My Great North Swim …

So Sunday 24th June 2012 was the day for my turn at the Great North Swim in aid of the RNLI. If you’ve followed my previous blog entries on my training here and here, you’ll know I’ve been swimming with Wyre Forest Swimming Club for the past year or so, getting myself into physical and I had hoped mental shape for the event.

Cards on the table time, without sounding arrogant I hope, swimming a mile for me is not an issue, I have done it before and can rustle up a mile anytime I like. In the pool. With walls, with turns and without a wetsuit in water temperatures of around 29C.

Swimming a mile in open water, with about 200 others ploughing the water around you, in a wetsuit, in water that is at a temperature half that in the pool, with no turns is a whole different ballgame, to coin a phrase.

So how did the day go? Well it was an early start. I travelled north the night before with Christine Jones, a fellow swimmer from Wyre Forest Swimming Club, and after a decent meal at Pizza Express in a deserted Kendal and a half-decent night’s sleep in a Travelodge, we set out just before 8.00am and drove to Bowness. There I encountered a nice bacon buttie,  a Pre-Swim Food!cup of tea and a “I need the loo” from Christine.  We boarded the Miss Cumbria IV (we didn’t ask what had happened to numbers I to III) and coasted up to location for the start of the swim. We were surrounded by young, fit and healthy students, so we both felt our age a little I think. One of the people had a lovely Irish Red Setter which spent the whole trip shaking like a leaf. Christine commented that the dog looked a little how she felt … “I need the loo” she says.

It was about a mile from the ferry to the start of the swim and seeing as we had about 90 mins to spare we decided to walk. At this point it started raining, luckily however not the torrential rain of the previous day which along with the accompanying high winds had caused the event to be cancelled. No, this was a reasonably gentle rain, and since in a short while we’d both be soaking wet in Lake Windermere, we didn’t see this as a problem.

We arrived at a rather muddy car park which had been converted into the changing and baggage areas for competitors. I was rather surprised by the lack of people, but we were one of the earlier waves of swimmers so I guess everyone else had opted for a lie-in. “I need the loo” says Christine. At this point, so did I! After a slightly nervous wee, we dive into our respective changing areas and shoehorned ourselves into our wetsuits.  I opted to also wear a tight rash-top with the aim of stopping chaffing of the wetsuit on my neck.  Taking our swim hats with built in ID chips, goggles and flip-flops we set off for the start.

We arrived at the starting gate a little early so we checked out the finish area briefly and I grabbed a bottle of water.   The Warm-up AreaAll the swimmers were being sent out in ‘waves’ separated by 30 minutes.  We were in the “White Wave”, so our hats were white and we had a start time of 11.00am.  At 10.30 we headed for the start and were herded into an area at the top of the ramp. Our enthusiastic host interviewed Kerry-Anne Payne which was great I’m sure but to be honest, I never heard what she said as I was getting a bit nervous.  We were shown a map of the route and told to keep all the buoys to our right hand side. We were invited to get into the ‘acclimatisation area’ to get used to the water temperature and I was a bit concerned as it seemed way colder than the two lakes I’d swum in …  Still I mucked about a bit and got water into most parts of the wetsuit and got reasonably comfortable.  So out we got and waited for the start.  We had a bit of a warm-up session from another enthusiastic presenter, which I did  little of, as by now I just wanted to get into the water. Finally 11.00am arrived and after a loud countdown from five to one with a cheer, hooters and clapping, we set off down the ramp and into the water.

Avoiding as many people as I could, I got into the rather murky grey water quite quickly, being near the front of the group, and pretty soon entered into that odd world of the swimmer which is filThe Whitewave (Christine and me circled in Red)led with nothing more than the rush of water in the ears, the sound of your own breath roaring out through your mouth and occasional glimpses of the world as you turn your head to take in air.  All seemed to be going OK for a bit as I manoeuvred between fellow swimmers.  I did a bit of breastroke to get a bit more used to the cold water which had taken my breath away literally.  I then stuck my head in and started to get some front crawl going at a decent but steady pace.  It seemed hard work.  The wetsuit was tight, and I felt short of breath.  I carried on for a bit, but came up out of front crawl gasping and trod water for  a few seconds.  My chest felt as tight as anything and I struggled to get air into my lungs. At this point I was concerned, I’d barely reached the 200m mark and I felt I was in trouble.  I thought about raising my hand to the kayakers who patrolled the edges of the route to get assistance, but then I decided to ‘man up’!  I’d regret it forever if I gave up now. So I trod water for another few seconds and sucked in air as hard as I could for about 30 seconds. Feeling marginally better, I set off with a steady breastroke with the decision made that I’d just do it with breastroke if I had to, the whole mile.

