Well this evening was lovely. Bracing, but lovely. Very choppy, and the air was cold, but when you were swimming for a while the burning bands of ice around your chest relaxed a little and allowed you to breath… the slap of being dropped from the top of the waves to the sea below as you tried to breath under your armpit kind’ve helped to keep you warm too…. yes. Bracing.
I picked up the text from ‘Get Off The Couch’ swimming mentor and Eastern Bay swimming club Chanimal (for swimming channels) Fergal Somerville, just as I finished a 45 minute sweaty weight-lifting work-out with gym guru David Dunne. Feeling nice and warm, I headed over to Malahide in bright sunshine, and persuaded myself to ‘just get in for a dip’. I wanted to brave the sea without a wet-suit, just for the hell of it. As it turned out, the camaraderie from the other swimmers at High Rock was so encouraging that I ended up swimming for 30 minutes which is a bit of a record for me. I made it from High Rock to ‘The Wall’ (for those in the know).
Climbing up on the rocks afterwards and reaching hungrily for Mag’s famous Eastern Bay energy biscuits, I pondered that leaving the Irish Sea at sunset is getting to be a bit of a habit.
Last week I was getting an introduction to scuba diving at Sandycove with the dream team of Brendan Homan and Martin Durcan – diving instructors to the stars… 😉 I’m winding them up a bit, but if you heard the slagging they gave each other, you’d know I have to! Seriously though, Brendan literally took me by the hand and brought me fin over fin into the depths of Dublin Bay and as experiences go, this was really special.
I cannot begin to tell you how much I loved it – from bursting into giggles as the lads quite literally bounced me into the very heavy and awkward gear – (and thanks to the girls for the loan) – to the moment of inching into the water, when the clumsiness disappears, the sandy bottom falls away beneath you, and all of sudden you feel you’re flying. Pushing out from the shore, the depth of the water increases sharply and you find you’re floating over craters and rocks, and it looks like you’re sweeping over canyons and cliffs – like a somewhat ungainly heavy, rubber-suited bird. Perhaps a penguin, clumsy and heavy on land, but transformed into a graceful work of art in the right environment.
The sounds hit me first, my heart seemed to beat a noisy audible pulse; merging and moulding with the tide and the current swelling above and below. I could hear my breathing; short and fast at first, then longer, deeper and more regular as I began to relax. The light was muffled, softly dappling the shady sea around me, and piercing fingers through the forest of seaweed, no longer flat and brown, but reaching lazily upward, waving in the ebb and flow, with kaleidoscopic purples and greens, changing hues in the fading light. A moving, liquid, enchanted world where life looks so different and your own transient nature is so clearly felt with each pull on your air.
I’ve had lots of scary experiences in the past 3 years – some quite terrifying – but I’ve got through them, and even got to like some of the things that scared the pants off me at first. But here, 8 metres down, I felt no need for bravery. It might sound strange, but I wasn’t nervous here, I wasn’t scared, it felt calm and wonderful and absolutely natural. I can’t wait to go again. (hint hint).
So it’s September 10th now – and that’s just 18 days away from my big charity challenge for LauraLynn – the Liffey Descent and Cycle Challenge with Kipper Maguire. I’m strong, my kayak skills are improving, and I’ve spent hours in the water padding against the tide in my Sásta Fitness sponsored river boat. It’s looking good. Except I’ve let the running training slip a bit – (a lot actually) – and the realisation has just hit me this evening that I’ve got a forgotten challenge ahead this weekend. I’m signed up for WAR in Powerscourt. The cycle and kayak, I’m confident I can do – but how the heck do I clock a 6k run with the Sugar Loaf in the middle of it? Gulp! I’ll let you know how I get on….
I woke up feeling stiff, my chest wheezy, and a slight sinus headache. I looked at the digital readout on my alarm clock and the red digits told me the alarm would be screaming at me in 15 minutes. I groaned and rolled over, not sure if I was feeling so bad from my persistent cold, or from feeling toxic from too much turkey and trifle! I certainly didn’t feel like going for our ‘Stephens’ Day Swim’ at Malahide, and peeping out through the blind to see the grey, misty sky didn’t help.
