marathon swimming

The Loch Earn 10k Swim

Posted on September 19, 2017. Filed under: loch earn 10k, loch earn end to end, marathon swimming, swimming, vigour events |

For seven days in July, each year, for five years of my childhood, the morning routine was always the same.

I would be awoken by the crump of a sheep tearing grass from the earth right by my head and I would start the slow process of quietly coming around, warmed by the first rays of the sun diffused by the blue polyester of the tent. A moment of stillness as the systems re-boot to the early morning.

Then. Hyper-alertness.

In simpler times of the rubiks cube and three tv channels, in the days before weather apps, waking up under canvas was the best indication whether John Kettley had got it right the night before.

Senses on high alert.

I would listen. No rain. But who cares about rain? No wind. Yaaaasssss, once again we would dodge the curse of long summer days spent on and around the water in the heart of Scotland. Today will be a good day.

I would reach for the zip with genuine anticipation. My first glimpse through the thick, crumpled plastic window of our tent, sitting halfway up the hill, high enough to get a heart-stopping view but still half an hour’s hike from the summit. I would step outside, abandoning my shoes in my eagerness, my feet enveloped by the long, wet, dewy grass and stand to my full height. Taking in a view that was almost too big to comprehend – looking down over the village to Loch Earn below, the hills and the blue sky reflected in it’s glassy surface as it cuts a shiny path down the glen to my left. Like a mirror. Today will be a great day.

My best friend, my constant companion at swimming club, summer waterskiing, raft races and general mischief, and I would look at each other. We were fit to burst with the genuine explosive childhood excitement that made the cycling and mud and wandering expeditions of the long summer holidays so magical.

But before we could burst into the cabin and wake everyone else and drag them down to the loch in soggy, cold wetsuits that we had only vacated a few hours before we had one more job to do.  We were responsible for the hike to the village shop and picking up the rolls and milk, an important task that we were allocated and the only detail that we would ever remember was “and you can keep the change”.  The change invested, always, in the crumpled, white, paper bag ubiquitous of the quarter shop stuffed with cola cubes or flumps or, if we were feeling extraordinarily brave before breakfast, the Highland Toffee.


 

As we drove up the north loch road, the night before the Loch Earn 10k swim on our way up to Killin, those long summer days were very much on my mind. I had already explained to Rory as we approached the loch that when I was wee the fish and chip shop in Comrie, the place we stopped on our way home from holiday, was the best fish and chip shop in the world. But the best fish and chips were always hungrily guzzled with a tinge of sadness that summer was over. Over thirty years later, St Fillians at the east of the loch is still a foreign country. A place I never visited as a child and have only rarely visited as an adult because why would anyone go to St Fillans when Lochearnhead was so perfect?

Reaching Lochearnhead I spot my favourite jetties, older and rotting and not the fresh blonde wood that I remember. The Clachan Cottage where we would go for tea on the rare occasion that we would go out for tea and where I had my first stolen sips of warm, flat Tennents Lager. The huge loch side Boat House that wasn’t there when I was a kid and the gap where the watersports centre had been the jewel on the west side of the loch when I was a kid. And then the junction and the village shop, Rory’s imagination momentarily captured by “keep the change” amongst the fog of dad’s droning nostalgia. And then onwards to Killin.

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The night before wasn’t a polyester tent with crumpled and cracked plastic windows. We got a late room at the wonderful Courie Inn where all four of us piled into a huge room and Ted paced until the bar below us closed. As usual the night before a swim, I went out like a light, early and aided by a few pints of Schiehallion and spaghetti carbonara.

My alarm woke everyone with a start and I went into race mode. Kettle on, porridge made, bag double checked, clothes on, shepherd everyone to the car. Roar and Pam would come back for a fine cooked breakfast after they dropped me off.

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At the event site, near where the watersports centre used to sit, we got a glimpse of the loch. I was transported back 35 years. As the sodden grass seeped through my salomons I could see, through the gap in the trees, mirrored water down the glen as far as the eye can see. Pure unadulterated joy.


 

The registration gazebo was right at the gate. Kirsten and Phia were issuing our kit and allocating our numbers. As expected, following my idiocy at the Forth Crossing Swim the week before, I was repeatedly and deservedly reminded not to forget my cap.

