In Search of Memphre 2016 and My First DNF

Contributed by Nathaniel Dean

On the night of September 9th, Nathaniel Dean, a member of Cambridge Masters Swim Club, attempted to swim across Lake Mempremagog - 25 miles from Newport, VT to Magog, Quebec, Canada. He ended his swim for safety reasons after completing 12.5 miles in 6 hours. This swim report was originally published in the Marathon Swimmers Forum. It is reposted here with permission. 

Figured I'd share a swim report, since I haven't been on the forums in a while and I felt that some people could learn from my experience. I swam in In Search of Memphre this weekend but didn't make it the full distance to Magog. Here's a rundown of the weekend, and where I broke down, and some things I learned over the weekend that hopefully would help other people, including myself... I plan to go back and complete next year.

I should emphasize that none of this is to be read as an excuse. All of the mistakes leading to this DNF were solely my own, and while that is a bitter pill to swallow, I was fortunate that it happened in friendlier waters with decent support and with enough training to know that things were going very wrong, knowing when to pull myself out instead of getting myself into a dangerous situation.

For those who don't know the Kingdom, Lake Memphremagog is a very large lake stretching from Newport, VT on the south to Magog, Quebec, Canada on the north. A number of swims occur on that lake including a series during the Kingdom Games, which has a variety of distances ranging from 1 mile to 25km. ISOM is the longest of the lot, stretching from Newport to Magog, a distance of 25+ miles. This swim is to support more open borders between the two towns to improve the economy of both cities.

Two people were on the swim this year, and hats off to Mark Smitherman who accomplished this hard swim in 13 hours. We spoke a few time prior to the swim, as well as on the dock starting off, and he was a very collected and determined individual, not to mention a very good swimmer, hats off to him! I'd love to read his race report to see what happened on his trip, not to mention at the end of the swim.

The swim started at the Newport docks shortly after midnight on Friday into Saturday, accompanied this year by a 13' boat with support crew with gas motor and a very experienced kayaker. My crew consisted of my wife Katharine Owen and a fellow swimmer whom I helped train for the 25km swim two months prior, Daniela Klaz. My kayaker was Gary Golden, who handled his kayak very well.

Direction of the swim was north, and a gentle wind from the south pushed us at the beginning. Start was at 12:20am. My feed schedule this year had changed; in previous years I have fed every 30 minutes, and this strategy got me through both Catalina and MIMS, with the caveat that I had more "stuff" in my system, and thus it took longer to eliminate. My observers in the past had commented that this was something I needed to work on, so I came up with this compromise. So this year I had trained and planned to change my schedule from 30 minutes to 45 minutes, thinking this would take the pressure off my voids, encourage fewer breaks in general and increase my speed.

However, that training was not sufficient. Figuring I had already done sufficiently long distances and thus could handle longer distances, I focused on more intense shorter swims, which were also easier to fit into my work schedule. However, that combined with the feed change would set off one of a series of dominoes that would call the end of my swim far sooner than I had expected. That doesn't mean that I necessarily approve of training up to race simulation distance (I'm still of the opinion that shorter focused practices do more for you than junk yardage), but doing swims with a new feed schedule is definitely crucial to making that feed schedule stick and confirming that it is the right move.

The first three feeds (up to 2h15m elapsed time) go really well, and I'm in good spirits as I am told on the third feed that I've already crossed into Canadian waters. I had recalled that the water temperature drops a couple degrees when you do cross over, as the water is deeper at that part of the lake. I have a couple of small worries though: 1. The boat fumes were starting to overcome me, as I haven't swam around boat fumes in a while, so my support crew had to pull away, not to mention the boat fumes were getting to my crew as well. This means that I didn't get as much protection from the wind as I would like, and this would come into play later. 2. My feed system is a double ended carabiner on a rope, with hookable Blender Bottles containing the mixed feeds (for the record, this is the most fool-proof method of feeding a swimmer and I would not encourage any other feeding method). But this means that the crew has to throw the feed in front of me and then slow down so I don't have to chase the feed. But, these boats couldn't go slow enough unless they idled, and if they idled the fumes would concentrate and sometimes the engines would stall, so we didn't run the boat slow and I still had to chase my feeds.
3. For my other night swims, I have hooked a chemical glowstick onto the back of my goggles, and since this system has worked for me in the past, why mess with a good thing? This time though, my stroke had changed enough that it was easy to wedge the glowstick between my goggles and my shoulder as I breathed on my left, making it difficult for me to fall into my usual bilateral-3 pattern. 4. I had instructed my crew to use hand signals with me to signal feeds, changes in speed/pace, positioning, and other key instructions. While this had worked in previous swims where there was a lot more light from a bigger boat, in this situation the lighting was much more subtle, and the only thing I could see in my blurry goggles (defogger not working was the least of my concerns) was the light from the headlamps. So, every time Kate looked at me to count strokes per minute, I would think they were trying to signal me somehow so I'd lift my head. This also played a factor into the later hours.

