Monday, 11 May 2015

Arizona SCAR Swim 2015 - 41 miles - 2015

'Make no mistake - this is no vehicle or destination to another swim, this is a huge event in its own right.' (Helen Conway, Jude's Diner at Globe > the day after completing SCAR 2015 from Sydney, Australia)

Wow. I feel so eternally grateful to have got into this sport, for the people I have met on the journey plus the complete bonus of the places I have been unswervingly drawn to. Without open water marathon swimming and seeing a good coach for an effortless stroke coupled with knowing (who I consider to be) the best British Long Distance Kayaker , Pete Fellows, I would never have been in Arizona. This blog feels slightly redundant I am afraid as sadly the photos plus my rhetoric REALLY CANNOT do the whole experience justice. I will endeavour to try and enlighten though.

One year in the planning > 4 days in the execution!!
This event was in the planning for well over 12 months and already had 1 week with family in the Tonto National Park area to understand what I was letting myself in for in April 2014 whilst training for my successful  English Channel July 2014 attempt. The application process opened around the 1st November 2014 and closed in a short 36 hours (thank god I bothered to wrestle with the wifi in the Holiday Inn in Le Touquet when I was showing the girls where I landed my channel swim). You do not register, you apply....there is a difference!

SCAR....what is it? 4 letters that conveniently represent the first letter of each lake swum in order. Saguaro, Canyon, Apache and Roosevelt. Billed at 9.5 miles, 9 miles, 17 miles then 6 miles.  Swimming from buoy line dam to dam on the Salt River system which represents 41 miles of open water swimming in what could easily be considered as some of the greatest views and fresh water on earth. Simples then? Cue the Meerkat? Err No. Only 27 people out of 47 (57%) evidently completed the entire event from beginning of S to end of R. 

Everything kicked off on Tues 5th May in the evening for a dinner at the tranquil sun-drenched terraces of Mesa Country Club overlooking the golf course. How civilised and lush....The calm before the storm perhaps...There was a banquet of scrumptious Mexican buffet-style meal which certainly facilitated introductions, much chatting about mutual friends (Kelly who had been working in Croatia with my mate Sian Williams) and catching up with swimmers met before (Helen from Oz who I met at 1WW in 2014 and Matthew Hills from the UK only 30mins down the road) and everyone was required to stand up to flag/brag about their forthcoming next challenge ahead. I bored people senseless about forthcoming EC and Catalina Channel. We were sitting next to Cole and his friendly parents from Texas - Cole was set to absolutely blow the rest of the field away BLDSA Tom Robbo style over the next 4 days!! The scene was superbly relaxed where some live music set the tone with great music from Chad Gregory (that man can play n' sing) and an introduction from Kent Nicholas (organiser and mastermind). There were some seriously tasty swimmers here (most faster than yours truly) but you could sense an underlying nervousness talking about and committing to forthcoming challenges with SCAR (all 41 miles of it) still on the table!

If you think below is some reasonably extreme mileage then spare a awe-inducing thought for the incredible Liz Fry who did double each lake!! Yes 82 miles in 4 days training towards a triple channel. Huge respect and congratulations on her achievement. She got a small American flag to fix onto her car as a prize - priceless!

