Under perfect weather conditions Saturday, 10 individuals and three teams competed in the biggest of races for the smallest of trophies in the second annual fitness event named Take the Lake X-TREME! at Lake Waccamaw.
(Two other competitors, Brett Gore and Mark Gilchrist completed the four X-TREME! Personal Endurance Challenges August 18 so they could help organize Saturday's event. This brings the total participation to 12 solos and three teams.)
It became evident through the day that this intensely individual competition is best completed through team effort, and most of those teams were families and friends of the competitors.
The X-TREME! is an outgrowth of Take the Lake, a four-part
fitness challenge that will culminate its fourth season over Labor Day weekend. Take the Lake is an expansion of the decades-old Labor Day Swim begun at the birth of the Baby Boom era by Lee J. Greer and friends.
In the running for the first-place banner were Tommy Mintz, 54, of Ash and Eric Brandt, 58, of the Lake who, due to organizers’ error had tied for first in 2011.
Sending up heat waves Saturday morning were Edgewood School P.E. teacher and Whiteville High assistant football coach Todd Burney, 31, Joshua Jacobsen, 33, of Clarendon, Coburn Powell, 52, of Whiteville and Bill Sessoms III, 40, of Wilmington.
Sessoms, who grew up in Whiteville and is now a banker and trail bike enthusiast, took an early lead Saturday cruising through choppy waters and emerging at the dam only two hours and 12 minutes after leaving the beach at Dale’s Restaurant.
Northerly winds had dictated a rare start at Dale’s that morning, giving swimmers a little help with following waves. The Jackson Gore family took charge in setting marker balloons, determining swim direction and with general competitor support throughout the day.
Burney dropped out early. A strong athlete with little long-distance swim experience, the Lake dealt him a blow with severe leg cramps after two miles. Burney would continue, though, completing the other three events outside the competition.
Powell flew through the Bike & Hike, finishing first in that event in 1:13, and Sessoms lost some of his lead – his trail-riding strength thwarted by the no-riding rule on the 3-mile state park trail – and he tied Brandt’s 1:27 clock-in. Both Mintz and Jacobsen blew tires, which slowed but did not stop them.
The afternoon consisted of two long events; the 14-mile paddle and the 15-mile Walk/Run. The paddle was a close race, with Sessoms returning to the beach first in just under three hours. After the Paddle, the top four competitors each had a half hour between their total times, in this order: Sessoms, Mintz, Brandt and Powell. But the leader held inside him a clean little secret that would turn the tables.
Leaving for the Walk / Run seven hours into the race, Sessoms knew one thing few others knew; that he is not a runner.
The majority of participants in the X-TREME! and in the “classic” Take the Lake this coming weekend choose to walk in the Walk / Run, but in the top slots of the X-TREME! this is a handicap that can break a competitor.
Mintz, a farmer with no formal athletic training who has not competed in races other than TTL X-TREME!, is not a fast runner, but he is tall and has a loping stride that can eat up pavement. Both he and Sessoms ran intervals between jogging and walking, but Mintz’ galloping gait swallowed Sessoms’ lead even before they reached the state park. With more than half the route in front of them – including the park trail – Mintz finished the Walk / Run nearly an hour ahead of Sessoms, giving him a 10:01:00 total time, a half-hour ahead of Sessoms, and an event record.
“I didn’t know he was so close, and then he just passed us,” Sessoms said after the race. “I knew all along that leg would hurt me, and yeah, I’m pretty strong in the other three, but I was prepared for this.”
“I had given up for second place,” Mintz said about the discouraging lead his competitor had up through the paddle. “I didn’t know that he couldn’t run, but I knew I could.” Mintz had no idea he had gained on Sessoms so quickly.
“I was tickled when I saw him, I’ll tell you that.”
When Sessoms said that Mintz “passed us,” he was referring to himself and his brother, who was his safety escort in the swim, and his half-dozen family members who had t-shirts made to support him and who followed and supported him wherever they could along his 48-mile journey.
Most of the field of competitors had strong family support, including Mintz, Powell and Brandt, and they credit that support in their success. Greer and Grayson Inman of Whiteville had strong support including young cheerleaders with hand-made posters who let everyone passing by the beach know how proud they were of “Mama and Dad.”
Success in this event comes not only in finishing first – a goal only some competitors actually have – but in finishing at all. Take the Lake X-TREME! and even the individual Personal Endurance Challenges of this weekend’s Take the Lake are physical and mental feats of endurance like few people anywhere have accomplished.
The support of “families” was, well, extreme Saturday in the individual competition as well as the team relay, a feature introduced this year.
Three teams entered this competition; the Southeastern Community College “Fellowship of the Rams,” the Lake Waccamaw “Flip, Trip, Slip & Fall,” and “Team Wilson Auto Sales” (TWA).
TWA chose a modified gang start, which meant they were all finished before noon, with a total time of 11:09:12. This gave the other two teams a mark to beat throughout the day.
Relay teams of up to four people may have fresh competitors in each event, and they have no transition times, so their times and those of individual competitors can’t really be compared. (Due to the reverse direction of the swim, the transition from the swim to the Bike & Hike was removed from solo competitors’ total times.)
As the official time clock passed 11 hours, both the Lake and SCC teams ceded the first-place banner to TWA, but kept up spirits for their teams. Members followed each other through their events providing encouragement, and in the final stretch of the Walk / Run, some or all of the team walked with their “sweep” competitors to finish the race.
A sense of obligation to not let the team down led many members through their events, and the support was a morale injector. The four young men of the Lake team all were at the beach at 6 a.m. even though they weren’t needed for hours later. The team and the family spirit were what pulled swimmers through nearly whitecap waves, past the muddy trails and to the finish line of this extreme endurance event.
Note, all times are preliminary. Final results will be released shortly on Whiteville.com and Takethelake.org.
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