Riddarfjärdsimningen: A Swedish mouthful

Well that’s a mouthful. A mouthful of Swedish meatballs!

I took a little trip to Scandinavia with my daughter in August.

I have a “Sweden thing” –  a great passion and appreciation for all things Swedish. Design. Candy. Social policy. It’s a long list, including a number of Swedish swimming accounts I follow on Instagram, which tipped me off to the Riddarfjärdssimningen event happening on August 18 – exactly when I planned to be in Stockholm with Scarlet. And the event with the longest name I’ve ever swam.

There were other events happening near or around my planned holiday, but I knew I’d definitely be able to make this one happen. Sweden has a ton of open water swimming events every year, and I was pretty much spoiled for choice but had to make it work within my vacation timeline. When I move there (;)) – I will swim events all spring and summer long and spend all my time in my våtdräkt and then the sauna.

Riddarfjärden is in Central Stockholm – the easternmost bay of Lake Mälaren which meets the Baltic Sea at the intersection of Stockholm’s Gamla Stan (Old Town). Could there be a prettier and more scenic city swimming event?

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The Riddarfjärdssimningen takes place every summer and offers both a 1600 m and 3200 m distance. I signed up for the 3200 m, which starts from Rålambshovparken on the island of Kungsholmen, up the Norr Mälastrand to Stadshuset (City Hall), and back again. You’d have to be sitting with me here at my table to hear how those Swedish place names just roll off my tongue. Not.

The morning of the swim was sunny and summery, and I arrived really early at Rålambshovparken to grab my race packet. I wanted to give myself enough time to translate any important info, since my Duo Lingo Swedish program hasn’t given me the ability to actually communicate (thus far). I can say a lot about apples, what moose drink, and what Sven might wear to the party, but so far I have no accessible vocabulary about goggles, water temperature, or currents. Fortunately, the international language of the Speedo prevails, and there were no shortage of nicely packed Swedish versions of those.

I was stretched out and warm, and still a little sore from the previous week’s Skaha Ultra Swim. The water was a frisky and brisk 20 degrees Celsius, so my wetsuit was definitely a must. And I’d brought it all the way from Canada (and would then lug it to Gothenburg, Malmö, and Copenhagen), so I was pleased to give it a dip in international waters. Paired with one of the coolest race caps I’ve ever received, I was super styling and ready to simma (that’s “swim” in Swedish).

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The race course follows a series of buoys along the Norr Mälarstrand. It was a mass start in the water, with a Swedish countdown, natch. I had some pretty serious goggle fog and hadn’t charged my Finis Duo, so it was a true battle of the elements. I had hoped to catch sight of the beautiful buildings along the Mälarstrand and the Kungsholmstorg Brygga (bridge!), but I mostly only saw stylish Swedish feet and, thankfully, the big yellow race buoys. There was a ton of chop on the way out, and a slightly smoother surface during the second half. I swallowed a lot of salty water, rode a few waves, but generally felt quite strong if not so fast. My speed was hard to gauge, given the rough water and my vision issues. If not for the buoys, I definitely would have ended up in Latvia. I managed a respectable 5th place in my age category and clocked in at 1:01.07. I usually swim this distance much faster, but my shoulders were still whimpering from the previous week.

Still – what a swim! What an epic place for a BC lake swimmer to race an event! And I managed to sneak it into my Scandinavian holiday, which was a big goal all along and did not distract from our other plans, including the ABBA Museum (you must go!), the charming sights of Gothenburg (you must also go!), and the Disgusting Food Museum in Malmo (you must definitely go!). Next time I’m in that part of the world, I will register for the Copenwater Swim – which looks amazing.  Stay tuned!

I was cheered on by Scarlet and the lovely Dalmalm family, who’s son Hugo was one of our homestays through the Red Mountain Academy and one of my all time favourite humans. They definitely cheered in Swedish and that definitely helped me push through to a strong finish. And after, we went to Ikea! We really did! There’s nothing quite like the classic Swedish meatballs as a post-race meal.

