2016

The Thames Marathon

Posted on August 10, 2016. Filed under: 2016, henley bridge to bridge, henley swim, marathon swimming, open water swimming, race report, thames marathon, Uncategorized |

“Technically a crisp packet could do it.”

The unhealthily speedy amphibian Steve Mott certainly intended these as reassuring words but, as I drank more wine the evening before the Thames Marathon swim, I began to get pre-occupied that I would reach Marlow with a somewhat forlorn breast stroke, some distance behind a carelessly discarded prawn cocktail carcass.

This would be my first attempt at a marathon swim and I had no concept what to expect.

It started so innocently in September.

Jan: Fancy coming down to do the Bridge to Bridge swim?

Me: Sure.

You’ll notice I didn’t pause to think about it. If the same offer was a run or a bike I would at least have spluttered into my gin and tonic, just before a significant monologue of expletives, finally ending the conversation with at least one “NO”.

How hard could it be?

Somewhat contrary to my usual approach to swimming I tried the training thing.  That didn’t work out so well for me as I wrecked my shoulder (yet again) and got an ear infection.  However it was probably better preparation than drunkenly commandeering a taxi in Newcastle to drive thru Mcdonalds the night before a long distance swim.

But it’s all swings and roundabouts. Ying and yang and all that. As long as I could feel my fingers and had some Monster Munch as a pacer I would definitely make it from Henley Bridge to Marlow Bridge the long way.

Thursday night I chuck the wetsuit and goggs in the case. Friday morning we pack up the entourage and head south. Friday lunchtime the Google Maps lady kidnaps Sharon and holds her hostage in a dark part of the T5 car park until we offer Roar as a ransom. Or she just got lost. But I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt.

As ever, Londonshire gently poaches me. And grills me. I get sweaty and turn red. I turn my mind to the Thames. I will probably need to cut my wetsuit arms and legs off. In fact I will probably have to transform it into neoprene speedos just to get to the end without expiring. But if I do that I’ll end up on some register. Decisions, decisions.

Weekend events progress. Beer. Wine. Blackwoods Gin in the campest glass EVER. A foregone fancy burger. Pokemon Go. Taking a picnic up a hill. Arriving back at car sans car keys. Children talking. And talking. More effing Pokemon. Waiting. Rediscovered car keys. SUNBURN. Children talking at 5am. About Pokemon.

We get to Saturday evening. Shits getting serious. Jan and I do goggle and rubber suit stuff. While drinking beer. We carb load on Sharon’s amazing risotto. Asparagus risotto. (Hold that thought) Wine? Don’t mind if I do. A few last minute texts along the theme of “don’t be shit”, “don’t die”, “beat the crisp packet”, “don’t drink the shit flavoured water”. Awe inspiring stuff.

I lay down the law. “Be in the car at 6:30 or we’re leaving without you”. Which was quite bold given that I wasn’t even the driver.

Asleep.

Awake. Jammers on under my shorts. Porridge. Tape my neck up like a fetishist.

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The bold statement works; the 6:30 headcount confirms no children have been left behind yet Pokemon playing adults are borderline. We’re off.

We arrive at Leander Club in Henley. Not a bad spot for a race. I find my own square of grass amongst the rubber suited fetishists and organise my neoprene and lubes and tapes. Wetsuit to the waist I wander over to watch the first (mainly fast) wave start.

Hooter. W.T.A.F. THEY ARE ALL GOING THE WRONG WAY.

Oh. Wait. Maybe it’s me that is disorientated. Yup, that’s what it is.

Race briefing: basically along the lines of try not to die. I paraphrase a very thorough briefing but that’s kinda all I heard.

Set my Glympse app to transmit. Zip up. Inflate tow buoy. Into the Thames we go.

According to Leander club the river flow was normal, however, the difficulty that we had holding a start line suggested there was a decent current. Which was lucky because I followed my usual swim race routine. Remember the asparagus? Yup, already on it’s way to Marlow.

Jan and I have a final moment of bon mots and the horn goes.

As has become the norm I have assumed everyone has seeded themselves with some degree of self awareness. As has become the norm I swim straight into frog’s leg soup and head up breastroke.

I know to keep my cool so I just go with the flow. Find a space. Fill it. Move on to the next space.

I will emerge from the stramash without concussion.

After a couple of hundred metres I look up and I am in a small group, maybe a dozen. A few minutes later I look up and I AM WINNING THE FRIGGING RACE. Admittedly it was a bit early to call it victory.

A group of three of us start working together and a breath under the arm suggests that we are making some distance on the pack. Something bizarre must happen with the flow in the Thames. Groups would suddenly fracture and disconnect with no change in pace and then come back together, which must have been to do with currents within the flow.

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Me. Ahead of People. My new favourite thing.

