Swimming in Denmark

“Do you want to swim ten kilometers in frigid, jellyfish-infested Danish Waters five weeks from now?” Most people would have answered, “No, but feel free to proceed without me, you lunatic.”  I got the answer to this basic question wrong.

Usually, such questions are just the chest-beating test-charges of wannabe alpha males. But this particular gauntlet had been laid at my feet by none other than The Insane Dane, Jasper Mikkelsen.  He is no Friday night big-talker and doesn’t shy away from the kind of challenge that makes the brains of most normal people boil in fits from making mental excuse lists.  Together with 1,800 other criminally fit and equally insane uber-athletes, he has recently enjoyed taunting death for ten hours and completed the Hawaii Ironman – the epitome of physical fitness, endurance and insanity.

The Super-Dane and his family had a visit planned in July, to their home island of Aeroskobing, Denmark. Well-rounded individuals dream of a promotion, a better car, or getting out of work ten minutes early on Fridays. Jasper was dreaming of swimming the ten kilometers between five Danish islands, with the added pleasure of running three kilometers on the rocky beaches of those five islands. I guess he thought that might sound like fun to me.  He was right.

Jasper’s challenge happened to coincide with an emerging passion of mine to take on ludicrous challenges without troubling my brain to assess my capabilities.

I had swum competitively at school in England and had even been good enough to receive a soul-crushing defeat in the 50m and 100m breaststroke events at the National Championships at Blackpool in 1988.  That was 1988.  A great deal of beer and kebab-filled time had passed since those inglorious defeats. I had only been reintroduced to swimming in the safe, calm and warm Caribbean waters three and a half years ago. By then I was an overweight, washed-up old Mako Shark, who even the Stingrays laughed at.

But these days, I swim regularly and am probably fitter than I was at 21 and can now get up three flights of stairs before the wheezing sets in. My evening routine is treated as a mini-triathlon, comprising 1.2 miles of pleasant turtle-spotting, a weary 50-foot walk to the bar followed by endurance beer-drinking. It was obvious that even this strict regime would leave me ill-prepared. I made the tough decision to commit to swimming a little bit further now and then…if I felt up to it.

The suit
A black rubber suit is seldom attractive on a grown man; certainly not when it’s two sizes too small.  After picking up my hastily ordered full body swimming wetsuit (necessary to prevent instant freezing of the blood and death in 55 degree Danish waters) I panicked when it appeared to be have been made to fit a pre-school pigmy leprechaun. There wasn’t time to have another one shipped.  This suit stopped halfway up my arms and didn’t care less whether my shins got frostbite. A hasty phone call to Danish Yoda confirmed that yes, being ill-fitting was the wetsuit’s deliberate evil bonus feature, designed to ensure that I couldn’t have felt any more self-conscious had I turned up to a church fête in full rubber fetish garb.

My sense of unease wasn’t helped by my first and only Cayman test swim. My extra-buoyant feet stuck out of the water and kicked at fresh air, I rocked uncontrollably from side to side and overheated to the point that I felt like a boil in the bag swimmer. Everyone else I swam with that day beat me. The suit was supposed to make me faster. Not a good omen.

I arrived in Denmark via two flights, a train, bus and finally a boat to Aeroskobing from the large island of Funnen. The final boat ride into the Danish sunset caused a year’s worth of stress to run out through my toes.  I fell asleep as soon as we arrived at the Mikkelsen’s house.

The island and town were beautiful. Pastel-shaded, timber-framed houses lined the streets. Foxgloves and other wild flowers grew along the sides of the cobbled streets.

Test swim
Later that first day we cycled to the calm, shallow bay that would be the site of our first Danish test swim.  We suited up, this time with full protection –a rash vest underneath, dive booties, ridiculous Spanish Inquisitor-style neoprene hats, rubber swim caps stretched over our skulls and goggles.

Jasper had given me a ten point list of tips to ease my entrance into the freezing water. One tip suggested I put my face in first whilst still standing, to prepare the rest of my body for the shock. Another advised me to breathe slowly and deeply and try to relax.  However, as the icy water crept relentlessly up my thighs, I flopped forward into the water and found that each lung-full of air was becoming faster and more shallow. I had become a wild-eyed floundering, semi-frozen, thermally castrated guinea pig and there was only one way to overcome this problem…to swim faster and warm up.

Jasper had almost successfully convinced me that the Moon Jellyfish, common in these Danish waters, was benign. I was somewhat less convinced by his assurances that the other Danish jellyfish – the Lion’s Mane Jelly, despite possessing the stinging capability to paralyse a small child, was rare and tended to inhabit deeper waters.  We probably wouldn’t see many Lion’s Mane jellies, I was told. One of those statements wasn’t a lie, although I didn’t see any drooling comatose children to prove it.  There were literally legions of the “rare” Lion’s Mane Jellies, however, most of them small enough to creep under my jellyfish radar until the last second.  As I accelerated to “defrost setting” I became swirly-eyed by the various forms of jellyfish whizzing past, inches from my face.  I had to swerve and weave and nearly pulled my neck muscles, stopping dead, to prevent imminent death by facial paralysis. I decided on a new tactic – to swim directly behind the Danish Jellyfish Death-Dealer. I’d let him batter them out of the way.  Instead of having a jellyfish-free trail blazed for me however, this caused the unpleasant effect of swimming behind a human propeller, who was churning up jellyfish and chucking them violently towards my face in a bubbling explosion. This did nothing to ease my cold-induced near cardiac arrest through reduction of lung capacity.

