Lago d’Orta Marathon Swim – The Ridiculously Long Race Report

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I am going to give you a warning before you read anymore: this post is going to be long, and a little bit gross.

There. You have been warned.

Now, read on to hear about my time at the Lago d’Orta Marathon Swim in Italy.

Back in March, I happened to check that random message folder on facebook. You know the one. Where they seem to hide the messages from people you aren’t friends with yet and that sometimes, there is something in that you really wish you had seen?

In February, I’d gotten a message from Stefano Falciola, of ASD Lago d’Orta Sports and Events, telling me about a new Marathon Swim to occur this summer, in the gorgeous Lago d’Orta, one hour outside of Milan.

Hello Sydne. I’m the organizer – with my association – of Lago d’Orta Marathon Swim of 23 july, in Italy near Milan. 27 km. Is the first edition and we know that you have participated at Zurich Marathon. We would be happy if you will consider the idea to participate. All info on www.swimchallenge.it. We organize also the Oceanman Lago d’Orta (25/06). Thanks a lot. Bye. Stefano.”

How could I possibly have resisted this??

Always seeking new swim adventures, I researched the lake, in Northern Italy and near Lake Maggiore, a larger and better known body of water. Lago d’Orta is small, just 8+ miles in length, and less touristed, a perfect spot for a new open water race. Surrounded by mountains, the lake is low-key, and known for the sweet, quiet town of Orta San Giulio.

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I signed on quickly and before I knew it, and many thousands of training yards later, it was time to get ready to head to Italy, this time with my wonderful mother, and without my beloved kayaker/pool boy/husband.

This was to be my longest race to date, with many firsts – first international race without my husband, first race in Italy, first time away from my family for this long for a race, and first time with a first timer kayaker.

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For me, the key to dealing with all of these firsts was preparation, and as usual, I prepared and prepared and prepared.

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A little list of what was in my overstuffed bag might be useful for those of you who wonder what goes into these swims.

Gatorade
Carbopro
Clifblox Energy Chews, citrus flavor
Clif Shot Energy gel, chocolate
Gummy Bears (because treats!)
5 camelback insulated water bottles
3 swimsuits
5 pairs of goggles
Aquaphor
Paracord with a carabiner on either end so that bottles don’t get lost during feedings
A waterproof map case
A waterproof stuff sack
Solar Sense sunblock
Gloves, for sunblock application
Ibuprofen
Safeswimmer buoy
A cooler (and this time, I opted for the Seattle Sports Kayak cooler, which was fantastic.)
A towel
Clothes!

There is NO CARRY-ON when marathon swimming. At least, not for me.

Bags packed, and heavy, off my mom and I flew to Italy!

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I say again—how lucky am I to have a family that supports me in this craziness? I could not do ANY of this without their loving and enthusiastic support.

Mom and I took a red-eye, overnight to Milan where we were set to rent a car and drive to our little apartment in the town of Orta.

And yay! One hour before we landed in Milan, I got my period. This seems to be a habit for my body, and I mention it only because I remember how panicked I was the first time it happened, and because I think it’s important to be open and honest about all of the variables we are dealing with when we swim. My goal in writing about my swims is to be transparent, and offer information that other swimmers can use for their own training and racing. And yes, getting your period before a big race is a reality that many open water swimmers have to deal with.

What I’ve learned over the years is that while it’s a pain, it’s manageable and not the big deal I feared it would be when I started this swimming business. Like anything, we cope with it.

Jetlagged and tired, we found our way to Orta, no easy feat as the lake is not well known, even inside Italy.

And there was the lake! The gorgeous lake!

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It was a stunning as promised, clear and warm and ideal for open water swimming.

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We set out to explore the town, waiting for the arrival of my friend and kayaker, Petr Havlik.

I’m still a bit in awe that I was the beneficiary of the amazing kindness of Petr, an endurance athlete from the Czech Republic, who I had met at last year’s St. Croix swim race and who agreed to DRIVE FROM PRAGUE to kayak for me, never having done this crazy kayak business before. It was an incredible act of generosity, and I can’t say enough about how thankful I was. Having friends like Petr is one of the best parts about this sport. I am forever indebted to him for helping to make this swim happen for me.

A quick dinner with Petr, and his mother who had joined him for the trip, and it was time to sleep off some of the jetlag.

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Of course, the first thing Petr and I wanted to do the day after our arrival was to GET IN THAT LAKE!

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It was Friday, the day before the race, so we didn’t push it. Instead, we did a quick swim out to Isola San Giulio, approximately 400 yards from shore, once around the island, and back to the main piazza in town where our apartment was located.

