Final Race tear apart.
Before I start writing this, just warning you that this could be quite a lengthy one – a lot happened – I am trying to document it to make sense of it myself and in the hope that some may learn something. My swim was not very pretty and although it was 27km – a distance that I should be able to handle with ease – there was something different about this whole swim.
Thursday night, I had done some of the packing and the hippos were invited for an impromptu GLASS of wine at the neighbours. Well a glass turned into a bottle, that bottle then turned into another one – no, we were not seeing double!! That then turned into a 3rd bottle and just before midnight we stumbled home to have dinner and pack for a 4AM trip to the airport. Packing was a bit of a blur and for all I know, we could possibly have eaten Frozen pies for dinner. (Didn’t we? – SH)
After an hour and a half of sleep, we drove to the airport, checked in, found the strongest coffee, wolfed down breakfast and got to our plane. Nothing weird here. As for the flight, we dodged quite a few thunderstorms, but once we had landed, the pilot completely confused us by announcing our arrival into Milano Linate Airport – we were meant to be at Malpensa!! Thankfully he corrected himself before panic ensued. We wondered too if this was an indication of BA post brexit – we were parked miles away from the airport, they seemed surprised we had arrived, and no stairs or buses were waiting to take us to the terminal! Eventually it became clear that the airport was in chaos due to flooding – we did not need to take it personally! Once we emerged, we collected the car, and figured out where we were going.
After navigating through the driving rain and electrical storms, my thoughts drifted to the half distance race, barely a month earlier, that had to be cancelled due to electrical storms. We reached our destination and went on the lookout for supplies for the following day’s swim and a bite to eat. Once sorted it was back to the B&B for a quick nap before the Race briefing.
The briefing was held at a local restaurant, where we met up with Swimmers new and old from around the world. It was so good to catch up with Theo and also with Sydne, whom I had swum against 2 years previously in Zurich. I had also met Martyn Webster in Zurich. It was also great to meet some of the Italians and also the various support crews from around the world. A truly international affair.
Below is how the organisers had talked about this swim on their website
“A fascinating race of 27 km, a race which never took place on Orta Lake and accessible only to great athletes, with a strong resistance and exceptional temperament.
A race that requires preparation, resistance and perseverance.”
Clearly, I think their vetting process needs some improvement. If the above were true, why was I here? They must have been talking about the Slimhippo. Either way, here I was listening to a briefing – mostly in Italian with the odd bits of translation to English. Alarm bells started ringing when they were talking about the contigency plan of having to stop the race due to Lightning. All support crews would be contacted via their mobile phones and were to be kept updated as to the status of the race. This was all well and good but I never quite found out how they were going to rescue 30 odd swimmers spread out along the length of the lake if the lightning had become bad. Telling them it is cancelled is one thing, retrieving them, a whole diffferent ball game. SlimHippo also had a few unanswered queries about the support craft and supplies; in the race booklet they mentioned canoes, but we just hoped that their idea and our idea of canoes were very different.
We left the briefing with a few unanswered questions, but nothing that a few glasses of wine could not deal with, so off for a lovely dinner in the local Square where the International swimmers met up for a great meal. It was an early night though so we could all head off to prep for the following day. Race was to start at 7.15am so needed to be there about 6.15am to prepare.
So lets pick this swim apart bit by bit…..a swim of three parts.
So with alarm bells now clanging loudly, all my feeds mixed and packed, it was time for bed and to try to get a good night sleep. This is where things for me started to go very differently compared to all the other swims I have ever done. I set my alarm and promptly fell asleep. NOT something that happens before a swim for me; normally I am awake most of the night mulling over the day ahead working it through in my mind, visualising it from start to finish. I do not normally sleep much before a swim. But that night, I slept like the dead.
