Just a couple of weeks ago, TeamSFQ's Mary Knott conquered the SCAR Swim Challenge, a 4-day open water swim race of 40+ total miles that involves 4 major lake crossings in Southern Arizona. Our team was ever-so-curious about all the details, so the interview questions below are theirs!
How did you decide to take on this challenge?
Bottom line, I love swimming and SCAR scared the crap out of me so I thought I should try it. My friend Melody and I have been swimming together for the last 8 years or so. 5 years ago, she told me about SCAR and that she wanted to do it one day, but it wasn’t the right time yet for either of us because there were other projects and goals we were working on. Last year when I decided to take 2019 as a down year from triathlon to work on other goals, we talked about it and decided that NOW was the time. So we applied in November and were both invited. I can’t imagine having gone through the training by myself.
Were you a swimmer growing up? Can you talk a little bit about your background in swimming?
I did not grow up swimming. I learned how to swim as a child, taking swimming lessons every summer and my school required swimming in PE class during junior high. I always enjoyed it and spent most summer days at the local pool, playing in the water and jumping off the diving board. I swam laps a bit in college now and then, nothing consistent, just when I wanted something different for fitness. And then when I moved to Arizona in 2005 and took up triathlon I joined a masters swim group briefly to boost my swim ability. The masters coach had me swimming with windmill (straight) arms for like a month because I was chopping my stroke, and that's basically it. My first Ironman race in 2007, I swam a 1:07, and that's when I realized I was a little above average in the water.
How did you build up to the volume of swim training required for this race, and how much more was this than other swim training that you had done?
We built gradually (as you do with any training plan) and over the 4 months we worked up to where we were doing 50-70k per week consistently. A majority of my work is flexible, which made it easier to get to the pool for double swim days. When I did have to clock 8 hours in the office I would get my swim done in the morning before work, hopping in the pool between 4-5 am so I could knock out 2-3 hours before the day started. I had multiple double swim days per week from the beginning, and many swims over 10k. My longest individual swim was 20k, as part of my longest day of swimming 27,500. In 4 months we logged about 750,000 yards in training for SCAR. Prior to SCAR I averaged 10-15k per week, topping out at about 25k for Ultraman training, so it was quite a bit more. The full distance for SCAR was around 72k over 4 days, so being able to tackle that distance in 7 days gave me the confidence that we could get through the event without a problem.
What was the toughest part of your training and how did you stay motivated/ keep going?
Training was so much more challenging than I could have imagined. Part of it was the sheer volume of training. 2-4 hours in the pool per day was very common. Our longest day was 7.5 hours in the water. And they weren’t easy workouts. We had easy workouts but a vast majority of training was building strength by pulling band only or dragging a towel, lots of paddle work and PBB on short rest at the end of 12-20k swims.
The hardest part of training were the final few weeks. I was so exhausted all the time, and my body hurt. I felt like I was failing every single workout. My shoulders hurt in ways that I couldn’t even fathom. There were days I couldn’t lift my arms to take a sports bra off over my head. I would literally get stuck in my clothing. I cried a lot— because that’s my body’s response to stress. And I slept a lot more. Without a doubt, doing the work in training made the race SO easy. We were completely prepared to cover the distance in 4 days. My coach (Hillary) is a genius. There is no way I could have done this without her guidance.
I am not sure what to say about motivation, other than I choose races/ adventures that speak to me on a spiritual level. So having that draw, I never wish I was doing something else. I WANT to be in the pool training to make it as easy as possible when the day arrives. The training is part of the growth process and I love what it teaches me about myself. I don't hit the snooze button. When the alarm rings at 4 am I am up and moving toward the water.
Did you ever use music during your swim training?
What?!?! Is that really a thing?! No. Absolutely not.
What kind of training did you do to supplement your training in the water?
I did at least 2 hours of strength training every week, and maintained about 15-20 miles per week running.
How was your energy and recovery during training compared to UltraMan training--appetite, sleep, daily lethargy levels, etc.?
My energy level was generally good. I take good care of myself and get loads of sleep which is so important for recovery. I did take more naps than I have in the past, but when I was awake I didn't feel tired or sluggish. My appetite was ravenous. All the time. And just like with Ultraman training, at some point eating becomes a chore. But I tried to do the best I could with getting good calories in. My body composition definitely changed, though my weight was stable. I have a lot more muscle mass in my upper body and am a little softer around the middle. I'm hoping to uncover my abs again when I pick up running here in the next few months. :)
And now to the event itself....
How did you fuel before and during?
