When endurance athlete Adam Lederer sought out a new long-distance challenge last year, he decided to swim the 9.5-mile length of McPhee Reservoir.
And he did it at night, in rough water.
“I was thinking of some sort of epic ocean swim, then my coach suggested swimming the length of McPhee,” said Lederer, 55, of Cortez. “I have not heard of anyone doing it before. I think it’s a first — if so, I’ll take it.”
After joining the Cortez Masters Swim program last year, his strength and confidence for a long-distance swim grew.
Swim coach Steve Heath and fellow swimmers encouraged him and helped with the training at the Cortez Recreation Center pool and at the lake, often at night.
On Sept. 15, Lederer swam the 9.5-mile route from the Colorado Highway 145 bridge in Dolores to McPhee Dam in 7 hours and 30 minutes.
“Reminiscing about it a year later, I thought it should be heard,” he told The Journal. “For me, swimming the length of it was a celebration of water, a sense of gratitude for a full lake. Trying something new and out of my comfort zone was motivating and fun.”
On a harvest moon night, Lederer ended his shift as a TSA officer at the Cortez Municipal Airport, told his wife of the plan, pulled on a 3mm wet suit and goggles and slipped into the water at Dolores at midnight.
He swam solo, pulling a small swim buoy on a line with a dry bag containing energy bars, water, a cell phone and a lighter in case he needed to self-rescue and build a fire on shore. He did not use a life jacket or fins.
Friend Jimbo Fairley paddleboarded from House Creek to check on him a few miles into the swim and offer encouragement.
“Going paddleboarding the lake in the middle of the night was one of wildest things I’ve done,” Fairley said. “I saw this blinking light in the blackness coming toward me. Adam was swimming head-down, determined, and said he felt good. We chatted, and I went along with him for a little while. I could barely keep up with him on my paddleboard.”
Erin Walker, of Montezuma County Search and Rescue, met him at the dam in a kayak. She asked “Do you need rescue?”
It was not needed. The swim was a success.
Rescue crews were made aware of the event and had a boat, in case needed.
Lederer said he swam at night, figuring winds would be calmer, but the lake was in a rowdy mood thanks to gusty winds.
Swimming from Dolores through the river channel with an occasional beaver was calm, then entering the lake proper he met with choppy water.
“I thought, ‘Oh man, this is going to be tough,’” Lederer said. “I was never nervous that I couldn’t do it, though. I entered a trancelike state, and the endorphins kicked in.”
A GPS Strava device that tracked his movement showed he kept a true line the whole way, swimming in the middle of the lake.
“In open water swims, you look up every 6 strokes. I used the cliffs illuminated by the moonlight as visuals to judge where I was.”
During training sessions, Lederer swam 3-mile and 5-mile sessions in the lake and practiced keeping a straight line. “Practicing with my masters swim crew was a big part of my motivation,” he said.
The swim was inspiring, beautiful and a bit surreal, he said. At one point, some sort of bird was flapping and hovering above him. His thoughts drifted to the canyons below him and the Ancestral Puebloan settlements now under water.
He stopped a few times to rest on his buoy, and worked hard to keep up the pace.
“I knew I had to make time to meet Erin at the dam or they would get worried,” Lederer said. “It was farther than I thought, and it became a bit of a slow slog at the end.”
When he climbed out at McPhee Dam in the morning, nobody was there, and the weather was cold. It was actually warmer to wait in the water.
When Walker arrived with a friend, he realized that part of the plan was not fully worked out. There was no room in the kayak.
Lederer, a perpetual optimist, wasn’t fazed. He stayed in the water, held onto the kayak, and kicked as the kayakers paddled to Dry Creek two hours away, where a vehicle and dry clothes were waiting.
Lederer is known for his adventure streak.
He has run the Leadville 100, made an attempt to climb Denali Peak in Alaska, and routinely takes epic mountain bike and ski trips.
“I love moving through landscapes for long distances on self-support. The physical and mental challenges are energizing,” he said. “To swim long distance was a different landscape than I’m used to. That, and doing it on my local lake, made it really special.”