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The Bosphorus: My story of swimming from Asia to Europe.

By James Donnet , 23 August, 2016

Eventually all middle-aged men hit "peak triathlon" so towards the end of 2015 I resolved to freshen things up for 2016 by focusing on single discipline events (with the emphasis on "events" rather than races). Swimming wise this meant some coaching to improve my plodding freestyle technique and entering some long distance swimming events. The Asia to Europe swim rang a bell from my time of working in Istanbul a decade ago and Google led me to SwimTrek which seemed to have the bases covered in terms of race entry and associated admin.

Having signed up in December and gotten a bit OCD about the paperwork until my mini medical in February, I put the swim out of my mind and focussed on a couple of half marathons. After the 2nd of these in May it was time to get down to some open water training to complement the pool sessions. Out of habit rather than logic this involved me burling round the M25 to Leybourne in Kent once a week - not exactly on the doorstep (nor matching the conditions of the Bosphorus) but free of wake boarders and water-skiers. Benjamin from SwimTrek was patient with my correspondence regarding volume training and suggested some intervals to complement the long swims so it didn't all become a bit one dimensional. As politicians pummelled us with Brexit "facts" and the nation descended into a post referendum spite-fest, the kilometres were steadily mounting up: by mid July I felt that (distance wise) the "hay was in the barn".

Getting ready for the Bosphorus Cross Continental Swim

Friday night before the trip I was fidgeting with my smart-phone and came across tweets about a coup attempt in Turkey, blockaded bridges and President Erdogan imploring his compatriots (via FaceTime) onto the streets to give the mutinous troops a bloody good hiding. Rolling news channels' reporters had their sternest faces on and the ticker tape of developments got ever more alarming. My pre race Zen was in tatters and my wife concluded that "it looks like the trip is off". I emailed friends in Turkey hoping they would reassure me that it was all just local high spirits but as the weekend wore on things didn't look too promising (geopolitically or swim-wise).

SwimTrek reluctantly waved the white flag on Monday evening. I was all British stoicism when the cancellation email arrived, accepting that it was the only realistic option in the face of an uncertain situation and ambiguous guidance from the FCO. Friends and relatives offered commiserations and advised I was doing the "prudent thing”. Come Tuesday morning my pragmatism had evaporated and I had the proper hump: were those 120 mile roundtrips to Kent and Parliament Hill lido sessions in vain!?!? SwimTrek clearly sensed our frustration and whilst angrily shopping in St Albans I received the email to say that race entries remained valid and for those still wishing to make the trip SwimTrek would run the trip, subject to a few more waivers. Game on!!!

Sunset over Istanbul - Bosphorus Cross Continental Swim

Arriving in Istanbul not a lot seemed different from 10 years back: a few more flags on display but otherwise it was business as usual with yellow cabs beep-beeping their way around town and people puffing ciggies wherever they pleased. At registration I was given a snazzy holdall with race essentials (timing chip & cap), memorabilia (t-shirt, slippers) and loads of biscuits/snacks. Some arrivals drinks with fellow swimmers then the plan was head down for an early night - but in my case as Friday turned to Saturday I was trotting back and forth to the loo as a family sickness bug took hold. My roommate was either a sound sleeper or just very polite about it all. Truly it's the hoping which destroys us: having finally made it out to Turkey the spectre loomed of me crying off with a funny tummy - not the triumphant homecoming tale I planned! The pre race reccie on the boat was a sweaty blur but I took on board the key points: 1) get to the middle of the channel; 2) stay in the middle of the channel; and 3) come ashore before going through the second bridge.

Swimming under the bridges of the Bosphorus Cross Continental Swim

The digestion storm passed by late Saturday and I even got the fabled 8 hours kip under my belt. Reinvigorated I polished off an omelette for my pre race breakfast, which fellow participants advised me was of close to nil nutritional value for the challenge ahead. Soon close to 2,000 swimmers of all nationalities and body shapes were being ferried across to the Asian side of the city, flanked by safety vessels and drones.

After the preparatory hullabaloo the swim itself (all 83 minutes of it in my case) was an almost baptismal experience - the pre race hassles were washed away upon dropping in off the starting pontoon. The water was a balmy 25C and, for such a busy shipping thoroughfare, surprisingly clear (not quite the shimmering turquoise of Maldives holiday brochures but not Albert Docks sludge either). The waters were not too choppy and the jellyfish were keeping at a safe depth. Like Naples, Istanbul is a city whose chaotic nature and rolling landscapes are best appreciated from the water - all the more so being actually in rather than just on the water. Those colossal bridges are imposing structures from the vantage point of a boat but swimming under them had a real "am I actually doing this?" feel to it. As we progressed and I found the currents I got quite cocky and even fancied I might not be too far off the hour. I told myself I should find a steady rhythm and savour the experience (apologies: my inner triathlete compels such rationalisation). The last few hundred metres were a bit of a washing machine with counter currents and flailing arms but soon I was toweling off and wrestling the crowds for my finishers’ certificate.

Reflections one month on: an event like this has an inevitably high "faff to actual event" ratio but I prefer to ask myself two questions: was it an interesting experience and would I repeat it? Yes, and yes. Unsolicited big thanks to SwimTrek: this was a trip delivered by a committed team in trying circumstances and they didn't once grumble or invoke the small print. Thanks also to Barry Stuhler and his wife Margaret who were gracious dining companions to a lone traveller before and after the race.

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