One last Swim Race Report for 2019.

This swim was definitely in the most exotic location of all my swims. The race took place in Santorini, Greece, one of the Cycladic islands in the Aegean Sea about 200 km southeast of Athens. This is rather a long blog post, but we packed in quite a bit over 8 days. For details of the swim, just skip all the fluffy travel bits and go down near the bottom of the post.

ATHENS – En Route to Santorini

We traveled to Santorini from Toronto via Athens. After a 10-hour flight from Toronto, we landed in Athens in the morning, Wed. Oct. 2nd. Feeling quite exhausted, we checked into our hotel for a quick nap before heading downtown. The first stop was the Acropolis. We also visited the Ancient Agora. You can hover over the photos below to see the subject.

The next day, we boarded an early morning flight to Santorini. 

Santorini offers a variety of activities including swimming, hiking, local food and wine, unique geology, and important archaeological finds.

SANTORINI – The Geology

The name Santorini refers to an island, but also to the Archipelago of islands that were formed by a massive volcanic eruption about 3600 years ago. After the eruption, the magma collapsed in the centre forming a sinkhole. The sinkhole filled with seawater, creating what was a round ring-shaped island. A volcanic sinkhole is known as a “caldera”. The Spanish word caldera is similar to the English word cauldron, conjuring up a vision of a hot-pot, and indeed there are hot springs around the edges of the caldera today. Many more eruptions occurred around Santorini, breaking up the original island forming new islands. More eruptions created two new islands in the centre of the caldera. Today, the Archipelago of Santorini includes the inhabited islands of Santorini (a.k.a. Thera) and Therasia, and the uninhabited islands Nea Kameni, Palea Kameni, and Aspronisi.

In this NASA Satellite image of the Santorini caldera, the large island to the east is Thera, with Aspronisi and Therasia making up the rest of the caldera ring, clockwise. In the centre is the larger Nea Kameni and the smaller Palea Kameni. We stayed on Thera and visited Therasia and Nea Kameni where there is active volcanic activity today. My swim race was from Nea Kameni in the centre of the caldera, to the Old Port of Fira (the capital of Thera), a distance of 2.4 km.

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View from the swim start at Nea Kameni to Fira

The caldera is deep, or rather the cliffs are high, making for a stunning coastline.

We were staying in Fira, the main town on the island. Since we arrived so early in the morning from Athens, our room wasn’t ready so we made a quick change of clothes, stored our luggage, and headed out in search of the local bus. Today was all about the Archeology of Santorini, so let’s dig in!

SANTORINI – The Archeology

The two most important Archeological sites on Thera are Akrotiri, a short bus ride from Fira, on the southwest side of Thera, and Ancient Thera, situated on the top of a mountain on the west coast.

akrotira and ancient thera locations

Akrotiri was a Minoan Bronze Age settlement that was buried under volcanic ash sometime in the 16th century BC. The site is still under excavation (since 1967). The ruins show evidence of hot and cold running water, 2 and 3-story homes, elaborate drainage systems, and colourful artwork. The settlement has been suggested as a possible inspiration for Plato‘s story of Atlantis.

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Prehistoric Town of Akrotiri

Red Beach can be reached by a short walk from Akrotiri. The red colour comes from volcanic rock. There are also Black Beach and White Beach close by which we did not visit. The Beach sand colour depends on which geological layer is exposed.

Red Beach

Red Beach, near Akrotiri

Next on our list of things to see today was Ancient Thira. It is situated at an elevation of 360m on top of the steep Messa Vouno mountain. Our guide book informed us that there were two ways to get to Ancient Thira. You could either drive from the seaside town of Kamari, or hike up one of the switch-back foot trails from Perissa on the other side. Never ones to take the easy path, we decided to hike from Perissa. We managed to get several buses (not easy) from Akrotiri to Perissa, where we stopped off for lunch by the sea before embarking on our hike.

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Perissa, west coast, base of Messa Vouno

 

SANTORINI – The Hiking

After lunch we headed up the road towards the mountain, not really knowing where we were going. Eventually we spotted the signpost to a rocky footpath, which wound its way up to the top. It took us about a half hour to hike up, and it was well worth it. We were rewarded by stunning views of the sea below, and by the most interesting ancient ruins.

Ancient Thira, named after the mythical ruler of the island, Theras, was inhabited from the 9th century BC until 726 AD, when the city had to be evacuated due to a volcanic eruption that completely covered the city by a layer of pumice. The city was rediscovered and started to be excavated in 1895. Today it is open to the public. There is evidence of a large theatre, 2-story dwellings, possible homes with basements, and a large cistern. The city was an important military post due to its position on the mountain.

After hiking the long switchback road down to Kamari we indulged in a couple of iconic, locally brewed, Santorini beers. A Red Donkey for me and a Yellow Donkey for Ross. As their slogan says, it’s ‘Hip Hoppy Kick-Ass Ale’.

For our second day in Santorini, we planned a hike along the caldera cliff from our hotel in Fira through the villages of Firostefani and Imerovigli, culminating in the village of Oia, about 10.5 km away. Most of the hike is on concrete but a portion is also cobblestone and dirt.

fira to oi

We took a side tour to Skaros Rock along the way.

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If you look closely at the photo above, you will notice people on top of the rock plateau. Naturally we had to investigate.