6am arrived and I sat up and looked at my watch. INSERT RELEVANT EXPLETIVES. I had set my alarm for 5 am it was now 6am and we were due at the start in 10 minutes to collect kayaks and get prepared! We leapt up, grabbed all the stuff packed the night before – (thank heavens we had had the forethought to do this!) and made for the car, me stuffing bananas and breakfast bars in my mouth. I really hate eating so early but I felt I needed to as I had 27km of swimming ahead of me. We sped down to the start area keen to prepare for the day ahead.
Now, first call of the day, we needed a kayak. The organisers pointed the Slimhippo to some kayaks stored in the reception area and she came out with a kayak – of some description. I told her to get into it. It clearly was not going to do – for her. She struggled to get into it, the seat, rudimentary at best – NO back support whatsoever – it would have cut her in half. The remaining choices were similarly unsuitable, so off to find the organisers. One of them had mentioned that he had his personal one that was on the other side of the lake and we could use that one. More of a sit-on-top, but anything would have been better than what we had. He then mentioned he would send a boat to go and get it. There was nothing for us to do but get me prepared and just wait. Not something The Slimhippo, or I are good at just before a swim. Slimhippo still needed to sort out her kayak and tie things onto it and just prepare a bit.
With 10 minutes to go before the start, we still had no kayak, we did however have a paddle. We were assured a boat was collecting it. Finally, we saw a boat heading across the bay in our direction – he had the kayak. I waded out to fetch it from the boat driver then hurriedly helped the Slimhippo prepare it with all the numbers, my feeds and positioning of all the equipment as best I could then I had to leave and rush to the start. Fortunately several people were on hand to help the slimhippo with final preparations, but I had to start without her and let her catch up. Not the ideal way to start a day that was already going to be mentally tough on both of us. My concern was not for me but for Audra as I know how she likes to have everything ready well before the event. This rushing was doing our nerves no good.
So at 7.15am, the starters gun went and there were two people that I can only describe as torpedos, shot off into the distance. I slotted into third place with Martyn Webster and another wetsuited Italian. The three of us went off at a reasonable pace matching each other stroke for stroke. After an hour we were all still together, with me being warned against drafting so I split left and there were three swimmers spread out side by side. I was feeling very comfortable at this point, the pace I felt was sustainable and I had no gripes, but was acutely aware that I was not swimming my own race. An hour and a half went by and nothing had changed. Stroke rate still good, pace, pretty fast,stroke, nice and efficient. The three of us made our way up the lake. At about 1 hour 45 min I decided I needed to feed, as well as adjust my cap that was coming off and defog my goggles.I probably stopped for about 45 seconds and gulped down some energy drink and some fruit, fixed my goggles and hat. All this time the other two were steaming on ahead – whilst my heart and my head were sinking; if they maintained that pace, I would never be able to catch them. I had to rely on the fact that they had not fed yet. If they had, they were feeding very quickly.
I carried on trying to keep my spirits up and using every trick I knew to keep focused. Mental anguish started to creep in. Should I go all out and chase? or, Should I just go at my own pace? I knew the answer in my head but the dilemma began raging in my head. We were now at about 3 hours when I fed again, my goggles had steamed up again and needed cleaning. This feed was far more relaxed and I took way more time than I should have, trying to get some solid food in me and gulp down some energy drink, defogging goggles (these goggles were fine on a 10km but it seemed that once they started to fog up, they did it pretty quickly). I then pressed on. With this mental battle progressing from your average shouting match to a full scale nuclear war in my head, I had little mental reserves left to focus on my stroke and I felt it start going to the rubbish tip. Slimhippo also saw it. My stroke rate actually sped up but my efficiency dropped markedly. No matter what I did, I could not get my mind off the fact that I was not closing the gap between me and the two ahead.
