Saturday, August 19, 2017

Erne your happy ending.


My Galway Bay adventure last year was such a laugh that I figured a swim twice as long would have double the laughs.  With that in mind, I signed up for Lake Zurich and waited for the confirmation e-mail to arrive.  Swimmers are allotted places on a lottery basis, but surely they'd jiggle the lottery a wee bit to squeeze in a person of immense stature within the open water community such as myself.

Then an e-mail arrived saying that I was unsuccessful in my application, and to try again next year.  This was quite embarrassing, for them at least.  So I gingerly composed an e-mail pointing out their mistake, that human error is acceptable, that I don't hold grudges, and would they please now message me saying that I would be doing Lake Zurich this year, and they can't wait to meet the actual me in person.  Sadly, the organisers could not swallow their pride and admit the mistake on their part, which meant I'd have to find a 25km swim somewhere else.

Through the magic of Facebook, I came across the ILDSA's 25km swim in Lough Erne, and after much navigating of their website, was able to sign up for it.  It was in early August, which meant that Cork Distance Week (CDW) would get me over the hump in terms of training.  Over winter and spring, however, I'd need to get myself as far as the hump.

My winter training was a few sessions a week in the pool with the tri-club, which is nice baseline training, but over the course of spring into summer I'd be upping my distance in the sea.  The distance goals were to hit double laps of Sandycove by the end of April, triples in May, and quadruples in June.  I managed to hit these targets, but doing that many laps so early in the year usually meant having company for the first lap or two, then going solo for the remainder. On top of this, Donna and Anthony organized swims with kayaks from Fountainstown to Churchbay and back, and Speckled Door to the Dock Beach (with a lap of Sandycove in the middle for good measure) to practice feeds and the like.

As this was my second time at CDW, there was no sense of excitement or mystery about what the week would bring, just a nameless dread in the pit of my stomach.  When talking to civilians, I'd describe CDW thusly: "Close your eyes. Now imagine doing ALL the swimming.  Now multiply that by two, and add a zero at the end.  That's what I'll be doing for the week!"  I took the week off work and trucked through the first half of the week with grim resignation, accepting that my arms and shoulders would be sore regardless of how much I might stretch.

One of my outstanding characteristics (aside from my immense humility) is my generosity.  Because of this, I offered the organisers of the Myrtleville to Churchbay swim (on the Thursday evening of CDW) the use of my van to carry participants' bags from the start to the finish of the race.  At no point did it cross my mind that I would get a prime parking space reserved for me at Myrtleville, or that my van would be chauffeured over to the finish for me.  These things were happy coincidences as far as I was concerned.  The downside was that I would need to clear out the contents of my van ahead of the race, which at the time was a small nightclub's worth of speakers, amps, and other such equipment.  While carrying a gigantic subwoofer up the stairs to my flat, something went in my shoulder, and this would be the end of distance week for me.

