Water Torture

With his proposed Tahoe 360 is ultra athlete Jamie Patrick pushing himself too far?

By Matt Niswonger & Photos by Brian Hayes Photography

Photo: Brian Hayes Photography, brianhayesphotography.com

Endurance athletes usually make light of the pain involved in long distance running, cycling, and swimming events. In fact, many competitors engage in a friendly competition to see who can be more gross and outrageous about it: “Both feet were bleeding during my last marathon. My socks looked like wound dressings!”

But anyone who has ever competed in a real distance event knows that this retrospective humor is just a socially acceptable way to handle a difficult subject. When pushing your body feels more like torture than anything else, the reality of the situation shifts. Granted this pain is self-imposed, but our will can push us beyond typical thresholds of discomfort until it borders on self-inflicted torture. At this point, the physical and psychological realms merge into a volatile mix. Push yourself too far, and you begin to flirt with a very dark and self-destructive boundary.

Ultra-swimmer Jamie Patrick, knows all about flirting with these borders. A former collegiate swimmer and Ironman triathlete, Jamie has spent the last few years dedicating himself to extreme distance swims of increasing difficulty.

An adventurer in the classic sense, Jamie challenges himself in rivers, lakes, and oceans in a way that emphasizes the vastness of these natural arenas. In 2010, he plunged into the 59-degree waters of Clear Lake for a 17-mile crossing and his toughest lake swim to date. That same year he completed the first ever double crossing of Lake Tahoe, 44 miles in around 25 hours. He had designs on attempting a triple (66 miles), though those plans were abandoned.

Last summer, Jamie was back at it and upping the ante, this time swimming 111 miles down the Sacramento River in just over 30 hours. Pausing every 20 minutes to tread water and eat in an effort to consume 400 calories per hour, Jamie proved that swimming beyond 24 hours non-stop is possible.

While recovering from his Sacramento River swim, Jamie felt in his heart that he hadn’t yet found the boundary of his abilities, and a monumental challenge in Lake Tahoe came into focus. “My previous swims almost broke me, but my feeling of inspiration only increased. After recovering for a while, I realized that I was not done pushing myself. This decision was frightening and empowering at the same time.”

Photo: Brian Hayes Photography, brianhayesphotography.com

Jamie doesn’t gloss over the hardships and pain, but he stresses that many years of dedication and training have made Tahoe an appropriate venue for pushing himself. “Lake Tahoe is a well of inspiration that keeps me coming back for more. Beyond just being a proving ground, it is an incredible alpine ecosystem that I am honored to promote.”

This summer the 41-year-old is planning on upping the ante to a significant degree. He will take ultra-distance swimming to a whole new level by attempting to swim non-stop around the perimeter of Lake Tahoe— 68 miles in total. Dubbed the “Tahoe 360,” the proposed swim has generated quite a buzz.

On Aug. 31 at 4 pm, he plans to leave the Hyatt Beach area near Incline Village and begin tracing the coastline along the eastern shore of the lake. If he succeeds, he will arrive back at Hyatt Beach some 40 hours later, after swimming around the largest alpine lake in North America. The magnitude of the challenge is intriguing for long-distance swimmers to contemplate, and unimaginable for the rest of us.

“The very definition of hell,” is how longtime ASJ contributor and Tahoe swimmer Gordon Wright describes it.

Photo: Brian Hayes Photography, brianhayesphotography.com

Interest in Jamie’s attempt has been increasing exponentially in the last few months. Recently, cinematographer Mike Madden and executive producer Lara Popyack have signed on to create a documentary of the event. Aficionados of nature documentaries may remember this team from the BBC’s Planet Earth series.

With dive teams in the water and aerial teams filming from above, the Tahoe 360 documentary is sure to highlight the stunning beauty of the lake, while getting up close and personal with Jamie. When asked if he was worried that the publicity surrounding the Tahoe 360 might create a circus atmosphere that will make his journey more difficult, Jamie said he welcomes the attention. “My primary goal is to bring attention to the preservation issues surrounding the lake. Beyond that, I want to inspire people to swim in Lake Tahoe and bring interest to adventure swimming in general.”

Of course, Jamie is not the first athlete to devote himself to long-distance swimming. The pursuit traces its modern history back to 1875 when Captain Matthew Webb became the first person to swim 20 miles across the English Channel.

Fast-forward one hundred years, and the technological revolution brought forth by the invention of the wetsuit has created a dichotomy among those who swim great lengths. Thus, the world of open water swimming is broken up into two distinct groups, traditional “marathon” swimmers who staunchly avoid the advantages of neoprene, and contemporary “adventure” swimmers who don wetsuits.

