Roosevelt Lake Open Water Swim: A Narrative From Swimmer Joe Zemaitis

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Photo Courtesy: Joe Zamaitis

Roosevelt Lake Open Water Swim, A Narrative

By Joe Zemaitis.

2020 has been a very unique year! With many other training options curtailed due to world events, but with continued pool access, I ended the summer with the best fitness I’ve had in years. My brother John and I usually do some international swims at the end of the summer, but we knew those options weren’t going to be available. In August I started looking at swims I could do closer to home that would be an option if travel restrictions were in place.

I was drawn to Roosevelt Lake–the largest lake entirely within the State of Arizona. I had some familiarity it because I have done that leg of SCAR a number of times. While the SCAR swim is a smaller 10K section of the lake, in exploring maps online I saw two boat docks on the extreme northwest and south east sides of the lake. In measuring them (and having my work successfully checked by Evan!) I found the distance to be 25.3K and initially thought of a 50K swim in Roosevelt Lake. These plans were put on hold as the COVID restrictions loosened and we were able to continue with other swim plans–a Round Trip Angel Island and a 40 Bridges Double Manhattan.

The 40 Bridges swim had us in the water for over 22 hours. I was shocked by how good I felt after being in the water almost 24 hours. It was then that I thought that a 50K swim wasn’t the challenge I was looking for and I wanted to push that up to 101K with a four-way Roosevelt. When I looked at the MSF list of longest distance swims I found that the longest men’s swim was listed as 106K, so I didn’t think I could stomach the thought of stopping so close to the men’s distance record. I played around with the maps online and I calculated a fifth leg that finished at a small ramp about a mile East of the Marina would give me an 11K final leg. While my course was set, I couldn’t focus on this swim yet because I still had a Monterey Bay crossing to do on 10/6! Once I got through Monterey, I turned my full attention to Roosevelt Lake.

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Roosevelt Lake. Photo Courtesy: Joe Zamaitis

With only about three weeks to pull it all together I was extremely fortunate to be able to assemble a great support team. Dan Simonelli was the lead observer and his enthusiasm for the swim helped push it into reality. Kent Nicholas and Susie Bender Paul were the other observers. Stephanie Mindlin was the lead shore support and oversaw the turn arounds. Kayak support was provided by Jon Ford, Marni Gerber, Braxton Bilbrey, Rebecca Campbell, and Helen Casseday. Boat Pilots were Kent Nicholas, Steven Bilbrey and John Zemaitis (my favorite brother). We planned to switch out the kayaker and boat pilot with each lap so the support personnel could limit their time on the water.

We headed to the Schoolhouse Boat Ramp at 4:00am on Sunday morning and started a little after 4:45am. There was a nearly full moon and the water was calm at the start. I had been to the lake two weeks earlier to scout all the important landmarks and check the water temperatures. The water was 76-79 on October 15th. An unfortunate cold snap dropped the temperatures under 70 and for most of the swim it was 68.

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The first lap went well and felt smooth. For a Sunday there was little boat traffic on the lake. We approached the Indian Point boat ramp close to eight hours after the start, which was right on my “best case” plan for pace. Things got difficult on the second lap. The geography of the lake makes for swirling winds, and it always seemed like we were getting a headwind in both directions. Even the support on the boat thought this was the case and it’s easy to feel like the wind is always against you in the water! It seemed like for each of the lengths the first half of it (from approximately the marina) went by quickly and seemed easier. The second half of each length seemed to drag on and slow considerably. This was true in both directions. Overall we were getting cloud cover most of the time. This had the unfortunate effect of limiting the moonlight at night and not having the warming effect of the sun during the day. While 68 degrees was comfortable at the start, the cold started to become a factor on the second night.

The turnarounds were difficult. By the second turn around my legs had cramped up to the point where they were not effective enough to walk out of the water, so I had to crawl up the boat ramp. While the turn arounds were helpful for getting some solid foods (mostly peanut butter sandwiches, Snickers bars, and Oreos) it took about 20-30 minutes of swimming to regain my feel for the water, warm back up, and loosen up my arms. I tried to limit my time on shore and was doing about 5 minutes at each turn (rather than the 10 minutes allowed). My feeds during the swim went well–my standard Gatorade/Carbo Pro mix and Gu’s. I couldn’t eggbeater kick most of the time, so it was difficult to feed without sinking. Approximately forty hours of swimming took me into the final turn and on to the last leg. While I could tell that my stroke tempo stayed reasonably high I could feel that I wasn’t getting much power out of my pull. My legs were dragging as they had been too cramped to kick effectively for about twenty-four hours at this point. I was missing the buoyancy of saltwater!

Visual hallucinations started at about the forty-four hours mark and I started seeing shapes in the sky that I knew weren’t there and things crawling across my goggles that I knew weren’t there. The feeling was like trying to finish a long drive at night–trying to keep yourself from nodding off knowing that if you fell asleep you might not wake up! I also spent the time wondering what the inside of my stomach must look like since it had been well over forty hours since I pooped, and in that time I drank over seven gallons of Gatorade/Carbo Pro and consumed approximately fifty Gu gels. It was one of those thoughts that you can’t unthink!

The finish was especially difficult because the ramp we were looking for to finish at around 4:00am was closed so we couldn’t get a car there to light it up. It was frustrating that I’d been in the water for so long, we knew that the finish was close and it was within visual range, but I just didn’t know its exact location. Finally we ran out of water and I dragged myself out onto dry land. My team had been great in keeping people away from me at the turns so I wouldn’t be touched by anyone. As I crawled out of the water the final time and cleared the high water mark the support team could finally get some blankets on me. I had planned to feign disappointment when I was first touched after the swim because I had planned to get back in to go another lap or two. But in all the excitement and fun I was having in those first few minutes afterward, I just couldn’t get the line out. Comedy is so hard to do well!

I was loaded on to the boat and met up with the car closer to the marina. I felt really cold, but a different kind of cold. I’ve done 11 and 13 hours in 56 degree water and swum an ice mile. While 66-68 isn’t that cold, the length of time made it seem a deeper kind of cold.

It was fun to see this come together in such a short time. In a matter of just a few months I went from looking at maps online and sketching out a concept to just a few weeks of nailing down the specifics and logistics. In a lot of ways this has been a tremendously difficult year. It seemed only fitting that I would finish with a tremendously difficult swim. In all the crap we’ve waded through in 2020 we have had to help each other out, lean on people when we need it and pitch in to help someone when we can. I was fortunate and very thankful to have a great team of people that stepped up to make my swim possible. I love it when a plan comes together.

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Roosevelt Lake. Photo Courtesy: Joe Zamaitis

1 comment

  1. avatar
    Rebecca

    I know this lake very well and I am thoroughly impressed!!! Well done x 10,000! Can you tell me where you finished after Indian point? Which ramp was closed? Im so interested in your journey! Congratulations! You will always be welcome here. If you want some good fishing spots, let me know. LoL.

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