 

The Skaha Lake Ultra Swim – Take 2

I’m writing this post with my feet, since my arms and shoulders are so $%#@*&!! sore from yesterday’s Skaha Lake Ultra Swim. An 11.8 km marathon swim of ecstasy and agony, but not for the first time. This was my second time swimming Skaha. Why go back for more, you might ask? Well, that’s an interesting question for an open water swimmer, since we as a breed seem to seek out events that test us, tire us, thrash us about, and leave us battered, weary, and definitely wanting more.

When I talk to people about this “hobby” (and certainly this particular swim), a quizzical look often takes over their face. This is soon followed by an obvious expression of concern. And that’s ok. I get it – spending 4 hours in a wetsuit churning across a lake isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But it’s definitely mine, and the 93 others who challenge themselves to make it from Penticton to Okanagan Falls early on a Sunday morning in forest fire season, with only a lone support kayaker to keep them company, and only some carbohydrate gels (and maybe some pickle juice) to eat.

Last year was my first Skaha Ultra (or any ultra), and I spent the majority of the winter leading up to the event feeling freaked out and excited and wondering if I was preparing properly for such an extension of my normal distance. I swam very near to the distance a couple of weeks before, so I entered the water very confident that I would conquer the distance but with no idea how I would fare compared to the other swimmers. I was very pleased with the results and it led me to seek out some longer swims, some of which have happened or are in planning or application stages. But – it whet (swimming pun) my appetite for pushing harder and for longer distances to see what would be possible for me.

This summer has been quite different! I trained all winter and had a respectable showing in the Across the Lake Swim. Soon after that I jetted off to Europe for an epic bike tour that certainly worked my legs and gave me calves of steel, but offered somewhat limited swimming opportunities for the type of distance I maybe should have been working on. In an attempt to keep my nerves at bay and my harsh inner critic in her locked box,  I thought of it as a long taper…

…until I was 8 km into the swim, and my right arm and shoulder started to scream at me.

“YOU DIDN’T TRAIN FOR THIS, YOU IMBECILE!” said my right shoulder, and the left one whimpered in sympathy.

“YOU ARE DOING PERMANENT DAMAGE TO ME, YOU ASS! MAY THE FLEAS OF 1000 CAMELS INFEST YOUR ARMPITS.” said my right arm, and the left one nodded but couldn’t speak because it was totally numb and had been since the 3 km mark.

“WE’RE PRETTY FUCKING HAPPY. THANKS FOR ALL THE BIKING.” said my legs, happily kicking a nice 5 beat without complaint.

I dug deep within and promised my arms and shoulders that I would reward them handsomely if they’d just keep swimming. I wouldn’t ask for turbo power, just survival. I would never again let them sit around, merely steering and lifting bites of apple strudel to my mouth, for a few weeks before a long event like this.  I would let them soak in a hot tub for at least 30 minutes after the event. I bargained with my upper limbs. And they held. But just barely. They even let me forget about them for the last kilometre, allowing me to finish strong, pushing myself upright to  run through the finish (clapping – apparently, and according to this photo!!), and accept my well-earned Finisher’s Medal, which was even nicer than last year!

Arms and shoulders aside, the rest of the swim was amazing. Scarlet, my support kayaker, charted a nice straight line to Ponderosa Point, and offered lots of helpful encouragement along the way. She even called me a “tough little fucker”, which I really liked. Thanks to the awesome Stevens for lending us the kayak.  The conditions were great and much less smoky than last year. I finished a respectable 39th overall, and even though I added 9 minutes to my time, I’m happy with the result. Blame the wind, blame the extra currents, or blame my undertrained arms and shoulders….but what’s the point?  An event of this length is a huge challenge for any body, and even finishing deserves a big bottle of Prosecco or $100 worth of room service or whatever else floats your boat.

I’d like to express my thanks again to the organizers of the Skaha Lake Ultra Swim. This event runs so smoothly and gives great confidence to the participants, who really have a lot of other things on their minds as they prepare. From the safety meetings to the convenient post-swim shuttle back to Penticton, this team has it dialed. If you’re interested in challenging yourself, the registration sells out quite quickly once it’s posted. You have to decide fast. And I think you should do it.

Will I be back next year for a three-peat? It’s certainly possible! For now, I’m sitting in the airport waiting for my flight to Stockholm, where I will swim 3.2 km at next weekend’s Riddarfjardsimningan (say that aloud after a few airport margaritas).  My arms and shoulders haven’t spoken to me since yesterday. They’ll get over it.

 

 

 

A Fish Needs a Bicycle

Cycling stories are to swim blogs like vanilla sauce is to Apfelstrudel.

I was in the middle of my bike tour through Germany, Austria, Switzerland and a tiny part of Italy and I couldn’t hold it in any longer. Story of my life, right? An accumulation of the most epic and vast and stunning scenery I’ve ever seen, combined with an intensely emotional reaction to my circumstances brought me to tears several times in one day.

Maybe it was Lake Sils/Silsersee. Maybe it was the greenest valleys, the vibrant flowers, the vistas of beauty around every corner. Maybe it was the kindness of my companion, who is so in sync with the way I travel (on schedule, organized, with everything in its proper pocket). And who, like me, always decides to climb the extra 500 metres of elevation gain to see something amazing or just to stand on the highest point, breathing hard but happy breaths.

Maybe it was the break I needed – the long and arduous days of climbing and then gliding, of discovering amazing places to swim and cool off in water of a colour I can barely describe. Days spent completely outdoors in sunshine, fog, rain, and wind, with sleep assisted by the sound of rushing rivers outside a tiny tent – the way I sleep best. Trusting that my body would tolerate 10 days of 80 km of cycling and then 2 km of swimming, through tears and smiles and gritting my teeth and regulating my breathing and laughing out loud at the sheer joy of it all.

Joy.

I have enjoyed this experience so much!

I’ve forgotten about the loss of my luggage, the frantic shopping for replacement of critical things I’d need for the trip, and the guilt of holding things up for a day. The frustration and the phone calls (you had ONE JOB), and the extra weight on my credit card.

I’m grateful to The German for planning this trip and itinerary with precise detail as to what would take my breath away – and his willingness to share the places most special to him. I’m grateful for the kindness of the Unterguggenberger family who let us stay an extra night while we sorted out solutions to the missing gear, and served us the most delicious breakfasts I’ve ever had. I’m grateful to Specialized for making a bike that exceeded my expectations and the requirements of the trip – from asphalt to gravel to cobblestone, in rain and in 38 degree heat on serpentine mountain passes.

And yes, I’m grateful for the Chamois Cream, and so is my butt!

What an adventure. I’ll never, ever forget a second of it.

An Ode to My Swim Mum

Better put on your lobster bib, because this is going to be a bit buttery.

I was going to write yesterday – the actual Mother’s Day – but I was so busy relaxing and enjoying some deck time that I decided to eat ice cream sandwiches and percolate on what exactly I wanted to say.

As a swimmer though, Mother’s Day is super special to me.

My Mum was a swim parent. She spent long, humid hours at the pool with other annoying swim club parents. She cheered for me and my sister Kasie, and Martin, and David, and Doug, and Marnie, and Rhiannon. When she cheered for Martin, she yelled “Gooooo Mar-din” because Martin is an awkward name to yell. Try it.

See?

She didn’t cheer for the mean Kathy who always tried to psych me out in the marshalling area.

She drove me to 6 am practices and 6 pm practices, and all over Saskatchewan for swim meets. She let me play Skinny Puppy in the car.

She worked night shifts and volunteered hundreds of hours to afford swim club fees for 2 girls who also wanted Esprit sweaters and new skis.

She baked puffed wheat squares, all individually wrapped, for meet concessions. When the dog ate them, plastic and all, she made some more.

She was a timer. Garbed in official’s white, she captured our performances. She didn’t fall asleep when I plodded through 100 metres of breaststroke, even though the other timers did.

She organized the swim club newsletter. For this, we got to have a loaner photocopier in the basement and we had endless fun photocopying our butts and cutting and pasting people’s heads on to other bodies and making hilarious collages.

She took in billets and fed them 80 pounds of spaghetti.

She was our source of encouragement, saving newspaper clippings of our successes and putting them on the fridge.

She always said “good swim”, even if it wasn’t such a good swim.

When I wanted to quit, she didn’t fight me. She kept buying me Esprit sweaters and let me hang out with the hot BMX guys, who were, in my mind, better time spent than clocking 4000 metre workouts and only making backstroke finals.

And when I turned 40, she came all the way to San Francisco to cheer me on in the Alcatraz swim. She even wiped some seaweed out of my teeth when I finished, so I would be camera ready.

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She comments on all my blog posts, because she’s still my biggest cheerleader.

I felt a bit guilty posting a Mother’s Day video on Facebook of her dancing in a reindeer suit. But we all love that video and we all know what happened when the recording stopped. If you know her, ask her.

She is the heart of our family, and an important source of encouragement for me. She might think my obsession with long distance swimming is a bit crazy, but I know she’ll be in my support boat, yelling “Goooooooo Mar-din” until I reach the shore.

Thanks Mum. You are the best.

The Early Bird Catches the Towel

For the third weekend in a row, I’d intended to make the most of Canadian spring’s unpredictable gifts.

There’s always a little seasonal grief to contend with as the brown patches in the mountains get bigger. My backyard, which is giant, reveals the dogs’ healthy digestive artifacts. The front doesn’t catch as much sun, so a mini-glacier stubbornly holds out in the shade. Meanwhile, the local voles have been partying like drunken frat boys and I’m going to need a new cat, a gallon of grass seed, and the help of my pro-gardening neighbours to restore my front lawn to its former glory. A green thumb I am not. A clammy white bum though? Read on…

I’ve waited for the right moment to wax my skis and put them away until November. With such close proximity to the Rossland Range, I’ve been out to the cabins the last few weekends to enjoy the sunshine and variable spring conditions. The bears are definitely awake, which adds a little extra excitement to every ski, because you might become a human Lunchable or have to draw on your undeveloped jiujitsu skills. Last weekend we packed bear spray for our trips to Viewpoint Cabin and the Biathlon range at Blackjack. It’s really special to glide along under a 7:30 pm sunset, extending the day’s warm temperatures and fresh Kootenay air, and savouring the tangible fear of being eaten.

I was away for work in Chicago last week and planned for one last weekend of cross-country skiing out at Sovereign Lake, near Vernon. With 15 cm of fresh snow in the forecast, my companion and I couldn’t pass up a chance to prolong the winter season we dearly love.

Stunning views from Sovereign Lake Ski Area

Because soon – skiing makes way for swimming, and a return to focus on longer distance training for my summer races and events. Sights are high this year, and it’s time to ramp up.

The local lakes aren’t generally warm enough for swimming until late May at the earliest. And at this point, I’ve honestly been a bit bored in the pool, even with a monthly kilometre goal and boppy new playlists to motivate me.

I scoured my photos to find a record of my earliest lake swim – and found evidence of a May 3 dip in Champion Lakes in 2015.

Champion Lakes, May 3, 2015. Or it might have been 2014.

A beautiful and sunny Kelowna morning inspired a plan to hike and hang out at Bertram Creek Regional Park. Okanagan Lake is sparkly and inviting right now, especially with the anticipation of the 3 events I’ll do here later this summer.

Still, it’s April and I hadn’t even packed my bathing suit for the day. Because that’s just too early, right? The water must be 12 degrees MAX and we’d just skied yesterday. What kind of imbecile even considers the possibility?

Well, an ambitious and well-prepared German does, and before I blinked he was down to the world’s tiniest black Speedo (be still my heart) and in the water. His face looked happy (insert whatever bratwurst/Vienna sausage shrinkage joke you like here).

The temptation proved too much to handle and before I knew it I was in the lake, in my underwear, swimming out to a buoy. It was exhilarating, rejuvenating, and insane. In fact, it felt so great that I floated around near the shore for a good 5 minutes after returning from the buoy. But mostly because reality reminded me that I’d have to wade ashore in my underwear, and cross the beach to grab whatever dry clothes I could. Although I could lift a mid-sized Toyota, I’ve never been confident enough to strut my near-nakedness with pride. I still shower in my swimsuit at the pool (but have moved beyond this practice at home, thanks to the body-positivity movement).

Thankfully, the really well-prepared and thoughtful (and shrinky-dinked) German had packed me a nice big towel, because he knew I wouldn’t be able to resist a swim once I was on the beach. And being German, who needs a towel? Who even needs clothes?

I caught it on the shore. No public indecency laws were broken (by me). All was well.

It was really lovely to warm up in a cozy towel in the warm pebbles.

And that was that – the first lake swim of the year achieved on April 28, 2019. A new record. Maybe my coldest swim yet, until next weekend.

Give It 6 Months

I visited Edmonton for work this week, and stayed downtown at the Westin. No big deal – I’m frequently in and out of Edmonton and although usually I stay at the Delta South, it was more convenient to be downtown for my appointments.

I have avoided that particular Westin like the plague, since it was the site of my “restructuring” from my former job at the end of March this year. I knew full well that the axe was about to fall on my neck. The signs were all there, and my former boss wasn’t so stealthy in concealing her plans. Sloppy and cruel even. On the day before my beheading, she even sent a meeting request for the wrong time, so that I ended up waiting outside the chambre de guillotine for an hour. She texted and told me to go and “have a nice breakfast”, but I didn’t and hid behind a pillar and watched the executioners enter the room.

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Once my head was removed, I spoke with my lawyer, chatted with colleagues, took a nap, ordered room service, and then went for a swim. Or at least I think that was the order of events. I definitely remember the swim.

Two weeks later, I started in my awesome new position with the world’s best company, landing in a role that aligns closely with my values and my skill set, with leadership who lead, for real.  My head slowly reattached itself to my body. I healed.

A close friend said to me “Give it 6 months. You’ll be a new person.”

In the year I’d spent in my previous role, I gave up much more than my head. A gruelling travel schedule saw me away from home nearly 80% of the time. A company culture of working until exhaustion saw me diagnosed with Metabolic Syndrome – constantly swollen and stressed, with broken blood vessels in my eyes. I gained 35 pounds, even when living on Air Canada pretzels – a lot when you’re barely 5 foot 4. I didn’t even buy a ski pass last year. I did one measly, disappointing swim in the summer of 2017. I was mired in Excel spreadsheets full of numbers that meant nothing. My wetsuit hung pathetically in my closet.

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When I reflect back, the relentless travel and long hours did serve a purpose: keeping my mind away from the end of my marriage. Although when I was finally operating like a normal person again, I experienced what my therapist calls “delayed grief”, and it became one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to deal with – but 6 months after the fact. I cannot recommend this approach to moving through traumatic life events.

When I started this swim blog, I was (head intact) searching for positive habits and an approach to recovery, rather than reinvention. I wanted to peel back the barnacles and find the person underneath. Shuck my own oyster. A changed person, indeed, but a person with undeniable basic needs:

  • swimming, or to be in or near water as much as possible
  • other consistent and regular exercise
  • time with my daughter
  • time with my friends
  • good nutrition
  • sleep
  • kindness

There are a few other bullet points, but this is a family blog. Within 6 months, I had completed and exceeded my initial swim goals. I had established myself in my new, amazing role and loved starting work every single day. I had started divorce and other necessary legal proceedings. I’d started running. I’d bought new underwear. I grew my hair and fulfilled a lifelong dream of becoming a roadie for a rock and roll band. Just kidding. That never happened. 😉 I started working with a business coach. I signed up for the future.

This is not to hold myself up as any sort of role model. There’s plenty that happened within the last 6 months that I’m not proud of. But there’s plenty that I am proud of. And 6 months becomes 7, and then 8, and then 9, and then suddenly I’m at the Westin again with my head attached to my neck and I’m shaking it because I can hardly believe how much is possible with a little, or a lot of:

  • swimming, or being in or near water as much as possible
  • other exercise
  • time with my daughter
  • time with my friends (Wow, do you ever learn who those are, and aren’t, Glen.)
  • good nutrition (no Air Canada pretzels, thank you)
  • sleep
  • kindness

I have just over 8,000 more metres to swim to achieve my 2018 training goal, and 2 weeks to learn whether my application for the Lake Zurich swim is accepted. Within the next 6 months, more amazing things will happen, and more change, because that’s the constant and the way it should be for me.

