Last Thursday I drove myself to LAX and hopped on a flight to Grand Forks, North Dakota via a stop in Minneapolis to swim the 36-mile EndWet in the Red River of the North. The travel was fairly smooth even though the flight from Minneapolis to Grand Forks was on a smaller plane than I would have liked and I had to gate check my bag. After deplaning, I followed the other passengers to the one baggage claim belt and got in line to rent a car. Having only just turned 25 in April, this was my first experience renting a car for myself, but again everything went smoothly. I drove the 10 minutes from the airport to the hotel, marveling at how flat the land was. I picked up dinner from a Qdoba and observed how different the attitude toward masking seemed to be. When I asked the salesperson, she told me that there were not statewide ordinances but that masking rules varied by business. In many situations, I was the only non-employee wearing a mask and sometimes the only person.
On Friday, I worked from the hotel room and prepared my feeds for Saturday until it was time to join some of the other swimmers at the river for a practice swim. We met at the 3-mile marker on the course (mile markers count down so this spot was “3 miles left”) and swam to the finish. I was excited to do this practice swim, particularly because we were all worried about how slow the river current seemed to be moving. The river was a comfortable 77 degrees so at least cold would not be an issue but the water was so brown that I couldn’t see my shoulders, let alone see my hands. This was a bit disorienting and I was really grateful for the practice swim to “get my feet wet” in the conditions before race day. Sandra and her husband (in a kayak) pointed out landmarks on the course for us and showed us how to know when we would have only a mile left. I wore my Garmin for the practice swim and was happy to see that these 3 miles took us about an hour and 10 minutes, even with our stops. Maybe the river wasn’t too slow after all! After the swim, I rushed to dry off and drove back to the airport to pick up Marian who had just flown in from Chicago. It was so nice to see Marian (a friend from my time in Chicago) and spending time with her was honestly the best part of the trip!
Marian and I both spent a few hours relaxing at the hotel and then piled back into the car to go scout the finish and attend the pre-race dinner/briefing/guest talk. The guest speaker was Sarah Thomas (google her if you want to read about some seriously awesome swimming) and I was so excited because I have been wanting to meet her for years. At the briefing, we got to meet our kayakers and hear about race day logistics. My kayaker’s name was Marie and she and I were both first timers for this race. Meeting her made me feel a lot less nervous about the swim because now I knew who my buddy would be. The briefing was also similarly helpful. Sarah gave a great talk about the importance of vulnerability in endurance sports and life and I got to take a picture with her. Soon after, Marian and I rushed back to the hotel to get to bed because it was already 9:30pm and we were going to have a 3:30am wakeup call.
On Saturday morning, we left the hotel before 4am and parked our cars at the finish, along with my kayaker Marie and Marian’s kayaker, Brian. Brian then drove all of us to the start. Originally, I was bummed that we had to do an earlier wake up to leave our cars at the finish, but that soon turned to super grateful that I did not have to drive us to the start along unlit rural North Dakota roads. The drive to the start was about 40 minutes an dthere is no way I would have seen the turnoff to the campsite. When we arrived most of the swimmers were already there or arriving and we quickly prepared our stuff. Usually for long swims, it feels like there is a long period of standing around followed by a whirlwind of getting ready. I suppose the car ride can stand in for the waiting but once we arrived, it just felt like we were racing the sunrise to get ready and hit the water. In what felt like no time at all, I was standing with 17 other swimmers on a boat ramp at the water’s edge. They did a quick roll call and gave us a countdown. I stood next to Marian and we high-fived right before the signal. At “GO!” several swimmers plunged into the water ahead of me. I took care going down the slippery, mud covered ramp and stepped into the water. Almost immediately, I sank into knee-deep mud and tried to get swimming as quickly as possible. Because I knew it was going to be a long day of swimming, and because I know sprinting is not my thing, I made the choice to not try to sprint at the start and keep up with the people racing out hard. Later on, I wished that I had taken the start out a little harder but my neck had been bothering me and I knew from experience that I take a while to find a good rhythm.