I reluctantly dragged myself up and into my swimsuit, which seemed to have shrunk – or was it the turkey and trifle again? I gave my 87 year old dad a shout, because I’d roped him in, to hold my towel on the beach. We made a flask of coffee for me and a hip flask for him – I knew which one I’d prefer, a pity about the driving. Driving up to Malahide I couldn’t believe the crowds, all these crazy people rushing to pull their clothes off in the rain and run into the sea. They must be crazy I thought – before reminding myself that I was one of them!
I spotted ‘Chanimal’ – Channel Swimmer extraordinaire, Fergal Somerville, and exchanged hugs and introductions with dad, before stripping down and heading off towards the damp sand with a flock of other odd looking swimmers, wearing santa hats, and reindeer ears, and ‘officer and a gentleman’ uniforms (honest). I was keeping my Santa-hat firmly on my head over my swim cap, in the belief that every little bit of warmth would help!
I’d read on the internet that the easiest way to do a ‘wild swim’ like this, is to splash cold water on your face to warn your body that a shock is on the way and then tell yourself that it’s actually warm. I tried to splash the water on my face, although it was tricky having time to do that and keep up with Fergal who was already running flat out towards the choppy waves. OK, no time or point in messing and prolonging the agony. I ran for it, ankle deep, shin deep, knee deep, and a breaker hit me flat in the chest and I was swimming. I wasn’t necessarily breathing, but I was swimming. It’s hot I told myself, it’s hot, hot, it’s hot….
Panting as the cold stole my breath from my lungs and the iron bars tightened across my chest, I struck out and tried to get a bit of heat going as I swam further from the beach. I popped a sneaky toe down – still within my depth. I was kind’ve glad, because my breathing still wasn’t normal. Splashing around a bit, we turned to head back for the beach and Fergal asked if I was done. I laughingly started to say ‘you bet’ and then I realised I wasn’t. Without noticing, I’d warmed up and now I didn’t want to get out so soon.
To my own suprise, I turned and swam back out – catching up with a frogman, a guy in a wet suit and snorkel. ‘High fives’ and a small talk, or should that be cold talk, bobbing around in the waves. I swam up close to the ‘rib’ – the boat providing cover for the swimmers (thanks Coast Guard or whoever was doing the honors today, it was good to see you out there, just in case).
After 10 mins I finally swam back to the shore, getting chilly now, my fingers nipping, and my skin a bright, healthy (I think) red. The rain was a bit miserable as I struggled to get back into damp clothes with clumsy fingers. But I felt terrific. My sinus headache was gone and I felt alive and fresh. One of my friends once told me if I was in pain, it meant I was still alive! I thought of that as I was heading out there today. To my credit I didn’t scream – to be honest, I probably didn’t have enough spare breath!… But boy – I was certainly alive. Happy Christmas everyone… xxx
My ‘Happy Feet’ relay team for the Lough Key triathlon was waiting for me at registration when I turned up, shoulders shrugged high, to stop the torrential rain running down my neck, realising the futility of keeping dry – when I was just about to jump in a lake!
As I walked up to the girls, I couldn’t help gawping at the big yellow markers on the water, that were clearly marking the swim. To my eye, the markers seemed far too distant from the shore; surely they’d made a mistake? It looked so much further than I thought 740metres would look like. There were shrieks and hugs as we met up and shared training disaster stories from the past week; but all the time I felt butterflies the size of bats in my gut. I shouldn’t have eaten breakfast, I knew I shouldn’t. The egg and ham and goats’ cheese and spinach soufle that my host had made me, was now hanging heavily on my mind.
I was doing the swim, Teresa the cycle and Anna had been roped in at the last minute with a dodgy knee and very little notice, to cover the final 5k run. It had all seemed so simple to offer to swim the 750m for team Happy Feet, until I read the briefing notes with just a week and a half to go, and realised there was a 30 min elimination time on the swim! Pressure, and not enough time to train. If you followed my training blog here, you’ll know I tried to short-cut my lack of speed-work by swimming without a wet-suit, against the tide at Malahide Beach in North Dublin. I suppose I thought that if I made myself suffer as much hardship and discomfort as possible, I might feel more comfortable, and swim faster, when I had to get in the lake. Well it was a theory at the time, and the only one I had! My big problem was that although I was comfortable doing the distance, I had no speed and was planning to complete the distance in 40mins. The briefing notes blew that out of the water – if you’ll excuse the pun.