Skaros Rock was formed by the volcanic eruptions in ancient Santorini and shaped by wind and erosion. From the footpath, we descended down a long set of wide concrete steps and then continued on a narrow, dirt, rock-strewn path. The path seemed to fade away, almost dropping into the sea below. Since there were others up ahead, and we were curious, we continued. I was a bit nervous because we were so close to the edge, and it was very, very windy. We found out how people reached the top of the rock. There was a single, rocky, steep climb. Below is a photo of a some young people climbing up and down. I realized that although I might be able to climb up, there was a huge risk of injury on the way down, so we decided not to climb to the top. I’m not quite as young (or foolish) as I used to be.

The history of Skaros rock is fascinating. You can read about it here. In summary, the location was perfect for a defensive fort. There are ruins of a 13th century fortress, built by the Byzantine Empire. The settlement grew and contained homes, businesses, a church, and a harbour at the base. By the time the Venetians took over Santorini in 1336, Skaros was the largest settlement on Santorini, and was the capital of the island. 300 years later, in the 16th century, wars were escalating between the Ottoman Empire and the Venetians. The fortifications on Skaros protected the city, but trade suffered, and as a result, Santorini severed ties with Venice and signed on with the Ottomans. The Ottomans annexed Santorini in 1566. With Ottoman protection, the fort at Skaros had less importance, and Fira became the capital of Santorini. Starting around the mid 1600’s, volcanic eruptions, and earthquakes collapsed parts of the town of Skaros, which lead most of the inhabitants to move to Fira or Imerovigli. Today only a few ruins of the fortress remain. However, a monastery, the Chapel of Panagia Theoskepasti, remains in use on the cliffs below the rock feature. We walked down to the chapel to take a look, and later on our hike we got a glimpse of the chapel from the water.

More photos from our hike to Oia.

 

We reached Oia in the late afternoon, stopped for a beer and then climbed down the 200 steps to Amoudi Harbour for a seafood dinner. People flock to Oia in the late afternoon to stake out their sunset viewing spot. We didn’t have a great sunset that night, but we had a nice meal of fresh caught fish, Santorini wine, and a view to the working harbour. Below shows a traditional lobster trap and fishing boat.

In keeping with the hiking theme, although the next section could just as well be classified as ‘Geology’, on Day 3 of our stay in Santorini we hiked up the active volcano on the island of Nea Kameni, which is in the middle of the caldera. The only way to get to Nea Kameni is by taking a chartered boat tour.

As mentioned earlier, the two islands, Palea and Nea Kameni are peaks of underwater volcanoes. The last eruption on Nea Kameni was as recent as 1950. Although the volcano has remained dormant since then, it is still considered active, evidenced by the hot springs around the island, and the hot gases emitted from the peak.

A side trip to Therasia was included in our boat tour. From the photo below you can see the typical white steps leading up to the town above the harbour. We had lunch at an outdoor cafe beside the harbour, then hiked up to the top of Therasia for a stunning view of Fira in the distance. It’s quite amazing that people live at the top of the cliffs, in tiny but neat whitewashed houses, trimmed in iconic Santorini blue. There are also soooo many cats.

We had one more day in Santorini – race day!

SANTORINI – The Swim 

As mentioned earlier, the swim course was from Nea Kameni back to the Old Port of Fira. From the port, we were loaded in groups onto ferry boats, and transported to the swim start. It was an in-water start requiring swimmers to jump off the ferry into the warm, deep blue, Aegean Sea. Once everyone was in the water, the starting horn went off, and we all swam directly back to the Old Port.

It was a fast swim as we had the current with us. The “Santorini Experience” swim race was won by a young Greek man in a time of 22:38 which is an amazing time. My official time was 37:15 which put me in 39th place out of 100 competitors. If the participants list is correct, I was the only non-Greek in the event. While my placing was average overall, I was not disappointed because it was my fastest race yet, based on my pace time. Plus it was in the most beautiful setting you can imagine. To exit the water, we climbed the ladder up the wall of the Old Port and through the finishing arches.  

When the very last swimmer emerged safely, the party started. All the ferry boats in the harbour blew their horns and lit flares in celebration of the swim. This seemed to last for about 5 minutes, and (this is where I get misty eyed) it was a very moving experience. A Santorini Experience to be exact!

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We climbed up the 600 steps from the Old Port, through the gauntlet of donkeys, back to our hotel to relax and wait for our last sunset in Santorini.

SANTORINI – The Sunsets

For 3 out of the 4 nights we were in Santorini, we had spectacular views of the sunset, from the balcony of our modest hotel room. The hotel Kavalari is small but centrally located in Fira and every room has a view of the caldera. The staff was very friendly, and the breakfasts were served al fresco, on the patio overlooking the sea.

I was sad to say goodbye to Santorini Monday morning. I’m not sure why I included the photo of the donkey driver below, I guess I just liked the look on his face.

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ATHENS – Return Trip

On our return trip to Athens, after Santorini, we visited Hadrian’s Arch, the Temple of Zeus, the ancient Roman baths, and the parliament buildings.

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We ended the day with a fabulous meal of mezédhes , (Greek tapas) at a small but highly recommended cafe called Cherchez La Femme. 

