swimming

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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Learning Lessons at the Loch Ard Swim Festival

Posted on September 5, 2016. Filed under: loch ard swim festival, open water swimming, swimming, Uncategorized, vigour events |

It will be my 45th birthday this week.

Forty-fecking-five. Three hundred and sixty five days of “mid 40s”, a brief oasis between the loss of my early 40s and, ughh, my late 40s.  The slack water in the ebb and flow of a decade.

Why do I tell you this, because age is something I rarely think of?

No, it’s not a hint for presents (although gin is my favourite, I love gin), (and beer), (and if anyone wants to get me vouchers for the Cappadocia Kebab House…..) but rather it is a moment of pause where I realised I learnt two big lessons this year. One I learned as the year trundled on, growing on me gradually, and one quite suddenly when I was up to my neck in chilly Loch Ard.

Anyway, having finished the Great Scottish marathon swim 19 minutes ahead of expectation and with a fortnight to go until the Forth Crossing race, I didn’t feel I was done with distance swimming for the year. So based on a great experience at the Forth race last year I entered the Vigour Events Loch Ard 5k.

Vigour Events are Scottish and put on races in some amazing stretches of water. I’ve loved doing smaller races this year that are elegantly understated and Vigour do that just perfectly. Robert did the race briefing in a huddle in the rain under the start arch. We were assured of our safety and to watch out for the cold and each other. And most importantly the paramedics were paid for so feel free to use them. Twice if we wanted.

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The water temperature was 15c and air temperature just above 10c. I have been spoiled this year. The water in Windermere for the Great North Swim 5k was 20c, in the Thames for the  Thames Marathon was 20c, in Loch Lomond for the Great Scottish Swim 10k was 16.5c so this was going to be nippy by comparison. By the way, Keswick Mountain Festival was supposed to be 11c but was it monkeys, it was roasting.

Anyway, I digress. Back to Loch Ard and lesson number 1.

We were up early and ploughed through the rain and mist to be at Kinlochard for registration closing at 0915. Of course we weren’t, we were late.

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Registered got a cap and Tunnocks Teacake (which reminds me I have a crushed Tunnocks Teacake at the bottom of my rucksack) and got suited up ready to go. Applied my patented neck tape to prevent the garrotte, checked in under the arch and paddled. As soon as we got the all clear to go in the water I was first in. I have a desperate need to quickly get my body temperature down before a race. And I needed to pee. Mainly I needed to pee.

While the water was mildly chilly, and the weather was properly foul (but I was wet anyway), the water conditions were amazing. Flat, calm and barely a breath of wind to distract from just enjoying the swim.

We had a couple of minutes floating in the water while some 10 and 12.5k swimmers rounded the buoy. And then we were off.

I had a dream start. Two guys went VERY FAST, and I jumped onto the toes of the second guy. It was fast and furious.

As a trio we went well clear of the group easily making 50m in the first 200m.

And then I felt it.

I was struggling to get a breath. Breathe every stroke. I can hold this.

Sitting on the tipping point. Get enough oxygen in and the moment will pass, don’t and, well, it won’t.

My chest tightened. I sighted. Mouthful of water off the kick from the guy in front.

Bugger. It’s coming. Another breath, half hearted now, I know it’s coming.

I tread water to sight.  WTF is that all about?

Six more strokes I stop dead in my tracks. Gasping for air but finding none. The rising anxiety. The sheer terror of the constriction of the wetsuit. The main group passes me. The rescue boat is right with me.

I could just get out. Get in that boat.  Everything in my body is screaming GET OUT. Robert looks at me with concern. The back markers swim past me. I feebly thumbs up. I would shout “I’m OK”, if I was capable of making noise. Still a look of concern from the rescue boat. The panic is easing. The wetsuit loosens. My breathing calms. I am calm.

Another thumbs up from me. Returned this time, with a smile.

I am OK.

LESSON #1 With confidence comes hubris

I have swum well this year. Measured performances, each getting better. I thought I could race with the big boys at Loch Ard but my confidence completely disregarded my brain which knows I need a slow and deliberate start (See the Great North Swim blog). A useful lesson to be humble or be humbled.

