It was dark, I was nervous and cold, and I could see a tiny green light in the distance which I hoped was the pontoon boat. “Is that it?”, I kept wondering anxiously. I glanced at my watch and it was nearing 1am. I was in awe of what Emily had already accomplished and excited to put my training to the test. The nighttime sky was amazing and clear with multiple shooting stars, which I took as a sign of good luck. We had a group of approximately 10 people at Boettcher State Park in Poslon, MT to see us off, including a 5 year old boy named David who kept saying the obvious fact that all of us adults were apparently missing: it would be much easier if we just took a boat across the lake. I starting thinking about why we were doing this and remembered that any discomfort that we felt during the swim would be minuscule in comparison to what Monte and Scottie Marie and their families go through on a daily basis. I knew at that time that this swim was much bigger than Emily or I and any fears or doubts I had just drifted away.
Back on the beach, I was fidgeting with my goggles and trying hard not to touch anything because my entire back, face, and extremities were smeared in white, sticky Desitin diaper cream to protect me from the cold, sun, abrasion, and lake monsters (no scientific evidence for the latter). I began reviewing in my head all the months of training Emily and I had put into this swim and all the people who had dedicated their time, support, and love to make it possible. The journey was about to start and I was excited, yet strangely calm.
Emily made it to the shore, led by the pontoon boat with Emily’s faithful support crew and my wife, Wendy, in a kayak outfitted with LED lights around the hull. Emily looked exhausted. She sat down on a towel and ate two grilled cheese sandwiches within the 10 minute time period that is allowed under open water swimming rules for a double crossing.
I remember sheepishly trying to make a joke about her last blog post that started with,”A doctor and lawyer hop into a lake…” and failing miserably on my delivery and punch line. Since she had posted the start of that joke on her blog post the best I had come up with was something about the Flathead Lake Monster being misunderstood and becoming friends with us, so it’s probably better I didn’t burden her with my unsuccessful attempt at a punchline. She was chewing determinedly, and I remember sitting next to her and saying, “Let’s do this!” She gave a slight smile and we started wading into the surprising warm, 74 degree F water. Someone yelled out that Emily had been on the beach for 8 minutes and we submersed ourselves underwater and starting swimming the 28 miles back to Somers Bay at the northern end of Flathead Lake in the dead of the night. After the swim my dad came up with a great punchline to the joke that went like this: “So the doctor says, ‘Take 12 Ibuprofen and I’ll see you later today.’ And the lawyer says, ‘Let’s go- we have work to do!’” That is way better than anything that I came up with!
So now we were off into the dark abyss. Would we find the Flathead Lake Monster? Only time would tell. The two blue glow sticks strapped to the back of my goggles gave off an aura that I was really digging. It was very easy to follow the kayaks at night as they had a waterproof bag with flashlights in them dragging behind the kayaks. I remember looking over at Emily during the night swim and thinking that her red glow stick looked like E.T.’s heart beating, and that brought me comfort from my nostalgic 80’s childhood. Swimming at night is kind of scary. We had practiced a few weeks earlier at Somers by doing a 1.3 mile midnight swim. Every time a piece of lake grass or floating wood bumped into me, I would totally flip out and think about Captain Nemo and the giant squid from Jules Verne's’ Twenty-thousand Leagues under the sea, or jellyfish for some reason. There were also lots of optical illusions that came with nighttime; early into the swim I remember asking, “Is the boat on? The current from the motor is pushing me backwards! Oh, you’re moving forward…I get it!”
