Sarah Thomas was born to swim. She picked up the sport at age seven and has been swimming pretty much ever since. This past July, she broke her own world record, swimming 104 miles in Lake Champlain, from Rouses Point, New York, to Vermont and back again. Her solo swim was unassisted, non-wetsuit, and current neutral. The water was also full of lampreys. I wasn’t sure what a lamprey was, so I looked them up. Yeah, they are the stuff of nightmares. I recently wrote about my fears of swimming in open water without a wetsuit because of the perils of lake or ocean creatures; Sarah clearly does not have those same concerns.
As I was swimming laps this morning, I was mentally tracking how long I would have to be in the pool to cover 104 miles. The answer? A really long time. It took Sarah 67 hours, 16 minutes, and 12 seconds. Five hours faster than she expected. Three nights, two sunrises. Not only was this a phenomenal physical feat, it was also a mental one. While Sarah has a crew on her long, nay, mammoth swim challenges, she is swimming alone. The mental resilience needed to conquer the mind games that occur is mighty.
Her epic 104 mile swim sits on the shoulders of the many other awe-inspiring open water marathon swim challenges she has completed over her thirty-five years. After her first marathon open water swim in Horsetooth Reservoir (a 10K), her swimming world expanded. She met some Catalina Channel swimmers and decided she would give that race a try in 2010. Catalina is an island off the coast of Los Angeles and the channel from the island to the mainland is about 21 miles. Although she finished the swim, she reflected on what a tough experience it was for her. The swim began around midnight, and she hadn’t done a good job of prepping, and then executing, her nutrition plan leading to her ‘crashing’ in the last four hours. There was a significant cross wind and she just couldn’t find her rhythm. Sarah finished the race in just over nine hours, which is still a pretty fast pace. She described to me the aftermath with a chuckle. It included an inability to lift her arms over her head for a week, a swollen tongue from all the salt water, and chafing in places she didn’t even know you could chafe. And so she decreed: “This is it, I’m done.” Famous last words.
For any non-endurance athletes reading this, what usually happens is we routinely declare that we are one and done on these mammoth athletic exploits. And then the amnesia sets in. Sometimes it takes a few days, or perhaps a couple of weeks. But before long, the narrative changes and the race that was so horrific morphs into something not so bad. This softening of our feelings towards an endurance event inevitably leads us to sign up for another one. And that is what Sarah did. She signed up to swim across the English Channel.
In preparation for her English Channel swim, Sarah completed a 28.5 mile swim around Manhattan Island (2nd woman/5th overall) and the Tampa Bay Marathon swim (she won this race, although swimmers were pulled early because of a storm). Then, on a clear, sunny day in 2012, Sarah swam from England to France in just over 11 hours. “I swam with joy the entire way,” she said. When she got to the shore in France, the clientele from a local restaurant had come to the beach to cheer her on. The restaurateur handed her a glass of champagne as she walked from the water. It was a “magical moment” she reminisces. On finishing the English Channel swim, Sarah was now a proud member of the Triple Crown club — swimmers who’ve successfully completed the English Channel, Catalina Channel, and Manhattan Island swims.
Sarah’s other open water accomplishments include swimming the length of Loch Ness in Scotland (no monster sightings, I am afraid), an out and back across Lake Tahoe (she was the first swimmer and woman to do this) and swimming across Lake Memphremagog in Newport, VT. Originally, this was a 25 mile race but the race director called her to see if she wanted to do 50 miles–an out and back. “I’m never one to back down from a challenge” she declared confidently. This was her first 50 mile swim, and a tough one mentally: “I had to really dig deep.” And, her resilience paid off; she was the first ever swimmer to complete the 50 mile swim. Sarah has accrued an impressive litany of firsts. And her next challenge, because yes, you can top a 104 mile world record breaking swim, could be another. In September 2019, she will attempt to swim the English Channel crossing four times—England-France-England-France-England. Swimmers have tried, but no one yet has been triumphant.
Sarah Thomas is a formidable force in open water marathon swimming and one of the top competitors in the country from right here in land-locked Colorado. One of the insights she shared, and one that has stuck with me since we met, is that in every race, experience, or adventure, there is always something to learn. So often we close our minds, and doom ourselves to repeat the same missteps over and over. We have to allow for those moments to teach us. Humility is how we become better at what we do.
If you’d like to learn more, you can follow Sarah’s swimming adventures and progress on her official Facebook page.