When you look back at all of this marathon swimming craziness, it was all Don Macdonald’s idea.
Don and I were well acquainted through Masters Swimming. I was participating in some local and regional swims of two to five miles, and really enjoying myself. One summer evening back in 2009, Don and Jennifer invited Susan and me over for a glass of wine. We were enjoying ourselves on their back deck, when Don saw some numbers written in magic marker on my arm.
The following conversation took place:
- Don: Oh, were you in a swim today?
- Me: Yeah, it was a five-miler up in Minneapolis.
- Don: How did it go? Were you ok with your time?
- Me: Not particularly. Lake Minnetonka was so windy and wavy today, we might as well have been swimming in the English Channel.
- Don: The English Channel? I’ve always wanted to swim the English Channel!
- Me: No kidding? I have too!
And so, the conversation began. Don opened a second bottle of wine, and by the time it was gone, we were convinced that we were headed to England.
We knew almost nothing about what we were imagining, but we learned. We would drive back and forth to swims and talk in the car. Both Don and I are list-makers, but he actually follows through on them. As an engineer, he is extraordinarily smart, organized, inquisitive and patient, all of which served him well as he researched the nuances of swimming the English Channel.
Along the way, people often made the observation, “Wow; Don and Doug. McConnell and Macdonald. Heh, heh, you guys pretty much have the same name; which one is which?” Susan would quickly clarify, “Oh, that’s easy. Don’s the good-looking one!”
We trained like possessed creatures from 2009 – 2011, always the same workouts, together when schedules would allow it. If we didn’t swim together, we would find time to compare notes about different workouts and even individual sets. While we had both grown up as swimmers, neither of us had put ourselves on the path of training for a specific event for which the outcome was so uncontrollable and uncertain.
We built a base of progressively more difficult swims, knowing that each of them would be learning experiences on our way to tackle the English Channel. Together, we swam:
- Boston Light in August 2010 – eight miles in 54 degree water
- English Channel Qualifying Swim in October 2010 – minimum of six hours in a maximum of 61 degree water
- Tampa Bay Marathon Swim in April 2011 – 24 miles of challenging conditions, including our first exposure to jellyfish
- USMS 25K in June 2011 – 17 miles in 7.5 hours
We finally made it to England. I have discussed our English Channel swim in exhaustive detail, so I won’t do it again. With respect to this story, however, it was pretty straightforward; I got lucky and was offered a window in the weather to attempt the swim, and Don was not. Weather conditions conspired against him, and he never got a chance to start. I was thrilled to have had the opportunity, and Don selflessly shared that excitement with me. He was crushed that he never had the chance, and I keenly felt that heartbreak.
Fast forward a year, to September 2012. We were closing in on our plans to swim the Catalina Channel in California, and I got a call from Don. “Do you have a full crew?” he asked. “If there is room for me on the boat, I would love to come.” Quite apart from the fact that he is such a close friend, if you have the chance to have someone with Don’s marathon swimming experience on your crew, you jump at it. So, jump at it we did.
After all of our shared experiences, successes and disappointments, it was the Catalina swim where Don Macdonald really proved what a superstar he is. Susan says that I have Don to thank for the success of that swim. He spent a number of hours in the escort kayak, never more than a few feet from me, as I swam. He was there as I was stung by countless jellyfish, as we fought head-on currents, and even as my pesky goggles kept filling with water. Don coached, scolded, teased, fibbed, and even channeled the voices of people who weren’t there. As we approached the finishing beach, Don hopped into the water with me so we could finish the swim together. Never was there a more fitting ending to a marathon swim, after how many years of being training partners, that Don and I were able to complete Catalina together. Don was definitely the MVP that day.
Don still had his eyes on what he viewed as unfinished business with the English Channel, and I don’t blame him. He secured a reservation with an escort boat for the fall of 2014 and, after getting clearance from his doctors to step up his training, was starting to work out in earnest in August 2013. Privately, I was hoping he would ask me to reciprocate by being on his crew, so we could celebrate his swim together.
It was then that the unthinkable happened. In his typical understated way, Don refers to it as a “cardiac arrhythmia event that required life-saving measures.” What I remember are the days sitting vigil at the cardiac ICU at our local hospital wondering what sort of a future my friend would have. I remember eventually sitting with him in intensive care, and he was telling me that he had been told in no uncertain terms by his cardiologist that the English Channel was no longer a consideration, and that he would be lucky to even get back in a pool again. That incalculable loss meant that we grieved together.
Don’s grief didn’t last long. He said, “I love being involved with open water swimming. That is what my friends do, and I need to stay involved.” Within a matter of days, from his hospital bed, Don ordered a kayak. “If I can’t swim with you, at least I can paddle around for you clowns.” So, that is what he has done. Don Macdonald has become the best kayak escort for open water swimmers around.
When I was notified that my application had been accepted to the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim last November, Don was the first person I called. “I made it into MIMS,” I told him, “and I need a kayaker. Wanna get the band back together?” He immediately agreed, so 10 months after his “cardiac event,” Don will be paddling 28.5 miles around Manhattan.
As soon as we were able to begin swimming in the lakes this spring, Don has joined me with his new kayak at 6:00 every morning so we can practice the coordination between the swimmer and the kayak. It is working beautifully. We have developed some hand signals and some other little games to play to make the time go by. Don was in New York on business recently, and he made a point of finding a boat somewhere so he could paddle around on the rivers. He came back with a characteristically detailed report of what I should expect.
On June 28, Don is going to be there every stroke of the way. And if the East River, the Harlem River and the Hudson River will let someone around, I can swim that far.
Most of all, I can’t wait to celebrate with my training partner.