A very good friend and human being whom I respect dearly once posted a picture with the caption “The swimming equivalent of ‘always play tennis with players who are better than you.’ ” This phrase has been at the forefront of my mind the past three days as my initial plan at an ice mile attempt became everything but an athletic achievement.
I typically write blog posts about an event, about a swim, about something related to the water. While this post falls nothing short of a a good story, what started as an idea to attempt an ice mile in the remote backcountry resulted in learning more about the importance of friendship, trust, and encouragement and what I gained as a result of the experience.
I’ve been doing backcountry hike-in swimming for the past year, but the trails have always been shorter, the elevation not as great, and the water warmer (meaning upper 40’s to low 50’s). Then last year I visited Lake Minotaur, started the hike on a 29F morning and had the best cold-water swim of my life at 38F for 25 minutes. This hike, this swim is when I first got the idea of doing an ice mile in the Enchantments. The problem, the hiking. As much as pictures tell a story of achievement, they don’t tell the pain my legs the day after, the calf cramps (which I’ve never experienced until hiking), and they don’t tell the story of the detriment two very different sports have on each other. Marathon swimming and hiking are not #besties
I’m a good swimmer and want to be a good hiker, but hiking is hard. Elevation gain is hard. Land activities are hard. When I decided to try to get an Enchantments permit this year, I applied more to learn about the process, I never actually expected to get one. Well, beginners luck as they say and I got a permit in the lottery. Many would be thrilled, but for me…. I’ll be the first to admit I was more nervous, to be quite frank I was rather terrified, of the hike up to the Enchantments.
Long story short, the permit came a year early. I was in the middle of my year off from major swim events, discovering salt and vinegar potato chips for the first time, and re-discovering the joy of couch potatoing. I wasn’t super motivated to actually train for anything as I committed to myself to take a year to me, but these permits are supposedly very difficult to get so I didn’t want to waste it. I tried, really tried to get better at hiking and quickly, but training was less than optimal as I found it’s basically impossible for me to cool down in the summer making hiking above 60F a slew of one failed hiking attempts one after another. I had some pretty big successes, but they were few and far between and mostly in the late winter/early spring before it got warm outside. Once the summer came, hiking kind of went out the window and it all went downhill pretty quick.
A year early and a winter season short of cold-water training, my Alaska swim came, which was extremely important to me. Then the calfs started to cramp. I have never had calf cramps before, I was losing weight from hiking and getting cold in the water, so naturally the paranoia set in…. is hiking making my swimming suffer? I got concerned I wouldn’t even make my 10k in Alaska, so I quit hiking to get back in shape for cold-water marathon swimming. This seemingly great idea was great for swimming, but it put me in a really and I mean REALLY bad place going into September for the Enchantments.
Through all of it, I had my friends who I could rely on, people I trusted. These were people that I had to trust because I couldn’t trust myself, the ones that understand ultra-endurance sports, me as a person and athlete. They were the ones that saw me get nervous, legit nervous in a different way people rarely see. I wasn’t confident in my abilities to even make the hike and when I heard myself say I wasn’t confident, words can’t describe how awful I felt about myself, my ambition, and my abilities. Looking back (spoiler alert) I made the hike and these people, my friends who I trusted, Ben, Paul, Alison and Yannick believed that if I set my mind to it, I could achieve it. For the first time in my life, I really struggled to trust their opinion and I doubted myself in what my body could do. In the end I chose to trust them because I knew no matter what, they had my back.
The month leading up to the hike-in-to-swim, nothing went to plan. The plan changed every day, something went wrong logistically, hiking-wise, swim-wise, you name it and it happened all the way up to the drive to the mountains. I met Gleb earlier in the summer and he quickly became someone I trusted to keep me safe and to provide encouragement on hikes.
Gleb and I set off from the Snow Lake Trailhead on day 1 with my only goal to make it to the campsite, Yannick would catch-up with us later in the day. We made a plan, 40 minutes at a time, he would hike ahead of me and I’d catch-up for a short break. This made me feel comfortable in that I could take my time without pressure and I always perform well when I know someone is waiting for me. It also made me feel safe in that if something happened (i.e. I fell off a cliff), there was a check-in point with him and he would know I wouldn’t be more than 40 minutes back. Our last training hike to Mailbox Peak was a disaster, mainly because I just couldn’t do it and was moving slower than a backwards walking turtle. I was scared, something I’m not used to feeling let alone admitting. I threw the ice mile out the window after Mailbox and said if I just make it to the campsite at Upper Snow Lake that the trip will be a success. Low and behold, one foot after another, one break after another, we made it and after our last break I heard Yannick’s voice through the woods. The gang was together, we set-up camp, I went for a short swim in Upper Snow Lake, and I was happy, shocked, and felt like it was a success regardless of what happened next. I made it to camp, I made it.
