Thunder Bay, ON, Canada

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Going All In: The art of doing

July 11, 2018

By Nick Whitbread

Going All In is a relative statement. We all have different value equations and different aversions to risk. To some simply showing up to run with other people can be incredibly daunting while to others it isn’t even a thought that enters their mind. For some going all in is running all out, for others its running all day. The common thread no matter where you may fall on the scale is discomfort, fear, the unknown and an awareness that right in this moment you are present and living. 

I have a friend who loves to swim in lakes. When she sees one you almost can't keep her out and once She’s in, good luck getting her out. Like running for many of us, it’s where she feels at home. 

My Friend got it in her head that she wanted to swim across a big lake. She had grown up swimming but had never done anything like this before. I happened to be doing a race in Lake Tahoe in September so she looked into swimming across Lake Tahoe. There are three “official” swims in Lake Tahoe, The Viking (10.3 miles / 16.8 km ), the Width (12 miles / 19.3 km ) and the Length ( 21.3 miles / 34.3 km ). Regardless of which you pick they are all a long way to swim in a big, cold lake. My friend chose the width. She has never done anything like this before, in any athletic capacity in her life. 

Training for Ultra Endurance sports doesn’t require a great deal of skill or “talent”. You find or create a training plan and you execute it. You figure out what fuel works for you and how to manage your hydration and electrolytes and you dial it in. The challenge lies in completing all the workouts, especially when you don’t want to and then relentlessly moving forward in the race until you reach the finish line. It may not sound super appealing but it certainly doesn’t sound too difficult. After deciding on the Width, my friend then only had one problem. She had nowhere to swim.

My friend is living in the remote community of Dawson city in the Yukon. In the summer time the swimming options are extremely limited and in the winter time almost non existent. In the summer there are freezing rivers to choose from or a small old dredge pond. There are no significant lakes less than 3-4 hours away and most are incredibly cold, even in the summer. The local pool opens in mid june and is less than 25 metres in length. Its hours are short and usually filled with activities for the young and old. The closest 25 metre pool is six and a half hours away, in Whitehorse.

Why would anyone choose to take on this sort of a challenge living in a place where the simplest thing like accessing a pool or lake to swim in, is either very challenging or not possible? Good question. She believed that now was her time. That this was her chance. I would be nearby and able to offer accommodation and support. She believed that if she didn’t do it now she never would. 

It began with little to no actual commitment to actually doing the swim. It was nothing more than an idea. Determined to do it, she started training, not specifically for swimming, but to create a fitness base. No tickets were bought, no official plans made. My friend didn’t see herself as an athlete and she had never trained to be one in her adult life. This would be her first obstacle. 

She started going to the gym, strategically planning her workouts during times when no one was around to see her running on the treadmill. She began walk / run intervals attempting to create some cardiovascular endurance. She slowly increased the time and was able to improve her runs from 5 to 45 minutes over a few months. Several months of training on and off passed with little direct focus on developing strength for swimming or progressing plans for the the swim. 

During this time we would discuss possible training strategies, me growing up swim training until i was twelve but really not knowing much about how to train specifically for open-water swimming. I did my best to offer help from an ultra running training perspective. I encouraged my friend to seek out a professional coach which she was hesitant to do at the time because it would be taking the swim from an idea between two friends to a looming reality that she was not ready for. 

While this was transpiring, my friend was trying to get the time off work to travel to Lake Tahoe and do the swim. She had other time off planned for family coming to visit and it was looking like work was not going to give her the time off either. 

In a situation like this where you are up against an incredibly frightening unknown, trying to do something you've never done in a place you have never been (lake Tahoe is also at 6000 ft above sea level), it’s very easy to find an excuse to quit, and in this unideal training situation it's also very easy to rationalize. That is what my friend did. She gave up on the swim, she lost motivation to train and let go of her dream to swim across the lake. It really sounds simple when you say it like that. At this time it was far from that. 

Up to this point I wasn’t sure myself that my friend was 100% all in on doing this swim. This work hurdle finally shined a light on that fact. The reality was, she wasn’t getting the time off, she couldn’t do the swim. 

We had a very intense conversation about the swim. She told me how all hope was lost as she couldn’t get the time off. I countered with the option of quitting her job ( my friend is 27 and her job right now is an important one but not her forever job). In a somewhat one sided discussion I told her what I would do in her position if the swim meant as much to me as she claimed it did to her. That was to let work know that the swim was incredibly meaningful to her and that she needed to do it. If she had a job to return to she would be very thankful, if not she would face that reality.

