Sarah Thomas - Blue Mesa Reservoir
Lake City Bridge - Blue Mesa Dam - Lake City Bridge
51 km (31.7 miles)
15 hours, 36 minutes on 10 August 2019
Observed and documented by Craig Lenning
First two-way crossing
- Name: Sarah Thomas
- Gender: female
- Age on swim date: 37
- Nationality: United States
- Resides: Conifer, Colorado
- Ryan Willis - pilot, crew
- Craig Lenning - observer
- May Spengler - land support
Escort Vessel: Sea Nymph (Conifer)
- Category: Solo, nonstop, unassisted.
- Rules: MSF Rules of Marathon Swimming, without exception or modification.
- Equipment used: Swimsuit, cap, goggles, earplugs.
- Body of Water: Blue Mesa Reservoir
- Route Type: multi-way
- Start & Finish Location: Lake City Bridge (38.488041, -107.059040)
- Turnaround Location: Blue Mesa Dam (38.454320, -107.332437)
- Minimum Route Distance: 51 km (31.7 miles)
Blue Mesa Reservoir swims (LongSwimsDB)
- Start: 10 August 2019, 04:25 (America/Denver, UTC-6).
- Finish: 10 August 2019, 20:01
- Elapsed: 15 hours, 36 minutes, 23 seconds.
Summary of Conditions
|Water Temp (F)||69||74|
|Air Temp (F)||56||80|
Trackpoint frequency: 10 minutes. Download raw data (CSV).
Nutrition: Carbo Pro with either Nuun or Apple Juice, every 30 minutes.
by Sarah Thomas
In the very early morning of August 10, 2019, I waded slowly into the clear waters of Blue Mesa Reservoir, just to the east of the Hwy 149/Lake City Bridge. There was no moon, though even if there had been, a very thick, low-laying bank of clouds would have obscured any light coming from the sky. My husband, Ryan, had just applied lanolin and Desitin to my back and face. He was now standing on shore, shining a spotlight into the water for me, toward the bridge about 10-15 yards away. The silhouette of my kayaker, Craig Lenning, was waiting in the water. I waded slowly, unsure of where the water level dropped off and afraid of shards of glass or errant fishing hooks leftover from fishermen. After a few quick strokes from the shore toward the Hwy 149/Lake City Bridge, the light from Ryan’s light disappeared and all I could see was Craig’s headlamp and the soft light of the green glow sticks we’d attached to the kayak. As we approached the bridge, I looked up at Craig and in the glow of his headlamp we grinned at each other, started the stopwatch, and away we went, just the two of us, into the darkness.
Blue Mesa is a 16-mile reservoir that was built in the early 60s, forming the largest body of water in Colorado. Sitting at 7,500 feet, Blue Mesa begins a few miles outside of Gunnison, CO and is fed by the Gunnison River. Water leaving Blue Mesa flows into Morrow Point Reservoir, which flows into Crystal Reservoir, before finally dropping into The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, a beautiful stretch of river and deep canyons. Eventually, the Gunnison empties into Colorado River, which flows south and west toward one of my favorite places, Lake Powell.
The first person to swim Blue Mesa was Rebecca Sandoval. On Sept 10, 2011, she started at the Blue Mesa dam and swam toward the Lake City Bridge. She was supported by a motor boat and two kayakers. She chose September because she was hoping to avoid the late afternoon storms that are common in Colorado during the summer and she was hoping to avoid some of the heavy boat traffic common in the summer. She said it was a beautiful day, with air temps in the 70s. Water temps ranged from the low 60s down to 56 degrees in spots. She said it was a beautiful day until the predicted wind picked up- but in the wrong direction. Starting at the Dillon Pinnacles until the finish, she swam into a stiff headwind, which caused significant chop. Her kayakers were struggling in the conditions and the wind impeded her progress. Adding to the drama, her boat needed to be off the water by nightfall. So, after 11 hours of swimming, Rebecca was forced to exit the lake at the Iola Marina/Ramp, just about 2 miles from the Lake City Bridge. Rebecca was sad to not quite finish the entire planned route, but noted that in years where the lake is low, the Lake City Bridge might not be accessible, so it is a really good option for an alternative landing point.
The second person to complete the swim was Craig Lenning. He completed the full route from the dam to the bridge on June 23, 2012, in 8 hours and 9 minutes. He was escorted by a kayak and a team of people who followed along the road and would exit and reenter the water at various points during the swim. The water level was low and as he approached the Lake City Bridge, he was barely able to swim through the mucky water.
