“You think it’s doable?” we often wondered during lifesaving training on Milnerton beach; back in the day. “Swim all the way to BigBay?” “Neh”. “Yes”. “BigBay? You crazy?”. Well, fast forward a couple of years and BigBay events sends out an invitational email: “Lighthouse Swim, 10.5km to BigBay“. Whoa! For real?!
Now at the time, I declined. I had never in my life swum further than 5km (and that was only just recently) during the Seli Shipwreck race. And before that, I considered a 3km swim a “beast” of a swim. Besides which, I was officially not doing any swim training for a year. Teased, tortured and tempted, I sent my reply: “thanks, but no thanks”. Sure, I had aspirations maybe and dreams of doing long swims… but not today. Not this week, or this month. Maybe at the end of 2012?
Fast forward, yet again; this time a couple more weeks, and I was suddenly faced with a weekend without any races or marathon training sessions planned. So my wife suggested I do the Lighthouse swim…
My head exploded, my heart started racing. “You think?”, was all I could reply. Needless to say I was distracted for the rest of that afternoon. As intimidated as I was by the thought of going in unprepared, I knew deep down inside me: I just have to do this. 10.5km of open ocean swimming goodness. I enquired if I could, Derrick said “Yes” and that was it, I was committed. I now had 3 days to wrap my head around it. 3 days…
A little background on my swim training to date. In the last 50+ weeks, I made the effort to jump in the pool for a swim set on 4 different occasions. 2, 2.5km at most each time. And I died each time- especially on the sprints (swimmers will know what I’m talking about here). I carried on racing though- and regularly took part in cold water swims- but with my wetsuit on. I did 1 non-wetsuit swim in fresh water at SA Masters Championships (warm water)- and it hurt, but still managed 46 minutes (ironically, very close to my PB for that distance). What was keeping me going, and it’s my theory, was paddling: surfski and K1- oh, and a healthy dose of multisport… Movescount diary
But back to the Lighthouse swim….
I sent @PhilSwim an email: “Help. Swimming a marathon- what, how, when do I feed?” Phil was ever super helpful and shared what he had tried over several of his races and what worked for him. I took his lead on that since I had nothing of my own to go on and setup my feeding strategy accordingly:
5 small bottles of liquid, ±300ml (borrowed the kids’ juice bottles) with some gels and another juice of sorts to wash the salt out my mouth. The aim: finish as much of the juice as possible. The small bottles helped me gauge just how much I was drinking on each feed. Don’t be scared of the gels either. For the saltiness: always, coca-cola
By the night before the race, I had finally wrapped my head around the thought of swimming 10.5km in 13/14 degree water, even in a wetsuit. I reckoned I would be between 2 and 2.5 hours, my racing mind was banking on sub 2 hours though. Yip, my racing soul knows only one thing: go out, and go out hard, then hang on for the finish. This race is yours to win. It’s quite simple, really. Doesn’t matter what or where I race, I have a default setting that’s broken (or fixed, depending on how you see it
Morning of the race, I cycled to the start to get the blood flowing and survey the ocean en route. The fog made it impossible to see more than 30m past the shoreline, but the crisp air was invigorating. There was also plenty of company with other restless athletes out there running and biking in the cool, dark morning. One of them just had to pass me on the bike- which my racing soul struggled to let go of- so I pulled in for the dice, but only for about 10 minutes before turning off…
A long morning it turned out to be with the race eventually delayed by 90 minutes due to the fog, but when it cleared, ohmy, it was puuurrrfect! Smallish swell, glassy oceans (still cold mind you) and plenty of ocean waiting. Ready to roll, it was all systems GO!
Now when I hear “GO”, I go. Very hard to casually saunter off and find a rhythm so I prefer the pureness of “go”. And so it was, not too hard, mind you, but steady. Stretching it out, past the backline and into the deep blue- or green as it turned out for most the way. Water viz wasn’t great for about 6km. A couple of random kelp stems floating about, but for the most part, smooth. Just the rhythm and burn of the arms pulling along, legs kicking into motion. Breathe, stretch, pull, kick.
The first 4km I kept a close eye on the bunch behind me. They were feeding, so I felt comfortable slowing down to feed as well (that’s the racer inside me again). Communicating with my second, Jordan, was weird the first time though. I had to speak in one word sentences between breaths to get my message across.
