The plan for swimming across Lake Ontario grew out of a casual comment from a friend. But it was a challenge that Vicki Keith says she could not resist. In August, 1987, Keith successfully completed a 102-mile double crossing of the lake—the first person ever to do so. And the 27-year-old former swimming instructor plans to challenge Lake Ontario again on Aug. 25—on the final leg of her unprecedented marathon fund-raising crossing of all five Great Lakes. By the time she sets foot on dry land at the Canadian National Exhibition grounds in Toronto—a landing scheduled for Aug. 27—Keith will have swum almost 180 miles. And late last week, the stocky swimmer had already raised more than $135,000 toward her goal of $300,000 for a new aquatic wing at Variety Village—a sports centre for disabled children in Scarborough, Ont. “This has definitely not been routine,” said the Winnipeg-born Keith. “I didn’t realize exactly how tough it was going to be.”
But setting and breaking records is nothing new to the Kingston, Ont., resident. After only four years of marathon swimming, the five-foot, 5%-inch Keith has entered the Guinness Book of World Records three times: in 1985, for swimming the butterfly stroke for 12 miles in Lake Ontario; in 1986, for
swimming in a Kingston, Ont., pool for 129 hours 45 minutes, a women’s endurance record; and last April, for swimming 42 miles in 24 hours, a nonstop distance record. During her current marathon, Keith was the first to swim both lakes Huron and Superior and the first amateur to cross Lake Michigan. She declared, “I am enjoying myself thoroughly.”
She said that the only time she was nervous was before the 21-mile crossing of Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes. The day before the Aug. 15 swim, Keith walked down to the beach, and after seeing the huge cliffs and powerful waves, she said that she became “very respectful of the lake.” The next day, during the swim, she saw a wreck of a ship beneath her. “I swam away as fast as I could,” said Keith. “It was like looking down on a grave.” Superior is the coldest of the five lakes, and its temperature dropped to about 13°C (55°F).
But marathon athletes are built and trained to resist extreme cold. In the rest periods between lakes—which have lasted no longer than two weeks—Keith gained between 15 and 30 lb., subsisting mainly on carbohydrates and protein, including pasta and hamburgers. During a swim—in which she averages a speed of 2xk m.p.h.—she may lose as much as 30 lb., most of it water. But women have a
greater proportion of fat under their skin than men, according to Dr. Michael Clarfield of Toronto’s Alan R. Eagleson Sports Medicine Clinic. That layer provides extra warmth and flotation and generally makes women better endurance swimmers. To maintain her energy, Keith eats a small meal once every two hours, usually consisting of soup, fruit salad, hot chocolate and arrowroot cookies or a chocolate bar.
Although Keith’s marathon regimen seems to require great effort, sports experts, I including Clarfield, say that there is usually no z long-lasting harm to the body. He added that the most an endurance athu lete will suffer is shortfatigue and a temporary drop in the immune system. And Keith’s daily training of weightlifting and as much as seven hours’ swimming, as well as her regular balanced diet, make her well prepared for the difficult, long-distance swims.
Still, she says that she routinely encounters a wave of self-doubt during her crossings. “I have never felt like I can’t go on,” she said. “But the question always arises: ‘Why am I doing this?’ Then I just say to myself, ‘Shut up and smarten up.’ ” And because she swims for long periods without rest, Keith often hallucinates—a common side effect of sleep deprivation. “For the first 36 hours of a swim, I know exactly what is going on,” said Keith. “After that, I usually start seeing things, but I tell everyone who’s with me, and they can join in the fun.” At no time is Keith allowed to leave the water or make physical contact with anyone. But she is always closely followed by at least 16 crew members— including family and friends in four boats—who encourage her and hand her food.
Cold water, high winds and aching muscles have rarely dampened Keith’s resolve. Last week, she told Maclean’s that she is looking forward to another seven years of marathons. But for now, she added, she is focusing her energy on successfully completing her fivelake marathon. “Don’t wish me ‘good luck,’ ” she said. “Just wish me ‘good weather.’ ”
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