How I once (almost) came last in a swimming marathon

How I once (almost) came last in a swimming marathon


All musicians know this dream: You come onto a stage, are given an instrument that you cannot play, are presented with notes that you have never seen before, the conductor gives a cue and…

Most of the time it’s just a dream, but for me it became a reality. And yet it was a wonderful experience!

But from the start: 5 months ago I started having persistent problems with piriformis syndrome (runners will know what that is) and my favorite physiotherapist Resi Streng did everything to get me back on my feet. I did her exercises every day, but unfortunately the pain didn’t go away at first because it was due to some very basic posture problems that can’t be corrected from one day to the next. I had to cancel some competitions and I had to take a break from running.

My couch Doug Stewart tried his best to keep me fit and prescribed a few swimming sessions, usually a healthy workout for injuries, to maintain basic fitness. So I dutifully swam my laps in Munich’s Schyrenbad, which is usually overcrowded, breaststroke of course. I had always enjoyed swimming, but I had never practiced it. As a child, I had solid swimming lessons until I was around 6 or 7 years old and can even vaguely remember a competition (in which I almost drowned), but then my mother took me out of training because I was constantly suffering from a middle ear infection. That’s about it for all of my swimming experience. Otherwise, like any other person, I swam a few strokes on a beach on vacation, maybe a short crawl of a maximum of 10 meters every now and then.

Of course, as athletes do, I timed myself in the swimming pool without expecting much. With each session I became a little bit faster as I got used to the moves again, and I always incorporated a few lengths of crawling into each training session. I also got faster and faster until, when I compared the times on a triathlon website, I found out that I was at least average in my age group and could basically handle the swimming part of a triathlon, albeit relatively leisurely of course, but still.

At the same time, I researched swimming videos online to relearn the finer points of swimming technique that I hadn’t polished since I was a child. This is exactly what happens when you use Facebook at the same time: you suddenly see a lot of advertising for swimming events. At some point it suddenly said “Ultra Swim 33.3”, which of course made me, as an ultra runner, curious. Aha, 33.3 kilometers of swimming on the beautiful coast in Montenegro. It was hard for me to estimate what kind of distance it was because I had never swam longer than 1-2 kilometers before. In a fit of recklessness, I signed up.

I quickly realized that it was a very active community that had applied for this competition. I immediately received numerous nice emails, including from a Michael Dieckmann from Munich, who offered to swim a few laps in the Dantebad. I think this meet was also to determine if I could swim at all, as one of the requirements for this event was to be able to swim 2.5km in an hour (which I barely managed). So we started together, but very soon I only saw his legs in the distance, and shortly afterwards he already returned from the other side of the pool. From the end of a 50 meter pool!

So I quickly realized that maybe I should train a little more. My coach created a plan for me with 4-5 swimming training sessions per week and I became a regular guest at the Schyren or Südbad. At the same time, I was intensively interested in swimming.

No other sport has so many videos and information on the Internet. There are hour-long videos just about how to hold the little finger on your left hand while crawling, it can get that detailed. Since swimming is pretty much the slowest form of movement that is possible for humans, even an improvement of one second over 100 meters is a huge success.

I made slow progress and, above all, found that long swimming generally didn’t put any strain on me and that I felt fit and pain-free afterwards. That was hopeful, because of course you can do all sorts of things wrong when swimming, shoulder pain is a very popular example.

I got a little faster, but eventually I reached a plateau and even slowed down again. Probably because I thought too much to make everything as perfect as possible. Thousands of movements were floating around in my head, including completely opposite ones, because it’s not like swimming coaches completely agree on what makes a perfect front crawl. Head down or straight ahead? One, two or three leg kick? High elbow or more sideways? The more I doubted my movements, the slower I became.

At some point the time had come and I boarded the plane. I had no hope of getting one of the top places, but the other swimmers were certainly experienced, especially when it came to swimming in the open sea, which offers completely different challenges. But the event was also advertised in such a way that amateur swimmers should also have fun (well, which “amateur swimmers” swim 33.3 kilometers in 4 days, I wonder?), and I thought that a place in the lower midfield would be a nice thing to achieve.

I was very wrong about that.


Blue as far as the eye can see

On the first day there were two routes, one 4 kilometers, then immediately afterwards another 5 kilometers. So we lined up on a pier in front of our hotel with our little pink swimming buoys (to be identifiable for ships) and turquoise swimming caps. I also had a wetsuit on – not really necessary as I don’t deal well with the cold – but during training I found that I was a little faster with it as it gave me more buoyancy and water dynamics.

