Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Dover weekend

Down for my second Dover weekend of the year. It has to be said that this was not my finest performance, mentally or physically, and my confidence took a bit of a knock. I had been feeling tired, post-Ireland, all week, and did very little swimming, except for a gentle skills and drills club session, and a lazy hour at Bosworth, so felt like I should get back down to it. So, there I was on Saturday morning, well-fed and ready for what I assumed would be a good, long swim - 7 hours, as we were soon instructed. Part of me had reservations about doing such a long swim 9 days before Jersey to France, and in hindsight, it may have been a mistake, but I set off, determined to consolidate the work I'd done in Ireland. However, by the three hour mark, I was in trouble - my shoulders and back felt achy and uncomfortable, and my energy levels kept dipping quite erratically. My stroke felt awkward, especially as the water became increasingly choppy. It was a beautiful day, and I tried to concentrate on the sunshine, swimming from hourly feed to feed, but it was getting hard to ignore my aching shoulders and upper arms, and the muscles in my groin and lower back were cramping really badly. I finished the 7 hours, but it was a real struggle, and I was pretty disheartened by the end of it - if I was in that state after 7 hours, what would I be like after 10, 12, 15...? Would I even be able to keep going for that long?

After I got back to the campsite, I did everything I could to maximise my recovery with a view to having a better swim the following day - protein shake, lots of water, beans on toast, a nap, then pasta and an early night. However, by later in the evening, I couldn't ignore the niggling pain in my right shoulder and upper arm, and started to worry that I'd pushed too hard whilst too fatigued from the Ireland camp, and had injured myself. I spent the evening getting myself into a bit of a negative frame of mind, but had a long chat with Peter who advised me in the strongest possible terms not to swim the next day, or for the next week - that I needed to let myself recover fully for Jersey, and that, contrary to my tunnel-visioned panic, missing one swim now wasn't going to ruin the whole Channel attempt (I have problems with perspective sometimes!). Good advice....and a welcome voice of reason for my swim-addled brain.

So, on Sunday morning, I went down to the beach as normal, but with no intention of swimming. I'd decided instead to use it as a research day - a chance to observe the swimming from a different perspective, to chat to people on the beach, to help with feeds etc. This was a good decision, as my shoulder was still niggly (although not as bad as it had been the previous evening, which gave me cause for optimism)...even if I had to fight the recurring urge to get into the water because it was such a scorcher of a day and the water was deliciously, alluringly cool and glass-flat. But I held out, and instead, enjoyed the opportunity to see what it all looks likes from the beach. It was also a rare chance to take some photos, which I never get to do because I'm always either getting ready to swim, swimming, or recovering from swimming...

The six hour swimmers head out:

Freda prepares to give instructions to the yellow hats:

Neil gets greased up by Barry:

The beach crew are truly amazing - keeping track of who's in / out of the water; greasing everyone up ready to swim; preparing and delivering feeds; offering encouragement (and occasionally threats) to wavering swimmers. And for anyone who is crazy enough to think they're not getting good value for money....you should see the amount of stuff they get through taking care of us...

Barry's clever cup-holder:

Cliff looks very chirpy at hour 5:
Tired swimmers warm themselves up on the hot stones:
So, even though the weekend didn't turn out quite as I'd hoped, by the end of the day, I was feeling reinvigorated and much happier. My shoulder felt much better for the rest (and has continued to improve to the point where it is now no longer niggling at all), and I managed to turn a missed swim into a productive research observation day (on a beach in the blazing sunshine... how fabulous is my job!). So, all in all, not a bad outcome.
And now I need to get myself ready for Jersey to France...lots of rest, good nutrition and hydration, and lots of positive thinking for the big day, which looks like it could be early next Monday morning. Very exciting.

Friday, 25 June 2010

Sandycove pic

Great picture from Neil of me emerging from the water at Sandycove last week. I'd like to think
that I look triumphant at the end of another long swim, but I can't help but think I look a bit like I'm drowning. Look at the beautiful setting, though.

