Yesterday I swam with a group of about 80 swimmers across La Bocaina, the strait that separates the islands of Lanzarote and Fuerteventura. It’s 15 km in a straight line. It was both a grueling challenge and an amazingly satisfying experience.
For safety, the swimmers are divided into fast, medium and slow groups. Then, each group starts at different times: slow first, then medium and lastly the fast group. I registered for the fast group; we were 24 swimmers in my group.
When I woke up early in the morning of the swim, I heard the palm trees flapping in the wind. Not a good sign, but we still had three hours to go before start time. Hopefully, I thought, when the sun comes up, the wind may die down a bit, or not…
After an early and copious breakfast, I made my way to the beach. The slow group was getting ‘suited up’. The conditions for the swim were “just ok”, i.e. rough but swimmable: although the water temperature was perfect, and the water crystal clear, the seas were far from ideal. The waves were irregular and about 0.8 to 1 m. Before the start we were told that east-west wind was causing some choppy water (with the occasional white caps), and that there was also a slight ocean current in the same direction. All of that meant that we would not be swimming in a straight line, but that we would instead take a slightly curved trajectory (aiming towards Isla de Lobos at the beginning) to try to avoid the currents. In other words, we would not be swimming 15 km in a straight line, but longer (we would find out the actual distance at the end from gps trackers).
For me, training in a small pool for an event with these conditions is the running equivalent of training on an indoor track for a city marathon (1.5x times a marathon actually), and then being told on the day of the event that you are running a longer distance (16% longer), cross country instead of asphalt, and against the wind. Oh, right, but the air temperature is nice…
We cheered on the slow and medium groups as they set off for Fuerteventura, while we made our own final preparations for our 8:40 am start time. There were lots of anticipation in these last few minutes before the start, as the swimming season draws to an end for many, and all the training done during the year boils down to this very moment. I was confident I could swim the distance, but admittedly a bit nervous because I would need to keep the pace with the fast group, which was my main unknown.
In chatting with other swimmers before the event, I learned that some swimmers who were faster and more experienced than me had opted for the medium group, and this made me doubt whether I had done the right thing by signing up for the fast group. Only one way to find out…
As we set off, I found myself near the head of the group, and very close to the kayak guide (the kayak guide goes in front with a GPS and a large balloon, making it easier to follow the right path). I was going easy enough, and I thought that if kept this pace I would be just fine – the pace was perfect for me. In this first hour, I did have a bit of a mishap with the waves: I swallowed a big gulp of ocean water, which made me cough and almost vomit. I managed to endure on without breaking my pace, but that was definitely a lesson learned.
One hour in, the organizers stopped us for two minutes so that the back of the group could catch up. Hmm… I’m doing way better than I expected, I thought. This gave me a confidence boost, but I also knew the was really just the beginning; only one hour had gone by. Anything could happen in the hours ahead.
1st feeding at 1:25
At about one hour and a half into the swim, we made our first stop for feeding. Five minutes to hydrate and eat. The kayaks had water, coca cola, energy gels, bananas, chocolates, and other hydration liquids. I had a little bit of everything. These five minutes helped the slower swimmers to catch up and regroup (slower swimmers get less time to feed), and we set off again.
Everything was going as well as I could have expected given the conditions. Choppy water, medium waves, but all good. After this, the next feedings would take place every hour, similar to what I had trained for (I had done sets of 4 x 3 km stopping to eat and drink every 45 mins.).
In the second stint, everything remained about the same: swimming pace, waves… I did see two or three minuscule jelly fish. One grazed my ear, and another my ankle, but really lightly. I did not see any other fish; this was just the vast Atlantic Ocean blue below me. The deep Atlantic under the bright sun has a beautiful shade of blue, not the same dark blue as seen from above; it’s lighter but deeper. I lost myself in these and other thoughts for a while, and then we came to the second pit stop.
I looked at my watch: 2 hours 35 minutes – we must be past the mid point, I thought. Then someone wearing a GPS tracker said: “seven six hundred”… 7.6 km swum: almost exactly at mid point. Having this information is useful, especially if one is in good shape and high spirits. If you’re struggling, it’s probably better not to know how much you have left to swim. Either way, I prefer to know because these two data points allow me to prepare mentally for what is ahead, and also to estimate the pace in my head, which distracts me from the swim for a bit – that always helps.
