Monday, 8 September 2014

100kms to Coniston

Who on earth is that? 
To be honest, I'm not sure... 

So, yes, hello, long time no see. Er, I have still been training, just not writing about it out of sheer laziness, really (I'll update the karate grades and medals another time!). And that picture is part of the proof - that's me (apparently - thank you to Marylyn for the snap) ready to swim the 5.25 miles/8km that is Coniston Water on Saturday morning. And I did it!

According to the Year-Long Swim Challenge on Fitocracy I've done 102km altogether this year - post title being a hat-tip to the lovely Patrick of 1000kms to Windermere, who virtually saved my swim by writing about his last Windermere crossing! I have a sneaking suspicion that's not enough training to have done it well - I have been lazy, there's no two ways about that, and I should be quicker - but it turned out to be good enough to get me all the way across without injury or death. Huzzah!

Thank you

Before I write about the swim I have the Oscar-acceptance speech thing to do - first and foremost thank you to USWIM for providing such great facilities and coaching; and the opportunity to meet other nutters, and to Chillswim for organising a fantastic event. Thank you to Marylyn, Ursula, Sarah and Hazel for being such inspirations, setting wonderful examples of just how much you can do if you try, and always being there for a hug and a laugh. Thank you to Patrick and Alex and Bear for cheering, advice and staunch support, and always having a kind word even amidst their own challenges. All of my love, cake and penguins to Rach, who I suspect will never let me quit - there are not enough words to say how much your support means. Everything I've written and erased is inadequate. To all of my non-swimming friends who let me ramble and still sweetly cheer me on even when I must be as boring as hell. And of course my amazing husband Andrew and our daughters for not only putting up with all of this but for walking me through the tough bits and sticking to their own training. 

The Swim

So, the swim itself. I singularly failed to organise the weekend well and I had to get myself up, alone, at 4.30am to drive to the Lakes. It clashed with Great North Run, which Andrew was doing with his family for the second time, and he'd taken the kids up to Newcastle on Friday. So I had no-one to boot me out of bed, but I was awake five minutes before the first of three alarms went off. The cat clearly thought I was insane to leave the warm comfy bed, but after weeks of insomnia and nightmares about hypothermia, I'd actually slept well and fairly bounced out to the car. The drive was quiet and the sun rose just as I crossed into the Lakes, gifting me with breathtaking views of low-hanging cloud over mountains, and eventually Coniston itself, flat as glass and smooth as steel. What a relief that was: I don't do well with wind-chill and I was very glad that wasn't going to be a factor.

Chillswim's organisation was phenomenal. I was a little early for registration and managed to see not only Rach, who was just leaving to crew on feed station 3, but Sarah at reception too. I had time to write my mantras on my arms (sthira sukham asanam: steady and sweet posture in Sanskrit, from the yoga sutras and panta rei: everything flows in Greek, a soundbite summary of the philosophies of Heraclitus - yes, I know, poncy but it works :P). Then I stuffed myself with flapjack and apples, which is the only thing I've found that I can hold down at that time of the morning, and coffee. Chatting with other swimmers is always easy, so I idled my way around the cafe, comparing distances, gloating about the perfect weather, soothing pre-event collywobbles, high-fiving other skins swimmers, helping with tow-floats and so on. Then Marylyn, who was in the wave behind me but on my shuttle bus, arrived and that was lovely - a bit of "Salford home" in a strange place. Transfer to the start was smooth and Marylyn made sure I didn't do anything stupid like leave my glasses on! 

Having read Patrick's sweary Windermere blog and a near-disasterous report from H2Open about hypothermia/hypoglycemia, I resolved to stop at every feed station to have a drink at least, and get the morale boost that comes from knowing there are people out there looking out for you. In addition I shoved two Torq gels under my cap and gave one to Marylyn, so I felt quite confident. The water was a delightful 17.3oC - stony and then very squelchy underfoot to get in, but absolutely no cold shock. Most of the swimmers in their cosy wetsuits zipped off fairly quickly and I had a great view of all the orange tow-floats and caps bobbling along ahead of me. Good job, because I couldn't see the first mile marker at all!

