Swimming high – in the sky

Last Saturday I completed the third continent on my global journey – South America – by swimming the 7.5km from Isla del Sol (Island of Sun) to Isla de la Luna (Island of Moon) on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable lake. You may think (and so did I) that less than 8km is small feat when compared to the 34km+ English Channel or the 48km Manhattan loop. Make no mistake: swimming at 12,500 feet-high is no joke, and I probably had one of the toughest races in my life. 

This year’s tight schedule didn’t allow me many days of adaptation so we arrived in Copacabana, Bolivia only two days before the race. The headache disappeared after the first day thanks to numerous “mates de coca”, but just walking up the stairs in the hotel was a strenuous activity. I had never been in such a high altitude and the warnings of people like Lynne Cox, the first person to swim in the lake back in 1992 were clear, but I kept good spirits and trust on my training. I even went for a dip on Friday and didn’t find the water too cold.

On Saturday 10am local time (i.e. 10.20am or so) we kicked off from Island of Sun and I saw myself competing with a large number of young locals, who evidently didn’t struggle with altitude at all, and who were all wearing wetsuits to fight the 13C / 55F waters. Cold temps is not (or should not be) a problem for me anymore but it was very clear from the beginning that I could not keep my usual cruise speed (about 60 strokes/min) for long. In fact, I had to anticipate the feeding stop I had in mind from 1 hour to 45 minutes after the start, and my stroke rate dropped to 52, having to breathe almost on every stroke. You would think that there would be barely any chop in a lake, but there were actually some small waves that did not help with the breathing intake.

The 45 minutes became 30, and the 30 became 15. I didn’t want food or water but needed to stop to allow more oxygen into my lungs. The problem with constant stops is that I wasn’t warming up and that the cold started to get into my bones, which was very frustrating. I was actually in a very bad mood, but luckily my best companion was there again on the boat, ready to encourage me and to “take me to the Moon”. Finally, the rocks started to look bigger and I could spot the tiny, yellow finish line. As soon as I touched the cork, I was quickly taken to the mother ship, where I was given oxygen and warm clothes and tea. I could not believe the pain was over.

I am normally a very competitive swimmer, but I can tell you that I never thought of anybody else or my position relative to other swimmers in the whole race. As a reference, only three weeks ago I had covered the 7.5km that separate Robben Island from Cape Town in 1h44’in similar conditions than those of Saturday (13C waters, medium chop), but it took me 35’ more to do so in Titicaca because of the altitude and constant stops. The 2h19’ still made me the fastest swimmer in skins, the fastest in my age group and the fifth overall male. And of course, the first Spaniard to ever complete the feat.

A new flag in the lake

Titicaca is part of the Still Water Eight along with Ness, Windemere, Zurich, Tahoe, Baikal, Taupo and Ontario, but there is something really magical about this lake that you feel as soon as you step a foot into Copacabana. What Cancun’s El Cruce is for the Aztecs, Titicaca’s Swimming Near Heaven is for the Incas, and I am so glad I have now done both.

More importantly, I have “conquered” South America with the certainty of having faced one of the continents’ toughest swims, which is exactly the spirit of the Continents Seven. And as usual keeping an eye on the plastic contamination, which I am happy to report was non-existent in the lake. To sum up, a beautiful but challenging swim which I would recommend to any hard-core marathon swimmer.

Next stop, Europe. Stay tuned.