Lessons from Lama Passage: part 2 – 10km of terror

IMG_20160618_123638Sometimes I am not the smartest fish in the school. My recent 10km test swim is a testament to that. At this point in my life I should know better than to introduce something new before a significant swim, or in this case a swim in a new waterway.

To make a long story short I was diagnosed with asthma the day before I left for Bella Bella. It was highly recommend by my physician that I use an inhaler half an hour before exercising (in this case swimming). So I did. Who knew this would happen…

Friday afternoon’s temperature test swim went far better than I had expected. The water temperature was a cool 14C (Celsius) and I was able to swim for 2 hours with no significant change in body temperature.

I woke-up Saturday to foggy skies. The fog was expected to burn off right around the time the tide was to change in a favourable direction. It was warm out; I could tell it was going to be a beautiful day. I was feeling super positive about my upcoming swim from Drifter’s Cove near Walker Island to Shearwater Marina. I was on top of the world! Everything was going right.

P1050423By 12:30 I was in the water and ready to go. I swam across the cove toward my crew on the dock, chatted for a bit about the route and how I wanted to tackle the first few kilometres and where our check-in spots would be. We all agreed and were about to go when one of the Spirit Bear Lodge’s boats showed up with supplies for Kevin. Not wanting to let a chill sent in before heading out I treaded water to try and stay warm. Terry, who was secondary support with the smaller of the two boats, was also concerned about me getting cold and offered to escort me for the first few kilometres while Kevin sorted things out with the Spirit Bear boat. And so it was, we were off!

P1050396The first kilometre was fantastic. The water was crisp and clear, the sun was shining on my back keeping me warm and there was a bit of a tail wind which gently pushed me along in the right direction. Within about 30 minutes I could see that MJ and Kevin had caught up to Terry. They were about 20 meters away from me and appeared to be stalled in the water. I was drifting forward and further away from them. I couldn’t hear what they were saying but I could see that no one was watching me; they were attending to something on the boat.

Once things were sorted on the boat they made their way to me. It turned out that the exhaust from Kevin’s boat was on the same side as me and MJ was trying to position Terry’s boat in front of it to protect me. MJ tossed me my feeding bottle (and all of the rope with it) so I could have a quick drink. We had agreed I would not eat for at least the first hour as my stomach got used to being horizontal.

I drank, tossed the bottle back and swam on. A few minutes later I saw a massive moon jelly fish. It was at least 2 feet across – absolutely beautiful. I let the crew know. Moon jellies are not of concern but I did want them to know I was starting to see local residents under water.

About 1 hour into the swim I started to become quite anxious. It was a very physical feeling. Although I was in strange waters seeing things I had never seen before the newness of it all didn’t explain the level of my anxiety. I was so anxious that I was having a great deal of difficulty swimming. I felt I needed a way to quickly escape the water so I swam close to the shoreline. I also needed to be able to see the bottom of the sea.

I asked Terry to bring his boat closer and stay with me so I could see him as I swam. I kept swimming but became more and more anxious with time. I swam a few strokes of breaststroke as I tried to calm myself and then as much freestyle as I could. Sometimes I lasted one or two minutes and other times for ten. If I was swimming along an underwater cliff and could not see the bottom I would swim as fast as I could to get to place where I could see the bottom. I wanted to quit.

By 2:00 pm I waP1050422s in a full on panic, a state I have never experienced before. I looked along the shoreline for a way out of the water. I couldn’t take it anymore.

I found a bit of a smooth ledge and crawled up onto it. I sat there waiting for more crew to come over. When the arrived I told them I was panicking and needed a few moments to compose myself. Terry reassured me there was nothing in the water that would hurt me. I knew that but for some reason I was feeling a level of anxiety I had never felt before. After a few moments, still feeling anxious, I jumped back in the water and continued to swim.

By 2:30 I was starting to feel a bit better but was still fighting to stay calm. I convinced myself that once I passed the halfway point everything would be ok. So I did.