I got to the half way point at exactly 4 hours. Now Swimmers were catching me. Sydne, the American Aqua queen was steaming up behind. Her kayaker and the slimhippo went off for shore leave – only 5 minutes but useful all the same. I now had another dilemma to add to the wire wool that was spontaneously combusting in my head. I was really happy for Sydne that her swim was going so well but was immensely disappointed with and cursing myself that I had let my anguish get in the way of my swim. With my stroke still all over the place, I was adjusting it every 50 or so strokes to try to find one that worked but never could. Constant mantras, Positive reinforcement, swimming with my eyes closed and many other techniques that I was adopting were proving to be useless against the initially slow, but now full blown tsunami of negativity. It was now back to basics for me. To try and thwart the damage being done to my swim, I switched into the only method I new to try and bring things together.
On a side note, This year, I have basically focussed my training on short distances and trying to improve my speed. My focus had been on 3 and 5 km races and it has worked. My times over those distances have improved. My last swim of this distance had been 15 months prior to this race in Arizona. The longest swim I had done since then had been 10km in a very respectable time of 2 hours 20 min. I had felt amazing after that.
So it was time to approach this problem from another direction. We were now just over 14km into the race. I now started to tell myself to be grateful for what you have done. I HAD NOT SWUM THIS FAR IN OVER A YEAR! ANYTHING I DO FROM NOW IS JUST A BONUS! I kept telling myself this over and over and over. I was now into the 2nd stage of this swim. But doubt, anguish, disappointment, all the negative things I was so aware of trying to keep at bay were flooding my entire being. This was reflected in pretty much everything about my swim; my stroke had gone to pot, I was stopping more and more frequently, and for longer. I decided to change goggles as these ones were fogging up badly. I was switching into breaststroke more and more. The most distressing thing to me now was I was taking my frustrations out on the only person around me, the person I rely on to get me through these swims, the person who gives up entire days to help me. My behaviour was, to put it lightly – disgusting! No one deserves to be at the end of a barrage of expletives and abuse EVER!
Soon there was a Glimmer of hope – albeit not the hope anyone wants. The clouds came rolling in over the mountains and with the sky getting darker and heavier, I switched to breaststroke and I could hear the thunder in the background. I could see the wall of rain heading towards us over the water. Soon, boats that were 20 metres away were engulfed in the deluge and disappeared from sight. Within minutes the curtain of water finally reached us and we, like everyone, were getting a thorough drenching. I stayed doing breaststroke. I could now see the lightening lighting up the sky. I stopped and chatted to the Slimhippo – or rather barked at her to find out what was happening. She had got a text but it was in Italian. She tried phoning the organisers and the health and safety officer and race director – no answer. I tried to carry on with the swim, waiting for the call that was let me out of this mental hell I was in. I really wanted to give up. It was not because I was injured, my swimming was fine, I JUST WANTED OUT but, I did not want to make that decision myself. I was looking for an excuse to stop.
We pressed on through the torrential rain. At some times the drops were so big, it felt like light hail. The Slimhippo guided me closer to the shore in case the race was cancelled. She was also getting frustrated with me as I was prattling around wasting time and she was getting cold – I only heard about this later. The Race Director then appeared in his boat and my world crashed down around me. They were not cancelling the race yet! By then, the rain had subsided but was still in the area. I switched to breaststroke and proceeded to apologise to the Slimhippo not for the earlier abuse, apologising for dragging her around the world to do this for me. She was very understanding and forgiving. I am very lucky to have her as support.
After about 6 hours, I had now not only hit the wall, I had stopped, thrown every single toy I had out of the proverbial cot and torn the wall down leaving no trace of it. The Race WAS NOT going to be cancelled. It was time to clear my head. So opposite the Isla San Giulio, I stopped for a feed, I also realised that there was not a hell of a lot of photos or videos of Audra through all of this. After feeding, I told her to throw me the gopro camera and got some lovely shots of her in the kayak with the island in the back ground. We had a bit of a chat about where the next buoys were.
Then, the fog began to clear in my head – it was now devoid of negativity and anguish, and the end nearing, focus was restored. My stroke slowed, it became consistent again – and efficient – I was slipping through the water again and I have no way of telling but it felt even better than the first 3 hours where I had been going so well. We rounded the 2nd last buoy in 6 hrs 53 min. Now there was another thought that entered my head. Gauging my swim speed and where I thought the finish to be I now was in a state to challenge myself again. I mentally told myself, right, we going to try for around 7 hours 30 min.