The grilled octopus was amazing.Octopus

We arrived back home to Toronto on Tuesday Oct. 8th. I love to travel, but as they say ‘there’s no place like home’.

Well, that was my last post in the swimming series. I will likely take a break from blogging for the remainder of 2019, but I’m planning an epic adventure for the fall of 2020, which I will definitely write about when I have something to write. At the moment my trip is still in the visioning stage. No details yet. It won’t involved swimming, but I think it is going to be the trip of a lifetime.

If you are interested in continuing to receive notices of my blog, please sign up. If you no longer wish to receive those emails, just unsubscribe, or leave me a comment and I will delete you from the recipients list.

……until next time, enjoy your own adventures whatever they may be.

 

 

 

 

A year ago we received an invitation to a friend’s wedding. A fall wedding in a castle in Ireland is reason enough to travel to the Emerald Isle, but I just couldn’t resist combining our trip with a couple of wild swim races.

We arrived in Dublin Friday morning on an overnight flight from Toronto. With zero sleep, our challenge was to drive (on the wrong side) out of the Dublin airport, along the busy motorway to narrow, winding country roads, and ultimately to our guest house in Glendalough, about an hour away. We were booked into Riversdale House, a cosy B&B south-west of Dublin. This would be our home until Monday as I was doing two swim races over the weekend.

Riversdale House B&B

‘Glendalough’ is Irish for ‘Valley of Two Lakes’, referring to Lower Lake and Upper Lake. The lakes are set in a glacial valley surrounded by steep hills with amazing hiking trails. The settlement of Glendalough dates back to early medieval times. It was founded as a monastic site back in the 6th century. They say the valley was chosen by St Kevin, a hermit monk, for its peaceful vibe and serenity. Today the valley is part of Wicklow National Park, and the hiking trails form a section of the Wicklow Way. There are many original stone buildings still intact, including the iconic Round Tower.

Somewhat frazzled after our drive, Riversdale House was a welcomed site. Situated on a creek, surrounded by sheep pastures, and an old-growth forest, we felt immediately relaxed.

After a quick change into hiking gear we hopped across the stones in the creek to explore the old monastery.

Stepping Stones behind B&B

Original 6th Century Arch into Monastery

Iconic Glendalough Round Tower

Original 6th Century Monastic House

It is truly amazing that these buildings have survived for more than 1500 years.

Our lack of sleep caught up to us and we crashed by early evening. The bleating of sheep outside our window reminded me of our stay at the Hilltop Hostel, New Zealand. The sound lulled me to sleep and I had one of the best sleeps in a long time.

The next day, Saturday, was swim race day #1. The 1.5km race took place in Upper Lake. It was a beautiful, sunny walk. Crossing the creek behind the B&B, we turned left on the old gravel road, traversed the boardwalk through the boggy forest, and reached the race venue at Upper Lake in about 30 minutes.

Despite the warm air temperature, the water temperature of Upper Lake was an icy 10 Celsius (50F). I didn’t know this prior to the start. It was only when I began wading into the water at the start of the race that I realized just how cold it was. Fortunately I had previously trained and raced in cold water (see my post on the 10km North Shore Challenge, Lake Erie, 7-10 Celsius).

Swimmers were escorted in single file into the lake for the floating start. I guess most of the swimmers were local and familiar with how cold the water was, because very few were volunteering to be the first ones in. Since most people were milling around, my impatience with the process caused me to be in the first group of swimmers to enter the water.

Then I figured it out. Better to wait onshore than in the icy water. It took at least 10 minutes for all the swimmers to enter the water single file. 10 minutes of treading water in the icy cold. I tried to keep my hands out of the water as much as possible but my fingers were numb by the time the horn went off to start the race.

The 1.5km course was one rectangular loop of the narrow lake. The water was not only cold, but also very dark and tasted like iron. It was like swimming in a lake filled with Guinness. No wonder the Irish are great swimmers. 😂 The hills surrounding the lake are steep and rocky which made for a nice distraction to the cold. At the second marker buoy we passed St Kevin’s Bed – an ancient cave dug into the hillside.

I finished the loop in 25 minutes which was a very good time for me. Some coffee and cookies warmed me up after the race.

Time to walk back to the B&B, change into hiking gear, grab some lunch and hit the trails.

We found a great path that lead us along the north side of Upper Lake. It was at first flat and cinder, but changed to a rocky and steep trail up into the hills. Along the way we saw more ruins of a mining operation. At times we crossed over a 2-foot wide boardwalk with many steps and levels. At the summit I had a nice view of the swim course way down in the valley. At the far end of the trail are 600 steps leading back down to the car-Park. The hike took about 3-hours.

Sunday was a repeat of Saturday but the swim was two, 2 km loops (4km in total). The water was still icy cold. I questioned why I was doing yet another swim. Having learned from the day before, I wasn’t as eager to be the first into the water.

The swim went by quickly and my time was 1 hour and 12 minutes. Not super fast but I was a bit tired from the hike the day before.

After the race we changed, dropped off my swim stuff, and returned to the lake after lunch for another hike. Although we took a different trail, we ended up at the same conclusion overlooking Upper Lake.

If you enjoy swimming and/or hiking I highly recommend this event and Glendalough in general. This ranks as one of the top hikes we have done so far.