My first swimming competition was coming up and I had no idea how to behave. Go fast and risk getting out of breath (pretty bad in the water)? My coach initially advised me to let the field go because I would use up too much energy in the crowd of over a hundred swimmers.

The start signal came and we jumped into the water. Within seconds I was surrounded by lots of kicking legs and arms, I immediately understood what Doug meant. I started with a quick two-man stroke and didn’t keep up too badly at first. The field slowly thinned out and one swimmer after another moved away. I calmed myself with the thought that maybe there could be a few more behind me.

There are three huge problems in the open sea: first of all, of course, swell – depending on where the waves come from, they can simply splash into your mouth when you breathe, which can be very unpleasant, especially if you swallow the water.

Then the sighting: on a competition course there are always inflatable buoys that show you certain waypoints. Triangles have to be swum around, combined with a change of direction. You have to pass close to balls and cubes show the target. But if you only have your head millimeters above the water, there can be something in your line of sight, usually a wave. If you have poor eyesight like me, it’s often not entirely clear where you have to swim.

Finally, there is the current, which is often not noticed. Without you wanting it, you are swept in a direction that is not necessarily the right one. So you have to work against it, one doesn’t swim in straight lines, but rather in a kind of zigzag.

I struggled with all of these things, of course, but not always successfully. We swimmers were accompanied by kayaks, making sure no one got lost. Whenever a kayak appeared right next to you, you knew you were trending in the wrong direction. Let’s put it this way: I became very familiar with the different kayaks over the next few days, we were basically on first name terms. Most of the time two people took me in the middle, a bit like putting a dog on a leash.

In terms of stamina, I didn’t do too badly with the first leg. I happily stretched my arm forward with every pull and enjoyed the short glide, which gives you the opportunity to rest your arms a bit and maybe catch a glimpse of the underwater life.

In the meantime it had become quite lonely around me, but then a swimmer appeared. But she didn’t swim, but rather swam breaststroke, known among swimmers as a demanding but not very fast swimming style. She overtook me effortlessly, and I slowly realized that maybe there was no one behind me after all.

When I arrived at the finish beach, swimming through a small inflatable portal, all the other swimmers were already there. All? No, a lady even arrived shortly behind me. Well, I blamed it on my inexperience and tried to use the break to strengthen myself. As soon as I sat down at a table and raised a glass of water to my lips, the signal for the next stage sounded again. No wonder: it had taken me over 2 hours and now it started again!

So we went straight back into the water – this time we crossed a canal with a strong countercurrent. In contrast to the first start, I very soon felt lonely, there was absolutely no one around me. I happily swam my glide technique, which felt healthy and good. Eventually I reached the other side and moved along the coast, accompanied by my friends in the kayaks. I noticed that I wasn’t going very fast because my kayakers were sitting in their boats, kind of bored, playing games on their cell phones. Once I had moved a few meters further, they briefly moved their paddles and were immediately next to me again.

I arrived at my destination again in over 2 hours, not particularly exhausted, but when I received thunderous applause on the bank, I immediately realized that I must have been the very last one. Everyone asked me if I was ok, all I could say was that I felt wonderful, but the fact that I was the last to finish surprised me. Where were the amateur swimmers? Where were the beginners? Were they all faster? If you really think about it, I was of course also an amateur swimmer; I had only just started swimming five months ago.

It has to be said that the swimmer community as well as the organizers did everything they could to support me positively. Mark Turner, the creator of the event, always cheered me up by saying that most people on the planet would never be able to complete an event like this and that just competing was a kind of victory.

He was right, of course, but still…even though I had gone into the competition without any great ambition and wanted to see it as a kind of first experience in open sea swimming, right now I was getting annoyed with myself. What did I do wrong? I felt fit and my endurance was ok, but why was I so slow?


Mark Turner explains the rules of the competition

Suddenly someone, laughing, pointed to my tow float, which was hanging down like a heavy sack. “No wonder you’re so slow,” said Matt, one of the swimmers, pulling out a full 1.5 liter aluminum water bottle that I had naively packed in but never used. “That’s 1.5 kilos that you had to drag behind you!” Everyone laughed and my face flushed with embarrassment. With this I had given perfect proof of my inexperience. But it was okay, I was actually inexperienced!

