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Inspiring Stories: Gerry Lamarche

Inspiring Stories

GERRY LAMARCHE

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Pamela Kinga

Co-founder & triathlete

When you're in the water and swimming, the brain just shuts off ... and all there is, is water ... and darkness. That's my experience.

- On his first Big Effort Swim in 2022

BES: Firstly, congratulations on your incredible swim! You had the third longest swim of the day – 13.5 hours and a distance of 25km before the day was over.

I recall you sharing with us previously that your previous longest swim was something around 15km. You added a full 10km to that personal record!

What was it like swimming out in the open water for so long for the Big Effort?

Gerry: When you’re swimming these long distances, you have to enter a zone. When you’re in the water swimming, the brain just shuts off. Like, for me, this was my experience, of course, right? The water is so deep, it’s pitch black and you’re just swimming and your hands are glowing.

You couldn’t challenge someone to meditate for 12 hours sitting in the forest. But when you’re swimming it’s like meditating for 12 hours. 

That sensation. It’s addictive. And I think after the first hour, your body starts producing different types of drugs. I don’t know if it’s endorphins or dopamine or whatever your body produces… When I’m swimming it’s natural. It just happens. And everything disappears from the brain.

BES:  At what point did you decide that your swim was done?

Gerry: You know, I think it was around the four kilometer mark while the sun was coming up that I realized I wasn’t going to make it [the full distance – 36km] just because of my pace. I’ve swam enough to know that I wasn’t going to be able to go faster. So at that point, mentally, I’m thinking I’m going to go as far as the time allows. 

When there was only a half hour left until the time cut-off I kind of broke down mentally. At the 25 mark, I’m thinking “okay, all the boats are staring at me, they’re waiting for me and  I made my goal.” My goal was 25km and that’s when I mentally gave up basically and I said, “okay, 25 is good.”

So I’m quite happy with the 25 kilometers I completed; even though I wasn’t going to finish the full 36km, everyone let me swim until the end.

BES: It’s incredible that you swam for time the way you did, you had in some measure, the longest swim of the day. How did you accomplish such a swim – your longest swim of your life so far, at Big Effort 2022?

Gerry: You set a precedent inside your head of how far you go and do anything in life. And I kind of viewed it like working a 12 hour shift. I can work for 12 hours, which I do almost daily so there’s no reason why I can’t swim for 12 hours. Pace aside, how fast I go is dependent, but the actual work required is no different than you slogging at your computer for 12 hours trying to type out this blog. You can agonize over it and type away. It’s still mental work. And that’s kind of how I viewed the swim. I can do this or I can swim for 12 hours or 13 hours, whatever. I think it was 13 hours. I can do this time distance or the time component. I just wasn’t sure about the distance component because of my pace. So when I found the Big Effort Swim it was a no brainer.

- On nutrition during the swim

BES: Did you ever take a break to stop and eat? And what was that like? Was that something you had trained /prepared for prior to your swim?

Gerry: Yeah, I had tried to train for it unsuccessfully, in part because I couldn’t get that distance. I couldn’t get that all hours in the water or 13 hours in the water. That was part of it. 

I also took the wrong type of food, which was like peanut butter and oils and high calorie stuff. Now, I didn’t eat any of it. I didn’t need any food whatsoever. At the end of the day, your body has enough fat to store energy and unless you’re very, very, very thin, then maybe you do need that energy, but you have the natural fats in your body. 

So I really wasn’t too focused on eating, but I did eat and it was really nice. My kayaker brought me hot coffee because all the while I was swimming in skins, no wetsuit, so I was borderline hypothermic for the entire 13 hours because the sun wasn’t out. 

Psychologically I drank that hot coffee and just the warmth of the hot coffee, even though it’s just for a minute, it just refreshed me and I was like, okay, now I can start swimming again.

When I go to this year’s Big Effort Swim 2023, I’m going to do the same thing and take a couple of sandwiches and a big thermos of hot coffee or hot chocolate.

- On swimming the Big Effort Swim 2022

BES:  What was it like staying motivated during the swim?

Gerry: To speak about motivation to keep going is the kayakers. My two kayakers were phenomenal.

I had anxiety about night swimming; waking up at 4am when it was pitch black. But I got into the water, I talked to [my first] kayaker and he was calm [saying] “Don’t worry. We’re on track. Don’t worry about the other people,” and that just brought my anxiety down. So it was a team effort. It was not just me swimming out there by myself. Now, if I had just gone by myself, I might have given it up, yeah. Swimming out in the dark, yeah. 

Then with my second kayaker, I asked her to stay [with me] past the 18 kilometer mark (which is the halfway point of the longest swim). You know, I’ve had moments of weakness throughout my swimming experience – it’s psychological – and I knew that if I could see that beach and the boats and all the flags on the shore.. I’m going to want to get out. I’m going to quit. So I asked the kayaker to block the beach from me so I couldn’t see it. And I kept saying, okay, go 21 kilometers today.

