Trip to Europe summer 2019 – introduction & preparation
When the event calendar of TrailO world ranking events was published last year, I started planning the events and trips that I would go this year. One of the events that I would definitely go was FinTrailO, as I had good experience participating in the 2018 event, and this year there were 3 instead of 2 world ranking races, also I grabbed a cheap air ticket well before.
However, doing 3 in a year was not enough, as the best 6 results within 18 months are counted into the world ranking list, so I still needed to have another trip to make up the remainders. My initial preference was to wait until October and go to Sweden and Poland for 3 world ranking competitions. Fin5 seemed not that good because it was on a weekday so I needed to take extended leaves, and it was in some rural part of Finland so transport might be a problem (which finally turned out that it really was a problem), and I was already going for FinTrailO which was also in Finland as well, but as it was part of a 6-day programme consisting of both FootO and TrailO it was a great value if I could make it, and Sisu-TrailO was not on the event calendar yet.
My plan changed immediately when I clicked “like” at a travel agency called SwimTrek on Facebook in November 2018, then immediately I saw a post promoting a race tour in Istanbul for doing the cross-harbour race from Asia to Europe, and that day was the registration deadline of the tour already. The race is an annual swimming race well-known all over the world, and the general quota fills up fast every year, although some places are reserved for travel agencies. It starts at the Asian side of the city, crossing the Bosphorus following the flow going from north to south, and finishes at the European side of the city. The total length is 6.7 km, but because it is current assisted, it is effectively like 4 km, with time limit 2 hours. At that time, I was still a beginner in swimming and just finished the 3.7 km round Middle Island race in the same month, which was my longest continuous swimming at that time. Therefore I believed that the race would be suitable for my level 8 months later, as I was not fast enough to participate in the cross-harbour race in Hong Kong, this race would be a good substitute as both were so similar – cross-harbour races in the centre of a metropolitan city where the harbour was closed for the race, which are the iconic swimming race in the city. I checked the TrailO event calendar again, and found the swimming race was just on the Sunday immediately after Fin5 which was on a Tuesday, so I decided to have a trip to do both, first Fin5, then the Bosphorus race. As it would be the first time I was doing a swimming race outside my home country (which turned out to be not the first time, but the second), I thought it would be better to sign up for the travel agency group tour because I could get more support from the guides and fellow participants as a beginner, and I wouldn’t need to deal with the logistics like grabbing a place on the registration system when it opened, finding transport and booking accommodation myself, although it was much more expensive than going on my own. Therefore I signed up the tour. Afterwards, I signed for all races in Fin5 except the last day (as I needed to travel to Istanbul at the last day), 9 orienteering races in total. Then, Sisu-TrailO was announced as well, which would be held in Joensuu, not far from Tahko where Fin5 was held, on the weekend immediately before Fin5 as a training opportunity. Therefore I might do that as well, giving me 11 orienteering races in total.
This was my plan until March, where things changed again. In the beginning of 2019, I set myself a goal to complete marathon swimming by March 2020. I wanted to do Cold Half in Hong Kong, which is a 14 km rough ocean marathon swimming race held annually in January or February, probably the hardest swimming race in Asia in terms of difficulty, the only cold-water long distance swimming race known in Asia which is useful for channel training. It is not a popular race with participant number commonly in single digit, but well-known marathon swimmers around the world such as Julie Newton come and participate. I want to do that race specifically because it is the race which I can experience marathon swimming in cold rough ocean like channel swimming, right in my backyard.