In many conversations with my friendly fellow swimmers, I learned more and more. First of all, I realized that I had landed in a new type of swimming event that was attracting the world’s elite swimmers. Among the participants were some of the best swimmers in the world, who had already won numerous prizes and broken records. Everyone had been swimming for ages and since early youth, had been supported by national funding programs and trained once or twice a day (at least). Even my friend Michael from Munich was one of the best swimmers in his age group in the world, had won countless championships and led the field every day. I felt about as competent against these swimmers as if someone had put a violin in my hand and asked me to play a violin concerto.

So not at all.

Yes, there were also a few beginners and amateur swimmers, but they didn’t take part in the big competition, but either swam in a duo or the “experience”, i.e. only swam small sections. And even they were more experienced (and faster) than me.

In the afternoon I had a private lesson with one of the best swimming coaches in the world, Paul Newsome (who also swam at the top and later won first place in the „skins“ category – i.e. without a wetsuit – while Michael took first place in swam in the wetsuit category and also achieved the fastest time).

Paul watched my pathetic moves on video and in slow motion and showed me that my perceived gliding was mostly a result of me simply keeping both of my hands in front at the same time, thereby losing kinetic energy. “I don’t want to tell you much because it would just confuse you,” said Paul, “but just make sure you grab water with your left arm earlier.”

As we stood on another beach in Montenegro that very early morning, I took his advice to heart. Like a madman, I immediately let my left hand work, leaving my right hand dangling, of course. But there was also a recipe for this: just breathe on the other side, because then I seemed to be doing everything right. Accompanied by my friends in the kayaks, I bravely swam along the coast. This time the distance was almost 8 kilometers, so it was a little harder and in one go.

Unfortunately, at some point I noticed that a kayak appeared either to my left or right, depending on which side I was breathing on. That could only mean one thing: if I breathed on the left, I drifted to the left, if I breathed on the right, I drifted to the right. So I made my route pointlessly longer, even though I perhaps swam a little faster than the day before.

When I reached the food station (a boat in the water in a bay) I looked back: was I last again? No, there was someone else swimming behind me! I continued swimming with enthusiasm, perhaps there was still hope.


We also swam next to actual shipwrecks

The following section was particularly difficult – you swam towards the goal as if in slow motion against a strong countercurrent. By then I had discovered that a three-stroke, alternating between left and right breathing, kept me swimming fairly straight. But it was no use – although I thought there were swimmers behind me, I was last again, but that was because some of them had given up, as I later found out. So on the one hand I was last, but on the other hand I wasn’t.

Still, the day felt better overall. And the easy 1.9 kilometer swim that followed around a hotel island that looked like something out of a James Bond film was actually really fun. This time I came third from last, but since this course wasn’t timed, not everyone swam at full speed.

Meanwhile, I had experienced some problems with both my wetsuit, the timers attached to my hands, and my sports watch. In salt water, everything rubs against the same areas of skin and abrasions and even open areas form. These are then repeatedly irritated by the salt water, a vicious circle that results in increasingly worse open wounds, even if it was just a small scratch to begin with.

Meanwhile, my neck looked so bad that everyone who saw me immediately felt sorry for me. Thank God I couldn’t see it myself, otherwise I probably would have fainted. Looking at my wrists was bad enough. By now I was joking that I looked like a failed suicide – there were marks on my neck and cuts on my wrists. At night I tossed and turned for hours trying to find a position where some chafed spot wouldn’t come in contact with the sheet.

The next day was the longest route: 10 kilometers. More or less directly along the coast, without crossing the channel. I wasn’t worried about the length, but of course my speed was. I swam motivated and tried to implement the lesson from the previous day even better. At some point I noticed that I was still trying to exert a lot of pressure in the water with my arms, in the mistaken idea that more effort would make you faster. So I tried a light, but faster stroke with as short a breath as possible, and that felt really good! At the first food station was Andy Donaldson, one of the best swimmers in the world and record holder in channel crossings (Ocean’s 7). “I want you to bend your arms more, then you will have more strength,” he simply said. I tried to do that right away, and sure enough: I was a little faster than before.

Now, despite the long distance, the swim was really fun and it felt like a kind of epiphany. I still wasn’t fast (although faster than before), but now my movements were much more organic and relaxed. My heart rate went down to 126, something that would never have happened to me in a road marathon. And I also became more daring – at some point I switched to five-strokes, something I had never managed to do before in training. I didn’t want these 10 kilometers to end, it was wonderful.

When I arrived at my destination I was almost disappointed. And there was a small amount of applause, which could only mean one thing: I actually wasn’t last this time! And yes, two swimmers finished after me, that was something.

Really inspired, I went to the massage, where a Valkyrie-like Montenegrin masseuse quickly showed me that there were some painful spots on my shoulder. But still: I was mildly euphoric!


