* Intermission intermission….
** I spent a huge amount of the swim thinking this…..
I have never finished a swim and immediately wanted to burst into tears, but when I got out after eight hours swimming the 14.7 km length of Lake Annecy, I literally sat with my head in my hands, almost crying with relief that it was over. It was not meant to be like that, and I should stress that my tearfulness was nothing to do with John Coningham-Rolls and his colleagues at SwimQuest, organisers of and support for the swim, who were magnificent in every way. It was, instead, my own fault, the result of preparing for the longest swim of my life and getting it, if not exactly tragically wrong, then certainly not triumphantly right. This, in case you find yourself preparing for your own big challenge, is my account of what I could have done better; the list of Things I Wish I Had Done.
- Be completely, even brutally, honest, both with yourself and with other people. Two years ago my chum Ruth and I discovered that we swim at pretty much the same pace. One of the great joys of outdoor swimming is the way one can, if one wishes, find a swimming buddy, someone who enjoys the same sort of swimming as you, alleviating the boredom if you’re training and doubling the enjoyment when you’re taking on a big swim. After a 5 km swim down Lake Bohinj in Slovenia when we cruised together the whole way, Ruth and I decided to take on the challenge of Lake Annecy in tandem, and during the spring we trained together frequently, swimming at the same pace up and down the beautiful Olympic sized pool at Crystal Palace for hours on end.
This would have been fine for the swim itself had we been swimming, as in training and in Bohinj, in swimsuits alone. Unfortunately Lake Annecy has a water temperature in June of 18°, and for a swim which we were happily anticipating would be six hours, we would need to wear some sort of thermal layers. And of course, as soon as you start putting on neoprene or anything similar, you change the way you swim, and thus your speed. In the event, despite efforts to find combinations of wetsuits, swimskins and other items which would keep our speeds complementary, we still ended up swimming at slightly different speeds. Over a swim of a couple of hours it wouldn’t have mattered; over a swim of eight hours, supported by only one boat and therefore having to stay together, it did. In hindsight it would have been much better to have admitted that we might not end up swimming at exactly the same pace and have booked to swim together on the same day with different boats.
- Train for the whole swim, not just the swimming bits. Huh? I hear you say, and I duly clarify. On any long swim, you won’t just be swimming, you’ll also be feeding as well. You hear a lot about this if you’re any sort of marathon swimmer, and with good reason, since feeding, aka the act of taking on board sustenance, is of great importance to the success or failure of a long swim. Ruth and I did a lot of swim training, but not much feed training, which in hindsight was a mistake. Partly this is because of nourishment – if you’re turning your arms over for eight hours (more if you’re doing something like the Channel) in cold or coldish temperatures, your body needs something to keep it going. Most people use carbohydrate drinks, but I preferred not to as I’ve had bad experiences with them upsetting my stomach, so we decided to do the swim on warm Ribena, bananas and jelly babies. I’ve done swims like the Dart 10k on this mix, and it works well for a relatively short swim like that, but for eight hours it wasn’t sufficient. I think I’d have had a lot more energy during the second half of the swim if I’d been taking on a carb drink – there are various kinds, you can test out which ones upset you and which don’t, and I wish I’d done so.
The other issue with not feeding was that we simply hadn’t practiced taking on board decent amounts of liquid whilst in the middle of a swim, and thus accustomed ourselves to the process. Not only did we waste time actually getting over to the boat and grabbing the drinks, but we found getting them down us surprisingly difficult. In the middle of a huge amount of demanding exercise, our bodies wanted to concentrate on the limbs and the cardio/vascular system, not on the digestion, and our stomachs were not happy to have large gulps of Ribena dropped into them quickly. Feeding is something you should practice so that you realise that a bit of discomfort during the process is not an issue in the same way that being a bit cold or a bit tired or a bit freaked out during a swim is not an issue and doesn’t necessarily signal a problem. We didn’t and paid the price in our feeds taking up much more time than they should have, thus holding up the swim.
- Do your research. Specifically, do proper research on the swim, the route, the water temperature and the weather conditions you are likely to encounter, together with the effect these will have on your swim. This does not mean listening to a few friends who did a much shorter swim at a different time of year and tell you enthusiastically how warm, calm, and pretty it is, so that you decide, incorrectly, that you will be swimming in a holiday brochure. I can’t tell you how demoralising it is to find yourself, fifteen minutes into what you anticipate will be a six hour swim, wondering whether you can actually put up with the water conditions. It was entirely my own fault for listening to my mates; if I’d asked SwimQuest or those with more knowledge of local conditions, I would have worked out that it can get windy on the lake leading to a bit of chop and prepared accordingly. Not being an experienced sea swimmer I am not a fan of chop, and it was a real shock when we got into the water at 6 am to find a brisk pre-dawn breeze whipping up the surface into nasty little unpredictable waves that always seemed to smack me in the mouth just when I turned my head to take a breath. Ruth seemed to be coping fine, but I was miserable, to the extent that after twenty minutes I actually stopped and confessed to John “I’m really struggling with the chop”. He gave me two bits of excellent advice: first, to remember that conditions further down the lake might be quite different (they were; as the day grew warmer the wind dropped and the lake became the glassy blue of the holiday pictures), and second, to relax and “swim soft”, rather than fighting the chop, which immediately made things much better. Unfortunately, having that experience right at the beginning of the swim really put me out and after that I could not get out of my head – see point four.