I lost all sense of time on this section. I knew I had 4k to swim but I had no idea how far out we were. And then I breathed and noticed the exit sign behind me. My group of three had swum past. Anyway, I backtrack and get out. I’m handed a wipe and use some antibacterial gel. I slop some vaseline on my neck. Grab half a banana and a square of soreen and make my way through the transition. I instantly realise the error in the order of the aid station table as I try to eat soreen preserved in petroleum jelly.

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Just as I reach the entry point back into the river I see the sherpas. “I WAS IN THE LEAD. Briefly”.  KEEP GOING.

The next 6k section is going to make or break the day. I get back in but I’ve lost the group. They are about 50m ahead. I decide not to burn any matches but to make my way back up to them very gently.

It’s a lonely business. I check out follies and giant estates on either bank. Something catches my eye in the sky. I take three exaggerated breaths to properly look. It’s a plane. But now I’m waaaay off line. BANG. Canoe. Soz.

For the first couple of km I swim alone and then I see the lead group start to splinter. (The tow buoys and perfect for sighting groups). I think I’ll catch those that are dropped, take a brief draft then move on to the next one. But those that are shelled by the group are dropping back like stones. A lot of pink caps from the first wave starting to struggle.

About 4k into this section I catch the group just at a sharp left turn in the river. I feel surprisingly amazing.

I see a weir up ahead. It can’t be that time already. Nah. Everyone is definitely swimming past it on the right. I breathe. Haud on, that’s Sharon. I hear Rory cheering. Yaaaaaaas. 10k nailed.

Volunteer:  “How are you feeling?”

Me: “OH MY GOD I AM LOVING THIS I SO WANT TO DO IT AGAIN OH MY GOD IT’S SO MUCH FUN”; my inner 10 year old girl escapes in the excitement.

I clamber out. My neck feels raw. And my ear. MY EAR.

I am handed a wipe. I wipe my face. Pam asks where all the blood is coming from. Nowhere apparently. But MY EAR IS SORE.

I eat about an inch of a Boost bar and take a handful of crisps. Rory eats the crisps. All kids look at the aid station with the covetous eyes of confectionery predators. I chuck back two cups of energy drink (Jesus shit, that was buggering awful stuff) and two cups of water. Neck lubed. Ready to go.

I am held by a canoeist as a couple of boats pass.

We swim about 20m to a stepladder, up and onto an island. A short trot across the island and back into the river. It’s rocky. I watch people ahead of me mince in on the sharp rocks. I note where they get just above ankle depth. I get there and bellyflop into the water and drag myself, belly down, over the rocks.

The third section is only about 1.5k, narrow and we swim on the left hand side. This feels like the home straight.

At the third exit I fumble on the stepladder. The lowest step is just about at water level leaving me contorted on my back, in a rubber suit trying to get out.

Quite a long walk this time. Crisps. Water. Lube. I’ve mastered the order of the aid station.

I chat to all the marshalls thanking them for an incredible day. I chat so long in fact that a bloody great cruise ship gets between me and the main group. I get held back.

Then it’s time for the final section. “Once you turn the corner you’ll see the bridge. 2.2km”.

“Is this deep water?”

“Yes”

I bomb. Like a naughty 10 year old. I am loving this waaaay too much.

The last section is lonely. I swim alone, only ever seeing dropped pink caps.

I am mesmerised by the weeping willows that line the bank. Then the long balustrade that the pushes long shadows onto the Thames. Then the little cube hut. Then I see the buoy.

I am probably tired but I don’t feel it. This race should be shown the respect it deserves. I start to pick up a kick, turn my arms over faster. This is a proper event; I’m going to finish this like a proper swimmer.

The buoy gets closer. My mind searches for the memory of the finish procedure. Nah. It’s gone. I ask a canoeist.

“Over there”, he points at a densely populated bank with dayglo signs and marquees.

“Ah, yes. Now I see”

“You’ll need to wait for these boats to pass”.

“No worries”

“OK, on you go”

Head down. Elbows high. Long strokes. 6 beat kick. This is what it’s all about. This is why I love to swim. This makes all the hours in the pool worthwhile. I. AM. A. MARATHON. SWIMMER.

I get medalled. But, more importantly, I find out I finished in 3:27. Ridiculous. A bit ahead of my anticipated 4:30 and probably indicative of a decent current. I beat the crisp packet. But Loch Lomond will give me an idea of my real pace.

I get dry and change. Jan comes in at 3:59:58. Now that’s a proper sub 4!

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What can I say about the Thames Marathon? An amazing event – expensive, with very little fluff over and above the swim but an incredible venue, assuring water safety, the BEST volunteers and a buffet that would delight any 10 year old at every stop on the river.

Incredible thank yous to Jan for asking me, and to Sharon, Jan, Molly and Finn for being the best hosts. It was a proper whole weekend experience!

