In Paris, there aren’t many opportunities to go open-water swimming. The Seine is off-limits, and except for a few occasions in the year, so is the Canal Saint-Martin. If you love open-water swimming like I do, you either have to venture outside of the Paris area – or sign up for a sanctioned event.
One of the events which gives access to the Canal Saint-Martin is the Open Swim Stars Paris event, held over a weekend in June. There are 1km, 2km (with fins), 2km (normal), 5km and 10km options, all finishing at the Bassin La Villette in the 19th arrondissement. I discovered and signed up for the event only three weeks beforehand, and so chose the 2km (normal) option as I figured I could cram in enough training to see me through. It was the first time I had properly done any swim training (read: more than once a week for consecutive weeks) in 8+ months, so I had a lot of catching up to do!
For some reason I had been placed in the ‘fast’ second wave, which supposedly came with a 45min time limit. From the training I had done, I knew that it could be a bit tight, as I had barely been swimming at 2:00/100m pace for 200m. Nevertheless, I set myself the goal of finishing the 2km in around 40min, and hoped that the adrenaline of the day, the buoyancy of my wetsuit and the fact that I wouldn’t have to turn every lap would help me speed up a bit.
On the day of the swim, it was very easy to pick up my swim cap and get changed before the 12:15pm start. There were women’s and men’s change rooms and a bag drop, all which made the start process very easy. It all went so smoothly that I spent quite a bit of time standing around before the briefing, staring at all the other ‘proper’ swimmers. Some were doing the swim in just a swimsuit, for which they must be commended!
After the briefing (which was repeated in English), we got into the water. Thankfully it wasn’t too cold, and I quickly acclimatised both to the temperature and the odd sensation of not being able to see underwater. That always gets me during the first open-water swims of the season. Immediately I noticed how much algae and plant-life there was in the water; it was sticking to everyone’s wetsuits and generally just being annoying.
I found myself towards the back of the pack, but managed to get into the thick of it once the gun went off. There were legs and hands and bodies everywhere, and it took at least the first 300m to thin out at all. The course was two loops, and at the two turn-around points it got pretty hairy as people would slow down and even breast-stroke to get around the buoys. Eventually I figured that if I didn’t take the corner so tightly, I could avoid most of the mess that was going on.
My swimming itself went alright. I think I started out quicker and then slowed into a rhythm, but seeing as I wasn’t wearing a watch, we’ll never know – that’s how it felt at least. I didn’t do a great job of staying straight, and often found myself tracking towards the edge of the canal, and then having to almost swim over someone to get back onto the line I wanted. There weren’t any buoys to sight off (other than the end ones, which were often too far away), so it was a case of relying on the other swimmers ahead and hoping that they weren’t going too far off-course. On the second lap my googles started to feel too tight (I had tightened them to ensure no leakage), but I figured there wasn’t that much longer to go so I should just suck it up.
It was the water plants which were the most annoying thing about this race. They were everywhere! I’d been warned beforehand to try and stay in the middle because they weren’t so bad there, but even when I moved to that part of the canal I would still come across another crop. The plants were high enough in the water that your hand would graze against them when pulling through the water. Sometimes bits would come floating towards you in the water and get caught on your limbs. I’ve swum in murky waters before but this was something different again!
The last 50m was a mad scramble to the finish line, with the two swimmers either side knocking into me in an effort to cross the line first. We had all been given timing chips to wear on our wrist, and were told we had to hit them against a board when we got to the finish line, but when I got there it wasn’t obvious at all what that board was! The swimmers around seemed to think it was the big ‘ARRIVÉE’ sign above our heads, so I tried to hit that while simultaneously stopping and switching to breaststroke – then freaked that I hadn’t got the right side of my chip and tried to whack it again… it was a bit of a mess ?
I had no idea of my time when I exited the water, but a guy did call out my name in congratulations (imagine a Frenchman trying to pronounce ‘Mitchelmore’, syllable by syllable!) so once my brain had kicked back into gear I realised that the timing chip clearly had worked. Success! I was presented with my medal (in the shape of a star ⭐ for Open Swim Stars – clever!), and then got to refuel on madeleines, brioche cake, tea and juice. Later I learned that I’d come in in 39:43, just dipping under my 40min goal, so I was very happy ?
The event was really well run, and I loved having the opportunity to do some open-water swimming again not too far from home. Next year I’d love to attempt the 5km or even 10km distance – but I will definitely need to train properly for that!