I'm feeling much better now that I've had a few days of rest and gentle swimming; off to Dover today for more.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

A great way to go mad...

I finally made it home after a long, hot drive, and have had a little time to reflect on the the Ireland camp, and to think about where my training is going to go next.

I reckon that I did 33 hours of swimming over the 9 days, covering approximately 100km. This is WAY more than I usually do, and I've found it utterly exhausting, but at the same time, am delighted that I managed to complete every single swim in reasonably good shape. The swimming was absolutely amazing, in a wide range of stunning locations; the company was excellent; the weather was fantastic. I really enjoyed being able to swim and chat with people with so much swimming experience, and who are as lost to the whole Channel swimming thing as I seem to have become. As someone on the camp noted, there is something quite mad about this whole business, but what a great way to go mad. Thanks to everyone for such a great week.

Looking forwards, rather dauntingly, it's two weeks until my Jersey to France swim window opens, and 8 weeks to the start of my Channel swim slot. I'm hoping to go down to Dover next weekend for a long swim, and then to rest a bit before J2F; after that, I'll hopefully be focussing most of my training on the Dover weekends. I feel like my prep has gone well, and I just want to consolidate as much as possible, whilst staying as welll as possible.

This is all starting to get a bit serious now....

6 hour swim

The last day of the camp – 6 hour swim day. I woke to bright sunshine filtering into the van, and cooked up porridge, toast and coffee, plus juice and plenty of water. I packed up the van, ready to head up to Dublin after the swim, and drove down to Sandycove for the last time, sipping from a bottle of Maxim in preparation for what was to come. It was quite crowded down there –a good turnout for the final day. We were briefed about feeding (which would be from the beach on the island) and then lined up in the water, ready for the starting horn. I was feeling quite tired, but reckoned that swimming while fatigued would be good mental practice for the Channel. Unlike the previous day’s constantly changing swim course (in the interests of torment and confusion), the goal for the day was simply laps of the island – in my case, two an hour – a pace which I managed to sustain, with about 10 minutes in hand at the end.

This was a very uneventful swim for me. As usual, it took me a couple of hours to feel comfortable, and I was having a little difficulty getting the maxim down – there’s been a lot of the purple gloop in my life recently, and I think I’ve reached saturation point. Because it was such a sunny day, I managed to force about 500mls per hour down, supplemented by the occasional jelly baby (the swimmer’s friend), and a couple of bites of cereal bar. As the swim progressed, the sea outside of the cove became increasingly rough, and by my last couple of laps, it was becoming a bit of a fight, which was fun (if a bit hard on the shoulders). I don’t know how I would cope with that for hours and hours, but it was completely manageable knowing that I would soon have some respite in the lee of the island, where the water was flat and peaceful.

All in all, it was a lovely swim. Many thanks to Ned, Lisa and Ruth for spending many hours on the beach, always ready with the right bottle and some words of encouragement when we pitched up for a feed. It felt good to get another 6 hour swim done, especially on top of such a heavy week of swimming. A few of the other swimmers went on to do 8 hours, which is deeply impressive. I would have loved to have stayed in, but I was really conscious of the fact that I had to give myself time to recover and make sure that I was okay to drive safely up to Dublin, which takes about 4.5 hours in the van. So I called it a day at 6, changed, cooked up a pile of pasta to refuel, drank gallons of water, stood about chatting, and then finally forced myself to leave the lovely, light-hearted post-swim, post-camp atmosphere and headed north.

It felt like a long drive up, but after 10 days in the van, I was delighted to arrive at the hotel that colleagues at DCU had booked for me, where I had a well-earned beer, and then luxuriated in the joys of a hot bath, fluffy dressing gown, and a thick down duvet. Bliss.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

TBBC day

Today was Total Brain and Body Confusion day - a swim of unspecified length / substance, with Owen, Lisa, Eddie, Ned and assorted others enrolled in the task of frustrating and tormenting us. I have to admit that I was pretty nervous before we started - I don't do well not knowing what I'm going to be doing, and found not knowing how long we were going to be in the water very hard to get my head around. We started off with two laps the "wrong way" round the island, and then I was sent back out to do two more in the usual direction. Then, in to the slip in the hope of a feed. Lisa sent me back off to a buoy and back, by which time she said that my feed would be ready; but when I got back, her, Eddie and Owen were standing "chatting", ignoring me. I wasn't sure whether they were genuinely caught up in conversation, or whether they were messing with me, so I asked whether I needed to get out to get my own feed (which probably sounded really rude, but it was a genuine question...). Owen turned round and headed over with a cup, which he then "accidentally" spilled, and I was sent off to the buoy again while another was prepared.

