END-WET is 36-mile down river race part of the Extreme North Dakota (END) Racing series. This one is the Watersports Endurance Test (WET). It takes place in the Red River of the North, which borders North Dakota and Minnesota.
I originally learned about it from one of my friends and training partners, Abby, and we signed up to do it 2020. As you know, 2020 had other plans. So when March 2021 rolled around, we got an email asking if we were still interested. I didn’t commit until mid-April, which should give you an idea of how (ill-)prepared I felt for this race. I also don’t actually like racing! At any swim meet, I would look at my teammates who were so excited to race and wished I could channel their attitude. Instead, when it comes to races, I’m a ball of nerves. Not racing is one of the things I really like about open water swimming: it’s only me against me. So in the end, I decided to do it to see Abby and as a training swim. I thought if I couldn’t tough it out for 12+ hours now, how could I face a 60+ hour swim later? I told myself, It’s a down river swim. You love swimming with current. You can do this.
Fast forward to June and Abby and I are watching the stats on the current and it’s not looking good. In fact, it’s looking like one of the slowest currents they’ve had. The current matters to me because it feels like riding your bike on an ever-so-slight downhill road. You’re still working hard, and it may not actually feel any easier, but you’re going way faster than on a flat road and certainly faster than on an incline. Since I was feeling undertrained, I was really hoping I would get a little help from the river to make this as short a day as possible. After expressing this to Abby, always practical she said, “After 12 hours does it really matter? We’re just swimming all day.” 😂 She was right. I can’t do anything about the current. Let’s just do this thing.
After a fortunately uneventful trip, I landed in Grand Forks, North Dakota the day before the race. Abby even picked me up from the airport! Once we got to the hotel, I focused on prepping my feeds.
We had an early wakeup (3:30am) the next morning so wanted to get as much done ahead of time as possible.
Then we scoped out the finish. It was my first glimpse at the mighty Red River. To my happy surprise, I saw the river moving. The wind was blowing and I could see it flowing. But when I remarked on it, Abby wisely noted, “The current is going the other way.” So the current was opposite of the wind, which was a little trippy. It also made me feel worse about how fast the current was this year. But, I was already here! Nothing else to do but swim it!
Afterwards we headed over to the pre-race check-in. This was a great opportunity to meet the other swimmers and our paddlers, and hear from the guest speaker. This year’s speaker was legendary open water swimmer, Sarah Thomas. She gave a great talk on being vulnerable and how open water swimming is inherently vulnerable. We’re at the mercy of the water and completely dependent on our support crew. Marathon swimming is certainly a huge team effort! After snagging a pic with her, we headed back to the hotel for a quick night’s sleep.
The day of the race, my canoer, Brian, Abby, and Abby's kayaker, met at the finish at about 4am and then carpooled to the start.
The drive to the start was actually quite stunning as we weaved across the North Dakota and Minnesota state lines. You can see forever and the sky looks enormous. It’s hard to believe coming from the Midwest (Chicago), but North Dakota may be even flatter than Illinois! I also learned that the soil is quite fertile and we were looking at miles of sugar beet crops. It turns out this area is the largest beet sugar producer in the US and where much of American Crystal Sugar is sourced! I was also quite thankful that my canoer did the driving. The last turn put us on a dirt road and I was thinking no way would I have thought I was still going the right way if I had been driving.
We arrived at the start a little before 5am and started the getting ready process. The air temperature was around 55F so my getting ready process included staying clothed and warm as long as possible. Around 5:15am, and with the race starting at 5:30am, I decided I couldn’t delay any longer and started lathering on the Desitin, Vaseline, and sunscreen.
Then, all of a sudden, it was time to walk down to the start and do roll call. I was definitely chilly during roll call, but thought about how much warmer it was than some of the ice mile training days when we would walk to the water in 30F (or less) air temperature! I also got my first glimpse at the water and it looked like it was moving! Not only that, it was visibly moving in the correct direction! I was relieved that I could actually see the current. After a 10 second countdown, it was time to start!
The start was exceptional. The ground was very muddy, slippery, and changed heights suddenly. I felt like we all looked more like penguins walking than racers 😂 The awkward entry also elicited some great guffaws from the swimmers, which I appreciated and put a smile on face as I dove under. As soon as my head hit the water, my heart promptly skipped a beat. The river is clean, but I had been warned that you can’t see anything due to all of the sediment. Despite knowing that, actually not seeing my shoulders managed to still surprise me.
After the initial shock, I immediately felt the current and was thrilled. I love feeling the water move me. I also saw what I thought was everyone whiz by me. I reminded myself: Chill! You are slow to warm up. Stretch it out. Work with the current. You have a long way to go. Soon after, my canoer caught up with me, which put me at ease. Seeing him made it feel just like a a long swim instead of a race.
I didn’t feed the first hour so I could find my rhythm and then started feeding on mostly 30-minute intervals thereafter. I also asked my canoer to tell me every 5 miles. When I hit mile 5, I was pleasantly surprised at my pace and thought, OK we can do this!
During miles 5-10 I felt pretty good. This is also when I saw the first sign of other racers. There were two kayaks ahead of me and I thought I could match their pace. After a few miles, I noticed I was gaining on them and I tried to keep it up.
