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.

Sunday 7 July 2013

SwimTrek Open Water Swim Coaching Holiday in Mallorca

SwimTrek Open Water Swim Coaching Holiday - Mallorca, June 2013
Having arrived back from my SwimTrek holiday in Mallorca over a week ago, I thought it's high time now to write a summary/ review.

This was the first swimming holiday that I have been on, and I decided to book it after reading the following article in the Guardian newspaper "Top 10 swimming holidays".  The trip was a speciality open water swim coaching holiday, and it was held from the 21st to the 27th June 2013 in Colonia de Sant Jordi, Mallorca.  SwimTrek is one of the leaders in open water swim holidays, and their trip managed to live up to all my expectations.

I have been on organised sports holidays before, such as the Vuelta Sudamerica bicycle trip with Tour d'Afrique.  This was the first sports adventure holiday though where I was not moving from one camp to another night after night, and where it afforded a high degree of comfort rather than feeling much like life on the road.  Travelling from place to place can be fun, but also there can be a time and place for staying in the same hotel for a week, allowing you to do laundry, relax and so on.


Colonia de Sant Jordi is a rather small, quiet town on the Southern coast of Mallorca.  If you are looking for a clubbing holiday then it isn't really the place to go.  That kind of thing you would be better off going to Magaluf for.  If on the other hand you are looking for a swimming holiday, Colonia de Sant Jordi is jam packed full of swimmers.  Part of the reason for that is the presence of the BEST Swim Centre in the town - a mecca for youngsters looking for a gap year that includes a chance to hone their swimming skills.

The group

On Friday 21st I got to meet the rest of the group and the coaches for the first time.  The two coaches on the trip were very experienced coaches.  Glen is from the UK and Kelly is from the US.  Glen is a gadgets man and can talk the hind legs off a donkey if it involves swimming technique or gadgets.  Kelly is both a swimming and water polo coach and is specialised in open water swimming.

The group was formed of 12 swimmers plus the 2 coaches.  Most of the participants were from the UK, with a couple of people from Germany, a couple of people from Eire and myself from Zürich.  I made the mistake of including the 2 girls from Eire under the UK grouping and that is one mistake I wont be making again, as my butt is still sore.

What I was really impressed by, is how well everyone in the group got on.  There were some minor tensions amongst one or two of the people who shared rooms, but other than that everyone got on like a house on fire.  As in any group you always have one or two quiet ones, but once you get them talking it is fine.

Everyone was coming to try and improve their swimming technique, but it seemed I was the only one coming with the boot camp approach in mind.  For most it was a chance to swim but also to relax too.  With my 26k August swim always in the back of my mind, there is not that much time for me to get too relaxed although I did my best.  A mojito or two helped the relaxation process along.

There was even one guy in the group who had successfully summited Everest.  Anyone who has done that gets a lot of respect from me.  He was also training to swim across the English channel as part of a relay team, where swimmers swim for one hour at a time and take it in turns to swim until the channel has been crossed from the English to the French side.

The coaching

The coaching itself was fantastic.  On the first day we did some video analysis of our strokes above and below the water, as well as head on.  That same video analysis was then repeated at the end of the trip to see what improvements we had made.  In general almost everyone made some improvements in terms of maintaining the same speed and managing to reduce their stroke count, or even managing to swim faster whilst reducing their overall stroke count in some cases.

The video analysis revealed that I was wasting huge amounts of power in my stroke.  I was creating lots of white water, windmilling my arms, and generally thrashing.  So throughout the week Kelly and Glen helped me to swim smoother and more efficiently through the water.  It was not a complete success as I am still prone to thrashing through the water, but when I am paying close attention I am able to swim nice and smoothly.  Maybe with some months of practise it will become second nature.

I liked the coaching so much in fact that I persuaded Kelly to come up with a plan to help me prepare for my 26k Rapperswil to Zürich swim on the 4th August.  She will also be coming out to Zürich to kayak alongside me and to give me support and advise, as well as food and water.  In addition I will be joining her in Slovenia to do my mandatory preparation swim for the race.

The swims

A typical day consisted of a morning swim in the sea and then an evening swim in the pool to practise technique drills.  On average we covered from 3 to 4km per day.  The day before last was the day of the long swim, when we did both swims in the sea, stopping only for lunch and a nap on one of the beaches.  I would estimate that the long swim day, most people covered around 5 or 6km, but I chose to continue swimming from the end point of the swim right back to the hotel and probably covered somewhere close to 10km.

Colonia de Sant Jordi has some lovely sandy beaches and lots of little islands, which make for some really interesting swims.  Each sea swim we did was scenic and I loved the fact that we could always see the sea floor.  I always get a little bit nervous swimming over the deep blue and not knowing what is beneath me.  On this trip I didn't have to worry about that at all.

