For me, a 24-year-old software engineer whose pathetic swim career was best known for a Speedo malfunction while diving into a pool, the challenge was way, way over my head: Swim the 12 miles across a chilly Lake Tahoe.
With my best friend joining me, our time to beat was seven hours — about how long Google says a person can spend in 65-degree water before becoming hypothermic. We would not be allowed to touch a flotation device. Six months of hard training had built up our endurance, but there is a big difference between a warm pool and this cold lake in the mountains straddling the California-Nevada border. It was 4 a.m. — pitch black on the water except the occasional shooting star.
Our escorts were former Coast Guard members piloting our guide boat, ensconced in warm parkas and drinking hot lemon tea.
They delivered one final piece of advice to us, shivering in our swimsuits: “If you want to make it across the lake, don’t look at the horizon.”
“If you look at how far away you are,” they told us, “you’ll never make it.”
They broke our swim into segments. Swim for 30 minutes. Recover for a minute. Repeat. That way, we wouldn’t have to think about swimming across the lake — just for 30 minutes at a time.
With time standing still during the pandemic, it seems everyone has been at water’s edge, pre-dawn, facing a preposterous swim. We could all use some mental toughness right now, but I think the source of such fortitude is misunderstood. It need not come from some emotional well of inner strength. Instead, it can come from the dispassionate knowledge that most big, scary problems are actually a bunch of small, less scary problems. Break up an unfathomable leap into comprehensible steps, and you can succeed.
As a computer scientist, I could appreciate our guides’ logic. Some computer problems require the precise order and discipline of a drill sergeant to resolve. But others, like this morning’s swim, need only the dumb intelligence and stamina of a Yogi Berra or Captain Jack Sparrow. Here’s how to think about it:
Question: “How do you swim 20,000 meters across the lake?”
Computer: “Swim one meter now and swim 19,999 later.”
Question: “OK, but how do you swim the next 19,999 meters?”
Computer: “Swim one meter now and swim 19,998 meters later.”
Question: “How do you swim 0 meters across the lake?”
Computer: “I don’t have to. I’m already across the lake.”
My friend Cameron and I gave our escorts a quick thumbs up and jumped into the black water.
The first 30 minutes was like swimming freestyle in outer space. I saw the light from a glow stick attached to Cameron’s swimsuit, but couldn’t tell if he was 500 meters away or a foot. Once, stroking hard to catch him as he appeared to pull away, I accidentally swam on top of him. OK, I’ll give him some room, I thought. But then the light disappeared. Panic began to creep in; would I make it?
A few miles later, I stopped swimming and projectile-vomited — while treading water. I was nauseated, my head spinning, and I knew I still had a long way to swim. But I didn’t look across the lake. I looked at Cameron; he looked doubtful. I vomited again. At that moment, my mind began to quit.
I didn’t transform into Aquaman. I made like Dory from “Finding Nemo” and just kept swimming — very slowly. As the hours passed, the nausea eased, leaving behind a quiet confidence that nothing would stop us. I resisted the siren call of the horizon, instead looking into the clear blue depths, or at my best friend swimming beside me in the daylight, or at my arm entering the water.
Not many complex thoughts floated through my waterlogged brain. My attention was focused solely on mirroring Cameron stroke for stroke and ensuring I got enough oxygen with each breath. Looking back, a few moments of emotion stand out: utter relief when I felt the sun rise. The surrealism of eating baby food while treading water and realizing with Cameron that our pilot boat was named Dynamic Duo. Immense gratitude when Cameron, a better swimmer, drastically slowed his pace for me. And exasperation when 100 meters from shore our shameless guides told me to pick up the pace — as if I could at that point.
Six hours and 51 minutes after we began, we crawled onto the sand.
Focus on the task at hand and trust that the rest will follow. Because, after all, if you keep looking at how far away you are, you will never get there.
Alexander Carlisle is studying for a master’s degree in business administration at Stanford University.
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