SCAR Swim: Day 3 on Apache Lake

SCAR Swim: Day 3 on Apache Lake

With the crossing of Saguaro Lake on the books on Day One of the SCAR Swim and after all the swimmers got beat up in crossing Canyon Lake on Day Two, the caravan of 61 swimmers and their kayakers and support crew headed – off the grid – towards Apache Lake. 

The closest road from Canyon Lake to Apache Lake was washed out and closed so swimmers had a choice to stay somewhere closer to Canyon Lake on Night Two – or drive nearly 2 hours to the start on Apache Lake that included a very rough hour drive on the single, dirt road.

The swimmers being swimmers just took the adventure all in stride,” said escort kayaker Chris Morgan from Danvers, Massachusetts.  “After a long, unexpectedly hard swim from dam to dam across Canyon Lake, I think the last thing newcomers wanted to do was drive slowly on a narrow pot-holed road into Apache Lake.  It was bumpy and slow-going.  On the other hand, the SCAR veterans knew the drill and took the journey in stride.”

The swim across Apache Lake would be the longest and toughest crossing on the (race director) Kent Nicholas Tour de Tonto National Park (where the event is located in the southwestern desert of the US).

“I had this mistaken vision of the swim across Canyon Lake as a warm-up swim for Apache. The scenery was wonderful of course, but we all spent so much energy fighting the oncoming currents, that there was less time for enjoyment and appreciation of the course amid the unique nature of the Sonoran Desert because a laser focus was needed just to make progress.  So after all that had occurred on Day One and Day Two, I was really nervous about swimming Apache,” said Steven Munatones.  “But everyone left – 45 swimmers out of the original 61 entrants – showed up in dark, early morning to hear Nicholas’ pre-race talk near the shore of Apache Lake.”

His talk was symbolic of the event itself – it was both inspirational and a forewarning.  He told of examples of swimmers who had succeeded in years past, but he also gave colorful warning and plenty of safety advice to both swimmers and escort kayakers. 

Munatones continued, “Kent told us that the water would be cool at the start.  I thought it felt something like 13°C or 56°Fahrenheit, I felt.  Sliding off the pontoon boat into the water took my breath away, for sure. But since a vast majority of the 45 remaining swimmers are channel or experienced marathon swimmers, it was apparently no big deal to them.

But it was a big deal to me so I made it a point to jump off the boat right after Honolulu-based Stefan Reinke.  Among the swimmers at SCAR, Stephen clearly has the fewest opportunities of anyone to acclimate himself to cold water.   Right before he jumps off the boat, he talks to himself saying, ‘Cold, cold, cold.’   Then he hits the water, and pops up.  He calmly affirms his anticipation one more time with another definitive statement, “Cold”, then he puts his head down and swims to the start.  It is as if he is self-creating mental imagery of the cold prior to experiencing the cold, and then in the words of the Serpentine Swim Club members in London, ‘Just get on with it’.”

Morgan recalls, “But getting to the start was not just a matter of listening to Kent’s pre-race inspiration and warning.  We had thought we would simply hope on a boat and head to the staging area where the swimmers would grease up and the kayakers would get their marine vessels ready.   We jumped in a pontoon boat at the dock and took off. 

After 15 minutes, the engine started to sputter  We knew we couldn’t get to the start with this boat – which was at least 45 minutes away.  So we turned back to the dock and switched to another pontoon boat.  We headed off again, hoping not to delay the start too much for the rest of the swimmers.  The morning was great.  The scenery was magnificent as the sun started to peek over the canyon walls.  The colors off the terrain are so beautiful. The morning was just so tranquil.  So even though we knew this was going to be a long swim, the conditions were ideal in the early morning.  

The boat had been humming along and then, suddenly, the boat just conked out.  We completely stalled out.  Nothing.  No movement.  We were stuck out in the middle of the lake without cell phone reception or even an ability to communicate to the rest of the group. 

But like Gilligan’s Island, we had a professor (swimmer Will Dichtel), a doctor, and (four-way English Channel swimmer and International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame Honor Swimmer) Sarah Thomas on our boat, and a number of other swimmers with various skills on our boat.  No one panicked.  Everyone stayed calm.  They even joked – we had enough food and drink to last a few days, if we rationed it just right.

Eventually, Sarah was able to get in touch with Stefan Reinke’s wife who was near the start.  She alerted Kent that we were stalled in the middle of the lake. While we were floating aimlessly for nearly an hour, every now and then someone would ask, ‘Did you hear that?’   But like stranded people throughout the centuries, the sound turned out to be nothing.  Eventually, a powerboat was sent to rescue us and we finally got to the start.”

