Cold Half 2021

Cold Half 2021

On 21/2, I did the race Cold Half the second time as a solo. This race is my most important A race in Hong Kong, which serves as my benchmark after half a season of winter training.

In 2020, I mentioned by doing this race, I could decide if I was ready to start my preparation on my ultimate dream channel swim. I did it and completed in 5:14, then signed up for a Channel slot in September 2021 despite it was too warm for Channel training. However, not long after the race last year, the pandemic started and as a result I couldn’t do my pool training at all. I lost my first training block completely and now on the verge of losing my second training block, combined with my bad performance in my 16 km swim last December and my failed qualification attempt, I no longer have confidence in swimming the Channel and now thinking seriously to give up or not. However, as my real goal in marathon swimming is to become competitive in 10 – 25 km races, any decisions on the Channel do not affect my preparation or training for races.

Training

Originally this race is scheduled right in my 2nd training block for Channel training, which my aim is to build up to 25 – 30 km in Channel condition. I should do about 30 – 35 km of swimming per week, consisting of USRPT sets to build my speed, long pool sessions of about 7 km, and also long 10+ km OW swims at the weekend. The prerequisite of this training block was a long swim in summer 2020 of about 16 – 21 km as a foundation. All the above were not possible due to the pandemic so I couldn’t train the right way.

I was so stressed in my Channel training so I decided to suspend it in January after psychologist consultation. At the same time, I started training with a new group and got a new coach, Hannah Li, who is a national level marathon swimmer. The group has sessions 3 times per week at Tsing Yi. The people there are so fast (they are mostly triathletes) that I have to work really hard to keep up with them. In addition, as these sessions alone are not enough for me so I also swim before or after them, and also swim with my friends such as Edie and Li Ling on Sunday as well.

I peaked at 28 km / week by the end of December, however that was before my suspension in Channel training and I hadn’t started with the Tsing Yi group. It didn’t serve me well and I dropped my training level afterwards. After my suspension in Channel training and starting group training in Tsing Yi, I got back my training level, peaked at 29 km / week by the end of January with much higher intensity than before, and gradually dropped into my taper. In my last week before the race I did 14 km only, mostly with the Tsing Yi group on alternate days without much additional swimming.

Competitors

As the Hong Kong border is closed to overseas visitors, only residents joined this year’s race. There were 17 solo competitors and 11 relay teams doing the full race from Stanley to Deep Water Bay, including 4 competitors doing the ColdXtreme. The full list of solo competitors are below:

  • Joy Zhu
  • Edie Hu – 8th time solo competitor (since 2015), round Hong Kong swimmer (2018)
  • Li Ling Yung – 3rd time solo competitor (since 2019)
  • Karen Surgenor (neoprene)
  • Michael Tsang – 2nd time solo competitor (since 2020)
  • Leo Chan (neoprene) – 2nd time solo competitor (since 2020)
  • Justin Murray (neoprene)
  • Alex Fong – 2nd time solo competitor (since 2019), round Hong Kong swimmer and record holder (2019), former Hong Kong Olympian (2000)
  • Allan McPherson
  • James Paton (neoprene)
  • Simon Holliday – 5th time solo competitor (since 2014), round Hong Kong swimmer (2017), English Channel swimmer (2011)
  • Kenny Li (neoprene)
  • John Lyons
  • Thomas Butter (neoprene, ColdXtreme)
  • Mayank Vaid (neoprene, ColdXtreme) – round Hong Kong swimmer and HK360Xtreme triathlete (2019), former Enduroman Arch to Arc record holder (2019)
  • Cae Tolman (neoprene, ColdXtreme) – English Channel swimmer (2014)
  • Mandy Tik (neoprene, ColdXtreme) – wife of Cae Tolman

Race information

Race condition

  • Air temperature: 22°C
  • Water temperature: 20°C
  • Wind: BF 0 – 2

Goals

Goal Description Completed
A Under 4:40 No
B Under 5:00 Yes
C Under 5:30 Yes

Race plan

My support paddler was Gary Lui again, the same as last year. The weather forecast seemed good for making PB, the current was good, and I believed that I got some speed improvement after training with Hannah since January, therefore I adjusted my expectation this year hoping to finish at about 4:45, i.e. about half an hour faster than last year.

