My version of cold water swimming

Reading and talking here and there I realized that the meaning of “cold water” is extremely flexible, and it depends on each individual. The FINA rules say that if at any point of the course the measured water temperature is below 18C degrees, then athletes are allowed to wear a wetsuit. As far as I know, 18C is also the average temperature of the English channel in July. The Meditteranean sea near the coasts of Italy in the summer can be 25~26C degrees, which is like my swimming pool. The Indian Ocean here in Perth is around 21~23C degrees in February. I think that depending on what you are used to, what is defined by “cold water” can be different. Then, you can also see photos of people jumping into iced pools, but I think that those are another story. My own personal definition of cold water is “if I come out and I am shivering, then the water is cold”. Unluckily, I found myself shivering for anything below 20C degrees.

I need to adapt to cold water. I am not afraid of swimming 20k to Rottnest island, I am afraid of staying some 5 hours in 22C water. When my friends introduced a Saturday morning river swimming session, I was the first raising the hand and stepping head. The Swan river in August is 15C. I had never been in 15C water before. Last week Saturday we did a short less-than-3k session at the pool and then we went down to the river. Mission: swimming 1k. Result: mission failed. We stayed in the water for less than 10′, we swam maybe 400m. It was not cold. It was COLD. And we also did a huge mistake: we didn’t wear any swimcap. No guys, don’t jump into 15C water without swimcap, it is not smart. At the bottom line, we decided to go back for the headache. And once out, my leg started shivering and stopped only 10-15 mimutes later, after I turned on the heater of my car. Anyway, I did ‘t reach my goal, but it was also the first time. The first step toward adaptation. I am lookin forward to go even just 100m further the next time. Maybe with a cap on.

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Lessons from a support boat

Boats ready for the arrival of their swimmer past the 1.5km mark.

Summer is near to the end. For me, it has been the first open water season ever. I entered several competitions, some with just a few participants and also some with a long history and hundreds of swimmers. However, if you swim in Western Australia you know that the mother of all open water swimming events is the Rottnest channel crossing. Nineteen point seven kilometers. There are two races organised across the channel: the Rottnest Channel Swim, simply known as “The Rottnest”, starts from Cottesloe beach and it is held at the end of February, and the “Port to Pub”, which leaves from Leighton beach later in March. Entries for The Rottnest close early as it is the most iconic and crowded swim, with more than three thousands participants divided into solo, duo or team sections. On the other hand entries for the Port to Pub are open until a few weeks before the competition. I had never though of swimming almost 20k in my life, but now I really want to take up the challenge. Crossing the Rottnest channel, and doing it in a race, is my next swimming goal.

How do you condition for an open water 20k? If I stick training with the awesome people of my informal squad, eventually I will get there. Many of them have done the swim several times, a few have tens of crossing under their belt. They know how to arrive fit ready at the start. But what is behind the preparation of the day you swim an off-shore 20k? This is called experience and it is not something you learn by doing day in and day out in a swimming pool. The race day could turn into a disaster for an off shore swimmer newbie like me. This is why  I promptly volunteered when a friend of mine needed some help on his support boat for a duo crossing at this year Port to Pub. I had just to keep timing for changes, to pull my friends swimmers on the boat, to communicate with the paddler and to “support” whenever something I could done was needed. In terms of reward, the experience on the boat has been invaluable.

A paddler and the swimmer.

The skipper and the paddler. A swimmer cannot make it to Rottnest without a support boat and a paddler. It’s not just a question of regulations or safety, I don’t think it is simply possible if you are racing. Our skipper was very good and experienced. Despite a forecast of currents from south to north becoming stronger half through the morning and suggestions from the swimming community to stay as south as possible after the 10th km mark, he just kept our swimmers slightly below the rhumb line, because by looking at the sea conditions there was no need to go more south, he said. And he was right. This is why I think he is a good skipper. Between the boat and the swimmer, there is the paddler. The paddler communicates with the swimmer and follows the route indicated by the skipper. Paddlers are often the unrecognized heroes of the channel crossing: they keep the swimmer on track, they pass them food and beverages, sometimes they need to force feedings and support morally the swimmer during the most difficult parts of the crossing. You need an experienced paddlers as much as you need an experienced skipper.

