forth bridge

Mission Accomplished

Posted on September 13, 2016. Filed under: Firth of Forth Crossing Swim, forth bridge, forth crossing race, swimming, vigour events |

My 45th birthday was sandwiched between two swim races. Almost perfect metaphors for my reluctant transition from early 40s to mid 40s.

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This picture of me finishing the Loch Ard swim is exactly how I felt approaching my birthday. And approaching the swim the week after my birthday.  Let me explain.

 

I don’t often set targets for races. For a whole variety of reasons – mainly because since I’ve started doing endurance events just finishing is winning for me; but also because I hate that moment when you realise despite all the planning and effort a target is slipping away. It devalues the real achievement for me which is doing something I previously would have considered impossible.

But last year a switch flipped in me. I had recovered my love for swim racing. This happened in two stages – when I realised that I had the mental strength to swim long distance and when I had a decent result.

The second happened fortuitously at the race that is probably the closest race that I have done to my front door! At last year’s Forth Crossing Race, I was surprised when the results came in that I had finished in 27th place in just under 35mins.

I was pleased with that at first. And then it niggled me. If I was a minute faster, I would be Top 10. And that would feel like a proper result. I wanted a proper result.

I decided there and then that I would train for the first time in forever and I would convert my 1:38 5k Great Scottish Swim into an ambitious sub 3 hour 10k and that I would place in the Top 10 at the Forth Crossing.

This wasn’t just ambition or hubris. I understand swimming. And swimmers. I can watch a swimmer and see the talent, or the potential or whether they are in form. And similarly, I can feel it. Through two long Ironman campaigns I never felt any kind of swim form but this time last year I could feel myself being caught in a swell of form and enthusiasm and I would use that.

And that is where I found myself approaching my 45th birthday:

I had opportunistically entered the Great North Swim at the last moment and blew away my 5k PB by 17 minutes. I swam the Thames Marathon and blew away my expected finish time by 33 minutes. I swam my A race on a chilly Friday night at Loch Lomond and blew away my 3 hour Great Scottish Swim by 19 minutes.

Good Times.

But then, Bad Times. The form shuddered to a halt.

I entered the Loch Ard Swim Festival at the 11th hour and what should have been a beautiful swim in a beautiful loch turned into a tortuous grind. I started badly and finished 4 minutes down on the 5k time I had set at Windermere and the half way split I had at Loch Lomond.

I was filled with doubt. I was tired. It had been a long swim season with most of it carrying a shoulder injury and numb fingers. I was about to turn 45. I’d overcooked it and there was no way I’d make top 10. Bugger.

My mood was as black as the Forth as I approached my birthday.

But the show must go on.

We had a squad this year – the two Bolton Ironmen. Andy and Andrew. Or Fergie and Traff to avoid confusion.

Fergie and I did the Forth Crossing Race last year so we knew the drill. Jammers on, avoid the toilets, park early.

Incredibly as we arrived in North Queensferry to register the weather was as good as last year. It’s like there is good weather on the Forth once a year and it coincides with race morning!

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We find a sunny spot in the street and get our wetsuits tattooed and pulled on to the waist. Take a quick bridge selfie and jump on to one of the three coaches ready for us. As has been my experience at all their events Robert, Kirstin and the Vigour team made the event unrushed, unfussed but as smooth as clockwork.

There are plenty of nervous first timers on the bus. A few with wetsuits already zipped up. Knowing the water temperature I would be zipping up at the very last moment and getting as long in the water to acclimatise as was possible.

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We arrive at South Queensferry and those in the know wander down to the smelly public toilets. Not the most glamorous location but it was still far to early to, ahem, warm the wetsuit.

By 9am the Forth was uncharacteristically millpond’ish. The kayakers were taking to the water and we were ready to be briefed. While we definitely paid attention, Fergie and I were definitely also considering our idea for a two (or three) Bridge race. Using the flood tide to go inland, the slack water to cross and the ebb to take us out to North Queensferry kinda speedily. Sounds crazy but it will definitely be A Thing one day and I will definitely do it avoiding aircraft carriers and sharks and things.

