The 31st Lake Zurich Marathon Swim was held on Sunday 5thAugust 2018: 26.4km (16 miles) in water of temperatures up to 28 degrees (!) and air temperature out on the lake reaching a meltingly-hot 36.5 degrees. Around 45 solo swimmers and 30 swimmers in relay teams took part. My first marathon swim; and a solo swim I had been hoping to do since I emerged from the water after completing a 2-person relay of the lake in 2013.
What follows is a blog that I hope will act as a momento of the swim and give recognition and thanks to the skill and hard work of my crew Charlie Masding and Jack McNulty, the pilot Marco and all those who have helped me along the way; enabling this swim to be a happy 11 hours and 32 minutes of relaxed, meditative swimming in beautiful water.
Information about the 2019 swim and how to enter can be found here. It’s a popular swim and there are a limited number of (solo and relay team) places. In general expect to apply at least a couple of times before being given a slot.
Distance swimming can sometimes appear to be an individual – even lonely – pursuit; but it is actually anything but… It is 100% a team sport.
Zurich local and Serpentine and SLSC alumni Charlie Masding has accumulated a wealth of experience observing channel swims with the CSPF and crewing for a number of swimmers – this was her fourth time crewing a Lake Zurich solo. Charlie coordinated logistics on board the boat, worked and adapted the feed plan, communicated with me, the pilot, my family and friends and managed to find time to do social media posts, kept a log of the swim and pulled everything together for a smooth and solid swim.
Effective crewing is a skill and discipline in its own right. It’s rewarding, but also exhausting. After the first hour I was feeding every half hour. And of course, every swimmer is different – and Charlie took the time to get what I am about, whilst also having the ability to be practical, direct and compassionate with a swimmer whose mind was already floating in the water before she even landed in Zurich!
Jack McNulty is also local to Zurich. A very welcome yet last-minute addition to the team – Literally a week before! – “Jack – Don’t suppose you’re free next Sunday?!”…
Jack and I became friends in 2013 when I completed a 2- person relay of the lake, raising awareness of the charity Overcoming Multiple Sclerosis. Jack and my brother follow their lifestyle programme, which has helped them both stop the progression of the illness. Jack was there at the finish of my 2013 relay.
We’ve kept in touch since then, and I knew if he was on my boat there was no way I wouldn’t finish the swim. I find his presence gentle, steadfast and positive. He’s also an amazing photographer and chef and brought water melon gazpacho on the boat.
Marco the pilot and his sailing boat!
One of the big pre-swim anxieties for Lake Zurich is what support boat you will be allocated. It’s a lottery – anything from a rudderless rowing boat or single kayak, through to small motor boats (without shade/weather cover) and sailing boats. On the application form you will be asked if you will have crew with you. And if so, how many (up to 2 people for solos), and whether or not your crew will be happy to row or can kayak. I had two crew, neither of whom were comfortable rowing.
I only met Marco briefly at the start, but for me it was a make or break moment. I said hello and handed over a fancy dress Captain’s hat. He laughed and put it on immediately, and I knew we were going to be amazing!
Silvia McNulty. Silvia met me at the finish with a hug and a beer. I love Silvia.
An all star cast of friends and family, with particular mention to Kathrine O’Brien and Bertie who were rowing the length of the lake, supporting my friend Mick Hinde on his solo swim.
Since last year, at A Lotus Rises HQ we’ve been helping improve statistics on women’s participation in swimming, running workshops to inspire women into swimming and open water, building up our swim teaching and coaching experience, providing a platform for the achievements of women in water and engaging in a range of advocacy on swimming.
We’ve connected with swimming and non swimming lotuses from all over the world and they’ve been tagging #alotusrises and #womensswimmingcollective on Instagram, to share their adventures and inspire others to make the leap into the big blue. Including but not limited to: @mara.thefitlondoner , @georgia.lilly, @head_full_ofdreams @diane.canon @Lisa, Polly, @adventurejaneyjane, @openwaterswomen, @Ju_In_Devon, @teachagirltoswim, @mrsbroccoli73 Lyttle Swim, @cmhbristol, @katherineanteney, @swimthwild, @team_mermaids_uk, @hennieswims, @aliceclarefitness…
Behind the scenes we are building a network of women who are engaged in all aspects of swimming – from non swimmers, aqua-phobes, and wild swimmers through to Olympians. The momentum is building – Thank you WSC!
And tbh there were some sh*t times in training and those posts help me keep the faith.
I also knew lots of Lotuses were out swimming on Sunday – I was far from alone!