Wake up early on the day.
The first wave of the Rottnest is at 5:45am, the start of the Port to Pub at 6:10. This year, to have some breakfast and be on the boat on time I woke up at 3:30am. And all that I had to do was just eating a slice of brownie and drive to the Fremantle yacht sailing club. On the big day I really want to have breakfast before doing a 20k, but I will need time for logistic movements (taking my wife to the boat at the sailing club and then go to the start…or ask for a lift and some help…) and race preparation (registration, wool fat, wool fat, wool fat, anti chafing, zinc and sunblock).

This is what you need on the day: paddler and boat. The swimmer is on the middle.

Drinks and food. For drinks and food I understand that if you can stand it, then it’s ok. The best suggestion of all is to test a food or a beverage in advance to see if you can keep it down while swimming. Beverages? I heard that you can simply use Gatorade, but I may give a try to my own mix of electrolytes and fast release carbs. Somebody with many many crossings under the belt told me the secret weapon is degassed warm coke for the last 5k. Others swear on chocolate milk. On the boat they also had extra-sweet coffee. For food, a carb up one or two days before the event is advised, but then on the boat I saw hot cross buns, white bread, milk chocolates, bananas and even hard-boiled eggs.

Sunblock, anti-chafing and wool fat.
Looking at people ready to start the Rottnest and at my friends on the boat you can easily understand that sunblock and anti-chafing are never too much. For the sunblock, my friend says to apply a layer early in the morning, repeat the application later, and then to apply a further layer of zinc. This sounds to me a good idea if you have to stay under direct sunlight in February/March in Australia for four to six hours. Any form of anti-chafing is important as much as sunblock. I use vaseline under my armpits, around my neck and on my racing jammers seams when I do open water competitions, my friend uses an anti-chafing balm when he swims in the ocean, but for the crossing he goes for wool fat. A lot. I thinks the reason is that an anti-chafing balm is less messy, but it won’t last five or six hours. On the other hand wool fat is really messy and you won’t take it off easily. Wool fat is more likely to help you for all the duration of the crossing, and even if it won’t really protect from the cold, maybe it will help you feeling it a bit less.

Seasickness and hypothermia. Another friend of mine swam the Rottnest recently. She placed really well at the end, but when she finished her body temperature was 32 degrees. It’s incredible thinking to keep swimming and finish a 20k in rough sea conditions with strong currents even with such a low body temperature. Hypothermia is a real risk to calculate when swimming across the channel. I think that wool fat and hot beverages can help you to a certain degree, but they will never protect you. That friend of mine is really skinny, other people with more “natural fat” didn’t report any issue at all: natural fat is what can protect you a bit more from hypothermia. Maybe it is better to have some few more kilos around the belly than being pulled out of the water. Another problem that causes many people serious issues is seasickness. Especially with strong currents and high swell, seasickness can hit when you are most tired and already struggling through the waves. The problem is that with seasickness you won’t retain food and beverages into your stomach, and this sum up with fatigue and lack for energy: a recipe for disaster. My friend on the boat took a medicine for seasickness, you never know.

Almost there: the last few kilometers before reaching Rottnest.

Swimsuit.  People wear different styles of swimsuit depending on their starting wave. In the slower waves common bathers which are simple training swimsuit are the most popular choice, for men either as briefs or trunks. Personally I would rather opt for the former, but it’s a matter of personal choice. However in the faster waves then majority of people was wearing a racing suit. And here is the dilemma for me: leg pants or full body? The obvious answer would be full body, but is it ok to wear for 5 hours a really tight full body suit? I did 3 hours with my racing jammers on recently at a swimming pool meet, and I couldn’t stand it more: I did the final relay of the day wearing my briefs. If I decide to go for a full body I must find an effective way to prevent chafing, and also must wear the suit for several races in advance, to get used and so see where seams cause chafing. However, the fact that most fast swimmers in the crossing are wearing this model shows that maybe it is the suit to go for.

Finish.
The support boat must leave the swimmer at around 1k before the finish. The paddler can proceed a bit further but then they must leave too. The swimmer reaches the beach alone. There is a good recovery zone accessible just beyond the finish line, but it is better to decide in advance where to meet with the people from the support boat, because the finish area around the pub on Rottnest is heavily crowded and you will need your stuff soon as the only things you have with you are your goggles and cap.

I feel I must repeat this as a kind of disclaimer: I didn’t swim the race yet and these are just a few things that I learned by helping out two friends in their duo crossing. But I will and I really hope that as rookie I won’t get too many surprises.