Andy and John arrived and we had a quick chat as they joined the queue to register; then Pam and Roar shot off because eggs benedict and fine coffee were calling them.

I got to fanboy a bit, meeting some of the Vigour legends whose endeavours this summer have shamed me into actually going for a swim – Darrell, who swam a length of Loch Lomond, and Phia who swam a length of Loch Ness. Unfathomable achievements for a ageing sprinter like me.

Robert took centre stage and gave us his usual excellent briefing. Buoys on the left, then swimmers, then kayakers and powerboats on the right. That instruction seemed simple on dry land. And also a cautionary briefing on the dangers of hypothermia and the symptoms. The water was about 15ish C and we were going to be in for a while, so safety was paramount.

The first wave set off down to the waterfront and I staked my claim for my changing room. A perfect spot with facilities for hanging up my wetsuit – which could also be described as the pavement outside the village hall with my wetsuit hanging over the chevron sign. I got a couple of toots from passing drivers as I dropped my shorts and some looks of sheer horror as I dragged on my rubber suit.

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As I walked down the sodden field I checked four times that I had my cap. I did each time. Just before the barbed wire fence I bumped into Andy and John and we did some wetsuit zipping. We loitered for a moment on the beach and then without fuss we wandered into the water. I had a quick general splash of the face and neck but didn’t swim.

Robert talked us down from a minute to go. Then we counted down from ten. And then we were on. With 10k to swim I was going to take the start very easy indeed.

The start of a loch swim is always the same. The slightly metallic tang on the nose, the hint of peat on the tongue, the harsh chill of the dark water as it seizes you into it’s unknown depths. The icy nip on the face, the rising ice cream brain under a thin layer of latex, the constant battle to relax and manage my breathing.

I started right at the back and then started to set a steady pace. For a couple of hundred metres all I could see were swim buoys. Then I could see nothing. No other swimmers, no sighting buoys, just sky and the silhouette of the hills with Ben Vorlich looming over my breathing side where the Forth Bridge had sat the week before.

My catering plan was to follow the approach for the Great Scottish Swim by taking a gel, stashed under my goggle strap, at 3.2k and 6.4k.  The plan had some flexibility since we weren’t swimming loops so I was thinking I would stop at the 4k buoy and the 7k buoy.

When swimming in glass-flat, fresh water I normally feel like I am slashing through the water. Cutting a fine line with a swish or maybe a zing, and focussing on perfect hand placement with every stroke so as not to disturb the perfection. But this was different. It wasn’t like that.  The water was still like a mirror but my arms were clattering down on it like the hooves of a clydesdale on a wet cobbled lane. No matter how much I concentrated, my stroke was hard work.

Sighting was confusing. I had worn dark goggles imagining swimming towards the east in the early morning but the glare was already blocked by the high hills on the south side. With a kilometre between markers it was tricky to find a line and other random buoys loomed large and confused me without Father Ted drumming ‘small versus far away’ into me.

I was pretty sure I had passed the 1km buoy at a distance, 2km close by after being shepherded back on course by a kayaker and 3km again at a distance. It definitely felt like 3k swimming had passed – I would feed at the next buoy. Time dragged, I began to doubt myself, I meandered off course again and got another nudge in the right direction. Finally, the 4k buoy.

Goggles up, gel top ripped, swallowed, a gulp of loch water, gel stuffed in neck of wetsuit, quick watch check.

WTAF?

3.1k. Hell. This is odd.

Open water swimming is an odd thing anyway. Swimming the length of a loch is odder still.

Riding a bike you have a bike computer for feedback – cadence, power, heart rate, speed – all building up a picture of what is going on. If you are going slower than expected you are probably riding into a headwind, like it or not if you are going fast you have probably got a tailwind. When you run you have a watch giving constant feedback and lamp posts and pavements and your skin validate that feedback and help colour the picture. But in water you just have hands and arms. Unless a wave is washing over you it is impossible to get a feel for the environmental conditions.

Several years of long distance open water swimming have provided me with the experience to know that even still water has a life of it’s own below the surface. You can barely feel it but there are complex patterns that go on in the depths, fuelled by the weather and temperature and probably by the wakes of ancient loch monsters.

Something was going on in the water.

