Monday, 13 April 2009

Back from Malta

The Swimtrek trip to Malta was fabulous and I'm all fired up and ready to get back into training.

Sunday (4th April) was our first day of swimming - a brief trip round Xlendi Bay to sort us into groups, followed by an hour of laps round the bay. Then, after lunch, another two hours around the bay - this time with our first feed. It must have looked very odd to the people in the beach-front cafes who were already pointing and taking photos - dead on the hour, we all turned around and headed back to the little beach, where bottles of warm Maxim were hurled to us. Our guides (John Conningham Rolls, Lizzie de Bono, Nick Adams and Freda Streeter) were all shouting at us to guzzle it down as quickly as possible and start swimming again, and we finished up as much as we could before throwing the bottles back at them and heading back out for another hour. I found the swim absolutely fine, and was pleased not to feel the cold too much.

On day 2, things got much more challenging. We headed off early to Mgarr harbour to meet our boat, then chugged out beyond the harbour walls. We got Vaselined up, and then jumped into the cold, choppy water to start a 2.5 hour swim along the coast, then into another bay. For me, then next hour was the worst of my entire trip. This was my first experience of swimming in choppy water, and I quickly found myself unable to get into a rhythm and becoming quite disoriented by the erratic movements of the water. I was unable to keep up with Lisa and Steve (who I'd been swimming with the day before), and kept losing sight of them as I slipped in the troughs of waves behind them. I started to get frustated and cross, and found it difficult to keep my balance in the water. Negative voices in my head started to take over and I started to ask myself what on earth I was thinking to even hope to swim the Channel if I couldn't manage this. Lizzie sent us back in towards the cliffs for shelter, but by the time we stopped for our first feed from the boat, I was still in mid-tantrum and in my mind had drafted my letter to my pilot pulling out of my Channel swim. We swam in the lee of the cliffs to a promontory, and beyond it we could see huge waves rolling towards us. Lizzie told us to swim into them for 100 metres, just to see what it's like, so off we went. Unlike the unpredictable chop we'd been in before, these waves were big, but regular and coming straight at us; we swam up the front of them, then dropped into the trough. Lizzie blew a whistle and we turned around, body-surfing our way back to the promontory. This gave me the lift that I needed, and I started to feel more positive as we swam back along the cliff and turned into a bay, where the boat was waiting for us. We did a few more laps to finish the 2.5 hours.

This was our first chance to practice the difficult art of getting changed as quickly as possible after a swim, and we struggled with cold, clumsy hands to peel off our swimming costumes and put dry clothes on over damp, cold bodies, preferably while preserving some modesty. Cups of hot chocolate were thrust into our hands, along with snacks, plus lots of praise and encouragement. I felt very deflated, though, after my difficult first hour, but tucked into a pasta lunch and warmed myself at the back of the boat in the sunshine.

And then the announcement that we would be doing "just half and hour more than you did this morning". Getting back in wasn't very appealing, especially given my shaken confidence from the morning, but I realised that I was getting trapped in a negative cycle that wasn't getting me anywhere and gave myself a good talking to. And off we went again. With my new, positive frame of mind, I really enjoyed this swim - the sun was on our backs, the water was clear, and I was able to settle into a comfortable rhythm. Lisa and I turned out to have perfectly compatible swim speeds, and we swam very peacefully side by side for the whole swim. We were entertained sporadically by divers at the bottom of the bay, plus schools of little blue fish, and thankfully, only the occasional jellyfish. The three hours went quickly, and before I knew it, we were clambering up the ladders, being chivvied on by the guides to get dry and changed. I didn't feel at all cold, but was starting to shiver by the time I was dressed. I had underestimated the amount of clothing I would need to bring, so John CR bundled me up in his huge jacket, putting a cup of hot chocolate in my hand, and sitting me down in the cabin with the others who had done the whole three hours in order to keep out of the chilly wind. We were all pretty satisfied with our achievements for the day, although my difficult morning was still niggling way at me, and when JCR announced that we would be doing our 6 hour swim the next day, my heart sank - I had been expecting to have a day off first (as the group did the week before) and then do the long swim, but we were told that the forecast was good and we were going to get on with it. So, a group of us went out and ate industrial quantities of pasta and went to bed early.

