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 Great Lakes Ultra-Marathon Series

The Drive for Five - A Great Lakes Odyssey
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Jim "The Shark" Dreyer escorted ashore by U.S. Coast Guard in swim across Lake Michigan.

In the beginning, there was Man and Woman, and they begat a child.  In a perfect world, the man and woman would have time and resources to raise the child.  We don't live in a perfect world however, and sometimes parents have difficulty providing enough attention and guidance to their children.  This can be especially challenging for single parents.

The Big Brothers Big Sisters Program works to​ bridge the gap between parent's resources and the needs of their children by matching willing adults​ with children needing more attention.  Big Brothers​ Big Sisters volunteers make a difference byproviding mentorship and friendship to children in need.  

Hoping to make a difference by raising funds and​ bringing awareness to the Big Brothers Big Sisters​ Program through his athleticism, triathlete Jim​ Dreyer set out to become the first to swim between​ Wisconsin and Michigan across Lake Michigan's​ mid-section, in a 1998 event entitled Swim for New Horizons.  While successful in setting a Lake Michigan distance record, swimming three times the width of the English Channel with a 65-mile crossing, Jim's career-defining mantra of perseverance was born after Lake Michigan's tremendous currents added an additional and unexpected 15 miles to a grueling swim ... "Quitting is not an option." 

The Great Lakes Ultra-Marathon Series was born after the Big Brothers Big Sisters programs in West Michigan grew between 30-50% following the Lake Michigan 

swim, and Jim's hometown of Byron Center, Michigan, declared every August 3rd Jim "The Shark" Dreyer Day  in his honor.  Jim, now armed with a new nickname putting him at the top of the food chain, knew he must continue.  There were four other Great Lakes and there would be other quests.

Jim "The Shark" Dreyer, Great Lakes swimmer, in action.

One by one, Jim would begin

crossing the remaining "freshwater

seas" off the list in his "Drive for Five,"

as the Big Brothers Big Sisters Program continued to grow.  In 1999, he would set speed and distance records for crossing Lake Huron, but the feat was not without its' perils. 

In the second of two attempts aborted due to weather, his support boat nearly capsized in a violent storm and Jim was pulled from the water after already completing two-thirds of the crossing.  In the successful third attempt, he was separated from his support boat near the end of the swim, leaving him without nutrition and with cramped legs that were rendered nearly unusable.  He was "missing and feared lost."  While a nighttime search and rescue mission was being conducted by authorities offshore, Jim emerged from the water where volunteers were forming a human chain looking for his body.  "It was like arriving at my own funeral," he would say.  For three weeks following the swim, he was treated as a burn patient after losing most of the skin off his mid-section from his wetsuit (see photo).

Jim "The Shark" Dreyer, Great Lakes swimmer & multi-sport athlete, running the beach.

Due to the fact that lakes Erie and Ontario were narrower than his previous quests, Jim set out in 2000 to swim the two lakes in a single triathlon event combining Ironman-distance running and biking, entitled Tri for New Horizons

On his first attempt he fell short of his triathlon goal, but set a solo ​aquathlon world distance record, when losing conscious before getting on his

Jim "The Shark" Dreyer, Great Lakes swimmer & multi-sport athlete, on bike.

bike following a swim across Lake Erie and a marathon run through the beach sand.  Not one to give up easily, Jim and his pioneering team went back to the drawing board and concluded that it is physiologically very difficult to remain conscious when exerting vertically after such a lengthy, rigorous swim.  Against conventional wisdom in organized triathlons, the new plan would have the swim last.  The strategy worked, as Jim came back a month later and set a solo triathlon world distance record by first running the same 26.2 miles through the sand along Lake Erie, then biking 130 miles up to Lake Ontario, before swimming a 56-mile near double-crossing of the lake (a storm forced him to be pulled from the water just short of the finish on the return). 


In 2001, Jim would embark on a quest to earn the coveted crown jewel that would complete the "Drive for Five" ... Lake Superior, the big lake called Gitche Gumee ... always rough and always cold, it is arguably the most intimidating body of fresh water on the planet.  There is a reason why Superior was saved for last. 

Jim "The Shark" Dreyer on Breaking New Ground
in Multi-Sport 

In the Quest for Gitche Gumee and the Gitche Gumee 100, Jim would achieve unprecedented success on Lake Superior while falling short in those efforts to complete a crossing.  In five attempts over the next four years, he would break his own solo aquathlon world distance record and twice set Lake​ Superior distance records while Gitche Gumee still did not permit Jim and his team to cross her expanse.  This is a testament to the scope of the quest, which included braving water temperatures as cold as 36 degrees and a storm that swept his support boat 20 miles off course while dangerously taking on water.  The medical implications of his battles with Superior include swimming with temporary paralysis of his legs due to advanced hypothermia (lack of circulation), swimming with a shoulder that wouldn't stay in joint from the breakdown of muscle tissue (accelerated by stretching layers of neoprene), kidney shutdown resulting from an off-the-chart CPK level, and a severe foot infection where amputation was fortunately avoided.  