In this second feeding I took a bit of everything from the kayak again. The shoulders were not yet hurting, but I knew they would hurt later because of the rough conditions, so I also took some ibuprofen. You know it’s going to be long and tough going when you have time to plan for the pain killers to kick in later during the swim (this proved later to be a life saver!).
I started the third stint thinking that if we had only reached mid point in 2:35, we would be in for a longer than expected crossing; we were going to finish in just over 5 hours. This meant we would have one more feeding stop at ca. 3 hours 30 mins, and then a last one at ca. 4:30… after the last feeding, the group would be allowed to break up so that the fast swimmers can duke it out over 1st place.
Knowing what’s ahead helps to prepare mentally, to not get one’s hopes up that this may be over soon. Again, if one is in good shape, it’s a positive thing; but if one is struggling, then knowing you are only at mid point can be demoralizing. I was in high spirits at this time.
I continued swimming while doing some math in my head, estimating our pace up to this point based on the two pieces of information that I had: “seven six hundred” in 2 hours 35 mins. The train-of-thought back-of-the-envelope estimation was something like this:
Hmmm, ok, so 7.6 km, let’s round that to 7.5 km.
Now, 2 hours 35 mins. make 155 min. Let’s round that to 150 min.
Divide it all by 3: 2.5 km in 50 min. Compare that to 3 km in 45 min. (known pool pace of 1:30/100m)
Ok, so we are swimming 500m less in 5 mins more than my pool pace
500 m = 7:30, so 12:30 mins slower every 3 km
That’s 4 mins. per km. slower, so we are swimming at 19 min / km.
I guess that’s fine given the conditions.
Oh look! A tiny jelly fish.
Ok, on with it! Still one hour to the next feeding… let’s try to not look at the watch for as long as possible…
Then, about 30 minutes into the third stint, I saw a group of swimmers stopping for a feeding, which I found odd because my group should still have had another 30 mins to the next one. I stopped and asked a kayak for water. Then I looked around I realized all swim caps were green, not yellow!! This was the medium group! So where is my group!? By the time I realized this was the medium group, which we were passing, my group was ca. 150-200 meters ahead of me. Shit, I need to catch up now!? I would now need to increase my pace for the next 25 mins. This was really hard. It was hard not only because I had to swim a bit faster (I had trained for this too), but because I had to swim just fast enough to catch up and not so fast as to become too tired to ultimately finish. This requires concentration; and it drains you mentally. Instead of nice distracting thoughts, I kept thinking: shit, I need to catch up; where’s my kayak guide?; shit, I need to catch up.
Moreover, by this time, the effects of salt water in my mouth were becoming uncomfortable. After more than three hours in the ocean, the salt water causes the tongue to swell and go numb. The feeling is similar to when you eat salty sunflower seeds… for hours. It’s not painful, just very uncomfortable. For me, salt mouth is probably the worst thing about marathon swimming in the ocean.
After an eventful third stint, and having sped up for 25-30 minutes, I caught up with my group just before the third feeding. Things were becoming less pleasant now…
Third feeding (ca. 3 hours 30 mins.)
Once again, the feeding stop was flawless. The organization had perfect logistics, and excellent volunteers in multiple kayaks.
Consider the logistics of bringing enough liquids, bananas, chocolates, energy gels, etc. for 80-100 people in the middle of the ocean, and then making 4-5 stops with each of the three groups to distribute this food – yet it all happened like clock work. It’s not easy to do, yet each kayaker always had at hand some water, some energy gels, some chocolates, a few bananas cut in half… kudos to the organizers, they really did a great job (B15 Active – Asoc. Aguas Abiertas Lanzarote & Club Piragüismo Marlines).
As I started the penultimate stint, I was thinking ‘are these guys really going to race each other for 1st place after this much swimming?’ And race each other they did indeed. The faster swimmers in the group did not even wait until after the last feeding as was the plan. Instead, they increased their pace as soon as we were done feeding. The organization did not hold them back, like they had done with us at the beginning. They swam ahead and they took our kayak guide with them.