Sometime after I fed, I bumped into a female swimmer. I am guessing that because she had a pink stripe on her wetsuit. I sat on her toes for a bit and then tried to pass on her right. I couldn’t get past her waist. I dropped back on to her toes. I tried again and went up her left this time so I could sight her, as I breathed right. Again I couldn’t pass. We carried on like this for about a kilometre until a kayaker pointed us back towards the north shore. I could see the 5k buoy so I set a straight line for it.

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Me swimming past Roar. Roar more interested in getting his feet soaked.

As I neared the shore I could see people on the shore then I spotted Ted. I sat up and gave a big wave. Re-starting with a couple of big strokes and settling into a rhythm once I got moving. And then weird water patterns kicked in again – I shot past the pink striped wetsuit that I hadn’t been able to pass like she was standing still.

Somewhere about 6 or 7k I reach for my gel. This was definitely going to take  longer than I had planned for and I needed to keep topped up. It had fallen out. OK. I *REALLY* need to find that feed boat.

Bang. Bang. Bang. Go the hooves on the cobbles. Finally, I see the 8k buoy and it has a kayaker at it. It was Grahame, who I had met at North Queensferry the week before. We had a brief chat and he fed me a handful of jelly babies and pointed me in the right direction.

2k to go. Home straight. Although I knew it wasn’t. Doing some due diligence before the race I knew Loch Earn was 10.5k long, so 2.5k to go.

All I can say about the last 2.5k is that it was 2.8k and it was bloody hard work. I have never felt such slow progress in the water. It got choppy, wild choppy, then subsided. But mainly it was flat, and it was slow.

Finally, I could see high viz vests ahead. I knew the river left the loch there so I expected a pull but it never came. The finish was confusing, as we were advised in the briefing. Jetties a plenty obscuring the view and our slipway was slow in coming. So, so slow.

And then finally, really finally, I could stand up. Four swim marathons done and this was the hardest by miles. I am pretty sure that was exactly what I said to Robert and Kirsten as they met me on the slipway.  Three hours and 16 minutes after they saw me off from the other end.

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I don’t know how to analyse this one because it was so different.

The Great Scottish Swim was short for a 10k and this was long. Adjusting them both to 10k GSS was 2:41 and Loch Earn was 3:01. At GSS I went through 5k at 1:17 and in Loch Earn at 1:26. My 100m averages for my last three swims were GSS 1:37/100, Forth Crossing 1:36/100, Loch Earn 1:49/100.

Boy, that was one badass swim. Pop that one up on the iconic swim list, I say. A challenging, thoroughly enjoyable, bucket list swim.

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I grabbed my bag and got changed and as I stood at the back of the car I saw Andy and John swim in together. Pam ran down and instructed the paramedic to commit Andy to the med tent because “he feels the cold”. Whether he liked it or not Andy was getting a warm up cuddle.

We watched a few more swimmers come in and then headed off for a burger. A very credible burger, as it turned out, at the Four Seasons Hotel. The Four Seasons was the only thing in St Fillans that we could see from the other end. St Fillans wasn’t a foreign country after all.

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After lunch we headed back to race HQ to cheer the last few swimmers home.

Three years ago, when I did my first Vigour event, my first Forth Crossing, I wrote that I was impressed with their organisation and water safety. Now I am impressed by more than that.

As I’ve got to know Kirsten and Robert, and their crowd of like-minded, slightly daft weekend swim companions, it has felt more and more like a big swim family. Each event I do I chat to more people and find more in common with them and enjoy their company and their support.

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David, last swimmer in. Tough as nails,

And that is how the Loch Earn End to End ended for me. Chatting on the jetty with Grahame and Laura, cheering in David, a man I had never met, the last swimmer home. A man who spent six and a half hours in 15c water IN SKINS and looked pretty damn fresh when he got out. Rory splashing about with Ethan. Chatting to Julie about her Mersey crossing and her outrageously flamboyant swimwear.

So much swimming experience, so willingly shared amongst like minded people.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll unapologetically say it again, Vigour run the best swim events that I have done bar none. Many thanks to Robert, Kirsten, and all the volunteers who have kept us safe and kept throwing amazing events at us in 2017.

And that, sadly, is the end of the swim season. I have enjoyed it this year more than any other and I am as excited as the laddy looking down on a glassy loch to see what 2018 brings.