Jim "The Shark" Dreyer swims length of Lake Michigan towing supplies in kayak.

Jim's 2003 Lake Superior attempt was cut short half way across the lake after a crew member narrowly escaped being crushed when the feeding dinghy was sucked under the support boat in heavy surf  and punctured.  Shaken and frustrated by the experience, Jim was back in the water just 12 days later in Michigan City, Indiana, for a new kind of Great Lakes quest.  This time he would  attempt to become the first to  swim the length of a Great Lake.  This time he would swim without a boat. 

The Lake Michigan 350 was undertaken as a self-sufficient event, as he would tow a 100-pound kayak with supplies from his ankles.  He battled 15-20 foot waves on six different occasions, including the time he survived the remnants of Hurricane Isabel and had to fight his way back to the Michigan shoreline after being blown well beyond the horizon.  Having already swum 34 miles when the hurricane hit, Jim only had two energy gel packets remaining for the last 10 hours of this unplanned 50+ hour / 50+ mile stage of the swim.  After celebrating his escape from the clutches of death, he was back in the water the next day as scheduled to continue the march "To the Bridge."  

In the end, Jim covered an estimated 422 miles, in 18 consecutive stages over 30 days, crossing under the Mackinac Bridge and setting the world distance record for a staged, self-sufficient swim ... yet another unthinkable milestone.   This journey was equivalent to towing the weight of his supplies 20 times across the width of the English Channel in a span of 30 days.  

Jim "The Shark" Dreyer on Swimming the Length of Lake Michigan

Finally in 2005, Jim realized that he had already discovered the unlikely

secret to achieving victory on Superior.  Like the Lake Michigan 350, he would swim it alone . .. but this time he would not be following the shoreline and must venture across the lake where land will not be seen for days.  He would swim without a safety net across the unforgiving waters that infamously took down the Edmond Fitzgerald

Jim "The Shark" Dreyer swims across Lake Superior towing supplies in dinghy.

Towing a 325-pound dinghy with supplies, including navigational equipment, he set out from Michigan's upper peninsula to find his way to Canada.  During the Solo Superior journey, he survived a total failure of his GPS navigational system, while 25 miles from the nearest shore, forcing him to depend on a $6.99 wrist compass and the stars to guide him.  After re-rigging his attachment to the dingly, in order to mount a flashlight for reading his compass, the attachment came loose and his lifeline of supplies were swept away from him in the strong currents.  He was ​forced to swim as hard as he could for ​half an hour to catch his supply dinghy ​... or die.  Near the end, Jim fought ​through the lightning strikes of a monster thunderstorm with ​60 mph winds that were producing ​waves in excess of 15 feet.  Towing a ​dinghy now filled with water against ​strong storm-driven rip currents that ​were trying to pull him back out to sea, ​he finally fought his way to shore after passing the only access point to Cape Gargantua, where crew and media were gathered.  He ​was rescued in the night, stranded on the side of a cliff along a rugged and remote Canadian shoreline, nearly 60 miles and 60 hours from embarkation. 

Jim "The Shark" Dreyer after swimming across 5th Great Lake.

Not having a support boat with 8-10 other lives in danger, Jim was able to persevere and ultimately achieve success in his sixth Superior attempt.  He had completed his "Drive for Five," 

by swimming his fifth Great Lake, and becoming the first to swim across a Great Lake self-sufficiently.  This incredible adventure set the world distance record for a continuous self-sufficient swim, and beat his two previous Lake Superior distance records.

As part of his training for Solo Superior, Jim swam 10 miles in Lake Michigan while towing a quarter-ton of sand bags in a dinghy ... an early introduction to "strength-swimming" and a sign of adventures to come. 

It has been said that Jim Dreyer has stretched the limits of known human capabilities ... all while facing seemingly insurmountable obstacles.  His accomplishments as an ultra-marathon athlete are nothing short of astounding, and even more so when you learn that just two years before he set his first record with a swim across Lake Michigan, he was afraid of the water from a near-drowning as a child, and barely knew how to dog-paddle.  His story is one of spirit and determination. 

Jim "The Shark" Dreyer raises arms in triumph after swimming across Lake Michigan.
Jim "The Shark" Dreyer conducts press conference after swimming across Lake Michigan.
Northern Express Magazine Cover.png

READ Northern Express Magazine account of the Shark's

Lake Superior crossing ...  the crown jewel of the "Drive for Five."

Jim "The Shark" Dreyer on oxygen following grueling swim.
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