Reflections…(not) swimming in lockdown

“We’d better not swim for a bit”, came the text from one of my swim tribe. Coming just hours after our latest foray into the silky, silty waters of Jackson’s Bay, this hit me like a sucker punch. Our swim experience had been tainted. The country was in fear mode and swimming outside (even socially distanced swims) seemed wrong.

This was a whole 24 hours before the announcement was made that we were in lockdown.

I had attended a meeting a week prior (I work in healthcare) that had indicated that the potential ramifications of COVID-19 were not likely to be short-lived. My heart pounded when the announcement came. I immediately experienced a base set of emotions that were mainly fear, sadness and surprise at what it might mean for me and my family.

I am a swimmer. My daughter is a swimmer. Our lives revolve around swimming….it is our ‘raison d’etre’.

What I didn’t appreciate, at that point was the other personal challenges (other than not swimming) that were to come. Missing my first-born’s birthday for the first time in 23 years (he doesn’t live with me), not seeing my mum and my daughter not being able to see her beloved Nana ( they seem joined at the hip those two) when she normally visits us daily (she has a health condition so is shielding herself). I recognise that these are minor compared to the heart-breaking tragedies that have occurred around the UK and the world because of this virus but it was gut-wrenching for us.

What I didn’t realise at the time, was how much my watery exploits, had become the glue that had kept my emotional and physical well-being together. The mainstay of how I achieve a handle on what is a relatively stressful working life. To suddenly not have it and to also be concerned about the effect that ‘dry-dock’ would have on my swimmer teenager, was overwhelming at first.

We coped, we channelled our energies into other forms of exercise and subsequently became Strava geeks, comparing the distances covered in our various activities and laughing at how the swimmer divide that we have in our respective abilities, was also true of running and cycling.

Social media was full of ‘miss’. The outdoor swimming community was also struggling. My feed was full of swimmers showing past pictures of swims gone by and then coping strategies such as paddling pools in the garden with multiple pictures of swimmers tied to fences and garden gates ‘swimming’.

This was the first time I felt a glimmer of the ‘sucks to be you’ emotion that seems to have become more powerful of the last few weeks. I live in a beautiful place with an amazing morning view but it is also garden-less (no paddling pool for me), and at least a 15 minute drive to my nearest swim spot ( travel that is not work or shopping). Stay at home…Save lives….Protect the NHS was the mantra and our local government (I live in Wales) rightly interpreted this as strictly as it knew it’s citizens could cope with.

Sadly, due to the lack of unity of our governments’ decision making structure, decisions began to be made that meant disparity in what people could do. In Wales, we whole-heartedly support the extension of the lockdown regime. The numbers that have died from this awful virus in Wales are already equivalent to at least 14 Aberfan disasters and people, including me, are supportive of a cautious approach to a return to what will be our ‘new normal’.

The lack of unity has unfortunately meant that our media feeds have been stuffed full to the rafters of images of other areas of the UK where people have a bit more freedom. Freedom to visit beauty spots, freedom to meet other family members in outside spaces, freedom to exercise outdoors more frequently and now it seems, freedom to swim.

The swimming freedom was the most difficult for me personally. While I am genuinely happy for those able to do so, I find the many images of smiling watery faces with the accompanying missives expressing happiness, tougher than walking gingerly, barefoot, across a sea of lego.

I am aware that my personal reactions to the images are steeped in my individual situation biases. My NHS job, even though part time and not on a front-line COVID ward, has been horrific and confusing at times. I will feel uneasy about publicly expressing joy when all around me are still challenged. It has made me look very introspectively at my social media activity and I’m not sure how these current personal dilemmas will impact on it long term (it’s always been about the sharing of joy you see).

An image shared on social media is so powerful. I know for a fact that images that I’ve shared in the past have prompted folk who have wanted to try outdoor swimming to message me saying that they wanted to try swimming outdoors and how were they to go about it. I also know that in the past, I have been inspired by images that I’ve seen, especially if there is a location attached and have, on more than one occasion, headed to an unfamiliar swim spot based on that image.

So perhaps now is not the time to post the ‘yay swimming’ posts. There are people who can’t share your joy right now, there are people who are grieving for family members, for the loss of their former life-style, people at odds with their ‘new normal’, people who are challenged mentally by their daily routine and more importantly, and most frighteningly, people who may put themselves in danger by trying new things that they truly should not try right now. Now is not the time to try outdoor swimming in unfamiliar spots alone which they may do by simply clicking on an image shared on social media. The consequence of this is far reaching both in strain on the emergency services and potential strain on the NHS.

This is a plea to think before you post. The swimming community is generally very supportive of each other but it hasn’t felt so in the last few weeks. Some social media accounts have got ‘it’ spot on. Gently sharing pictures of beauty in nature that are obviously swim related but are respectful and empathetic to those who cannot share the same experience right now. Thank you to the folk behind those images. I suspect that you know who you are.

You can’t see me smile

We meet for the first time, I say hello and welcome you in. I can see fear in your eyes, they are the brightest of blue.