Within minutes, I could not see any swimmers around me. I looked back and saw three yellow swim caps about 100 meters behind me. I looked ahead and saw the kayak guide was ca. 200-300 meters ahead, and very hard to follow because of the waves. Obviously, one needs to be on the crest of the wave for any visibility, but the waves were not very regular. This meant that I could not sight while swimming; I had to stop, look up, and wait for the next crest to have a chance at seeing the kayak guide in the distance. Stopping for 5 second every time I wanted to look ahead slowed me down considerably, so I knew there would be no way I could catch up to the leaders now. I had no idea at this point how many of the 24 were ahead or behind me.
I swam alone most of the fourth stint. Sometimes I could see a swimmer in the distance (30 meters or so to either side of me). I kept the same pace as I had done up to this point. The ibuprofen was helping, but I could feel my shoulders beginning to hurt. Regardless, there was definitely no quitting now. After four hours of swimming, Isla de Lobos was no longer a shadowy rock far ahead in the ocean, but a massive island that I had already passed on my left. Fuerteventura was within reach and I started to see the sea floor.
I then caught up with a swimmer and tried to follow behind, at his feet, to conserve energy. Unfortunately, I inadvertently touched his feet and he stopped. I stopped with him, taking the opportunity to sight ahead. He gasped – he was struggling, so I asked if he was ok, and offered him to tag along with me at my feet. And on we went for about 20 minutes until we reached the last feeding point together.
4th and last feeding
We arrived at the last feeding and the faster swimmers were already gone. Ok, so they are about 5 minutes ahead, I thought.
I had some water and a chocolate, and I was ready to go, but the organizer yelled over the bullhorn: “you have 1.5 km to go! Let’s wait for the others and regroup!” I was not pleased; I wanted to keep going. It was also not very fair: the faster half of the group took off without us, but my new buddy and I now had to wait. Oh well. We waited for the slower ones in our group to catch up and feed before resuming.
At this point, even the slower half of the fast swimmers wanted to race. I remember thinking ‘what the hell, really? I had to wait for you people and now you want to race!? ¡Joder!’
I estimated we had about 28-30 minutes left to go (tired pace for 1,500 meters) at this time. I followed a swimmer into the first turning buoy, and then I let myself go. The last 700 meters felt as though they were infinite, never-ending. At 400 meters from the finish line, I could see it. I was done. I had done it. Then, 200 meters out, I saw two swimmers catching up to me from behind, and I thought: I really don’t want to race, but there’s no way you’re are passing me now. So I “sprinted” the last 150 meters, made it to the ramp, took off my cap and goggles, and walked across the finish line. The swimmer behind me was nice enough (or too tired) to not run past me to the finish. I crossed the line in 12th position, after 5:18:38; 15 minutes after first place, and one second ahead of 13th.
We were greeted with a great atmosphere, music, cheers and congratulations from the crowd. One volunteer was handing out isotonic drinks while another took the timing chip off my ankle. This is a nice little touch that I really appreciate, since I would not have been able to do so myself.
After shower, massage and lunch, I picked up my “Finisher” shirt and trophy, and talked about the swim with other swimmers. One swimmer who had worn a GPS tracker said we swam 17,560 meters. 2.5 km more than the straight-line distance. Another swimmer who had swum the same crossing multiple times before said it was the toughest he had done.
One of these swimmers provided us with some reference for how rough conditions had been: he had finished 10th last year in 4 hours 10 minutes. This year he was third in 5 hours 7 minutes.
The La Bocaina crossing ended up being everything I was hoping for: equal part challenging and rewarding. The organization was flawless. I could not have hoped for a more perfect finale to my marathon swimming season.
If you’re still reading, thanks. Please note that the reason I do these swims is to raise funds for the Red Cross Emergency Aid projects (such as earthquakes, war refugees, hurricanes, etc.). Although the open water marathon swimming season is over for now, I still continue to train daily. If you like my project and would like to support, please visit and share my fundraising page (bit.ly/SwimDonate). While you’re there, consider donating. If you do so, you’ll get the next updates to my blog, including a recap of the 2017 season, and my plans for 2018 and beyond.
Thanks a lot!