Today, I attempted to do my second marathon swim race this year but unfortunately I didn’t end up well. I pulled myself out just 3.5 km from the finish due to extreme leg pain.
This blog article is only about the race itself. My marvellous train journeys will be described in another article coming later.
The race of swimming the whole length of Windermere, at 16.5 km, is one of the longer distance marathon swimming races in the UK, longer than anything in London and South East and only second to 2-way Windermere / Loch Lomond which are held in alternate years. Therefore it is on my bucket list while living in the UK.
I didn’t do this race last year because of 2 reasons: it was too close to my solo Channel attempt, with the race just one week before the Channel, and I was told that lake swimming didn’t help much to prepare for the Channel compared to actual sea swimming, as I lived by the sea at that moment.
After I failed the Channel attempt, it was natural for me to get back to my bucket list and tick the items off, moreover, Ali (my crew) suggested that I do it as well, so I signed up immediately when the registration opened.
This race, organised by BLDSA, is a kayak-supported race, unlike the ill-fated one earlier this month by Chillswim. As I have no local connection in the North West, unlike in Hong Kong I have a few awesome kayakers known from the scouting / orienteering community who supported me in Cold Half, I paid for organiser-provided support. Jon was assigned to be my kayaker.
I didn’t have a training plan for this race, as I have already done another longer race last month so I thought I had enough preparation. My training was mainly in pools, and before the race last month I also did a few long sessions in lakes up to 9.5 km / 4 hours.
After the race last month, I started to do longer sets in the pool as an attempt to build up my endurance, but my body couldn’t sustain doing long sets every day so I ended up only swimming 3 times per week, with 1 of them being a shorter session, therefore I didn’t increase my mileage.
When I checked the weather forecast, it showed the wind speed as perfectly calm for most of the day, however the temperature was much lower than I expected. The air temperature was predicted to be 8°C – 14°C while the water temperature was 17°C (the organiser announced 16.5°C at the start), however, the lowest temperature I had ever been in for a swim of similar magnitude was 13°C air and 21°C water, or air and water both around 19°C. As a result I packed a lot of warm clothes and wore them before the race.
The race started at Fell Foot Park, the southern tip of the lake, and ended at Waterhead, the northern tip. It was 16.5 km long as measured from satellite images, 5 km shorter than my longest ever swim.
My feeding plan was 90 g maltodextrin per hour, with hot water added in the morning in the hotel such that it would be warm in the initial part of the swim. I would stay on the port side of the kayak and I asked Jon to tell me the distance covered while feeding every hour as well.
When signing up, I filled in my mile time to be 37 minutes, however after the race last month I found that unrealistic so I adjusted it to be 45 minutes. I expected that I would complete the race in 8 hours. There were 2 waves, the first wave starting at 09:00 and the second race starting at 10:30. I was given the option to start at 08:15 in the morning but I didn’t take it as I was not prepared for an early start, so I started as scheduled at 09:00.
It was really dead calm when the race started. I completed the first hour with competitors around me, helping to keep me on pace, and I got 2.6 km. The wind started to blow in the second hour and I started swallowing air and the lake, however it didn’t show me down much and I reached 5.0 km, but I started losing balance and farting.
In the third hour, the competitors around me started to disappear as I went ahead, probably due to different feeding schedules. My mind started to wander so, in order to keep me focused, I started to think about my good swimming memories back in Hong Kong, but apparently that alone didn’t get my mind focused enough so I, again, started to recite bus routes numbers in Hong Kong as I did in my Channel attempt, and that got me through the third hour. I reached 7.5 km by the third feed. In that hour my farting became more frequent, and signs of diarrhoea, as happened before in all my rough water swims, started to appear.
I was feeling hopeful that I could complete the race in 7 hours, with 9 km to go. However, things started to get tough. Fatigue started to build up in the fourth hour, my leg (hip flexor, probably rectus femoris) had become painful, and diarrhoea started with uncontrolled farting as well. I could no longer keep my concentration reciting bus numbers as well.
The only waypoint I recognised in the course was an island in the middle of the lake, at 10 km on the course, where I needed to get through a narrow channel to pass it. If I could keep my speed I should reach there by the 4th feed, however I couldn’t, and I was reported only 9.5 km at the completion of the 4th hour. So that’s a massive speed drop, from 2.5 km/h to 2.0 km/h, in a single hour – a sign of things really going wrong.
I hoped I could recover in the 5th hour, but my back was so fatigued at that point that I couldn’t even complete my pull without getting pain in my lats, and the leg pain was so intense that I could no longer kick properly to aid my rotation, so my legs were dragging behind my body pointing downwards causing huge resistance, unlike in the sea where my legs could just float behind my body. The wind was still blowing so I couldn’t even balance myself, and I continued to swallow wind and water, and fart uncontrollably. I could no longer keep parallel to the kayak as well as I tried to breathe bilaterally to reduce my imbalance which caused stress to one side of my body. A more serious problem appeared as well – I could no longer wee in the hour as my legs were so tight, and any attempt to change my posture would immediately lead to cramp in both legs. I had already lost concentration at that point and there were no longer bus numbers in my mind. At the 5th feed I was told 11.3 km – only 1.8 km/h in the last hour down from 2.0, worse than the 16 km benchmark swim in 2020 already where I also suffered from the same symptoms, but I carried on to complete it. And shit (literal) happened in that feed as well.