Anyway, face in the water, I ease myself back into it. Looking back at the data I had set off at sub 1:20 pace, but now I was at a much more comfortable mid 1:30s.

I start picking my way through feet until eventually there aren’t many more feet to see.  I then swim with the same guy for the last 4k. I had no idea where we were in the race but it was a settled pace and we were both moving together.

The course was two 2k loops, that felt massive, and a 1k loop to finish. The end of each loop was really close to the finish arch but I never really paused to look. I wanted to make up the time from my premature breather.

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I finished in 1:25, just off the pace of my last three 5k’s of 1:21, received a medal, half a banana and a bottle of water before returning to a burger and civilisation.

My final placing was 6th. Having re-started after my false start in dead last I was pleased to have carried on and made progress. Third place was 1:21, by the way.

Which brings me to my second lesson that slowly dawned on me during 2016.

LESSON #2 With confidence comes new found love

Until this year I probably last enjoyed a swim race in the late 80s. I’ve dabbled a bit but I’ve not loved it. But after getting the swim monkey off my back last year I have been enjoying racing and training more and more. I love swimming on the feet or shoulder to shoulder, ready to race. And this year I have found myself work my way up the rankings against some serious swimmers. My second lesson – rediscovering my confidence in the water has made me want to race again. And train. And I love that.

There is only one swim of the season to go – the Forth Crossing Race next weekend. And then the Berlin Marathon a couple of weeks later. It feels a long season but, without a doubt, it’s the most fun I’ve had in years.

 

There is even a video from the swim festival that, thankfully, failed to capture my spluttering indignity.

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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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Love of the Lakes (featuring Great North Swim)

Posted on July 14, 2016. Filed under: 5k, great north swim, great scottish swim, swimming |

I am a Highlander at heart.

I may have been born on the Clyde but I am as much a Weegie as I am a Chinaman.

Growing up on the edge of the Highlands, every time I watch Rory on a never-ending, silver, windswept, arctic beach wearing nothing but a streak of sand encrusted snot I am reminded of photos of me as a child. My happiest days as I grew up were battling the increasing corporate indolence by retreating to a tent at the weekends and bagging Munros.

But the Highlands are spikey.

They are bare and barren and dangerous to the foolhardy, and fools. Their majesty is their devastating desolation. Every journey is a life changing adventure, an eternal trek somewhere over the horizon. A trek in which you’ll likely see no humans, no things built by humans and have no contact with humans on the other side of reality.

I Highland whenever I can. But every June, without fail, we have packed the tent in the car and gone North. Out with wifi and comfy beds and your own shower and in with massive sand dunes and mountain passes and big sky. So much sky.

And that was the plan this year again. But for the Keswick Mountain Festival trip.

Three nights in the Lakes was not enough. We had to go back, for more adventuring.

All wild places are wild. And dangerous. But. But the Lakes feel different. If Disney did wild country it would be like the Lakes.

Where the deep Highlands can feel like a post-apocalyptic dystopia, the Lakes are pretty bloody jolly. Folks in active wear, with walking poles EVERYWHERE. Folks in active wear, with walking poles drinking warm beer and eating ploughmans in sunny beer gardens. It’s warm and jolly and smiley.

When you meet a stranger on the hills in the Highlands they have the thousand yard stare. You look into their eyes and you see the horrors that they have seen on their latest traverse. In the lakes you smile at their rosy cheeks and beer burps and their warm welcome as you meet them on the trail.

In the Highlands every drive leaves you corralled between jaggy, grey, dry-stane dykes or precipitous drops to peaty bogs. In the Lakes the roads are padded with hedgerows of ferns and nettles and soft foliage, like those helmets for toddlers to stop them bumping their head on a table edge.

As you dip your toes in a Highland loch for a swim you take a deep breath ready for the blackness, and the chill and whatever weather the swim gods will rain down upon you with great vengeance and furious anger. In the Lakes a swim is warm, and clear and the winds bring benign waves that are fun rather than life threatening.

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The Highlands are a special kind of grey, a crazy, mad darkness that Dulux could not replicate on it’s colour chart while The Lakes are the most vibrant green. A glowing verdant countryside that would provide the perfect green belt to The Emerald City.

