Three years hoofing it around the horse-shoe at Spinc Mountain in Wicklow and looking down with a lump in my throat at the beautiful Upper Lake at Glendalough. My first sight of the lake from the observation point half way up the mountain, marked a turning point for me 3 years ago. I was 19 stone at that point and had already lost 4 stone, which had enabled me to go hiking for the first time. I knew then as I looked down from my mountain perch that I’d be climbing mountains for ever more.
The lake continued to intrigue me each time I’d go hiking to Spinc, but I largely obeyed the ‘no swimming’ signs keeping hot and sweaty hikers at bay. Then a couple of weeks ago, I spotted on the internet that there’s an annual swimming race in the lake. I had just two weeks to train and register, really not enough, but there was a 750m category and I knew I’d swum that distance a couple of years ago in the ‘lake’ stage of a triathlon at Lough Key Forest Park. At the time I had trained with Eastern Bay swimmer & English Channel and North Channel crosser, Fergal Somerville. This time I wouldn’t even have time for a quick swim with the gang at High Rock in Malahide before the lake. I pondered my options. I might be a bit rusty for the job, but I still couldn’t resist the temptation of swimming in that lake. I signed up.
I may have dreamed of cutting through the mirror-like glassy surface of Upper Lake – but those dreams never included rain and a gale blowing through the valley and whipping up choppy waves on the expanse of water that disappeared into the thick mist at the top of the valley. The picture on the website was more like the scenes of my imagination than the reality when Saturday morning broke and I felt like challenging the advert under the trade descriptions act! I could hardly see the road as I drove through the Sallygap on my way to Glendalough. Sheer misery. The organisers had warned that we may be asked to wear wetsuits if the water temperature dipped, and while I was happy to swim in just a suit, I’ve got to admit – when I saw the other swimmers getting wet-suited, it didn’t take me too long to follow their example. Shivering on the beach as the wind blew down the bouncy-castle style ‘starting gate’ – I wondered if anyone would notice if I slipped away. But it was only a passing whinge and shortly I was striding down to the water’s edge, listening to the briefing and hoping secretly that I wouldn’t be the one that single-handedly delayed the start of the second race, by having to be rescued from the middle of the lake. Stepping into the brown, peaty, water I was pleasantly surprised. It didn’t feel too cold at all, I’d guess about 15 or 16 degrees. I walked to my waist then pushed off, we all bounced about in the water a bit, getting used to the feel of it, before we got the count and we were off.
I learned a bit since my first outdoor swimming race, and hung to the back and side, letting the sharks fly off ahead. It saved me getting a toe in the face, or getting physically pushed down in the water as the speedy types swam over me. I struck out confidently, happy that I knew the job ahead. We had to swim out past 2 yellow marker buoys, then across the lake to a third and back to the fourth to finish. The lake was choppy and waves broke in my face, forcing me to time my breathing carefully and be ready to adjust my breathing rhythm. I could see a couple of the swimmers were finding it tough going but to be honest, I was in my element. Swimming with the Eastern Bay club off Malahide is perfect training for these rough, choppy conditions, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was never going to be fast, but I felt strong and felt like I was flying as I made my way down the lake, eating up the buoys. I turned to go across to marker 3, prepared to feel a different current with the cross, and it was fine. I turned for home and felt the familiar swell of a current coming behind me, picking me up and throwing me forward. I knew this feeling too, all good. I picked off the last buoy and turned for the finish. Suddenly I had a moment. Mentally something changed. In hindsight I think I had told myself the last buoy was the end of the race, and I suddenly got a bit of a shock when I sighted the finish and saw I still had a bit of work to do. My breathing got ragged and for the first time I lost my confidence. I swung over onto my back and took a couple of deep breaths. I rolled back over and had another look, just as one of the safety kayakers edged over to check if I was ok. I heard myself shouting back that I was fine, it was ‘my head, not my body’ that had the problem. I realised that was true and to my shame I started to doggy paddle, while I gave myself a swift, mental, kick in the ass. Then I had head down and was pushing forward again – all the way to the finish. Despite my little crisis, I made it back in less than half an hour, which was my target. So job done, and lessons learned. Next time I’ll train!
After Glendalough, it was on to Bray – to Brennanstown Riding Stables to go trekking with friends. It certainly was a great way to warm up after the lake swim. Brendan the instructor had me in stitches laughing as we rode out for a couple of hours through more of my gorgeous Wicklow. He has good taste, he listens to Dublin’s best radio station, my own 98FM! There was great irony going downhill on horseback. For the past year, Dave, my kayak instructor at Wild Water Kayak Club has been yelling at me to ‘lean forward’ in my kayak, as we fly down the weirs on the River Liffey. The opposite is true on horseback, and it amused me greatly to hear Brendan shouting at me to ‘lean back’ in my saddle, as we wound down the hills.
Saturday finished with a hog roast at the Garda Boat Club in Chapelizod to mark the 50th anniversary of the Wild Water Kayak Club. A brilliant night arranged by a great bunch of people, and really interesting to see the old film footage of Dalkey where the club was originally founded. The things they put to sea in! The film gave me extra confidence for the following day when I was taking my river kayak out into Dunlaoghaire Harbour to help with boat-cover for the Dunlaoghaire Harbour Swim. It was a long day but it was a great experience and it all goes towards my training for the LauraLynn Liffey Descent. The water was quite choppy out near the lighthouse, but Sásta Sage, my Sasta sponsored training kayak didn’t let me down and we cut through it really well. I was glad to be in a kayak and ON the water rather than IN it this time. That really is quite a swim and it was inspiring to be involved with these amazing people. My Eastern Bay swimming pals were strongly represented in the Harbour Swim, as well as some of my work colleagues. GOTC Swimming mentor and buddy, Fergal Somerville was back in action – coming 12th in the overall mens’ race, as well as 1st Vet and winner of the Kevin Darby Trophy.