Alice and her super-supporter mum, Olwyn Smith.
We are counting down to the 2nd New Zealand Ultra Marathon Swim Awards. As a warm up to the weekend’s celebrations we will be sharing some swimmer profiles over the next few weeks. Former Wellingtonian Alice Sagar, now a Nelson based swimmer will be recognised for her swims at Lake Zurich and across Lake Taupo at the awards. During 2018/19 Alice “accidentally” swam four marathon swims in a year. This is Alice's story in her own words, about her swim adventures. Alice’s first two swims were recognised in the first Awards in 2018. All of her four swims are listed below:
Alice's Four Swims
Lake Taupo 40.2 km (s-n)
Swim date: 4 Feb 2018
Neutral observers, Philip Rush, Mike Cochrane
Apolima Strait 22.3 km (e-w)
Swim date: 6 April 2018
Organisation: Samoa Swim
Observer: Mike Cochrane
Lake Zurich 26.01 km
Rapperswil to Zurich (s-n)
Swim date: 5 Aug 2018
Organisation: Sri Chimney Marathon Swim
Across Taupo 31 km
Swim date: 27 Jan 2019
Organisation: Philip Rush
Neutral Observer: Su Scott
Swimming has always been a part of my life, but that being said, I’ve had phases where it hasn’t been quite so dominant. If I had to describe myself … I’ve developed into a long distance marathon swimmer, with a strong liking for random swim adventures. I’m definitely not an expert, but I enjoy challenging myself, have had some wonderful adventures along the way, as well as learning a few lessons!
Alcatraz & Catalina Channel teams relay
I first had an inkling that I wanted to start swimming longer distances when I was visiting the States in 2016. I had gone to San Francisco to swim the “Escape from Alcatraz” swim, plus join a group who had formed two relay teams to swim the Catalina Channel. Alcatraz was an amazing experience. It’s a cold, technical piece of water – and if you look up, you can see the whole skyline of San Fran stretch out in front of you. A few days later, I ended up swimming to Catalina island for both relay teams. This was quite daunting at the time. My first leg started at 1 am in the morning, and after an initial stomach flip from having to jump off the boat into the pitch black water, it turned into a truly magical experience. Along with a full moon, the water was full of bioluminescence, and it sparkled away every time you drew your hand through the water. Sometime muuccccch later, I jumped back in for a final (now daylight) swim after completing 4 x 1-hour swims. Here, I was greeted by a massive temperature drop. For Catalina, this means you have reached the Pacific current which runs parallel to the shore. With rolling surf pounding onto big boulders, it was not a pretty exit, but I do recall thinking afterwards, “well that was pretty cool”.
Lake Taupo, February 2018, Alice's first solo ultra marathon swim.
After Catalina I increased my training, and started committing to longer swims. In 2017, I competed in the Pacific Open Water Challenge and Samoan Swim Series. It was in Samoa where I first uttered the words out loud “I’d like to swim across Taupo”. This was to a good swim friend, who gave me the best possible encouragement in the time, which was simply telling me that I could do it.
The problem was, I had no idea how to train for a 40km swim. It seemed unreachable and unfathomable. The best way for me to deal with this was to enlist my coach, and make someone else responsible for developing a programme. All I had to do was commit to the training, and concentrate on bite sized pieces at a time. I am sure many of you are familiar with the swim adage “what you train for in a week, you can swim in a day”. This was the approach we took, and while I was initially swimming 20km weeks, I slowly built up to 40km weeks. When training for Lake Taupo I realised my life largely revolved around swim/training friends, Sunday cooking sessions to prep meals for the week and an understanding that between work and training, you’ll have to temporarily forgo your social life. But for great reward – in February 2018 I swam the length of Lake Taupo at 40.2km.
