An international border divides Lake Memphremagog in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. And for the last seven summers, a group of marathon swimmers have challenged that border and themselves.
They gathered before dawn last week. Seven swimmers, ranging in age from 14 to 69, made nervous small talk as they bundled themselves in parkas, towels, even a spare tablecloth to ward off the chilly north wind.
Every swimmer has a support crew in a boat or kayak. Race organizer Phil White checked their radios and went over safety procedures.
“What we’re going to do is get the boats set up, have them all out there. Then the swimmers can gather, and enter to the right of the dock,” White said.
White first saw the lake in 1980 when he was appointed Orleans County state’s attorney.
“I fell in love with it immediately. I mean, first sight,” he said. “And I've talked to a number of people that have come into town, just looking around, and bam, they just fell in love with this lake.”
White is a former prosecutor, a skilled trial lawyer — not what you’d call a mystic. Yet he says there is something special about Memphremagog, including its legendary creature called Memphre that’s been spotted over the centuries.
“There’s a lot of spirituality connected with this lake that you discover over time. And it's not just Memphre; there’s hieroglyphs up on Owl’s Head,” he said, referencing a peak on the Canadian side that towers over the lake. “And a couple of different historians have traced the Knights Templar from Paris to Scotland to a place now known as Montreal and down here to Memphremagog.”
White has named this marathon swim “In Search of Memphre,” but it also has a political message. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a professional swim race from Magog in Quebec to Newport ended in part because of border security issues.
White worked with Canadian and U.S. officials to get the border opened to swimmers and launched the Memphremagog swim in 2011 as an amateur event. The border remains a focus; this year’s event is dedicated to asylum seekers.
White said he has a love-hate relationship with the international border. He loves it because of the cultural diversity that the closeness to Quebec brings. But he dislikes the additional security, which has separated families and makes it harder to travel back and forth.
So for years, White has used the event to promote more open borders.
“You’re quietly doing what you can do. And every time you say our purpose is to find a legendary lake creature and promote a more open border, it’s like well, maybe those two are the same thing, you know?” he said. “So the search for Memphre has many, many dimensions to it.”
The swimmers offer similar, yet unique, reasons for putting themselves to this extreme test.
Sixty-nine-year-old Dan Shub is a graphic designer from Baltimore, Maryland. His journey to Memphremagog started with a cancer diagnosis.
“When I was 34 I had a Hodgkin's disease cancer, and a lot of surgery, a lot of chemotherapy, and a real feeling that I wasn’t fit, I wasn’t able to do anything, and now it’s all downhill,” he said.
So Shub started training: first with running, then swimming, cycling and triathlons. He now runs less and swims more; he says the distance swims becomes almost meditative.
"It becomes kind of, I don’t know, yoga-like, Zen-like," he said. "You get into a sort of a mental state that’s kind of peaceful, and not even not thinking about swimming sometimes."
Fourteen-year-old Vera Rivard of Springfield, New Hampshire, is the youngest of the seven swimmers. She’s trained hard, and said the hardest part is “probably the mental game ... just seeing if I can do it.”
Darcie Rivard – Vera’s mom – said she take cues from her daughter about whether she has the strength to finish.
“My husband and I try to leave it up to her. But I mean, if it was unsafe, then we would [tell her to stop],” she said. “But mostly it’s a mental game that she plays, and if she wants to do it, then she does it, and we leave it up to her.”
Sharessa Guiterrez and her husband drove to Newport from Omaha, Nebraska. She said she swam competitively in college and started marathon swimming just five or six years ago. She said she swims to stay in shape and to serve as a positive role model for her five children.
“I love it. I think it’s just peaceful to be in the open water, so relaxing,” she said.
Charlotte Brynn is a native of New Zealand who swam the length of the lake in 2011. Brynn is an experienced marathon swimmer who’s swum 28 miles around Manhattan Island. She said Memphremagog is huge, mysterious and extremely challenging.
“Really, my favorite swims and my hardest have been on Lake Memphremagog. It's a feisty lake," Brynn said. "You know, sometimes people think a lake can be benign; that wind can whip. It can be changeable out there. And it’s a long swim, mentally and physically.”
Brynn sat out this year’s swim, but she instead helped out in a support boat. She said failure is a big part of marathon swimming — but there’s triumph in finishing, and in what you learn about yourself in the water.
“And if you overcome discomfort in the water, you go back to your daily life, your professional life, your home life, [and when] challenges come up, you tend to have a little more grit, more stick-to-it-edness,” she said.
Steven Munatones, of Huntington Beach, California, swam Lake Memprhemagog twice in the early ‘80s, competing when it was a race for professional swimmers. Munatones is known as the dean of open water swimming. He’s written a book on the subject and maintains a website that tracks events and swimmers around the world.
And Munatones said the Memphremagog event is one of the longest marathon swims and is known in the community as one of the toughest.
“The wind and waves can really batter a swimmer during the anywhere from 10-to-18-hour crossing,” he said. “It’s one of the iconic marathon swims in the world.”
Munatones said that because the race is now an amateur event, it attracts a diverse group of athletes who vary in age and backgrounds.
“It makes for a very unique community when young teenage girls are competing, and often beating, men in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and above,” he said. “And the other fact that people don’t realize in this sport is that the average female marathon swimmer is faster than the average male swimmer. So it’s one of the very few sports where women are better than men.”
Distance swimming is an exercise in sensory deprivation. Sight and sound are limited, and the swimmer is alone with her thoughts for hours, Munatones said.
“And those mental thoughts require a tremendous amount of focus. And it just seems to me that a lot of women can focus very well, on swimming well, their technique, their pace, etc., for hours and hours on end,” he said.
On swim day, the water was around 72 degrees, but the air was chilly and the north wind kicked up a fierce chop.
We passed the Rivards about five miles out in the open lake. The young swimmer and her family seemed undaunted. Darcie Rivard paddled alongside Vera in a kayak.
“She’s been waiting a long time for this," Darcie Rivard said of her daughter. "She’s one happy girl!”
“I’m psyched for her,” she adds.
But other swimmers are having trouble. About six miles up the lake, the call comes over the radio from a crew boat: “Hey Phil, come on up here. Think we’re calling it a day.”
The first one pulls out just over the border. White said the conditions are exceptionally tough.
“We’re going to pick you up,” he called to the swimmer.
“Some days the magic works, and some days it doesn’t,” White added.
Over the next 12 hours, four others pull out. Dan Shub, the 69-year-old from Baltimore is the last one to pull out. He makes it 17 miles.
After 15 hours and 51 minutes in the water Sharessa Guiterrez swims ashore in Magog. Vera Rivard touches land shortly after her, completing the swim in 16 hours and 24 minutes — and becoming the youngest person ever to traverse the 25 miles.
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