Sink or Swim
I’ve registered and had a walk around the course, I thought I’d be a bit more nervous, saying that I have still checked my gear 3 times! It’s no different to the normal swim kit that I chuck together half asleep at 6am every Saturday and Sunday but this swim is different: I’ve never swam that far; never swam in that lake and I've never swam in an open water race. BUT I’ve swam in 4 lakes: in the cold, rain, blinding sunshine, murky, weedy, beautifully clear and even in the dark. I've almost swam the distance, just a couple of kilometres off, and the race part, well that I’m just gonna have to learn at the time.
Sounds like I've got it sorted.....
My meltdown came 7 weeks ago when I had the realisation and consequent panic - “I don't think I can finish this race”, “I'm totally gonna fail, think I’ll pull out and tell anyone who asks that one of the kids was sick......”
I started open water swimming in 2016 and I wanted to do my first OW race, so started googling. I love the idea of an end to end lake swim but most seemed to be way up in the Lake District or in London and you won’t get much change from £100 plus the expense of stopping over etc. Then, the Isoman popped up, not an end to end but cheaper, local and a choice of 3 distances 1.75miles (nah too short), 3.5miles (sounds doable) or 7miles. So I went all in...... well after all it’s not a challenge if it doesn't scare the shit out of you! How many lengths of the pool is 7miles I hear myself shout at my husband?? (it’s 448 by the way)
I booked the swim and had about 16 weeks and in my head that would be ok, make sure I go to Sunday eve training every week, wait for the lakes to open and do a long swim Saturday morning and judging by how fast I swim a mile in the pool maybe complete in around 5 hours…… hmmm that would probably mean nutrition of some sort required....? So I went back to the Gods of Google searching around finding lots of blogs/posts/how to’s etc.
There is a tonne of information about open water swimming and marathon swimming (anything over 10k) but not much that translated to my swim. I wasn’t swimming an 'end to end' river or lake, I'm not sea swimming, or going on a 20 plus miler like most of the US posts, I don’t have access to a feeding boat or canoe, I’m not a professional swimmer with crazy nutritional plans and a team of sport coaches, triathletes don’t swim that far and the Isoman website was short on details of what would be the available facilities and I don’t have the time to train 5 times a week as many online programmes asked for. Cue panic, sleepless nights and the feeling of being overwhelmed by something which I had chosen to do, I needed help if I wanted to succeed. So I asked my swimming coach (Birmingham University Triathlon coach) for help:
Me: Do you write training programmes, can you write one for me?
Coach: I’ve never written just a swimming one, but sure I’ll give it a go. What are you training for & how long have we got?
Me: The 7 mile lake swim for the Isoman triathlon in 7 weeks.
Coach: (pause) 7 miles!! That’s a reeeeally long way, 7 weeks??? Right technique…..yours isn’t terrible, probably nothing we can do about it in that time…..how far would you be happy with?
Any confidence remaining was now in tatters, ‘I’ve failed before I’ve even started’ so I carried on not telling anyone, in case I bottled the swim, or didn't complete it. I tried to convince myself I’d be happy with a shorter distance as long as I'd done my best – total nonsense! My best was completing it, not completing what I’d signed up for was failure plain and simple.
So 7 weeks to go…
I had a long chat with my coach and she sent me a training programme based on the exercise I do, lake and pool opening times and my time available. I have 3 kids age 7, 5 and 2 and a husband who works/lives away, so free time at the right times was going to be somewhat tricky. Firstly I had to get my head around swim code and timings, then get some paddles, a stopwatch and a few other bits and a whole lot of self-discipline…..but I have a plan so let’s crack on, oh and she also told me to tell as many people as possible what I was doing, accountability and support I suppose and promptly announced my challenge to my swim squad!
For the most part I followed the plan, however there were a few hurdles along the way. Running club on a Friday meant I had little energy for my bigger swims on a Saturday morning, lake times clashed with OPT training. I was too knackered from my Sunday morning swim to be effective at pool training in the evening. Public pool sessions, where half the town turns up to swim in your lane. Monday lunchtime training was scuppered by kids being home for Easter, half term and a sickness bug. So eventually some things had to change. I gave up my cardio (running) and strength (OPT) training in favour of the long swims and found a new PT to suit my timetable. What I didn’t realise I was giving up at the time was my social life. Marathon swimming requires commitment and isolation – if you are given the opportunity you swim, hubby home early, grandparents offer to babysit, you swim! You are first in and last out the lake so no time for tea and a chat, it’s a whole lot of time with just yourself for company.
Most of my training was done at the weekend but I needed to keep the momentum going through the week to avoid that starting all over again feeling, and my training plan says fit in some cardio and strength but it had to be home based ‘minimal effort for maximum gain’ exercise. So, land based exercises for swimmers here we come, purchased some resistance bands, watched a lot of you tube, tied the bands to the door handle and off we go. Future tip, don’t tie to door handles because they can take an eye out when they ping off! 10 mins of these whenever I could, and hey presto I have ‘Guns’, okay, maybe not but I definitely improved my arm and shoulder strength, throw in some, hand stands (whilst the kids are in the bath laughing at me), burpees (kids can count to 25) and squats (kids can do them better than me!) and it kept me focused when water based training wasn’t possible.
