Lake Taupō and the indomitable Team Re-Bre

It happened… after a couple of seasons of jealously watching others swim Lake Taupō I finally dived in myself. This blog is my attempt to capture mine and Bre’s journey across the lake. While I will try and capture what a special and amazing journey this swim was, the closest I will get is… the most amazing swim!!

How it started

Lake Taupō is our freshwater swimming mecca in New Zealand. Us swimmers will make a trip to Taupo at least once a year for the annual Epic Swim in front of the Taupō township. Last summer a few of us went one extra and spent New Years at the southern end of the Lake, based out of Turangi. The ‘unofficial swim camp’ was probably less swim camp and more social New Years with a few swims in the mix for a few of us training for biggish swims (I was training for my SCAR swim at the time).

Having just completed Cook Strait and not needing the training at all, Breanna Ward joined our unofficial swim camp last year. She was sneaking just a little more swimming in before taking on a big cycling challenge. As often happens with swimmers encouraging each other, Bre and I first mooted the idea of a tandem swim of Taupō at camp. Bre then went off cycling and I focused on my SCAR goal. But the seed of an idea had been planted.

After easing back into swimming over winter (post-SCAR), I decided to make Taupō my next challenge unsure if Bre was still thinking the same. Thankfully Bre had had enough of cycling adventures and was back into swimming and keen. I was relatively relaxed about when we would swim and was thinking I would ask if there was a slot on the end of the season to leave plenty of time to train back up. My being relaxed had the opposite effect when Bre suggested that we do the swim before she went to uni. After a check of Phil’s calendar we were soon signed up for one of the first slots of the season.

As it turned out, another Wellington duo had also signed up – Tom and Jeremy – which worked out great for training and motivation. With some of the wider Wellington swim community, we always had one training swim or another planned. As with my SCAR journey, I discovered how fortunate I was to very rarely train alone.

Team Re-Bre

Fast forward (or this blog will be too long) … the day before the big swim, Team Re-Bre made its was up to Turangi. By this stage the nerves had calmed down for me and if anything I was excited to be getting in the water. We had managed to assemble a super crew – Bre’s mum, Tanya, and swimmers John, Laura and Corrina – in addition to Phil Rush, Mike and Captain Dick who would excellently guide us across the lake.

There was no mucking around that afternoon when we arrived in Turangi – it was all about getting our food and kit ready so we could get it on the boat and relax for the evening. Poor Laura arrived desperate for a bit of a rest and I was already assigning her little jobs.

We knew we had to be up at 2am to get ready for the start of the swim so we needed some rest but it was so hot! Turangi was having a mini heat wave and our little house was baking. Add into the mix all the excitement of the swim and it wasn’t very easy to sleep! When it did come 2am everyone was surprisingly chirpy and ready to paint us white with zinc. I learnt afterwards that most of the crew went straight back to sleep as soon as they were on the launch.

The dark

Marathon swimming is not a very glamorous sport. At 3.30am in the morning we were a funny sight – covered head to toe in nappy rash cream (zinc) with sandflies being attracted to us (sandflies stuck in nappy rash cream is not a cool combo). We were glad to get in the water!

The first couple of hours of the swim were dark. There was no moon and my only points of reference were the IRB (well lit up) and a little red light (Bre). I’m sure I zig zagged a bit during this time while struggling to judge the distance from Bre and the IRB to keep. This time seemed to zoom by, I was focused on just getting into the swim with very little awareness of my surroundings. I didn’t even seem to notice the chop come up.

There was no sunrise as it was a grey cloudy morning. Gradually I could properly see Bre swimming next to me, rather than just this red dot, as well as Phil and Tanya on the IRB.

Light… and chop

We seemed to settle into the swim alright. At the three hour mark we had a crew change on the IRB which brought new faces – Mike and Laura. The next three hours would have had the most chop. Chop was never in the game plan – while Bre had been good at ‘visualising’ the swim and the different conditions, I hadn’t managed to get past imagining the best case scenario – perfectly flat, good pace etc.