CP Place Distance (km) ETA Split time from live tracking
Start Stanley 0.0 09:30 09:35
1 To Tei Wan 2.0 10:18 10:16
2 Tai Tam Tau 5.3 11:26 11:24
Bluff Head 6.4 11:43 11:48
3 SW of Round Island 10.1 12:53 12:58
NW of Round Island 10.5 13:00 13:07
4 W of Middle Island 12.5 13:44 13:59
Finish VRC near Deep Water Bay 13.7 14:15 14:29

My feeding plan this year was to take a feed of 60 g maltodextrin mixed in 500 mL of water every hour, therefore if I kept on schedule, my feeding points would be

  • after turning the buoy near To Tei Wan
  • at “The Wall”
  • about 2/3 on the way between Bluff Head to Round Island
  • about 2/3 on the way between Round Island to Middle Island
Cold Half course map
course map

Looking at the start list, everyone I knew was faster than me in the past according to previous race results, however, as there weren’t many races in 2020, I had little idea on my speed now, especially since training with Hannah. I believed that I would be at about the same speed as Leo and slightly slower than Li Ling, therefore I would try to take off Leo and stay close behind Li Ling for as long as possible. Moreover, I started slow in both my 16 km swim in December and my qualification attempt in January, and both didn’t went well, so I decided to change my race strategy, to starting off like racing a 5 km at the effort level which I thought I could keep for 2 hours, and sustaining as long as possible.

Pre-race

I entered the taper stage of my training since Lunar New Year. In the final week before the race, I swam on Sunday and Monday, and did the group training at Tsing Yi on Wednesday and Friday, and a lesson with Hannah on Wednesday. There were nothing long in the week, no sessions longer than 5 km, and I ate extra and got extra sleep in the week. I chose to start at 09:30 because I was a slow swimmer, expecting my finishing time over 4.5 hours. Edie, Joy, Li Ling, Leo also started at the same time but Simon, Allan, Alex, Karen started in the fast wave.

The race day was an East-West Thanksgiving Day by the KCR. Because of track work near Hung Hom Station in preparation of line extension across the harbour, East Rail service between Hung Hom and Mong Kok East stations was suspended, and free travel was offered for all West Rail train trips ending at Hung Hom on the day, also for all train trips starting at Hung Hom or Kowloon Tong after taking the free rail replacement shuttle bus between Hung Hom and Kowloon Tong as well.

promotional poster by KCRiders

I had moved back to my family’s home at Tuen Mun, therefore I took advantage of the offer and took a free train ride from Siu Hong to Hung Hom, then transferred to bus 107 and minibus 40 to Stanley. The registration started at 09:00, however my support paddler hadn’t arrived yet. I phoned him at about 08:50 and he said he was driving. The race was going to start soon but I still hadn’t seen him yet, and his phone was no longer got answered afterwards. Finally he rushed to the start at 09:29 just in time before the race start, when everyone was nearly ready. Due to miscommunication between the race organiser and the place offering the kayaks, Gary didn’t get the kayak ready at the start and had to pull one from the store immediately when we started, so I could only recognise him after we were in the water.

The race

Start to To Tei Wan

The race started at 09:35 in flat water. I started as it was a 5 km race. I was staying alongside Li Ling in the way to the red buoy, and Leo was catching me behind. As my race plan was to lead Leo and catch up Li Ling, I was keeping my effort up in order to stay at the same pace as Li Ling, probably to the extent that I was swimming faster than I should be in a 5 km race. I got to the red buoy 41 minutes after the start, 7 minutes ahead of the schedule.

To Tei Wan to Tai Tam Tau

I, Li Ling and Leo rounded the buoy at the same time. After the buoy Li Ling took off and I could no longer follow her, while Leo was still following closely. I took my first feed at the hour. I arrived Tai Tam Tau 1:49 after the start, still 7 minutes ahead of the schedule. I was still staying with Leo together.

