Swimming to Break Barriers: The Challenge That Shattered My 2020 Blues and Strengthened My Spirit.

Updated: Jan 2, 2021

Dubai Fitness Challenge: An Inspiration and An Opportunity

Pushing through the water at pace, after hours upon hours of effort, one question comes up again and again:

“Why? Why this challenge and why this way?”

What had I done to put myself through 30 days of swimming in the sea, battling the currents, the salt, the swell, basically playing a game of chess with Mother Nature. My 30-day challenge put me through a range of emotions, taught me about human endurance and coming together as a team, and set a great record for Dubai. But how did I get there to begin with?

The Dubai Fitness Challenge was launched in 2017 to motivate people to do 30 minutes of their exercise of choice, every day for 30 days. It’s creating a fitness-focused mindset and getting everyone active, doing what they enjoy. It would be nearly impossible to live here in Dubai and not to get involved, especially as a swimming coach surrounded by active people. However, setting myself the challenge to swim 10 km every day, for 30 days, was definitely a more extreme way to take part!

To explain why I set off to swim a marathon distance a day, I’ll go back to what 2020 has been like for most of us. The Coronavirus crisis has hit everywhere, and my family and loved ones were no exception. I didn’t just struggle for months with depression caused by lockdowns, and the concern for the financial downturn and inability for any of us to go out and exercise. I’ve also lost someone dear to me, and that put the fragility of life in perspective at a time when my wife and I were also expecting our first child. The circle of life, strong as it is, was pursuing at a quick pace during Covid-19 in Dubai.

So, after some intense soul searching, I decided that I could see this crisis as an opportunity for change and exploration. The world as we knew it had changed forever, so why not set off on an adventure that defied all I had known previously?

Sure, as a Swim Smooth coach with business coaching others to swimming performance, swimming 30 minutes every day for 30 days didn’t seem too much of a challenge. Swimming 3 km, or 5 km even, would be achievable. But I wanted to set myself up for a battle that had an unknown element to it – a challenge I could fail at. That’s how the fateful 10 km distance came up.

Photo Credit: Giles Richardson

A big challenge on top of the physical and mental toll of the 30 x 30 swim itself was keeping it all a secret until I actually set foot in the water on day 1. We live in a world controlled by image and perception and this wouldn’t be the first time I’d hear that “my shoulder would fall off” or some other foreshadowing like that! So, I embarked on a grueling training regime despite strict lockdowns, with the largest part of my training done on land, without telling anyone other than my wife what I was aiming to do this past November.

In the process of training, I learnt a lot about myself and about how the human body is limited by the mind in an overwhelming proportion. While swimming for 30 days, never touching land until I’d clock my 10 km for the day, I learnt even more not just about physical and mental barriers and overcoming them, but also about the power that a common goal can have in bringing people together and creating an unbelievably supportive community. This is the story, from preparation to execution, of the toughest and most rewarding challenge I’ve done in my life.

Why Would You Swim 10 km a Day for 30 Days?

Would you swim for your life? For a prize? To reach a destination?

In all these cases, you’ll probably only ever have to swim in short bursts and maybe for an hour at most (unless you sign up to swim the Channel!). Swimming long distances is a test of endurance, on physical and mental levels alike. Adding in the additional pressure of doing it day in, day out, without a rest day, for an entire month, breaks through those levels and truly tests your motivation.

So, what was my motivation and how did I come up with this challenge?

It all began during the strict lockdowns imposed in early 2020 because of the Coronavirus crisis. Within a few short days, life went from complete freedom to plunge into the ocean and enjoy the outdoors freely, to a strict restriction on all movement in order to reduce the spread of the Covid-19 virus. I don’t think any of us realized how quickly all our liberties could be stopped, and I know this affected many of my friends and family, as well as myself.

On the one hand, it is true that you only appreciate the extent that something is important to you when it is taken away from you. During lockdown, we were uncertain of how the future would look, or when our freedom that we took for granted would return. We were also anxious because of the very real health threats posed by the virus.

All of these pressures made for a bleak mental state for much of 2020, and it was in the middle of this feeling powerless and restrained that I decided that I should not be wasting the time I had. I thought that, as soon as I would have an opportunity, I wanted to challenge myself to my true limits doing something that would also be an achievement to treasure for the rest of my life. It was the moment when I told to myself now or never!

