Shiver And Gasp, Learning On High With Joe Oakes

Shiver And Gasp, Learning On High With Joe Oakes

Joe Oakes reporting from high up in Squaw Valley, California:

Every year I celebrate my birthday by swimming in the Roy Webster Labor Day swim across the Columbia River from the Washington side to Hood River, Oregon. This birthday, will be my 77th, but I am still and will always be a few months behind my friend and fellow Barracuda Dave Radcliff, who hit the 77 mark in May while I had to wait until September. Some things can never be fixed.

Anyway, I want to tell you about my preparation.

In Trondheim, Norway, there is the traditional Trondheim Troll Dance, in which participants bang both sides of their heads with nine pound hammers in time to martial music. I have my own version of the Trondheim Troll Dance.

I call it the Tahoe Shiver and Gasp.

For two weeks I train at Lake Tahoe, bordering Nevada and California in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. If you have been there you may know three things about Lake Tahoe. First, it a magnificent place at any time of the year, surrounded by enormous snow-capped mountains, over 1,000 feet deep, and 73 miles around.

Second, the water temperature in the lake rarely exceeds 60°F (16°C), and is often much lower, especially when the wind churns colder water from below. I am told that the temperature at the bottom of Lake Tahoe is a constant 36°F. Most of the time the surface temperature at the beaches, on a sunny day, is in the high 50s, ergo the ‘Shiver’ quality.

Third, the lake is situated at an altitude of about 6,200 feet. When a mere mortal attempts to exert oneself at altitude, Mother Nature calls a quick halt to strenuous activity. Therein lies the ‘Gasp’ quality. Put cold water and high altitude together and you have the two basic ingredients for the Tahoe Shiver and Gasp school of swim training.

There can be no hesitation. The first day I head directly for Commons Beach in Tahoe City on the north end of the Lake, about 15 minutes drive from Squaw Valley, where we are staying. No wetsuit, please, just a swim cap: Tradition!, as Reb Tevye would put it.

I wade out and swim to the pier 200 meters away, turn to the left and swim about 400 meters in that direction, then left again, to complete a triangle of about 1000 meters. It might be necessary to take a short breather somewhere in between.

If it is too cold, my hands and toes might start to feel numb, and I will probably experience some anatomical shriveling. When I am done, if you touch my skin I will feel like a cold mackerel, and my energy will be sapped. I might shiver for a few minutes. In 15 minutes I will be okay, but that is quite enough for day one.

Over the next two weeks I will increase my yardage and my time in the water. It will always be cold, but it will feel less so as the days pass. It normally takes me five days to overcome the shortage of oxygen. That is how long it takes for your bone marrow to respond to altitude by building enough new red blood cells to carry the needed oxygen.

At the end of two weeks I will be an accomplished Tahoe-Shiver-and-Gasper. I will be ready to turn my new-found super-strength in the direction of the Columbia River, which will be about ten degrees warmer (less cold??) and 6,000 feet lower in elevation.

Commons Beach is my favorite place to train at Lake Tahoe. There are changing rooms, parking and the occasional concert, all free. But there are many beaches on Lake Tahoe, including Sand Point on the Nevada side, and Bliss and Sugar Pine Point State Parks in California. If that is not enough, there is another large alpine lake nearby, Donner Lake, equally high and cold, with its own traditions.

If you have a chance to do your own version of Shiver and Gasp, let me warn you about something: When you get back to the pool, you might find that the wall will be a little closer.

And if you really want to have some fun, give some thought to putting together a team for the annual relay swim across Lake Tahoe, an event put on by the Olympic Club in San Francisco. There is nothing like it.


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Joe is a member of the Barracudas in Portland, Oregon and the South End Club in San Francisco.

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