Hi, I’m Suzie and I have a problem! An addiction, an obsession, a passion! I am wholly in love with swimming outside. In the fresh air, in water bodies that I can never see the bottom of. When it’s sunny, rainy, windy, hailing, foggy, cold, warm. It doesn’t matter, I just want to do it. As soon as I see a lake, reservoir or beach I immediately look to see where I can get in and what I can swim to. I don’t always follow through on this regular compulsion to strip off all my clothes and go for a dip. I’ve only been swimming outside for a year and I still feel like I’m finding my feet a bit. Add to that the fact that I’ve often got my two young boys and husband in tow. Those two combined, regularly put paid to my desire to throw caution to the wind and lob myself in whenever I fancy – oh to be young and carefree again!
In the last year or so of open water swimming I’ve learnt so much. Not just about swimming but about all kinds of things. Through this blog I hope to share some of my experiences, both old and new, to properly convey how wonderful this sport can be. This week I’m undertaking my biggest open water challenge to date!
In four days time I will, hopefully, have completed my first marathon swim. A swimming marathon is classed as anything over a distance of 10km. That’s what I’m doing, swimming 10km (6.2miles) continuously, for as long as it takes me. I’m nervous! I’m not a big “events” person. I’ve never been competitive and I’m certainly not a “racer”. I have friends who seem to do some kind of event almost every week over the summer. Running, triathlons, bike races, duathlons. It looks exhausting! Granted, the levels of training put in by them varies from person to person. From casual runners who rock up and do a half marathon with little planning to serious spreadsheet types who must “follow the plan” for months at a time. I do however, like to have something to motivate me and work towards. The odd event here and there fits that criteria for me.
I’ve completed two events since I started open water swimming. Both of them 5km distances. My first was at the end of last summer in September 2016 in a gravel pit in Yorkshire. It was described as an amphibian. We did five 1km laps, getting out after each lap to run 100m past a feeding station before diving pack in to do our next lap. It was fun, the weather was amazing, the people incredibly friendly and I did it with a couple of friends. My husband, kids and parents came down to watch. I really enjoyed it and didn’t find it as hard as I was expecting. It left me wanting more, but for that I’d have to wait until 2017 and the start of the next open water events season (May-September). In May 2017 I entered a 5km swim in Salford. It was early season and the water was still fairly chilly at 14C. I was swimming the longer of the three distances on offer that day. I’d done a couple of 5km swims in the pool over the winter so I knew I could do the distance but wasn’t sure I’d survive the cold for the almost 2 hours it would take me. The day itself was grim, windy and rainy. The atmosphere to start with was great but as I got going it just got a bit boring. I’m used to swimming out in the Peak District. I see hills and green trees when I’m swimming. This was essentially a massive concrete swimming pool. Everything was grey. The weather had scared off any spectators and by the time I finished there was practically no-one there. I even had to go and help myself to my finishers medal off a random table. I vowed to never do an event like that again.
In comparison to, for example a running event, swimming events are fairly expensive due to the amount of safety provision there needs to be. I haven’t worked for the last four years and I can’t justify spending silly money on events I might not enjoy. With that in mind my search for another event continued. I’d done 5km. I wasn’t fast but I felt like I could have gone further after both of them. So, a 10km it had to be! I looked and I looked. Everything I found seemed to clash with plans we already had for the summer. The amphibian I’d done in 2016 had also run a 10km version and I hoped beyond hope that they’d run it again. Sadly, it never appeared. I found one in early September at Buttermere in the Lake District. I know how exposed it can be up there and knew a squally, windy day would make it a tough event. I thought it might be too big an ask for my first marathon swim. Alas, by the time I felt I was strong enough, both mentally and physically, to deal with it, it was already full. Maybe this wasn’t going to be my marathon year after all!
Then, one damp day during the school holidays, I was absent-mindedly checking facebook when a new post from the Outdoor Swimming Society (OSS) popped up. It was a live video for the launch of a brand new OSS event, the Barmouth Hurly Burly. A 10km swim up the Mawddach estuary on the edge of Snowdownia in early October. We would swim up river with the assistance of a strong spring tide (a particularly high tide twice each month). Starting in the harbour at Barmouth we’d be pushed up river on the tide towards the mountains of Snowdonia. It sounded amazing. I’d spent three weeks of the school holidays eating cake and lounging around with the boys. I needed something to pull myself out of slob mode. I sheepishly asked my husband if he’d mind having the kids so I could go and get cold and wet in Wales. Thankfully he said yes! I had it booked within 45 minutes of the event launch.
