Yesterday I had the pleasure of swimming in the Vansbrosimningen, the world’s largest swimming event held annually in Vansboro, Sweden. An astounding 16,000 people participated in the race and even more folks came out in support of training partners, friends, and loved ones. Yet in spite of the event’s size, the race managed to keep an intimate feel, making for a really wonderful experience. This was felt in the group singalong’s to music performances, communal seating at the lunch, and all the great conversations in the starting queue.
The race was also terrifically accessible. This past summer I had mainly been training for freediving, so the idea of an intensive aerobic race was at first intimidating. But then my buddy, a native of Sweden, told me how most of the “competitors” are participating for completion, not PRs, and that there will be a range of ability levels. Plus, a 3 kilometer swim seemed to be within my grasp with my basic fitness. So a week before the race, I arrived in Sweden to sight-see and then “suit up” for a long swim in two rivers that intersect in the town of Vansboro.
Of course, as life often goes, there were a couple change up’s in my race plan. The first was due to Mother Nature. The Swedish summer of 2014 is proving to be uncharacteristically cold. So much so that the race organizers decided that it would be safer to cut the race by half, to 1.5 kilometers, something that had been done maybe a half dozen times in the near seven decades of the race. The organizers also decided to allow swimmers to wear not just their ordinary wetsuits, but also neoprene gloves and boots. And it was indeed chilly. The day of the race the surface water was a cool 13.5 degrees Celsius (or about 55 degrees Fahrenheit).
The second unexpected change up came about due to another mystical force: my own drive for ridiculous adventure. As I watched the competitors swimming in the morning heats, I was fascinated by the handful of swimmers that chose to do the race in nothing but a swimsuit, swim cap, and goggles. “Brrrr” I thought, and then curiosity set in. How would it really feel to swim that distance in such chilly water? After just a few minutes of thinking on it, I knew already that I wouldhave to answer this question myself. As I stood among my fellow racers at the start, all in their warm wetsuits, I cracked a few jokes about my “bioprene” wetsuit and wondered just how silly I might look if I had to be pulled out of the water due to hypothermia.
So how did the race go for this budding “polar bear” swimmer? Quite well in fact! It was rather chilly the first 100 meters, but after that, I was slowly able to move from a “wading” breaststroke to a full stroke with my face dipping into the water. Yes, the first few times I had an involuntary contraction to gulp water due to the shock, but this eventually went away. My skin stung a bit as well for the first couple hundred meters, until the feeling just faded into the background as any other sensation of discomfort you might feel as you push your body. A couple times I felt a slight pain in a random joint, such as my collar bone or wrist, but this too went away with a few quick stretches in the water.
After the initial adjustment to the water temperature, I settled into a steady stroke and enjoyed the race experience. It was a lot of fun to glide down with the current of the Vanån River for the first 500 meters. People on all sides of the river and above on a bridge cheered us on, and the race support staff were never far thanks to a system of wooden floats that had been constructed to line the entire race. Then, when I and the others “turned the corner” to start swimming upstream on Västerdal River, things started to get a bit more challenging. The current now worked against me, so I had to push a bit harder with my stroke, and this I felt in my cold-tightened muscles. So too did the pack come together to form groups of swimmers that required you to bob and weave if you wanted to pass. Swimming far outside in the center of the stream often was not an option as the current was strong enough to make passing a real challenge. I did receive a few kicks in my side, but nothing too painful, and I did unintentionally give out a few kicks myself.
At about 1000 meters, I began to feel rather tired, but with just 500 meters to go, and a cheering crowd, it was easy to “psyche” myself into action. I thought about how good it would be too finish, and I even picked picked a distinctly dreadlocked fellow participant as my imaginary rival to push my harder. The last 500 meters flew by like rhythmic dream. Kick. Hang. Pull. Repeat. And then suddenly I was at the finish line, beeping my microchip bracelet on the timing sensor.
I had been warned that the first few steps out of the water could be disorienting, especially since I had gone without a wetsuit. I’m glad I had been told because my first 5 or 10 steps were indeed wobbly! I stayed on my feet, picked up my medal, and went for a celebratory hot shower and Swedish waffle.
My goal for the race had been to survive, and, ideally, swim the shortened Vansboro in under 35 minutes. My final time? 34 minutes, 59 seconds. Mission accomplished. I’m looking forward to the next time I get to swim Vansboro, and maybe, just maybe, I’ll see about swimming the full 3km in my “bioprene” wetsuit when that day comes.
by Mark Gibson