When the wetsuit didn’t chafe yet

A message from Michael appeared on my phone asking if I wanted to try his “Carbon Jammers”. I had no idea what that was, but I trusted his expert advice. In the hotel swimming pool, Michael ceremoniously handed me a pair of swimming trunks as if it were a holy grail – “Carbon Jammers” are ultra-expensive special swimming trunks for competitive swimmers that provide a little more buoyancy in the torso. You have to put them on carefully because they shouldn’t tear. I swam a few laps. Maybe it was psychological, but I actually felt a little faster.

The back of my neck was now just raw meat, but no matter, I barely noticed it in the water. There was only one last swim left – since we had swum more than 10 kilometers on the last day, this time it was just under 5 kilometers, albeit partly over a busy canal with heavy seas.

We jumped into the water on the Croatian coast. This time I started with a quick three-stroke, but quickly gave up because waves were constantly splashing into your mouth from both sides, and a two-stroke meant, at least statistically, that you could breathe every now and then. I thought a high cadence might be ok because I felt fit.

I had gotten used to being alone at some point, but suddenly I noticed a swimmer next to me that I had never seen before and who was actually going at about the same pace as me. I saw that as a good sign. For the first time I was able to really try out “drafting”, i.e. swimming directly behind a swimmer in order to benefit from her slipstream or “water shadow”. The whirled up water is more permeable than normal water and offers less resistance. In fact, you immediately notice how energy consumption drops by 30 percent and you need fewer arm strokes to cover the same distance. After a while she disappeared, but then I felt faint taps on my feet and noticed that she was now swimming behind me again.

So we took turns for a while and helped each other through the really brutal and never-ending canal crossing. When we finally reached shore, we swam into a submarine hangar where the organizers were blasting loud music. And to my great surprise, there were several swimmers at the same position as me, some of whom I was even able to overtake.

After the canal we went along the coast again, now in the opposite direction as in the marathon the day before. With the current behind me, I reached an astonishing speed and was now able to breathe a little less often. Rocks and reefs flew past below me and I was in a good mood because the ordeal of the canal was finally behind me. I continued to swim at a fast pace and for the first time I felt something like fatigue in my arms. Since I suspected that the goal must be further away (one kilometer? Two kilometers?), I slowed down a gear. The swimmer from the canal now overtook me, she almost seemed to sprint. Well then, I thought to myself, she won’t have infinite energies either. Shortly afterwards there was a curve into a bay and I immediately understood why my colleague had rushed forward: the finish line was in front of me! I had actually completely misjudged the total distance, the race was over quicker than I expected. Now I also stepped up my game.


with Andy Donaldson, Ocean’s 7 world record holder

When you see the goal in the water, it still takes what feels like an eternity to reach it. But at some point I managed it, also because Michael (who of course arrived first) encouraged me on the bank.

The beach was emptier than usual – I actually wasn’t the last one! First of all, I had my wound on my neck treated, which was now burning like hell. Then I looked for my bag and chatted with other swimmers. And the incredible thing: during all these activities, more and more swimmers arrived. The spell was broken (maybe that was also thanks to the Carbon Jammers) and I was happy and satisfied to have improved so much.

After this stretch we were driven to another beach, where we were supposed to symbolically swim another 250 meters and then be welcomed with champagne. Because of my bleeding wound, I decided not to swim this time and instead ran to the finish line on foot. After days of disliking the food because of the salted tongue, the champagne actually felt like an incredible refreshment.

In the evening there was a farewell party and an award ceremony. About a hundred times I had to answer a question about how I was feeling – my neck must look bad! On the other hand, that was exactly what impressed me most about the other swimmers: they looked after each other. In general, there was a particularly warm and friendly atmosphere at this competition from both the organization and the participants, which no one would soon forget.

Not only were the fastest swimmers honored, but also those who swam the longest. I actually wasn’t one of them, but I also received a prize for “best progress in competition”. Apparently they had followed how I was doggedly improving from route to route and wanted to reward that.


The first three places in the skins category, in the middle master swimmer Michael Dieckmann

And while I shed a small tear, I thought to myself that maybe this was the best prize I’ve ever received. What do you learn from it? That it’s not bad to be last? Or that you should never give up? Maybe both of those.

Sometimes it’s the same in music: there are endless frustrations and setbacks and very often you want to give up. But in the end, what counts is what happens in the long run, not the small frustrations along part of the route.

And Montenegro reminded me of that in a very nice way.


My special award for „Best Progress“

When Champagne tastes best

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