The Internet is a dangerous place for me. I have a tendency to sign up for amazing looking, epic challenges. (Race organisers, I am the person sucked in by a video montage with a bit of techno.) Then somewhere down the line, and a whack load of money committed, I have to actually do the dreaded thing. This is a recurring pattern of behaviour. Reader, this year I’m on a Channel Relay team.
Winter training was that terrible sort of fast and furious, interval stuff that I have long given up trying to do with running (after I was unnecessarily sweary with the club coach.) It turns out, that like running, I have one pace; 25m or 11 miles I swim the same. Winter training also involved acclimatisation. Polar swims. I ain’t no polar bear. It was brutal.
When Spring arrived and our coaches Karen and DQ took us out for a lovely, sunny swim along Ullswater, I was happy that things had started to take a positive turn. As the team bobbed along on our little boat, sharing Cup a Soups and cosy, shivery snuggles, this team swimming thing seemed a real jape. Similarly, our morning get togethers at the dock were swim, chat, eat Rice Krispie Squares, repeat, and a jolly pleasant way to spend a Saturday morning.
So, it was with an open heart and high expectations of frivolity, that I approached our next step towards the Channel. (K and DQ have cunningly devised the plan to incrementally introduce each required element. So jumping off boats is ticked off before jellyfish. It’s a sneaky means of making it seem manageable.)
Swim the Channel Up North (SCUN) was a chance for our team to do exactly what it says on the tin. We are Northern. We are proud. We will charabanc down south only when entirely neccesary; until then we will train in our flat caps and clogs, with our whippets to hand, supping brown ale and fuelling on pies. We shall swim our Channel Oop North!
The event is a chance for swimmers with big plans to get a solid amount of time in the water; for us, the opportunity to consolidate what we’d learnt so far and get an indication of how we would fare for the big one. The event is in a nice shallow, warm lake so we could relax and just concentrate on the distance. We would have a blast!
Curve ball number one. SCUN is at night. We are likely to be swimming in the Channel at night so the goal here was clear (remember the step by step plan.) Curve ball two. Our team were going to swim 9k further than the others. Again, no problem, we know that tidal currents will mean this is likely on the day. (Notice how upbeat I was about the whole thing.)
I have a reputation amongst my friends for always packing light. My Lakeland 50 kit was legendary for being half the capacity of anyone else in the race and I often turn up at the lake with my cossie and towel and then marvel at the extensive range of builders buckets that my pals Janet and Suzanne are hauling. For the Channel we have a box. It’s a 35l plastic box that all our kit must fit in. Easy peasy. Team talk had discussed the need for some extra bits and bobs and I was feeling Baden Powell level prepared when I arrived with my box AND a folding chair.
Su brought her box, 5 chairs a 6 berth tent complete with sleeping pods, double airbeds and bedding and a carpeted groundsheet, various lanterns, flamingo fairy lights, a gas powered bbq and a kettle. I’m presuming the kitchen sink was around somewhere. Su is a diva and the nominated Mum of the team. As the evening progressed, I loved Su more and more.
As further stuff was unpacked by Rebecca and Neill-I-have-a-spare-in-the-van Hughes, myself and Ben looked at each other. Ben appeared to have brought little more than a sharing bag of Skittles and a litre bottle of Vimto cordial.
The evening started in the spirit I had expected, DQ introduced the teams; the Fluffy Unicorns bantered with the Loch Lovers and, not to be out done, Su produced 5 inflatable golf clubs (by this point we expected nothing less.) I was on leg 1 and was the first to splash into the water with the obligatory comedy backstroke. (Hilarious. Fact.) As I passed by on my first lap the whole team were gathered on the shore, cheering, and I ran up the pink carpet at the end to hi-five Neill in glee.
Then it got dark. Sky at night dark. Bats flitting dark. Swallowing bugs skimming the water surface dark. Glow sticks in our tow float dark. Emotionally dark.
Suddenly, camp went quiet. Each swimmer had their own strategy; mine was to keep awake throughout. (As first swimmer that would still leave me with 4hrs to sleep at the end before driving home.) Most seemed to be snatching naps when they could. Neill had his full 8hrs; he was back in his sleeping bag, snuffling like a pot-bellied pig, within minutes of getting out of the water and stayed like that until the very last moment before his next one. Even during swims, he confessed to zen thoughts about the tangibiliy of existence. I suspect he was sleep swimming!
Conditions were not bad but mentally it was challenging. Standing with cold toes on the side of a lake knowing you’re going to have to go in imminently is tough. My luxury item was a flask of home-made vegetable and lentil broth. I ate it around 11pm and spent the rest of the night craving chips and gravy. My conventional fuelling was inadequate and I chomped an entire bag of Squashies before my 3am swim.
Dark swimming is actually rather spiritual. One leg I swam completely solo, not seeing or hearing another swimmer. The kayakers are a silent presence and the buoys reduced to a small flashing light in the distance.
I had a power nap, zipped into my dryrobe, in my foldy chair. I was still determined to stay awake as much as I could. Rattling around camp on my own, I couldn’t settle or get completely warm. Each swim was approached with increasingly depleted energy and minimal enthusiasm.
Curve ball number three. K and DQ had decreed that the last leg would, for us, be double the distance of the other four; 3000m instead of 1500m. From a training perspective, it meant saving something for that final strong push. The sun had risen, I knew I had an hour of swimming to go and I was back feeling strong. Time to get the job done!
This is a niche event, by any stretch of the imagination. The Channel/endurance swimming community is small. I was aware of most of the challengers by their reputation. Solo Channel swimmers are an intimidating bunch when they are all playing out together. I christened them The Avengers because when they came powering past, it felt like they were super human; a different species to us mere mortals. They are built like goliaths, big fellas with broad shoulders and teeny tiny trunks.
On reflection, this was the hardest swim event I’ve done by far. There were several points throughout the night when I was very conscious that I was a team player; there was no way Team Golf were going to quit because of me. It’s not a challenge to be underestimated and I would think long and hard before going back. Though I do fancy a stab at a solo sometime…
Going forward, I think the team needs to heed Rebecca’s closing words on the night. “I miss the snuggling from Ullswater.” Becca, I definitely agree!