Tuesday, August 28. 2012
Having already swum across the Catalina Channel on two separate occasions, and having been successful circumnavigating Manhattan Island in New York during the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim (MIMS) event, I thought this year I would try something a little different. Instead of an ocean swim, I had heard of others performing long swims in fresh water. I live in land-locked Colorado which means the majority of my training has been, and continues to be at altitude in our scenic lakes and reservoirs. After looking at a few options and speaking to a few other fresh water distance swimmers, I decided to attempt a swim across Lake Tahoe, and to wrap a family vacation around the whole experience.
I struggled at first during the planning process. Were there rules? If so, what were they? What were the generally accepted routes across the lake? Who could I talk to to get a boat and a pilot? Was there a governing body of some kind and would they provide an observer? What were the costs? Some of my questions were answered by a couple of swimmer friends who had completed swims across the lake, but I still had other questions. So, I was thrilled to meet (virtually) Karen Rogers on Facebook who helped set me on the right path. She pointed me to the Lake Tahoe Swimming Society website where I could get more information and register my intent to swim. Once I did that, I was contacted by Jamie Patrick who offered to serve as my adviser, boat pilot AND pace swimmer. Jackpot!
Now, about the swim. I had originally intended to swim at night like others before me had done to take advantage of calm conditions. However I had been monitoring night-time weather conditions leading up to my date with the lake and noticed the nights were cold and breezy. I was concerned about two things. First, I didn't want my sister Andrea and her husband Mel, who would crew for me, to get cold. Second, in the event I got cold in the water, I knew the cool air and wind chill would offer no relief. Jamie brought me full circle by saying if I timed my swim just right, I might actually get a little help from the prevailing southwest afternoon winds. With day-time air temperatures of 80-85F and sunny weather forecast, I decided to begin my swim during the early morning hours, estimating a 10-hour swim overall.
Before dawn on the morning of my swim, my wife Julie drove me, Andrea and Mel from Kings Beach in the north, around the eastern edge of the lake, to Camp Richardson in the south. The moon was low, bright, and just a shade past full on the western horizon just above the Sierra Nevada range. I marveled at the beauty of shimmering moonlight upon the lake's surface and for a few moments, I regretted not swimming that night. I wondered how the moonlight would reflect in a myriad of patterns below the water's surface as I stirred it up into eddies and bubbles with every stroke. That alone, I thought, would've kept me distracted from my physical discomfort and entertained for hours. Ah well.
We arrived at the Camp Richardson boat dock at around 6:30am as the sun rapidly lit up the sky. We parked and walked over to the dock and Jamie was already there, waiting patiently I presumed. He had picked up a nice, new 20' covered pontoon boat which I had rented for the day, and which he had piloted from the north end of the lake to the south end. It was moored to the pier. We loaded all our stuff onto the boat and I began to get prepped to swim. This is usually the part where I realize I forgot to bring something important in my swim bag.
Yep, I forgot to bring a printout of my "Swim and Feeding Plan". Brilliant! With hopes for quick feedings dashed, I stripped down to my jammers while Julie pulled on a latex glove and began to "paint" thick gobs of white zinc oxide all over my backside and nose to protect my skin from hours of exposure to the sun's intense UV rays. With that messy task accomplished, I added a layer of 50 SPF sunscreen to my face, neck and chest; and then another layer of Bag Balm to my chafing areas - arm pits, neck, face, and sides. Speedo jokes may not be appreciated by swimmers, but if there's anything open water marathon swimmers deserve to be heckled for by non-swimmers, it's this curious and amusing practice of lubing up before a swim.
With all that messiness out of the way, and my "feeds" prepared and put away in a cooler, I exited the boat, kissed Julie saying, "I love you!", and walked back down the pier to the beach just a few feet left of the pier. I signaled to Jamie I was ready to swim so he could start the clock. I waded in until I was hip-deep, and then shoved off!
