This is not another story about an impressive swim across the lake. This is the journey of a 41-year-old man named Jamie Patrick, who set out today to test his limits.
Patrick shoved off at 6 a.m. today to undertake a 68-mile swim along Lake Tahoe's perimeter. He estimates the wetsuit-aided swim will take 40 hours, during which he will not exit the water or touch any support boat. This will be Patrick's third ultra-distance swim and by far his toughest.
The perimeter swim has never been done and novelty is nice, but for Patrick this is about pushing himself to the utter limit of his endurance.
"I've never been the fastest or the best at anything, but when I found out I could swim long and control my heart rate it was exciting for me," Patrick said. "I'm not out on a death wish here, but I do feel like I haven't reached my barrier yet. That's what drives me. I know where I can go. I just don't know how far I can go yet."
Patrick will begin at Commons Beach in Tahoe City and swim clockwise around the Lake. The crew estimates this puts Patrick at Incline Village near noon, South Tahoe after dark, and Emerald Bay about 6 a.m. Saturday. That's if all goes according to plan, but Patrick has completed enough long-distance swims to know this rarely happens.
Just keep swimming
"The thing about doing stuff like this is when you go into a bad place, mentally and physically, having the experience of knowing that you will pop out the other side is what keeps you going."
In 2010, Patrick attempted his first long-distance swim, a double-crossing of Lake Tahoe, totaling 44 miles. Patrick comfortably cruised through the first half, but hit a wall with less than 10 miles to go. He suddenly couldn't keep anything down and began throwing up blood.
Miraculously and perhaps recklessly, Patrick pushed on. He was 20 hours deep at that point and quitting seemed just as bad. Ultimately, Patrick finished his swim and then spent three days in the Tahoe Forest Hospital with failing kidneys.
Doctors told him he didn't get enough protein and his body had started eating its own muscle fiber protein causing clogging in his kidneys.
Despite the ordeal, Patrick didn't quit. Instead, he teamed up with sports nutritionist Stacey Sims, who was Lance Armstrong's nutritionist while he competed in the Tour de France. Together they started planning Patrick's next swim, a 111-mile, current aided swim down the Sacramento River. It took 31 hours to complete the swim, but Patrick faced his fear and came out the other side.
He wanted to try Tahoe again, and he wanted to go longer.
Mind over matter
There's no escaping the mind in a 40-hour swim. With zero visual stimulation, Patrick is left with his thoughts and the swim becomes a mental game.
It starts slowly. First, Patrick must concentrate on setting a slow and steady pace and ignoring the adrenaline rush from the race start. Pulling ahead of the projected pace is just as dangerous as falling behind. Slowly making his way through the first 10 hours feels like an eternity, but it's only just begun, he said.
"There's a period where I've been 10 hours or 12 hours (in) and the realization that I'm less than one-third is really hard mentally. I go through some really dark places."
Doubt inevitably creeps in during a 40-hour swim and Patrick is all too familiar with facing the foe under water. Questions pop into the recesses of his mind. Is he tired too soon? How will he get through it?
"Will it not be my day? Some days you go for a run and you're an Olympic runner and some days you just don't have it," Patrick said. "Hopefully Friday's my day, but I just can't control that."
The first 24 hours are tough. When Patrick hits the 24th hour he'll be close to his longest swim in the lake, which was just over 25 hours.
"Not many people have swam a full day before, so it's just one of those milestones," Patrick said. "There are two kinds of celebrations: You made it through 24 hours, and every time the sun goes down and the sun comes up it lifts your spirits."
After 24 hours in the water, the sun will start to rise and Patrick should be more than halfway there as he makes his way through Emerald Bay.
Fish out of water
"I find peace in the water. You have people who carry fishing poles in their car just in case they see somewhere to fish. I carry swim trunks and goggles in my car. If I see a place, I'm in the water."
Patrick is at home in the water, but he's also complied an impressive athletic resume on land as well. He has completed 15 Ironman triathlons, a Triple Ironman and three Ultraman World Championships, a race that circumnavigates the island of Hawaii in three days.
Patrick's list of athletic accomplishments is long, but the Tahoe perimeter swim is by far his toughest endeavor he said. There's no bike to coast on when he's tired, no walk to break the run. It's just Patrick and the water.
"You can't really prepare for something like this. It's 40 hours of getting from one place to the other with no assistance but yourself."
Other than food and drink handoffs, Patrick will receive no assistance from the crew of 16 accompanying him on a pontoon and two kayaks. The team will also pick up trash along the way and help Patrick stick to his 40-hour pace.
"If we push longer than 40 hours he's going to go into a second night. He knows in advance that a second night of swimming is really tough for him to actually do," crewmember Mark Lukach said.
Lukach is fully confident that Patrick will complete the Tahoe 360 and just as sure that Patrick will start planning another big swim as soon as he does.
"My wife always asks me 'What are you going to do next?' It scares her a bit I think," Patrick said. "Well, I don't know, but I'll have a lot of time to think about it Friday."