Unexpected Open Water Challenge: 40 miles across Arizona

MESA, Ariz. – On an 80-degree morning, a group of world-class swimmers stood in their Speedos and swim caps on a pebbly beach east of Phoenix.

They gathered on the shores of Saguaro Lake on April 25 to compete in the SCAR Swim, a four-day, 40-mile open water race along the Salt River in central Arizona through four lakes: Saguaro, Canyon, Apache and Roosevelt.

Kent Nicholas, the organizer of the event, does not let anyone participate. This year’s swimmers ranged in age from their 20s to their late 60s, and each came with a resume. The field included men and women who had successfully swum the English Channel, Lake Tahoe, Monterey Bay, Catalina Channel and around Manhattan.

The swimmers panicked as they were divided into three heats and ferried in pontoon boats past a warning sign that said “spillway doors may open without warning”. When that happened a year ago, athletes were forced into a sand bar to avoid being sucked backwards. This year, the conditions are perfect.

Through a megaphone, Nicholas, 56, ordered everyone off the boats and into the 55-degree water. Competitors, suffocated by cold shock, swam to a string of orange buoys in the shadow of a concrete dam.

While the world’s major channel associations ban wet suits and most ban smartwatches, Nicholas allows both. But the clean ethos runs deep in open water swims, and there was no neoprene in the SCAR swim field. With one hand on the buoy line and the other in the air, Nicholas turned the swimmers loose for a 9.5-mile swim to a dam on the far side of the lake.

After they finished, they drove back to Nicholas’ hometown of Mesa and stayed the night. The next day, swimmers drove an hour to Canyon Lake for a nine-mile swim, immediately followed by a two-hour drive past ghost towns and copper mines to Apache Lake for a 17-mile swim that began early on Day 3. The final swim took place the next night, a 6.2-mile swim in Roosevelt Lake.

For perspective, consider that the English Channel, the most famous open water swim, is 21 miles.

With its marathon distance (about 40 miles), bone-chilling swims (Apache’s starting temperature is about 53 degrees Fahrenheit), dramatic scenery and road trip intervals, the event was honored as the World of Open Water Swimming Association’s Event of the Year. In 2022.

It’s a meeting of kindred spirits and a snapshot of Arizona that even locals haven’t seen. The first three lakes still feel like the river they once were. Swimmers cut through the languid, lime-green water between red rock cliffs rising 500 feet high and past massive mesas and eroded hills rooted by mesquite and saguaro. The desert was green and blooming. Turkey vultures and blue herons soared overhead. Families of bighorn sheep gathered on the stone walls.

Nicholas, an Arizona-based criminal defense attorney, first conceived of the event while training at Saguaro Lake for his own 2011 crossing of the Catalina Channel. The following year, seven swimmers joined him in the first official SCAR swim. This year, 58 swimmers came from 16 states and six countries. Thirty-eight of them were women.

That is not an anomaly. Ever since American Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to successfully swim the English Channel in 1926, obliterating the current Channel record by nearly two hours, women have remained at the top of the sport.

According to marathon swimmer and data analyst Julian Crichlow, who has analyzed every successful English Channel crossing since 1875, the average female finisher is about 11 minutes faster than the average male. Women also have a better success rate. No one has crossed the Channel more often than Alison Streeter’s record of Clym McCardell in 2021.

“It’s interesting because if you think about ultra running or triathlons or long bike rides, men tend to go faster,” said Katherine Breed, who swam at the University of California, Berkeley and once held the record for the fastest swim across Lake Tahoe. . “But I think women have more mental resilience and grit. We tend to let the tough stuff flow more quickly and move on.

Last year, Breed, 30, became the first person to swim from Northern California’s Golden Gate Bridge to Half Moon Bay, overcoming monotony and exhaustion to complete the 27-mile route.

Last month, he finished second to Michael Rice in the Saguaro Lake leg, whose barrel chest and powerful arms hinted at his swimming butterfly years at Florida and Florida State University, and some genetics, too. In 1999, his mother, Gail, swam the English Channel in 8 hours and 12 minutes, one of the fastest times ever.

Rice was introduced to the SCAR swim in 2021 after running into Sarah Thomas, the first swimmer to swim the English Channel four times in a row, in a spring-fed pool favored by swimmers in suburban Denver. Thomas, who works as a recruiter, keeps an eye on talent. She chatted with him and trained with him. At the 2021 event, she was first overall and she won the women’s draw, finishing second overall.

The 2022 overall winner, Steven Munatones, 60, finished third in the Saguaro last month, just 11 minutes behind Rice. Munatones has dedicated his life to the sport. In the 1970s, she was a teenage reporter for international swimming publications. In the 1990s, he won two U.S. Masters national championships in open water, and in 2008 he was among a small international group that helped open water swimming to the Olympics, a feat that has continued since the 1980s.

In 2016, Munatones suffered a heart attack at home in Huntington Beach, California. His teenage son performed CPR until help arrived. After years of recovery, he began to dream of swimming in open water again during the pandemic. He hasn’t swum more than a few thousand yards since 1994, but he registered for SCAR last year. He trained hard, perhaps harder than ever, and surprised himself and everyone else with a victory.

“When you come back like I did,” Munatones said, “it’s all a bonus. At the end of every day I feel like, wow, I got another one.

Although the sun was warm, the water in Canyon Lake was brisk, especially in the first mile or so. Some people gave up, but most persevered. They sipped electrolytes every 30 to 60 minutes to stay hydrated, and when their fuel tanks ran low they ate red vines, black licorice, dates, or chocolate; absorbed energy gels or fruit purees; Or downed shots of maple syrup. Swimmers collected their own feed bags, manned by their kayakers, who paddled on the side of the swimmer’s strongest breath and charted the most efficient line possible.

This year’s kayakers can be next year’s swimmers and vice versa, because open water swimming is about generosity and mutuality. Thomas was also kayaking instead of swimming this year.

Fast athletes covered Saguaro and Canyon Lakes in three hours each. For Apache, they need about five hours. Slower swimmers need five hours for shorter swims and nine and a half hours for Apache.

The breed concentrates its mind on form and body position. Munatones lets his scamper. Rice lovingly assembles the inner chaos, dedicating various parts of the race to the people he cares about.

Nicholas greets his swimmers at the finish line with what he calls the “finishing boat,” which is short for craft beer and quaffable wine and athletic drinks and water. Rice and Breed cracked out beers and waited for the rest of the field to trickle in. Some finishers were lean and wiry and others were built like tanks, with many variations in between.

“That’s what I love about this sport,” Breed said. “Every body — every physical type — is welcome, and you’ll see people with different body types excel at it.”

As athletes “hydrated” and soaked up the sun, training tips were shared and future events were listed. No one cheered more at the finish than Rice. He stood, clapped and shouted. Two down, two hard swims to go.

“I have to cheer them on,” he said. “They’re all great guys, it’s a tough event and I want everyone to meet their goals.”

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