There are two parts of a marathon swim I like most, and one that I like the least. Despite the tightness I often experience, I absolutely treasure the beginning of a swim. It's what I've trained and sacrificed for, and the feeling of cold water on my skin is a remarkably exhilarating sensation. My launch into Lake Tahoe was certainly no exception. But the added sensation this time was what I saw with my eyes. The water was so unbelievably clear and transparent, I could see not only the lake bottom down to 50-100 feet or more, but I saw the lake bottom in great detail - every little rock and crevice; sunglasses and other man-made items inadvertently dropped by other lake dwellers who I imagined, having seen their sunken items below, tried to retrieve them before realizing they were quite safely out of reach.
After about an hour of swimming, I was feeling pretty loose and thought it would be a good time to open it up a little. I increased my stroke rate from my usual low-50 strokes-per-minute (SPM) all the way to 60 SPM which I maintained for maybe another 3 or 4 hours, stopping briefly every 30 minutes to refuel. I was feeling good; better and stronger, in fact, than I've felt on a few other swims. However I knew at some point there would be a price to pay for that extra up-front effort.
Around the 5-hour mark I was beginning to feel a bit of joint and muscle discomfort creeping in. Fortunately, I knew what I needed in terms of nourishment and pain relievers to keep the fatigue from accelerating too quickly throughout my body. Jamie and crew knew exactly what to do to keep me focused and motivated so my mind wouldn't tell me it might be a good time to join them on the boat. It was around this time Jamie asked me to describe my level of comfort in the water on a scale of 1-to-10. He would ask me this question several times over the course of the swim and my answer was always "7". Jamie also asked if he could pace with me. "So polite to ask." I thought. "Of course, get in here!" Mel took over the navigation while Jamie dove in and swam with me.
Not many swimmers have as slow a turnover as I have, however Jamie's is even a shade slower and yet he had no trouble staying by my side the entire time. In addition to the mental boost of having him swim beside me, I now had an opportunity to examine his stroke, his catch, his kick; and sort of compare it to my own. Outside of his longer reach which allows him to push more water, I didn't really see much difference. Like so many pool competitors I had to swim against as an age-grouper, Jaime's a bigger dude with longer arms and bigger feet. Ah well.
This is a good point to explain what I like the least about a long swim. It's roughly Hours 6 through 9; the point where I'm fatigued and suspect I still have a lot of swimming to do to make it to the finish point. It's the point at which I try to "change-up" my stroke, to stretch and work different muscle groups, and last but not least, to keep my mind occupied on other things besides the "why" I'm doing this ridiculously long swim in the first place, and how nice it would be to relax on the boat ("why not"). When I get to a point where making ridiculous rationalizations replaces repetitive dub-step musical beats in my brain, then I know it's time to bring out the "balance sheet". Instead of rationalizing and accepting all the "excuses" that would've led me to quit my swim, I decided to add a second column of compelling "reasons" why I should soldier on to the finish. This whole topic is part of a longer narrative on motivation and is a story unto itself, so I'll save it for another time. Suffice to say the balance sheet is a mental tool I use to keep me swimming and I'll just say it helped me stay the course, and I felt so blessed to have family and friends waiting for us at the north end of Lake Tahoe!
Somewhere along this difficult timeline, James Bond and his entourage rapidly approached us in a speedy boat, sending my crew into a red flag-waving frenzy. "Good!" I thought. Up until now this whole adventure seemed to have lacked a sense of... "adventure". Now before you begin to think I must've been hallucinating, it was a real ski boat rapidly approaching our small slow-moving flotilla. But it wasn't James Bond piloting the boat. It was my friend Mike, and he had his family with him! Apparently, they used Jamie's tracking website at... http://www.openwaterlive.com/cliff on a mobile device to find us so they could bear witness to the excitement of me crawling through the lake at 2mph. But more than that, they came by to lend me a morale boost. But I thought I'd ask for permission to climb aboard their vessel first. Permission denied! I was thrilled when Mike jumped off and swam over to pace with me for a few minutes before swimming back to the boat and speeding off almost as quickly as they had arrived. They would come back around again later to boost my spirits once more. Jamie would also hand piloting duties over to Mel one more time to pace with me as we approached Hour 10, the hour I had thought it would take to complete my swim.
