(Previously published in The Biltmore Beacon in August 2015)
By Whitney Cooper
For Dr. Chris Lechner of Asheville, falling asleep on a paddleboard on open water after 10 plus hours of swimming was just one of the many challenges he faced during his recent adventure across Lake Michigan.
At nighttime it was pitch black, and no shoreline or moonlight was in sight to guide his eyes — all alone, with only the sounds of waves to keep him company.
Lechner found himself in this very spot on the evening of Aug. 8 — the day he set out to brave the 58-60-degree open water of Lake Michigan and swim from Wind Point Lighthouse to Big Red Lighthouse.
“I viewed this like my water version of climbing Mount Everest,” Lechner said recently, after returning to Michigan on Aug. 10. “People pick Everest because it is beautiful, large, and bigger than life — and to me, Lake Michigan is all of those things. As a child driving along Lake Michigan, I would look out at the deep, dark water and thought ‘Could there be anything bigger or badder than that?’…the water seemed so big and so dark and somewhat threatening – if I wanted to push it, I realized this was a great place to do it.”
A self-described adventurer, Lechner conceived the adventure almost two years ago, and then amped up his planning during a swim he did across Lake Fontana in 2014 with local long-distance champion, and training partner, Jim “Jimbo” Cottam in 2014.
“I sort of started the dream a couple of years ago, and when Jimbo and I swam across Lake Fontana last year for Hope Chest for Women. I didn’t realize I could do that much swimming, mentally or physically — but I found that something happens, at least to me, around six miles in. I really relax and find peace — and I realized I could do it,” Lechner said.
While Lechner has been swimming competitively for the past 14 years, a lot of the physical and mental preparation for the journey began last year when he started attending yoga classes at Asheville Community Yoga (ACY).
“Yoga was very important. I met Michael Greenfield of ACY as a patient and he invited me to come to do men’s yoga. I went to support a friend of mine, and then found that ‘Wow, this is good for me.’ I think breathing is the most beneficial aspect of yoga in terms of the swim — it helped calm me through the three part breath in swimming — and the stretching and flexibility built a lot of core that I didn’t have. I was actually visualizing my stroke while I was in yoga to see the corollary,” said Lechner.
As he prepared for the personal journey across the lake, Lechner was able to partner his swim with a fundraiser for ACY to help raise money for building expansion campaign.
While Lechner had the support of ACY, family, and friends like Cottam, to prepare him for the swim, he opted to do the 80 mile trek without a physical support crew.
“I think, for me, swimming is so personal. I’ve been swimming alone my whole life — it’s meditational and personal… I’m doing this to be by myself because the adventure is dealing with the unknown and having to use my own ingenuity and my own resources. Though there’s nothing further from the truth that this was a solo swim — I had people connected and totally on board with what I was doing and I was extremely aware of that and that made it more powerful for me — Jimbo, my wife, my children, and the entire yoga center,” said Lechner.
On Aug. 8, Lechner began his solo journey in Racine, Wisconsin and headed east. Outfitted in a wet suit, goggles with GPS navigation and LED directional indicators, and a paddleboard that carried food, a satellite phone, a small camp stove to heat free-dried meals, and a few other essential items — he swam in four hour cycles, taking periodic breaks to rehydrate and refuel with tuna, peanut butter, and other light snacks.
“He had a really neat customized paddleboard that he towed behind him and he would get out and rest on it every few hours, and then try to take little cat naps on it, and he had some food with him and a camp stove basically that he would set up on the paddle board,” said training partner Cottam.
As Lechner neared the end of his journey, though — getting within a mile of shore from his goal — he radioed in for assistance due to a combination of poor weather conditions, considerable currents, fatigue, and hallucinations due to lack of sleep.
“I think he was out on the water for 62 hours. He got in on Saturday morning around sunrise, and got out of the water somewhere around 10 o’clock on Monday night. He got within a mile of the shore and then the current kept sweeping him down the beach — the wind had picked up, the waves had picked up, and he was a bit fatigued disoriented, too. The last three or four hours of the whole adventure were a little nerve-wracking,” said Cottam.
In lieu of the final mile, the swim was no small achievement.
“It takes a special person to want to do something like that without any support crew around you. He was able to make contact via the phone, and we could watch him via GPS — but think about being 40 miles out in the middle of a body of water and if something goes wrong, there’s no one right there to snatch you up. Even had there been a boat, I can’t not imagine making it. It’s an incredible feat that he performed,” said Cottam.
While Lechner described his experience as the most vulnerable he had felt in his entire life, the balance of the journey was connecting with the lake, itself.
“What I saw I’ll always cherish — that I got to swim and look out and see the purest, bluest water as far I could see in all directions with no boats,” Lechner said. “It was a very personal challenge and adventure. There’s a darkness that is this big, big body of water and I wondered ‘Can I cope with it?’ And I know I can, now.”
*Note: The Biltmore Beacon will periodically share older feature stories as a “Beacon Flashback” to spotlight unique and interesting stories that were written published over the years.