Patrick, who has an impressive resume of accomplishments without a wetsuit, plans on wearing one for his Tahoe 360. He is careful to disclose the fact that he wears a wetsuit for certain ultra-distance events, as he crosses boundaries between the traditional and the contemporary camps.

Steven Munatones, author of the book Open Water Swimming, and one of the gurus of the sport, puts Jamie’s choice to wear a wetsuit into perspective. “Without a wetsuit, the 68-mile solo swim would undoubtedly be among, if not, the most difficult swims ever attempted in history. It would be that difficult due to the sheer distance combined with the cold-water temperatures, cool breezes and high altitude. For a human swimming in the horizontal position for approximately 35-40 hours, there can be no greater physiological or psychological stress.”

However, wearing a wetsuit will not make the Tahoe 360 easy by any stretch of the imagination. As Munatones explains, “With a wetsuit, it is still a significant challenge that requires decades of preparation. When I first met Jamie, I told him that his ultra-marathon swims would take him years to accomplish. Sure enough, every year he became stronger, physically and mentally. He is now prepared to take on the Tahoe 360. It is difficult to compare a wet-suited Tahoe 360 to say, swimming the English Channel. Jamie’s swim will certainly be more difficult than a single crossing, but arguably not as difficult as a double-crossing of the English Channel (42 miles), completed without a wetsuit.”

When asked to make a prediction about Jamie’s chances for success, Munatones doesn’t hold back. “Jamie has done everything possible to complete the swim, but swimming that far at altitude is going to push him to the very limit of his strength and abilities. Frankly, I believe he is going to have to go beyond what he thinks he is capable.”

Photo: Brian Hayes Photography, brianhayesphotography.com

Concerning the mental challenges of ultra-distance swimming, Patrick says the sport has few rivals. “While I am swimming, I am all alone, but I must never let myself get lonely. That is why my support crew is so important. I depend on their positive vibes right nearby. Hour after hour I must control my mind, and use their support to stay out of dark places.”

The mental challenges of distance swimming are part of the appeal for many athletes, and the sport has experienced a spike in popularity over the last 10 years. To channel this wave of popularity into a greater appreciation for Tahoe issues, Jamie recently helped create the Lake Tahoe Swimming Society.

To date there have been 22 successful lengthwise crossings of the lake, according to the LTSS website. Borrowing a page from the iconic Western States 100 ultra-running race, Jamie and his friends at the LTSS are now offering a custom belt buckle to anyone who can complete the lengthwise crossing, in either the wetsuit or no wetsuit category. So far over 20 contenders have already signed up to attempt to earn a belt buckle this summer.

Further comparisons to ultra-running races like the Western States 100 are tempting, but Munatones stresses that ultra swimming is a whole different animal that attracts a certain kind of athlete. “Ultra-distance swimming is simply too difficult to appeal to very many people. Mankind is a creature of the terra firma, not the aquatic environment. For example, if absolutely necessary and one’s life depended on it, just about anyone could walk a marathon. But to travel the same 26 miles in the water while facing waves and currents is impossible for 99.9% of mankind. Therefore, swimming the length (or width) of Tahoe will not become as popular as something like the Western States 100 in my opinion.”

Probably the most compelling aspect of the Tahoe 360 is that just about anyone, regardless of open-water swimming familiarity, can relate to the audacious nature of the challenge. Everyone knows that Tahoe is huge; swimming across is difficult to even imagine.

As anticipation builds, and the Tahoe 360 becomes less an individual statement and more a local media event, Jamie may find that he has captured the imagination of an unprecedented audience for a distance swimmer. “We will work hard to ensure that the beauty of the Tahoe ecosystem, and the importance of preserving it for future generations, is at the heart of the spectacle,” Jamie says. “With Tahoe, the majesty of the lake itself always takes center stage.”

One thought on “Water Torture

  1. Barbara Peterson

    It was an unexpected thrill to meet Jamie Patrick last weekend at XTERRA Tahoe City. Since hearing of his ambitious 360Tahoe goal, and watching his sleek body in the lake, and meanwhile being challenged to swim a mere 1.5 k distance the next day as part of the off-road triathlon (!! freezing cold with good-size swells !!), Jamie is my new hero!! In fact, as a sports psychologist and coach, I would very much like to crew for him in practice and on that day. No matter what, I will be there!!

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