Part race, part holiday, part endurance challenge and one unforgettable adventure. Simon Griffiths reveals what it was like taking part in Ultraswim 33.3 #2 in Montenegro
The alarm buzzed at 5am. I shut it down quickly and dressed in the dark, trying not to wake my partner. I grabbed my swim bag and headed over to breakfast at the luxury Lazure Hotel and Marina in Herceg Novi, Montenegro. Cool air tumbled off the mountains, the streets were deserted, and the only sound was the soft tap of wavelets against the harbour wall and the clinking of rigging from the marina.
The contrast to the atmosphere in the breakfast room was stark. I thought I was early, but the room was already buzzing with the voices of excited and nervous swimmers. At this stage, I only recognised a handful of faces from the briefing the night before, but that was going to change over the next few days. I looked around to see what others had chosen for their pre-swim meal. Some had piled their plates high, indulging in the full range of treats on offer. Others chose lighter options, conscious that we’d soon be in the water. I chose oats, as I would at home: dull but sensible.
An hour later it was starting to get light and I was standing on a pontoon along with 119 other swimmers. The air was thick with the smell of neoprene and various anti-chafing ointments. I peered into the distance, looking for the pink marker buoys and any useful sighting points. The hooter sounded, we leapt into the water and started swimming. Day 1, swim 1 had begun. There was the usual few minutes of chaos to endure before swimmers spread out and settled into smaller groups to cover the first 4.5km – out of a total 33.3km.
Stage racing – for swimmers
The adventure had begun several months previously when Mark Turner, the creator of UltraSwim 33.3, convinced me that covering the distance of the English Channel over four days might be a fun thing to do. It soon became apparent that this wasn’t a swim you turn up, do, and go home again. This was a stage race, like cyclists do, but for swimmers. And to help you through it, there’s a comprehensive support package along with a vibrant community.
In the months leading up to the swim, participants are invited to join a busy WhatsApp group, which was in turn terrifying, inspiring, supportive and informative. Some of the faster swimmers shared training speeds that were faster than my race pace. Others recounted the struggles they’d had the previous year in the test run of the event. Some participants were relatively new to open water swimming and worried about their speed and endurance. The more experienced swimmers were patient and generous with their encouragement and advice, sharing tips on training, nutrition and much more. There were swimmers from around the world. New connections were made. People travelling agreed to meet up for swims with strangers from the group.
The event preparation also included a training plan specifically prepared for UltraSwim 33.3 by Paul Newsome of Swim Smooth, nutrition advice from Precision Hydration, and several optional webinars. The briefing pack was comprehensive and detailed. Airport transfers were available on arrival and departure for anyone who wanted them. UltraSwim 33.3 is a big financial and time commitment, but you are looked after every step (and stroke) of the way. There’s even an optional 2km non-timed acclimatisation swim the day before the swim proper starts.
Back in the water, the sun had come up over the mountains, and we were swimming directly towards it. A cruise ship heading to Kotor passed on the right, between us and the rugged peninsula we’d be swimming around later. On the left we passed a series of exclusive villas, one of which is allegedly owned by Novak Djokovic. We swam on to Portonovi Resort where the clock stopped and we were served another breakfast. The refuelling was necessary, ahead of the second swim of the day, a further 5km.
Swim, eat, swim, eat, rest, eat became the pattern for the next few days. Swims included two channel crossings, a full 10km marathon swim, a detour into an abandoned submarine pen and a swim right through the eerie but spectacular Blue Cave. Some swims were calm and with the flow. On others we swam through big waves and fought against wind and currents. Everywhere the scenery was spectacular while the safety and support were first class.
The true draw of this event, however, was not the swimming. It was the evolving comradeship between swimmers and the mutual respect and support, which increased daily. While this was a result of the swimming, and the difficulty of the challenge, it was also a wonderful reflection of the global swimming community. This was a race where everyone wanted their fellow swimmers to finish.
After the first couple of swims, people started to recognise who was swimming at a similar pace. Pods formed and stuck together, even waiting for each other at feed stations. Hugs and high fives at the end of each swim were frequent. The atmosphere at the end of the final swim was electric. Those who finished early on waited until every swimmer crossed the line and cheered them in. While there were prizes for the fastest swimmers, the true heroes at this event were the ones who swam it breaststroke or who struggled home, barely inside the cut-off times. Some of them had hardly swum in open water before and now they had covered the distance of the English Channel.
Yes, there was a minimum speed requirement, and there were cut-off times for safety reasons, but the organisers did everything they could to ensure everyone who started could finish. Although my swim didn’t go to plan (see box), this was one of the best swimming experiences I’ve been involved with. I’m looking forward to a second attempt.
Unfortunately I didn’t get to experience the joy of completing this swim. On Day 2, I found myself struggling to breathe. While I completed the swims that day, I was utterly exhausted, beyond anything I’ve experienced in a swim before. I still felt tight-chested after several hours of rest and walking up stairs left me gasping and dizzy. I have no formal diagnosis but we suspected early stages of Swimming Induced Pulmonary Oedema (SIPE): not something you want to mess around with or risk making worse. Instead of swimming, for the next two days I joined the media boat. While not the experience I wanted, it gave me a different and enjoyable perspective on the race. I got to see swimmers at the front, middle and back of the race. I was able to cheer them on from inside the submarine tunnel and I even took some of the official underwater event pictures from inside the Blue Cave.
Non-swimming partners welcome
UltraSwim 33.3 could have been dull for partners and supporters. Swimmers got up early and disappeared for hours. While there were a few hours of ‘down-time’ each afternoon, it was more tempting to rest and recover than to head off sightseeing with your family. Let’s face it, if you’re not a swimmer, hanging out with exhausted swimmers might not be the most entertaining thing you could do.
However, UltraSwim 33.3 put together a comprehensive supporters’ programme. Partners avoided the early starts and had their own boat, which set off later, to follow the swimmers and take in the sights along the way. They joined the swimmers at all the stopping and eating points and visited – and even swim at (if they wanted) – the key points such as the Blue Cave and submarine pens. They also got to do some activities, such as mini tours and wine and cheese tasting, that swimmers were too busy swimming to do. As a swimmer, there’s enough to think about without worrying about your supporters. At UltraSwim 33.3, you don’t need to worry. Your supporters could well be having more fun than you.
What else to do
If you come to Montenegro, I’d fully recommend extending your visit by at least a couple of days. Our visit was too short to pack as much in as we wanted. However, in the two days we had, we explored Herceg Novi old town (Stari Grad), spent a couple of hours hiking on the Orijen Mountain, did a tour of the famous walled town of Kotor, drove to a spectacular viewpoint on Lovćen mountain and rounded off our trip with tea and cake in Perast, in a café overlooking Boka Bay. I’d recommend doing any or all of those. While you can move around with public transport, renting a car will give you more options if time is short. I’d also recommend taking a guide if you go hiking or mountain biking.
More from UltraSwim 33.3
UltraSwim 33.3 will be returning to Montenegro in October 2024 but if you can’t wait that long, take a look at their new event, UltraSwim 33.3 #3 Croatia, which takes place from 17 – 20 May 2024.
There is also a third event for 2024 and a new location due to be announced shortly.
Find out more: ultraswim333.com/enter
Simon’s trip was supported by UltraSwim 33.3, Herceg Novi Travel and Portonovi Resort.