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By 915 we were allowed in the water. At 12c it was the nippiest I have swum in for a while. I had a chat with a kayaker and confirmed sighting to the end of the road bridge was the best tactic, then I peed, then I got out ready for the start.

Special guest, Howard James, world record holder for the earliest Channel swim strode past us in his speedos (arousing Fergie’s attention) and dived into the Forth like it was a steaming hot tub. That was pretty much the last we saw of him until the prize giving.

We counted down from 10. A cheer and we were off.

It’s a long slipway and a long walk in. Fergie was first to swim on my left when the water was mid thigh. A few steps later and Traff swims on my right. I wade until my belly button.

Traff and I are about evenly paced and we swim a few strokes side by side then he disappears. Everyone disappears. That was the last I saw of anyone until about 200m from the end.

I feel the cold rising in me and my chest crushing. I slow to sinking speed but I feel the panic rising again. Please not again.

I breathe every stroke. I exhale fully. The panic is held at bay but it is not receding.

And then, as soon as it arrived, I feel it rush away from my chest down my body and out my toes. Now I can just swim.

I have a sensation I am doing well. I can’t see anyone at all. I batter out a rhythm:

Stroke. Stroke. Stroke. Breath. Stroke. Stroke. Stroke. Sight. Stroke. Breathe.

And repeat.

As I build momentum the most amazing thing happened. I feel the force of the water underneath me hit me hard. I see nothing but assume a seal has just swum under me.

At some point I smash into the wake of a late passing vessel. It is brutal and I feel myself out of the water and then falling back into it. Two smacks in the face and then back to the grind.

Last year I had a clear approach to the finish arch. This year I think the tide is ebbing earlier. I am approaching the arch from the east despite sighting to be on it’s west.

I see a swim buoy come in from my right hand side but I can’t quite get on the swimmer’s feet and let them go.

With about 200m to go I see another buoy on my left and manage to get on the feet this time. But I’ve got nothing left for the pass. I just take the tow for the last few minutes of another amazing swim.

I climb onto the slipway just behind the swimmer. I can tell there aren’t many finishers yet.

In a lovely touch Robert welcomes every swimmer in with a handshake and we are presented a medal at the arch.

I see the sherpas but all I want to do is return the Forth from my mouth and my nose to where it belongs.  Having cleared the tubes I wander over

“YOU WERE FOURTH AND THIRD MAN”

Sometimes it’s great to be chicked, even if you have no idea in a black rubber suit and red hat that you were.

My work is done. Top 10 blown away.

I look round and I see Traff coming up the slipway in 8th. And a few minutes later Fergie in 18th with a 4 minute PB.

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I couldn’t have hoped for better. I was 8 seconds down on 3rd, 57 seconds down on second and 1:39 down on Howard from the Guinness Book of Records. Finishing in 30:10 it was pretty much a 5 minute PB.

Chuffed? Just a little bit.

The Forth Crossing Race was yet another amazing event by Vigour. Water safety and organisation were impeccable and the race retains an incredibly personal touch. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again though, this event needs a serious bit of medal in the shape of the Forth Bridge to accompany such an iconic race.

I’ll be back next year to pick one of those bad boys up.

That’s the last swim race of the year done and my body is sighing with relief at having the opportunity to recover before I start to think about next year’s events.

But I need to say something really important.  I would like to say a big thank you to all the swim event organisers, lifeguards, boat crews, stand up paddle boarders, and kayakers that have kept me and the other swimmers safe through the year. We literally couldn’t do it without you and if I generally didn’t see you while wearing a rubber suit I would give every single one of you a big hug.

Now I just need to get through Berlin Marathon with shin splints and no running miles in my legs. Perhaps there is a Guinness Book of Records category for most bratwurst eaten during a marathon?

 

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A Sunday Morning Dook

Posted on September 7, 2015. Filed under: forth bridge, forth crossing race, open water swimming, swimming, vigour events |

For 25 years the Firth of Forth has been a constant in my life.

