There were hallucinations, the scare of falling asleep mid-stroke and of course, hypothermia.
But amid it all, there was no quit as marathon swimmers Alex Cape and Susan Simmons accomplished the 70-kilometre Cowichan Lake double, a non-stop, 31-hour adventure from Friday, Aug. 22 to Saturday, Aug. 23.
“The both of us are beat up, we’re tired,” said Simmons, whose neck was so chafed, it was still cushioned under a heap of fresh gauze and bandages five days later.
The Victoria duo started and ended the epic swim on the beach of the Lake Cowichan community.
They launched at 2:45 p.m. on Friday.
Cape, 34, reached the turnaround point of Heather Campground at about 5:30 a.m. on Saturday morning. Simmons, 49, reached Heather shortly after. It was about two hours longer than the time it took them to do the same 34 km stretch in July of 2013, and Cape was worried.
“The support and safety crew were comforting. I was wondering what’s wrong. But they were calm. There were a lot of mental challenges and it definitely dragged on at points, but I’m so glad we did it,” Cape said.
While the two are awaiting confirmation that the swim is among the top 15 per cent of open water distances ever completed, there was no waiting to confirm they had joined an exclusive group of 120 people to swim 24 hours straight.
“As soon as we hit 24 hours I had my safety boat come near me so I could radio Alex and tell her, in the water,” Simmons said.
Each had their own safety crew of kayaks and “sherpas,” a kayak or outrigger who would run food to the swimmers from a bigger boat. And though they trained together at Thetis Lake four times a week and accomplished the incredible swim together, they experienced uniquely harrowing moments in Cowichan Lake.
Simmons, a manager with the province’s data services in Saanich, endured several hallucinations. On Saturday morning she fought the urge to sleep, and succumbed twice, as flying bats raced back and forth below her. By Saturday evening, with just a few hours to go, Simmons witnessed the figures of angels and devils on the horizon.
It was laughable, as she knew it was hallucinations, but that didn’t make them go away.
Cape also saw things. Some were as simple as the changing colours of the support kayaks just a few metres away. At other times she saw swimmers near her, when there actually wasn’t.
Though to be fair, six of their training friends did jump in during the course of the swim for 10 kilometres each.
“There was just so much to it, so many little things that had to happen, and so much trust that I had to give to my safety team and crew,” Cape said.
“You have to totally trust the crew,” Simmons said. “I was totally cognitive, but I couldn’t make a rational decision. And giving up that control is not easy for me to do.”
Of the 100 friends and family and other supporters with volunteer roles, few were aware that Simmons nearly backed out of the swim before it started. She had damaged her left shoulder in early August, and though it was beyond repair, at least in time for the swim.
Ironically, she managed to mend the shoulder but finished the swim with a sprained right ankle instead, likely due to the overuse of her ‘thumper kick,’ to compensate for the weakness in her swimming catch.
“I hadn’t told anyone about my shoulder. It was so bad I couldn’t lift the arm more than 20 degrees. I actually swam just twice in the three week lead-up, doing six kilometres total instead of the scheduled taper of 40, 30 and 15 km, respectively,” Simmons said.
She credits active release therapy for resurrecting it in time for Cowichan.
However, the shoulder weakness caused excessive chafing, consistent with a second degree burn, as her left arm came over her head her shoulder and neck rubbed against her goggles.
“I am using antibiotics and staying out of the sun and ocean for at least two weeks.”
Cape, an army paramedic, had her own list of injuries, though of a different sort.
Soon after she came out of the water, she passed out and experienced convulsions. Both had been zipped into sleeping bags to warm up, but it was taking too long for Cape to recover from her temperature of 34.9 degrees.
“I’ve worked with BC Ambulance before so it was funny being in the truck as a patient and not as a paramedic.”
Cape eventually recovered and was released at 3 a.m. from the hospital.
“There was so much that went into it, and I am grateful for what everyone did, for all the people who came together to make it happen,” Cape said.
“It’s not about changing my life, I know who I am, and what I do. But it was an amazing adventure with so many different experiences, emotions, and stages along the way. It was very exciting and interesting, sharing it with everyone and thankful they shared it with us and proud of what we all did.”
Cape’s role in the accomplishment is often overlooked as Simmons earns added attention for living with multiple sclerosis. Twenty years ago Simmons was blind in one eye and nearly confined to a wheelchair before she took control of her life through swimming and diet.
“For me, it was amazing to see how excited and serious everyone was about this,” Simmons said. “We had so many people doing so many jobs. It was really something else.”