18km 9hrs swimming
If this time a year ago someone had said to me that one year from now I would have cycled from Meribel to Salcombe on my own and swum two of the biggest lakes in France unsupported I would have laughed and said something along the lines of “yeh right!” O, what a difference a year makes.
On September 4th – it was my 35th birthday, and also the day I swum Lake Annecy, all 18km of it.
One of the hardest things about living the life I lead as a ski instructor back and forth from the Uk to France is some friendships fade away, however with a mutual enjoyment of the outdoors and a developing fascination with open water swimming my friend Emma and I got back in touch with each other over the idea of a swimming holiday to Slovenia (see blog on this must travel destination). After a wonderful all girls trip to Lake Bohinj in June, which was in my opinion one of the most beautiful lakes in Europe, we decided it was high time for another adventure. Emma had some annual leave around my birthday and I needed to head out to the Alps around then anyway so flying to Geneva was the obvious choice. I looked in to camping in the Jura area and swimming what was on offer there; but on the way to the airport we simultaneously messaged each other suggesting swimming the whole of Lake Annecy, or was that a silly suggestion?! Nope, we were both keen! Turns out it was an idea both of us had brewing under the surface for a little while. I had cycled around Lake Annecy, the flat way, and the hilly way, and I had even flown over it in a private plane tour, so it seemed obvious that I should swim it too!
Annecy itself is a beautiful alpine town with the river Thiou feeding the lake. The old town is charming, canals and bridges meeting cobbled back streets peppered with medieval buildings housing boutiques, boulangeries, restaurants spilling out on to the streets, and gelato kiosks. It is the perfect place to finish a gigantic swim mission! If you walk towards the lake from Annecy over the green, or down a canal much like something you would see in Venice, and stand on the Pont des Amours footbridge you will look out and see the lake in all her glory with the Savoie mountains in the distance – it is breathtakingly beautiful and unsurprising why crowds flock there in the summer. Some say it is one of the most beautiful lakes in Europe. So it seems only right I swim it, all of it!
Logistics of swimming Lake Annecy:
Having cycled around Lake Annecy numerous times I had a rough idea of what I wanted to do and how to achieve it. I wanted to park at the far end of the lake near Doussard, at Camping Lac Bleu where there is easy access to the water, set off from there and swim clockwise round the lake to Annecy town. I estimated it would take us about 10 hours. And depending on how we felt the following day we could swim back the other side!
Length: 14.6km /9.1miles – overall distance we swum due to following the contours of the land – 18km
Avg Depth: 41m.
Max Depth: 82m
2nd Largest Glacial Lake in France
Haute Savoie region
Departure: 0500 Les Allues, Meribel -> Doussard.
With alarms set for 4:30am we tried to get a good night’s sleep after a day of travelling from the UK. Before we went to bed we booked a hotel in Annecy for the following night in the old town fairly close to our finish point, anticipating that perhaps we wouldn’t be up for much walking at the end of the day!
When our alarms went off in the morning I jumped out of bed with a weird amount of enthusiasm, I hadn’t slept well so was happy to hear the alarm. Kettle on, I prepped breakfast (overnight oats with almond butter, banana, and chia seed, recipe at bottom) while Emma got to work making a selection of sandwiches (avocado and banana. NB these weren’t great as they got a bit soggy; far better was the next big swim we did – we just had peanut butter – much safer bet). We washed breakfast down with an essential morning coffee and I even had time to open my birthday cards! With our dry float bags packed the night before it didn’t take us long to get ready.
We didn’t need much:
– Swimming kit: Swim hat, swim costume (speedo), Goggles (zone3), spare goggles, Vaseline, wetsuit (zone3), wetsuit booties (blue seventy), ear plugs
– Safety: inflatable tow float / bag (zone3), first-aid including painkillers and foil blanket, sun cream, lip balm (Albus and Flora)
– Fuel: water x 2 small bottles each, rehydration sachets (Arbonne), dates x 3, pack oat cakes, avocado sandwiches, banana almond butter sandwiches, granola bars x 2, almonds and raisins, harribo
– Overnight / next day bits: leggings, underwear, vest, jumper, toothbrush, phone charger, cash and card
– Good items for water: waterproof phone cover, dry bags (sea to summit) x 2 (1 dry bag for clothes and electrics, 1 dry bag for snacks and sandwiches).
We decided not to pack a towel because the forecast predicted a day of sunshine and warm temperatures so we were happy to rely on the sun to dry us out at the end of the day, rather than stuff a towel into our already full to the brim bags.
A not so dark departure:
When we left Les Allues it was pitch black, but we unsurprisingly managed to fill the car with laughter. Genuinely I don’t think it was nervous laughter either – we were really excited and also amused that we were attempting to swim a pretty big lake on our own, with just the support of Wilma and Louis (our trusty tow floats, yes they have names).
0600ish. Arrive Camping Lac Bleu, Doussard.
Having parked here before for the Ali Rainback annual charity cycle, I knew that it was one of the furthest points on the lake from Annecy itself and knew there would be ample parking. Only problem was we could only pay to park for 24 hrs. So we wrote a note in our best French apologizing and hoped for the best! After a few nervous loo trips we suited and booted, and armed ourselves with Louis and Wilma and head to the water.
The outside air temperature was mild, the mist was rising from the water, there was no one but us and couple of fishermen waiting patiently for a nibble on their lines.
We stayed at the water’s edge in silence for a few minutes just soaking it all in, and then anxiously waded into the water expecting a cold shock, however the water was warm. We did have our wetsuits on of course, but it was really fairly pleasant, in fact at some points in the day I was almost too warm. The bite of cold water you get when walking or jumping into the Devon sea was a distant memory. We gently walked into the lake breathing slowly and choosing breaststroke, not wanting to disturb the stillness of the water quite yet. It was truly magical, floating with the buoyancy of a wetsuit, being surrounded by so much stillness.
