If I had known how hard it was going to be, I’m not sure I ever would have started. But as Mark Twain said: “To succeed in life you need two things: ignorance and confidence.” I possessed them both in possibly unhealthy levels as the idea for this swim percolated in my brain. It really only became an idea at the moment the words describing it tumbled out of my mouth while talking with Doug over beers on my back porch. But before I could even inhale after saying the words, Doug had agreed to do it. We were doing it. We were going to be the first people to try to swim the 28 miles from the Mountain Island Dam to the Lake Wiley Dam on the Catawba River.
Our primary concern initially wasn’t even the training. We knew nothing about river at the outset, including how long it actually was. Not many people have ever swam that far. Fewer have organized a swim that far and now we had to do both. We had lots of basic questions like: How far is it? Is the water safe? Is there a current? Is it legal to swim? Where are the access points? Are there dangerous animals to be concerned about (they recently found an alligator in the Catawba, although they aren’t native and a bear was seen swimming in it earlier this year). What is the water temperature at various times of the year? When is sunrise and sunset? Do they release from the dams all the time or sometimes? What is the release schedule? How much boat traffic is there? And on and on. We knew pretty much nothing.
I came up with the first official map showing the distance at 27.58 miles. To answer our questions, we explored every possible avenue to find information which included reaching out to various lake organizations and Duke Power who runs the dams. We scoured websites, charts and tables with information about the river. We stopped to talk to fishmen on the water. Doug and I did two practice swims of about 7 miles each in the river in preparation, one simulating a pre-dawn race start from the first dam. I kayaked another 7-mile stretch. We had seen most of the river by race day. Despite all our efforts though, for some questions we just had to accept we weren’t going to get a complete answer. We just had to piece our answers together as best we could through the bits of information we could find and anecdotal evidence, but we felt like we knew enough and at a certain point enough was going to have to do.
We picked Sept 29th as our race date, trying to balance wanting the cooler water temperatures of late September with the shrinking hours of daylight as Fall approached. We’d have exactly 12 hours of sunlight on the date we picked. We had a brief scare as Hurricane Florence rolled through 2 weeks earlier, but by race day any remnants as it related to our swim were gone.
On race day, at 6:15AM, an hour before sunrise, Doug and I slipped into the water with 3 lighted kayaks and began our swim under the Mountain Island dam. The practice swim we had done here a month earlier simulating a race start in the dark proved invaluable as there were hardly any unknowns at that moment and I felt calm and comfortable in a familiar setting which a month earlier had been completely foreign and honestly a little freaky.
Longtime friend and first-time distance kayaker Dave was piloting my kayak for the first 13.5 miles which was dressed in Halloween lights and loaded with lots of fuel, maps and a tracking device. I aimed to take in around 400 calories an hour, roughly rotating between a sports drink, Ensure and gels. I also had a few baked potatoes which never even made it out of the cooler.
After about 3 hours, the sun was up and we passed under the I85 bridge in Belmont, just short of 7 miles in. During one of our practice swims we had taken a break under this bridge and found a bowling pin resting at the bottom. How did it get there? We’ll never know, but that is of no concern right now. The weather was good. I felt good. We were on schedule.
At mile 13.5, nearly halfway and exactly 6 hours in, Ben replaced Dave in the kayak. The lake was getting wider and boat traffic was picking up. Underwater you could hear the high pitched “rrrrrrrrrrrrrrr” of boats anywhere in your area which kept me on edge because it felt like they were right on top of me. They also generated a good deal of wake which made for some disorienting swimming. At mile 15 the first and thankfully only significant negative event happened when we took a wrong turn that added about hour of swimming. I didn’t love it, but my options were to keep swimming or quit and I didn’t want to quit, so I kept swimming.
As I approach the Buster Boyd Bridge around 4PM at 18.5 miles on the course (closer to 20 with the wrong turn) and the last kayaker handoff, I saw Melanie as well as my sister and her kids holding a “Go Mike!” sign on the boat ramp. Fans!! I felt briefly energized.
