Mt. Whitney and Lake Tahoe

Posted on 9.14.11

Last week, I embarked on one of the riskiest adventures I’ve ever attempted. While much of it happened by chance, I was fully aware of what I was getting myself into: hiking the highest mountain in the continental United States, Mt. Whitney, and turning around the very next day to swim across one of the highest large lakes, Lake Tahoe. We’ll call this extreme altitude training.

Last year, a good friend of mine, Emily Evans, and I began to discuss swimming then length of Lake Tahoe. We had both swum the width in 2009 as soloists in the Trans-Tahoe relay, a distance of 11.5 miles. Her dad and sister live up there, and we both enjoy the beauty of the area and swimming in the incredibly clear, blue body of water. I had my worries about such a distance in fresh water, which lacks the buoyancy so many marathon swimmers enjoy in the ocean, so we used the 16-mile Lake Berryessa swim Emily was organizing in late May as a training swim. Unfortunately, due to improper preparation, I injured my shoulder on the swim, which caused a series of uncertain and discouraging postponements of our Lake Tahoe swim, originally scheduled for July.

After much frustration and many swims ending early in tears, I determined my normal training routine was not going to happen. I decided to do something radical: I put my attention on training to be the best ‘normal’ swimmer I could. I was capable of doing regular Masters swims and ocean swims under 2 hours with no shoulder pain, and used those, along with cross training, as my preparation. I was feeling good enough in the water, although always uncertain about what would happen if I were to really test it and go long. I decided with so little time before the lake temperature cools dramatically, that the best course of action was to continue ‘normal’ swim training and just do the long swim and see how far I got.

Prior to finalizing our dates, I had been presented with an opportunity to hike Mt. Whitney, something I’d wanted to do since I was a kid, with some of the members of Swim22 no less. Mike Vovk organized the hike and was an incredibly motivating and driving force for the 13 of us who participated. It just so happened that our hike date (Wednesday, September 7th), was the day before the window Emily and I were to ultimately choose for our Tahoe crossing. Oops!

I had been running 2-3 times per week to supplement the inadequate swim training I was doing for Tahoe, just to have an aerobic activity that did not stress my shoulder. I figured my legs would be fit enough, and there were some pluses to this order of events. After Mt. Whitney, I would essentially be invincible to the altitude of Lake Tahoe, which had been something I struggled with doing the width two years prior. Also, swimming for so long in such cold water would soothe my achy lower body and likely speed up my recovery from the hike. I did not even bother to acknowledge the minuses, because there was no use in going there.

The hike turned out to be an incredible experience. I loved going up the mountain, and the camaraderie of our group and the energy everyone brought was amazing. We all helped get each other to the top. A few of our members had difficulties with the altitude, but still managed to summit, which was incredibly inspiring. Our leader, Mike, did a fantastic job getting each of us up there safely. The beauty of being at the top of the continental United States is indescribable.

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For as amazing as the hike up was, the trek down the mountain was an entirely different experience for me. I struggled badly with the fact that it was taking forever (I was with Miguel and Sean, and it took us close to 6 hours to get down!), my knees were killing me, I had not slept the night before (we began hiking at 1am), I knew Tahoe was the next day, and I knew there was nothing I could do about it. Once you go up, you must come down. No other way around it. So it was just more walking, placing one foot in front of the other and one trekking pole in front of the other. There were times were I was able to zone out and come into a moving meditation-like state. Other times I would use my poles more aggressively and pretend I was swimming, just another monotonous motion I had to do for inordinate amounts of time. I tried looking at the experience as great mental training for Tahoe. I tried positive thinking, focal points, releasing, all the mental skills I could think of. It was just a grind to get down there.

Eventually we did, and I was physically and mentally exhausted. I had come up with so many excuses to NOT swim Tahoe. Sadly, I was actually hoping the forecasted thunderstorms at Tahoe the next two days would come true, cancelling our swim. I’m so glad those dark wishes did not come true. My mom met me at Whitney portal and we drove up that evening. Although just as sleep-deprived as I (her and my dad had just gotten back from a trip to Ireland and were jet lagged), she graciously let me sleep for a few hours, and we got to Emily’s dad Ed’s house just past midnight. Much to my disappointment at the time, the weather looked perfect for the following morning.

When I woke at 6am on Thursday, my body felt like a truck had run over it. Every muscle in my body was sore - so much so that the light touch of my swimsuit was painful. We readied the car with the kayaks, feed bottles, and swim gear, and drove down to the starting point. Emily and I got ready to swim, while Emily’s husband Nate and my mom got situated in the kayaks. As my feet touched the water all I could think about was how badly I did not want to be doing this. “Just get half way,” is what I was telling myself. “Half way is respectable. Get there and then you can get out.”

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Thankfully, as we began the swim down the lake, I began to care more and more about finishing. The apathy I woke up with was dissipating and I was beginning to realize how amazing it would be to do this extreme double. My shoulder felt great, the weather was perfect, and I was beginning to really want to be there. I had to keep reminding myself not to get too excited, and that anything can happen and I must stay smart about my shoulder. But after a certain number of hours, I was invested. I wanted to finish bad. And then for some reason, a terrible little thought popped into my head: “You’ve never not finished a swim before.”

Just as that thought arose, the surface began to chop up from wind hitting Deadman’s point, which we were ever so slowly passing. And then my shoulder started pinching. Bad pain. Now what? I was invested, I was halfway, 5 hours in, I had to finish! I had a feeling the chop would die down after Deadman’s, so I just told myself to hang in and reevaluate after that point, just in case it flattened out.

Sure enough, 30 minutes later, we were in flat water again. Not much after that, with some intense thought on my stroke, remembering everything Clay had told me to pay attention to, the bad pain subsided and I was left with nothing but a severe amount of good pain. I had not swam this long since late May, and my muscles were screaming at me. I started taking more ibuprofen and GU Energy Gels. I rededicated my focus exclusively to my stroke and monitoring the pain, making sure it was good pain and not bad pain. It was an extreme amount of mental focus, constantly refocusing on my stroke and attempting to unemotionally evaluate the state of my shoulder. This was by far one of the most difficult swims I’ve done mentally. I have no doubt that this would be an entirely different story had I not dealt with the mental struggles of coming down Mt. Whitney and had the confidence that I can push my body to some extreme limits.

As Emily and I drew nearer to the finish, our course lined up with the stateline, the inspiration for this swim, and we were swimming directly towards and in line with the cut in the mountain below, which separates the two states.

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9 hours and 50 minutes after we began, it was all over and everyone was happy.

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Now my focus is on my recovery and how my shoulder progresses with a bit of rest and a few short swims. My lower body recovered very quickly, likely due to being submerged in cool water for so long the following day. I still have symptoms of a dead arm, but I’m hopeful that if I’m diligent with icing, ibuprofen, and physical therapy, it will slowly come back to life. Just hopefully in time for Naples and Swim For Life this weekend!