Clip of the crew before the start – Go Women’s Swimming Collective!https://alotusrises.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/IMG_1077-2.mov
The swim was Sunday and it’s Tuesday morning and I’ve just come home from a (gentle) morning swim session – I’m tired, but I can move my arms comfortably (after the 2013 relay I couldn’t do my own bra up), and I only have a little bit of sun burn.
I am so chuffed about that. It represents 5 years of learning, asking questions, making mistakes, injury, illness, more injury, disappointment, a variety of adventures in fresh and salt water, learning some more and sometimes getting things right.
There were no guarantees – but on Sunday, happily, it all came together well.
My training for this swim looked nothing like what I thought it would. As Dan Abel says: You are the expert on you. Key to my preparations was accepting where I was at and training accordingly. Of course, however much you know that’s the thing to do, it can be hard to keep the faith sometimes, especially when all around you, lots of people are taking different approaches, but I managed to hold fast to what I felt I needed to do.
I guess like everything in life, it’s about seeking out the best support and advice, learning and experimenting; trusting your gut and taking on board the bits that really work for you.
I was supposed to swim Lake Zurich in 2017, but was unwell; so had to defer…2018 was supposed to be the year I swam to France in fact. I had it all worked out…
Summer 2017-18 is up there as one of the toughest but most rewarding years of my life. I was not physically or mentally in a space where I was going to be able to do loads of mileage in training, or push myself hard with anaerobic training as I had once upon a time envisaged. It took a while to accept I wasn’t the mountain fit girl I was when I lived in Chamonix, but on the upside I had 5 years of learning to tap into.
I took comfort from Nick Adams’ wise words to me a couple of years ago – with you Alice, it’s not about notching up loads of mileage, but about being healthy, happy and injury free at the start line.
I made a timeline going back from 5th August 2018 in a google doc, with rough overviews of themes for the months, setting out a minimum of 3 swims per week (with emphasis on quality NOT quantity) , bench marks and specific details e.g. (a v conservative) Weekly mileage; T10 check ins (at Swimfortri one of the benchmarks is how far you swim in 10 minutes – a log of that over time, is nice to look back on to see progress), Swim events; land training and physio; and notes on illness, attitude etc.
And roughly, here’s what I did for me to prepare …
- In the last 12 months I’ve been receiving therapy for trauma, including EMDR. Like everyone else, life has its ups and downs, and unfortunately a series of traumatic events over the last decade, including being hit by a lorry, eventually took its toll. Even though I was functioning and ‘successful’, like everyone else, there was a lot going on under the surface.
- Trauma therapy is helping put an end to the exhaustion that comes from years of living in a constant fight or flight response mind-set. I no longer have to fear the present, in fact it’s all we ever really have, and it’s pretty special to feel connected and enjoy that again.
- I found mentors that helped keep me grounded, brought a new structure to my life and have been held by a network of close friends and family who have my best interests at heart.
- I’ve said no to things. And will say no to more.
I trained happy. For me that meant:
Winter & Early spring – Commit
- Signing up for Tuesday night fitness sessions with Swimfortri. I’ve been swimming with Dan Bullock on and off for over 5 years. I love his fitness sessions – they’re a beautiful combination of fitness combined with his incredible talent of helping me develop a feel for the water.
- I built up my training around that swimfortri session, adding 2-3 other sessions per week (one technical and one distance), including the A Lotus Rises Sunday Swim Socials, which kept things fun and where I was able to build up my weekly long swim from around 1.5km to 5km. Thank you all the Women’s Swimming Collective for makng those Sunday mornings worth getting up for.
Injury Free – Strength training
- Pilates, Body Intensive Trainer, yoga and specific exercises on shoulder and core strength (thank you Sue Croft!). I’d like to pretend that I had this all well scheduled in a seamless daily and weekly routine. But that would be a lie…
Injury Free – Acupuncture
- For my right shoulder in particular – Justin Owen at Streatham Osteo, I salute you!
Injury Free – Technique
- I am fortunate to have attended Camp Eton twice (and still have the briefing packs). In 2017 our swim coach was the late Terry Laughlin, Founder of Total Immersion. He and Tracey Baumann talked us through TI swim technique. Among the many questions I asked Terry was “So how do you go from swimming 25 metres perfectly to swimming a marathon swim?”. He explained it was all about practicing good technique e.g. you repeat a drill but only up to the point you can maintain perfect technique. Gradually, the time you can maintain that technique increases.
