On Tuesday we feature the World's 10 most Interesting & Unusual Swims:
Our goal is to travel the world with you in search of the most unusual, fun, and interesting races from Peoria to Peking.
Today we travel to Colorado for the annual Horsetooth Open Water Swim. This 10K swim is certainly different and unusual in that it takes place in the mountains of Colorado.
My first and only Endurance Sport Invention by Roman Mica
Stroke, breath, tree…stroke, breath, tree…stroke, breath damn bloody tree. When will I ever get past this freaking, gnarly, piss ant, God awful tree?
It started, as these crazy things usually do, in the hot tub after a late night masters swim class.
I was just relaxing and chatting with a friend when he suggested that I should go swim the Horsetooth Open Water 10K. Now that’s a long swim title, but the part that I didn’t seem to register at the moment was the 10 K bit. In other words, this race was 10 kilometers or about 6.2 miles long for us Yanks.
My friend had swum the race the year before and he described it as a sort of nice and easy leisurely walk in a sun-baked park. “Each swimmer, of course, gets their own paddler,” he went on say. “And your paddler makes sure you are OK and carries your food.” He described in bucolic details the wonders of sipping green tea as he swam across the entire length of Horseshoe Reservoir on a warm Sunday morning.
The hot tub had just lulled me into a warm and happy and totally stupid place. So I went home, jumped online, and signed-up for my first and only 10 K swim.
I knew I was in some serious trouble the night before the swim at the mandatory pre race pasta dinner. Don’t get me wrong the organizers were great and the pasta was fine, it was the race program that scared the hell out of me. It had all of the swimmers and their paddlers listed. I went down the list of swimmers one by one, and my mouth just dropped open like some stunned bass.
These were not serious swimmers. These were uber, mega, super-duper, really, really, serious swimmers. The program listed all the racers former accomplishments like “Double Channel Swim” Do you know what a double Channel Swim is? I bet you can guess. I did and to my absolute horror I guessed right.
I know I guessed right because they introduced all of us and in graphic and terrifying details listed all of our accomplishments.
Just so we are perfectly clear, a double Channel Swim is when you decided to swim the English Channel (which I believe is about 13-miles long at the point that most folks swim it) and you swim the 20-miles (the actual swim distance is more like 20-miles because of the strong currents) to get from England to France.
And you drag yourself out of the cold and murky waters on a cold beach in France, after hours and hours of swimming, and you say to yourself something like, “Self, have you seen the price of train ticket through the Chunnel to get back to England?” And so you turn around, jump back into the cold and murky water, and swim all the way back to jolly old England.
If you’ve done this…which some of the swimmers actually had, you are certainly ready for tomorrow’s 10 K swim.
I, on the other hand, just sunk deeper into my chair when they announced my previous swim accomplishment. The great feat of swim strength that I had accomplished prior to this fateful day was to swim a grand total of 2.4 miles (or the length of an Ironman swim) the year before.
Oh and did I mention that I had done this great feat of swimming in a wetsuit. And did I also forget to mention that the 10 K swim was an official masters sanctioned race, which meant that Open Water swim rules apply.
Which means, and I’m sure I forgot to mention this, that wetsuits are strictly forbidden. However you can grease yourself up like some old black and white movie of a swimmer from the 1920’s. Why and what the grease is supposed to do remains a complete mystery to me to this day. The only greasing that I actually saw on race day was with modern suntan lotion.
Anyway, needless to say, my 2.4-mile great feat of swimming strength was like a falling into a pool and swimming to the other side for the double Channel swim boys.
On the other hand, I was now terrified out of my mind. The only thing that gave me comfort was my great new swim invention. You will recall that all this started with the promise of green tea in a hot tub.
My friend had informed me that you were allowed to drink and eat during the swim, but under no circumstances (remember the open water swim rules) could you touch the support boat or lake bottom. Knowing this I had invented what I called my LDSND (Long Distance Swim Nutrition Device).
It consisted of a bottle of ice tea (not green as I’m not such a big fan) and a bottle of Gatorade, duct taped to a swim pull buoy. To this great invention I tied a long rope. The idea being that when I need sustenance my support paddler would throw me the LDSND, and I would happily drink, and he could use the rope to pull the LDSND back to the boat.
As John Steinback noted, the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry…especially if they have never tried their invention before the race.
So like 10 minutes into the swim, I stop and ask my paddler guy to throw me the LDSND, which he dutifully does. I unscrew the ice tea cap and begin to a) drink and b) immediately sink. In a blur of hand motion I stop myself from sinking and at the same time let go of the ice tea bottle cap.
Now I have three choices. I can drink all 24-ounces of the ice tea, or drink 24-ounce of lake water at the next nutrition stop, or I can try to drink 24-ounces of lake water at the next stop and potentially drown.
The thing about open water long distance swimming is that it is just like swimming in a masters class excepts there is no coach, no lane buddies, no chitchat, no breaks, no clean clear water, no lanes, no standing, no hanging on the edge, no clock, no warmth, no hot tub, and no bathroom, except the one you happen to be swimming in.
