Swimming for 12 Kilometers
Swimming always gave me anxiety.
Everyone can kind of do it, many people hate it, and very few are able to do it properly.
In my still on-going streak of doing things I had never thought I could, a new and very crazy event popped up in my calendar. Cologne12 — mainly a Swim & Run event, also known as triathlon for people without bikes — offers two special additional competitions. A 6 kilometer swim and the name-giving 12 kilometer swim.
Up until about two years ago, I couldn’t really swim. I was only able to do breaststrokes and prevent drowning. I did a few triathlons, but always came out of the water as one of the last few sad people. It didn’t matter very much to me, but when I signed up for Ironman Copenhagen 2015, I thought that it was time to learn how to freestyle swim efficiently.
I put some effort into it and saw results very quickly. That made me change my perception of the sport, I had come to find it to be rather enjoyable. Quite similar to the experience Tim Ferriss (author of The 4-Hour Workweek) had.
When I eventually jumped into the Copenhagen water to do the Ironman, I was looking forward to it and finished the 3.86 kilometers in 1:17 hours. It was a very nice experience. I wrote about it here. The rest of the race went well, too, but afterwards I got the motivation to further explore the world of open-water swimming.
Turns out, although it’s a small community, there are a lot of very interesting races all over the world. First off and probably most well-known: the crossing of the English channel. 1,619 people have been able to swim the roughly 33 kilometers with strong tides from France to Britain or the other way around. The German equivalent would be the crossing of the Fehmarn Belt, which is just 25 kilometers wide but said to be of similar difficulty to the English channel.
Swimming from Denmark to Germany sounds interesting to me. I found an organization with a terrible website which offers some information about the crossing and helps with achieving this goal. I sent an e-mail to the guy who runs the thing and he nicely gave me lots of information on it, as well as contact to two ladies who could act as mentors to me. Claudia and Anke had both successfully completed the crossing as two of just 6 women ever. And just 19 men have done it so far, every single name appearing on the Wikipedia list. So there’s another attraction to the endeavor: appearing on a Wikipedia page!
Claudia and Anke (also a Challenge Roth finisher) were both very nice to me and helped me a lot with the many questions I had. During the same time, we had a new client at my company teege.me, Silke Nevermann, who coincidently also is a very successful long distance open water swimmer. She helped me very much with lots of questions, too. Quite obviously, one of their first suggestions to me were to get out there and swim as much as possible in the open water. Sign up for many and very long swimming races and see how it goes. So that’s what’s happening now.
The first race of the season I could find was Cologne12. How to train for 12 kilometers of swimming? Get into the pool and count the tiles. To be honest, at first this is so boring! The sense of achievement after completing 4 kilometers for the first time ever, then 5, then 6, makes up for it, though. My hope was that an organized race would take away this tile-counting boringness and replace it with adrenaline.
Off to Cologne!
It’s a nice city, and it’s been a while since I’ve been there, so I was looking forward to it. Coincidentally, my sister was in Cologne on business during that same weekend, so we could spend some time together. On Saturday, June 4th 2016, I arrived at the Fühlinger See, a recreational/leisure area with a modified lake that features a 2 kilometer long straight part, mainly used for rowing races apparently. As expected, everything was rather small. The Swim & Run portion of the event had maybe 300 participants, while the two long distance swimming events maybe had a combined 60 starters. It was going to be a lonely race.
Nutrition-wise, I prepared in the same way I usually do for marathons, because I estimated the time it will take me to swim 12 kilometers to be quite similar to running 42 kilometers. Lots of pasta in the evening, big chocolate muesli in the morning of the race.
Arriving at the premise with plenty of time, I had the chance to walk down the whole of the course, one kilometer down and one back. It was a remarkably boring course, as expected.
Next to the start and next to the turning point there were pontoons which had some supplies like water, coke, cake, iso-drinks and such. A good selection. Volunteers were setting up the things, which I always admire.
The race marshall explained a couple of rules and then mentioned some of today’s participants’ great achievements, like crossing the English Channel, Lake Zurich swim, escape Robben Island, Catalina Channel, and a few more. My own swimming achievements so far: none. Except for the very laughable 3.86 kilometers during the Ironman, of course.
The weather was underwhelming, very grey and with a temperature that felt like there was no temperature at all. A half hour before the start, my friend Kahla and her boyfriend Aljoscha arrived to support me today, because they were in Cologne as well and are very nice people.
