The Mexican 20,000m High Altitude Workout

The Mexican 20,000m High Altitude Workout

20,000 meters at 2,240 meters in Mexico City

International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame Honor Swimmer Antonio Argüelles recalls, “As a long-distance swimmer in my youth, 100 x 100 meters was a standard set that we did several times during the season. Later in life, I felt that it was a challenge that needed to be done occasionally. As I started training with Rafa Álvarez, the 100×100 set disappeared from the map. Instead, we began the dreadful 10 x 1,000 meters every month.

After my return from Europe in this summer, while we were discussing our plans for the upcoming season, I dared to throw in a new set, knowing that Rafa would probably send it straight into the trash can. ‘Rafa, how about 200 x 100 meters? That would be fun.’

He answered quickly, ‘Fun, sure, but do not see the purpose.’

As predicted, the set was slam dunk straight into the trash basket.

As the season progressed (we are now in Week 16), I was always looking for an opening. Our training cycle is organized in sets of four weeks: in the first weekend we do 10 x 1,000 meters; in the second, we go to Las Estacas for a long swim; in the third week, we do an ocean swim; the fourth week is a weekend of recovery.

When the time came to discuss our plans for December, I saw an opening since my ocean swim would have to wait until the end of the month, and we had been working on our goals for Brazada Abrazada. ‘Rafa, we have an open weekend. Let’s do the 200 x 100 meters to jump start our work for Brazada Abrazada.’

To my surprise, he agreed, although he reminded me that he still did not see the point of the set.

With his approval I got to work.

First, I decided it would be a small event. In any case, I did not know that many people who could swim 20,000 meters in a 50m long-course pool. My first calls were to Jaime Lomelín, Mariel Hawley, Nora Toledano, and Paty Kohlmann. They are all four great swimmers. Jaime just became the fastest Mexican to cross the Catalina Channel; both Mariel and Nora are Oceans Seven swimmers, and Paty is a two-time Olympic swimmer and open water swimmer. Plus, Nora and Paty are also coaches. They all loved the idea and we decided to make a list that soon increased to 20 swimmers.

The team

My second task was to find a pool where the event could take place. I approached the Board of Directors of the German Club in Mexico City, and they gave the project their full-hearted support. Special thanks to Sergio Iracheta, who set the wheel spinning, and Adriana Plasencia, who made it happen.

Thirdly, but not the least important, was the matter of how much money to raise. Several numbers came to mind, and I finally settled for $50. We could raise $1,000, which would help to teach children during the school year.

The day came and we all arrived at the club at 5:00 am. Slowly, the gear and feedings were placed in each of the three lanes that we had been assigned. Lane number 5 was for Paty and her team, Nora took lane 7, and I swam in lane 6. We were to swim four times the following sets:

  • 10 x 100 meters at R3
  • 10 x 100 pull buoy and paddles
  • 10 x 100 75 meters at R4 and 25 meters recovery
  • 10 x 100 fins at R3
  • 10 x 100 negative split R3/R4

The interval was always on 2 minutes.

Coach Rafa Álvarez set description
50m pool at the German Club in Mexico City

Each lane had between six and seven swimmers and before we started, we decided to set the roll from oldest to youngest. I was the leader of my lane.

Hydration and feeding

In the first 100, everyone went out fast. I had to remind myself that we still had 199 x 100s more to go. Slowly, we settled into pace, and everyone was finding their rhythm except for Olympian and Michigan alumnus Ricardo Vargas. Ricardo is a 1,500 freestyler with a personal best of 15:11, and currently training for the 2024 Paris Olympic Games. He lives in Cuernavaca and obviously, even with the challenge of high altitude at 2,240 meters (7,349 feet), an interval of 2 minutes was boring for him. I noticed that he was staying far behind us, so when we got to the 75 meters at R4 with 25 meters recovery at R2, I told him to lead, and this made him happy.

At about the 100th 100 meters, our friends and family started showing up. I was happy to see Ximena, who came to cheer and swim 1,000 meters for the cause.

After we finished, we went into the showers and steam room. ‘What was your pace today?’ I asked Ricardo. ‘1:08, and without equipment.’ Later that afternoon, my daughter Ximena told me how different Ricardo swam. ‘Dad, you and your friends learned to swim in another era. Ricardo glides in the water, while you guys fight the water.’

As we progressed, around the 12,000 meters, I started to feel bad. My triceps were hurting, and I just could not find enough strength. I was in the middle of a crisis – with another 8,000 meters to go. The workout was not turning out as I had planned. So, I put myself in survival mode. First, I had to focus the pain away from my arms. I did that by relaxing my triceps every time I pulled. It worked and I felt better.

Finding strength was another issue. I knew had two components. On the one hand, it was obvious that I had hit the wall, a distinct moment when your energy system is not working properly. For some reason, my body was not assimilating correctly the Accel Gel that I was ingesting. Also, I had just finished three days earlier my high-volume strength program and probably had not recovered well. Luckily, Rafa found an extra shot of carbohydrates, and that helped.

On the other hand, I had to keep my mind focused. My friends realized that I was struggling and began to ask the question you never ask when someone is in trouble, ‘Do you feel OK?’ Obviously, I was not feeling OK. If I answered or engaged in a conversation, I would have been done. Several times, I ignored their questions or advice about what I should do.

The crisis went on for a long period, almost 5,000 meters. Rafa was concerned and I guess he saw other swimmers’ bodies also faltering. For the last 50 x 100 meters, he decided to change the sets. He based the drills on active recovery at R2 and added short distances of acceleration to activate the body. This helped me and the rest of the group.

After the last 100, I looked around. I was feeling miserable, but around me I could only see my friends laughing. Congratulations were flying all over the place.

For many, it was a swim they had only dreamt of. For others, it was a reassurance that they could accomplish tasks that seem difficult. For me it was a day to remember. Although I had not swam the way I’d expected, I had encouraged many others to take on the challenge. Along the way, we raised money for a great cause, and the experience made me remember George Sheehan’s quote: ‘In each training session or event, one must become the hero of one’s own story.'”

Antonio Argüelles asking What’s Next?
Jaime Lomelin and Nora Toledano
Olympian Patty Kohlmann
Ximena Argüelles
Jaime Lomelin and Nora Toledano
Coach Rafa Álvarez and ringleader Antonio Argüelles
14 swimmers completed the entire 20,000m high-altitude workout, 3 finished 15,000 meters, 3 finished 10,000 meters in Mexico City

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Steven Munatones