Miles 10-15 also felt pretty good. I had passed one of the two kayaks I saw, but it seemed like the other racer had picked up the pace. I tried communicating telepathically, I only want to match your pace and not pass you to no avail 😆 But the presence of this swimmer pushing me also made this feel more like a normal training swim rather than a race. The guys I train with are always in front of me and usually my goal is to not let the gap get too wide. So I told myself, That's just the Gillson crew up there. Don't lose them!
Then we came up on mile 15, which has the first real landmark. There is a bridge (Thompson Bridge) and people were cheering for us, which was great! I threw them a thumbs up mid-stroke and kept going. I also glanced ahead and saw that swimmer was still ahead of me and tried to keep them in my sight.
Soon after is when things started going a bit downhill for me, but not in a good way like downhill biking. Miles 15-20 took approximately forever. It took so long I thought I lost track of the distance and wishfully thought, Maybe I got it wrong. And I’m actually coming up on mile 25! I wasn’t. As much as I felt like I was flying the first 5 miles, I felt like I wasn’t even moving during these 5 miles. When I finally hit mile 20, I told my paddler, “Wow, I’ve slowed down a lot.” He responded, “The current has slowed down a lot. But you’re matching pace with Sarah. Keep it up.” To which I exclaimed, “That’s Sarah??” That was exciting to hear because it was Sarah! Guest speaker Sarah! I had no idea. I only knew tons of swimmers flew past me at the start and then I didn’t see anyone until those two swimmers, of whom I had only passed one. So until this point, I had assumed I was middle of the pack at best.
Unfortunately, the mental boost didn’t make the current faster. Miles 20-25 were again a drag and this time with a headwind. Every time I saw my paddler switch from sitting to kneeling, I thought, Oh boy. Kneeling meant a headwind and I needed to kick it up a notch.
When we made it to mile 25, I finally felt like I was coming on the other side of this race. 11 more miles. I can do 11 more miles. That’s only two rounds of 5 miles and then 1 more mile. You’ve already done FIVE rounds of five miles! At the same time, I was doing the math of how long I had left to swim. It seemed I had slowed to 2mph maybe. So best case, I had 5.5 hours left. That was more of bummer to calculate. My left shoulder had been really bugging me since about hour 5. It was also fairly hot so I was mentally preparing myself for another 5+ hours with my shoulder in this large chocolate almond milk bathtub.
Miles 25-30 were more of the same: very little current, sore shoulder, headwind, hot. But I kept doing what I always do: count. This swim, it was about 830 strokes per 30 minutes. So I would count to 830, feed, repeat, and focus on making it to mile 30.
The last 6 miles felt the quickest. At this point, I asked my paddler if he could tell me every mile. There are also more bridges, some houses, and more turns for a little extra interest! Then it was the last 2 miles… and finally, what I had been waiting 35 miles to hear: last mile!
Like a little gift, there was a short patch of cooler water and I briefly considered just stopping here 😂. Finally, I passed the last bridge and could see the finish!
I was thankful my paddler had sent me a picture of it, and Abby had pointed out a
landmark the night before. There was a tower just past the bridge that meant about 250 yards to go, or about 150 strokes. As soon as I hit that, I counted: 1 GO 2 GO 3 … GO!
Finally, after 13 hours 10 minutes, I finished!
I swam up and popped up onto the little dock where I was stunned to see Sarah. I had lost her at the end and thought I had completely fallen off the band wagon so I was truly surprised to see her at the finish. Seeing her was surreal in the best way. She kindly offered me some baby wipes to get the Desitin off and it was great to be able to chat with her. I’ve tracked her swims, read every blog post of hers, and then to meet her and just “hang out” after this race was awesome.
After the race, I hung out, drank some water and Sprite and cheered Abby in! She is such an inspiration to me because she loves swimming more than anyone I know. When she hopped out, she said: "That was so fun!" And I immediately thought, I need to be more like you 😊
I am so grateful for my canoer, Brian. He did a great job caring for me, encouraging me, and guiding for me. I am also grateful to my friend Abby for getting me to do this race and being such a positive swimmer. I am also very thankful for my training partners, family, friends, and all of you cheering me on at home. I can’t tell you how much hearing your support means to me.
Looking ahead, I’m happy to have this swim under my belt. It did teach me I still need to work on my feeding plan since I got a bit sick afterwards. It also gave me some confidence and has been a good start to some long training weeks ahead.
Probably more for the swimmers reading this: my feeds this swim were GU gels, Stinger, Gatorade, water, and Luna Bars. I also had Chewy granola bars and dark chocolate discs in reserve that I didn’t end up asking for. I did have a hankering for a banana, so I’ll pack one of those for a future training swim and see how it goes.
This particular feeding method was kind of an experiment. I had tested these items on some 3-4 hour training swims, but nothing this long. My normal go-to is Carbopro, but during my 24-hour swim last summer, Carbopro didn’t go well for me and it hasn’t gone well for me on other training swims so I chose not to bring it. The GU gels actually worked great for me this time. I really like the GU liquid, which is just a more liquidy version of the gel. It seemed to work with my stomach to take the gel and then then sip some water. I didn’t end up drinking much Gatorade. I did like munching on some of the Luna Bar over two feeds. It provided a a nice change of pace to munch on something. I'll let you know if I find anything new!