Getting into the neoprene wetsuit is a good way to get your circulation going, because it requires strength and stamina. Those suits are supposed to be very tight and the material is not that stretchy. After that, I had the opportunity to position my own nutrition on the pontoon. I had brought a marked box with about 10 hydro energy gels, because they are already mixed with water and thus safe time. In theory.
But that’s it, the race can start!
I’m a bit nervous as I go over to some other pontoons where it would be safe to enter the water.
The water is alright, not too cold. I think it might have even been possible for me to swim without the suit, as about 3 people did. But apparently it’s easier with the buoyancy the neoprene provides, so I probably made the correct decision for my first long distance swim.
Splashing into the water, I immediately realize it’s murky water I’m going to have to spend the next few hours in. A shame! I can’t even see for a meter under water. Everything’s brownish green. Nothing I can do about it now.
I slowly swim towards the start of the race with just a few minutes to spare. While waiting for the starting signal, I chat a bit with a swimmer next to me. He is from Switzerland and plans to do the very popular Lake Zurich swim next year. Hmm, maybe I should look into that, too. This video about Lake Zurich swim perfectly captures the atmosphere right before the start of such a race.
Back to Cologne. The last few minutes go by more quickly than I thought, and we are sent off by a very loud gun shot. I didn’t look, but from the sound of it, it must have been a real gun. A very rare occasion here in peaceful Germany.
Now it begins. Every 250 meters there is a big sign with the distance, so it’s quite easy to see how far you’ve come. It’s still cloudy, so it’s only possible to see the next sign, sometimes the sign after it. Most swimmers are a lot faster than me and take off immediately. I think there are still a few behind me, as I slowly try to find my rhythm. Hard to say, because you can not really see much during the swim. I hope I’m not the last one. Very soon, the field of swimmers stretches over a very long area. I reach the first turn-around after about 20 minutes, which is the pace I had hoped for. On the pontoon next to the turn-around, swimmers must acquire a hair-band, which is strapped around one wrist to help count the 6 rounds of 2 kilometers each.
Back again towards the start now. Another 20 minutes, which means I’m perfectly in my plan. I’m feeling good, and it’s funny to think that by now the Ironman 70.3 (or half distance) swim would have already been over. Here, after just 40 minutes and 18 seconds, I’m just getting started.
On the second round I have to pause for a few seconds to clear out my swimming goggles. It’s very hard to see anything under water, but even quite hard to see things out of the water. The goggles were sold to me as “non-fogging”, but that clearly was a lie. I need to get some more experience on how to deal with this problem, I think. Rolling on my back, I clean out the glasses. That’s a lot better, I can see the 250 meter signs again.
It’s getting harder now, but I think I’m doing quite okay. I manage to swim in almost a straight line, which is easier said than done if you can’t see a lot to the front. At the next turning point, 3 kilometers, I check out the pontoon and have some very hot water from a cup. The sun is doing its work now, in spite of the clouds. Cleaning the goggles again, and back to the start.
After 4 kilometers, I look at my GPS watch, and it says 46:13 minutes for this lap. I was hoping for something closer to 40, like the lap before, and wonder if I just read it wrong with all the fog and sweat on my goggles. Weird. At the pontoon, I have some coke and suddenly hear a familiar voice: Kahla is there and asks if I need anything! I didn’t expect her to be here at the course, so I’m very happy!
Around the buoy again, on to the next lap. By now I’ve done more swimming than the full Ironman requires, and I am still just one third into this race. Quite the challenge!
During this stretch from KM 4 to 5, two swimmers pass me by. Those must be the fastest, and they are apparently one complete lap of 2 kilometers in front of me. I calculate a bit, and it makes sense. A couple hundred meters later, another two come by. It doesn’t feel too good to be overtaken, but at least I get to experience what water drafting means. As with drafting behind another cyclist during bike races, swimming behind another swimmer does basically the same with your body. You get pulled along by physics. I enjoy being very fast for a few hundred meters, up until the point where it required too much strength to keep up. This was a lot more effective than I thought. You can test this in the bath tub, putting in something that floats and putting in your hand close to it, then moving it away from the object. The object will follow the hand. Physics!