I didn’t realise until afterwards how much this chop would have slowed us down. But we were getting down to business and so were largely unfazed by the conditions.

Our feeding plan was well followed in this portion of the swim (and the next) which was good. Feeding was going to be important – I knew that Bre was liable to get swim grumps if she got hungry. Sure enough, Bre quickly got the reputation as having a 28minute stomach and not wasting any time at getting to the IRB when 30 mins came around.

The Island

For most of the swim I had just focused on getting into it and finding my groove. The 6-7 hour mark however was different. Before the swim I had heard about Motutaiko Island that was roughly at half way and how it messes with your mind. I had decided to ignore the island but it wasn’t that easy. At the 6-7 hour mark it was still a bit grey and choppy, we weren’t near the island, I was starting to feel my muscles (though not as bad as Bre who was starting to have shoulder issues) and I was about to swim further than I had before (my longest single swim before this would have been 6.5 hours).

The enormity of what we were doing dawned on me. I then thought about how much respect I had for others who had swum this lake – ‘how on earth did they do it?’.

Thankfully I don’t think I had long enough to get grumpy. Once we were at the island the sun burnt off the clouds and the lake flattened off to give us glass-like conditions for awhile. The water visibility was amazing and you could see the rays of light cutting through the lake. We were far from shore and you really got a sense of how special this lake is. It wasn’t hard to switch my mindset to focus on enjoying the day.

Finding our mojo… and the smorgasbord

The third quarter of Lake Taupō is suppose to be the hardest mentally. It was probably the easiest for me mentally. I felt like we were only just getting started. With the water flatter we were finding our mojo but still swimming together and consistently. We got reports of the crew (not on the IRB) going for a swim off the launch so we knew they were enjoying themselves. We also started to get some of the messages from over social media so I knew the team had been busy posting on Facebook and that a lot of people were following our swim.

When Mike and John came on to the IRB for the fourth shift of the day, we threw the feeding plan out the window. Gone were the gels and in were the peanut butter sandwiches and lollies. Apparently when they were getting ready to feed us they started to open up every container in anticipation of us choosing anything. Bre’s 28 minute stomach had become a constant watch of Mike to see if he lifted up a drink bottle – even if it was his own. (I’ve been like this in previous swims but wasn’t too bad in this one).

Home stretch

The landscape started to change in this leg of the swim as we got closer to Taupō. While we could see the township, I knew it was still a way off. It seemed like forever until we were actually into the bay with 8km to go – it hadn’t helped that we swam against a bit of a current getting past the point.

With about 5km to go (not that I quite realised how far at the time), Phil came back on the IRB and declared that we were on the home straight with the flood gates on the dam open and were going to pick up the pace. We somehow had the energy to lift our pace and were soon joined by Mike again on the second IRB (which had been on stand by in case we needed to separate). After two feeds I realised that this was quite a long home straight!

You’d think our spirits would be great coming into the end but I struggled at the 1.5km to go mark. It had already been a long home straight and another 1.5km felt like an eternity. I started to think about how I would feel when I finished and the best I could think of was a Lord of the Rings analogy – when Frodo and Sam are on Mt Doom surrounded by lava, exhausted, and Frodo says to Sam ‘We did it. It’s done.’

The end

Everyone was on both IRBs at the end as we approached the yacht club. It was great to have the whole crew there and cheering for us. Slowly the sand started to appear and before we knew it we were walking out of the lake. We managed quite well not to face plant and even answered a question or two from locals. One family asked us (or I thought asked us) if we had swum from Lower Hutt, and we answered ‘no, just Turangi’.

It was a very long day – just over 14 hours (final time 14.09.03). It was awesome to be finishing with Bre. This swim had been a team effort from the very start, we had trained together and both set out to swim and finish together.

