I would love to say that I saw grown men weep as I swam past in a flurry of sparkling droplets. That didn’t quite happen, but I did actually swim past a man or two. Quite a few in fact. My second big river race left me scoring quite a personal point or two on the confidence scale. It started out in dread and terror. My train journey from Dublin to Cork for the 2.2k 2015 Vibes & Scribes #LeeSwim was littered with tales of ferocious tides and killer jelly fish. None of which turned out to be anything like as scary as I imagined.
Last year my swimming claim to fame was wearing the ‘Number 1’ hat during the Liffey Swim here in Dublin. Some of my friends, uninitiated with the world of open water swimming were congratulating me on my hat, until I softly explained that the number 1 hat goes to the first person in the river…. which is also, ahem, the slowest person in the river. We set off in waves, based on handicaps that are mapped out during qualifying sea races during the year. I was the first in the water with a 3 second head-start on everyone else. I don’t care if I was slow though, I still wear my hat with pride and frequently remind myself that for 3 seconds I led the Liffey!
Back to Cork and the sun disappeared in a squall of rain and wind as we were lining up to dive into the river, yes dive, I was determined to make at least one big splash on this swim. Travelling to the race start I had shivered deeper and deeper into my own skin as I heard stories about missing the turn and being swept off down the river. The Lee is a tale of two tides you see. You swim swiftly down through the city and then at Port of Cork you swing a right hand turn, and swim another 300 metres back up the other channel, and against the tide. It was this 300 metre stretch that was concerning me, and concerning lots of other swimmers too.
This is just my 2nd year swimming and I’m not fast, and I’m not brave, so I’m not sure if listening to other swimmers’ fears was scary or reassuring. Yes there was comfort in numbers and the fact that we were all in the same boat – or should I say river – but then again, if these seasoned performers were nervous, maybe I really should be reconsidering the next few minutes of my life…
There more than 500 swimmers signed up for the Lee Swim and I was number 503 – the very last swimmer in the water – and a direct contrast to my Liffey Swim last year. For the Lee Swim, the ‘speedies’ get to go first and then, well then me. Standing on the pontoon preparing to make my leap, I thought with resignation about being the last one home again – only this time, I knew I’d be a long way behind the first wave.
I made one good decision that cut through the nerves and negativity. I spotted a map of the river course and I counted the bridges to the bend. There were 9 in total but 7 before the bend, when we had to get out of the current and take the turn back up the river. OK “that’s it lass” I told myself. Stop worrying for now, concentrate on swimming well, and swimming smoothly and count those bridges. You’re grand until you reach the 7th bridge and then you can work out what’s happening with the complicated stuff.
Off I went, and I knew I was swimming faster than I ever swam before. A splendid flow of water swept me down through the city and I reached out into the current imagining I had long legs and arms and stretching out ahead and lifting my elbow high out of the water to cut the drag. I felt good. I felt powerful. I felt strong. Before long I noticed I was no longer the last person in the river, a couple of the kayaks were dropping back behind me and as a paddler who sometimes does boat-cover for other swimmers, I knew that I was no longer the back-marker. Happy days.
I could see people on the bridges and lining the river and I was glad that Karl at DCU (swimtutor.ie) had beat me into being comfortable at breathing on both sides, because it really helps to take in the view. Ok, it helps to take in air as well, but the view is important too on a day like this. I could hear people cheering and shouting encouragement. That’s really nice. It was a rotten day and people were standing out in the rain to watch us.
The seventh bridge approached and the patrol-boat on the right that we’d been told to look out for, was a beacon in the distance, a force to be reckoned with. She was grey, and huge, and very beautiful. What an extraordinary experience to be seeing her from this angle, to be seeing Cork from this angle. I swam diagonally across the river to work my way easily out of the fast water, hugging the ship on my right hand side and preparing myself for the lash when I turned the corner to swim up the channel. I nodded to a kayaker, holding cover on the point. “It’ll hit me just around there?” I asked. “I’m afraid so” she grinned. The human interaction was nice, it felt reassuring, and the shared rueful grin was lovely. She was in a plastic tub but we were still in this together.
Head down, kick, breath, pull and just get on with it. Job to do. Yep that’s a strong current. I’ve got some work to do, but no, I won’t be flying backwards downriver like a jogger off the end of a treadmill. Not a chance. I could see the flash of the yellow ‘Finish’ platform up in the distance, and I checked my line and then stopped sighting for it. Instead I counted off the yachts moored on my right as I swam up the channel. There’s one yacht gone, there’s the anchor rope behind, there’s the mast of another. Foot by foot, I dragged myself steadily against the current. Breathing to my left I noticed another swimmer, with flat armed splashes and stern eyes. “Oops, he’s tiring” I thought, and then smiled into my goggles as I realised I wasn’t. That’s a bit mean of you I thought to myself, as I pushed harder, but I’m so used to being last, it gave me an unexpected boost to actually pull ahead of someone else, and a grown man too.
I had dreaded that last 300 metres. I had dreaded it on the train, I had dreaded it on the pontoon, I had dreaded it as I dived into the river. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but as I approached the final 100m I realised that I was absolutely loving it. I loved the effort, I loved the power, I loved the struggle, I loved my own strength and I loved this last part of the race better than any of the rest. Splashdown, Finish, clock stops..
Last year I swam the Liffey in 1hr and 28 minutes. This year I swam the Lee in 45.20. I wasn’t first, I wasn’t last, but in my own mind, I was a winner. I even got a cup 😉
*Photos by: LeeSwim, Peter Howie @PhotosCork, Peter O’Toole of ‘Scene in Cork’, and Fiona McManus, Cork.