This is how the 30 x 30 challenge came about: from a desire to surpass my limits and celebrate them at the same time, championing what the human body and mind can do when they work together and are trained for a clear goal. My aim was to fully test what makes the human spirit so unbreakable in the face of challenges and adversities. I was fully aware that sometimes, even the toughest mentally trained athletes fail physically, so having a strong mindset doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve done enough. Therefore, I wanted to also explore the role of physical preparation, the right nutrition, appropriate training, and finally the external support required for a true challenge to go smoothly.

One thing that boosted my motivation and became a great learning from this experience was actually the role of supporters. From my wife, the Swim Smooth Dubai Squad, and all others who came to join me either swimming or lending support, the role of each person who helped me throughout my adventure was incredibly important. Although swimming is definitely a solo sport, this challenge was a team effort and demonstrated the strength that can actually be drawn from a motivated team, too – a truly unbreakable link. Finally, I’d like to think that demonstrating what can be achieved with this level of support and dedication, but also against the odds training in lockdown and doing something so challenging, would get others to consider how to overcome their own limits. Whether because of controlling beliefs about what they can achieve, or simply because of lack of confidence, I know many might be discouraged from taking on this sort of challenge. Yet, challenges are valid at whatever level they present themselves: it’s all about whatever takes you out of your comfort zone. I hope I’ll have motivated some of the spectators to come out and cross their own boundaries too!

Preparing for 30 x 30 Swimming Challenge: A Game of Two Halves

Preparing for the 30 x 30 swimming challenge involved more than just training, or rather, training in a completely different way from what I have been used to as a swimming coach. Overcoming the lockdown restrictions to find new ways to get my body fit for swimming 10 km every day for a month was a challenge in itself. Additionally, I spent a significant amount of time working on elements other than physical fitness: nutrition, mental preparation, rest , recovery, and squad preparation. Here are the key ways in which I addressed each of them.

Photo Credit: Diane Gordon

Physical Preparation

No physical challenge of this magnitude can be approached with base fitness alone. Naturally, I had to develop my endurance and my swimming economy to ensure my effort expenditure was as efficient as possible on long days in the water. Even swimming in average at 1min27sec /100 m pace, I would need to be ready to spend around 3 hours in the water on a daily basis.

My first area of focus was the physical fitness – but it was far from idyllic getting ready during lockdown here in Dubai! Instead of jumping in the water for long swims, I started off with land-based exercises, core stabilization and mental visualization. Doing lots of strength workouts in my apartment did pay off more than I had expected in the end, especially through the work I did on simple muscle memory. It literally conditioned my body to be able to perform the 11,000 strokes a day I’d end up doing during the challenge.

I would like to mention one of my mentors Paul Newsome, who is a founder of Swim Smooth methodology that I adapted. I was able to piece together all aspects of his training and to find the right balance between the CSS (critical speed swim), endurance and technique, as well adapting style of my stroke to open water condition.

Mental Preparation & Logistics

Beyond the strength and core workouts, another important part of training was the mental aspect, along with the logistical planning.

Mental training can be crucial in getting you over the most difficult “dark times” of a challenge like this, so focused on endurance. Visualizing where I’d be swimming, how my support kayak would follow me, where I would be going every day and how I would feel, was key to my training.

I spent a good amount of time imagining myself in various scenarios that I’d be likely to encounter, so no stone was left unturned by the October 30 start day. This also helped overcome the isolation during lockdown, as it gave me something to actively prepare for and dream about.

As far as logistics go, I was lucky to have the support of various people including my Swim Smooth Dubai squad. In total, around 100 swimmers joined me during the challenge, which would turn out great for lifting my spirit and helping with motivation. But, before I started, I made sure to arrange my support plan with a good swimmer who would follow me in a kayak for security, every day. Over 10 days, it was always Richard from my swimming team, and then my wife took turns accompanying me too.

The kayak would hold food for me like nutrition gels and protein bars, as well as water. I made sure to always have spare goggles so carried three pairs for emergencies, and I also had one big box of Vaseline! You can’t underestimate the bruising and chafing in salty water after hours of swimming in the sea.

Nutrition and Rest

A huge part of the training protocol was around nutrition. Believe it or not, the daily swims would make me very hungry! I ended up burning around 3,000 calories per swim on top of a normal daily calorie expenditure, but would eat up to 8,000 calories during the challenge.

I had to adapt my usual gluten-free diet to make a few sacrifices and end up eating pretty much anything that would help me get the right amount of calories in. I was hungry every two hours and this was not the time to go on a health-conscious diet!

