In that 1958 competition Shackelford had only a summer's water-skiing experience behind him. Nevertheless, he circled the course around Treasure Island for 626 miles, a total since exceeded only by Shackelford himself. Despite this conspicuous success, his thousand dollars in prize money and a certain amount of national publicity, Shackelford was not satisfied. He regarded it as merely a prelude to what he was going to do the following year: ski 1,000 miles.
Considering the adversities—some of his own making—it is remarkable that Shackelford finished six miles, let alone more than 600, that first year. While some of the more affluent contestants were using three boats to precede them and break up the lake's chop ("I had to keep skiing through their wakes," he says), Shackelford had to settle for alternating a couple of inboards piloted by friends and working companions, a few of whom had never driven a boat. With characteristic ingenuity, Shackelford had obtained aerial maps of the lake and charted the shortest possible route (6.2 miles) around Treasure Island. To communicate with his crew, he wore a flying helmet with a headset and boom microphone. He took extraordinary precautions to keep his feet dry with plastic freezer bags wrapped over a big GI shoe screwed to his water ski. Shackelford had decided on a single ski as preferable to the two-ski technique that requires greater concentration and effort. He planned to get a dry flying start by sitting on the prow of a trailing boat until his tow boat got up speed, then easing his ski into the water.
The theory behind these precautions was eminently sound, as later experience proved. Unfortunately, they turned out disastrously the first time around. For one thing, Shackelford got dunked just before the race started when a boat cut across his path and he had to let go of his towline. The immersion turned the freezer bags on his feet into leakproof containers, rather than watertight covers. Since only two minutes remained before the starting time, he gave his crew the "go" sign and was off. Wet feet and all.
As soon as he adjusted to squishy toes, Shackelford was confronted with a second problem. One of the wood screws holding his brogan to the water ski began loosening itself into his big toenail, slowly and painfully lifting off the nail. The pain must have been exquisite, but Shack managed to endure it for four hours. Finally his toenail came off, providing some relief, but then his foot began to bleed from the assorted contusions and to harden from the soaking.
"I thought about quitting a bunch of times," Shackelford admits, "but after every lap I figured I could make one more." Twenty-three hours and 10 minutes later, alone but still skiing with the dislodged toenail and screw, he was asked by tired race officials to quit so they could get home to their families.
The second McKellar Lake marathon, in 1959, was a fiasco. The night before, a heavy rainstorm washed tons of earth and floating debris into the lake, creating an aquatic obstacle course. Seven hours and 170 miles into that race, Shackelford crashed into a submerged object and his dreams of a 1,000-mile record were frustrated once again.
Bowed but unbloodied, he made plans for marathon No. 3. This time he was preparing to ski a thousand miles at all costs. Remembering 1958, he asked one of the marathon's organizers, John Coll whose untimely spill ended the St. Louis-Memphis competition in 1957, to provide officials who could last as long as he did. Coll promised. Shackelford had other headaches. Unable to train ahead of time because his boat had been rammed a few weeks before the race, he had to be satisfied with preparations he could not test. He stayed with the one-ski tactic and, recalling the wet-foot episode of two years earlier, borrowed a pair of fisherman's waders and taped them to his blue jeans. "I started dry and stayed dry," he recalls.
Eating rare steak for nourishment, drinking three cases of Pepsi to fight thirst and using a battery operated telephone to navigate the boat during the night, Shackelford remained on his single ski for 35 hours, 15 minutes, covering more than 800 miles. The only unforeseen difficulty came when a photographer cruised up during the night and popped a flashbulb in Shackelford's eyes, blinding him for most of one lap. Otherwise, things went swimmingly until, at the 818.2-mile mark, he ran over a sandy corner of Treasure Island and fell into the water on the opposite side—an unusual short cut he doesn't remember taking.
Fatigue unquestionably played a major role in his unscheduled detour across dry land, but Shackelford also lays some of the blame on well-meaning friends. "I could have gone another 182 miles easy. It was only six more hours. But some of my friends got to worrying about me and decided to help me out by giving me some kind of pills. They just knocked me silly. The papers all said I went to sleep, but it was just the opposite. Oh, well—I'd rather they said I went to sleep than that I was a junkie.
"The next-to-last guy and I skied side by side for a long time," he recalls with some poignancy. "I remember he had tears in his eyes, and he said, 'Man, I got to go,' and he fell. The last five guys before me were taken straight to the hospital, but I was feeling fine. Not tired at all." As if to prove it, Shackelford was out on the lake bright and early the next morning. Water-skiing.