Standing on the Asian shores of the Bosphorus, with blue-green waters expanding from just before my feet towards a blurry, undefined horizon, where the European shores lay lost from sight, I found myself, as each person facing the challenge required to reach their goal, be it climbing a high mountain, or swimming long distance in open waters, at the tipping point of decision, literally only one step away from doing it… or turning back…
Rewind half a year earlier: I eagerly accepted to take part in the Bosphorus Cross-Continental Swimming Race, an annual event taking place in Istanbul, which requires swimming, in under 2h, 6.5km in open waters from the Asian continental side of the Bosphorus strait to its European continental side.
As I had learned from my previous high mountain climbing expedition, one of the key elements to succeed is to do proper training, so I committed myself to a weekly training schedule in an indoor pool.
Ever present in my mind, twice or three times a week the distant perspective of swimming across the Bosphorus was driving me to swim ever longer distances till I could swim for 2 hours without any stops and without growing tired.
Careless of the distance I could cover, at least I knew I was able to swim the full length of 2 hours available for the cross-continental swim.
Learning to swim when I was 17 years old, and only swimming in pools, the perspective of swimming long distance in deep, potentially cold and choppy open waters, was far out of my comfort zone and straight into my panic zone :))) However, two previous successful climbs to 5.500m+ in the Himalayas did not go in vain, and I resorted to consistent training rather than panicking 🙂 I made and stuck to a training plan that would gradually expose me to what was unfamiliar to me, progressively expanding my comfort zone.
While reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead :)) a parallel took shape in my mind between crossing the different bardos (realms) during death described by Tibetan Buddhists, and this cross-continental swim. Both for the dying soul and for my mind the expanse to be crossed, and the nature of the experiences unfolding were a far too great unknown that could not be contained, giving rise to fear and even the foresight of annihilation. Sounds dreadful, doesn’t it? :))
Tibetan Buddhists’ solution, which I applied in my particular challenge of the moment, is to use their (life)time to prepare, to train for dying. Training to master the mind in order to remain calm and thus level headed in any situation no matter how potentially disturbing it may appear. This they say is the secret to successfully crossing the frightening bardos, or in my case, the Bosphorus :))
I recognized the applicability of their advice in my own context, that I had to train to keep my mind calm no matter with what I will be faced during my swim.
Neuroscience teaches us that giving in to fear and panic puts our brain in survival mode, short-circuiting the access to our reason and preventing us from tapping into the resources that would otherwise allow us to overcome a fear evoking situation. My first swim in a lake was an all too vivid proof of this aspect, as panic took over my mind, when I was faced with too many new and uncontrollable variables, making it impossible for me to access the swimming technique I could mastered in a pool.
Swimming in open waters has very little in common with indoor swimming. There are no guidelines on the bottom to give you direction, there are no floating lane separators and the bottom and the edges are too far so you can’t just stop like in a pool, the temperature can be less than ideal, and the water isn’t always still, sometimes it just gets choppier than you might enjoy :)))
Exhausted and trembling, with less than two months to go till the race, I found myself in deep…trouble :)))
I dropped swimming indoor, and turned to learning to swim in open waters. An artificial pond close to town, which had conditions sufficiently uncomfortable to foster growth and simultaneously sufficiently comfortable to prevent panic, was going to be my training grounds for the next months.
I gradually tackled and learned to hold a straight course through sighting, to extend the distance I was able to swim without breaks or stopping, and without growing tired, and to be comfortable with swimming in colder and choppy water.
Eventually I grew confident in my swimming technique and began to consciously seek situations in which I felt less comfortable: colder water, a windy day with waves, so I could expand my comfort zone even more. All throughout my training “keep calm and swim” was my mantra. No matter the situation: ”keep calm and swim”, “keep calm and swim”… :)))
ON THE WAY
With six months of training behind me, when boarding the airplane for Istanbul I still had two uncovered areas: I didn’t know how to tread water, and I was afraid to jump in water. Two essential aspects considering what we were about to undertake :))
Constantly challenging myself, doing things that gave rise to fear in me, climbing high mountains, swimming ever longer distances in open waters, had changed the way I perceived these challenging situations. If once I stepped back from them in fear, now fear had started to lose its grip on me, and I could notice a feeling of calm and confidence emerging. I continued to feel fear, but now it was no longer “paralyzing” me.