While I ate healthily in the run-up to the challenge and stuck to a good sleep pattern as well, during the challenge I carb loaded every day with pizza, pasta, rice and potatoes, adding lots of fish, chicken and tofu. Fruit and vegetables always form part of my nutrition to ensure I get plenty of vitamins and nutrients, and it was the same during the challenge, too.

However, the funniest thing was that I completely lost my sense of taste while doing the challenge. Especially at lunch, I’d have no idea what I was eating. My wife would watch me adding salt and spices to food that was already pretty hot!

Getting ready for the challenge was a challenge in itself, but the days that followed in November 2020 taught me that the preparation would be nothing compared to the toughness of the swim itself. It did, however, highlight the importance of every member of the team, of balancing swim workout, of carefully planned logistics, and of great food, sleep and recovery. And doing lots of dry land workouts turned out to be much more beneficial than I had expected!

How I Overcame All My Barriers to Complete A 10 Km Swim Per Day for 30 Days

When the day came to get started on my 30 x 30 challenge, swimming 10 km every day for a month, I knew I was stepping into the water as well prepared as possible despite an adverse year for training. With very minimal swim training, I had to rely on my mental preparation and my land workouts to pull me through a grueling endeavor that would only get tougher each day.

So, where to start?

From the first day in the water, I was overwhelmed with the support from my swim squad, family and friends. I would rely on a support kayak every day, with food, drink, emergency Vaseline and spare goggles on board. Grit & Tonic (Annamaria) provided me with gels and nutrition bars to make sure I stayed energized during my swim.

On a daily basis, I would go on to perform about 11,000 strokes on every swim, and I immediately felt the benefit of strength training out of the water. My mind was always on two things: that my body wouldn’t break and that my resolve wouldn’t quit!

I am fortunate to have some amazing friends who helped me kickstart my swimming on day 1, Josie and Steve. We had an excellent first day together, swimming from Black Palace Beach, to Burj Al Arab along Jumeirah Beach and back. Afterwards, spirits were high: I felt that it would be a great 30 days ahead and I was looking forward to meeting up with people who shared my passion and swim together.

Day by day, I felt that I was evolving physically and psychologically. I couldn’t have foreseen all the ways in which I’d be challenged, so I relied a lot on trial and error, from physical to nutritional aspects. Some days, the swell would make me feel like I was in a giant washing machine. Other days, the calm sea would be a delight, but my swollen tongue with obliterated taste buds because of the salt would hurt and remind me of the magnitude of the challenge I was undertaking. I would be constantly battling with the sea, until my “darkest hour” on the 25th day. I literally was fighting back tears while feeling like my body was falling apart, with physical exhaustion and mental fatigue really taking their toll.

This fatal day was the closest I came to quitting, largely because my mind was losing the battle with the water. On top of the cuts and bruises on my body, I was struggling to motivate myself to get back out there knowing that the weather forecast for the following day was even worse, while I was fighting against the swell.

With 50 km still ahead of me, I managed to come to the realization that all I could do was approach each day as it came. Rather than allow myself to be intimidated by how long was left, I’d focus on the elements of each day that were within my control and consider each day as its own achievement. In the end, my greatest personal accomplishment came close to never happening, all because of mental struggles. This taught me so much about how mental resilience can play a role in any endurance achievement like this. I could have been ten times more prepared physically and still failed if I didn’t keep a razor-sharp focus on the controllable aspect of every day, and “just keep swimming”.

Oh, and as far as what every day looked like out of the water… As I was spending so much energy in the sea, I felt that all the time on the land I just wanted to rest and eat. With a 3-month old baby at home, sleep wasn’t always the best, and some nights I woke up from hunger, too!

As an experienced athlete and coach, I knew that I needed to focus on my recovery every day. The discipline I brought to my recovery plan was a key part of my success. I would make sure to spend all my free time allowing my body to refuel and rest. My wife helped me with massages every day: one right after the swim, and one at night. I also made sure to stretch and do lots of mobility work daily.

It was impossible to prepare for the food challenges I went through, as I’d never put my body through this sort of endurance expedition. So, after some trials and errors, we adapted again. I found that putting coconut oil on my tongue would soothe it, so doing this every day after lunch ensured I’d taste food again by dinner time.

All in all, every day brought a roller coaster of experiences: from swimming with great friends, to enjoying the accomplishments, to suffering through physical and mental pain, and trying to keep my body moving and taking in the right nutrition to work through the 30 days of swimming. In the end, it was the mental resilience that pulled me through it, along with the help of my family and friends… and it was the most special accomplishment I’ve ever achieved.

