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Swimming Lake Superior: Detroit Lakes’ duo brave challenging race again

Two Detroit Lakes swimmers in Carol McCarthy and Libby Larson each swam and placed high in The Point to LaPointe race, held in Bayfield, Wis. ROBB LARSON

Last summer, looking for some motivation to keep myself in shape over the months of vacation from college swimming, I committed to race two miles through the waters of Lake Superior for the first time. My high school coach from Detroit Lakes, Carol McCarthy, joined me on the adventure.

The Point to LaPointe swim race has been held for the past eight years as a fundraiser for the Bayfield Recreation Center and swim team and has grown from 24 people in 2006 to around 400 finishers this year.

Carol and I were pleasantly surprised last summer by how much we enjoyed the race atmosphere and the beautiful scenery of Bayfield, Wis. and Madeline Island. We were even more surprised by how well we ended up finishing,  both of us earning mugs filled with local blueberries as trophies for winning our age categories.

So it was with significantly fewer nerves that I again registered online to compete in the swim this summer, Carol doing the same.

Unfortunately, the nerves flared up again when I began receiving notification of the frigid water temperatures predicted for race day.

“I was a little bit nervous about it,” Carol agreed about the water temperatures.

We were spoiled last year with temperatures in the 70’s, a relative rarity for Lake Superior, so my teeth practically began to chatter when I heard that the lake was projected to be in the low 60s for our upcoming race.

Wetsuits are required for competition in Point to LaPointe, and Carol and I both opted for a full-sleeved style this year.

For those who have never worn a wetsuit, it provides both warmth and a strange “full-body lifejacket” sensation, like you’ve suddenly transformed into a giant cork.

I’m not a huge fan of the feeling, but I’ll take any barrier against the icy waters of Superior that I can get my hands on, and wetsuits were required for entrance in the competition.

After preparation both in the pool and in local lakes, Carol and I drove separately to Bayfield. My family made the trip with me both years, as my dad loves using his camera to capture the gorgeous scenery of the North Shore.

We picked up our packets the night before the race, and enjoyed a spaghetti dinner put on by the swim team. I got the chance to meet up with some fellow competitors and teammates from Gustavus Adolphus College, where I’m about to enter my junior year.

A buzz of excitement filled the air as the small town of Bayfield became crowded with swimmers, kayakers, and their families. The community was extremely welcoming, and most stores offered specials for the athletes.

“I love the atmosphere up there,” Carol said. Of the swimmers, she noted, “They’re there to race, but it’s also a fun event. With running I always get really nervous but this swim not so much, and I like that community. It’s just a fun atmosphere.”

Carol and I met up Saturday morning around 6:45 a.m. on the shore of the lake.

A rainbow of kayaks lined up along the shore, and hundreds of swimmers zipped into their wetsuits and clipped on timing chips. Some brave swimmers were already in the lake, testing the waters.

After a brief safety meeting and advice on how to navigate around the buoys, the men lined up at the start. They took off at 7:20 am, and Carol and I cautiously braved the chill and waded in.

“The night before it was a lot colder actually than the next morning, so I was actually concerned the night before, but when we got down to the waterfront it didn’t seem so bad,” Carol said.

Though it was certainly colder than the water of Pickerel Lake, Superior wasn’t nearly as frigid as I had mentally hyped it up to be before the race.

Carol and I slowly adjusted to the water, making our way to the far left side of the line in an effort to avoid the mayhem that ensues at the start.

Neck deep in Superior, we bounced to keep warm, and I felt my toes and fingers begin to numb. Fortunately, the water was relatively calm, and we could faintly see the yellow balloons which marked the finish in the distance.

We adjusted our goggles over the two caps we both wore in an effort to retain a little extra warmth, and the announcer called out the approach of the start.

During the countdown, I tried to prepare myself for the wall of icy water that I was about to plunge face first into.

When asked of her thoughts right before we started, Carol said, “I just thought, just have fun, and stay ahead of the pack,” she laughed.

The moment came and we took off.

We managed to avoid the thrashing and kicking at the start, and the crowd thinned significantly about five minutes into the race.

“I felt like I was kind of in the middle of nowhere,” Carol said of how the groups of swimmers spaced out.

However, the two of us stayed in each other’s proximity.

It was around the midway mile mark that I was certain Carol snuck behind and began to draft off of me. A little irritated, I pushed on and eventually put some distance between us.

However, when I later spoke with Carol, she illuminated the true nature of this interaction.

“You swam up to me, and you were like right in front of me, and I was trying to get away from you, and I remember thinking that you’re probably thinking that I’m drafting off of you,” Carol replied to my accusation.

It turned out that my unfortunate inability to swim straight without the aid of a line at the bottom of a pool had veered me directly into Carol, cutting her off, and causing me to believe that she was at fault. I’d like to  take partial blame with my veering on the current which swept many other swimmers off course.

I was startled by some large, gentle waves during the swim, which Carol also experienced and said, “I felt like I was surfing part of the time.”

Last year, I terrified myself by imagining all of the creepy aquatic critters that could be swarming in the depths below me, and Carol experienced something similar this year.

“I always imagine there’s like a big fish under there, like what would a whale look like,” she laughed.

“I would kind of freak out in Lake Superior because there are a lot bigger fish down there, but I’ve never seen one...yet,” she added.

By the end, my squiggly swimming meant I had to correct quite a bit to enter in the right spot, and I missed the opening for the finish not once, but twice. It took the friendly advice from another swimmer to finally enter the chute of flotation noodles that had been set up close to shore.

I staggered up the walkway, and was immediately unzipped by a volunteer while another unclipped my timing chip.

I finished in 54:51, and Carol came up the ramp just seconds after me at 55:07. We stood for a moment, watching the pink and yellow caps bobbing closer to shore as more athletes completed the race.

My first emotion after the race was mostly relief that it was over. The sense of accomplishment would come later, after my land legs returned.

“I felt good,” Carol said of her reaction after emerging from the lake. “I felt a little more worn out than last year, but there were a little bit choppier conditions.”

“I think it was just the excitement last year, and this year I was excited, but I think I knew a bit about the race,” she added.

Carol enjoyed a free massage at the finish line, and we both partook in the free breakfast offered by several restaurants in the community of LaPointe before trekking to the award ceremony.

I won last year in the under 20-years-old group. This year I bumped up into the 20 to 30 bracket and took third.

I was awarded a certificate for a discount on blueberry picking and a drawstring bag.

Carol again won her 40-50 age group. The fastest woman overall actually came from the same category, but she earned a larger grand prize and was thus removed from her age bracket.

Of the women, I finished sixth and Carol took seventh, and overall, out of 396 finishers, I took 44th and Carol finished 49th.

Carol received a beautiful mug crafted by a Bayfield artist, filled with organic blueberries in honor of her win.

“I’m going to start a collection now,” Carol chuckled and said of the two mugs she’s won at the event.

Though I still treasure my mug from last year, and will certainly enjoy the use of my new bag, the most rewarding part of the event was taking on the challenge with my former coach while enjoying the atmosphere of the race.

Carol agreed, and added, “I just think it’s just an example of one of the events that show that swimming is a lifetime sport. I mean, there were 70-year-olds swimming that race, and it’s just fun to see that whole spectrum of ages in that event, and that’s why I think it’s such a great event.”

As I rode the ferry back to the mainland with my family, watching the shoreline of Madeline Island shrinking away, I couldn’t help but feel awed that I had just swum across the expanse of water, and grateful that I’ve been able to share the experience with my family and Carol, my former high school coach, mentor, and friend.

Libby Larson | DL Newspapers