Rottnest 19.7km Marathon Swim, Perth, Australia

Li Ling, Alan B, Greg P,

Posted on Friday 21st February 2020

Before moving over to Hong Kong in summer of ‘19, I had heard about the great nightlife and free flow weekend brunches in HK, but glad to say that instead I started training with Fenella at SwimLab, who also introduced me to the open water swimming community and their love of long ocean strolls. A shout out also to the SwimLab crew and my fellow open water distance swimmers - could not have done Rottnest (or the Clean/Cold Halves) without your company, banter and support! Last but not least my husband Adam who gladly supports my time away and swimming jaunts even if he is somewhat bemused that anyone finds it pleasant spending hours in the sea battling currents and jellyfish!

Having trained through the summer and swimming the Clean Half in October, I set my sights on the Rottnest Channel swim (and Cold Half) the following February. The Rottnest Channel swim is one of the iconic swim crossings of the world, and also at a relatively comfortable temperature of 21C - important given that wetsuits are not allowed. I had heard about the sharks too but was reassured by Rottnest veterans that they would avoid the boat traffic. Other friends had told me that the resident sharks were tagged (not sure if entirely true, to this day) and helicopter shark patrols.. I mean, what's the worst that could happen?! :-)

Planning, planning, and more planning..

Even though the Rottnest Channel swim is a mass-start event, it requires the swimmer to handle organise a significant chunk of the logistics themselves including finding a local boat skipper, boat, kayak and a kayaker. In the end, I found a skipper who was a friend's skipper's friend (it's a small-ish world!), and a friend from my London swim club who had moved back to Perth volunteered to paddle for me.  Swimmers also have to do a 10km non-wetsuit swim qualifier in 4h15m, during a precise window of 1st Nov to the following 1st Feb. Apart from the Cold Half in January, which I wasn’t sure at the time I could complete without a wetsuit, there were no other 10k swims within a 5 hour flight of Hong Kong then. So grateful that Edie Hu - a multiple veteran of the Rottnest Channel herself - put together an informal 10k swim with kayak support around Deepwater Bay. We needed to not only swim it, but to sign declaration with a timekeeper / observer and someone from a registered Australian profession to witness it - big thanks to Adam for kayaking and observing the swim, and Alan's wife Vivien for signing it off as well!

I kept up my speed and threshold training with the SwimLab sessions, weekday evening pool swims on my own and getting in some mileage on weekends with the long-distance open water crew. Big shout out especially to Alan Boydell, my fellow training buddy for some ridiculous pool sets together - we did a couple of long threshold sets of up to 12km in an indoor 25m pool to build up mental toughness (and just to punish myself, why not!!). I was hoping my flip turns would improve at least, but alas...

With the lead up to the Cold Half and Rottnest, the other part of my training was to put on 6kg over the winter to insulate myself from the cold. Having done a summer season of non-wetsuit swims in the UK, I knew this would easily be the biggest factor between crossing successfully and a DNF. I had been forewarned about the cold at Rottnest creeping up to you despite the relatively warm temperature - a couple of hours might be fine, but stretch that to the 6-7 hours I was expecting, plus the fatigue, and things could feel very different.

With the swim on Saturday morning and the race briefing on Friday, Adam and I had planned to arrive in Perth Thursday morning and depart on Monday night. With the coronavirus situation unfolding and flights being cancelled, we ended up arriving Thursday night and having to fly back the same Saturday evening of the swim – spending less than 48 hours in Perth all in. The silver lining to this is that we ended up in good company, being on the same flight as Alan in the next row!
On Friday morning we attended the race briefing and I met my skipper Jarryd, Alan and his friend who was paddling for him, and my friend Sam who was paddling for me. It was great to see Sam again since I left the UK 8 months ago, as we had spent plenty of time together training in the pool and driving down to swim at Dover Harbour. Apart from her ever sunny and supportive nature, Sam is an accomplished distance swimmer, and I knew I would be in safe hands on race day.

Race day
On race morning the alarm went off around 4am, I had breakfast plus a Stugeron for sea sickness, and prepped my swim nutrition. Adam left shortly after to Fremantle to meet Jarryd and hop on the boat. That left me and my nerves on my own, till Sam arrived at 5am to help me get the kayak to the startline (the centerpiece of our living room the previous day). Nothing like a good warmup for a 19.7km swim by hauling a kayak across roads and down ramps to the beach!
As I arrived at the startline, Sam paddled in to find a "parking lot" on the beach which was already packed with kayaks, a bit like the carpark at Repulse Bay on a sunny weekend afternoon... It looked like a calm, beautiful day ahead, as the announcer mentioned that conditions were great for fast swims, although alas this was not quite the truth as I only found out later on!  I had come prepared for the notorious Australian sun and had brought out the big guns i.e. Desitin (aka zinc oxide diaper rash cream) plus disposable gloves to apply it (all supplied by Alan - thanks!), and makeup remover wipes for taking it off at the end. This stuff sticks like nothing else, and the only worry you have is not the sun but how much you'll be able to scrub off at the end! Also it looks like white body paint and is definitely a bit of a conversation starter. Apart from the suncream, I only had to remember my new Rotto swim hat and a brand new pair of goggles in my usual model - a schoolgirl error I would pay for later - and with a final check with Sam and a hug that was it - off to the startline!

