Lake Washington Swim: 20 miles South to North

Date: 11th September 2011
Start: 2am
End: 11.45pm
Total distance: 20 miles
Total swimtime: 19 hours
Total rest-time: 1h45
Swim: breast-stroke, average 1 mph
Consumed: 10,000 calories


I swam the 20-mile length of Lake Washington, from Renton in the South to Kenmore in the North. Why did I do it? — I don't know! It's left me with sore knees where the wetsuit rubbed the skin raw, and also a new fondness for silence.

I swam breast-stroke at about 1.1mph. Every half hour I'd eat half a powerbar and drink 10oz of gatorade. Sometimes my stomach let me take a whole powerbar and a full 20oz of gatorade. A kayak was with me the whole time. Every four hours or so I'd stop on shore at a pre-arranged meeting spot where my support crew (girlfriend) was there with more food and a car for me to sit in for 30mins with the heating on full blast to try to warm up. It was Seattle's hottest day of the summer at 80F on the lake, and the water was a warm 72F, but still I was cold for the entire swim. I used a "SPOT GPS Tracker" — every 10 minutes it beams your GPS coordinates up to satellite, which feeds into a public live-updated Google map, which is how my ground support crew knew when to show up.

Ralph offered to kayak with me the entire way, 22 hours, starting at 2am. What an incredible offer and what a long kayak. His presence kept me safe, encouraged me, let me cut two miles off the swim by going in straight lines rather than following the shore, and made the whole endeavor possible. My girlfriend Shannah put up with me training instead of doing my share of the housework, supported me, and spent the entire day shuffling the car around to meet me at rest stops. Diana swam with me for the final leg right after having done a two mile ocean swim the day before. She was the only one with map skills good enough to find our destination in the dark, and kept me going when I'd thought we'd have to cut it short. And Alexey took over the kayaking for a leg in the middle to give Ralph a rest, despite partying until 1am the previous night, and returned to see us at the end. I'm humbled to have such generous friends.

Leg 1: 3.9 miles
Renton (2am) — Seward Park (5.35am)

There's a small park at the corner of Renton airstrip. There at 1.45am I met Ralph, an ironman who'd offered to kayak for me. The sky was clear, the air and water were warm. We entered the water at 2am. Ralph saw a few otters and gulls on the way but I was too busy swimming to notice. I towed behind me an inflatable buoy with bright flashing kayak lights on for visibility. Ralph would kayak with his lights mostly off, so I enjoyed the beautiful night all myself — with full moon, stars, and lake flat as a mirror.

Normally on swims, my brain is fairly active — thinking over work, relationship, friends. It never gets far with thoughts because they tend to get reset every stroke like a mental groundhog day. But on this occasion my brain was still and I had little feeling or emotion. I guess I was a swimming robot like the Terminator.

We figured out which dark blob must be Seward Park, and headed straight for it. Every half hour I'd stop to eat half a powerbar and drink 10 oz of Gatorade. I was getting cold after three hours in the water. What looked like the final 20 minutes of this leg ended up taking an hour. At Seward Park we got into my car (which I'd parked there the night before), turned the heating full on, and rested for 45 minutes.

Leg 2: 6.2 miles
Seward Park (6.40am) — Madison Beach (12.45pm)

The sun was dawning as we headed out on this leg. It was a huge relief to see it there and hope that soon I'd be warm.

The furthest I'd ever swum before without a rest was 4 miles, so this leg at 6.2 miles was a challenge. We reached the I90 bridge at around 10am, by which time there were lots of powerboats. I took half a motion-sickness tablet so I wouldn't get sick from the swells or the exhaust fumes sitting just above the water. When you see waves in the sun, they cast little shadows, and in my mind they sometimes became hallucinations of shark fins. By 12noon I was very tired and it felt like I'd forgotten how to swim. I was wondering why my right arm was pulling to the right and my left arm to the left, since shouldn't they be the other way round? I had a mental image that each swim-kick was being borrowed from some kick rental facility, but I'd picked out the wrong size for my legs. It felt like a struggle, but my GPS log showed that I maintained a steady 1.1 mph right to the end.

Madison Beach marked the swim's half-way point. At 11.30am I noticed that the air was now warmer than the water.

For GPS, I used a "SPOT Personal Tracker" in my drybag. This is about the size of a cellphone. Every ten minutes it beams up my GPS coordinates to satellite, which feeds it into a live-updated Google Map. That's how my support crew could tell when I was going to reach Madison Beach.

