2 dominant forces drew me irrepressibly to Lake Tahoe. Firstly, the purity of the water (deemed to be 99.994% pure versus commercially bottled water at 99.998%!) and, secondly, the continuation of the path-less-travelled (the feeling of being a bit of a pioneer). This is a common thread of many of my swim challenges when I reminisce (see blogs on Loch Lomond, Lac Leman, SCAR etc)
This challenge saw me commit over 18 months in the planning then just over 12 hours in the execution. Indeed, for this one, I had to reappraise my adaptability not only to the cold, fresh water but the altitude at over 6200 feet which is considered to be far more impactful on the swimmer than the runner or cyclist. This was a whole different ballgame altogether. When I asked the only other Brit I knew who had completed it solo (Kevin Murphy in 2003) he repeatedly expressed to me the difficulties of altitude combined with a particular lack of buoyancy.
I remember being pretty nervous in the few days leading up to this swim given the altitude, the fresh water, the lack of references or islands breaking up the swim. The task at hand was still an English Channel distance after all but with way less buoyancy. The best word to describe Lake Tahoe is 'vast'. However, experience definitely counts for something and my 70km Lac Leman swim in 2016 certainly put this one into very meaningful perspective. More recently though, I was appreciative of my friend Jane Bell who had helped me execute an absolutely flawless OVERNIGHT one-way Windermere 2-weeks prior which really stood me in good stead mentally the whole way as we started the swim in the final throes of daylight (see pic below) and the next 10 hours (i.e. 5/6ths of the swim) were pretty much in the pitch black. In this situation you really have to trust your stroke and be on your mental game as there's no sensation of moving anywhere like in a pool or a narrower lake - the only reference points were the feeds on the hour which helped to break the swim down into manageable chunks (I fed every hour on the hour). I told myself, therefore, that it would be a ca. 12 feed swim as I knew deep down I could swim the 1st half in around 6 hours.
(Sunset on 11th August 2018)
On the evening of 11th August, my wife Emily and I turned up at Camp Richardson Marina at the southernmost end of the Lake at 8pm to meet with the support team. Thanks to the Swim the Suck swim in 2016 in Tennessee and the SCAR Swim in Arizona in 2017, I had the chance to get to know not only a very able and chilled out swimmer/pilot in Tom 'Reptile' Linthicum but also a very accomplished swimmer and kayaker in Amy Appelhans-Gubser who had recently smashed out a very enviable 14 hour North Channel (body of water between Ireland and Scotland). At 8.30pm I was ready for the 'jump' as Reptile likes to put it. Looking over to our left at the mountain range on the western part of the lake, we were treated to absolutely incredible pinks, purples and reds illuminating the sky as the previous day's proceedings were concluded. After seeing Bill Shipp, another soloist, and his crew including the great Sarah Thomas off, I entered the chilly waters at around 08:30pm.
(Only 21.29 miles to go...)
At first the water felt pretty bracing and the task at hand rather overwhelming but I soon got into my usual predictable swim rhythm of ca. 50 strokes per minute. The water never really felt cold (it may have been 18c) and at that temperature it was never going to bother me greatly or put the solo in jeopardy. Over to my right I could see the bright lights forever delineating the state line between California and Nevada. Reptile warned me that I would be able to see those lights for hours and once long behind me there was then going to be extreme darkness (and a meteor shower that at least the crew would enjoy!)
It's funny but I realise now that it takes me sometimes until during the actual swim to fully understand why I am fundamentally undertaking the thing deep down. The aspect that really cracked this swim for me was visualising a 12 hour swim with feeds every hour on the hour pretending I was doing a 2-way Windermere. There were no islands breaking up the monotony and the notion of having to nail this swim predominantly in darkness that made this very gutsy.
Hourly feeds came and went. As usual I got my mojo after around 6 hours when I promised myself I had to have been half-way with the rest of the swim downhill to the finish. I decided I would throw the proverbial kitchen sink at the swim and my 5:47 overnight 10.5mile 1-way Windermere only 2 weeks prior really stood my confidence in great stead. My friend Amy was nothing but encouraging at feed times telling me 'Mark you are a beast, you are a machine my friend'. Her positivity was infectious and I really didn't want to let her down. All of the crew were here just for me and to see me succeed! At 6 hours I decided to change my feeds from maxim & a mini choc-chip cookie to something entirely new of flat coke & bit of banana (really enjoyed that btw). That was pretty much all I had in the 2nd half save for a bottle of water. Whenever I felt thirsty, I have to admit, I just opened my gob in the lake and drank!
Nothing was really too much bother other than the air temperature dropping to a fresh feeling on the shoulders at around 4am. I had the best support team in the world being led by swimmers for a swimmer with my wife diligently sorting feeds on the hour. It was lovely having the kayak to my side and the support boat further to my left.