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At The Risk of Boring You……

Posted on August 29, 2017. Filed under: 10k, great scottish swim, marathon swimming, swimming |

This could be repetitive.  For two reasons.

Firstly, this is the only race that I have done consistently since it launched. The Great Scottish Swim has taken place seven times and I have done it eight of those times.

“Eh?”, you might say. Rightly. Back in it’s old hell swamp of a location it was cancelled twice because of blue-green algae. One of those times, though, I refused to take no for an answer and headed to the hills and did it anyway (gosh, don’t we look so young?) and still got a medal.

So, it is safe to say I am a big fan. And I have blogged about the Great Scottish Swim many, many times and, in a moment of swim tourism, I’ve even blogged about it’s English cousin the Great North Swim.

And secondly, open water swimming doesn’t make for riveting bloggage. If there isn’t a wetsuit malfunction or a federal penitentiary involved there usually isn’t that much to banter about. Even more dully I had entered the 10k, so that is a whole lot of swimming to not have many stories!

Fresh from his bionic upgrade my Thames Marathon swim buddy, Jan, entered the GSS and Team Rasmussen duly arrived on Friday evening. Sharon, who takes physical endeavours considerably more seriously than me as evidenced by her outrageously speedy marathon time, looked as visibly shocked by my acceptance of a first beer as she did by my acceptance of my nth beer several hours later. What can I say? I like a beer the night before I swim. Or wine. Or gin.

Swim time was kinda awkward. 8am at Loch Lomond, an hour and a half away. So we went for a two course breakfast. Porridge on waking up. Coffee for the road. Porridge on arrival. In addition I took a banana to the start.

As we walked down to the Loch to check out the course we bumped into another swim buddy, Bean, who was steadying herself for her first 10k. Some brief nervous chatting and then the three of us went to get changed.

Which turned out to be very disorientating. They only went and moved the change tent this year which confused the bejesus out of me.

When we had finally discovered the errant marquee we chose a spot in the pretty much empty tent. Within seconds I was sweating. Then I noticed my swim cap on the floor was shrivelling up and then I thought my feet had actually melted off. Apparently I had chosen the space where the solar flare of the sun was being pumped in and I was about to spontaneously combust.

We wandered down to the registration area picking Bean back up on the way and then bumping into Andy, my swim run partner. We were like rubber clad pied pipers.

Andy feels the cold and in an effort to combat this he had come dressed as Daffyd in a very tight rubber tank top. If the neoprene didn’t work he’d surely get himself a big ole man cuddle out there.

Robert Hamilton, the race director of the Forth Crossing, came over for a chat and told us the temperature was 15.7c, and tried to encourage the last stragglers to sign up to swim the Forth.

And just as Robert left we had final bants. My shiny new neck protector which was much coveted by strangers was the subject of substantial mockery from my friends. In a tactical change of subject from my rubberised garrotte, I noted that I had gone for a very light tint on my goggles as it was quite dull. Jan and Andy had gone darker. Bean, well Bean was running towards the change marquee. Evidently she had forgotten one of the three things that were required. Bless her when she sees the packing list for Lakesman next year.

And then it was time to acclimatise. I got into the tiny swim area and swam one lap at super slow speed. Then a second pausing at the end to, ahem, heat up the Loch..

As is standard we had some aerobics before the start, trying to do squats and lunges in a wetsuit with all the dexterity of a wrecking ball.  The 10k wave were called forward – Bean and I gave Andy and Jan hugs and well wishes – Keri-Anne Payne gave us some wise words that I forget and honked the horn. WE WERE OFF.

I high 5’d Bean on the slipway and waded to my belly button and then started to swim. Ever so gently. Avoiding the crowd. Avoiding the coldshock.

I went so far to the right that I swam right alongside the Maid of the Loch.

I had a long way to go but a couple of hundred metres in everything felt uncharacteristically perfect. This wasn’t intended to be my “A” race, just a long training session in readiness for Loch Earn. I know my body responds well to high volume just before a long swim and this was perfectly timed to peak at Loch Earn.

