Scoring High on the Crazy-O-Meter

“No kidding?  You want to swim the English Channel, too?”  Or, How This Crazy Idea Was Hatched in the First Place

It was July 2009.  I had been gone from Barrington for the weekend with a couple of our kids.  When we got home, Susan and I picked up our daughter Ashley at a friend’s house.

The friend was Rachel Macdonald.   Her dad, Don Macdonald, is a member of our Masters swim team.  I also knew that they had a beautiful restored home in our town – Don does all the work himself, and I was dying to have a tour of the place to see all the projects he had completed.

Don and Jennifer invited us in for a glass of wine, and the subject inevitably turned to swimming.  I told them that I had swum the Minnetonka Challenge that morning, and that we had spent most of the day driving home.  The swim is held on Lake Minnetonka, which is perhaps the most beautiful of the 10,000 lakes that Minnesota boasts.  Just a few miles from downtown Minneapolis, it has spectacular homes, postcard perfect marinas and boats, and genuinely friendly people.  The swim itself is a five mile straight shot, from Excelsior town beach to Wayzata town beach, so every swimmer needs an escort canoe as they slog toward the Wayzata water tower.  Minnetonka attracts some very good open water swimmers, and the elite complete the swim under two hours.

That year, I had cajoled my sons Bill and Gordy to paddle for me.  It is a long drive both ways and a slow canoe ride early on a Saturday morning.  The only upside to them was a night in a hotel, which is a pretty big draw if you are 14 or 16 years old.  As an added bonus, I told the boys that I would add a financial incentive if we made it across the lake in under two hours.  It became clear when we got to the lake that morning that the two hour goal was improbable.  It was cold, windy and wavy enough that they hit me with the canoe (twice).  Certain parts of the swim were particularly rollicking, and our time was 2:11.

Don asked me how the swim had gone, and in my typical exaggeration, I said, “We were rolling all over the place – the waves were like the English Channel in there.”

Don:  “Have you ever swum in the English Channel?  I have always wanted to swim it.”

Me:  “That’s crazy – I have, too!”

And so the idea was born.  We talked into the night, we shared a second bottle of wine, and by the time we left to go home, Don and I were planning to swim the Channel.

As we drove together to other swims, we spent our car time making lists.  One name that was prominent on those lists was Marcia Cleveland.  I had known of Marcia because of her book, Dover Solo, which chronicled her training and Channel swim in 1994.  Marcia is a world-class marathon swimmer, and has a niche business of helping people train for them, specifically the English Channel.  In a bit of unbelievable luck, Marcia lives in Winnetka, which is the distance of the Channel from Barrington.

As we waited for an opportunity to schedule a lunch with Marcia, she had us complete a swimming resume, pronounced us trainable for this endeavor, and then proceeded to scare the hell out of us about what we were getting into.

Life with Marcia is a trip.  She provides me with workouts via email, and each of them comes with an inspirational quote.  These workouts are no picnic, but I am convinced that they will prepare me.  Marcia is intense as can be, she is brilliant, she is the real deal, and she has been indispensible.

As I have trained with Don Macdonald, we have become very good friends – preparing alone for a swim like this would be incomprehensible.  Moreover, we are almost perfectly matched when we swim together.  We have swum six miles and finished within two minutes of each other, or eight miles and finished within six minutes.  What I appreciate most, however, is the camaraderie and understanding of someone else who is going through the same experience that I am.

See you at the pool.  I will report back.