The start was as expected: cool to say the least.  Munatones said to himself, “I will swim as long as I can.  I don’t need to get hospitalized, but I definitely resigned myself to be miserable in the water for the time being.”

In contrast, Californian Steve Sutton later commented, “Oh the start was great.  I loved the water temperature at the beginning.”

Three heats of 45 swimmers set off and the conditions were cold, but very importantly, glassy at first.  Then about an hour into the swim, the water started warm up.  The lake was warmer, but tiny rhythmic feathering started to appear, a precursor to what would occur later. 

The water temperature was gradually becoming more tolerable, but I thought it was best to completely change my original strategy.  It went from pure survival mode with the anticipation that I would be a DNF to a ‘let’s-see-how-far-I-can-swim challenge’.   That change in mindset was critical.  So with just the lightest of feathering, I picked up my pace and wanted to get through as much of the race as possible before the winds would eventually pick up.”

And pick up the winds most certainly did. 

But the conditions did not deteriorate like the SCAR race of 2017 when none of the kayakers could make any headway and Nicholas had to improvise and pull all the kayakers off the water and substitute them with motorized escort boats for the remaining four swimmers.  However, Mother Nature threw a wrench in the plans of 25 of the original 45 starters.  They got out of the water and started planning for Day Four across Roosevelt Lake.

But the early decision to change strategy paid off for Munatones because the winds eventually became strong and relentless.  Morgan recalled, “I always planned to escort Steven along the straightest short-line tangents in the lake, but it just got too tough to constantly battle against the oncoming wind.  So I steered him towards the rocky cliffs along the shore where it was much easier to paddle.”

“I didn’t mind,” said Munatones.  “Swimming along sheer cliff walls and rocky terrain speckled by the Saguaro cactus plants was magnificent.  If there is anything to take your mind off of the fatigue of swimming against the surface chop, the shoreline route that Chris took me on.  It was perfect.  My imagination kicked in about that point  I started to fantasize that each of the majestic cacti were humans cheering us on.  The mind can play positive games, especially as the contours of the mountains and cliffs produce ever-changing shades and images that keep my mind busy.

Mark Johnston who was paddling for Mark Spratt said, “The winds just kept coming and coming. It is really tough for kayakers to make headway under those conditions. But Kent’s safety net – he calls it ‘running the lines’ with his flotilla of safety boats, kept on pulling out swimmers from the water.  Some swimmers and kayakers were pulled out in the middle of the lake – others had swum to shore. They were waving their arms to get picked up and taken back to the headquarters hotel, Apache Lake Resort.  Some of the kayakers stayed on the safety boat crew and helped out – typical of the character of everyone who does SCAR: pull your weight and then do more for others.”

Meanwhile, swimmers like Lura Wilhelm just kept on steadily forging ahead.  Wilhelm, a 40-year-old art teacher in Redding, California, was the unexpected overall female leader of the series after being the fastest woman on Day One and Day Two – and she was second to Munatones on Day Three. 

Munatones commented, “When I see Lura swim, I see the patience and elegance of an art teacher in her stroke: every stroke is purposeful and effective.  There is no wasted motion and she appears to enjoy the activity.”

Morgan said, “The remaining swimmers kept on moving and weaving their way along the lake, point to point to point.  At one point, Steven completely bonked.  He went from a strong, steady pace with a strong kick to…something much less. 

I gave him some Starburst candy that Kent had put in our goodie bag and he munched four down.  That seemed to perk him up.  But I later learned from the locals that the area near the end of Apache Lake – which is where Steven was swimming at the time – is considered one of the leading areas in the country where there is a natural energy – like Sedona – a magical place that they swear by.  So I thought it was the Starbursts that helped Steven recover from bonking, but it was this magical energy that the locals have long appreciated and believed it. 

Lura looked really strong at the end too.  She was leading a pack of four swimmers and they all looked strong towards the end.  So I started to believe the locals too – the energy that the swimmers demonstrated near the end was indeed a magical place.”

Munatones finished crossing Apache Lake in about 6 hours 30 minutes with Wilhelm second overall. 
Final results will be posted after getting back on the grid. Morgan said, “I think Munatones and Wilhelm have been the fastest swimmers in their respective divisions on Day One, Day Two, and Day Three, but we will wait for the official results to be posted online.”

Tonight is the final race on Roosevelt Lake.

For more information on the event between April 26th – 29th, visit www.scarswim.com.

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Steven Munatones