I wrote some pre-race comments in Funky Current in the Bosphorus, and now it is time to review what actually happened in the 2015 (27th Annual) Bosphorus Cross Continental Race in Istanbul, Turkey.
The morning started very calm and beautiful. There was a northern wind for several days before which tempted us to believe it would persist. Alas, it was not to be. About 15 minutes into the race I noticed a lot of chop splashing against my head and wondered where the extra turbulence was coming from. After 15 more minutes I looked at my location, looked at my watch, and realized I wasn’t half-way yet but my time was much slower than expected at that point. The waves were picking up in the middle of the channel and that could mean only one thing – a southern wind. Sure enough the flags on the hillside were pointing north. I realized it was going to be long race against the waves rather than a relatively short one with the current. I wondered how this would change the game as far as the ‘ideal’ route was concerned. Would there still be any advantage? With 1 to 1.5 km wide waterway, swimmers were spread out all over – and most tended to stay closer to the European shore where it intuitively felt safer and straighter.
I had picked my course based on the advantage of riding that center current of the Bosphorus which should trump the shortest route- when the wind comes from the north, it makes for a very fast course, if one knows how to stay in it. When the water is still, as it was in the morning when we started, I trusted it would still be better than traveling closer to the side where was was still or flowing in reverse. Made sense to me!
On this map (of my own conceptual rendering) I have noted the theoretical fast (blue) current, the slower (light blue) current, and the reverse current (orange). The shortest and most tempting route to take is the grey line, but you can see how it makes the swimmer spend most of the course in slow and reverse current water. I felt I was too close to that line on my swim in 2013. This year I wanted to test out the risky route.
This route is what I expected the fastest (local, knowledgeable) swimmers to do – but one may never know what the fastest ones are doing because the course is too big and you can’t possibly track the leaders from shore (in a mass start, with race chip timing system – the leader doesn’t need to swim in front). There are just specks of arm swing and splashing water seen from shore.
When I chatted with Julie Upmeyer (who has won her female age-group in this race a few times) after the race, she too had her ambitions frustrated by the wind. She noted that the current which is normally a huge advantage to those who find it seemed to provide no advantage this year against the wind. So, the big mystery is what route the fastest ones this year actually took! It’s their secret.
I was pleased that I stayed on the route I had planned out, hit the navigation points just right, and felt quite comfortable in the rough water, while I knew others who don’t practice in this kind of water would be very frustrated and tired. I enjoyed the longer distance actually, because I like to work and I am training for much longer distances anyway. But I was concerned for my friends who were new to this kind of distance and this race. These conditions would make it significantly more challenging for them.
I feel confident now in my grasp of the navigation points for this course (approximately at those red dots on the map). But I had no alternative plan for what to do with a southern wind because I had not been able to observe its effects on the course before. The Bosphorus can change so much as the wind shifts and I had no way of knowing how this would affect the flow in different currents. So I stuck with my course in the middle and enjoyed the rough ride to the finish.
No one finished in under an hour this year, whereas in years past the top finishers came in under 40 minutes. In 2013 I would have described the effort involved to be like a 3.5 km swim. This year it was said to be about 20-25 minutes slower than previous years. This means there was very little current assist and those of us in the middle of the channel had to work for at least 5 of those 6.5 kilometers – and do it with waves against the head. I don’t know how much easier or harder it might have been on the shortest route.
I enjoyed the race, and was satisfied with achieving my navigation objective, though there is obviously a lot left to learn about the temperamental Bosphorus. Each year it can, and probably will be a different race.
And all our Total Immersion swimmer friends and companions were successful finishers of the race and thoroughly enjoyed the accomplishment and the incredible unique view of the city. Many were first time finishers, and a few achieved a distance much farther than anything they had done before, and under quite tiring conditions. Good job, team!
Just a few comments on the race setup itself.
This year they gave out just two colors of swim caps – green for those under 40 and yellow for those over 40 years old. I am not sure why there were not more colors for age groups, but it was not a big deal in my book.
Then, they loaded all the swimmers onto a single ferry boat – all 1850+ of them. This seemed like a safer thing to do, rather than (in 2013) the multiple ferry boats motoring around the finish just begging to smash into each other. In light of the seemingly incredible number of ferry boat sinkings that happen in the far east, we were joking about how many people on this ferry might survive if it were to go down. When most of the swimmers on the boat shifted to look at something outside the port side the boat listed noticeably – and it made me wonder for a moment how safe this single boat idea really was.
And, the last surprise was the mass start – yes, they just blew the horn and people could exit the ferry onto the barge, walk across the carpet to activate their timing chip and jump in. Any order you like. I was riding on the second floor of the ferry with our swimming companions. I saw the calm but crowded aisles and decided I would just hold back toward the end and make my start when the numbers tapered down. Perhaps this was the only sensible way to do it with all those swimmers on one boat – no way to easily get each age group to the line in a timely manner.
The water was relatively clear for Bosphorus conditions, but there was nothing to see except the little transparent (and harmless) jellyfish floating by like little rice noodles in my briny soup. There was probably a half dozen in my sight at any one moment – just enough to keep me company.
The water felt wonderful at about 22 C and under the sun it was ideal racing conditions. Even with the mass start, it was not hard nor unpleasant to snake a way through the bubbles and bodies headed for the first bridge. After that, there always seemed to be someone within 10m but people really spread out over the course – long and wide.
Before jumping off the barge I just turned to make sure no one was lined up to jump on top of me before I went in feet first. After that, it was a nice 1h 23min of moving meditation for me. And, that seemed to be the report from our TI companions too. Three of them (TI Coach Marjon, new TI Coach Mareille, and TI swimmer Tine – all from Netherlands) did the entire course as a sync swim. The guy who drafted behind the nearly the entire race really appreciated it.
Will we see you at the BCC Race next year? I hope so. Send me a note if you are thinking about it.
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