Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Wild places

This year I set myself a special freediving goal: to explore. I found that with training and competing in the same places all the time, I have been missing the surprise of the unknown and that it was time to focus on the experience rather than competition for a while, and on putting myself out there in this wild world of ours. Having made a start of this with a trip to Dean's Blue hole, I decided to continue in a place I have been meaning to dive for some years: lake Walchensee in my home, Bavaria. Surrounded by mountains on all sides, it lies at an altitude of 800m, and has a sheer wall dropping down to an incredible depth of 196m. It is one of the most beautiful places I know.


My friend Frank Bittner runs the freediving school Apnea-X there (http://apnea-x.de), and together we made a plan for me to spend a week diving with him. We threw in a fresh water record attempt on the sled (Germany being the only country to still separate records done in fresh water and salt water), mostly to give me a bit of a focus rather than for ambitious dives, since there was not enough time for me to reach sled diving depths that would be significant.

Excited beyond anything about this project, I soon discovered that it would be a special headache, starting with packing: diving cold water, hiking, running, regular exercise, potential for sunbathing and having to be prepared for any kind of weather made me even more unable to make sensibel choices than usual (five beanie hats to go to the Bahamas, is all I will say). I resisted high heels, but loaded my poor car with pretty much everything else, including life saving kitchen utensils! And before you ask: yes there are such items. One of them is called Espresso maker.


In usual Anna-luck style, I arrived at the lake in a summer heatwave, but should have known it couldn't last. 31°C had me in my shorts and flip flops, and the first two days went by in pure pleasure. I found that I needed no time at all to adapt to the water - bearing in mind I hadn't so much as thought about holding my breath since early May - and swam straight down to 54m with my monofin on day two, which is where the end of the line happened to be. Opening my eyes, I discovered the magic of this place: there is zero light down there, it is a darkness complete and overwhelming in its sense of vastness. This alone is not unusual. What is unique is the incredible clarity of the 6°C water at this depth. I saw the line and bottom weight in front of me in the beam of my tiny but powerful LCD masklight. Beyond, blackness, below, blackness, above, blackness. Knowing I had 50m of water above and a wall dropping to 100m below me made me feel as if I had opened my eyes and found myself in space. Alone. It was instant love.


To round off this day, I then went on to go on a four hour hike/trail run in the afternoon along the ridge of one of the most beautiful places in the alps. Looking at the lake from up high, having just been down below its surface, was a special moment and one will cherish for a long time. Hopefully I will forget the aching feet soon!


The need to bring all my clothes became apparent by Monday, when we started the traditional Anna-luck cycle of storms that had us landlocked and killed all diving for a while. Raging thunderstorms and driving rain not only washed sand into the lake to reduce visibility, but also dropped the air temperature from 30°C to 8°C in a matter of three days! Add to this a battle with technical problems, and my record event was starting to look tricky. I was antsy to dive since I had enjoyed the depths so much at the start, but you have to take things as they come around these things. One of these days I will start to meditate, after all. Omm. Ommmmmm....!


This weather had me looking at a record attempt with zero training. Luckily, two of my longest freediving friends showed up to help make things happen: Katya and Antero, with Katya judging and Antero there to offer surface support. Together, they helped Frank iron out any final technical issues on the set up, so I was able to announce an official variable weight dive to 60m for day one, the only depth that could safely be chosen considering the circumstances.


As is customary on my competition dives or record attempts, the weather continued to be as wild as anything, with freezing rain - in July! I was looked after well by Katya, Antero and a truly excellent safety crew, including the Walchensee search and rescue team and doctor Anna. They wrapped me in a golden tent to keep me warm and sheltered from wind and rain, until it was time to whizz down into the eternal night of this mysterious lake. Day two saw us still with clouds and chilly conditions for my 70m no limits record attempt, but mercifully without rain. Both dives were easy and fun, with the experience and sense of exploring much at the forefront for me.


One of my favorite moments was rescue crew member Alois telling me - with a surprised look on his face - that he had expected me to be doing yoga for ages in the back of their boat and no one being allowed to talk to me! I suppose my allergy to all things yoga and the fact that more than anything, I like to laugh before a dive, has now spoiled their image of a serious freediving athlete for ever. I am serious, guys, I am, I am! Honest! The athlete bit is rather (wide) open for interpretation, though.


I ended the trip with a final climb before getting into my car to drive away - but plans to return were forming in my mind before I had gone around the first corner. Sometimes the wild, challenging environments are the most beautiful ones, and more adventures are to be had in this special place.