“It’s OK” I say, “ I’ll look after you.”
Maybe I said it too quietly or maybe my speech was muffled by my mask. I realise this and smile at you. You don’t see it.

It has a story this mask. It’s similar to the one that you wear. I was handed it not 5 minutes before we met. “ Guard this with your life” they said, “there’s only one box between us all”. I stared at it. Such an insignificant thing, but potentially life-preserving, for me and for you.
Without it, my eyes held the same fear as yours do now. We talk some more. You continue to struggle to hear me. You watch my every move.


“ Good news!” I say, “ Things are improving, we’ll see you now in 4 weeks instead of 2”. I feel relief. You are vulnerable. I don’t want you outside unless you absolutely have to be.


“Thank goodness,” you say, “I’m scared to go out”.
I nod. I understand. “ So am I “, I think to myself…but of course, it goes unsaid.
“I’m so glad we saw you today”, I say. “You needed this treatment”.
You glance at me, I see the fear is leaving your eyes.
I smile at you. Again, you don’t see it, but I think that this time, you might be smiling back.

Pause Button

When life presses the pause button…

COVID-19… A set of letters that now bring fear and foreboding to huge parts of our society. Everybody has had their routines changed beyond recognition and where we are now seems so unrecognisable to where we were even two weeks ago.

Wednesday 18th March was just like any other, except it wasn’t. 

To set the scene, I am a swim parent. My normal day means rising at silly o’clock, steering a bleary eyed teenager into the car, sitting at the pool (once said teenager has arrived at training) staring blankly at a computer screen, trying to do some meaningful work while your inner voice goes “for the love of God woman, go and at least get yourself a coffee”. Then, work beckons and 12 hours later, I’m back at the pool.

This Wednesday was like none before it. I’d spent my working day fielding calls from worried patients and queries from worried students ( I work in healthcare and higher education) and in truth…I didn’t have the answers. COVID-19 had set fear into all our hearts.

Back to the swimming…I’d been given quizzical looks from colleagues when I said I was taking my daughter to her usual swim training but I understood why.

You don’t understand the swimming world unless you are immersed in it…either as a swimmer or a swim parent. I have experience of both. As an ex-club swimmer, I had, maybe subconsciously, steered both of my children into the world of swimming and my youngest had fallen in love with it. Once that happens, you just have to let things play out….you end up having very little control over what happens next.

If someone had told me when my daughter had first started with her club that within two years we would have to give up any thoughts of an Easter holiday for the next 8 years (due to National competitions). That March, through to the end of May, would be spent chasing events that offered qualifying times for other national competitions and that we would end up incorporating some part of a ‘summer holiday’ into trips to said competitions. We did not know that we would be ricocheting from incredible highs and sometimes crushing lows and that even after all that, at nearly 18 years old, my daughter would still say “ I love swimming”.

Swimming is far from being an easy sport and even to be a decent club swimmer requires many hours of length after length of pool training. It is not for the faint hearted.

In order to survive these challenges I have had to change my working hours, we moved closer to the pool to cut down on the commute time. As a single-parent that worked full time, the extra minutes doing the commute nearly broke me so the move really helped.

In short, swimming is life…our life-blood.

My club swimming days led me to continue to swim and in latter years, after dabbling with the sport of triathlon (yes I had THAT mid-life crisis), I embraced the world of ‘year-round’ open water swimming. I genuinely believed that if I went more than a week without my ‘fix’ I would cease to ‘be’.

As I sat at the pool that night I realised that soon, everything would change.

The club coaches had continued to arrange sessions while the pool facility was still open. They held the swimmers together mentally, as that week, they had faced the news that the National competitions and all that goes with it, had been cancelled because of COVID-19. They showed inspirational leadership while no doubt, worrying about their livelihoods.

Hot tears stung the rims of my eyes and threatened to spill forth and I was surprised by the strength of that wave of emotion.

It is, I think, the lack of control that did it and the genuine concern about what the next few weeks may bring. Would my daughter and I cope with the enforced ‘dry dock’ and would our relationship survive? This is a little tongue in cheek as we have a normal relationship I would think, given our mutual life stages but I’m sure all swim parents would agree that their teenage swimmer is a little bit nicer after they’ve trained and you’ve fed them!

One week on and so far so good (yes I know it’s early days). The club’s coaches are doing a sterling job of goal setting for the teenage caged animals. The club committee (all volunteers) are pulling long days to figure out the complexities of it all, knowing that their actions will influence whether we have a club and even a pool to come back to. They are also trying to look after the club’s self-employed coaches, knowing that  they need to protect their lives and the lives of their families with the decisions they make….tough call!

We don’t know when ‘normal service’ will resume. I don’t know when I can swim outdoors again either but I know one thing, and that is that the swim family is strong. It is a family that is formed around the toughest of sports and that resilience and strength will undoubtedly come in handy in the coming months.

Go nice places, do good things..

Adventure:

noun.

An unusual and exciting or daring experience.

What do you do when you are presented with an opportunity to have an adventure? Do you take it or do you come up with a zillion reasons why you shouldn’t?

I’d like to think that I was the former.