Every hour we stopped to refuel, which for me usually included my favorite: double-stuffed Oreos or snickers (thanks for supplying them in my good-luck gift bag, Sunny View Pediatrics!) and either a chocolate milk, Powerade, or Ensure, among many other options. Since we couldn’t hold onto the boat or touch another person, getting the food from the pontoon boat to me required a fun inflatable watermelon toy on a string that would be pushed out to me containing the food or liquid chosen for that break. My crew composing of my wife (Wendy), my mom (Sue), and fellow swimmers (Deb and Alison) would prepare my food and drink at each break and document my calories, pain level, cold level, medication intake, bathroom status, and other notes. A quick aside: shopping for this swim was a strange reversal of goals, because since we needed to take in about 250-400 cals each hour with solids or liquids at the store I would look at the nutrition facts and get frustrated by how few calories were in some of my favorite foods. For example, I’d have to eat almost 30 pieces of Twizzlers Nibbs to get close to my goal. That would be way too much chewing work and take too long to finish during the breaks, so that didn’t make the cut. In the week leading up to the swim, I added an Oreos milkshakes to my daily diet to build up my energy stores and prepare me for the swim. Afterwards, it has been difficult to break these habits. Like I tell my patients everyday as a pediatrician, we should never diet or strive for quick fixes. Work on sustainable lifestyle choices. There are no short cuts in life, which I think all the training and preparation for this endeavor nicely illustrated!
As the daylight started to glow from behind the Swan Mountain Range, it was nearing 5 am and we were just passing through the narrows. The water had been so pleasant, calm and flat during the entire night. Emily was exhausted and had mentioned that she felt like she was falling asleep while swimming. The light re-energized both of us and we set our sights on Wild Horse Island as the next big landmark. We were picking up our pace now, traveling at about 2 mph which was the goal pace we had trained for. We both felt better at this point and had a strong formation with the pontoon boat out in front and both kayaks keeping the swimmers between them.
Right after we passed Wild Horse Island around 11 am, the waves started to pick up dramatically. Luckily the wind was at our back, but there was white water and 2-3 foot waves that lasted all the way to Angels Point. Our boat crew was starting to feel seasick and it was very difficult for Emily and I to feed during our breaks. I mostly drank chocolate milkshakes and Ensure during that period because every time I opened my mouth to chew something, I would get a huge mouthful of water and choke. I remember thinking that it looked like Angel Point was only a few hours away, but it took us a lot longer given the rough conditions. Our crew in the boat was amazing and kept us positive even though I know that both Emily and I wanted to quit at this point. We kept on swimming…
As we rounded Angels Point, we were only 8 miles from the finish and could see the water tower at Somers Beach, which gave us a renewed burst of energy and excitement. The waves had died down a bit when we got past the Point, but they were still choppy and we were really tired and just wanted to sleep. A group of swimmers on our team jumped in and swam with us for a while and the company was very nice and appreciated. We started getting some boat traffic following us along and cheering us on. This was really helpful, and after rounding Angels Point and seeing the finish I remember telling Emily, “We got this!”
As we neared the finish at dusk, we could hear a lot of cheering and about 50 people had stayed up with us on a Sunday night to greet us at the finish around 10 pm. Those cheers and positive energy got us to the finish and after Emily and I crawled up the boat launch to touch dry land we hugged and said that we were proud of each other. I immediately waddled over to the awaiting ambulance to get checked out and warm up. After receiving intravenous fluids with my wife, Wendy, at my head, I felt relieved, at peace, and closed my eyes for the first time in 36+ hours. We made it and I truly believe that we would not have been successful without each other and our amazing team.
I want to thank Emily von Jentzen for her guidance, expertise, and training companionship for this swim. I had no idea what I was getting myself into when agreeing to do this last year and Emily had a very detailed and well thought out training plan that we completed together over past 7 months. I learned a lot about myself and even journaled a bit, which my wife and parents can tell you is not something that I have ever done in the past! I want to thank my wonderful wife, Wendy, and my very sweet and caring mom, Sue, for being my constant advocate during the swim and making this possible along with the extraordinary group of volunteers and kayakers (especially Wendy, Nate, Danielle, Deb, and Alison) that kept us safe. Wendy was in the kayak for 5+ hours at the end and got us to the finish line. I know that without her constant support and determination that I would not have made it. Thank you to Emily’s non-profit foundation, Enduring Waves, and the board members that made this happen. It was great to be a part of something bigger than ourselves and thinking about these amazing kids and families gave us plenty of motivation to complete our swim. Thank you to everyone who donated to enduringwaves.com and if you haven’t donated, please check out the website and learn more about Scottie Marie and Monte and their amazing families. They will always have a special place in my heart. Keep on swimming!
See you in the lake,
P.S. look at my scary swim suit which kept the Flathead Lake monster away from us during the swim!