After my feed, it was back off round the island again, and then Ned told me to swim up to the neck of the cove and back until they were ready for me to go out with the boat. After a while, I was sent out to the mouth of the cove, and then a small bunch of us turned to the right, and were instructed to head towards a headland. There was a quite a choppy swell rolling in, and I struggled for a while until I adapted to a longer, slower, more streamlined stroke. The coastline was absolutely stunning, and by the time we rounded the headline, I was having an absolute blast. At one point, I saw the crew on the boat all staring into the water and pointing - I later learned that they'd seen an enormous jellyfish - something which I'm glad I didn't know at the time! Just beyond the headland, we were turned around and headed back through the waves back to the cove. This was harder going, but a huge amount of fun. I could feel the stress of the rough waters on my shoulders, and for a brief while, found myself wondering how I would cope if it were like this for the whole of my Channel swim. But I put this thought aside and just focused on swimming - it was exciting and utterloy joyful, being tossed around in the bright sunshine as we paddled our way back up the gorgeous coastline.

Heading back into the cove, I ran straight into thick weeds, and realised that while I'd been out, the water had disappeared! I half-crawled, half-swam through the thick weeds towards the slip, where Ned told me to climb out, warm up and have some food. I saw most of the others were already out, but I was suspicious at first that this was a trick, and that I would be sent out for one more! But happily, this wasn't the case. I was out for 5.15 hours, which I was pretty pleased with.

So, another good day of swimming. Just the 6 hour swim to go....

Friday, 18 June 2010

Ireland swim camp

Well, here I am in Ireland, tucked away in the van on Garrettstown House Holiday Park just outside of Kinsale. We're now one week into the training camp, and I'm just about holding my own.... but I reckon I've done almost 70 km in the last 7 days, which is already double my usual training week, and we've got a heavy weekend of swimming ahead of us. I'd be lying if I said I wasnt' finding it tough, but the swimming has been amazing - stunning locations, a mix of fresh and salt water, new (and familiar) swimming chums, plus some unexpectedly splendid weather, which certainly helps.

We started off gently, with a 3 mile sea swim at Ballycrenin, followed by a splended dinner courtesy of Eddie Irwin and family. This was probably one of the worst swims for me - I'd had a few days off after the 6 hour swim at Swan Pool, and I couldn't really get into a rhythm. But then the next day, we went to Fermoy to do the Martin Duggan Memorial Swim, which was wonderful. The race was a river swim, 3km up against the flow, and then 3km back down with the current. The swim up seemed to take forever. We'd been told to turn at the buoy outside the big house, and I kept seeing big houses and thinking "this must be it"....but no, and on we forged. I generally don't enjoy racing, and after my awkward swim the day before, I was planning to just take it gently but once in, I couldn't help but push myself. Of course, I'm not that fast anyway, so most people wouldn't even notice that I was pushing, but I was pleased with my swim, clocking 1.08 on the way up, and 50 mins on the way back (because of the current), crossing the line at 1.58.30 (I think I was 19th out of about 30 swimmers). It was a fun swim, followed by sandwiches and cake in a packed rowing club hall, complete with fiddle music.

