Swimming 22 Miles Across Lake Tahoe
by Elaine Howley, Ultima Swimmer & Ultima Ambassador
At 9 p.m. Pacific time on July 5th, 2016, I waded into the cool water of Lake Tahoe near Camp Richardson, California. The stars were just beginning to light up as the last rouge of sunset melted behind the ridge of mountains ringing this 22-mile long lake. The ethereal blue glittering heart of the Sierras lies at more than 6,200 feet elevation across the California and Nevada borders.
I stepped carefully around some small pebbles and squished my goggles against my face one last time before letting the water take my weight. I lost contact with the earth and wouldn’t touch sand again for another 15 and a half hours.
With that first stroke, I began the long journey to Incline Village, Nevada.
Although the forecast was calling for northerly winds of 10 to 15 miles per hour (an exciting proposition, as that would have given me a nice push up the long lake) Mother Nature had other plans and switched her breath out of the west. This made for lumpy conditions. I’m no stranger to water’s wind-whipped motions, but have always done long swims at sea level. I didn’t bargain for just how much the altitude would threaten me when swimming more than a mile above my normal place.
The lake was extraordinarily dark overnight, too. With the nearest land some 5 miles away to my right, light pollution wasn’t an issue. But that also made finding a flat horizon to focus on when my inner ear got confused much harder. My entire world sloshed in darkness around me, and when my crew stopped me every 45 minutes to take a feed, coming up vertical in the water made for a very uncomfortable situation.
I was sick as a dog. I vomited over and over again, a brand new experience for this veteran marathon swimmer. And it was just as awful a sensation as I’d ever imagined it could be. I couldn’t get the world to stop spinning, and couldn’t blame overindulgence for the problem—at least that might have been a little more fun. This, instead, was a cold, dark, punishing seasickness.
I began to fret. I understand well the physiology of long-distance swimming and how we’re always working at a calorie deficit when we swim — the body simply can’t process enough calories to replace the ones we use during a swim. Even though we feed on a regular schedule, it’s impossible to keep up. Thanks to onboard fat stores, of which I have plenty, I know I have some reserves to help in this situation. But I couldn’t be sure how long I had, since I couldn’t keep any food or Ultima down.
Nevertheless, I continued stroking toward the other side as quickly as I could. Not fast by any stretch of the imagination, mind you, but steady. It was a grueling night in water that dropped to 60 degrees. I never wear a wetsuit, and the cold seeped in, aided by the altitude and seasickness. Through the valley of darkness I swam, unsure whether I would be successful in my quest for the far side of the lake.
Slowly, almost imperceptibly, a faint light appeared over the mountains to my right. At first, it was so subtle, I was sure I was imagining it, but over time, it became reality as the sun slid up the sky. It finally burst over the ridge and I needed to switch to my shaded goggles.
With the rising light, the impossibly beautiful blue of the water came into sharp focus beneath me. In my last long swim — a lengthwise crossings of Loch Ness—the water was tar black and I could barely make out my hand where it entered the water above my head on each stroke. Here, the water was Tahoe Blue (photos can’t do it justice) and crystal clear. I was still in the deepest part of the lake, so the blue abyss fell away beneath me and I had difficulty distinguishing water from sky, the colors matched so closely.
The great thing about sunrise on a long swim is that the worst is typically behind you. Once the lights get turned on, everything gets a little easier. Kayak exchanges, feeds, and even seasickness eased with the coming of the dawn, and I was finally able to choke down some feeds—UCAN for fuel and Ultima for the electrolytes I so desperately needed after having vomited myself empty a few hours before.
My legs had begun to cramp from lack of input, and I willed them away with ankle circles and fierce determination that after having survived one of the longest nights of my life, I couldn’t possibly give in to a mere calf cramp now. I gulped at my Ultima bottle and the spasm eased.
The great thing about sunrise on a long swim is that the worst is typically behind you.