The show moves on to the Great Scottish Swim 10k in 3 weeks. I need a solution to a chafing ear and I need a bit more release by the physio of my shoulder and my thoracic spine.

But in all other respects:

I. AM. READY.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Jogging and Swimming at the Keswick Mountain Festival

Posted on May 24, 2016. Filed under: 10k, 1500m OW Swim, 2016, Hill Running, Keswick Mountain Festival, open water swimming, race report, race review, running, swimming, Uncategorized |

In March, while visiting the US, I discovered a new phenomenon – Granny’s Apple Fries – deep fried Granny Smith apples. As an international junk food explorer it was my duty to try them:

“Granny’s Apple Fries, please”, I request politely.

“Regular or Large?”

Duh, thinks I. “Large”

“Alamo?”

“……”, I pause to process the question.

“Alamo?”, louder still.

My mind processes the request, the frustrated look and the lengthening queue. Alamo. Davy Crockett? Served in a raccoon fur hat? Are we hunkering down to see off the Mexicans in the queue as a Trumpian private army?

I go all British. “I’m terribly sorry, I don’t understand the question”

“ALAMO”, louder still, using the British technique for bridging international communication issues.

A supervisor approaches. They mumble in American to each other.

“A la mode!?”

I speak pidgin French, I can do this. Wait. That means “in fashion”.

Speechlessly I do my confused face.

“Do y’all want your fries with ice cream?” A question I thought I’d never be asked as a grown up.

“Oh yes please”. I gasp, exhausted and broken.

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***

This exchange brought me to two conclusions about America. Firstly, they invented deep frying apples – I don’t know what this means but when they write the history of the world I feel it will be significant. And secondly, as Oscar Wilde said, we are indeed two nations separated by a common language (and they can mangle French quite effectively as well).

Which, in a very indirect way takes me to my point.

The KMF Trail 10k brought my total of trail races to three and I can now safely conclude that trail runners and other runners are a common breed separated by a common language. Where a trail runner says hill, I see mountain. Where a trail runner says gently sloping, I see near vertical mountain face.

And so it was that I found myself contemplating the Keswick Trail 10k, described tantalisingly as “perfect for entry level runners who want to start trail running. It’s a mixture of wide open trails, some single track, a few easy hills with some road and fields to finish”.

I shall return to this but back to the beginning.

***

After her Glencoe half Pam signed up to do the Keswick 25k and while browsing the website I found a 1.5k swim and entered. After a little more browsing I discovered I could also squeeze in a 10k, although I knew it would be a big ask 2 weeks after the Glen Lyon ultra, but what the hell. Lets make a weekend of it, joined by Pam’s running partner and cousin Sandi and her family.

IMG_20160520_203558The Festival opens on Friday and has an amazing laid back atmosphere with kids and dogs and down jackets and trail shoes and marquees and bands clinging on to the sloped shoreline of Derwentwater. There are live bands and a million distractions but the real star of the show is the stunning view down the lake that changes with every change in the weather, of which there were many.

Pam and Sandi were duly dropped off on Saturday morning for the gentle hills of the 25k as the skies opened. All 450 runners and sherpas squeezed into the registration marquee for the race briefing as the rain upped it’s game from epic to biblical and then, without fuss, the race kinda started from inside the marquee. An hour in the beer tent later and the weather went saharan. Great for the sherpas but a steamy run for the runners on their undulating loop round Derwentwater.

All the trail events finished on the lake shore with a long (uphill) run through a knowledgeable and supportive crowd. Every runner was cheered in no matter how long they took. The finish area was probably the best supported that I have seen outside of Ironman or VLM which is incredible for an event in the depths of the lakes.

Anyway, Pam and Sandi finished without incident, loving the course and the volunteers, which means we can end the preamble and get on to the main events.

Sunday morning saw the ultra runners away at 6am and, when I arrived just before 9, I am pretty sure that I saw the last of the casualties from Toploader and Scouting for Girls crawling out of the fragrant portaloos.

KMF 10K Trail Run

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There are many things that are unique about the KMF but the boat trip across Derwentwater for the start of the 10k must be one of the most special. The sky was blue, the water was like a mirror and the sun shone down on Catbells.

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Yes, the sun on Catbells. Oh. What is that glinting in the sun? Oh. Runners. 10k runners. UP A FRIGGING MOUNTAIN. A few easy hills, MY ARSE.

I look at the lady next to me on the boat. I point and soundlessly mouth words. She nods. My heart sinks.

As we dock we head to a field. At which point a hundred or so people disappear into the woods, emerging a little later tightening drawstrings at their waists. We are given the one minute warning to move to the start line. As instructed I move to the start line. I look around, no-one else has moved to the start line. HOLY SHITE I AM AT THE FRONT.

GO!

On a track maybe three runners wide, gnarly with tree roots and rutted. A few racing snakes overtake. I am behind a girl dicking around with her iPod playlist as the path narrows to single file. Oh bugger, I AM the traffic jam.

