Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Lake Zurich Marathon Swim

The Lake Zurich marathon swim was my 3rd marathon swim and 4th race of this year. They have all been quite different in their locations, distances and settings. The year started with the 10km Eton race - a wet-suited affair in a fresh water rowing lake, I went one better than last year and won the race in just over 2hrs. The wetsuit however rubbed my neck raw and I swore that that would be my only wetsuit race for the year. The 2nd race was the round Brownsea Island 4 mile swim. A non-wetsuit sea swim on a glorious early July day. Last year I won outright beating all the rubber swimmers. This year I was again the first non-wetsuit but this time behind 3 'wetsuit assisted' swimmers which always smarts a little even though you know you have the moral high ground. Next up I swam the 14km, downstream, River Thames, Bridge to Bridge. Just me against the clock. I beat the previous course record by a minute and to make up for Brownsea it was not only the fastest time in a pair of speedos but beat the fastest wetsuit time also. I have swum in The Thames twice in the last few years and both times had some form of gastro afterwards. After this years' swim I was seriously sick for 48hrs, vomiting and miserable. I had timed the Bridge to Bridge to give me a good race 2 and 1/2 weeks before Zurich but as I lay doubled up in bed with nausea instead of enjoying a friends wedding I found myself questioning the wisdom of the swim.
Lake Zurich however is a beautiful, warm, clean stretch of immaculate fresh water. So clean it's used as drinking water (the same can't be said for the River Thames). In summer the lake can reach a balmy 25 deg C, wetsuits are allowed but at that temperature you would surely roast. The swim is a testing 26.4km long but with the warm water and spectacular scenery I had been looking forward to the swim all year.
I arrived in Zurich two days before the swim with Vickie and Dave Granger a great friend and keen open water swimmer who was also doing the swim. The air temperature was a baking 32deg and the first afternoon we eagerly jumped into the lake to cool off. Even Vickie who rarely gets in the open water without the neoprene enjoyed the bath like conditions. We endured two very hot and slightly uncomfortable nights prior to the swim. Nearly everyone I had mentioned this swim to would comment on how cold they assumed a swim in Zurich must be. As I lay in a pool of sweat the night before the race the reality of the Zurich Summer was in stark contrast to this common misconception. In the very early hours of Sunday morning and while it was still dark we headed to the far end of the lake for the start of the swim. Even as much as I was looking forward to swimming the build up to any long swim is a little nervy. The unknowns of a new swim, a bad nights sleep and quite how the competition would face up all weighed on the mind. The mass start and finding of support boat were the first difficulties to navigate. I was reasonably confident that with only 50 competitors it wouldn't be too tricky to find Vickie and the boat and although the organisers had stressed it was the responsibility of the swimmer to find their boat my plan was to get out fast and for Vickie and the boat to find me to save wasting time. The starting siren went bang on 7am and I pushed off quickly and before too long found myself out in front. I was swimming between kayakers and the smaller boats that were nearest to shore. Another swimmers' kayaker seemed to mistake me for someone else and started to paddle next to me, I had to wave him away to go find his own swimmer in case my crew saw him accompanying me and made the same assumption. A few hundred metres further out I had passed most of the boats and I could see Vickie and my support boat in the distance, I managed a quick wave and by the time I had swum the first km they were along side and we were making good progress down the lake.
The lake followed a gently curve to the right. So you could usually only see 5 or 6km at most ahead of you before you rounded the next corner. It was a good 6km from the start to the first bend and I was swimming quickly, strongly and had opened up a very comfortable lead. I was also reassuringly ahead of the record pace at that stage. In the information provided by the swim organisation they had highlighted various landmarks along the lake - churches, distinctive houses and marinas which were useful reference points with known distances. By 10km I had settled into a nice rhythm and felt reasonably strong. The only issue was a rising nausea that unfortunately accompanies many of my long swims and I decided to stick to the energy drinks and skip the gels. My pace was still fast but by then a minute or two off record pace and at nearly 2 and a half hours in my mind was starting to wander a little. Knowing you still have the majority of a long swim still ahead of you and feeling the fatigue of already covering a marathon distance it is easy to start feeling a little negative about what you are trying to achieve. Without anyone pushing me along I also had only myself to motivate me and I started looking up a little too often. The half way point was the church at Meilen and I could see the tall bell tower from 4km away. As always when swimming, distant points seem to take forever to get close and by the time I finally passed the ferry and church I was relieved but knew I was now 5 minutes off the pace and unlikely to get that time back. It wasn't long after this point that the sky that had been clear for the last few days started to look decidedly overcast and a large black cloud could be seen ominously moving down the lake towards us. 

The forecast had threatened thunderstorms in the afternoon and I had hoped to be finished by then but the weather looked like it had other ideas. Almost bang on the 4hour mark the calm flat lake turned into a choppy, churning mess. White caps crested on waves coming straight down the lake and rather worryingly I could see warning beacons flashing orange on the edge of the lake. The beacons warned of adverse weather, 40 flashes a minute meant beware and be cautious, 120 flashes a minute meant serious danger (lightning etc) and get off the lake immediately. The organisers had warned us if that happened the race would be stopped and although we could get back in after a storm had passed there would be no official times or recognition of the swim. While swimming I could only glimpse the flashing lights and had no way of counting them so I just had to keep hoping they were staying at the slower rate. It was tough going, straight into a driving head wind and unpleasant chop. I knew in these conditions it would be a long hard to slog to the finish and the finish time would be a lot slower than predicted. I stopped worrying about my pace and just tried to maintain a steady rhythm. I could see I was still making slow but steady headway so I just 
tried to focus on the next little landmark and not worry about how long it took to get there. We had nearly 2hours of this choppy, windy mess before the storm finally subsided and almost as quickly as it had arrived it was gone. The sky cleared, the water flattened and away in the distance Zurich and the finish line were finally in view. I finally succumbed to the nausea at this point and vomited all of the energy drink I had consumed in the last 6 hours, at least by then the end was in sight. The finish point always seems to take the longest time to reach, mostly I guess because once you can see it you just want to be there! As I often do at this stage of a swim I try not to look up too often and instead count strokes and tick off distances in my head; 100 strokes is about 150m or 3 lengths of the swimming pool, I tell myself not to look up for 500m just keep the head down and tick off the pool laps. Finally I could see the balloons over the official finish line, there were people waving and cheering at the end and my speed which had slowed down to a steady plod picked up along with the power in the kick. I confess to swimming the last 20metres butterfly, terrible showboating but I was amused to see Dave Granger repeating exactly the same trick 2 and a half hours later when he finished! 
After feeling nauseous, fatigued and exhausted for the last few hours while swimming, almost the minute I finished I felt great! The satisfaction of another iconic swim ticked off and the pleasure in winning a race seemed to make the physical pain melt away. It probably helped that the sun was now out in force and I was fully able to appreciate the beautiful setting. 
Some swims you finish and find yourself swearing that you won't do another long painful one ever again, other swims you start planning immediately for the next one. This was definitely the latter and having completed my main swim for the season I found myself starting to think about the next challenge. Two more marathon swims this year to go - Windermere and the River Dart and even bigger hopes for next year. Who knows I might even have to come back and do Zurich again one day.