My friend and I have a unique aspect to our relationship. When she offers excuses as to why she can’t get or do something she really wants, I retort calmly with a list of reasons why she 100% can. She calls it me “Yelling” at her. This most recent discussion could be characterized as me “Yelling” at her about the swim. It was only in texts and a discussion we had after this conversation that I realized that she was not only 100% serious about doing this swim, but how much she really needed to do it. Not simply to swim 19km across a lake but to prove to herself that she could be person that she wanted to be and she could do anything she put her mind to. The biggest challenge I think for her was not convincing others of her conviction, but convincing herself.

She never saw herself as an “athlete”. She was uncomfortable at times in her body and this opportunity was pulling the curtains on these feelings. I later found out that she had been subjected to bullying about her weight when she was a child. This, along with other life experience had created a vision of herself in her own mind that she was having to confront in order to move forward with this swim.

As she waited for work to decide about the time off, she decided to continue training as if the swim was still happening and we began to discuss the logistics. Part of the personal vision problem my friend was dealing with was not wanting to make the swim a “big deal”. It was a big deal. Open water swimming is not like running. For the swim to be official you can’t just stop and rest. From the moment you start the swim you cannot touch anyone or anything until you reach the other side. The water is cold and stopping to tread water for any length of time opens you up to hypothermia. A slow and steady pace is needed to maintain core body heat. My friend wanted me to rent a double kayak, she would swim beside the kayak. I would be responsible for navigating, feeding and rescue if it came to that. That way it would just be the two of us--no “big deal”.

After some further research we found that you could hire a “Captain”, someone who had a small boat that assisted people in doing these kinds of open water swims. They use GPS to navigate so the swim is no longer than it has to be (ie. you don’t get of course and swim further), they offer protection from other boats as the lake gets busier during the day (the swim usually begins at 2am) and they can easily perform a rescue if needed. They do this for a living, thus have a vested interest in you completing the swim. It seemed like a good idea. We decided that for the best chance of success and for safety, a Captain was necessary. The only catch was they also cost $1500 US.

There was only one or two bookings left open with the Captain to do the swim. This was now the line in the sand. Once the Captain was booked and the deposit paid there was no going back. This swim was real and it was going to be a “big deal.” Just in case you have an idea of the Captain being some sort of salty dog, well he may be, but my friend has only been dealing with a delightful woman who has been incredibly helpful so far. Now back to the story.

My friend booked the Captain for the 18th of August. she told work she was doing the swim and put the ball in their court. She bought a plane ticket yesterday and this thing is happening. My friend last night began to have a freak out, which in my mind is totally understandable. This is the text I received verbatim:

"what if this swim think is too big for me. i get starting somewhere but maybe i should have started smaller. i don’t know how to swim in open water, this isn’t a good idea. going in blind. so stupid. nothing new on race day well everything is going to be new. i don’t know what i’m doing, clearly having a panic attack, yea i like to swim but this is crazy. what the fuck did i do. im gonna die. open water, what was i thinking. clearly not thinking at all. ugh."

Much of the content of this text is true. She lacks any experience in open water swimming, specific and prolonged training and general knowledge of the sport. On paper it doesn’t look the best. She has also, on several occasions, driven to Whitehorse six and a half hours away from Dawson City and swum laps for hours until she was kicked out of the pool, never reaching a point where she felt like she was anywhere near what she is capable of. Gotten up the next day and repeated this and then driven the six and a half hours home. She knows how to swim, she’s committed and if you knew her she’s incredibly stubborn. Sometimes you just have to go all in. 

When you run a 100 mile race in your training you never really run more than 50 miles. It’s a big ask for your body to recover from running that far before your actual race. So you trust that on the day if you pace yourself that you will be able to do something you may never have done before. Something that could be said to be extra ordinary. This is going all in. For some this might be joining a group run or running a 5k. We are all on different journeys. In all these situations it is natural to feel fear and discomfort, you are entering the unknown. The possibility of something great happening led you here and for that you must take a risk. The risk may feel incredibly great, though it’s only usually your ego that is at risk. These moments are the ones that call us so sternly to the present. We witness every breath and our minds can become flooded with emotions. This is the feeling of being alive, this is the feeling of going all in. 

Will my friend successfully swim 19km across Lake Tahoe? I don’t know. Time will tell. I know that she can. Whether she does or not really doesn't matter. She is all in. The quote below is a favorite and sums it up better than I can.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or how the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails daring greatly, so that this place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory or defeat.” - Theodore Roosevelt

I wanted to thank my friend for reading this after I wrote it and also letting us share it with you. If you wanna give her some encouragement please do in the comments below.

for more info on the swims http://marathonswimmers.org/…/lake-tahoe-2018-length-width-…