The next day we left the tranquility of Riversdale House and Glendalough for Belfast, the Causeway Coast, Slieve League on the Wild Atlantic Way, Dublin, and of course the fairytale wedding at Kilkea Castle.

Here are some highlights: Belfast

Hiking the Causeway Coast

Hiking the cliffs of Slieve League

Our accommodation at ‘ The Rusty Mackerel ‘ (fantastic location, great food, traditional Irish music in the evening, comfy beds).

Dublin

The Wedding

My next wild swim is in the Aegean Sea, Santorini Greece, October 6th. If you have enjoyed reading about my Swim Series of posts, please sign up for my blog, or leave a comment. It’s always nice to get feedback!

I know, I know……two posts ago (Traversee du Lac Tremblant Swim), I said my next post would be about swimming in Glendalough, Ireland, but I snuck in a last minute swim adventure in Saskatchewan on September 1st. I decided to do this one solo. It was a crazy idea, really. I only booked the trip the week prior. I flew to Saskatoon on Aug 31st, rented a car and drove 2 1/2 hours straight north to Prince Albert National Park. The swim I signed up for was called “Crown the King’, because it involved swimming around King Island in Lake Waskesiu. I was reluctant to write about it because I know if I did, everyone would want to do the race. It is such a gem and part of the appeal is that it is small and cozy.

I stayed at a very nice place nearby called Elk Ridge Resort. It was more than I needed but all the other places in the park were already full or they wanted a 2 or 3 night minimum stay since it was a long weekend.

Saturday afternoon, upon my arrival to the park, I drove to the race site. It started at Tippes Beach, a very tiny beach 5km down a forested, dirt road.

Looking at King Island from the beach reminded me of my ‘Swim the Island, Bergeggi Italy’ last October.

Since there was limited parking at the beach, I arrived early to get a parking spot. There was car pooling from the main beach in the park but since I had to drive back to the airport right after the swim I just drove to the beach by myself.

I honestly wasn’t expecting to enjoy myself all that much on race day. This was just one more race to get some GSS (Global Swim Series) points. I figured I would do the 4km swim, maybe stay for the BBQ, maybe not, and head back to Saskatoon. As it turned out, this was truly one of the best swim adventures yet.

Because I was there early, I was chatting with the race director. Turns out we knew some people in common. It really is a small swimming community in Canada.

The next surprise was meeting someone I knew! Back at the Lac Tremblant Swim, Aug 4th, we met 2 people who were friends of a friend – Kelvin and Gary. The 5 of us hung out together before and after the Lac Tremblant swim.

Now, standing on Tippes Beach, Lake Waskesiu, Prince Albert National Park, Saskatchewan, a month later, I met one of the same friends. Someone said there was ‘a guy who came all the way from Toronto’, and I asked who it was. We looked at each other. ‘You look familiar’, I said. He said ‘Didn’t we just do a race together?’. It was Gary. Too funny.

It was a perfect day for swimming. The water had been a bit choppy earlier but by race time it was perfectly flat. The air was warm and the sun was shining. My strategy was to draft behind someone fast and try to stay on their feet the whole way. Coincidentally, Gary was ahead of me, and I knew he was faster so I just tried to stay on his feet. The course was basically to swim around the island and back to the beach. There were a few marker buoys on the course but they were just there for guidance. Around the island it was quite shallow. We both stopped for a few seconds and almost walked, but quickly got back on track and headed back around the island to the beach.

I had a very fast time for me, (a PB actually), but I credit that to drafting behind Gary.

Back on the beach, after changing out of my wetsuit, I enjoyed the BBQ, the little bonfires complete with marshmallows, and the coziness of the small group. Maybe I’m just nostalgic but this event seemed quintessential Canadian. What could be better than spending a day in the woods, by a lake, roasting marshmallows over an open fire? I’m pretty sure I saw more than a couple of plaid jackets and some Roots chairs.

The race ‘swag’ was the best yet. All the swimmers received handmade medals, hand-painted with an image of King Island with 2 swimmers in the foreground. We also got some very cool flip-flops, a Crown the King towel, caps, draw prizes, and the top finishers received hand-carved walking sticks.

Crown the King Race swag (cat not included).

Time to hit the road. I headed back to the resort for a shower and then the long (but relatively quiet) scenic drive back to Saskatoon. I have driven through Saskatchewan before, but had forgotten just how beautiful it is. Flat, but serene.

I ran into Gary at the airport so we went to the lounge and had a glass of wine and toasted our swimming successes. 😂

What was going to be ‘just another race’ turned out to be another wonderful, memorable swim adventure.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised! I love to swim and I find these events to be mostly low key and quite friendly.

Ok, next post I promise will be about Ireland.

Well this post is long overdue! The event took place May 26th and it’s now August. I never did get around to writing about this swim, but since I recently posted about 2 other long distance swims, I figured the one that started it all deserves its own post.

I can’t remember all the details now, but I do remember a few epic moments. The marine life, the camaraderie, the beer afterwards, all stand out. It’s the memories with an emotional attachment that stick with me.

To start with some background, the El Cruce event was the venue for the 2019 Global Swim Series Championships. I decided to make 2019 a swim-focused year and planned to do as many swims as I could fit in (and afford).

