I am ultra

On Saturday 25 July, I attempted my first ever ultra-marathon swim (longer than 10 kilometres). Swim for the Cure is an 8 mile (12.8 km) point-to-point swim in Severn River, Ontario. It is organised by Debbie Bang to raise money for the Canadian Cancer Society. It’s a beautiful swim that can be completed solo or as a relay. Although now in its 15th year, the event still draws a small crowd, with six swimmers this year, due to limited advertising and a minimal website.
I was nervous but determined in the weeks leading up to Swim for the Cure. Unlike The Great Chesapeake Bay Swim a month earlier, I was properly prepared for this event. I have a lot of experience swimming in Ontario – I’m comfortable with the water temperatures and conditions – and I find rivers to be the least stressful swimming venue.
The day before the swim, I checked the weather forecast hourly. Thunderstorms were predicted with a 100 per cent chance of rain in the afternoon. Not good. I had to start early.
I woke at 4:40am on race day feeling surprisingly energetic. I ate, stretched, packed, and arrived at Severn Falls Marina at 6:20am. My mother (my kayaker) and I were taken to the race start by motorboat. There, I applied sunscreen and Vaseline. I was in the water by 7:10am.
The first two miles of the swim were lovely. I felt good, the conditions were perfect, and the route was beautiful. My mother’s presence was calming and it was too early for the locks to open, meaning minimal motorboat traffic.
After 80 minutes on the water, my mother needed a washroom break. She asked a local fisherman to use his cottage. While I waited, floating on a noodle, I decided to readjust my goggles since they were digging painfully into my eye sockets. Big mistake. Big. Huge!
When my mom returned, I attempted to put my goggles on again. They wouldn’t seal. Not to worry. Like any open water swimmer, I had a back-up pair in the kayak. They didn’t seal either. I was starting to become frustrated, but hope was not lost. Like an experienced open water swimmer, I had a back-up for my back-up. Still no luck with the seal. Now I was panicking. But I wasn’t done yet. Like the Type A personality that I am, I had a back-up for the back-up of my back-up. Still no seal.
It was time to panic. And I panicked like a child. I threw a temper tantrum, hitting the water with my fists and screaming obscenities. It helped.
When I finished, I thought about the extreme cold and heat, dehydration, jellyfish, rashes, physical and mental exhaustion, and nausea that I’d overcome as an open water swimmer. If those things didn’t stop me, water in my eyes would not either. I chose the goggles that leaked the least and continued swimming.
When I stopped for feeds every mile, in addition to drinking Gatorade, I emptied the water from my slowly filling goggles. It was not a perfect solution, but it kept me going.
I once again felt good. After the locks opened at 9am, boat traffic increased, but my mother made me visible and motorists often cheered. The water remained calm so sighting was straightforward. The predicted storms did not appear. I became used to my constantly irritated eyes. Even my usually weak left shoulder did not complain (likely due to the Ibuprofen I consumed before and midway through the event).
But the swim was still long. At five miles, I started to fade. My kicking increased to compensate for my exhausted core muscles, which could no longer hold my body horizontal.
I tried to strengthen my stroke. I increased my feed breaks from every mile to every half mile and eventually every quarter mile. I distracted myself from the exhaustion. First, mentally writing stories, then later solving maths problems.
I moved forward.
Eventually my mother pointed excitedly to the crowd waiting at the finish line.
I reached the finish after 5 hours and 48 minutes in the water (with a swim time of 5:20 when the bathroom break and goggle issues were considered).
I was elated but too tired to show it. I sat on the bottom of the river, smiling weakly. My father helped me up and forced water and sandwiches on me.
Now that the shock and exhaustion have worn off, I’m ecstatic. I did it! I’m not just a marathon swimmer anymore. Six years of hard work and dedication have paid off. Now, I am ultra!

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I created Outdoor Swimmer in 2011 (initially as H2Open Magazine) as an outlet for my passion for swimming outdoors. I've been a swimmer and outdoor swimmer for as long as I remember. Swimming has made a huge difference to my life and I want to share its joys and benefits with as many people as possible. I am also the author of Swim Wild & Free: A Practical Guide to Swimming Outdoors 365 a Year and I provide one-to-one support to swimmers through Swim Mentoring.