Because I was so far right it took me a while to get back on the race line for the anti-clockwise course. At the end of the first straight the turn was congested. Someone on my left hand side kept swimming into me. I enjoy the rough and tumble of open water swimming but some courtesy is required. Twice I moved right and twice the swimmer started hitting into me again. On the third time they got a clear and unequivocal message to swim straight; I didn’t see them again.

Around the top buoy I couldn’t find anything to sight. Only when I was on top of it did I realise that there was an almost totally black Suunto buoy.  I could spot it on subsequent laps but new waves that were introduced had similar buoy blindness.

The remainder of the first lap and the second lap were without incident. At the end of the second lap I tucked behind the buoy, took the gel from under my goggles, swallowed it and shoved the empty wrapper in my wetsuit. A 20 second pitstop. Watch check: 51 minutes for 2 miles.

At this time the next wave was released into the wild. I was swamped by a swarm of 5k and 2 mile swimmers. The next half lap was hard work passing through a thick soup of slower swimmers and breastroke kicks to the face.

After lap 4 (I am saving you a lot of underwater dullness in this summary) I followed the same pit stop routine. Watch check: 1:41 for 4 miles. Holy shit – a faster split than the first one and on track for an outrageous PB.

At the half way buoy on lap 5 the 10k leaders came past me as if I was standing still.

I have a social crisis on lap 5. I haven’t spoken to anyone for 2 hours. I think about dropping into the aid station for a gel. But really just a chat. I immediately HTFU.

Lap 6 feels heavy. I feel heavy. The waves feel heavier. At the turn I start a gentle kick readying my legs for returning to land use.

I exit the course and into the bay with the sun in my eyes. I pause to work out where the hell I am supposed to go.

With so much experience of finish line cramp, I put my feet down as soon as I can and walk in. I feel relatively fresh but under the pressure of gravity I am done.

Jan gets my attention. Or what attention I can summon up. I stumble onwards down the chute.

An man with a camera around his neck and what looks like a pot noodle in his hand approaches me.

“Do you want your picture taken?”

“Eh naaww. I just need to eat”

“The noodles are braw”

A very chirpy lady thrusts steaming noodles into my hand. She was literally my heroine in that moment. A proper super hero.

The kabuto noodles were an amazing addition to the event this year. A burger would make it perfect.  Just sayin.

I lost time in the last two miles taking 55 minutes. Definitely an issue with long endurance.

My final time was 2:36, 5 minutes better than last year’s 2:41. I came 26th (36th last year) overall and 3rd (yaaaaay) in age group (6th last year).

Jan and I then horsed down a giant burger at the Champany Inn.  All in all a good day.

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Swimming The Big One

Posted on August 27, 2016. Filed under: great scottish swim, marathon swimming, open water swimming, swimming, Uncategorized |

From the second I saw it announced I knew this was the race that I really wanted to do in 2016.

I had stuff I wanted to do – run an ultra, run a barking mad hill race, swim the Bridge to Bridge, swim the Forth again, and run the Berlin Marathon – but the Great Scottish Swim 10k would take me back to where it all started. Me, in water. One of my favourite bits of water. A race that I have competed in every single time it has taken place.

I did it in 2009, before I started to blog. I did it in 2010, when it didn’t really happen. I did it in 2011, with my bessie about 10 minutes after I finished an Ironman. I didn’t do it in 2012, no one did because of flesh eating swan shit in Strathclyde Park or some other nonsense. I did it in 2013, when I was mauled by a wasp and ended up hanging out with the medical professionals. I did it in 2014, I must have done because I have a medal, but I inexplicably wrote nothing about it.

And then I did it in 2015, with a raging hangover, had my first ever good Great Scottish Swim and  laid some pretty ugly swim demons to bed.

I wanted to swim longer. Why not do a swim marathon? Anything is possible.

Sure, I did the Thames Marathon, of which I am immensely proud. But two things niggle me about that achievement that don’t allow me to put it on the top shelf of achievements – there was a current and the water was warm. Like running a 100k ultra on a gentle downhill in mild spring weather – it’s a feat, but it’s not super mental. It was a great fun day out but as a bone grinding endurance event, it wasn’t the toughest.

So, the Loch Lomond 10k was always going to be a special event for 2016.

Preparation, as ever, was imperfect. I am still being dry needled and pummelled by a physio twice a week as I seek to regain feeling in my left hand. But, no excuses, it might stop me picking up a coffee cup but it’s not affected my swimming.