There was another moment when I met Chris Ostenstad (fellow swimmer) in the water on the way back – she was at about the 16km mark in her swim. She was taking a rest and just on the last couple of kilometers of her 18 km swim. But she re-motivated me with just a few words. I thought … “She’s still swimming, she’s not giving up. Yeah, maybe I’m a little bit ahead of her, but she’s not giving up. So I’m not giving up.” That got me the extra two kilometers, and then, you know, the next one, and the next one. 

But those kayakers are emotional support personnel right there with you. And then, of course, the swimmers are there too. 

- On training and preparation

BES: How do you train in a way that when you do start the Big Effort Swim, you can push yourself farther than maybe you’ve ever gone? Do you think that there’s a training component to it, or is it all entirely mental?

Gerry:  I would say it’s 90% mental training and 10% is just moving your arms.

BES: Any advice for fellow swimmers preparing for their Big Effort Swim, considering their first marathon event, or getting out into the open water?

Gerry: Get out of the pool as much as possible. The pool is detrimental to the whole experience. You don’t get the meditative experience because there’s an end; you can be two and a half kilometers and you can just stop. But when you’re out in the open water you can’t just stop two kilometers away from shore.

So I recommend swimming one way. Whatever the distance is, if it’s ten kilometers then you swim five kilometers out… You’ve just gotta get out [into that] environment. 

Then there’s the safety buoy or the swimmer buoy. If you haven’t used one, go buy one. They’re really cheap and they inspire the confidence to go further because you have that little safety net. So I would say that those are the two things. Get a safety buoy and get out in the open water. 

When you’re training for a long swim, you’ve got to put the miles in. You’ve got to get your body prepared through muscle memory so when you do the event, you’re not thinking too technical. You’re just letting your body do what it remembers to do.

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Skills & Drills with Coach Sophie Hotchkiss

SKILLS & DRILLS FROM COACH SOPHIE HOTCHKISS

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Sophie Hotchkiss

Triathlon & Swim Coach @ Endura Performance

Getting into the open water can be difficult. There are many differences in open water swimming that make it more challenging than pool swimming. Here are a few things to keep in mind when getting into the open water.

Swim Stroke

Pool swimming is very smooth and clean. In the open water, allow your stroke to be a bit messy and aggressive. Keep a faster cadence in open water to help combat waves, chop, and current.

Sighting

At the start of your swim, try sighting a buoy or prominent landmark with every breath. Once you are confident in your direction, you can begin to sight every 2 or 3 breaths. Sight by lifting your eyes out of the water at the beginning or the end of your breathing stroke.

Turning

Turning at buoys can be difficult with other swimmers clumped around you. Try turning close to the buoy while maintaining momentum. A faster turn can help you drop any swimmers who may be drafting you.

Drafting

Remember the drafting triangle. The most effective drafting positions are beside a swimmers knees or directly behind their feet. The closer you are, the stronger the draft. Practicing drafting in the pool or swimming in a busy lane can help you be comfortable with swimming near others.

Breathing

The ideal breathing pattern is every 3 strokes, breathing to both sides (bilateral breathing). This breathing style is more efficient and can help reduce any soreness you may get from constantly breathing to one side. It is important to be comfortable breathing to both sides when you get into the open water! Let’s say the sun is in your eyes on the right, or waves keep splashing you from the right, or you’re trying to draft a swimmer to your left. If you only know how to breath to your right side, you’re going to have the sun in your eyes, waves in your mouth, and you’ll likely lose sight of that other swimmers draft. Practice bilateral breathing as much as possible in the pool to become more efficient!

There are many ways to practice in the pool and prepare for open water swimming. All you have to do is add some open water specific swim drills to your pool session.

Try adding some of these drills to your next pool swim:

  • 4 x 25m Fast turnover/ 25m slow turnover, making sure you can hold proper form.
  • 3 x 50m breath every 3/5/7 strokes (one 50m effort at 3 strokes per breath, next one at 5, next one at 7).
  • 4 x 25m sighting practice, look up to the end of the lane, sight every breath.
  • 200m swim no walls: practice swimming without touching the walls to turnaround.
  • 4 x 25m mass starts: with a group of 3+ people in one lane, push off the wall all at the same time to simulate a busy race start. You should be swimming shoulder to shoulder! Swim fast for half a lane, then cruise to the end.

For some swimmers, the open water is just scarier than pool swimming. Try wearing a wetsuit, bring a bright coloured swim buoy, and swim with a friend or similar paced group. These can help calm your nerve when going for an open water swim. Although, the only way to be more comfortable in the open water is to practice in the open water. Try getting in at least 2 open water swims per week to help become more relaxed in the open water environment. Take it one swim at a time!

Sophie Hotchkiss

You can find Sophie and more resources from Endura Performance below

Sophie Hotchkiss in the open water