I have been lucky enough over the years to be able to ‘seize the day’ and do things like jump on that plane to go and swim from Alcatraz, cycle from one end of the country to the other, explore Hawaii armed with just 5 dollars and a heap of optimism and lots more.

Lately, my ‘seizing of days’ are confined to weekends. I have a 9-5 job which I love but steals my time and lots of my energy. Family life and other responsibilities hold my wings back just that little bit more which make adventuring less spur of the moment.

Then, all of sudden, I was presented with a window. A few days that were technically free from the constraints listed above and necessitated a trip to the north of God’s country (Wales of course) with some flexibility as to the date of return (  a gap the size of 4 whole days).

A few days before my opportune ‘maybe adventure’ window I had purchased Bert. Bert was my starter campervan project and Bert in his current form meant that I had the opportunity to at least sleep off the floor, in relative comfort.

Bert and I set off for North Wales just a few hours after I waved the youngest off on her swimming training camp. I was off to volunteer at an open water swimming event and I had made tentative onward plans with a friend who was exploring the lake district.

When you live in South Wales, the lake district is somewhere that takes serious planning  and rarely do I ever have a lake district size hole in my calendar. I live two hours drive from Pembrokeshire and three hours drive from Cornwall so the lakes and their 6-7 hour drive, lack appeal. A stop off in North Wales breaks that journey somewhat.

 

Volunteer stint complete in beautiful Bala, I headed off to find Bridget, my intrepid friend, who had already been in the lakes for over a week. I programmed the Sat Nav and set off singing at the top of my range to some classic 80’s numbers. What a time to be alive.

Fast forward 4 hours and my dizzy optimism about finding Bridget ‘somewhere in the lakes’ had fizzled out and I had pulled over to the side of the road whimpering in fear as my darling Bert’s Sat Nav had been on economy route setting and had joyfully taken me, a far from confident van driver, over Newlands Pass towards Buttermere. For the lakes novices, google it….it’s ruddy terrifying!

I feebly tried to phone Bridget to come and get me, only to find there wasn’t a phone signal to be had and I just had to well and truly summon a hefty dose of ‘woman up’.

One hour and lots of swearing later I arrived in Buttermere to find a cheery Bridget steering me in the comforting direction of the nearest pub. I had a large gin (medicinal) and we gleefully plotted our swim escapades like a pair of sixth formers from Mallory Towers.

Bridget is part of my swim tribe. Brought together by work, we have found a friendship to treasure and our mutual love of the outdoors has transformed into a mutual love of wild swimming. Bridget had been dipping and walking around the lakes and I listened intently to her tales of her exploring.

The following day we headed to Buttermere. A lake situated by a village that visiting Americans would call ‘quaint’. There, we had a swim that was up there as one of my favourite. Dramatic hills, moody skies, inky crystal clear water that wrapped us up in it’s delightful charms.

Swim done, we headed over the valley and over Honister pass this time (Less death defying than Newlands pass) and it wasn’t long before we pulled into the next campsite, parked our vans and poured over a map to find the next swim. Well Bridget did the pouring and I looked on approvingly (as I can’t map read for toffee).

An hour later we headed off to find Langstrath Beck. A beautiful place that offered a scenic walk and a dip in mineral water at the end. A dip that brought giggles and waterfall photo opportunities that every adventurer should experience. Two middle aged women became the teenagers they still are in their heads in the crystal clear waters.

Bridget and her map got us there although at one point I felt like an extra from Absolutely Fabulous as I lost sight of Bridget and realised that if I didn’t find her I would be practically marooned in this wonderful, craggy, glorious unforgiving countryside….note to self, brush up on map reading!

The following day loomed and we were to head off in different directions. Bridget to revisit Coniston lake, the scene of childhood holidays and me to the Peak District to hook up with gorgeous folk from the Social Media Swimming community. My love of aqua photography has lead to connections with people that I would never have met in my usual circles. Adventurous, generous people who showcase their swims through sharing their pictures which helped me plot the next stage of the adventure.

This mini adventure was partially inspired by one of them, Lindsay Cole, an adventurer who is currently on a UK swimming odyssey, swimming and cycling her way around making connections with like minded folk along the way. Her mantra ‘say yes more’ resonates….we all absolutely should.

The destination for the next phase of this adventure was inspired by another. A lovely lady called Joanna who showcased her local countryside and her love of the outdoors and life on a working farm  through her glorious pictures. We connected via the photos and when I’d said I might be swinging by her neck of the woods she found a gap in her busy life to show me a couple of beautiful swim spots. It is that generosity, that warmth that makes me fall in love with the swimming community even more. How nice it is to share places that you love with like minded folk?

Joanna, and her partner Nick, showed me Monsal Head waterfall and we plunged into the beautiful waters together along with Grace, one of their friends, all of us agreeing that it was indeed a bit cold for this time of year and we headed from there to swim number two.

Swim number two was at the rather grand setting of Chatsworth House. A stately home that was nestled in picturesque grounds that were resplendent in the summer sunshine. We met Hetty and Danny, part of Jo, Nick and Grace’s swim tribe and we all wandered over to the River Derwent that weaved through the beautiful gardens of the house to find a spot that we could get in and swim.