Race Day. A 4pm start for a swim is a weird ass thing. So I spend a couple of hours moseying across the M8, stopping occasionally to purchase forgotten lube or pausing for caramel shortbread, or ice cream or other decadent treats.

Just after Dumbarton, at the drive through Costa, I get an Americano, a cup of hot water and a spoon. Each ordered infuriatingly separately for the increasingly infuriated drive through lady.  Yup, I am going to eat a porridge pot at three in the afternoon.

At Loch Lomond shores it is T-60 minutes. Time to shake and bake.

I make up the porridge while I tape up my neck. I look like a mummy yet, I can assure you, this attracts less attention than the alternative look – garrotted auto-erotic asphyxiation. I pop on a down jacket for later and head down to the race area.

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Wetsuit on to waist, lubed and baggage away. I wander for a while just letting my body temperature drop. And then it’s time to check in. There is the usual process of being zipped up and helping others zip up. Thankfully there was no repeat of zipgate.

I do three laps of the acclimatisation area and hang around, floating, in the deep end for a bit until we are told to get out. All I have is an awareness I am going to be in the water for a very long time. At 16.5c that is no mean feat.

The usual race briefing – don’t drown, don’t be shit, don’t shit yourself etc. I may have paraphrased that. And then Olympian Keri-anne gives us some last minute tips. Keri-anne started my first GSS in 2009 so it was lovely symmetry for her to start my longest one 7 years later.

And we’re off.

It’s always choppy and a bit kick-in-the-facey down the first channel until we are clear of the Maid of Loch. But unless you’re a diddy you just keep your face out of the feet and fist zone. It’s a long swim, there’s absolutely no point fighting for space in the first 50m.

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My race plan is Take it Easy. The miles are banked there is no need for daft swimming.

Lap one is straightforward. A bit congested but no drama. Towards the end I decide I will stick with the two feed strategy at 2 miles and 4 miles.

Lap two is equally straightforward. I find some feet going straight and at the same pace as me and I stick to them.

At the end of Lap two I take on 3 jelly babies and half a bottle of water. 50 minutes.

I start Lap three. I can’t see the buoys. Must be a canoeist in the way. Sight. Nope, no buoys. Sight. Holy shit. All I can see is The Weather. The Weather obscures the hills, the buoys and The Weather is appearing in the form of raindrops the size of cannonballs. At that moment I really appreciate the volunteers. And I really hope they have great waterproofs.

I start lap four and I start to feel cramp in my foot. I stretch and my calf cramps violently. I try to stretch my calf and my quad goes.  Under the water there is a noise like a wounded animal. I roll onto my back. I realise I am cold and it’s got into my muscles. I try to use my left leg to stretch the right. It cramps. I am literally floating on my back with all the dexterity of a log. Two canoeists make their way towards me. I wave them off. Sod this – no one is retiring me. I roll over and drag my legs cramping like a wizened claw behind me. I have to roll onto my back a couple more times just to get enough oxygen in. I have a canoeist shadowing me. No way. No fucking way am I stopping until I decide I’m done.

I get a rhythm going again. I settle my breathing. The cramp eases. It’s still cramp it just doesn’t feel like Guantanamo torture any more. Every now and then I am gripped with panic as I feel the rising creep of tightness, just waiting for it to kick off.

At 4 miles I get to the feed station.

“What do you need?”

“I’ve got cramp real bad, give me everything!”

Three jelly babies, a glucose tablet and half a litre of water and I’m on my way.

About half way the pace line is in disarray. A buoy has lost it’s mooring. We are directed onwards.

I amuse myself with the Next Time game. Next time I pass here it will be the last time. Every. Single. Buoy. gets Next Timed.

I start the last lap. Now I can play Last Time.

This is the Last Time I’ll pass here. Last Time. Last Time.

I felt tired but fresh. I’d lost pace but I could swim it all again. Easily.

I pass the last turn buoy. Last Time. I get to enter the finish straight.

I walk out. I’m done. 10 actual kilometres of swimming with no tail wind. As big an achievement as anything I’ve done but I felt well within myself the whole way.

Unexpectedly my sister and Kelly shout on me. The 10k doesn’t attract the crowds of the Saturday at GSS, so my supporters were most of the crowd.

