How Mindaugas and Nikolaj conquered Gibraltar: Part 32019 11 13
We did not receive any answer from ACNEG after all. Everything looked very vague. But on 23 October 2019, Nikolaj found the swimming club Neda el Món that was ACNEG’s partner. They had established a time window for swimming across the Strait of Gibraltar, which was 2 to 3 weeks in September each year. In this way, they could allow 24 swimmers to cross annually. We had already received information that we might have to wait for an answer for about one week. And indeed, a week later Nikolaj called and informed me that there was just one last chance to swim across the Strait of Gibraltar in 2019. Neda el Món is located in Catalonia, not in Spain, so maybe that was why the communication went a lot more quickly.
There was no time to sleep because our thought process didn’t allow it. You might try to have a little nap on a sofa or watch a TV series, but you can’t. Your inner voice is counting down the days, minutes and seconds. Loudly. I had bad dreams for several nights… with dark, cold water, big waves, a storm, pirate ships, sharks, thirst, fatigue, and so on. So I had to prepare mentally, too.
In our contract with Neda el Món, there was one exclusive condition that we had to fulfil – we needed to take part in at least three swimming camps out of the five that were being organised, with the first one being mandatory. ACNEG did not check the physical readiness of the swimmers. Instead, the organiser trusted in the information stated on the applications and health certificates of the participants. They also recommended additional swimming in open waters for those who had only experienced swimming in a pool.
The first camp
The first camp took place on 16 March 2019 in Alella, a suburb of Barcelona. At 11:00, we met at the UFEC Alella swimming centre. There were 16 of us, out of the 24 that should have come. We had a 1.5-hour briefing, during which we were told that all the swimmers had already been grouped based on their capabilities. Probably half of the swimmers came from Spain, a third from Russia, and the rest came from the UK, Germany, the Netherlands and Lithuania. Nikolaj and I were included in Group 5 out of 6. I was very glad that Nikolaj and I were placed in the same group. Between 13:00 and 14:30, we had some pool time. We took part in a test, swimming 20 times 100 metres in freestyle at our maximum pace, with 2-minute intervals. Nikolaj and I swam in the same lane as Jonathan from England and Igor from Russia. After the test, the groups were rearranged – Jonathan was moved to the first group, and Hector from Barcelona joined our group. Then, the camp was over.
Neda el Món took a good care of its swimmers, providing them with the recommended swimming exercise schedules. There were five weekly water sessions, swimming 16 to 18 km per week, along with lots of anaerobic exercises. At first, this was a shock compared to our previous sessions of ~9 km, not to mention the intensity of the exercises… In April 2019, we decided to quit our training with Kęstutis and fully dedicate ourselves to the Neda el Món training programme, along with its recommendations and consultations. Our daily regime changed as well: 5:30 – wake up, 6:30 – training, 9:00 – go to work, 19:00 – back home and 21:00 – go to bed. Such a strict schedule and the sudden surge in the training load had some consequences – our leg muscles were constantly aching and our immunity was weakened. After the first two weeks I decided to have a week off. During the break, I had time to think about my training, as well as consult the triathletes and marathon runners about good nutrition to keep on track, muscle spasms, stomach sensitivity, etc.
The second camp took place on 13 April 2019, in Arenys de Mar, a suburb of Barcelona. I had to skip it because of a business trip.
The third camp took place on 11 May 2019, in Arenys de Mar, a suburb of Barcelona. This trip passed without any surprises. We knew in advance that a 2-hour swimming session in the sea was scheduled. Therefore, we asked the local swimmers in advance about the local weather and the water temperature. We were assured that the water would be warm and that we needed no extra protection from the cold. The night before the training I had a difficult time trying to sleep due to worrying, because I had never swum in the sea and the water temperature of 18 degrees didn’t seem warm to me. Also, there was a bell tower next to our place, which kept ringing its bells every 15 minutes, and that certainly didn’t help me to relax. In the end, I just waited for the morning. We met at 9:00 A.M. at a local yacht club. The water temperature was 16 degrees, with a mild wind and very small waves. There were three of us there from Group 5: Nikolaj, Hector and myself. Igor was scheduled to undergo shoulder surgery to treat his old injury. Our task was to swim together in a group of three, around the buoys arranged in a triangle. As I entered the water, my legs began stinging, and when the water was around my neck I felt slightly shocked and panicky. I couldn’t breathe normally. There was a terrible saltiness on my tongue and in my throat. Everyone around me shouted and began urging me to start swimming, so we started. We finished the course together with Nikolaj, after 1 hour and 50 minutes. As I climbed out of the water, I was shivering from the cold and slightly staggered under the influence of sea sickness. My neck was very sore. It was quite an experience!
