END-WET 2018 Race Report – By Sam McNair “Swimstory” #TeamSelkie
18th July 2018
People have asked me why I decided to swim 36 miles in one go. The answer is simple: Copeland is swimming it, so I have to swim it too.
END-WET is the shorthand name for the Extreme North Dakota Watersports Endurance Test. It’s a 36-mile/58 km race on the Red River bordering North Dakota and Minnesota – the longest single-stage swim race in North America, and the third longest in the world. As of Saturday, June 16, 2018, it’s only been completed 128 times in seven years, and I am number 126. Took me 14 hours and 13 minutes, 21,858 strokes, and 16,309 calories, but I swam… and I finished.
Before END-WET, my longest swim had been 15.5 miles/25 km, last summer on Lake Memphremagog in Vermont and Quebec. So my training goal was to more than double that distance in a single season. I suppose that would be pretty audacious by most people’s standards.
Conventional ultra-marathon swimming wisdom tells us that we should train to a peak at which we are swimming in one week the same distance we plan to swim in one day. Alternatively, some prefer to train to a peak at which they are swimming three-quarters the target distance in a single swim. As an amateur swimmer with a full-time job, a home and a family, either approach would be difficult. But with help from more experienced swimmers and coaches, I came up with a training plan that would build up to 58 km five weeks before the big swim. So for six consecutive days, I was swimming approximately 5 km every morning before work and another 5 km after work. Then came the long, slow taper…
One of the primary reasons for making a training plan is because things don’t always go as planned. You structure what you can, and learn to roll with the punches. Over the 20 weeks preceding the race, I definitely had my share of punches – personal and professional obligations that made training impossible for days, and even weeks at a time. But somehow, I managed to reach 58 km on peak week. Passing that mental milestone would have to be enough.
Apart from the distance, I was also concerned about the water temperature, which was expected to be around 72F/22C. For comparison, the lake where I train has reached 79F/26C already. Given the distance and the temperature, I was fully prepared for this to be my first DNF (“did not finish”).
There’s a distinct advantage when two of your best swim buddies are attacking the same goal. Besides Copeland, other co-conspirators include my kayaker Kevin, Copeland’s kayaker James, my training buddy Zach, Zach’s kayaker Steve (a.k.a. Zach’s dad), and Ritch, an experienced support kayaker who decided to come with us as a race volunteer. These guys were my core support network throughout training, and on through the race itself.
Grand Forks is 1,300 miles or 2,100 km north of my home in Tennessee. Flying there would have been the obvious choice, but where’s the fun in that? Ritch and I decided to make a road trip out of it. We drove drove up in two days, stopping overnight in Madison, Wisconsin on Wednesday night, having lunch in Minneapolis, Minnesota the next day, and arriving in Grand Forks, North Dakota on Thursday evening. Zach and Steve were already there waiting on us, and the others showed up on Friday.
Not really sure what I expected, but Grand Forks is an amazing big town/small city, with great restaurants, a local craft beer scene, and apparently more millionaires per capita than any other place in the US. It is a very desirable place to live… if you can cope with epic Ice Age winters.
Friday morning, One of the swimmers and her kayaker/husband organized a 5 km practice swim. Normally, I wouldn’t think of doing more than 2 km one day out from race day, but this somehow seemed like a good idea to Zach and me. Copeland disagreed, and joined us only for a couple thousand at the end of the swim. Conditions were perfect – considerable current, which put me at about 3 miles per hour versus my usual 2 mph in still water; and very agreeable air and water temperature. My doubts were lifting, and I was finally able to visualize completing the race…
…and then I woke up. At 3:00am on Saturday. Sort of. Gathered my gear and feedings, and piled into a rental car with my co-conspirators. We made our way to the designated spot, piled onto two buses with the other 17 solo swimmers, 6 relay swimmers, one exhibition swimmer and their kayakers, and headed upstream to the starting point.
The race began at 5:30am, concurrent with sunrise over the Red River. The air was cooler than the day before, but the water temperature and current were about the same. As the day progressed, however, the air temperature never really warmed up, the current became indiscernible most of the day, and headwinds created a slight chop to the water. By the end of the race, it rained steadily.
My watch lost its GPS signal somewhere between 8 and 9 kilometers. I relied on mile markers on the shore counting down the remaining distance. Some swimmers (like Zach) prefer not to know their position on the course during the race. I prefer to know so that I can track – and manage – my pace.
After 15 miles, Kevin had to pull out, but arranged for Ritch to take over as my kayaker, which allowed me to continue the race. I had no idea the switch was taking place until Kevin disappeared, and shortly thereafter Ritch appeared. I’m grateful to them both for keeping me alive, fueled, hydrated, and on course. This is what I mean by “support network.”
END-WET observes “English Channel Rules” – swimmers can stop as often as they like for feedings, but cannot touch the boat, the bottom, or the sides. Wetsuits or other flotational devices are not permitted. I went with a 30-minute interval for feedings, which consisted of Tailwind nutritional drink, and either Clif Shot Bloks, Clif Shots, Jelly Belly Sports Beans, bite-sized Kind Bars, or cheeseburgers (nah… just checking you’re still with me, LOL). Oh, and Tylenol… because 21,000 strokes.
A question I often get from non-swimmers is what’s going through my mind during a long swim like that. Here’s a sampling of my stream of consciousness: Pain. Fear. Doubt. If she can do it, I can do it. One stroke at a time. Glide on your side. Push more than pull. Elbows high. Counting strokes. Math problems. Converting meters to yards to miles. Calculating pace and speed. Pain. Fear. Doubt. Cheeseburgers…
After fourteen hours of swimming, I could finally see the finish line. By that point I was already shivering in the water and probably a little delirious. I picked up the pace and made my way to ramp with my friends, race staff and a couple of other swimmers cheering me on. I finished it, and not last. First to finish went 9 hours and 40 minutes. Last to finish went 14 hours and 54 minutes. I was 16th out of 18, and went 14 hours and 13 minutes. Quickly, I was wrapped in blankets. I sipped hot coffee until the shivering finally stopped.
The post-race celebration consisted of a gathering at a nearby restaurant with plenty of great food (including cheeseburgers) and drink and lots of dead-tired swimmers and kayakers. Smiles all around. Warm, vibrant company, if not lively.
After a long hard sleep, Sunday was filled with much more excellent food and drink, recapping the highs and lows of the big swim, and already talk about the next one. I finished off half a turkey sandwich, a giant bowl of salad, veggie pizza, Scotch eggs, and fresh fettuccine with vodka cream sauce, and had no regrets. It will be a few days before I get back in the water, while I allow my body to heal and recover. But I will be back at it soon, on a much less aggressive training schedule, preparing for the Otter Mile, the Thames Marathon, and a Donegal Bay swim in August.
As for next year, I’m open to suggestions…