A 17-mile race around a lake? You must be crazy
PUBLISHED: 07:00 07 September 2019
With a little help from her family and friends, Ottery's Fiona Taylor braves the marathon 17-mile swim around Italy's beautiful Lago d'Orta
After spotting a small mention of the Marathon Lago d'Orta in Northern Italy in 'Outdoor Swimmer Magazine' (Christmas subscription from my husband Mark), I proceeded to Google for details. Six months later, with 17 weeks of training fitted in between working, school pickup, homework and 92 miles swum in practice behind me, I was standing on the shores of Lake d'Orta, poised, as one of 18 participants from seven countries, to race 27km (17 miles!) around the circumference of the lake.
The medical form to qualify for the swim was ridiculous in the extreme, but, with the help of my doctor - plus a doctor at the marine camp - I was able to get this certified, and I also enlisted the help of my oldest friend, Anna, who agreed to fly out to kayak as support alongside.
As I stood with my feet in the water facing out towards the lake, it was really hard to take in the actual distance ahead, as I have never swum that far before in one fell swoop. My fellow Brits - one silver-medallist Olympic swimmer, a Channel swimmer and a fitness blogger - and those from all the other countries headed off at the blast of the whistle en route for the first buoy. Anna was soon at my side (true to form, Anna's kayak was loaded up with chocolate, mainly in the form of peanut M&Ms and Snickers bars, homemade flapjacks, pretzels and jelly babies), and we quickly found a good rhythm. Stefano, the race organiser, had supplied us with a very small, laminated version of a map of the lake with the race buoys, but, unfortunately, none of the buoys corresponded with the map given - not to mention that the buoys were, in fact, half the size of a small Italian.
Lake d'Orta, the smaller sister to Lake Maggiore, has to be one of the most beautiful places I have ever swum. I passed tumbling waterfalls, a little stone folly and extraordinary, palatial terracotta and marble houses with equally enormous old stone boathouses attached, and beautiful landscaped gardens. Halfway down the lake, there was a tiny island with a medieval village, a stunning marker for all the swimmers. The water was a bathtub 25 degrees C and 150 metres deep in parts of the middle of the lake. In colour, it was an Aegean blue, crystal clear and soft as spring water.
Anna and I reached the end of the lake at the town of Omegna in four and a half hours to be met by my husband on a paddleboard, who gave me loads of encouragement to turn the corner and head back toward Gozzano at the foot of the lake. As I started the return journey, my children also paddled out to present Anna with supplies of Jaffa cakes and encouragement.
The swim back towards the island was one of the hardest - a long, hard slog of slightly choppy water, where it felt like I wasn't going anywhere. I had asked many of my friends previously if they would write a small note of encouragement Anna could read out at my feed stops. In the later stages of my swim, these really kept me going. On rounding the island and heading to the three last buoys, I began to feel really nauseated, but, because I was racing under race rules, I was not allowed to hold onto the support kayak. At the second-to-last buoy , I actually felt so sick Anna asked if I wanted to carry on, to which I replied "of course", to which she replied "well, there's only one way out of this lake, and it's that way", pointing towards the finish. She also pulled out a final message of support at that point, which happened to be from my coach Ralph Watson, the Honiton Stingrays swimming coach, who wrote: "You only know how strong you are when being strong is the only option."
Swimming the last 5km was one of the hardest mental and physical experiences I've ever endured (barring childbirth!), but I walked over the finish line in a whopping nine hours, two minutes and 54 seconds to be greeted by my children and a round of applause from the swimmers who had already finished. Not only did I win a medal for finishing first in my category - woman over 40 in a wetsuit - I achieved something only a handful of people would ever contemplate doing.
I had an amazing entourage of family support: Mark, who drove me on a round trip of 2,000 miles because I hate flying; the children, who wrote such lovely messages I was nearly reduced to tears; my parents, who dropped off a bottle of champagne three weeks earlier, having full faith we would be celebrating a victorious finish; and to great friends, who came with me on my journey, both in body (Anna) and spirit.
It really is one thing reading about swimming and another thing getting up and heading off to do these crazy things. My next copy of 'Outdoor Swimming Magazine' is out shortly - who knows where next!
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