Leg 3: 3.1 miles swim, plus 0.4 on powerboat
Madison Beach (1.15pm) — Magnuson Park (4.15pm)

The photo above shows me trying to warm up in the sun and eat. Shannah had brought the car and supplies. It was Seattle's hottest day of the summer at 88F, and the water was a warm 72F, but still I felt cold. Resting in the sun wasn't enough to warn me up.

Alexey took over the kayak for this leg to give Ralph a rest. The swells from powerboat traffic were 3 feet trough-to-crest which made swimming more challenging. The boat traffic under the 520 bridge was so packed that we had to hitch a ride on a passing powerboat to cross the boat lane.

Again at Magnuson Park I tried to warm up by basking in the sun, and again it wasn't enough. At this point I felt terribly weary. One of the two big challenges I'd identified in previous years was nutrition. I'd always been able to swim for 4 hours without food or water, but needed something more for this long swim. I had met with a sports nutritionist who said it's all about consuming as many simple carbs as possible during the swim (with minimal fiber, fat and protein), so on all of my practice swims I was experimenting and tweaking my nutrition. I've always had a natural unprocessed-food diet and I hated having to consume powerbars and gatorade but my stomach handled them better than anything else I tried.

Leg 4: 1.8 miles
Magnuson Park (4.45pm) — Matthews Park (6.35pm)

This was a short leg. My stops were largely dictated by where there were convenient parks. I also wanted to set myself up for a good final leg that wouldn't be too long. Ralph resumed kayaking for this leg.

Although I'd started the leg weary, I think I got stronger as it went on. The GPS log shows a steady 1.0mph.

The other of the two big challenges was whether my joints would hold up. People say that swimming is a gentle activity for the joints. But for breast-stroke that's not true, and especially not for 20 hours of it. Breast-stroke is all about the legs so you kick them explosively out, and it's down to the bones and tendons of your knees and ankles to snap them back. Well, that's what I'd believed, but it's not true. Towards the end of the summer I'd developed a much gentler and slower kick, and I'd consciously force myself to slow down my kick as my arms slowly reached forward at the same time. And so by the time I'd reached Matthews Beach Park my knees still had no joint pain, and I was confident I'd be able to finish.

I sat in the car to warm up for half an hour with the heaters on full. And I ate some potato — at last, some real food and not just Gatorade and powerbars.

Leg 5: 4.6 miles
Matthews Park (7.15pm) — Log Boom Park (11.45pm)

On this leg Ralph and I were joined by Diana from the Western Washington Open Water Swimmers facebook group page. Her previous distance record was 2.6 miles, so bumping it up to 4.6 miles was considerable.

It was dusk when we started this leg, and the full moon was again up in the clear sky. It made for beautiful swimming conditions again. Diana and I both bumped into otters.

I was getting very cold by 9pm. I tried swimming harder to generate more heat, but had to scale back when my knee joint started to hurt. Other swimmers had told me that it's just a matter of mind and body to acclimatize to cold water, so I talked myself into accepting the cold rather than fighting it.

We'd planned to finish at Log Boom Park. The map shows it has a huge 600 foot pier sticking out into the water — as we swam along the shore it should have been impossible to miss. Moreover I'd walked down the pier the previous day to scout it out. Nevertheless, Ralph and I missed the pier. It was only Diana who knew how to read maps well enough to tell which series of lights to aim for. We swam a slower 0.9mph for the final mile, breast-stroke with heads above the water and goggles off, so we'd be able to recognize the pier when we got to it. It was a slower pace, but much lovelier and warmer.

Friends had gathered at the end of the pier; when we saw their flashlights, we knew we were done. And so I crawled out almost 22 hours since starting the swim. We all drove home for some grilled steak and champagne.


After the swim I ached all over and was dog tired. The wetsuit abraded the skin behind my knees so they bled a little, and three days later the scars still hurt whenever I bend my knees. I also have a small abrasion under my chin from the chinstrap of the swimcap, and on the back of my neck. My ankles are sore. Other than that, I feel great!

The morning after the swim, fully rehydrated, I weighed about 3lbs less than at the start of the swim.

I figure I consumed close to 10,000 calories during the swim:

For gear I wore a 5mm/3mm surfer's wetsuit — less flexible than my swimmer's wetsuit, but warmer. Under it I wore a rash-guard on my upper body, and I put my legs through the arms of a second upside-down rash-guard. I wore a silicone swimcap and also a neoprene one on top. As for goggles, I've spent years researching which goggles won't hurt after wearing them for this long. I settled on foam-padded goggles, which are much more comfortable than the newer sort with the rubber gasket.