“The water calm, the scenery magical; mountains, nature, freedom“
After some photos and laughing about how lucky we felt we then begun to increase our pace. I tried to honor the environment by doing my best to glide through the water and mirror the peace and tranquility I had been given, wow what a birthday present!
Snacks, drinks, breaks.
I am not too sure why but I decided it would be a sensible idea to swim 2km intervals. Of course, it is not that easy to have specific breaks when you are swimming. Best layed plans and all that because I think we swum about 5km before our first stop. Short term this wasn’t a problem because we were having such a great time it didn’t matter. We would swim a bit of crawl, then stop, admire our surroundings, chat, giggle, chill out on our floats and then carry on some more. I think though, with high-insight and having done another big swim since then (Lake Bourget) it helps long term if you eat simple, little and often.
We used the yellow buoys as markers to focus on and break up the distance. These yella fellas were extremely helpful, not only were they brightly coloured so easy to spot, but they bribed us on and on, ticking off the kms. They eased us to our first stop which was the lovely chateau building in Duingt which we have all driven past countless times and thought ‘it would be nice to live there!’ We had this point in sight as an initial stop from the off so clearly our perception of distance was way out! The building looks just as impressive from the water and even has a cave underneath housing an impressive looking rowing vessel. Yes, I could live there!
Why it felt easy:
The wonderful thing about swimming Lake Annecy and sticking to the contours of the shore is there is so much to look at and be distracted by above the water; buildings, wildlife, rockery, private pontoons, beaches, people kayaking and paddle boarding, and all of it dominated by the most amazing skyline of mountains being explored by paraponters enjoying the thermals. And then
“below the water you have the weeds dancing in the water, rocks, the odd fish, chains anchoring the buoys to the deep sandy bottom“.
And without question it was a lot easier doing it with such a good friend who you can have serious heart felt conversations with but also act like a complete baboon in front of.
Swimming in a lake is of contrast to swimming in the sea.
Every lake I swim in that confidence of being out of my depth grows. The turquoise murky glacial water only seems to invite you deeper. I love swimming for the simple reason it gives you a heightened appreciation of your environment. Surrounded by water looking up and out from the middle gives you a totally different viewpoint from that of a bike, somehow it feels almost superior.
The hard bits:
Of course it wasn’t always a doddle swimming 18km. Your mind drifts when swimming, when I first started open water swimming all I concentrated on was breathing and rhythm, which was perfect for how I felt at the time; but when you are covering such distance that is impossible. Your mind wonders, it starts writing lists, tries to solve problems, starts questioning decisions and can allow you to worry about life’s troubles and difficulties. I found myself quite hyped up at one point, but in the water the only way to solve that is to swim harder and push the frustration out, by which time something like a fish weaving into turquoise nothingness distracts you, bringing you back into the moment;
Bringing you back to nature
Coffee stops; always allow one!
Emma and I are both caffeine addicts. So within a couple of hours we really fancied a coffee. I had banked on there being loads of cafes along the way, turns out I was wrong. The first two cafes wouldn’t serve us until 12, (so French!) so by the time we found one open we were pretty hungry and it was 1pm so we ended up basking in the sunshine with two coffees, eating a sandwich and enjoying an ice cream. We could have stayed there for ages but with only half the lake conquered we had to press on. I think perhaps motivation to swim fast had dwindled a little by this point but I was still thoroughly enjoying being in turquoise warm waters with the most impressive scenery accompanying us. With two thirds of the way covered my energy levels slumped and we found ourselves in shallower waters so I resorted to acting half my age and that halved again, pretending to be a mermaid, jumping and diving along the shore! At Sevrier I heard my name, no I hadn’t imagine it, my friend Claire was waving at us from the shore! She was en route to Geneva and I had approximated that we would be at Sevrier if she wanted to join us from a dip around 4ish. Well I was pretty spot on with my timings! Just seeing her gave me a boost in energy so on we went. Slow and steady always wins the race in the end; my philosophy in life! As you get closer to Annecy there are more and more beautiful houses lining the shore. The kind of houses where you would really like to stop and have a glass of rose and a barbeque while taking in the view! We took rest on someone’s private pontoon, ate harribo, put dates in soggy sandwiches to try give us some energy – not quite as nice as a wine and bbq! Energy levels low, but sense of humor still there – finding the situation highly amusing; who attempts to swim Lake Annecy on no real training?! Deep down though, we both felt ok and knew we wouldn’t have a problem finishing. That was until…
With 16km covered poor Emma started to feel discomfort in her shoulder. She is a real trooper though and not a complainer, so goodness knows how long she had actually been in pain. She developed a slightly less efficient technique of kicking both legs, rotating one arm and letting the other just hang. After 2km of this and with Annecy in sight and then nearly getting caught up in some fishing line we decided to scramble over some rocks and assess our situation. Our floating yellow friends had been replaced with serious white and red ones and it was all looking a bit more congested with boats. We felt like we would perhaps be putting ourselves at unnecessary risk if we were to carry on. Emma is a paramedic so it would have been foolish to risk further injury. So we called it. 18km done. We deflated our wonderful trusty floats, but there were no feelings of being deflated ourselves. We were high on life. We popped our flip-flops on and walked to the near by beach still in our wetsuits. Conveniently found a shower to rinse off and our friend Clare was waiting to congratulate us. We were elated, we exchanged stories in the sun letting it’s rays dry us out and warm us up before dressing in our clothes from our dry bags and heading into town for a well earned beer and feast. Job Done, 18km, 9hrs swimming, 11hrs in the water, Happy Birthday me!