Thursday, January 19, 2012

What does not kill me …

A funny thing happened on the way to the Craziest Thing I Have Ever Done (To Date): I stumbled upon the very people who inspired this stunt.

The mission: to swim in Lake Tahoe in mid-January in only a swimsuit, a couple of swim caps and goggles. Distance: Unknown. Survival: Uncertain. Who am I kidding? I was getting out at the slightest discomfort.

So why do it? It's tantamount to jumping off the roof of a house just because a friend did — and my mom's not around to hound me with rhertoric. Swim buddy Jim Morrill passed along news of a woman named Karen Rogers, who was attempting an "ice swim" in Tahoe.

Karen is an open-water celebrity in northern California, having swum the length of Lake Tahoe 21.5 miles, and from San Mateo Bridge to Golden Gate Bridge (about 14 miles), among others. The rough Pacific prevented her two years ago from trying to become the third person to swim more than 30 miles from the Farallones to the Golden Gate.

"Now, what have you done today?" Jim posted about Karen's ice swim on facebook. "That's the coolest thing ever."

So to speak.

"Let's go!" I answered, not really meaning it. In a perfect world, loads of time, nothing else to do, I'd go in a minute … ha ha! … lighthearted joking, you see.

Then Brad Schindler responded on facebook: "I'm ready. Let me know."


Brad and me in a moment of sanity. Photos courtesy of Nancy Turner.
Brad is an elite swimmer and, in the small world of open-water swimming, well known for his exploits. Only a couple of dozen people besides Karen have ever swum Lake Tahoe's 21.5-mile length without a wetsuit, and Brad's one of them. He completed the Maui Channel Swim, beating several relay teams while contending with 10-foot swells and tiger sharks.

He swims nearly three times faster than me. Not that he would include that in his curriculum vitae.

By contrast, Brad was not joking about swimming Tahoe in January.

Deciding it was something I would probably survive, we set a date (last Sunday), and my wife Nancy came along to fish our bodies out of the water and take us to the hospital or morgue as events warranted. We picked Sand Harbor, a state park on the north shore in Nevada, a tranquil beach nearly a mile long where we swam a couple of times over the summer.

On the way up to Tahoe, we joked how crazy we were, how any amount of time in the frosty water would be worth the trip.

Small world that it is, news got around that Karen Rogers was attempting an official "ice swim" at Tahoe that same Sunday, and that Jamie Patrick, an ultra-distance swimmer (and World Open Water Swimming Association 2011 Swimming Man of the Year), would be helping as part of her support team. Jamie swam the length of Tahoe twice in one go (nearly 44 miles) two summers ago, and last year swam 111 miles down the Sacramento River. In swimming, this is sort of like having Christian Bale and Kate Winslet wander into McDonalds while you order your burger. Brad tracked the news of the swim attempt on his smart phone while we drove. He knew everything about it except where the swim would take place.

Karen Rogers and Cathy Delneo start on their icy mile swim. Jamie Patrick (right)
helps document the attempt.
Descending from Truckee, we could see whitecaps on the lake even from a distance. Along the shoreline, we saw that those white caps tipped three-foot rollers beating up the beaches. Winds snapped flags to full attention.

Not the conditions I hoped for. Lake Natoma, my home pool, is usually glassy calm.

Sand Harbor looked raggedy like the ocean after a winter storm. If heavy waves had come in like this during the summer, lifeguards would have ordered swimmers out of the water.

We backtracked to an adjacent sheltered boat launch, where the water looked calmer, a low-level squall. We just needed a day pass, we told the lady in the kiosk, because we didn't have a boat. We were going swimming!

The lady looked out over the endless crest of waves in the wind, and then at us. "OK," she said.

Not a flinch. Not a "You're crazy!" Nothing.

We soon found out why. Out of 72 miles of coastline around Lake Tahoe, and dozens of beaches, Karen Rogers had chosen this place to try her ice swim. Crazy swimmers had already passed by the lady in her kiosk, and the novelty for her had worn off.

Four or five cars were already parked on the boat ramp, and people ran back and forth from the cars to the dock to the beach. One of the trucks had a logo on the tailgate, "The Tahoe 360," which is Jamie Patrick's next adventure this summer, swimming continuously along the lake's circumference.

Our unwise quest had suddenly become surreal. Brad didn't want this, mostly because he didn't want the swimmers to feel he was horning in on their endeavor. He tried to keep a low profile — these other elites would recognize him — and asked me to find out what course they had chosen, and see if we couldn't swim where we wouldn't be noticed.

A gift from my daughter … which might
explain so much.
The PR guy for the team told me Karen Rogers and Cathy Delneo were basically using the whole cove. We could waste an hour or more looking for another place to swim, or we could wait. As Jamie Patrick later told us, "This is the calmest water on the whole lake today."

