Sunday, 23 September 2012

The Dart 10k.. an ACTUAL 10k swim

Signing up to a 10k swim was a wine-induced idea inspired almost solely by the novelty that it would be a swim with food included. As the event drew closer though, I became less and less convinced that it was actually an achievable goal. I had completely mentally prepared myself to not be hugely disappointed if I didn't manage to get through it.

Plenty of tips were offered to me: just keep moving to stay warm, eat as much as you can, wear as many thick swim caps as you can get away with, silicone ear plugs save you a perceived few degrees.. all very sound advice. My favourite snippet though, the wisdom I took with me through the event, was from my slightly alternative thinking Canadian buddy Hillary: "You'll be alright, just pretend you're a mermaid". Genius.

In the couple of weeks running up to the Dart 10k, the internet forums were alive with chat about water temperature, very exciting stuff, I know. A couple of degrees does make quite a considerable difference though and I was starting to get visions of being fished out of the water with hypothermia. It was time for new tactics. I would wear as much neoprene as physically possible and eat like an absolute machine to build up my "natural insulation". Two weeks and 8lbs later, armed with a bad full of swimming accessories, I was ready.

By the time we arrived into Totnes, the mucky grey sky had lifted and the river looked semi-inviting.. if you ignored the patches of floaty stuff just upstream. There was a real buzz of excitement in the air and registration was jam-packed with all types of folk from weathered distance swimmers strutting confidently in their speedos to nervous-looking first timers coating themselves wildly in vaseline. Chatting to other swimmers in the queue put me slightly more at ease as I realised the vast majority shared my very normal concerns of cold, cramp, accidentally swimming out to sea and the worst one of all: missing the feed stations.

The river was cold. My face - the only exposed skin I had - was tingling instantly but after about ten minutes I had acclimatised and feeling vaguely comfortable. The blue sky lit up the beautiful riverside landscapes and time flew by as I spent every breathing moment admiring the view. The first 3k or so felt fantastic, the water was clear, fairly smooth and a really nice blend of brackish; it was still fresh tasting but with just a gentle after taste of saltiness, I just kept thinking it was like having an electrolyte drink and convinced myself that getting cramp would be impossible with all this salt around.

Catching up with and passing some of the yellow-capped first wave swimmers gave my confidence a boost as I realised progress must have been going well. Shortly after that I spotted the first feed station up ahead, a floating pontoon full of lively and brilliant volunteers doing their best to feed the hoardes of hungry swimmers hanging on to the edges. It was only as I stopped and tried to ask for something savoury that I realised I was already pretty chilly. I decided not to linger for too long, and went on my way after quick scoff of a rich tea biscuit and handful of jelly babies. I must admit I didn't do a lot of practice with eating and swimming before the event; I'm normally so skilled at all eating that I didn't think practice would be necessary. What I did learn though is that rich tea biscuits and jelly babies are really not good when combined with salty water in a regurging, belchy scenario.

The river started to open up and felt much more formidable as the sides became wider and wider apart. The wind started to pick up dramatically and the next few kilometres felt like hard work as bigger strokes were required to get over the chop. I started to listen to the demons as my shoulders began to ache and I saw various swimmers being rescued by paddleboarders and boats. Up ahead was a very long, very rough section of river with little coloured caps of other swimmers for as far as I could see. Doubts started to set in as I was suddenly very aware that I had no idea how long I had been swimming or how far I had gone. I couldn't help thinking though that my enormous two week eating epic would all be for nothing if I didn't finish.  Completing this 10k was my only justification for scoffing an entire belgian chocolate and amaretto cheesecake and getting into a terrible, packet-a-day cookie habit.

Eventually I saw the tiny red sticks I was looking for. The brightly-coloured t-shirts of the volunteers on the next pontoon. Massive relief set in as I knew I was somewhere around two thirds finished. A quick glance at another swimmers watch revealed that I'd been swimming for 2 hours and 10 minutes. Progress was going well and I finally allowed myself to think that I might really be able to finish. I didn't feel hungry, but thought a few more jelly babies and another rich tea would be a sensible option, even with the regurge. As I set off again I really started to notice that I was becoming fatigued, each stroke was starting to feel like an effort and my technique went out the window as I just tried to turn my arms over in whichever way hurt the least. I could feel things rubbing on my neck and around my shoulders, the top of my rash vest had disappeared under my wetsuit and was chafing, but my hands were too cold to do anything about it. It wasn't too long before I starting doubting myself again, the final 3 or 4 kilometres felt like it was going in slow motion as my arms really started to burn. I stopped a few times to have a really good look up ahead for any sign of where it finished. Nothing.

After what seemed like a very long time of swimming in slow motion, the river meandered around and I caught a glimpse of a crowd of people. I stopped again to check my mind wasn't playing tricks on me, it was the finish. It was still a little way away but it was there. Sheer elation and delight filled me as I realised I was going to do it. My body was trying to give me a little energy boost but my arms weren't having any of it, so I limped to the finish. Walking up the beach was surreal, I couldn't believe I had really done it. My super one-man support crew and old friend, Angel, was cheering me in and physically held me up as I dithered around. The shivers set in quickly, but she handed me immediate hot chocolate and led me in my cold, confused state to the "changing area". Changing was al-fresco, and trying to remove many pieces of tight neoprene with freezing hands and whilst maintaining some level of dignity was not an easy task. I basically stood there chattering whilst she did a pretty sterling job of getting me dressed.

A day later, my muscles ache and I'm covered in chafe but I'm very pleased with myself. I'm even excited about the possibility of doing more of the same, though I think if I did I would definitely wear a watch, and use some sort of anti-chafe substance.. and if anybody is planning on inviting me around for tea and biscuits, please don't offer me a rich tea.

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