Wednesday, May 23, 2018

I swam four lakes for my 40th birthday: Colleen Blair

If you're interested in doing open water swimming, why not sign up for our next Come & Try event at Loch Lomond? Click here to book now.

Soul king Billy Ocean recently marked the 30th birthday of his iconic track “When The Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going” by embarking on a world tour and a celebratory TV appearance on the hit US programme The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Colleen Blair, who hails from Dundee, celebrated turning 40 with the words of that song etched in her mind as she signed up for a different kind of tour: the SCAR Swim Challenge.

SCAR is a crazy open water marathon across four of Arizona’s most famous and stunning lakes: Saguaro, Canyon, Apache and Roosevelt, from which the challenge gets its name. Kayakers guide the swimmers over a distance totalling almost 70km and it is not for the faint-hearted. But she and the others she completes the challenge with get no TV appearance or commemorative ceremony for their efforts. Not even a medal (although a black swimming cap is handed out after the third lake). “You challenge yourself. No medal. No trophy. The feeling of accomplishment doesn't end up in a drawer,” reads the SCAR website.

So why does she, and over 50 other swimmers, do it?

“It’s a totally different swim compared with anywhere else. It’s not about who’s the fastest, it’s about who finishes. And you’re guaranteed to make friends for life,” says Colleen.

“I hadn’t really trained that much I was just going to finish, and I was able to do that. It was more about the experience because it’s all about that camaraderie and helping each other and working together.”

Open Water swimming in general invokes a special kind of comradeship amongst the participants, not to mention a different in-water experience. But SCAR has a few unique selling points on top of that.

“You have to help carry your kayaks to the start, and then back to the van at the finish. Everybody that travels together, stays together,” Colleen says. “Everyone bands together.”

That feeling of close companionship, of being part of something bigger, becomes uniquely important in Canyon Lake, the second swim of the challenge and often the coldest, with water temperatures sometimes barely reaching 10°C. Picture the scene: jagged cacti stare at you from the comfort of the shore, while vultures literally circle in the skies above. Knowing you have a kayaker alongside and a squad of swimmers going through the same experience is reassuring to say the least.

Apache Lake, Colleen’s personal favourite, isn’t dissimilar to famous Scottish lochs like Loch Ness and Loch Lomond. It’s distinctly remote (only accessible via a dirt road) and steeped in history, nestling amongst the striking Superstition Mountains and named after the Apache Trail, on account of the eminent Native American tribe that used the trail to pass through the mountain range.

“Apache goes from narrow to wide, narrow to wide, it’s an experience like no other. You go from high canyon walls to wide open spaces,” she says. It’s by far the most difficult swim according to the organisers, and is comfortably the longest (17 miles, or 27.3km).

The tough test of Apache perhaps means the swimmers can enjoy the night-time swim at Roosevelt Lake, swimming under a full moon. And at the end of the swim Colleen says: “Everyone has a laugh and a chat and then shakes hands and says ‘See you some place’. And we all go our separate ways.

“But it’s guaranteed you’ll bump into someone who swam at at SCAR one day, somewhere in the world.”

And now that she’s back home and preparing to get involved in the Scottish open water season in her capacity as a coach and RSDM, we asked her how this swim relates to the Scottish scene.

“Considering it’s the American spring, the temperatures are pretty similar. And the way the wind can pick up is also very similar. The scenery is so different but both are great.”

Open water swimming is for everybody, whether you’re trying out something new and challenging for the first time or you’re more interested in the competitive aspect. For Colleen, it’s the latter, which is no surprise considering she was the first Scot to do the Triple Crown (English Channel, Catalina Channel and around Manhattan) and the first to cross the Pentland Firth.

“I like the challenge,” she begins. “It sets a challenge to see if you can do it and it gives you something to swim and train for. I also like meeting the people who do these things.”

When asked to sum up the appeal of open water swimming in general, Colleen says: “It’s a bit more fun and a lot more free.

“You go into the middle of a loch and see the hills to the side of you, you’re free from the confines of a pool and free from chemicals, there’s nothing like it.”

And when the going gets tough? “Just keep going, one arm at a time.”

If you're interested in doing open water swimming, why not sign up for our next Come & Try event at Loch Lomond? Book now.