Nevertheless, having only 5.2 km to go, and time being on my side, I continued swimming despite the intense pain and discomfort. However, in the coming hour I could no longer bear it. Things continued to go south despite I had to go north. I asked for the time prematurely at only 39 minutes into the hour and stopped swimming, then continued until feed time. I could finally wee by the end of the hour but not that much. I was told 13.0 km at that point with 2 hours to go (i.e. 8 hours finishing time), i.e. my speed further dropped from 1.8 to 1.7 km/h, and I told the kayaker that my legs were so painful. I had lost 1 hour of time in just 3 hours of swimming.
Having 3.5 km to go, I would not make it in 2 hours as my condition continued to deteriorate (under normal circumstances I could complete the distance in 1.5 hours). Furthermore, as I had already lost swimming strength, the water was taking away my body heat faster than I could generate by swimming at that moment. I couldn’t imagine suffering the extreme pain while possibly pushing myself into hypothermia in 17°C water and much colder air in the coming 2 hours. I swam for a few strokes, stopped, then another few strokes, and stopped again, and called it the day. My mind couldn’t overcome the pain for me to push on.
I was helped onto the safety boat as my legs were basically immobile at that point and started to shiver while the boat sped to the finish point, and brought to the tent to make the recovery.
On the way to the hotel, I went to the toilet so many times to wee despite not drinking any water after leaving the lake. That meant in the final hours when I couldn’t wee, I already accumulated so much excessive water in my body.
Unfortunately the race has proven again that I’m a weak swimmer. The calm forecast didn’t hold exactly true as the nearby weather station recorded the wind at at least 17 km/h (Force 3) from 11:00, and as strong as 22 km/h (Force 4) at 12:00, although a 0 figure was recorded at race start.
I could complete the race last month, despite being 5 km longer, when it was dead calm and warm most of the day. In that race I didn’t have any problem in my legs.
Vince, the secretary of the organiser, told me that because the water was cold, my body attempted to preserve heat by shutting off blood supply to my legs so they couldn’t have enough oxygen to work properly.
I also thought about the possibility that my feed went wrong as well. Compared to the mass participation race I did last month where I had the liberty of having anything I want on offer according to my feelings, I just used the most minimalist set up of having only carbohydrates, which I used in a few successful sea swims but never in freshwater swims, where the lack of electrolytes may be a consideration, as my longest practice swim in a lake was only 4 hours and I got through it without problem using the same feeds as well.
My preferred conditions for long distance swimming are 18-24°C temperature, BF 2-, no adverse current. I’m so weak that I can’t even complete swims when any of the above are violated, including my Channel attempt last year (BF 4 + adverse current), BLDSA Champion of Champions (16°C + BF 4), and this race (17°C water with much colder air + BF 3).
Given that I couldn’t even complete a length of Windermere when it was anything less than perfect, it would be unrealistic for me to do anything more challenging than it such as the Channel. Fortunately I haven’t made any commitment to it yet although I was actually hoping to retry it in 2023, by taking up a last-minute slot when one becomes available in August / September, and now I have to throw away this unfinished business as I’m clearly not ready for it. Had I tried to race last year and not made it, I would have pulled out of my Channel attempt at the last moment.
The only remaining major swim for me this season is a Channel relay in team “Hongkongers in the UK”, which is composed solely of Hongkongers who now reside in the UK. The tide will open next week on 24 September, which is a spring tide. I’m still looking for a support crew for the relay as the team only has 2 people.
Although Windermere is very far away from where I live now, it’s still practical for me to race there without taking a lengthy time off. However, it is not my main goal in swimming as my goal is to get the top 3 in the London Region Open Water Swimming Championships (5 km) in order to get me to the England nationals.
Therefore I can’t make the decision if I will come back next year yet, especially since it is colder than I expected, as I only want to swim long distances in at least 18°C (which is also the FINA lower limit for non-wetsuit swimming). However, there are 2 things I’m now certain of
- I won’t retry the Channel again next year.
- I will continue to do 10-15 km marathon swimming races in London and South East where and when it is warmer (with at least 18°C expected), as long as I live in the region.
I hope that one day I can return to Hong Kong without any restrictions, such that I can race Cold Half again, in a familiar environment where I had pleasant experiences before the pandemic (it was warm both years I did it), to experience different conditions before I go elsewhere for swimming challenges.
However, until I become a strong swimmer, I think it’s better for me to stay away from anything like this again in order to avoid further disappointment.