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We had so much fun. Marching up to the top of a hill to a cave or a quarry or a waterfall. Schlepping along to the lake for a swim or some pebble throwing or just getting wet. Rory and Ted both finding their favourite sticks and then arguing over them. BBQing under Wansfel and then jogging up Loughrigg before breakfast the next morning. Getting gingerbread in Grasmere and fish and chips in Bowness and ice cream in Ambleside. Visiting Brockhole and Wray Castle during the day and reading Beatrix Potter at bedtime.

And thank you to Ambleside legend, Norseman, Celtman and practically every other kind of man, Chris Stirling for being so generous with his time and knowledge and even selling me the one OS map that I didn’t already own.

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The Lakes are almost perfect. Almost. But we need to talk about the beer. The beer spoils it. Bloody awful stuff. The Highlands are brewing the most amazing craft beers at Black Isle and Cromarty and Skye and Cairngorm – modern, hoppy, fizzy, chilled. The Lakes have loads of modern, craft breweries but they are brewing the same old stuff – warm, flat and just a bit blah. It’s not often I choose Generic Lager over anything else but the Lakes kinda makes me do that.

Anyway. I digress.

The Great North Swim.

Once the cottage was booked I had a dawning realisation the GNS was on when I was there. But it would probably be miles away and it’s always full booked any way.  Except it wasn’t. It was on our doorstep and there was space in the 5k.

I hadn’t planned to swim a 5k. I wasn’t ready for a 5k. But I desperately needed open water time before the Thames Marathon and the Great Scottish 10k.

What the hell? I was in.

First thing to say about the Great North Swim is that it is like all the other Great Swims on steroids. It is huge. It starts on Friday and finishes on Sunday and thousands of swimmers drift through the waters over the weekend. The location is great but also not so great. The scenery is stunning and it allows for close up spectating from the shore but there is a LOT of walking.

It is a long walk to the site. The site is vast. And it’s a long walk home. Apparently there were hot tubs. Never saw them. Apparently there were segways.  Never saw them. Sooooo big compared to our nice compact Loch Lomond venue.

Anyway. I haven’t swum a 5k since I finally got over myself and my fear of long distance by Slaying Demons last August. I was in better swim shape back then but also hungover and full of McDonalds so I reckoned if I could get a similar time I’d be happy.

We hiked up to the venue. Had a look around and then I got suited up ready to go at 0930.

Warm up was a perfunctory walk through an area not unlike a human sheep dip. I got my suit wet, my head under and managed to steal a few strokes amongst the human soup. Bizarrely one fella, presumably warming up for the 5k was having a panic attack in waist deep water and holding up our conga. No idea how he’d have coped in deep water.

Things then proceeded as all Great Events do. A dry land warm up. Race brief.  General motivational merriment. Self seeding by speed that has all the human bricks seeding themselves as great whites. A countdown. The horn.

My approach to a mass start swim is very particular. It has been honed over the years from too many unexplained bad swims. What I know now is that if I start off too fast, even marginally, by about 200m in I am gasping for air and certain that a boa constrictor is squeezing the life out of me. In my first open water swim start I became irrationally convinced that the TV helicopter was sucking the air from my lungs.

So now I start as slow as I can. Literally at the stall point where I can’t maintain forward momentum. And then, as I am reassured that I am settled into my stroke, and as the human stramash eases, I start to pick the pace up to a more comfortable race pace.

I must have picked up the pace too early. I felt the rising panic as I approached the first buoy. But I know what it is now so I took the pace right down until I recovered and carried on.

There really isn’t much to write about the actual proceedings of an open water swim. Bubble, bubble, breathe. The odd boot in the face. A low flying swan. A squint, but VERY ENTHUSIASTIC swimmer.  Bubble, bubble, breathe. Repeat. Repeatedly.

I had no expectations of time. It was just about relaxed, open water time. As I neared the ramp I couldn’t focus on the big clock but I imagined it would be somewhere near the 1:37 at Loch Lomond last year.

On to my feet. Goggs and cap off. Cross the timing mat. 1:21.

WTF.

Probably a mistake. Must be the time for another race. I scan the crowd for Pam, Roar and Ted. No sign. I wander the length of the site. Noooope.

I had told them just over 1:30. Maybe the 1:21 was legit.

