When it comes to open water swims, the Bosphorus strait in Istanbul, Turkey, is the one at the top of everyones to do list. Istanbul is split between two continents by the Bosphours Strait. One half of the capital is on the Asian continent, the other on the European continent. Once a year, for 3 hours only the busy international Bosphrous shipping lane that connects the black sea and the Mediterranean is closed off for swimmers. The race starts from the Asian side of the Bosphorus and ends 6.5km later at a park on the European side. Upon completing this swim, you can proudly say that you have swum from Asia to Europe.
Understandably the swim is very popular and therefore difficult to get into. You have to pre register for the swim and sign up within a few hours of registration before it closes. Additionally you need to have a medical report proving your fitness to swim including an ECG, a letter vouching for your swimming capabilities from an ASA registered coach, plus a visa and proof of insurance. A group 9 friends from our Camden Swiss Cottage masters swimming club managed to get a place in the race. We flew in on Friday for the race on Sunday and attended the briefing and boat ride of the swim course on Saturday. There are limited places for international swimmers. This year nearly 2,000 took part with 900 foreign nationals. The course is current assisted, IF you find the right one, otherwise its against you!
I’d done less swim training in the lead up to the swim than normal due to preparing for my up coming expedition and was actually quite nervous about it. In the 2 weeks leading up to the swim I had left my job, had a couple of leaving parties, moved myself out of London and back to my parents home on the coast, done a 3 day cycling trip and my sister had a 4 week old baby. The last 2 weeks have been very hectic and stressful to say the least and I was grateful for the break from organising my Iron curtain expedition (Which I departs 2 days after my return from Istanbul)!
Many people said to me that I shouldn’t even be going so close to the start of my expedition. They had a point. I really wanted to do this swim that I had entered before the expedition had even been thought of and would be wasting a few hundred pounds by not going. I was going with good friends too and didn't want to miss out on having fun with them or seeing Istanbul. Trouble is I wanted to do it all!
I’m not a great swimmer. I wasn’t a club swimmer as a child so my technique is rubbish, I only joined my club 4 years ago after not swimming at all for about 10 years too. The longest swim I’d ever done before this was only a mile and so I was really worried about the distance. I’ve done a handful of open water swims and found them tough, but I was determined to do this and that I could manage everything else going on in my life too as long as I was organised.
Some of my friends on the trip with me are some of the best masters swimmers in the country. I swim in the bottom lane at our club’s training sessions whilst they are mostly in the top. I was the weakest and least experienced swimmer by far.
This situation was also my advantage. I wasn’t in it to race. There was no expectations or pressure on me to achieve anything other than getting to the finish. I was there purely for the experience and to enjoy the surroundings and novelty value swimming in a shipping channel between 2 continents.
My biggest fear about the swim was my lack of mental strength. I was worried about how I’d cope when I got tired, whether I could keep my thoughts positive whether I could stay motivated and allow myself to enjoy the swim. I wasn’t sure that I was mentally tough enough to stay in control and stop myself slipping into a negative, de motivated mentality that would let me down and ruin the experience for me.
I’m a big believer in just getting on with things, not letting yourself worry or think about your fears. I truly believe that these kind of events are 80 per cent psychological and only 20 per cent physical ability. Its all about keeping calm, staying in control and keeping your thoughts positive. Thats exactly what I did. Pre swim every time negative thoughts started to enter my head I banished them. I simply kept telling myself that I’d be fine and to enjoy myself.
On race day, we were up at 6:30am and the race started promptly at 10:30am. I don’t normally eat before training at home at 6am, but as the race wasn’t until 10:30 I had a banana and hydration drink as I was worried about dehydration and cramping (and hunger!) I’m prone to stitches too.
The swim was very well organised. It is run by the Turkish Olympic committee and the costs are subsidised by them too. There was very much a party atmosphere in the athletes park, music was blaring and everyone was looking relaxed in good spirits.
To get to the start of the swim the 2,000 participants had to board one big ferry to be taken up river. There was lots of patriotic singing from the Turks, a little bit of dancing and a lot of cheering. Lots of people were in big groups with their friends and no one looked worried about their up coming challenge. 7 oceans swimming Adam Walker, this years event ambassador, was walking around the boat cheering and trying to get everyone hyped up.
The actual swim started by jumping off a platform that was connected to our ferry into the water. Surprisingly everyone gave each other plenty of space and I just threw myself off the platform without any thought and was barely touched by another swimmer at the start or during any part of the swim.
It really was something special to be swimming under the river crossing bridge, seeing jelly fish swimming around me and to feel like something so small in such a huge expanse of water. Every time I breathed I appreciated the stunning scenery either side of me, even stopping to look around and just take in this very unique view that few are privileged enough ever have. I even stopped a couple of times to briefly chat with other swimmers around me doing and feeling the same! At times it felt a little “James Bond” after we saw a submarine in the water pre swim and with speed boats whizzing past us. I even paused once to wave at the pilot of one of the three safety helicopters flying very low over our heads!
I can honestly say that I surprised myself by loving every minute of the swim. It was such an incredible event to be a part of and at the finish I was so happy I was almost a little emotional. I kept to a steady pace, never exerting myself, kept reminding myself about how awesome it was to be swimming down this shipping channel between 2 continents and how happy I’d be once I’d completed the swim. It worked. I don’t even care abut my time and didn’t even bother looking it up, that wasn’t what this swim was about for me.
By doing this swim and by approaching it as my experience and not as a race I gained such much confidence in myself that I am mentally much stronger that I thought I was. I realised that I can easily do things previously I thought I would really struggle to do and could maintain control by refusing to allow negative thoughts.
All my friends had great swims with 4 making it onto the podium for their age groups. It really was an inclusive race with (how many nationalities?) the oldest swimmer was 84 and the youngest 14 and we saw 3 lower limb amputees!
After the swim we had lunch and cocktails in a stunning water side restaurant before being scrubbed down and massaged at the traditional Hamma. I’m so glad I did come and do the swim, this has shown me that I have a lot more mental strength that I gave myself credit for and thats a good feeling when I’m going to depart for my 4 month expedition in 3 days time. It has also shown me the power and control that positive thinking gives you. The experience has certainly been a massive boost and I will think back to it often during the good and bad times of my Iron curtain expedition.