Overcoming hallucinations, waves, mild hypothermia and her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, Susan Simmons reached the beach at Lakeview Park at Cowichan Lake after swimming 70 kilometres – the length of the lake and back.
"It was an amazing experience," she said Monday morning as she continued her recovery from the marathon swim she undertook with friend Alex Cape. "It had a lot of challenges along the way."
The pair left the beach just outside of Lake Cowichan at 2:30 p.m. on Friday afternoon, headed for Heather campground, surrounded by an entourage of swimmers and kayakers who took turns serving as support crew for the two women.
Simmons and Cape used English Channel marathon rules, meaning they accomplished the feat without wetsuits or swim aids, and have now qualified for the 24-hour club, a group of open-water swimmers who have completed non-stop swims in open bodies of water for a minimum of 24 hours. Their swim time of 32 to 33 hours puts them in an elite group of 117 worldwide.
Their distance also puts them among the top flat water distance swimmers in the world, as less than 10 swimmers on record have swum 70 kilometres or more in a lake unassisted.
The pair had been aiming for a time of about 30 hours.
"There were a few spots that slowed us down," said Simmons.
The swimmers fueled-up with snacks every 30 minutes, and during the night, Simmons’s stomach failed, she said.
She credits a crew member for guiding her through a "stomach reset," where she would have a bit of Ginger Ale, then swim 10 strokes, gradually building up how far she could go.
"We did that for about an hour and a half to two hours," she said. "Thank goodness she knew how to do that. Otherwise I would have had to stop at that point."
Then on the way back to Lakeview Park Simmons and Cape hit a spot just before the lake narrows where there are typically some fairly sizeable waves.
"We both really struggled," Simmons said. "It was very discouraging."
That was about 55 kilometres into the swim, so both women were very tired.
Again, Simmons credits one of her crew members for helping her to figure out how to "surf" some of the waves so that she actually made up some time.
But that wasn’t the end of the obstacles Simmons would face.
"The last three hours were hallucinations," she said. "I knew it was going to happen, so it was fine, it’s just a little uncomfortable."
Because of that, Simmons didn’t want to stop in the last hour to eat or look up.
"I was seeing so many things in front of me that I just thought, ‘I don’t want to see this anymore, I just want to get to the finish’."
"I fell asleep twice, too, which I didn’t think you could do while you were swimming," Simmons recalls. "That kind of scared me."
She made sure her crew knew what was going on, and she persevered under their watchful eyes.
When the pair finally reached the end of their journey, they were greeted by a crowd, Simmons said, as well as a doctor and ambulance technician who treated them for mild hypothermia.
It was all worth it, Simmons said.
"I learned so much while I was doing this," she said.
The 49-year-old’s history of swimming began close to nine years ago, about 10 years after she was first diagnosed with MS. At that time, she was told not to exercise at all.
"Not exercising caused me to be even unhealthier. So I had nothing in my body to fight MS because I became unhealthy because I wasn’t exercising, not from the MS," Simmons said.
Her Cowichan Lake swim was to prove to herself she could do it, but also to get the word out about how important exercise is for people with MS. Swimming is a particularly effective form of exercise for those with MS, she said, because you can stay cool while doing it. Heat can be a trigger for MS symptoms.
"Fitness is really important to everybody’s health, and more so to those of us who have any kind of a disease," she said.
It’s too early to say whether Simmons will take on another swimming challenge. She said she’s promised her mother she will not decide anything for the next few weeks.