The fourth camp took place on 15 June 2019, in Arenys de Mar, a suburb of Barcelona. We had an entire month to prepare for this training camp, which was codenamed “penultimate”. The plan was to swim 16 kilometres along the shore – 8 kilometres one way and then back. As always, we arrived at the camp one day early, simply because there were no suitable flights that would allow us to be precisely on time. The weather was terrible – there was a strong wind, the sea looked crazy and I failed to sleep once again. Someone was singing loudly and shouting under our hotel window, accompanied by the ringing of the bells. “For God’s sake, how could I have forgotten to bring ear plugs?!” I blamed myself. We met at 8:00 A.M. at the same yacht club. The wind was strong and the waves were big. Mark was worried about whether the accompanying canoeists were ready for such a rough sea. He decided to shorten the swimming distance to 4 km in each direction. Our Group 5 was comprised of Hector, Nikolaj and me. The waves worried us, but the chitchat and jokes with my fellow swimmers made the morning somewhat more bearable, so I entered into the 18-degree Balearic Sea full of confidence. The water seemed warmer than a couple of months ago, but it was far from perfect… and the swimming was fun. The waves shook us strongly. The first 10 minutes were chaos, as we kept bumping into and accidentally kicking each other. There were 8 of us swimming in a single group. It was difficult for me to swim next to Nikolaj and Hector, because we had to band together again after every big wave that separated us. It was also hard to find our way, as not a single buoy could be seen. Sometimes, I couldn’t even see the shore or the other swimmers. For some reason, the accompanying canoeists decided that they should sail in the back instead of in the front. After a brief discussion, they understood that it was really difficult for us to find the right path, so one canoeist moved to the front. My head was becoming dizzier with every passing wave. Later this sensation eased, but then it worsened again. At the same time, I felt intense and frequent muscle spasms. After 45 minutes of swimming, we stopped to eat. I felt sick as soon as I stopped. With every passing wave, it was harder and harder for me to stand. We continued to swim a few moment later. The muscle cramps started torturing me again. After 1 hour and 30 minutes there was a second food break. I already knew that my stomach was at maximum stress. I tried to consume my drink, but I had no stomach for it. I no longer wanted to talk or joke with anyone. I told Mark that I felt bad, and was sea sick, but that I would continue to swim as long as I didn’t fall behind. Our group grew even smaller, with 5 swimmers and 1 canoeist. The others were further behind, and the waves seemed to have become even bigger. My hands started to get caught in the waves, which almost tipped me over a few times. I suffered with everything – nausea, muscle spasms, chest and neck chafing, dizziness and pain, and was swimming in last place but I didn’t fall behind. At 2 h and 15 min we had a third food break. After this stop, I felt different. I had less discomfort in the neck area, but my head was aching more and more with every stroke – it seemed that my eyes were about to explode. At 2 h and 30 min it finally happened – I threw up. Seeing that I had stopped, Mark swam over to me and asked if I was OK, or if I wanted to get into a boat that would bring me to the port. I refused because I now felt much better. A couple of minutes later, I caught up with my group. After 2 hours 40 min, the 8 km were done and we had returned to our starting place. 2 more swimmers reached the shore with me. But Nikolaj and the athletes from the other groups continued to swim. The waves threw me ashore, since I could no longer walk out by myself. The last men arrived after an hour. Nikolaj was among them and his watch had counted more than 11 km. Nikolaj seemed tired and somewhat swollen, and he staggered as he tried to walk. We took some pictures to remember the experience. As I travelled back home, I was feeling worried and sad.
