One morning in Switzerland, I woke up early and decided to go for a little dip.
The big day had come, and after almost a year, I was ready to swim in Switzerland. The Lake Zurich Marathon Schwimmen had arrived.
The swim start was a short walk from our hotel and after trying to choke down some breakfast, despite every single cell in my body telling me it did not want to eat at 5:30 in the morning, we headed over to the Lido.
The morning was perfect. The water looked calm, the air temperature was reasonably warm, and it didn’t appear there would be thunder or lightning, perhaps my biggest concern after my own fitness. I certainly didn’t want to get all that way just to have the swim called or postponed on account of weather.
At the Lido, the collection of support boats was gathering.
Kayaks, rowboats (Yes! Rowboats!), power boats, sailboats. Race organizers had done a fantastic job of getting boats for every swimmer, with markers that showed division and race number
So, of course, we promptly started loading Aidan and John’s things into M26, Men’s #26, instead of Women’s #26. Whoops!
We quickly got things sorted out although I have to admit to a bit of panic looking at the boat my boys would be on for that long. But I also felt grateful that they would not be trying to navigate a rowboat.
This was the first time they would be in the boat together for a swim of this length and I had questions. How would John fit? Would they be able to stretch out their legs? Would they be able to go to the bathroom if necessary? Just how bored would my child get?
I didn’t have much time to worry because I needed to get sunblocked.
For my last few long swims, I’ve been opting for something called Solar Sense. Effective does not begin to describe it. Even after hours in the water, it takes scrubbing to remove it and with a family history of melanoma, that’s just what I want.
I also wore a one-piece, something I don’t do for salt water since the chafe is so painful. With this, I knew it would not be an issue and wanted the extra coverage.
The boys headed out to wait for the start and I tried to remind myself that yes, I did know how to swim.
It being Switzerland, the start was punctual. And before I knew it, solo swimmers were entering the water and it was time to go.
The beginning of a long swim is always a curious thing. Despite the knowledge that we have many, many hours to go, some folks still sprint from the start.
That’s not me.
Instead, I counted to 10. Why bother getting kicked or having to manage the crush that comes as we all try to funnel ourselves through the start, support boats seeking their swimmers, and a general amount of chaos? That 10 seconds would mean nothing over the course of the next hours but definitely helped me to start the swim in a more relaxed way, easing myself into the journey rather than scrambling.
It was gorgeous. Really.
The water temp was approximately 22 celcius, or around 71 fahrenheit, and while I’d always like things a bit warmer, it was do-able and that was what mattered.
I felt calm and reasonably confident.
I even managed to enjoy some of the scenery.
It’s hard to write about miles and miles and miles of swimming. There’s so much that happens to me while I swim, both physically and mentally, but translating that process or swim evolution into words is tricky.
The first few hours are about getting into your rhythm. It’s about not getting frantic. Instead, it’s about finding your pace and the right stroke count, something Aidan was responsible for measuring for me.
It’s about getting used to the feeding schedule. And choosing what to think about. Or figuring out how to get rid of those thoughts that aren’t helpful. It’s about not rushing it, because you can’t and it won’t be over until you are done swimming. It’s about embracing repetition and for me, it’s the closest I will ever get to meditation.
It’s also about choosing not to worry about the other swimmers, not to focus on whether someone is passing you–although I won’t kid you and pretend that’s not demoralizing. And I confess that more than once, my husband would check out the other swimmer and then yell something like “It’s okay! Wetsuit. Wetsuit.” It helps.
I made the first checkpoint, in Meilen, in 4 hours and 40 minutes, well within the cut-off time. (All swimmers who had not reached that point by 1:30 in the afternoon were to be pulled from the water.)
Also, my family saw this guy. Good Morning!
And my son took a selfie.
I swam. And swam. And kept swimming. And it was hard.
Then it got really hard.
There’s always a part of any swim that’s the toughest. Usually, it happens in the middle when I am feeling tired but also know there’s so much swimming to go. So far, I have always been able to push through it.
I might become, ahem, a little less than polite to my support crew at that time, but I get through it. (And they are always forgiving.)
This time the tough part came around hour 5 and lasted much longer than I am accustomed to.
Typically, it’s mental. Physically, I generally feel pretty great when I swim open water. Yes, I feel tired but I’ve never really had pain to speak of.
That was not the case with this swim. At a certain point, my left shoulder decided it was done. My shoulder was sending me the consistent message that this swimming thing was not fun anymore. I’m not doing it. And if you ask me to, I will squeeze you in pain every time you move. At least, that’s what it felt like it was saying.
I knew I was only a bit past the halfway point and that I had a lot to swim. I had passed the ferries, with plenty of time to spare, so there was no danger of my being pulled out for missing the second checkpoint. I had made it through a choppy section that challenged me, although nothing compared to the chop of the Cape May Circumnavigation Challenge
But I was in pain.
It was totally disheartening. I felt like I could barely lift my left arm. My “team” had been telling me it was wonky and trying to help me adjust but apparently, I hadn’t done so and now I was paying for it.
