Granted, man tends to seek pleasure and to avoid pain. But not, it seems, professional marathon swimmers, who by enduring find pleasure is the result of pain. Each July the most long-suffering among them show up at La Tuque, Quebec for a race called the 24 Heures La Tuque, and while the name is French the message is clear: for a long time, monsieur le nageur, there will be no plumping of pillows for you. The 24 Heures La Tuque would make a great movie. Horror, of course.
The 24 Heures, 10 years old last month, is a relay race involving some 15 to 20 two-person teams. It runs from 3 p.m. Saturday to 3 p.m. Sunday, and is staged in tiny, egg-shaped Lac St.-Louis in a hollow at the edge of town. The course, one-third of a mile plus 11 feet, parallels the shore, and behind a chain-link fence a crowd of thousands lingered for most of the night two weeks ago, happy with its beer, heaving an occasional can at the swimmers and watching the show as at an oceanarium.
On one side of the lake a beach offered chaise longues and tents for the competitors' pit stops. By Sunday morning the scenes there were heartrending. One man was weeping uncontrollably. He said he had stomach cramps; he moaned something about finishing—or being finished. Finally his handlers fell upon him and lifted him up, all bent and limp, carried him to the end of the pier and threw him into the lake. It appeared he must certainly drown, but he touched his teammate's hand, which was extended from the water, then paddled off to rejoin the race.
Inside the tents, one per team, each with a cot, the force of human shivering shook the canvas. There, for example, was Indiana's John Kinsella, a 21-year-old swimming his first professional race. At 6'4" and 205, Kinsella was one impressive swimmer. And shiverer.
August 4, 1974
It was midnight, the race only three-eighths over, and Kinsella and teammate Sandy Bucha, also of Indiana, held a three-lap margin—an impressive, in fact a near-record, pace. Holland's Johan Schans was churning along as a definite threat in second place, teamed with Argentina's Claudio Plitt. But Kinsella and Bucha had led from the start, John blasting out for a first-hour lap average of 6:27, Sandy for one of 7:03. Considering Kinsella's splashy background, few were surprised.
Although this was Kinsella's first marathon he had been a three-time NCAA champion at Indiana University in the 500-and 1,650-yard freestyle. In the 1968 Olympics he won a silver medal in the 1,500, and at Munich he took a gold, leading off the 800-meter relay team that Mark Spitz anchored. Now, despite his lead at La Tuque, he was saying, "I was crazy to get into this." He said it with a big, friendly grin that would not last the weekend.
Sandy Bucha, sweet-faced and 19, had been a 100-and 200-meter sprinter who had failed to qualify for the Olympics, had given up training and retired to her studies at Stanford. Then last summer, after training for two weeks, she had entered a 10-mile swim in Lake Michigan and had broken the world record for that distance. But Johan Schans, the former record holder, had won the event, rebreaking his own record and relegating Bucha to second. Now there was chance for redemption. At 7 p.m. Bucha surfaced and said, "I'm so used to sprints it's strange to come out and not be tired."
At 8:09 p.m. Kinsella and Bucha were two laps up but Kinsella's teeth were clicking like castanets. The weather wasn't exactly bad, but many of the swimmers had never been so cold. André Dionne, P.R. man for the race, said that Kinsella's and Bucha's pace was to blame. "It is so fast," he said, "that maybe they spend calories faster than they absorb them, and they can't keep warm."
But they were trying. Sahar Mansour of the UAR sat gobbling a two-pound box of Cadbury chocolates and drinking Cokes. Others slurped corn syrup or hot chocolate, tea and glucose, ate cookies or biscuits and jelly. Bucha and Kinsella munched piles of fructose tablets. At 1 a.m. they had found a heater for the tent, but still Kinsella shivered. Not Bucha, whose pace was half a minute to a minute slower; she turned the heater off between laps or sat outside. "It's my layer of fat," she said, although it was nowhere to be seen.
Kinsella and Bucha had started out alternating two-lap stints. Then they tried ones for a time and finally went to threes and fours at 9:45. At 1:45 a.m. Kinsella swam three laps in 21:44 but grew so cold in the third that he swam only two the next time. Bucha stayed with three. Their trainer was Bucha's father, Colonel Paul A. Bucha, who insisted, "She feels better now than she did six hours ago."
