I suppose swimming is a rather “fishy” activity but the title here definitely doesn’t allude to the lovely crisp coating and soft white flesh of a freshly fried fillet of haddock. No, I’m talking about the pummelled, slapped and mauled type of battering that comes from a very choppy swim.
I’ve wanted to do the Buttermere 10km swim for a couple of years. I was hesitant about entering last year, it would have been my first 10km swim and, as a lake surrounded by high fells, I knew there was potential for challenging weather. I wasn’t sure I was ready for windy squalls on my first long distance event. I worried about it for so long in 2017 that, by the time I went to enter, the event was full. Oops!
This year, in a bid to not miss a place, I found out when the entries would open and set myself a reminder. I was probably one of the first entries. Sunday 9th September 2018 was booked off work. Buttermere here I come!
I’ve done a good amount of swimming this summer, with the swim leg of the Lakesman triathlon (Lakesman) and our summer solstice jaunt (Summer solstice) under my belt I felt pretty swim fit. I’d nailed bilateral breathing in the pool over the winter so the rickety neck I was dealing with at the end of the 2017 open water season wasn’t causing me any gip this year. But, I got a bit slack after our epic week in June.
I’m not great at working long term to a goal, I’ve always been a work to the deadline kind of person. I was like it at school, university and to some extent, at work. I hate myself for it and I know if I was just a bit more disciplined I’d save myself a lot of stress but hey, that’s the way I am.
So that’s how my training for Buttermere went. Post June I got a bit slack, with a countdown of 12 weeks to the event I got a bit blasé, we stopped doing decent distance and went back to quick dip territory. Alright, so our dips were quite regular, almost every day in fact, thanks to the glorious summer, but I’d still got a bit lazy.
It’s OK I thought, I can do what I did last year when I was training for the Hurly Burly. In the last few weeks before that I would sneak into local swim spots for a long swim during the day. With no worries that I was going to lose the light or that I needed to be around to sort the kids out. In those precious few hours when the kids were at school I could get some long swims in under the watchful eye of the Short One.
Then the realisation hit, Buttermere was the Sunday straight after the school summer holidays, the Hurly Burly on the other hand had been in early October. I’d have no free time for nearly seven weeks before the event. What a total idiot to not realise this! I’d been so caught up in getting a place that I hadn’t even thought through the repercussions of when it was.
Cue mild panic over my ability to get my distance up to scratch. The Short One, supportive as ever encouraged me on, willingly getting up at some upgodly hour on Saturday’s so that we could get a couple of hours in before we needed to be doing other things. I managed 2.5 hours in Lyn Padarn in North Wales over the August bank holiday weekend (thanks Husband), a notoriously cold spot. I got out without hypothermia, had managed not to fuel for the whole time and felt like I could have carried on. But, that was 2.5 hours, I reckoned 10km would take me more like 4 hours. Oh well, I’ve got less than 10 days now I thought, I’ll just have to hope careful fuelling and a summer of spending a lot of time being wet would see me through.
And so the weekend arrived. Hubby and kids came too, camping overnight with a bunch of other swimmers from Toddbrook Open Water Swimming (TOWS). I’d been a bit hesitant about us all going up, the weather forecast was grotty and I wasn’t sure the boys would be up for it after their first week back at school. My concerns were unnecessary. Yes, the weather was largely grotty but we had a lovely evening of pre-race chat with fellow swimmers Nikki, Teresa and Rhiannon who were all doing the 5km swim. We all bundled into Teresa’s camper van to head to the swim start whilst Nikki & I’s other halves packed up the tents and entertained the kids. Added bonus of not having to a) pack the tent in the rain b) deal with kids in the rain.
Up and over Honister pass we trundled in the rain, mist and wind of a typical Lakeland day. Nothing worse than I’ve seen before in the Lakes but still not ideal for my first proper non tide assisted 10km swim. As we dropped down and got our first glimpse of Buttermere we could instantly see white horses on the water. The wind was up!
I can cope with rain during a swim, it’s actually quite nice, it adds a bit of interest. Wind on the other hand is a different story. Waves slapping you in the face from front, back or side is never pleasant. It makes it hard work to get any breath and it’s hard on your shoulders. I’ve swum in wind and waves before, part of me quite enjoys the challenge, but it would be hard work if it was like that for the whole 10km. Plus, we had to wear a tow float for this event. A brightly coloured inflatable safety device that you strap round your waist on a leash. It gives you something to rest on if you need it but also makes you more visible. They’re also a pain in the backside when it’s windy, they act like a big inflatable sail and whack you in all manner of unexpected places as you try and swim
We met a few more swimmers from TOWS and the High Peak on the start line. A lovely camaraderie of encouragement, something I’ve never really experienced to that extent before. It was definitely a spur to getting round, knowing that there’d be a group of people cheering me on.
With a two distance event there were two waves of swimmers. The 10k ers headed off 15 minutes before the 5k’s. Off I headed, at a very steady pace, knowing I’d need to save myself to get round two 5km laps. As I expected I was towards the back of the pack. That’s OK, I’m not a fast swimmer and I’m certainly not competitive enough to “race”, I was there to swim my own swim and just see if I could finish. Besides, being at the back meant I had plenty of space, no wayward arms or legs of other swimmers to worry about.