It was so good to be back in the home of my heart! I will not stay away for long.



Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Vertical Blue and a new record

Freediving competitions are a unique universe all to themselves. Being able to immerse fully in the bubble is crucial to success, but it can also bring on cabin fever and finding a steady training and competition rhythm while escaping the frenzy is a fine line that is not easy to walk. Vertical Blue is special in the way it is laid out: athletes get to do six competition dives spaced out over 11 days, making it an incredibly long event. It was created to be used as a chance to set records or achieve personal bests, outside of the big competitions like world championships, where there is only one chance to perform and announcements are often tactical, playing for medals.

Dean's Blue Hole, Bahamas
My plan was to improve my no fins diving and hopefully achieve some personal bests in this discipline, which, if done in competition, would also be German records. Coach Andrea as well as my freediving buddies convinced me to be a pro on day one and go for the very "safe" announcement of 47m - just one meter more than the current German record. This was met with much moaning and tantrums on my part, since my announcement devil was protesting loudly - after all I'd already done 50m in training easily - but the conditions had changed dramatically, with cold weather bringing a significant drop in water temperature and very poor visibility in Dean's Blue hole. Being cold before a dive can have a big impact on how it will turn out, so much as my athlete's soul didn't like it, pulling back was the right decision and gave me an easy start with a little German record to kick me off. Plenty of time to improve it over the next days. After all, I still had five competition dives left - or so I thought!

On the way down to 50m. Image: Daan Verhoeven
One thing I keep learning around my freediving events is that nothing ever turns out according to plan. Vertical Blue was no exception, meaning a combination of random things such as our rusty hire car breaking down to make me miss my start time and unexpected illness cost me three out of my six dives. Taking a safe progression into account, this meant I ended up just repeating the dive I'd done in training and moving the German no fins record to a depth of 50m. For someone used to doing personal bests in world championships, this initially felt like a right let-down, but leaving an event with a sense that you have more in you is often a strong positive motivation for an athlete, as it makes you want to go out and discover how much more that 'more' could be.


One of my favorite memories from this trip is beating the onset of cabin fever brought about by being forced to give up on a competition dive due to being unwell. Having stared at the contents of our fridge blankly for a while, debating such exciting dinners as jam on toast versus rice crispies, training buddy and housemate Liv Philip and I decided to beat the competition blues by going out to eat burgers in nearby Rowdy Boy's, where we accidentally (really!) ended up getting rather wasted. Three glasses of wine might have been involved.  Having stumbled home through the dark, we continued the evening face down on my bed, crying tears of laughter, due to a discovery that we knew we needed to relate to the rest of the freediving crowd the following day. Fortunately for them, I suspect, neither of us had the slightest recollection of what this revelation might have been when we woke up with a blinding hangover the next morning. Spending the rest day with hourly promises to never even look at wine again exorcised all elements of freediving competition madness sufficiently for me to go and break my record and Liv to get out and equalize past the snot blocking her sinuses, reinforcing our long held belief that sometimes, cutting lose is all that's needed to get you back on track.


Although it hurts to give up dives due to illness or sketchy conditions, the ability to keep your ego in check is one of the most essential skills an athlete must have. We all hate to dive below what we deem to be our potential and want to be seen to be competitive. Being able to leave this behind is maybe the biggest secret to diving safely and with joy. The blue hole with its unique magic was instant love for me, including the fading light in the lower part that has athletes descending into an eerie darkness. As any environment, it has challenges and changing conditions, and one of the main skills an athlete needs is the ability to judge the impact this will have and to adapt. I find that retaining a sense of wonder through this process has left me with some of my best moments in freediving and it is one of the things I like the most about our sport.

Image: Daan Verhoeven
We were well looked after by a great safety crew as well as awesome doctors, and equally nicely saw our performances rated by a team of judges that clearly had their heart in every diver's achievement. In the midst of it all Sayuri Kinoshita became the first Japanese diver to break a world record with 72m no fins, while William Trubridge was on a roll and dived to world record depths in free immersion twice, granting this event media attention from around the world. For me, my first vertical blue was a magical trip peppered with challenges as well as success. Weirdly, it ended as it began: being stranded and having my flights canceled due to a storm in Miami! What are the chances? Next time I go to Long Island, I am taking a boat!