Saguaro Lake - 9.5 miles - Day 1
Just remember being nervous as hell. We made our way via two boat shuttles to the buoy line near  Canyon Dam where the Saguaro swim was due to start. I felt like I had suddenly sunk inside myself and my quiet mental space had been invaded by some aliens > I had 41 miles ahead of me, to put all that relentless distance into the shoulders, concerns about the pain and whether my training had been enough. Would my shoulders hold up? Would the pain level off? Would I fall over and hurt myself?  I had been in this space before but that doesn't make it easy. The hardest thing in England was finding warm enough water to train in over the Winter which meant utilising Charlton Lido with Ade, Mikey, Graeme, Sam, Vicky, G and the Charlton Lido Nutters helping us to get through 6km sets every Saturday. That felt tough but 6km weekly preparation for a 41 mile 4 days? Boy, that seemed wholly inadequate! 
We were told to jump off the pontoon boat and make our way to the buoy line and raise one arm showing we were ready. Kent dropped a pink bag and we were off. I had been put in Wave 2 of 3 waves (wave one being the expected slowest). Everyone else left me at the back on my own and I had been put with a bunch of utter whippets! Some coming all the way from Hawaii! The water felt warm, way too warm. It then decided to get even warmer as we rounded a bend. It must have been over 70 degrees! I must have been overheating. The week before Ade, Tegs, Lucy and I had been jumping off the Nemes Nutters platform in Holborough Lakes in 11 degrees celsius! LOL....
Thank god we had put loads of ice in the cooler and each feed (on the hour) was met with some relief. The views were simply spectacular (canyons, cacti and various forms of wildlife) and I found a sensible rhythm but was excited and wanted to give it some beans. We gradually overtook 2 of the other wave 2 swimmers and some of the wave 1 swimmers who were set off before us which lifted the spirits materially but of course this wasn't billed as a race per se. Pete saw a bald eagle swoop down and catch a fish outta the water and head back to its nest. WOW MOMENT. He was blown away to witness something hardly seen by even the oldest of the Tonto National Park Rangers. He grinned from ear-to-ear the whole way like he was paddling through kayaker-paradise which also lifted me materially. We passed the iconic Ships rock rounded a bend and then could see the end of the lake with boats. 

Reminded me of the BLDSA Lake Bala in Wales event with an end that never comes any closer. We ploughed on, I got my head down and eventually (another 2 miles later) rounded the final bend into the buoy-line which I had to touch to finish.
Bingo. 4 hours14 mins for ca. 9.5 miles done. Chuffed but hurt after giving it too much in the excitement and felt wobbly when back in a vertical position....

Canyon Lake - 9 miles
Heavily-anticipated as the prettiest lake. Seems like all the swimmers and crew concurred 100% afterwards. Same rig - in Wave 2 (out of 3), started at the buoy line and was left at the rear (again)!!!! I hurt my neck during the course of the swim just looking up at the canyon walls, the sheer breathtaking beauty counterbalancing the neck agony for the rest of the swim! This is one of my favourite photos from the whole trip.

Pete saw a Big-Horn Sheep which I missed but silhouetted beautifully at the top of a cliff.

The plan was to take it very smoothly as we knew full well we wanted to ensure we would make the start line in reasonable form for the 17 mile Apache lake the next day. I cruised into the finish line in 4hours 22 which wasn't rapid but didn't feel as wasted as the day before in Saguaro. 

The group all then seemed to start to bond more as we all drove to Apache lake via the Apache Trail (which is long dirt road with NO tarmac) & Tortilla Flat restaurant and checked into the Apache Lake Resort. I had booked us a suite way in advance and was expecting something reasonably plush (with a view) but what we found was something where time stood still in about 1960 (but still had a nice view of what lay ahead for the next day). 

It gave me a perfect juncture to rib Pete about his double bed that looked like it had been used for major gymnastics in a recent honeymoon (the least said about the sheets the better!) - we had a right old giggle about that which took the edge off any worry about the next day so we slept well and both must have snored the roof about sounds of the Serengeti!

Apache Lake - 17 miles
The logistics on this lake must have made this a nightmare for Kent and the superstar boat crews. Our boat on the way to the staging beach lost its prop to the bottom of the lake, another boat ran out of fuel...murphy's law was working good and proper it appeared. I managed to get Pete a good kayak with a black back support and he was happy as Larry given the potential for ca. 10 hours ahead needing to be comfortable as possible. The swimmers boated to the start-line and it was 9am. I knew that to get this done without getting pulled I would have to pull my speedo's up and get to the other end in 10 hours as it would be getting dark. The first 3-4 miles were a complete breeze swimming in turquoise water past a little island, a beach and 3-mile wash where we had hung out a few days previously. 

Then we turned a corner and Windermere-esque the main middle third of the lake opened up in front of us. We could see for miles. I deliberately looked only to the side breathing & at Pete or the scenery & got my head down to graft. Gradually Mark 'one-speed' Sheridan picked off a few swimmers who had gone off in the earlier wave or were entirely unfamiliar in the distance. 

