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by Elaine K Howley

December 18, 2017

The accomplished marathoner finishes Lake Champlain “Century Swim”

This past August, Colorado Masters Swimming member Sarah Thomas swam 104.6 miles in a single go. She launched her extraordinary effort at 8:30 a.m. on Monday, Aug. 7, from a slippery, moss-covered boat ramp at the northern end of Lake Champlain. She did not set foot on land again until 3:46 a.m. Thursday, Aug. 10. The marathon swimming superstar swam for 67 hours and 16 minutes to set a new world record for longest solo, nonstop, unassisted, current-neutral marathon swim.

It was just October 2016 when the 35-year-old Thomas made waves in the marathon swimming community by completing an unprecedented 80-mile swim across Lake Powell in Utah and Arizona. That 56-hour swim earned her the world record for the longest solo, nonstop, unassisted, current-neutral swim. But even though she had swum for more than two-and-a-half days, it was clear that Thomas, who gave a victory jump at the finish, still had more gas in the tank.

“Literally, almost as soon as we finished the Lake Powell swim last October, I knew I wanted to do something farther,” Thomas wrote on the Marathon Swimmers Forum about her desire to push the limits of human endurance even more than she already had. “My husband, Ryan, and I were driving home from Lake Powell, and after a long silence, Ryan looks over at me and says, ‘So, how about 100 miles?’ I’d been thinking the same thing, so I said, ‘Yup, I think so.’” Borrowing nomenclature from long-distance cycling, the concept of the world’s first “Century Swim” was born.

Thomas, who works full-time as a recruiter for HealthSouth and lives in Conifer, Colo., didn’t rush into the new endeavor, though. She was dealing with some residual shoulder pain from the Lake Powell swim so she took it easy for the next three months. But “starting in January, that’s when I was like, ‘OK I need to get myself moving in the right direction,’” she says. Over the next five months, she built her training back up progressively to a peak of 30 hours per week of swimming. Thomas does not do any strength training or other concentrated cross-training, but she does enjoy hiking the mountains around her Denver-area home. Her secret to success is consistent and copious swimming. In June and July, she logged between 85,000 and 90,000 yards in the pool and several nearby lakes every week without fail.

After months of careful logistical planning and diligent training, it was time to head to Lake Champlain, America’s 13th-largest lake by surface area. Although it’s listed as 125 miles long, much of the southern half of the lake is shallow and not ideal for the kind of swimming Thomas was looking to do. Therefore, after much debate and analysis of studies done on the lake’s currents and topography, the route was set: Thomas would begin at the furthest point north in the U.S.—Rouse’s Point on the New York side of the lake—and swim south for 52 miles where she would encounter tiny Gardiner Island. A picturesque spit of rock and trees that can’t be more than 300 feet wide, Gardiner Island sits just south of Charlotte, Vt. Thomas would round the back of the island and swim back to her starting point, thereby negating any current assistance the water might offer. At no point along the route would she stop, touch land, the boat, or another person. She also did not wear a wetsuit or use any heat-retention, speed, or buoyancy aids.

Fellow Colorado Masters Swimming member Karl Kingery was not aboard the support boat—the 60-foot sailing vessel Loose Cannon piloted by Puget Masters Swimming member Andrew Malinak and Denver marathon swimming legend Craig Lenning—but he was the lead planner in determining the route Thomas would take in the lake. As the swim was in progress, Kingery wrote on the Marathon Swimmers Forum, “she (along with her all-star crew) is going to and has been fighting off lampreys (basically vampire fish), dodging reefs and islands, swimming through a storm, swimming through the night (twice), crossing ferry lines, passing castles, defeating broken boats, and traveling over 104 miles in three days without touching land or anyone else.”

Although lampreys are endemic to Lake Champlain and the crew did notice more than a few of the parasitic fish over the course of the swim, none interacted with Thomas. Perhaps they realized this was one moving target they had better steer clear of.

In reaching Gardiner Island around lunchtime on Tuesday, Aug. 8, Thomas remarked that it was fastest she’d ever swum a 50-miler. (In addition to reaching that distance in Lake Powell, Thomas also swam a 50-mile double crossing of Lake Memphremagog in 2013.) But knowing that she had to swim all the way back to Rouse’s Point, Thomas took a moment to collect herself, saying, “I just need a moment.” She treaded water, adjusted her goggles, and mentally prepared herself for the arduous 52 miles left to come.

In the end, Thomas waded carefully out of the water in the dark, radiating a quiet contentment from achieving her goal. The only people there to welcome her back to a terrestrial existence were her support crew and Bethany Bosch, a member of Intrepid Athletics in nearby Rutland, Vt. But it didn’t matter that there wasn’t a huge throng of admirers to greet Thomas at the finish or a flurry of interviews and fanfare. For her, these swims are not about getting attention or generating buzz. She swims for the love of it. And there’s a lot of love to be felt over 104 miles of steady, solid swimming.

Author’s Note: Evan Morrison, a member of University of San Francisco Masters, and I were the two official observers on board the boat for this adventure, and we documented the swim per the Marathon Swimmers Federation’s Rules of Marathon Swimming. Read more about Thomas’s Lake Powell swim in “Supernova Sarah Thomas” in the March-April 2017 issue of SWIMMER magazine.


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