3 Questions for: Sarah Thomas

sarah english channel
Finishing a 4th continuous crossing of the English Channel. Photo courtesy Tom Nicholson, The Times (UK)

3 Questions is a new series of Q&A text-interviews with interesting people in ultraswimming (a.k.a. solo marathon swimming). For the first episode I chat with Sarah Thomas – who, of anyone in this sport, needs no introduction. Sarah’s swimming feats speak for themselves, but as anyone who has followed her career will understand, she is distinguished just as much by her openness, strength of character, and the eloquence of her voice. And this was the primary reason I wanted her to kick off this series.

— Evan Morrison

[EM] One notable aspect of your marathon swimming career is that you’ve never failed to finish a swim (excluding the 2012 Tampa Bay race, which you were leading when it was called off due to lightning). It’s especially remarkable given the sheer volume of swims you’ve completed, and the highly challenging nature of many of these swims. 

Which swim did you come closest to DNF’ing? And why? How did you push through it to finish?

[ST] Honestly, I think there is a moment in every swim where I debate with myself if I should keep swimming or not. What we’re doing in the water isn’t rational, so finding a reason to keep going can sometimes be a challenge. Every time the “this hurts, why am I doing this again” thoughts creep in, I have to be prepared with a really good response for myself to keep things moving in the right direction. Sometimes, plain and simple, I tell myself that this swim/event cost too much money to just quit in the middle for no good reason. Sometimes, I think of the hours I spent training and the sacrifices I made just to arrive at the starting line. When you think of the sheer volume of training and time away from family/friends that goes into training for a long swim, it’s hard to justify walking away for no good reason. I suppose I haven’t had a good enough reason to get out yet.

The closest I’ve ever come to quitting a swim was Lake Powell. It was my first multi-day swim and I was really anxious about swimming through 2 full nights. I spent the first night telling myself how hard night 2 would be and generally psyching myself out. I had some lower back pain from sleeping funny the night before and I was a lot colder than I expected I would be. All night, I kept telling myself I was just going to swim for 24 hours and then get out. I had a friend jump in to pace swim right at the 24 hour mark, and I didn’t have to heart to tell them I wanted to quit. I made it another 6 hours, until right at 30 hours, which at the time was my longest swim. I actually took my goggles off and told my sister, who was in a kayak, that I was done and wanted to get out. She stayed really calm, listened to my list of grievances, and told me she thought I could swim another half an hour. She promised to get me a warm feed, find out what the weather forecast was, and simply reassured me that I should try another half an hour. I agreed and put my goggles back on.

30 minutes later, my husband came out in the kayak, listened the the list of grievances again, and assured me they could fix some things. At the next 30 minutes, I had a belly full of warm risotto, messages of encouragement from friends following on Facebook and the assurance that they had a good plan for the 2nd night and that the crew would take care of me during the night. I was starting to feel better, liked the idea of more pace swimmers and warm feeds during night #2, and agreed to keep going. It was a pretty hairy hour and a half, but my team really helped strengthen my resolve. Once the sun set, I started counting backwards until daylight- 12 hours, 11 hours, 10 hours, etc, making sure to keep my mind focused on the present, NOT on the many hours left in the swim. It was a long, cold, stressful night, but we made it through- and when the sun came up on day 3, I told my crew that we were going to finish this swim, no matter what. And we did. 🙂

[EM] I’ve always thought that 2013 was a pivotal year for you – and in a way, for the sport generally. In August 2012, you became the 59th person to complete the Triple Crown – accomplished for sure, but not so different from anyone else on that list. By September 2013, you had done the first two-way crossings of both Lake Tahoe and Lake Memphremagog, and were on the rocket ship to Mt. Rushmore status in the sport. Even now, these two swims are mind-boggling feats – at a time when even one-way swims of these lakes were fairly uncommon.

So, I’m curious for your reflections on 2013 – I’m wondering if it stands out to you as much as it stands out to me. Was there anything in particular that happened around that time – with your training, or your mental outlook, etc. – that sheds light on what you accomplished that year? And how you went from one of many 20-mile swimmers to one of a small handful of 50-mile swimmers in the span of a year?