- So alongside the weekly fitness session I made sure I did at least one technique session. As a swim teacher I also spend a fair bit of time focused on technique – e.g. in both learn to swim sessions and more advanced groups, I spend hours practising things like body position.
- Over the years I’ve received excellent insight and support from Dan Bullock, Dan Abel and Ray Gibbs. I was also able to check in with Tracey Baumann for a TI masterclass in the endless pool at the Outdoor Swimmer show. Add to that I’d done my open water swim coaching course with Keri Anne Payne, which included world champion insight on stroke technique. It was wonderful to bring that all together in the water, and I am excited about building on all of this more in the coming years.
May-June – Enjoying Open Water and Distance
- Rather than big pool mileage, I booked in fun swim events. I was fortunate to participate in the HittheWall Distance Swimming Weekend, with Infinity Channel Swimming. I went with an open mind, hoping to use it as a benchmark for where I was at and get a sense of whether Zurich was realistic. I ended up completing all the swims, notching up something like 40km over the weekend; including a 6.5 hour swim at 12-13 degrees in Carlingford Lough. I also met an array of diverse and inspirational swimmers from around the world, and it reinforced how we all follow different and individual paths into our swims and the importance of mindset.
- After that I had a little holiday and swam Lake Annecy (15km) with my friend Rachel Hill. This gave me a confidence boost that I could swim point to point along the length of a lake solo.
- In between Ireland and Annecy I rested, got a cold, rested some more and did gentle swims. In fact back in February I had a cold, then food poisoning and another cold. Trusting that despite that time out I would be ok, was difficult at times. And sleep was an especially big component of my preparation!
July – Fun, Relaxation, Inspiration, Self Belief and Tapering
- Regular swim fitness sessions with Fit and Abel at Tooting Lido (where I, along with other swimmers, are horrified when Dan Abel says we have to do TWO WHOLE LENGTHS of the 100yd lido in one go…) and shorter swim events like the Seahorse Swim, Henley Mile and Hastings Swim.
- It was unnerving knowing that previously I had been capable of consistent (sub) 30 min miles, but that just wasn’t where my mind and body was at. I was very gentle with myself and at the different events I experimented to find a default effortless pace, that I hoped would be fast enough to meet the cut offs and that I would be able to maintain for hours…and hours…
- Perhaps the most important rule of a long swim: Choose the correct nail varnish. Emma France always swims wearing nail varnish with an inspirational name. For my first ever 6 hour swim, she let me borrow her “up the ante” nail varnish. It worked.
- For Zurich 2018, fluorescent orange coordinated with my orange trim swimming costume and orange hat. The varnish didn’t have a name, just a number, “556”, so I named it “A Lotus Rises Cinco Cinco Seis”. It looked beautiful in the turquoise and emerald water. And when Emma turned up as support crew for another swimmer, I took it as another positive sign for my swim.
Sunscreen and Lube
- I had layers of P20 factor 50 on. Then also a sudacreme – lanolin – Vaseline mix, as recommended by Rachel for our Annecy swim. Sudacreme contains zinc so acts as a sun block, something that Anna Wardley also swears by. I mixed these together and it was applied to my likely chafing areas (arm pits, nipples etc ) and generally as a sun bloc on my neck and back. It worked very well.
- I’ve noticed that often when I hear about unsuccessful swims and ask what the swimmer what the contributing factors were, the responses often include problems with feeds. So I was really nervous about this aspect of my first marathon swim. There’s lots of different thinking around feeds, and I think this blog post by Nick Murch is an interesting starting point.
- I also had a look at Lone Swimmer and Reminiscences of a Long Distance Swimmer .
- I’d tried maxim a few times, but didn’t react well to it. So tried UCAN as an alternative, which is a slow release carbohydrate mix. And the chocolate one is a bit like a milkshake! That appeals to me because I wanted to avoid peaks and troughs in my energy levels … But as the swim approached and it was clear it was going to be crazy hot I guessed I may well need to adapt that plan. Above all of course, keeping hydrated would be key. That included having electrolyte type drinks the night before and morning of the swim.
- I opted for first feed after 1 hour (water only) then feeding every 30mins alternating between UCAN and Water.
- My body is very good at telling me what it needs. I prefer cooler temperatures. Even in PE lessons at school, I would get heat stroke doing “cross country running” around the block in New Cross. I have a massive appetite and love of real food, so in the pre-swim supermarket shop I asked Charlie if I could share some of her cheese sandwiches if necessary and also bought salted crisps just in case.
- Sure enough a few hours into the swim, I was craving salt and a cheese sandwich. I also snuck a few snickers bars in just in case – food of the gods.
