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by Laura S Jones

December 31, 2008

Tom Landis takes some time out of the water for a long walk


Masters swimmers swim for the love of the sport, but luckily with sports you don’t have to be monogamous.

Sometimes what talented members of U.S. Masters Swimming do outside of the water is as amazing—or even more so—than what they do in the water. This past spring Tom Landis, 69 and a member of Oregon Masters, temporarily traded his goggles for hiking boots and walked 530 miles across Southern California. The hike, which Landis named the “River to Sea Trek,” was the longest in a series of backpacking trips Landis has enjoyed for years. He thinks of these long trips as good cross training for swimming.

It must be working because Landis’s feats in the water are impressive. He holds 11 individual USMS records; he has over 200 Top 10 swims, and he is a multiple time All-American and All-Star. He has completed relay crossings of the English Channel and the Maui Channel, and he enjoys competing in as many shorter ocean races as he can. Landis is also a founding member of SwimForum, a group of more than 50 elite masters swimmers over the age of 60, including 15 Olympians, with members in Australia, New Zealand, England and Canada.

Landis and his friend Cal French began their River to Sea trek on March 20 on the banks of the Colorado River in Needles, Calif. They hiked for 46 days. They spent three weeks crossing the Mojave Desert, then traveled south on the Pacific Crest Trail for 60 miles, and finally picked up mountain trails and rough dirt roads through the Tehachapi Mountains and Transverse Ranges of Southern California. On May 4, they finished their journey at Morro Bay on the Pacific Ocean.

“We only took four rest days and averaged 12.9 miles per day on our 42 hiking days. It was an arduous trip that took 15 pounds off of me. I'm glad it's over, but satisfied by the accomplishment, since at the beginning I didn't think I'd be making it the whole way,” wrote Landis in an email.

French, a 74-year-old environmental activist from Paso Robles, Calif., conceived of the journey and invited Landis to accompany him. French explained his rationale for the journey in an article in the (Ore.) Nugget Newspaper: “To show that someone can walk across the heart of California on public and conservancy land, avoiding roads and highways, over an area that still looks natural,” he says. “And it is through this personal connection with the land, during a two-month journey, that we hope to highlight the necessity of preserving and protecting what wildness remains. If the habitats within this great wildness become cordoned off and isolated, they will eventually die of starvation.”

Landis and French were both Sierra Club outing leaders in Southern California, a connection that led to a 30-year friendship. Landis sees their effort as “connecting the dots” of the wild places. It was hard to get the permissions needed to cross some of the private conservancy areas, but the friends persevered and were rewarded.

French's wife, Letty, met them at intervals to resupply them with food and water. Carrying water was a necessity during the trip since the environment didn’t provide any, Landis explained. With fresh supplies, their packs would contain 20 extra pounds of water.

Ten days into the trip and in the middle of the Mojave Desert, they were joined by Landis’s wife Madeleine, who backpacked with them for the next 300 miles. (A sprained ankle prevented her from finishing out the last week of the trek.)

The hike shared one huge similarity with open water swimming: the weather conditions were a big factor. Landis said the group encountered rain, high winds, stifling heat and biting cold in the desert. Temperatures ranged from a high of 95 F to a low of 26 F. In the mountains, more high winds, subfreezing nights, rain and even an ice storm were mitigated by the occasional pleasant day.

Looking back, Landis is most proud of setting a big goal and accomplishing it. There were moments of great beauty, he says, but much of time, the scenery was boring. Highlights included seeing condors, once nearly extinct, soaring free in a wildlife refuge. Landis said they didn’t see much other wildlife since they spent much of their hike crossing deserts which aren’t too welcoming for wildlife or humans. Although he did pass close to a rattlesnake and see bear and mountain lion tracks.

At 69, Landis is in great shape, though he acknowledges that he takes longer to recover from his strenuous activities. He thinks recovery from hard yardage in the pool is similar to recovery from a long day of hiking. To be able to keep going in either activity, Landis has to pay careful attention to the effort he puts out.

His advice to anyone considering taking up hiking as cross training for swimming is to be prepared, but go light. “Any time you go out into a wilderness situation, you get yourself into an environment where potentially dangerous situations could occur. Make sure you are prepared for the things the wilderness can throw at you. Take what you need to stay safe and leave everything else behind.”


  • Human Interest