To say that swimming around the perimeter of Lake Tahoe would be challenging is a major understatement. I knew that going in. Humor is often the best cure for anything. I would often joke about drowning, dying, and the general “hard as ****” aspect that swimming around the entire lake would entail. Being able to take the real challenges of an event and make light of them has always played a key role in my ability to undertake arduous challenges such as Tahoe.
I am beyond pleased with my training and physical abilities leading up to the swim. My support crew – Brian Ahlers and Annie Mac were nothing short of incredible. Their combined goofiness, laughter, warmth, and aid was more than I could have possibly wished for. I wouldn’t have been able to get as far as I did without these two angels. From the bottom of my heart – THANK YOU! Your presence and willingness to tackle this endeavor with me made it much more enjoyable.
Without further ado:
Day 1: With Brian on his kayak and Annie on her SUP we set off from Sand Harbor. It was a gorgeous day. The sky was clear and the water was a beautiful glassy blue. Around 11am, with my Chill Swim dry bag in tow, I set off on the first leg of my Tahoe 360 attempt. The first day swimming was great. I focused my breathing to every 3 stokes. Within moments of being in the open I was able to sync my momentum with the rhythm of the water. I watched my arms break the surface while little clear bubbles would delicately dance off my hands and up to the top of the water. The only constant sound was the exhale of my breath. Swimming parallel with the shore, I had tall green trees on my left and Brian on my right. If my goggles weren’t too fogged up I’d occasionally catch a smile. This would make me bust up laughing and inadvertently lead to stopping in an attempt to catch my breath from giggle fits. Annie also played a key role in entertainment with her yoga.
My shoulders felt the effects of propelling myself and all my gear forward. By the end of day 1 my right shoulder was terribly painful. With each stoke, I’d feel my rotator cuff grinding. The initial stoke above/ in front of my body would create a very dull radiating pain in the front of my shoulder that lingered and spread through to my back. Although painful, this was easy to ignore.
The wind had picked up and with it came the waves. Forward progress became much slower. The 3 of us made it 9 miles before we stopped for the evening.
Day 2: Annie, Brian, and I hit the water around 10am. To say the water was cold was an understatement. My routine every time I’d immerse myself into the cold went as follows: Slide in feet. Douse myself with water all of my body. Jump in. Short rapid breathing and side swimming (recovery swim) until the shock wore off. When my breathing had returned to normal I’d put my face into the water and start swimming. My goggles would immediately fog up, but after being submerged for a few minuets they’d even out to create slightly more visibility.
The first break of day 2 was atop a beautiful warm rock. The first break took me longer to recover than any the previous day. I sat absorbing heat as I tried to pay attention to the conversation Annie and Brian were having. I was only able to focus in for 1 word before losing the ability to follow along. My concentration was definitely lacking as I remember staring blankly out onto the water without a single thought in my head. After a couple minutes I was able to participate better and I’d begin eating. Annie dubbed the period after I’d emerge from the water as my “Reptile Brain.”
Getting back into the water was always the most difficult. The initial push to get my body to interact with the cold lake was unlike anything I’d experienced before. Normally, in my endeavors, it’s always a mind over matter challenge. However, this was not the case. My mind was more than ready to hop in, but my body had begun to develop an aversion to getting into Lake Tahoe.
Once I hit the water, after the initial shock wore off, it was as if my swimming career had ceased to come to a complete halt… courtesy of my brain injury. In the water it felt as if no time had passed. My mind would clear and the only thoughts in my head would be of my stroke, breathing, and the wide open water in front of me. A clear head, a clear lake, and a clear path – Forward.
The water along the perimeter of the lake would intermittently change. The hues of the Tahoe would alter between a deep dark blue, a turquoise glimmer, and a soft golden sandy color. These changes were also accompanied by major temperature fluctuations. The deeper the color the colder the lake would become. Some sections were so unbearably frigid that I’d have to sprint through them to make sure not to lose any precious body heat. Many times I’d bring my head out of the water just long enough to curse some profanity at the absurdly uncomfortable temperature instability.