At this point I guessed that there were maybe ⅔ of the field ahead of me and ⅓ behind. Our kayakers started after us and would have to catch up. They had told us that it might take up to half an hour for our kayaker to find us, but I was probably only swimming for about 5-10 minutes before I saw Marie pull up beside me in the orange kayak. The water was calm, warm, and brown and I spent the first 2 hours focusing on loosening up and hoping my neck and shoulders would loosen up. The beginning of this swim was an interesting mental game because I was worried about meeting the cutoff times but also knew that I could not take the race out too hard. After the first feed Marie and I decided to use a rope to do my feeds and this was a great idea because it meant that as soon as I was done feeding I could start swimming again and she would not have to chase the bottle down.
I had asked Marie not to volunteer distance or pace information unless I asked and normally I do not let myself ask until we are past halfway. On this swim however, I realized that I was going to be tight on making the cutoff times so I needed better pacing feedback. Marie was wearing my Garmin so that we could have accurate mileage. At two hours, I asked Marie how far we had gone and she told me that we had gone under 5 miles meaning I was going slower than 2.5mph. I knew I needed to pick up my tempo a little bit to maintain my goal pace. After that, Marie told me my pace in mph each half hour but not the distance covered (I did the math but it was still easier to stomach this way). My pace varied between 2 and 2.5mph, which meant the river was giving me very little push as I am about a 1.9-2mph swimmer in totally flat water.
I know that it can take me between 2 and 4 hours to start feeling remotely decent on long swims so when I start out feeling terrible (as I did on this swim), I need to trust that if I keep going I will hit a point where I start feeling better. Sure enough, right around 4 hours my neck stopped hurting and my stroke smoothed out. By this point, it seemed like Marie and I were basically alone in the river, although on straighter stretches I could catch a glimpse of 2 kayakers up ahead of us. Whenever this happened, I felt very motivated to try to catch them. Eventually, I caught one and then the other, which was a real morale booster and just nice to have company. I spent the next couple of hours chasing another kayaker up ahead of us.
The first official checkpoint on the river was the Thompson Bridge, which was 15 miles into the swim. I could not remember what the cutoff time was for Thompson so I was anxious until they let us through. There were a bunch of people cheering at Thompson and right after I swam a few backstrokes under the bridge (rules are rules), I caught up to the swimmer that I had been chasing. We stopped for a feed right after Thompson, meaning that we hit Thompson right before the 6 hour mark. The other swimmer and I paced each other for a little bit and then I pulled ahead.
At this point in the race, I was still feeling quite strong, yet not as speedy as I wanted to be. Part of it I think was that I had neglected how different and “sinky” I would feel in freshwater compared to the salt water that I had been training in. I was happy, however, that my feed plan seemed to be working well. I add gatorade to some of my feeds when I swim in freshwater for the electrolytes but this has the added bonus of raising my caloric intake by about 50 cal/hour and this seems to make a big difference. About 2 hours after we passed Thompson I saw mile marker 17 on the side of the river and freaked out that we had only gone 2 miles in the last 2 hours. Marie quickly reminded me that Thompson Bridge was at 15 miles done / 21 miles to go but mile marker 17 meant 19 done / 17 to go, not the other way around and I was very relieved. By my math, I was on track for a 14-15 hour swim.
Usually on long swims, I count up in half hours until I am sure that I am halfway through and then start counting down in half hours. Of course this is a dangerous choice for a swim like this one where finish time and currents are so variable. When I thought I would pull off a 14 hour swim, I had planned to count up to 8 hours and then down for 6 but at 8 hours it became clear that I still had more than 8 left. At that point I made the choice to just keep counting up until 10, and then 12… you get the idea. I have heard many swimmers talk about swimming in half hour increments or “feed to feed”. For this swim, chunking the time into 2 hour intervals worked really well and at the end of each 2 hour period I got an applesauce reward.
