Donal Buckley, an Irish channel swimmer, wrote in Lone Swimmer, “…Cork Distance Week is a combination of mass delusion and fringe cult for marathon swimmers. It’s often called the toughest week of open water swimming in the world.”
The Cork Distance Week is a marathon swimming preparation camp designed by International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame Honour Administrator Ned Denison. Held in Sandycove Island in Cork, Ireland as its base, the training camp combines high mileage in cold seas with significant psychological stress. Its goal? To help its participants achieve their marathon swimming and channel swimming goals.
But is it the toughest week of open water swimming in the world?
What about the Swim the Kingdom Week, organized by Phil White? The 8-day series of open water swims and marathon swims in 8 different lakes in Vermont requires swimmers to handle rough water conditions under constantly dynamic conditions covering 45 miles (72 km)? The Swim the Kingdom Week includes the 5-mile Crystal Swim, the 4-mile Island Pond Swim, the 12 km Echo Swim, the 10 km Seymour Swim, the 14.4 km Massawippi Swim, the 10 km Memphremagog Clubhous-Slash Swim, the 5-mile Willoughby Swim, and the 3-mile Caspian Swim.
What about the 8 Bridges Hudson River Swim, organized by David Barra and Rondi Davies? The 8-day, 7-stage marathon swimming stage swim down the Hudson River in the State of New York covers 120 miles (193 km). It begins at the Rip Van Winkle Bridge near Catskill, New York and ends at the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in New York City, where its swimmers are largely swim downstream, but are frequently surprised by tough conditions.
What about the FINA professional marathon swimming circuit held in Québec in both Lac St-Jean and Lac Memphrémagog? Starting on Thursday, there is a 10 km FINA 10 km Marathon Swimming World Cup race in Lac St-Jean, followed 2 days later by the 32 km Traversée internationale du lac St-Jean, then the athletes shift to another 10 km FINA 10 km Marathon Swimming World Cup race 5 days later in Lac Memphrémagog, a 2 km sprint race the day later and then culminate in the 34 km Traversée Internationale du lac Memphrémagog. That is 88 km of total racing against the world’s fastest marathon swimmers in 2 different lakes where water can dip below 15ºC in wind-whipped turbulent conditions.
All of them are considered difficult to the world’s marathon swimming community. Each has their own challenges.
Swim the Kingdom Week is relentless, especially since each day presents the swimmers with a new venue and new conditions.
8 Bridges Hudson River Swim is just plain long, uncompromising and unforgiving. No other way to describe the 193 km of river swimming.
But the Cork Distance Week is different. It is unique and…unknown. While the other week-long events includes variables coming in the form of water and weather conditions, the start and finish points and distances are understood ahead of time. These events are known entities. Challenging, yes. Difficult, without a doubt. But they are races where personal escorts are provided and fans are abundant.
But in Cork, the challenge is more personal and stressful. Not only are the locations and distances unknown, but Denison and his volunteer crew go out of their way to place psychological pressure on the swimmers in the hopes the boot camp prepares the swimmers to become better, tougher and stronger endurance athletes.
“It is twice a day workouts for 7 straight days,” explains Denison. “Then we do a torture swim [renowned as the Total Brain & Body Confusion Swim] and then the 6-hour qualifying swim [for the English Channel]. The swimmers are mentally and physically exhausted by the time the torture swim arrived.”
In the other events in Vermont, New York and Québec, the races are competitions against others. In Cork, the boot camp is an internal struggle where the toughest competitor is one’s own mind.
“The instructions to the swimmers are simple,” continues the aquatic drill sergeant Denison. “Shut up and do as you are told.”
In Vermont, New York and and Québec, the races have fixed courses. In contrast, Denison plays havoc with the swimmers’ psyches in Cork. “The swimmers are split into many directions: some up a creek, some up the coast south, some up the coast north, some out to sea, and one swimmer was asked to pull a boat. Hey you never know when the prop will go and if it is a half mile from France, what will you do?. The swimmers are told to change directions…many times.”
But, of course, the swimmers in Cork are also followed so safety is never in question. But their escorts offer some swimmers drinks that are solid frozen or full of rocks that are meant to sink in front of their eyes. “Or sometimes, the drinks offered to the swimmers are withdrawn after acceptance,” devilishly explains Denison.
While in Vermont, New York and and Québec, the races are occasionally blessed with tranquil conditions. But calm conditions are simply a catalyst to cause Denison’s mind to go into override. “This year, we circled one swimmer for 3 minutes [in a boat going] at high speed kicking up 11ºC water and a few waves.
But the worse was probably Zara Bullen who confessed that she had been freaked [out] by a dead bird and [has] a paranoia of birds generally. So, I pulled out a raw mackeral fillet and waived it in the air. At least 50 birds took off from the Island and I tossed it and another one in front of the poor girl to draw a few birds on her.”
As open water swimmers often say, “Our sport is 80% in the mind.”
And it is this double-edge sword that Denison wields with undeniable precision, creating both physical and psychological havoc that makes the Cork Distance Week undoubtedly the toughest week of open water swimming in the world.
Photo courtesy of Oceans Seven swimmer Adam Walker.
Copyright © 2014 by World Open Water Swimming Association