Day 2 I made it roughly 8 miles to our camp in Zephyr Cove. The last ~quarter mile to the cove was tiring and cumbersome. The wind had picked up ferociously and I battled through waves as my Chill Swim dry bag acted as an anchor behind me. With every wave I’d drop down into, my dry bag would act as a parachute, pulling me in the opposite direction into the backside of the wave. I quickly forgot of the cold which had encroached into the very core of my body. My uninterrupted focus took over. Pulling harder than I ever had in this particular lake, I finally made it to shore. I emerged from the water breathing hard. I sat down on Annie’s SUP while Brian towled me off.
Day 3: The cold began taking it’s toll with a vengeance. My breaks became longer and longer. Each time I’d come out of the water I would be past the annoying symptom of shivering. My “Reptile Brain” was in full swing. After a prolonged period of staring blankly my shivering would commence. A desperate desire to consume food would accompany my shaking body. After this initial process I would be able to join in conversation again. Smiling and laughing would return, and eventually I’d heat up before having to jump back into the water.
We took a break on some sandy cove near cave rock. I was absolutely freezing by the time I got out. I was overjoyed to lay down in the burning hot sand in an attempt to steal the warmth radiating from the ground. I was pretty tired at this point but not from physical exhaustion. The tiredness I’d been experiencing was unlike any I’d encountered before. It would came on with a deliberate strong-hold. Many times while swimming I’d “come to” and my first thought would be “did I just fall asleep?” However, I knew that was impossible since I would “come to” and still be swimming flawlessly without any interruption in my breathing or stroke. It was one of the most interesting feelings. To be quite honest, I liked it. It was the ultimate tune-out and I was still making forward progress without actually being there.
After a nap and regaining precious body heat I stood at the waters edge as Annie and Brian waited for me. I buckled my dry bag around my waist with weary fingers. I’d been thinking the past 3 days about ditching the bag. This swim was already taking much longer to make miles on account of needing to take such long breaks to heat-up. I told Annie and Brian about ditching the bag and having Brian carry it on his Kayak. They were both on board. I’d be much faster without the drag from towing my gear. Feeling lighter and much happier I entered the water. Our next stop was South Lake to meet up with my buddy Trooper (whom I’d hiked the Pacific Crest Trail with in 2012). He had obtained pizzas and was waiting for our arrival. With renewed lightness and the wonderful thought of warm delicious food on the horizon I began the next stretch.
The water wasn’t very deep and the waves had rejoined the three of us in an attempt to drown me, slow down Brian, and flip Annie. The turbulence of the water had kicked up so much sand that I was unable to see my hand in front of my face. Many times I would stop swimming and stand… the water was below my knee. Although we were far from shore, the shallow lake floor was wearing on me. With each stroke my hands began to hit the bottom. Since my body had been in the water for so long my skin lost its normal durability to withstand seemingly small abrasions and the tips of my fingers began to obtain minor cuts from coming in contact with the shallow lake floor.
The three of us made it to the beach and Trooper appeared with 2 pizzas in hand. His presence, as well as the delicious food he brought, made me feel incredibly loved. With me shivering uncontrollably, the 4 of us took a wonderful break before Brian and I headed back into the water for my next stretch. The waves had become too strong for Annie on her SUP so she went into town to look for a fin for her board as well as a wetsuit rental for me.
In reality, the next stretch was most likely the warmest in terms of actual water temperature, but it was by far the coldest stretch I’d undergone yet. I would often tell Annie or Brian that I needed a break. This was not because of physical exhaustion, but because I had gotten way too cold to continue. Generally, but the time I exited the water I would be past the point of shivering and Reptile Brain would be in full effect.
With Brian alongside in his kayak we tackled the strongest waves yet. The next stretch my brain began doing the most interesting things. I could feel the blood in my arms retreating and going to my core. My arms became dense and the task of continually pulling water to propel myself forward only got more toilsome. I stopped momentarily to inspect my arms because they felt so strange. My fingers had changed from a white/yellow hue to an almost purple color. I could literally feel the blood sluggishly retreating inside my veins. None of these feelings were uncomfortable. I was borderline amazed with these new sensations.
