Two steps over the timing mat and I clamped my hands over my goggles as I jumped two meters down into the azure blue of the Kaş harbour. I sprung back up and started swimming, not even attempting to navigate though all the bubbles. Okay, 6 kilometres to go.
I’d never done a swim event or race before. Sure triathlons started with a swim but Kaş 361 was a different story: six kilometres in open water, a relaxed event vibe and nothing to think about except the water ahead. Even though it was primarily a participation event, I was focused on doing my best which meant I was one of the first swimmers into the water. It also meant I was quickly left behind by all the rockets.
At the mouth of the harbour, a mere 25m from the start line, I entered a patch of cold water and a state of panic. I looked up and instantly felt lost. The speedy swimmers were dots in the distance and there seemed to be no one else around. Little me seemingly alone Mediterranean Sea: not comfortable. With only 2 marker buoys and the vague race briefing instructions of “aim for the cliff”, I freaked out a little. My mind was fine, aware I was okay and could handle the situation; my body, on the other hand, was sending every signal it could to remind me that I belong on dry land.
Ok, don’t panic.
Get a grip.
Where am I going?!
It’s only been 200 meters.
FYI, you’re still panicking.
I kept swimming, figuring forward motion would keep me calm but eventually I pulled the plug. I stopped. I popped my head right up out of the water. Like a periscope, I took a good proper look all around me, scanning for safety. “There,” I said to myself in a no-nonsense tone and, in the same split second, started swimming full speed toward my target.
I wasn’t alone. I had found a fellow swimmer but, in that moment, he was my new best friend. I wasn’t lost or alone in the expanse of the Med, I was in calm waters now and, as I relaxed, the race came back into focus. I checked my watch. That was longest five minutes of my life.
The two of us swam with a comfortable distance between us, as if we were swimming independently but keeping an eye out for one another. Through the cold patches, when the invisible stinging sea creatures zapped my legs, and for every navigational correction, reassurance was just a sideways glance away.
Surprisingly, the half way point came easily. A floating dock functioned as the turn around point where we were required to yell our numbers to the marshal. The marshal would then yell the number back to confirm, after which we were free to continue with the next 3km of the swim. Most people in Turkey speak at least a little English but it was one of my race goals to yell my number in Turkish. I had practiced all night and before the start: yetmiş yedi. That’s 77. I had no idea if I would remember how to say it or if the marshal would understand me but, when the time came, I stopped and, in a completely unconfident voice, I yelled it out: “yetmiş yedi?!”
To my horror, the marshal didn’t echo me. “Seventy-seven,” I called out in English, bailing on my Turkish endeavour. “First woman,” he said back to me, this time in English. Still unsure but eager to get going, I whipped out the universal sign for “all good”, the trusty thumbs up, and he mirrored me. I rounded the dock and got back on pace.
Wait a second…what did he say?
I knew what I heard but I remained unconvinced. After all, I had seen a few women not too long ago and they came up from behind me. Surely they were ahead, especially with my wonky internal sat nav. Moments later I was rejoined by my friend and the two of us continued, business as usual at a steady tempo.
As we approached the 1km marker buoy, I couldn’t believe how quick the race was going. Time was flying by so I kept stealing micro moments of mental concentration to appreciate the moment. The insane blue colour of the water. The stunning location and great weather conditions. The 40 other people swimming 6km and the 100 other swimmers in the 3km and 1km distances. I was full of gratitude. I was also getting hungry.
I was in the home stretch but with about 900m to go I felt the water change. Waves had picked up and I was gradually being pushed off course by a current. I starting sighting more, desperately looking for the lighthouse at the mouth of the harbour that marked the finish. The lighthouse, apparently the chameleon of buildings, blended perfectly into the natural backdrop of white rocks and houses of Kaş. I kept looking and looking. Shouldn’t lighthouses be easy to see?!
Finally, I caught a glimpse. “A glimpse” was a stretch by any description but I clung to what I thought I saw. Just like I had done 5.5km earlier when I spotted my friend, I went 100% towards my target. The closer to the harbour I got, the wider the current pushed me, making the final approach last forever. As my body started to remind me I had been swimming for two hours already, I started to sight more than necessary, checking how much farther I had to last. The exit ladder inched closer and, finally, I was climbing it.
With a huge smile on my face, I stepped over the timing mat, bowed for my participation medal and welcomed fresh water to rinse my salty mouth. Immediately I was surrounded by friends who had completed the 3km or 1km and we swapped stories, enjoyed the Turkish sun, and congratulated one another as many of us took the podium. While I coasted on the enjoyment of completing the longest open water swim I had ever done a smiling Turkish man walked up to me.
He introduced himself. Serhat Sinik was the man I swam with for about 5.5 of the 6 kilometres. Turns out he had been looking for someone to swim with too and was equally glad to have found me. Side-by-side but in silence during the swim, as we recounted the morning we added narration to our memories. We laughed, chatted, shook hands, and thanked each other as we shared a celebratory drink in spirit.
What a swim.