When Cold Surf is Hot Stuff

With an hour to go this evening, I was getting more than a little nervous.  I was going swimming in Malahide – not for the first time – but for the first time I was going to go deeper and further, for longer.  The training wheels were coming off, and I wasn’t sure how I’d feel if I got tired or ran out of breath.   If I get tired and I’m running, I can walk…but what happens if you get tired when you’re swimming…. and there’s a current?

I’ve been dipping in and out of Malahide – literally – since the start of the year, but intermittently and only for a splash rather than a swim.  What suddenly changed the odds was a challenge that’s rushing up towards me this Sunday.  I’ve signed up with a relay team to do a triathlon in Boyle, County Roscommon, as part of my fitness training for the Concern Uganda challenge later this year, when I’ll have to cycle 200k, climb a volcano, and kayak the source of the Nile!  I had agreed to swim 750m this Sunday and was confident I could go the distance.  But during the week I got the briefing notes and realised for the first time that there’s a time-limit on the swim section.  If I don’t complete the 750m in 30 mins, my whole team gets disqualified.  I had planned on doing it in 40!  I’ve less than a week to go, and all of a sudden I’m under intense pressure.

That was why I was here in Malahide trying to decide on the merits of swimming in a wet suit or just a swimming suit, and letting the dilemma over what to wear mask the real thoughts in my mind, which were verging on panic! I settled on a compromise and wore a half/suit, then spent 10 mins fiddling with my goggle straps at the waters’ edge – as I continued to avoid the moment of truth.   Stepping into the water, I gasped at the cold.  Of course we’re all telling each other that it’s lovely and warm – lies, damned lies.  Let me share a big secret with you…. it’s bloody freezing.

The bands of cold tighten around my chest as I dive forward, getting my head in under the nearest wave, to get it over with.  I’m off and concentrating on my breathing, calming the adrenalin and the nerves, pushing forward, developing a rhythm, listening to the sound of my own breath and pacing it to my stroke.  Fergal Somerville (Channel Swimmer and long-distance swimmer extraordinaire) is swimming beside me, which is reassuring – and Tatiana and some of the rest of the High-Rock swimmers are slightly ahead.  The sun’s bouncing off the tops of the waves, I’m warming up, and in my mind I hear Fergal’s advice about long, clean, slow strokes with high elbows and pulling right down to the hip.  I’m breathing every 6 strokes. I’m thinking I should breath on every 5, which would mean breathing alternatively to left and right – but everytime I try it, I muck up my stroke or don’t get a good enough breath, so I fall back to 6 as the most comfortable option.

The longest part of the swim was the first 5 minutes.  When Fergal swam up for a check and chat, I was amazed because I felt I’d been swimming for at least 3 times that.  But picking up and pushing forward again I did a mental self audit, noting that I felt absolutely fine, and although irritated with my lack of speed (the rest were well ahead) the dreaded exhaustion was nowhere near.  I think I finally relaxed at that point and swam on for another 10 minutes, enjoying the feel of the water, the smoothness of moving through the waves and seeing the markers for High Rock in the distance coming closer with every stroke.   We hit the halfway mark, and that was my agreed turnaround point.  Fergal checked me again and prepared me for the return journey, reminding me that we’d be swimming against the ebbing tide, and would have to work a bit harder coming back.   As soon as we turned I felt the slap of the waves lifting me out of the water, and to my delight I loved it.  I imagined it felt easier to swim against the waves, but probably it was just that having more work to do, left less time for thinking about breathing and strokes and every little movement.  I suppose I stopped overthinking things and just threw myself into the waves.  It was choppy and slapped me around a bit, but I laughed in between breaths and in no time we were touching sand at Middle Rock.   I’d made it.  Fergal calculated that we’d swum aproximately 700m in 30 minutes, some with the help of the tide and some against.  I’ve got some work to do, to make that cut-off time on Sunday.  But there’s not a lot in it.  I probably need to swim about 5 mins faster over the time.  With some luck, concentration, and a bit of adrenalin, I might be able to make it.

I trotted back onto the beach at Middle Rock at Malahide as the sun was setting, and 10 minutes later I’d dumped the wet suit and was braving the waves again in just a swimsuit.  This time the water actually felt warm as I ran back into the water.   So you know, maybe they’re not lying after all….   😉


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