My typical pre swim fuel in training is a frozen waffle with almond or cashew butter. During SCAR I didn’t have a toaster to use, so I did oatmeal once, and Melody made muffins which I gladly ate. I also had 1-2 bananas before every swim. And coffee. I tried to do some pre-warming with coffee!
I used Tailwind during training and during SCAR, which is liquid nutrition. 300 calories per bottle, and aimed for 250-300 calories per hour. On the long day (day 3) I alternated between 1/2 bottle of Tailwind one stop, followed by 2 Maurten gels with water the next stop. I tried to eat a Picky Bar once on day 3 but chewing required too much time so I bailed on that idea.
How did you stay focused for those hours in the water during the race? Physical training was hours upon hours upon hours in the pool, working hard. My plan was written brilliantly by my coach and tailored to challenge me and change me. And the physical preparation is designed to prepare you mentally for the challenges you will face. I continued my meditation practice which allowed me to stay calm when the training was at it’s most challenging. It allowed me to keep showing up and doing the work when all the voices in my head begged to stay in bed. This is something that I’ve been practicing for a while, which just meant it was already habit. I already knew how to choose the right path. To choose to do the work. To choose to show up, even when I was failing every set. To keep doing the work and trust that with taper, I would be rested and ready to go.
I found each of the 4 days to be very different as far as what was going through my head. I clearly remember day 1 I was SO excited and through the entire 3.5+ hours I kept thinking, “I can’t believe I get to do this again for the next 3 days!!!” I feel like days 2 and 3 were much more zen and relaxed. I wasn’t thinking about anything. I just enjoyed the experience in the water, becoming one with the surroundings and connecting with Kevin (my kayaker) and with Melody on a spiritual level— sending them love and positive energy as I swam.
Day 4 was a late afternoon swim and we knew that it would be much windier (as opposed to first thing in the morning when it’s relatively calm). It was choppy from the start and when I was getting dunked under waves every 6 or 8 strokes, and having to find a rhythm again over and over and over I started to think of others who were fighting battles bigger than mine. I thought about my best friend who at that exact same moment was on the run course in Texas, and all the battles she has fought to get to the start line. I thought about my friend who at 27 years of age is in the midst of chemotherapy to treat cancer. I thought about one of my athletes on Team HPB whose husband is deployed in the military for 8 months or more at at time and how she battles loneliness as a single, working mom. Once the flood gates opened, I swam for an hour with a constant stream of names running through my head. And every single person that came into my mind, I sent them positive healing energy. When Kevin stopped me to feed, and I popped my head upright I was like, ‘oh wow— the lake is calm.’ By focusing on something other than my struggle, by remaining calm and extending positive energy into the universe, I received back exactly what I was putting out.
Did you get dizzy/ seasick or have eyeball pain from being in goggles for that long? :)
If you’ve ever been on a cruise, you know the feeling of stepping onto dry land after 3-7 days at sea. And that’s exactly how I felt from day 2 on. I felt great in the water, but on land I was a little dizzy, a little out of sorts. The only time I got nauseous was on day 3, we had to take an hour ride in a 15 passenger van on a crappy dirt road to our starting point. I was in the middle in the back row of the van and just praying I wouldn’t vomit before we got there! Once I was out of the van and had some air for a few minutes I was fine.
I swim with Aqua Sphere Vista Mask, so it’s not a typical goggle. It doesn’t hug my eyes. It provides a wide, clear, field of vision which is great for open water. It also never leaked and never fogged in 4 days. So once I put them on in the morning, I would clear them once at my first feed (because my warm face against the cold water did create initial fog) and then I wouldn’t touch them again until I took them off at the end of the swim. And if they fit well, you don’t have to crank them on tight, so no headache needed!
How did the differences of open water vs. pool swimming come into play--especially with temperature, sighting, feeding etc?
I love swimming. That said, I prefer pool swimming. I like having workouts and sets to complete. It makes the time go by quickly and I am able to really push myself against the clock in ways I don’t in open water. I did have a few open water swims prior to SCAR. I spent a weekend in Oceanside, and had 4 days of ocean swimming including a 5k and 6k (all solo!). On the day I did the 6k I hopped in just before sunrise and was a ways off shore swimming around the Oceanside pier when the sun came up over the hills on land. It was such a cool way to experience the sunrise and one of my most memorable experiences leading up to SCAR. I also did a 10k practice swim with my kayaker, and a 12k with one of Melody’s kayakers.
