Cologne12, Part 2: The Revenge
4th of June, 2017
Swimming for 12 Kilometers. Again.
About a year ago I tried something I had never done before. Swimming for 12 kilometers without a pause.
But that time I failed.
Although technically I didn’t. After I had done 10 of the 12 kilometers, I was asked to abandon the race because of an upcoming thunderstorm. Safety first, they said. It didn’t matter that said storm never came, they just had to be careful.
I was really sad that day. After swimming for the longest time and distance ever in my life, I did not get to go through the finishing gate, did not receive a medal, did not get to feel the satisfaction of completing a difficult task.
Sure, swimming for 10 kilometers is quite an achievement to be proud of as well, but I just couldn’t see it that way. Immediately afterwards I reached my own conclusion on how to deal with this.
“We Need To Go Back!”
I’ve written a blog post last year about that race. So I will try and not repeat anything. If something seems weird to you, maybe the answer is in last year’s post. If it can’t be found, there’s always Twitter to just ask me.
Somewhere around the end of last year I registered for this race again and just let the registration sit there. I didn’t plan to do any other swimming races this year, although I sometimes wandered the web for additional events. But the interesting ones were either sold out or too far away or colliding with other events I prioritized.
I did no special training as well, in fact I didn’t swim for the whole of January because of a month long vacation in South Africa. Leading up until the race I did an incredibly low amount of swim training. Just 5 times I was in the pool in 2017. Including another 8 week complete break from it during March and April. This should tell you that once the fitness level is in an acceptable region, it can be held up at that point without much effort. At least for me that’s the case. For now.
But there was one little hack I did...
Which was getting a new neoprene suit. It was a coincidence, really, because a friend of mine, Adrian, was traveling around Germany to hold several neoprene suit test swimming events. I went to one of those and found a suit that fit well and was way better than my current one. Sure enough, at twice the price of my current wetsuit. But Adrian offered me a good deal – after all, the suit was a testing suit now and therefore used!
My first 4k swim with it confirmed the benefits: 3 minutes faster than my previous best at Ironman Copenhagen 2015! Without basically any training. Incredible what better technology can do in the water, right?
That’s about it, though. The only other thing I changed was going vegan a few days before the race. Wise? There was no way of knowing!
The Vegan Challenge
Sure enough, it was time for another experiment month. Sophie and I thought it would be interesting to try out this vegan thing for 31 days and planned on doing that during the month of May.
The Morning of May 1st
“Our fridge is full of dairy products and eggs which would go bad if we started today. Shall we postpone the challenge?”
*Sophie puts milk into her coffee, relieved*
But, for June we were more serious and planned ahead. The fridge now contained just a minimum amount of animal products. The kids would take care of that.
Off To Cologne!
The first days of going vegan were rather easy. I’ll write another post, going more into detail of what I’ve learned.
My wife Sophie and I decided that I would go to Cologne on my own, just like last year, because the event and its surroundings wouldn’t be very interesting for kids. And I was looking forward to having a little break from everyday-life as well. So I took out all the seats of our van, put in a mattress, kissed the family goodbye, and drove south. Mini vacation in Cologne!
In Cologne, on the evening before the race I met with a friend, Christoph, and we had a relaxed run around Cologne while talking about our shared hobby of triathlon.
Christoph is a lot faster than me and had lots of interesting things to say. Also, he spontaneously decided to sign up for the long distance Swim & Run race, which was going to be part of the same event tomorrow, but consists of just a 4 kilometer swim followed by a 21.1 kilometer half marathon. I was looking forward to see how he would do!
This Vegan Situation
In the hotel I had booked for the night I had the following encounter with the nice receptionist.
“What do you offer for breakfast tomorrow morning? I’m having a long distance swimming race and I’m vegan.”
“Oh, of course, we offer anything you could want. What about the salmon, for example?”
“Well, no animals.”
“Oh I see, no animals! Wow! But what else is there?”
“How about fruits and vegetables, cereal, something like that?”
“Yes sure, we have all that. We will just cook some eggs for you, then.”
“Well, no animal products either.”
“Wow! Completely vegan! Wow!!!”
