Swimming the length of Lake Tahoe
At 3:00 AM on Lake Tahoe the darkness is complete, and the normally sapphire waters become onyx suspending a swimmer in cold blackness over 1500 feet above the bottom. With the final goal of King’s Beach a vision in my head over 21 miles away the only rational goal was the running light of the escort kayak 20 yards away piloted by my fiancée Michelle Evans and my best friend Jason Pate. At 68 strokes per minute and a pace of just over 2 miles per hour, King’s Beach would only begin to materialize with painful slowness.
In 1955 Fred Rogers of Novato, CA became the first person to swim the length of Lake Tahoe, which is the largest and deepest alpine lake in the United States. The lake surface sits at an elevation of 6225 feet, is approximately 12 miles wide and 22 miles long. The water reaches a depth of 1645 feet and in summer has an average surface temperature of 55 – 70 degrees. Since Fred’s amazing swim which took over 19 hours only six others completed some variation of a length swim. The two most recent were in 2003 by Laura Colette and Kevin Murphy. Since Laura is a training friend and has the only Tahoe swim registered with the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame it was her route I chose to duplicate: Camp Richardson to King’s Beach, a straight shot of approximately 21 miles.
For the last two years, I swam solo in the Trans Tahoe Relay, a 12-mile swim across the lake with over 100 six-person relay teams and usually 6 hearty solo competitors. After those confidence boosters I thought an easy follow up would be the 11-mile Maui Channel known for warm, clear, occasionally shark infested waters. That is the thing about open water swimming, once you take the roof off and remove the walls anything can happen, as it did during my 2004 Maui Channel Swim. I was stung all over by jellyfish, including in the face and mouth, and the normally calm ocean turned into 4-foot wind driven white caps. I alternated swimming and throwing up for the final one and a half hours yet I managed to stagger ashore six hours and twenty minutes after starting. The swim was an epiphany and the scariest, most humbling athletic endeavor I had ever experienced. Strange as it may seem the morning after that swim was the first time I began to visualize swimming the English Channel. I have always endeavored to live life by confronting fears, and as my accomplishments have gotten more daunting, that fear envelope has been pushed further out. Ever since my first Tahoe crossing people had mentioned the Channel; however since I grew up in landlocked Memphis, hate jellyfish and previously harbored a fear of the ocean I never imagined myself swimming the Channel. I guess there is nothing like swimming through your own vomit to create a new resolve.
Growing up in Memphis, Tennessee I was not involved in school sports, and I spent a lot of time feeling more like a wallflower than an athlete of note. Through a brief two years swimming winters at then Memphis State and the Mason Y the highlights of my swimming career were long awkward waits at meets with brief swims in the slowest heats. The clearest memories from those days: the fear of diving in and losing my goggles, stinging eyes from the chlorine and the burn of water in the nose from failed flip turns. Despite the awkward start that I no doubt share with many people, I did have experiences that forced me out of my comfort zone and into a realm of endurance athletics at which I seemed to excel both mentally and physically.
Whether one’s new challenge is a 5k, a marathon, a triathlon or a 20+-mile swim, in order to finish one there is one simple rule: “NEVER stop moving forward. “
August 15, 2005: South Shore Lake Tahoe
I stood in the 40-degree air about to enter 65-degree water with a heart rate already elevated due to the altitude. Nothing was visible but the kayak and support boat running lights. Focusing on the first stroke was all that mattered. From that first stroke, I then moved on to the next, and after that… the next one until gradually the bottom fell away and the last shore I would see until late afternoon receded into memory. My world was defined by a purple, glowing bracelet on my wrist, which as it hit the water with each stroke created the illusion of swimming through a lava lamp. The darkness was also broken by a searchlight my crew held in front of me that disappeared in the depths below but created a pillar of light that I began to chase through the early dawn. The solitude was broken every 20 minutes, as it would be throughout the swim, by a bottle of energy concoction on the end of a 30-foot yellow rope illuminated by an orange glow stick. In marathon swimming the swimmer is not allowed to touch anyone or anything except a feed bottle, and the rope holding the feed bottle is not allowed to go taught lest the swimmer get a temporary pull towards the distant shore. People believe that the athlete suffers the most, but in my mind, the loved ones who must watch the suffering while being forbidden from touching or comforting their friend or partner know a whole other level of sacrifice. In the words of my fiancée and friends Jason and Steven, they had to remind themselves that I was doing this voluntarily. They were with me stroke for stroke and could read the pain in my face. Towards the end of the swim, the crew became more anxious as they watched distant lightning over the mountains gradually move closer at a rate only slightly slower than we were moving into shore. Since a marathon swim is not complete until the swimmer walks under their own power to a point above the water line, a close lightning strike could end the swim 200 yards from shore…no asterisk, no footnotes, just a “Did Not Finish.”