The other moment when I really suffered a mental downturn was when we passed the castle at Duingt. For some unknown reason I’d convinced myself that once past there, it would be a matter of a kilometre or so to the end. Not so – the part of the lake which is the other side of the castle is 5 k long and known as the Petit Lac, although it’s not so bl88dy petit when you have to swim the whole of it, believe me. The demoralising effect of coming past the castle to find a whole other lake in front of me and the finishing point vanishingly distant was horrible – I really did have to dig deep to keep going. So this next bit of advice is one which may be controversial, and it comes down to knowing where you are in terms of the overall swim. Most marathon swimmers strongly recommend just swimming to the next feed, and with good reason – if you do the Channel, say, nobody including your crew and pilot can say with any confidence where you are in the swim until just before you finish, and therefore you have to give up any thoughts of “How long until I can stop?” and just focus on, in the immortal words of the great Freda Streeter, keeping swimming until your tits scrape the sand. However, I’m not planning to do the Channel, and in my long swims I always feel much, much better if I have a vague idea of how close (or far away) I am to the finish, based on the landmarks around me. If I’d planned properly I could have memorised the map of the lake and worked out where I was and how far I had to go at any point, which I think would have been more helpful than constantly wondering where I was and how far I had to go, which drove me more or less bonkers.
- Which brings me to my next, and one of my most important points, mental preparation. Marathon swimmers say with good reason that 90% of any swim is mental rather than physical, and oh my goodness, are they ever right. I had in fact done a certain amount of mental prep during training, including practicing not thinking about “after this swim is finished”, but just accepting that I was, at a given point in time, swimming, and surrendering to that rather than concentrating on how much I’d done and therefore on how soon (or not) it would be over. Using this method I found that I could not only complete six K swims indoors, but actually enjoy them. The problem is, there is a huge difference between a two hour swim and an eight hour swim; I hadn’t done any really long swims since the previous autumn and so was completely unprepared for making the mental leap to the eight hours required. There’s a reason why Channel swimmers have to complete a six hour qualifier; six hours swimming round and round with nothing to think about except the swimming can drive you absolutely nuts, and it’s vital to practice this so that you can work out and get comfortable with ways of un-nutting yourself. This I had not done, and so when I got into a state at the beginning of the swim due to the chop, I had no resources to get myself out of it and therefore had to stay in my head, with my unpleasantly challenging thoughts about how long it was taking, how far it was, how little I was enjoying it, how much I wanted it to be over, and so on and so forth for the whole eight hours. Nightmare! With hindsight, my preparation should have included more longer swims so I could get used to the mental gymnastics involved.
- Enjoyed it. I wish I had enjoyed it more. Unfortunately with all the messing around and worrying and being in my head and so forth, there wasn’t a lot of it I enjoyed at all, which is a real shame given that the lake for most of the swim was absolutely beautiful, the weather once the sun came up and the wind dropped was perfect, and the swim was in fact totally fine, with no moment during which there was any doubt that either Ruth or I could finish it with ease. It was a challenge, sure, but not one which was beyond us, and I wish I’d been able to appreciate it while I was doing it as a lovely experience, rather than afterwards as a learning opportunity.
Having said all that, it was definitely a learning opportunity, a very big one, and as a result I went from thinking in the middle of the lake “I am never, ever, ever, ever doing anything like this ever again, forget it!” to thinking the day after “Hmmmm – how could I do things better next time?” Which is why I’ve written this piece, really – to crystallise my thinking so that I can remember next time – and so that you can learn from my mistakes! Which reminds me, there is one further thing we should have done:
- Thought about the open water P factor (that’s pee, pooh and puke for the uninitiated). Obviously you can’t practice puking, and you DEFINITELY shouldn’t practice any of these in the Lido! But if you can practice peeing whilst swimming along, perhaps in a lake or something, it’s quite a handy trick (there are actually blogs online which tell you how to do it). And whilst I would never recommend practicing ‘releasing the brown trout’ (Openwaterpedia 😉) anywhere there’s anyone else, it might be worth thinking about how you would manage if you did need to do it. Believe me, the middle of a bl88dy big lake is not the place to have a first go at taking off a thermal rash vest and a swimskin whilst in the water. (Pro tip: don’t try to get the rash vest off by grabbing the neck and pulling the whole thing up over your face, you’ll waterboard yourself – I’ve never changed my mind so quickly about the optimum way to remove a garment). And then, of course, you need to practice getting them back on again……. Now that you CAN do in the Lido – and trust me, from bitter personal experience, there is no better way to test the efficiency and effectiveness of your ability to support yourself using only your vertical kick than getting in and out of your wetsuit in the middle of the Lido. Learn from me, and practice this, and everything else, before you need it 😉.