When it comes to measuring time and distance, the mind can be an unreliable partner. For example, I wear a sports wristwatch when I swim in open water, and when I do, my mind sometimes tries to convince me that the watch no longer works. The final hours of my swim involved a tug-o-war between my watch and my water-logged brain. They couldn't agree on how long 30 minutes to the next feed should take (HINT: It's 30 minutes), and it had me checking my watch every 5 or 10 minutes. It's like your kids asking, "Are we there yet?" several times on a long road trip (like the one we all took from Colorado to get here!). I know many open water distance swimmers don't wear watches on their swims, probably for this very reason. But because my mind is weak, and despite the fact I feel a need to check on the time every other stroke, the watch stays on!
Distance. What's that phrase? Oh yes, "Don't believe your lyin' eyes." There's nothing quite like the feeling of being a "hamster on a wheel" when you can begin to see your finish beach on the horizon and it never, ever seems to be getting any closer! This is when openness and honesty from the crew can help, and in this case, I had to ask to what extent I was making progress. Jamie and crew assured me we were getting closer and to just keep swimming. I had this same issue last summer crossing Catalina when I couldn't see the haze-shrouded mainland when I thought I should be getting close, and the response from my crew on that occasion was the same, Just keep swimming." Anyway, that's great advice! Why didn't I think of that?
As forecast, the afternoon winds were picking up around the latter part of the swim, slowly transforming the water from flat, transparent glass into a glossy blue surface of tiny ripples. Jamie had been navigating us into position to capitalize on a prevailing southwest breeze by pointing us slightly to the west of our finish point and then arcing in towards it so we would have the wind and waves at our back, pushing us all the way in to shore. Training here in the mountain lakes of Colorado has afforded me opportunities to swim in all kinds of weather conditions, with wind and waves coming at me from all directions. So I can say that having wind and waves at your back pushing you along is fastest by far, causes less impact and stress on the body, and is much more fun. But on this afternoon something wasn't quite right. First, the afternoon wind took it's time getting organized and, and at first, began lightly blowing in from the north directly against us! It only lasted for a brief period before turning calm once again so it's impact seemed minimal to me. Later, a stronger breeze with larger waves arrived at our location, approaching at an angle from my left, which is the side I typically breathe on. This condition didn't bother me too much either, and Jamie positioned the boat to my left which mitigated much of the potential impact. I did eventually benefit from the wind and wave pattern as we continued making our slow northeastward turn towards Hyatt Beach.
I don't know how other open water distance swimmers define the final leg of their swims, but the moment I see the finish area, and I can actually see my own forward progress as the scene comes into full view, it's at that point I know I'm almost done, and it's my other favorite part of a marathon swim. And just knowing my family, a few close friends, and my kids were waiting for us made me very happy indeed! Traffic from other watercraft was also increasing, another encouraging sign. I could hear the sounds of their motors humming along and see my crew frantically waving their red flags again like enthusiastic performers on a high school drill team. Once again, as at the south end of the lake, I could begin to see the bottom long before I would ever touch shore. Once again, I experienced it in great clarity and detail, with man-made items lost long ago, and boulders of every size and shape, resting in randomly scattered patterns across the lake floor. As I approached boats and jet skis moored just outside a buoy line, Jamie repositioned the boat to my immediate right and motioned me in closer to the boat for safety. He navigated as close as possible to the buoy line leading to shore to reduce the chance of a jet ski or boat crossing our path; just one of the many times I felt grateful to have his support!
It was at that point I was joined by another escort entourage... my kids! They had swum to the outer edge of the swim area on my left side to swim me in the rest of the way. And once I reached the beach and could get my legs steadied under me, I saw that family and friends were there to cheer my accomplishment. It was a powerfully joyous moment! My final time was 11 hours and 9 minutes - my longest swim to-date in terms of length of time in the water. I was of course exhausted and glad to be done, but wow, what a great way to finish a long swim in such a beautiful place as Lake Tahoe, a place we would call "home" for a few more days as we explored the lake and surrounding area with family and the best of friends!