“An insatiable appetite for glory leads to sacrifice and death, but innate instinct leads to self-preservation and life.”
I have been plagued with wind and cold weather precluding me from taking on the open waters in an alpine swim. Some days I waited patiently and other days I made the long drive to no avail in hopes that I could dip these fins in the water and swim. On this day, the weather was perfect, leaving no reason to resist training an hour away at Donner Lake.
I awoke in the morning anxious to slip into my Speedo, pack my bag, indulge in a breakfast made for champions and hit the road on a mission to get wet. The kayak was positioned in the car. My spotter, present and accounted for, was barely conscious. However, he did promise to do his job as diligently as possible. We were on our way by 7:00 am and I remember the ride being remarkably quiet. The spotter was sleepy, and I was concentrating on the task at hand.
I swam Donner Lake often last year as I trained in earnest for the Donner Lake Triathlon that never came to be. I would spend 3-4 days a week during the month of June climbing to the Donner Summit from lake level on my road bike and then going for a lake swim. I had built up amazing endurance training at 6200-8000 ft. which put me miles ahead of my sea level competition. So much so, that in my first and last triathlon, I stunned myself by placing first. I can only attribute that victory to the high altitude training I put this body through.
Unfortunately, I sustained a hip stress fracture from the constant rigors of training just 2 days before the triathlon, but the fracture wasn’t confirmed until a week after the race. Needless to say, it was the open water swims following the hip fracture that saved this triathlete’s spirit from being crushed. One day last summer, I got the bug to just go swim. I had woken up very early and convinced my spotter that this was the day to take on the lake and win. He thought that I was overly ambitious and a bit crazy…. I showed him! I swam across the lake and then back. All along the swim route, I passed fishermen and paddle boarders that couldn’t believe my determination. My response was the same to all, “If you can’t run and bike, you swim!” And swim I did… 6 miles… and ended with one big smile…and quite the appetite!!! I knew at that moment that Donner Lake was my second home as I could recite verbatim where every rock, plant and old tree trunk lay on the lakebed.
On this day, I arrived at my home away from home, with anticipation and a growing bit of anxiety. I felt strong enough to take on an open water swim, but there was an unmistakable hesitation. There was something in the back of my mind that I simply could not shake or comprehend at the time. It was that voice I heard, the one of caution that we either heed or regretfully disregard. I made my way down the dusty forest trail to the lakeshore. As I got closer to the lake, I listened intently for the sound of waves so I could be prepared for a cancelled swim. Alas, as if someone lifted a pine needle curtain, the lake was in full view in front of me. Breathtaking…. I subconsciously took one long deep breath of the pine scented air in an attempt to capture the magic that this lake holds for me.
As my spotter readied the kayak, I methodically took off my shirt and shorts revealing my bright blue/fluorescent orange Speedo. I could feel the chilly 43F air temp quickly absorb any heat that radiated from my body. It was obvious to those who saw me that I was indeed chilled. I then worked to get my wetsuit on, properly positioned my swim cap and grabbed my tinted swim goggles.
My goal today was to go halfway across the lake and back, approx. 3 miles, since this was my first open water swim of the season. I took my first step into the water and decided it was cold as usual, but seemed to feel warmer than the air temp. Indeed, I would come to find out the water temp was 50F. I warmed my legs up in the water, but felt a twinge of uneasiness as I noticed my teeth begin to chatter. This was something I had never experienced in the water before. My spotter was next to me and asked if everything was fine. Feeling as though my judgment had been questioned, I quickly answered “Yes, let’s do this…” Off we went.
I placed my face in the frigid mountain water and felt that initial surge of attention-getting cold pierce through my skin. I brought my head above the water and conceded that it was definitely cold. Defying the water temp and still fighting the chattering of my jaw, I forced my arms to start their stroke. As I made my way through the water, I was surprised to see that the memories of the lakebed had changed a bit, or I just didn’t remember the details now as clearly as before. Hmmm…. With every stroke I felt less sure of myself, my breathing, the route, the boaters, the paddle boarders, my mission…. I stopped about ¼ of the way and grabbed ahold of the kayak… I had never done that before and my spotter immediately asked what was wrong.
I responded that I didn’t know, but it didn’t feel right. He asked “What doesn’t feel right?”, and I could not think clearly enough to determine the cause. I simply said, “I have to go back to shore.” He quickly said, “You know what you’re doing, let’s take it back.” With that vote of approval and support, I turned the swim around and noticed that my teeth were chattering more than before and I could feel a hint of nausea starting to make itself known. With that nauseated feeling, I decided I had to focus hard and make it back to the beach. I made sure to keep the shore in my right-sided view. Stroke after stroke I worked to keep my body making forward progress to the beach. Finally, I had the campsite in view and made my way to the shallow waters. I noticed my legs felt heavy, my feet and hands were numb, and as I stepped out of the water the nausea came over me like the wave of a passing speedboat. I stood on shore knowing what needed to be done, but it was as if time was moving in slow motion. I couldn’t get the wetsuit off fast enough and suddenly I couldn’t control the head-to-toe body shivers that felt more like convulsions.
My spotter immediately recognized what challenge I faced as he quickly helped to remove the wetsuit. I couldn’t move quickly enough and just kept shaking. In a matter of a couple minutes that felt like hours, my wetsuit was off and I was wrapped in a large towel and sat on a rock in the sun. The nausea became worse and the shivering was uncontrollable. I suddenly started to feel a sense of confused concern and asked for more layers. I sat with two jackets on and a large towel. Still the shivering continued and the nausea would not subside with a headache now starting to emerge. Finally, we made our way to my SUV and turned the heat on to +85 degrees with the seat heaters placed on the high setting. The anxiety increased as I felt like I was fighting a losing battle. My lips, fingers, feet were blue and my core skin temp was cold. A sense of panic started to invade my mind as the nausea became even worse. I sat in the vehicle with my eyes closed doing everything I could to control the shivering.
Finally, after approx. 20 min in the heated vehicle, the shivering subsided but the nausea and headache were ever present and my skin felt cold to the touch. I looked forward and caught a glimpse of the monument that sits in the Donner State Park. The park is named for the Donner Party, a group of Irish pioneers in the 1850s who made the bad decision to ignore advice and cross the Sierras too close to winter time. They became snowed in, were starving, and resorted to cannibalism to survive. The monument is a tribute to them and all the brave souls that crossed the vast western United States in search of better lands and a more prosperous life. Many lost their lives as they made the trek on horseback, in covered wagons and by foot. The temperature extremes alone tested the human body and stressed the spirit. Some made it, some were unable and succumbed to the rigors of the journey. All had the courage to seek a better life, persisting through harsh conditions and eventually the very strong persevered and saw their dreams become reality. It was through this journey that they learned from other’s mistakes, to become wiser, stronger and more able to accomplish their mission.
As I looked at this monument, I was reminded of how important it is to trust our instinct. If we feel something is not right, and at the first sign of question or trouble, it is always important to heed those inner warnings. Like the Donner Party, we are not invincible. We are not created with super powers, and as much as our bodies can convince our spirit to continue toward our intended goal, our gut is usually always right.
Today, I arrived at a lake I had swum so many times before when I had been conditioned to take on long distance swims at a high altitude. I ignored that very important instinct that speaks louder than words, is more trusted than any friend, and was created to keep us alive. I have never had hypothermia exposure and high altitude sickness before, but today, the Quest was chosen for me… a lesson that an open water swim is not something this dolphin is dying to do!
Checking my ego at the shore and wondering what tomorrow will bring…