Issyk Kul Swim Review

I know I promised this earlier, but I’ve been sick. I was sick as a dog on Sunday, pain in the stomach and moving to the back. Lay down in bed and whine to the wife kind of sick. My swim was on Friday and this was Sunday, so certainly couldn’t be Issyk Kul’s water, right? Well, doctor I am not. Chris C., my crew chief-cum-observer (more on that later) is also a physician’s assistant. He said it is very possible that my stomach ailment could be linked to the lake water I ingested.

So, why not till Wednesday? Well, Sunday wasn’t the only day. The pain simply lessened as the days have gone by. Today is the first day I’ve felt okay to eat anything and, more importantly, drink a beer. For the past three days I’ve barely eaten anything because the thought of it made me want to vomit. Today, however, I’ve eaten well and felt good about it.

OK, all that as caveat to this blog entry. This is my review of the swim. Tomorrow I’ll (try to) go over lessons learned from the swim. Thank you dear reader(s) for the support you’ve given me on this endeavor. [Anything in brackets is from the observer log.]

The crew. OK, so the observer didn’t pan out. Akhmed Anarbaev had to be in Bishkek on Friday for a memorial to a friend of his. (At some point during the swim, he called the boat captain to wish me luck.) So Chris stepped up to be the observer. Chris is a retired Army special forces medic, too, so that is another reason to have him on the boat. Talas was my interpreter, Kyrgyz-Russian-English. Olesya was another medical professional. Despite no bathroom on the boat, she agreed to help out. She’s a chiropractor-massage therapist-physical therapist. And finally, my son Sam, our social media expert. The boat captain was Kurbat, his son, Bakyt, was first mate and Aman was the boat’s engineer.

Before the swim: The logistics was a nightmare. Suffice it to say, the boat captain I got was not the original one I thought I had for the weeks leading up to the attempt. But I’ll tell you one thing: Kurbat will be my captain (oh, captain) for any attempts I do on the western side of the lake. He’s great! I met with him on the Sunday prior and he showed me the boat and answered all questions. I felt very comfortable, safety-wise, for my crew and myself.

The other logistical detail was a place to stay. Unless you’re hitting the major cities along the lake, you’re stuck with guest houses, usually run by an old babushka, normally seen sitting by the side of the road during the summer with a sign that reads “Rooms for rent” with a note on whether or not a bathroom or shower is included. Balykchy is pretty small, but there is a nice resort-type hotel there, the Aliya hotel. Olya, the very nice owner/manager/housemistress took care of our every need. We also met her on the Sunday prior and she was very excited to hear I’d be bringing about 10 folks to the swim. (Ended up we brought 12 and got 500som, about $8, which translates to 25% off.) So excited that she called Talas twice during last week to make sure we were coming. And she called him the morning of to make sure we left Bishkek!

The swim. The hotel was great and we got all crew details figured out the night before the swim. Due to typical afternoon winds, the captain wanted us to be on the boat and chugging to the south side by 0500. That meant an early wake-up Friday morning. I of course couldn’t sleep past about 0250, and just lay there thinking positively about the swim. Trying to ignore the windy sounds I heard outside. At 0430 I gave up trying to sleep and got up and got ready.

We dragged all our crap down to the pier at 0445. Olya ensured one of her workers was up and ready to unlock the gates of the resort so we could just walk straight onto the boat. “My God, it’s full of stars!” I said of the sky as I was walking to the pier. There is so little background light in Balykchy I saw stars I hadn’t seen in decades, since camping in the Texas hill country in the ’70s. So damn beautiful I cudda watched the sky the entire boat ride! If it weren’t so damn cold!

the crew in the morning
My crew and I (L-R, me, Talas, Olesya, Chris, Sam)

Yes, it was cold and windy. That worried me. I stayed in the cabin and tried to nap. I went over the social media plan with Sam. The trip to the south side was incredibly rocky. Half my crew went outside for air. My son took a motion sickness pill. I was fine as far as that was concerned. The darkness slowly yielded to dawn and we slowly got to the other side of the lake. I changed into my swim suit and put on my cap and goggles. Next, I slathered Desitin A+D on my underarms, threw my t-shirt back on and sat down. My son updated the blog and FB with our status. I drank my 10oz of chocolate UCAN with a bit of warm water in it (like a warm cup of chocolate!) and ate a banana.

