I don’t normally repeat swims, SCAR, Tahoe and the English Channel being exceptions, but there’s something about the mighty Red River of the North that keeps calling me back. I was invited as the guest swimmer in 2015, then came back for Lake Powell training swims in 2016, where I notoriously swam the river on Friday before the race on my own, then with the event the following day. I was slated to swim END-WET last year and to appear as the guest speaker for 2020. However, as we know, all things came to a screeching halt and the 2020 event was cancelled. I made sure to keep the 2021 dates open and have been excited for this race for well over a year now. I seriously can’t seem to stay away, and by the numbers of people who have done this race multiple times, I know I’m not alone.
The swim follows 36 miles of the Red River as it flows north, creating the border between North Dakota and Minnesota, not too far south of Canada. The event starts in Belmont Park, south of Grand Forks and winds its way north until you finish in town. It’s scenic, with lots of wildlife for kayakers to enjoy. For swimmers, you’re treated to 1-inch visibility in the clean, but turbid, muddy water. Depending on the flow of the river in the year you swim, you can be shoved along at 4 mph, or plod along at your flat-water swimming pace.
In case you were wondering, END-WET stands for Extreme North Dakota- Watersports Endurance Test, and it’s part of a series of races hosted by ENDracing, which features adventure racing events as well as running, biking, and triathlon races. (https://endracing.com/) They’re a super cool organization and if you’re inclined toward land-based events, I highly recommend anything they host. They aim to keep costs down: END-WET only costs $200-$400, depending on if you need a kayaker and when you register. $400 for a major marathon swim is cheap, folks! And all of the volunteers and race organizers are truly wonderful humans.
This year, I was fortunate enough to talk my swim wife, D’Arcy into swimming the race with me, so we assembled a CROWS (Colorado Represents Open Water- my local swim group) team to accompany us. John Hughes volunteered to kayak for me, while Lynn Acton agreed to support D’Arcy. We brought along John’s wife, Cindy, to provide ground support and as our own personal chef. (Have you had her cookies? They’re amazing.)
We flew out of Denver on Thursday evening- after about 5 hours of flight delays. We picked up our rental car just after midnight and drove the hour and 15 minutes from the airport in Fargo to our AirBnB in Grand Forks, staying alert for deer crossing the highway.
On Friday, D’Arcy and I had to work, so we focused on our laptops and minor last minute prep while Cindy cooked us an amazing brunch of biscuits and gravy and did a grocery store run for us.
Friday evening, I had the honor of giving a brief presentation at the pre-swim dinner, which I think went well. I got some laughs, I saw D’Arcy trying not to cry, and no one walked out on me in the middle of it. I’ll take that as a win! I always love pre-race dinners, where you can meet some fellow swimmers and their kayakers. It was a similar dinner back in 2007, before my first 10k, that really inspired me to get into longer swims, so I never underestimate who I might get to meet and who might be dreaming of big swims.
Saturday morning was race day and it started with a 3:30 am wake up call. If you know me, you know that I hate 3 am with a fiery passion. The hours between 3 am and 5 am are made for nothing other than sleeping (or swimming or reading a really good book, but only if you’ve already been awake). So, when alarms go off at 3:30, I’m not the happiest of humans. But, Cindy was bustling in the kitchen, scrambling me some eggs, so I grunted, rolled out of bed, added water to my 9 water bottles, which I’d filled with CarboPro (www.carbopro.com), a whey protein powder, and Nuun (https://nuunlife.com/) the night before. We left the house at 4 am for the 35-minute drive to the start of the race. D’Arcy was looking like she might vomit, so I helped the situation by finding awful music on the radio and singing along. If she could withstand THAT before the sun even came up, she could do ANYTHING!
We arrived at Belmont Park just as daylight was starting to break through. The kayaks hadn’t arrived yet, so we waited patiently, shuffling gear from the car to the staging area near the boat ramp. The air temps were chilly- in the upper 40s and steam was coming off the river. Hotter in than out! It was also my first good look at the river. As expected, the water levels were extremely low this year and the current wasn’t moving at the 4 mph pace I’d had when I first raced in 2015. I mentally prepared for a long, hot, slog back to town.