Tai Tam Tau to Round Island

The wall was very calm that no wave-riding was possible. I took my second feed there. After Bluff Head I started to lag behind Leo. On the way to Round Island I took my third feed. I arrived Round Island 2:13 after start, which was on schedule. The 7 minutes gain was gone already. As fatigue set in my ability in keeping straight started to decrease, also because of the current, I probably went too far away from the shore when approaching Round Island.

Round Island to Middle Island

The people who I wanted to keep up was all gone, so I was swimming on my own. I took my fourth feed about 2/3 to the way to Middle Island. I started to get impatient at that time and started asking the paddler for distance. I was about 2 km from the finish at that point. That meant I might not be able to get to my A goal 4:40, but my B goal 5:00 was still achievable.

Also my ability to keep straight was mostly lost, I should be aiming for the rock at the western tip of Middle Island but I never saw that, and ended up passing at some distance outside Middle Island. I passed Middle Island 4:24 from start, 10 minutes behind schedule.

Middle Island to finish

I pushed hard on the last segment hoping for a sub-5 finish. I was very impatient that I asked for my paddler for the time a few times such that I could know if I should push harder. There were many boats on the final segment that we needed to go between. I had a strong finish and got on the steps at 4:53:47 after start.

Post-race

Because of social distancing, there were no post-race party and prize-giving ceremony. I immediately looked for my idol Alex Fong but unfortunately he had gone already. He finished about 20 minutes earlier than me despite starting in the latter wave an hour after me. I missed my idol again. The last time I saw him in person was already before his round Hong Kong swim. Unlike last year, I didn’t get sick at all after the race, while last year I got sore throat, gastrointestinal reaction and, if I remembered correctly, a fever afterwards. I actually felt better than last year.

I asked the times of my friends. I started to get disappointed despite getting PB because the gap between me and my friends (Simon, Li Ling and Edie) did not seem to get smaller. Everyone got PB because of perfect condition. Li Ling was still much ahead of me, and I still couldn’t keep up with Leo for the whole race.

Fatigue really set in afterwards. After I got home I didn’t have much appetite to have a dinner. I just ate a small portion and went to bed afterwards, but my upper body was so sore that I couldn’t get a good sleep. I didn’t get into the water on Monday, and on Tuesday I got back in, but just for relaxation only, not for serious training.

The official result was out on Tuesday. I got 8/8 among non-wetsuit competitors. There were 4 competitors who did both 2020 and 2021 in skin, in finishing order: Simon, Edie, Li Ling, me. There was no significant change in relative performance over the year, everyone got his/her time reduced by roughly the same proportion (6%), therefore my conclusion was that I didn’t make improvement over the year, instead, the condition was much better than last year that everyone got PB.

Strategy review

In the first leg I kept up with Li Ling and Leo, but I lagged behind Li Ling after CP1, and Leo after CP2. Gary thought that I started off too fast and repaid that afterwards, and it might be true. I felt that I might got too fast even for a 5 km race, however this was a 14 km race. I did not start slow because my prior experience told me that I would even got slower and slower afterwards, like my 16 km swim in December. He also said if I started not as fast I might surpass Leo.

I might have misjudged my actual speed, especially that there weren’t enough races in the whole 2020 for me to judge if I had actually made any improvement in my speed relative to my friends. I estimated my sustainable speed to be 2.7 km/h and complete the race in 4:45, however as the course was an open current course, all current predictions were only estimations and it wasn’t possible for me to use the real distance or time to see if I really went too fast so I chose to reference my competitors instead, but this strategy didn’t work as well as there weren’t enough recent races.

It may also be due to my training methodology. Since I decided to suspend my Channel training in January after my failed qualification attempt, I hadn’t had any long training sessions. All my training sessions were relatively short, about 4-5 km only with high intensity to build my speed. This probably helped me to keep up with Li Ling and Leo at the beginning, but it was not enough to sustain until the end of the race.

