Cold Half 2020 – race report

Cold Half 2020 – race report

I have completed Cold Half on Sunday, which has become my second marathon swimming race. Here’s the race report.

Race information

Race condition

  • Air temperature: 17 – 20°C
  • Water temperature: 19 – 20°C
  • Wind: BF 3 at the beginning, BF 0 at the end

Goals

Goal Description Completed
A Complete in 5 hours No
B Complete in 5.5 hours Yes
C Complete without being the last place among non-wetsuit swimmers Yes
D Complete without being cut off Yes

Race plan

My support paddler was Gary Lui, who gave me a few lessons early last year to improve my form and we practised together about my feeding in spring last year. We also did the Clean Half last year in a relay, switching every 30 minutes with the exact same course and we completed in 06:24:06, therefore we were familiar with the course already.

me and Gary Lui
me and my support paddler Gary

After checking the marine current forecast, the current would be with us most of the time, so I predicted my best possible scenario to be the following, with about 5 hours finish time.

Turning point Place Distance (km) ETA Actual split time from live tracking
Start Stanley 0.0 10:00 10:07:03
1 To Tei Wan 2.0 10:52 10:54:29
2 Tai Tam Tau 5.4 12:03 12:08:17
3 SW of Round Island 10.1 13:28 13:44:23
NW of Round Island 10.5 13:34
4 W of Middle Island 12.5 14:22 14:47:29
Finish Deep Water Bay 13.8 14:56 15:21:29

My feeding plan was to take a feed of about 600 mL of Lucozade every about 50 minutes, therefore if I went well according to the above scenario, my feeding points would be:

  1. 10:50 at To Tei Wan
  2. 11:40 at about 2/3 of the way from To Tei Wan to Tai Tam Tau
  3. 12:30 at about 1/3 of the way from Tai Tam Tau to Round Island
  4. 13:20 nearly arriving Round Island
  5. 14:10 at about 3/4 of the way from Round Island to Middle Island
Cold Half course map
course map

Moreover, among the competitors, I knew that Alan Boydell was about the same speed of me, so in case if we met, I would try to stay together if possible. However, nearly all the other people were much faster than me so I wouldn’t try to catch up them in the race.

Pre-race

I took a complete rest from Thursday onwards after I swam on Tuesday and ran on Wednesday, which meant I skipped the OW group swim on Saturday as well. On Saturday I slept till noon to compensate my missing sleep thorough the week. All I did on Saturday was to have lunch, then to go to the supermarket, and to have dinner.

I chose to start at 10:00 because I was a slow swimmer and expected nearly 6 hours to finish the race. The registration started at 09:00. I took the usual combination of buses, 171 then 73, from my home to Stanley and arrived there at about 09:00. My support paddler, Gary Lui, arrived at about 09:30.

I believed that the race would be an easy race because it was not cold, it was not rough and the current was with us, not much different from my first race in a lake in terms of temperature and water condition apart from the current.

There was a reporter from a foreign television channel who interviewed some of the well-known swimmers doing the race, including Simon Holliday and Edie Hu.

The race

Start to To Tei Wan

The race started at 10:07:03. The wind was BF 3, which meant the sea was a bit choppy but not too much to the extent of whitecaps. We aimed at the top of the hill at the opposite shore for a red buoy near To Tei Wan, which was the first turning point. I aimed there well and rounded the red buoy tightly slightly faster than predicted.

To Tei Wan to Tai Tam Tau

A few minutes after I rounded the first buoy, about 2.2 km from the start, I took my first feed at 10:55. Then we headed straight to Tai Tam Tau. I was staying with Leo Chan for a significant portion on this leg, however Leo Chan was much faster than me, so I didn’t try to catch up him and stayed on my own pace. I took my second feed at 11:45 at 4.5 km estimated. The waves started to become larger from there, and as I approach Tai Tam Tau (nicknamed “The Wall”), I started riding on the waves.

Tai Tam Tau to Round Island

I took my third feed at 12:35 at about 7 km. At that moment the sea ceased to be choppy. From that moment Leo finally left me behind. Just after that feed I got a mild jellyfish sting in my face, and I started to feel fatigue on my back. I took my fourth feed at 13:25 at about 9.5 km, and the pain caused by the jellyfish sting disappeared by that moment. The next way point would be Round Island at 10.3 km, as my fatigue on my back built up, I started to become impatient and I felt that part taking me so long.