(magical moment welcoming in the sun with my friend Amy smiling all the way)
(we spotted 'Tessie' - the Tahoe monster)
After about 9-10 hours, darkness lifted and the next day gradually dawned. I could see I was approaching the last u-shaped bay which housed the finish line. It was a bit of an optical illusion (similar to the lighthouse on the Catalina swim) and after enquiring to kayaker Gavin how much longer he noted '5-miles'. WTF....I was feeling suddenly disheartened as I had kidded myself I was closer. My mind was beginning to play tricks on me. I thought I had less than 2 to go! I got my head down and focussed hard on my stroke (especially ensuring to breathe close to the water and get chin to chest). Now and again I would start to try and count to 400 with each stroke to distract the mind. I also reminded myself of Teresa Roberts' mantra of 'Just keep moving forward' from my Geneva swim and Gez Lyon's 'If you can still put one arm in front of the other then you can keep going'.
During this time we overtook a wetsuit swimmer who had gone out 25 mins in front of us and I was also closing in on skins soloist Bill Shipp & his boat ahead who also went out ahead by about 30 mins. I also hit a lump of wood/branch in the water (which I tried to throw to the boat as a souvenir) and then below me saw a massive dark shadow move in the motion of a shark. It was scary and stopped me in my tracks....I laughed and told myself to get a grip: Tessie (the Tahoe monster) doesn't exist - it was just the light & depth playing tricks on me in the water. Now I was in daylight with the sun rising above the mountains (pic above), this was magical moment and nothing but encouragement from Amy and thumbs up from Reptile confirmed that I had this one pretty much nailed.
Slowly but surely we approached the very quiet Incline Village and just before 9am on 12th August we meandered our way through the moored boats. At last I could see the very welcome sight of sand confirming that I was going to be successful. Amy piloted me into the finishing beach where I limped ashore and we had a massive hug declaring our victory. 12 hours 26 mins and 58 seconds for the 34.2km. I had done a fresh water 21 mile PB by over 1 hour (my prior best was 13hours 29 in Two Way Windermere which is shorter at 33.8km) and smashed Kevin Murphy (King of the Channel's) British Record by almost 90 mins (and note that the route that he took from Pope's Beach to Kings Beach is actually 1km shorter at 33.2km).
Hugs all-round then a mere 1 hour boat ride back to Camp Richardson where I treated the crew to breakfast at Bert's cafe (which is becoming a rite of passage for soloists!)
(Team Shezza: Gavin (kayaker), Reptile (pilot), Shez, Em, Joel (observer) and Amy (kayaker))
My recommendations for completing Lake Tahoe:
1. Do an overnight swim of over 10 miles within 3 weeks of the swim. This will give you confidence on the night and will be great prep without overdoing it.
2. Get to Lake Tahoe at least 3 days prior to your swim. The altitude might mess with you. I was pretty breathless for the first 2 days but was fine on the night. I have heard stories of many others turning up on the day or day before and feeling very sick the whole swim.
3. Train hard in fresh water. This is not the sea and doesn't offer much buoyancy. Some say that altitude also offers less buoyancy.
4. Try and do some workouts in an altitude chamber. I did HiiT classes on a rower at the altitude centre in London. That definitely got me fitter, gave me a new outlet during the week and replicated oxygen at 2700 metres (which is actually higher than Tahoe).
5. Work hard on your stroke. I did the weekly Tuesday session under the watchful eye of Dan Bullock from SwimforTri. Those sessions helped get me ready.
6. Swim feed to feed
7. Choose a good pilot. I chose Tom as he is a swimmer, has done this solo 3x, follows a straight course marked by GPS and therefore there is absolutely no wasted effort or a question over the course. He only wants to see you succeed and has piloted people who have taken over 20 hours to swim the length! His patience is incredible.
Some random facts about Lake Tahoe:
1. Lake Tahoe is the 2nd deepest lake in the US and 10th deepest in the world with maximum depth of 1645 feet
2. Average surface elevation is at 6225 feet
3. 2/3rds of LT is in California and 1/3 in Nevada
4. The sun shines in LT 75% of the year or 274 days
5. The lake holds 39 trillion gallons of water, enough to cover the state of California to a depth of 14.5 inches.
6. The place is vast - there are 75 miles of shoreline around the lake
7. The average surface temp in winter is 42f with a peak around 65f during the summer months
8. 125 inches of snow falls at lake level every year with 500 inches not uncommon on the surrounding peaks
9. The surface of the lake takes up 191 square miles. If you stood on the lake surface shoulder-to-shoulder you could fit nearly 1.87 billion people on it - that's over 5x the population of the US.
(Southern 1/2 of Lake Tahoe looking south from atop Cave Rock - the start is in the far distance left of centre!)
(Northern 1/2 of Lake Tahoe looking North atop Cave Rock - the finish is below the mountains in the very far distance to the right!)