SANDPOINT — There was a point in Elaine Howley’s 34-mile swim along the length of Lake Pend Oreille when she thought she wouldn’t make it.
With about six miles left to go, the 35-year-old marathon swimmer had battled choppy waters and was beginning to feel the limits of her strength. She told her husband, Mark Howley, she didn’t know if she had those last six miles in her. He told her he thought she did.
Several more hours of swimming and Howley’s own determination would prove her husband correct. Exhausted yet victorious, she emerged from the waters of Lake Pend Oreille just before 4:30 p.m. Thursday to cheers and applause from a crowd of onlookers.
As the first person to swim the length of Lake Pend Oreille, she achieved her goal with a final time of 20 hours, 25 minutes and 55 seconds.
“I think it’s spectacular,” said Cindy Aase, who hosted the Howleys at her home. “It’s never been done before, and I’m thrilled it was done by a woman.”
After almost an entire day in the water, Howley was understandably worse for the wear. She lay on the beach for several minutes while support team members held a towel above her to provide shade. Soon, she was ready to walk to the pavilion, where a medallion and a cake commemorating her achievement awaited her. She passed on a slice of the cake for the time being.
A marathon swimmer and writer based out of Boston, Howley set her mind on tackling the challenge after interviewing local resident and Long Bridge Swim founder Eric Ridgway, a marathon swimmer himself. She set about preparing for the Herculean undertaking with swimming and weight training.
Howley certainly has no want of swimming experience. She’s completed a 24-hour, 38-mile test swim in Massachusetts’ Lake Cochituate, set a record for her 16-mile swim across Boston Harbor in seven hours and completed a 28.5-mile circumnavigation of Manhattan Island. However, Lake Pend Oreille posed its own distinct set of challenges. Perhaps the greatest was the unpredictability of its waters, which could be calm or turbulent depending on the circumstances. Sure enough, Howley battled extremely choppy water for at least three of her 20 hours in the water.
“I think this one takes the cake for (my hardest swim),” she said.
Howley began her swim Wednesday night from Buttonhook Bay in Athol accompanied by her support team on a house boat. The team regularly provided her with balanced nutritional shakes to keep her energized throughout the record-establishing attempt.
“Elaine was keeping a positive spirit throughout the entire time,” said support team nutrition expert Sunny Blende.
The crew ran into trouble when the house boat broke down. While Captain Val Kaspar attempted to get the watercraft started again, Howley continued onward with some of her support team swimming and kayaking nearby. Meanwhile, Ridgway and videographer Scott Rulander set out in a small dinghy to seek out Howley while photographer Bruce Usher, who had since gone home, motored out in his boat to assist the team. Altogether, Howley lacked access to her support vessel for at least 50 minutes but continued pushing forward into the deep, early morning darkness.
“The entire time, she was being a trouper and kept moving forward,” said Ridgway, who considers Howley to be among the best 100 endurance swimmers in the world. “Elaine’s a very dedicated swimmer.”
The problem with the house boat proved to be electrical, and the vessel broke down again several hours later. Fortunately, Sandpoint Fire Department personnel met them in their fireboat and accompanied the support team for the rest of the swim. The firefighters’ water cannon provided a dramatic burst of fanfare when Howley finally swam her way to City Beach’s shores.
“This is our first time we’ve been to Idaho, and the reception we’ve had has been incredible,” said Mark Howley.
Howley’s achievements will be well-documented in the months and years to come. Rulander intends to release a short documentary covering the swim, while Howley herself will write about her experience. Either way, it’s a feat that won’t soon be repeated. And to those considering an attempt for themselves, Howley has a few words of advice.
“Seek out a psychologist,” she said.