Overall impressions

The trip was a memorable one for me, because of the location, the group, the coaches and the coaching.  This is one trip I would be happy to go on again at some point in order to hone my technique further.  Whilst we were there we stayed at the Hotel Lemar, which was comfortable, with friendly staff, and ideally located right next to the beach.  One hundred metres from the hotel and you are already in the water.  If I had to give a rating out of 10 I would give it 9.

Friday 21 June 2013

Ravishing Raw Food Desserts from Wanbun Ho of Zurich

Peeling, grating, shaping, pressing.  Kneading, cutting, squeezing.  Raw food deserts may take a large amount of work to prepare, but as my friend Wanbun Ho demonstrated at her first raw food desserts product offering on the 1st June in Zurich, they can be well worth the effort.

Why eat raw food deserts you may be asking yourselves.  What is wrong with a good old-fashioned home baked cake?  Nothing at all is wrong is good old-fashioned home baking.  Almost everything is okay in moderation after all, but you cannot beat raw food for the intensity of the flavours and the nutritional content of the food.  Cooking at high temperatures changes the molecular structure of food and some of the flavours are toned down in the process, as well as some of the vitamins and goodness being lost.

What is raw food?

Raw food dishes are prepared with organic, whole food with minimum processing and refinement. No nasty chemicals are used as preservatives, food colours, or flavour enhancers. Only the best goes into your body!

According to

"A raw foods diet consists of unprocessed raw vegan foods that have not been heated above 115 degrees Fahrenheit (46 degrees Celsius). "Raw foodists" believe that foods cooked above this temperature have lost their enzymes and thus a significant amount of their nutritional value and are harmful to the body, whereas uncooked foods provide living enzymes and proper nutrition."

Some purists will not heat the food at all.  Others believe that freezing is an acceptable part of the raw food diet, although some reject this because of the lowered enzyme activity brought about by the freezing process.

The "enzyme" part mentioned above is actually still under debate. The human body produces active enzymes for digestion and other functions, so whether we need "living enzymes" is a different story. It is, however, proven that the process of cooking food - grilling, frying, baking, microwaving - produces various chemicals (called Advanced Glycation End Products, or AGEs) which is the result of interactions between sugar glucose and proteins. These chemicals can promote aging and cause other types of damage to the body. AGEs are made internally. However, it was found that even more amounts are already made in the cooked food people ingest (or from cigarette smoking). Foods from animal sources that were high in protein and lipid content were found to have highest content of AGEs. This point alone could be interesting enough to consider incorporating more raw foods into your diet.

Scott Jurek (7 time 100 mile Western state winner) mentioned in his book “Eat and Run”, that training with a vegan diet afforded him much faster recovery between training sessions and thus he could train for longer.

Wanbun's discovery of raw foods

Wanbun personally discovered raw food whilst training for her first marathon. She would love to explore raw food/vegan diet and sport performance further, and if any of you have done this before, she would love to hear about your experiences!  Feel free to leave a comment below.

My experience of raw foods

This is not the first time that I have come across the concept of following a raw food diet.  Here is an article I wrote back in 2010 after attending a yoga and superfoods workshop in Zurich organised by It is a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's a superfood.  Till the present day I still continue to take raw foods such as chia, maca, bee pollen and goji berries.  They certainly can help to provide you with sustained energy.  The problem I find though, is that most of them do not taste that good.

On that note, this is where I was extremely impressed by the product offering on display at the Biomarkthalle in Niederdorf, Zurich that Wanbun had prepared.  The flavours were simply sumptuous and everything tasted great.  Even now, recalling that first bite of her tiramisu, fudge or cheese cake makes my mouth water.  Normally I do not even like cheese cake, but somehow her cheese cake was very different.

The future of Wanbun's desserts business

Wanbun's initial raw food desserts tasting event on the 1st June was a huge success.  In fact she had even sold out by early afternoon, around 3 hours after opening, surpassing all her previous expectations.

For this reason, her desserts will now be a regular offering at Vitus Biomarkthalle. Wanbun is also constatly experimenting with new recipes here and there, so stay tuned for another dessert tasting day in the future!

Currently the raw food desserts are a hobby for Wanbun, as she also works full time.  Maybe one day in future though she will be able to follow her passion and work full time providing raw food desserts to the people of Zurich and beyond.  Each of her desserts is lovingly prepared and packaged in a way that only someone who really cares about what they do can manage.

If you wish to keep up to date with future events from Wanbun you can check out her website Gourmet Rohkost.

On her website above, Wanbun will shortly be sharing with us her own recipes for making delicious breakfasts using chia seeds, maca, bee pollen and goji berries, in light of the fact that I mentioned to her they do not normally taste very good by themselves.

Kudos to you Wanbun!  Keep up the great work!