Well I put my shoulder to the wheel – or tide – and soaked up all the tips I could drag from my Hi-Rock swimming friends in Malahide, and in particular ‘Chanimal’ – Channel Swimmer, Fergal Somerville. Deep, even breaths – long, measured strokes, no panic. Now today was the day.
As the other athletes gathered in the holding pen, adjusting swim caps and goggles, stretching to warm up arms and legs and shoulders; they looked sleek and professional, I sneakily looked around comparing the size of my belly with everyone elses. I thought mine looked much bigger, and I grimaced. A throwback to my days of being 23stone. These days I’m just under 12 stone and still a bit on the curvy size, but despite no longer being morbidly obese, I still have body-image flashbacks, especially when I’m standing on the shore in a screamingly tight wet suit along with 300 taller, slimmer, fitter looking people. I just had to remind myself that I was strong and healthy and capable of taking them all on. (I just didn’t really believe it).
The Public Address speakers crackled into life and there were speeches and applause as the rain continued to fall and we stood, shuffling our bare feet in the wet grass, wishing for the start. Eventually we got the nod and as one, we swimmers moved towards the water. It was all new to me, we were to get into the lake and swim to warm up, before the start was called. I followed the leaders and reached the water’s edge, noting the lack of reaction from the other swimmers and imitating their composure as I stepped calmly into the lake, biting down a gasp at the cold. Up to my ankles, my knees, my chest and finally I’m swimming, then finding some space to keep treading until the race ‘got the off’. This part was unexpected, and I felt a tremor of adrenalin or something close to fear. I was out of my depth, I couldn’t swim out with a proper stroke or I’d crash into the swimmers ahead. I was just bobbing about getting cold, and I didn’t like it. I determinedly removed my mind from the lake and imagined I was going through my yoga routines in the sun, and felt the warmth and the calm flood through my legs and up through my body to my arms. I relaxed. We’d go when we’d go – and finally the human wave washed back towards me, as the race began.
I reached out into the dark waters of the lake, pushing my head under water and noticing the pink hue of the feet in front, dyed red by the peaty flood waters. I had taken the other swimmers’ advice and kept out of the crush at the start, for fear of being dragged or accidentally thumped in the fury of the moment. I took my line against the yellow marker out near an island in the lake and just swam. I didn’t try to go fast, hearing Fergal’s comments a week before, telling me that trying to go fast was the fastest way to slow down. I wasn’t sure if he was right, but I was taking his comments on board. After about 250 metres, the 1st marker was drawing close and I realised there was a crush emerging as the swimmers tried to get a tight line around it. I didn’t. I pulled left and gave it – and them – a wide berth. I think I actually gained time instead of losing time, as I swung wide arount the buoy and the human soup, and took my line to the next marker.
I had told myself that if I was comfortable after the first 250, I would step up the speed on the 2nd leg. It worked fine, I stretched out and increased my speed, breathing deeper into my lungs and concentrating on rolling smoothly to catch my breath, keeping my face down between strokes and pulling my arms smoothly through the water. Quicker than I expected, I reached the second marker, and swept around to face back into the shore. I looked up, and saw swimmers far ahead and far behind. At my right was an orange kayak, on hand to help if I needed it. I didn’t need it. I saw the last marker, saw the shore, put my head down – and bombed it. I gave the last 250 every last bit of energy and strength and felt excitement well up inside me. I’m not sure why, I just felt powerful and thrilled because whatever the time on the clock, I wasn’t the last person in the lake, and I knew I had the energy to get me back to shore. Stumbling out of the water, I took the waiting helping hand eagerly and pulled myself free of the lake, then sprinted to the holding paddock and my teammates. Pulling the electronic tag from my left ankle and passing it to Teresa, I recognised she was excitedly shouting at me about the time. I felt tears well up as I realised I’d made the 30 minutes…. and more.
Later, with the time confirmed at 22 minutes. I joked that it was the egg and spinich ‘Pop-Eye’ breakfast after all (thanks Mary) but I was humbled. This body of mine, that I have so abused in my lifetime, again pulled out a blinder for me. With less than 2 weeks to prepare, it had delivered all I asked, and I had smashed my own time. I felt like one of our Olympians, I could proudly say I had a PB and I’d smashed it! It was hard work getting here; swimming in cold, choppy, waters off Malahide, hours of weight training in the gym on our few sunny days, and a lot of self doubt. But the help I got, the support from my friends, from FB and Twitter, and all the generous tips and training swims I got from Fergal and his Hi-Rock mates, had paid off. I’d made it – and Team Happy feet could run and cycle the rest of the way, without being disqualified by the swimmer!