In due time, the kayaks arrived, Cindy helped smear Desitin and lanolin on my back and D’Arcy’s. We loaded up the kayaks. John got stuck with a two-person kayak, which had me worried since he was also recovering from a knee replacement surgery about 5.5 weeks ago. I knew the larger kayak would be tough to navigate, but he put on a brave face and didn’t complain for one second.
Right at 5:30 am, the race directors lined us up, checked us in, and gave us the final countdown. There were 18 swimmers starting the race and as we got the “go” command, one guy ran in full steam and sprinted ahead. The rest of us waded in more tentatively. We had been warned that there was a mud pile right off the boat ramp. Just as we were in deep enough to think it was safe to start swimming, suddenly there was a mound of mud to climb up and over. The last thing I heard before putting my face in the chocolate milk water was D’Arcy yelling, “Saaaaaaaaaaraaaaaaaaaaaaaah, why are we doing this?!” (She has since told me she might think twice about following me into muddy rivers in the future. HA.)
And we were off! The kayakers had been instructed to enter the water after the swimmers started, so I settled in, knowing John would catch up to me eventually. Not in a rush, we had all day ahead of us, I swam easily, taking in the scenery, hazy in the early morning light. Before too long, I’d pulled away from the majority of the pack, just with Seth the Sprinter ahead of me. I could tell after a few minutes that he wasn’t gunning it, so I figured I’d take my time running him down.
I swam happily along for about 45 minutes when John showed up in the kayak. I could tell he was enjoying the paddle so far- it wasn’t hot yet and the river was giving us a gentle push. For the next few hours, I swam alongside Seth. I felt bad because he was generally on my left side and I tend to crash into things on my left. The river would be wide and I’d think we were far apart, then it would narrow and all of a sudden, I’d look over and be on top of his kayaker. At one point, I yelled out an apology for ping ponging down the river so much. No one seemed annoyed with me, so I swam happily along.
Then, about 3 or so hours into the race, I saw Marian coming up behind me. My instinctual competitive nature kicked in and something along the lines of “Thou shall not pass” went through my mind, and all of a sudden we were in a race. No offense to Seth, who ended up finishing in a very strong 3rd, but I could tell he was swimming harder than he should at the start. I knew he’d fade, so I wasn’t concerned. But, when Marian pulled into my range of vision, I could tell she wasn’t going anywhere. I hadn’t intended to race this one, but as soon as I saw Marian glide into view, something clicked and my vision narrowed. John held out a feed for me, but he was a little behind me, so I let it go until he could catch up.
“Sorry,” I said once he caught up to me and tossed me my feed. “I didn’t want to swim back to you.”
And then an hour later at a feed stop, I said “Sorry, John. We weren’t in a race before, but we are now.” He grinned down at me, “Yeah, I figured that part out.”
We hit the Thompson Street Bridge at just past 5 hours. The bridge is right at about the 15-mile mark and it’s the first sign of civilization. From previous races, this was my first real sign as to how slow the river was moving. I’d been watching for it for about an hour and was relieved to see it come into view. But, 5 hours in… not a good sign. I had a feed right before the bridge and expressed as much to John, while stealing a peek back at Marian- probably still hanging less than a minute back. Yup, she wasn’t going anywhere.
The middle section of the race is always a long slog, after the bridge. The river widens some, which means the current slows down and you start to get more headwind. It was deeper now, which meant it felt maybe a degree or so cooler, but still hot by my standards. Despite the slightly cooler water, the air temps were creeping up and I was getting hot. However, I was feeling really strong- stronger than I have in a long time. (Remember, I barfed my way across Molokai in February and was sick from a miscarriage during SCAR in April.) I hadn’t trained well between SCAR and ENDWET as I was recovering mentally and emotionally from the events around SCAR, so as I was cruising down the river, I was really happy to be feeling as strong as I did. At one point, John asked “Do you feel as good as you look?” I smiled back up at him, “Yup, I sure do.”
I’d lost count of feed bottles and time somewhere before the bridge, so wasn’t sure exactly where I was- each bottle has 3 feeds, which means I finish a bottle every 1.5 hours. As I finished a bottle about an hour after the bridge, by my bottle count, I thought it was 1 pm, but when I looked for the sun, it wasn’t all the way overhead yet, so I assumed it was closer to 11:30 instead. Afraid to ask for the time just yet, I went through anther bottle (i.e. I waited another hour and a half) before asking the time. John confirmed my fears: It was only just now 1:15 pm.
