Reward Races: A Nice Day Out.

You cannot push yourself to race all year round. But you can reward yourself with a race.

Coniston End to End registration. Excited and raring to go for once.

My swim year has been grim. It’s annoying because I love swimming; I’m just not great at it… and I want to be. I really want to be. My dedication to training just doesn’t transfer to races and 2017 has seen me led home by the sweeper kayak and last out of the water on 2 occasions. “It’s not fair!” has become my mantra.

Why enter a 5.25 mile swim the length of the 3rd largest lake in the Lake District then? I entered Coniston End to End as a treat to myself; not to race, or as a challenge, but to simply enjoy myself. It was a reward after a season’s work.

The New Years Day Polar Swim at Salford Quays was “exhilarating.”

It’s not often in long distance swims that you actually get to go anywhere. Whilst not as mundane as the repetitive 25m turnarounds in the pool, open water swimming is generally around and around  a marked course in a lake. Anything above a mile, and generally, you’re going to be circling around those buoys a fair few times.  

The joy of Coniston is that all your paddling actually propels you from point a to b. You’re allowed to swim in a straight line! (Or as near as my dodgy zig-zaggy, bugger-it’s-over-there sighting allows.) 

Unlike the highly competitive, triathlon swims, this event had a wave start. Now I’m not scared of the argy bargy of a mass start; I actually quite enjoy punching and kicking people without retribution; but waves are much more civilized. Think afternoon tea at the Ritz vs a bun fight with a load of angry chimps.

Swimming at Britain’s highest beach, Gaddings with a random man from the internet. Todmorden Open Water Swimming Facebook page getting like-minded nutters together.

I signed up for wave 1; the slowest. The 50-65 min/mile is much more sedate than my comfortable, easy pace; perfect! Even better, the pace was controlled by the lead kayaker, (I’ve never swum alongside that before!) Anyone going too fast got a right telling off from an angry man in a safety boat. We cruised like a pod of whales with frequent pauses to  re-group; no-one was being left behind!
The scenery was that of Wainright’s sketchings, those slate purple fells, typical of the Lakes, lining the waters edge up to the Old Man himself at the top end. We skimmed the shores of Peel Island, the inspiration for the fictional Swallows and Amazons’ Wild Cat Island, and, were guided by a majestic swan which glided in front with aloof disregard. (I kept a wary distance; those things can break your arm apparently!)

Photo courtesy of Richard Stevenson. Whilst I was down there, he was up here.

I find open water swimmers to be a special breed; often eccentric, always jolly. There’s the lunacy of plunging yourself into icy water for the sheer hell of it and the intimacy of squeezing oneself into neoprene in a marquee that just seems to bring out the best in people. Our group were a superb bunch and as Harry, our kayaker led us along I slipped out one of my ear plugs and stashed it safe inside my cleavage so I could keep abreast of the banter. 

One of the first among 177 swimmers to enjoy the first public session at Victoria Baths, Manchester since it closed in 1993. The one-off event was such a hot ticket that it sold out in 20 minutes, AND I got on the tellybox!

Tow floats are annoying, but, compulsory at Coniston. It’s not often I wear the tethered inflatables which let people know that you’ve not drowned, (or locate the body if you have.) Mine was spectacularly irritating and was determined to bash alongside with me rather than following in my wake. However, it’s nice to have a buoyancy aid when scoffing handfuls of jelly babies passed from a motor boat so I couldn’t complain too much. Unfortunately, the isotonic drinks didn’t come with a little umbrella or a glace cherry so my lounging was short-lived.

We paddled along playfully at the front of the pod. At the 1st mile marker we were given the option of a boat ride back to the start and a re-start with a faster wave, (at no extra cost!) Did anyone fancy a 6 mile swim instead of 5? Unsurprisingly not. 

When the last wave were underway, the lead kayaker got the radio call; all the 97 safety crew were now on the water; we could open it up. It turns out that Harry could move quicker than sluggish-splash. Off he shot like Donald Campbell’s Bluebird; not quite rivalling the 295mph water speed attempt made here in 1967, but certainly having a go! 

Swimming with the current in the River Dee at Chester; you go faster but with less kicking.

The rest of the swim was continuous but I didn’t go off with faster swimmers, (some of whom had caught us up from later waves.) Instead, I sloshed along on my own for a bit enjoying the solitude and occasionally waving to children paddling along the shore. At 3 miles I found myself thinking “only 2 miles to go,” and 4 meant  1.25 miles left, equivalent to 80 lengths of the pool; my easy Friday morning session. 

The other end came too soon; I consciously slowed down. There was a long stretch that we’d been warned was “weedy.” This is generally code for slimy, grabby, nasty stuff that will wrap around your legs and freak you out. Here, the water was clear and instead of fearing lurking monsters/eels/bodies it was like flying over a forest top. It was as beautiful a sight beneath the waterline as above and was topped off by shoals of fish beneath us as we came to the finishing boom. 

Getting a taste for sea swimming off the Sussex coast before meeting up with the folk of Brighton Tri Race Series for a sunrise swim from West Pier to Hove.

Swimming bling means more to me than the majority of my running medals. I’ve invested more to earn them. The Coniston swim was glorious and reminded me how far I’ve come. I enjoyed a swimming event! I didn’t panic, put myself under pressure; my niggly shoulder didn’t even twinge! The distance was routine and I was able to knock it out comfortably despite few swims over the summer. 

Pretending I’m an Olympian at the National Aquatics Centre.

I have always said that I want to be fit enough to do bonkers stuff for fun. This is up there. 
This swim was my reward to myself for all the hard work. It’s easy to get embroiled in racing, training, pushing hard. It’s nice to enjoy the results. 

Next week I shall be hopefully doing the same as I’ve promised myself another Reward Race. I’m going back to run my favourite race of 2016, the Yorkshireman trail marathon. Have I knocked out 60 mile weeks and 20 odd mile training runs? No. I won’t be flying around that’s for sure. I’ll be the one jogging along smiling and enjoying the nice day out. 

You cannot push yourself to race all year round. But you can reward yourself with a race.

Skins swimmers are those awesome people that don’t wear wetsuits. I’ve admired them too long. Now I’m working on being one. It’s not as cold ad you’d expect!

 * I swam gadget free at Coniston as I genuinely didn’t care what time I completed. I finished in 4hrs and 5minutes which has proved to be my best performance of the season. {Shakes head}

**In the process of writing this blog, I ferreted out all my best swim snaps from this year. I was surprised by how much fun I’ve had and what a range of new challenges I’ve undertaken. 2017 wasn’t so grim after all! 

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