It is.  I do my shocked face and I’m not even faking it. Keswick had been a wake up that I could do a decent pace in open water but I knew I faded there. Perhaps it was the 10k run that caused the fade rather than general swim sloth.

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We all meet up and I take Roar off to the change tent to get a wetsuit on to get into the Lido. Talk about a duck to water! Aquasphere loaned him some goggles and a cap and he spent his time in the water trying to dive to the bottom to get stones. A natural!

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The countdown is now on for the Henley Bridge to Bridge, and almost immediately after the Great Scottish Swim 10k and then a reprisal of the Forth Crossing.

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I am doing plenty of swimming and looking forward to the challenges ahead. If only my wetsuit would stop garroting me……..

 

 

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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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Deja Vu

Posted on January 6, 2016. Filed under: swimming, ultra running |

In October I was on a roll. In November I was on a roll. I started December on a roll. And now I am 73% roll. The remaining 27% is, that particularly wholesome Scottish delicacy, square sausage.

The rhythm has been lost. The wheels have come off the juggernaut. Almost literally.

This is not, as Kris Akabusi might say, a lack of positive mental attitude. Motivational memes are not really my scene anyway but my sudden indolence is not a lack of moral fibre. Well, it kinda is and it kinda isn’t.

Let me explain.

At the start of December, on my way to pick up Rory from nursery, in the face of a squall of hail, snow and torrential rain, I aquaplaned into the central reservation of the M90. It was quite the most elegant pirouette that a large bloke at velocity could achieve.

I walked away. The Audi A5 that I considered with some affection became deceased, a crumpled pile of tin. Along with my beloved merino beanie that became collateral damage somewhere along the way.

The next day I had a sore back. Quite sore, indeed.

I couldn’t say whether it was a consequence of the impact. Or standing for an hour in the flimsiest of waterproofs, on the bleakest stretch of motorway, in the foulest Scottish winter weather . Or sitting on an uncomfortable chair, eating cake, while waiting for my car to be MOT’d. (Oh yes, the irony of writing off my car driving home from the MOT has been lost on NO-ONE).

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Whatevs. I had a sore back. And so, as is my norm, discretion became the better part of valour with injury and I haven’t run since. Which is a bugger. Especially in peak binge eating season.

I am back to roly-poly. I am not ready for long swim or long run.

However, this is a familiar situation to me. One January day several years ago Iron Nessie got me into running from a slobbish mess (as the fat boy before pictures testify). By May of that year I was ready to run my first 10k.

It’s January now. I am chubbily, wheezily unfit and I will be ready for a run by May. Just like 2009. Well kinda. Except May 2016 will be my first ultra. I’ll be ready. No biggie.

Anyway. Enough shooting the shit, I must get on with some visualising of writing a training plan.

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Product Review: Huub Big Buoy

Posted on November 29, 2015. Filed under: product review, Ranty McRantface, swimming, triathlon |

I have never done a product review before. I probably won’t do one again. Personally I don’t find them that interesting. But sometimes needs must.

As seems to be de rigeur when writing a product a review I shall make full disclosure. I received no payment for this blog and got no free shit either. As will be abundantly clear in the reading.

It’s also worth disclosing I have become increasing bemused and dismayed by the commercialisation of triathlon. I have no objection to people making money out of a growth sport but the spawning of Any Old Shit has been quite incredible. People buy Any Old Shit they neither need nor will benefit from in the hope of a fabled marginal gain. Tri magazines loaded with product advertorials have simply become Any Old Shit Mongers. And every product is supported by the most vapid pseudo-science (that which we called marketing guff in the old days) “proving” why their particular brand of Any Old Shit is the New Big Shit.

So, with that baseline you can conclude that I am a fair-minded, independent reviewer. Or not. That’s your choice.

Anyway. If you have never come across a pull buoy before then allow me to be the first to enlighten you.

A pull buoy is a swim training aid that you place between your thighs to either isolate your arms to build upper body strength or to support your legs. The first pull buoys that I used in the late 70s were two white foam cylinders held together with string. By the 80s they had developed into solid figure of 8 constructions. They really are that simple. And I was as surprised as anybody that they had been “scienced”.

