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WSWC (2/3): The races - John C. Kirk

Apr. 21st, 2014

06:45 pm - WSWC (2/3): The races

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Previously in my blog...
In part 1, I travelled to Lapland for the Winter Swimming World Championships. Now it was time for the races to begin!

Thursday 20th March

Thursday was the first day of the Championships, including the 450m endurance swim. We all had breakfast together in the hotel, then some people rushed off to swim while others registered for other races and non-swimming activities. I went to a seminar on winter swimming, although it didn't go into as much detail as I would have liked.

When I registered for my swims, I discovered the first logistical problems. I realise that there's a lot of work involved in an event like this, so I don't like to nitpick, but these may be issues that other people could learn from when we/they host future events, e.g. the UK Cold Water Swimming Championship (CWSC). I paid for 1 race (25m breaststroke) and 2 non-competitive swims (25m "seal" and 50m "polar bear"). Based on the original version of the schedule (which is still on their website), this meant that I'd do 1 swim each day: 25m seal on Thursday, 25m race on Friday, and 50m polar bear on Saturday, so I'd gradually work my way up to the more challenging swims. After I'd paid, the schedule changed (the new version is on a different part of their website), and the non-competitive swims were split across Friday and Saturday. When I registered in Rovaniemi, my ID badge had the time and lane for each swim; however, it didn't include a day for the non-competitive swims. I queried this, so the organisers checked their computer, and it turned out that all 3 swims were on the same day. That wasn't ideal, so I asked them to swap the 50m swim to Saturday, which they agreed to do; they then put a new (handwritten) sticker on my ID card, covering the old (printed) sticker.

Once that was sorted, I went down to the water to support the club members who were swimming. While the SLSC team hats do look a bit silly, they're very useful for identifying other club members in a crowd. Similarly, the yellow swimming caps helped to identify which swimmers were ours. We also had (temporary) tattoos; I put mine on the upper arm, aka "the socially acceptable rebellious zone", but the chest and face were surprisingly popular choices.

SLSC tattoo

The pool was only 25m long, so each length is less than 1 width of Tooting Bec lido. The river is mostly frozen over, and the ice is at least 1m thick, so the Finns used chainsaws to cut through the ice and then used cranes to lift the blocks out of the way. The water temperature was somewhere between -1°C and -0.5°C; a few years ago, I would have said that it was impossible for water to be sub-zero, but I think that impurities (e.g. salt or chlorine) can lower the freezing point. Even so, the water kept trying to re-freeze, so there were jets by the side of the pool to keep the water moving and the organisers used nets to fish out the ice between each race.


Unfortunately there was a problem in the first endurance race, and 1 of the swimmers had to be taken to hospital in an ambulance; sadly, he died there. That meant that there wasn't an ambulance available for the next race, so the organisers had to delay everything until that ambulance got back from hospital; in fact, 2 ambulances came back, to avoid the same problem happening again. Some of our club members were in the water for over 10 minutes, and I admire anyone who could endure the cold for that long. In later races, I saw that the organisers had a SCUBA diver, who swam in the adjacent lane to the final swimmer in case they got into trouble.

We all stood together to spectate, and we got quite a bit of attention for being the loudest supporters there, mainly due to one of our group leading us in some chants: we appear about 25 seconds into the official video. Admittedly, we did get a bit sidetracked by this one: "North, South, East, West, SLSC are the best!" Should it be "is the best" or "are the best"? It's the "lee-do"/"lie-do" debate all over again... I favour "is the best", but the chant sounds better if everyone says the same thing. After a while, we wound up with "North, South, East, West, SLSC is grammatically incorrect!" Similarly, spelling out names worked better with some names than others, e.g. "Give me a P!" ("P!") "What have you got?" ("P!") Personally, I found that when I was in the water I couldn't hear the individual words anyway, but it really did help to know that there were friendly faces watching me and cheering me on.

On Thursday evening, we went to the opening ceremony in the town square. This is called Lordi Square, which isn't a coincidence: it's named after the rock band who won the Eurovision song contest in 2006 (dressed as monsters). This included a guest appearance by Santa Claus, from the Santa Claus village about 5 km away. It also featured a performance by an interpretive dance group; I didn't quite grasp the significance of the fridge, but maybe it made more sense to other people.

The big news from the opening ceremony was that the next WSWC (in 2016) will be held in Siberia: specifically in Tyumen. I've checked online, and it is possible to get there by train, using the Trans-Siberian Railway, although it will take a while. I think I'd definitely get bragging rights from a trip like that, since a lot of people will immediately associate Siberia with a frozen wasteland. On the other hand, a lot of people are opposed to the lack of gay rights in Russia. So, this is the same debate that went on with the Winter Olympics in Sochi: would taking part in the event count as a tacit endorsement of Putin's policies? Fortunately there's no rush to make a decision on that.