Chris, my crew chief, poked his head in and said it was time to go. I left the cabin and saw the shore about 400m away. “I can’t swim that far!” I said. Everyone looked at me. Uh, aren’t you about to swim 8 miles, was on their faces! I really have no idea. Do other swimmers jump in and go a quarter mile to their start? Is that normal? Thankfully, Chris had blown up the kayak and had it in the water, ready for me to jump in and be paddled to shore.

We realized much later that Chris & Co. forgot to inflate the floor of the kayak. He was kneeling behind me, his knobbly protuberances acting as a keel, turning the kayak to the right no matter which side he was paddling on. We ended up just riding the waves (a bad sign indeed!) to the shore. My one adjustment to the MSF rules was that I could wear scuba shoes from the beach. Those damn pebbles and my sensitive feet.

chris and mike in kayak
Chris paddling me to the start point.

In the water! The water felt cold, but really not much colder than I’d been in before, to include my pool. Plus I was hyped up, which probably helped. Chris got some pictures. He thought. (Turned out he was taking video.) I told the boat to look for me to raise both arms then sound the horn. I didn’t waste any time. Arms up, horn tooted, in the water I went. [Swim started at 0718.]

It was a long walk. The boat couldn’t get close because of the shallowness, and I must admit I probably walked about 100 meters before I could swim. It was cold, indeed. Skin-feeling-hot kinda cold. I caught up to Chris in the kayak, doffed my shoes, then put my head down and swam to the boat. Once I got there, Bakyt, the captain’s son, started pointing to my left. Whoops! I was swimming east instead of north. I put my head down and got to work.

The first feed [at 0758] was practice for the crew. [Distance traveled 1.52km.] They threw out the Nalgene bottle on its 20 feet of rope only to forget to tell the captain to stop moving forward. So by the time I got the bottle, the rope went taut and I had to drop it as I didn’t want to be dragged/helped/DN’d. I caught back up with it and drank as much as I could, threw it back shipward, then put my head down and swam.

[At this point I’m going a solid 58 strokes per minute. Water temperature was 13C and air temp was 10C. Swells were one to two feet.]

Between feed 1 and 2 the water warmed up. [No it didn’t, it was still 13C.] The sun was out and wonderful. The water literally warmed up, feeling a good 2C warmer than the start. It’s at this point that I thought, “Oh, this swim is in the bag! It’ll take me longer than I planned due to the waves, but this water temp is great.”

Crazy-ass waves

A very short time later, after staring at the sun while breathing for the umpteenth time, I asked for a goggle change. That took longer than I’d hoped but I got them properly seated and never needed to mess with them again. [Time: 0810. 1.88km traveled. I told Chris I feel like I’m in a washing machine.] The waves started picking up and I knew I would miss my typical 3K per hour pace. The waves were coming at me from the side, but from the left, which is great because I breath right.

There around feed 2 (I was feeding every 30 min) I started to realize I was full. Or, at least, it felt like my stomach was full of liquids. I didn’t want to drink. I also around this time felt the need to pee, but just couldn’t. I’d slow my feet down, only to start to sink completely, so I’d kick again and then have to start my concentration again. I gave up, figuring when I really needed to pee I would. [Crew said wind was 14m/sec.]

Waves were getting really bad over an hour in. Bad enough that on some stroke cycles I’d almost get flipped over onto my right side when the wave and breathing timed perfectly. It was disconcerting. I also started feeling the cold. So much for those 2 degrees. It obviously dropped significantly. Hands began cramping.

I couldn’t really drink anything at feed #3.  Water went into my mouth and I just spit it out. I tried to imbibe some, but it really made me nauseous. My mouth was starting to get numb and my knuckles needed cracking, at least that’s what it felt like. I just told myself to swim to the next feed and re-evaluate. [Mike says “I’m cold.” Due to waves hitting port beam of boat, quite a bit of roll to the boat. Table in the cabin flipped over several times. Thermometer broke. Wind steady at 12 knots. Stroke rate down to 52. He still hasn’t peed.]

