In search of Memphre 2016 and my first DNF

LeadhyenaLeadhyena Member
edited September 2016 in Swim Reports

Figured I'd share a swim report, since I haven't been on the forums in a while and I felt that some people could learn from my experience. I swam in In Search of Memphre this weekend but didn't make it the full distance to Magog. Here's a rundown of the weekend, and where I broke down, and some things I learned over the weekend that hopefully would help other people, including myself... I plan to go back and complete next year.

I should empathize that none of this is to be read as an excuse. All of the mistakes leading to this DNF were solely my own, and while that is a bitter pill to swallow, I was fortunate that it happened in friendlier waters with decent support and with enough training to know that things were going very wrong, knowing when to pull myself out instead of getting myself into a dangerous situation.

For those who don't know the Kingdom, Lake Memphremagog is a very large lake stretching from Newport, VT on the south to Magog, Quebec, Canada on the north. A number of swims occur on that lake including a series during the Kingdom Games, which has a variety of distances ranging from 1 mile to 25km. ISOM is the longest of the lot, stretching from Newport to Magog, a distance of 25+ miles. This swim is to support more open borders between the two towns to improve the economy of both cities.

Two people were on the swim this year, and hats off to Mark Smitherman who accomplished this hard swim in 13 hours. We spoke a few time prior to the swim, as well as on the dock starting off, and he was a very collected and determined individual, not to mention a very good swimmer, hats off to him! I'd love to read his race report to see what happened on his trip, not to mention at the end of the swim.

The swim started at the Newport docks shortly after midnight on Friday into Saturday, accompanied this year by a 13' boat with support crew with gas motor and a very experienced kayaker. My crew consisted of my wife Katharine Owen and a fellow swimmer whom I helped train for the 25km swim two months prior, Daniela Klaz. My kayaker was Gary Golden, who handled his kayak very well.

Direction of the swim was north, and a gentle wind from the south pushed us at the beginning. Start was at 12:20am. My feed schedule this year had changed; in previous years I have fed every 30 minutes, and this strategy got me through both Catalina and MIMS, with the caveat that I had more "stuff" in my system, and thus it took longer to eliminate. My observers in the past had commented that this was something I needed to work on, so I came up with this compromise. So this year I had trained and planned to change my schedule from 30 minutes to 45 minutes, thinking this would take the pressure off my voids, encourage fewer breaks in general and increase my speed.

However, that training was not sufficient. Figuring I had already done sufficiently long distances and thus could handle longer distances, I focused on more intense shorter swims, which were also easier to fit into my work schedule. However, that combined with the feed change would set off one of a series of dominoes that would call the end of my swim far sooner than I had expected. That doesn't mean that I necessarily approve of training up to race simulation distance (I'm still of the opinion that shorter focused practices do more for you than junk yardage), but doing swims with a new feed schedule is definitely crucial to making that feed schedule stick and confirming that it is the right move.

The first three feeds (up to 2h15m elapsed time) go really well, and I'm in good spirits as I am told on the third feed that I've already crossed into Canadian waters. I had recalled that the water temperature drops a couple degrees when you do cross over, as the water is deeper at that part of the lake. I have a couple of small worries though:
1. The boat fumes were starting to overcome me, as I haven't swam around boat fumes in a while, so my support crew had to pull away, not to mention the boat fumes were getting to my crew as well. This means that I didn't get as much protection from the wind as I would like, and this would come into play later.
2. My feed system is a double ended carabiner on a rope, with hookable Blender Bottles containing the mixed feeds (for the record, this is the most fool-proof method of feeding a swimmer and I would not encourage any other feeding method). But this means that the crew has to throw the feed in front of me and then slow down so I don't have to chase the feed. But, these boats couldn't go slow enough unless they idled, and if they idled the fumes would concentrate and sometimes the engines would stall, so we didn't run the boat slow and I still had to chase my feeds.
3. For my other night swims, I have hooked a chemical glowstick onto the back of my goggles, and since this system has worked for me in the past, why mess with a good thing? This time though, my stroke had changed enough that it was easy to wedge the glowstick between my goggles and my shoulder as I breathed on my left, making it difficult for me to fall into my usual bilateral-3 pattern.
4. I had instructed my crew to use hand signals with me to signal feeds, changes in speed/pace, positioning, and other key instructions. While this had worked in previous swims where there was a lot more light from a bigger boat, in this situation the lighting was much more subtle, and the only thing I could see in my blurry goggles (defogger not working was the least of my concerns) was the light from the headlamps. So, every time Kate looked at me to count strokes per minute, I would think they were trying to signal me somehow so I'd lift my head. This also played a factor into the later hours.