The sun sparkled on the river and we cooed at the tiniest of startled ducklings that shot across our swim path. It was the type of swim that should be used to advertise wild swimming…..a heady assault on all of the senses that can only bring joy to all involved.

Post swim refreshments brought good strong coffee and the softest of scones accompanied by the easy company of kind folk who welcomed me into their swim tribe that day.

It wasn’t long before goodbyes were said and we all headed back to our day to day lives and my micro adventure was nearly over. I headed onto my homeward journey having learned a few things:

Never trust the economy setting on a Sat Nav.

Always trust a map wielding Bridget.

Some folk are phenomenally kind.

And last but not least…..say yes more….you never know what you might discover.

 

 

 

 

 

Slaying Neptune (Maybe)!

We all have this one friend….I’m going to call mine Susan, that suggests stuff to you and you can’t help saying ‘yes’ to it.

Well one day, a few months ago, ‘Susan’ suggested (name has been changed to protect the not very innocent) that we enter an aquatic obstacle event staged by Red Bull, called ‘The Neptune Steps’ in Glasgow.

Immediately intrigued, I took 0.046 of a second to say yes and before you know it, flights and accommodation were booked along with our entries into the event.

Fast forward 4 months and we were boarding the plane to sunny Scotland, on our way to spend an afternoon frolicking in a Glaswegian canal.

Did I know what I was in for? Absolutely! Had I prepped for it? Absolutely not!

I had seen a video and had spoken to one of last years podium finishers, so I knew that I needed some decent upper body strength and a good base fitness to have a ‘cat in hell’s’ chance of finishing.

Knowing I was lacking in both departments didn’t put me off. I’m a great believer in embracing life experiences and I know that giving it a go gives you a higher probability of success than not attempting it in the first place.

Another added bonus was the chance to meet Ross Edgely. For those that have been living under a stone for the past year, Ross swam all the way around the UK last year, breaking numerous records in the process and gaining a huge following in the outdoor swimming community.

It soon became clear that a decent adventure was on the cards along with some equally decent ‘fan girl’ opportunities.

Within 5 minutes of arriving at the event venue, we were registered and had already pestered Ross for some selfies. The canal sparkled in the Scottish spring sunshine and we stared open mouthed at the competitors valiantly sparring with the course. Four hundred metres of swimming and 10 metres of climbing doesn’t sound a lot but try doing that when the water temperature is 8 degrees and most of that water is cascading in your face.

Before we knew it, ‘Susan’ and I were making nervous chit chat with our fellow competitors and we were off!

The start was the typical initial frenzy that can accompany open water swim events but soon settled as everyone just tried to figure out what the hell was going on.

One girl near me was doing backstroke, maybe in an attempt to breathe and calm down. Anyone who has ever attempted backstroke outdoors will tell you that it’s nigh on impossible to swim in a straight line and she was soon swimming towards the wall while a variety of spectators and competitors shouted at her to stop.

We soon arrived at the first obstacle and the closer I got to it, the more it became apparent that it was likely to be game over for me. The bottom of the cargo net that we had to climb was resting on a plastic ‘pontoon’ which was about a foot proud of the water and try as I might I could not get a firm grip on enough of the cargo net or any of the ropes to give me enough purchase to lift myself out of the water.

Ten minutes later, after attempts to haul myself out which had all the grace and elegance of a baby elephant doing a pole dance class (while having tons of water chucked on its head), my arms had built up more lactic acid than you can shake a stick at and my race was done.

There was still the small matter of getting out and I had to climb a ladder that was recessed into the wall that felt about 100 foot tall but in reality was no more than 3 metres. My lactic spaghetti arms protested all the way up but before you could say “Red Bull gives you wings”, I was at the top and heading off to find ‘Susan’.

‘Susan’ finished but said she was traumatised and I found her sitting on a step by the finish looking like someone had forced her to watch a back catalogue of Eastenders episodes.

In summary, Red Bull Neptune Steps….brilliant fun, very well organised, with a lovely friendly vibe. We also thoroughly enjoyed watching all of the other competitors having a go. There was a heartening spirit of camaraderie as everyone was genuinely supportive of each other and the elite athletes were indistinguishable from the weekend warriors due to their friendliness and humility.

If you ever get a ‘Neptune Steps’ sized window in your calendar I suggest you give it a go…but make sure you do some training for it first….it definitely helps!

Chilling Out!

As the proud owner of a winter birthday I think I’ve always had an affinity with the cold. Many a birthday plan has been ‘adjusted’ because of inclement weather (snow and ice) and I guess that over the years I’ve learned to truly love the winter and all it brings.

I became an open water swimmer in July 2007. I’d entered the London Triathlon and had bought a wetsuit one week before the event. I didn’t bother trying it out (fail) and after panicking for 10 minutes at the start of the race (mainly because I couldn’t see the bottom or anything at all as soon I’d put my face in the water), I was off like a rat out of a drainpipe and from then I knew I was hooked.