In August 2015, I made my first attempt at swimming a double Blue Mesa. We drove to the lake on Friday night, camped, and then got up on Saturday morning. The plan was to start at the bridge in the early morning, swim toward the dam and turn around before the afternoon winds hit. Unfortunately, the borrowed boat motor wasn’t functioning properly. At some point, while Ryan was working on the motor, I jumped in by the boat ramp at our camp ground with a kayaker and starting swimming toward the bridge, with plans of just swimming large circles in the bay for the day as a “good enough” training swim. Ryan was able to get the motor to start and caught up with me when I was just shy of the bridge. So, we turned around and swam the length of the lake. Because of our late start, the wind picked up in my face for most of the way. I feel for Rebecca - that wind is HARD to swim into. By the time we reached the dam, darkness was already falling and I wasn’t feeling super great, so we decided to get out and take the easy way back- me by car and Ryan by running the engine at full speed, instead of swimmer speed. I have no idea how long that swim took me. I was using it for a training swim, and at one point I definitely hung onto the boat, so in no way was this an official swim. But, since then, I’ve dreamed of returning to Blue Mesa for an official double crossing.
The opportunity presented itself again this summer while I was training for the English Channel. I was getting tired of swimming 2-mile circles in Wellington Lake for 10-12 hours at a time and all of our water was getting warmer. Ryan, Craig and I had a free weekend, so I enlisted Ryan as boat captain and Craig offered to pull double duty as kayaker and observer.
I’d been fighting some demons left over from my Cook Strait swim and had some self-doubts creeping in during my summer training that I really needed to address, by way of a really long, hard swim. First, in Cook, I really found myself hesitant to fight through pain and discomfort the way I have in the past. I seriously thought about quitting, something I’ve never done during a “shorter” swim. It left me wondering if I still had my mental toughness. Second, throughout the summer, I’d been experiencing pain in my right arm as a result of my breast cancer surgery. I’d been having a hard time pushing through it and I needed to know if I could. Finally, I’m not as fast as I was before cancer. I knew that if I wanted to have a shot at the English Channel swim, I needed to feel confident that I could swim for a long time and still hold 2 mph.
I thought Blue Mesa would be an excellent opportunity to face these demons in a long swim, in cold water.
I only told a few people about this swim. In all the fuss of making a documentary and announcing my English Channel 4-way, I needed a quiet place to confront my fears without anyone watching. I needed something that was just for me. And honestly, having failed the swim once before, I needed space to make a mistake without anyone else freaking out that I wasn’t ready for the English Channel.
For this swim, we planned a little better than we had in 2015, though I admit to not fully committing to it until about a week or two before we went. This time, we got a hotel room. The plan was for Ryan to drop Craig and I at the Bridge to start about 4 am. The boat ramps don’t open until daylight, so Ryan would then drive to the ramp, wait a few hours to get his boat inspected, then meet us on the lake, hopefully around 8 am. We knew the first few hours would be a little sketchy- Craig would have to navigate us across a rather large bay, in a kayak, in the dark before we made our way into the Narrows. That second portion of the lake is fairly easy to navigate since it is narrow. We assumed that by the time we were in the middle of the Narrows or just exciting, Ryan would meet up with us in the boat for the rest of the way. We hoped to hit the dam between noon-1 pm and make the turn before the afternoon winds picked up. I was hopeful that this 32 mile swim would take me about 16-18 hours, though the boys were planning for something closer to 20 hours.
The morning of the swim, Craig overslept. Ryan had to go bang on the hotel room door to rouse him out of bed, which resulted in us starting at 4:25 am, instead of 4 am. There was a heavy cloud cover, blocking all of the stars and moon. It was pitch black and everything felt eerily close and quiet. As I prepared to enter the water, Craig said “The water temp is 70.” I laughed at him- assuming he was joking. Any other time we’d been up there for a training swim, the water was always in the mid 60s. Nope, he assured me he was being dead serious- the water was WARM. We hopefully speculated that it might get colder when we found deeper water. As I waded into the water, Ryan waited on shore with a spotlight, lighting our initial path to the bridge. For this swim, we were using the bridge as the start/finish point and the dam as the turnaround. Following standard marathon swimming rules, I was wearing only my swim suit, cap, goggles, and ear plugs. I forgot to take my Timex Ironman wrist watch off, so I did have that on for the swim as well.
The first hour went by rapidly for me. Craig eventually pulled out ahead of me in the kayak so that he could use his headlamp without blinding me as he navigated across the bay with a handheld GPS. I followed the green path from the glow stick on the kayak, which was somewhat like swimming in the bioluminescence in Catalina. I was in the zone and so peaceful that when the time came for our first feed, Craig literally had to hit me with the feed bottle to get my attention. By the second feed at 6 am, the sun was starting to come up and I could sense some of Craig’s stress lessen as he was able to make out land masses and to feel confident that we were headed in the right direction.
We entered the Narrows and I started to notice that I was swimming through massive algae plumes. We had never seen that before in this lake, so it was a little gross, thinking about what I was collecting in my swim suit. Every time that I would bust through a particularly thick spot, the water temp would feel colder and the water thicker. It was a strange sensation in the darkness, and gross once I could see what was happening. Fortunately, as we made our way toward the dam, the algae lessened and the water progressively cleared.