On a more general note, I saw a few people cycling on the snow/ice while I was there; I don't consider myself a "fair weather cyclist", but ice is where I normally draw the line. Still, I suppose they get more opportunity to practice, and their roads are a lot less busy than London. I also noticed that there were a lot of unlocked bikes left unattended (unless they had "nurses' locks" around the back wheels):


Friday 21st March

On Friday morning I had my untimed swim. My ID card had 3 times for each swim: first I had to report to the changing rooms (portacabins) to get changed, then 20 minutes later I went to the assembly tent (wearing a robe and shoes), and 10 minutes after that I lined up at the pool. The assembly tent had 6 rows of chairs, and each chair had a lane number on it, so all the swimmers for each race would sit in the same row, in the same lane that they'd be swimming in. Each time a new race started, everyone else would move forward 1 row. That's a good approach, although some people sat in the wrong chair and that meant that problems (e.g. 2 people booked into the same lane) didn't become obvious until later.

Unlike the UK CWSC, they didn't play any music during races, which was a pity. The organisers had a PA system to introduce the swimmers before each race, and they gave a bit of commentary during the races. This was mostly in Finnish, but I did recognise the word "höpöhöpö" a few times (pronounced "herp-uh-herp-uh"), which translates as "ridiculous".

At the start of each swim, the swimmers lined up next to each lane. Then the organiser said "Take off your clothes." This was the cue to put robes, shoes, etc. into the baskets, which the organisers would move to the opposite end of the pool if appropriate. However, the monotone reminded some of us of the scene from Terminator 2 where Arnold Schwarzenegger said "I need your clothes, your boots, and your motorcycle." Here are 2 videos for you to compare and contrast: WSWC vs. T2.

The next instruction was "Get into the water." That was a bit nerve-wracking, particularly as I could see ice forming in the water. Normally there was a horn to announce the start of each race, but they didn’t bother for the untimed swims. So, when I was halfway down the ladder I suddenly realised that other people had already started swimming! That wasn't exactly a problem, but it gave me extra motivation to get in quickly. It was certainly colder than Sweden, and it felt as if the water was squeezing me as I huffed my way across; as another SLSC swimmer put it, it felt like swimming through a slushy... The surface of the water was also quite choppy (from the other swimmers), and I choked a bit while I was halfway across, but I just told myself to "Cough it out and keep going."

Anyway, I was glad to get out at the other end. Although officially it was untimed, the volunteer at the end of my lane had timed me on her watch. She asked whether I'd like to know the result when I got out, and my time was 42.47 seconds. Not exactly a speed record, but I never expected to win any medals at this event; I just wanted to survive the experience. Other volunteers gave out cups of hot juice (similar to Ribena), then I climbed into a hot tub, at a toasty 41°C.

Once I'd finished there and got dressed, I re-joined the SLSC cheering section. I've never been a football fan, and when I hear people say "We won" I think "Who's we? Were you on the pitch with them?" However, it was a bit different here, since I was actually part of a team. I can't claim any credit for the people who won medals, but at least I can say that I shared a similar swim.

As the day went on, we could tell that the races were slipping behind schedule. I was due to do my 25m race in the afternoon, but rather than going to the changing room at the time on my card, I waited for the race which was due to start at the same time. When I went to the assembly tent, the volunteers on duty looked at my card and criticised me for being late; based on the printed time, I was about 30 minutes late, but I knew that I still had ages before my race would actually start. So, I think the logistical issue there is that the people near the tent didn't know what was happening at poolside. It would have been better to announce each race number (like we do at the UK CWSC) to keep everyone in synch.

Here I am, getting ready for the off (in the nearest lane):
John about to swim
(Photo © Jennifer Barker)
If you look closely, you can see white specks against my blue robe from the falling snow.

I came last in my heat; overall, I came 35th in my age/sex category. That's out of a total of, um, 35 people. Still, as someone else pointed out, you can only race against the people who turn up; there were 16 other people listed as "DNS" (Did Not Start), and arguably I beat them by default. My time was 53.88 seconds, so this was significantly slower than my untimed swim. Maybe I was still tired from the previous swim.