The race started on Sunday May 26th from Playa Caracol (Snail Beach), Cancun, Mexico. Just shy of 1000 swimmers assembled on the beach. It was already hot at 8:00am. Our swim destination – Isla Mujeres (the Island of Women) – 10 kilometres straight out from the beach. Thus the name ‘El Cruce’ or ‘The Crossing’. The Island was barely visible from the beach since it was so far away. This race has a long history. According to a 2018 article posted in the Playa Times ‘Long before Iron Man or any major swimming competition in our state, Isla Mujeres began a little swimming event around the island only for locals. El Cruce (The Crossing), as we know it now, had many different names after its popularity took off in the 90s, when it became the full 10 kilometres Cancun – Isla Mujeres crossing. Latest editions have been supported by the Global Swim Series (GSS) which made it more professional. According to the World Open Water Association (WOWSA) it is the biggest open-water swimming event in Mexico, and among the top 15 worldwide.’

The men started first from the beach followed by a single wave of women.

This was my longest swim to date. Standing on the beach looking out towards the island, I remember thinking ‘I can’t even see it from here’. In the training leading up to the swim, I had only done as much as 8 kilometres in the pool. I wasn’t sure if I could do this. An ocean swim, with a good swell, is a bit different than 160 laps of a 50m pool. Trusting my little personal flotation buddy for support in case I needed to rest, and knowing there were lots of boats around to haul me in if needed, I just relaxed and started the race like it was any other race I’ve done. But it wasn’t just any other race. It was a beautiful journey, but a mentally and physically challenging one. The waves were not in our favour. They were slapping us in the face and it was hard to get into any kind of rhythm the entire crossing. At times I had to focus on something on the ocean floor to know whether I was moving forward or backwards. It was also hot out there. But the water was warm and crystal clear. I remember seeing a turtle swim by. Some brightly coloured tropical fish, many starfish, and a stingray or two kept my mind pre-occupied. A line of sailboats guided our path to the Island. Kayaks and paddle boards crisscrossed the route providing swimmers with bags of water or electrolyte drinks if needed. I never did see the under water museum of sculptures we were promised and I don’t know if it was because I swam off course or if the course was changed, but I was disappointed at not seeing the sculpture. About 2km from the finish, another swimmer close by was flagging down a kayaker to get some water, so I decided to stop too. The kayaker handed out a small plastic bag of water, with a hole cut in one corner. My fellow swimmer took a long drink and handed the bag to me and I had a drink as well. Then the two of us swam together for about a kilometre, and helped each other to sight the buoys. She was faster than I, so I was on my own for the last 1 km. However, I didn’t mind because by now the water was very shallow, and the sand below was white. The water seemed to have changed from a dark blue to a tropical turquoise. It was a very pleasant swim to the finish.

I didn’t have any expectations on a finishing time, but I was happy with 3:39:01. I credit my SwimSmooth 10km program for preparing me for the distance.

I met Ross on the island at the end of the race, and we took the ferry back. A cold beer and some fish tacos later and my day was complete.

Despite the less than ideal conditions, the top swimmer was a young man from Mexico in his 20’s. His time was 2:01:59. Second place went to an American woman in her 30’s who did a time of 2:11:03. Wow! Those are simply incredible times. I hope they also had the time to enjoy a stingray or two along the way.

Another amazing swim adventure. Sunday August 4th was my longest continuous swim ever. Once again, it required a team effort between the swimmer and support kayaker to complete the 12km lake swim. In its 5th year, the Traversee du Lac Tremblant Swim, with 120 registered, doubled in the number of participants from last year.

To orchestrate the event was no small feat, and I give a lot of credit to the race director and his crew. Safety was paramount and the crew made sure to account for all the swimmers, throughout the various phases of the race, from morning check-in to completion.

Each swimmer was assigned his or her personal support kayaker. At the time I registered for the race, my husband Ross agreed to be my paddler. I don’t think he knew what he was getting into as he agreed without hesitation.

On race day, we were up at 4:00am in time to have a coffee, a light breakfast and walk down to the swim check-in.

It was pre-dawn and the streets were quite dark as we made our way, along the lake shore, to the race meeting spot. The organizers had set up a large tent in the park across from Park Plage, our final destination, under which we were to check-in. They thought of everything – almost. There were no light inside the tent. It was pitch black except for the eerie glow of cell phones and a man with a small headlamp.

The first step was to have our names checked off of the master list so they knew we had arrived. Next, the man with the headlamp checked our hands and feet for long nails or jewellery. I had to remove my shoes and put a foot up on the table so he could inspect my toes under the light.

After having my race number marked on my hands with a black marker, and my GPS tracker attached to my wrist, check-in was complete and it was time to board the bus for the marina. The swimmers would be transported by bus to a marina close-by, to be transferred to boats and carried to the swim start at the far end of Lac Tremblant, 12 kilometres away.

At the marina, as the sun was rising. the first swimmers boarded a small ferry, but there wasn’t enough room for all of us. Small speed boats began to appear and their drivers were calling out how many athletes they could take. I climbed into a small boat with 8 other swimmers and off we went, speeding up the lake. The ferry boat had departed before us but we soon left it in our wake. At first the ride was exhilarating. We had the U2 song ‘It’s a beautiful day’ blaring and people were laughing and joking in French. As our little boat picked up speed, the cold wind soon quieted us down. We all instinctively huddled together to keep warm. Strangers but with a like-minded sense of adventure. It also quickly became apparent as to just how far it was to the swim start and how daunting as we realized – “we have to swim back!!”.