So we waited and became the swimmers' groupies; Karen and Cathy found out Brad was there and came over to meet him. We also became witnesses in case anyone disputed the women's successful attempt.

Waiting presented problems, though, the least of which is that my carefully timed tall cup of hot electrolytes had gone to waste. Waiting gave us time to chew on the reality of what we were trying to do, and watch swimmers struggle with what we were attempting, disappearing at times in the deep troughs between waves. The team of handlers and documentarians and emergency medical technicians — especially that last bunch — made me question our endeavor.

Waiting also let the water temperature drop. It was 41 Fahrenheit when the swimmers began, and 39 when they finished their mile. Lake Natoma is between 47 and 48 — a huge difference, keenly felt.

First in! Also, first out!
After roughly 45 minutes, Karen and Cathy completed their official ice swim. In humanity's obsession to codify its obsessions, ice swimming is international and has rules. For example, the water has to be 41 degrees or lower, measured at specific depths within specific timeframes, and swimmers (wearing only a standard swimsuit, goggles and a silicone cap) must complete at least a mile. My favorite rule — swimmers may push objects, such as ice, out of their way.

Shouting and gesturing, the support team hustled the swimmers one by one off the beach, into towels, into blankets, out of their swim gear, into baggy sweatsuits, then into separate cars with the engines roaring heat full blast.

Our turn. Sigh.

Our meager support team mounded blankets and jackets and sweatshirts in a sunny spot near the dock. As I stripped down to my jammers, I noticed even the loose beach sand was cold.

I got into the lake quickly, as I usually do, to get a cold shock and soak down so I could recinch my suit back on shore. "Don't do that, with the wind chill …" Jamie Patrick tried to tell me. Eh — what did he know?

Brad swims …
In mid cinch, I realized Brad had already jumped in and attacked the water, in his style. I followed, but as always, I was far behind immediately. Suddenly our plans had gone from, "Let's hug the shoreline in case we have problems," and "If I'm in just five minutes, that'll be fine with me," to the makings of a challenge.

… and swims, a mile in the chill waters.
Brad's challenge became much, much different than mine. With a quiet demeanor that belies his big prizefighter frame, Brad is nonetheless fiercely competitive. Brad quietly grooved into the track the two swimmers had just left, churning between a collection of boulders to the boat launch docks. Eighteen lengths, we learned, comprised a mile.

My challenge was to make it to the rocks and back, if I could. My hands usually sting on my daily swims at Lake Natoma. But at 39 degrees, the water pressed into me like an iron maiden tipped with cactus spines. My hands and arms hurt immediately. Next my fingers swelled; perhaps the water in my fingers was expanding as it cooled; I don't know, but my fingers became squishy and painful.

Then my breath got only halfway in and out of my lungs. Cold? High altitude? I'm not sure.

My first thought seeing this pic is I looked like the sailor in Winslow Homer's
Gulf Stream, just as doomed.
The lake was beautiful and clear and majestic, as always, though impossible to enjoy. After two lengths, I walked back onto the beach, saw Brad still going, and tried returning to the water, hugging the shore as we planned. Two more lengths, 10 minutes later, and I got out, not sure where my tolerance threshold lay but not wanting to exceed it and become a victim.

In Lake Natoma my arms reach a numb stasis and I can keep swimming without problems, but I didn't know if my arms would comply in this cold, and wasn't going to chance finding out.

In short time, Nancy and I became Brad's support team as he swam length after length, attacking at the same pace. He'd swim back to the dock, redder and redder each time, give us the diver's hands-on-head signal that he was OK, and keep going.

After 30 minutes, Brad finished his mile (faster than the two official swimmers), and did what he notoriously does: Shiver violently. We packed a blanket on him, gave him hot liquids (which he spilled at first in convulsions), and got him to step out of the heated car to get dry clothes on before he got back into the sauna that was our Ford Focus.

A paddler escort for the two women hung back on shore, looking sidelong at Brad to see if he would need medical help.

Eventually the shaking subsided, and by the time we got to Truckee on the trip home and fueled up on McDonald's burgers, Brad was talking more and fidgeting less.

"We did it!" he'd say, every so often. Also, "Lake Natoma is not going to feel nearly as cold when we go in now."

Karen Rogers told us that if they had known Brad was going to stop by, they would have made him part of the endeavor. I don't doubt Brad will be back soon to make an official ice swim.

I'm not deterred, either. Maybe a mile is possible for me in that water. Karen advises acclimating in one-minute increments at that low temperature. I'm willing to make a few day trips to try. And I'd love to try the lake in winter when the water is smooth.

It's on my list of swimming accomplishments someday, but for now, I give Karen Rogers the last world, from's coverage of her ice swimming: "The difference between stupidity and bravery is in the outcome."


  1. Nice work guys! I totally want to try this, in a not really kind of way :)

  2. my thoughts exactly, though i took much longer to say it! someday, when you're up our way …