Otherwise it is exactly the same. In other words, it is pretty easy on the old body when compared to other forms of endurance sports. For instance, long distance running tends to really beat you up by tearing up your bones, muscles and joints.
And while cycling is also a supported sport (a sport like swimming in which something else like a bike or a lake supports your weight) it does have hills and friction points. The butt and the seat being two of the most unfriendly friction points.
Swimming, on the other hand, has almost zero friction, and virtually no hills to speak of, unless you consider waves or swells to be hill-like. But to be fair, I’ve never seen a hill (unlike a swell) pick up a cyclist and bring him back down. All of this in my mind makes long distance swimming a bit easier on the body, though certainly not on the mind.
I had just discovered a fatal flaw in my new invention the LDSND (Long Distance Swim Nutrition Device). I was left with a choice of drowning or drinking. Obviously I choose not to drown and thus not to drink….at least not what was now a questionable and scary mixture of ice tea and brown lake water.
I let go of the LDSND and my paddle dutifully pulled it back to the boat and I returned to swimming. Now please recall when I mentioned that long distance swimming was tough on the mind.
Simply put swimming 10K is just a few painful steps beyond mind-numbing, CPAN watching, grass growing, long ass lecture listening, cross-country car trip through Nebraska, international flight with no movies, brain-frying dull.
There’s nothing new really to see, to hear, to smell, to taste, to feel, to think except for cold water.
I remember swimming just past the halfway point of the race and asking my paddler how much farther I had to go. He was a great older guy who had brought along a hand held GPS to “help” me judge how far I had gone.
At this point I had been in the water for something like two hours. He looked at the GPS and said “You’ve gone 3.06 miles” which was exactly .02 miles further than the last time I had asked him which to me seemed like 3 hours ago.
Here’s a hint to all you would-be open water swim support paddler types. When your swimmer asks you how much further the finish line is, just lie through your teeth. Say something like, “Oh let me check,” and don’t even bother to turn on the GPS as you look down at it with furrowed brow. “Well look here, it says that you have only about a quarter of a mile left to go. Just keep on swimming Flipper.”
Believe me the last thing in the world your swimmers fragile mind wants to hear and process is the painful and precise distance of 3.06 miles left to go.
The other really nasty secret of open water swimming is that it can be really and utterly cold. I don’t mean the kind of, “please close the window honey I’m a bit chilly cold” you sometimes feel. Or even that kind of, “I know I should have a much thicker sleeping bag tonight as the temperature drops” cold.
The cold I’m talking about is like when somebody says, “I’ll swim 10K when hell freezes over.” So image how cold it would really have to be for hell to freeze over and you know what I felt like on my swim. At the end of the swim I was so cold that my eyeballs had goose bumps…and they were covered by my goggles, unlike the rest of my body.
The other vivid memory I have of that day is how much I just really wanted to stop swimming. I recall swimming by a happy and frolicking family as they were barbecuing lunch and enjoying a warm sunny day on the beach. It took all of my mental strength not to make a sharp left turn, drag myself out of the water like some hideous bumpy prune-like creature, steal a burger and beer, plop down on the sand and tell my paddler to go meet me at the finish. Especially after I asked him how much further to the finish and he informed me that I still had 3.04 miles to go.
Ahhhhhhh! So as not to keep you in suspense any longer, I did indeed finish the swim in a time of about 4-hours and 15-minutes. I could look up the exact time, but it really doesn’t matter that much as I was at the butt end of the spear of swimmers.
As I recall the winner of the race finished in around 2 hours and 20 minutes. If you do the math that translates to a 1:10 per 100-yards split time. For all of you hardcore swimmers, image swimming a 1:10 per 100-yard pace for 10K, and you’ll really understand the difference between me and a double Channel Swimmer.
I just remember the wonderful relief I felt as I stumbled out of the water. And just like at the finish of an Ironman, they actually have handlers that will support you as you climb out of the water….except of course that these handlers are very wet. It seems that after over four hours of being horizontal, the body can get a bit a shaky when returning to vertical. I also must thank my friend Allen who swam with me but much further ahead of me. He saved my left shoulder from the permanent damage sustained by my right shoulder. After the swim I was unable to raise my arms above my head so I took advantage of the free massage.
I should have known I was in deep deep trouble when the devil who called himself a message therapist informed me that he did not believe in message, but instead pressure and release.
The excruciating pain on my face must have been a dead giveaway to Allen as this demon from bowls of hell twisted my right into a salty pretzel. Allen luckily saw my tears and came over and rescued me from further torture by saying we had to leave.
As we slowly drove back around the lake to the start of the race to pick-up my car, and in-between excruciating spasm of pain darting up my spine from my right shoulder, I remember thinking to myself; I swam a @#*##@% long way.
* Click HERE to explore and travel to the rest of the World's 10 most Interesting & Unusual races.