That hurt me mentally because in addition to the pain, I felt like I had done it to myself. Like my poor form had caused this to happen. And as I know, it’s never helpful to beat yourself up mentally while trying to do something physically challenging. I tried to get myself out of the rut but it was hard.
Looking back, it’s hard not to critique my own form and I can look at the photos and video my family took and see what was wrong. My head was up too high. What’s going on with that left arm? Am I kicking? Do I ever kick?
In the water, however, it’s another story. There is so much to attend to that it’s easy to be off-kilter with your swimming.
A few feeds later, I asked for ibuprofen, something I have never done before during a swim. And I was starting to question whether this was do-able for me. It. REALLY. REALLY. Hurt.
But I kept swimming. And little by little, although the progress could not possibly have been slower, I made it happen.
Mind over matter is a powerful thing. I envisioned myself at the finish. I thought about how I would feel to have come all this way and not complete the swim. I thought about how it would feel to share that choice with the large community of swimmers, friends, and family who had supported me in this.
And so, I took one stroke after another. I was determined not to stop. I swam in whatever way I could to ease the pain on my left shoulder, so I can’t imagine what it looked like. But my right arm still felt great and I powered through using that arm to catch as much water as I could.
Swimming a long distance is a bit like being an ant trying to build an ant hill. Each grain of sand is so very, very tiny, but together, they make something fantastic. (Well, for the ants at least.) And each of my awkward, painful, unattractive strokes got me that much closer to Zurich, even if it sometimes felt as though I was swimming backwards.
I knew I was not going to stop the swim. I also knew it was going to hurt every moment I swam.
I thought a lot about some of the swimmers I know who have completely far more challenging swims in far more challenging conditions. And I thought about their strength and what they must have done to keep themselves going.
Stroke after stroke after stroke.
We passed more Lidos where happy swimmers splashed in the water. We passed an endlessly large factory that I swear was growing in length as I tried to get by it. We passed church steeples that haunted me with their watchfulness.
And then, off in the distance, far, far, far, far away, there were balloons.
People had told me that the last 5K of this swim was unbearably long, and that was correct. But there were balloons!
And they were getting closer! And I was going to be able to swim to them! And finish this swim! And my arm hurt like crazy but who cares?!
And then, I WAS DONE! 26.4 Kilometers of swimming, and it was finished. 9 hours and 10 minutes minutes of swimming. My longest swim to date in both distance and time spent in the water.
There are many things to say about the after-the-swim feelings but first, I have to admit that I realized something very important.
I am kind of an idiot.
The whole time I was preparing for the Lake Zurich Marathon Swim, I was thinking of it as a 15-mile swim. I don’t know why. Perhaps it’s because that half-hearted 4th grade lesson on the metric system never took for me. Who needs to convert kilometers to miles so you can see what you are really going to be swimming? Why would you do that?
Then, after the swim, I did the math. And, newsflash! 26.4 Kilometers is, strangely, NOT 15 miles. It’s 16.4042 miles. And that extra 1.4042 makes a hell of a lot of difference
I am serious. I am not joking about getting it wrong. People, in case you were wondering, Math Matters.
At the end, however, all that mattered was being DONE!
26.4 Kilometers is a lot of swimming, whether you translate it to miles or not.
And I could never have done it without my wonderful family who suffered through 9+ hours of kayaking with grace, good humor, and a level of support for me that makes me wonder what I could possibly have done to be lucky enough to deserve them.
And if you have a teenager, just imagine he or she at 13-years-old spending 9 hours on a kayak, bored, tired, jetlagged, and totally there for you despite it all. I am in awe of him. (He even managed an almost 2-hour nap while on the boat!)
True to form, the swim organizers put on a great post-race show. Massage, which I sorely needed. (Ba dum bum.) Food. Treats.
When all swimmers had arrived, it was time for awards and whoa! Despite my feeling like I was the last swimmer back to the dock, I had come in 2nd overall in the Masters Women division.
I must admit that I’m a total sucker for a trophy. And a medal. And Flowers. And a goody bag. And a certificate.
I like to get ALL THE THINGS.
I was honored just to be able to be there for the swim, and to swim among so many greats, and this was a wonderful topper.
Incidentally, I was the only North American swimmer and had traveled the farthest for the swim, if you don’t count the swimmer from Australia living in England for a few weeks to train for a Channel crossing.
I was the only jetlagged swimmer taking to the water that day, and that’s got to count for something, right?
As always, it’s the sense of accomplishment that makes this all worth doing, but it’s also the great community of swimmers. Yes, when you’re out there, it’s on your own, with the exception of your crew, but the other swimmers are always “there” with you.
They know how your arms feel, they know about those moments where you think “What kind of asinine idea was this?”
And they know how certain landmarks DO. Not. Ever. Seem. To. Move. Despite. How. Hard. You. Are. Swimming.
And they are there to greet you at the end, no matter how long it takes you to finish. Because only other swimmers know how very hard this crazy sport of ours truly is.
I thank them all.
What’s next? More training, of course! The Swim for Alligator Light is coming up fast but at 8+ miles in salt water, it’ll be just a nice, long recovery swim.
And hmmmm, after 16+, perhaps a 20-miler is not out of the question?