One aspect of this swim that was mentally chanllenging is that the river pretty much looks the same no matter how far you have gone. I felt like I could have been swimming in circles around an island for hours and hours and I would not have known the difference. Marie did a fabulous job of trying to find the “fastest” water for me to swim in and this meant we were often by the edge of the river. Even so, I only scraped my hand along the bottom once and quickly moved back into the middle.
After I stopped for a feed, Marie paddle ahead and pulled over to the side to take a short break and I swam alone for a bit. When we had discussed this plan, I was really nervous about swimming alone, but it turned out following the river wasn’t difficult and I always played a game with myself, trying to go as far as possible during these intervals. I even caught two more swimmers before Marie caught up to me. Marie told me that my friends at home were cheering me on and that someone had said “pretend that Rebecca’s seal friend is chasing you!” which made me laugh.
Around 10 hours, I hit what I call the “I live here” mark, which is the point where as bad as I may feel I have accepted that the swim will take as long as it will take and I am just going to live in the water until I finish. In this particular swim, I knew that there was a 16 hour cutoff so it was nice to know at 10 hours that the most I would have to do would be 6 more hours. They ended up extending the cutoff, but I was really glad that I did not know this at the time. At one point the support boat came by with another swimmer on board and I started worrying again about running up against the cutoff and being forced to stop. When the boat came by again, I asked Marie to ask if we were on track to finish and he said that we were. Still, as I saw more people being pulled out behind me, I was nervous.
I knew that I needed to hit “last chance” by a certain point to be allowed to continue but I could not for the life of me remember where last chance was or what the cutoff time was. I decided “last chance” must be the boat ramp marking 3 miles left and I would just focus on getting there. This was wrong, “last chance” was actually a spot where we would have 7.5 miles left, but I worried about hitting the cutoff until I was past the boat ramp (oh well). After we passed the boat ramp, I saw the support boat floating in the middle of the river and thought to myself “Oh no, this is it, they are pulling me!” Instead, the captain asked us if we knew where the finish was and we said yes. Finally, I believed that they were going to allow me to finish. I still felt really strong and like I could keep swimming for days but not really able to harness any more speed.
I asked Marie to skip my last feed if we were going to be really close to finishing. I knew that swimming this stretch had taken me 1 hour and 10 minutes the day before and yet whenever I sighted forward, I could not see the bridge signalling one more mile. At my last feed, Marie told me that she was going to leave me just before the finish to film it. Finally, I saw the bridge and the “chess piece” piling off to the right that meant I was almost done. I picked up my tempo and started swimming hard toward the boat launch that was the finish. Soon, I had passed the end point and could climb up onto the metal dock. I was unsteady on my feet and took a moment to savor my accomplishment. Marian, Brian, and a few other people were standing on the dock cheering for me and I was just so happy to be done. My official time was 15 hours and 5 minutes, my second longest time in water to date, and I finished 8th out of 18.
After the race, the race director gave me a dog tag with 146 stamped on it and he told me that I had completed the 146th swim of the river. Marian and I made our way back to the hotel to pack our bags and get a short night’s sleep before another 3:30am wakeup call to catch a 5:30 flight back home. The travel day was a marathon in itself but I was very happy to arrive back in LA by 10am on Sunday.
Although the swim was slower than I had hoped, I am really proud of my effort both physically and mentally to get through. I am also super grateful to Marie for expertly guiding and supporting me through the race. These swims might be called “solo” but they are all about the team. I have to thank Marian for being my race buddy, Marian’s kayaker Brian for supporting us both in general, Jax for being my team-leader-from-afar, my whole training team in LA for getting me ready for the big day, and everyone else who watched my tracker and cheered me on from afar! It was so much fun to get to do a group marathon swim, such a different experience than a solo!