[ST] In 2012, I finished my Triple Crown with the English Channel. We had gone over in July, but the weather was bad, so we went home- no swim. I came back a few weeks later in August and had a really successful swim. Because of the gap in training, I had been really worried I was still physically ready to swim the EC. But, I was so incredibly grateful for the 2nd chance in the same year that I promised to enjoy every stroke, instead of trying to power through as fast as I could, like I had done with Catalina and MIMS. Slowing down the pace was a huge eye opener – I could swim just a touch slower on less training and still finish fast and strong. When I finished the EC, I KNEW I wanted to do something longer, which is where the double Tahoe swim idea was born.

That spring of 2013 was nuts – I started a new job and we bought a house. I swam SCAR on basically no training (relative to what I had been doing for past swims)- and again did well. We had scheduled Tahoe for August sometime, so after SCAR, I took some time off and really backed off on training- focusing on work and the house and wedding planning. Then, we had to move our dates up at the last minute – Craig was going to be part of the Bering Strait relay, so August was out and we bumped our swim up to late July. I had to fast track my training in a big way and ultimately didn’t hit the targets I had originally planned for a monster of a swim. I was still swimming a lot – but not much more than I had for Catalina. And yet I was still able to power through the last 4km at Tahoe like it was nothing. Again, it was a huge eye opener that I could swim a really long way on a basic 60km/week training plan. Major confidence boost. 

I had already signed up for In Search of Memphre for September, but after Tahoe, Phil White called and asked if I’d thought of doubling anything else. Oblivious to his motive, I said “maybe the English Channel some day.” He laughed at me and said, “No, I mean Memphre – do you want to try and double Memphre when you come out in September?” My mind was totally blown – I didn’t believe the turn around on something like that was actually possible. I told him I’d think about it – I needed to see how recovery went and then see if I could get built up again. I think there were only about 6-7 weeks between the two swims. Recovery went well, I was able to build back up and nothing was hurting, so about 3 weeks out, I told Phil I was in. I could tell stories for days about that lake and everything that went wrong on that swim. While Tahoe had been a relatively smooth swim, Memphre was a little more ornery… but despite all the obstacles, I was still able to walk out after 50 miles, tired but totally fine.

Again, it was an eye opening experience and almost immediately I wanted to try something longer than 50 miles. So, really, Phil White is to blame for all of this. If he hadn’t pushed me to try 50 miles so close to Double Tahoe, I’m not sure how long it would have taken me to build up the confidence to try something even longer. I’ve always looked at 2013 as the year I figured things out- it was definitely the foundation for big dreams.

[EM] You and I started in marathon swimming around the same time, and we have the shared experience of that history and how the sport has developed over the past decade or so. Obviously, there have been some massive changes during that time. 
What are your hopes for the sport’s continued development over the next decade? Things you want to see more of? Less of? What do you want the global sport of marathon swimming to look like in 2030, compared to now?

[ST] My first Channel swim was in 2010. When I finished my Triple Crown in 2012, as you noted, I was #59. Alison Streeter was the first – completed in 1987. So from 1987 to 2012, I was #59. From 2012 to today – we’re up over 240. That’s MASSIVE growth in a fairly short amount of time. In some ways, I love how accessible the sport is becoming and I love more people pursuing their passions and dreams.

But, I do think we have some growing pains and we’re very fragmented. Each local sanctioning organization handles their own reporting and rules can vary between swims, like where the Cook Strait allows for a shark break or the Tsugaru Channel allows for a streamer. Reporting and documentation practices vary wildly from location to location. And while I want everyone to get out there and swim to the best of their ability, it’s hard to sometimes know if we’re all being held the same standard. I’d like to see more clear definitions and categories arise between traditional, English Channel rule swims and other more adventure-type swims that involve ice swimming, stage swimming or wetsuits, for example. I think there’s room for all types of swimming to make open water more inclusive, but I also think we need to do a better job defining those different categories and explaining them to the general public in ways that make sense.

I also haven’t loved the price increases that some of the more traditional swims are now being able to ask for when it comes to boat fees. The more people, the more we can be charged – and even if I say no thanks to a price hike, the next swimmer in line behind me might be willing to pay it. I wish there was a better way to make swims more accessible to people who might be phenomenal swimmers, but don’t have the funds for a Catalina or English Channel.

I suppose, in summary, in the next 10 years, I’d love to see us become more organized, with fewer factions- MSF, WOWSA, FINA, all the local sanctioning organizations, etc. I’d like to find a way for everyone to work together to make sure we’re growing our sport in a healthy, meaningful way that grows us, instead of breaks us down.