In at the deep end: Vir­gin splasher’s first taste of open water swim­ming

‘Ev­ery­one’s got a plan un­til they get punched in the mouth’ – I found that out in Lough Key

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Health Fitness - Jamie Ball

It’s not of­ten I like to quote Mike Tyson, but here’s an ex­cep­tion. Splash­ing about like a one-winged, dis­ori­en­tated duck in Lough Key last June, far­ci­cally at­tempt­ing to swim 1,500 me­tres in the open water, de­spite not hav­ing ac­tu­ally trained once in the open water, his words came to mind: “Ev­ery­one’s got a plan un­til they get punched in the mouth.”

Hav­ing scribed a fit­ness fea­ture in this news­pa­per in June on how to get into open water swim­ming, I pro­ceeded to then ig­nore so much of the ex­cel­lent ad­vice of­fered by ex­perts in that fea­ture. Smart, eh? Then, I turned up with a plan on the big day and, well, got punched in the mouth.

My fit­ness was the­o­ret­i­cally strong enough to swim roughly a mile in the open water. In May, I started train­ing with the wel­com­ing Master Club at Al­saa at Dublin Air­port, with the uber-sup­port­ive Swim Ire­land coach Peter Con­way at the helm. Re­main­ing largely still a once-a-week swim­mer, my train­ing and times im­proved in the pool, while other car­dio and core work cer­tainly didn’t hurt.

I bought my­self a swim wet­suit (roughly ¤150) and open-water gog­gles (¤25) on­line from the UK, and was booked in for the 1,500m, June 16th Lough Key Loop through Open Water Swim­mer, which hosts three open water swim events on Ir­ish lakes through the sum­mer. I had the pool train­ing be­hind me, I had the gear, the time and the drive. So, where did it all go wrong?

No sense, logic or rea­son

Well, put it this way: you can lead a pool swim­mer to open water, but you can’t make him put his face in it. It was like try­ing to rea­son with a mule. My face stead­fastly re­fused. The ini­tial shock of the cold on the head was one thing (I would later learn that this typ­i­cally passes within 3-4 min­utes, if you just stay calm and keep swim­ming), but what was more shock­ing was the creepy dark­ness of the water be­neath, with vis­i­bil­ity lit­tle more than arm’s length and the reeds reach­ing up from the murky depths like the haunted limbs of the de­parted.

Much like pri­mates’ in­nate fear of snakes and spi­ders, water re­mains a well-earned an­te­dilu­vian ter­ror hu­mankind will be mil­len­nia more in try­ing to shake off. In such times, you’re re­minded that for our an­cient ances­tors the water, and what lies be­neath it, should only be tem­po­rar­ily en­tered upon in the face of emer­gency – such as fire, or a lion. And this wasn’t ei­ther of them.

So, I re­sorted to breast stroke and the back stroke, de­spite not try­ing ei­ther for years. Mad, eh? I was in no dan­ger with my ever-buoy­ant wet­suit on (a de facto life jacket in such still water) and kayak­ing-life­guards pad­dling about us (which you can hold onto and rest with, if you wish, or even call it a day and be im­me­di­ately brought back to the shore), but no sense, logic or rea­son in the world was go­ing to sway me. I ne­glected the ad­vice I’d lent read­ers weeks be­fore­hand: no mat­ter what strength your pool-fit­ness may be, if you want to com­pete in the open water then you need to train in it.

“Sight­ing” in open water is an­other chal­lenge that pool swim­ming can ever pre­pare you for. With no cue of the pool tiles or lane mark­ings to help keep you straight, you zigzag to blazes un­til you learn how to sight. So bad was I in June, cou­pled with the non-vis­i­bil­ity, that thrice did I land onto – not even into – a nearby fe­male swim­mer, near sink­ing her in the process each time as I apol­o­gised, yet again, pro­fusely.

It was start­ing to re­sem­ble some sort of Marine Mr Bean, and con­sid­ered knock­ing this open water lark on the head there and then. But it didn’t. I kept splash­ing away and fi­nally fin­ished, com­ing in some­where around the 48-minute mark, and en­tirely de­ter­mined never to let my­self down so much again. For the next month, I got out at Low Rock in Port­marnock once a week, start­ing with 750m and slowly build­ing up – amid waves, cur­rents, jel­ly­fish and sea­weed – to pre­pare for the Hod­son Mile on Lough Ree in late July. And that’s where I found my flow. I learnt to di­rect that adren­a­line into rhythm and tech­nique and con­sis­tency, while keep­ing a clear, calm mind­set through­out: mind­ful swim­ming, you might say, whereby you pay close at­ten­tion to the qual­ity of your pos­ture, strokes and breath­ing, and let the speed come sec­ond.

Find your mojo And when in the flow, it re­ally is mag­nif­i­cent: you feel so ut­terly in the now, so truly alive. If you can marry your breath with your strokes and find your mojo af­ter those first few min­utes, the en­dor­phins start to sing and it’s so damn in­vig­o­rat­ing, so damn sexy! The rush of well­ness dur­ing and the hours

Swim­mers tak­ing part in the Dún Laoghaire Har­bour Race in Au­gust this year. af­ter is truly ad­dic­tive – it’s no longer You vs The Water but you be­ing one of thou­sands of other liv­ing crea­tures swim­ming in the water dur­ing those min­utes.

I came in around 36 min­utes for the Hod­son Mile, and for the fi­nal event of the year – the Glen­dalough event in early Septem­ber, with swims rang­ing from 750m to 3.9km – I got my time down to 32 min­utes. And yes, I’d love to one day have a “2” be­fore my 1,500m time, but it re­ally isn’t about the clock.

So, how do you de­fine per­sonal best? Does it re­ally come down to a few dig­its on some clock, or other such cold cal­cu­lus? My arse it does. My per­sonal best was that morn­ing mo­ron­i­cally splash­ing about in Lough Key: my per­sonal best was not giv­ing up on my first go, when it was so very tempt­ing.

Aside from the fresh air, vig­or­ous ex­er­cise, the es­cap­ing of com­fort zones, the ca­ma­raderie and the craic of the field be­fore and af­ter the event, what does it mean to swim in such aes­thetic – even stun­ning – sur­round­ings, and in such a well-or­gan­ised, safe, sup­port­ive en­vi­ron­ment? It’s a rich and rare thing, and an edge few coun­tries can pro­vide as well as our own tem­per­ate, beau­ti­ful island. My only quip? That Open Water Swim­mer only hosts three such events each sum­mer.

So, where to from here? For me, it’s to prop­erly join the Al­saa Masters Club this win­ter and con­tinue in the pool once a week un­til late spring, and then con­sider ditch­ing the wet­suit and at­tempt­ing a Le­in­ster Open Sea swim event or two next sum­mer, if I don’t go down the triathlon route.

And for you? No mat­ter what your swim­ming abil­ity – from non-ex­is­tent to kick-ass – go find your near­est Masters Club and put a toe in the water this win­ter.

Craic of the field

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