By 3 a.m. swimming muscles and reflexes were taking over. The swimmers looked natural in the water, but some had to be pulled onto the dock like giant fish. Their feet Hopped when they walked. Their eyes were unfocused. They had the expressions of people being helped from ambulances to emergency wards. Still, with the sky brightening at 5 a.m., Sandy Bucha finished her 58th lap. When her dad asked, "How do you feel?" she replied, "Good," and she was laughing, her eyes bright and clear. "You look at the sky," she said, "and get energy."
A mist hung over Lac St.-Louis. There were coronas around the streetlights; who knows what the swimmers saw. A big white street-cleaning machine, its blue light blinking, came brushing down the walks, and now music from the loudspeakers was softer. A woman sang, "...all the times that I cried, keeping all the things I knew inside...." It seemed an appropriate line. The swimmers were silent. John Kinsella's smile was long gone. His face was a shade best described as rosy blue. He was swimming two-lap stints now, Bucha threes. Still, their lead was growing over Schans and Plitt.
Toward 6 a.m. the day brightened further and the course markers—orange, yellow and a bilious green-yellow—looked like leftover favors from a crazy party. Spectators slept on the grass. Small packs of youngsters stumbled along, hardly looking at the swimmers, now into their 16th hour. A doctor tended Kinsella in his tent; the swimmer's left thigh throbbed with a pulled tendon. The doctor advised him to swim slower. Lactic acid buildup in the muscles, the doctor said. "You'll still win," he told Kinsella. "It still hurts," Kinsella replied.
Now Sandy Bucha hurt, too, she said. Her eyes were still clear, but there were dark rings beneath them. It was the face of a very tired prom queen, up too late on her big night. Chicago's Dennis Matuch, noted in the sport for his sardonic wit, and the only one who had swum in all ten 24 Heures, tried a sardonic smile between laps and failed. He lay down and looked like a man barely holding on to life. Overnight the swimmers appeared to have grown old. Around their eyes the shadows had deepened, and the wrinkles on their hands were frightening.
Between 6:30 and 7 a.m. Sandy Bucha swam four straight laps. Kinsella was too cold to leave his tent, but the doctor worked on him and before he entered the water again Kinsella said. "He's got me down to tremors now." At 7 a.m. their lead was five laps.
At 8:05 a.m. Diana Nyad, one of the world's leading woman marathoners, was rushed to a hospital where she lay unconscious, glucose intravenously dripping into one limp arm, injections of vitamins entering the other. Her partner, Marcello Guiscardo of Argentina, announced that he would finish alone.
The sun was growing warm. The swimmers began to talk, a few of them to smile. John Kinsella sounded as if he and Bucha had already won. "Sandy really came through when I needed her," he said, "and I didn't want to let her down. Not that I was thinking of dropping out, though. I was in too much pain to think about that."
The record for total laps at the 24 Heures was 180, set last year, and Kinsella and Bucha were about to break it. Word spread through La Tuque, and by noon, with Mass ending at St. Zephirin on the hill above the lake, the rested and well-fed people of the town came pouring down Rue St. Louis and Rue St. Laurent. A carnival atmosphere began to grow. The music blared out again, and at 1:14.41 p.m. John Kinsella began lap 181 with the announcer exclaiming, "Le nouvel mark! John Kinsella, une machine formidable. Fantastique, quel courage...." He went on for quite a while, and Kinsella swam the record lap in 7:57, got out and returned to his tent. It was 75° now, and muggy, but Kinsella was still shivering. "Oh boy," he said quietly. He tried to whistle, but gave up after one tweet.
About that time Diana Nyad returned—and wanted to swim again. But Guiscardo would not get out of the water. He was swimming with one arm now, his sister rowing a boat beside him, pleading, "Marcello, Marcello." But he kept swimming, and ashore his sister said, "He wants to prove himself." He did.
At 3 p.m. a cannon blast signaled the end of the 24 Heures. Bucha had evened the score with Johan Schans; she had swum 100 laps and her lap average was 7:43; his was 7:49 for 90. Kinsella had swum 94 laps, averaging 7:06 or roughly 3¼ miles an hour, thanks to his fast pace in the early rounds. The swimmers embraced and, outside the fence where the beer cans were piling up again, people began calling, "Kinsella, Bucha." Everyone had cameras, and Kinsella and Bucha seemed to bloom in the sun and adulation. They looked almost rested. They had worked so hard, and had done so well, and though the first-place prize was only $3,500, suddenly their ordeal seemed a small price to pay. They had endured. After all, after the pain comes the pleasure.