I was pleased to participate in the 25th Annual Bosphorus Continental Crossing Race (Boğaziçi Kıtalararası Yarış) yesterday in Istanbul, Turkey. There were 1600 swimmers with 600+ of us from other countries.
From the survey of the course on the tour boat (provided for the swimmers) on Friday I got more excited for the race. I could see right away that success (or speed) on this course was as much about picking the best route as it was strength or endurance – actually, more so.
The race is 6.5 km by measurement, but we swim downstream and the surface current on the Bosphorus is as much as 7 km-per-hour and had wind assist as well, which makes the swim physically feel more like 3.5 km. It is a very fast course, but totally dependent on what route is taken.
The current flows steadily but not evenly. There is an ideal channel to follow that flows somewhere within the 1 km avg width of the Bosphorus, then there are less-than-ideal channels, and then there are eddies and back-currents waiting to stall or sweep you where you don’t want to go. The shortest path, point-to-point, is not necessarily the fastest route. A strong swimmer with a poor route can be easily beaten by a modest one with a good route. I think this may be one of the reasons a few celebrity swimmers (Mark Spitz last year, and Ian Thorpe this year) have attended the race at the invitation of the Turkish organizers, but ended up as spectators rather than participants – it could potentially be very embarrassing for them! It sucks to have so much public pressure of expectation riding on one’s shoulders, when otherwise, they could just jump in and enjoy a fabulous swim.
Consider, the record holder swam the 6.5 km course this year in 39 minutes. The fastest time in my age-group (40-44) was 44 minutes. I was guessing I might have a chance to make it in around 49 minutes in my current condition and hoped I was on a good route to do it. Looking at my watch at the last planned turning point I thought I was on track to do that until the last 1km or so, which then seemed to take FOREVER although I was clipping along with the same steady stroke. It seems almost everyone feels that same sensation – though mine and perhaps many others’ was not from exhaustion, but from that dreaded back-current! I finished in just under 55. Compare: My 41-year-old female friend (a runner, and new-to-TI swimmer without a competitive swimming background) wisely decided to stick to breaststroke for the course and ended up with 57 minutes! We were all very impressed. A swimmer friend who did it last year in 45 minutes, and appears more fit than ever, did it in 51 minutes this year.
This race is so technical, or rather, it is extremely difficult to evaluate performance – it’s not merely about navigating by landmarks, but about being able to detect where the faster water is and staying in it, while choosing your turning points just right – somewhere within the 1 km width of the waterway. It is easy to choose those points in theory, while standing on the boat or the bridge to look down at the water and see everything spread out easily before the eyes. But once you are laying down in that water it is extremely challenging to detect and hit those virtual points.
And how can I analyze my own performance? If only I have a GPS device to record my route and pace at each section I could then get some reference point to see where I may have picked the better route and where I picked the poorer one based on relative pace. In general, from the advice that I received and from my observations of the course before I was so impressed with the speed of the current at it’s fastest flow that I think I over-estimated it at the beginning section when I cut out into the channel immediately and in the last section where I turned in toward the finish too soon. But no one wanted to get swept past the finish point and then waste 10 or 15 minutes just trying to get back to it.
On my way to the airport that afternoon, the bus crossed over the first bridge which is just below the finish point of the race. I looked up the Bosphorus to review the route I had taken. My course was nearly the shortest route one could take while staying the channel flow, but now I think I was too conservative in regards to the current. In the water, in the middle race, I could not see or feel if I was in the best current or not (I had not learned how to detect it). So, next year, I can already envision a more detailed study of the currents and a more detailed planning of where my trajectory and turning points will be. But there is only this one day each year that the waterway is closed to all boats and shipping so that swimmers can be out in the middle of it. So that planning will have to be done above the water.
I could have swam ‘harder’, but I swam as hard as I intended to and got out feeling good about my physical performance considering the exhausted condition I was in (2 weeks of little sleep, little training, and a lot of work). Mentally, the race went by extremely fast, as I anticipated. If anything, I wish the race could have been a couple km longer because I was just getting warmed up. I am conditioned more for 1+ hour swims while most others are not. But it is wise to keep the course like it is – not too long to keep it accessible to the greatest number of swimmers, and not too short to maintain proper respect for the distance (and preparation for it).
The temperature was about 24 C which is merely uncomfortable for pool swimmers and nicely warm for OW swimmers. Many people chose to wear wetsuits or compression suits (and there was no separation in the results for this) which added to mental comfort as much as physical. I was naked and was anticipating it being much colder and would have actually preferred it 1 or 2 degrees less than it was. I was also told that the fastest channel would be COLD water and we would notice it when we hit it. I guess I never found that ‘fastest’ channel because I only felt one or two quick pockets of cooler water. And in the fairly clear deep blue water there was nothing to look at but the little bowl-ish jellyfish (benign) drifting a meter or so below my body. No visual evidence of faster or slower water.
My assistant coach and I talked about it afterwards – we will definitely plan a training camp and race package for next year for those of you who want to join this race and want some help preparing for it in body, mind, and in learning how to find the best route.
I highly recommend this swim!
Here is the official race introduction video if you would like a little more insight into the race and organization of it.