The Loneliness of the Long Distance Swimmer

Or 5 ways to stay sane on a solo adventure, even when monsters are following you

They call it Polar madness—the psychological mayhem that grips Arctic and Antarctic explorers after months of boredom, isolation and lack of stimulation. But you don’t need to have Ernest Shackleton’s resume to relate—anyone who’s been on a long solo adventure has probably experienced a similar form of isolation and mental strain. With solitude, comes loneliness. With freedom, comes occasional boredom. And with quiet meditation, comes the realization that you just told a joke to an inanimate object. So how do you keep from losing it when there’s no one to rein you in?

We asked open-water swimmer Kate Greene for advice on how to stay sane on a long-distance swim when the scenery doesn’t change much, and conversation is out of the question. Greene won the 2011 Adventure Swim Contest for her plan to swim across the United States by doing an open-water swim in every state between Tennessee and California.

Greene will have the support of friends and family, but solitude is an inevitable part of long-distance swimming. Your head is down. You can’t see very far. The movements are repetitive to the point of meditation. It’s the stuff of fantasy for those who dream of escaping iPhones and Facebook notifications, but day after day on a flat, unbroken landscape can take a mental toll. Transatlantic swimmer Benoit Lecomte, who plans to swim across the Pacific Ocean this year, put it this way: “You have a very limited stimulus in the water. You cannot say, ‘Tonight I am going to watch a movie,’ or ‘I am going to go out.’ It’ll be like being in jail. I will have lot of time to think about the future.”

When you’re not having heavy thoughts about the future, here are Lecomte and Greene’s tips for occupying your mind and keeping your wits about you on the high seas of adventure:

1. Visualize the journey. Lecomte prepares for the solitude by picturing himself in each step of his epic swim, successfully tackling each problem as it arises. “I’ve been trying to visualize exactly what can happen, and what I should expect, and try to focus on it and figure out a way to deal with it,” he says.

2. Meditate through counting. Some people use mantras, but Greene says she counts strokes between breaths as a way of focusing on her form and zoning out. “When I really get into a rhythm, my mind goes blank,” she says. “It's the only thing I do that actually quiets me completely. That might be why I've found it so addictive.”

3. Underwater Karaoke. “Some people run songs through their heads,” Greene says. “This could be good, too, because it helps you find a rhythm for your stroke. And it should be noted that there's an underwater MP3 player called the SwiMP3—some swimmers swear by it.”

4. Break it down. Visualize your long trek as a series of smaller legs, so the distance doesn’t feel so overwhelming. Greene’s journey has this element built in by nature—she plans to complete 16 open-water swims across 11 states in June. But if your adventure seems like one long, maddening test of endurance, break it down into smaller segments and focus on succeeding with shorter goals.

5. Don’t get psyched out. There’s an episode of the program Radiolab about a cyclist who won the Race Across America after hallucinating monsters were chasing him across the country. Apparently this delirium is common on a long-distance journey—Greene says she spent a long swim in Glacier National Park envisioning her untimely demise by a giant underwater monster. Her advice is to calm down, relax, keep moving and remember that Death by Kraken is exceedingly rare.

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