On Doing the Impossible: Swimming Around Mercer Island

Four lake swimmers, two kayakers

Last Friday four Pacific Northwest Mermaids circumnavigated Mercer Island. It’s about 13 miles, a distance that  A) I never wanted to swim and B) I actively said “no” to for years:

Just two months ago, when my friend Tricia proposed it, I responded with a resounding chorus of Nos. That’s crazy talk!

And then—

Once July hit, we started chattering about it more.

“I’m thinking . . . “ Tricia, who did this swim 40 years ago, said with a gleam in her eye.

“We have strong shoulders!” Jo cried.

“(Wimper wimper, but… but…)” I shuddered.

We started talking about the M.I. swim in the locker room after pool workouts; on the shore of Luther Burbank Park on Thursday mornings, watching the sun rise. As I continued to think “impossible” we found kayak support, got kayakers lined up; I purchased packages of Tailwind carb-and-electrolyte powder for our water bottles, and started swimming back-to-back three milers during the week, and a 4.5 miler on the weekend.

We saw our long-distance mermaid, Liz go off and complete her 11-mile Portland Bridge Swim, and come back smiling, shoulders intact.

I still didn’t think I could do it. Or could I? I still thought we were crazy.

I have to say, the training was exquisite—a dreamy pant fest of dropping our mermaid tails into a summery lake that was begging to be swum in morning after morning after morning. 

“If I swim 100 meters past Groveland Beach, that will be the longest I’ve swum,” I said to my husband one night as he drifted off to sleep. “That’s a good goal!”

“I don’t want to ruin my shoulders, or ruin my swim season,” I reasoned one morning, speaking to my husband’s awakening head at 5 a.m. “That would be stupid!” 

I told my PT, who happened to be treating me for some tender shoulders and right rib/wing pain, and assured her there were exit points at public beaches around the island, where I could get out and call my husband for a ride home.

“I want to see how far I can go,” I said. “I don’t want to kill myself.” 

“Sounds like a good plan,” she said. “Our bodies, and minds, are made for challenges, so it makes sense."

Then I got honest with her: “OK, I say I don’t want to ruin my shoulders, but if I wreck them, at least I wrecked them doing something epic—it would really be worth it.” My PT nodded along.

"Have fun!” she said waving me good-bye. I love my PT.

Later, at dinner, when I repeated this to my husband, he nodded along too.

Then something happened two weeks out. After a post-swim coffee-and-donuts gathering, as we talked more and more about the Around-Island Swim, how we’d have all day to do it, going at a relaxed pace, stopping off at beaches to rest if we wanted (note: we are not “easygoing” swimmers), and that we could take our fins with us, something flipped.

“I really want to do it,” I said to my husband during the season premiere of Game of Thrones. “The whole thing. I want to do the whole thing.”

But I still wasn’t sure I could. I held on to my exit points.

On July 21, we slipped into a glassy smooth lake at 5:15 am:  two kayaks, four swimmers, our spouses waving to us from shore, the sun still climbing from behind the cascades, orange on the horizon. Quiet.

At six miles, Groveland Beach, my shoulders started to ache—a sharp localized pain. Shit. We stopped, switched out kayakers (this day took a small village!), and fueled up. I commiserated with Jo, who said her arms were achy too, and we agreed to go to Calkins landing, 2.5 miles up the bay, and THEN consider calling Steve to come get us. Somewhere far away in the recesses of my brain there was a chorus of mischief makers laughing laughing laughing . . .

Because when we got to Calkins, and ate some of the best PB&J squares of our lives, with my shoulders about to fall off, I knew there would be no getting out. I actually knew that when I left Groveland. I probably knew that when I got in that morning; actually, I knew that I’d stay in when I said “maybe” weeks previously—that once I started, unless my arms were literally falling out of their sockets, I would stick with my friends until the bitter end.

It wasn’t as much about going around the island that I wanted to accomplish, but going around the island WITH MY FRIENDS. And, I wanted the pink finishers hoodie Tricia was going to make for us. I was swimming for that g-d pink hoodie!

At Calkins we resorted to our fins, looked at each other and made a pact: “If we have to kick this last 4.5 miles, we’re finishing this!”

When we made a quick drink stop around the first north-end bay, Howard took a picture of me and Jo. It hurt—a lot—to lift my arm and wave.

Two lake swimmers, one waving

We kept going. At Luther Burbank, when we had two miles to go, something hit me:

All the outrageous cool big-ass accomplishments I’ve done, especially in the physical world—the first Olympic distance triathlon; half and full marathons; 50 k trail run; half and full Ironman; 10k swim, and now this—has happened because of the friends I keep. These feats were all something proposed to me, feats that I greeted with an initial “no”, that "no" sometimes lasting for years and then—just because I wanted to keep the company of some pretty fantastic people, I said yes. None of these feats were my idea—I don’t think that big! But I did them, because I was invited to; because I was curious enough to see what would happen, what I was made of. Because of the natural world that unfolds when you do these events. Because … because … because it was there, and they (friends) were there too. And the training is really a playfest with your best friends—so what could be better?

Friends. Community. There is so much power and resilience and adventure and possibility and epic experiences that happen when you fall in with the right group.

There’s this common saying: “S/he fell in with the wrong crowd.”

What about when you fall in with the right crowd?

Twenty years ago, I left the wrong crowd, one that supported my partying self, and crossed over into the right crowd, one that plays and does sports and gets out in the natural world and sweats, and gleams and howls at the world. I’d like to say that I push myself into extraordinary physical pursuits, but it’s my friends who do this. And I follow along. Merrily, merrily the entire way.

With a couple of very sore shoulders this week—but totally worth it!

 We swam the whole thing--and we're a little bit giddy, can you tell?

We swam the whole thing--and we're a little bit giddy, can you tell?

 Story of my life.

Story of my life.