I was thinking what kind of middle ground he might have been thinking about, because I wasn’t sure one exists. This won’t be the last conversation of that type for me, I suppose. It’s okay that not everyone knows about the different nutrition strategies one could follow, but someone who makes their money by selling food should probably be aware of it. Anyways, the hotel was just fine in all the other regards.
To be on the safe side I bought a huge bag of groceries and had a vegan feast in my apartment afterwards.
Topped off with a 7 minute workout, I was ready for bed.
Morning of the Race
The early morning alarm clock didn’t bother me at all, because I had a great night of sleep without three noisy kids. Quite nice for a change, although I always instantaneously miss them all. I went down to the hotel’s breakfast room to check out the situation. And to have another awkward conversation with an employee in there.
“Do you think there’s a possibility to have some Porridge here?”
“I don’t know, what is this?”
“Oatmeal.” (‘Haferbrei’ and ‘Haferschleim’ is what I tried with her)
“Well, oats. Mixed with water, cooked.”
“Water isn’t a problem, Sir. But what is this ‘oats’?”
Again, she basically works in food and should know that, right?
Three different veggie smoothies, some bananas, tomatoes, and, of course, a package of oatmeal bars, coconut water. Awesome. Ready for sports!
Swimming for 12 Kilometers
So I drove over to Lake Fühling.
Afterwards I put my personal nutrition box on the pontoon and went back to my van to get into the very cool neoprene wetsuit.
I guess it was about as big an event as last time. About 30 long distance swimmers, and a few hundred people who wanted to do a swim and run.
Swimming cap and goggles now.
A few deep breaths.
And a brave jump into to water.
Same Procedure as Last Year
The water is fine, but it is as murky and green as I remember it. Even though I have better goggles, I can see for just one or two meters under water.
Five minutes of easy swimming and the familiar gunshot is heard. Off I go! Will it work this time?
Immediately it’s clear this will be very lonely again. Nothing to see under water, nothing to hear because of the exhalation bubbles, nothing to smell and feel except for water, just me with my thoughts.
How long will it take until my arms hurt? How will I cope this year? When will the first swimmers overtake me?
Of course, my mind wanders off to about every other topic there is during those hours. That’s part of why I like these endurance races. There’s finally time to reflect on what has occurred in the last weeks, evaluate, and make plans for the future. For example.
It’s also meditative from time to time. Sometimes there is nothing I think about. Sometimes I focus on something in particular like my breathing rhythm for a longer period of time to get into some kind of Zen state. It works and is very relaxing.
The course is leading 1 kilometer down the lake, around a buoy and to a pontoon which has volunteers giving out food and drink as well as hair-ties to put around your wrist to remember how many laps you’ve done. Then, you’ve got to swim back 1 kilometer to the start, turn around another buoy and start over again. 6 times in total, to get to 12 kilometers in the end.
After 3 kilometers I wonder if Christoph might be done with his 4 km sprint swim already, because he is a lot faster than me. There’s no way on knowing for me, though. Isolation.
After 5 kilometers I feel it getting more difficult.
After 6 kilometers my nose starts feeling like I had a cold. So much water and air pressure going in and out of it for such a long time, it’s bound to have some effect on the physiology.
HoneyPower gives me back some lost energy now, but it can’t do anything else, of course. In case you’re wondering, yes, honey isn’t vegan. I decided to make honey my only exception during the vegan experiment.
After 7 kilometers my arms start to lose energy. They feel stiff and harder to move.
After 8 kilometers my goggles finally cloud up. I’m not sure why that happens just now. A bit of water helps to clean them.
Christoph is probably now finished with his half marathon as well, I estimate. I’ve been freestyle swimming constantly for about two and a half hours now. What I didn’t know yet was that Christoph managed to finish the race in 4th place! About 1 hour of swimming and 1:30 hours of running – this guy is fast! It’ll be fun meeting him again in July at world famous Challenge Roth long distance triathlon, which we have both signed up for.
After 9 kilometers I see rainy looking clouds above us. Is there another thunderstorm coming up? Will the race be over again before I can finish it? Getting a bit nervous now but remembering that this mustn’t be the last time. I can always come back again.
