SCAR Heats Up for a 60 km Race in the Arizona Desert

SCAR Heats Up for a 60 km Race in the Arizona Desert

Race director Kent Nicholas is the visionary behind the 2022 World Open Water Swimming Event of the Year, SCAR Swim Challenge.

The 60 km SCAR Swim is a famed 4-day, 4-stage race held in four lakes (Saguaro* in Day 1 + Canyon on Day 2 + Apache on Day 3 + Roosevelt on Day 4) amid the cacti-dotted desert of Arizona in the western United States.

Nicholas separates the entire field into three waves, with the fastest swimmers seeded in the last heat with the hopes that everyone finishes roughly at the same time.

The waves for the 2023 event that starts next Wednesday include the following swimmers. Note: unless listed otherwise, the swimmers will tackle crossings of the 13.1 km Saguaro Lake, the 14.1 km Canyon Lake, the 22.8 km Apache Lake, and a 10 km triangle course on Roosevelt Lake.

Wave #1

Wave #2

Wave #3

Michael Rice has the DNA and background as a collegiate swimmer at Florida State University to win his second SCAR Buckle. His mother is accomplished marathon swimmer Gail Rice who kayaked for him in his 2021 victory. He was the 2021 SCAR winner as well as the fastest swimmer in the Swim Around Charleston and the Portland Bridge Swim. He has also ripped off fast times across the Catalina Channel, Lake Tahoe, and around Swim Around Key West. However, this year, he has another advantage – the assistance from highly experienced escort crew Ryan Willis who has escorted his wife Sarah Thomas on several of the most incredible marathon swims in history.

But he will be pushed very hard by University of California Berkeley All-American and Olympic Trials swimmer Catherine Breed who has completed numerous tough swims and pioneered a few marathon swims in the recent past. She won two legs of the 2019 SCAR Swim: Apache Lake and Roosevelt Lake as well as winning the 20 Bridges Swim. She not only set records across Monterey Bay and Lake Tahoe and around Angel Island, but she has also crossed the English Channel and North Channel and pioneered a Half Moon Bay.

A slew of other experienced channel swimmers in Wave #3 include

  • Abigail Bergman who completed a Catalina Channel crossing only 2 minutes slower than Rice did in 2022 as well as crossings of the English Channel, Catalina Channel, Lake Tahoe, Santa Monica Bay, Around Coronado Swim, Santa Barbara Channel, Maui Channel, 20 Bridges Swim, 8 Bridges Hudson River, Swim the Suck, and END-WET
  • Ice Miler and all-around specialist Charlotte Brynn who has completed In Search of Memphre, an Ice Mile, Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, Catalina Channel crossing, Border Buster, Lake George, Swim Around Charleston, pioneered the first 2-way crossing of Lake Champlain,
  • James Janis who crossed the Catalina Channel, Lake Tahoe (2 times), the English Channel, and did the 20 Bridges Swim
  • Lura Wilhelm, the 2022 SCAR Buckle winner and Bear Lake Monster Swim winner
  • William Shipp, a Triple Crowner, will be escorted by the incomparable Sarah Thomas

The overall pace of the races across the four lakes should be blistering.

With the recent heavy rains and snowfall in the Western United States, the water volume in the lakes has significantly risen. While the overall length of the crossings will likely be greater, Rice and Breed could push each other so the threat of a new record is highly possible. The existing record, long held by Grace van der Byl, of 13 hours 7 minutes could fall to a new standard. Van der Byl swam across Saguaro Lake in 2 hours 50 minutes, across Canyon Lake in 2 hours 41 minutes, across Apache Lake in 5 hours 10 minutes, and across Roosevelt Lake in a blistering 2 hours 25 minutes back in 2013.

In 2021, Rice can very close to breaking the record when he finished in only 7 minutes slower than Van der Byl’s record. But two years ago, Rice swam alone in the front, without being pushed like he is likely to be this year. Breed has youth and a beautiful swimming technique on her side. She combines this advantages with her previous SCAR experiences that will make the race exciting to watch. She crossed Apache Lake in 5 hours 5 minutes, faster than Van der Byl and only slightly slower than Rice’s swim in 2021. The race could come down to Day 4 on Roosevelt where Breed has split a 2 hour 34 minute crossing compared to Rice’s 2 hour 33 minute swim.

While the swimmers and kayakers will be intensely occupied over the four-day period, Nicholas will literally be all over the place as he touches all aspects of the logistically difficult event. He described his plan of attack, “On Monday, two days before the race starts, I pick up the [giant] U-Haul trucks to take 50 kayaks to and from each of the lakes. We have a small group of dedicated volunteers who help me.

On Tuesday morning, we are up at 4:30 am and take the trucks and kayaks to Saguaro Resort. We load all the kayaks on 4 pontoon boats with drivers and day laborers. Around 8 am after loading the boats, we drive those kayaks to the staging area that takes some time to get to.

Meanwhile, Patty Hermann organizes the pre-swim and social while I go to a popular local Italian deli and pick up the pasta, salad, and bread. My wife, and friends Sarah and Brad make our home presentable to invite all the swimmers and their crew members to our house for a 5:30 pm welcome dinner and technical meeting as well as music by singer/songwriter Blaine Long.

I also use Webscorer, for the race registration for the swimmers and kayakers, timing, and posting of the individual lake and cumulative race results. I use Square for payment and arrange for t-shirts and hoodies this year for the swimmers and kayakers. We have 3 different t-shirts for the volunteers. People like Phil White, Elaine Howley, Karah Nazor, and Dan Simonelli come from all over to Arizona to help out. And we try to establish good relationships with those responsible for the boat docks at each of the lakes.

There has been a turnover in the ownership of these marinas over the years. Our permits are granted through the National Forest Services and we need insurance.

We organize our swag bag including a mesh bag and baggage tags that need to be pre-ordered.

Before Saguaro, we ask a volunteer to sleep with the kayaks for security. Then after the race, I order post-race burritos from the best place in Phoenix. After Saguaro is over, we collate the results, post on our Facebook page (see here). Then, I adjust the waves for the Day Two on Canyon based on the results of Saguaro on Day One.

During the race, we “drive the line”, cruising up and down the lake, checking up on all the swimmers and talking with the kayakers, asking how each swimmer is doing. We do a count and a safety check on the swimmers and kayakers. We ask, “Are they cold? Getting hypothermic? Swimming well?”

Once the race starts, we rotate and keep the boat to swimmer ratio to about 1:10.

By 2:30 pm on Day One, we hope all the swimmers are into the finish. We need time limits for each of the swims because we have to have all the swimmers off the lake before nightfall. At the finish, we off Rx Bars, homemade granola, and water. We load all the kayaks back into the U-Haul trucks with 6-8 volunteers and then drive them back to my house where they are stored for the night.

These volunteers really know what they are doing and pick up the slack if anything is missing or needs to be addressed.

Then the logistics are repeated again on Day Two on Canyon and Day Three on Apache, and then there is the night swim on Day Four on Roosevelt where we had to change the start and finish points due to the water levels this year in the lakes.

[With all that activity], I lose up to 7 pounds over the week of the race.”


For updates, photos, and results of the races on Saguaro Lake on Wednesday April 26th, Canyon Lake on Thursday April 27th, Apache Lake on Friday April 28th, and Roosevelt Lake on April 29th, visit the SCAR Facebook page (here).

For updated conditions and water and air temperatures on Saguaro Lake, Canyon Lake, Apache Lake, and Roosevelt Lake, visit here.

* Saguaro is pronounced “sun-war-oh“.

Photo of Saguaro landscape is courtesy of SCAR Sponsor, Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co.

Steven Munatones