Tag Archives: Kyrgyzstan

Akhmed Anarbaev, First Kyrgyz Olympian, and First Across Lake Issyk Kul

In the midst of planning my next escapade, I came across this wonderful interview with one of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet, Akhmed Anarbaev.

Akhmed Anarbaev, first Kyrgyz Olympian and first to swim across lake Issyk Kul.

Mr. Anarbaev was the first Kyrgyz Olympian, competing for the Soviet Union in swimming in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, specifically in the 400. He didn’t make the pedestal, but that didn’t stop him from another first in swimming.

I met Mr. Anarbaev in 2015 in Cholpon-Ata on lake Issyk Kul. Annually he hosts a swimming weekend, with indoor and outdoor events. He owns and runs a LCM pool on the shore of Issyk Kul, the only pool of that length in all of Kyrgyzstan. I met him after his indoor competition was over and asked if I could take part in the short (300m) open water swim later that day. He had no problem with that, and even introduced me to the other swimmers there, most of them also former members of the Soviet swim team in the ’60s and ’70s. Later that day I managed to talk 3/4 of my kids into swimming the competition with me. Along with dozens of other swimmers. All of whom were beat by Anarbaev, who at the time was 67. And in great shape.

This interview I just found, from 14 January 2018, sheds some light on the history of his Issyk Kul swims that I tried to gather back in 2015 with my so-so Russian.

His first Issyk Kul crossing, from Kyzyl-Suu in the south to Ananyevo on the north shore, 36 kilometers, he completed in 1982 in 11 hours (as exact as he gives). This is the route we call “historical” in the Lake Issyk Kul Swimming Federation. This I learned back in 2015, but what I didn’t know was that he swam it with someone else, some unnamed swimmer. (If I make it back to Issyk Kul this summer, I will have to ask him who the other swimmer is so I can update the crossing list.) Also, a little about his nutritional preparation for that crossing: He and the other swimmer split a can of stewed meat. In his own words, “It is good that we were escorted.”

Unbeknownst to me, he tried a solo crossing of the widest spot on the lake, from Tamga in the south to Cholpon-Ata in the north, a distance of about 65km. That crossing was unsuccessful. For this crossing he started at 7pm. He chose to start at that time because he wanted to swim in cold water at the beginning of the swim and to finish the swim in warm water after the sun had been up for 12+ hours. Unfortunately, his swim turned out quite different than planned, and frankly it is lucky he’s still alive. Strong winds, rain, lateral waves, his escort boat lost sight of him at one point for an hour twenty.

Even more strange was the second time the boat lost sight of Anarbaev. He kept swimming, but started to hear someone calling his name. He saw a boat on the waves so he swam up to it, but it wasn’t his boat. It was another from Balykchy, the village on the westernmost point of the lake! (Dear readers will remember this village as the home base for my crossing.) The crew of the boat thought they saw a dead body floating 200m away from them. Alas, the body was swimming. And the crew knew of only one person who could be swimming in the middle of Issyk Kul, so they started yelling “Akhmed! Akhmed!”

Anarbaev was lost a third time, and when he caught up, was forced to swim at the back of the boat. The boat only had one light in the stern so he decided to swim from that point so as to not get lost again. But swimming back there he was fighting against the currents of the propellers and started to breath in diesel exhaust. His breathing suffered, his chest muscles and abs got tight, and they finally pulled him out of the water, after only 5.5 hours. The doctor checked all his vitals and he was fine. (It is here that Anarbaev tells the interviewer that it didn’t matter that the doctor said he was okay, because “by the rules, at any point if you touch the boat, your swim is over and won’t be recognized.”)

There’s more to the interview, to include his philosophy on health, drinking and sport. Google translate doesn’t do too bad of a job (ignore all the he‘s and she‘s; Russian has grammatical gender), so if your Russian is lacking and you want to read the Google version of the interview, the translation is here.

Training for Issyk Kul

Training for a “big” swim (quotes because this swim isn’t big in the grand scheme of things) takes a lot of training. However, not all of us have a standard job with consistent hours; not all of us have the time to swim 2+ hours, five days a week and 4+ on Saturday and Sunday; not all of us have understanding families (I do, just saying that not all of us do); not all of us have ready-access to a year-round pool; not all of us have access to a close-by open water location. With the exception of the understanding family, I fall into all of the other not all of us‘s I mentioned above.

Time horizontal. Dear reader(s) of my blog know my history with respect to time horizontal and open water race success. This need for time to get my lower back conditions features highly in my thoughts when training for something that I know will take me many hours to complete. It did for Issyk Kul, as well. Only problem was how busy I found myself this year. I was lucky in so many ways, with my big boss giving me access to her pool during work hours, AND having an understanding immediate boss who gave me time off work to swim. Despite that, the longest swims I managed were 1:40. I did a bunch of those. But still, I rarely had a week where I could leave work to swim every work day. In fact, I just looked at my logs. I didn’t have any weeks where I went everyday. I had a few weeks were I swam four times. As I mentioned elsewhere, I had only one week where I swam the equivalent of what I thought would be my time for the Issyk Kul swim (and for that matter, I thought it would be the maximum time it would take), and that was a week where I swam a total of 6:03, to include my one and only two-hour swim this training season. (Whoa…that’s scary. I swam the Issyk Kul crossing in 6:02.45…insert Twilight Zone music here.)

Outdoor pool open! Once the weather got nice I had my outdoor pool cleaned and filled. I got a significant number of swims done in that pool (still on straps of course), but it wasn’t easy. Bishkek is surrounded on the south by very large mountains, and quite often in the late afternoons summer storms would roll in. Now, this place doesn’t get much lightning. But that doesn’t mean I don’t freak out when those dark storm clouds roll in, and I’m swimming in a pool next to a bunch of out-buildings with metal roofs. Let’s just say I got a lot fewer after-work swims in than I would have preferred.