At about 3 1/2 hours in, these little issues started to stack upon one another. Since I had switched from bilateral-3 to 4-2-4-2-4-2 on my right side, I was now only looking at my kayaker on the right and not the support boat on my left, making it a bit more complicated for my boat to signal me. But, I knew they were close because I could smell them. The support boat was on my left and the wind had shifted unpredictably from the south to the west and kicked up to 8 knots, meaning the fumes were blowing into me nonstop. The wind also dropped the perceived temperature of the air, which was a complete surprise to me, and one of the things I learned the most from this swim: air temperature is just as important as water temperature. The water temp was in the 70s, practically bath water. The air temp was in the low 60s, but because of the wind felt 10 degrees colder. The support boat was further out doing the right thing, but I ended up getting the fumes anyway and the wind still hit me.

That's when my traps started to seize up. The trapezius muscles extend from the neck to the shoulder and back down to the spine in a diamond pattern in your back. I was depending on them because I was shrugging my shoulders trying to keep the glowstick from not wedging on my shoulder, shortening my stroke and in the process making the situation worse. My crew gave me new goggles at the 3:45 feed (always bring backups!) that worked amazingly, but the damage had already been done. I had picked up my pace to keep ahead of the cold I was perceiving in my arms.

At this point, I started to weave between the support boat and the kayak. Unbeknownst to me at the time, this had more to do with both the support boat and kayak being pushed by the winds, making it hard for them to keep a straight line (the fact that either of them could keep a straight line at all is a testament to the mettle and capacity of all involved). However, I was under the impression that I was losing it.

4:30 couldn't come soon enough, and I gulped down my hot feed (one every three feeds). Another mistake: not only had I changed my feed from 30 to 45 minutes, I had also changed the frequency of hot feeds to cold from every other feed to every third feed. Instead of getting a warm feed every hour, it was every 2 1/4 hours. Having figured that the water temperature was 70 I didn't expect to get cold. But, sure enough, I did.

5:00 hits, the sun is starting to peak, and I'm literally counting the seconds to the next feed. At 5:15's feed I own up to it with my crew: I say that the goggles were working great but I was not, that at that point my traps seized so much I couldn't turn my neck and I had to rotate my entire body to get my face out of the water, that I was cold, and I was fighting really hard to stay with it. I was really weaving between the boat and the kayak at this point.

How much of this was psychological and how much of it was physical hypothermia I couldn't tell. All the little factors stacked up to a big monster. The inside joke of ISOM is that the swim is to search for the fabled lake monster Memphre. At this point I felt that the real monster was an amalgamation of all these little demons given a big inky canvas to weave stories of doom. I've observed for the Ice Mile, and have seem people go through mild to severe hypothermia. I've observed for marathon swimmers and while I'm lucky to not to have to pull anyone, I've seen people get out completely shivering after an 8+ hour swim in 75+ degree water. I've read about all the unfortunate people who have died during swims.

I glanced at the edges of the lake, mentally calculated how long it'd take for people to get me to shore if I really started getting in trouble. If I developed the mask, if I started experiencing the claw in my stroke. None of this was actually happening to me: In fact, my stroke rate was staying pretty constant, and my crew pulled in closer to give me comfort and warmth, only for me to think they were really worried for my safety and as a side effect made it seem like I was bouncing around even more between the boats.