Back home, it is always comforting to find that my support crew is on common ground. Where sportsdoc advised me it was time to start doing some "real" weights before I left, evil coach Andrea Zuccari commented on my new German record in no fins by telling me I was diving "at least ten meters too shallow". Having returned to Berlin after a three day travel nightmare and a five week break from hard exercise, I went back to my Crossfit gym, where coach Sebastian Werner needed only a minute to tell me to "stop crying and get the heavier kettle bell". I hope these three never meet - the result would likely kill me!

Maybe I should take up a new sport for a while. I wonder if there is a cake-eating-contest somewhere near me?


Thursday, 21 April 2016

New places!

My traveler's heart just loves the adventure of new places. Seeing Dean's Blue Hole for the first time was a moment I have been looking forward to for ages. It's as magic as it sounds, with eerie darkness and a stillness that is unique to this place. Add to that a little yellow island house to live in, white sandy Bahamas beaches, and freediving buddies around, and what's not to love about this freediving life?

I've been taking it easy on depth since I don't like to rush depth adaptation and my break has been too long to take risks. So while all around me people are pushing to new limits, I have come to the only logical conclusion: I must dive shallow.


Since I have learned some time ago that I don't enjoy competition without at least a bit of a challenge,  the only logical thing is to finally face my nemesis, the one discipline I have resisted: constant weight no fins. Oh noooooooooo! Let the nightmare begin, is all I can say. Why would anyone do this if one can strap a perfectly good monofin to one's feet? It's mystifying.


After some thought and a lot of whining, I did hit upon a (very clever, I might add) training strategy: do as few of these awful dives as possible! Yes. That sounded like a clever plan. Until I found myself diving to 40m, 45m and 50m in three days, that is. Rarely have I done something quite so terrifying in freediving. It would not have been possible without my freediving friends around who provided me with therapy before and after the dives.

If mentally tough, physically the dives were surprisingly fine. This is clearly due to the hard work of devil crossfit coach Sebastian Werner as well as the entire crew at Spree Crossfit - if I couldn't get water time this winter, at least I grew enough muscles to get me back to the surface.

The annual Vertical Blue competition starts tomorrow. It's time to face my announcement devil and reign him in.

Be a pro, Anna, be a pro, be a pro....!











Monday, 28 March 2016

Ready!

Due to chaos and accidents in the family (everyone recovered now, phew) I've had a turbulent winter with next to zero snowtime and little space for thought. Freediving and oceans were a world away and motivation to focus on structured preparation out the window.


The one thing I did manage was to make it to Crossfit five to six days a week, training in a mix of regular classes and personal training with coach Sebastian Werner. It was one hour per day of not thinking about anything except blasting myself with exhaustion in the best possible way. Physical changes started to be visible after around four weeks, but mentally I needed only an hour to know that this was right for me. Anyone who has had the misfortune to see my constant stream of boring gym posts on social media could spot it: I am hooked. Rarely has sweating and cursing been so much fun.

The outstanding coaching I have come across in crossfit boxes (gyms) in Berlin and London has a big part to play in how motivating it is, as well as the community spirit. It made me brave London Underground's Victoria station in rush hour every morning just to be told to go "warm up" with running in the rain by coach James or Freddy at Crossfit Vauxhall. They took one look at this odd freediver and after a brief time of getting used to my special weirdnesses, continued to guide, push, and encourage me along the path I started on at Spree Crossfit in Berlin. This has been invaluable to a traveler like me and made a tough month spent in London inspiring and awesome.


The first stage of checking the result had me do my annual death-by-bycicle fitness test with evil sports doc. What with going to Crossfit six days a week to lift weights, I had given up on any spinning work this year and decided to just not care. This was not an excuse doc was interested in, though, and my attempts at suggesting a new way of getting the test done by visualization was met with a raised eyebrow and some suckers attached to my chest and back. Blast! When my legs gave up I was convinced I had made a mess of it like never before and that crossfit had untrained all the things we'd been working on. In fact, to my (and doc's, I'm sure) surprise, the opposite was true: three months of pure crossfit training have made me fitter for freediving than anything I have ever done before outside of the water and in a lot less time. Just when I was feeling like Zena, the warrior princess, evil doc gave me an appraising look and announced that I ought to start training with "real" weights - a subtle way of telling me it was time to actually get fit. Thanks doc! Thanks. I'm sure devil coach Sebastian will love to oblige.

It's very well seeing all this on paper but now it's time to check how it translates into actual deep dives. Freediving season is here and if I can survive the two day journey to the Bahamas, I will finally get to freefall into the depth at Dean's Blue hole!

I wonder if visualizing statics will be enough to prepare me for some deep dives?