Now, normally I’m a very careful and thoughtful person. I think things through, rationalise them and weigh up the pros and cons before I do anything. I’ve never made such a quick decision to spend £100 and commit myself to some significant training, particularly with only eight weeks to go. Maybe spending three solid weeks refereeing the boys had tipped me over the edge! Whatever the reason, I’d entered and had to start thinking about how I was going to do it. Rather rapidly my bestest swimming buddy said she’d come with me. She’s a triathlete, she trains bloody hard at every discipline but she doesn’t do particularly long distance so I knew she wouldn’t want to do the swim. However, she does like a good event and she’s been encouraging me to up my distance all season. She’ll be in charge of driving me there at some ungodly time in the morning, throwing my dryrobe on me when I get out and spending the three hour drive there convincing me that I CAN do it!
The next thing to work out was could I actually swim that kind of distance, tolerate the cold water for that long and potentially deal with waves? I’ll be swimming in a wetsuit. I’ve done the odd skin swim (swimming just in your cozzy) but nothing regular and I like the safety barrier my wetsuit gives me. Thanks to its buoyancy I can always stop for a rest if I get tired without sinking and I know I won’t get cold if I need a wee breather either. The 5km swim I’d done in May took me 1hour 50minutes in 14C water. I’d been OK. My feet and hands were a bit cold but I didn’t end up with hypothermia. Given my 5km time a 10km would take me more like four hours. However, early recce’s done by the OSS team had seen people with a similar swim pace as me complete it in 1hr 30 minutes. Result! Surely I should be able to deal with the cold for that long and I know I can definitely swim solidly for that amount of time. With all this in mind I have trained, but perhaps not quite as hard as I would have if it had been an event without that tidal assist. I’ve significantly upped my weekly distance since I entered. I’ve managed a few weeks of 10-15km within the week. I’ve managed one 7.5km swim in 2hours 45 minutes in about 15C water. The last 1.5km of that was hard work but I did it, I didn’t have hypothermia and I could still function for the rest of the day. Plus, with the rapidly cooling temperatures as autumn progresses my cold water tolerance should have increased too.
My plan was to carry on seriously swimming for the last couple of weeks before the event with a bit of tapering for five days before. What I’d completely forgotten to factor in was the start of term germ season! This year my youngest started school. The last few weeks have been full of mixed emotions but having no kids at home has given me the free time I needed to train as well. The emotional time of letting him go has been significantly helped by sticking my head in freezing cold water and letting my mind wander and relax for the odd hour. However, once they’re back at school the germs start doing the rounds. They’ve both been walking snot factories from the day they went back to school but I managed to hold off conceding to it until a couple of weeks ago. I’ve not been properly, laid in bed poorly, but it has slowed me down a bit. I have asthma and it’s gone down to my chest now. Having tried, and epically failed, to swim through a chest infection in the summer I’m not risking it again. I’ve not swum outside for a week and it’ll be 10 days by the time I swim on Saturday. My biggest concern at the minute is whether I’ve lost all that cold water tolerance I’ve built up over the last few weeks. I’m seriously considering cold showers for the next few days! Only time will tell on the day.
Now onto the waves. The Hurly Burly is on the west coast of Wales in October. October can be pretty rough in terms of weather. It’s not uncommon for the first proper storms of the season to descend, pulling up a few trees and doing a bit of flood damage. This had been at the back of my mind when I entered but, sod it, it looked so exciting, what harm would a bit of rain and wind do. Bear in mind that exposure and choppiness was my big reason for not doing Buttermere as my first 10km. Squally showers over water can turn a millpond into a raging, choppy mess within seconds. And that’s an inland body of water, not the sea! The Hurly Burly will start in the sea, in a harbour. I’m not used to big waves! Why am I doing this again?
We live slap bang in the middle of the UK. The sea is a long way away. The nearest I usually get to swimming in waves is when the wind whistles down the valley of my regular reservoir and creates a bit of chop. It’s not the most pleasant of experiences. Depending on where the waves are coming from they either wash over your head or slap you full in the face. Both angles of attack usually end up with a good mouthful of water and, occasionally, the odd splutter while you catch your breath. But that’s nothing compared to proper waves. However, I’d been lucky enough to swim with a few friends in Anglesey over the bank holiday weekend. Whilst the swims weren’t long they were pretty choppy but I soon found myself getting into a rhythm with the waves, adjusting my stroke rate and length to suit the conditions. It wasn’t loads of experience but it’ll have to do. It’s currently forecast 15mph westerly winds for Saturday. That could make for some pretty big waves. At least it’ll be coming from behind so we’re not fighting it! I’m currently ignoring the fact that wind in the same direction as the tidal flow might make them even bigger.
My preparation is nearly over. I have three more days to carb load and not incur any random last minute injuries or ailments. Fingers crossed, when I report back I’ll have that lovely warm feeling of achieving one of my biggest swimming feats to date. If not I’ll let you know what went wrong!!!!!
P.S. It might take me a little while to do the update. Another very good swimming friend has a big birthday on Saturday so we’re rushing back from Barmouth to celebrate with him. I may be found curled up in the corner by 6pm, gin in hand, still wearing my dryrobe!!!