Monday, 20 June 2011

I did it! The Great North Swim 18th June 2011

When I woke up on the morning of the Great North Swim, I realised I had to make a decision about whether or not to swim based on my health. I was feeling pretty rough from a hacking cough which had been hanging round for a few days; and although I didn't feel *that* bad, I realised that having a coughing fit in the middle of a lake isn't ideal, plus my lung capacity felt smaller than usual as a result and with the worry about hyperventilating due to the cold water, this too was adding to my fear. I was also pretty exhausted from spending several days coughing and had many aching muscles. Generally, I wasn't feeling in great shape for a Big Swim.

As we packed to get ready and headed off for the Lake District, I put it out of my mind and I think the excitement and adrenalin took over and I stopped worrying and got hold of some perspective (in that I could simply ask to be hauled out by the lovely kayakers/rescue boats if I couldn't do it. )

We (my husband, our four children and my parents) arrived in Bowness at about 9am and there was already a fabulous atmosphere there as it was full of swimmers and their families. The children were very excited to catch a 'road-train' to Bowness Pier so the day was already a success for them! We then boarded a launch ferry which took us to Brockhole, then we caught a bus to the event site. Cue more excitement from the children (car, train, boat, bus... all in the space of a couple of hours!) and we were very lucky with timings and didn't have to hang around at all.

We arrived at the event site which by 11am was extremely busy and muddy. The weather was typical of a June day in the North West, warm, humid, cloudy though luckily for us no rain. The clouds sat low on the Old Man of Coniston and the scenery and atmosphere was pretty spectacular.

We had a quick look around the event village and there seemed to be a fair amount of things to do, though I was later informed by my parents, who were looking after our children while we swam, that there were long queues for most things and it was a struggle to entertain them due to the crowds. In retrospect, it might have been an idea to have walked a little bit further round the lake where there was space for the children to run around and see the swimmers from the edge as it was pretty impossible to see the course from the event village (unless you were in the grandstand) as I suspect they felt a little disconnected from the events of the day and did get a little bored.

We got changed and entered the starting area. We were thrilled to find that Duncan Goodhew was swimming in our wave (British Gas Staff: Purple Hats: 1pm!) and we had a little warm up on land, wiggling and jiggling away with the other British Gas staff who chose to swim, and of course Mr Goodhew himself!

We were then invited to acclimatise before we swam in a small area of the lake. I knew this was important for me after having the bad experience with 'cold water shock' and hyperventilating as a result at the Salford Swim. As I entered the water, I could feel my breath quicken and I lowered myself into the water and splashed my face. I could feel my lungs constricting straight away and wondered if I would be able to swim. But we had a decent amount of time to acclimatise and this really was key for me. I gradually splashed my face more and then got to a point where I could swim a stroke while half submerging my face and exhaling. The breathlessness left me and we climbed out, ready for the start.

As we started, Dylan and I hung back to the end as I didn't want to feel pressured into swimming too fast straight away. The cold water gave me that now-familiar feeling of anxiety as it hit my lips but I exhaled steadily and counted slowly as I breathed in and then out. Dylan kept a close eye on me but I didn't need to his reassurances this time, I had it under control and used the breathing techniques I had learnt while using hypnosis for relaxation in childbirth! Dylan stayed by my side which was hugely reassuring but I am very pleased to say that I do now feel I could swim in an open water event without having to hold him back (next time!). By the time we reached the 400m metre marker I realised I had overcome my anxieties and had successfully stifled the involuntary reactions of the cold water on my face which had made a large part of the Salford Swim less enjoyable.

The views were amazing. From eyes-on-water level, the Old Man of Coniston glowered in front of us, beyond the lake, with jagged cloud spilling over it. There were various boats, yachts and ferries in view and gaggles of geese not too far away. I had the sense that I was in open water. I didn't feel this at Salford, perhaps as I was surrounded by building and urban structures, and the course there very much followed the line of the Quays; you were never truly 'out there' in the water. I was grinning because I was out in the middle of the lake, the crowds on the shore were far away behind me and I was swimming in the Great North Swim!

Mr Goodhew powered up behind us and chatted with our group of swimmers about the views and the swim and then powered off in front of us - wow - amazing to see him swim for real, he looks as powerful and graceful as he did when I used to watch him swim on the television!

I decided I was feeling confident enough to swim a bit of crawl, so I switched strokes. I haven't trained much in front crawl and my fitness levels at the moment aren't brilliant so I knew I wouldn't be able to maintain it for long, but I know I have a good technical stroke and can be quite fast in short bursts. I have read that crawl can be fairly fast due to the wetsuit helping because of buoyancy (the opposite is often said about swimming breaststroke in a wetsuit) and I certainly felt that. It was like changing up four gears in one go and I felt myself leaving Dylan and powering off up the lake! It was quite addictive, but as suspected I tired very quickly and found myself veering off course quite easily. I have pledged to train myself to a good level of fitness for next year so I can swim 70% of the course in front crawl and aim to have a time of less than 40 minutes....