Two months were left until the fifth camp. July and August were crucial for our preparation. We had to train intensively, as well as avoid injuries. Our fourth member, Igor, had an old shoulder injury and we knew that he would not be able to swim together with us, which was unpleasant news. Mark was therefore thinking about whom to assign as the fourth swimmer in our group. There were two options: we could take Aleksandr from Group 6, or take a Mexican swimmer who was waiting for ACNEG’s swim in the autumn. My view was that it would be better to have a known face on the team, rather than a completely new guy.
The fifth camp took place on 24 August 2019, in Arenys de Mar, a suburb of Barcelona. As always, we arrived the night before. It was very hot, about 30 degrees, so we waded in the Balearic Sea to refresh ourselves. The beach was full of people sunbathing, but hardly anyone was swimming. We saw several people selling rugs and towels. Nikolaj stepped into the water first. He dipped his feet in, then stopped and turned to me. I waved to him, asking what was wrong. After a short swim he returned and wished me good luck being refreshed in such splendid water. The water was warm, unpleasantly warm – 24 degrees. I was definitely not going to be cold in tomorrow’s session. This time, I didn’t forget my ear plugs so I slept great.
At 9:00 A.M., we met at the yacht club. The weather was hot, with almost no waves, and the water was very warm. According to the training schedule, we had to swim 6 to 8 kilometres around the buoys. From Group 5, there was only Nikolaj and I. The Spanish looked worried. This was because of the jellyfish that liked warm water, so we were certain to meet them during our session. There are three types of jellyfish in this region: tiny ones, 15 cm in diameter; pink ones that are dangerous and sting painfully; and the other two that are transparent, up to 30 cm in diameter, and not dangerous at all. If you get stung by a tiny one and you don’t treat it, you may have scars. For this reason, it was necessary to have an antibiotic ointment and apply it for several days, and not to wash the stung area with fresh water, only with sea water. But the Spanish reassured me that as long as I was wearing a wetsuit, those jellyfish wouldn’t sting me at all.
I jumped into the water as one of the first, and had already met the first jellyfish before passing the first buoy. I turned toward the shore and warned the other swimmers to protect themselves. One swimmer didn’t even step into the water, he simply turned around and walked away. After another 100 metres of swimming, I touched a marvellous sea creature with my left wrist which was unprotected by my suit. I jumped as if I was hit by lightning. After swimming to the distant 2nd buoy, the jellyfish were gone, but as I swam towards the 3rd one I saw a huge flock of pink jellyfish. I told Mark and he changed the swimming route – instead of swimming in a triangle, we only had to swim around the 1st and 2nd buoys. The swim was very comfortable, as I felt like you were in a spa. You just had to watch closely what was going on around you and to stay alert. This time, I was swimming in the front and Nicholas behind. After two hours of swimming, I told Mark that maybe it was enough. But Mark responded that we need to do at least another couple of kilometres. Nikolaj refused categorically, saying he couldn’t swim anymore because a jellyfish had stung his cheek. Mark leaned over the boat and scraped Nikolaj’s cheek and neck (which was also red and striped) with a plastic card. Nikolaj did not manage to endure this pain for long and refused the help. It turned out that his neck was chafed by his wetsuit, not by the jellyfish. I grabbed Mark’s card and scraped it on my wrist. Once again, we asked how to treat the areas that had been and swam towards the shore. Our fellow swimmer Rafa directed us to a pharmacy where we could buy an ointment for jellyfish stings. Nikolaj and I did so. Our conversation at the pharmacy went something like this:
– ¡Hola! Diprogenta, jellyfish, medusa …
– ¡Hola! Oh! Litaunos, medusa, ayayayayay…
The pharmacists cheered us up.