My plan for the swim was this:

  • First mile and a half: this is going to be horrible and my brain will play tricks on me. Can handle it. Got my mental music. Yes, it is stupid but I'm Not Gonna Talk About Doubts And Confusion.
  • 1.5-2.5miles: this will be ok, I will have rhythm and music and everything eases up at this point
  • 2.5-3.5miles: still ok, getting hungry and possibly tired but RACH WILL BE THERE, YAY!!
  • 3.5-4.5miles: possibly hurting but it's only a mile, get on with it
  • 4.5-5.25miles: I have no idea but I AM NOT STOPPING UNLESS I'M DYING

 First Section

I'm afraid I behaved like an absolute tourist for the first mile and a half. It was just. so. gorgeous. The sun came out and the water was completely clear - floating weed, yes, but nothing I haven't encountered before. Every so often there would be a patch of perfectly clear water with nothing but a single, turning autumn leaf below me. If I was any good at haiku I'd have written dozens that day. Surprisingly my internal Bad Voice was completely silenced by all this and I made the first mile marker at a reasonable 41 mins. That was ok, I knew I'd not trained enough lately due a ridiculous injury that left me bruised from knee to foot and it was twanging away, so I wasn't expecting to drop much below 40mins at any point. I had some difficulties navigating the island section and dropped back a little to allow another swimmer to "drive" because I couldn't see clearly. Like a doofus I'd forgotten to rinse my goggles out before setting off and my Secret Special AntiFog Solution (oh, alright, it's just baby shampoo) had got into my eye. It cleared, but it was easier to follow a tow float than try to sight through the channel.

I was towards the back of the wave, where I'd planned to be, and it was nice - I could recognise three or four other swimmers by stroke and suit and we all came into the first feed station together. 

Torq energy drinks are horrible.

"Onwards!" I shouted to my back-of-wave compatriots, and off we went in pursuit of mile 2. I didn't hit my watch for the split as I went past the marker but I remember calculating that I'd slowed a little, which I put down to stopping to clear my goggles and the feed station. At the 2.5 mile station I grabbed a handful of jelly babies and crammed them ALL into my mouth at once like a starving toddler. I felt good, not too hungry, and just wanted to crack on as the three mile marker looked closer than I'd expected.


The Horrible Bit

Three miles went by uneventfully, accompanied by a delighfully bright green-and-purple kayaker, which was very reassuring. Even being the last of our wave, we began to catch the slowest of the green-hat wave who'd gone out before us (the 50+min group). I think the guys who go out in skins in this group are actually the bravest of us all, not the speedy folks - I know my pace is just enough to keep me warm; I'm not sure I could handle being in the water for five hours at less than that. 

Like an idiot I'd forgotten the wave order, though, and I convinced myself that not only were those green hats the wave behind me catching up, but that the kayakers were annoyed and harrying on the end of my wave. Worse still, I couldn't see the 3.5mile feed station marker ANYWHERE and as tiredness was beginning to kick in, my left arm was dropping, steering me hard to the right and into the shore. I started to feel quite anxious; the lake was getting very very deep just here. I know I can see to 6m deep at the bottom of Salford Quays when it's clear; now I was swimming over weeds that went down in straight lines to far, far deeper than that. It was like a prehistoric jungle. In fact it was so deep it gave me vertigo a couple of times, a very unpleasant feeling on top of the anxiety of not seeing the marker, guilt at being so goddamn slow and the fatigue starting in my left shoulder. This is where I really needed my mantras and the promise of food and a smile from Rach. Trying to "find the sweetness", as yoga teacher Felicia Tomasko says, in every stroke was really hard but eventually we started to round the shoreline and there was the buoy. Bloody miles away still. But there was a large group of orange hats clustered about it and a few yellows starting to zip past, so I just aimed for that lot and hoped.

 The view from boat 3.5. I am waaaay back behind that lot, probably.

Even from seemingly miles away I could see Rach hanging over the side of the boat doling out bananas and I kicked hard at that point (my legs are usually pretty lazy, but at least the bruised one wasn't hurting anymore!). This may have been a mistake as it was a long stop - I hate bananas so I had to pull one of the Torq gels out of my cap and foist my rubbish onto the boat. It went down like heaven and I got some water too. This was at about 2hrs 37 if I remember rightly, already over my previous maximum swimming time, cold exposure and all on my furthest distance. I have no idea what Rach said at all, or what I said, but it helped enormously. I do remember she said she was proud of me, which completely mended my head. I tend to babble and talk claptrap at stressful times (apparently when my eldest was in NICU I would just talk and talk and talk without pausing for breath). Being able to confess how scary that last bit was settled me right down. I could feel my legs starting to cramp up, though, which was unexpected but I'd been secretly concerned about happening. I never cramp outdoors usually, only from banging my overly-tight feet off pool walls, and it was all up my feet and calves and thighs. I put on a brave face and swam away, figuring that if I couldn't work it off fast at least I was close to somewhere I could be pulled out.