The planned 3:00 AM start was designed to get us clear of early morning boat traffic and to avoid any late afternoon storms or winds that often materialize in summer. Due to boat logistical issues, we did not get started until 4:30, but we still had amazingly clear and calm conditions for the first 3 hours. We were moving along at almost two and a half miles per hour, and the only disruption was some early winds channeling through Emerald Bay. As soon as we passed the gap in the mountains, we once again found calm waters and no wind. Now Tahoe is one of the most beautiful areas of the country, yet most of my day was spent looking at the side of a Larson powerboat, the keel of our yellow kayak or the vanishing rays of the sun in the depths below. One of the most frequently asked question following a swim like this is “What do you think about all that time?” For me I spend most of the time constantly analyzing how I am doing, focusing on maintaining my stroke and watching for early warning signs of injury or failing energy levels. Less than 4 hours into the swim these thoughts brought me to a new pain that began in my right shoulder and radiated through my elbow and into my hand. To compensate for this I had to shorten my stroke and keep my arm more extended. The net result was that I could painfully maintain my stroke rate, but I was covering less distance with each stroke. As for my crew, they were constantly occupied with the full time care of all my needs and the collection of information on our progress. You see as challenging as Tahoe was to become the purpose was still to gather information, come together as a team and work out a system that would increase our chances of success one year later in England.
Over the next several hours, everything went as smoothly as anyone could have imagined. The most consistent comments from all of the crew concerned how fast the time seemed to go by. Everyone was on a schedule, so between alternating paddlers in the kayak, giving Jamie a break from piloting the boat, counting strokes, video taping the event, preparing feedings and occasionally “Mooning” the swimmer they had little time to lie about reading romance novels and working on a tan.
Tahoe was a goal in itself, and we knew that this was our best chance to test systems for England. The Tahoe swim is about the same distance as the English Channel, yet in Tahoe we believed we would not have jellyfish, large ships and currents that so often thwart even the best-prepared Channel crosser. Unbelievably part of me needed Tahoe to be as hard as possible, and as the cliché goes, “Be careful what you wish for.” For most of the swim, we had calm, unseasonably warm waters that got us to the halfway point in just over four and a half hours. This was one and a half hours ahead of the previous best crossing. The pain in my arm was now manageable as I had been consuming ground up ibuprofen at each feeding. Spirits were high, and I was even cracking jokes during feedings. About 8 hours into the swim Michelle looked west over the mountains and saw that first lightning strike in the distance. Just before this we had all felt the wind begin to pick up. One minute the lake was like an empty pool the next minute the waves had built to white caps 2’ – 3’ high. Now much of that forward energy was spent fighting to stay on course, and the unpredictable wind driven waves meant that I would lose strokes as waves lifted me up or broke over top of me. At feedings the bottle was upon occasion ripped out of my mouth as the boat heaved. Jason could no longer keep the kayak upright so retreated to the main boat. Now as I tried to dig deeper into each wave the pain in my arms reached a new high. This late in the swim my body had also stopped absorbing calories as efficiently as it had at the start. I too could now see the approaching storm, and I knew we had to get in…NOW. This was my low point and my greatest fear. I kept asking my crew, “Are we moving forward?” The thought that I was working this hard and just swimming in place was breaking me. This also marked the high point of the swim because this is where I ultimately learned the utter devotion to the effort that had developed in the group. Jamie never let the boat waiver off course. Jason switched to a wetsuit and dive scooter so that he could be in the waves and be close should I pass out with the dropping water temperature. Stephen and Michelle tracked our progress, monitored the storm and made sure that with every breath I was able to make eye contact with someone. I was not alone. The shore was getting closer.
At the top of the lake King’s Beach sits in a small bay and as soon as we crossed the mouth of the bay the winds dropped and the water became calmer. For the first time in 11 hours, I finally saw the bottom of the lake. Quickly Michelle and Jason paddled ahead so they could tape the finish, meet the reporters and be prepared to wrap me in towels as I came out. For me this is when all the emotions held carefully in check came through…we were finishing. With a final surge of adrenaline, I stroked past the boats moored off the beach and past a few innocent bystanders playing in the water. My hand touched sand in about 2 feet of water and I was able to stand up and run on to shore. One would think looking at the photo of me emerging that I was sprinting to the transition area of a triathlon following the opening swim. As I got to shore and cleared the water line Jason and Stephen stood on either side of me and helped me walk over to Michelle. The embrace completed the journey. I did not conquer anything that day. I did not win. I did not crush the competition. We came prepared and learned during the crossing that no matter what happens we can count on each other. Being afraid is not a bad thing. What we did was not let that fear limit our possibilities.
“Those who say it cannot be done should not interrupt the person doing it.” Chinese proverb
To Jason Pate, Steven Rutherford and Michelle Evans, thanks for saying it CAN be done.
- Open Water