Saturday, 31 August 2013

26.4km Swim Completed - Boom Boom Pow

Rapperswil to Zurich marathon swim

Dear FatToFit followers,

I am pleased to announce that on the 4th August 2013, I successfully completed the 26.4km Rapperswil to Zürich Marathon Swim, organised by the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team.

Atypical for myself, I kept mentions of the swim on my blog to a minimum, as I had left the training rather till the last minute and was not sure whether I would be able to complete the distance.  In fact prior to my open water swim training camp in Mallorca from the 21st to the 27th June, I had never swum more than 5km in one go.

In a rather panicked state I asked one of the coaches on the Mallorca SwimTrek trip if she would mind coaching me to success.  Online coaching seemed to be a good solution, due to her and my rather busy schedules.  Whilst some people struggle with following a plan in the physical absence of a monitor, I can be extremely self disciplined (when I want to be), and can follow a plan to the letter if I believe that it is in my best interests to do so.

So with a rather open mind, I prepared to receive her plan for the Monday following the trip, and to get well and truly stuck in.  After all she only had 5 weeks before the race to get me in peak endurance swimming condition, and that needed to include a tapering period.

I would be lying if I told you that her plan was easy to follow.  Most days I woke up at 5am in order to get to the pool by 6am when it opened.  Then I would try to get in the long workout (anything up to 5km), and still get to work on time at 9am.  Typically the days included 2 workouts so that meant going to the pool again at lunchtime.

You may ask why I was not doing the long swims in the evening.  Well in typical Paul style, I was trying to keep up with all my other activities too, like Toastmasters, weekly tango lessons, running club, Pilates and socialising.  After a few weeks I realised that I could not do everything and had to drop the running club for a while.

It was hard getting through the working day without falling asleep at my desk, and thank goodness that UBS has a relaxation/ sleeping room, which allowed me to take short, power naps during the day.  After all, I was doing more or less the kind of distance that a professional swimmer might do on a daily basis, even if it was only like that for a few weeks.  I also had to up my food intake in order to give my body what it needed to repair itself, along with a few more hours sleep each night.

Long swims took place on the weekend.  On the 11th July I did a 4 hour swim in the Türlersee near Zürich.  My running coach came along and swam part of that with me to keep me motivated.  I guesstimate that I covered 11km.  Then the following weekend I went to Lake Bohinj in Slovenia to join my coach for a long swim.  She was kayaking alongside me for part of the way, and I covered 18km in around 6.5 hours.  After doing the 18km swim in Slovenia I went into a tapering phase, but mentally that swim really helped me to realise that the Rapperswil to Zürich swim was going to be possible for me.

Commonly issued advice is that you should be capable of swimming or running as far as one day as you can swim in one week of your regular training.  That does not mean to say that just because one week you swim 26.6km, the next week you can go out and swim 26.4km in a day.  However, if your average weekly training distance is 26.4km and you have kept this up for consecutive weeks, then 26.4km in a day should theoretically be possible.  You should also have covered around 2/3 of the total distance in one or two pre-race swims, to get used to the distance both physically and mentally.

Looking at the above piece of advice I was definitely in with a chance, as my long swim of 18km was more than 2/3 of 26.4km and I had 3 weeks of training at over 26.4km per week.  In fact one week was well over 30km.

In the week leading up to the marathon swim we were informed that the lake temperature was over 24.5C, which meant wetsuits were going to be banned for safety reasons (in order to prevent overheating).  Upon hearing this I went into panic.  My body was rather devoid of fat, and after tiredness sets in, my legs and hips tend to sink.  When your legs and hips sink you have the profile of a brick instead of a bullet, and your pace slows to a crawl, no pun intended.

My coach tried to rid my mind of all the self doubt and told me that I would manage it no matter what, and instead of thinking how much harder it would be without a wetsuit, to think how much easier it would be to be able to stay cool in a pair of swimming trunks rather than overheating in a wetsuit.  I tried to absorb her words, and would not allow that self doubt to return.

The day before the swim we had to attend a pre race briefing in Rapperswil, and there we were informed that due to the possibility of rain, thunderstorms and overcast skies, despite the lake being a fraction over 24.5C it was possible that it might cool the day of the race.  So they left it up to us whether we wanted to wear wetsuits or not.  For me it was clear, I was going to wear one.  I knew that if I started off in a wetsuit and it got too hot, I could take it off whilst in the water without needing to get out or to touch the kayak (which would lead to a disqualification).  The other way round however i.e. putting a wetsuit on whilst in the water, would be practically impossible.