This is where gauging distances over water can be very offputting. That did not matter, I was nearly there, there was no way I was getting out now! 7 hours 30 came ——-and went. Time to readjust my expectation. Okay. lets try for 7 hours 45!!! That came ——–and went. The finish was now well insight. New expectations set. WE ARE GOING TO DO THIS IN UNDER 8 HOURS!!!!. Pace increased, the race was on, 7.47—–7.53—–still not there. I had a fleeting thought – just stuff it, take it easy and just finish! 7.55 ——-NO WE ARE DOING THIS. SPRINT SPRINT SPRINT. I reckon I was now doing 70 seconds per 100m. With each breath I felt I was Gulping half the universes air supply – Slimhippo heard it. 7.57, I felt the sand beneath my feet. Not finished yet. I now had to run, crawl, stumble up the finish ramp with as much decorum as possible, while the papparazzi were out in force. Trust me, swimmers after 27km of swimming do not look that pretty – unless you are Jaimie Monahan who permanently looks like she has just come out of a beauty parlour. God only knows how she does it. I even tried to do my best James Bond impression.
Team hippo had done it. 7 hours 58 min and 38 seconds. I ran out the water got my medal and Another ultra swim under my belt. While I was making an entrance, the Slimhippo was helped out by the supporters on shore, and I gave her a hug and thanked her. Luckily for me she is a forgiving character. Anyone else might have killed me out there and would have been well within their right to do so. Congratulations all round came from other swimmers and kayakers. I then had my standard emotional breakdown. Trying to hold it together, I was surprised by a young lady, who had been pulled out earlier because of the conditions – she and her father came over to congratulate me and reassure me. Language was a barrier but the sentiment was clearly understood, and very much appreciated.
So what did I learn and more imprtantly, how can others learn from this?
- I am immensely proud of and very lucky to have a body that can take such punishment. For someone who does not really look after their body a well as I can, I ask of it some pretty insane things and – to date, it has not let me down. For that I thank my parents.
- Can you train for short distance and then do an Ultra distance swim? It seems – in my case, yes. The last time I swam this distance was May 2015. The biggest distance I have done since then is 10km 2 hours 20 min. It is a huge jump from 2 hours 20 to 8 hours but it can be done. It is not pretty but it can be done. But if you do try it, be prepared for a major mental meltdown. Learn how to handle it and how to get through it.
- Would I condone my training regime for everyone? NO. I have trained for the shorter distance, whilst I have achieved what I set out to do in the short distances and have improved my speed, in this swim it really showed that I had focussed on a total different beast in my training. Martyn Webster (the guy I was with for the first 2 hours) on the other hand, is a few weeks out from an English Channel crossing. His training has been focused on that and it showed. Another Reason that I have shied away from big distance training is that I have been nursing a minor shoulder ailment over th last couple of months and I wanted to at least arrive at the start in one piece. Incidentally, my shoulders were absolutely fine during the race. Apart from what I consider normal fatigue post race, the following day they were fine.
- Swim your own Race. Whilst I felt absolutely fine at the beginning pacing with Martyn and our Italian friend, anything over 25km is a fair distance so how you feel after an hour is no indication of how you will feel after 6 hours. Do not get disheartened when you have to leave a swimmer that is racing with you. The race is long. Anything can happen
- How to deal with a Mental Meltdown? For this I really have no single answer but I have a many things I can call on to get me through the dark times. These will be different for everyone and I believe no two athletes will adopt the same tools. The one thing I can say is, if you going to do the distance, your training should be appropriate for that swim. Sprinting, middle distance and Ultradistance are 3 COMPLETELY different beasts and need to be treated as such. Personally, a good helping of pig headedness and obstinance and most importantly, a great kayaker/support team is key to this game.
