The Cross Kinneret Swim 2010, Israel

Wednesday, 8 September, 2010 - 22:00

The Cross Kinneret Swim
A traditional swimming competition for the wide public, held annually for the past 56 years. 2 races will take place – one is 1.5 km long and the other of 3.5 km long. Prizes will be awarded by the Israel Swimming Association, which also supervises the event. It appears among the 100 major open-water swimming events in the world.



Grand open-water triumph

In the dead of night, we took off: 31 brave swimmers, who were to cover the 21 kilometer-length of Lake Kinneret in the next 10 to 11 hours, live to tell the tale - and even consider doubling the distance next year

By Ami Ginsburg


At 1 P.M. on June 22, Lior Eliahu, the "captain of the Kinneret," sent a text message to Gadi Katz, the organizer of the swim across the length of the lake: "If the swim had been today, it would have ended badly. Southwesterly at 45 knots, from 11 A.M. The boats would have sunk. God is with us."

Yes, you also need some luck in life.

Twenty-four hours earlier, 25 male and six female swimmers stood on the northern shore of the slowly drying-up Galilean lake. The water was flat and completely calm; a heavy heat wave hovered in the air. The 31 swimmers had just completed a swim of 10-11 straight hours from Tzemach Beach in the south to Amnon Beach at the other end. Except for two or three swimmers who were assisted by boats a short part of the way, everyone covered the distance using their own arms for oars. And like many people who have managed to overcome difficulties and completed a tough physical challenge - they were elated.

I too was among them: at 3:15 A.M., on Tzemach Beach; at noon, on Amnon Beach; and throughout the day, in the water. Why did I do it? Well, it's obvious. Because the Kinneret was there. It's still the only big lake we have in Israel.

Swimming is the main sport I engage in. In my youth I swam on a team at Ramat Hakovesh, the kibbutz where I grew up. After my military service I continued to swim regularly three or four times a week, mainly at the Tel Aviv University pool. My standard training session lasts around 50 minutes, during which time I cover about three kilometers. In contrast to other aerobic activities such as running or cycling, swimming does not afford much opportunity for communicating with other people. And unlike running and cycling, for swimmers the landscape is rather monotonous. Perhaps that is why many people think swimming is boring.

Boring? Not for me. When I'm in the water, I listen to my body. My mother and sisters do meditation. I prefer to plow through the depths. This is my form of relaxation. Nonetheless, there is usually something missing. As someone who swims in a closed pool, I have always envied the cyclists and runners who combine their sport with being in the open air. I have also envied their ability to experience somewhat bigger challenges such as thrilling marathon runs or rides through breathtaking scenery.

And that, essentially, was how the dream and the challenge of swimming the length of Lake Kinneret came into being. And as ladders are customarily climbed from the bottom, I thought that before I swam the lake's length, I had better swim its width. Say, from Tiberias to Ein Gev. A matter of some nine kilometers.

Late last summer I began tossing the idea around with some friends who occasionally swim with me at the pool. To determine whether we were capable of doing the long haul, we decided to hold a training session at sea. At the end of November a group of us reported to Gordon Beach in Tel Aviv, and swam from the marina to Andromeda's Rock at the entrance to Jaffa port - 7.5 kilometers - in just under two and a half hours.

While training for the cross-lake swim, I met Gadi Katz, owner and founder of Total Immersion Swimming Israel, which in the past two years has become the largest swimming school in the country. I learned that Katz had organized a little marathon swim of his own late last September, which he titled "Three Seas in Three Days" (the Hebrew plays on the fact that the word for "seas" and "days" is the same: yamim ). That marathon included three 10-kilometer swims on successive days - in the Kinneret, the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. Sixteen swimmers took part.

"I am a 'missionary' when it comes to open-water swimming," Katz, a 41-year-old amateur swimmer and swimming instructor, likes to say. "I would like open-water swimming to be as popular in Israel as in the United States or Australia. In those countries, there is some kind of swim organized every weekend in the summer months in a nearby sea, lake or river. We may not have any respectable rivers, but we do have 190 kilometers of amazing shoreline with convenient temperatures for swimming year round, and a big lake of fresh, warm water. There is no reason why properly run open-water clubs cannot be established along the entire shoreline. There is no reason why Israeli swimming aficionados should not be able to choose a swim of some kind to participate in practically every Saturday."
'Double blackjack'

In the course of my winter swims with Katz and his wave- and salt-loving friends, we hashed out the idea of covering the length of the Kinneret. The date set for the event was symbolic: June 21, the longest day of the year. "Double blackjack," declared Avishai Tal, 48, CEO of Total Immersion Swimming Israel by day and El Al pilot by night, "21 kilometers on June 21." He did not know then that June 21 would also be the hottest day of the year.

