Fear, frolic and swimming from Europe to Asia in my 60s
There’s nothing like adrenaline to help you forget your age. The year I turned 60, I scared myself silly by signing up to swim the Hellespont, the great channel that joins Europe to Asia in northwest Turkey.
Like the writer Iris Murdoch, I “am not in the athletic sense a keen swimmer, but I am a devoted one.” Summer and winter, you’ll find me in just my Speedo, circling the Ladies’ Pond on Hampstead Heath in London, breast-stroking the soft greenish water, head up. Keri-Anne Payne has naught to fear.
I was as a child as I am now: bookish with a terror of physical activity. In summer, the swim-team kids at the local pool awed me with their thrashing drills and intimidating speed. I copied their swimwear in my cool Speedo tank suits, but no way could I match their athleticism. My mode has always been to frolic, my only flourish an underwater back flip, a signature move that I still love for the sense of weightless grace it gives me.
But a frolic wasn’t going to cut it in the Hellespont. It’s a long swim – for me, anyway – at 6.5 kilometres. But more to the point, the beast has currents, as tonnes of water from the Sea of Marmara rush through the narrowing strait to the Aegean Sea.
I would need strength and stamina – and strategy: if I misjudged the route, I’d be swept past the finish line toward open sea, forced to submit to a humiliating boat rescue. There was no way I’d attempt this feat twice; I was determined to prep for and finish this race
Swimming by the book
My motivation was more than the birthday. I’m equal parts swim- and book-nerd, entranced by the confluence of water and literature (a love I share via Instagram @wildswimmingbythebook), and the Hellespont is the ultimate literary swim. I’d be following in the wake of Lord Byron, the 19th-century poet, who swam it in 1813 in homage to Greek mythic hero Leander, famed for his nightly crossings to join his forbidden love, Hero.
The Leander footnote — that he founders in a storm and drowns — was a sharp reminder that the crossing is no dawdle. This ‘swimbler’ (aquatic equivalent of ambler) needed to get serious.
First move, in the January before the August swim: convince friends to join. You see, the buddy system is the strategy that at last got me exercising as an adult. Knowing friends are waiting forces me to show up, distracts me from the agony of exertion, and multiplies the pleasure (namely, finishing). Enter determined Briony and ebullient Toby, who lured in her partner and their 19-year-old daughter. What’s more, generous friend Leah and daughter vowed to come to Turkey to cheer us on. We had a crew!
Three scary steps
The next three steps were more daunting:
- Engage a personal trainer, forcing me to set foot in an actual gym for, literally, the first time in my life, and submit to twice-a-week weight-training sessions.
- Join a Masters club – i.e., the adult version of the fearsome swim-team kids — for thrice-weekly workouts. My stomach involuntarily shrivels, still.
- Sign up for a weeklong summer swim ‘holiday’ featuring daily 5km sea swims. Daily. 5k. Swims.
Re the trainer, I lucked out with Jenny, a tough but kind powerhouse who grew up sea-swimming in Croatia. Age 55 and strong as an oak, she was a living rebuke to any of my defeatist notions about what I could or couldn’t do ‘at my age’. The Masters marlins and their coach generously made room for this struggling tadpole. I never stopped feeling the anxiety in my gut. But — I psyched myself up with some sleek swimwear and training gear (thank you, Speedo) like proper goggles, a pull buoy, tech-paddles and fins, and I kept going. I’m not sure I got faster, but I gained strength, and some confidence seeped in, too.
The swim holiday was crucial for the experience of salt water and currents – elements missing from the pond and pool – and of sighting; i.e. looking where you’re going in wide, open water. It’s tricky building it into your stroke, but was a ‘must’ for gauging the route across the Hellespont.
The holiday leads, fellow swimmers and setting – in Montenegro – were lush, sweetening the scary prospect of swimming three miles-plus a day, five days in a row. I soon realised I was the slowest fish in the slowest group. But, damn it, I was proud at the end to have covered every inch of every swim, and was a stronger sighter and sea-swimmer to boot.
On race morning, as I stood at the European edge of the vast Hellespont, I pulsed with the adrenaline of pure terror. But I knew I couldn’t have done more to prepare.
And reader: I made it.
The calm turquoise sea, suffused with sunlight, received me like a mother. Five minutes in, the rhythm of ‘stroke-breathe-sight’ calmed my nerves. Just as I wondered ‘How much farther? Would I make the 90-minute time limit?’, a support boat neared and voice shouted: ‘500 metres more!’.
Finishing – in one hour, 16 minutes – was euphoric. Being awarded the bronze medal for my age group was other-worldly. (Let’s not ask how many women 60-64 actually took part – !). But the sweetest bit of all was the signature I left alongside Byron’s, when I took a moment in the middle of the race, in the centre of that legendary channel, and turned a frolicsome back flip.
Sheila Fitzgerald @wildswimmingbythebook