Eventually we reached the end of the lake. A few of the other small boats had arrived before us. Since the boats could not land too close to the small beach, we had to remove our shoes and shimmy over the side into the water. As swimmers clambered one by one over the side, they assisted other swimmers by handing down their gear bags.

The swim start was unique and exciting. We were literally in the woods among pine trees, pine needles, and moss-covered trees. There was a cabin of some sort, but it really felt like we were in the wilderness.

Shivering a bit, I found a dry spot by a tree where I could dump my bag and start to don my wetsuit.

We waited patiently for the ferry with our fellow swimmers, the barge with the kayaks and porta-potties, and our support crew.

The kayakers had taken a different route to the swim start. They were bused as far as they could until the road ended. Then they had a 10 minute winding walk through the woods to reach us. My paddler said later that the walk was fabulous. It was up and down, with the smell of pine in the air, and a glistening lake nearby.

Soon the long line of paddlers arrived at our spot in the woods. Our water-warriors with there life vests and paddles held up like spears, were a welcomed site.

The ferry and the barge arrived. We were a collection of 120 swimmers, 120 paddlers, 120 kayaks, and 2 porta-potties in the woods.

At 8:00am sharp the race started. There were 6 heats of 20 swimmers each. Our kayakers were milling about in the water off to the right side, about 100m ahead of us. As we started swimming we had to swim by our kayaker, grab his attention and connect together.

The rest of the race seems like a blur to me now. The water was warm, 23C (74F), the air was warm, the sky was sunny and blue and the cottage scenery of Lac Tremblant was beautiful. Ross did a great job of keeping me on course, and feeding me water and gels at the right time, just as we had planned it.

I remember thinking that this event was more of a celebration than a race (at least for me, since I wasn’t one of the front-runners). It was a celebration of clean water, sport, camaraderie, and doing something hard and loving it. It was about teamwork. There was nowhere else I would rather be at that moment.

We wound our way down the west side of the lake to the half-way point check-in (we swam under a GPS tracker at 6.1k), continued on to the 7km marker and then crossed over to the east side of the lake to the 8k buoy.

From 8k it was a straight line to the finish. We had a nice current in our favour and I felt like I was sailing along at a good steady pace. The water was fairly shallow at that point too, which made it faster to swim.

At the 8k mark, although we still had 1/3 of the way to go, I knew I could make it. I just reached back in my mind to a recent 8k training swim with my swim buddies and remembered how it felt at the turnaround. We had this!

At the 11k buoy Ross gave me some additional motivation by telling me that if I swam steady for the last 1k I could come in under the 4-hour mark.

I did my best to keep my pace, and soon saw the two big round buoys indicating the finishing shute. The finish line was in the water about 100m offshore. To finish the race, we swam under a large white timing board. By touching the board with our GPS wrist-devices, that signaled the completion of our race.

My final time was 3:59:42. 18 seconds under my goal time. I was very happy about that. Funny how these small things make a difference. 18 seconds on the other side of the 4-hour mark and I would have been disappointed (lol).

High fives to the swimmer beside me and then I waded to the beach to find Ross. We found each other and had a big hug. This was truly another team effort.

Another successful swim adventure done!

Teaser- my next swim adventure involves a mountain lake in Glendalough, Ireland in September. Can’t wait to write about it.

What an epic weekend. One I will not soon forget. I felt compelled to write about it. Of all the endurance events I’ve done (not that there have been that many) this ranks up there as one of the most challenging. It started innocently enough with a nice drive down to Normandale. We checked into the Normandale Inn, a quaint place on the shores of Lake Erie near Turkey Point. Next, off to register for the 10km Swim and mandatory safety meeting. After getting reacquainted with friends we had a light supper on a patio by the lake.

After dinner, a few of us sat in the gazebo at the Inn and chatted until after dark. It was cosy to watch the fireflies, see the dark clouds roll in, experience the thunder and lightening and finally the rain outside all around us.

After a sleepless night I got up early for the race. Happy to read the latest weather report indicating the much anticipated storm had passed, and that it might even be a sunny day. But no one expected just how cold the water was going to be and how it would affect every single swimmer.

I met my kayaker on the beach and soon it was time to get into the lake. OMG! The water was cold. It was feet-numbing, take-your-breath-away cold. HO***Y SH***T.

I knew it would be at least a little warmer farther out from shore and I had an experienced paddler on my side. The starting horn went off so I took the plunge.

At the first turn, about 300m out, I felt like I had acclimatized and could do this. I gave my paddler a thumbs-up. The water seemed to have warmed up a bit and I was lulled into a false sense that this swim wasn’t going to be so bad. Somewhere before the turnaround, maybe 4km out, the water turned cold again. This time it was colder than at the start. A fellow swimmer’s watch, I later discovered, recorded the temperature at the turn to be 10c (50F).

My wetsuit was keeping my body warm but from about 20 minutes into the race my hands were numb. Gradually I lost the use of my hands, and I couldn’t close my fingers together. I was swimming with ‘clawed hands’, which was very inefficient to say the least.