Round Island to Middle Island

The segment along the coast of Round Island was about 0.4 km, which should take me about 9 – 10 minutes to pass under normal circumstances. However, I felt that it took me much longer because my back was so fatigued after 10 km of swimming and desperately hoping to finish ASAP, but I still had about 3.5 km to go which would took me about 80 minutes. I took my fifth feed at 14:15, at about 11.8 km, 2/3 of the way from Round Island to Middle Island. I hoped that would be my last feed, and if I could reach the tip of Middle Island (12.5 km, 1.3 km from finish) within 20 minutes (i.e. 14:35) I would be able to reach the finish at 15:05, 5 hours from start. However because the distance stated above was just a gross estimation, I never knew if it was really only 0.7 km from the feeding point which I would be able to make it within 20 minutes. I just hoped that I could reach it within 20 minutes, and as I was so damn fatigued already, I was just counting the km, half by half, in my mind, but that estimation of 20 minutes took me a really long time. (after I checked the split time, I found out that we was actually against the current at that time, but we could never knew that in the race.)

Middle Island to finish

When I passed the tip of Middle Island I asked the time. It was 14:50 already (I hoped for 14:35), which meant that I would not finish within 5 hours as I still had 1.3 km to go, which should took me half an hour. At that time I was farting a lot, possibly because of the ocean I swallowed in the previous part of the race caused some reaction in my intestine. Despite the extreme fatigued I felt stronger and stronger as I was approaching the finish to end my suffering. I needed to take my 6th feed, which was my final feed, at about 13 km. I reached the finish at 15:21, with official time 05:14:26. At that time everyone I knew was already on the beach. I was a bit disappointed not making my 5-hour target, and I was not happy because the final few km was a suffering for me, which I only made it up using my mind, and I thought that I couldn’t have an additional 7 km on top of this distance (as I planned to do a 21 km race in the coming summer), which is explained in detail below.

Post-race

After the race I really needed a rest on the beach. I sat on the beach for some time before I went into VRC for the post-race party. Originally Gary thought that he would be leaving immediately as well, but because I finished a bit early so he also came to the post-race party as well. I also got some sore throat due to the ocean I swallowed in the race, so I didn’t eat much in the party, and I had to drink a lot of water.

I had completed my second marathon swimming race. However I didn’t feel good because I started to doubt my real ability and to think if my plan was really too ambitious.

I originally wanted to use this race to see if I would be ready to persuade my dream, i.e. channel swimming, because it is the only race in Asia which has similar temperature and ocean condition to those big-name challenges. The news article from Daily News of Open Water swimming mentions:

The Cold Half is the only long distance, cold-water race in Asia that allows athletes from the region to do a “practice” run in similar conditions for long marathon challenges and races like the English Channel or Catalina Channel crossings.

However, judging from my feeling after the race, I really doubt if I should continue my plan or not. My plan was to sign up for a channel swimming spot in late 2021, and to do a 21 km lake race in Sweden, “Vidösternsimmet“, in August 2020 with expected lake temperature 18°C, to further build up my distance combined with an orienteering trip to Poland. This race was an easy race, nothing was challenging. The water was warm (19 – 20°C) and the sea was calm most of the time. However, despite of that, my fatigue started to built up just after 7 km, and after 10 km, every km was a struggle for me, and it was only my mind keeping me going, counting every half km in the way from Round Island to the finish to end my suffering.

When I chatted with Edie early last year, she thought that I would need 3 years to build up myself to do the Cold Half, but my plan from the very beginning was to do it this year (i.e. in 1 year), and I really did complete it this year. However despite finishing it, I felt that I pushed myself out of my comfort zone for my last few km, and I didn’t think that I could have an additional 7 km on top of the distance to do the 21 km race this summer.

Comparing this to my first marathon swimming race (Lake Geneva Classic), I was much more prepared this time. I expected this race to be colder and rougher when I signed up but it turned out to be false. I could think of 5 elements which I needed to prepare for an open water swim:

