Counting Trees While Swimming

By Emma Pearson

May 25, 2024

Main Image by Laura Smetsers on Unsplash

17 July 2022

Yesterday I attempted to swim across Lac Léman/Lake Geneva at its widest point – Lausanne on the north shore, in Switzerland, to Evian, famed for its ubiquitous spring water, in France, on the south.

It’s 13 km as the crow flies. And even when the weather is impeccable – as it was yesterday – there is inevitable chop, just because it’s a large body of water.

The crossing… not advertised as a swim on Google Maps, but with bus and ferry from actual start to actual finish. Taking long enough.

I did not complete the swim. I swam over 13 km, but did not complete the swim.

Well after my sense of “Okay – this has been a pretty long swim” (I don’t know the time as I don’t wear a watch when I swim), a patrol boat came by, and the chappy on board crossed his arms to signify “Stop!” I have done enough open water swimming, with safety assured by boats, to understand “language on the water”.

I thought he was kidding.

I was tired. Exhausted even.

But I still thought he was kidding.

I “rouspété’d” (French for “to complain”). I said (in French), “You are kidding, right?” But nope. He said, “you’re out of time”. I pushed back – a bleating whine in my voice – “But we started 30 mins late”. Right back at me, “Yes, but even taking that into account, you’re overdue. We need to close the event”.

Seriously? Me? Out of time? Too slow to finish? So I have to be scooped up?

I know I am not a fast swimmer, but I am steady. I don’t slow down. I go at a solid (if ploddy) rate. And I estimate my time well.


But not here. It turned out that I had been in the water for 6h10. I had thought/hoped I’d be pretty much done at 5 hours, and so allocated myself a start time to complete in 6 hours. But even that was not enough.

Not when there is current – which there is. I don’t know if it’s the Rhone that runs through, but the currents pull you this way and that. I suppose I could have done some research. And I don’t think it would have helped.

Not when there is poor visibility from marker buoy to marker buoy (every 2 kms – simply not enough on a wide expanse of water). (Some swimmers said that the buoys were off course).

Not when the kayak support, (despite their best efforts, I am sure), failed to fully “guide” us – and instead let us sway way too far from the “direct line”. So much so that I totally failed to see the first two buoys, complete with feeding & drinking supplies. I eventually saw the one at 4km but it was about 400m off to my left and I couldn’t be arsed to get myself over there, and asked a kayaker, nearby, if they had water, which they did. But I needed food and electrolytes which they did not have. Possibly leading to bad cramp later on. It took 15 mins or so hanging off the 8km marker buoy and feeding boat for the cramp to pass.

Anyway – I can piss and moan about not finishing.

I can piss and moan at the shame of being too slow (I bleat again – seriously? Moi?!)

I can piss and moan at the “first time post COVID organisation” which was rather lacking in some aspects.

I can piss and moan at the probably too many participants for the organising team. After all, so many people took up open water swimming during COVID-times, and I have been registered for this since 2020… I am sure they just thought they could take more participants. After all, it’s a big body of water. It’s not like a pool where space is limited.

And I can piss and moan at the frustration of leaving this big, classic, open water swim, incomplete. Unfinished business. About 95% complete – at least effort-wise if not distance-wise.

And, truth be told, soon after I got in the boat, and looked around at the other rather sheepish swimmers who’d already been pulled out, I felt okay about it.

I felt relief.

There was no shame. Disappointment, yes (even today still, as I write), but no shame.

What we had done – to have swum almost 12 km as the crow flies, and according to those swimmers with cool Garmin watches that measure open water swimming, nearer 15 km – was pretty damned amazing.

Good enough.

While out in the vast open water, with very little to do except try to stay present, for hour after hour after hour, visualising cramp-soothing energy going into my calves, shins and toes, imagining my joy at safely reaching the other side, having enough time to recite a gazillion blessings over and over, going through all of the reasons I was glad to have Mike and Julia in my life, albeit for not long enough… I also counted trees. One hundred and fifty of them.

I counted to 150 trees, over and over.