My learning on what works for me and how to execute feeds is definitely a work in progress!
Clip of Charlie talking through some of the kit for feeds…
Camp Eton and being crew on a Channel swim also demonstrated the importance of briefing and communicating with your team. I’d never swum this far before, so wasn’t sure how I’d react, but I talked through and put together a short briefing note for my crew about feeds, and flagged up that I thought some or all of the following would happen, which it did:
- I’d go into a sleep like state – and so would not be able to hear the crew easily. This happened very quickly. I couldn’t hear them shout that it was time for a feed, but they clocked what I could do, was see the fluorescent pink feed line, so they held that by the side of the boat until I saw it. They also communicated in a very gentle way. I recall at one point Charlie saying, “Ali, I know you’re meditating, but can you try and follow the boat a little more…”
- I thrive on positivity. I did want to hear messages from friends and family and most importantly I wanted the crew to have a fun day out (or pretend to be even if they weren’t). This wasn’t about lying to me about my swimming – saying I was going amazingly fast when I wasn’t – but about fun. Things like when it was relayed me that my friends son had offered to lend me his arm bands – wonderful – and that energy gave me energy.
- I would crave plain water and proper food as the swim progressed – and yes I very much did!
- I may get very determined and business like and very South East London. Yeah a bleep machine was more necessary as the swim progressed…
- I love chatting to people and wanted to know my crew were having a good time – but long feeds are not ideal for long swims for a number of reasons…IN my briefing note I flagged up I would probably need some help keeping chat to a minimum! I think my feeds ranged from 10s to a minute and more… It was also often a key time for Charlie to convey information and so on – more on that shortly.
- It’s a funny quirk of being human, but sometimes we can find it difficult to accept love and support and ask for what we really need and want. As I was swimming it occurred to me that the swim could not be a success unless I accepted my crew’s support whole heartedly and it was incredibly humbling and heart warming that they were there for me.
- I trust and respect Charlie and Jack and so I gradually relaxed into the swim and despite being in a sleep like state, tried to be an effective part of the team and meet my responsibilities in all this; that meant keeping in tune with how I was feeling and communicating my needs.
- Very early on I flagged up I needed antihistamine as my eyes were itching a little and I didn’t want that to develop further; and also asked for a neurofen early on as my jaw was aching for some reason (nerves? Not really sure what that was).
- Looking back at the log of the swim, it’s so impressive how switched on Charlie and the team were. I’d said before the start of the swim, that my swim didn’t officially start until I got to the Meilen Ferry which is roughly half way. I’d approached my longer swims like this a lot. In my six hour qualifier in Carlingford Lough, I told the crew my swim didn’t start until 4 hours had passed, and aiming to finish stronger than when I started…Coming up to the Meilen ferry Charlie had told me to “give it some gas” to ensure we could swim through that section without having to stop and wait for the ferry to pass.
- I went from a very relaxed 3 stroke breath to breathing every two strokes and pushing strong. I was “storming it” according to the log and we made it, but after that the oxygen had drained from my thighs and mentally, rather than being fired up (which previously I’ve experienced), I was a bit stunned. I was half way… F*ck… I’m half way. Wow.
- And my mind really wandered at that point. I was craving salt (no doubt a sign of the heat getting to me), and started exhaling saying the word love, with each breath – I was somewhere else; as the log states, my stroke rate dropped and then suddenly I felt vulnerable and became very anxious about the well-being of someone. I almost swam over to the boat to ask Charlie if she could make a call and make sure this person was ok. I was quite upset. It took a little while but I gently put that thought to one side and reassured myself that I could deal with that once we’d finished the swim.
- A cheese sandwich, lots of positive messages, some iced water and crisps later, I relaxed back into my groove. In the log book and in the whatsapp group Charlie talks about my stroke rate dropping. But that they aren’t telling me. And she asked that people send lots of positivity. She guessed correctly the heat was getting to me, but also that there was a lot of emotion going on – Charlie knows and respects my personal history and that was really important.
- When she told me I wouldn’t need to give it some gas again; I felt so relieved. I knew that I could keep a steady gentle pace indefinitey, that I was happy in that space, but if I kept having to put my foot down, it was going to get uncomfortable. At the same time, I know you always need to keep something in reserve and I was very conservative about that. Her words were spot on; calmed me down, and we were off again…
- I knew how hard the crew were working for me. It was the small things, like Jack saying “The water’s great hey!”, bringing my focus to the fresh cool water from straight out the ice box – it’s the simple things in life that are best.