As soon as we rounded the corner on the half way point I could see the Coast Guard station. It was about 30 minutes away. I decided to focus on it and kept swimming. I set a goal of not stopping until I got there. So I didn’t.

IMG_20160618_190316As we passed the Coast Guard dock I could hear my crew speaking to someone. I stopped and treaded water. One of the staff was on the dock talking to Terry and MJ. I said hi, told him I was doing a test swim and that I was fine with the water temperature and volume of swimming – I was just trying to work out a bit of anxiety. He asked “What about the jelly fish?”

I swam on for another 20 minutes or so making my way to Shearwater. I could hear my crew chatting with someone again, so I stopped and treaded water. This time it was a local resident. When he saw he had my attention he said “You know if you had been her 2 hours ago you would have seen a bear jump in the water and swim across to the other side.”

At 3:40 MJ had me stop and eat and drink. I hadn’t had anything in a while. I could see we were getting closer to the finish line. I had worked out most of my anxiety but was still keen to hit the shore and asked if they knew where we were going to land.

Kevin went ahead and pulled his boat up along one of the docks. MJ and Terry directed me to him. At 4:10 I climbed up a ladder on the side of Kevin’s boat. I had completed the swim.

Lesson Learned: MJ and i had a great debrief session when we returned to Drifter’s Cove that night. We were both surprised at my anxiety in the water. We hadn’t experienced it before. We walked through all that had happened that day and realized that I had introduced something new to the swim; Ventolin. Although I knew it might make me a bit anxious I had no idea it could cause a full on panic attack – especially if when mixed with some fast swimming and caffeine.

13501820_10157176713765294_4384043739696714538_nI am grateful to my incredibly crew – MJ, Terry and Kevin – who remained calm an patient and helped me through what was an extremely difficult swim. I could not have done it without them.

I look forward to my Ventolin free swim from Ocean Falls to Bella Bella on July 13 & 14!

Posted by Susan

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Diane says:

    Great awareness of the body’s reaction to an added medication…..thanks for sharing your swim, Susan

  2. Sue MacSporran says:

    You are truly amazing Susan and so is your crew. You are my inspiration and I’m privileged to know you .

    1. swimgreatbear says:


  3. Clare says:

    Wow Susan that was quite the tale—a real page-turner. I’m sorry you went through all that chemically induced panic but it sure made for a good story. Are you thinking of writing a book about distance swimming and MS? I hope so.

    It’s so interesting and satisfying to read about your test swim from the safety of my computer chair. It makes me want to get into water immediately. Perhaps I’ll go to the Esquimalt pool in the next few days where forty lengths is one kilometre. Distance swimming takes a certain kind of strength of character that I just don’t have. But I loved reading about your 10km test swim. Such a beautiful location. Although you introduce the ventolin as the cause of your troubles in the beginning of the story, you deke us out with exhausts problems from your crew. Then you deke us out again with the moon jellies. I know they aren’t entirely benign, they can sting a little so it got me wondering about having a lot of them around and the coast guard adds his comment that lend a certain air of mystery as well as the rumours of bears swimming. All these things made us forget entirely about the ventolin as the cause of your panic as we read along desperate to see you complete your swim.
    I also have asthma and I know anxiety is one of the side effects of ventolin. I have experienced it myself at some most inconvenient times. It also lowers your blood potassium levels, can give you a headache and cause muscle cramps and in some cases cause a worse bronchial spasm than the one you were trying to treat. I’ve mostly stopped using inhalers and just monitor my asthma with a peak flow meter, magnesium citrate and lobelia tincture.
    Today I sit here reading your story with a pain in my back that my doctor thinks is related to kidney problems caused by MS bladder issues. Your story helped me see that this too will pass. I can regained some of the hope I had lost with this recent set back. Once again Susan you tenacity and chutzpah inspire me to do more, to try harder and to not let MS and it complications hold me back from my goals.

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