After 10 kilometers some photographer talks to me at the turning point pontoon. He asks if I need help. Do I look like it? I hope not!
Going Where I’ve Never Gone Before
The remaining 2 kilometers now feel like a bonus round. Also, I’ve now come as far as never before. That’s very cool.
After 11 kilometers I coincidentally reach the pontoon to get the last hair-tie together with another swimmer. Great, I’m not alone for a second! I overhear him telling the volunteer that he has three more laps to go. It takes a second until I realize he was joking. Very good – not a lot of humor today in this isolated situation! So we’re clearly both on our last kilometer now. He turns to me before making his way and says: “Do you think we’ll make it back?” – haha, refreshing.
After he’s gone I ask the volunteer if I’m the last swimmer. She says there should be two more following. Good. I’m clearly one of the least experienced people here, but finishing last surely wouldn’t feel great.
Just One To Go
No problem! I’m really looking forward to being out of the water again. And then I see the pontoon and the buoy, which were my best friends during the last 4 hours. For the last time. The stairs are coming closer and closer. Adrenalin is starting to pump. Just a few meters left. And there it is, solid ground under my feet.
As I climb out I see that the event sadly seems to be almost over. Most people went home already after their very short swim and run races. Christoph as well, he had prior plans. I don’t blame them, there are more interesting things in the world than watching the last 10 swimmers exhaustedly walk through the finishing gate.
But for me, this exhausted walk has a bigger meaning. It’s finishing what I wasn’t allowed to finish last year. Proving to myself I can do it. I receive a plastic flower chain and a medal around my neck by one of the last standing volunteers. It’s a good feeling, sure. But it’s slightly tainted because no one’s here to share it with me.
A photographer is taking a picture of me while slightly smiling at me, tiredly. He’s probably looking forward to ending his workday. The whole area is so empty. Staff are arriving to take down all the watching platforms, running carpets, the transition area.
So I guess I’ll enjoy my victory like I did the whole race:
It might sound a bit depressing, but it didn’t take long for me to cheer up again. I just directed my thoughts back at my achievement and not the situation around it. I think I was expecting something else which wasn’t there, but why should that make me feel different about my won battle?
Well, I got in 21st of 23 with a time of 4 hours and exactly 33 minutes. But who cares! It’s about finishing, it always is. Being better than before.
I relaxedly and happily roam the area afterwards. I go to the finishing gate again to watch and cheer for the last two swimmers who finish about 5 and 15 minutes after me. At least they shall have someone to high-five right then!
The feet as well. I sit down in the trunk of my van, finally getting rid of the wetsuit – aah that feels good. Some old guy walks by and sees my medal. Thumbs up and a friendly look for me, that was the only cheering I’ve received today. Compare that to 500,000 screaming people with handmade signs along the streets of a city marathon! What a contrast that is. Four hours of silence today.
It forces me to realize that I don’t do this for the appreciation of anyone. Just my own sense of self-worth. And that’s good.
There isn’t much that feels better than to just sit there after an achievement like this, smiling. Enjoying something basic like eating a banana is just what I need right now. Some Magnesium for the worn out muscles.
I have a 10 minute nap on the mattress and start driving home. During this 4 hour drive I start feeling the repercussions of the event. My neck is aching quite a bit when I turn it to the left and right, because I had to do that to breathe during the swim. Being in a horizontal position, it’s an unnatural movement which uses different muscles than when you’re upright. The pain will stay for a few more days. My arms and shoulders are feeling heavy. But it’s not too bad. My nose probably feels most uncomfortable right now, its mucous membrane is just done. Feels like having a cold but simultaneously with a very dry nose. A day later it’s recovered, though. Isn’t the human body just amazing? It’s awe-inspiring to me.
But What Do I Make of This Experience?
It’s nice to have reached the goal and to have had the experience. Of course it is. But this sort of competition isn’t nearly as exciting as a marathon, bike race, or triathlon event. Still, I’d like to do something similar again, but under different circumstances. It’s probably nicer in the open water, salty sea-water that is, maybe somewhere with very clear water to see the flora and fauna down below. Also maybe in a warmer country somewhere.
Because swimming is great.