Katz, who took it upon himself to coordinate and produce the event, publicized the swim on his blog and on the TI Israel website, and slowly but surely the list of swimmers grew. An operation like this requires an escort boat, large enough for all the swimmers to board in an emergency. The boat also functions as a mobile restaurant: The requisite repast mainly includes isotonic drinks containing salts the body uses and loses during the swim, as well as energy snacks that supply the body with readily accessible fast-burning "fuel." In addition to the boat, three kayaks are needed - one up front to navigate, and two on the sides and in the rear to demarcate the borders of the pack of swimmers. Katz's plan was to swim at a rate of 18 minutes per kilometer. The idea was to swim for 50 minutes straight, and then take a five-minute break for eating and drinking. In this manner, assuming that you navigate correctly, the distance could be covered in approximately seven hours.

The large number of people who were interested in taking the plunge led to the opening of a second group, which would swim at a slower rate of 24 minutes per kilometer. Katz appointed two triathletes to lead the slower group, Mor Schlesinger and Lior Zach-Maor, veterans of the Ironman challenge (3.8-kilometer swim, 180-kilometer bike ride and 42-kilometer run ). Zach-Maor, a sports psychologist by training, was also given the responsibility of planning the nutrition for the participants.

About two weeks before the swim, the final list was drawn up: 31 swimmers, 12 in the slow group and 19 in the fast one. So as to finish the swim before the lake's usual westerly winds arrived, it was decided that we would begin swimming at night: The slow group would take off at 1 A.M., and the other group at 3. The schedule was designed to have both groups reach the finish line together.

A nighttime swim sounds romantic, but it adds yet another twist to the complicated logistics. To ensure maximum safety, we had to swim in a tight pack so everyone could see everyone else, with the chaperones in the kayaks and boat ensuring that no one drifted off or fell behind.

About a week before the swim, Katz and I decided to drive up to the Kinneret to square away the final logistical details with Menachem Lev of Kibbutz Ein Gev, who was to accompany us in his boat. Lev later informed us that he would not be able to join us after all because of military projects he was not at liberty to discuss. "But I have arranged instead the most suitable man for the job, Lior Eliahu."

Eliahu was not a man of happy tidings: "You need a police permit, and that can take up to two weeks," he told us straight off. "The main problem is the night swim. If you forgo the night and send off only the fast group, there won't be any problem."

For Katz the most important thing was to demonstrate that anyone can do it - that swimming the length of the Kinneret is possible even for, say, Baruch Kompano, 57, of Moshav Koranit, who more or less taught himself to swim; for Suzy Dvoskin, an athlete in her seventh decade of life; or for Mor Schlesinger, who up until a year ago was still afraid of the sea and swam breaststroke even in triathlons. The average age of the swimmers in both of our groups was over 45. Most of the participants had not been competitive swimmers in their youth, and swimming for several hours at night was something we had not attempted. For Katz, giving up the slow group meant canceling the swim and perhaps postponing it to another time.

On the way home from Ein Gev, Katz began exploiting all of his connections and charm to obtain the all-important police permit. Miraculously, with a lot of help from Capt. Eliahu, the necessary permission was granted - also for the nighttime swim.
Luminiscent bracelets

On the evening of June 20 we drove to the Kinneret for another briefing, a last meal and a quick nap.

"On the way there we whooped it up and had a lot of laughs," Zali Guter recounted later. Guter is the director of a subsidiaries division at Bank Hapoalim, and swims regularly at Gordon Pool in Tel Aviv. "On the descent from Kfar Tavor, the whole length of the Kinneret came into view. Suddenly a silence fell over the car. We realized what a difficult challenge lay before us."

Despite the tension and anxiety ahead of the swim, I managed to fall asleep at night. After about two hours, the clock rang. That was it - we were off.

At 3:15 A.M., approximately 500 meters west of Tzemach Beach, equipped with luminescent bracelets on our wrists and stick lights behind our heads, we entered the warm water. Katz assigned me to the rear to keep an eye on those having trouble and to signal the group to slow down the pace if necessary. The night swim seemed hallucinatory, verging on the psychedelic. Mostly what I remember is the stick lights that bobbed up and down and marked the heads of the other swimmers. Time passed quickly, and after 50 minutes, we halted as planned for our first break.

"That's it, people. Our next stop will already be in daylight," Katz announced.