The next morning, we arrived, as instructed, ready for a 6-8am swim - in my case, clocking 4 laps of the island. This was the first of five early morning Sandycove swims, plus one evening session there too, each of two hours. It's a great place to swim - constantly changing in the different light, and as the tide rises and falls. Those more familiar with the circuit are more expert at avoid the protruding rocks that catch neophytes unawares at low tides, and most of us visitors have smacked into rocks, or found ourselves inelegantly beached on thick beds of weed, at some point. Every one of these swims has felt different - on Tuesday, the early morning sunlight was glorious, the sea was pancake flat, and I felt positively drunk with the peacefulness of just swimming; on Thursday, I was overtired after a late return from a trip to the amazing salt water lagoon of Lough Ine, and felt cold and uncomfortable, with the laps feeling like they would never end. On Wednesday, we swam for two hours in the warm waters of the reservoir at Iniscara in the peaceful evening sunshine, and on Thursday night, we did an 8km swim at Lochalua, forging our way downstream along increasingly narrowing, peat-tasting waterways, guided by kayaks to stop us wandering off down tributaries and never being seen again. We had to stop at one point while our kayaker shooed a small herd of curious bullocks out of the shallow stream we were swimming down. I thought about my bright pink hat ... "red rag to a bull"... and thought that being trampled by bullocks in a river was a swimming hazard I'd never really considered before. Apart from the bullocks, there's been a happily low wildlife count - no seals as yet, and only one jellyfish encounter in Lough Ine, leaving me with hot, red welts down the back of my leg; there are some fabulous crabs around Sandycove, plus thousands of long, thin fish darting everywhere.

As well as the amazing swimming locations, and the challenge of fairly relentless training, it's been fantastic to meet so many fellow swimmers who are utterly lost to the sport. Some I know from previous encounters - Paul and Andy, who I met in Gozo this summer, and Roisin from last year's Gozo camp. Others I've only encountered online - Enda, Gabor, Ned, Lisa - plus lots of new swimming friends. The standard of swimming is extremely high here and I am at the slower end. There's also a lot of very competitive swimming among the faster swimmers, and I frequently find myself momentarily surrounded by thrashing bodies as they storm past, trying to edge each other out or hold on to a lead. But I'm sticking to my sedate plodding - I've always known that I'm never going to get across the Channel quickly, but hopefully, with luck, will do so steadily.

So, as you can see, it's been an amazing, and relentless week of swimming. I've found it tough - especially getting up early to swim. Of all of the aspects of training, this is the one that I've always found hardest to cope with - getting up very early. Early on in the week, I was getting back from swimming, having breakfast, and then working on my laptop through to the evening swim, but by Wednesday, it was clear that this wasn't really working out for me, and I was losing way too much sleep, so I've cut back on the work side of things and am having a seriously long nap after breakfast (and sometimes after lunch too!), which is really helping. I've also been eating more, and making sure that I'm having protein shakes after every swim, which has improved my recovery. In terms of swimming, I feel like things are going really well - no injuries, and although some of the swims have felt hard, my pace has stayed pretty steady and I'm feeling on good form. The water isn't exactly warm, and I've been doing my fair share of post-swim shivering, but the cold water swimming in May has really helped with the acclimatisation and this hasn't been a huge problem so far. So....with Jersey to France only a couple of weeks away, I'm feeling reasonably confident that my preparation has gone well.

But having said all of that, this week of swimming is really only the appetiser for the weekend to come. Saturday is the Total Body and Brain Confusion swim - a day of swimming about which we know no specifics, other than that we are to leave "watches, attitudes, tears, whines and rolling eyeballs" home. For my inner control freak, this is very troubling, but for now, I'm approaching it in a spirit of resigned calm. And then on Sunday, to round off the camp, we have a six hour swim. Assuming that I survive, I then need to zip up to Dublin ready for Monday morning, when I'm sitting on a PhD supervisory panel at DCU, and then giving a seminar paper, by which time I will probably be a complete basket case, but hopefully, a very satisfied one at the end of a tough, but amazing, week of swimming. If I make it all in one piece, I'll update when I get home.

