Conquering the Zurich Lake – 26.4K Swim

August 6th, 7:02am –  I started the 26.4 km long swim-race in lake Zurich. If only a year or two ago someone told me that this would happen, I would have laughed a man in the face… But sometimes turns in destiny can acquire high speeds.

I first heard about the marathon swim in Zurich Lake, organized by the Sri Chinmoy Marathon team, in 1991. Such distances could not fit at all in my head, especially in swimming. In my youth, I attended swimming classes for about half a year. Since then, I remember the unpleasant peeling on the skin after chlorine in the swimming pool. After 35 years, chlorine acted the same way, but it was only necessary to anoint the skin with moisturizing cream, and this aspect of swimming in the pool was forgotten.

I saw the start on the lake several times on video, but when I went there myself, everything seemed much smaller: the pier, the changing house, the bay at the start. This often happened to me before: you watch Times Square on TV, and then you find yourself in the same square live and amazed …

Few days before the start, I clearly saw and lived through this moment already: we stand in the water near the starting logs, a minute of silence, start, and the thought  flashes “and here it begins”. So it all happened in fact.

It was drizzling in Rapperswil in the morning of the start, and the water temperature was probably 21-22 degrees. It was not cold, but because of the pre start excitement I did not get a tooth on the tooth during the start. But as soon as I began to build up the pace and work with my hands – I noticed that the water temperature was very pleasant.

In the swimming section, I did not have much time to distinguish myself. I remember only my children’s admiration for coaches’ leg muscles. Who would have thought that over time mine will not be any worse… u

These lessons in the swimming pool at the age of 12 laid some foundation in technique. The first time I started to remember about it was in 2013, when I was inspired to perform at a full distance Ironman. That year there was certainly a lot of work, long training and certain breakthroughs. I remember that after my longest training in the pool, when I swam nonstop 3.5 km in 1:16:31, I was very happy. I came to the conclusion that 3.8 km in Ironman competition was quite within my power. Bt the volume of training of that year is of no comparison with what I had to do in 2017 to prepare for the longest swim of my life.

After the start, there were certain waves on the lake, but as I was full of energy, it was not a big hindrance. My boat team found me quickly after a single start for solo swimmers and, according to our agreement, started leading me, staying a little bit ahead of me and to my left. Although I can breathe on both sides while swimming, I prefer the left side. Every time I breathed in, I saw and navigated to the boat, avoiding lifting my head to look forward, because the speed would be reduced significantly. You lift your head – your legs fall, you lose a horizontal line of the body and dramatically increase the resistance of water.

I must say, I was very lucky with my boat team. Satyagraha from Moldova helped me once at the 3100-Mile Race, and Andrei from Moscow was preparing for eight months on a rowing machine in the gym. And then it turned out that he was preparing to be my helper. He already had the experience of accompanying a swimmer last year at the same event. I must say that it depends greatly on boat pilots how many miles you swim in open water: the shortest way from Rapperswil to Zurich is about 26.4 km. But can be all 28! They navigated me perfectly!

The very inspiration to swim Zurich Lake came during New Year’s meditation in Greece. Then, I finally took up the challenge and began to prepare my training plans. But I faced another challenge – application deadline was last November! The number of swimmers is limited by the number of boats that the organizers can provide. Usually it’s around 60. In this year’s swim, there were 37 solo swimmers and 13 relay teams with 2-3 people.

So I called the organizers with the question of my participation, and the main concern on their part was my swimming experience, which was clearly not enough for such a distance. We agreed that in the spring I will perform in the 6h swim or something similar, and then we will return to the question of my participation.

Of course, in the beginning, I was seized with panic – according to my constitution, I am not a swimmer at all. And I need to maintain good speed for 12 hours! I began to throw questions at my friends, including those who have finished Zurich lake or crossed the English Channel. Gradually peace came to me – everything is possible. I must train a lot and work hard on the technique.

Earlier, I already wrote about my 10K performance in Miami in May 2017. I will only say that this was preceded by several real breakthroughs in technique and endurance. By May, I was already practicing 5-6 days a week with a total volume of about 25 km per week. My result of 3:24 at 10 km played a decisive role for Zurich Lake organizers to put me on the starting list. I was officially in the game, and I had a boat with two helpers. The final months of training required an increase of training volume, constant work on the technique, and an addition of open water practice. So I trained in the Atlantic Ocean once or twice a week throughout June and July.

The first 10 km at the swim in Zurich, I covered in 3: 15.38 – average pace of 3.1 km / h, even considering the stops for food every 2 km. I was very happy. However, the challenges were about to begin.

I also said earlier that Total immersion technique was of great help in my preparation. But I worked it much deeper than in 2013. Plus at some point, I bumped into the limit of my speed that seemed to not be changing, although I felt I could swim a little faster and with better technique. I picked up my notes from the preparations for Ironman and remembered the comment of one of my coaches on “weak shoulder and high elbow.”  I worked  through this issue, too – a good help was the video and the book by Olympic champion Sheila Taormina. In the end, I had a combination of Total immersion technique and the classic beginning of the stroke with an angle in the forearm, close to 90 degrees.

