On Friday, August 31, at 6 a.m., ultra swimmer Jamie Patrick will begin his attempt to become the first human to ever swim around the perimeter of Lake Tahoe. Though he’ll be wearing a wetsuit, the 68-mile swim will be one of the longest nonstop swims in history. You can watch it live here, but if you’re anything like me, you might be thinking, What could be more boring than watching one guy swim in a lake for around 40 hours? He swims. He fatigues. At some point, he’s in very great pain. He either makes it or doesn’t. Isn’t golf slow enough already?
A couple summers ago, just before Jamie’s attempt to swim twice across Tahoe (44 miles), that was exactly what I was thinking. But Jamie is family (my cousin-in-law) and I wanted to support him even though his idea seemed utterly bizarre, not to mention crazy. After a casual hike in the Sierras, I reluctantly motored out with Jamie’s dad to the middle of the lake when Jamie had about five miles of swimming to go. I’m not sure what I expected to see, but it wasn’t this. Jamie, who is usually bouncing off the walls like Tigger, was swollen up and purple. He was crying. He couldn’t keep down food or water due to something disastrous going on in his belly. “Oh god, call this off,” I wanted to shout. But Jamie assured everyone — between bouts of gagging and puking — that he wanted to continue swimming. Each stroke at this point was like lifting hundreds of pounds. But it was incredible. He. Just. Kept. Going.
Far from being boring to watch, this was a nail-biter. And it actually moved me deeply. I realized right then and there that:
A.) I was a bit lazy,
B.) Most humans on earth, including me, had never experienced what Jamie was going through.
Unlike our ancestors (who had to endure all sorts of grueling survival challenges), most of us don’t know or understand our physical limits — because we don’t reach them — or even come close to reaching them. We’re afraid of the pain (which ironically creates more pain). We’re afraid of failing. Or, most likely, we don’t even think about the value of going to our limits — and thus stretching them — because we’ve been surrounded by media assuring us that having a bunch of luxuries like car seats that warm our butts is the key to happiness.
Back on shore, 100 or so spectators waited for Jamie with signs and flowers, hands fidgeting or folded as if in prayer. Many of them didn’t even know Jamie, but they were spending their free Sunday on this random Tahoe beach. I talked to some of them, and one man said, “Maybe I’ll quit smoking.” Another told me, “I’m going to run that marathon this fall.” All around the beach, you could see the wheels turning: I could figure out a way to quit that crappy job and write the screenplay that has been in my head for five years. Maybe I could ask that guy out after all instead of waiting for him to call. Everyone was questioning his or her self-created limits.
As Jamie sputtered into shore to embrace his wife and daughter — though he was occasionally still vomiting — he gave those of us who wanted it a rare gift. Now, whenever I feel too lazy to write, or too tired to finish a run, or too tired to do anything, really, all I have to do is picture Jamie Patrick’s purple crying face (odd as that sounds) and I’m reminded that the reason I’m too tired is that I’m just afraid of a little discomfort. But the very mild pain I’m usually avoiding is, relatively speaking, no big deal. What is much worse is the feeling of stagnation that builds up from not approaching the pain and fear, not stretching my boundaries, not growing.
It’s easy to criticize people like Jamie for being crazy, but, just like we need a few mad scientists around to reveal the laws of physics (and hopefully crack the code for nuclear fusion soon), we need people like Jamie, who live to approach their physical boundaries. Otherwise, we’ll just melt into our couches.
And it’s incredible how when one person breaks through a boundary, it influences all of us. People used to say, for example, that a human being couldn’t run a mile in under four minutes. They thought it was physically impossible. Then on May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister finished a mile at three minutes and 59.4 seconds. “There was a mystique, a belief that it couldn’t be done,” Bannister said 50 years later. “But I think it was more of a psychological barrier than a physical barrier.” Six weeks later, John Landy, who had come within three seconds of breaking the four-minute barrier six times, broke Bannister’s record at 3 minutes and 58 seconds. Now, high-school students run four-minute miles.
I have no interest in ever swimming 68 miles nonstop. But I do have an interest in living a life that isn’t just about avoiding pain, living to my full potential. That’s why I crewed for Jamie on his incredible swim down the Sacramento River last summer, why I’m going to Tahoe to kayak alongside Jamie this weekend, and why you should tune in even if only for a few minutes to watch a man simply swimming in a lake.
To read my interview with Jamie about going beyond the fear of pain, click here.
And again, you can follow the Tahoe 360 Live swim here.