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The biggest worry for open water swimmers at this Port Moody lake might be goose poo

Competitive open water swimmers face all kinds of challenges. But none get their attention more than the water's fecal coliform count.
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Serge Score is taking a break from competitive open water swimming to be the race director for the new Sasamat Ice Cracker race at Port Moody's Sasamat Lake in April.

Athletes pay attention to all kinds of numbers: goals against average; runs batted in; field goal percentage; watts per kilogram.

Serge Score is all about the poo.

He’s a long-distance open water swimmer. And when you’re going to churn through a lake or across a harbour for up to six hours, you want to know what you’re swimming in.

“You have to pay attention to the quality of the water,” Score said, adding a quick check online of his destination’s fecal coliform count is part of his routine when heading out for a training swim or competitive event.

This spring, though, Score is staying on dry land as the race director for the Sasamat Ice Cracker open water swim at White Pine Beach on Sasamat Lake.

The April 3 event features races of 1.5 and 3 km, as well as a “daily double” that is comprised of a 1.5 km swim followed immediately by a 6.5 or 13 km run.

The Ice Cracker is the first foray into the Lower Mainland for Canaqua Sports, that hosts a series of similar races in Ontario and Nova Scotia. A subsequent event at Sasamat planned for May 15 will also include the Mudskipper SwimRun Challenge that is a qualifying race for the Aquaticrunner IWC solo world championships, to be held in Grado, Italy on Sept. 18.

Score said the spring races are a welcome return for competitive open water swimming at Sasamat after the cancellation the past two years of the annual Canada Day Challenge that’s organized by the Vancouver Open Water Swim Association.

A competitive swimmer in the pool in his younger days who’s also had success at the Master’s level, Score said he was intrigued by the unique challenges of testing his abilities in uncharted waters — so to speak — where he isn’t surrounded on four sides and below by tiles and the temperatures could render you hypothermic if you aren’t paying attention.

In fact, that’s what happened at the 60-year-old’s first competitive open water swim at Sylvan Lake, Alta. — he was churning along into the 17th km of the 25-km race and the next thing he knew he was waking up in the medical tent on shore after the cold water had caused him to lose consciousness mid-stroke.

Since that inauspicious start, Score has won the English Bay Challenge four times and set long-standing course records at events like the Skaha Lake Ultra Swim in Penticton.

Score said the sport’s freedom is its main allure.

“You’re not being confined by the pool,” he said. “It’s tranquil. It re-energizes you. You just hop in and go.”

Of course, in open water swimming, tranquility is in the goggles of the beholder.

Score said the placid surface and early-season clarity — before summer heat brings the algae — of Sasamat Lake is a perfect venue, but races are also staged across choppy bays and in pounding ocean surf.

Score recalls one race along B.C.’s coast during which he had a sudden fear that sharks were swimming just below him, even though they rarely stray into North Pacific waters.

Other encounters with wildlife or sunken hazards are real, like swimming alongside seals off Belcarra or navigating around submerged logs and tree trunks.

Technically, open water swimmers have to develop skills like sighting — being able to use distant landmarks or shapes on the shore to guide your way on course.

Pacing and passing are also important, and with up to 350 competitors expected to hit the water at the same time at the Sasamat event, drafting comes into play as well.

“You can let the other swimmer do all the work and do all the sighting for you,” Score said.

The most important attribute of the open water swimmer, though, is self-awareness, because there’s no edge of the pool a few strokes away if you get into trouble.

“You have to know yourself, you have to know your limitations,” Score said. “You have to be able to deal with adversity and make good choices.”

Like staying home when those fecal coliform numbers are high, Score added.

Because eventually every open water swimmer goes into the water when they shouldn’t and ends up sick.

• For more information about the Ice Cracker race, as well as a link to register, go to the event's website. Organizers are also looking for volunteers and lifeguards to help out on race day. Contact