Post swim – often neglected in swim blogs

My Aunty who is based in Taupō came down to cheer us on at the finish and helped get us back to Turangi with a friend. Before we knew it (but after a good attempt at de-zincing) both Bre and I were planted firmly on the couch while our crew organised everything around us. While pizza seems to be the food of choice for many swimmers, we had opted for potato fritters and champagne. After an exercise of coming up with bizarre motivational phrases, Corrina had left Bre with the phrase ‘dig deep and you’ll find a potato’. So Bre was thinking about potatoes and I just wanted salty, carby goodness.

Apparently Phil had told our crew that we would wake up at 2am in need of more nurofen and dehydrated. When I woke up at 1.53am I remember thinking ‘damn Phil, why do you have to be right’. Bre had woken up slighly earlier, and then we were both awake at 5.30am. You’d think after a big swim like that you wouldn’t have any issues sleeping! (And as it turns out – my sleep a couple of nights later was absolutely amazing!).

Our adventure and fellowship ended the next morning at the Tokaanu hot pools. It was lovely being able to relax in the water and attempt to loosen up the muscles before we headed back to Wellington (or in Laura’s case – New Plymouth).

What an incredible experience.

Lake Taupo Unofficial New Years Swim Camp

I’ve developed a bit of a New Year’s tradition that involves doing something adventure-related. You don’t have too many holidays and you might as well make the most of them. This year with a couple of us having big swim goals, we decided to hit Lake Taupo for a bit of a swim camp.

Day 0: Warm up dip at Stump Bay

After spending most of the day making the drive from Wellington to Turangi, this first day for Bre and I was more of a pre-swim. (Alice and Laura had already arrived and had a few miles on the board). It was lovely to be in the lake again with the water almost feeling silky.

We swam 2km out from Stump Bay, the original starting point for the length of Taupo swim. It was a great way to freshen up after being in the car all day. The swim was also a opportunity for sole-wetsuiter Laura to go ‘skins’ (we challenged her to drop her wetsuit at least once a day).

Day 1: Getting serious and a new appreciation for hot chips

There were no sleep ins at swim camp. We planned a good 10km swim and were keen to avoid the heat of the day, getting in the water around 8.30am. Camp mum Alice chose us a good course at Pukawa in the south west corner of Lake Taupo. The 2km circuit hugged the coast line and I quickly worked out a ‘course proper’ to not cut corners (swimming one way around a certain boat).

This was the perfect training swim for me. Getting in I felt slower than in the sea and had to readjust mentally. As I got into it however I focused less on how fast or slow or long I was swimming, and more on consistency and enjoying the swim which had perfect conditions. The swim was also an opportunity to practice feeding and sunblock rituals. Our wetsuiter Laura missed the sunblock discussion however and managed to get a nice pink tinge from her skins lap at the end.

We followed the swim with a recovery dip at the local thermal pools and glorious hot chips. We must have been the most excited people to see the food cart!

Day 2: Gravity training at the National Park

Our distance training took a back seat on day 2. We kept our morning swim to a cruisy 3km, checking out Mission Bay (the first bay that you see when driving from Turangi to Taupo). The swim wasn’t without its drama though with Bre surviving an encounter with an angry swan.

The main objective of the day was to get some cross training and acclimatisation in at the Tongariro National Park. We decided to do the Waihohonu Track from the Desert Road to the Waihohonu Hut on the Round the Mountain circuit. The walk was absolutely stunning, with clear views of Ruapehu and Ngarauhoe the whole way and an opportunity to sneak in half an hour of acclimatisation training in the stream close to the hut.

When we returned to Turangi we were ready for another dip to freshen up. This recovery session was in the Tongariro River trying not to annoy fly-fishers. We were left with a new appreciation for river swimming and planned more. (Also being good kiwis, we made sure we didn’t use the same togs in the lake the next day).

Day 3: New Year’s Day exploration

We allowed ourselves a later start on day 3 (New Year’s Day) before heading to Kuratau for our New Year’s adventure swim. We didn’t have any particular distance in mind but decided that we would swim one way for an hour before returning.