The crowd was so thick that I only spotted Alan when we were both in the starting pen. The eagle eyed officials spotted our watches and confiscated them both to prevent any GPS-assisted pacing, to be returned at the finish. The only way to know your time would be to count your feeds (or ask your kayaker if so desired) as you're meant to "swim to the next feed". I thought, why not - this is the first time I've had to do this, let's give it a go and see what happens! Alan and I exchanged high fives and we waited for the horn. As it went off, I thought fleetingly about how cold the water was, and resolved to banish that thought hopefully for the next 7 hours. All the training had come to this, and I was excited to finally be embarking on the swim! Unlike most swim or triathlon mass starts, the start was fairly calm with little jockeying since everyone knew they were going to be swimming for several hours yet. The water was clear and crisp, with a few tiny fish and grape-sized jellies about.

My first task was to spot Sam and her kayak, and meet her at the 500m point. I was so glad to have company from then on, and the next checkpoint was to meet the boat at the 1500m point. There are several hundred support boats out on the course that day, so these meetups were my main concern at the start and I was glad to have made them both fairly easily.  About 45min in I started getting a headache, and I put it down to the new swim cap being too tight. At the second feed, I asked Sam for a couple of paracetamols and just continued going. It was only several hours later that I realised I had adjusted my new goggles by leaving the same amount of strap "tail" as I did for my old pair, whilst in fact the new goggles' straps had been manufactured shorter... cue facepalm moment.

With paracetamol and liquids down I soldiered on, and started to appreciate the beauty of "swimming to the next feed". I alternated between admiring the stingrays on the shallow seabed, smugly realising the jellies in Perth stung less than the ones in Hong Kong, and looking out for Sam, Adam and Jarryd close by. I've often been asked what I think about when I swim - I think about technique a lot (hand entry? early vertical forearm? full pull? Oops, I breathed to the wrong side! Repeat...), think about how good the next feed is going to taste, what muscles are engaging and what I should be feeling, and sometimes I have a song or two playing on repeat in my head. It is therefore extremely important to avoid even thinking about annoying songs just before a long swim (someone mentioned Baby Shark at a swim camp once...)

Nutrition is straightforward as I tend drink all my calories - each half hour I have 250ml SiS Go Electrolyte, and from 4 hours on each 4th feed is 250ml of Milo for some protein. Every couple of hours I had a couple of paracetamols and more Stugeron. After several hours, my tastebuds started to change as expected and I found the SiS Go to be extremely bitter. I switched over to my favourite Gu Chocolate gels plus water which went down well.  5 feeds in Sam had asked if I wanted to know how far I'd swum, and I gamely said yes. She told me I had done 7km at that point, so I knew then that I would not make my 6h45m estimate - probably closer to 7h15m. OK, no problem, only one extra feed anyway! The next few hours were more of the same as I spent the time thinking about technique, admiring the stingrays, wondering whether I'd see any sharks, and keeping an estimate of my distance ticking along in my head. Little did I know that 4 hours in, Sam had made a short video for our swimming club friends and she had already estimated an 8 hour swim that day. Ignorance is bliss..! Meanwhile in true Australian fashion the party on the boat had got a BBQ going out the back of the boat. It smelled great for sure, and I was asked at some point if I wanted some burger or sausage... no thanks, Milo tastes a lot better when you're swimming!  I could see Rottnest Island fairly early on in the swim, but as every swimmer knows it just never seems to get closer. On the 12th feed, I knew I was getting close, but wasn't sure if it would be another 1 or 2 feeds (it turned out to be 3!). 

Around the 17km mark, the red exit buoys for the boats came up and I knew it was almost time. At this point the sandy bottom had given way to fields of sea grass just below the surface. I felt like I had some energy left in the tank but I couldn’t quite get my arms to turn over as quickly as I thought I could. Soon enough the water got shallower and shallower and then I was up and out on the ramp, and I was done! It had taken me all of 7h51min, instead of the 6h45m I had been estimating. What a day!  Adam and Sam came to meet me at the finish exit armed with big smiles, hugs, and a stack of makeup remover wipes. We all finished up at the lovely and equally-as-iconic-as-the-swim pub on the Island. Alan joined us at the pub with his finisher’s medal, I hadn’t seen him since the start of the swim, so it was great to share the end of a big day out with a few drinks and some fish and chips. Plus of course a photo with the quokkas before hopping on the ferry back. I just might do this all over again next year!