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There was a lot to think about and do after that, and the day was a strange combination of race prep and sightseeing.

IMG_0859 2That night, it was time for the pre-swim meeting where we hoped to find our more about the course, and to meet up with the many swimmers I knew were arriving from all over Europe, and one other American, the incredible marathoner Jaimie Monahan.

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I was excited to see Graeme Schlachter again, a fantastic swimmer who I’d been lucky enough to meet in Zurich. (He also wrote a great race report, totally worth your time to read.)

I will confess to some slight anxiety when the race meeting started and it was, unsurprisingly, almost all in Italian. If I’d been a first-timer to the marathon swimming business, I might have felt thrown by this, but instead, some of us looked at each other, giggled, appreciated the moments of English, and waited to get our race packets and numbers, assuming that all would become clear when the swim started the next day.

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The course was described but really, it was pretty simple. Start at one end of the lake, get to the end, turn around and swim back, keeping all buoys on your right.

Woman 5 was ready for this!!

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After the meeting, many of us headed out for dinner.

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It was an absolute delight to be in the company of swimmers like Graeme, joined by Theodosis Charalampos  of  Hellenic Marathon Swimming, and Martyn Webster, another expert marathoner who is set to swim the English Channel next month. And of course, our family members and supporters!

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As always, everyone was welcoming and friendly and eager to share this adventure. I do find that marathon swimmers are some of the friendliest and most open athletes I have ever encountered, and I was delighted at the way everyone included my mom. She, too, marveled at what a wonderful community I have become a part of, and I was glad she could see what I have been enjoying for many years now.

It was off to bed early because the next morning, it was a 5 o’clock wake-up to prep the rest of our things, and to get to Lido di Gozzano for the anticipated start at 7:15.

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I was surprised I was able to get up easily, something I thought would be much harder with jetlag. Again, not a morning person!

I forced myself to eat my usual banana with peanut butter, something I’ve eaten for every swim. Unlike my usual swims, for some reason I did not have the stomach churning anxiety that comes before competition. I felt strangely calm and I’m not sure what to attribute that to. I did, however, have a tiny problem and that was an inability to go to the bathroom.

I have NEVER EVER had this before a swim. Ever. In fact, usually, it’s quite the opposite and the bowels do all they can to empty because I am so nervous. I wasn’t sure how this would go. (ba dum bum) But there was nothing I could do. Instead, I focused on getting to the start and helping to get our boat ready.

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Petr seemed completely calm, encouraging and eager and not at all nervous. If he was, he really hid it well and it’s yet another thing I am grateful for. It was like he’d done this a dozen times before.

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Look at that! Does this look like a man about to kayak almost 17 miles for the first time ever?

The weather was iffy, clouds above and threats of storms, but clear enough to start the swim.

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This being Italy,  the start was a little bit late. But, there were important things! Like someone making espresso at the race start. Priorities, people!!

I slathered myself with my requisite zinc, and hoped for the weather to hold.

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Before long, it was time to get in the water. Petr pushed off and waited for me,

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I was honestly surprised at the vast number of people wearing wetsuits. Of all the solo racers, there were less than 8 of us without wetsuits, and I believe that all relays wore wetsuits.

The race started, a small group of us heading out as solo swimmers, and only 6 women!

Almost immediately, I felt a bit off.

I always have a hard time getting situated in a swim. The first hour or hour and half, I can’t settle my mind. It takes time to achieve that meditative state that comes at some point, the way you keep moving stroke after stroke, and one of the reasons swimming is so good for my overly anxious self.

This time, it was even more extreme. My head wasn’t in the game in the way I would have liked it to be, and I tried everything. Singing, talking to myself, counting, focusing on my stroke and form and how the water felt as I moved through it.

I think, however, the inability to settle down was related to my physical discomfort. From the first feed, a 1/2 hour in, something was off and just felt wrong.

I took that first feed and almost instantly felt queasy. I wondered whether it was seasickness or anxiety? Was it my period? Was it the fact I hadn’t been able to, ahem, attend to business before the swim?

Then, I puked.

Yup. After all of these races, I finally had that marathon swimmer moment. My feed went in, and then, after a short time, it came out. And when I fed again, it came out again.

I kept trying to feed on my regular 1/2 hour schedule, my combination of Carbopro and Gatorade that has generally worked for me and served me well in the 8 Bridges swim the month before. This time, it didn’t work.

Unlike throwing up when you have a virus or sickness, this is an easier kind of puking and for the first time, I understood how swimmers can vomit and keep going. It’s something I’ve always wondered if I would be able to do, and now I can say with authority that I can. So glad to cross that off my list?