Element Description Lake Geneva Classic Cold Half Explanation
Result 05:43 05:14
Ranking counting non-wetsuit swimmers only 31 / 40 11 / 13
Distance I have to get enough endurance to complete the distance 12.5 km 13.8 km The distances were similar so by completing the first race, the second would not be a problem for me. However, although I completed the distance, I didn’t feel good towards to end of it, which suggested I might not have enough long training swims beforehand.
Speed I have to get enough speed to meet the cut-off times 3.5 hours for the half-way point, 7 hours for the whole race 5 hours for Round Island, 6 hours for the whole race The cut-off was not a concern for Lake Geneva Classic, however in Cold Half it was a concern for me in the beginning. Last time, when I did it in a relay, we completed in 06:24, just barely making the 5-hour cut off point in time. If the current was less than perfect and I started to slow down, I might not be able to make it on time. Only after November I started to show improvement in my swimming speed, making this less of my concern.
Temperature I have to get used to the temperature for the expected duration of my swim 20°C – 22°C 19°C – 20°C Again, the temperatures are similar as well so it was not a concern. I originally expected the Cold Half to be a bit colder at about 18°C but it didn’t get cold finally. Most of my swim training in recent months are in 20 – 21°C water so I was totally fine.
Water condition If the swim is in rough water, I have to get used to swimming in rough water. A freshwater lake swim.
A lake is generally calm, and there are no tides in lakes. The swim was mostly calm but in the middle there were a bit of chops of about BF 3 strength.
An ocean swim with chops and currents.
Rough water was expected in this race, especially when there was easterly wind in Stanley which could be as strong as BF 5 – 6, making the sea full of whitecaps. However, it turned out be false. The wind that day was BF 3 only in Stanley, and totally calm in the latter part of the race.
The wind was not strong, the expected rough water did not appear in the Cold Half, making the sea state similar to what I did the Lake Geneva Classic before.
Feeding I need to make sure that the nutrition works well for me to sustain the whole swim. A feeding station every 2.5 km A kayak-supported race with my own paddler which means I can prepare my own favourite feed. This is the only major difference between my two races. Therefore in December I needed to try out the nutrition I would use in this race, and it finally turned out to be good.

I didn’t get a podium place as I ended up being 6/6 in my category (male non-wetsuit). However, I can proudly call myself a marathon swimmer.

Li Ling, me and Edie
from the left, Li Ling Yung, me and Edie Hu, just completed the race

What’s next

My next races are Race the City 2020 – Sprint the TKO (sprint orienteering race) and Seoul International Marathon, which will be first marathon running race (I’m now a 2-time marathon swimmer, but not yet a marathon runner). Therefore I’ll focus on running in the next two months. I will still need to consider whether I will continue my swimming plan to further build up my distance and endurance to eventually do my dream swim, as I didn’t feel good after 14 km only, but I know if I put in even more intense training in the coming half a year I can eventually do a 21 km race in summer, or if I should I give up long-distance swimming and return to my comfort zone of 10 km, the “marathon swimming” distance for non-insane people. I will make my final decision by February this year.

Acknowledgements

Here I need to thank everyone who helped and supported me in my journey from the moment I started swimming regularly mid-2018, to completing my first major swimming goal in my life.

  • Olivier Courret, Lewis Yeung, Ian Polson: running Saturday and Sunday open water group fun swims every week to let us build our skills and confidence in open water.
  • The University of Hong Kong, Fenella Ng, Annemarie Munk, Tritons Triathlon Club: running the swim squad (Swim Lab Asia) of the triathlon programme at the university where a lot of us trained regularly every week.
  • Gary Lui: my dearest orienteering friend and swim teacher who gave me a few lessons early 2019 to improve my form and endurance, and after I “graduated” he became my support paddler and relay partner as well.
  • Open Water Asia, Shu Pu, Douglas Woodring: the race organiser of Clean Half and Cold Half, letting us to achieve our marathon swimming dream as the only (possibly-)cold water marathon swimming race in the Asia-Pacific region.

2 thoughts on “Cold Half 2020 – race report

  1. Mike,
    Congrats again on a great race! That’s an outstanding time.

    I haven’t done The Channel, so take this advice with a grain of salt: You may want to concentrate on just swimming (vice running) if you want to do the Channel. As you know, it’ll really be closer to a 30-mile / 12-18 hour swim and for that you may want to do more like 5-6 days a week of swimming, or at least hit 12-18 hours of swimming a week to build up. I think it might be hard to build up for the English Channel while also running so much.

    Granted, some people manage that insane “triathlon” where the Channel is but one leg of that craziness. Maybe one of those athletes has blogged about how they balanced their 3 sports?

    Again, congrats!

    1. I have a friend, Mayank Vaid, who did that crazy triathlon in 2018 (he did the swim leg in a wetsuit) so I can learn from his experience.

      I’m not a single-minded person. What I want is to be good in at least two sports. One of them now is trail orienteering which I qualified for the national team and did the world championships in 2017 and 2018. I am looking to qualify in this year as well so my plan takes this into my consideration, which is to stay in Hong Kong (where the world championship will be held) until the race is over.

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