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A Long Swim in Hell

This summer, I took part in a 5 kilometer open water swim called The Swim to the Moon near the town of Hell, Michigan.

Here’s my account of why I did it, how I trained for it, and what it was like.

Who am I?

I swam competitively as a kid and in high school. Since then (I’m 43 now) I’ve swum on and off, but I haven’t been a serious swimmer at all. In 2011, I swam the Alcatraz Invitational, which is about 2 kilometers. You can read about what that swim did to me here.

Why?

My reason for doing the Swim to the Moon was the same as my reason for doing the Alcatraz swim: my sister, Beth. Beth is a very good swimmer, and, unlike me, continues to swim competitively on a regular basis. She asked me (or dared me) to swim from Alcatraz with her, and it was such a good experience that we decided to find new swims to do together — but, in warmer water than San Francisco Bay. Along with Beth’s friend, Brendan, we formed a team and called ourselves “Das Shark”.

How I trained for a 5K swim

I had about 8 months from when I signed up until the date of the swim. I started training right away. At the beginning of my training, I hadn’t seriously exercised since I trained for the Alcatraz swim (4 years ago). I was also smoking and drinking pretty heavily.

I started an intense workout regimen, I lost 30 pounds, I quit smoking, I cut way back on beer, and I was swimming between 1 and 5 kilometers a day, 5 days a week.

I didn’t do any of these things at the same time, however. By the day of the swim, I had gained back much of the weight I had lost (swimming makes me hungry), and I was drinking a lot of beer. But, I was a much stronger swimmer.

The swim turned out to be a great opportunity for a family reunion. We rented a house near the race for the week prior to the swim, and the whole family came out and cooked, swam, fished, and partied. The area around Hell has numerous small lakes, and the house where we stayed was on a particularly small one.

On the first day at the house, Beth and I jumped into the lake for a practice swim. It was warm, shallow, and still — perfect breeding grounds, it turns out, for the dreaded sea lice. I must have stirred them up and they proceeded to attack me. For the next three weeks, my legs were a bumpy and itchy mess. No one else was affected in this way, and so I think I may have just been unlucky or particularly sensitive. Note: I’m not 100% sure it was Sea Lice, so if you happen to be a Sea Lice expert, let me know and I’ll send you a picture!

What was it like?

On the day of the race, we woke up at 5:00AM and drove to the lake, where we got on a school bus that took us to the starting line. At the starting line, there were 200 swimmers and 2 porta potties. All agreed that this was an area where the race organizers could have done better.

We made up a cheer for Das Shark:

“2, 4, 6, 8! Team Das Shark will decimate! Chomp chomp chomp! You! Chomp chomp chomp! Today! Chomp chomp chomp! At 8:40 am! Chomp chomp chomp! For approximately 1 and a half to 2 hours! Chomp chomp chomp! Then we’ll have lunch! Chomp chomp chomp!”

Brendan drew a sweet logo that included a Shark wearing Lederhosen.

dassharklogo2

The course for the race started in one lake, then went through a narrow channel and into another lake. The finish line was at the opposite end of the 2nd lake. Buoys in the lakes marked the course, and special buoys marked each kilometer of the course.

The water was warm — 79 degrees — which is nice, but probably too warm for most serious swimmers. That early in the morning, there was steam coming off it, which you can see in our team picture below.

dassharkmorning

At the starting line, swimmers were started in 3 groups according to their self-reported swimming abilities. When the starting buzzer went off, there was a mad dash for position, with 50 or so swimmers in our group trying to get out ahead. The water was murky and shallow, and I kicked other swimmers and was kicked several times during the first 5 minutes.

Once everyone spread out a bit, I got into a groove.

Every long distance swimmer sings to themselves in order to stave off boredom. For most of the swim, I was singing the songs we listened to on the way to the lake that morning. I think it was this album (opens in a new window for your listening pleasure while you read the rest of the article).

But, I was also making up stories about how I would become lifelong friends with the 3 or 4 people I was swimming close to for most of the race. We’d help each other out, encourage each other to stick to our swimming, sign up for other races together, and have awesome barbecues. We were just about equal in swimming abilities and we had all been looking for other people to swim with. Maybe we’d even start a band. Note: None of those things actually happened.

The channel between the lakes was the most unpleasant part of the race. It was narrow and shallow. If I wasn’t right in the center of the channel, my hands would drag through the muck at the bottom. Everyone was trying to stay in the middle of the channel, and so collisions with other swimmers were much more likely.

There were a couple bridges that passed over the channel, and spectators stood on these and cheered us on.

After the channel came the much larger lake, Half Moon Lake. There was a dramatic temperature change (from cool to much warmer) upon exiting the channel and entering Half Moon Lake. At first, I thought the person in front of me had peed.

By the time I got to the last 2 kilometers of the race, I could feel chafing under my right arm, so I tried to favor my left arm and change my stroke in order to not make the chafing worse. Other than that, I was feeling good, but I was eager to be done. When I reached the last buoy and knew that there was only 1 kilometer to go, I pushed myself to go faster.

The lake got very shallow about 50 yards before the beach. When my hands started dragging on the bottom, I stood up and started running. I crossed the finish line totally exhausted, and then tripped and fell on my face in the sand. The announcer made a joke about me stumbling but he misread the numbers on my arm and said someone else’s name: “Joe from Kalamazoo is looking dazed and confused!”

chrisandbethchampsI finished the race in 1 hour, 34 minutes (107th overall, out of 217 swimmers) and took 5th for men in my age group (out of 10). My sister finished 2nd in her age group (32nd overall) with a time of 1 hour, 18 minutes.

A few days later, as we were driving to Chicago, Beth and I discovered Jim “The Shark” Dreyer, who has done many incredible long distance swims and holds records for such insane things as being the only person to swim across every one of the Great Lakes. His latest feats include swimming long distances while pulling heavy things (like cars).

Inspired by Jim “The Shark”, Beth and I are now starting to make plans for our next big swim.