Why have I changed so much after becoming an endurance athlete?

Why have I changed so much after becoming an endurance athlete?

I have notice that, this year, I am now becoming more and more like an endurance athlete as opposed to having a “normal” lifestyle. Before 2018, apart from work and study, my life was prosperous and all-rounded. I did a lot of sports, mostly sailing and orienteering, and also running, swimming, and mind sports such as competitive programming, mahjong and bridge as well as long as they didn’t become too physically demanding. Among them, I achieved a high level in orienteering, having qualified for the élite class in sprint orienteering and as a national representative in trail orienteering. Apart from sports, I had a great scouting life and leadership development as well, participating in scout camps, attending leadership skill classes, helping orienteering training courses and competitions. Also, orienteering had brought me to the world of solo travel and sports tourism, which I started travelling in 2017 for orienteering competitions, and visiting interesting places such as Kaliningrad and Kinmen as part of my trips.

Now, in 2019, I’ve noticed that swimming has already taken over most of the other things that I did in the past. For example, in the first year after graduation when I worked at HKU, I still played bridge in the bridge club, but now, despite still working at HKU, I have not played bridge in the club in the year anymore. Before 2018, I sailed with Kingston and his team members at RHKYC in the Dragon class, but now I’ve been off the boat for a year already. I’m also no longer keen on learning new skills as well – I signed up for a scout lifeguard course in August when I was taking a break off my swim training, but didn’t complete it due to schedule problem when supplement lessons were continuing to September onward when I started to resume my normal training amount. The only main things which haven’t been taken over is orienteering which I’m already at a high level, and running which serves as a cross-training between swimming and orienteering.

My interest in open water swimming started in late 2014 when I noticed that there was an open water swimming group in Hong Kong led by Ian Polson, because I loved the feeling of being in the sea, floating and sinking in the salty water with nothing else around me and nothing but water to support my weight, and also swimming uninterrupted without the limits of the wall. However, having no formal freestyle swim training at all, at that time I couldn’t even catch up anyone in the group and they suggested me to have some lessons. Therefore I did not swim with the group afterwards. I eventually took lessons in 2016 and started swimming with the group in late 2018 and also joined a squad as well when I finally could barely catch up the group. At that time, I was still having a “normal” lifestyle, still sleeping and waking up at normal hours, still sailed in the Dragon class on some of the weekends, and still joined most scout camps and activities in my rover crew. I did my longest swimming race, the 3.7 km MMIC, in November, and signed up a tour to do the cross-Bosphorus swim race in July 2019 as part of my orienteering trip to Europe afterwards. I didn’t consider these races endurance sports because they were not long in duration (within an hour and a half, the same duration as most forest orienteering races) and could be completed (not to be meant competitively) with minimal endurance training, unlike running a marathon.

However, as my orienteering friends had done full marathons one by one, I felt that they were inspiring me to do one as well – however – as running was a pain for me (my ankles and feet normally became painful after about 13 km of running) and I loved open water swimming, I had chosen to try marathon swimming – the swimming equivalent of a marathon which is 10 km or more of continuous unassisted swimming in open water – instead. I then set a goal at the new year of 2019 to complete a marathon swimming by March 2020, having Cold Half as my target race with about 1 year of training – which is considered an adequate training period from a beginner to a full marathon in the running world. As a marathon is a textbook example of an endurance sport, I, by definition, set my goal to become an endurance athlete. At that time, I didn’t expect becoming an endurance athlete would lead to such a great change in my life.

I formulated a plan which my training increased progressively from my then-current level to the level appropriate for a 14 km marathon swimming race, and tried to find intermediate races to bridge the gap between 3.7 km and 14 km within the year of 2019. Eventually in July I did a 12.5 km race from Lausanne to Évian, which meant I completed my marathon swimming goal half a year earlier than planned. However I didn’t stopped training as my original intent was to do the Cold Half in 2020, and that race from Switzerland to France was just a stepping stone to my original target race. The Cold Half has a significance to me because it is held in my home city, “right in my backyard” in the familiar stretch of water where I swim every week, and also being the only possibly-cold water marathon swimming race in East Asia (There are a lot of marathon swimming races in South East Asia but they are too hot for me, where the expected water temperature can reach 29°C. There is one in Hong Kong as well, the Clean Half, which I did it in a relay team this year because I didn’t think I could sustain 6 hours in 29°C water under the October sun but that was the perfect chance to prepare for the Cold Half because the race course was the same.)

Early this year, I had a few lessons with Gary which improved my technique and my endurance a lot, combined with the squad training which led to my success in my first marathon swimming from Switzerland to France without any pain or injury that I could still swim well just 2 days after the race in a Finnish lake. I even wanted to do longer races afterwards as I felt that I hadn’t reached the limit that my body could tolerate in my training. However, my speed had become a major concern for me because of 2 reasons:

  1. I might not meet the cut-off time of Cold Half at the predicted speed given my previous race results, in case the current is less than perfect.
  2. There is a group of marathon swimmers, probably the only marathon swimmers in the city apart from the Hong Kong team doing élite FINA 10 km races, swim a lot of interesting courses far from land ranging from 7 to 17 km on most Saturday mornings (e.g. Shek O to Repulse Bay) which I will definitely enjoy. However, I couldn’t join them (which I still can’t on the day of writing) because I am too slow to catch up them, which made me extremely jealous and limited my enjoyment in open water swimming.

