Monday, May 2, 2016

SCAR 2016: Day 3, Judgment Day

Does anyone know where the love of God goes when the wind turns the minutes to hours?
-- Gordon Lightfoot, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
-- William Shakespeare, Henry V

12:05 PM, feed stop 4, approximately mile 5 
"Ninja, hold up. I've gotta say this, before the wheels come off. You know how bad this is about to get."
We had been through this Apache hell together just a year ago. The grim forecast for today now appeared accurate. 
"We're headed to place of pain, bro. It will seem bigger than both of us. But it isn't.  The pain will end before the sun sets, but quitting will haunt us forever. These are the moments that define us, my brother. Right here, right now. You in?"
"You know I am," replied Ninja
"I need to you remind me of this if I start to falter."
There's something indescribable about an epic swim. A swim that forces you to question what you believe about yourself. Where adversity kicks you in the face. When the outcome is very much in doubt (and I don't mean just the finish line). I love what I feel in those moments. The struggle for control over the dark places in my mind. Exhilaration, doubt, despair. The tricks your mind plays on you and the tricks you play back. The physical, emotional and spiritual immersion into the fullness of life. It is in those moments when I feel most alive. And to have such a swim in one of the most beautiful venues in the world, is...


Apache Lake is the legendary third stage of the SCAR Swim. Not because it's the longest. Officially, it's 17 miles. To put that in perspective for my non-swimming readers, a 10K swim is considered equivalent to a marathon run and the minimum distance to be called a "marathon swim." 17 miles is nearly three times that (the English Channel is just 21 miles).

And it's not legendary just because it comes after back-to-back days of marathon swimming.

What makes Apache legendary is the wind. Unlike the other SCAR lakes, the middle 10 miles are fairly straight and cut through more of a steep valley than a canyon.  There is no protection from the wind.  In fact, the mountains on either side act like a funnel. Or a jackhammer. The prevailing winds in this area are WSW, which puts that wind right on your beak. All the talk at dinner last night was about how bad the conditions were in 2015 and how the forecast for this year compared to last year (yes, people actually had that data). It didn't look good. I retired to the bar to plot strategy with the Ninja.

It was cold and rainy at the start. I didn't stand around and talk like I normally would. I needed to get my head right. I found a secluded patch of grass between two boulders, laid down and put my headphones on. That's why there are no pics with this post.

As part of the strategy Ninja and I worked out, the first three miles (the protected section) would be about effortless, clean penetration. Long, gliding strokes with the profile of a javelin. Use nearly nothing in the easy 3 mile canyon leading to the open lake. Maintain feeds with military precision. Ninja set his watch 30 seconds before my 30 minute feed alarms so that when my feed alarm went off, I popped my head up immediately and a bottle was in the air. Perfection. Like a timing route in football. Team Kiwi was on the same pattern and, as usual we were always within spittin' distance (that's Texan for "meter," Kiwi). The smack talk was flyin' early and often.

As we approached the bend into the main lake, you could see it. You could hear it. We moved to phase two of the plan. Hug the left wall and punch the waves with purpose. Find the rhythm of the water. Kick. There were little notches perhaps 100 to 300 meters long every so often. We curved into each. The extra distance was a fair trade for the slightly flatter water.

It was after an hour of this that I gave the pep rally speech (above) right after dumping out my full goggles. Not water. Tears. I had been crying. Not crying. Wailing. Uncontrollably. And screaming underwater at a friend. Actually, former friend, who I will call by the fictional name "John" for reasons that will soon be apparent. John could not hear me. Not then. Not ever. Two days earlier, about the time I was diving into Saguaro Lake, my hunting buddy and father of two fine young boys, took his own life. We weren't terribly close, but I was within the blast radius of profound sadness.

With deserved apologies to those of you who understand more about this than I do and with complete recognition that it is more complicated than what I am about to say, as I wrestled with John's suicide in the cold darkness of Apache Lake, I thought about something I say to my children more frequently than they care to hear it: "Quitting begets quitting." I believe that. I also believe that overcoming adversity prepares us for adversity. Courage is a muscle that must be exercised. Emotional pain is like going to a gym for the heart. Each time you overcome is a building block. Developing healthy patterns with the small stuff develops the foundation to rely on for the real storms.

It was about then that all hell broke loose on Apache Lake and I realized, "I am in the gym now. I will make it through this darkness to prove to myself, once again, there is light in the end. And that I have the courage to endure. This will be monument of remembrance to add to the many others so that I might never inflict such profound suffering on the people who love me." Perhaps that won't be enough if I ever find myself on that unimaginable cliff. But it's all I've got.

I did not dedicate this swim to John. I dedicated it to my wife, my children and people I love and who love me. "I will do this for them." And then I wept for them. Epic swims send me to places like this. Places of clarity.

About that time, my feed alarm went off. I'm sure Ninja thought I'd lost my mind when I laid that unexpected, heavy speech on him behind bloodshot eyes. Especially when team Kiwi had already finished and was well underway.  It just seemed right, so I did.

As I resumed, realized, "wait, what is the Kiwi doing here? This is our secret spot!" No one else was hugging the left bank as far as I could tell. They were all on the right. Our's was the longest line possible, but Ninja and I knew from last year that the swimmers who took the left line fared considerably better than everyone else. We specifically vowed to keep this from the Kiwi! And there she was. I also noted that Kiwi had replaced her husband with a local ringer kayaker and SCAR veteran. She was young and cute. I figured she'd batted her eyes at him a few times and he'd given up the goods. "Judas!"