As far as temperatures, SCAR is traditional open water (ie: English Channel) rules which means no wetsuit, no speedsuit, no aids of any kind. We had a swim cap, goggles and a swim suit. Lake temperatures are traditionally in the low 60s (which they were) but the sun is warm— hitting low to mid 90s for all 4 days. For me, if I am swimming hard I will stay warm, even in cold water. I’ve swum in 50s with no wetsuit before and been fine. So the challenge was to keep swimming hard even after 2 or 3 or 4 hours of swimming. This just comes with practice, and luckily a lot of our swim training was done in the early morning when the air temps were 30-50 degrees (the desert is cold in January!!). Even though the water is heated, you have to stay moving or you will get cold. And actually, the RD even noted that Arizonans and Californians have a distinct advantage because we ARE able to swim outside year round and experience this phenomenon.
The other obstacle at SCAR is the wind which can be a huge factor. If you are battling a head wind, it can be very difficult for kayakers to keep up with their swimmer. And without support, the swimmer is pulled for safety reasons. 2 years ago on day 3, only 4 swimmers made it the full distance because the winds were so bad. We were blessed with gorgeous weather on all 4 days this year!
And speaking of kayakers— SCAR is not an even that you can swim solo. You are required, and it is absolutely vital to have a good support system. Kevin took training for SCAR seriously and was out every weekend putting miles on the kayak. He built up to 8 hours in the boat, the same weekend I tackled my longest swim in training. And the nice thing about open water swimming with a kayak is that I set the pace, but he does everything else. He chooses the lines, and I sight off him. So when I turn to breathe, ideally I am looking right at his torso in the boat. Every 30 minutes he would hold up my water bottle and signal that it was time to feed. This is something that is key to practice if you’re kayaker has never paddled with a swimmer because it’s a much slower pace and the last thing you want is your kayaker way ahead and having to torque your neck every other stroke to look for them.
During the four days of racing, what was your PIT and what was your PEARL? :)
The pit was definitely the van ride before day 3! :) The pearl… all the rest of it. There were so many moments… here are a few:
— On day one I was so excited + nervous. We had a 9 mile boat ride to the starting point. I had been doing some deep breathing just trying to calm down, and then the boat took off and I had the sun on my face, and the wind in my hair and I couldn’t help but smile. I KNEW in that moment that this was going to be an amazing experience.
— The RD told us they had spotted wildlife on the cliffs above us. Kevin promised if he saw any big horn sheep he’d stop me— and sure enough, in the first hour on day 1 we saw big horn sheep!! I floated on my back for a few minutes while we took it all in.
— On day 3, Melody and I had been back and forth multiple times through the day and then we ended up swimming 6 or 8 miles side by side in the second half of the day. This was such a highlight as we have literally swum thousands of miles side by side in training over the last 8 years. She is such a gift, and to share this experience with her made it that much more rewarding for me!
How has your mental game changed as you've been taking on multi-day ultra-distance events?
I love this question, and it’s something I’ve reflected on recently. Ultraman Australia was my first multi-day event. And I remember looking forward to it every day for almost a year. And at some point near the end of training, my body was tired, and I was just ready for it to be there. And then it was there, and I went through the execution of it and then it was done. And when it was over, I would have given anything to be back in the struggle, back in the midst of the suffering in training. That experience taught me to NEVER wish any of it away— whatever is happening, it is all FOR me— and I’ve been able to put that into practice over the last 2 years.
When I am in the training, I am IN the training. Even when I’m crying into my goggles and I can’t get enough food into my face, and I sleep like the dead— that is the experience I want to be in. And I think that SCAR was a particularly vibrant example of this because there were so many highs and lows in training, and I appreciated every single minute. And because I did, when the challenge arrived, and we were ready to start, I was present in every moment. And I was able to experience the beauty of it all.
Now that you are done, do you miss swimming 60+ kilometers per week?
I LOVE swimming!!! I miss the incredibly fit feeling that comes with swimming 50-70k per week. I look at photos of me now compared to 2 years ago and I can’t believe the difference in my body. I am SO strong! That said, I think I will be very happy to mix some running back in and maybe keep it at a more reasonable 10-15k per week. :)
What's next for you? Do you have aspirations of completing any big ocean or channel crossings?
That's a good question. I have a couple of goals in mind for the next 18 months, namely I am targeting a 100 mile trail race for 2020. But I've been doing a bit of research and have already spoken with Kevin about potentially another marathon swim in the future. :) So we shall see! I still love swimming and I think that is one thing I'm so grateful for coming off of this challenge.
Mary Knott's adventures are a frequent subject of our Smashfest Diaries, so check out the archives for more!