For, by the time I started in the water, 150 trees was the number that friends had sponsored me for, had paid to be planted, with Reforest’Action.

I made each tree last for one breath cycle, three arm movements with my alternate breathing.  








To One Hundred and Fifty

In a pool, one arm movement is about a metre. If I swim 100 metres, typically I turn my arms 100 times, or fifty times each. And yes, sometimes, as I am nearing the end of a session, I will count down, say from 200 metres to go. 200-199-198 – here counting per arm movement – and I am almost always bang on.

Yesterday, while I wished that the one hundred and fifty trees across three arm movements, or each breath, would be about 450 metres, I knew that in open water, that would not be the case.

But I counted my 150 trees, on a regular basis – perhaps ten full cycles – while I swam.

Image by Ken Cheung on Unsplash

I’d received such beautiful messages from people – like from Kim, “One beautiful tree per km you swim will be planted. 🌳 So with each km you swim, celebrate that moment….and when it’s hard, remember who you are and your purpose. You’re regenerative and good for our planet 🌍 just like the trees you are birthing with each stroke. Xox all my love and courage.❤️”

Or from Sam, “Yet another heartfelt adventure creating more love in the world. Go you!”

It makes such a difference to know that people are thinking of me, rooting for me. That my efforts – physical, mental, emotional, spiritual – will have longer-lasting benefits than even the enormously arduous 6h10 mins across the sizeable lake.

I contacted those people who had sponsored me to let them know I did not complete…(ya know – in case they wanted their trees back)…. But no – if anything, not completing has led to a greater outpouring of admiration and wows than if I had managed. Or so it feels. I have a lot of friends who know what it feels like to not manage something – even if they typically do manage things, as I have done, till now. I believe it is the first event I have not been able to complete. I don’t give up easily (I can’t remember dropping out of anything other than the occasional orienteering event when I have been convinced that someone has nicked a control I have been looking for – which has indeed happened. And my dad and I had to turn back on climbing Mont Blanc in 2006 because the weather was having a bad day – though I had already been to the top the year before with Mike, so the disappointment that time was not as ginormous).

But I have never been too slow.

Until now.

But trees don’t care. They just want to be planted. We need them to be around, hopefully growing quickly enough to counter some of the shite we have put into the atmosphere. I urge them to grow quickly, and to be strong enough to do some very important work here on planet earth, for a long, long time.

Please trees. Please help. And I am so very sorry.

Thank you.

Meanwhile, heartfelt thanks and gratitude to: creative Sam & Andy, courageous and principled Mary Katherine, sweet, nutty and fruity Medjool, gorgeous Kim, energetic and inspiring Julie & Simon, warm and appreciative David, precious widbud Charlotte, & beautiful and artistic Véronique.

And I know others will have donated and not added their names to the Google Doc – or plan to sponsor in a while. Thank you in advance.

And if you are reading this and think that my 12+ km splash about in the water merits a few trees, please sponsor with Reforest’Action.

If you want me to know about it, please add your name here:

And finally – it was the biggest of pleasures to be met – unexpectedly – at the end by Poli and Megan. I was so tired, so relieved, so grateful, so surprised, so pleased – I promptly burst into tears. It is still so hard to do these kinds of events and figure there will be no-one to greet me. And my tears showed them how important their being there was for me. Thanks so much, Poli and Mops, for ensuring the special treat for me. It made the bittersweetness of not finishing a good bit sweeter.

Sweet Poli – not minding if I smudged her dress with my zinc sunblock

About Emma Pearson

2 thoughts on “Counting Trees While Swimming

  1. You are my hero Emma whether you finished or not.
    Time is relative, success arbitrary. The fact that you swan for trees is beautiful and moving.
    I am in awe of your will power and athletic prowess but most of all I adore your beautiful soul ❤️

  2. So great that Poli and Megan meet you at the end. That is a fabulous surprise.
    Guess what? I count all the time in my endurance events, and my intervals too. Mostly my intervals. It’s a cue to me that the uncomfortableness of the effort will pass. It is temporary. (Not so helpful with big, huge unfixable pain from grief).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *