5km out in the open water

Open Swim Stars Paris is the only open water swimming event in the city all year. I took part in the 2km option last year, and enjoyed it so much that I knew I wanted to go for a longer one this year. The next step up was 5km, the swimming equivalent of a half-marathon, and I signed up without hesitation. This would be fun!

Of course, as the race ticked nearer and I still hadn’t started training with any regularity, my fears mounted. Sure, I once-upon-a-time swam 5000m in a 50m pool (100 laps in an unheated outdoor pool in October – something I swore I would never do again), but that was a long time ago. Would my endurance be enough to see me through under the 2-hour cutoff?

With three weeks to go I finally got my butt into gear and fit a few swims into my week. But we also went to Lisbon to celebrate our anniversary, and come race day I had only two long swims under my belt: a 2500m and a slow 3000m done after a hard parkrun. My last open water swim had been… oh yes, the event last year. Did I even still fit in my wetsuit?

My other great concern was that during my final morning swim pre-race, my goggles had been leaking so badly that I had to stop every 50m to clear them of water. I had loosened them after my brain felt like it was going to explode during the long sessions, but now they were taking on water. I hastily bought a new pair of goggles, but only managed to try them out in the shower on race morning. Which pair should I wear?

Bib pick-up had to be completed by 4pm, at which point we could change into our wetsuits and hop on the bus to the start point some 4km away. I’m not sure why they needed us to be there so ridiculously early, but I was lucky in that I sat down next to a Canadian (living in London) on the bus, and we chatted away the 1.5hrs leading up to race start. Turns out she used to be a high-level swimmer in her youth, on the path to competing in the Olympics. No wonder she spoke about her lightning-fast swim speeds as though it was nothing while I was left open-mouthed. Her descriptions of the open water swims she had done all around the world (much like my own marathon adventures) sounded incredible, and I felt like I was being introduced to a whole other world I was just dipping my toes into.

It was a rolling start, and I put myself somewhere near the back knowing that I was not going to be near the front in this event. Looking at the results from last year it seemed like only ‘serious’ people took part in the 5km (or 10km, also on offer), and my anticipated 1:40-2:00 swim time would put me in with the final finishers. But that was totally fine by me – less people means less fighting and being kicked in the head mid-swim.

The water was the perfect temperature, cold enough to warrant wearing a wetsuit but not bad enough that you couldn’t feel your hands and feet. It took me a little while to get into rhythm, I was overtaken by a lot of people in the first few hundred metres which already made me stress about the cut-off. But as soon as we rounded the first buoy (to the northern-most point) and headed back south for the long 4km stretch, I settled down.

Stroke-stroke-stroke-breathe-repeat. That’s all it is, and with five kilometres of distance I found myself lulled by the consistent pattern. Occasionally other swimmers would pass me, or I would pass them, but mostly it was just me, the water and my breath. I could feel myself being carried by the current, which made the motions seem effortless.

Within the first kilometre I knew that I could do this, and that I would not run out of energy. In the past I’ve had issues with leg cramps, so whenever I felt something coming on I would stop kicking and just pull with my arms to give them a break – and so the cramps never came. My mouth was ironically dry, but beyond that everything was going smoothly.

The route took us down the Canal de l’Ourcq and into the Bassin de la Villette, along a stretch of canal which I have run many times. We passed under bridges which made for handy markers, and it wasn’t long before I knew exactly where I was. When I surfaced to breathe I could hear spectators on the sidelines cheering ‘Bravo’, astonished at these crazy folk who would willingly swim in the canal.

I found zen during that swim, I found a state of flow where everything felt like it would keep moving without me having to do anything. I never panicked, even when a guy swam over me with 1km to go and nearly knocked off my goggles. In the end I had chosen to risk wearing the new ones, and not only did they not leak, but they also stayed fog-free the entire swim. Bliss! We rounded the final buoy (at the southern-most point) and then it was just a few hundred metres back north to the finish line.

Normally in a race you would try to finish hard and sprint to the end, but I felt no need to break my peaceful spell by hammering it home. Instead, I cross under the line with a massive grin on my face having had the most joyful time I could have possibly hoped for. Sye afterwards said he hasn’t seen me this happy after a race possibly ever! My grin stayed for hours, until I collapsed into bed that night (and stayed there for a long time, although straight afterwards I felt fine, swimming does really take it out of you!).

Finishing stats: 1:44:26 for the 5km, or 2:05/100m which is only slightly slower than the 1:59/100m I swam at the 2km last year. Or, if you count my Garmin distance swum (5355m) probably thanks to some not-very-straight sighting, then that works out at 1:58/100m, and improvement on 2018 despite the extra 3km! (Don’t ask about my overall placing though, I was right about how ‘serious’ the swimmers in this race were).

Considering how amazing that felt, perhaps swimming is the future? We shall see…

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