The old problems were no longer a cause of concern in the fifth camp. My neck did not become chafed, my leg muscles were not cramped, I avoided getting sunburned, and sea sickness was no longer an issue. There was only one concern: how to treat the jellyfish stings. Nikolaj Googled a lot of answers, but there was not much more to learn. The Spanish had told us to use the ointment for three days and not to rinse the stung area with fresh water. Apparently, Nikolaj kept looking for all kinds of alternative treatments. Flying back home, I already felt great and calm.
In early January 2019, someone managed to win a competition and register us for the Bosporus (so there was that Challenge), even though we didn’t have a plan for the year yet. The training sessions in the pool showed some progress, but we not sufficient for our ultimate goal. Over there was a beautiful sea with Africa in the background, while here we had only a 25-metre pool. we had one hour of training and then waited for the next workout. If only I knew how many times my brain would feel like it was exploding in the next nine months.
“We are Neda El Món and We Love the Sea” – sounds great, doesn’t it? I found this club after reading some swimmers’ blogs, where others also complained about not getting a slot from ACNEG for several years (like us).
I wrote to Mark, the club’s owner, saying that we were two men from Lithuania who wanted to swim from Europe to Africa, but we could not receive slots from the association. Maybe they would have some spare ones? I was ready to wait for a response for at least a month, but an email came the next day, saying that he would see what could be done. Several days later, on 30 January, we finally got it. Yes, two places had been booked for us in September this year. Hurray! “Mindaugas, we are doing it!” I said.
I sent plenty of questions to Mark, signed the documents, made the payments, etc., etc. Everything was moving forward, and everything suddenly became meaningful. The training also got more interesting as we knew that with every passing day, September was coming closer.
Of the five Neda El Mon camps, Number One and Number Five were mandatory. The first one included both an introduction and a test. I got a little sick before the first camp, but we flew there anyway. Barcelona! How beautiful it is! How warm! The sea! I started getting to know the other swimmers. My first impression was that they were absolute beasts! Bosporus? Really? It was just a warm up for them. Mark’s told us about his club and about ACNEG. They were super kind and wonderful people, but they had some problems with their management. That’s why Mark was organising 6 groups of 4 people, who would swim across the Gibraltar in the first half of September. After the test, I ended up in Group 5 along with Mindaugas, Hector and Igor from Moscow. I might have made it to Group 4, but everything was OK. We returned to the rather cold Lithuanian weather and received a training plan from Neda El Mon. Bang! We had to swim not two but five times, and not 3 kilometres but 25-30% more, and faster. And while we are doing one session, our coaches are doing two. We started our workouts. Thank you, Kęstutis, for creating the good mood! A lot of effort and work was put into me. We then skipped the second camp.
A flight, a train, a hotel, and I was asleep. When you are away from your family, work and other business, knowing that you’ll need all your strength to swim the next day, there’s little more you can do than sleep. Or eat. But in Spain, no one dines before 20:00, so I slept. In the morning, we met the whole group, listened to the briefing and started. It was the first time that I had swum in such salty water. For the first few hundred metres, my brain felt like it was about to explode. My whole body was very alert. It was cold and salty, we were floating without a safety buoy, there were waves (not really, not that day), etc. During the first and second meal break, when I was eating a salted-caramel flavour gel, none of my receptors indicated that the caramel was salted. It seemed sweet since I had so much salt in my mouth – enough for a large pot of soup. And what did I get from all this? That’s right – experience! It was the kind of experience without which swimmers would get frightened, have too much adrenaline and become mentally broken after jumping into the Atlantic Ocean with the desire to swim to Africa.
