This Saturday brings a change in format, if not a change in scenery. It’s the British Long Distance Swimming Association (BLDSA)’s Champion of Champions event in Dover harbour. The format is 5 miles – break – 3 miles – break – 1 mile.
Because the BLDSA are encroaching on the Dover group’s turf (surf?) today, the latter have moved their training to Margate. But many of the usual suspects from the Dover group have entered the BLDSA event so it feels like a bit of a jolly, and there are some familiar faces from my SwimTrek training camps too. Some of us soloists are joking about how this is going to be somewhat of a rest day compared to last week. I even decide to treat it as sprint practice. How foolish we are. How very, very foolish.
The course is shorter than the usual harbour circuit, so 10 laps of it = 5 miles. When we start the sea is calm, and I whizz along, feeling strong.
But the wind soon whips up. By 5 laps in, I’m feeling very thankful to be halfway, and by 8 I’m counting down the passing buoys. Due to the strong wind, at one point the safety team move a buoy and attach it to one of the permanent buoys in the harbour. Of course this coincides with me reaching that end of the course, so there I am chasing down a moving buoy on a boat. I actually can’t think of anything less funny and I’ve written some terrible jokes before now.
We have to give our race number to another safety team every lap and they count us down (and encourage us with blessed Jelly Babies). Upon coming round for lap 10, I victoriously signal “One more lap to go!” and they shake their heads. “No, you’ve got two more”.
“Nope, I’ve been counting, it’s definitely one”. How far I’ve got to go in a swim is something I do not get wrong. Like not falling down the gap between the train and the platform, and what time lunch is.
So I swim round once more, thinking they will have had time to confer and will surely realise their mistake. I shout my number again, “53 – are you sure I haven’t done 10?”
“Yep, one more lap for you”.
So off I slog for what I believe is an eleventh time, cursing the injustice of it all. Eventually it ends, and when I get out I compare GPS distance measurements with the others. They’d all done 8.something km and I’d done 10.5 km. Definitely 11 laps.
We have about an hour before the next swim but all too soon we’re Getting Back In ™ and setting off for 6 laps, or probably 7 or maybe 11 again if you’re me, or who even knows any more I’ll probably just be in here for the rest of my life.
I’ve never got out early on a swim, but I come the closest I have ever come to getting out during this 3 miler. The waves are hitting me with such force, I can’t actually believe I’m moving forwards at all. I nearly lose an earplug on more than one occasion from the impact of the waves on my head. They are so strong I almost get rolled over when I’m swimming parallel to them. But I’ve still never got out early on a swim.
The 1 miler hurts. Thanks to my earlier sprinting, my lungs are aching, and my shoulders are bashed up by the relentless waves. I stop sighting for the buoys because they are impossible to see over the towers of water, which helps ease the soreness in my neck if not the straightness of my swimming line. I swim to the beat of Queen’s We Are the Campions in my head, an irony which is not lost on me, as the song gets interrupted every few strokes to wretch out inhaled seawater. Probably not how Freddy originally intended it, to be honest. I never regret a swim, but there is absolutely nothing I enjoy about this one.
In total, I swam over 11 miles, a bit more than the advertised 9! In the presentations, I came 4th out of the women, including the extra lap. Even so, looking at the stats on my watch, that won’t have made a difference to the rankings, thanks to the snail’s pace I went on the 3 miler. However, given that only 56% of swimmers finished the swim, I’m just happy to be the proud owner of a Champion of Champions hat at all!
I stagger through town to my AirBnB and collapse on my bed to write a presentation which I’m giving in Sweden on Tuesday. Why is my life like this.
My amazing host makes me vegan bircher muesli for breakfast and lets me keep the front door key to have a shower after today’s swim. I am so drained and emotional that these small acts of kindness make me teary.
This sentiment is repeated on the beach, when I tell Mandi I am knackered and could I please have a shorter swim if I promise to do 13 hours next week and she offers me 4 hours. Yes! 4 hours I can do! My friend Sally warned me that the day would come when 4 hours would seem like a short swim, and that day is today.
The water is still and calm. I feel as if I am making peace with it, after the violence of yesterday. Swimming today is like slicing through butter, compared to yesterday which was like slicing through concrete which was trying to kill you. Although my arms are tired, they feel surprisingly strong.
Alas, the peace and quiet doesn’t last, and by two hours in, the wind has picked up again. I am feeling low, a mood which is dispelled very briefly by being given a tiny pink donut at the 2 hour feed. This becomes a swim of survival. I make my laps smaller and smaller, to avoid the treacherous Washing Machine at the far end of the course. By the end I’m doing 10 minute laps right by the beach until I can eventually crawl out, very much like Gollum, but in search of more tiny pink donuts instead of a ring.
This was the toughest weekend yet, tougher than the 13 hours and 4am start of last week. It’s taught me that I need to rest during the week, which I now vow to start doing. Right after I finish writing that presentation tonight and fly to Sweden first thing tomorrow… Something’s surely got to give, but it sure as hell won’t be this swim.