- Complacency is the enemy. One thing that I wrongly assumed is, “I have done this sort of distance enough times to be able to get through it.” Getting through it is one thing but this should not be a slog, it should not be a horrible experience. In all my Ultra swims, I have never had a meltdown as bad as this. I learnt more in three hours about myself than I have done my entire life. This sport tends to do this to you. Become complacent and it will know it and lash back.
- Mental Training is King. In ALL my swims until this one, I spent a lot of time Visualising the swims, re enacting all conceivable outcomes over and over and over in my head, how I would deal with the fallout and how I would get back on track. This is often done right up to the minute before the swim. I learn everything about the swim and I imagine it. With every visualisation, two things are constant – the start and the finish. Everything between those two points can change. With Complacency, I did not really do as much of it this time. I even slept the night before. This lack of mental fortitude really reared its ugly head and I was nearly “left up Lago D’Orta without a paddle(r)”.
- Have a good support crew. The Slimhippo and I have now been on three epic swimming adventures together. I used to be nice to her and hire her a motorboat for the events but I needed to toughen her up so She is now an immensely accomplished kayaker. With every swim, we learn something more about how we both work. Yes, Be nice to them no matter what. She is my lifeline and I am 100% reliant on her to get me through any swim of this magnitude. Piss them off at your own risk. She chose to be there so let them know how grateful you are. DO NOT HURL ABUSE AT THEM. No-one deserves that.
- SET AN ALARM. I thought I had. Set two or three if need be! My aim as a swimmer is to arrive at the start ready to swim, not arrive late then run around like a headless chicken trying to sort things out like kayaks and getting ready at the last minute. Swimmer and Kayaker are a team. If adapatation is needed at any point during the day, Do it and Help each other out. A happy support crew makes a successful swimmer
- Enjoy the experience. A lot of these swims are 8 hours plus unless you are insane enough to swim Lac leman (Geneva). No matter how deep down the wormhole of despair you disappear, look for the positives and focus on them, no matter how small they might be. Good feeds, smiles from your support crew, great interval session, no matter how small the achievement is, focus on the small wins.
What can I take away from this swim?
Have I mentioned that I am immensely grateful and proud of the body I have been blessed with? I am also proud of being able to do a swim like that in under 8 hours. I had been banking on doing this swim in a time between 8 and 9 hours so to go under 8 hours was a big surprise and when I look at this post, I know I could go under 7.5 hours, as I probably spent the best part of 30 minutes complaining and fart arsing around when I should have been swimming.
My average speed was about 17 mins per Km. (3,4km or 2.1 miles per hour). Now in my 10km races, I know I can maintain 4.1 km, 2.54 miles per hour and if I actually swim rather than wallow around throwing toys out and feeling sorry for myself I totally believe I can maintain that over longer distances. Sadly I do not have the technology to break down the swim into my averages but I can pretty much guess what they would have been and it would have been 3 hours at about 4.1 km per hour. 3 hours at about 2km per hour. and 2 hours at about 4.2 km per hour. That is a pretty impressive hissy fit.
As with every one of these trips, I can take away the pure awesomeness of the People I meet and now get to catch up with around the world. Catching up with the old and meeting new people at every event is awesome, and one of the best things about these swims. Lago d’Orta is not too shabby either!
So where too Now?
If you had asked me on Saturday at about 3 pm, I would have said never again, I am done with this. Not only am I wasting my time but the Slimhippo’s as well. Luckily, after a day or two and some time to bring it all into perspective, I swam well, recovered well and feel better for doing the swim. I also am now tied with Sydne on 1 swim each so there has to be a decider in the offing. I beat her in Zurich and she thrashed me here. Bring it on Sydne. I think one in the USA. Also Martyn wants to swim again so I now will look at other swims around the globe to take part in. I am not short of choices nowadays.
I hope that you have all enjoyed reading this post and hope that you might be able to glean a bit from it.
A note of thanks to Jaimie Monahan, Sydne Didier, Petr Havlik and Audra Turner for all the Amazing photos