Follow-up

As the result is released, I need to get back to my decision if I will continue my plan to swim the Channel this year. As mentioned before, my primary decision factors are if I can make the qualification, and my Cold Half result. God has forbidden us to try the qualification for a second time in Hong Kong, and contrary to what the news article from Daily News of Open Water swimming mentioned, “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.”, we had nothing resembling the condition for such challenges for 2 consecutive years already, and my result in the race is neutral into consideration of whether I will continue my Channel plan or not. I need to make the decision soon because, if I do so, I will start the process of emigrating to the UK by applying for the BN(O) Visa, which is open from 23/2 using a fully digital application process. However, there are still nothing which can help me to take a side, i.e. to continue or to give up.

Last year, I also doubted if I should continue my plan or not after the Cold Half:

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.

After a few days of typing the above, I booked a spot for the English Channel in September 2021, and signed up for the race in Sweden. However, COVID ruined everything afterwards. The race has been postponed to August 2021, but my Channel spot in September 2021 can’t be postponed.

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.

My feeling was different this year. Although fatigue set in after 11 km, it was still manageable, not outside of my comfort zone. It’s now possible for me to have an additional 7 km on top of this distance, and I believe I am prepared to do up to 25 km. Doing the 21 km race in summer is now definitely in reach, but the Channel is a bigger problem. Not only the distance but also the possibility of wind, waves, and the tide which pushes me back and forth. I have done 3 marathon swimming races by now and a solo swim, but all were in calm conditions without much wind and waves, and without adverse current. How I behave in less than perfect conditions is still a big unknown to me.

Last year, I believed I was about 1.5 years from being ready to swim the Channel, therefore I booked a 2021 September slot. According to my original plan, I should be nearly ready to swim the Channel by now, i.e. I should be good to swim for 25 – 30 km in similar condition. However, due to the pandemic, I couldn’t get in any pool training except for a very brief period in October to November, which meant I couldn’t do most of my planned training. Also I couldn’t do the 21 km race in Sweden as well which served as an important milestone in my training progress. I did a 16 km solo swim in December locally as a replacement but it didn’t go well.

Now, I believe that I’m still a year away from being ready to swim the Channel, but I only have about 6 months of time left. I don’t have total confidence in making it, but it’s definitely far from impossible. It’s really a difficult decision to make.

What’s next

I’m not willing to sign up anything new before the pandemic is over and restrictions lifted. The only remaining active bookings are the race Vidösternsimmet (21.5 km) in Sweden, scheduled on 14th August, and my Channel swim, scheduled on 12-17 September. Moreover I still have 2 suspended race registrations which the organisers haven’t announced the postponed date yet. I will definitely do the race if travel restrictions is lifted by then, but I am still considering if I will transfer my Channel slot to a friend who’s more prepared than me.

The Orienteering Association of Hong Kong has announced the selection criteria for World Trail Orienteering Championships 2021 in Poland. I will need to take it into consideration and plan accordingly. If I am selected as a Hong Kong team member, I may considering doing O-Ringen immediately after the World Championships, and have an extended trip in Sweden in August until doing Vidösternsimmet.

More importantly, it’s now time for me to prepare for my emigration or working holiday. If I decide to swim the Channel this year, I will go ahead for emigration to the UK. If not, I am considering a working holiday in Sweden. My target departure month is April or May this year.

Acknowledgements

Here I need to thank everyone who helped and supported me over the pandemic year as I keep swimming.

  • Simon Holliday, Edie Hu: my marathon swimming mentors who shared their experience in their long swims, gave me support and confidence, and guided me in my training progress.
  • Crest Ray Recreation Club, Chung Ho: my former Total Immersion swim coach, who gave me lessons to improve my efficiency for long distance swimming, and introduced me to a training group at Tsing Yi to swim with Hannah Li
  • Hannah Li: my current coach who’s a national level marathon swimmer, the most experienced coach I have ever got who I totally trust.
  • Gary Lui: my dearest orienteering friend, who became my support paddler for 2 consecutive years.
  • AVRA, Shu Pu, Henry Wright: the race organiser of 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 2021

  1. Highly effective people like you “begin with the end in mind”. Moreover, the critical thinking process could definitely facilitate your orientation (or orienteering) of the way forward concerning channel swimming [http://www.hk-lawyer.org/content/eliza-chang-eugene-wong-and-allen-che-first-hong-kong-team-swim-across-english-channel] and also the desire of going abroad.

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