Madelyn McCullen, left, of Whiteville is presented the Lee J. Greer Memorial Medal after completing Monday's four-mile swim across Lake Waccamaw. McCullen, a 15-year-old sophomore at Whiteville High School, is the youngest female to complete all four Personal Endurance Challenges in the Take the Lake history. Labor Day Swim founder Lee J. Greer's daughter Laura Greer Vick hands McCullen the medal.
On display somewhere in the home of a South Whiteville girl are four small awards – three red, white and blue tokens, and a golden medallion – all of little monetary value, but for 15-year-old Madelyn McCullen, they are priceless.
A sophomore at Whiteville High School, McCullen had shown interest
through the summer in completing all four of the Take the Lake Personal Endurance Challenges over the Labor Day weekend, an admirable goal for anyone.
In its third year, Take the Lake offered challenges in walking or running, cycling, and paddling around Lake Waccamaw, or swimming across it this Labor Day weekend. The free events are not promoted as races, but as ambitious challenges the average person can meet with training and dedication.
McCullen had wanted to participate in Take the Lake in 2010, but her schedule was filled that weekend. Some of her friends participated in one or two challenges and as they talked about it, McCullen’s mind went into gear for 2011.
“I remember all my friends doing it,” she said, “and I said ‘I can do it. If I put my mind to this, I can do them all.’”
McCullen set her sights high, but not too high. The Take the Lake X-TREME! event, involving all four challenges in a single day, had been tested in 2010 and was offered for the first time this year. She and her mother agreed that she should try the challenges separately the first year. From then on, it was all about determination and training.
“I focused on getting my arm muscles up,” she said. Training for that included plenty of swimming at the lake and her uncle’s pool, and workouts with the P90X program. Running helped build her legs for the strength she needed for the 15-mile Walk / Run and the three-mile hike along the state park trail for the Bike & Hike.
McCullen recruited a few friends to join her, and they all registered in early August, catching the attention of event organizers who thought the girls had mistakenly filled out the online entry form.
In 2010, eight people – all adults – had completed all four challenges, and talk had gone around about who the youngest female “quad” participant would be this year. Fewer than 10 people had registered as summer approached, and a few were teenage girls, but who would be serious enough to pull it all off?
Take the Lake Saturday arrived with opening ceremonies at the Lake Waccamaw State Park visitors center. Most of the nearly 400 people waiting to walk or run that day had in their sights only one or two challenges, and only a handful with their eyes on the big prize that would challenge them physically and mentally for the next three days.
McCullen ran the course at first, getting through the woods and onto Waccamaw Shores in half an hour. She stopped running and walked for most of the rest of the route. Blisters developed late and she walked the final mile or so with her shoes off.
“I wanted to stop at times,” she said. “But there was no way – there was no way I was going to give up.”
McCullen finishes the Walk/Run Saturday.
Organizers didn’t recognize McCullen as she arrived, but her energy, broad smile and stocking feet lit up the crowd at the finish line with cheers and applause as she completed her first challenge in about four and a half hours. Four colored stickers on her numbered bib revealed her as someone with the ambitious goal for the weekend.
One of her friends completed the walk, but that would be it for her, and the second friend didn’t even get to the starting gate.
The first challenge on Sunday, the 14-mile paddle around Lake Waccamaw, would present the toughest endurance crisis for McCullen. The weather was good, with calm winds presenting no problems. But long-distance kayaking is tough, with constant pulling on the paddles for hours. Her training had prepared her to some extent, but this event would challenge her at her weakest.
Through the summer and especially through this, the toughest physical weekend of her life, McCullen’s parents helped pull her through.
Norma Jean McCullen, a teacher at Hallsboro Artesia School, and Dan McCullen, who works at BB&T, carefully played the role of supportive parent, cautious not to push her too far.
“Mom said ‘Just remember, we’re here for you, and it’s not a race.’” McCullen said. “They had my back, and they gave me pep talks when I needed them.” The Personal Endurance Challenges are as much psychological as they are physical, and her parents’ words helped her get through the discouragement that 14 miles of water can bring.