A perhaps unfortunate side effect of swimming crawl is that one looks down into the depths of the water which was surprisingly clear and I rather alarmingly saw a black mass swim underneath me! I didn't catch a good enough view to see what it was but I suspect it was an eel as it looked like it slithered, like a snake, rather than swim like a fish? I have no idea if eels even live in Windermere or even if they are black, but the sight of it made me hurry on my way rather quickly!

The half way marker was met with mixed feelings. I got to turn around and swim back towards the crowds which was actually rather nice and but I also thought 'am I *only* half way?!' That thought soon dispersed though and the last half of the swim was enjoyable and I swam breaststroke as well as I could given the buoyancy issues.

There was some sort of percussion band on the shores on way back to the event site which added a nice feeling of atmosphere and although I was really starting to tire after 3/4 distance I savoured the feeling of swimming in the lake. There were some quite large, but gentle waves which made us bob about as we swam (possibly a passing ferry?) and it was very easy to lose sight of the next marker and swim slightly off the fastest/straightest line. The kayakers put us right though if we strayed too far.

The feeling of elation was pretty immense as we crossed the finish. I had to be helped out of the lake because the ramp they put in is pretty impossible to walk up when you are wearing swim socks! (Though the swim socks act as a very good guard against pebbles etc while you linger about the start!)

After hooking up with my family again, I searched out my friend Sarah, who was swimming in the 2:30pm green wave. I managed to just catch her before she started and meet her lovely fourth addition to the family who is just 3 months old. She decided to enter the GNS only four weeks prior to the start and she clearly showed immense courage and determination to enter such an event with four children to run around after, including a demanding newborn and she had no training. She did herself proud and raised in the region of £500 in that short time for Mind.

We went back to Ambleside and then onwards to our hostel for the night in Hawkshead. As an aside, I have to say I was pretty impressed with the Youth Hostel we stayed in at Hawkshead. It was the first time we had stayed in a hostel as a family and it was a very positive experience and very good value for money. We really hope to repeat the experience and I suspect they will become our accommodation of choice when we attend various triathlons and swims next year!

Very happy, very elated. I decided in October last year that I would train myself to be able to swim far enough to finish the Great North Swim and I did it, eight months later. I overcame and controlled the anxieties which unexpectedly took hold at the Salford Swim and I now have plans to enter the Great North Swim in 2012. More than likely we will also do Salford again and we also have plans to enter the Monster Swim at Loch Ness in 2012! I aim to swim front crawl for at least 70% of the distance and to complete in a time less than 40 minutes.

My time for the Great North Swim was 57 minutes. I'd be fibbing if I said I wasn't disappointed that it took me longer than the Salford Swim (54 minutes) but I *know* it was a better, more efficient, stronger and faster swim. Swimming in Windermere meant swimming amongst waves and currents and scope to go off course was far greater.. so I take comfort from the thought that I probably swam slightly further than one mile!

I swam in the Great North Swim and it was absolutely fabulous. Can't wait to do it again!

**We later learnt that one of the participants died at the event. I don't really know any further details, but offer condolences as I am sure any of you who are reading, do also, to his family.**

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Nerves (again)!

Well, I decided I WOULD enter the Great North Swim and it is now two days until we swim again. We are swimming the 1 mile distance on Saturday 18th June at 1pm.

To say I am nervous is an understatement. Until now I have been remembering the euphoria I felt post-Salford but I am now remembering the difficult bits. My confidence is not helped by the fact that I haven't been swimming much recently and due to a holiday and now a cough I can't quite shake off, I haven't been cycling either. It's only been one month since Salford, so if I could do it then, I am sure I can do it again now, but it had been my intention to swim twice every week in the time in between the two events so I could hopefully do a better time.

On a more positive note, I have changed my wetsuit for a smaller one, so I hope this will mean I have less problems with buoyancy. I have also been educating myself in 'cold water shock' AKA the Dive Reflex. I am prepared for it to happen again and have been practising deep breathing techniques to ensure I cope with the involuntary hyperventilating which occurred last time. (Techniques learnt from Hypnobirthing, written by Marie Mongan, which worked successfully when I had my fourth child, three years ago!) I intend to get my face wet in the cold water as soon as I can and hopefully I can acclimatise quicker this time. I am happy to hear that Windermere is currently 16.7 degrees which is more than 2 degrees warmer than Salford.

There are a few articles below which I bookmarked and found useful:

Dylan is swimming with me and although I am hoping I will be OK this time, to allow him to go at his own pace and try to get a good time, I know he'll stay by my side if I need him to be.

Should be a great weekend though. It's the babysitter's (AKA Grandparents!!) birthday (My Mum) and Father's Day, and we are all (my husband, four kids, and my parents) are spending it in the Lake District at a hugely exciting event, then we have a night in Hawkshead with them all where we can celebrate the occasions and enjoy the post-swim euphoria.

I also have a good friend swimming later in the day and she and her family will be staying nearby, so hoping to have time to catch up with her too.

So I have packed my swim bag (wetsuit, goggles, two hats, swim socks, timing chip, towel and park and sail voucher).. now just need to figure out what the six of us need for an overnight stay (everything but the kitchen sink!)