Open Water Swimmer
An Interview with Gen Mackwood
by Kerry Smith November 2011
At age 51, Genevieve (Gen) Mackwood of Technosport Ottawa set herself a goal of completing the Ederle (ed-er-lee) Swim, a 17.5 mile (about 27.8 km) salt water swim from Sandy Hook, New Jersey to Lower Manhattan, New York City on Sunday, October 2, 2011. She placed eighth overall with a time of six hours, thirty two minutes. I interviewed her to see what ever possessed her to take on such a challenge.
K: Can you provide me with a sketch of your swimming career from your youth?
G: I started competitive swimming in the summer of 1969 with the Nepean summer competitive swim program at General Burns Pool where I also took lessons, and I liked it the best of all the sports I tried. I swam in the summer for three years with my older brothers. Scot, he eldest was a swim instructor and later on a swim coach in spite of the fact that he was legally blind. Even so, he attained the highest award â€œDistinctionâ€ as a swim instructor. My brother Mark was a breaststroker, but enjoyed rugby and team sports more than swimming. My Dad earned his Bronze Medallion and was a good all-round athlete, especially in Track and Field. My Mom is the most amazing person. In her eighties, she can out walk and out garden anyone. The summer I turned 14, I was swimming at Nepean Swim Club with Head Coach Mike Dirkson. I swam breast stroke but I loved the long distance swims, especially the 1500m. But at that time, in the 70’s there was no 1500m at nationals for girls, so I swam the 200m and 100m breast stroke events at nationals and at a few international meets. Mom and Dad were always really involved with swim meets when I was a teenager. They spent a lot of time encouraging me and giving me a lot of positive reinforcement. I stopped swimming at age 19 to go to nursing school. I got married and had my children. At 25, I swam for a few years with the Pembroke Masters Swim Club. Then, I had a third child and stopped swimming again because I had no time. I went back to swimming ten years later and joined up at lunchtime in the public swims with like-minded people to do workouts on our own. My two youngest children swam competitively and I did my share of car-pooling. When the kids were swimming, I napped in the stands and after their practice they would wake me to take them to school. I noticed the older group at the other end of the pool: Technosport Masters Swim Club with coach Duane Jones. He invited me to come on down and swim and the rest is history. I have been swimming ever since. I have swum at Nationals and in other meets, but the distance is what I really wanted to do. 1500m is about as short a race as I like these days. I have been attracted to long distance swimming since my youth. You donâ€™t have to go fast and I love spending time in water. As a kid, I had heard of marathon swims and was fascinated. But, where do you go to start? It is off the radar. Kim Lumsdon followed in her father Cliff’s footsteps and became a well-known marathon swimmer. She has a family background in sport and has known open water swimming from early in life. To me, marathon swimming looked like an unattainable goal, but Kim had experience throughout her life. Paula Stevenson swam all of the Great Lakes. She swims with the Nepean Masters Swim Club. Knowing what they attained made me think that perhaps I could do it too.
K: How did you make the shift from pool to open water?
G: As a teenager, I attended the Ak-o-mak swim camp near Huntsville, and I experienced outdoor swimming for the first time. I was anxious about the leeches and weeds but the other swimmers inspired me. I thought if they can swim in the lake, so can I. I did the swim across the lake; a four- or five-mile swim for kids 14â€“19 yrs. It was a great summer swim camp for teens and I have very fond memories from then. Swimming solo is the last thing I ever dreamed of doing. I was always a pool swimmer and when my family would venture into a lake to swim I had a healthy fear of â€œthings in the waterâ€ (muskellunges, sharks, fish, snakes and weeds) and I would make my husband Jeff swim next to me in case I had to climb on him to escape from the â€œthings.â€ But, in the back of my mind was the dream of swimming a marathon. With practice and lots of patience from Jeff, I learned to control and conquer my fear of the â€œthings in the waterâ€ and to concentrate on stroke technique instead.
K: Can you tell me about your recent accomplishment, swimming the Ederle (ed-er-lee) swim?
G: First, it is not a race, it is a swim. It is not one of the NYC swim groupâ€™s bigger swims. They organize many races each year and they are all well run and the bigger ones have major sponsors. This one was first swum in the 1920s. Gertrude Ederle started it and she was also the first woman to swim the English Channel. I thought that if she could do it back then, I should be able to do it too. I swam the NYC swim group’s Little Red Lighthouse swim a few years earlier. Some swimmers I had previously competed against also did the Ederle, so I compared my previous event results to theirs and figured I should be able to do Ederle too. I swam the Ederle and was close to my estimated times.
K: In your profile on the Ederle Website you noted that you started with the Little Red Lighthouse swim two years ago. How did you progress to the Ederle?
G: I started with Technosport’s 1k, 2k, 4k, Bring on the Bay 3k, Traversee de lac Memphremagog 10k, St. Marys 5k and Brockville 5k. Training for the Ederle was a real labour of love as I swam two to three times a day in different lakes, bays and pools. Training began in earnest in late May when I did my first 59f swim. I stayed in the water for 90 minutes and after getting cramps I retreated to the warmth of the beach. I thought I would never make the three hour qualifying swim. But, I kept at the long swims and still did the grueling workouts with the rest of the team. I soon realized the rest times we have in workouts were pretty long compared to the 15 seconds I would be taking in my long swims and that I wasn’t nearly as tired as I would have been previously. I completed the Kingdom Swim, a 10 mile swim in Vermont about nine weeks before Ederle. This would be my last chance to qualify for the Ederle. It was a choppy, cool swim (67 degrees F) which challenged me physically and mentally. The chop didnâ€™t let up until the last quarter of the race, which taught me to train more, and I learned that distance is best broken down into small chunks of time. Workouts after the Kingdom swim were much longer and more focused. Because of my work schedule, I wasn’t able to swim with my team, so the last two months leading up to the Ederle Swim were done solo. And, it was a good learning experience in preparation for Ederle because it was cold, the water was choppy, and it was hard work. Aside from the Kingdom swim, I also swam a five km swim at Chicago in September, which was a lot of fun.