Despite the numb hands, physically I felt okay, but mentally this was a very difficult swim.

I was blessed to have support from a person who is not only an experienced kayaker but also a seasoned cold-water swimmer. She knew how to get me through this. Finishing this event was a team effort.

Kat prepared me in advance to have my feed bottles on a rope for easy and quick access. She guided me on course. She encouraged me to keep digging deep. She kept track of my stroke count to see if I was slowing down. When she handed me a gel pack I said ‘could you open this for me, my fingers don’t work anymore?’ But I didn’t have to ask as the gel was already open. She knew. Kat asked me questions to test whether I was hypothermic. She fed me gels like, as she said, ‘a Mother robin’, squeezing the gel into my mouth because my hands couldn’t do it. I warned Katharine in advance that I would be bitchy around the 8k mark but it never happened. In fact I felt relatively relaxed and happy. My goggles started leaking a bit but I was afraid to adjust them as I didn’t think I would get them back on with my hands as they were. We were making good progress and I didn’t have to think about anything except following my guide. I was reminded of a line from a John Candy movie ‘There’s a time for thinking and there’s a time for doing – and this is no time for thinking ‘.

I didn’t have to think about anything – just follow the boat and do what I was told.

I tried to get into a rhythm and keep moving. I knew if I made it to the turnaround I (we) would finish.

Thoughts of my Mum always pop into my head when I swim race. I swim because I can. When I gradually lost control of my hands and fingers it occurred to me that maybe that’s how Mum’s hands felt to her. Strange thoughts. I cried. The voice inside my head said ‘PULL YOURSELF TOGETHER and get moving!’

About 1km from the finish, Katharine told me to dig deep, to pass the canoe and the 2 swimmers ahead. So I dug deep and then saw the finish line arch. After 3 hours and 45 minutes I ungracefully stumbled (fell) out of the water with help from some volunteers. I recognized Christine’s voice cheering for me. Kat was there. We hugged. We cried (what’s with all the crying today??). Happy tears of relief.

Thanks to Paula for influencing me to sign up. Thanks to my swim friends Mitsy and Brian for including me in the 8km Lake O training swim. That swim gave me the confidence to finish the 10k race. Thanks to Christine and Michael who warmed me up after the race. Grateful to Ross who’s always there for me and never complains about ‘another swim event’. The biggest thank you goes to my support friend Katharine who pulled me through with her experience and determination. she even had time to take some great photos and a video! I couldn’t have done it without you! It was a team effort for sure. Photos courtesy of Mitsy, Katharine and Ross.

Florence (or Firenze) is an hour by train from Certaldo, our base city while in Tuscany. Florence is a busy, crowded city, even in the off-season. By far, the highlight for me was seeing Michelangelo’s “Statue of David “. I still have a hard time imagining how someone can turn a block of marble into the most detailed, beautiful sculpture, 5 metres tall (17 feet!). The material is of the highest, purest white Carrara Marble. Michelangelo was only 26 when he started the project. The history behind the statue is quite fascinating. I didn’t know this before, but there were two other sculptors of the statue. Michelangelo, was the one to finish the statue, after the block of marble sat unfinished for 26 years. When Michelangelo started his work, the statue was only roughly shaped, and supine. It took him 2 years to finish it. I was literally moved to tears by the fine detail in the carving. You can read more about this fascinating tale here.  https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_(Michelangelo) We would later visit the Carrara Marble Quarry, and marvel at how such a hug block of marble was transported from the mountain to the city of Florence. This would be an incredible feat today, let alone in the year 1464.

There is so much to see in Florence and I imagine you could spend a week there and not see everything. Our one-day visit didn’t do it justice, but we did see a lot by just walking around. The architecture alone is stunning. I’ve been using the website http://www.discovertuscany.com and found several excellent walking tours listed. I also supplemented that with Rick Steve’s walking tours which were extremely helpful to navigate the narrow alleyways of the city. Rick Steve’s “Audio Europe” iPhone app was great because you can either read the text or listen to his narration while you walk around the city.

Our day started from the Santa Maria Novella train station. We walked from there to Piazza del Duomo, about 1.5km from the station. From there we followed Rick Steve’s tour, with a stop at the Galleria dell’Accademia to see Michelangelo’s David, crossed over Ponte Vecchio to Oltrarno (which literally means “the other side of the Arno river”), passed Piti Palace, to a lovely square called Santo Spirito where we had lunch. The square is overlooked by the Church of Santo Spirito, built by Brunelleschi. I was struck by the austerity of the facade. We didn’t go in, but apparently it houses many “artistic treasures”. There are many restaurants lining the square, and we enjoyed a glass of wine, some wild boar pate, and wood-oven pizza at Borgo Antico.

 

https://www.visitflorence.com/florence-monuments/piazza-santo-spirito.html

We topped off the day with an obligatory gelato before heading back to the train, and home to Certaldo.

These are some of my favourite photos from Florence.

Next stop – the Leaning Tower and the beautiful, Etruscan walls of Lucca.

CaptureCertaldo is a small town in Tuscany, central to Florence, San Gimignano, Siena, Pisa and Lucca. This would be our base for the next 7 days.