I had been hoping that the Champion of Champions and the six-hour channel qualifier would get me over the line in terms of distance, but these had to be sat out.  (I was then hoping to help with feeds on the island for the other six hourers, but a bad dose of Delhi belly on Sunday morning meant I'd be staying at home for the day.)  This put a serious question mark over whether Lough Erne would happen for me this year.
After lying idle for a week, I did the Lee Swim.  Goosed shoulder or not, I'd paid to take part, it was only 2km, and if I finished the race I'd get a souvenir mug.  While not having the greatest swim of my life, I placed third in my age group, got a mug, and my shoulder felt alright, if not better afterward. The following week I was back in the pool, got some work done on my shoulder by my sports injury guy, and feeling a bit more confident about the looming 25km.  Triple-Crowned Ubermensch Matthias was still in Cork preparing for his next channel, and would be doing a four hour session in Sandycove that Saturday, so I asked if I could join him.  After doing eight laps of the island in under four and a half hours (big thanks to Bronwyn and Ina for helping with the feeds) a week before the main event, I was fairly confident I'd be able to do the distance in Lough Erne.
This is what confidence looks like
This is what confidence looks like:
After a really long drive, and not enough sleep the night before, I was at the start on Naan Island.  Then it dawned on me that the ridiculously long swim I'd been preparing for all these months was about to begin any moment now.  There were three of us racing, so if we all finished we'd be getting different coloured participation medals.  Bernard Sweeney was from Dublin, with a background in water polo, and an unknown quantity.  Anthony Sloman, for those of you who don't know, is the most inappropriately named swimmer I've ever met.  "Fast Bastard Flash" would be far more fitting, not that he's a bastard, but it's usually what I say to myself whenever he pisses past me in the water.  I started strong, but began falling back as Anthony and Bernard ploughed ahead.  This didn't phase me as I was not in it to win it, and just wanted to keep doing strong strokes and get to the finish line.  At a few points throughout the swim there were thoughts of: "What the fuck are you doing?  Just stop now and put an end to this nonsense."  While it was tempting, I fooled myself into continuing with: "Just keep going until your next feed, and if you still feel like quitting, then quit."  Regular feeds helped me keep track of the time, so at two hours it was roughly one quarter of the swim done, and at about three I was over a third.  When it got to the four hour mark it was halfway, and I could distract myself with the thought of: "More done than left to do, more done than left to do, more done than left to do … … …"

My interactions with my kayaker were minimal: he'd hand me my bottle at feed times, I'd drink the allotted amount, then hand it back saying thank you.  Part of the Irish Psyche/psychosis is to try and be on good terms with everyone, and I had to fight the thoughts of: "He must think I'm very anti-social, I really should engage in more small talk with him, ask him about his family life, career etc."  At seven hours while I was gulping back the carbo-drink he said: "That's the last one now".  I was worried that he meant I was out of feeds, but then he pointed down the river: "The finish line is about 2k away, you can just about see it!"  As I plodded down the last stretch, I saw another kayak with a pink buoy behind it, and a white-capped swimmer tagging along.  It was Anthony!  The only reason I was catching up on him was because he was succumbing to a few injuries that not even Nurofen could fix.  I'm not one to take pleasure in another's misfortune, but I'll happily take a medal.  Having done over 20km at a leisurely walking pace, I put the boot down for this final stretch, overtaking him with ease and finishing ahead of Anthony for the first (and only) time in my swimming career.

Safety first

When the race was over, there was no sense of elation or achievement.  The race, much like myself, was done.  I smoked a celebratory cigar with Anthony, and cheered myself up with: "Remember when your major goal in open water swimming was to do a lap of Sandycove island, and not be a liability to those swimming with you?"  I did my first lap of Sandycove just four years ago, and it had been so disastrous that I waited full year before I attempted my second lap.
Spoils of war
Even though it is now my biggest swim to date, this was just a bridging swim as I have bigger goals for next year.  CDW has been a serious boost for me these last two years.  Not only by being around some seriously badass motherfuckers, but it has stretched me and revealed previously unrealized qualities about myself as a swimmer (I'm not so un-badass myself as it turns out).  Its reputation for performance enhancing qualities in swimmers has meant that a few of this year's participants were spying on behalf of WADA.  Their reports at the end stated that no doping was taking place, but that a week of swimming, stout, and Sandycove will bring out herculean qualities in anyone!

No success happens in isolation, and there are so many people who helped me along the way this year.  Ned and Catherine's work during distance week; Anna-Maria and the family Mullally taking care of catering during distance week; my training buddies in the pool; my open water training buddies (special mention to Jonathan and Anthony, as well as the Walrus Pup and the Great White); Donna Galvin, whose organisational skills in the run up to the swim meant that so many things fell in to place so easily (she keeps saying that we did the hard work by swimming, but we all know that's not true!); and finally my many nephews and nieces whose names I'd repeat to myself any time I needed a wee boost during the swim, they're a seriously funny bunch, so it's hard not to smile when I think of them!

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