Istanbul with its historical center proved to be a refreshing heaven that kept my mind off the cross-continental swim to come. Never before had I experienced such a mix of thrill and joy for exploring a rich destination, and anxiety for the swim to come, however the city and its atmosphere was far too enticing for my anxiety to prevail. You can read here about our stay in Istanbul.
A joyful and party-like atmosphere welcomed us when reaching the event’s campus. Now we were all “athletes”, or “sporcu” as they say in Turkish :)) Swimmers and their supporters were rejoicing like in a celebration, boarding the information tour boats more for the sheer joy of cruising the Bosphorous, than exploring the swimming route. While ferrying along the strait, we had our first visual measurement of the distance we had to swim… frankly it seemed rather long…
Tired and famished, as the next day we were doing to need plenty of energy for the big race, we indulged eating delicious, juicy baclavas on the Bosphorus’ shores. The sacrifices we have to make to be able to reach our target :)))
THE SWIMMING RACE
Early morning found us making our way towards the event campus. Once there, in little to no time we put our swimsuits and swim caps on, warmed up our muscles and started boarding the ferry that was going to take us to the starting line.
A faint feeling like a death-sentenced man going to his execution was glooming over my mind as I stepped on the ferry. Had I given in to the thoughts of fear trying to stick out their ugly heads, I would have literally fainted of fear. But it was such a beautiful day, the Bosphorus’ shores and waters looked so appealing, and I was surrounded by hundreds of swimmers radiating positive vibes as they were eagerly awaiting to start the race, that I found it easier to ignore the fear and enjoy those moments.
As the ferry was heading for the starting point, and the finish line was disappearing in the distance, I turned to Sorin’s support for the one thing I was underprepared: jumping in the water. Just like in all the mountain expeditions he leads, he was there supporting me to literally make the leap forward 🙂
The dreaded moment had arrived, and I had no time for second thoughts. One moment I was sitting in front of an infinite expanse of blue-green waters, then next I was fully immersed in it.
As I found myself in the water, with tens of people swarming around me, two contradicting feelings were battling to conquer my mind: one was panic, as I was actually in deep open waters, faced with making the long swim, and another was a detached feeling of calm.
The water was cold, but not as cold as I feared, it had a wavy surface movement, but not choppy. For a second I contemplated if I will be able to swim at all, or if I should just give up there and then? At that very moment a voice inside me replied: “keep calm and swim” :))
So I brushed off the thought of giving up, put my head in the water, and started to breathe as deep and slow as I could, while sighting for the big red Turkish flag hanging off Fatih Sultan Mehmet bridge – the first milestone on the route. Soon enough, as I was passing under this first bridge, any feeling of panic or fear had completed given way to a serene feeling of calm and peace. Now I knew I could swim in open waters, however reaching the finish line before the deadline was still uncertain…
As the distance was too long for my mind to register noticeable progress, with the Bosphorus bridge shaping the horizon far in the distance, I found myself outside time and space, swimming in the pleasant green waters of the Bosphorus, under the warm sun, passing by old fortresses and waterside villas, through places where once great battleships have seen history in the making…
As he does during each of the expeditions he leads, being there to sustain growth and reaching of ever higher achievements, Sorin was swimming alongside me.
Calmly and tirelessly swimming, having no notion of time and distance, I was surprised when the finish line balloons come into sight. “I can’t believe it! I am really going to make it!” As I climbed out of the water, an amazing feeling of “what seemed impossible now has become a living reality” began to sink in.
We had actually done it! Not only did we manage to swim 6.5km across the open waters of the Bosphorus strait, but we did it in under the 2 hours limit!
The months of both physical and mental training had paid off, making the swim feel pleasant and effortless. It was an amazing and beautiful experience, and I am happy and grateful I had the courage to take it on!
Above all, it was a liberating experience, a victory over my fears that opened new doors of possibility, freedom and joy, strengthening my self-confidence and redefining what I consider achievable. I continue to be aware of the existence of fear, but it has no longer a hold on me, it has given way to living much fuller, much freer, and much more joyful.
Whenever I have the opportunity I encourage people to bring new experience inside their comfort zone, to expand and grow, and eventually they too will encourage others to follow their example. So go out there and out-dare yourself! Find your own personal Bosphorus, and conquer it! 🙂