Susan Simmons tackles Cowichan Lake’s open water

Susan Simmons, diagnosed 20 years ago with multiple sclerosis, is no stranger to big challenges and this Friday she’s taking on another one.

At 2 p.m. she and friend Alex Cape will dive into the water at Cowichan Lake for a 70 kilometre swim, as they attempt to swim the length of the lake and back in less than 30 hours.

"A lot of preparation has gone into the swim," said Simmons, a Vancouver Island resident who is undertaking the challenge to raise awareness about MS and the huge benefits that exercise, particularly swimming can have for sufferers.

"It’s a significant undertaking.

There are over 65 volunteers, a fleet of motorized boats, and a flotilla of kayaks and canoes. Len Martel, our logistic guru, has been organizing escorts and safety crew into manageable shifts in order to keep things as safe as possible."

Simmons and Cape have opted to follow English Channel marathon swim rules. The two will swim unassisted (no wetsuit or swim aids) from Lakeview Park to Heather Campground, and then will turn around (without stopping) and swim back.

Should they succeed, they will become members of the 24-hour club, a group of open water swimmers who have completed a nonstop swim in an open body of water for a minimum of 24 hours.

There are currently 117 members worldwide with some of the swims dating back as far as the 1930s.

The swim will also allow the two to count themselves among the top flat water (non-tidal) distance swimmers in the world. There are less than 10 swimmers on record who have swum a distance of 70 km or greater in a lake unassisted, and only one Canadian. Vicki Keith swam 103 kilometres in a two-way crossing of Lake Ontario in 1987.

"You just kind of have to put your head down and keep going," said Simmons.

Cape and Simmons started focusing on long distance training back in October 2013 under the direction of their coach Danielle Brault with the Victoria Masters Swim Club.

Simmons has been swimming for the past nine years to help manage her MS. It’s an ideal kind of exercise for those with the disease, she said.

"Heat is a trigger for a lot of people for MS and when you swim you stay cool," Simmons said.

When she first started swimming, 20 laps of the pool would lead to two to three hour naps. She struggled to walk more than two blocks.

"I had a lot of MS symptoms," she said, including numbness in her hands and feet and problems with balance.

"Since swimming, over the last 10 years, most of those symptoms have gone away," she said. "Had I not done this, I would have kept getting sicker."

"When you have disease, it’s even more important that you stay active and fit and that you try to take care of yourself because then your immune system can work at dealing with the disease," Simmons said.

Cape, 34, has been swimming since 1991.

Cape and Simmons have swum between 1,500 and 2,000 kilometres as part of their preparation; a distance similar to the distance from Victoria to Winnipeg. They were regularly seen swimming laps, sometimes 15 or more at a time, around Thetis Lake.

In addition to all of the physical and mental preparation the two women have been training their bodies to eat every half an hour while in the water.

"Eating will be key," said Simmons. "We need to be able to sustain our energy levels to keep us moving and warm. We will be stopping to fuel up every 30 minutes throughout the swim. That’s about 50 snacks! It’s been a challenge finding the right food and the right portions. After a certain point it’s easy to not want to eat or worse, get sick."

When the pair dive in they will be joined by Lauren Westmacott and Carol Pal, a friend of Simmons who also has MS. The two support swimmers will swim with them for the first 10 km, rest overnight, and then join them on their way back for the last 10 km.

Several members of the Victoria Masters Swim Club will also jump into the lake with the women throughout the swim.

Cape and Simmons are both open water advocates and have been challenging teammates and friends to get out of the pool and into the lake.

"Heading out for a workout in the lake with a group of swimmers makes me so happy," said Cape. "I love that we are all together, enjoying this beautiful lake. It’s such a refreshing change from the pool."

The rest of the night will be quiet, with just the two of them swimming down the lake escorted by their kayakers and safety boat.

"I’m excited and a bit afraid at the same time," said Simmons. "I’m not afraid to swim in the dark, and I trust my crew to guide me. I am, however, concerned about the cold. The lake gets colder as you swim toward Heather, and the air will get colder as darkness sets in. I am worried the cold will set-in. We have no way to warm ourselves until the sun is out the next day."

If all goes well Cape and Simmons will reach the halfway mark at Heather Campground by 3 a.m. At that point they will turn around (without touching the bottom or exiting the lake) and start making their way back. Simmons’ English Channel relay teammates

Jim Close and Bill Burton, both proficient cold water swimmers, will join them for a few kilometers, supporting them during the coldest part of the swim.

The two women will be on their own again for the next 20 plus kilometres as they head back toward Gordon Bay and, eventually, Lakeview Park.

Cape has been studying the map, breaking it down into sections, to visualize her progress along the lake.

"I am already thinking ahead to this part of the swim. I have been telling myself that it will feel really reassuring to be heading back towards the finish line. We will recognize points, and will hopefully feel good to be on the home stretch."

Members of the swim and triathlon communities will join them for the last 10, 5, and 2 km. A dozen or more will swim the last 2 kilometres with the women, including members of Victoria’s Special Olympic Swim team, a club Simmons helps coach.

Family and friends will be hosting a get-together for the swimmers and their crew at the finish line. The Town of Lake Cowichan is allowing the pair to finish and celebrate at the municipal beach. Lake Cowichan Country Grocery has donated food for the celebration and the Lake Cowichan AW will be donating drinks for all of the swimmers and volunteers.