As the fast ones leave me, I’m on my own again, trying to make it through this fuzzy water. On the upside, there are absolutely no animals in the water. I hadn’t thought about the possibility before, but jellyfish, for example, could have been a real distraction. Even curious fish might make me uncomfortable. I don’t know, I can’t remember the time I last swam among living things. What seems like a plus, could also be interpreted negatively, though. If there’s no life in the water, how good can the water quality be? Probably not the best ever. It doesn’t taste too unusual, so I think it’s probably fine.
Moving on. For the third time I reach the turning point and receive a coveted hairband for my wrist. As the thoughts wander around during this swim, the outlook for these hairbands becomes quite important, because it’s a measure to prove I’m moving forward. It seems to me I’m slowly losing speed, so having done 5 kilometers feels good. Back to the start. As I reach the end of the third lap, a look at my watch confirms my feeling, it took me 49:00 minutes. The foggy goggles are not lying, I really am getting a lot slower. But why? I don’t exactly feel exhausted yet. My arms are not tired. Everything seems fine so far.
At the start pontoon I’m happy I’ve done 6 kilometers already and get an energy gel out of my special box. They don’t taste so good, but the energy they give will help me. Cleaning out the googles again, as well. Kahla is not here this time. But I still feel good that I’m half-way there. From now on, this is the longest swim I have ever done, so with that positive feeling I move on to the next lap.
All of the 6 kilometer race swimmers have surely already finished. I wonder how long it took the fastest one to win today. There is so much time to let the mind wander around without any kind of external stimulation here, it’s funny. Nothing to see, nothing to hear, nothing to smell. No input whatsoever. Everything is kind of dull. Is this the same for every long distance swim? Does it have to be this boring?
Another turn-around, another hairband on the wrist, some sports drink on the pontoon. And back again. Nothing new. 8 kilometers, that’s quite an achievement, I think. The watch reveals: 49:08 minutes for this lap. At least I didn’t get a lot slower this time. Another energy gel, and on to the next lap.
9 kilometers, turn-around, hairband, back. But then it happens: As I approach the starting pontoon for the fifth time, marking 10 completed kilometers, a volunteer starts talking to me, as I open my box to get another energy gel.
– “Has this been your last lap?”
– “No, my last lap is starting now!” – I answer happily in expectation of my soon-to-come achievement
– “Oh, in that case I must tell you the race is over for you right now. I’m sorry.” – she says, full with compassion
– “Why is that?”
– “A huge thunderstorm is coming up, we have to pick up everyone still in the water for safety reasons.”
Oh well. That’s a huge shame. 10 kilometers done, just 2 more to go. I’m sure I could have done the remaining lap as well, but I choose to comply with the organizers here. So I swim the remaining 30 meters to the exit and defeatedly walk out of the water, as I see the motorboats collecting some other swimmers who have still been on the course. That’s very a very sad moment. I fought hard and now it seems like it’s all for nothing and I won’t get my well-deserved walk of triumph through the finishing goal.
Climbing out through some stairs, the watch says 53:29 minutes for this last lap. That’s so slow, I don’t even want to know what a finishing time I would have had. Almost 4 hours for 10 kilometers of swimming in total. Not super happy about that time. Still, I’ve never swum 10 kilometers without a break and I guess it could have gone worse. It’s a long way to the Fehmarn Belt, let alone the English Channel, though.
There I see my sister Nicola, she has come to support me and watch me finish, but now it’s nice to have her here and share my disappointment. It makes a big difference to have someone to tell about it, so I’m very grateful and soon regain my good mood.
Almost all of my reports end positively, but this one does not have a happy ending. What made it even worse, was that the promised thunderstorm never came. But the organizers had to put safety first, of course.
As always, I look forward to what might come in the next months or years. I definitely haven’t lost my love for swimming. Anke, Claudia, and Silke have all told me that most swims are a lot nicer than Cologne12. When I heard their stories about open-water races in Italy, Croatia, Turkey, I’m sure they’re right. Clear waters, lots to see, not swimming in laps all the time. That all sounds and looks a lot better. So I take away from this experience that I will explore more swim races in other countries. Maybe even do a swimming vacation. And I will move the Fehmarn Belt crossing at least one more year away, to 2018 or later. The chance won’t go away, and I guess I have all the time in the world to reach this goal!
Also, Cologne will have me again in 2017. I won’t just let this defeat stand.
To perseverance! All the best to you all and thanks for reading!