Things didn’t really improve though for the next 200m.  I switched between breastroke and backstroke, trying to calm myself down and to get a rhythm of breathing going where I felt I was getting something into my lungs.  Gradually I managed to do that.  By the time I got to the 600m mark, I felt settled enough to turn back onto my front and put some front crawl together, steady and with a rhythm.  I passed a few white hatted swimmers  and at last I felt I could maintain it for a bit and I steadily worked my way to the 800m orange buoy which was the halfway mark.  I rounded the buoy and saw ahead of me a swimmer with a pink hat – somebody from the previous wave! “Fair play”, I thought, if that person could stick it out, there were no excuses for me.  At this point however I didn’t need any, I was The 800m (halfway) markeractually feeling OK now, so I put my head back in the water and got on and swam.  The water was shallow and we were quite near the bank. All the storms had washed in leaves and twigs and allsorts into the water so there was quite a lot of debris I found my self moving through.  I turned out towards the lake to get into deeper water. Getting my bearings now by lifting my head slightly forwards on my breaths so I could see the markers, I set a course for the double orange buoys which marked the finish.  From then on it was great.  I really got into my stride and I set up a great rhythm of alternate breathing (breath left – head down – stroke – stroke – stroke – head up – breath right ) which I’d practiced in the pool, and I found I could stay on a straight course doing this no problem.  I passed several white hat and pink hat swimmers heading down the straight.  I passed the 1000m and 1200m marks without pausing overtaking more swimmers and still keeping the stroke.  There was no buoy saying 1400m, it just said “Only 200m To Go!” – like the style of whoever designed that buoy!  The encouraging words did the trick, I kept up the pace and steered for the double orange buoys where the finish was – almost.  By now I was starting to get a little breathless again, but it was a good breathlessness caused by exertion, not panic, so I switched to single-sided breathing to get a bit more oxygen.  Swimming like this and not swerving off-course is harder to do, and I did start to zig-zag a fair bit I think.  Still, I passed the orange markers and saw the real finish line ahead.  Head down go for it, plenty of time later for air …  The Finish!

Finally I passed under the finish gantry and eased off, found land under my feet and got myself up onto the exit ramp.  One weird side-effect of open-water swimming is  you get quite dizzy coming out of the water. Probably due to lack of reference points whilst you’re swimming.  There were helpers on hand to steady me and within a few seconds I was fine.  Christine was there waiting for me – she’d come in about 2 minutes earlier.   We passed though the checking-in point where the organisers confirmed our identities, and we were done!

Speaking to Christine, she too had had some problems early on but  had fought her way through people and the shortness of breath and finished over all 187th in a time of 28mins 58 seconds.  In fact she finished 2nd overall in her age group – way to go Christine! I finished 427th overall in a time of  32 mins 43 seconds and came 23rd out of 85 in my age group.  Considering I’m now the positive side of 50, only started swimming training in earnest  12 months ago and what a ‘mare I’d had in the first 600m, I was pretty happy with that. There were 2009 swimmers in total in our competition.

So we got our medals, our goody bags which included a decent T-Shirt, a drink and some snacks, and we headed Medals!off to the RNLI stand and posed for a photo (left).  The lovely ladies there also gave us a nice hot cup of tea and  choccie bar!  After that it was go get changed, have a wander around 2012-06-24 12.58.19and take some pictures then head out to Ambleside for a post-recovery meal of Steak Pie and Chips!  To get home we hopped back onto the ferry to Bowness then headed back down the M6 to home.  I felt pretty good now, pleased it was over but wondering if I’d do it again next year.  I’d said beforehand that this would be my one and only openwater swim, but despite the difficulties early on the the event, I think I could do better – even get sub-thirty minutes myself.  So maybe I will take the plunge again …


Dave Mc

If you’ve read this and feel like you’d like to donate to the RNLI, then please visit Virgin Money Giving which will be open until Friday 29th June 2012 for last minute donations.


About davemcmahon81
Software Developer & Architect, User Group Leader, Speaker, Writer, Blogger, Occasional Guitarist, Man-made Global Warming Sceptic, Climate Change Believer, General Optimist but most of all proud Husband and Dad ...

One Response to My Great North Swim …

  1. James Coulter says:

    Well done, Dave. A remarkable achievement given the conditions.

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