Maybe the fun would begin on day two?
Exiting the water miraculously un-stung, glad to be back on jellyfishless dry land, I was horrified to see Super Dane’s kids laughing, wearing Moon Jellyfish on their heads and throwing them at one another on the beach.  That evening we ate outside, overlooking the yachts in the tranquil lagoon and watched a three hour sunset paint the sky red and orange, as the sun dripped into the ocean. I was able to relax…somewhat, although knew that more, longer test swims lay ahead.

Concerned that we would be able to cope with total body numbness and jellyfish-induced panic attacks, fate came up with a new ploy – chaffing. The chaffing in question was on our necks and looked and felt more like burns. This became my new biggest fear and was preventing me from swimming for more than about fifteen minutes.  After a somewhat self-conscious afternoon trawling chemists with Jasper and explaining we needed something to prevent chaffing, we tried large plasters and beeswax. The plasters floated off in seconds, but fortunately the beeswax solved the problem – almost.

We were as ready as people can be to submit themselves to a pointless, non-competitive, gruelling test of fitness and perseverance.  All we had to do was wait for sea and weather conditions to be right for our swim.

After a couple of days of high winds, a swim-perfect day arrived suddenly and without fanfare.

On the long boat ride to our drop-off point we suited up again, this time knowing it was for real. I dived headfirst into a cold-induced psychedelic headache.  Then the churning began.

It was like all other challenges we set for ourselves or are forced to face.  It was a battle of mind and the other part of the mind that wants to go back to bed.  And, like all challenges, the toughest part was just willing myself to keep going and going and going.

I started off in good spirits, despite the poor turnout of perky pompom-waving cheerleaders.

As we reached the halfway point between the first and second islands, my mental brass band was packing up and heading off down the pub. Even my imaginary family supporters were shaking their heads and tapping their watches.  Before I reached that second island Jasper was relentlessly churning away into the distance and I was left alone. I started to worry that I wouldn’t make it.

With only my faithful lunatic imagination to keep me company. I started to pray that a swarm of ten foot-long jellyfish would swiftly put me out of my arm-aching, shoulder-cramping, chaffed-raw misery. Instead the little stingers just sailed past, hypnotising me.  It was like being on the bridge of the Millennium Falcon making a slow-motion, four-and-a-half-hour jump to hyper-speed except that  I was cruising through was a cold, wet stinging asteroid field, as the jelly-specks zoomed towards me, filling my field of vision.

Hitting the wall
All endurance athletes and idiots like me who have just enough endurance to work five days a week, swim every now and then and drink beer, fear “hitting the wall”. Whether your eyes start drifting off in another staff meeting; you run out of steam at mile five of your after-work jog; or simply can’t finish that fifth beer after three visits to the curry buffet, it’s a common feeling.  You just want to stop whatever it is you are doing that is causing the paralysis-like tiredness.  After crossing two islands halfway into the challenge I had become a runaway train, having jumped the tracks and crashed through The Walls of a million suburbs. I had hit many walls, each one a bit thicker than the last one. By now I felt like I was injuring myself just lifting my arms out of the water. Air became less attractive as each turn of my head strained my left shoulder and made the area of chaffing on my neck feel like I was being nibbled insensitively by piranhas.

I wanted to kiss the ground of the last island before we reached Aeroskobing. And then lie down on the last island and have a five hour rest and recovery sleep. That was until Jasper, who had been waiting patiently on the shore for me to plod and flounder over, told me this was the island of the killer bull. This bull would, Jasper re-counted with glee, rush into the shallow water for a good 50 metres and keep chasing its victim .My desire to rest evaporated. Anyway, I could see the finishing line by now.

The last crossing
The last crossing seemed mercifully short. I put on a show of my best and fastest swimming for the crowds at the finishing line, who by now were surely throwing their hats in the air and readying the champagne bottles, as they caught their first glimpse of the two intrepid heroes speeding towards them like sleek salmon – except without the leaping out of the water. About 50 feet from the finishing line I spotted the largest Lions Mane jellyfish I had seen all week, lurking just below the surface. I swam on.

Finishing line
As we climbed the seaweed-covered steps at Aeroskobing harbour the Tour de France style podium girls draped over the heroes and put garlands around their necks and champagne spray and brightly coloured streamers filled the air. The only problem was that that was happening somewhere else. In our reality we were met by only one person – the photographer and reporter from the local newspaper. She took one photograph on her tiny instamatic camera and gabbled some Danish to Jasper during which I think I heard the word “Englisher” and words that sounded a lot like “pathetically slow”. Anyway, after the 30 second mini-interview she ambled off, obviously under-impressed and bored.

I was left standing there with only with the calm confidence that comes from having met a stupid challenge head-on, in awe-inspiringly under-prepared fashion and having survived. An obstacle surmounted will grant you a certain calm confidence. Nothing seems out of reach. I hope that reading this helps you overcome your discouragement and exasperation caused by the head-shaking negative people when you accept a ludicrous challenge or set yourself a seemingly insurmountable or pointlessly stupid goal.  They will still laugh, but at least you can point the finger at like-minded, overly-adventurous idiots like me in the desperate hope that I will be laughed at more than you.