When Natalie Lang jumps in the water and begins swimming, her sense of time, direction and hearing sink to the depths of the open water, and instead, she lets her body do the work, stroke by stroke, mile by mile. In order to succeed at long-distance, ultra-marathon swimming, the key to it all is the deprivation of the senses – just swim.
The 1995 graduate of Durango High School completed a rare swimming feat when she became the 39th person ever to finish a 25-mile trek across the length of Lake Memphremagog, the famed finger lake stretching across the U.S.-Canadian border, making up the northern boundary of Vermont and southern Quebec, and doing so virtually unaided.
Lang, formerly Mooney, finished the In Search of Memphre race in 13 hours, 46 minutes. The former DHS swimmer swam it on July 16 with two other competitors, and topped off her journey back into the sport.
After a long hiatus from the pool, she started swimming again in 2011 while competing in triathlons, but made the commitment to swim regularly shortly after.
“When I was doing these triathlons, I’d get off to a good start, and then plenty of people would pass me when I made it back onto the bike or running, so I started looking into these swim races that were three- to six-mile swims, and it picked up from there,” she said.
Lang, 42, moved to the East Coast and now resides near Boston and works as a school social worker. She completed her first three-mile swim in 2015 at Lake Caspian in Vermont, and began to compete in more longer distance swims. From there, she competed in the NEK Swim Week, as part of the Kingdom Games, from 2016-18. As the miles picked up in her races, she rediscovered her passion for the sport, and in doing so, ultra-distance races became a goal for the future.
The more she swam, Lang realized she thrived in solitude. No blaring music or a coach with a megaphone yelling instructions. She kept swimming, no matter how strong the current or how tired she was.
“It really is all about one stroke at a time,” Lang said. “Sensory deprivation works for me. It can get lonely, but you tune all of it out once you hit the water. You can’t hear a thing, your vision is limited and I didn’t realize that at first it would be that hard, but for me, once I got used to it, it was normal. I can exercise better, and when the music is too loud, I have a tough time regulating my breathing, but when it’s quiet, the miles fly by because you get into a mediative flow. You’re trying to keep the pace with the current and you keep adapting to whatever the water throws at you.”
As she built up her races, she began to contemplate the idea of swimming the length of Memphremagog – In Search of Memphre – the race named in part after the mythical lake monster that swims in the depths of the lake. She completed her third 25-kilometer, or 15-mile, race in 2018 and knew she wanted to attempt the full-distance swim.
Lang’s training was intense and she began training in a bitter-cold Boston January in order to build up her stamina. With her coach, Charlotte Brynn, and her 15-mile races under her belt, she understood the task at hand and fully committed to training for the longest swim of her career.
“My coach really had me focus on my technique, and usually, my husband (Gordon) kayaks next to me, or (my coach would) do the gag from ‘Titanic’ to keep me going, just fun stuff like that,” Lang said.
On race day, she and her two competitors, Jim Loreto of Bethesda, Maryland, and Mark Sheridan of England, were up well before the crack of dawn. At 4:53 a.m., just as daylight arrived, the trio dove in and began the trek.
In the first five miles of the race, however, it appeared that Lang could potentially be derailed before the halfway mark. At the fifth mile, her husband’s kayak was clipped by a boat, he fell out and the kayak had to be bailed out, and she had to swim back while her time extended, second by second.
“For the big swim, we had a pontoon with us, and I’d set the pace, and my husband would be the guide with directions, but then we had to double-back, and I just swam circles while the others got the kayak out of the water and bailed it out,” Lang said.
“It took a while, but it didn’t faze me at all. My adrenaline was really high, and it just shot up even more. Once I got in the rhythm again, it was awesome.”
Loreto and Sheridan were ahead of Lang, but despite the delay of bailing out the kayak, her pace picked up. With all of the adrenaline and hours of training on the line, she found her pace again. Toward the end, she nearly caught Loreto, as he finished just five minutes ahead of Lang in 13:41. It was the first time in race history that every competitor finished less than 14 hours.
Sheridan won in 13:08, and in doing so, became the first British swimmer to complete the challenge since the ultra-marathon race began in 2011.
“I never thought I’d be able to swim with these two guys, but I was really close to catching them, within five minutes or so, and they’re both Triple Crown winners,” Lang said. “They swam the Catalina Channel, around Manhattan and the English Channel, which is 21 miles. This race was longer, and I was able to complete it.”
By the end of her race, Lang kept her strokes even, going with the current one stroke at a time. When she made her way onto the Canadian shore at Pac de Baie-du-Magog, Lang was exasperated, physically and mentally drained, but she knew she had accomplished something that few in their lifetime would ever dream of competing.
“I can’t even describe it; it’s still so exciting just to even think about,” Lang said. “It’s going to be the most exciting thing until I do something bigger. The guys were a bit nervous that I could even make it, but when I finally got out of the water, everybody congratulated me, and it was an amazing feeling.”
Her summer isn’t done just yet, as she’ll compete in the Boston Light Swim, the oldest open water marathon swim in the country, on Aug. 17.
While she’s not sure of her future after the summer, Loreto and Sheridan inspired her to one day attempt the English Channel, the 21-mile treacherous swim from England to France. When fully dialed in, Lang has learned just how powerful one swim stroke at a time can be, and she says she’s ready for more.
“They definitely had me thinking English Channel, but that one might have to wait a few years,” she said.