I had to become not so much a fast swimmer, which is the goal of majority of swimmers in the training sections, but an endurant one – to hold good speed for hours and hours. In other words – I needed to learn how to be the most economical and efficient in my voyage. I bought a swimming heart rate monitor, and it turned out that even at a low pace of 2:06-2: 10/100 m my heart rate jumped up to 150 BPM. If I weren’t to optimize power consumption, I obviously could not endure the 12 hour swim at this heart rate. Gradually, it became more possible – in the beginning of summer I could already swim 10 km at a pace of 2: 00/100 m with the heart rate of 135-130. After my two longest workouts for 16 km in the pool my pulse was 125 beats per minute. The task was solved!

Below are some of my personal records during preparation period:

The largest swimming volume per week – 33.38 km (11 hours 20 minutes)
The longest swim in the pool – 16 km 50 m 5:40:23
2 km  – 36:34
1 km  – 17:44
100 m –  1:40
50 m –  0:47
25 m –  0:21

I was very happy with my progress! Needless to say, when you are happy, you can do impossible things that others can treat very critically. For example, swim 26 km, being not a swimmer from birth.

The key point that helps make energy consumption efficient is the horizontal line of the body. By nature, my feet tend to drown. Plus, many years of long distance running played its role. The advice of Full immersion technique alone – to immerse the head under water, put pressure on the lungs, which play the role of the float axis in the water – did not bring the desired result. I imagined that a certain force lifts my feet in the water. After six and a half months of training the body was very much adjusted to my goal. Legs lost weight, shoulders gained – it turned out that the center of gravity shifted higher and I became more horizontal in the water. For the swim I bought neoprene shorts, which additionally lift the lower part of the body in water. Once in the pool I swam 16 km in usual swimming trunks for 5:40. Week later – in neoprene  shorts – 5:17. I won by 23 minutes! So the decision came to swim in shorts – that’s why I ended up in the wetsuit category.

Somewhere around 11-12 km of swim in the lake, nausea appeared, and gradually increased. Although I have never had an experience of seasickness before, I realized in time that that’s what it was, and not a reaction to my nutrition. Before the swim, I asked Satyagraha to take his signature tablets against seasickness for Alakananda, since she was confident she would need them. But I needed them first! Tablets are bitter-salty – very nasty (Rodavan N). But they did their job perfectly. After all the contents of my stomach came out – I felt better, and after 20-30 minutes after the pills I felt very confident. This period was the slowest in the swim. My helpers even became agitated, if I could meet the 12 hour deadline. But I gradually gained power and returned to almost the original speed. As my GPS watch died in the beginning, I still do not know the exact distance that I swam. Somewhere around 26.4 km. The average speed was about 2.6 km/h, and that is including all the stops for food, every 40 minutes. But the average speed in motion was higher – about 2.8 km/hour. In my case – this is a huge achievement!

During my long workouts, I gradually composed my eating strategy. It turned out that it was very much like in long distance running. All gels and clif blocks worked fine here. After 10 km I started taking MCT oil, which plays the role of fuel at super long distances and is also easily digestable. Plus L-carnitine, which helps break down fats (in particular MCT oil), and also speeds up the withdrawal of waste products from the muscles. In other words – prolongs their efficiency and endurance. All these findings have been known for a long time from my 3100-Mile Races. It was also obvious to me that I need to eat some solid food, since performance of 12 hours requires not just solar energy. But all my friends on long swims always had this problem – in horizontal position, the stomach often returns solid food.That’s when I thought of the apple sauce for kids! And it worked great. I spent a lot of long workouts on these delicate smooth purees. Then I discovered that the sports company Clif also has a puree for athletes. This determined my choice.

When I already was in Switzerland, I also found vegan mozzarella, made from cashews. Wow! Wonderful taste, tender consistency – it could even be squeezed out of the package. And organic proteins! I planned several feasts in the second half of the swim. And it also worked great, especially when combined with the MCT oil.

 Zurich Lake becomes deeper, windy, water – choppy the last kilometers of the swim before the finish. The temperature of the water was also dropping – in fact, the last third of the distance I was freezing. But everything was tolerable. The last test before the golden shore. I was surprised that the familiar fatigue and even the pain in the shoulders were almost completely gone. What hurt were the muscles and joints just below the elbow, which hold the palm firm. It seemed to me that I could not make a strong stroke any more. Plus i had chafed shoulders and armpits. But I was so close to the finish line – I said to myself that I just do not care. I’ve already seen the finish arch on the shore in front of me!

My time was 9:53:27! I coped with the distance 2 hours before the time limit.

There were some surprising coincidences:

  • It was the 30th jubilee swim
  • On this year’s t-shirt there the was a big swan (my second name is Swan)
  • I became the first Ukrainian to cross the Zurich Lake

Well, another extraordinary project is completed. All the experiences that are gained through great difficulty and challenges, leave a special trace in your life full of inspiration. Because you see that you can be stronger than challenge of impossibility. Zurich Lake swim is one of them.

More information

Site of the Swim
Official Swim results
Video of the start from drone
This article in russian