A quokka at the pub.

Two steps head: Shorehaven 5k and Coogee 1.5k

On my way to Coogee, early morning

My last two open water events have been quite different: the first was a 5k while the second was an open water sprint, a 1.5k. In the first one I swam almost more than half race alone, nobody to follow and nobody following. In the second one I drafted for a few hundreds meters, then I decided that it was time to go, and I lead a small group of three until the final rush. Two quite different race conducts with the common thing that my only tactic has been a no-tactic: sprint at the start, hold it as long as you can and see what happens.

Shorehaven: ready to go

Shorehaven. This is my last 5k this season. Let’s just enjoy it, I have nothing to lose and nothing to win anyway. Sound of the siren. Go. Sprint. All buoys are in sight and the pack starts getting shape. The pack…I am not IN the pack, I am leading the pack. I am not supposed to be here. Slow down? Keep going? I feel good and I have nothing to lose, so just keep going. Second turning buoy, who is this guy coming up? It doesn’t matter, just swim side by side with him, I still feel good. First lap turning buoy, oh Jesus everybody looks like overtaking me from every side. White chops, some elbow, a few kicks. Well, draft draft draft…draft… … …draft…it’s another half lap done, turning buoy in sight but no draft anymore. They have gone, bye bye. Did I blew up after 1.5k? Did they just flew away after 1.5k? It is not important now, I must take home the last 3.5k. Keep this pace. Keep this pace. Don’t slow down. It’s hard when your only reference is people from slower waves, but don’t slow down. “Give up” is not in my dictionary. And after all, I don’t not feel that bad either, I am not hitting the wall. Not yet.

Out of the water toward the timing arch

End of the race, out of the water arrival, run through the timing arch: 1h 00′ 08″. Wow, what a time! PB! Was the course 5k? It’s more than 2′ improvement from two weeks ago in Rockingham, where I was already wondering whether the course length had been calculated correctly. Who cares, let’s take home my new best, the seventh place, and a little medal for the third place in the open category (18~34, even if I am 35).

Coogee, the 1.5k walk to the start line

 

Coogee. Last open water race of the season. Give it all, it’s just 1.5k, just a sprint. And come on, fifteen hundreds used to be MY race. It’s just a quick swim from there to here, from “jetty to jetty”. Yes, from there to here, and now I am talking with this really fast guy while walking 1.5k to reach the start at the other jetty. I don’t have a clear tactic, I never have one. I just start fast. Sprint. And then keep it. Keep going and try not to blow up. This is exactly what I will do. Horn sound. Sprint and high elbows because all these guys trying to getting head by pushing me down really suck. The pack is getting shape, and this is a nice pack, I mean there is a bunch of fast swimmers in this race. But today the pack doesn’t look like a “pack”…it’s more like a row. I am third. Great, nice draft, I am not putting in much effort, wonders of the draft maybe? I could go. I can go. I go. I am second but…the leader has already gone, I can just see his white chops in the distance. Nobody to follow and overtaking this other guy maybe has not been a good idea. But here I am and let’s play this game. Luckily this is a 1.5k straight race, just keep in sight the jetty over there and go head. Go head. Go. Now I am realizing that an open water straight race presents a little problem: no guess on how far I have gone and on how much is left. But the jetty is getting bigger and bigger, it must be a few hundreds meters to go now.

1.5 km final rush

I feel hands touching my feet. I knew they were there. I don’t know how many they are and how much they have left in their tank. It’s time to sprint. I will touch before them. You will never get me. I slap the arrival beam. Before them. Whoever they were. Second place in 16’59”. Good. Oh, yeah good.

Walking away after my 16’59”

P.S. I have still to figure out what happened at Coogee. Everybody was recovering from the Rottnest crossing, while I was not. However I am happy of my swim, under 17′ on a 15 hundreds…after 15 years and in open water. I put on my new baths, race jammers (Jaked Keel) instead of my plain common jammers (Orca). And I had a “new” breakfast: homemade chocolate brownie instead of my pre-race oatmeal. An additional energy boost for sure. I also tried some fast carb gel just before the race. Can a new bath, a slice of brownie and some carb gel explain a 16’59” on a 1.5k?