Aside from the swimming, there were various extra-curricular activities to keep us busy. In the evening, several of us set out on a snowmobile safari to see the Northern Lights. We drove along the river, and I was aware that there was extremely cold water below us, but happily the ice didn't crack while we were there. When we reached our destination, a couple of the staff set up a campfire to cook sausages for us. Generally speaking, Finland isn't a great country to be a vegetarian, but I was impressed that they had enough soya sausages for us to get 1 each. Meanwhile, the tour guide told us some of the mythology about the lights, and we performed the lido song for him (using the choreography from our panto). The sky was overcast when we arrived, but the clouds cleared before we left, and we did get to see a green ribbon across the sky. This tour also took us far enough north to be inside the arctic circle. I drove back, and I was surprised at how tired my arms got from the effort of steering, but it's definitely more fun to be driver than passenger.

Saturday 22nd March

Saturday got off to a bad start when one of our group slipped over on the ice and broke her leg. (This wasn't directly connected to the swimming: she was crossing the bridge at the time.) Luckily there was a doctor nearby, and she didn't have to wait long for an ambulance. Several SLSC people went to visit her in hospital later, and she's recovering now.

Meanwhile, I was due to do my 50m untimed swim. However, I noticed that the (handwritten) time on my ID card didn't match the schedule on the website. So, I went back to the registration desk to query that, and they moved me to a later slot, almost at the end of the day. When I reached the assembly tent, I discovered that my lane had been double-booked. Someone else had found the same problem with the schedule, so the volunteers in the tent had moved her to this later slot as well. However, they were working independently to the staff in the registration centre, so the lists got out of synch. Since my new time had come from the people with the computer, I got priority, and they told the other lady that she’d have to swim in a later slot, but she’d have to swim on her own. I recognised her, since we did the 25m untimed swim together on Friday, so I told the organisers that I’d wait and do the later slot with her; another swimmer said the same thing, so the organisers split us into 7+3 rather than 9+1. Ideally there would be another computer in that tent with access to the same database; alternately, the tent people could phone back to the office and ask the office staff to use their computer.

I don't know how long it took me for this swim, but I agree with what other people said: the second length was a lot harder than the first. It’s similar to cycling up a hill, when you think you're almost at the top, then you turn the corner and see that there's an even steeper section ahead.

Anyway, at least I worked up an appetite for the Gala Dinner in the evening. It was a buffet, so we could help ourselves to generous portions of food, although the vegetarian stew from the menu was missing so I just stuck to side dishes (e.g. mashed potato).

After the meal, the Russians gave a video presentation about what they'll be doing in 2016. Unfortunately, they had a few technical hitches, so this took a while. They'd copied the video file onto a USB stick, but when they put it into the laptop it was blank. (Maybe they didn't do a safe removal from the other machine?) They then tried going online, but they couldn't log into Google. When they found a copy on YouTube, the video kept buffering, possibly because so many other people were using the wireless network. Meanwhile, the sound was very low, and their laptop was showing a low battery warning. Again, I'm not saying all this to pick on them, but this may act as a cautionary tale for anyone else who gives presentations. So, a few suggestions, based on my own experience.

Firstly, the reason I know so much about it is that they had the projector running the whole time. It would be better to turn that off until they were ready to start. When I was an undergrad, I took part in STEP (the Shell Technology and Enterprise Program); this involved an 8 week placement with a local company, then all the students gave presentations at the end, with prizes for the best. This was in 1994, so we used acetate slides with a traditional projector, and the person in charge gave us some advice: when we changed slides, we should turn off the projector for a couple of seconds and then turn it back on, so that the audience wouldn't see us moving the slides around. That seemed a bit excessive to me, so I didn't do it. However, I also wasn't in the top 3 (prize winners) and 1 of the judges spoke to me afterwards to say that there were 5 of us "under a penny" (i.e. really close together). Maybe if I'd followed their advice it would have made the difference. That scenario doesn't quite apply anymore, when computer projectors can do an instant transition, but I think the same concept applies at the start. Even if everything works ok, the audience don't need to see you going through your folders to open the Powerpoint file.

Secondly, I had a similar problem at the end of my MSc, when I did my project presentation. I emailed the university in advance, telling them exactly what software I needed. However, when I arrived they hadn't done it, and I didn't have permission to install the software myself. So, I literally had to stand there in front of the professors saying "Well, if you could see my program running, this is what it would look like..." After that, I promised myself that I would always take my own computer along for a situation like that rather than relying on someone else's. (As a related point, I would then copy all the relevant files to the hard drive rather than relying on a USB drive: I've seen flaky sockets which sometimes disconnect devices without warning.)

Thirdly, for a video like that it would be better to put it on DVD, then you don't need to use a computer at all, and there's much less that can go wrong.