Also, around this time somewhere, I started to be aware of the mile markers along the side of the river. I hadn’t seen any all morning, but I accidentally saw #17 out of the corner of my eye (the numbers count down- so 17 miles to go). I hoped it was a 12, but when #15 appeared an hour later, I knew I was really in for it. #13 an hour later confirmed there really was no current in the river. I was consistently hitting 2 miles an hour, according to the signs, my flat-water swimming pace.
And then, things started to hurt. I’d been hoping to swim without Advil, but the mile markers told me I better get some into my system pronto or else I was going to be in trouble. I asked for some Advil in my feed at 8.5 hours, which helped significantly, but the damage was done. My left shoulder and elbow started to ache, and it never quite went away after that. And with the pain, I started doing the math in my head. Two miles per hour, I was at mile 9- I still had 4.5 hours to go, at least. And, it seemed, around every bend we were pushing into a stiff headwind, threatening to push me and John backward.
I normally don’t like to know the distance, but I was hot, sore, and tired. The mile markers were a welcome distraction. I feed every half hour, and I have an uncanny ability to know exactly when 30 minutes is coming. So, every 25 minutes after a feed, I’d start looking for a number. They were ticking down, steady and consistently, but not nearly as fast as I wanted. Fortunately, after the last chance pull out at mile 8ish, you start coming into town. I couldn’t see Marian behind me any more, lost in the bends of the river, so I relaxed a little. I was also starting to see people and dogs along shore, enjoying a beautiful Saturday evening. The banks were steep, with huge, beautiful trees hanging overhead. We also started to see more boats out fishing. I was shocked to notice that every single boat that went by slowed down to a crawl, with no wake, as soon as they saw us approaching. I’m used to boats buzzing by and getting swamped by huge waves, but these boaters were considerate and offered words of encouragement or questions to John as we went by.
I was happy to see the pedestrian bridge, just outside of town. Then more bridges kept coming. Almost there. There’s a spot just about a mile from the finish where another river joins the Red and it was delightfully cold. My left shoulder and elbow were throbbing with sharp pain, so I stopped in the cold for a minute and swam some breaststroke before making the final push to the end.
The end to this race is very anticlimactic. No buoy to hit or ramp to race out of. I saw race director Don and Cindy on the dock that signified the finish, but with the glare of the sun, I couldn’t quite tell where to stop. They had to flag me down. Done. Whew.
There is a new kayak lift in the dock, different from 2015’s race were we all crawled out through knee deep mud. So, we slid John in his kayak onto the ramp and they lifted him up. He was so stiff from 13 hours of sitting in a hard kayak without a seat, with a bum knee, that it took a few helping hands to help him out of the kayak. They hauled the kayak out of the way and just as Marian came into sight, only about 6 minutes back. I used the kayak lift to crawl out and we cheered Marian in.
Cindy helped scrape some of the Desitin off my back and John caught his breath and we waited for D’Arcy to arrive. She had only been about half an hour back at the last chance pull out, so we knew she’d show up shortly. While we waited, I changed into my Desitin t-shirt and shorts, chatted with Marian and chugged a lot of water. Definitely dehydrated from that one!
Seth arrived about half an hour after me, then D’Arcy cruised in about 5 minutes later, a smile on her face and her mouth running. She was fine, but proclaimed that was the hardest thing she’d ever done in her life. She’s got another big swim coming up in August, so we’ll see which one she thinks is worse once we get through August!
Once we got D’Arcy out, she was feeling a little woozy, so we sat her in a chair with some water, cookies, chips and a Coke. Seth was also recovering, so it was fun to visit with him and some of the race organizers. Once D started feeling better, we got her dressed, bustled off to a quick shower at the campgrounds and then to a much-deserved dinner at The Blue Moose. It was about 10 pm by the time we left dinner and we all needed showers, so we went home, showered and went to bed for some much-deserved sleep.
We woke up the next morning sore and tired, but ready to get home. We had some time to kill, so we went to breakfast then drove to Fargo and visited a brewery before heading to the airport and the flight home. Nothing better than relaxing on the plane after a very successful weekend of swimming.
Until next time, North Dakota! You know I’ll be back!