I spent the next few summers adventuring wildly in bodies of water that were anything other than a pool. This mostly took the form of swim events, some in lakes, some in rivers, lots in the sea. All carried out with the bestest of swim crews whose membership ebbed and flowed like the waterways we loved. Sometimes life gets in the way of adventuring, however much you try not to let it.

Fast forward a few years and a milestone birthday loomed. How did I want to celebrate it? With a sea swim of course! Even if it was January! A gaggle of gorgeous friends all gamely joined me. We were a vision in neoprene and silly hats as we ran squealing into the sea, didn’t swim that much and ran squealing out again.

There was one maverick however, one person who ditched the neoprene and ran into the sea in nothing more than his bathers and a swimming cap. I remember looking at him open-mouthed as his skin turned lobster red and privately thinking “Why?”. Nowadays, the wife of said brave swimmer says that he served as the prototype for my future swimmer self.

That day we had so much fun…the warming up in a café by the wood burner created more laughs and special memories that were very much part of the ‘swim’ itself. Such good times.

A new birthday tradition was born and every year I toddled off to the sea on that day looking forward to the initial shock of the cold water. Then one year, I decided to go without the wetsuit….just like Mr Prototype! That first time, I scanned the beach for onlookers and scuttled to the water’s edge, crossing my fingers that no one would think that I had taken leave of my senses and phone the coastguard. Coastguard encounter avoided, I managed a very sweary 10 minutes of actual swimming before scuttling back out of the water and back to my car….the deed was done….cold water swimming outside in just my togs (traditional speak for just your bathers) and me?

We were new best friends.

 

 

‘Best’ swim event ever!

I’ve not blogged in a while….(sad face or happy face depending on your opinion).

I’ve been exercising the ‘blog’ muscles by blogging for other people! Yes…I’ve been blogging for the stars!

I felt compelled to write my own again after a swim experience that rivalled all my other fabulous swim experiences (and there have been many).

The back story to the ‘story’ is that I’ve been fascinated by the Best Fest Open Water Swim Festival (in Colonia Sant Jordi, Mallorca) for a few years. Yearning to take part but hamstrung by life’s challenges that prevented me from ever plunging into the azure blue sea of the South East Mallorca Coast.

2018 presented a ‘window of opportunity’ to actually go and be a ‘Best Fest’ swimmer. I debated the logistics long and hard but came to the delicious conclusion that not only could I go (as we were holidaying in the area) but I could also go with my youngest and (gasp) swim in the same event with her.

Now we’ve done this before and I don’t find it easy.

I’m torn between wanting to ‘mother’ her and wanting to drag her into my world of aquatic adventures. Part of me wants to watch her conquer her own open water challenges ( she hates the thought of seeing aquatic life and currently is placated with tales of ‘little fish’ ,as opposed to bigger, more likely to freak out a teenager ones and assurances that ‘they are more scared of you than you are of them’) and part of me wants to experience them myself….it’s a tough gig!

Best Fest offers up a myriad of options for the intrepid open water swimmer enthusiast. Distances from 10Km to 1.5Km in a variety of locations (all stunning), delivered by friendly event organisers whose middle names should be ‘easy going’  as they are so relaxed and chilled.

We plumped for the 220 Triathlon magazine supported, Corberana Challenge 3.8Km which was towards the end of our holiday and perhaps more suited to our mix of abilities (she’s fast, I’m not, she’s fit and I’m far from it) due to the multi-lap nature of the course.

We made the most of the day and the prospect of swimming in the most stunning of locations by lunching in the impossibly glamorous restaurant, Cabine de Plage first. A lunch that awakened the taste buds in the most divine of ways. We gazed at the vista of the Cala Galiota beach and watched the bemused tourists who had picked a seemingly relaxing, sandy spot near the water to lounge on, only to be invaded by a bunch of swimmers and event crew not a mere 5 metres from where they sunbathed.

Within 30 minutes of the event crew arriving we were sporting magic marker numbers on our hands (and arms for the non-wetsuit crew) and joined the melee of (slightly nervous looking) swimmers at the start for the race briefing.

As I was in the ‘non-wetsuit’ category of the 3.8km swim , we were afforded the luxury of starting first and all filed obediently and excitedly into the sea.

For me, ‘skins’ swimming or ‘non-wetsuit’ swimming is a relatively new ‘thing’. I have spent the winter and spring, cursing many a curse, as I experienced the chill of cold water on my bare skin and just swam for the hell of it. Not to be fast but to ‘live’ it. To gasp at the temperature and to savour the afterglow and tingle of the body’s reaction to the cold and the immense sense of well being that comes after.

In a sun warmed Mediterranean sea, I felt that I could confidently have my first stab at some decent distance swimming ‘sans’ wetsuit.

Some swimmers were more eager than others and some shot off and started swimming while many of us were still on the beach. We were soon heading out towards the first buoy and the folly of my choice quickly became apparent. My lack of (any) swim training was soon exposed and boy how I missed the comforting buoyancy of my wetsuit! The swell of the sea was enough to derail my previous confidence and the choppy waters soon sapped my enthusiasm for the 3.8km and I decided that 1.9km was quite enough.