Initially I found getting my head past swimming over an hour difficult and then it was 2 hours or get to 5k, 7k but all was not plain swimming…. I set myself up for my first 8k, after the first lap I decided I’d just try to get to 5k, then after struggling half way round the 2k I got back to the jetty and got out, my legs felt weighed down, my breathing was shot, and I gave up. It was terrible and I did not handle it very well. My coach had a different view, turning my disaster into a “brilliant learning swim”, my homework was to think about the before, during and after, nutrition, hydration, sleep, rest, weather, mind-set. She also pointed out that it was very likely that I would feel that bad again at some point in my race, so how was I going to prepare and handle that? Apparently you learn more from your mistakes than from your successes.
I got back on track, made some changes to my diet (and drinking) at home to keep my energy levels up and keep hunger at bay whilst on long swims and in the middle of the week when fatigue seemed to kick in. Worked out some kinks on my feeding which was mostly trial and error with blitzed porridge, gels, jelly blocks, drinks, I do not recommend beetroot shots by the way! I nailed pool training, got faster and stronger, I wrote my race plan “something to give you focus and fall back on if it all goes to shit” was my coach’s advice. I did a couple of 8k a 9k and a 10k swim in training, and with only a couple of weeks to go felt pretty confident. I just had to keep it going…….but I didn’t, I started to stay up too late on Friday night, have a couple of beers, get to the lake later, cut my long swims short and go to OPT instead, eat more junk, avoid Sunday training because I didn’t feel like it and so on, just a small amount of self-sabotage each session. I knew I was doing it and it was effecting my training but I just couldn’t stop myself either so my last week was more about damage control, accepting it was my own fault and hoping I’d done enough before my wobble.
I couldn’t have asked for better conditions, bright but enough cloud to stop the glare and not too warm. Standing in the start area was daunting, there was a lot of young, 6ft something broad shouldered guys with very well organised and labelled race nutrition packs being put in place by people they had supporting them. This put my daughter’s princess drinks bottle and a take away container with gels in to shame but at least mine was easy to spot on the feeding station. After a while a few more ‘mature’ swimmers arrived and others who were of a less athletic build and even a handful of brave non-wetsuit swimmers rocked up. It was a small and diverse group of inspiring people who all have a love for swimming outdoors and it was amazing.
The race went pretty much according to plan, I’m no sprinter so a gap in the middle with some room to tread water – not too far back as you need big fast legs to draft off (make them do the hard work). Bit of a bun fight, hard to breathe or spot so just went with the flow and tried not to freak out, got a size 12 in the ribs, a couple of barges and a head swipe that nearly took my goggles off! It wasn’t the greatest feeling in the world but in a way I was expecting so much worse.
Lap 1 was fast, too fast but you have to go with the flow until you can find your happy space.
Lap 2 was lots of spotting, finding my way and pace. Have a giggle at the guys fishing because I think we will have scared any catch away from them today.
Lap 3 was soul destroying, like swimming through treacle, no legs to chase, struggling to settle and sooo far to go…….
Stick to the plan, breath, spot every 6/8, look for a draft, get from 1 buoy to the next.
Lap 4 half way! Yippee
Stop, feed, wriggle, GO!
Laps 5 & 6, new people starting, look for a draft, back is starting to hurt, fingers are locked, my mind is wandering, play some games to occupy thoughts, catch the next hat, stay in front of another, mind the ducks, what we will have for dinner??
I’m finally getting the hang of this! Stop to feed, fall over a couple of times, everything’s a bit swishy, have a gel as planned, bloody starving, don’t fancy the banana I bought, should I go off plan? Had a drink of coke (stayed clear of the blue stuff) had a bit of flapjack, couldn’t actually chew it properly so gave up after 2 bites. It worked, craving gone, carry on, come on 2 more laps, I can do it.
Lap 7 was easy, 8 not so much, arms are rubbing on wetsuit, more new people to swim around, no drafts, everything aches, arms are just going on automatic pilot, shoulders are aching so much, my arms are on fire and the pain in my elbow is making me grit my teeth. So I start to swim faster, try to catch the yellow hat in front, try to keep up with the orange hat that came flying past. Good lord, the last buoy seems to be moving further away, finish best you can as my girls are watching!
And I am DONE, feeling very glad I don’t have to get out and run to the transition point for a 60mile bike ride or a run and the girls faces are a pleasant sight after 4 hours looking into murky brown water. I tried to exit the water as gracefully as possible but sea legs meant I almost kissed the concrete, so I sat on the ground and reflected on what I had just managed to accomplish and in a better time than I’d ever have thought. I finished in 3h56, 1st female and 5th position overall - It’s amazing what you can achieve when you have a plan and stick to it……as best you can.
Talking of plans, I’m now taking part in a Channel Relay attempt in 2019….it’s gonna be awesome and just a smidge scary!