Swimming Lake Tahoe: 90% Mental, 10% Physical

Iconic Lake Tahoe, with me in the middle

The answer: yes

The question: would I swim a relay across Lake Tahoe’s width?

The result: success!

I had a wonderful experience completing a relay Lake Tahoe crossing. We departed from the western shore in Emerald Bay and nine and a half hours later, we finished the 10.5-mile crossing at Cave Rock on the eastern Nevada shore, swimming towards the northeast.

Sarah, Stevie, Kristine, and Gary knocking on Vikingsholm door in Emerald Bay before the swim

Conditions created rough-going. We fought our way through the current, wind, and chop. We anticipated a six and a half hour swim. Much to our surprise, Lake Tahoe’s current coupled with the wind to give us the opportunity to spend significantly more time on and in the water than planned.

For some folks, swimming across Lake Tahoe is a training swim. For me, the swim was something new and challenging. The crystal clear blue waters separated me from the bottom of the lake 1600 feet below. When the sun shines, beautiful rays of light stream down into the deep dark blue unknown.

Over the past few years, new experiences have drawn me in - kind of like a mid-life evolution. If something makes me uncomfortable, I want to learn to get comfortable with it - both personally and professionally.

I took up open water swimming because I never thought I could do it. As my swimming improved, I trained for nine months to swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco. I completed my first Alcatraz swim and got hooked. Open water swimming creates the one space where cell phones don’t ring, clocks don’t exist, and my mind can wander freely and unconstrained.

A wandering mind can be a frightening place. Sometimes, when I swim, irrational seems rational, fear takes over, rational conquers fear, fear becomes your friend - over and over again. Minutes can seem like hours...

When I swam in Lake Tahoe, excitement and adventure overtook fear. Honestly, it was pure joy. During my first leg, the wind created a strong chop which bounced me around making breathing hard without swallowing mouthfuls of water. My mind was in control and I just kept on going. I swam for 30 minutes without stopping, enjoying every single stroke. I swam about a mile.

White Horses, aka white caps, keep me company in the water

As a group, we rotated with 30 minutes swims. When one swimmer completed their rotation, the next swimmer jumped in off the back of the boat, tagged the swimmer coming out of the water, and swam their next leg.

For my second leg, the wind died and the water flattened. It was the lake swimming I had hoped to experience - nice calm waters. The mental challenge was to get comfortable swimming in the middle of a body of water, about 5 miles from shore on each side. Again, my rational mind prevailed, and I sighted on the pilot boat as I breathed to my left.

Our boat pilot Tom Linthicum, http://www.laketahoemarathonswimfederation.com/, successfully swam across Lake Tahoe nine times - 6 width crossings (10-12 miles) and 3 length crossings (21 miles). During the summers, he creates a safe, great experience for marathon swimmers and relay teams, piloting them across the lake.

Tom Linthicum, better known as Reptile, piloted his Boat Ghost Rider, taking us across Lake Tahoe

As we began our third legs of the relay, the wind picked up again. We also had to fight the clockwise lake currents. The wind, chop, and currents pushed us south as we tried to angle up towards the northeast. As I prepared to swim again, I hoped to enter a state of flow - more commonly known as being in the zone. I couldn’t quite get there. While I was relaxed, my mind was more focused on swimming with good technique and being efficient. About halfway into the swim, my team called out to let me know we just entered Nevada. Officially, I was a swim criminal - caught in act of crossing state lines. Before I knew it, my leg was over and I climbed back in the boat.

Once I climbed back on the boat, the shore still seemed far away. For the second half of the swim, looking ahead to guess how much more distance remained just wasn’t possible. On the water, there are no reference points. Just mountains on either side of the lake. From a mental preparation perspective, sighting on the boat, not the land ahead or behind, keeps the mind focused on the swimming, not the distance.

We began our final rotation, and our first swimmer, who started us off in Emerald Bay, would finish the swim near Cave Rock. Conditions got even rougher, but she swam hard and just got it done. She had to scale a rock wall before raising her hands as she stood on dry sand.

Sarah shot this photo looking back from Cave Rock to Emerald Bay

Nine and a half hours after we entered the water, our relay ended. Our team worked really well together. While we don’t ‘train’ together, we do swim as a group between Alcatraz and San Francisco every week. Our weekly swim, while not long in distance, gave me the confidence to know I could handle the challenges, physically and mentally, of swimming in any conditions by letting my fears go and getting comfortable being uncomfortable.

Our relay team!
Would I do it again? Absolutely!


GPS Tracker of our route


* Photos by Sarah and me

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