I knew I wasn’t getting dehydrated because I was still able to pee. But I dreaded feeds because I feared vomiting again. I needed calories to get me through this, but didn’t want to feed because it felt bad so quickly after it.

Usually, feeding during a swim is something every swimmer looks forward to. Regardless of how gross the actual feed might be, it becomes a moment of stopping, a marker of another chunk of your swim passing, and means you are one step closer to your destination.

After a few feeds, I admitted to Petr what was happening, and yet again, he proved himself the perfect companion for this swim.

“Are you okay?” he asked.
“Yes.”
“Well, then the fish will be happy.”
And that was it. No need for us to speak of it again except for him to check in and make sure I was still doing okay.

I kept swimming.

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I switched my feeds, opting for Clif Bloks, which seemed to stay in a bit better, and fought the wind and what felt like a current pushing against me. I felt slow and sluggish.

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8 miles seemed to take forever, and I had assure myself that I would, in fact, make it to the other end of the lake.

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Finally, Petr told me it was time to turn right, and it was as if a veil of stress lifted. My pace picked up and I felt like there was a current pushing me along as I moved from one side of the lake to the other and readied myself to turn back.

I’d been largely alone for the first part of the  swim but suddenly, there was Graeme and while both Petr and Audra, Graeme’s lovely partner, ran to the rest stop, we swam across, ready to turn back to Gozzano.

I felt much better. And it was reflected in my increased speed.

Graeme and I swam near each other for a bit, and then, I noticed I was pulling away, something that shocked me since he had beaten my so handily in Lake Zurich. Mentally, I wished him well on the rest of his swim and kept moving.

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Then, the clouds rolled in for real.

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Neither of us could see anything, and the rain started to pelt us. Hard.

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The rain got harder. And harder.

And wow—it was the strongest rain I have ever had during a swim. I kept swimming.

Something boomed and Petr looked at me. “Don’t worry! It’s just an airplane!”

This is what makes for an excellent kayaker—stuck in the kayak, soaking wet, being pelted with rain that actually HURT because it was so strong, and still making jokes. And every time I would ask how he was, he’d reply “Perfect!” and smile.

We passed the final check point, and while I was pretty sure the race would get called at any moment, I just kept swimming, hoping we would get that much distance done before they called it.

The swim progressed, it didn’t get called, and finally, the rain stopped.

Something about the rain seemed to have calmed my mind and body. I’d switched my feeds and while I was still vomiting periodically, it wasn’t as bad and the nausea had abated.

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Eventually, there was just 10k left. Which sounds ridiculous as I write it, I know, but in the context of a swim like this, feels like you’re almost at the end.

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With about 4.5k to go, we arrived at Orta where both of our mothers were there to cheer us on. (Petr’s mother was just as nervous as mine, and they were both happy to see that we were safe and happy and that Petr’s back was surviving.)

I kept swimming.

And the finish got closer and closer and closer!

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Then, it was finally there! The end!!

We had both made it! And I managed to make my way out of the water despite almost losing my footing.

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Despite vomiting and storms and a generally challenging day, I had crossed the finish line in 7:29:25!

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I was completely shocked. Thrilled, but shocked to see that I had done this in under 8 hours.

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And there were both of our moms cheering at the finish!

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And yes, both of us were still smiling!

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I can’t actually speak for Petr, but I think we were both fantastically happy. It had been a challenging day on an number of fronts, but we stuck together as a great team, and I know that John felt much better knowing that there was someone competent, dedicated, and kind, who would keep me safe no matter what happened. Added bonus for me? Someone funny.

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There were many hugs at the finish, and we were all exhausted but thankful it had happened. (And Petr, clearly, Thank You is not enough!)

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And my mom was certainly relieved to have me back safe and sound.

Then, it was time for awards, including a special one for all of us who were part of this inaugural event.

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I was delighted to come in as first non-wetsuit woman competitor.

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And happy to cheer for swimmer friends who had been a part of this fantastic day.

For my next swims, I have some thinking to do. What feeds would work better for me? I don’t want to be in this position again, and I need to play with my nutrition to make sure that I am getting what I need, but also what I can stomach.

Was it the array of physical difficulties, plus jetlag, that made this happen?

It’s always a guessing game, but we do the best we can with both our bodies and the course conditions on the day of our events. And we get through our swims, stroke by stroke.

Two days after the swim, still in Italy, where was I?

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Yup. Back in the lake. Because I just can’t get this swimming thing out of my system.

Now, what’s next?? Petr?

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