Within seconds my breathing became labored as I tried to retain my 3 stoke breath rate. This was impossible and I tried my hardest to gasp for air. I could feel my rib cage heaving rapidly in and out. My skin suddenly felt fiery as if it was searing with heat. I looked up and Brian as if I needed to go in. I shook my head “no” and momentarily continued. So many things were happening in my body it was an exciting awareness. At one point I rolled over on my back in an attempt to slow down my heart rate. Instantly, I knew this was a bad idea. All my precious body heat I’d worked up was quickly dispersing into the cold waves. I looked up at Brain and shook my head “yes.” Alarms to exit the water were slowly going off, yet I still was in awe of these newfound perceptions I was able to observe.
Brian angled the kayak towards the shore and I began side swimming to the sandy beach of South Lake Tahoe. I felt the strangest urge to stop breathing and I plunged my face into the water. I watched with wonder as the light from the sun danced along the bed of the lake creating the most intriguing surges of light. There were no thoughts in my head. I was lost in the experience of this unfamiliar escapade. Underneath the surface, the water was calm. There was no howling wind, sea-spray, or constant rocking from the waves. It was possessively peaceful. All at once, like a shot of epinephrine, my conscious mind began shouting at me to surface and seek air. Reluctantly, I obliged.
It took awhile for me to make it into the shore. Brian grabbed his kayak and began dragging it to the sand. I attempted to help by hoisting up the back end, but failed miserably. Semi-laughing, I told him I could help if he just slowed down. I also told him it would be really good for me cause it would generate heat which I was desperately craving. I’m not sure if I ended up helping or not. However, I do remember crawling into the kayak and laying down in the sun as Brian went to get Annie who he’d contacted prior to tell her our location.
The 3 of us went to Trooper’s residence where I promptly got into a warm shower. Sitting underneath the shower nozzle I reveled in the heat pouring over my cold body. My skin was frozen to the touch where the water was unable to land. After what felt like forever, I turned off the water and joined everyone outside. Trooper had made an incredible meal of fresh fish, couscous, and green beans. That man is a gem! Feeling human again, the 3 of us resupplied then promptly drifted off to sleep.
Day 4: Annie had tracked down a wetsuit rental in Tahoe Keys. I was 100% on board with having heat and staying warm in the water. We got into the water. The restrictive wetsuit was meddlesome of my stroke, but was a welcomed friend as the cold tried to wrap its arms around me. Yet, even with the wetsuit, I was unable to remain warm. I made it roughly 6.5 miles, to the mouth of Emerald Bay, before another long break. My brain began tuning out even more. I’d frequently “come to” and wonder if I had been asleep or awake. It’s the most unusual feeling knowing that you’re not asleep, yet you’re unable to recall where “you” had just been. Cold water is fascinating. The experiences I underwent in the chilly temperatures are more than intriguing. Despite the uncomfortable nature of the cold seeping into the very core of my being, it was enthralling.
The waves were nothing short of the worst we’d encountered yet. White caps danced along the top of the lake warning of the waters instability. The undertow of the current coming out of the bay was going to be tedious. Given my current state, in addition to that of the merciless water, I knew that I would be unable to go into Emerald Bay. I opted to skip it and finish that chunk when we came back to pick up Annie’s car in South Lake.
Brian joking asked if I wanted him to swim the next section and I eagerly jumped at the opportunity to see him in the water. “YES!” I exclaimed. I don’t think he thought I was serious until he was putting on my watermelon swim cap. The following 40 mins was perhaps the hardest I’ve laughed this year. I wasn’t expecting Brian to get very far… maybe 5 minutes with 20 minutes being the absolute maximum. From the second Brian entered the water he was an on his A game in terms of humor. Between the heavy panting and talking as if it was going out of style I was in stitches. I’m still convinced my laughter could be heard from Incline Village (the opposite side of the lake).
Brian may have been the most talkative I’ve ever seen him. He was narrating everything with an animated and unbridled charisma. “Why am I talking? If I’d stop talking I’d actually be able to swim!” … “I feel so alive!”… “Why am I moving backwards?” … “This current is so strong!” … “I’ve resorted to the scissor kick I learned when I was 5.”
Between the waves, the current, and his constant rambling Brian began drifting further and further backwards in the opposite direction. It was hilarious. Finally, after about 20 minutes he made it to the other side of the mouth of Emerald Bay. He hopped into the Kayak. I was more than proud of him. He went much further than I’d projected and the hilarity of his post-swim streak was still going strong. We called it a day shortly after that.