Here is a confession. I was weak. Normally Any Old Shit doesn’t get under my skin. I am immune to the bizarre cults of Garmin and Huub and Compressport and Jack Oatbar. But it did during the summer. With practically no swimming in my shoulders I was facing a 5k open water swim. I had no time to build the diesel engine. I was built like a diesel engine. But I could build some shoulder strength with big paddles and a pull buoy.

So I bought a Huub Big Buoy. Because science.

“You can now alter between drag loads by utilising Hydrodynamic shaping and you can choose buoyancy focus between the legs with two differing size end curves”, they say.

They go on, “For larger swimmers and leg sinkers, traditional pull buoys just don’t cut it and offer little assistance in improving body alignment”.

Boom. THAT’S ME! At a little (ahem) over 15 stone, just under 6 foot and with legs that are filled with concrete and lead this was designed JUST FOR ME. I needed a big boy Big Buoy and all the body alignment and stuff. So I spent £19.99 on it for me own customised, uber-scienced piece of triathlon magic.

And then I didn’t use it.

That is until Project Swim A Very Long Way Repeatedly got underway. Training has been going well, times are dropping like a stone and it became time to do some strength work so I cracked out the Huub Big Buoy.

There are two things you notice when you open the Huub Big Buoy.

The first is the total eclipse of every available light source. This thing is huge. It didn’t even fit in my swim bag like my old trusty speedo pull buoy did. I guess that it only fits in the Huub Triathlon Dry Bag which is scientifically engineered with black hole technology to create a tardis effect (that bit maybe made up. Or not)

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The second thing is that it is emblazoned with “A MASSIVE 34 NEWTONS OF FLOTATION”. Now I don’t know about you but that means nothing to me. It could have said A MASSIVE 3 NEWTONS and I would have thought it was massive. OR A MASSIVE 34 MARSHMALLOWS OF FLOTATION and I would have been equally impressed. Or not. With hindsight I got marketeered. Marketing dressed as science. Marketoscience.

Anyway, to the pool with it.

I have been a swimmer in various guises since I was 7. I am now 44. I have swum at districts, nationals, a couple of Ironman, Escaped from Alcatraz and across the Firth of Forth. So I have a pretty good idea how to swim and how to use most training aids.

After a warm up I started a buoy and paddle set. From the off I was incredibly uncomfortable. I felt like a scorpion with my toes and legs curling over my back to touch my head.  And I felt really unbalanced – every roll of my hips felt like I was going to tip over. 1000m later I concluded that I must be using it wrong.

I consulted the web. I wasn’t.

Next session the positional discomfort was still there. I felt awkward in the water. I never feel awkward in the water. Positional hydrodynamic oscillation the marketoscientists would probably call it. By the end of the second session my lower back was aching. Two days later I still felt it.

Third session was the same. But after the third session my back was so tender that it affected the way I walked for a couple of days.

That was it. I’m out, as Duncan Bannatyne would say if this piece of Any Old Shit had been flogged to him. A mere 3000m had a negative physical impact and messed with my feel for the water.  Not a remotely happy Big Buoy owner. Not a happy big boy.

I have bloody heavy legs. If I swim with a band I move through the water like a dredger. I can only assume 34 mega-marshmallows of floating newtons, or whatever, is required for much “larger swimmers and leg sinkers” than me. Like people who have actual, real iron for legs.

Now I have never been tempted to buy a Huub wetsuit despite The Science and the noisy celebrity endorsements. Indeed, the day that I contemplate buying a £550 wetsuit is the day that I am actually mental enough to swim open water in skin. But, herein lies an important point.

Huub say in their Big Buoy marketing “For athletes training for wetsuit swims the HUUB Big Buoy is the perfect training partner and allows swimmers to simulates the leg lift offered by HUUB wetsuits”. I take this just to be marketing guff; there is not a chance in hell that all these pros (who will have a damned sight lighter legs than me) are wearing these suits if that is how they make you feel in the water.

As an entry level drug to the methamphetamine of the Huub cult the Big Buoy is ineffective. If I was crazy enough to be tempted to buy a £550 wetsuit that bit of marketoscientific copy would put me off completely. Sometimes all publicity isn’t good publicity. Sometimes halo effects are not positive halos. Weird.

