I have never finished last before.
Milarrochy Bay Swim Festival
Loch Lomond was like a mill pond, twinkling every time the sun broke through the clouds. What a beautiful morning and a glorious setting for my first ever open water swim festival. The hills and mountains ringing the loch were looking resplendent in their green summer coat and I was looking forward to the challenge. And a challenge I knew it would be.
I’m relatively new to open water swimming. I’m a poor swimmer (I swim breast stroke because I’m so bad at front crawl I can barely go 20m before spluttering and flapping) and since I started open water swimming in January 2015 I’ve had a long hiatus, punctuated briefly in the Alps and the Cairngorms, until only recently.
I returned to Bardowie Loch three weeks hence and the conditions felt so good that day that I swam my longest ever continuous swim; 1km. The next week I swam 2.25km. So when I was tempted by the Milarrochy Bay Swim Festival I needed to make sure it would prove a challenge.
Naturally, this meant I had to sign up for the 3km swim!
Here we go!
After the race briefing and getting my head round the wetsuit tattoos, I was bobbing in the water waiting to start with the other swimmers in green swim caps – denoting who was doing the 3km. This part was great. The water was clear and warm (14C) and the surrounding landscape made for a few ‘memory moments’ to add to my collection. Then the air horn sounded and off we went.
Quickly my swim unfolded before me. I knew I’d be slow, but I didn’t expect I’d be this slow. Or, at least, I hoped there would be some other slow swimmers too. Initially I felt quite positive as there were two swimmers nearby; one who I was shoulder-to-shoulder with for the first 300m. It turns out he must have had an issue with his goggles, because after 300m he started swimming with intent and I never saw him again! This left me well adrift from the pack.
It was going to be a long, long swim.
My one and only ‘victory’ came when I was nearing the end of my first 1km loop. I looked back to see where the rest of the field was, only to see two green-capped swimmers bearing down on me. My mission instantly became to complete 1km before they completed 2km. I made it by about 30 seconds! This proved everything a shallow victory is, but the irony of it kept me going over the next 200m.
By the time the ‘euphoria’ of my ‘victory’ wore off, the 1km swimmers set off in their pink caps. At the time I thought these were the 2km swimmers and only discovered this wasn’t the case after the swim – this becomes relevant shortly. All of the pink capped swimmers, except one, were past me by the time I reached 1.5km. I then had a ‘swimming buddy’ for about 5oom, which was nice (sorry for bashing your leg!) and this spurred me on and I returned to taking in the beauty of my surroundings and thinking how lucky I was to be swimming in Loch Lomond on such a fine morning.
As I had assumed my new buddy was a 2km swimmer, I fully expected to swim the last loop with her in my vicinity. But this was where my despair really began! When I turned to head out on my final loop I did a good scan of the course. I saw nobody. NOBODY!
I still had an entire loop to swim and I was already the ONLY swimmer on the loch! Holy mackerel!
They told me afterwards that there were swimmers out there, I just didn’t see them. I’m still not sure if this is correct or if they were just being kind.
Being a trailrunner I’ve ran a couple of ultras. The mindset of an ultrarunner is to just keep going, one step at a time. Forget about the distance yet to cover, focus only on the rhythm and keeping moving. Knowing I had this mentality in my armoury was a huge asset and it was this that prevented me from turning over, floating on my back and waving for a kayaker!
I also reminded myself that doing this swim was not about how slow I was compared to everyone else, but my own challenge to see if I could swim 3km in Loch Lomond. But still, I couldn’t help feel a large sense of guilt for the kayakers, boat crew and volunteers who must have been aghast at the distance:speed ratio.
Davy Jones Calling?
As I plodded on, I got to about 2.3km and I began to notice I was losing buoyancy. My legs were drifting downwards and I was no longer horizontal to the water line. I know I don’t swim entirely horizontal, but there was a definite shift in my position. I was confused as to what was going on. I knew I was tired, but I didn’t feel significantly more tired as to warrant this change in position. Needless to say my forward propulsion slowed noticeably.
At the same time I became increasingly aware of a strong current pushing me southwards towards Balmaha. Initially I ignored it, but after a short while I realised I was in danger of being swept so far off course that I might not have the swim strength to get me back on course.
Something was going on with the water that wasn’t happening on the previous two laps. Panic began to set in! I was well wide of the buoys and was being pushed further wide. I seriously considered waving for help. I honestly did not think that I’d make it back onto the course. The more I panicked, the lower my legs got in the water. The lower my legs got, the slower I got. The slower I got, the further I drifted from the buoy. This was a pretty scary scenario. I longed for the boat to come and pick me up, but I was equally determined to finish the course. It might have been the fear I was feeling, but the water seemed to have changed from murky brown to jet black. Was Davy Jones reaching out for me? It bloody well felt like it! *shivvers*
Thankfully, after what was a lung-bursting 5 minutes of intense mental and physical effort of swimming at 45 degrees to the course, I made it through the current and got myself back on course and round the buoy. Relief!
This left 600m to get through. That 600m felt like 600km. Everything seemed to be within touching distance and on the horizon all at the same time. But, I just kept applying my ultrarunner mindset – one stroke after another. This didn’t quell the questions, though; how long had I been in the water? Will the race arch still be there when I finish? Will ANYONE be there at the finish? I felt comforted, however, by the flotilla of kayaks accompanying me in, which was a nice touch.
When I finally reached the race arch (it was still there!) I was humbled by the cheers and applause from those who waited and my heart melted when I heard my wee boy shouting “Daddy! Daddy!” from the top of his voice. But, as if I hadn’t spent enough time in the water, I swam past the finish! Ha! You can ask me how or why this happened and I doubt I’ll ever be able to give you a logical answer!
Wobbling and stumbling out of the water with the kind assistance of a nice lady, I was delighted and relieved to reach Jo, Ferdinand and Rosa. I had made it!
It was tough. I was slow. VERY slow (it took about 1hr30). I overcame a big scare. I did it! I had not only swam in Loch Lomond, but I’d swam 3km – my furthest ever swim. Champion!
Kirstin from Vigour Events asked me how it was as I got out of the water. I replied: “That was exhilarating and soul destroying in equal measure!”.
In the end, the challenge was with the water and myself, not with the fast swimmers. It was never about the fast swimmers. But when you’re so far behind everyone, it does force you to draw on your inner strengths and block out everything else to keep on going.
Aside from my brush with Davy Jones, it was a great swim and I’m proud of what I achieved in the water.
I’d like to say a special thanks to the Vigour Events staff and volunteers, kayakers and boat crew, not only for their patience, but for making me still feel ‘valid’, despite the huge gap in ability between me and the field. And, of course, my amazing support crew; ma famille!