All was well for the first km or so. Then the wind started. The first inkling of it was when my tow float started blowing up around my arms and head. I stopped to put it on a shorter leash, tucked right into the small of my back, and deflated it a bit to stop it acting like a massive sail. So started the following wind. Not a huge problem at first, the tow float was just a bit annoying as it hit my arms but then it built and built. Waves washing over and breaking from behind. Cue the start of nosefuls of water.
Up next was the worst part. The fast 5km swimmers started overtaking us. These guys were racing. Full on, head down, in a pack racing, fighting to get a time or a top finish position. Fair play to them for being that competitive, it’s obviously how they enjoy swimming but when you’ve been plodding along for a while it’s a bit of a shock when you start to get swum over. This continued for most of the rest of that 5km lap. So much for finding my own space to swim in!
The wind and the waves continued to build. It was clear the safety team were having a hard time of it too. I rounded a corner, attempted to swim round a marker buoy, only to realise it was being dragged out of the water by one of the event marshals. Heading off to the next buoy I could see that one of the buoys had been blown clear out of the water and dragged some distance into a neighbouring field. I’m sure this wasn’t a swimrun event, I’ll give that one a miss I thought!.
We all plodded on, battered by the wind from behind, then the side, as we rounded the end of the lake, then full on into the waves as we started to head back down to the finish line. It was brutal! I put my head down and got on with the job in hand. The odd brief look up told me I was heading in the same direction as the other swimmers and roughly towards the next marker buoy.
As the waves moved round to the front it was a constant battle, diving through the waves, being slapped in the face by water over and over again. Swallowing and inhaling water on each breath. But I was OK. I didn’t panic. Yes it was brutal but it was challenging and adventurous. There had been similar stretches on the Hurly Burly last year and I’d love every minute of it. I felt strong and confident that I could cope with it and knew nothing bad would happen as long as I kept my cool.
It transpired later that there were varying routes taken down that end. Some of the front runners had been guided out of the chop fairly quickly by the lead kayaker. The ones lagging behind had duly followed all of the route marker buoys and spent significantly longer in the melee than others. Given my path very close to the shore throughout I think I was one of them.
Thankfully, at last the waves started to ease, the last 500m-1km before the end of my first 5km lap was significantly easier with only a few gentle ripples. It was like an entirely different event. I came into the 5km finish with a cheer. Some of my friends doing the 5km swim had finished just ahead of me and our support crew families were there. I grabbed a quick cup of tea from the feed station and downed an energy gel just as my friend Nikki came in looking rather bedraggled. She looked incredulous when I said I was going in for a second lap. I believe her words were “you must be mad!”
Revived, and warmed up after a brew I headed back in for the second lap. With barely a safety kayak in view I headed off on my own in what was now flat, calm, clear water. Alone, with no swimmers around me, no-one watching over me. It was a little bit of heaven. I was well into a comfortable flow by now.
It was here that I realised how far I’ve come in three years. Three summers ago when I first started swimming outside I would get jittery and a bit panicked if I was too far away from other people. We would stop for each other regularly to check we were all ok. I would freak out at the imaginary monsters that would emerge from the shadows or freak myself out when I thought my arm was a fish. Not so much now, it still happens occasionally, but in that moment as I headed out on my second lap in preparation for a thorough pummelling again I was utterly calm, enjoying the moment and freedom of swimming alone.
And yes, the wind and the waves came again. It didn’t seem quite as bad on the second lap. The driving rain had abated but it was still a good battering. By that point the event organisers had significantly shortened the course and a safety kayaker pointed me across the lake at an earlier point rather than swimming right up to the end. It probably cut around 2km off and certainly cut off the most brutal part of the swim.
Despite the shortening of the route the remainder of the swim was still a challenge. Driving sideways waves were followed by the constant pummel of head on waves again. Akin to a washing machine on full spin.
For most of the way back I had a safety kayaker with me. Every time I saw his face he was grinning, I don’t know why. It could be he was pleased it had finally stopped raining; pleased that his safety duty was nearly over; slightly confused by this mad, stubborn woman who was still swimming despite the weather or; impressed by my ability to battle head first through the waves. I like to think it was a combination of the last two.
And so, slightly sooner than expected I crossed the finish line to the applause of the few bystanders and event staff that were still around. I was handed a medal and a well-deserved brew. Alas my support crew were nowhere to be seen. Given how long it had taken me to complete the first lap they’d all headed off for a wander, not expecting me back in for at least another twenty minutes. I met them along the path back to the car park, tow float under my arm, grin on face and cup of tea still in hand. My seven year old ran up and gave me the biggest hug ever, “Mummy, you finished already. That was quick!”
Little did he know I’d still not managed my full, non-assisted 10km swim, but with nearly four hours in the water and the brutal conditions I was still pleased as punch to have done it. Everyone agreed it was one hell of a swim. Not everyone finished what they’d set out to do that day, me included, but everyone deserves a pat on the back for giving that beast a go whether they finished or not.
I’ll probably attempt another 10km next year but I’ll be making sure it’s not straight after the school holidays and I’ll be avoiding events that involve tow floats, I don’t fancy being bashed around the head for four hours again!