- I felt centred and totally in the moment. There was no striving for the finish, willing the finish to get there. Although there was one never ending moment with one of the churches on the lake side, that never seemed to move – to the point where I did wonder if I was hallucinating!
Moments of magic
There were many, but include:
- Before the solo swimmers start, there is a one minute silence. I settled my breath, and felt the sunshine on my face and the gentle water around me. The swim started and I waited as the soloists swam away, then I dolphin dived into the lake – and the water held me and the sunrise shone down on my skin – beautiful.
- In the second- third section of the swim, I swam over underwater forests. Tall grasses a bit like willow, or elaborate starfish with buds on. I watched my fluorescent nails enter the emerald blue and felt so blessed to be part of this underwater world. My stroke rate slowed around this time again too … I was ‘elsewhere’… and the aptly named “Catch and Release” played in my head..
- The crew took dips off the boat to cool off and for toilet breaks. At one point Charlie was holding on to the steps at the back of the boat and riding along in the water – she knew to share that with me – I was so pleased she was having fun!
- “Ali… Ali…” I looked up and the crew were looking over the boat at me. “Ali, we’re just popping over there to get some petrol, ok? Just keep swimming in a straight line over that way and we’ll catch up with you again soon.” “OK”, I said, as if this was the most normal thing in the world, and I imagined their sail boat driving up to a BP petrol pump and may be picking up some M&S sandwiches…and off I went, demonstrating my natural propensity to veer left (oops), so that I think when the boat appeared again I was somewhat nearer the middle of the lake (it felt like the middle of nowhere – sssh don’t tell anyone but I loved that bit!).
- Tuna Turner’s house. Tina Turner’s house is about 5km before the finish. I made the tuna typo the day before the swim and it stuck. Add to that “Simply The Best” was my signature karaoke tune between 2006 and 2011. Swimming past her house, may be popping in to say hi, was a very exciting prospect… although when it came to it I was pretty much asleep!
- Around 10.5 hours in I thought “I recognise those trunks!”. To my delight my training buddy Mick was swimming next to me. He’d had a pretty eventful 72 hours prior to the swim, and I could tell that was taking its toll. His presence fired me up. “ Wicked, Wicked!”… “It’s just like Charlton Lido and we’ve got a 5km set left to do …” we swam so strong together for the next 1km or so and I kept breathing to my right to check in that he was happy. A truly special moment. It felt like we were invincible, and my support boat took on the personality of a pirate ship. What an adventure!
- The finish…So Close!
Interview at the finishhttps://alotusrises.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/IMG_1314.TRIM-2.mov
An International Swimming Convention
- The event attracts swimmers from around the world – South Africa, New Zealand, Ireland, England and Germany.
- I remember in 2013 being really daunted by the big shoulders and channel swimming accomplishments of my fellow swimmers. Yet quickly I was welcomed and wrapped up in the warmth of this special community. To be back in 2018 and reflect on the friendships and adventures since then, was really wonderful. Sunday would not have happened without the brilliant friends and mentors from across the outdoor swimming community who have supported me in life both in and out of the water. Thank you.
- Although I’ve been crew on a couple of swims, I’d like to crew alongside Charlie and other more experienced support crew, so that I can learn how to help swimmers execute a swim effectively and give back to the community I love. I also want to continue to build A Lotus Rises, and develop my swim teaching and coaching so that I can help more people to enjoy the water.
- In terms of swimming, I feel very content. Sunday was gentle and full of joy. Swimming is a sport for life and I certainly hope there are more adventures on the horizon (and that they will be at a cooler temperature than Sunday)! However, I think this clip best sums up how we can all enjoy the water in different and equally valid ways… About 20Km into my first ever marathon swim and I pass these guys similarly relaxing on the water…
- But above all I feel blessed and very proud of the work I have put in to address the very real challenge of trauma in my life. That was the backbone of this swim. For many years I didn’t even realise what I was experiencing and healing is a daunting process, but the rewards are so special. I am connected and I can feel again – the beautiful lake water, the sunshine, the compassion, love and encouragement of my friends and family – Of course, like all humans, I also feel anxiety, pain, suffering and anger, but I am no longer so afraid and can accept life’s duality. In turn, I am able to empathise and reciprocate – I am alive; and I am living and it’s wonderful.
芙蓉出水：Out of the water A Lotus Rises.
This blog is dedicated to my crew Charlie Masding and Jack McNulty, without whom I could not have realised this dream; The Women’s Swimming Collective; and to Bridget. Thank you x
Copyright Alice Gartland and Photos Credit Jack McNulty.