The 2nd reason above still applies now. I started open water swimming because I enjoy swimming long distance in the sea without limits which is the perfect description of the marathon swimmers’ group as well. However, it won’t be safe to swim alone in the open sea kilometres from land so the best thing to do is to swim with a group, which not many places in the world have such. (The alternative is to find a support paddler myself and do solo-style swims but it is more difficult and costly to arrange due to the availability of a kayak and a support paddler – swimming with a group does not cost anything.) The groups that I commonly swim in now (which I couldn’t even catch up before 2018) normally swim 3 – 5 km a time but this is too short for my enjoyment, but the Saturday long distance group is too fast (about 20 – 25% faster than me – i.e. about 20 minutes difference for 5 km) for me to join. Therefore the only way I can get enjoyment is to get my speed up to catch up with the long distance group, but 20% improvement, or 20 minutes over 5 km is not a small number which I don’t have confidence if I can reach that before I eventually leave Hong Kong to find a better life in Europe a few years later, especially I didn’t get a lot of improvement in the past year, only about 6% in the whole year despite marathon-level swim training which I was not satisfied at all.

I once said that I was not willing to train for fitness as I believed that improvement in swimming comes from technique change. In fact, when I realised that I needed to train for fitness to further improve, I gave up the sport. This happened in orienteering, specifically that when I reached élite level in sprint orienteering in Hong Kong, people told me that if I wanted to get into the Hong Kong team, I would need to train my run fitness such that I could run 5 km under 19 minutes. Because of that I had given up hope to reach the national level in sprint orienteering and now I’m only doing it for fun, and focusing in trail orienteering instead where running speed is not part of the race.

However, I’m now finding myself working in interval sets which definitely needs fitness despite the saying above because it is the standard way to train for speed, although I’m still getting improvement from technique change, I need to make sure that I can get used to the change even at race speed and it takes interval training to do that. In summertime I couldn’t do a lot of high-intensity interval sets because I would quickly become overheated and couldn’t swim fast anymore (that’s the reason I don’t do marathon swimming in South East Asia or the Clean Half in Hong Kong where the expected water temperature is 28 – 29°C), but now, as the summer has gone and the pool temperature has gone down to a comfortable level (under 24°C), I am finding myself that I’m now doing intervals at a speed which I couldn’t do last year (for example 8 x 100 m on 2′ returning 1’47” on average, while just a few months before I was doing 10 x 100 m on 2’10” returning 1’58” on average), and doing longer and longer sets (e.g. a main set of 15 x 400 m on 9′ returning 7’54” on average, while in last year I was lucky to swim a single 400 m under 8 minutes!).

Moreover, training 5 times a week on a single sport was a thing that I never thought of before becoming an endurance athlete. Until last year I normally trained only once or twice per week, at most three times for both orienteering and swimming, but now 4 or 5 days per week swimming is my regular life (I’m not adding the 6th day because my body is tired when I swim 5 days a week in high intensity, and I currently cannot sustain 6 consecutive days all in high intensity). I normally swim in the evening after work in the past but eventually I swim more and more in the morning before work as most squad sessions are in the morning, and from November to March the university pool I use does not open in evening when convenient express buses and minibuses are available, forcing me to swim in the morning instead that I have to wake up before 05:00, take the first slow 970X cross-harbour bus in the morning before sunrise and walk down the hill for 12 minutes for the university sport centre in the 2 months after I got hit from my back on my motorcycle (which I didn’t get injured but the repair work took nearly 2 months).

Also, I’m now reading stories of channel swimmers and thinking the possibility to do some solo-style channel swims as well, which are considered the ultimate challenge of open water swimming. In 2017, Simon swam around Hong Kong and broke the record. At that time I didn’t even notice the news as I was not yet a swimmer. In 2018, Edie swam around Hong Kong. At that time I was just a beginner swimmer and found this was incredible that Edie had become my idol. I had no idea what it took to swim around Hong Kong, which is longer than crossing the English Channel. In 2019, Alex swam around Hong Kong and broke the record by nearly 2 hours. When he announced the attempt in early August I was already a marathon swimmer at that time, with some understanding about marathon swimming training. I was shocked that he was attempting to swim around Hong Kong just 3 months after he started open water swimming while people commonly recommend not less than 1.5 years for English Channel training! He had become my new idol as he did my dream swim – a Hongkonger and HKU alumni swims round Hong Kong starting and ending just outside the training place of HKU. I followed and read his Instagram nearly every day before the attempt, went to the start to watch him 04:30 5th November, and watched the live video and tracker for nearly the whole day except the few hours when I was in the pool next to the starting place. Also in September when Sarah did the unprecedented 4-way channel crossing, I was watching the live tracker as well, especially near the end of her final approach on the 4th way.

Why have I changed so much after becoming an endurance athlete that I have put away most of my other hobbies, doing my training at a level which I considered to be extreme in the past, swimming distance which even most triathletes think that’s too long (when I tell triathletes I’m doing marathon swimming a lot of them think 3.8 km is enough for them), and planning to get the possibility to do something which no other Hongkongers have done before? Is my desire in open water swimming strong enough that I’m really willing to do 5 km hard sets in the winter morning for the hope to eventually catch up the marathon swimmers’ group maybe after a year, or 2, or 3, or 4? It took me 4 years between I first noticed Ian’s group and eventually swam with them! Are endurance athletes really different from normal people? I just don’t know if I should brand myself as an endurance athlete or not.

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