Splashing around in the waters of Lake Tahoe is a refreshing way to escape the summer heat, but it takes special skills and training to actually swim across the frigid, alpine lake. Only four people have successfully swam the 22-mile length of Lake Tahoe and Ken Harmon, 50, of Danville, California is one of them. He successfully swam the length of the lake in 2005 and on August 21, 2010 Harmon will attempt to swim from Hyatt Beach in Incline Village on the north side of the lake to Camp Richardson on the south side of the lake. Once he finishes, he will rest and warm up for no longer than 10 minutes, then he’ll jump right back in and head back to where he started for a total swim of 44 miles…all without a wetsuit or special gear, and all within 24 hours.
Even in the summer, Lake Tahoe water never really gets above 65 degrees, and Ken will be swimming the first length at night. His goal is not only to be the first person to swim the furthest distance on this lake, but he is hoping to raise $150,000 for Best Buddies International, the Down Syndrome Network of Northern Nevada and the Karen Gaffney Foundation. Ken met Karen Gaffney in 2007, when he trained Karen for her 9 mile swim across the width of Lake Tahoe. Karen is also one of a handful of swimmers who have successfully completed a solo swim across Lake Tahoe, and the only one with Down Syndrome.
Among Ken’s other impressive swims was a 12-mile width swim of Lake Tahoe in 4 hours 21 minutes in 2003, a 10-mile Maui Channel crossing from Lanai to Maui in 3 hours and 56 minutes in 2000, and a swim from the South Tower to the North Tower of the Golden Gate Bridge in 40 minutes in 1998.
Ken answered a few of my questions about the amazing challenge he is taking on:
Why Lake Tahoe?
I started swimming in Lake Tahoe in 1993 with a six person relay for the width at the North end of the Lake. After doing a relay swim again in 1998 I decided to try and do a width solo in 1999 against the six person relay teams. I did the solo swim in 1999, 2000 and 2003 (one year to the day after emergency surgery for a ruptured appendix). I set a goal to swim the length of the lake in 2005 and accomplished that on August 22, 2005, designing the longest possible swim course with the Coast Guard.
What’s it like to swim the lake?
It’s extremely challenging and very different from other open water swims because of the high altitude and very quick weather changes that can occur. The cloud cover and wind can make the Lake much colder on the surface. A very qualified support crew is critical to success and avoiding any complications.
How do you prepare for a swim like this?
Preparation for swimming at Tahoe is difficult and requires consistent workouts for over a year when planning a long swim. Using interval training at sea level with very little rest for 60-90 minutes six days a week is critical to having any chance for success. When preparing to swim a length it is wise to average 30,000-40,000 yards per week for at least four months before your swim. Some swimmers may need more yardage per week this is just a guideline to help avoid any injuries.
Do you rest or eat during the swim? If you do, what do you eat?
During the swim event it is important to eat and drink every 20-30 minutes depending on preference. By training with intervals you work to “rest” by pacing and working to control speed. I eat many different items during my swim: from fruit to soft candy, energy packets each hour and Gatorade. Fig Newtons are always good!
How does the cold and the altitude affect you?
When starting out during the swim the cold is not kind. When the swim pace is established the cold is not as big a factor for me. During the stops to eat, the cold always does a great job of reminding you that it is important to keep a steady pace in Tahoe waters. The altitude is the silent challenge as it does a very good job of slowing your normal pace and feels like extra weight on your back when you try and go faster than normal.
What do you think of while swimming your long distance swims?
I think of many things while swimming Tahoe. At the beginning I focus on stroke technique and being as efficient as possible with each stroke. Then I start to daydream and I seem to lose sense of time. I also think about all the sacrifices and support necessary to even try and swim in Tahoe for extending periods of time. It always is very reassuring to have a swim pacer, kayaker or boat in sight as I breathe each stroke which helps to reduce daydreaming. By the time I finish a swim in Tahoe my mind is completely clear of any thoughts except the swim itself.
What will you do when you finish?
Rejoice. Rest. Recover. Remember. And to thank all those that made it possible.
What’s next after this swim?
I don’t know. It really depends on this swim, as anything else I try will be much easier.