The wind started to pick up to 15mph and it was becoming slightly uncomfortable. We gradually inched our way until the Apache Resort was in sight where we were told we would be 60% done. The wind was now 20mph as we passed the Apache Marina which I knew we would be able to see for hours to come as it looks up most of the final reach. We 'hugged' the cliffs on the north side which made the swim very special as some of the overhangs looked like faces. 

Swimming under the rocks with some fault-lines visible also gave Pete a cause for concern (would they give way?) but for me the water was so pure & clear with huge boulders underneath me which reminded me of Wastwater (my favourite place to swim in the UK). We rounded the corner into the final 30% and the wind was now absolutely FULL ON, well over 25mph & gusting way more being funnelled by the canyon. We later learned that loads of swimmers and kayakers had retired in this very spot as they dared to peer round the corner. I joked to Pete that we were lucky that it at least wasn't windy and he responded 'Shezza's here for Apache' and he was obviously relishing the challenge of having to paddle hard for once rather than being on the Arizona SCAR lakes & Tonto National Park sightseeing tour with a slow limping gimp for company.
We crossed over the lake into the teeth of this wind and at the time it felt like I was in a proper all-out war - I was secretly glad that this lake was going to be no 'gimmie'. A couple of waves hit my shoulders so hard it ripped my arm from taking any stroke and hurt like hell. I shouted into the water to keep the pain to myself and not to worry my kayaker. However, in this funnelled cauldron of wind was actually some of the most beautiful part of the lake with what Pete knew as the painted cliffs and a really cool single rock sticking up and showing the way like a lighthouse. It was dramatic stuff.

We turned half left round a corner and I then got told I had just over 1.3 miles to go. Where did that suddenly come from? We had a pact that I would never ask how much further to go and Pete maintained he wouldn't tell me anyway. I knew I would get it done in daylight and broken the back of the whole SCAR event. 

The feeling of achievement was heavenly. We got closer to the dam and I thought it looked like something off the WW2 dam-buster films in the darker light.  

The feeling of elation touching the buoy line after 9hours 32 mins and 17 miles of swimming evidenced a feeling of united strength between kayaker and swimmer like few other swims I've been on. I smacked the water for 30 seconds like I did at 2swim4life 2 years previously.

It was an absolute godsend to get onto superstar Danny's speedboat back to the Resort & I recall being in the back with Kelly pretty euphoric & all too aware of what we had just accomplished. The bark from that boat's exhaust is something I will never forget whilst smiling from ear to ear! We made it back to base in a matter of minutes.....
We later found out that fewer than a 1/3 of the original kayakers actually made it all the way to the end. Felt entirely vindicated in my preparations twisting Pete's arm to travel all that way with me. 
Back to the Apache resort for a meal where the vibe was immense with everyone a story to tell about the day's challenges. 

Roosevelt Lake - 6 miles
On the way to the start line I recalled how tough a 10km swim was in 2011 when I took up this sport training for 1 way 10.5 mile Windermere. Now here I was not even 4 years further down the track knocking out a 10km at the end of 35 miles & 3 other days of swimming!!! Mind-blowing really and amazing what cumulative training & events can do for you....

We were told the course and everyone checked LED lights and clear goggles as the finish was to be in darkness. Rounded Windy Hill which was obviously given that name for a reason as once the main body of water opened up it was choppy again. We were swimming towards the 4 peaks and the Roosevelt dam under an Arizona sunset in warm water. Where else would you possibly want to be??! (You can just about make out the swimmer right of centre in pic below)

The bridge near the finish could be seen for miles out but tried to avoid thinking about that as it wasn't coming closer. We passed the marina which went on for ages and I was shocked to learn I still had 1.6 miles to go in the complete darkness with no moon. There were stars everywhere for the kayakers to mostly enjoy. To avoid over-stressing about the finish I remember the Lynne Cox trick of counting in my head. I thought that if I could count to 1000 with each count representing an arm stroke of ca. 1 meter then I would almost be there. That 1000 count got me to the bridge. Pete and I stopped and said 'Wow' to each other for yet another time this trip just to try and take it all in. We then swam to the finish buoy line where we finished at the same time as Colleen from Scotland. We had both done it. Shaking of hands all-round and light applause from the boats. 

