Going the distance in the water.
Brian Hayes Patterson / brianhayesphotography.com
Jamie Patrick does not go easy on himself. Last summer, he swam the length of Lake Tahoe. Twice. Forty-four miles nonstop. It took 25 hours and 26 minutes. Then, he spent two and a half days in the hospital. This guy is extreme.
Growing up in Orinda, Patrick swam with the Miramonte Gators’ swim team (where he was coached for a year by U.S. Olympic swimmer Matt Biondi), Lamorinda Aquatics, Miramonte High, and at the University of Hawaii, where he had a full-ride swimming scholarship.
Soon after graduating, he metamorphosed from a sensible swimmer into an extreme one. It began with weekend triathlons and continued with epic endurance events such as the Virginia Triple Ironman and Hawaii’s Ultraman World Championships. “I was never the fastest, but I seemed to be able to go for a long time,” says Patrick, now a Lafayette resident. “I got the long-distance itch.”
Today, at age 40, Patrick is a self-proclaimed ultraswimmer: a marathon swimmer with a stubborn compulsion to do stuff nobody has ever done. Why? He’s not sure. He says he’s naturally impatient. And that these aquatic feats focus his mind and order his chaos. “When I’m swimming and training to go longer distances, I’m at peace,” he says. “I love the tests on my mental and physical side. They inspire me.”
He is the first person ever to complete the Tahoe double crossing. Now, Patrick has set his sights on a new record: the longest swim without a wet suit down the Sacramento River—all 180 miles of it (although he only has to go 153 miles to set the record). “Nobody’s done it before, so I’m excited to be the first,” he says. “I’m the kind of person who needs to one-up myself.”
On August 18 [UPDATE: Now August 19], Patrick will begin his colossal journey. With the support of 14 crew members, including a doctor, he will swim nonstop, day and night, for about 60 hours, navigating 137 river bends, and pausing only to eat, albeit every 20 minutes. “I can’t touch the boat. I can’t stand up. I can’t have any assistance,” he says. “So, eating becomes a chore in itself.”
Nutrition is a big deal. Last year, insufficient protein intake almost cost Patrick his Tahoe record and hospitalized him once he reached dry land. To avoid having to be replenished once again with 14 bags of IV fluid, he is working with Lance Armstrong’s nutritionist, Stacy Sims. “I’m going to be swimming two and a half times the duration of the Tahoe swim, so my nutrition must be dialed in,” he says.
Food is one thing. Staying awake for 60 hours is another. And Patrick says he’s not a night person. “I’m the kind of guy that goes to bed at 8:30,” he says. “I don’t think I’ve ever stayed up [all night] two nights. So, it’s going to be a big struggle for me.”
Physical exhaustion aside, the mind-numbing monotony of marathon swims can make the sanest person crack. While long-distance runners have visual stimulation to keep them going (they’re looking at constantly changing surroundings), swimmers have no view. “You’re looking at blue, gray, or black the whole time,” says Patrick. “The visual side is in your head, and that can drive you crazy.”
One psychological trick that will accompany Patrick as he freestyles his way downriver is playing letter and number games in his head. “When you do that kind of stuff, you can take yourself away from the pain and monotony,” says Patrick, who is working with a sports psychologist. “And when it really hurts bad, forcing a smile on your face can kick you out of a low point.”
To prepare, Patrick will be training 20 hours a week. Luckily, before he goes to work—as sales manager at his family’s office supply company, Patrick & Co., in San Francisco—he can roll out of bed and swim in his garage, literally, because he has an Endless Pool. Just 14-by-7 feet, the pool has a countercurrent run by a hydraulic motor, allowing boundless swimming on the spot. “It’s my greatest training tool,” says Patrick, whose sponsors include Endless Pool. “I can change the water temperature and swim against varying currents. It’s even got a mirror on the bottom so I can correct my stroke.”
And he can flip the lights off in the garage and practice night swimming.
Not surprisingly, swimming Jamie Patrick–style is expensive. The Sacramento River swim will cost around $15,000 for crew, transport, and other support, and is funded by numerous sponsors, as well as Patrick himself. Through the event, he is also raising awareness and money for Buena Vista Auxiliary, which runs a literacy program for elementary school children in Contra Costa County.
Patrick talks a lot about taking fear and making it into fuel. Is he afraid? “Fear is a weird thing,” he says. “Do I get fearful five minutes before I’m about to start these things? Yeah. But I almost enjoy that. I don’t want to start something that’s easy. I want to start something that’s going to take me out of my comfort zone. It’s so much more fulfilling than just going after the things you know you can do.”
Go to jamiepatrick.com to follow Patrick’s progress live, including his distance, speed, and heart rate, as he swims the Sacramento River, starting on August 18 [UPDATE: Now August 19].