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  Macleans Magazine
August 29 1988
$300,000 challenge
by Nora Underwood with Victor Dwyer in Toronto
Page 47

The plan for swimming across Lake Ontario grew out of a casual comment from a friend. But it was a challenge that Vicki Keith says she could not resist. In August, 1987, Keith successfully completed a 102 mile double crossing of the Lake -- the first person ever to do so. And the 27 year-old former swimming instructor plans to challenge Lake Ontario again on August 25th -- on the final leg of her unprecedented marathon fund-raising crossing of all five Great Lakes. By the time she set foot on dry land at the Canadian National Exhibition grounds in Toronto -- a landing scheduled for August 27 -- Keith will have swum almost 180 miles. And late last week, the stocky swimmer had already raised more than $135,000 towards her goal of $300,000 for a new aquatic wing at Variety Village -- a sports centre for disabled children in Scarborough, Ont. "This is definitely not been routine," said the Winnipeg-born Keith. "I didn't realise exactly how tough it was going to be."

But setting and breaking records is nothing new to the Kingston Ont. resident. After only four years of marathon swimming, the five-foot, 5 3/4 inch Keith has entered the Guinness Book of World Records three times: in 1985, for swimming the butterfly stroke for 12 miles in Lake Ontario; in 1986, for swimming in a Kingston, Ont., pool for 129 hours 45 minutes, a woman's endurance record; and last April, for swimming 42 miles in 24 hours, the non-stop distance record. During her current marathon, Keith was the first to swim both Lake Huron and Superior and the first amateur across Lake Michigan. She declared, "I am enjoying myself thoroughly."

She said that the only time she was nervous was before the 21 mile crossing of Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes. The day before the August 15 swim, Keith walked down to the beach, and after seeing the huge cliffs and powerful waves, she said that she became "very respectful of the Lake." The next day, during the swim, she saw the wreck of a ship beneath her. "I swam away as fast as I could," said Keith. "It was like looking down on a grave." Superior is the coldest of the five lakes, and its temperature dropped to about 13 degree Celsius (55 F)

But marathon athletes are built and trained to resist extreme cold. In the rest periods between Lakes -- which have lasted no longer than two weeks -- Keith gained between 15 and 30 pounds, subsisting mainly of carbohydrates and protein, including pasta and hamburgers. During a swim -- in which she averages a speed of two and a half mph -- she may lose as much as 30 pounds, most of it water. But women have a greater proportion of fat under their skin than men, according to Dr Michael Clarfield of Toronto's Alan R. Eagleson Sports Medicine Clinic. That layer provides extra warmth and flotation and generally makes women better endurance swimmer's. To maintain her energy, Keith eats a small meal once every two hours, usually consisting of soup, fruit salad, hot chocolate and Arrowroot cookies or a chocolate bar.

Although Keith's marathon regimen seems to require great effort, sports experts, including Clarfield say that there is usually no long lasting harm to the body. He added that the most an endurance athlete will suffer is short-term heart fatigue and a temporary drop in the immune system. And Keith's daily training of weightlifting and as much as seven hours swimming, as well as her regular balanced diet, made her well prepared for the difficult, long-distance swims.

Still, she says the she routinely encounters a wave of self doubt during her crossings. "I have never felt like I can't go on," she said. "But the question always arises: 'why am I doing this?' Then I do say to myself, 'shut up and smarten up.'" And because she swims for long periods without rest, Keith often hallucinates -- a common side-effect of sleep deprivation. "For the first 36 hours of the swim, I know exactly what is going on," said Keith. "After that, I usually started seeing things, but I tell everyone who's with me, and they tend to join in the fun." At no time is Keith allowed to leave the water or make physical contact with anyone. But she is always closely followed by at least 16 crew members -- including family and friends in four boats -- who encourage her and hand her food.

Cold water, high winds and aching muscles have rarely dampened Keith's resolve. Last week, she told Maclean's that she is looking forward to another seven years of marathons. But for now, she added, she is focusing her energy on successfully completing her five lake marathon. "Don't wish me good luck," she said "just wish me good weather."