5 Lessons Marathon Swimming has Taught Me about Conscious Leadership

marathon swimming

On Monday, I completed a new marathon swim, The Crazy 8, with my friend and mentor, Erika Gliebe. This nine-mile swim loops around Angel Island and Alcatraz in a figure 8 shape. It’s a crazy swim because it involves timing multiple changing tides and dodging cargo ships and oil tankers in the SF Bay channels. It’s challenging and a bit crazy–hence the name–, but we made it a reality on Monday.

marathon swimming

I had the idea for the swim and pitched it to Pacific Open Water Swim Co. They liked the idea, then mapped out the tides and gave me the date to do it. I invited my friend Erika, who has taken me under her wing over the past few years and taught me a great deal about marathon swimming. I told her the date, but the route was a secret. She liked the idea and signed on.

The marathon swims I’d previously done have always taught me something deep and valuable: I’ve learned a lot about my resilience, mental strength, and fortitude. Tandem swimming is another animal, however. As I look back, it was an amazing lesson in Conscious Leadership. Here are the top 5 things I learned from completing The Crazy 8:

1.  Know who is boss-  I initiated the swim, chose the support team, and made the call on the tides (with the help of Pacific Open Water Swim Co). Erika was the real boss once we were ‘toes in’ the water. She’s more experienced, and her pace is faster than mine (for now!).  For this to succeed, I had to step back and follow. LESSON: A conscious leader knows when to make a call and get out of the way. 

 2. Put the ego aside– Timing the tides for this particular swim was going to be tricky: not to mention avoiding interference from outbound cargo ships! We had to play Tetris with the tankers and tides to complete this swim. This swim hadn’t been officially recorded before, and because Erika was the stronger swimmer, there were variables we would have to deal with along the way. Vitally important to me were 1) we have fun and 2) we try our hardest to complete the swim. If my pace didn’t match the tides, I made it clear that I wanted out of the water so Erika could finish.  The tides wait for no one, and the stronger swimmer prevails. LESSONA conscious leader keeps laser-focused on the objective goal and is not hung up about who gets us there. 

3. Communication is key- Erika and I have swum together at least 100 swims, many of them for several hours. Erika breathes to her right, and I breathe to my left. We have a history of bumping into each other, a disqualifying act in marathon swimming. I suggested I stay on her right, and she stays on my left, so we always have our eyes on one another. We could always see where our partner was, and after feeds (every 30 minutes), we knew which position to take. Communicating every knowable detail upfront helped us eliminate wasted time and effort on dithering at the moment. LESSON: A conscious leader communicates clearly and sticks to the plan.

4. Tap into your heart- We suddenly lost a mutual friend and training buddy, Aaron Burby, last month. This had been devastating. We trained together weekly, and his absence is still felt daily. Erika and I chose to swim in his honor. We wore matching orange goggles like the ones he would wear, and Erika even had her toes painted orange! During two make-or-break moments, I thought of Aaron. I dug deep and tapped into something beyond me for support, and it came through, and we overcame the obstacle! LESSON: Conscious leadership requires faith in something beyond yourself. Whatever that something looks like, figure it out and hold it closely. This will be your life jacket for when you need it most. 

marathon swimming

5. Keep your expectations in check– The pressure of a desired outcome can discolor the present moment. Of course, I want to complete the swim. But I’ve noticed that when I go into a challenge with the mindset of “let’s see what happens” instead of “this must happen,” I can enjoy the process and get more out of the experience. The re-framed bar allows me to take the pressure off, enjoy the ride and arrive at the outcome with more magnanimity. LESSON: Completion alone isn’t necessarily success, but experience is. 

Erika and I shared the leadership, living the principles above, and the victory of completion (Erika came in at 4 hr, 15 min, and I came in at 4hr, 16 min). She taught me everything I know and allowed me to be my leader. I look forward to using these leadership tools as I guide our next Office Yoga Teacher Training team this fall. 


  1. Congratulations, Maryam, on completing this awesome swim milestone! I am so sorry about your friend, Aaron. I think we met him at your birthday and I’m sending you a hug in this time of grief. Take care and hope to see you soon.


Leave a Reply

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