The swim course was probably the most scenic of the swim camp, crossing a river mouth, and heading under cliffs, before going past a few water-access only beaches. We stopped in a few places to explore and stop along the way. There were more people on the water than on other swims so we stuck together close to shore and were pleased to have our tow floats on us.

Our hard work over the last few days was rewarded with a well stocked picnic and an afternoon on the beach.

Day 4: Resistance training

Swim camp finished on day 4 with some resistance training in the river. We had decided on our course proper on day 2, choosing a pine tree to swim up to. Despite looking like a short distance, the current made this swim a decent burst of effort. The water was more than refreshing and a good way to wake up before making the journey back to Wellington.

Swim camp seminar: Sunblock for long distance swimming

As with any swim camp, we used some of our downtime (when we weren’t eating) to share open water experiences and wisdom. One of these, our sunblock discussion resulted in a ‘top 10 tips for sunblock when long distance swimming’. We thought we’d share these tips of the trade in the blog:

  1. Sunblock the night before and in the morning for long swims (any swim over 2 hours)
  2. Surf mud doesn’t harm the environment and stays on well – just be prepared for the post swim clean up and potential harm to towels and duvets
  3. Sunblock your bum as your togs enviably come up and nobody likes a burnt butt
  4. If you feel particularly close to your swim buddies, get them to sunblock your back fully sans togs
  5. Wetsuiters still need sunblock and are particularly vulnerable when they take off the wetsuit to enjoy some sun
  6. Most sunblocks are pretty dodgy when put to the ocean swimming test so be liberal and don’t trust them too much
  7. Don’t forget your lips and ear lobes
  8. And don’t forget to reapply
  9. To ensure maximum utility either roll the sunblock tube (like toothpaste), or cut the tube to scoop out remnants
  10. No matter how old you are, don’t be afraid to ask your mum to sunblock your back so you can relive (positive) childhood memories.

Marathon Swimming – Crazy, Awesome, Torture, or All of the Above?

It’s my second summer, the upside of deciding to return home to the Southern Hemisphere, and I really couldn’t ask for a better summer. Making the most of every sunny day, my life has been a bit dominated by swims lately. Just this weekend I joined a local bunch of swimmers to swim 4.5km from Hataitai to Shelly Bay in Wellington’s Evans Bay, and then this morning did the classic ‘swim around the lighthouse’.

In this swimming busyness I got to meet a pretty awesome and unique marathon swimmer. Ion Lazareno Tiron from Ireland/Moldova based himself in Wellington while preparing to swim the Cook Strait – his final swim in the Ocean’s Seven challenge. Ion’s swims are all enormous accomplishments but they sound far from easy. His Cook Strait swim sounded particularly grulling after conditions turned early into the swim.

A couple of my swims this month go beyond the short social swims and fall into the ‘marathon swimming’ category – the Taupo 17.5km Epic Epic and Wanaka 10km. They don’t come close to the distances Ion has been swimming but they are still good challenges. I enjoyed both even though they weren’t easy.

Why do we do it? And why do we love these swims so much?

I struggled a bit mentally in the Taupo swim. I’m not sure if it was the sporatic training or just not being in the zone. It took me a few 2.5km laps to get over myself, realise that I was more than capable of doing the swim, and just focus on what I was suppose to be doing. In the end I enjoyed it. I took it one lap at a time and enjoyed the accomplishment at the end.

Wanaka was a shorter swim at 10km and absolutely magic. The swim was in 18c water, around Ruby Island and surrounded by the Alps. Being a shorter swim, I tried to inject a bit more speed into it and set myself little goals. It wasn’t easy but it was far from the grulling experience Ion got on the Strait. And I loved it.

Us marathon swimmers are a determined bunch. And why? Because we realise the swims are worth doing.

Magical Lake Wanaka
The Ruby Finish
Taupo