K: What do you learn from these swims and what are the challenges?
G: The challenges are the weather, the air and water temperatures, and water conditions you have to adapt your stroke to the conditions. If the conditions are cool, you have to work harder to stay warm. If it is sunny, you can enjoy the warmth. I train in lousy conditions as well as good ones, training for the worst conditions and hoping for the best. I also learned how to not work myself too hard; I work in heart rate zone two so I don’t burn out early in the swim. People always say that I must have been tired when I finished the 17.5 mile Ederle swim, but I wasn’t. My spinning class instructor said to save something for the end, and I did. Cross training is important and different instructors have different strategies and insights for training and competing. The mental preparation is probably the hardest part. I trained so that my body never knew when the workout was over.
K: How do you approach preparing a training plan?
G: For Ederle, I did three swims per day to put in the distance, and some days I combined swimming with cross training. I found the Facebook site of United States Masters Swimming very helpful, as it has a menu for open water swimming with marathon swimming tips and tricks. Through that site I connected with Jim Barber, who was extremely helpful. He was preparing to do a double crossing of the Straight of Gibraltar. He shared his training program. He has a family and works and travels and still fits in training and events. He shared his workouts and told me how to taper, which was invaluable. He swims longer distances and is faster than me. I took his advice and extrapolated for my level and it worked. It was so helpful. People on the site do English Channel swims and many other big and small swims. His lessons were invaluable. For example he suggested that I stop every 15 minutes to drink something so as not to become hypothermic in cold water and that made the difference during some of my events.
K: What keeps you going?
G: I set big goals and smaller, in-between goals leading up to the big events. The Chicago swim in September was an interim goal and mostly was just for fun. Even getting to a workout and finishing it is a small goal leading to the big one. They must be reasonable goals.
K: How do you keep focused in the long swims?
G: I find that there is no time to be bored. There is always something different to see when you are swimming; the scenery is changing. Also, I am busy placing my hands properly, focusing on every stroke, getting my breath when the waves wash over me, and staying in sync with my guide kayak. I break each swim down to 15 minute intervals punctuated with drinks, like Boost, at the top of the hour and other drinks in between. I thought I can do anything for 7 minutes, and in the water I found that 15 minutes is a good interval. Each drink is a treat for completing each 15 minutes of swimming. I sometimes sing while swimming, or talk to myself when tired or strained, and I make an effort to change from negative to positive thoughts. During Ederle, I swam past a very large ship and it scared me by its size, so I focused on my guide kayak. Ederle took a lot of mental effort. I was warned about and prepared to encounter the wood and flotsam from Hurricane Irene. The wildlife in water freaks me out – fish, sharks, jelly fish and stuff like that, so I have to control my thoughts.
Â K: I read that you plan to swim around Manhattan?
G: Yes, it is a 28 mile swim counterclockwise around Manhattan in June 2012. I will be doing a lot more training to prepare for it than I did for Ederle. I will do a lot of long-course swims, and regular cross training: spinning and some weight training for strength. I also have to lose some body fat.
K: Who do you look up to?
G: Everyone I swim with is an inspiration. Everyone has different reasons for swimming. All swimmers are amazing when you stop to think that some people don’t want to get their faces wet or be seen in swim suits. Some people ask me why I do this, get up at 4:30 a.m. to train. There are older, retired swimmers who are doing ironman races, and it’s a way of life for them. They taught me a lot. They have suffered injuries and have bounced back; it’s amazing. I want to mention Brent Hobbs, who I was introduced to at the Nanaimo MSC nationals in 2010. He gave me his card and told me to contact him at any time and he would help me prepare for the English Channel. It blew me away having him say that as if it was no problem. He was so positive and supportive. I’ve learned that if you think you can do it then try. It doesn’t matter if you can’t finish it; it matters that you trained and tried.
K: Do you have any tips for those thinking about open water swimming; especially rank beginners?
G: If you are comfortable swimming outside, look for outdoor swim events on the Internet and sign up and just do it. You will be amazed at how much fun you will have and how well organized these events are. I see people at events who I wouldn’t judge capable to do a long swim and they do it, no problem. And if you don’t feel comfortable in open water, swim with a kayaker or another swimmer until it becomes natural.
K: Any last messages you want to share with readers? G: Yes. I think swimming is the best sport. I always liked that in swimming, you get to lie down! As you age, you become more patient with yourself, and I have done things I never thought possible.
K: Thank you Gen.
Web Sites Gen uses: NYCswim.org (Ederle and other swim events) openwatersource.com
USMS OWS Marathon swimming tips and tricks. (On Facebook)
Oannes Swim Camps: www.npconsultants.com/oannesswims/owstc/index.html
Camp Akomak: www.campakomak.com/
Kerry Smith swims with Technosport in Ottawa. He is a corporate communications consultant and life coach. He is a former figure skating champion and coach, whitewater kayaker and instructor, and now does occasional workshops on butterfly stoke. He can be reached at email@example.com.