Craig and I made our way through the Narrows with little incident (other than me bashing into a large, dead fish). There is a boat marina in the middle of the Narrows, and passing through there was the first we saw of boats starting to come onto the water. I was comfortable and swimming happily. There was still pretty thick cloud cover, so the heat from the water wasn’t bothering me (yet). Everything was going according to plan. As we excited the Narrows, Craig and I both started to look for Ryan in the boat. After a couple more hours, maybe around 9 am, we had a powwow about what to do if Ryan had had difficulties and couldn’t get the boat on the water. Craig had tried calling Ryan, but cell service is limited, so nothing went through. We decided that we had enough water for feeds to at least make the dam. If Ryan didn’t show up or meet us there by then, we’d re-evaluate. Fortunately, Ryan showed up within the next half hour. Apparently, the boat ramp opened later than we thought, so he had been delayed getting everything ready. Craig happily transitioned from the kayak into the boat. By that time, we could see the Hwy 50 Pinnacles Bridge just up the lake. I reached that by the next feed and was happy that I’d made it there in just at 6 hours- perfectly on schedule for my hoped 16 hour swim.
We swam under the bridge (I did backstroke) and past the Pinnacles. As we rounded the final corner toward the marina and dam, Ryan accidentally kept us a little too close to the highway and we lost a little bit of time veering into the cove formed by the Lake Fork River. We touched the dam just a hair after noon. I celebrated for about a minute, then turned around and headed back. At this point, there was a slight headwind, but with Ryan’s course correction, I didn’t think that it would cost too much time.
As we made our way across the bay, my right arm started to hurt. I’d had some Advil at hour 6 and was making myself wait until hour 12 for a second dose, since that is the timeline I use on multi-day swims. I had to fight to maintain my pace, in a slight headwind, in the growing heat. I’m stubborn, so I forced my arms to keep moving, constantly adjusting my right arm position to find a movement that wasn’t painful. I couldn’t find one. I was filled with fear: If I hurt this much after 7 hours, how on earth can I swim the English Channel 4 times? And despite the fear, I just kept pushing, refusing to slow down my pace/turnover rate.
The swim from the dam back to the start of the Narrows drug on. And on. And on. It had been fun on the way there, but now, on the way back it felt like swimming in the doldrums. The water was hot. The clouds had burned off and the sun was hot. The boys on the boat were hot. I was hot. I was in pain. I was grumpy. Craig jumped into pace swim as we went under the Dillon Pinnacles Bridge. Watching him try to get back on the boat made me laugh. Watching Ryan and Craig joking with each other made me feel at least contented. I might be miserable, but at least they were still giggling.
After what seemed like forever, we reached the start of the Narrows. Things cooled off just a touch as we were in the shade of the canyon. And I started to do the math- I really was still on track for a 16 hour swim! My next Advil break was pretty close! Yay! And somehow, I managed to push through the pain, push through the self-doubt, and to start enjoying myself again.
We flew through the Narrows and then started the final trek across the bay, which we’d swum in the pitch blackness in the morning. We went by the Iola boat ramp, where Rebecca had been forced to get out, and which had been really odd looking in the darkness that morning.
And just when we thought we were home free, as I was calculating a negative split swim, I saw Craig suddenly sit up a little straighter. He licked his finger and held it up in the air, checking the wind direction. Watching from the water, I was suddenly on alert. Something was coming. Half a minute later, a huge gust of wind came up and nearly pushed the boat right into me. Luckily, Ryan had just dropped back a hair and as the boat swung around, I was able to move out of the way at the front of the boat. After a few moments of Ryan trying to stay on my preferred right side, we switched so that I could swim without fear of the wind bashing the boat into me. We were so close, but suddenly, we were getting shoved across the lake, into the wrong shore. The wind was relentless. From the water, I knew the boat was aiming the wrong way- my choice was to swim alone in the right direction (The bridge was close enough for me to sight on my own if needed) or to stay with the escort boat. I’m not an idiot, so I stayed with the boat, desperately picking up my pace, still hoping for an even split for the finish. As we got pushed toward the shore, we lost sight of the bridge for a short while. Another feed got tossed to me. Reluctantly, I took it. Last one, I told myself. I’d hoped the feed before that was the last one, but I could tell we were far enough away that it was smart to take one more.
After another half an hour of struggle in the punishing wind, we were able to round a corner to see the bridge nearly on top of us. Craig tossed me another feed, but we were close enough that I ignored it. And then, finally, we were cruising under the bridge. 15 hours and 36 minutes. I’d managed to hold 2 mph for 32 miles. I nearly even split the 16 mile out and back route. I was tired, but not spent.
Just as we pulled the boat onto shore, lightning flashed in the sky and rain started to sprinkle down. The sunset was stunning. I changed out of my nasty suit (filled with tons of gunk and covered with desitin) and Craig’s wife, May, drove me back to the hotel. Ryan and Craig motored quickly back to the boat ramp to unload the boat.
The following day, I was pleased that my right arm, despite hurting for so many hours more than my left arm, was no more sore than my left. I was happy that I’d swum well for 15.5 hours. I’d faced my fears and doubts head on, and finally started to feel more confident that the English Channel swim was going to be ok.
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