After a kilometre or so we start climbing through wet mud and tree roots still pretty much single file. I am still running, thank god. And then we pop out on a downhill road. And then we climb.

Apparently the route is the Catbells Terrace. I don’t really know what I am talking about but I would describe it as technical as we slid and clambered on loose scree. After a kilometre the scenery opens up looking down the lake to Keswick and Derwent Isle that I will be swimming around in a couple of hours. The route changes to a steep downhill and I happily trot down actually taking advantage of ballast and gravity and overtaking some of the frailer racing snakes. Until we climb again, this time I insert some half hearted jogs – I exchange positions time and time again with the more steady runners that keep up a metronomic pace. I run like an attention deficient four year old, sprinting, walking, gasping.

At about 6k we cross a road into some woods. I inhale deeply and a mouthful of midges hit my sick trigger at warp speed. The next couple of kilometres are characterised by me hoiking up and snot rocketing mangled midge carcass. I skip the water station for fear of swallowing dilute insect protein.

The last three kilometres are pretty flat. I get overtaken by ultra runners 49km into their race but I don’t care. I enter Crow Park and Rory meets me half way up the hill, runs with me to the finish and claims my medal.

It was a truly amazing course in wonderful weather. As a bonus we got an extra 0.7k too! Coool.

With the ultra still in my legs and knowing the ascent (to give Edinburger’s some context the middle 5k was like 3 times the ascent of Arthur’s Seat) I was hoping to come in under 1:15. With the extra 0.7k I managed 1:13 and my legs actually behaved themselves. And that is a result I am quite pleased with.

Without any further ado I went straight to the sports nutrition tents (just kidding) to ready myself for the swim. A chicken tikka kebab and a can of coke, as always, were the recovery choice of this champion.

KMF 1500m Derwent Isle Open Water Swim

A couple of hours later I found myself in a rubber suit for the second time in the same week. Indeed the second time this year. With a total of 38k swimming this year, it was really just a kickstart to the longer swims later in the year but it looked fun so what the hell.

The water temperature was announced as 11c but I would guess it was nearer 14c as I was one of the first swimmers in for a very protracted entry and I thought it was lovely. With 144 swimmers lined up for a deep water start we got a countdown, that I didn’t hear, and then an air horn, which I did, and we were off.

Then it got weird. No stramash. No banging of limbs. No ducking. I breathed right. No-one. I breathed left. No-one. False start?

I looked back. Nope. We were away. AND I WAS LEADING.

After 100m I was conscious of three swimmers on my left. I breathe right and no-one was there. I started catching arms with the swimmer immediately on my left. We keep clashing until we are off the shore of the Island when we have a bash that stops us dead. I look up and see one swimmer ahead and three in a row with me.

The whole swim is shallow and we were warned to stay out from the Island to avoid tree roots. I come very close to a boulder under the surface which stops the swimmer next to me dead. Around the back of the island it gets choppier and I lose sight of my line. I pick a canoeist to follow and assume that he knows where he is going.

At this point I have a dawning awareness that there isn’t going to be a surge that will leave me mid-field. I am at the pointy end with hardly any training.

As we the beach comes into view I have to dig deep to keep up the pace. I am swimming beyond the ability of my diesel engine. And then the morning 10k starts to make itself felt. First in my calves and then spreading to my hamstrings. That knife edge where crippling cramp is one ill-judged wiggle away. With 200m to go I am swimming with my feet perpendicular to my body position. I am shoulder to shoulder, stroke for stroke with a guy – we will definitely fight it out for a place.

We hit the pontoon together. We climb out for the run, both my hamstrings cramp. Bugger. I spend a moment on my knees trying to re-straighten my legs then I run up the beach to trigger the timing mat. As we get our Bio Security hose down by a National Trust volunteer I notice that I managed to stay up with the speedsters. I pick up my medal with a warm feeling inside (not pee in the wetsuit) that I can still pull off a swim performance if I concentrate.

I grab a zebra burger for recovery and sit on the one spot in Crow Park where there is a data  signal and my result comes through in a text. I am glad I am sitting down. [Warning: HUMBLEBRAG KLAXON] I was 9th overall, 4th male and 1st Veteran (that apparently means I am old and not a cow mender) [HUMBLEBRAG ENDS].

Later, at dinner, the sherpas get animated – “I can’t believe you didn’t swim harder to get on the podium. The kids would love to have seen that”. I humbly remind the sherpas that most of them were on a boat trip during my swim and the podium presentation.

And then we marched the kids up a hill for some amazing evening views.

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So, would I recommend the Keswick Mountain Festival? Absolutely, and I am sure that I will be back there next year. Amazing family atmosphere, great events that use the wonderful outdoors on their doorstep and great marshalls and volunteers.

Top work Keswick!

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