Day 5: The 3 of us where in the water before 8. It was FREEZING. Even with the wetsuit I was surprised at how poorly my body was doing to retain heat. I swam ~2 miles then took a break. Annie made me a warm drink and I reveled in the radiating warmth as I intimately felt the heat traveling down my throat and seeping into my body. Shortly after getting back into the water we came across “Rooster Rock.” A very popular rock jump. Annie and Brian were eager to test it out. I warmed on a rock as they joyfully climbed to the top then threw themselves over the edge into the deep blue water. It looked like great fun and I wanted to jump as well, but the desire to “do nothing” was much stronger and securely bolted me in place.
We continued on. My brain started slowly drifting further and further away. The thoughts that would pop into my head were so elongated it felt as if I was in my own MAJOR slow motion picture. A normal thought enters your consciousness in less than a second, yet the thoughts I began having seemed as if it took 5 minutes for them to completely formulate. I felt my skin turn from a crisp white to red and back to white. Feeling the colors changing was interestingly trippy. I knew that I needed to get out immediately, yet I somehow seemingly enjoyed the oddities I was experiencing first-hand. I swam 4.5 miles before coming into shore with the thought of “I’m done.”
When I got out of the water I immediately fell asleep. I woke up ~45 mins later. Cold water is captivating. Never, at any point, did I need to take a break because of physical exhaustion. I was tired plenty of times! However, it was the cold which always prompted me to retreat to land. After eating, talking, and semi-regaining my mind I told Annie and Brian that I thought I was going to call it. My body was over being freezing. I text my sister and told her my plan and she was wonderfully supportive. Thank you Lyz! It was taking me longer and longer to re-heat. I had started before 8 and in the past 5 hours I’d only completed 4 miles. I asked Annie and Brian their thoughts and they said they were with me with what ever choice I had.
I agreed to go ~2 more miles to the supposedly “best white sand beach in Tahoe” – Meeks Bay. There was a possibility of renting a kayak and finishing the rest of the 360 adventure without swimming. I felt bad since Annie and Brian came out to SUP and kayak and wanted to complete the entire lake as well.
The shock was less than it had been any other time upon re-entering the lake. My brain almost immediately slowed down to a snail’s pace. I remember trying to focus on my pull. I became transfixed with the peaceful nature of my bodies interation with the surface. Little drops of water gently raced atop the lake and soothingly molded back into the large body of water. My body got ridiculous hot as I continued to swim onwards. With the current in my favor I could feel my body gliding in an effortless fashion through the water. I remember my brain turning back to normal for a few moments. My left leg refused to kick and my right leg started kicking double time. I consciously told my body “left leg kick! Kick goddammit! No… not the right… Left. Kick. Come on.” My left leg never regained its ability to kick. And shortly after my right leg stopped kicking as well. I felt as if I was trapped inside myself with a working mind and a body which was intent on keeping me prisoner. Yet, none of this was uncomfortable. The feelings of everything happening remained pleasant… despite the way it sounds.
I watched as my right arm slowed down to a “freestyle drill” stroke. Again I tried to persuade my body, “Come on arm. Pull. Together. One fluid movement. Not staggered. It’s okay. You can do it. Come on.” It was at this point I stopped and rolled over onto my back to rest. I tried to adjust my goggles but was only able to get my hands in the vicinity of my face before they’d drop. Semi-frustrated I turned over and began swimming again. I was very close to the shore and could see my landing point. Then my ability to swim a straight line started to waiver. I knew exactly the direction I needed to go, yet my body was the one which was incapable of propelling me in that direction. Annie and Brian situated themselves directly on either side of me and guided me the rest of the way in.
I slowly felt the need to breath growing weaker. It was fascinating and intriguing altogether. I no longer felt as if I was working hard, nor that I needed air. I sporadically changed my breathing pattern… 9 breathless stokes, 7, 11, 1, 1, 1, 8, 9, 2. I knew I had to get out immediately, yet the urgency from my brain to actually retreat was almost non-existant. I made it into the shore under my own strength (or lack thereof) I remember looking down at the rocky bottom and worrying about my feet. I knew that they’d be torn and bleeding if I walked on top of the jagged rocks. I sat down and foggily watched Brian put on his vibrant green shoes. I remember feeling characteristically uncomfortable at the sight of him coming to help me… which pains me tremendously to say because I know how stupid it sounds and I’m incredibly grateful for his loving support. The man deserves a gold medal.