Let me sum it up:

Pros – if you take it on a cruise liner and that cruise liner sinks all of the crew and passengers could safely live on the Big Buoy until rescued

Cons – it wrecked my back due to it’s over enthusiastic Newtons (my fault obvs for not having heavy enough legs); it disrupted my swim technique.

So, here I find myself sitting on the fence about the Huub Big Buoy. KIDDING.  It’s shite. Would I recommend it? Nah, the hardwood floor in the above picture would be a better swim aid.

Seriously, as a swimmer, I can’t think of anything worse to stick between your legs in an effort to get stronger. Product fail.

 

 


 

If you are still looking for something to spank your Christmas money on I did write The Three Best Investments I Have Ever Made in Triathlon last Christmas.

 

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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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Scenes From A Swimming Pool

Posted on October 16, 2015. Filed under: swimming, triathlon |

There are always interesting things to see at a swimming pool.  From a child’s first exposure to the water, to an adult putting their face in for the first time, to badly advised swimwear.  But today shall be filed under Special.

I first spotted him at the water fountain mixing a potion.  In an oversized water bottle he shook normal pool deck water fountain water and the mystical elixir of life.  Whether it was protein or pre workout or post workout or 4:1 mix or proteins specially formulated for the over 45s or the magical reduction of nutribulleted flapjack I’ll never know. But the attention to swim nutrition piqued my interest.  Who was this new swim star at the pool?

Obviously nutrition alone didn’t mark him out as a contender.  That was the speedos.  Not Speedo the brand, but speedo the 1980s hairy man ass garment.  The banana hammock. The pickle pincher.  The scrote tote.  Rarely worn by anyone outside of Germany since David Wilkie was a lad.

Incredible scenes.  Attention was duly caught.

Anyway, the Budgie Smuggler strides towards the pool.  Past the open swimming area.  Past the slow lane.  And he sits on the pool deck in the fast lane and puts his legs in the water.  Pretty good etiquette to alert your lane mates that your arrival is imminent.  A serious swimmer.

Everyone in the pool leans forward; takes a little more notice.  Who is the new guy?  Has an Olympian taken to visit our small pool?  We brace ourselves for a swim masterclass from a visiting aquatic dignitary.

He adjusts his goggles.  Even from a distance I notice they are Huub.  Hmmm, a triathlete.  Probably not a technical masterclass but a lesson in athletic endeavour.

He adjusts the goggles some more.  And then some more.  His lane mates are alerted to his imminent arrival every 50m, 400m later (I shit you not) they are still wondering when he will start.  Final preparations on the scientifically over-designed aphotic goggles done, he chugs some liquid flapjack and slips in.

We are ready.

A long push off. A hint of a flutter kick breaks the surface.  He swims like buggery. Elbows, chin, aphotics, splash, feet, splash, hammering down to the 25m mark.  Technically rough. Very rough. But enthusiastic; indecently enthusiastic.  At the turn he switches to breastroke and repeats for 75m.  OK, kinda odd but maybe it’s a technical programme that he’s working to.

He reaches the 100 metre mark and stands exposing the dong sarong in the shallow end and chugs a quarter of the bottle of nutritional Dom Perignon.  The rest interval is generous.  The pool slowly evaporates while he recovers.

The same routine is repeated twice.  Splashy crawl. Eager breastroke. Nutrition. Stand around like a spare tool.  An elderly lady taps his toes on one of the breastroke laps.

I am intrigued. How fast is he actually going under all the splash?  On the 4th set I get Rory to hold onto a noodle and I tow him with a flutter kick. I keep pace with Mr Sausage Sling. I introduce a gentle one-handed scull and it’s like when Maverick says to Goose “put on the brakes and he’ll fly right by”.  I am basically an F14.

Rory and I resume playing Jump on Daddy’s Head And Laugh while The Swimmer does the breastroke element of his swim set.  Then he chugs the last quarter of the bottle and gets in the jacuzzi.

400 metres of masterclass done.  Nutritional strategy executed.

Budgie smuggling chopper.

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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.

2015-09-07 21.50.17-2

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.

2015-09-07 22.04.22 2015-09-07 22.02.38

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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