I think I yelled out 'yeah' a few times or something else completely non-sensical. It was 10pm. The whole adventure was over and I felt pretty overwhelmed to be honest. It had felt we were on a swimmers conveyor-belt for some of the 4 days trying ones best not to let the wheels fall off. The feeling of accomplishment hit me hard after checking into our hotel room in Globe and posting on Facebook. I grinned, took it all in and fell into one of the most contented sleeps I have ever had in my life. Magic.

Those that finished all 4 lakes were presented with one of these black swim caps which I will treasure like gold dust:

Some tips and conclusions whilst fresh in Pete's and my memories:

Kayaker - essential kit to bring
1. You will be getting wet sitting on a sit-on-kayak. Some swims might make you feel very cold when you get to the end (despite the lush pictures). At the ends of Apache and Roosevelt, Pete was mildly hypothermic believe it or not.
2. Camelback is a great idea for feeding for paddlers and Pete's was filled with ice to help cool him on the warmer swims. Essential.
3. GPS - meant lake navigation an absolute no brainer (will post maps at end of blog when I get them)
4. Need a good head torch and glow-sticks for Roosevelt
5. Sunglasses with leash - take 2 pairs of sunnies as one of Pete's broke.
6. Sunhat - something like a desert marathon hat which has a stiff brim
7. Bandana - protection for head on boat rides
8. Small tupperware box for Kayaker nutrition - Pete had dried fruit in his.
9. Lightweight Kagool essential
10. Drybag
11. Bungees/shock chord. 
12. Choose your kayak on the day wisely as there is little time to adjust once swim is underway
13. Jar to wee into during long swims for the chaps. Ensure you get enough width!
14. Small blunt-nosed scissors for cutting bungy chord etc and attaching cool box to kayak
15. Pre-laminated and pre-routed maps of each lake.
16. Factor 100 suncream (we used Coppertone from Walmart). Sudocrem zinc to ensure you don't burn
17. Ensure to cover up shins as many kayakers had burnt shins. Also wear kayak shoes rather than crocs as they are more comfy. 
18. Bring 2 pairs of kayak gloves as you will probably lose one pair somewhere.
19. Waterproof camera which you can secure to kayak using chord and carabina.
20. Train in windy conditions in a lake of at least 20-25 mph otherwise you might let down your swimmer
21. Binoculars. We forgot them and they might have been handy at times.
22. Mesh bag for all bits and pieces required during the swim for easy storage. 

Swimmer - essential kit
1. Plenty of factor 100 sun cream, Sudocrem zinc or Balmex which is the US equivalent. All the swimmers were caked in the stuff. Getting sunburn on your first swim might make the rest of it never happen. I use Coppertone Factor 100 spray AND cream which u can buy at Wal Mart. I used the spray first thing when getting up in the morning and the cream as a 2nd application before the swim. Then applied Sudocrem zinc on top. Worked a treat!
2. Vaseline or other for chafe etc.
3. Box of plastic gloves. $7 for 100 at Wal Mart.
4. 4 costumes
5. 2 tinted goggles and one clear pair (for Roosevelt)
6. Swear by my towelling dry-robe which you can get on line. Great for getting changed and boat rides, avoiding sun etc.
7. Bright swim caps to alert all boat traffic where you are
8. Crocs, hat, sunglasses plus hard case for sunglasses.
9. I used 2 whole tubs of maxim - without the generosity of Suzie Dodds I would have been left without in this department at Apache. Thanks Suzie.
10. Dry-bag
11. LED lights like you would use for the Channel on costume and goggles.
12. We used a collapsable circular Thermos bag which was ideal. Can buy cool-boxes from Wal Mart that are disposable.
13. Small fluid thermos. End of Apache and Roosevelt you might feel cold. I had to feed off iced feeds which made me even colder. Cover that base with a small thermos with some warm drink just in case for those 2 swims.
14. The temperatures in the lakes were all around 70 fahrenheit. If you are from the UK and used to open water you will probably never swim outdoors in such hot water. That in itself can present its own challenges with overheating. Some US swimmers who were very thin complained about the cold water.....Trust me > it was mostly heavenly.
15. Could bring a mesh bag for feeds but we didn't need it as had the thermos bag.