I marvelled at how clear the water was and also hoped that the teenager’s goggles had steamed up so that she could remain blissfully unaware of the marine equivalent of Piccadilly circus going on beneath us.

As I neared the end of the second lap, a hand reached out to grab my foot and held on and gave it a tug. Outraged, I turned to look at my ‘grabber’ and was greeted with a cheery ” Hello Mum”  from the teenager. Laughing at her cheekiness, (she’s lucky I love her because having your foot grabbed by someone is never something that you relish while open water swimming) I set off for shore and awaited her finish.

Within 30 minutes, all swimmers were home, prizes given out, the teenager managed to come 3rd overall and 1st lady home, despite it being her first sea swim event and I managed not to come last, so there were big smiles all round. An amusing ‘lottery’ followed the prize-giving, where you could win freebies from the race sponsor and also from the Best Swim Centre.

It was not long before we were cycling back to our hotel, regaling each other with tales of our individual ‘swims’ and funny stories that had happened while in the water (there’s always a funny story when you do an open water swim….so many variables).

Thanks Best Fest! You were a blast! Cheers to all involved. We are already planning next year’s trip which will definitely involve multiple event choices providing we can find somewhere glamorous to lunch near the start.

The Portishead Popsicle experience!

Portishead Lido….a place of swimming beauty. A pool first opened in 1962 and recently restored by a community trust. It’s 33.5 metres of open air gorgeousness. A proper deep end (complete with diving boards for the brave), brightly coloured surrounding walls which properly shout “look at me!” and an ‘old school’ vibe that today’s nostalgic types (and hipsters) crave.

I’d been first introduced to the Lido in about 2011 where friends of mine, who lived locally, had joined the community trust, gave up their time to help out and also promptly  dragged their friends along for night time summer swims at the Lido followed by many a boozy get together in the Café attached to the Lido afterwards. These are fond memories…both of my friends and those times but also of the beautiful pool.

Fast forward 6 or so years and I’d joined the Facebook group of the pool and had become fascinated by an event to be held there called the ‘Portishead Popsicle’. This quirkily named, winter swimming gala, boasted of icy cold water and a range of events that included a one length butterfly event, relays and a 1000 metre ‘qualifier’ event.

Qualify for what? I hear you shout (nay scream) at me….

Ice swimming galas of course…..

After spending the previous winter challenging my inner need for personal experiences that are downright hideous ( in this case, swimming in the sea in my bathers throughout the winter) I reckoned that the ‘Popsicle’ was right up my street and promptly entered the 1000 metre event.

How hard can a 1000 metre swim  be right? I was brazenly sure that it was going to be a doddle….

I had factored in a couple of visits to the Lido (after they had turned the heaters off) to acclimatise. I had read about cold water acclimatisation but wasn’t truly sure what it meant.

To me, cold water acclimatisation meant venturing in up to my waist and swearing lots (sorry Mum) until I felt brave enough to immerse the rest of me. This was a tried and tested method which bizarrely seemed to work…except when the water was a bone chillingly baltic or ‘hoora cold’ (nod to Calum Maclean’s guide to cold water swimming temperatures), 4.3 degrees!

Yes, you read that right…4.3 degrees…most swimming pools hover around the 28 degree mark and the average winter UK sea temperature is around the 8 degree mark.

My coping strategies (for cold water swimming) consisted of the wearing of uber fetching and glamorous neoprene gloves and neoprene socks so I reckoned that I would be fine in sub 5 degree water….until that is, I arrived at the venue on the day of the event.

I had gone there on my own thinking that I would just rock up….do the event and saunter home. Upon arrival I was greeted with a sea of very confident folk, mostly clad in dryrobes (thank goodness I had taken mine). They all seemed to know each other and I have to be honest I was (for the first time) more than a little scared. Thankfully, it wasn’t long before I was chatting to some fellow Welsh folk. They had a swim group called ‘The Dippy Dragons’ and regularly participated in ice swimming events and one of the group had been recently featured in a flurry of social media posts after swimming in a very cold Welsh pond at the top of a very cold Welsh mountain when there was snow on the ground!

I spent the next few hours or so marvelling at the  brave souls doing the ice butterfly event and the relays and the 300 metres and so on and so forth. The relays were a particular delight to behold, mainly because of the creativity of the hats! There was apparently a prize for the best ones which definitely justified the effort that some had gone to! All this was great fun but I seemed to get more and more nervous as time went on.

Before long it was time for my event. I’m a great believer in the ‘fake it ’til you make it’ strategy, so sauntered to the start line with a strut that was reminiscent of Debbie Harry in the Blondie ‘Rapture’ video.

We had some ‘pre event’ instructions that I’m not sure that I took in all that well but I think included some safety necessities. It was a quick shoulder submerge and then we were off. I shared the lane with a smiley chap called Geoff and we both set off  on our 1000 metre cold water quest like two rats up the proverbial drainpipe.

It’s fair to say that Geoff’s ‘rat up a drainpipe’ impression was infinitely more effective than mine as it wasn’t long before I was lapped and I seemed to be swimming slower and slower. Cold water swimming does strange things to your swim ability if relatively inexperienced and I seemed to be swimming through treacle at the half way mark.