When I moved to Edinburgh in the early nineties, the Forth was the boundary between my childhood in rural Aberdeenshire and the big city, “The AIDS capital of Europe”, Trainspotting at Leith Central Station.  As I partied through my years in Edinburgh a trip to the Forth was a day out from town – a booze cruise on the riverboat, a wine fuelled picnic on Inchcolm or a carry out on Porty Beach.  I’ve eaten and drunk in the pubs and restaurants on both the Fife side and in the Lothians and I’ve picnicked on pretty much every stretch of sand.  As we approached middle age the Forth marked the physical and psychological boundary between hazily hungover Sunday mornings in the city and grown up life with a garden and a BBQ in Fife.  When Rory was born he built sandcastles on the beaches of the Forth, then paddled in it’s waters and eventually chased Ted the Mongrel up and down the silver sands.  I would guess that I see the Forth, or the towers of one of her bridges, pretty much every day.

But I’ve never swum straight across it.

Obviously that raises the question – why on earth would I want to?  If horny sea mammals and giant jellyfish were not a big enough deterrent, the Vanguard Class nuclear submarines, huge chop, heavy swells and biting cold should have been.  But I wanted to, for many years.

Finally, on Sunday morning I stood on the slipway at the Hawes Inn with my toes in the water, the Forth Bridge on my right, the road bridges on my left, a hold on shipping and a dayglo inflatable arch 1.4 miles ahead of me as a target.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Approval to enter the Forth Crossing Race was granted several weeks ago.  Entry should have triggered a rush of training but as previously blogged that would have made the whole thing too easy.  Vigour Events took over the race this year and have transformed it from a niche event into a decent sized race with 63 swimmers.  Entry was £55 if you supplied a kayaker or £85 if you wanted a kayaker supplied.  As my most expensive race of the year I fully expected my own allocated kayaker who I could take home after the race and keep until next year.  However, joking aside, the race turned out to be pretty good value for money  – we were given a swim buoy, we had the best water rescue support that I have seen at any race, any where before (thank you so much to the rescue teams who were brilliant!) and we had the Forth to ourselves for 60 glorious minutes.

The forecast had looked good all week.  I had mixed feelings about this – a straightforward, calm water swim would be amazing but I genuinely didn’t want to be robbed of the “hard as nails” points to be added to the medal.  When I Escaped from Alcatraz I got the full chilly, choppy San Francisco Bay experience, this should be the same.  A Forth crossing is a tough swim for tough folks and should be tough, but the big jessie in me was quite happy to conclude “I can only race in the conditions that are out there”

Up at 6:20.  It was 4C.  In the face of frost on the grass I put on shorts.  Of course I did, it’s not November yet.  I porridged and coffeed while the dog looked at me like a dick for being up at that time on a Sunday morning. I heard Andy Fergy arrive in the driveway, less than 24 hours after we had drunk so much hipster wine (think farmyard funkiness as a positive description from a sommelier) that he had actually signed up for Ironman UK.  With our rubber suits in tow we headed to North Queensferry to race HQ.

Best view from a locker room ever.

Best view from a locker room ever.

North Queensferry is a pretty, tiny hamlet, usually dozy on a Sunday morning but was swarming with dozens of people in beanies and rubber suits trying, largely hilariously, to successfully stick race numbers to said rubber suits.  I had a marginal advantage having watched the youtube instructions, in a rare fit of race pre-preparation, but was by no means an expert.

We had to be on the bus at 8am and although there was quite a lot of time to spare I certainly wasn’t conscious of time dragging.  About 7:45 I got my wetsuit on to my waist, popped on a hoodie and walked barefoot (forgot my bloody flip flops) to the bus over freezing cobblestones.  The air temperature was up to a heady 8C but we had already been tipped off that the Forth was a balmy 15C, much warmer than I had expected.

During the bus journey I was pre-occupied by my bladder.  I didn’t want to waste this central heating but it was getting touch and go and we still had 40 minutes to go.

As we arrived at Hawes Pier the sun came properly up and it was warm.  I MEAN PROPER MIDDAY WARM.  The skins swimmers were already stripped down to their speedos.  Robert from Vigour Events started the safety briefing, I paraphrase….

“Slack tide begins at 9:03am, anyone who is not at the water will not start. Rain run-off means there will be a current, we should sight for the north side of the road bridge. The canoes will provide an escort on our left hand side, the ribs will be on our right.  There is a hold on shipping at 9:03 for 60 minutes.  We have 60 minutes to complete”

At that, a mahoosive container ship ploughed under the rail bridge leaving a 50 metre high wake in it’s trail.  (Some of that statement may be slightly exaggerated).  That was the last ship to pass before we had the Firth of Forth to ourselves.