The build-up for Taupo and the swim itself made me realise how much of a mental game swimming is. One of the other questions I am sometimes asked is, “what do you think of when you are swimming”. The truth is - very little. My thoughts are often repetitive (I think this has something to do with the fact that my arms are going around in circles). This was evident on Taupo – it was a stunning calm day when I swam, with one of my mantras being “make hay while the sun shines” repeated over and over again for probably a good 10km section of the swim. A bit weird I know.
The other aspect I have learnt during longer swims is, your mind will often wonder off to darker places. After initially struggling with this, I have finally learnt not to fight it. I now recognise when I am having a grumpy phase, and accept that it will eventually pass.
Warm Swims - Apolima Strait & Lake Zurich
Early part of the Apolima Strait swim, the day turned nasty and there were white caps for most of the swim. There were three DNF's on that day, swimmers from India, USA, and France.
After Taupo, I used what was essentially a good training base to complete both the Apolima Strait in Samoa in April, and the length of Lake Zurich in Switzerland in August 2018. Both these swims came as a bit of a surprise. I qualified for Samoa earlier in November 2017, and during the same week found out I’d been accepted for Lake Zurich. I hadn’t anticipated this… decided not to turn down the chance for overseas travel! Both Apolima and Zurich were amazing and challenging swims, but for very different reasons. For Samoa, I’ll always remember Auckland swimmer Jacques de Reuck’s observation “there are whitecaps on the [resort] swimming pool” on the morning that we set of across the Strait. Once we were beyond the reef, I had some on the spot learning with constant sickness during the first half of the swim. This was to eventually settle, and for the second half the swim I happily followed a little yellow reef fish who had become resident under my kayaker’s boat.
Switzerland was even hotter than Samoa… and it was a new experience swimming in 27 degree water, with a 34 air temp. Also an organised race, rather than a solo event, it was quite overwhelming to leave Rapperswil with a huge mass of swimmers, plus a support boat for everyone! It took me a while to find my support crew… who quite comically to me were rowing a tradition swiss gig all the way! (Who would want to row near 30km I kept asking myself….. quite forgetting I was swimming it). It was a very scenic swim with some amazing Swiss lakeside houses to eye up along the way.
Switzerland was also special as I had family join me for the adventure. In fact, invaluable to all my swims are the wonderful and super supportive swim crews who have cheered, guided, yelled, encouraged, told me off, reminded me to eat, and pointed me in the right direction (literally) along the way. They’ve even bribed me with peanut butter sandwiches. My number one swim travel companion is my mum – who as an avid swimmer herself is always keen to come and support. I am very thankful for this.
Lake Zurich swim.
Return to the Lake - Taupo 31.0
One of my biggest adventures to date was a return to Lake Taupo in January 2019 to swim the “longest width”. This idea was born back in the previous February, whereby during the following winter months I squired away at my computer drawing imaginary lines across the lake to find the longest course, finally setting on 30.1km. Luckily for me, I had a swim partner in crime this time, with Auckland swimmer Mike Cochrane joining me for the swim. We had the supper support crew of Phil Rush and Nelson’s Su Scott – who the true credit has to go to given the somewhat crazy conditions on the day.
Alice and Mike surfing with the westerlies turned Sou-wester.
The swim saw a wilder the predicted westerly join us for the day, resulting in gusts up to 35 knots and a swell to suit. This meant for some unexpected body surfing, which turned to slightly more angular swimming (and the odd unwelcome mouthful of water) as the wind shifted to the less comfortable south west later in the day. After starting in the western Te Papa Bay, we rolled and tumbled ashore at Waitahanui Beach 10 hours and 48 minutes later. This was much to the surprise of the soul fly fisher on the beach!
Since this time, I have also learnt another very valuable lesson – ensuring that you recover properly from big swims! It’s understandably been a bit more sedate in the last year (with COVID also playing its part in terms of a change in swim plans). However, I’ve really enjoyed “play” swimming with no training commitments, plus heading out on local adventures to many of the great lakes and rivers in the wider Tasman district. I’m sure there’ll be another big adventure out there somewhere though!