A flight, a train and… WAVES! Really big ones, although I tried to reassure Mindaugas that tomorrow everything would be fine and the water would be as smooth as a pool. But no, it wasn’t. Neda el Mon had planned a 16 km swim, as a so-called general rehearsal for crossing the Gibraltar. We looked at the sea many times that day, but it did not calm down. We eventually wrote Mark a message asking if we were really going tomorrow? The answer was “yes”! We gathered in the morning on the shore. Then we listened to a briefing, and saw the rowers who would accompany us. Due to the weather conditions, we agreed to swim two laps instead of going 8 km in one direction and 8 km back. The locals looked at the mountains and said we had about 1.5 hours – later it would become even more windy. And windy weather means more waves. The waves are beautiful to watch, but swimming with them is worrisome, even with an escort. So we started! What chaos… everyone was swimming close to each other, but then I was drawn much closer to the shore and brought back by one of the rowers. Finding our way was difficult, because the canoeists decided to row behind us. After the first meal, we talked and asked them to paddle ahead, so we wouldn’t have to waste our energy getting a sense of direction. After the first turn, I noticed that I could no longer see Mindaugas nearby. I looked back a few times and later saw him swimming a little behind us. I thought maybe he didn’t want to do his PB today to save energy, because 16 km was no joke. The waves were getting larger with each kilometre. We agreed with the organisers that if something went wrong, the boat would immediately take us ashore. Already after the first lap, I noticed that there were a lot fewer swimmers remaining. Almost everyone withdrew from the water, except for those who felt OK and were still able to swim.
I, Daaniel and a few Spaniards began the second lap. Of all the canoeists, only one agreed to continue for the second lap. Later, he returned and we were accompanied by another brave soul. We stopped every kilometre to ask each other if everything was OK, and then continued swimming. After the first kilometre, I realised only Daaniel and I remained. Daaniel was a superman with whom we had trained in the camps. He had already swam across the Gibraltar (with neoprene), as well as the English Channel (without neoprene) and something else. Together with him, as we supporting each other, we swam one more kilometre and then decided to turn around and swim towards the finish. The waves were so big that at times I didn’t see either Daaniel or the canoeist, but I knew roughly where the finish was, so I moved in that direction. The water brought me ashore. The waves were beating so hard that it was impossible to stand. Mark said he would not even allow us to go into the Gibraltar during such waves. During this swim, we tested our neck protection. It didn’t work out, as it scraped my neck down to the flesh. I felt like I already wanted to swim to Africa, and I really wanted to. But one more camp, the fifth one, remained.
A flight, a train and… a jellyfish attack! In August, peak season, there were lots of people on the beach. Finally, I understood when the Spaniards liked to swim in the sea – in August. We went to look around the beach. You step into the water and you don’t understand what to do, as you are neither cool nor refreshed, and you don’t want to swim, nor to splash. There is warm water and a strong sun. We met in the morning, listened to the briefing, and asked if we could swim without our wetsuits. We were also warned about the jellyfish. Supposedly, there were many about. Not a whole lot, but enough for us to see them up close. When there are plenty of them, the lifeguards do not allow people into the water, but that morning it was allowed. They stung Mindaugas twice before he was even able to swim to the starting buoy. I was a little worried, because I was seeing real jellyfish for the first time in my life. What should I do about them? Just swim around them? How could I avoid contact? Again, there were many questions in my mind. The swimming distance was 6 km, so we started. But not all of us. Some of the Spaniards didn’t even start, because they didn’t have wetsuits and couldn’t stand the jellyfish. But we started anyway. After all, we had paid for the session, we had come here and the water was warm. Even sharks wouldn’t have stopped us. We just had to avoid them attacking. Before finishing the first lap, we were advised against swimming around the buoy that was closer to the shore, because there were a whole lot of jellyfish. Sometime during the second kilometre, I felt something hit my cheek, as if it was being punched by a fist wrapped in carpet. Wow! And the sensation didn’t seem to go away. I scraped at my skin as the Spaniards recommended and continued to swim. It hurt but we moved on. After we had swum the planned distance, I told Mark that I had been stung in the face by a jellyfish. Calmly, he grabbed a plastic card, submerged me underwater, and started to scrape my cheek. Then, he said I shouldn’t wash it with plain water and should use an ointment with antibiotics. While we were dressing, we listened to a lecture from the other swimmers about how to proceed. The others had already gone to a pharmacy to warn them that two Lithuanians were about to come in and buy that special ointment. After being treated, and feeling somewhat dirty from the medication, I went home.
It was two and a half weeks before our flight to Tarifa. And my desire to swim to Africa was growing more and more.
To be continued.
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