Sky above Coogee

Another go at 5k: OWS Rockingham round

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The long walk to the start buoys

My Rockingham round of the OWS in one word: surprise. I was surprised by my time, and I was surprised by my final position. Plus, I learned another thing that surprised me as well. Still improving, still learning, still making good experience, still enjoying the race: I couldn’t ask for more.

My final position. I arrived 5th overall and 3rd in my category. Now you may think “well, and so?”. Well, if you exclude the Albany round where not many people were around, Rockingham it’s my best placement to date in the OWS. It’s an improvement, and every tiniest step forward is always better than a step back. Also, I turned 35 in mid January, but since we are half through the season I am still racing in the open (18~34) category. A (small) medal in the 5 km in a OWS round: at the beginning of the season something that I had never considered. This alone was worth the day.

 

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Getting my reward for the day

My time. I was fast, but everybody was fast actually. Really, winners in all distances came in pretty quickly. You can have just two explanations for this, either the condition of the ocean was great or one lap of the circuit was less than 1.25 km. Maybe both, however I would bet that the circuit was shorter. Sea conditions also were great indeed, I had never seen such a flat ocean before. However this alone cannot explain my 12’24″/km pace, which I can barely hold in a pool training session on a 1k timed. No way I could hold it in the ocean for 5k. My time was 1h 02′ 06″, which officially is my PB. Let’s say another step head instead of a step back, but I am not giving it much weight.

 

 

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Always remember to return the transponder!

Pack and draft. The start was quick and the first three flyed away just after a few hundred meters. I though that I wouldn’t have gone far if I had tried to hold their pace, and I let them go. Or I should say that they just went. I was left with my training buddy and another guy. Nobody in front, nobody behind. Soon it was clear that we were going to stay together until the end and see who was the best sprinter. By the way, I was really glad to hold the pace of my training buddy, because it meant that I was doing a good race. And also I know that I wouldn’t have been wrong if I had followed them. As so it was. The three of us. Sometimes going in a straight line, sometimes side by side, sometimes touching each other feet, sometimes putting some distance, but always all togehter. For the record, the guy won the sprint, but I came in before my training buddy.

 

Buoys. In perfect sea conditions I am now good at following and turning around buoys. And I also learned that you can pass direction buoys on either side. Yes, I confess that I am realizing this at the end of the season, but at least I got it now. I also learned at looking carefully at all buoys before the start and memorizing their shape/colour. I know this is the basics of open water swimming, but I am still on the step side of the learning curve.

 

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Getting ready

Bad. What was bad of that race was mixing up after just one lap with the 2.5k wave. Not all people in the 2.5km was bad of course. Only one of the was. Yes, exactly, one swimmer in the 2.5km wave decided to be annoying and aggressive, and I finished the race with an elbow on my teeth and a dark mark under my eye. I don’t see the point of being aggressive even if you are in the same race, and I truly think that being aggressive when you are swimming a different race it’s indeed quite stupid. However, that is going to be the topic of another post.

 

Swim on Australia Day: Mandurah round of MSWA OWS

Sometimes you don’t win, but you are proud of your race. Some other times you win but you are not satisfied, you are not proud even if you were the first crossing the finish line. I must confess, the Mandurah open water event was an easy win because nothing, and nobody, pushed me. And I am not proud of my race because…actually it was not challenging.

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Start of the green caps wave (the 4km)

I think that on Australia day you have the largest choice of open water events of all summer. Most people were participating at the Sorrento round of the Swimming WA OWS. Sorrento has always been called the Rottnest reharsal with its possibility to do a 10km to qualify for the Rotto Channel crossing. More than 900 people gathered there to swim a distance from 1.25km to 10km. Many of those I trained with were there. So if Sorrento is so popular, why did I decided to go to Mandurah? Well, I had more than one good reason. I didn’t sign up for the Rottnest channel crossing, so I don’t need to do any qualifying 10km. Too many people means that the race become quite messy, and personally I don’t like it. The Sorrento round gives points only for the OWS series, and I am not competitive enough in that series (not yet at least). On the other hand, the Mandurah event was a Masters Swimming open water series event, and my goal for this season is to win this series. I just headed down to Halls Head’s beach simply to pursuit my goal. From this perspective, I can say “mission completed”.

