the start and it kept us company all the way to the State Park, about four miles. Gerry took over kayak duties from Sheila and did a pretty good job especially when you consider that he had never even been on Lake Chicot or in a kayak before. When he got on I told him to head for that point of land. "You make the line, and I follow you." 

As we drew very near the boat ramp at the State Park, the pontoon went ahead and docked just past it. MJ, from the boat ramp, told me to "swim past the boat by one foot." I did and pulled my head out of the water. She responded, "We can start back now." 

Finally. 

Out and back courses are brutal. You swim and swim and swim and then you get to do it all over again. Although I was still feeling pretty good, it seemed like it took forever to get there. I think it was somewhere around 1:00 or 1:30. MJ no doubt will have this in her notes.

Amazingly the wind held and we got a little push back to the Causeway. It did seem to go faster and when we crossed under the bridge to the other side, I knew we were in for the long journey to Lake Village because the tail wind we had disappeared and became a cross wind that produced an annoying chop. We got to keep that chop all the way to town and it only got worse as we went. Downtown Lake Village has a couple of piers that frame a designated swimming area and past that is a boat ramp. When we got to the swimming area, some kid swam with me for 50 meters or so.
Company at Lake Village
 That was a first.
 

Not long afterwards, Justin was in the kayak and told me, "We need to cross the lake to get out of this wind. We headed for the far shore and almost immediately I was stricken with some pretty tough shoulder pain in the left one. I rolled over onto my back and did a few strokes that way. It didn't like that either. Returning to my stomach I was thinking, "I may have to tap." It was serious, and I have never come as close to not finishing a swim as I did that day. I changed my stroke to keep my recovery lower and that helped some but I could feel the shoulder with every pull of the water reminding me that I was swimming on grace. Slowly we inched across the half mile of waves to get over where we should have been all along, and although the stroke change helped, my mind was already infected with fear and doubt.

Gerald always keeps the kayak exactly where I want it.

At one of my feeds, I told the crew I needed prayer. They must have touched God for me because I was able to keep going. Then when we made it to the other side of the lake, the wind shifted.  Yeah, it did. A thunderstorm had built up ahead of us and as it drew near the wind grew with the storm's approach. There was no place to hide, no where it get out of the waves. Looking back, I should have asked them to pray again because according to what Justin told me after the swim, the winds grew to 19 miles per hour. I had to struggle not to go backwards. Once more I thought this might be it, the swim might be called due to lightning. I later learned there was one flash but the crew decided to continue. Somehow we endured the storm, and on the other side there was still a head chop but one much more manageable.

After the storm in the fading daylight about 
three miles from the finish.

By then we had made it back to the place where there are no trees on Highway 82. I knew that meant we were approximately three to four miles from finishing. After my fright with the shoulder and the storm, I began again to believe that I might finish after all. But the trek past the open shore was agonizingly long and slow. It seemed we would never make the trees and the daylight began to fade. I had feared swimming after dark, but when night came I think I was too tired to be scared. Or maybe it helped that I was already in the water when it grew dark. But at this point, I just wanted the swim to be over. Oddly, I found swimming in the dark kind of neat. When I breathed to my right, I could catch a glimpse of the moon above. This was a new experience for me, but one I didn't take the opportunity to relish because I was beginning to feel guilty for what I was putting the crew through. I knew they had to be exhausted and want this thing over with as bad as I did.

Night hit us with almost total blackness, at least from my perspective. Eventually, besides the moon, I could see only the kayak and lights on shore. When we came to Lighthouse Inn, I thought we are there, a mile at the most, and the next big set of lights was the finish. But Gerald told me Ditch Bayou was the lights beyond that. I thought he had to be wrong. I hoped he was wrong. I believed he was wrong. 

But he wasn't wrong. I realized he was right when we came to Lighthouse Inn which I had earlier misidentified. "Lord no," I said out loud when I realized I still had one more mile to swim.

But there was nothing to do but put my head down and keep moving. We crept towards the lights up ahead. Finally, we got close enough for me to ask Gerald where the landing was. "Over there where the little light is down low," I think he said or something like that. Another minute and I was close enough to see the boat beside the landing. I swam till my hands touched the indoor/outdoor carpet the crew had laid out on the ramp to help me get some traction. I crawled out. Literally.
The finish. Sorry about the belly.
Wait till next year.

The only people on hand were the crew and Tank and Linda Tankersley, friends of ours from Hollandale. I was honored, flattered, and touched that they made the trip and waited that long. I jokingly told the crew, "Next year thirty miles." The laughter was subdued. Then I said seriously, "This is too much. Too much."
And that's the way I feel about it. Sixteen straight hours of swimming had me satisfied. I found what I've been looking for all these years. Thank you crew. Thank you MJ. Thank you God.

More pictures:


Gerald relaxing while MJ takes notes.


Kelsey went for and achieved a new record for most hours sunbathing.

Gerald as pilot late in the swim.

MJ swimming with me somewhere along the way. She did that several times.