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Granted, man tends to seek pleasure and to avoid pain. But not, it seems, professional marathon swimmers, who by enduring find pleasure is the result of pain. Each July the most long-suffering among them show up at La Tuque, Quebec for a race called the 24 Heures La Tuque, and while the name is French the message is clear: for a long time, monsieur le nageur, there will be no plumping of pillows for you. The 24 Heures La Tuque would make a great movie. Horror, of course.
The 24 Heures, 10 years old last month, is a relay race involving some 15 to 20 two-person teams. It runs from 3 p.m. Saturday to 3 p.m. Sunday, and is staged in tiny, egg-shaped Lac St.-Louis in a hollow at the edge of town. The course, one-third of a mile plus 11 feet, parallels the shore, and behind a chain-link fence a crowd of thousands lingered for most of the night two weeks ago, happy with its beer, heaving an occasional can at the swimmers and watching the show as at an oceanarium.
On one side of the lake a beach offered chaise longues and tents for the competitors' pit stops. By Sunday morning the scenes there were heartrending. One man was weeping uncontrollably. He said he had stomach cramps; he moaned something about finishing—or being finished. Finally his handlers fell upon him and lifted him up, all bent and limp, carried him to the end of the pier and threw him into the lake. It appeared he must certainly drown, but he touched his teammate's hand, which was extended from the water, then paddled off to rejoin the race.
Inside the tents, one per team, each with a cot, the force of human shivering shook the canvas. There, for example, was Indiana's John Kinsella, a 21-year-old swimming his first professional race. At 6'4" and 205, Kinsella was one impressive swimmer. And shiverer.
It was midnight, the race only three-eighths over, and Kinsella and teammate Sandy Bucha, also of Indiana, held a three-lap margin—an impressive, in fact a near-record, pace. Holland's Johan Schans was churning along as a definite threat in second place, teamed with Argentina's Claudio Plitt. But Kinsella and Bucha had led from the start, John blasting out for a first-hour lap average of 6:27, Sandy for one of 7:03. Considering Kinsella's splashy background, few were surprised.
Although this was Kinsella's first marathon he had been a three-time NCAA champion at Indiana University in the 500-and 1,650-yard freestyle. In the 1968 Olympics he won a silver medal in the 1,500, and at Munich he took a gold, leading off the 800-meter relay team that Mark Spitz anchored. Now, despite his lead at La Tuque, he was saying, "I was crazy to get into this." He said it with a big, friendly grin that would not last the weekend.
Sandy Bucha, sweet-faced and 19, had been a 100-and 200-meter sprinter who had failed to qualify for the Olympics, had given up training and retired to her studies at Stanford. Then last summer, after training for two weeks, she had entered a 10-mile swim in Lake Michigan and had broken the world record for that distance. But Johan Schans, the former record holder, had won the event, rebreaking his own record and relegating Bucha to second. Now there was chance for redemption. At 7 p.m. Bucha surfaced and said, "I'm so used to sprints it's strange to come out and not be tired."
At 8:09 p.m. Kinsella and Bucha were two laps up but Kinsella's teeth were clicking like castanets. The weather wasn't exactly bad, but many of the swimmers had never been so cold. Andr� Dionne, P.R. man for the race, said that Kinsella's and Bucha's pace was to blame. "It is so fast," he said, "that maybe they spend calories faster than they absorb them, and they can't keep warm."
But they were trying. Sahar Mansour of the UAR sat gobbling a two-pound box of Cadbury chocolates and drinking Cokes. Others slurped corn syrup or hot chocolate, tea and glucose, ate cookies or biscuits and jelly. Bucha and Kinsella munched piles of fructose tablets. At 1 a.m. they had found a heater for the tent, but still Kinsella shivered. Not Bucha, whose pace was half a minute to a minute slower; she turned the heater off between laps or sat outside. "It's my layer of fat," she said, although it was nowhere to be seen.
Kinsella and Bucha had started out alternating two-lap stints. Then they tried ones for a time and finally went to threes and fours at 9:45. At 1:45 a.m. Kinsella swam three laps in 21:44 but grew so cold in the third that he swam only two the next time. Bucha stayed with three. Their trainer was Bucha's father, Colonel Paul A. Bucha, who insisted, "She feels better now than she did six hours ago."