I change. I inhale McDonalds. I drive.

I stop at Harthill for McCoys and Coke. I have tape on my neck, I’m shivering, I have an exceptionally odd cramp influenced walk and I have a number sharpied on my hand. That, it seems, is what it takes for a Harthiller to look at you like you are an oddball.

I get home. Relax. I finished in 2:41, 36th overall and 6th in age group. I’ll take that.

Two weeks until I cross the Forth again. Maybe I’ll have a fully functional hand by then.

 

 

 

 

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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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A Very, Very Long Way

Posted on November 2, 2015. Filed under: forth crossing race, great scottish swim, henley bridge to bridge, marathon swimming, swimming, ultra running |

I’m not sure how it happened.  I’m not sure how an innocent couple of days thinking about things to do in 2016 could turn out like this.  Perhaps it just proves I am a dumbass.

The reason that I am definitely indefinitely retired from iron distance is because it’s so far and the training takes up so much time.  So obviously the conclusion of my deliberations would be no Ironman in 2016; because it’s a long way and it takes so much time to train.  And there is no Ironman planned in 2016.  And for that I am pleased, very pleased indeed.

However, and I shall type this very quickly for it is indeed very silly, I shall instead be doing an ultra and two marathon swims.  Like a TIT.

Yes, I decided not to “race” a very long way and spend hours training and instead “race” a very long way and spend hours training.  Duh.  The difference is so subtle it is practically invisible.  In fact it is, indeed, invisible.  See?  IDIOT.

How did I get here?  To be honest I’ve thought a lot about this and I don’t really know.  A bit like a child is often accused of being “over tired” I seem to be over inspired.  There are so many fun things to do and I want to do them ALL.  (Not really).

Anyway. Long swims.  Until August they terrified me and now they don’t.  And now I want to swim a very, very long way. And often so it seems.  I have two flavours of long swim for 2016.  First up is the Henley Bridge to Bridge – 14km in a stretch of the Thames between Henley and Marlow where all the poshes live.  It is apparently downstream but no-one will tell you what impact the flow has.  I guess it’s like an inside secret.  I’ll blab when I find out.  It’s probably bugger all.  The second very, very long swim is the 10k Great Scottish Swim.  A wholly different challenge presented by a serious stretch of open water that can boil up without a moment’s notice.  It will probably be my soberest Friday night at Loch Lomond ever.  Two very different swims – one in crystal clear loch water surrounded by the hills and one floating downstream fighting for water space with posh people’s jobbies. Bring. It. On.

IMG_20140130_124048Very different though they both are, even from a long history of swimming, the training is intimidating.  Peak week in July will be a minimum of 24k with 6 days of swimming and an 8k long swim.  The grumpy auld wifies will be loving me down the pool.  I will hopefully be tapping up proper long distance crazies like Donal Buckley, the Lone Swimmer for much needed help along the way.  These two swims definitely don’t feel like light undertakings right now.  In fact they feel as big as running a marathon but with even more anti-social training.  And hopefully all that swim fitness will carry me on for a late season PB in a repeat assault on the Forth Crossing Race.  These three events have all been booked and paid for to encourage me to start training NOW.  I’ve even planned it.

But before all that, proving that I have taken complete leave of my senses I am going to run further than a marathon.  What a walloper.

Having sherpa’d at Glencoe I rekindled my love of the hills.  Mainly looking at the hills as I am not built for going up hills.  Then I read blogs and got over inspired – Sarah’s Autumn 100 (miles yes 100 MILES), any of Susie’s ridiculously numerous very, very long runs, Glenn’s maiden ultra around Tiree and mostly, definitely mostly, Rhona’s epic West Highland Way race.  I was lost for hours in Rhona’s blogs of the amazing Scottish ultras and if you read the WHW race report do it on a day when you don’t have to work the next day.

D33 looked a perfect race for me but having only fannied about with my trainers without actually running for months it was going to come around too soon.  Everything else was either too long or too far away.  So I have my heart set on a race that is just a holding page just now.  But the Glen Lyon Ultra is in one of my favourite areas and it is calling.  I will be ready.

I’ve been running.  All off road and I’m enjoying it.  Maybe ultras aren’t such a stupid idea after all.

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