I didn't stay for the disco, but they had a good selection of cheesy music (e.g. the Macarena).

Sunday 23rd March

On Sunday morning, I discovered several cuts across my chest, which I hadn't noticed the day before.
Cuts across chest
I'm not sure where they came from, but the working theory at the breakfast table is that thin sheets of ice were forming under the water and they sliced into me while I was swimming. It didn't hurt, so I was more surprised than anything else, and they've all healed up now.

We then had the relay races. I was a late entrant, after an appeal for people to make up the numbers; I don't have any illusions about my speed, but if it was a choice between me and nobody then at least I could allow the others to take part. This is the first time I've done in a relay in years, and I was a bit premature at getting into the water, so I had to thrash around for a while (treading water to keep warm) while I waited for my teammate to reach me. We came 2nd to last overall, so it was the first time I didn’t finish last; thank you to the rest of my team for that!

In the afternoon, a few of us went off to a nearby ski-slope. (Well, 1 person skied, while 2 of us used snowboards.) On the way there, we passed a field with some Christmas trees sticking out of the snow:
I initially thought that these were full size trees which had been buried in a huge snowdrift with only the tops left visible. However, the others reckoned that these were baby trees, so we were actually looking at the entire size.

I've been snowboarding before, but my previous trip was 6 years ago, so I was a bit rusty. It took me about 20 minutes to get down the blue slope on my first attempt, mostly by bunny-hopping backwards. They didn't have a green slope, so I tried getting off the ski lift earlier (in front of the billboards in this photo) so that I could just do a shorter run:
Bottom of blue slope

The snag there is that I had to merge with people who'd come from the top and were going quite a bit faster. So, I swallowed my pride and went to the kiddy playground for a while to rebuild my skill/confidence:
The black strip on the right is a conveyor belt, so all I had to do was stand on it to get to the top. Looking at the far end of the playground, there's a rope lift between the 2 sheds. This is literally just 1 rope in a circle which is continuously moving, so you have to grab hold to be pulled up. It took me a few attempts to get a good enough grip, but I managed it. There's a roundabout in the middle, with 4 long metal arms. Initially I held onto a arm directly, so that I could practice turning, then I held onto 1 of the dangling cords to make it a bit more like a drag lift. There were a few sledges attached to the arms too, although I'm too big for them.

Once I'd got the hang of things there, I went back to the blue slope and did a few more trips down there, first from the billboard area and then from the top. I then met up with the other SLSC snowboarder and we took a chairlift up to a slightly higher point on the same slope. Unfortunately, my feet chose that moment to cramp up, so I had to take my boots off for a few minutes rather than going down with him. However, once I got going I made it down in 2 minutes. So, I'm glad I took advantage of the opportunity to go.

This may also be a good time to mention clothing. When I was swimming, I just wore Speedos, cap, and goggles. Before/after each race, I normally wore my Robie Robe with sandals and SLSC hat, although I also used my dinosaur onesie on Saturday, mainly because I'd carried it all the way there and hadn't used it for sleeping. (All the rooms were really warm.) I did notice my sandals skidding on the ice a bit, so I had to run downhill to get to the assembly tent; clearly this is a use case which the designers overlooked!

When I was spectating, I just layered up. On my torso, I normally wore T-shirt, skiing base layer (polo neck), and SLSC hoodie. On my legs, I had normal underwear, leggings, and work trousers. On my feet, I had 2 pairs of socks (a normal pair and thicker/longer ski socks) along with my boots. I also wore my winter cycling gloves, a buff around my neck, the SLSC hat, and my ski jacket.

Aside from the boots, that's also what I wore for snowboarding. I do have a pair of ski trousers but I didn't take them with me. Instead, I bought a lined overall (boiler suit), recommended by a friend who worked on the British Antarctic Survey. It was definitely warm, and it fit better than most "all in one" garments I've tried (e.g. my wetsuit and cycling bib tights). I mainly got that for the snowmobile trip, but it turned out that they issued us with similar outfits as part of the package price, and in fact I had to wear theirs rather than mine. I can understand why: their overalls included reflective strips and had the company name on the back, so it would be easier for the staff to keep track of us if we all looked the same. Still, even if I had taken my ski trousers along, I wouldn't have been able to wear them for snowboarding: we went straight from the pool area to the ski slope without going back to the hotel in between, and I didn't know about it in advance. So, I think the real lesson is that I could travel a bit lighter next time if I leave some of my bulky clothing at home.

Anyway, once we'd finished on the slope we went back to the hotel, then waited for our bus to the station.

To be concluded in part 3...