Cam hopped into the kayak and we took off. Almost immediately I felt the accumulated fatigue of 10 hours of swimming. Mentally this had been the spot I wanted to get to. It’s 2/3rds of the way. You can’t turn back when you’ve come this far. I was probably too focused on getting to this spot though and part of my brain checked out as if I was done when I got there. I was getting tired and still had 5 hours of swimming left. How do you get your head around that after already swimming 10?
I recalled a quote I had heard a few months ago. I actually misremembered it though as “Courage is holding off defeat one minute longer.” by George Patton. I knew I had a long way to go. I knew I would finish in the dark, and it all seemed like too much at some points. But why am I worried about something 5 hours from now? Or 2 hours from now? Or 1 hour from now? I’m here in this moment and this moment is the only thing I can control right now and I just need to get to the next fueling break. If I can’t do that, I can at least have the courage to make it just 25 more strokes. I don’t need the courage to fight off defeat for 5 more hours, I just need the courage to fight off defeat for 25 more strokes and then try it again, then try it again, then try it again. As we got deeper into the race it was really hard to swim continuously between fueling breaks. I’d zone out and swim as long as I could and eventually just tell myself to swim 25 more strokes before stopping. And as I got close to 25 I’d tell myself to just try 25 more and I’d keep doing that until it was time for the scheduled break. Can you hold off defeat one minute longer? Can you hold it off for 25 more strokes?
The sun started to set at the 13 hour mark and we turned the kayak lights on. As we got to full darkness around 8PM the boat traffic was down to nothing and it was just Cam and I in the middle of the pitch-black night. Cam earned his paycheck here with near perfect navigation in the dark. If there were any moments of doubt it was right after the transition to darkness. I swim a lot, but not like this. Was this safe? Was it sensible? I wasn’t sure and doubt crept in, but I never considered any outcome other than finishing though, so the doubt meant nothing because I knew I was going to finish.
After a while much of the nervousness I had as we transitioned into the darkness had faded away. We passed by the Lake Wiley dam which was the official second “dam” in the “Dam to Dam” at about the 14 hour mark, but there were still a couple miles left to reach the final boat launch and exit point. I had envisioned doing this in day light and snapping a picture, but at 8:30PM while cold, tired and hungry I just gave it a glance and pushed on. One of our final stops was beside a completely random dock. We could see the house up on the hill with the lights on inside and wondered if they had any idea that this swimmer guy was floating right beside their boat, shivering and drinking an Ensure after having been swimming for 14 hours.
I could tell where the finish was because Melanie had parked the car with the headlights shining at us like a beacon. After swimming in the dark with no real landmarks, this was a mental oasis. Finally now, after months and months of training and planning I could finally see the end. I knew the finish would be nothing but Melanie holding a towel for me, but it was going to be one of the best finishes ever. At about 9:15PM after 15+ hours of swimming, I finally reached the finish line after almost 30 miles of swimming.
We shared a beer as we loaded the gear back into the car. Cam drove Melanie back to the race start to pick up the car I left there in the morning and I had to drive myself home with the kayak hanging out of the back window. Doug had finished ahead of me and we swapped congratulatory texts but we couldn’t find the strength for much more conversation than that. My skin was weird from being in water so long. I had inhaled so much water and debris that there was sorts of weirdness in my sinuses. My equilibrium was off from floating for so long. I was wrecked. I’ve done a whole bunch of endurance racing and that night of “sleep” ranks right up there with the most miserable. That was a tough little swim.
There were no medals or finisher’s T-shirts at the end but that was never the point. This started off with us wondering for whatever reason if it was possible to swim from one dam to the other. And on that day for Doug and I, it was and that’s good enough for us.
*Thanks for the Dave, Ben and Cam for the kayaking and Melanie for running land support all day long getting people where they needed to be.
**Oh, the correct quote is “Courage is fear holding on a minute longer” not “Courage is holding off defeat a minute longer” like I thought. I actually like mine better.
**We still have some slots open for next years Dam to Dam so get your applications in soon! 😊
**Below are a few more pictures with captions that offer a little more “behind the scenes” commentary.
************* Some additional pictures ****************