Taming Tahoe stroke by stroke
August 10, 2005
The thought of a human being swimming the length of Lake Tahoe, with no wetsuit, blows most minds – even before factoring in all the variables.But the man facing the challenge, 45-year-old Danville resident Ken Harmon, has mulled over every possible intangible that goes along with a 22-mile swim in as large and frigid a body of water as Lake Tahoe.Here’s what he had to say on a variety of topics related to his Aug. 22 endeavor. Sunburn: Harmon lathers up with plenty of sunscreen before getting in the water. But, he said, “I’m definitely going to have my back and back of legs burned to some degree, but not severely. Nothing that’s going to stop me.”Thunderstorms: “My main concern is thunderstorms right now,” Harmon said. “That’s my biggest fear when out on the lake.”Waves: Harmon said the waves on Tahoe are erratic (as opposed to the steady flow of waves in the ocean), which means random ones can come as a surprise when they hit. That can screw up the rhythm of his swim and force him to accidentally gulp water. He took in a lot of water in 1999 when swimming the width of Tahoe.Tahoe Tessie: The thought of encountering the legendary creature doesn’t frighten Harmon. But he didn’t rule out the possibility. “She’s probably out there,” he said. “I hope she’s cute.”Style of swim: Harmon will stick with freestyle, with minimal leg kicking in order to save energy.
“If you see me kicking, it’s for a damn good reason,” he said “It’s probably Tessie.” Breathing: Harmon said he breaths from his right side (to the east), which he hopes will be away from the wind the entire time – but you never know on Tahoe. He can breath from left side, but because he is not as strong when doing so, he hopes not to have to. By leaving early in the morning, he hopes to avoid being in the middle of the lake when the wind is strongest. “The water should get better as I get weaker,” Harmon said. “I should be getting into water that’s more friendly (towards the end of the swim).”Either way, he will take many, many breaths of air over the course of 22 miles.”I’m breathing like a Clydesdale,” he said. “There’s a lot of air going in and out and your throat gets raw. I think that’s one of the challenges that people don’t realize.” Eating/drinking: Via his wife, Marcia, who will cruise six feet from his side (a perfect tossing distance) in a kayak, Harmon will eat goo, bananas, Fig Newtons and anything soft and easy to chew and swallow.”Your mouth is pretty numb,” he said, “so the first attempts (to eat) are not pretty.” Harmon said because he needs “something satisfying,” his drink of choice is Gatorade. He takes a couple swallows, then eats a little bit, then takes another couple swallows. He “feeds” a minute to a minute and a half every half hour – after switching to either the breaststroke and backstroke (because getting vertical in the water is “freezing”).In all, Harmon plans to take about 20 “breaks” to eat and drink, which will total somewhere around 40 minutes.Rules of the swim: “You can’t touch anybody or any type of craft,” Harmon said. “That’s the purity of the record.”Escort boats: An engineer aboard one of the two boats flanking him will have a global positioning system and will be able to tell him how far he has traveled and the time.
Temperatures: Lake Tahoe’s current surface temperature, according to the Lake Tahoe Coast Guard, is 70 degrees. But that number drops drastically the farther from the surface.”Anytime you’re in the water that long you’re going to cool down,” Harmon said.Hypothermia defined: a condition of abnormally low body temperature (a core temperature less than 35 degrees Celsius). Decreased consciousness occurs when the core temperature falls to approximately 32 to 30 degrees. Heart failure is the usual cause of death when the core temperature cools to below 30 degrees. The body loses heat to the water about 30 times faster than in air.Harmon on hypothermia: Harmon is not worried about hypothermia.”I probably got it in ’99 (when swimming the width of Lake Tahoe) and didn’t admit it,” he said. “But I’ve never been in danger.”Anything over 65 for me is not like it would be for other people. Below 60 I might have issues. I don’t want to swim 12 hours if it’s under 60.”Body fat: Harmon is a big boy: 6-foot, 245 pounds, and with more than 20 percent body fat, he said. “It does help,” he said of the body fat. “There’s no question. I must have a composition that’s distributed well (because cold water doesn’t affect him as much as the average person).”1999 Tahoe width swim: Harmon guesses the water temperature was between 48 and 52 degrees on the unseasonably cold July day.”It was the most brutal swim I’ve ever done,” he said. “Waves literally were breaking on Sand Harbor at 7 in the morning. When I got in I couldn’t believe it. At one point I yelled to the boat if the race had been canceled yet. “I chattered for 45 minutes uncontrollably (once finished). I was blue.”
1996 Lake Washington swim: Harmon completed the 20-mile swim across the Seattle lake in 10 hours and 10 minutes, with the water temperature between 66 and 69 degrees – slightly colder than Tahoe’s current surface temperature. “It wasn’t intensely cold, but it was really rough,” he said. “There was a lot of chop, just like Tahoe can be.”In what is his longest swim to date, Harmon said he basically blacked out for about three hours. “From seven hours to 10-10 I have no idea of what happened. I bonked at seven hours.” Donner Lake practice swim: In preparation for the big one, Harmon swam six miles across Donner lake in 2 hours and 35 minutes. “Donner was really helpful,” he said.Biggest fear: “The unknown of how the body will react,” Harmon said. “It’s a question of whether I’m going to have a good day.”Cramping: “I don’t cramp. I’m very lucky,” Harmon said. “I must just have the right body chemistry.”I have pain, though. I’ll have pain that I can’t even describe (mostly in elbows and hips). But it comes and goes.” Goal for finishing time: “If I went under 12 hours it would be unbelievable,” Harmon said.Other concerns: “The thing I’m concerned about is headaches. The altitude, the cold and the exertion really screw up your day,” Harmon said.
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