“I went at my own pace,” she said. “It didn’t stop me when I saw people pass me. I just had it in my head that I could do this.” She continued paddling, struggling at times, but in the end succeeding in a sport that her grandfather had introduced her to only years before.
When she paddled to the public beach at Dale’s and the finish line for the second – and for some the hardest – Physical Endurance Challenge, that’s when she got the attention of the event organizers. The kayak and walk can make or break any participant, and McCullen was now on her way to the big prize.
That afternoon, she collected her third John A. McNeill Award for completing the Bike & Hike, after cycling from Dale’s restaurant to the state park picnic area, walking her bicycle three miles through the woods, and cycling back up to Dale’s. She enjoyed this challenge the most.
“I loved the biking,” she said. “I had a lot of my friends there, and they encouraged me. All of the encouragement really kept me going.”
Encouragement came from all around, and not just for McCullen. Take the Lake is unique of most fitness events around the country, organizers believe, because of the avid support from the community. Residents around the lake dress up their driveways and front lawns with posters and banners cheering participants on. They hand out water and juice and snacks and shout encouragement to complete strangers. In follow-up surveys, participants resoundingly agree that this is the best part of Take the Lake.
The Bike & Hike was easy, almost a break for McCullen. But the final challenge, the swim, is the big intimidator. Where the Walk / Run and the Bike & Hike attract upwards of 400 people, fewer than 50 waded into the water at the dam separating the lake from the Waccamaw River that morning.
It was 8 a.m. and the skies were clear, but forecasts predicted thunderstorms later that morning. Don met her in a small boat as she waded into deeper water. Dressed more for a day at the beach in a shiny pink two-piece bikini, organizers had to wonder that day if the title of youngest successful female four-PEC participant would land on this 15-year-old girl.
The swim is a serious psychological challenge; with few distractions, the mind has to endure the four hours almost as much as do the arms and legs.
“My dad gave me a peanut when I reached a [marker] balloon (set out by organizers every quarter mile along the swim route,) McCullen said. “And he said ‘I’m not giving you another until you get to the next balloon.’”
McCullen did the backstroke the entire way. It’s not the fastest stroke, and this slowed her down, a penalty that would work against her.
Some of the swimmers were finished and on shore before the storm arrived. It came in from the south – behind her – and came in hard. Rain poured down, filling support boats with water, and the wind pulled up whitecap waves that crashed against McCullen. It buffeted Don’s boat and at some point her father tried to coax his only child out of the water.
But she had it in her head that she would finish, and some say attitude is the most powerful muscle of all.
“When it got rough, I would take a five-minute break and hold onto the boat,” McCullen said. During those harrowing moments, she talked with her father, himself soaked from the rain, and the words he kept hearing were constant. “I’m not going to quit.”
From the shore, the lake was a mess. The sky was dark gray, and a flotilla of support boats could barely be seen coming in from the horizon. But in about an hour, the storm passed, leaving a gentle calm on the north shore. Shortly after noon, word got around that something significant was about to occur.
“It’s the girl,” someone said. The news quickly spread and people gathered to watch McCullen emerge, four miles away from where she had waded in early that morning. She walked up to the beach, 48 miles from where she had started her ambitious – some would say audacious – challenge, three days and a whole summer earlier, and she smiled as someone handed her the golden Lee J. Greer Award.
“It feels good,” she said afterward. “Like I accomplished something big. I worked a little and set a goal, and just had it in my head that I was not going to quit.” That gold medallion is one of four awards she has earned through training, perseverance and a level of determination few people of any age achieve.
CORRECTION: This article has been edited from its original version in the Sept. 8 edition of The News Reporter to correct an error about Miss McCullen being the youngest person to achieve all four Take the Lake Personal Endurance Challenges in a single weekend. Alex Watkins, 12, of Waxhaw completed all four challenges in 2009, and Miss McCullen is the youngest female to complete all four.
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