Other stuff etc
1. We hired a Jeep Patriot which was ideal for the Apache trail plus had enough space for all our kit.
2. iPad or iPhone - you will get free wifi in most hotels and restaurant & be able to post your progress
3. Choose your kayaker wisely. I would always take someone you know who is decent. Go the extra mile as they might go the extra mile for you on Apache which might make the difference between finish or failure.
4. Bring a flexible attitude and don't take anything (including yourself) seriously. We joked a whole bunch at every feed.
5. We stayed deliberately at La Quinta Inn at Superstition Blvd which meant that after the flight and drive we had 10 bars and restaurants including a good Mall and Wal Mart very nearby (all walkable). They also had a warm jacuzzi which was ideal for recovery after Saguaro. They also had loads of ice and fridges in rooms. 
6. We did a fair amount of post swim recovery with milkshakes at Dairy Queen. Highly recommended. WE spent many lunchtimes at Paradise cafe in Signal Butte Road which serves the nicest salads and fresh value-added type nutritional food which we craved at times. They are all over Phoenix. This place is a real hit and you have to go. They will even pack you up a lunch at 7am.
7. Tonto Pass - you CANNOT buy these at Saguaro lake and have to buy them at Petrol stations etc in the area. Many people did not read the notes and could have been left stuck without the generosity of others. Buy 3 at the beginning of the week and you are covered for your parking.
8. Arrive early at swims as when things get moving you won't have time to breathe!
9. Insects by the lake were a non-issue. We only got bitten chilling by the hotel pool!
10. If your application is successful - READ ALL OF KENT's NOTES!! Many people didn't bother. Read them at least 3 times and have them with you. 

Conclusions etc
This is a tough swim. Make no mistake. I trained as hard as I could during the Winter but you can only do what you can with job constraints. My speed improved and I did 2 swim weeks away (40km in Lanzarote with Team Bayliss one week and another in FV) and loads of sets at Charlton Lido on Saturdays not to mention all the other gym, rowing and pilates work.
If you look at those who finished and the times (on, you will observe that I was the last male finisher home in terms of aggregate time for all lakes. I don't necessarily consider myself the slowest but if you are contemplating this, then might be worth some definite consideration of speed! I think some of the media flannel was all about floating on your back and relaxation > don't be fooled - you still gotta be able to swim mileage.
It's the hardest event in terms of the cumulative effect of 41 miles over 4 days I have done in my life. If I were to do each swim as a one-off event it wouldn't give me nightmares but this is definitely one of the hardest things I have done if not the hardest. The water temperature though was never cold to me but then I swam thru the winter with the Nutters in the UK!
Lastly, don't underestimate the need for a decent kayaker. I wanted Pete to come along as I didn't want it round a stranger's neck that I might not finish the whole event.
I won't put my name down again to swim as the event is niche and that might prevent someone else from taking part. Someone else needs to have this experience now. I would love to go back as a kayaker or to help on the boats with the volunteers. I would like to think that I will definitely return to take in the amazing scenery above the water.

Happy swimming and get in touch if you need guidance and are thinking about applying.

The stars of the show - Kent Nicholas (centre) and Pete Fellows (right)


  1. Mark,
    What a great outline of an amazing journey. It was a humbling experience being part of the volunteer group on Apache. Wrote on the things from the other side of the boat, and had to feature your amazing story.

    I look forward to working with you next year!


  2. Thanks Kolby - glad it was of use. Thanks for all your help on Apache - you were all real stars in difficult conditions.

  3. Great info thanks, especially for the kayakers:)

  4. So that is SCAR! Well written as usual Mark, and lists are always very helpul, and these ones are very comprehensive are bound to help others.