At about 3 1/2 hours in, these little issues started to stack upon one another. Since I had switched from bilateral-3 to 4-2-4-2-4-2 on my right side, I was now only looking at my kayaker on the right and not the support boat on my left, making it a bit more complicated for my boat to signal me. But, I knew they were close because I could smell them. The support boat was on my left and the wind had shifted unpredictably from the south to the west and kicked up to 8 knots, meaning the fumes were blowing into me nonstop. The wind also dropped the perceived temperature of the air, which was a complete surprise to me, and one of the things I learned the most from this swim: air temperature is just as important as water temperature. The water temp was in the 70s, practically bath water. The air temp was in the low 60s, but because of the wind felt 10 degrees colder. The support boat was further out doing the right thing, but I ended up getting the fumes anyway and the wind still hit me.

That's when my traps started to seize up. The trapezius muscles extend from the neck to the shoulder and back down to the spine in a diamond pattern in your back. I was depending on them because I was shrugging my shoulders trying to keep the glowstick from not wedging on my shoulder, shortening my stroke and in the process making the situation worse. My crew gave me new goggles at the 3:45 feed (always bring backups!) that worked amazingly, but the damage had already been done. I had picked up my pace to keep ahead of the cold I was perceiving in my arms.

At this point, I started to weave between the support boat and the kayak. Unbeknownst to me at the time, this had more to do with both the support boat and kayak being pushed by the winds, making it hard for them to keep a straight line (the fact that either of them could keep a straight line at all is a testament to the mettle and capacity of all involved). However, I was under the impression that I was losing it.

4:30 couldn't come soon enough, and I gulped down my hot feed (one every three feeds). Another mistake: not only had I changed my feed from 30 to 45 minutes, I had also changed the frequency of hot feeds to cold from every other feed to every third feed. Instead of getting a warm feed every hour, it was every 2 1/4 hours. Having figured that the water temperature was 70 I didn't expect to get cold. But, sure enough, I did.

5:00 hits, the sun is starting to peak, and I'm literally counting the seconds to the next feed. At 5:15's feed I own up to it with my crew: I say that the goggles were working great but I was not, that at that point my traps seized so much I couldn't turn my neck and I had to rotate my entire body to get my face out of the water, that I was cold, and I was fighting really hard to stay with it. I was really weaving between the boat and the kayak at this point.

How much of this was psychological and how much of it was physical hypothermia I couldn't tell. All the little factors stacked up to a big monster. The inside joke of ISOM is that the swim is to search for the fabled lake monster Memphre. At this point I felt that the real monster was an amalgamation of all these little demons given a big inky canvas to weave stories of doom. I've observed for the Ice Mile, and have seem people go through mild to severe hypothermia. I've observed for marathon swimmers and while I'm lucky to not to have to pull anyone, I've seen people get out completely shivering after an 8+ hour swim in 75+ degree water. I've read about all the unfortunate people who have died during swims.

I glanced at the edges of the lake, mentally calculated how long it'd take for people to get me to shore if I really started getting in trouble. If I developed the mask, if I started experiencing the claw in my stroke. None of this was actually happening to me: In fact, my stroke rate was staying pretty constant, and my crew pulled in closer to give me comfort and warmth, only for me to think they were really worried for my safety and as a side effect made it seem like I was bouncing around even more between the boats.

So 15 minutes to my next feed (which would have been a warm one), just when the sun was coming out, just when all of this could have gotten to get better, I pulled myself. I still contend that it was the right move. My crew was surprised, they asked me if I was sure. I cursed to the sky and said yep. I was pissed that I psyched myself out, but it was still a good move. I honestly felt that was at least mildly hypothermic, and was shaking and purple when pulled onto the safety boat and onto shore. Now, I've swum BLS in 58-62F and other cold swims, so who knows how much of this was psychological or physical. I contend that the difference didn't matter at that point. I let all these little things pile up into a real monster and get the better of me.

I'm proud of making it 12.5 miles in 6 hours. But I did make some major mistakes that I felt that I could help others not make:

  1. Get a light that doesn't extend down the neck. Those round lights like the one Mark had on his goggles are amazing and will not interfere in any way with the swim.
  2. Train in cold AND WIND. It's a backwards feeling for the water to be warm and the air to be frigid, and it can really strip you of heat.
  3. For nighttime swims, have light signals instead of hand signals. Not dry erase boards, not yelling (most times you can't hear your crew), but light signals are the clearest and can be seen through foggy goggles.
  4. I'm still not sure how to prepare for swims with fumes. This still gets to me.
  6. Proper training lets you conquer the little demons one by one so you can stop them before they can combine to be a Voltron of evil.

That lake is no joke. It is a hard swim. Do not underestimate it. I plan to face it next year with way more open eyes than I had before.

--Nathaniel Dean