We had left Värnamo defeated two years prior. This had been my longest swim to date in my new stroke, but 6h30 and 13km only took me to Vidösternsimmet’s third checkpoint, 3500m short of the fourth and about 8km away from the finish line. I had been cold, tired, but happy nonetheless.
Summer of 2014, the situation was slightly different. I was still on a high from completing the Channel in September 2013, but my training had been slowing down considerably since then. I had transitioned from almost-daily sessions to barely-weekly visits to either the pool or the lake. As a result I could not tell if I still had enough endurance and/or cold tolerance. Did I mention that I lost about two stones since September, falling from the mid-80s (kilograms) to the low-70s? Let’s consider it mentioned! In brief(s), the challenge was going to be to try to just complete the 21500 meters.
We drove to Värnamo on the Friday afternoon along with Nicolas Bathfield, another froggie-swimmer living in Gbg. Oh, he also won the race last year … but for him too, training had been, hmm, erratic. He seemed however determined to make the challenge ahead even more challenging by swimming the 2 kilometers from the campsite to the starting line (didn’t happen) and by deciding to drop the wetsuit and make this swim his longest in togs (did happen).
At the Friday evening briefing we also caught up with the third frog, Jacques Tuset, who’s in the middle of his latest challenges, the Seven Prison Islands challenge, where he is attempting to escape from, you guessed it, seven prison islands all around the world. Lake Vidöstern didn’t feature any prison, so maybe we should have offered to chain him up before the start?
Other familiar faces, usually on top of pairs of wide shoulders, were present at the briefing. The organiser, Adam Svensson, whose goal is to develop the swim into an even more popular event (almost 90 participants this year after 20 and 35 in 2012-13). The winner from two years ago, Ryan Provencher, always up for a challenge, would take part in both the 21km AND the 5km races …. if he managed to finish the first one in time to drive back to the start of the second race (he did it). Speedster Ted Molin, third the year before and showing great speed in the past few months in my favorite training pond of Lake Delsjön.
Fast forward to the next morning. We arrive just before 6:30 at the starting line. It becomes immediately clear that there are WAY more swimmers (and crew) than in 2012. We say Hi to a few friends, get the latest news on who is going to swim without a wetsuit (7 out of about 80) and go and collect the Safeswimmer buoy that was assigned to me. Apart from myself, the swimmers competing in only togs are the following: Jacques (of course), Nicolas (who had brought his wetsuit in his bag, “just in case”), Pawel Dudek (a Polish swimmer who has completed Vidöstersimmet twice already), Sale Savuel and Manfred Spitzwieser (two swimmers from Austria) and Anders Blomgren (one of my training partners, whose wetsuit broke the week before but who decided this would not stand in the way of his completing his second Vidösternsimmet!).
We all gather by the starting line, a drone is in stationary flight 20 meters above our heads, presumably filming us’all (I hope we’ll get to see some footage), countdown to the start … and … BOOOOM! They fire an actual cannon. Everybody is stunned for about a second or two but all end up taking their first steps into the lake. That part of the lake is very shallow, it takes perhaps 100m, maybe more for it to be more than knee-deep.
There starts the navigation. The concept of the swim is that one shall take oneself to four checkpoints, three of which are on land, and the navigation is up to the swimmers. The organisation has posted 20+ large yellow buoys over the 21.000m of the course, some of them indicating the best line, some of them indicating some shallower areas and some others having been accidentally displaced!
I have a tendency of starting races/crossing rather aggressively, but due to the lack of training I decide to take it relatively easy, focusing on my technique, counting my strokes. After about one hour I reach the first stop, a pair of large rafts featuring loads of food. I take in a sort of gel (more liquid than an actual gel) and most of a Snickers plus a couple of cups of water. Pawel and Nicolas are on my heels coming at this stop and leave before me.
The second stage was swam partly in fog, which I really enjoy. There was just enough to make you feel like you were flying in the middle of a cloud but at the same time it was still possible to see (just barely) the next buoy in the distance. Sighting, adjusting the direction, taking twenty strokes and repeat. During this second stretch I was taking quite an outside lane, not ideal for racing I guess, but I was not too far away from a couple of other swimmers (not completely off course then) and at least it didn’t get too crowded around me, plenty of space to swim freely and most importantly ENJOY the experience. I was still taking it relatively easy, not being too worried about things and my body seemed happy with everything. The excitement came from a viking ship (I ship you not) passing the lot of us on its way to the second stop.