You know, when I started training for our Concern/Uganda: hiking, cycling & kayaking challenge in November, I never thought I’d end up long-distance swimming too. But I suppose it all helps with general fitness. What’s next? Well, the whole Concern group is due to climb Carrauntoohil, Ireland’s highest mountain this Sunday; and that’s going to hurt – because with all the time I’ve spent cycling, swimming, working-out in the gym and learning to kayak, I’ve somewhat neglected my hill climbing. There is a reckoning a-coming on Sunday. And do you know? there’s a 750m sea swim in Killiney on Saturday….. 😉
Day two at Malahide. A solo swim with ‘Chanimal’ Fergal Somerville, my long-distance swimmer angel who’s taken me under his considerable wing, to give me tips on how to make a 750m open water swim in Roscommon this Sunday – in 30 minutes.
You’ll know from yesterday’s training blog that the pressure is on with a vengeance. I agreed to do the ‘swim’ section of a relay triathlon in Lough Key Forest Park, but didn’t realise until last week that there was a disqualification time; which means I’m now at risk of getting my whole team chucked out, if I don’t get my speed up! *gulp*
Tonight we arrived at Middle Rock beach in Malahide as the tide was ‘filling’ or ‘coming in’. There were no other swimmers and despite the sunny evening, I shivered at the thought of getting into the cold water. I’ve dipped into the sea a couple of times now, but that first couple of minutes when I’m getting used to the cold, still doesn’t seem to be getting any easier!
As soon as I stopped gasping for breath, I reached out and pulled off in the direction of High Rock, the plan being to swim for 30 minutes again tonight, but try and cover a bit more ground. I was anxious to try out some tips that my friends on FB had been suggesting over the past 24 hours. I shortened my breathing periods, breathing on every fourth stroke instead of every 6th. I pushed my legs deeper into the water and tried to avoid losing energy by letting them splash, and I continued with Fergal’s advice and made long, steady strokes, concentrating on making my arms enter and leave the water cleanly.
I got into a really fast rhythm and swam and swam, until Fergal swam up for a check and chat again and told me I’d been swimming 10 minutes. I felt amazing, I felt I was flying tonight. I looked up and looked around in anticipation. I reckoned I had gone way past High Rock and was on my way to the next point, the Tower. I looked hard, searching out recognisable landmarks, trying to make my eyes cut through the setting sun to make sense of the dark silhouette of the shore. I pulled my goggles off in amazement. I was nowhere close! I had got twice this distance in the same time last night. I wasn’t gutted, but I was a bit browned off. Was I tired, were the different strokes slowing me down? How could I have felt so fast and swam so short a distance. After a quick chat with Fergal I decided I wanted to keep going – so we ended up swimming out for 20 minutes. I actually made it past High Rock and halfway to the tower before deciding to turn back – prepared for another 20 minute swim back. That would give me a swim of 40 mins instead of 30, so even if I’d missed out on speed, it would help my fitness and endurance, and that can’t hurt on Sunday.
We turned, and the sun sparkled on the drops running down my arm as I stretched out and swam back into the dying gold of the day. I kept my head out of the water for a couple of minutes as I swam. I didn’t feel tired. I wasn’t scared about the 20 minute return trip, and I took a few moments to simply enjoy the swim and the sea and the low flying birds that seemed to skate along the surface of the surrounding sea. Head down I pushed on again and 10 minutes later, I got a tap on the shoulder from a laughing Fergal. We were back at Middle Rock. 20-minutes to swim out and just 10 to get back. He explained we’d had a tougher current than we thought running against us on the trip out, and it helped us on the return. I ended up doing a slightly longer swim than last night, in about the same time. And that folks, means I probably did the 750m in 30 mins!!! Okay, difficult to judge what role the tides played, and I’ll have to wear a wetsuit under the rules on Sunday, which might either help or hinder me…but mentally – I feel more confident. I think I can do it. I’m not convinced I will – but I’m confident that I can.
Now all I can do is continue to train gently up to about Friday and have a rest day on Saturday and then give it sox on Sunday. Fingers and fins crossed! lol… and if you have any more tips for me, feel free to add a comment down below.