Just before 9 the canoes took position.

We were given a three minute warning.  I stepped down the slipway and splashed water on my neck and face.

One minute warning.  Final goggle adjustments.  Wished Andy good luck.  Found a good spot.

Thirty seconds.  Clapping, cheering.

Go.

Wading, further than expected.

As the water rises above my knees my bladder can take no more.  Half the field is treated to an unexpectedly warm moment in the Forth.

As the water reaches my waist I dive in.  Three strokes and I am clear from the stramash.

My first thought is that the water is colder than I expected on the face. Certainly colder than 15C Loch Lomond was last week.  I then think about how you add salt to an ice bucket to make the water colder.  I then think about whether 15C feels different in salt water and freshwater.  My head then explodes.  It doesn’t really but I have one of those swims when my brain doesn’t take a rest.

I typically breathe right unless I have to breathe left, basically to avoid drowning. So every 4 strokes I see the silhouette of the superstructure of the Forth Bridge backlit by the rising sun.  The water is like a mill pond.  I am surprised to see the first caisson so quickly.  HALF WAY. That was bloody quick.  I AM A SWIM GOD.

Oh.

There are three towers on the bridge that I see pretty much every day.  Ah well, THIRD OF THE WAY.

Having read an article by Andy Potts during the week that most swimmers don’t breathe often enough I start breathing every second stroke.  I find myself getting a bit dizzy.  And then the absurdity strikes me – the middle of a major shipping channel is probably not the ideal spot for an impromptu swimming lesson!

IMG-20150907-WA0013I see a couple of jellyfish but none close.  I feel something on my feet but I kick like a huge bastard rocket ship to shake it off.  The swim buoys are great as we get a really clear line of sight to the finish and to nearby swimmers.  I am not even conscious of it being there.

Somewhere after the middle I put my hand on a jellyfish about the size of a dustbin lid, I catch and pull through like it is a massive paddle.  It doesn’t sting me and disappears in my wake.  Swimmer 1 Wildlife nil.

As I swim past the final caisson I fall under the shadow of the Bridge.  A completely unique view of such an iconic structure in a race that deserves to become iconic.

I suspect there was a current in the last section, the last couple of hundred metres felt a long, long way.

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There was no repeat of the Great Scottish Swim 5k, I got my feet down without regressing to a foetus with cramp.  I stood up and promptly felt the blood in my brain slam down to my feet.  I went from ‘sober as a judge’ to ’25 jaegerbombs on an empty stomach’ in 5 seconds.  I remember a volunteer telling me not to fall back in.  I felt vaguely sick. I was totally disorientated.  I remember a volunteer handing me a bottle of water and the first two mouthfuls sluiced my mouth and went straight back in the Forth.

Pam, Tara, Roar and Charlotte were just behind the finish line.  No one really wants to hug someone in a wetsuit who has just emerged from the Forth snotrocketing saline all over the shop.  Andy emerged soon after.

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We wait for the last two swimmers to come in just after the hour.  They are clapped in and cheers all round.  It’s a small field and pretty much everyone is there for the finish. Probably the nicest atmosphere of any race that I have done.

We get changed pretty quickly and then help lift the finish arch, fully inflated from the finish line to the hotel over double parked cars.  My shoulders felt pretty damn spritely for having just swam across the Forth.

I didn’t know much about Vigour Events before this but I am so impressed by their organisation and water safety that I will probably find myself tootling around more of their races next year.  I might even train for them.

The awards ceremony was in the sun with loads of friends and family about.  Every swimmer had their name called out and were presented with a medal and certificate.  Rory came up for my medal on my shoulders and promptly concussed me with it. The medal was a nice, generic Vigour Events one but that race is screaming out for an iconic medal to match the setting.

It was on my bucket list.  I’ve ticked it off.  I finished in 34 minutes in 27th place and I will be back next year to beat that.

There is even a video:

And then, as a final treat, a steam train puffed it's way across the bridge.

And then, as a final treat, a steam train puffed it’s way across the bridge.

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