The thing about Snow Lakes Trail is that I feel like for most hikers, it really isn’t that bad. For me, this was all new and IT. WAS. HARD. That was all there was to it and coming off of basically zero hiking for over three months, literally getting to camp i impressed myself!
We woke for day two and unfortunately the night before we knew the temperature of Upper Snow Lake, 56F (blah). Another grueling day of hiking to the Core Zone, steep elevation gain over a short period of time on legs that were super sore from the day before, we made it to the first lake, Lake Viviane. Suffering from short leg syndrome (or Neanderthal-ism as Gleb puts it), my legs were so tired from the big steps (some of which they had to help me with just to climb over the rocks), hiking to Isolation Lake was mostly out of the question. And it was completely absolutely out of the question if this lake wasn’t within a few degrees of the required ice mile temperature of 41F or below. I held my breath, took the measurement and it was a very disappointing warm 49F. It teetered to 50F on a couple of occasions and we assessed the likelihood of the other lakes being 10 degrees cooler, it just wasn’t going to happen so we called the ice mile off, which was again disappointing, yet a bit of relief considering how tired I was from the hiking.
We spent the afternoon swimming, yes ALL of us swimming, under the sunshine in the Enchantments sipping hot cocoa and warming ourselves in the sun (we got very lucky with weather this late in the season as the first snowstorm hit less than 24-hours later). We ate lunch, shared stories, and that’s where I remembered the phrase, “always play tennis with players who are better than you.”
This phrase hadn’t popped into my mind for over a year until I found myself sitting on a foil mat with Yannick, watching Gleb swim, wondering where the marshmallows in my hot cocoa went under a full sky of sunshine. Then it hit me. I couldn’t have made it without these two men. And when I say I couldn’t, I really think that was true. They are better at hiking than me in every way, barely breaking a sweat, making it look easy. I chose them because they were better. I needed to be with people better than me.
Yannick and I have supported each other in the past with ultra-endurance events, I trust him in a different way than other friends and teammates because I know he truly knows and gets it. He gave up his time, his speed on the trail, his abilities to help me achieve something that put me to tears some nights because I thought I wasn’t good enough and foolish for trying. He believed I could do it when I had absolutely zero confidence in myself and he was right, I could and did do it.
Gleb, someone I only met earlier this year, became someone I could quickly trust and count on to take care of me, protect me, and keep me safe. I pride myself in being able to do things on my own, not to need others, and rely solely on my abilities. Gleb took time away from his schedule on many occasions to help me with packing, supplies, and training hikes. He made me think and for the first time since I can remember, while I didn’t need anyone to help me, protect me or make me feel safe, I wanted someone to make me feel I needed those things and he was that person. The difference between a need and a want is indescribable and he shifted my perspective into allowing me to feel in the mountains versus just being there.
Both of these people are better than me at their respective sport, at hiking, and watching them enjoy something I love, watching them enjoy the cold-water made me so full and happy I could have made my own alpine lake with the flood of tears from my heart. I really didn’t think I was going to make it and training with people you trust, that are better than you, all I can think about is how much this trip meant to me in growing as a person, growing my self-confidence in things that are outside my comfort zone, growing friendships and trust for others.
This hike is far from the most challenging for a lot, for me it was really hard, and I got to share it with two amazing men who built me up and made me a better person. In the end, from my perspective, this trip had nothing to do with hiking or swimming, but spending time with people who you care about, who you respect, who you can share time with in challenging situations, and who can help you to grow as a person. The three of us spent three days in the forest, in the mountains, in lakes and rivers in one of the most beautiful parts of the world. It’s moments like this, human interaction and connection with nature, that remind me how important it is to be there for people, to support people, and to be kind to the earth. There’s a new lake up there filled with love, respect, trust, and kindness. It may take a day to get to and may take a little searching over the ridgeline, but it’s there, unmistakable, and I have Yannick and Gleb to thank for helping me find it.
All my swimmy love,
Melissa, your mountain mermaid