That’s what I did. I started to worry at this point. I didn’t want to know how far I’d gone, nor look to the destination. I was also starting to worry about my crew; several times I saw the bottom of the boat due to a wave knocking it around. I also saw the boat dip into the water and submerge the deck. That kind of helped in that I didn’t want to be on that boat at that point. But I also saw two of my crew laying down, looking like they were in pain. Still, I didn’t let that decide for me. I knew they were better off than I was. They had two doctors on board, plus they were warm. [Talas and Olesya were sick for hours from the rocking boat.]

Feed 4 was brutal. [Mike told observer “The waves are beating me up” and “I don’t think I can do it.” Observer told Mike “You’ve only been swimming two hours” and asked Mike “What’s your longest swim?” After he answered “4 something” observer told him “You’ve only been swimming half that time.” 4.5km traveled.] I didn’t drink anything, just spit it out.

Feed 5 went nowhere. I don’t even remember if they threw me anything. Might as well have not stopped. I got nothing out of that feed. I wish I could have thrown up. I probably would have felt better and might have lasted longer. At that point I was ready to throw in the towel, but my crew kept me in the water. Not that they forced me. They used all the techniques I asked them to and it worked.

For another minute or so. I couldn’t stop shaking. I hadn’t yet gotten to the point where I didn’t know my name or that I was married to Heidi Klum. But I knew I couldn’t go the distance. I told Chris it was time for me to get out. He made me say my safe word. When I said “armadillo” he helped get me out of the water. Swim done. [4.7km traveled in 2 hours, 31 minutes, 59 seconds. So made it a little over a third of the way.]

Apres-swim. They immediately wrapped me in two wool blankets. Shivering unstoppable. So cold and sick. I didn’t want to move. Chris gave me a Nalgene bottle filled with hot water, which I hugged to my chest. Damn did that ever feel good. Pictures were taken, hugs were given. I stayed wrapped up. Boat started chugging to shore, through very rocky water. About 5 minutes later I threw off my wool blankets and had a wonderful puke session all over the side of the boat. Wow, that felt awesome. Really awesome.

The trip back felt like it took two hours. I stayed wrapped up, and when the doc (chiropractor, physical therapist and massage therapist all rolled into one!) felt better (she was also motion sick), she massaged blood back into my legs and arms. I’m not really much for massage, but that did a number on me. I started to warm up. Shivers stopped. I fell asleep.

Apparently, at some point, a fierce game of rock-paper-scissors (lizard-spock) ensued, and the poor doc lost. Therefore, I woke to find my feet on her bare stomach. She was worried that my feet (and hands) were not warming up. Unbeknownst to her, my feet and hands are always colder than the rest of me. No problem. Cold hands warm heart, right?!

We got back to the pier and there were my cheerleaders. These guys were great. They came all the way out to the lake simply to stand on the beach near Toru-Aygyr to cheer me into the beach. I couldn’t have asked for more. It was awesome to see them on the pier. I really wish I could have made it to that beach. They had a bonfire planned!

my crew issyk kul 2015
L-R, front row, Irina, Olesya, me, April. Back row, Mark, Madlyn, Sam, Chris, Hotel employee whose name I can’t remember, Talas, Olya.

We all made it back to the hotel and had a debrief. Chris went through the pictures and video for the benefit of the cheerleaders (and those on the boat who were sick and missed some of my swim). At 1330 I took a sauna. Olya opened up her sauna to me for no charge, and Talas and I spent about a half hour in the extreme heat. Damn did it feel good, and got the final shivers out of my system.

I had arranged a plov dinner for everyone that night which turned out great. The hotel arranged it for us and we had a huge 100+ person hall all to ourselves. Conciliatory rather than celebratory, but my team made me feel like a winner anyway!

Plov dinner!

The next morning when we left Balykchy, lake Issyk Kul was laughing at me.

issyk kul_timing
Flat as a pancake.


6 thoughts on “Issyk Kul Swim Review”

    1. The boat guys love me now, so I think next year I’ll try to get a 3-day period and pay them some sort of retainer on the days I don’t use them. This year I would have had to pay them for all 3 days, something I couldn’t afford.

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