Indoor lap pool, no. I’ve talked before about the one nice and close indoor pool here. They’ve still got the noodler babushkas in there, along with the two-lanes-turned-into-three really skinny lanes. I’ve used that pool a few times, before I got access to The Boss’s indoor pool, but it was just so annoying to have to swim around folks who really don’t understand lap swimming, and then to have to do it in what amounted to a lane that is about 60% the width of an ordinary lap lane. Frustrating.

Swimming on straps. Will not make you faster, or even allow you to keep your speed, no matter how many times you do “100 strokes fast, 100 strokes slow, 80 fast, 80 slow…” It will, however, get you in the pool and get you time horizontal. Only a couple of times during my swim did I think “Oh, was that my lower back starting to hurt?” But then I didn’t think about it again for hours. (And it never hurt in the days after.) That’s pretty good when you consider this swim was the longest I’d swum, ever. Six hours is an hour and 15 minutes longer than the longest I’ve ever swum (Swim the Suck) and 2:20 minutes longer than my longest ever pool swim (3:40 for a 10,000 meter swim years ago). But my speed has definitely declined.

Speed. The last race I had was Raslina 5K in Croatia in July 2015. 1:52 and some change. Like I said in the post race report, that 5K was the best I’d ever felt in a race and I was kicking it in the high 80% effort the entire time, to include quite the kick at the end. And it is still slower than I think I could do. I prepared for that race by doing the fast/slow thing described above. But that didn’t matter. When I get to Moscow and back to that pool I know (and love), I’m going to start working on intervals, and get back to working on my critical swim speed again (thank you Swim Smooth). I know I can get myself back to 3200-3300 meters per hour, but I’m sure right now I’m closer to 2700m per hour in the pool. That’s quite a drop that I don’t think can be explained away by age. (I just did some math. Interestingly, my average hourly rate for Issyk Kul was 2297 meters, and that includes stopping 3 times per hour for feeding (I kept those short, but still that adds a couple minutes of not moving per hour). My hourly rate in Raslina with absolutely no stopping was 2680 meters per hour. Not too bad when you consider it was almost exactly a year between the two events and Issyk Kul was at a much greater elevation (5270 ft) than Raslina (21 ft).)

Elevation. How to train for a swim at a mile elevation while you live at less than half a mile elevation? I really thought this one through. I cannot be totally sure that last year’s attempt wasn’t somewhat affected by the altitude (in addition to the other issues). I searched ultramarathon runner forums for my answer. Apparently, if you’re unable to train at a higher elevation, the best thing to do is to either a) travel to the location and do your event within the first 24 hours, or b) travel to the location 3-4 days early to get acclimatized. For Issyk Kul, we arrived at 4pm on Tuesday and I started the swim right before 7am on Wednesday, so that’s within the first 24 hours. It must have worked, yes?

Open water. I had grand plans to run to the lake every other weekend starting in late April to get some open water swims in. That didn’t happen. I did, however, get two quick trips to the lake about a month prior to the swim. One was a quickie, maybe 10 minutes. The other, though, was a nice hour-long swim in 18C water, which was perfect. It was also an hour in the exact location that I planned to (and did) complete the swim, so that was nice, especially as I’m swimming to the end of my Issyk Kul swim and I’m seeing the same trees leading me to the beach. Mentally gratifying.

Kyrgyz “lifeguards”

Went swimming again today and it was glorious. I have the day off of work, but my son needed a ride in, so I figured I’d get a swim in. Kalipso opens at 0800 and my son had to be at work by 0830, so it turned out perfect!

Today when I went in, there was a mom sitting in the lobby looking, or trying to look, through a very fogged-over window at her kids swimming. She kept yelling at one of them “Where’s Ardan?” She was bundled up in her winter gear and I can only assume was not out on the pool deck because she didn’t bring her sandals to change into!

Went through the usual rigmarole. All as previously reported except lights in the shower area! Hurrah! I can see where I’m stepping. No lifeguard watching me change or ensuring I showered. And no lifeguard in the pool area, either. When I walked in, I could hear kids on the other end of the pool over by the intricate slide, but I couldn’t see them. Lights were non-existent and the whole area was misty.

Once in my lane (and yes, I parked my sandals by the stairs and walked in the easy way), I realized I couldn’t see the other end of the lane. Fog sitting on top of the water. Those kids managed to make their way over to my end and I could see they were about 8 and 10, a girl and boy. One glance told me that Mom was still dutifully watching them through the foggy window.

I did my workout, all alone in my lane, swimming 30% farther than the last time. Arms and shoulders felt good, but didn’t want to push it. Laughed that what I swam today was about half of what I was swimming each time when I was prepping for Swim the Suck. But that’s ok. Gotta take it slow to get back up to speed; don’t want an injury to take me out after just starting back up.

After my shower and getting dressed, the lifeguard came into the locker room. He recognized me from the last time. He was in full outside regalia; I think he had just shown up for work. When my ~hour of swimming was done those kids were still in there, riding the slides, sitting in the hot tub, noodling around in the pool, nary a lifeguard to be found.

When I mentioned this to my wife, she asked me “Would you rather have anarchy or them watching your every move?” I guess I’m torn on that. Selfishly, I’d rather have anarchy. The pass I bought for the pool gives me 45 or 60 minutes (can’t remember what they told me) of swimming each time, and when I get my stamina back and start swimming for 90-120 minutes each time, I don’t want them kicking me out of the pool. But those kids…  Just not sure. This is the Former Soviet Union. For all I know they’ve got cameras that they’re watching from the comfort of the lobby. And that big picture window is large enough to observer the entire pool, when it isn’t covered in condensation, that is.