Thankfully, it wasn’t long before the smiley volunteers announced that I was done and before you could say ‘Popsicle’, I was out of the water and enveloped in my trusty dryrobe. It was from there, a quick sprint to the changing room before the dreaded ‘afterdrop’ hit ( the body’s reaction to prolonged cooling of the core after cold water swimming). I’d worked out that I have about 10-15 minutes to get changed into warm stuff before the uncontrollable shivering starts.

On this occasion. ‘afterdrop’ hit when I was changed into snuggly stuff and about to purchase the well earned post-event hot chocolate. It was mildly amusing to try and fish change out of my purse with wildly shaking hands whilst cheerily adding ” I think I might need a lid with that” to the good natured ladies manning the kiosk. Without a lid, the contents of my drink would be no longer contained within its polystyrene walls.

The ‘afterdrop’ had hit me significantly enough to realise that my next destination should be the post-event warming room and I spent the next hour in there being looked after by the cheeriest volunteers who brought me more delicious hot chocolate to drink and a most welcome hot water bottle until the shivering subsided.

It turns out that the wearing of my neoprene gloves and socks had classified me as ‘wearing a wetsuit’ (ice swimming rules), so my ‘qualifying’ foray in to the world of ice swimming was short lived……Neoprene =no qualification. On a positive note,….,,I ‘won’ the wetsuit category and hey…a win is a win right?

So,…on the subject of winter swimming galas, I am most definitely a fan…Portishead Popsicle was a delight…an absolutely bloody freezing delight but a delight all the same. Well done to the event team….you were all simply marvellous, I’ll hopefully be back next year to defend my ‘wetsuit winner’ crown!

Dear Swimming…

Dear Swimming,

Here’s the thing….I love you…

There. I said it! 

You enthralled me from an early age and I was in awe of you! 

I spent hours and hours of practice as a child just so I could be as good as you thought I could be. 

You made me laugh…you made me cry…you made me experience such good times with my team mates, that looking back,  I can’t believe they happened.

But then…

We broke up…

It wasn’t you it was me…

I wanted more.

I wanted to not look at that black line first thing in the morning and last thing at night. I wanted my perfume to be something different other than ‘Eau de Chlorine’. 

We didn’t see each other for such a long time.

But then….

Something happened…

Someone suggested that I might enjoy a triathlon …’it would be a good challenge’ they said. 

I became curious about you again….wondered what you were up to and whether I had room in my life for you and whether you could help me again.

We met for lunch, at first, once in a blue moon and then, more frequently. Before work, after work. I didn’t introduce my kids to you at first as I didn’t think they’d ‘get’ you. My son was more aloof but my daughter embraced you. 

Before I knew it we were having trips away again. My adult friends came too as they had met you before and knew how much fun you could be.

We escaped from Alcatraz, swam round islands, swooshed down rivers, fought jellyfish, huge waves, rocks and much more…….All because of you.

Nowadays we still have adventures….you still make me smile….make my friends and I share special times together. 

You help me enjoy and support other people’s children in getting to know you, let me watch my daughter turn into a fearless creature who can cope with all sorts of things that life throws at her because of you.

 You help me meet so many people outside of my usual network that amaze me and you now gently guide me through adulthood feeling like I can take on the world.

Swimming….I love you and I always will!

Tenfoot Adventuring

“Tenby…..Saundersfoot…Pembrokeshire….sea swimming….mini road trip with my swim family….summer? I’m in!” was my reaction when I first heard of the curiously named Tenfoot swim event.

Why Tenfoot? Seemingly obvious to most but maybe not all folk but basically you get to swim from Tenby to Saundersfoot!  I absolutely love sea swimming in Pembrokeshire…beautiful beaches, crystal clear water, friendly locals and only about 2 hours drive from where I live, so I manage to get there at least seven or eight times a year, swim parent commitment and work permitting.

The Tenfoot swim was an inaugural event for a very good cause (raising money for two local charities) devised by locals who knew that the endurance sport community just might be tempted by it. Set originally in June but moved to July, it seemed perfect prep for some of the endurance swims I have planned for later in the year. Also, for me, it is very rare that you get to venture around some of the points of the beaches in Pembrokeshire due to very strong currents and shipping traffic so this event was a ‘must do’.

All my ideas of ‘training’ had gone out of the window due to dithering for an age about re-joining the local masters swimming club (I’d managed about 4 sessions prior to the swim). I had also managed a couple of open water jaunts but that was about it. One of those ‘jaunts’ had been the Long Course Weekend swim the week before but laziness had got the better of me on the day and I’d dropped down to the 2Km distance rather than the 4Km, preferring an earlier visit to the pub over another lap jostling with wannabe ironfolk.

I lined up on the beach for the Tenfoot swim with Lady Doubt playing her finest song in my mind along the lines of  “You should have done the long distance last week, what were you thinking?…. You know you’re not fit enough to run 5Km let alone swim it!… Oh my god everyone looks really fit…. I’m going to drown or get stung by a thousand jellyfish (more on that later)…. Gosh there are more ironman bags and ironman finishers tattoos than you can shake a stick at….. Hope I’ve put enough BodyGlide on…don’t want to look like a 46 year old lovebite victim in work on Monday….God that looks like a really long way and all of a sudden that sea looks really choppy” etc etc etc.

