Slathered in gobs of zinc oxide to prevent sunburn and lanolin to prevent chafing, marathon swimmer Sarah Thomas plunged into Lake Powell’s Bullfrog Marina at 8:21 a.m. on Oct. 4. After swimming continuously for 30 hours and 30 minutes, much of the time into a strong headwind that slowed her down and chilled her to the bone, Thomas came close to throwing in the towel. Physically, she wasn’t really hurting. But mentally, it seemed impossible to swim through another night. Treading water in the whitecaps, the thought of drowning crept into her mind.
“I lost it,” she said. “I’m usually pretty calm. I don’t think my crew knew how upset and frustrated I was. I was sobbing. I was a little bit hysterical.”
Fortunately, some warm risotto and a pep talk from her sister and her husband ended her meltdown and helped her get her focus back.
Twenty-four hours and a total of 82 miles later when she stepped onto shore at Wahweap Marina, her new world record for longest unassisted solo swim was not her first thought.
“Solid ground that is warm and dry is the most amazing sensation after being cold and wet and horizontal for 56 hours,” she said.
Open water marathon swimming is a niche category of the already-obscure endurance sports. And the land-locked American West with its lack of natural bodies of waters seems an unlikely place for the sport to thrive. But thrive it does. Along with her family, Thomas was accompanied by a close-knit crew of long-distance swimmers from her masters swim team, the University of Denver Aquaholics.
Thomas depended on her crew of 13 for navigation, food, safety and encouragement. Mechanical and navigation worries and a broken steering column on the 1,700-square-foot, unwieldy houseboat plagued the team from the start.
“From an open-water swimmer’s perspective, it was great to watch history being made,” said crew member Jack Nuanes. “My biggest concern was always logistics and mechanical. When she finished, it was more of a relief than anything. Nobody got hurt and she accomplished the impossible.”
The only standard equipment Thomas was allowed was a basic swimsuit, cap, goggles and earplugs. She wasn’t allowed to touch her support boat or kayak. No one from her crew could touch her. She got her energy every 30 minutes from a water bottle of sugary CarboPro attached to a pull buoy at the end of a rope her crew tossed to her. She had two “observers” from the Marathon Swimmers Federation on board to make sure she followed the rules exactly. No wetsuit, no headphones playing music and no sleeping for 56 hours.
After her collegiate career at the University of Connecticut, Thomas, 34, found her way to marathon swimming through the Horsetooth 10k in Fort Collins, CO. She loved it. Her Denver swimmer friends were training for a Catalina Channel swim and she decided she would do it as well. She then went farther, completing a 21-mile English Channel, 28-mile Manhattan Island and 44-mile Lake Tahoe swims. But she knew she could go bigger.
The seed for the Lake Powell project was planted after a heart-breaking disappointment. Thomas had trained in 2014 for a 68-mile swim off the coast of California. As she was about to board the plane, the owner of the support boat she had hired called and said they were cancelling the swim because of strong winds.
“I was really disappointed,” Thomas said. “I didn’t swim for almost two months. After that I knew I had to do something not in the ocean where I can have more control over it and take my own boat and my own crew.”
She began researching possibilities with freshwater lakes. The Great Lakes region didn’t interest her. But Lake Powell, on the border of Utah and Arizona, was within driving distance of her home in Conifer, Colorado. Although the water level can vary depending on seasonal dam releases, there are no currents and the water is crystal clear. It sounded promising. After scouting the area over Memorial Day weekend, Thomas decided to go for it.
The logistics were complicated. Finding the shortest route down a winding river canyon with 71 GPS waypoints was a fulltime job for Thomas’ crew. They had a map and compass as backup in case the remote location and towering canyon walls rendered the GPS useless.
The current record-holder is Australian swimmer Chloe McCardel, who swam 77.3 miles in the Bahamas. Thomas and her team are still compiling the GPS data from the swim, but they know she went farther than that. They plan to submit the data to a panel of judges from the Marathon Swimmers Federation. When her feat is officially recognized by the organization, Thomas expects to own the world record for longest unassisted solo swim. But her Lake Powell adventure might not even be the limit of her capabilities.
“I honestly thought I would find my limit in Lake Powell,” she said. “If I crashed and burned but gave it everything I had, that would have been fine. I would know where my limit was and what I was capable of. You’ve got to find your limit. And I think maybe there’s still more.”
Photos by Ken Classen