Phew what a weekend and Saturday 15 June in particular. It was always going to be a challenging event, but I guess I didn’t appreciate the curve-balls and the changing conditions that could throw the best mental preparations into disarray.
It all started so well, after a late arrival in Dover on the Friday evening, I slept quite well and arrived at Dover beach with Amanda in good time to register, settle into a spot out of the wind and prepare for the swims ahead. I was a bit nervous, but excited too. My brother, Steve, arrived shortly afterwards with chair and food and blankets to support us and look after me. His key duties were to apply the vaseline, to make sure my crocs and robbie were waiting for me at the waters edge as I finished each swim, to help me get changed if required, to have a hot drink available and to take some pictures for posterity. It was his first time witnessing a mass gathering of long distance cold water swimmers and I think it made a lasting impression 😉 He’s always known I was a bit odd, but I’m not sure he realised there were so many others like me!
I think there were three briefings for the first 5-mile swim..I may have missed one when I walked down the beach after being told we were ready to go. The masses gathered at the top of the steep pebble bank, stood looking out to the course for a good few minutes…and then walked back to the sheltered area behind the watersports centre. Muggings here had surfed the pebbles all the way down to the waters edge and was keen to get started. I really didn’t want to walk up the beach again. I hate Dover beach – its one step up the slope and two-thirds slide back down. My legs start to get crampy and I run out of puff. Still, with all the swimmers putting a jacket on it didn’t look like the start was imminent any more and the wind was starting to chill me so I had no choice but to plough my way back up the beach. At least my big bro was there to help 🙂
Another briefing. The course was being adjusted. No longer a rectangle with five one-mile laps, we were going to swim 10 triangular laps, each to be 800m in distance. That’s disappointing but at least it really is time to go now. This time all the swimmers proceeded down the beach and prepared to enter the water. The water was around 12C and the wind was causing some movement on the surface..oh yes, waves, big ones! No one looked keen to be first in. I took the plunge with a very few others and swam out to the start boat. Others hesitated and gathered together at the waters edge. There seemed to be some discussion. The water was nippy and hanging about waiting for everyone to get in was starting to frustrate. After about 10 minutes where a few of us waited in the water, the rest finally surged forwards and arrived at the start point. This time I had definitely missed another briefing. Confusion reigned as the arriving swimmers insisted the laps had been amended but the start boat said they hadn’t. What was the course? Round the bouys or round the start boat? It seemed yet another age had passed before the instruction came back and it was as per the 3rd (or was it the 4th?) briefing where I had been present. Finally we were off and I could start to generate some warmth through movement. Mentally I was now confused..where was I heading, how many circuits did I need to do?..and also a bit cold. It took me a few laps to start to loosen up and feel energised. Boy was it a battle on the long side of each triangle. Heading into wind and rising tide I was slapped in the face by the waves too many times to mention. I had earplugs in for the first time and was so glad I did. There’s nothing worse than air being compressed into my eardrum by the waves as I turn my head to breathe.
After a few laps it became apparent that either I was swimming particularly slow (always possible) or that the course was a good bit longer than the 800m it was supposed to be. I probably shouldn’t have worn my watch, but I kindof like to keep a check on progress. So now my mind began calculating how long it was going to take me to complete the 10 laps and wondering what the true distance of the swim would work out to be.
About lap 6 I decided I was slowing down a bit and should take the gel I had stashed in my cossie for an energy boost. I rounded the buoy where we had to shout our numbers up to the recorders on the pier 20 feet above the water (no mean feat in the conditions), took a few strokes to be clear of anyone behind me/lapping me and paused to tread water while I ripped open the gel and forced the content into my mouth. Ughh. It doesn’t taste great in my salty mouth. I tuck the wrapper back into my cossie and then OUCH! as cramp sets in. Not just a little bit in my toes, but full on in my quads and calves. I start to swim again. I’ve swum through cramp before and I came to complete all three swims in this event. I don’t like to quit. A 100m later and both legs are locked solid with cramp, the worst I have ever experienced. Any movement to try and stretch out caused another muscle to tighten and more waves of pain. My arms are barely turning over now as I try and cope with the pain in my rigid legs and keep focused on staying afloat. Where are the kayakers? Nowhere to be seen (not that I can see much with the waves about). The beach is close and I could reach that if necessary. Stubborn as ever, I keep pulling and eventually reach the next buoy. Is the tightness easing off? A little maybe..so I keep swimming, now moving away from the beach. Wave after wave of pain washes over me as every muscle in my legs tries to contract simultaneously, ankles locked and feet twisted with the pain I was grimacing big time, sobbing into my goggles. Still no kayakers. By this time if someone had been about I would have reached for them.
Is it worth carrying on? It’s not a pleasant swim; the waves are slapping me about, the jellies are threatening me in growing numbers, the cramp is killing me, the laps are long, I’m barely moving forward, the cold is starting to bite and there are still four laps to complete.