So 15 minutes to my next feed (which would have been a warm one), just when the sun was coming out, just when all of this could have gotten to get better, I pulled myself. I still contend that it was the right move. My crew was surprised, they asked me if I was sure. I cursed to the sky and said yep. I was pissed that I psyched myself out, but it was still a good move. I honestly felt that was at least mildly hypothermic, and was shaking and purple when pulled onto the safety boat and onto shore. Now, I've swum BLS in 58-62F and other cold swims, so who knows how much of this was psychological or physical. I contend that the difference didn't matter at that point. I let all these little things pile up into a real monster and get the better of me.

I'm proud of making it 12.5 miles in 6 hours. But I did make some major mistakes that I felt that I could help others not make:

  1. Get a light that doesn't extend down the neck. Those round lights like the one Mark had on his goggles are amazing and will not interfere in any way with the swim.
  2. Train in cold AND WIND. It's a backwards feeling for the water to be warm and the air to be frigid, and it can really strip you of heat.
  3. For nighttime swims, have light signals instead of hand signals. Not dry erase boards, not yelling (most times you can't hear your crew), but light signals are the clearest and can be seen through foggy goggles.
  4. I'm still not sure how to prepare for swims with fumes. This still gets to me.
  6. Proper training lets you conquer the little demons one by one so you can stop them before they can combine to be a Voltron of evil.

That lake is no joke. It is a hard swim. Do not underestimate it. I plan to face it next year with way more open eyes than I had before.

--Nathaniel Dean



  • j9swimj9swim CharlestonSenior Member

    Good information, thanks

  • timsroottimsroot Spring, TXCharter Member

    Train in cold AND WIND. It's a backwards feeling for the water to be warm and the air to be frigid, and it can really strip you of heat.

    I've experienced this before. It's not much fun.

  • ssthomasssthomas DenverCharter Mem​ber

    Memphre is a fiesty bitch, that's for sure! When I swam in 2013 the cold was what got to me the most, too. The water was warm and I was worried about being too hot. But, I didn't account for humidity and wind to make the lake cold, and I spent the better part of 10 hours being colder than I had ever been (and I had just come off Lake Tahoe where water temps were nearly 10 degrees colder!).

    I've heard of lots of people underestimating this lake. 25 miles, no big deal. Warm water temps, no big deal. It's all so misleading. This swim is tough. The wind can really, really get to you.

    Thanks for sharing! I'm sure this info will help a lot of people. Good luck next year!

  • curlycurly Issaquah, WASenior Member

    I love reading all the successful swim accounts but this summary is really useful for me. This is the kind of information that will help me to plan for longer swims. I'm still a beginner so it's great to have trailblazers share their knowledge. @Leadhyena Thank you for this and I'm sure you will take what you've learned and have a great swim on your next attempt.

  • dpm50dpm50 PA, U.S.Senior Member

    ssthomas said:
    25 miles, no big deal.

    Thanks for sharing! I'm sure this info will help a lot of people. Good luck next year!

    I have to laugh....25 miles is a pretty big deal to me, but I'm a newbie! 12.5 miles is still a big deal!

    That said, when your sights are set for 25 miles, half of that willl disappoint. Erring on the side of caution has saved lives. DNF=did nothing fatal. May your next swim be much happier!

  • Sarah4140Sarah4140 DenverMember
    edited September 2016

    timsroot said:

    Train in cold AND WIND. It's a backwards feeling for the water to be warm and the air to be frigid, and it can really strip you of heat.

    I've experienced this before. It's not much fun.

  • Sarah4140Sarah4140 DenverMember

    I agree that this is good info and as I am setting my sights on slightly longer than 10k swims for 2017 really useful.