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I think this is near the finish line

I won, I gained points for the Masters Swimming open water series tally, I got my prize. So why am I not satified? Becaused I didn’t push. I didn’t becuase the situation didn’t require it. Unlike the Swim Thru Perth, which was another masters event, here in Mandurah the average age of participants was much higher than mine. I lead from the first stroke to the last one, and I completed 4 km in 54’29” , which is a slower pace than the 5km at Matilda bay four days before, but nevertheless I finished almost 4 minutes before anybody else. But I didn’t really push myself, lack of motivation maybe, but it’s the truth. So I am happy of course. Happy, but not satisfied.

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Getting out of the water

The only things to point out about the race is how I followed, or better, how sometimes I couldn’t follow the course. It was a rectangular of 1km lenght, to repeat four times. Unlike most open water courses on Western Australia coasts which are oriented north-south, this was oriented east-west. The race held in the morning at 8:30am meant sunlight straight in the eyes for half of the course, and the glare made direction and turning buoys almost invisible. Fortunately one of the paddlers followed me for all the race, I think because I was leading, and he pointed me in the right direction a couple of times, when I was almost heading out toward the open ocean (first lap), or heading too inward the rectangular course (second lap). From the third lap I nailed the direction, finally.

Things to take home? A nice red mark on my left arm (still visible after 12 days), a present from a stinger I met during the warm up lap at 7:30am. I am getting used to stingers and jelly fish. I also take home a good training day in open water, one more opportunity to learn how to keep a pace without drafting. And also…I bring home with me the cash prize, which I already invested in a couple of “grown up” race jammers. Racing jammers don’t swim for you, but I still believe that their placebo effect sometimes can make a difference.

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Fast and Furious: Cottesloe Classic Mile

The Cottesloe classic mile was not on my plans. But I was convinced by my (super fast) training buddy to sign up for this event. Actually it was not difficult to convince me: I am really hooked with this open water stuff, Cottesloe is the nearest beach to my house, and a mile…come on it’s just 1600 m, no more than an open water sprint.

And really fast and intense it was.

I think that 4 adjectives can summarize well my Cottesloe mile: fast, intense, furious, illuminating.

The start

Fast. I don’t know what happened, maybe the siren used to announce the start was confused with that announcing sharks, but everybody started the race like a 50m sprint in a pool, not a 16 hundreds open water event. And of course, when everybody start fast you have to start fast. I realized after 200m that there was the same simple tactic in everybody’s mind: start as fast as possible, hold that pace and try not to pass away too soon.

You can guess from my expression that it was intense

Intense. Physically intense. A 1600m sprint demands almost any drop of petrol you have in your tank. No much more to say, either you are willing to use it all until you run completely out it, or not. If you give it all, you can come in at least on a decent time. For the position…well…that depends on the capacity of others’ tank. As for me, I am happy with my 19’23”, not too bad. I am not happy with the position, 19th male (and second in my last meet in the 30~34 category), but I arrived one minute after the winner, that means that at least I stayed (at the rear back) of the leading pack until the end.

Furious. People living on the coast of the Mediterranean sea through the ages developed a quite peculiar method for fishing tuna, called “cetarium” in Latin, “tonnara” in Italian and “almadraba” in Spanish. Google this if you don’t know what I am talking about, look at a picture and get an idea of what the race was like. People pushing, pulling, punching and swimming over each other. The law of the strongest dominated. If you wanted to stay head, you had to fight for your position. Literally.

Illuminating. This doesn’t mean that the sun was shining, although it was a great weather and wonderful sea condition indeed. The race was illuminating because it opened my eyes. I know that at the moment my performances in the ocean doesn’t reflect my times in the swimming pool. But at Cottesloe I couldn’t keep up with the pace of people who usually cannot keep up with my pace in the pool. And I am afraid that there isn’t any secret path to get better: if you want to be good at swimming in the ocean, you have to swim in the ocean. I lack experience, strategy, tactics, sea knowledge…basically everything you need in open water.

However I can take home from Cottesloe that…
…considering all variables, I am not that bad. Maybe.
…I still have room for improvement in ocean swims. Maybe.
…It will take time and plenty of strokes in open water to get better. For sure.

Cottesloe pylon

Training January 11th, 2017

Open water workout, 4 km (1h 5′)

Ocean swim of about 4 km, from Cottesloe Indiana to Swanbourne SLSC. Slow pace for the first part, medium pace coming back. Short rest at the height of North Cottesloe SLSC and Swanbourne SLSC. No wind and perfect ocean conditions.