Oh yes, I definitely considered bailing out, about as close as I have ever got to giving up. Instead, as I battled into the head on section of the course, I tried to find that place in my head where I can zone out, the place where I lose time and the swimming just happens. I guess I found it as the next few laps pass in a blur. I remember overtaking a few swimmers, but for the most part I felt alone. The pain in my legs receded over time and I found I could move them a bit and was not not dragging them about in the same way. I queried the last lap – unsure whether I had another lap to go or not. I was reassured by the recorders and a kayaker who relayed their message to me that I have completed 10 laps and can now head for the shore. Relief washes over me and I sight on the flags on the shore.
The swim into the beach seemed to take forever, but not as long as it took me to crawl on all fours over the pebbles to touch the finish buoy. The cramp came back with avengence. My brother looked concerned and helped me along as I made my way painfully up the beach to shelter and food and hot drinks.
That was the five mile(!) swim complete. I was lucky to get through it and I found out later that a few did not.
An hour maybe until the 3 mile swim commences. Who knows. The schedule seems to be way off kilter already. Steve holds out a hot cuppa for me as I writhe around inside my DryRobe trying to discard the wet cossie and pull up a dry one – always pretty darned impossible with wet skin and chilled fingers. The talk on the beach was all about the distance we just swam. As ever speculation was rife with some vivid imaginations suggesting we had just swum over 8 miles in one go. Well, pardon me..but I must have turned into superswimmer if I can now manage 8+ miles in under four hours especially given those conditions and that cramp affected me for a good bit of the distance. Long I can believe, but not that long. I think the organisers agreed that the laps were 1000m rather than 800m. So it was a 10k swim, a mile and a bit over the plan. Normally I would be looking to have feeds every 30-45 minutes. It was tough going the distance without feeds, but good for my body to know it can.
As we waited for the 3-mile briefing I introduced Amanda and Mark to Pip. We would all be swimming together in a relay of Loch Ness in late July. I am the common link for the team and hope it all goes to plan, unlike this CoC seems to be.
Good news. We will be doing just four laps of the course for the 3 mile swim. I reckon that is 4k instead of 4.8k. Then the one mile swim will be a 1000m sprint lap. It doesn’t really matter. I just need to complete what is asked of me. The cramp has largely gone now, just leaving me with a general ache in my legs. Bruises are starting to appear from crawling over the stones. I am good to go.
The four laps passed without much trouble. As ever it took me a while to feel settled, but after a couple of laps I caught up with a few swimmers and passed them, maintaining a pace until the finish. I got zapped by one of the jelly fish, but it was minor. I’ve swum through much worse. This time there was no cramp, no mental turmoil (OK, not much) and no thoughts of quitting. Sorted. Nice to see my bro waiting with robie and crocs. I struggle again with the costume exchange and collapse into his chair while he offers me soup, sandwiches and loads of other food. I manage a couple of milky ways. Not great nutrition, but it’ll do. Only one more lap to swim.
Kevin Murphy came over and said hello after completing his own four hour swim in the harbour. At the Mallorca training week Kevin had been a big influence in my decision to take on the Channel this year. Not too much time to chat. It was time to go again. The gap between swims had not, for me, been long enough to get properly warm. I was still a little cold and, if I’m honest, a little bit tired too.
Just 1-lap, a sprint. I know I will be last. It takes me several laps to get going, but just one is OK. I can do this. They count us in while still clothed at the top of the beach to minimise the waiting at the shore and prevent us becoming more chilled that we already are.
I am cold still. I do want to get in and swim, but I don’t want to get in at all. I want to have a hot chocolate and sit in some shelter all wrapped up in my warm things. No I want to complete what I came to do. Mental battles. It’s just one lap. I’ve already swum fourteen laps. Come on girl, lift your game.
We’re at the waters edge and start entering the water, but are called back. They are going to count us in. What! So why waste our time at the top there then? I think organisers of this event need to have a long look at it and work out some proper communications. I was a high number so stood and shivered waiting for everyone else to respond. Lots of gaps in the numbers sequence now.
As predicted I was last, actually next to last, for the one lap swim. It was tougher than I thought it should have been, but I completed it. My shoulder is sore again and I was worrying about all the swims I had planned for the summer being jeopardised. In the end I just gritted my teeth and blanked my mind. It’s over. I doubt I’ll be back next year!
Of the 49 competitors entered for the CoC, the results show that only 25 completed all three swims. About a 50% drop out rate. That’s an indicator of how tough it was out there. My fellow Loch Ness relay swimmers, Amanda, Mark and Pip all succeeded. After the presentations I say hello to some swimmers, John, Jeremy and Philip, who were only known to me on fb previously. Well done everyone!
I walked away from the event pleased to have finished what I set out to do and with enhanced experience at dealing with the unexpected and challenging aspects of long distance cold water swims. I was bruised and aching, but still positive about it being what I love to do. Wierd or what?