The second stop got reached by myself and a few other swimmers. I grabbed a liquid-gel-thingy, held it up and proposed a toast to the amount of fun we were having, only to press it a bit too much and end up with half of it – sticky yellow substance – on my chest. Fabienne, Jacques’s wife suggested that we get back in the water quickly. It turned out that Jacques had been staying no more than one minute at each stop when I, for instance, was spending a good 4-5 minutes chatting happily with Greta, other swimmers and swimmers’ partners.
The third stage of the swim was a 5500m. I don’t remember too much apart from swimming alongside reeds for seemingly forever. I had counted my strokes up to about 5000, thinking that this would bring me to a point where I could see the next checkpoint. Not quite. I had yet to reach a yellow buoy marking a sharp-ish turn to the left and leading to the last (long) stretch. When reaching the checkpoint I was significantly more tired than at the previous one but still turning my arms happily enough. Another 4-5 minutes to feed, talk, stretch a bit, catch up with Nicolas and Pawel and off we went for another 3400m.
This was for me the hardest bit. For about 30 minutes I felt completely drained, I tried to slow down my stroke some more and focus on pulling efficiently but it didn’t feel like I was going anywhere. That’s the mental part of marathon swimming. Just keep on going, you’re actually still moving forward despite how it feels, so just keep at it. And then all of a sudden I was on the other side of it, I was once again able to increase my stroke rate and my pull wasn’t feeling too weak anymore, yay!
I didn’t quite manage to catch my two non-wetsuit colleagues before the final “depå”. Pawel left not long after I arrived and Nicolas was there pondering if he should call it a day as he was starting to get cold. We talked a bit, decided to get back in (“It’s warmer in the water”), start swimming strongly (“Turn your arms like a windmill”) and use other warming-up strategies (“Did you pee recently?).
There were only five kilometers to the finish line. After a little while focusing on passing the buoys from the right side to avoid the very shallow and rocky bits I took a quick look at my watch and, assuming that I had covered about half of the 5000 meters, calculated that I had a chance to break 7 hours. Unfortunately I was off by a consequent amount and surely wasn’t close to the half-way point when I did the math. I could still see Nicolas in the distance, my advice of turning one’s arms quickly had backfired on me and he was now a couple of minutes ahead of me!
I was sighting on a large house close to the bridge we were due to pass under right before reaching the end of the swim. As always it took much longer than I thought to actually reach it. But at that stage I didn’t care anymore. I was so relieved to know that I was going to finish the swim and didn’t have the pressure of pushing harder to either catch up with someone, not letting someone pass me, or break the seven-hour barrier, as none of these scenarii were now likely. I reached the finish line at 14:17, climbed onto the wooden pontoon leading to the “Interview zone” and more importantly, the jacuzzi!
Final impressions, in no particular order:
- I managed to swim from A to B to C to D to E to F without complaining once!!
- Got really surprised at how my body reacted. I thought I had lost most of my endurance since last September, turned out I had a bit left.
- Greta wants to travel to Värnamo again next year. She got a lot of fika from the organizers!
- Seven non-wetsuiters at the start, seven at the finish. Well done to Anders and Nicolas who managed their longest bioprene swim!
- Finished 33rd out of 66 (overall) and 4th out of 7 (speedos). Right in the middle. “Lagom” like they say in Sweden. I’m a real Swede, liksom.
- There was a very friendly/family atmosphere throughout the day, in spite of the massive increase in the number of competitors.
- The winner, Ted Molin, broke the course record by over 30 minutes and got it down to 5 hours and 19 minutes, impressive!
- A great number of swimmers increased their PB dramatically this year even if the conditions weren’t much better than last year. Among others, Maggie Timossi and Jarek Figas!
Here’s the link to Vidösternsimmet’s website. They intend to increase the number of competitors even further next year. See you there?!?