The next several hours were fairly uneventful. We battled wind, waves and cold. We remained disciplined in all things according to plan. Feed schedule, complete deference to Ninja for navigational judgment, solid, efficient stroke mechanics and streamlined body posture. You really can't afford to add any extra effort to a swim like this. It is worth the extra focus and energy to keep your mechanics solid. Ninja and I had worked out some hand signals to alert me if I fell into any of my typical bad habits. I don't think it ever became necessary. I was focused.

The Apache Lake Resort is more or less the half-way point, but thinking of it that way is misleading. Everest base camp is 17,500, well over half way to the summit. But no one would describe it as "half way to the top." But it is an encouraging landmark. It took FOREVER to get there. And the carnage had already begun. Boat after boat passed us with stacked kayaks and bundled-up swimmers. The shores were dotted with impromptu triage stations. I knew what was ahead, I felt a magnetic pull to the warm comfort of my hotel room. Even Ninja showed uncharacteristic signs of cracking, "Look, the Kiwi's are quitting. If they quit, what have we got left to prove?" He had a point. They were still on the south side of the lake, within meters of the resort. The water was rough there. No reason to be there unless, perhaps...  I tracked them for a while, hoping they did pull over and wondering how I would respond. They didn't. We didn't.

The second half was cold. I don't think it got colder (at least not until the sun slipped behind the canyon walls), more like my body just started surrendering to it. I couldn't feel my extremities. I started to feel sick. Even the smell of my feeds made me want to vomit. I forced food down as best I could. Most of it came right back out. I was also taking on tons of lake water, not unusual for me in rough water, depending on the direction of the wind. Even the lake water that found its way into my mouth made me gag. Eventually I got so cold I couldn't stop for feeds. I knew this would only make it worse, but when I pulled up even for a few seconds, I could feel my temperature drop and the shakes coming. So I kept moving. Racing against hypothermia. I saw SCAR veteran and all-around swim stud Steve Minaglia climbing out of the water less than two miles from the finish. I felt bad for him. We merged up again with the Kiwi, but after swimming together for half an hour, she dropped me like a bad habit. I didn't care. I just wanted the cold and pain to end.

I used stroke counting to distract myself from the cold. I kicked to bring up my temp as much as I could. I started to swim with my eyes closed, opening them only on my Ninja-side breaths (every 6th to 8th stroke). I don't know why. It just felt good. Then I started feeling sleepy. I stopped and warned Ninja of my temptation to doze off and to make sure I kept breathing.

Eventually, the finish line was in sight, or at least that's what Ninja said. My goggles were foggy and I was too cold to stop to clean them. I knew from last year, that still meant 20 minutes of swimming and I could tell it was getting dark and dark meant DNF. I increased my effort as much as possible, but I doubt the change would have been discernible to the human eye. Catch, pull, finish, glide, return.

Eventually, I touched the buoy. Finished. 9:44. But finishing didn't end the suffering. If you've ever been that cold for that long, you know it doesn't end for an hour or so. I had to keep fighting just to put on my fleece and heavy coat. I wished I had Ugs for my feet (note to self). That would have been heavenly.  As I shivered on the deck, Kent requested a status report from his radio. Devon Clifford was just around the bend. 20 minutes out. "Alright, we've got to shut it down after Devon," Kent said, reluctantly. He knew there were swimmers on the course, still pressing on. It was a hard call.

"How many finished?" I asked. Or at least attempted to ask. What came out was more like, "h-h-hw m-m-m-n fincht?


"How many?" I asked again

"How many finished?" asked Kent

I nodded.


What?! I started to feel warm again.


  1. Hi thee Stephen. Loved reading your blog on SCAR 2016. It is also an interesteing perspective to see if from someone who has done it already. Looks like The weather and the wind Gods were not with you. Sad, but that is OW swimming.You have to take the good and the bad.

    Huge congrats for getting Apache, there has been a lot of social media Activity as to the reasons why so many got scalped. I guess, you had to be there on the day and also make the call based on the conditions at the time. It was interesting seeing some very accomplished swimmers being scalped.

    I must admi i was very jealous but when I saw that some of the guys and gals succumbed to the unpredictability of Apache, I thought is is probably a good thing I am not there as My mind would not have been in the right place. It is always an issue doing swims that you have succeeded in before as your attitude becomes a bit gung ho so to see you manage the whole lot is a great feathe in your cap

    I am thinking I might do it again next year as a kayaker and just do apache as my Slimhippoo still has her score to settle with that lake.

    I hope to catch up some time soon but until then stay well and keep swimming and blogging

    Cheers From the Zimhippo and Slimhippo says hi as well

    Chat soon

  2. Graeme! Nice to hear from you. I would liked to have had you there this year. I wish I could give you some nugget of insight on the DNF rate for Apache. I can't. It was hard, no doubt. But it doesn't seem like it was harder than last year. I made mistakes in 2015 that made that year harder for me (I swam at least an extra 1-2K last year chasing "calm water mirages" only to find no relief). This year I just followed Ninja, and he found that 1 mile protected section east of the resort, which probably helped. I was not nearly as fit this year, but my Apache time was within 4 minutes of my 2015 time.

    It was definitely windier in 2015, and the wind did not dissipate until perhaps the last mile. This year I felt like the wind dissipated a bit as soon as we curved to the north after the resort.

    The temp seemed about the same, but there were more cold complaints this year. I have a hard time differentiating between cold temps, my cold-o-meter only reads in clunky, round figures. I'd say it was somewhere between really friggin cold and uncomfortably numb both years. It could have been colder, I'm not sure.

    Hard to say what happened. I was really stunned to hear the finish numbers. Ninja had been telling me for hours that "there can't be more than a dozen people left," but I had a hard time believing it.

    Hope to see you and Slimhippo on the water soon!