I’ll start by saying that I was unusually nervous for this swim. It had been 2 years since I had swum anything over 8 hours and this swim just felt long. Also, I have done enough swims at this point that its seem (at least to me) that everyone just expects me to be successful. It is not a bad thing to have people have confidence in me but it is stressful to worry about failing under those expectations. I even contemplated not posting about the swim until I finished because I was so worried about falling short of my goal. But, while I don’t like the pressure of possibly letting people down, I do value the flipside of having people hold me accountable to my goals.
One of my other worries was that Lake Tahoe length crossings start around 9pm and occur mostly overnight. Not only do I usually dislike night swimming, most people who know me know that I hate staying up late. I researched the possibility of a later start and discussed this idea with many veteran swimmers, but ultimately decided that dark and flat outweighed light and windy. And so, I found myself watching the sunset over the lake with my crew waiting for our 9pm jump time. When I told my kayaker and guide extraordinaire Catherine Breed about my fear of swimming in the dark, she assured me that I would always be able to see the contrast between the mountains and the sky. This comforted me and was absolutely true.
It was surreal to stand on the beach in cap and goggles while vacationers dined on an outdoor patio behind me. Once they saw me and understood what I was going to do, I had a whole patio of people cheering for me. When John the observer gave me a 3 minute warning, I got in and splashed around because I do not like starting dry and then found my way back to dry land to wait for the count down.
Catherine was already in the kayak waiting for me and when John said “go”, I walked into the cool water and started to swim. I started swimming along the pier with Catherine on my other side, trying to find my rhythm and let my eyes adjust to the darkness. The water was warmer than the air and my stroke felt jittery in the excitement of the start. I had to remind myself that I wanted to use the first 3 hours to find my stroke and not to go out too fast. All the same, I felt like I was flying across the slightly bumpy water. I knew that the wind was supposed to die down by 11pm and that the water should flatten out too.
The first feed came more quickly than I expected and I fed quickly and continued finding my pace. I was so happy that I could still see the difference between the distant mountains and the sky, which provided context. Breathing to one side I could see the the dark mountains and distant city lights, and breathing to the other I could see the light son the kayak and the red light on Catherine’s head. The contrast was peaceful. I also had a green light on my goggle strap that occasionally illuminated my hands in the water. On the second feed, I remembered to look at the stars shining bright above me. I also asked Catherine to switch the kayak from my right side to my left which helped me keep my stroke more even and made my neck happier. Even though, I am a bilateral breather, I find that I can sometimes see much better on one side versus the other.
I never did see the moon, Catherine said that she could see it periodically when the clouds moved aside! The early parts of these long swims is mentally difficult because it is hard for me to ignore how far I still have to go. I gave myself until the end of the 3rd hour to find my rhythm and even though my stroke was feeling smoother, I was struggling with already wanting to be done with the darkness. I kept reminding myself to just swim for the next 30 minutes and get to the next feed. I knew once I reached the halfway point, I would feel re-energized, so I set the halfway point as a goal.
Although the darkness prevented me from seeing my progress, I finally started to feel like I was making some distance away from the southern starting point. Hours 4 and 5 were spent wishing for news of reaching halfway and feeling the air continue to get colder.
At the hour 5 feed, Catherine got onto the boat to rest and I swam beside the boat for a while. Anyone who has trained with me knows that I struggle to maintain a straight line in the water and darkness makes this much worse. I had a very difficult time telling the angle of the boat in the water, despite the many lights hanging from it. Several times, I found myself swimming perpendicularly away from the boat and heard the crew shouting at me to come back. They yelled that I should swim towards a dip in the ridge that was backlit. It was around 2am at this point and I could not figure out why it looked like the sun was rising over the northern hills. Finally I asked what the light was and the crew shouted “Reno!” and finally I understood where I was headed!
I was really not enjoying swimming just with the boat but instead focused passing the halfway point and making progress. Around 7 hours, I started to get more comfortable getting used to swimming next to the boat and they added a blue light which really helped. I asked if Catherine was going to be coming back in soon and when I stopped to feed at 7.5 hours, she hopped back in the kayak!
I was so happy to have the kayak back guiding me and felt like I was flying through the water. I kept wondering if I was going to hit a wall and stop feeling strong. Catherine said: “What’s your 10k pace? All you have left is a 10k and a bonus mile!” I knew that the few hours before dawn were when I was going to be the coldest and that it had to be around 5am so I was getting excited for the sun to come up and warm me up.
At the 8-hour feed, Catherine told me that I had about a 10k left and that if I could do it in less than 3 hours I would “crush” my goal time. I focused on descending each hour of the 3 hours and wondered if I would hit a wall sometime soon. I started having fun and feeling speedy in the water but also feeling very ready to be done. The sky was finally light and I switched to my dark goggles and started to feel warmer.
We began to swim into a small bay but I felt like I stopped making progress as the edges of the bay refused to get any closer. At the next feed, Catherine acknowledged that we were fighting a headwind but that I should keep pushing and I asked for an Advil at the 10.5-hour feed. We continued moving forward and when I sighted forward, I could finally see light glinting off the boats near the finish. These looked deceptively close and Catherine told me at the 10.5-ghour feed that she thought we were about 2800 yards away. I was disappointed to hear this because it meant that my time would certainly be over 11 hours.
The Advil helped a little bit and I kept trying to build into my fastest pace. Catherine kept reminding me to kick but I was starting to really really want to finish. At the 11-hour feed, Catherine asked if I wanted to take an applesauce as it would be my last feed. I thought that I was very close so I just had one swallow of applesauce before continuing to swim. I soon regretted this as I was still about 20 minutes from the finish. When I finally started passing boats, marking my proximity to the finish, my energy was fading and I was aching. I continued to swim to the beach, with Catherine guiding me and finally saw sand underneath me. I picked up my stroke tempo and swam up onto the beach. I stood up slowly and sort of hopped up onto the sand, finding dry sand and raising my arms. I was finally done. I stood there, looking back across the lake and couldn’t believe that I had swum so far.
I am so grateful to my whole crew for making this swim possible and especially to Catherine for supporting me in the water. I honestly do not think I could have done this swim without her. Overall, this was a very fun swim and I am very proud of how I was able to build it and how well my stroke held together for the 11 hours. I learned a lot about pushing my limits especially in terms of effort on this swim and can’t wait to translate these lessons onto future swims! Thank you so much to everyone near and far who cheered me on!