vigour events

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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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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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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