Learning from the Sea: Finishing the 30 x 30 Challenge and Its Lessons

Swimming 10 km every day for 30 days straight was the toughest challenge I’ve ever set myself. It was a goal that I felt would stretch me, but that was within my grasp given the right amount of preparation and recovery. The fact that I succeeded in what I had set out to do what a very special achievement in itself. However, what I learned along the way was extremely special, too.

The sea and Mother Nature were my biggest challenges. Working against the swell, the sea salt, and the weather conditions, I would have new obstacles every day. Even after easier days, the sea would take its toll on my body, adding cuts and bruises and eventually affecting my tongue the most! Like I described in my day-to-day diary, after a few days my tongue was swollen and rough and I couldn’t taste my food. It was one of the very new challenges that I couldn’t have prepared for, as it was the first time, I would undertake such a feat of endurance.

What all these difficulties taught me was that no matter how much the body is prepared for a challenge, the mental toughness is what ultimately gets you through this sort of adventures. I don’t have a particularly elegant stroke or may not be the strongest or fittest swimmer, but it was through sheer focus and determination that I continued to jump in the sea every day. And – crying through pain as my body felt like it was coming apart – it was my mental resolve that took me to the very end of day 30.

However, it wasn’t all pain and suffering! One of my favorite parts of the challenge was coming together with many like-minded friends and swimmers, who offered to be by my side or help in any way they could. This is how I got my volunteer kayakers to accompany me on the water for safety, and how I ended up swimming with different people every day. The importance of their companionship cannot be understated: it gave me additional motivation to keep going!

Not everyone would swim with me for the whole 10 km, especially when conditions were bad. The current and swell were constant challenges and sometimes I’d find myself completely alone, even without a kayaker. Those were the toughest times and I soon came to cherish meeting all those who would wait for me on the shore, at the end of every swim. One of my favorite days during the challenge came after I had been battling with the elements for a few days, and decided to make the most of the calm and flat water on a beautiful morning.

Leaving behind the anxiety that the previous day’s swell had instilled in me, I swam with seven other swimmers on a special route, crossing in front of Dubai’s iconic Burj Al Arab.I allowed myself to stay in the moment for a little while longer, slowing my pace and taking in the scenery. This made me appreciate where I was and what I was doing – but also the fact that, no matter how much adversity I had had to overcome, the important thing was that I was back in the water, and kept starting again.

The top memory comes from a swim with my friend Renette, who always encourages me in my crazy ideas. I wanted to make the challenge even more memorable by swimming across the open sea, reaching the World Islands archipelago from the shore of Dubai. They are about 5 km away, so a perfect route for a round trip on one of my 30 x 30 days. Despite people trying to draw me away, telling me it would be too dangerous to swim between all the kite surfers, jet skiers and sea traffic in that area, Renette encouraged me and simply hired a boat to protect me along the way. She kayaked along with 4 others, making a diamond shape around me, Chris Brian and Ben Parnell, as we swam to the islands. Yes, the current and the waves gave us a hard time, but in the end, we reached the islands, turned around, and had an unbeatable feeling!

Every day, I told myself that I was there to swim 10 km, without touching land until I was done. And every day, people showed up to show their support and lift my spirits. Even before reaching the water, my fellow swimmers would give me news of the weather conditions and I was lucky enough to even be in touch with someone from the weather department who would give me accurate predictions!

My wife became a physiotherapist and a super cook, sneaking in massive portions of garlic and ginger into all my meals to make sure my immunity was boosted to the maximum.

Some of the swimmers who joined me were world-class athletes. I have to mention Chris Bryan, a pro marathon swimmer who covered over 70 km with me in total – I have his optimism to thank for a lot of pick-me-ups and his strong shoulders, for being able to draft behind him!

On the very last day, support was its highest as we were a group of 50 swimmers to reach the shore, where 70 more supporters were waiting to welcome us. I have to thank everyone from Swim Smooth Dubai, My Sports Academy, Grit & Tonic, Tri Dubai,Team Angel Wolf and the BR triathlon team who all came to join me on the last day. As my fingers touched the sand of the coast, the feeling was indescribable. I felt like I was returning from war!

After a sneaky dip of my face in the water to hide my tears of emotion, I could only think of one thing: What’s next?...

-Paolo Mangilinan

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