When I stopped swimming to poke my head above the huge waves, I was met with a horrifying sight: nothing. No boats, no other swimmers.
As I floated to the crest of another six-foot swell, I could see the starting line and the crowds of people cheering. What am I doing here? Am I really going to do this?
With another wave, they disappeared and I decided. I swam on.
At the Hellespont, four miles of water separate Europe from Asia. In October, my challenge was to swim it.
I have pushed my body to the limit more than a few times. I’ve completed an Ironman triathlon, run a marathon in Antarctica and summited a 20,305 foot tall mountain in the Nepal Himalayas. I’ve been in two war zones, was kidnapped in Kathmandu as a 16-year-old, and found myself face-to-face with a great white shark in South Africa. But the Hellespont swim linked survival to fitness more closely than any of these experiences.
The Hellespont swim race is an annual event held in the Turkish resort town of Canakkale, located on the banks of the Hellespont just miles from the ruins of ancient Troy.
The Cannakale Rotary Club, the race organizer, hosted a cocktail party on the eve of the race. Amid all of the hype was a bit of unwelcome news — forecasters predicted winds gusting more than 30 knots and seas as high as six feet. The organizer of the foreign contingent warned us, “If you have never swam in conditions like these, DO NOT SWIM TOMORROW.”
I think we all were waiting for someone to step up and decide the race was off. But no one was willing to let go of their hope after months of training and a trip halfway around the world.
On the day of the race, the weather was even worse than the forecast. The waves were enormous. Large swells and gusting wind kicked the surface into a frenzied mess of white-water and chop. I had never been in conditions like these in a boat, much less as a swimmer.
A long concrete dock served as the starting area for the swim. On one side were the foreign swimmers in their red caps, on the other, the Turks wearing yellow swim caps.
Were we really going to do this? I jumped in place and flapped my arms trying to stay loose. I looked out across the churning sea, If I were there alone, I would never consider it possible to swim the strait in this weather.
At the sound of the starting gun we filed into the water like a mass of sheep herded to walk the plank. I leapt from the dock and plunged into the churning water below. About 50 swimmers abandoned the race within the first few hundred feet, wisely deciding to call it a day.
I swam hard and pushed to the front of the pack. When I turned my head to breathe, a wave would sometimes crash over my head, leaving me with a lungful of sea water. After a few minutes I learned to keep my mouth shut for a split second before I inhaled to be sure I was opening my mouth to air.
This is when I stopped to take my bearings. I knew that from this point on, my life was in my own hands.
With my breathing technique, I was able to press on without inhaling so much water, and I found a way of swimming that didn’t fight the waves—there was a rhythm to the swells that I could match with my stroke. Soon the swimming began to feel effortless and my mind drew inward. I was staring down into the dark blue void of the strait’s deep waters, my concentration only interrupted when I would pop my head up to check my bearing on the opposite shore.
I breathed to my right, in the lee of the wind and waves and continued to navigate by keeping the sun in the same spot every time I took a breath. I had no concept of time. I was fully immersed in my thoughts and in the overwhelming physical sensations.
I’ve felt this way before in the mountains. When a sensory experience overcomes you, the body’s suffering registers on an intellectual level, but you remain unaffected. You feel your true strength, and your imagined limits for your body are now only at the threshold of what you can endure.
The end of the race happened in an instant. One moment the shore seemed impossibly far away, and the next I could see individual people walking along the seawall of the port in front of me.
Other swimmers began to appear out of the murk. First one, then another, and then suddenly I was in a group of about a half-dozen bodies churning for the finish. The shore was lined with thousands of spectators and the energy of the finish was amazing. The deep blue void gave way to the rising sea floor. Ten strokes, five, two… I put my feet down on the ground and stood up with a wobble as blood rushed out of my pumped-up upper body muscles and back into my legs. The lifeguards waiting on the finish ramp patted me on the back, and I climbed up the ramp and out of the water.
I was done.
In the end, more than half of the swimmers failed to reach the finish and had to be rescued by the motley collection of fishing vessels that served as our lifeboats.
That night we all had more than a few beers in celebration. The challenge of the experience and the final realization of success fused into an overwhelming desire to relate the experience to others.
The greatest moments in life are when you ignore the risk of failure and test yourself where success is not guaranteed, or maybe not even likely. That is when you discover an inner strength long dormant and ignored.
Jon Krakauer said: “It’s not always necessary to be strong, but to feel strong.”
I felt strong the day I swam from Europe to Asia.