We had a quick group picture before the start. The talented local photographer somehow managed to make the rain and the grey murkiness of the water disappear in his finished image.

group pic

Then we were off….

Less frenzied than a week earlier with the ironfolk and as everyone had their swim floats (essential to be able to swim the event, a visibility aid that helps spot a swimmer’s whereabouts in the water), so you could see where people were around you. I’ve never swum in an event where these were compulsory before but I’m definitely a fan as you could spot everyone really easily.

Everyone quickly seemed to settle into a nice rhythm…everyone that is except me….Lady Doubt had done for any confidence I had gained from the week before and I started to have a little boxing match with my swim float as the water got choppier.

I think, if I’d tried it the night before, I might have realised the leash was a bit short and used the longer one from my other float but no…Captain Cocky had visited and I had brought with me a brand new float that was still in the packet which had a leash that was a bit too short for my swim style.

Twenty minutes went by and the accompanying bobbing bits of neon inflatables (attached to other swimmers) had thinned out. God, was I last? Then I started panicking about cut off times ( you had to get to the check point within two hours or the tide would prevent you from safely continuing). People who know me will be aware of my fear of cut off times but basically after a double Ironman Wales DNF due to cut off time failure, I try not to do events with them if at all possible.

Panic set in as the rain set in…I did NOT want a DNF in a swim event….I might be a bit rubbish at cycling but swimming is kind of ‘my thing’…even with no training I can ‘do’ endurance swim events. I tried to calm my rising panic with some positive thoughts. My positive thoughts were the recent experience of going to see Coldplay in concert so singing ‘Paradise’ in my head was my chosen method of inducing calm (don’t judge).

“Para-Para-Paradise…Para-Para-oh shit there’s a mahoosive jellyfish-Paradise…”

God! Jellyfish! There were hundreds! More than I’ve ever seen when I’ve been swimming in Pembrokeshire and they were quite close to the surface. Positive thinking attempted again by going ‘oh wow they are really beautiful’ many many times in my head. I’d never been stung by one, so my fear was largely irrational but every time I see one I tend to let out an involuntary squeak of fear. Anyway, on I plodded… but I could see the check point beach (Monkstone) and after what seemed like the length of a double omnibus edition of EastEnders, I was moving swiftly towards it. I had chatted briefly to a fellow swimmer who seemed to be having similar struggles to me with the choppy water and weirdly she had the same wetsuit as me, the same pink float, her name began with a K (Karen) and we were both not overly fussed on coming last….I had a swim buddy!

Karen and I swam enthusiastically to the shore, gliding past Mr and Mrs jellyfish and their extended family and then the worst happened…..Brian Jellyfish who clearly hadn’t had a date in weeks, moved in for a snog!

OUCH! Imagine rubbing a big clump of stinging nettles across your lips and chin over and over again and you might just understand what I was feeling at that very moment! OMG…so painful…

I indicated my plight to a passing kayaker who promptly got his camera out to take a picture. “Did you just take a picture of me?” I demanded laughing…

“Yes” he said, “I wanted to get a shot of the lady that got stung on the mouth by a jellyfish!” Much guffawing ensued (from him and me) and with that my feet seemed to miraculously find dry land and I staggered like a Saturday night drunkard towards the checkpoint table.

Safely checked in, jellybabies consumed, funny chat with the clearly amused medic on the beach about my sting, ” you can have some vinegar to rub on it if you want?” said he…..”Errrmm…no ta” said I, and I stoically plunged back into the water towards some fierce looking rocks that were the next part of the challenge and the reason the time cut offs were in place.

rocks

The brilliant water safety team guided us safely through the fierce rocks and the sheer exhilaration of doing that helped me channel my inner Bond girl……after all, I now had the ‘trout pout’ to go with it! The ensuing endorphin rush helped me rediscover my swimming ability and, safely buddied up with Karen again, we seemed to cut through the water towards Saunderfoot beach like a pair of dolphins, albeit dolphins with neon pink rubber tails, but you get the idea.

One minor setback in that we (unwisely) asked a kayaker how far we had left and he said half a kilometre…well he fibbed….that’s all I’m saying on the matter. Setback overcome and we felt the familiar squidge of sand beneath our feet as we got to the shore and we realised we had made it….Karen and I hugged, muttered thanks to each other and wandered off to find our people.

My people, my little swim family, were both on the beach waiting for me, both looking suspiciously like they had been there so long they’d had time to blow dry their hair. I regaled them with tales of my jellyfish snog and they helpfully pointed out that they thought the stingy part of a jellyfish was it’s genitalia (no idea if this is true but I’m definitely not googling it).

Coffee was swiftly bought, food and ibuprofen (for the sting) promptly ingested and we were soon winging our way back to the ‘Diff, laughing about the day and marvelling at our most excellent day out.

Thanks Tenfoot Swim Crew…You were epic and so was that swim! Chapeau and thanks very much from all of us!