Monday, 7 June 2010

6 hour swim

I got back from Jersey on Saturday, then on Sunday morning I headed off to Swan Pool, where Dan Earthquake was organising a six hour swim under the auspices of the Sandwell Lifesaving and Channel Swimming Club, with the support of the Birmingham Lifeguard Club. I wasn't sure how I would manage at the end of a fairly heavy swimming week, but couldn't pass up the opportunity. I did the same event last year, and the conditions were absolutely vile for almost the whole swim, but we were lucky to have relatively mild weather - gentle sunshine and almost no wind for most of it - until the very end, when things darkened over and it started to chuck with rain.

I started off gently, but was feeling pretty good, and when I stopped for my first feed at two hours, I saw that I was several minutes ahead of my times for last year, so decided to try and push on a bit. I managed to keep the same slightly upped pace pretty much throughout, although my arms were feeling the strain by the last couple of hours, and they certainly still had the previous week's swimming in them. But nevertheless, I managed to cover half a mile more in the time than I had last year (12.5 miles this year), which is very gratifying.

Many thanks to Dan, and to all the people who observed the swims and were out in kayaks keeping us safe, even in the driving rain. Much appreciated. And many congrats to Ali Longman (a student at Warwick Univ), who smashed the women's course record for the 6 hour swim (previously held by me at a very modest 12 miles), totalling 15 miles!!! She is amazing, and I would put money on her getting across the Channel this summer.

My arms have been a bit sore since the swim yesterday, especially my right, but I think it's more slight overuse than injury - this is my first 20+ hours of training in a week for a long time, so it's bound to have some effect. But I feel good for having done it, and it's nice to have my second 6 hour swim of the season done and dusted, ready for my next challenge - Ned Denison's swim camp in Cork ... some serious time in the (cold) water awaits.

Jersey swim camp

Off to Jersy from 30 May - 5 June for the Jersey Long Distance Swimming Club's swim camp. Run by Sally M-G, this was a mix of a handful of visitiors like myself, and lots of local swimmers. The camp is very different, say, from the Swimtrek camp, which has a very clear focus on the Channel and is structured around the 6 hour qualification swim. Instead, this camp involved a much wider range of abilities / open water experience, and one of the most amazing aspects of the whole week was seeing people achieve their goals and push themselves beyond what they thought they could do. It doesn't matter whether you break 15 minutes for the first time, or 2 hours, or more - nothing compares to that feeling and you can see it on people's faces.

We swam a couple of times a day, mixing up pool sessions with sea swims in various locations around the island. The weather was a bit grizzly at first, and combined with the fairly cold sea temps (c. 13 degrees), it was hard to push up swim times, and there was plenty of post-swim shivering. But later in the week, we had three days of blistering sunshine and were gradually able to push up the amount of time we spent in the water. I peaked last Thursday with a four hour swim in St Catherine's Bay. The temperature of the water was hugely variable, ranging from 13-15 degrees, and it was hard to pass from icy cold patches to deliciously warm bands and back again. But I was pleased to get some distance under my belt, and was feeling pretty comfortable by the end, which was a good boost to my confidence after the struggles I was having earlier in the season.

Other highlights of the week included a hilarious night swim - a 20 minute play swim where all we could see was the different coloured light sticks that everyone had tucked into their goggle straps. Lots of fun, followed by delicious hot chocolate and cake. And then there was my favourite swim of the week - a two hour swim in St Catherine's Bay on the very last day. It was hot and sunny, and after completing my four hours the day before, I decided to take it easier, and had a glorious 2 hours in glass-flat water. I swam with Kasia (another visitor, and Channel aspirant, who went on to break three hours), and local swimmers Heidi and Guy (who both did 2 hours for the first time), and it was peaceful and wonderful. This brought me to a total of 18.5 swimming hours for the week, which felt pretty good.

The final highlight was the club itself - it is an extraordinary group of people, highly committed to swimming, and having successfully incorporated a wide range of ages and abilities in a genuinely inclusive and supportive way. And these people really know how to have a good barbecue, too.

Thanks to Sally, and everyone else for taking such good care of us....and especially to Wendy, Chantelle and all the others who ferried me and the other visitors around to various activities. I'm really looking forward to being back in Jersey at the beginning of July for my Jersey to France swim - fingers crossed for some decent weather.