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Vidösternsimmet and Windermere – A tale of 2 swims

Having completed my second Thames Marathon swim in 2018 thoughts had turned to my goals for 2019. I felt confident enough in my swimming that my goal for 2019 was to break the 20km swim distance. 2018 had seen a time improvement on both the Jubilee and Thames Marathon swims and my ever dependent swimming partner Karen and I had also completed our longest swim to date earlier in the year, a 6 hr channel qualifier albeit with wetsuit that had seen me clock up 17.5km and Karen knocking on the door of 20km of swimming.

Thumbing through Open Water Swimming Magazine I had read an article regarding a endurance swim in Sweden called Vidösternsimmet; essentially a 21km + end to end solo swim event across Lake Vidostern; it peaked my interest. With the event just under a year away I immediately contacted Karen and we hastily talked each other into it and agreed to sign up for what would be our longest and toughest swim to date.

A couple weeks after I had signed up for Vidösternsimmet so I had come across a company called Windermere One Way (#WOW) who organised a solo end to end crossing of Windermere with individual kayak support. It was 3 weeks after Sweden and although short of the 20km marker; I convinced myself that if I were to train for one swim, I may as well do two. Luckily, I know a keen kayaker who was happy to help me out, so the idea of swimming two marathon events in one month became a no-brainer. Again, I contacted Karen and without too much hesitation she agreed as always to the Windermere attempt, so I now had my ever-dependable friend and swim buddy onside for both swim attempts. Knowing that I had company on these swims and a training partner for the coming Open Water season made all the difference with my decisions to enter these events.

Fast forward into 2019 and my swim season began in earnest. I made the most of the pool during the OW close season and was clocking up the mileage. Every year I swim the Aspire channel challenge a 12-week pool-based challenge to swim 22 miles. Clocking the number of laps on their website, by the end of the challenge I had swum 40 miles over the course of 12 weeks. This had included a successful attempt at 100x100 with Dave and Jenny which I had been keen on trying for a while. Karen and I were regularly meeting early Sunday mornings for distance pool swims before I joined the Tri N Swim Well team in Lanzarote for their March skills swim camp, which turned out to be a massive step forward for me.

I had also started Trifarm early doors as an accompaniment to my usual Saturday morning visit to Stubbers. I hadn’t been a fan of the place in previous years but as the OW season started, I was heading there most weekends and had become a convert. The swim camp had finally committed improved technique to muscle memory, and I was working on stamina by complimenting regular spin sessions with short sharp 10 x 100 pool sprints which complimented my Wednesday morning JBR club swims.

My first endurance event was a 2-man relay (2swim4life), a 24 hr / 24-mile open air pool-based swim alongside Antony Oliveri. With this successfully navigated (albeit a real tough event) I felt both ready and somewhat nervous for the swims ahead given how much 2swim4life had taken out of me. Karen had now moved from water to road and had dedicated most her time to cycling as she was about to take on (and smash) her Team GB age group Aqua bike event in Pontevedra.

As confident as I was feeling as the season progressed, so the wheels fell off slightly, nothing like a dose of reality to bring you back down to ground. I had entered The Great East Swim 10km as a training event; the advice Karen and I picked up frequently was to get to the stage in which 10km swims were bread and butter and use these as a platform to kick on from. I was regularly swimming double digit laps at Trifarm and had completed the Scottish version of the Gt East swim last yr. so believed this event would be straight forward. I really struggled posting my slowest ever 10km swim time and could not have been happier to see the back of the swim. Despite a couple more long OW sessions including a 6hr 15km training swim, self-doubt had crept in and July was turning into a bit of a non-event for training. I was not swimming anywhere near the amount I needed to and doubts were starting to cross my mind with thoughts turning more to hope that muscle memory and prior experience would get through Vidösternsimmet.

One of my problems had seen a reoccurrence of an old shoulder injury on some of the longer training swims originally caused by a motorbike fall many years ago, resurfacing again in 2017 during training for the channel. The injury hadn’t at this point caused me to stop swimming, but I was stiffening up after each swim. With this and a tough Great East swim and a lack of distance training in July at the back of my mind both Karen and I headed to Sweden on the 8th August with a feeling of apprehension ahead of us.