Jordan. Can. You. (Breathe). Get. Me. (Breathe). Some Coke. Please. Eventually, by the end this turned into 2 word sentences: Jordan. (Breathe). Coke. Or on other occasions: Jordan. (Breathe). Gel. It got trickier because the cold had numbed my cheeks and the salt pickled my tongue, so what Jordan *actually* heard, I’m not sure. But he got it right nonetheless!
Mentally, my aim was hitting the Seli 1. I knew from there, I had 4km to go. When we did finally arrive (after what seemed an eternity) I paused for a longer feed- took a gel and scanned behind me with a little one-armed backstroke. I had a solid lead, but I was still waiting for an attack. I had managed to stretch out my lead a little more since the 3km mark, but the other swimmers were in sight. I had one swimmer in my blindspot I needed to keep an eye on…. So off we went again.
The water cooled a little, but the viz got better. The water turned to West Coast torquoise (which is different to, say, Mauritius torquoise). The sun’s rays were shining through to about 4 or 5m below the surface and the dance of sunlight on the glassy surface added to the mood. There was of course, the submerged thought of a shark.
Now, the infamous Great White which lurks around the Seli 1 had been spotted, true to form, within the week of the swim. We try not talk about it too much. We certainly don’t try think about it while we swim. But the thought is there. What helps is to focus on the race: there are only some things you can control in your life. The rest… well… is the rest. But what you can control, you focus on and do your best at. Stretch, breathe, kick, sight. Boom!
Then came along the last 3km. I had heard about this part. I knew it was going to be painful (if I made it this far). But I was also confident that I could keep my arms going for 2 hours (the longest solid paddle in a K1 I had done recently) and I was also confident that my lungs and heart could go for longer (Totalsports was +9hours). Beyond that, I knew, because I wasn’t conditioned specifically for swimming, I was going to hurt. And I did. Famously.
Now when you’re hurting, it’s important not to panic. When you panic, all sorts of things go wrong. Feel the pain. Recognise the pain. Know it is there, but know you have work to do. Head down- literally- and do work. To keep my arms going, I started to up my kick. And in fact, the better I kicked, the easier it was on my arms. Fortunately, all my trail running and random bouts of biking helped out immensely here. I found the kicking to be quite pleasant in fact and found a new groove. My arms were still hurting like crazy though. Lungs and heart were feeling just fine. I managed to control my kick and work rate and keep my core just below the red line. I knew I would need to finish off strong.
By this time, my lead was unassailable. With a mile to go, I knew I had it if I could hold it together. Now in my head, I couldn’t quite believe it and I knew this was my race to lose- and that that would only happen if my body failed me. I also knew I could slow down, but I didn’t want to do that- not too much, if at all. Hey, I was still racing I wanted to keep pushing myself- I needed to know exactly what my body could handle. So push it was…
Closing in on the rocks outside BigBay, the current was relentless. I was swimming in an endless pool and the rocks were not getting any nearer. I was starting to burn, my arms were on fire. My legs were all that was driving me forward at this stage; my flailing arms of lead, turning habitually, just keeping up appearances.
Finally, around the rocks, and into the bay. I could smell land. I was sore. I wanted to end this, but I also wanted to carry on swimming. The lull in the sets passed languidly below me, teasing me into catching a wave. But I waited, and chose to carry on swimming until I could see the sand and be sure. Jordan shouted: “Wave!”. I looked back and realised: this was my train home. Launching into the wave, keeping my head down, I surfed onto the sandbar, pausing for a moment as the wave died and washed over me to think about my journey the last 2.5 hours. Standing on terra-firma, a new wave of excitement built up inside. A little hop, skip and a jump away and I would be first across the line.
This sums it all up for me.
Beyond the time and the podium, this was a huge personal challenge. This didn’t need to be the Olympics- every race is my Olympics, my Everest. It took the courage of someone else to believe in me, my wife, to make me do what I thought I could not do. And more.
As a result, I believe in my abilities a little more, but I am humbled by the events and forever grateful to everybody who made that swim possible. From the vision of the organising team, the backing of the sponsors, the support of the lifeguards, the admin personnel, safety, medics… family and friends for encouraging me… and fellow swimmers and athletes who motivate, inspire and challenge me to take a big bite out of life- and relish it! This was a swim for everybody.
Spiritually, training and racing is also a profound journey. For me, it’s an act of walking by faith- not just based on anything rational or scientific- but also, with a lot of guts and heart, pushing hard into the unknown, finding a deep peacefulness and quiet joy while you throw yourself, with what seems like reckless abandon, into the fullness of life. And in the end, it’s more than ok.
Until the next race