  • swimmer25kswimmer25k Charter Member

    IMHO, feeding every 45 minutes is too long of a gap between feeds. When I was racing my feeds were 12 minutes apart. At one point you mention that you were counting the minutes until your next feed. There's absolutely nothing wrong with rolling over in your back and asking for a feed at that time. Your crew can "reset" their watches at that time to prep for your next feed.

    If you find yourself needing something that didn't jive with your schedule, it's too late. I'd recommend shortening the time between your feeds at the start of your swim. As the swim goes on and things are going well, you can spread them out a little bit.

    I've used the kayak and powerboat combo for many of my swims. I prefer hand to hand feeds from the kayak. The powerboat carries the supplies and the kayaker will replenish when necessary. (Side-note: I feed out of cups unless the weather is bad and will switch to squeeze bottles.)

    For night swims my kayaker would have a glow stick inside of the kayak's hull. When it was time to feed, he'd pull it out and wave it around. It's a different color than the headlamp, so I would know that it was feed time. (The kayaker would slip the glow stick under one of the kayak's bungees. The signal that I had to stop swimming for any reason was him waving it around. Luckily, that never happened.)

    Below is the link to a video of my 2001 English Channel swim. It shows the technique I use on feeding from a large boat and a kayak (towards the end of the video). You'll notice that I spend very little time on my feeds. Lots of time can be lost on feeds, and since I feed every 12 minutes each one had to be fast.

    Good luck next time out.


  • this is my first post on marathon swimmers forum. not even sure if I'm doing this correctly? Anyway, my name is Mark Smitherman. Nickname is Magoo. I swam in search of Memphre with Nathaniel Dean. Nate, your comments are spot on. I would have to say that we each struggled with the same demons. I won't reiterate what you have already said, but I think one of the biggest issues both of us faced was the fumes from the small motorboat. Initially on, this was overwhelming, and I don't think I could have continued if my crew had not moved the kayaker, Don, in beside me allowing them to get the motor boat out of the way. I would say that about half of the time during the swim, I fed from the kayak, and the other half the time I was able to feed from the motorboat, when the winds were favorable. I was thankful that the race director, Phil White, had anticipated all of this and had a lot of redundancy built into this swim. my only other big problem was during the last 5 miles when the boat traffic around Magog became quite heavy, causing considerable chop on the water. anyway, I hope this helps for anyone planning to do this swim in the future. In my experience, any swim that is going to be 10+ hours is always going to present some minor problems, even if it is just the demons and your own mind. I think the key is to just realize you can swim through those demons, and most of the little problems can be worked out by your crew. Nate, good luck on this next year. I have no doubt you will finish this. You are obviously a very experienced marathon swimmer and an excellent swimmer. Magoo

  • ChickenOSeaChickenOSea Charter Member

    Hi Magoo (Magog?)

    I did this swim last year. Fumes made me horribly sick and eventually we had to make my boat go way ahead of me. I had no kayaker, so had to sight off the distant motor boat all night, which caused major shoulder pain. Not ideal. Phil is working on this issue for next year. Also, boat traffic was a big issue for me, too. Fil is thinking of doing the swim on a Monday next year..

    I loved watching you swim. I love Memphremagog.

  • curlycurly Issaquah, WASenior Member

    And here's a funny little aside. You know how people get tunes going inside their heads during a swim. Well I sometimes get words stuck in my mind. And yesterday's word was Memphremagog. What a great word. And I could make up some quote like, once I said Memphremagog 1000 times I knew I had swum a couple miles. But to be more accurate I figure once I said Memphremagog 1000 time I knew I had gone crazy...


  • msmithermanmsmitherman Member
    edited September 2016

    thanks, amanda. it was a very well run event. that said, doing it on a week day would be great, as i can't imagine there being anywhere near as much boat traffic in magog on a week day

  • SwimUpStreamSwimUpStream Portland Oregon Member

    I'm pursuing the Search in 2017! Thanks for the info.

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