On August 26th and 27th, 2015, Jaimie Monahan from New York City, swam the 42.8 miles (69km) across Lake Geneva in 32 hours and 52 minutes. It was the 53rd longest solo swim in human history – and she is the first American to complete a solo crossing of the lake.
This is another chapter in an incredible swimming journey that has taken Jaimie across the globe from Antarctica to the Arctic Circle, from Argentina’s Perito Moreno Glacier to frozen lakes in Siberia and Vermont to the Sahara Desert and the towering mountains and crystal blue waters of Switzerland. And that’s just in 2015.
Jaimie has also just become the overall female winner of the 2015-2016 International Winter Swimming World Cup.
What inspired you to undertake this swim?
In February of 2015 I got an email through the English Channel swimmers distribution list about a new organization, the Lake Geneva Swim Association (LGSA) (http://www.lakegenevaswimmingassociation.com/) that was starting to organize swims across Lake Geneva in Switzerland for the coming summer. I’d been focusing on ice swimming and winter swimming for the past year and hadn’t done any long swims for a while. Lake Geneva was much longer than any swim I’d ever done and less than six months away, but something about it just called to me. I researched for a few minutes about the lake, the surrounding landmarks, and the water, and decided to go for it.
I registered my interest on the website and within a few minutes was in correspondence with Ben Barham, the founder of the Lake Geneva Swimming Association (LGSA). He was great and we locked down a date that same day! In general, I try to only pursue swims that are exciting or meaningful to me personally rather than try and check off swims on arbitrary lists.
How did you prepare physically and mentally?
Physically I swam as much as I could, and did a lot of yoga. For me, yoga helps a lot mentally too because it’s taught me to just show up to the mat (or the water) and breathe through whatever happens. I also thought it was important to get a long freshwater swim under my belt a few months in advance, so I signed up for Extreme North Dakota Racing’s Watersports Endurance Test END-WET http://endracing.com/end-wet), a 36 mile swim down the Red River of the North. I had never swum much in fresh water, so END-WET was a great learning experience for me, as well as a lot of fun with swimming friends and the amazing people of Great Forks, North Dakota. Definitely a great community race!
How important are logistics and support crew? Were there any particular instructions you gave to them? What did you eat?
Logistics are a very big factor on a swim this long. We planned for up to 48 hours worth of feeds which is a LOT of bottled water and carbohydrate powder. Watching us load a huge shopping trolley cart of groceries onto the boat the day prior must have been really funny for the people watching us from Geneva’s stylish waterfront cafes.
Support crew is so important, perhaps THE most important thing. I had a small but dedicated and experienced personal crew of one, the amazing Arik Thormahlen, and a wonderful team organized by the LGSA of our pilots Gérard Schoch and Jacques Massard and observers Ben Barham and Tim Davies.
I fed every 30 minutes on warm carbohydrate drink, interspersed with black tea and even some flat Coca-Cola at the end for variety. I don’t eat solids during swims but the drinks provide warmth and enough calories to keep me going, even for a long time.
How much sunscreen and vaseline did you have to apply etc?
I could go on for ages on the topic of sunscreen but for this swim I used La Roche-Posay Anthelios factor 60 as a base layer with a thick layer of Desitin Maximum Strength brand diaper/nappy cream. It’s messy and we come prepared with latex gloves for a neater application, but with 40% zinc oxide, it is the only thing that works for me. It also prevents chafing so no need for vaseline! It was very effective and stayed (mostly) on, even after almost 33 hours in the water. I still daydream about ways to reapply in the water for even better coverage but haven’t found a good method yet.
What goes on in your head on a 32 hour, 52 minute swim?
Everything and anything! I have a really slow stroke count so I often try to keep faster paced songs in my head to increase my turnover. I felt quite sick for most of the Lake Geneva swim so I spent a lot of time monitoring myself…making sure my feeds were absorbing, that the cold I was feeling wasn’t hypothermia, just discomfort, etc. For this swim the scenery was a great distraction for me, beautiful vineyards, stunning mountains, and the water itself was ridiculously lovely so I tried to focus on that too.
Do you have a mantra? What keeps you motivated?
I don’t have a mantra. Sometimes I count to myself, but always lose track. It’s kind of calming though. In terms of motivation, I just swim to the next feed, or sunrise, or some other landmark. For long swims I try not to even think about being done until the very end. It’s always the last 10% of every swim that’s the hardest for me, because my mind switches from swimming and being in the moment to wanting to be done.
How do you recover from a swim that big?
It sounds a little funny but for me swimming at my typical pace for long solo swims is not very tough on my body – even after swimming for so long I was only sore for about 24 hours afterwards. Slept in the next morning, had a nice social swim on the second day and went on a (leisurely!) hike with friends before heading back to NYC.
We know that you love cold water swimming. What are your top tips? Please refer to fancy dress in your answer.
Good question! For training, my best advice is to ramp up gradually. Start swimming in the summer or autumn and then just keep swimming outdoors as the water gets colder. Keep your breathing under control, relax, and as you’re going in, try counting to 100. By then it usually feels okay. Don’t push your limits, get used to how your body feels and reacts and be conservative with temperatures and length of swim until you are familiar with what “normal” and “not normal” feels like for you. And never swim alone!
Specific to winter swimming events and competitions – my best advice is bring as many swim costumes as you can, more than you think you need. Keeping on a wet swimsuit between events can take a toll over the course of a long day of events. In a similar vein, always dry off and get dressed immediately after a cold swim. You may feel amazing and want to hang out in the cold air, but dry off, cover your head, and get dressed including warm comfortable footwear as soon as possible.
And yes, fancy dress wherever/whenever possible! I highly recommend a sheep hat.
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