Miraculously the cramp disappeared as quickly as it had come on and I was in good spirits as I hit the four mile marker. From there you can see what looks like the end of the lake - it wasn't, the marina and busy boats completely fooled me! but even though I was being overtaken by virtually everyone, I didn't care - we were all on the home stretch now and I had James' Sit Down in my head, bouncing me along.

The weeds were difficult again, but I could see the last feed station up ahead. I was feeling pretty good in the brainpan until about 400m from the boat, when my lips started to tingle like mad. Uh-oh. I knew that sensation - I'd had it once before in training, when I'd done 4.5km on no breakfast - and I knew my blood sugar must be dropping fast. I would be ok, I promised myself - not far to go and I had another gel on me regardless. I was thinking clearly, I wasn't cold, there was a kayaker very close by. I thanked Patrick in my head again for his sweary post. I swam in, sucked down a gel like a hoover and the tingling vanished within seconds. Just three-quarters of a mile to go. I could now see the 5-mile marker and beyond it, the finish proper.

The weeds got really rough here, with kayakers helping us to keep out of the worst of it. I had to do this weird modified stroke for a bit to get through it,  scooping it away from my face, and that dragged me rightwards even more - I must have looked like a boat with a broken rudder. Every so often I'd see how far off I was and shout BLOODY HELL!!! under the water. It cleared briefly at five miles and I hit the marker at exactly four hours.


This is Team Bear Tri's motto and boy, did I need it for the last quarter of a mile. It took me 14 minutes to do it and every single one of them hurt. The weeds were thick and horrible and I was swearing like a trooper because I could NOT make myself go straight. The prior injuries I'd expected to be sore were completely absent - but I had a whole new catalogue of pain to contend with and the bloody weed was so distracting. But after aeons and ice ages and galaxies forming and dying, I could hear the crowd clapping even through my earplugs, and to my complete surprise, I landed and stood up on my own two feet without falling down. No wobbles, no shakes, no shivering and completely stable, if sore. So I had suffered and NOT surrendered - and got away with it.

I virtually danced past the crowd, got my medal, slurped down some vile, lukewarm blackcurrant drink and found my bag. And my glasses! Got changed, ran into Marylyn who came in just after me, the speedy thing! Got a hug from Hazel (from a Channel soloist I can't say how much that means!) and texted Rach with my time. Wonderfully she was already back at the school and getting coffee, so we hopped on the first bus we could and settled in to eat as much cake as humanly possible. I finally managed to meet Claire, who I've known online for years, and was rather awed to be at the same table as Dan Abel, who'd done the lot in just over two hours on no feeds at all. Gobsmacking. Completely missed the awards ceremony, forgot to put my wristband in the prize draw bucket, and spent several hours basking in the joy of having completed the biggest swim of my life with my friends all around me. I was a bit itchy from the weeds but SuperRach fed me an antihistamine and all was well.

Then I drove to Newcastle. Whereupon I fell through the door, kissed my loved ones, got a shower, ate more cake and slept like a rock until the sounds of four runners getting ready for Great North Run finally woke me up.

Wood boys ready to rock the Great North Run. Perhaps I'll join them one day!

They all did really well in hot, crowded conditions, with the first back coming in at 2hrs01 and the last of them at 2hrs20, so we have had an awful lot to be proud of this weekend. And the girls put up with it all beautifully, despite being late to bed and starting school the next day. One day soon I'm sure it'll be us trekking around their sporting events!

Apparently this is how you do a "busy weekend" in our house.

I'm still processing a lot of it, but at the moment I'm recovering well - there are no obvious injuries. I'll see for sure when I go for a pootle about in the pool tomorrow. I'm starting the Aspire Challenge this week to keep me honest through Autumn, so I have 22 miles of training plans to get through and I have to pick up my speed significantly (and also fix that broken rudder). But at this point? Yes, I may well be booking again - and currently I'm talking about taking on a 6-mile/10km next year, possibly Bala or Buttermere, which is pretty much the point where you can start to call yourself a marathon swimmer (6 mile swim being equivalent to a runner's marathon). Then, who knows. 

The length of Windermere twinkles in the far, far, VERY far distance...