I kept stroking along as best I could, one arm after the other. The shape of the lake and the topography of the mountains around it messed with my head—it didn’t look like I was making progress, but my crew assured me I was chipping away at the remaining distance. Tiffany, a self-described Swim Gypsy and up-and-coming marathon swimmer hopped in to swim alongside me, giving me a major mental boost. Her bright pink bathing suit was so cheerful, I couldn’t help but pick up the pace just a bit. Shannon took her place in the water beside me a little later to keep the momentum going, and their steady, silent support told me I would make it if I could just hang on a little longer. Just a little longer.
Suddenly, the color of the endless gallons of water beneath me changed slightly. The lake had gotten a tiny bit greener. Is that algae? Or the rising of the bottom to meet the shore?, I wondered. I allowed myself to pick my head up and look ahead. I could make out individual people on the beach, enjoying a sunny late morning at the Hyatt resort and I knew we were within a half mile of finishing. I almost burst into tears right then, but I gritted my teeth, and dug in with stroke after stroke, the greening of the water cheering me onward like a fifth crew member.
Finally, the water became shallow enough to make out a faint wave pattern in the sand a dozen or so feet below. Bit by bit, the pattern became clearer and when the water was about 3 feet deep, I put my feet down. After all the cramping and soreness overnight, I knew my legs would struggle to support me if I waited for my hands to touch the sand before I stood, so I started the long walk up the beach early, knowing the water was deep enough to support me. Despite still being mostly weightless, those first few steps were agony, and my entire body threatened to seize up. I took my time, and with each step, I got closer to the finish and to becoming a terrestrial animal again.
I finally cleared the water line and the swim was officially over. I’d successfully swum the length of Lake Tahoe in 15 hours 27 minutes 4 seconds. Although I arrived at a beach crowded with holiday makers, few of them made notice of me as I staggered toward an empty lounge chair. There’s seldom much fanfare for us ultra-marathon swimmers. We toil in obscurity, in the dark and cold, and have just our own pride of accomplishment and sometimes the cheering of our crew to greet us at the end.
As I crumpled onto the lounge chair in a shattered heap, I could no longer hold back the tears of exhaustion, depletion, and doubt. I was drained in every possible sense. Tiffany scampered ashore a moment or two later to help me, and that was one of the nicest hugs I’ve had in a long while. We’d done it, together. It had been brutal, but it was over. She handed me a bottle with Ultima and I gratefully sipped at it, still unsure of my stomach. It tasted like grape-flavored victory.
With the successful completion of this swim, I became the 3rd person to achieve the “Triple Crown of Monster Swims”—solo swims across the 25-mile length of Lake Memphremagog (Vermont to Canada, which I did in 2011), the 22.2-mile length of Loch Ness, and Tahoe. Marathon swimmers love to group challenges, and I’d previously completed the “Triple Crown of Marathon Swimming”—solo crossings of the Catalina and English Channels and a solo circumnavigation of Manhattan Island. It was nice to be able to hoist another figurative crown to my head, even I couldn’t get my arms up at that exact moment.
A few days after the swim, I checked the logs my crew kept and was astonished to see that I’d taken in a mere 475 calories over the 15 and a half hours of hard swimming I’d done in 60-degree water. My typical calorie count for an event like this would be 3 to 4 times that amount, so I really was running on fumes. But experience and trust in my nutritional plan and training made all the difference; I knew I had a good baseline of electrolytes already in my system before I started. I trusted that the Ultima I was able to drink would get me there. And, it did.
Elaine Howley is a former Division I collegiate swimmer and ocean lifeguard who began competing in long-distance open water events in 2006 with her first 8-mile Boston Light Swim. Since then, Elaine has gone on to complete marathon swimming’s Triple Crown—solo crossings of the English Channel, Catalina Channel, and a solo circumnavigation of Manhattan Island—and many other cold, difficult swims, all completed without the aid of a wetsuit. She currently holds the record for the fastest double crossing of the Boston Harbor, a 16-mile swim that broke a 41-year old record. In July 2014, she became the first person to swim the 32.3-mile length of Lake Pend Oreille in northern Idaho. In August 2015 she became only the third American to swim the length of Loch Ness, a 22.2-mile swim in water that ranged from 51 to 57 degrees.