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Nigel battles gruelling Lake Zurich swim

06th September, 2017

Last month OSS member Nigel Woods took part in the 26k Lake Zurich marathon swim, the world’s longest swimming race. Nigel finished first in his age group and second overall, completing the race in seven hours and twenty-nine minutes. “I’d watched videos of people interviewed from previous years and a recurring theme had been that the last six kilometres were the worst,” says Nigel. “They weren’t wrong. Getting from six kilometres down to four and the final tree lined view was tortuous. I’ve never swum in such discomfort, I’ll never do it again!”

Nigel first heard about the swim after completing the length of Lake Windermere back in 2015. “I met a chap at the event who told me that he’d also completed the Lake Zurich swim that year, an event I’d never heard of,” said Nigel. “So when I got home I did a web search and discovered it was a 26k swim from Rapperswil to Zurich organised by the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Swim Team.”

Nigel applied and managed to get through the qualifying criteria before beginning a gruelling seven-month training programme. Nigel sought advice from Adam Gibson, Greenlight PT and was completing long swims on Sundays of seven-nine kilometres, followed by a short one-kilometre swim on Mondays. “Come July most of the pleasure had gone out of the training,” said Nigel. “It had become an enormous slog. Sets of increasing speed, hurt and took a while.”

 

“I felt dreadful, lifeless and seriously wondered if I’d make it to Switzerland, never mind the race.”

 

With just 17 days before the race Nigel was hit with a stomach bug and he lost half a stone in eight days. “I couldn’t train and ended up on antibiotics to treat what was confirmed as a Campylobacter infection. I felt dreadful, lifeless and seriously wondered if I’d make it to Switzerland, never mind the race,” said Nigel. “I emailed Adam and asked whether at 55 years of age and with only ten days until the event I stood any chance of taking part. He reassured me that as long as I was well for the week, put a few pounds back on and felt okay swimming two or three kilometres in the few days before I left, I’d make it as I had already done the training.”

Nigel made it to Switzerland with time to sightsee and take the train from Zurich to Rapperswil, which follows the contour of the lake. “With stops, the train took 40 minutes – it certainly brought home to me just how idiotic trying to swim that 26k really was.” On the day of the event the weather had taken a turn and Nigel managed to lock himself out of his hotel room before the event began – yet despite all this he was in the water at 6.55am with 39 other solo swimmers and 16 teams. “My plan was to swim at a pace that I would maintain from start to finish. I didn’t care and wasn’t going to react to whatever anyone else did,” said Nigel. “I usually start myself at the front of a swim and make sure I try and get off with the pace but I put myself half way along the line and started at a pace I had worked on throughout my big final swims, roughly 16 minute kilometres.”

The beginning of the swim was all into the breeze and chop, so four kilometres in and Nigel could already feel his shoulders. “The chop made it impossible to settle in to the rhythm I’d established in training and more effort was required than I’d wanted and it transpired I was going a little slower than planned. At six kilometres I stopped for my first feed,” said Nigel. “By the 12 kilometre mark, the support team were excited. Only one boat was visible ahead and they reckoned we were catching rapidly. I hadn’t increased my pace but others were slowing, which is what I’d expected judging by how fast some of them had set off. After the 12 kilometre feed, I felt for the first time that I was in a race. I wanted to catch whoever was ahead of me, but I had to concentrate on not swimming faster, there were still 14 kilometres to go and pacing, I knew, would be everything.”

The shape of the lake means that the end was never in sight, it is a bit like swimming round an island. The swim became a mental battle for Nigel around the 16-kilometre mark, there was a swell from boat traffic and the weather had changed. “At 18 kilometres I wondered if I could go on,” said Nigel. “I could see the boats behind me had dropped quite a way back so no one was gaining on me. The support team confirmed for me that I was never going to catch the leader and it looked unlikely I would be caught. Just over an hour and a half of swimming left and it was now mind over matter. My left shoulder was screaming, my right leg felt as if it might go in to cramp at any moment and my left wrist felt like I’d broken it.”

With just two kilometres to go Nigel told his wife he was done, he was so tired and had stopped caring about second place, the time and just wanted to finish. But one last push gave Nigel a proper finish. “I was there. Unbelievable. An amazing rush of emotions, relief, satisfaction an odd sense of surviving came over me,” said Nigel. “Instantly, before I’d even taken my goggles off a microphone was shoved in my face, a bloke with a video camera to one side and one of the organising women shouting at me, I’d come second, an amazing time! ‘What had made me enter the race? How had it been? Would I do it again?’ I just wanted to stand still, not fall over and think about what I’d done, but I told her how tough it had been, how choppy the water was to start and following the boat, and no – I’d never do it again. Ever!”

Nigel was given his trophy for his second place efforts more than 12 hours after he started. “I felt like a couple of guys had taken baseball bats to me and I wouldn’t sleep a wink that night because every time I moved just slightly, every muscle screamed, but it had been worth it.”

Seven months of training, following Adam’s plan had paid dividends, but Nigel hasn’t changed his mind, he will never do it again.