The distance we covered in the first leg was not encouraging - only some 2.5 kilometers. But that's how it is at night; everything moves slower. When dawn broke, the view slowly changed from bobbing stick lights to people's heads and the outlines of the hills around the lake. The sun began to rise and the banks of the Kinneret - which had previously looked like a collection of blinking lights - began to grow clearer. At this stage we still swam in a tight pack, and moved forward at the rate of the slowest swimmer.

During the third leg of the swim, six or seven faster swimmers began to pull the pack forward. To close the gaps with them, the slower swimmers in the group took shorter breaks. We found out afterward that a similar dynamic had developed within the slow group: The faster swimmers pulled ahead and then waited for the rest of the group to catch up.

In lengthy endurance races, such as a marathon, it is customary to talk about a "wall" - the the stage at which lactic acids begin to enter the bloodstream and the energy stored in the body runs out. In swimming we speak of a "sink." The body sinks and seems not to be advancing. Throughout the swim I waited for that "sink."

But, for me, the breaking point never came. Evidently I was not the only one spared.

"After a few hours, I had cramps in my legs, and it really was hard for me to swim," Kompano, who was the slowest in the slow group, told me. "But I did not for a moment contemplate quitting the swim. It was tough, but I didn't have a breaking point."

Schlesinger also had a hard time. "Six kilometers into the swim, and my left shoulder, the one that gave me trouble back in the Ironman, starts screaming," she wrote afterward in a personal post on BONK, a website devoted to endurance sports and triathlons. "An amazing sunrise makes me forget the pain. I concentrate on seeing the beauty around me, the awesome bond to this infinite nature, enjoy the quiet of swimming and the beauty of the movement of the swimmers beside me. But then the pain increases and I can't think about anything except how much I hurt."

Zali Guter, an experienced swimmer in excellent shape, also encountered some difficult moments. "The last two kilometers were hardest for me. When I started swimming after the break, I felt that I couldn't churn my arms any longer. They simply would not rise anymore .... I switched periodically to a limp backstroke, and that is how I managed to make it to the end. The final two kilometers - a distance I cover in a pool in 32 to 33 minutes - took me 50 minutes."

Organizer Katz had a clear goal: getting all 31 swimmers from one end to the other with maximum success and maximum safety. "I want 100 percent success," Zach-Maor also told the slower group that he led.

Two swimmers in Zach-Maor's group, Suzy Dvoskin and Miriam Itzkes, actually intended to swim half the distance, but after 10 kilometers saw they still had strength left. In the end they went the full distance. Schlesinger also managed to overcome the pain in her shoulder, and finished the race successfully.

The idea of having the two groups reach the finish line together did not work out, and the slow group finished the swim shortly before noon. Half an hour later, nine hours and 10 minutes after entering the water at Tzemach Beach, the first bunch from the fast group also reached Amnon Beach. At around 1 P.M. the last of the swimmers in the fast group, Dr. Eitan Friedman, approached the shore. Friedman had accompanied his fellow Gordon Pool regular, Yossi Ettinger, who had a lot of trouble and got through much of the swim using only one arm. As Friedman approached the shore, we applauded him. And Friedman truly deserved applause: He is the first and only Israeli to have swum the English Channel, the Everest of open-water swimmers.

The first thing I felt when I landed on the beach was a voracious hunger for normal food, as opposed to an energy snack. A few minutes later I understood why: One of the swimmers in the fast group, Uzi Tshuva, a cool moshavnik from Moshav Avihayil, was wearing a heart-rate monitor. At the end of the swim it registered his average heart rate during the swim as 124 beats per minute, and showed that his body had consumed 5,500 calories in the past nine hours.

I did a quick calculation and found that during the swim I had consumed around 1,700 calories in the form of various energy snacks. I am a tad more compactly built than Tshuva, but anyway I cut it - my body had a deficit of 3,000 calories. In the 48 hours after the swim, I felt an incessant need to eat. Muscle cramps, on the other hand, were not a problem at all, and with three days, I was back to my usual sessions in the pool.

When we got in the car to drive home, the thermometer read 47 degrees Celsius. It had indeed been the longest day of the year and also the hottest - and for 31 people, evidently the most enjoyable and exciting as well.

Two days later, Gadi Katz sent out a wrap-up email to the participants: "After July 21, 1969, nothing is impossible. If we managed to put a man on the moon, there is no reason why we should not succeed in 'transporting' 31 women and men from the Kinneret's south to its northernmost point. By swimming. At night. Serenely. Next year we're doing the Kinneret across and back - 42 kilometers. Marathon .... Who's in?"