The night before the race, my coach (who was also my escort kayak paddler) and I stayed in Rapperswil so that we would be guaranteed a good night's sleep.  Bright and early we woke up, had a big hearty breakfast and prepared for the 7am start.

The escort boats/ kayaks had to be clear of the start in order to allow the swimmers to leave unhindered, so the first challenge was trying to find your escort boat amongst the sprawling mass.  Kelly had told me not to worry about finding her, that she would find me.  So when the start was called I set off at a nice steady pace, sighting the direction of Zürich every 10 strokes or so.  I soon realised that swimming in a straight line was not my forte.  One minute I was heading off to the right and then to the left and I couldn't wait to find Kelly and to be able to simply follow the kayak all the way, rather than worrying about swimming in a straight line.  I noticed her alongside me after around 15 minutes or so, and breathed a sigh of relief.

Each ultra endurance athlete has their own take on whether or not to take painkillers before/ during a race, but Kelly had advised me to take a few Ibuprofen every now and again, and after my experience in the Marathon des Sables of trying to stay off painkillers and then paying for it later (through mental exhaustion from dealing with the pain), I decided to take her advice.  I also had a headache so the Ibuprofen helped with that too.

Not being allowed to touch the boat, for feeding and drinking Kelly came up with an improvised scoop system that allowed her to pass me things and then scoop them out of the water when I had finished with them.  Feeding/ drinking was every 45 minutes or whenever I felt like I needed an extra boost.  For drinking I started with isotonic drinks and then later moved to plain water.  For feeding I used mostly energy gels but also some banana, nuts and dried apricots.

The day before the race Kelly had told me that there would be moments during the race when I would not want to continue, when my mental toughness would be tested to the limit, when I would hate her just for being part of the whole torturous experience.  I can honestly say though that there were no moments at all when I truly felt like giving up.

My toughest moment came when there was a thunderstorm nearby, the warning lights in the harbours started flashing and the lake became very choppy.  Each time I came up to breathe I was slapped in the face by a wave.  If the lights change from slow flashes to fast flashes it means all swimmers and boats must exit the water, and the race is abandoned.  After 5 hours of swimming I was dreading that the race would be abandoned.  The thunderstorm soon passed though and the lake returned to normal.

In general though, I was only thinking of how amazing it would be to arrive at the finish, where I knew there would be some friends and colleagues waiting for me, as well as the soon to be love of my life.  Having been through the week long Marathon des Sables, dealing with pain day after day, without proper nutrition and rest, a one day event always seemed very manageable in comparison.  There were moments when I thought to myself, if I managed to complete the Marathon des Sables then for sure I can manage to complete this one day swim, despite not having a particularly efficient stroke.  I just have to keep putting one hand in front of the other and pulling myself through the water, along with kicking a little.  I have spent too much time training for this to give up now.

My ideal time to finish the race would have been around 9.5 hours, but looking at my watch I soon realised it would take a little longer than this.  Kelly had predicted around 10 hours.  I had not really been pushing the pace at all, as rather than racing and risking to run out of steam and fail, I had decided I just needed to go slow and steady and to complete it.  After I passed 20km I started to increase the pace though, as I still had plenty of energy left and wanted to improve my time slightly.

I could see the finish from about 4km away, and it looked deceptively close.  Kelly warned me not to start sprinting and that it was still well over an hour away.  I had already learnt the lesson of falsely perceived distances whilst crossing the Bolivian salt flats the other year by bicycle.  On the salt flats 35km can seem like it is just around the corner, yet one hour later you still find yourself cycling towards the same landmark.  In the water it is rather the same.  So I paced myself and made good steady progress towards the finish at Badi Tiefenbrunnen.

In the final hundred metres I put on a bit of a sprint and then I elatedly climbed up the steps to receive my finisher's medal.  My time was 10 hours and 8 minutes.  Success!  I had done it!  There is nothing like the feeling of success from good, hard graft.

Thanks to Kelly for coaching me and for kayaking alongside me, thanks to my friends and colleagues for coming to join me and to share in my special moment and thanks to all of you for reading my blog and supporting me in my adventures.


  1. Great to finally read the report Paul! Good on you, a fantastic achievement, and well done to Kelly too! Pat

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