Our small apartment, called Casa al Cantone, was within the walled 14th century castle on the hill, built by the Boccaccio family. It was quite a climb up to Certaldo Alto, as it was known, but the effort was well worth it. People are very friendly, the architecture is stunning, and there are several exceptional restaurants in the old city. It was also a 10-minute walk from our apartment to the train station.

Upon our arrival, day 1, we used good old Google Maps to navigate from the train station to our apartment on the hill. After bumping our roller suitcases up a steep, cobblestone path we arrived hot and very sweaty to a beautiful, medieval, walled town. We later found several easier treks up the hill, including a funiculare which went from the city centre below up to the castle.

Here are a few photos of Certaldo.

Path leading up to the castle.

Outside of our apartment “Casa al Cantone”.

Inside out apartment, and our little balcony.

One evening we made the acquaintance of Alfred Kramer, who owns “Alfred’s Restaurant” in the Il Castello hotel. Alfred is a piano player and drummer.

Alfred kindly invited us to a private jazz quartet evening which took place in the cellar of the castle. This turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip. The intimate setting included Scott Hamilton on sax, Alfred on drums, rounded out by a piano and bass. The room was part of the wine cellar in the basement of the hotel. The room was complete with a baby-grand piano.

Alfred’s Restaurant and Bar, Hotel Il Castello.

We found several excellent restaurants here. I think the best pasta I’ve ever had in my life was in Certaldo at Pizzeria Boccaccio. We also enjoyed a lovely meal al fresco at Antica Forte, on a patio overlooking Certaldo Basso.

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What I especially enjoyed about about Certaldo was its authenticity. This is a place where locals thrive and there are not many tourists. We made the acquaintance of our next door neighbhour, a lady with a friendly cat named Doo-doo.

Certaldo seems to me to be one of Tuscany’s best kept secrets. Pretty, friendly, central to other cities, on the train line, great food, and…well I could go on and on, but Florence awaits!

 

 

One of my objectives for coming to Italy in October was to complete an epic ocean swim race in Bergeggi, which is on the Italian Riviera between Savona and Monaco. The 8th annual “Swim the Island” is part of the Global Swim Series of races. This was a spectacular two-day event that included many swims of various lengths. There were kids races, relays, family events, sprints, middle distance and long distance swims, which attracted over 3400 competitors over the 2-day event. I opted for the “Classic” Swim which was 3.5km on Day 2. This swim started from the beach in Bergeggi and followed a course along the rugged shoreline, back around a large island, and then zig-zagged back to the beach.

Here is a photo of the island, which I took just outside our hotel in Spotorno, a small town about 2.5km from the race site. More about the race later.

To get to Spotorno, we flew into Torino via Frankfurt and then travelled by regional train on Friday, Oct. 4th. Spotorno is quaint, with ruins of a castle dating back to the 1300’s. We had a few days to explore Spotorno and the seaside.

Walking around the narrow cobblestone alleys of Spotorno in search of espresso we found a small coffee shop called “Caffeteria Dolcetti”. We went there several times during our stay and got to know the owners, Andrea and Manuela. They were very nice and taught us a bit of the history behind Spotorno, and of course helped us with our Italian pronunciation. Andrea and Manuela divide their time between running the cafe and leading safaris in Kenya.

On Saturday we climbed the steep streets up to the castle ruins. From there we had a lovely view of the town, Isola Bergeggi, and the next town called Noli. Noli also has medieval castle ruins so we decided to stroll the 2.5 kilometres over to Noli. At one time, well before Italy was united, Spotorno and Noli were independent and bitter rivals.

The climb up to the Noli castle was steep.

After visiting the castle we decided to follow Google Maps directions home, along a path less traveled. This turned out to be a bad mistake. We turned off the paved road onto a gravel path leading down the hill. The path soon became narrower and thick with thorny brambles.

Ever optimistic that Google is always right, we pressed on. Soon we decided we were lost and perhaps in danger of tumbling down the hill so we backtracked through the brambles, through someone’s backyard to a road.

Here are various scenes from Spotorno.

Sunday was race day for me. I was excited to swim because the water was crystal clear, warm, and full of marine life. The island and coast were beautiful. I thoroughly enjoyed the swim because we could see the volcanic rock below and many fish and luminescent creatures.

Here are a few photos from the race.

At times I forgot I was in a race and just enjoyed the experience. With 1,037 swimmers in the race, the course was crowded at times and the zig-zag was a bit hard to navigate, but I was happy with my time of 1:07:28. My pace of 1:55 minutes/100 metres was typical for me. By comparison, the person who won my race, Emanuele Bottino from Italy (19 years and under), did it in a time of 00:40:19 which is an unbelievable pace of 1:09 min/100 metres.

The next day, after the race, we boarded the train in Spotorno and began our 5-hour journey to Certaldo, Tuscany.

After 5 separate regional trains we arrived in Certaldo in the afternoon of Oct. 8th.

This year’s adventure takes place in Tuscany, Italy. We spent a total of 15 days swimming, hiking, eating, and drinking our way through the countryside.

Our journey began and ended in Torino, from October 4th to the 18th.

The next few pages attempt to capture this experience of a lifetime, but I really think you have to experience the sights, sounds, smells, and the people firsthand to appreciate how wonderful this country really is.

Take a walk with me through the portal of antiquity. Ready?

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