And the next time I stay in Edmonton, it won’t be at the Westin. Not because I don’t like it (ohhh Heavenly Bed, you’re the best), but I left my old head there and I don’t really want it back.

It’s the Time of the Season for Swimming…and Pie

First things first. It is so beautiful in Rossland in October.

Photo Credit: the amazing Don Conroy

I think about moving a lot – there would be some benefits to my social life, my airport situation, and my access to things I love like art, cinema, concerts, and new restaurants. At the end of every summer I start looking at real estate listings on the Island or the Lower Mainland. It’s like I’m programmed to spur on even more change, just as the leaves are turning colours. I feel like I also need to “shed” and reinvent and make a new start.

But somehow this season, my favourite season of all, elicits a feeling of settled-ness and happiness that keeps me in this spectacular place. Even though it’s expensive to swim due to a recreation funding conflict between Rossland and Trail, I cough up the cash for my membership at the Trail Aquatic Centre and start into the new season of a different kind of swimming.

I hike gloriously colourful trails with my dogs and I marvel, like the big sensitive nerd that I am, at the greens and oranges and reds of the leaves and soil and mountains. The sunrises are sublime – hot pink and orange from my bedroom window. The sunsets are slow, soft lavender, purple and blue. When the clouds roll in, the contrast of metal grey with the blue sky almost chokes me up. Told you I was a big nerd. Nature astounds me.

It’s more important for me to live and breathe and BE in this amazing place than it is to see the films that showed at TIFF in September or have a wider variety of shirtless, fish-holding prospects on Tinder.

Many of the swimmers I follow on social networks are able to continue their open water training outdoors, and it does indeed look fabulous to swim in 12 degree lidos or Welsh lakes in the middle of October. But there is something about settling into a season with what you have available that is comforting and valuable and even reassuring. I like the pool. I love the hot tub afterwards, even the pee. I like the people there, and choosing locker #69 every time because I am a 14 year old boy at heart. I like driving home in the dark in my farty old sweatpants and listening to the CBC. I like eating 15 pieces of toast in my kitchen and waking up the next morning with the most epically chlorinated bed head ever. It’s truly a sight to behold and way better than Lady Gaga in A Star is Born or even Beyoncé.

Having taken a 2 week break from the pool since returning from England, I decided to start a completely new program from scratch – one that will lead me into a 10k destination swim in January (to be revealed later!). Starting at a 3k training baseline, I’ll work my way up to 8 km in the pool by mid December. I have a number of technical goals to work on this fall, including improvements to my rotation and my current straight-armed recovery. There’s a lot of kick, and even more pull. My weight training program is focused on building the upper body power I need to conquer longer swims, and includes specific exercises to increase my core and shoulder strength. It feels more planned than ever before, which is weird for a spontaneous nut like me, but as it turns out, there are wise people who have already thought of these things and confronted these challenges. Who knew? I thought I knew everything.

My daughter Scarlet and I are celebrating our Canadian Thanksgiving this year as “NoFucksGiving”, due to our acceptance and resignation with a particularly sad and frustrating situation that has taken up much of our emotional space over the last few weeks. We heal. We let the system take control. We gravitate to those that make us feel good. We take long walks. We swim. We accept invitations for care and love and support. We eschew a big dinner and a whole day preparing it for a dinner consisting entirely of a beautiful pumpkin pie from Mountain Nugget. We’ll join good and generous friends for even more dessert, and settle in to watch creepy movies on Netflix in our pajama bottoms and coziest hoodies.

So why would I move?

I’m already moving. I’m changing, swimming, hiking, running, and waking to beautiful sunrises. I have everything I need here. I have a 10 k in January. So yes, maybe it should be “SomeFucksGiving” – but only for things worth giving fucks about. I think those things are pretty clear to me now, and abundant here in this place, and only become more clear with every length and flip turn and bite of delicious pie.

There’s no place like home, my homies.