On the phone that night to Peter, I told him how hard I had found it, but he was gloriously positive, getting me to think about it in terms of what I had learned from the experience in the rough water, and what I needed to do to solve the problem (practice, practice, practice in rougher water than I'm used to!). Perhaps it wasn't such a disaster after all - a good lesson in the importance of positive thinking.

We started day 3 with an early breakfast, where we forced down as much food as we could before heading off to the harbour again. Everyone was a little apprehensive, but we busied ourselves on the boat with the mutual slathering on of sunscreen and usual liberal coating of vaseline. The first part of the swim was the same as the day before, but I was relieved to see that it wasn't quite as choppy. Lisa was great and swam alongside me, doing most of the sighting; all I had to do was to keep swimming and sight her to my right. My confidence started to grow and I was feeling relaxed and positive, although it felt much colder than the day before, making my back and arms tingle. Stopping only for a feed, we turned round at the promontory (no wave surfing today) and back along the dramatic cliff base back into the bay where we were to spend the next 4.5 hours swimming round and round - for Lisa and I, who were still swimming virtually stroke for stroke, about four laps per hour.

I didn't mind the monotony of this, and although I started off trying to do counting games etc, I soon abandoned these for not really thinking about anything, except looking at the occasional divers, and increasingly, thinking about the next feed. At the three hour feed, we were told we would be feeding every half hour; I can definitely do this, I thought - two laps then a feed, two laps, then a feed. But at the three and a half hour feed, Freda said that our next one would be in an hour. This proved to be the most difficult hour for me. I don't know if it was because my mind had been set on half hourly feeds, or simply because I was getting hungry (it was lunchtime by now), but I started to feel tired, and more worryingly, cold - the first time this had bothered me in the entire holiday. I tried to imagine my core as generating heat - my ribs as radiator bars, my liver as a big, warm sponge - and looked forward to the reward of hitting the lovely warm patch at the beach end of the bay. I tried to ignore the fact that I was beginning to shiver and tried to pick up the pace a bit to warm myself up. By the 4.5 hour feed, I was feeling very cold and tired, but okay, and then we were delighted to see Kit Kats being thrust into our hands. Now, everybody knows that the proper way to eat a Kit Kat is to relax back and nibble all the chocolate off the outside before eating the wafers inside, but there was no time for this as we were urged to "get it down you". We stuffed it greedily into our salt-swollen mouths, struggling to chew, but grateful for the energy boost, washing it down with swigs of warm Maxim. And off we went again - heading straight for the warm corner first, by way of encouragement.

Things really picked up after this, and Lisa and I swam comfortably side by side without really losing any pace for the final hour and a half. I started to feel warmer under the afternoon sun, and was buoyed up by the support from the boat from those who had already got out. As the water warmed under the sun, small jellyfish started to rise to the surface and several people got stung, including poor Becky, who got caught right on the nose. Somehow, I managed to escape and didn't get stung once, and counted myself lucky.

And then, at last, it was over and the five of us who had done the whole six hours clambered up the ladders feeling gloriously triumphant (or at least, I did). We changed with the help of the others on the boat (thanks, Wendy), and once again, JCR zipped me up into his enormous coat, then sent me, shivering now, up onto the boat's sundeck. We sat there like heavily-wrapped lizards, warming ourselves up on hot chocolate, and plates of pasta followed by M&Ms. We must have looked a really sight when we disembarked at the harbour - with half of our party in shorts and T-shirts, and the other half still wearing three or four thick layers and woolly hats.

So, for me, the trip was a success - and having successfully completed the 6 hour swim has really boosted my confidence. I also learned a lot:
  • Once you start with the negative thinking, it's a downward spiral that's hard to reverse - so, less sulking and more positive thinking. This was the most important lesson I learned, and one that I'm really going to have to work out.
  • I need to practice in more unpredictable conditions (so, off to Dover this summer...)
  • I need to practice feeding and work out what is the optimum timing interval for me.
  • You have to put sunscreen on the back of your legs and on your ankles, and not just on your back and backside.
  • You have to put vaseline in places that you wouldn't immediately think to put it (the less said about that the better).
  • When you look up, especially in choppy sea, keep your mouth closed.
  • Black jelly babies are great for getting the salt taste out of your mouth

Thanks to everyone for a great week - especially to Freda, Nick, John and Lizzie for keeping us safe and well-fed, and for helping us to achieve our goals for the trip.

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