I think I got up as he approached me and I tried to walk into the shore on my own accord, but I’m not sure that happened. I’d like to say that I made it… but realistically the two angels Annie and Brian most likely helped me exit the water completely.
The next thing I remember is sitting on the shore watching a duck swim in the water. Then I remember Brian violently stripping off my wetsuit (although I’m sure it wasn’t violent at all). I remember having jackets and down pants put on me. I remember being HOT. The hottest I’ve ever been in my life. On FIRE HOT! As if every cell in my body was bursting from flames and the furnace from within was only growing with heat. I remember wanting to sleep. I couldn’t keep my eyes open. This was not being tired… this was the inability to stay awake. I remember having hands on my body to refrain me from moving. Knowing me, I was most likely trying to get up and do things on my own accord. I sometimes think I have way more strength than I really do and it’s the most frustrating thing for me feeling helpless as if I can’t “live” on my own. This is a deep seeded feeling which stems from being 100% reliant on another individual because of my Traumatic Brain Injury. So feeling helpless is THE WORST feeling I could possibly imagine… EVER.
I was tired. Beyond tired. Exhausted. As if both my body and brain were fried. I was unable to focus on anything being said. I heard noises, which I’m positive were words… but I could only make out one every so often. I remember being frustrated because all I wanted was sleep. I needed sleep. Yet the amazing Annie and Brian weren’t letting that happen. I remember trying my hardest to put on a sock. I kept forgetting what I was supposed to be doing with it. I’d see my hands near my foot and a sock around my toes… but then I’d forget again. I swear it took an eternity to put on my sock. Brian could have easily put it on too. I’m not entirely sure. The only thing I knew for certain: I WAS HOT. I WAS NUMBINGLY FATIGUED. I NEEDED SLEEP.
I remember hoisting myself over a concrete pony wall to walk to Annie’s car. I remember Brian’s hand over my eyes as the light penetrated through creating a horrendous strobing effect which made me want to seize. I remember staring terrified at the germ-infested bed spread cover of the hotel. I remember wanting to cry so I’d start laughing to help ease the pain. I remember being dreadfully uncomfortable. And I remember Brian and Annie being there. I remember feeling the most love imaginable from the warmth of my hand in Brian’s. I remember feeling safe. I remember feeling uncomfortably hot and then ridiculously freezing. I fiercely remember not wanting to go back into water.
My Tahoe 360 attempt was over.
Despite how terrible it sounds… experiencing the severity of my hypothermic nature in such an intimate manner was nothing short of stunning. The way my brain interacted with my body was gripping. I’ve always approached challenges with a “mind over matter” mentality and my 360 attempt put much more emphasis on the physicality of my being. My body has always been my weakest companion. It’s notorious for shutting down. But there has always been a complex interaction between the mental aspect and the physical aspect of such events. The mental “toughness or fight” which normal accompanies an endurance activity was seemingly nonexistent as my brain would “check out” and my body would continue in auto-pilot…. until the very end when a surge of adrenaline ignited my neurons and kept them firing strong while my body withered into an almost catatonic state.
I know how strange it sounds when I say it was fascinating and intriguing… but that’s the truth. It was the most interesting experience I’ve ever felt. Despite the cold which was freezing its way into my core, the mental aspect was phenomenally intoxicating.
3 days ago I had zero desire to jump into cold water… that’s slowly shifting. I chose Lake Tahoe because of its demanding and challenging nature. I tend to push myself to the absolute brink. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be being true to myself. I want to experience as much as I can in this crazy life. I like to live on the edge. That’s where I feel alive most alive.
As I stood on the shore of Meeks Bay before I departed I knew this wasn’t goodbye. I knew I’d be back… donned with a wetsuit from the very beginning.
Until we meet again Tahoe…
I owe a huge thank you to Annie and Brian. You guys are champions for enduring that with me. I wouldn’t have been able to get as far as I did without your support and love. You guys are rockstars. THANK YOU!