Vidösternsimmet – Lake Vidostern - Sweden

The town of Varnamo is roughly 175km south of Gothenburg. A quiet place that sits at one end of Lake Vidostern and would provide the backdrop to a 21km + end to end swim. Vidösternsimmet is the brainchild of 3 Swedish swimmers whom 9 years ago wanted to put on an OW event that would test the endurance of like-minded swimmers. From humble beginnings this year’s event had a record turnout of 102 swimmers and whilst the vast majority are Swedes and Danes, there are more than a smattering of other nations including the UK. Indeed, this year the event organisers were particularly happy as Simon Griffith’s (editor of Open Water Swimmer magazine) was himself taking part as well as the people behind the London Docks OW swimming club. So, there are a couple things to know about the swedes; firstly, they can organise an event very well. Furthermore, they are calm about weather conditions, no obsession with temperature or the fact rain, winds or lightening are forecast. To then it just adds to the test and from what we understood most years had experienced dreadful weather at some point or another. The weekend Karen and I were to attempt the swim, Europe had just been hit by a major storm front and Sweden was getting the tail end.

Race briefing was held the night before, so we arrived nice and early into Varnamo which gave Karen and I a chance to head down to the event start to get our baring’s for the next day. Unsurprisingly the lake looked huge and quite daunting. We could see the 1st 3 marker buoys way into the distance and saw the lake stretch out over the horizon. Surprisingly the water was both warm and very shallow for quite a distance, indeed on race day I clocked around 110metres of walking before I started to swim. There would be 22 marker buoys roughly placed at 1km intervals which would serve (aside from other swimmers and the odd boat) as the only markers on the course. There would be a safety boat for each section of the swim with 5 feed stations, 2 on the water and 3 on land.

Each swimmer is assigned a numbered tow float but that really is about it. If anyone got into trouble or needed to retire, they would simply tread water until a safety boat picks you out of the water.

The swim was a mass walking start from the beach, and it became obvious to me very early on that there seemed to be 2 mass banks of swimmers. The first bank of swimmers kicked off at an alarmingly quick pace, the second main bank of swimmers were also quick, and I think this was where Karen was nestled.

Fairly quickly I was dropped by the main pack but felt that if I could sit on the tail enders, I was ok. You see my sighting is terrible and I wanted to rely on a fix from other swimmers. Fairly quickly I started to drop off the main pack albeit with a good number of other swimmers thankfully I was still able to sight without going off course too much. The first section up to the first feed station had us swimming in quite an exposed area of lake. The swimmers had chopped the water up and the wind was dictating that the swirl was hitting the side I breathe so it took a little time but eventually I had got myself into a nice rhythm having survived the starting couple km’s and I even remember thinking about my 2020 goals as I was swimming. The first feed station was a floating one and came up after 3.7km. As I arrived, a quick look around and I was happy that there seemed to be a good smattering of swimmers both behind me and just in front. This obsession of where I was in the pack would come back to bite me, I was using up energy to keep up with the pack plus my entire thought process was beginning to settle on this one thought. I knew my first mistake was not to settle in and enjoy the 1st feed station. I arrived and re-set my goggles before a quick drink of water and a quick bite to eat. With probably only a couple mins spent here I set off again to try to stay with the back markers of the main pack. As I had approached the 1st feed station so the rain began. With the rain reducing visibility I started to expend more energy than I wanted to pace myself with swimmers I could sight. Fairly quickly I was losing sight of the pack as we started the second section and it took me a good couple km’s to adjust my mindset to keeping company and spotting off 5 or so swimmers (2 to my side and 3 just in front). By now the lake had widened right out and as I tend to swerve off to the right when having not much of a marker to work towards it was a constant battle to keep left and out of the middle of the lake where the water was choppier and much deeper.

By the time I got to my first land-based feed station (around 8km) it was fair to say I was knackered. My wife and Karen’s husband Andy were both there providing much needed support and I was pleased to hear Karen had only entered the water a few minutes in front of me. Again, stupidly I spent less time than I should have done at the feed station. Chucking in cinnamon rolls, water and Jaffa cakes I spent most of this time worrying about losing sight of others. Looking at my watch I was well up on the cut off time by over an hour, but my overriding sense was to ensure I was swimming with others and so I spent less time than I should have done at this feed station and within a couple mins trudged back out into the water. It was only later when I watched the slower swimmers come into feed, some spending 20 mins at the feed station that I kicked myself at the sense of urgency which I felt cost me dearly on this swim.