I made a training plan which could build me up to that distance. However, one major problem was that, there were no races in Hong Kong above 5 km to bridge the gap between 5 and 14 km, and going directly from 5 to 14 looked like too much a jump for me. The Bosphorus race was too short to fill the gap because it was effectively only 4 km. Although there were longer races in other parts of Asia, they were all hot water races with expected water temperature above 28°C which I absolutely hated and would definitely become overheated racing in the hot sea. Therefore I looked at my trip to Finland, and see if I could find a race in Europe of about 7 – 10 km where there were plenty of cold and cool water long distance swimming races before I went to Finland, specifically on 13th July so that I could fly to Finland immediately after the race and join Fin5 starting 14th July, i.e. skipping Sisu-TrailO. I looked at UK Event Calendar website and found two races which might be suitable for me on 13th July. One of the most important considerations for me was separate divisions for wetsuit and non-wetsuit classes, i.e. participants using a wetsuit, if allowed, must be clearly recorded as such separate from participants in skin. One was Big Welsh Swim 3-way, 9 km total, in the U.K., another was LGSA (Lake Geneva) Classic, 13 km in total, in Switzerland. Although my target distance was 7 – 10 km in the summer, the Lake Geneva race was so attractive to me because
– it was a point to point swim across the width of Lake Geneva, from Lausanne to Évian. I prefer races which are one-way rather than two-way or even three-way.
– the expected water temperature was 20 – 21°C which was perfect for me.
– a previous race report said that the Geneva race was well-organised and ideal for someone properly stepping it up, “I really couldn’t envisage a more idyllic setting & event for someone attempting to increase mileage for the first time over 10km.”
– if this race could be done, I could achieve my target of becoming a marathon swimmer half a year earlier than my original plan.
Although it was still too big a jump from 5 to 13 km (not much different between 13 km and 14 km), as the race is held in a lake, I believed that it would be easier because there would be no tide, current and swell, and the time limit was 7 hours, which was very generous that my slow speed wasn’t an issue (the cold half 14 km in Hong Kong had a time limit of 6 hours), and I believed that I could complete it within 5.5 hours as long as I could complete the distance. There are 3 things to train for marathon swimming – the distance, the temperature, and the roughness, corresponding to endurance, acclimation, and speed. If I could complete the Lake Geneva race, distance would be no longer a problem and I could focus on speed and acclimation afterwards.
I signed up for the 13 km race just before I did my first 5 km race in Hong Kong. The trip was basically confirmed at that point – Lake Geneva Classic in Switzerland, Fin5 in Finland, and cross-Bosphorus race in Turkey. However, finally it turned out I made mistakes in my planning. Sisu-TrailO, which was held on the same day as Lake Geneva Classic, got WRE status afterwards. I planned to take a late evening flight from Geneva to Helsinki immediately after the race, stay in Helsinki for a night, and take another flight or train the next morning to arrive Tahko in time for the first Fin5 race which started in the afternoon. However, the last flight from Geneva to Helsinki departed at 19:00 which was too early after the race (I might not arrive in time after completing the race), and no flights or trains operated on Sunday morning from Helsinki to Kuopio despite frequent flights on weekdays, and although flight transfers to a different city in central Finland could be found which, if a bus could get me back to where Fin5 was held, could take me in time for the first race, they were too costly so I decided to abandon the first FootO race, and instead, take cheaper flights and trains which brought me to central Finland Sunday afternoon.
In hindsight, if everything was known in advance, I would be doing Sisu-TrailO, all Fin5 races, and a long-distance swimming race elsewhere in Europe the day when the Bosphorus race was held, i.e. 12 orienteering races and 1 swimming race, because I initially thought in November last year the Bosphorus race would suit my progress, but finally I was already doing marathon swimming after only 8 months of my first serious open water swimming race. I could only do 2 swimming races and 8 orienteering races in my final trip.
I ramped up my training in preparation for the 13 km race. I increased my weekly swimming amount from about 11 – 15 km to around 15 – 18 km after I did my first 5 km race and returned from my Nordic trip for FinTrailO. Most of my increase came from the open water swimming on weekend – I started off joining the Saturday group (about 3 km), and only did the Sunday group if I was not free on Saturday, and in June I commonly do both on the weekend, and I could now barely catch up the 5 km group on Sunday by some drafting which I couldn’t in the beginning of the year, which meant I swam about 8 km in total in open water during the weekend. I also had a few long swim practices with my coach Gary Lui who tried to improve my efficiency.