Six hour swim in sub-eleven degree Celsius water – my longest cold swim

Edit: The original title of this post may have been the worst title I ever wrote. And that’s saying something. I’m really bad at titles.

Dante wrote that the Ninth Circle of the Inferno was ice. He didn’t seem to consider freezing water, so I guess it might have been the lobby entrance to the Ninth level? Where we spent six hours on a Saturday on 2010. Reserved for the wilfully stupid, and marathon swimmers. Who may just be one and the same.

It was supposed to be the final eight hour swim for Jen & I yesterday with Ciarán and Rob also in the water.

Ciarán had arranged Kieran O’Connor to provide rib support for a Speckled Door and back swim before finishing with more laps of Sandycove. (Thanks again Kieran).

We started just after nine am. Cold at the slipway, as bloody usual but then…it didn’t get much better. Wind was South West, about Force Three starting hitting Force Four occasionally later on. So headwind and chop down to the Spec. First feed was just after Hake Head, the main landmark for swimmers on the way down at about fifty minutes. Rob and I reached the Spec at about two hours, a couple of minutes ahead.

We had expected it to take somewhere between one hour thirty to one hour forty five. At least fifteen minutes behind. And cold.
Kieran told us it was fifteen Celsius the whole way, but the wind was making us cold. We knew he was lying. At this stage I’d lost my left hand. And my thighs were starting to seize. I started kicking them against my hands underwater to improve circulation.

He sent Rob & I into the harbour to circle before the feed. When we got back he’d already fed Jen and Ciarán, and sent us to chase them the whole way back.
“Pursuit”, cackled Rob, and off we went.

We stroked side by side until the next feed ( apart from ten minute divergence as we each felt we knew the best line back, both of us confident in our navigation skills). We split and came back together after Hake Head side by side again. At that feed looking back we saw we’d passed Hake Head (it’s not easily visible from the west side) and were obviously flying with the wind and swell behind us. We’d had ten minutes of sun and slightly warmed up. We never saw Jen and Ciarán the whole way back

We hit Finbarr’s Beach just catching the other pair, with them about five seconds ahead at almost exactly four hours. Half an hour behind our estimated time, but twenty minutes faster on the return journey.

As we transferred our feed bottles to the beach, Ciarán told us the real temperature.

Ten point seven to eleven point one. Degrees. Celsius.

Sweet merciful Cthulhu. No wonder we were all suffering and in pain. Actual pain by the way. My neck had seized up, I had pains up my forearms, biceps and shoulders. My lower back hurt. My thighs were the worst, with hideous pain in them. I tried punching them as hard as I could to restore some circulation. Lying to us was exactly the right thing for Kieran to do. If we had known we might decided on a short swim early on.

Only during the week I had been thinking how I could never have done the six hour qualification in thirteen degrees that Ciarán and Rob had done.

We agreed on two laps (one hour) then we would call it.

The first lap was bad.

The second lap was a nightmare, the second toughest Sandycove lap I’ve ever done, (the worst was on  the eight lap (mile) on the first Champion Of Champions swim in 2008, the race where only twelve out of over fifty finished and it took twenty minutes to swim the normal ten minute outside stretch).

We made it back. Fed. Time (and everything else) was getting a bit blurry but I was not getting out short of six hours. We were around five hours at that stage. I was going to go again when the boys suggested an inside lap.

There was no merciful warm patch after the third corner, nor outside the island, as there had been for a few weeks now.

Now the boys are tough as nails. On the eight hour swim, when it was too rough outside the island at the end for me, Rob kept going out. If they were suggesting moving inside that’ll tell you something. Rob is not known as The Bull for nothing.

We did an inside triangle. A warm patch as the fourth corner felt like paradise. It was…only 11.4 C!

Yes, only half a degree higher. We swam up the Pil estuary where it was a bit better, but still with cold patches. Back for the last feed.

Thirty minutes. We needed thirty minutes.

We went for another inside triangle. We stood for a few seconds in the sticky mud up the estuary where Rob asked if standing there for two hours would count. We made it back to Finbarr’s, attempting the final sprint. Which didn’t look or feel like one, but no point hanging onto any energy at that stage. We came in together again.

As we stumbled onto the low tide sandbank, I looked at the guys. They looked like I felt.

Our legs were unable to bend or properly support us. Arms bent and back hunched like chimpanzees. Necks not working. Moving very similar to movie zombies.

Get the boxes. Into the cold one final time and swim back across the channel, pushing the swim boxes or towing them behind us. Warm shower from water bottles warming in the too-late sun.

Where were you Sun, when we needed you you six hours ago“? Bit bloody late . “You see Sun, it’s that fickleness that means Ireland never developed a proper Sun Worship religion. Just think, you could have had a shot. You have been a contender. A few month’s sunshine and we could have had our own Ra or Akhenaton. Instead we got those bloody priests. And we all know how that ended.

Dressed. Almost immediate recovery, something Jen had pointed out to me a few weeks back. Food and chat for a few hours. More talk about details for our Channel swims. Questions, some of which will soon be directed toward those of you successful Channel swimmers reading this.

Lessons learnt:

  • I would have sworn it was impossible (for me). (A day later I still think it’s impossible)
  • If I had known the real temperature at the start I would never have done it
  • If I had been by myself I would never had done it
  • Sometimes will-power will take you places you never thought possible. I hope I never forget how I felt starting that final hour with all higher powers of cognition and articulation fled:

Fuck you sea. Fuck you waves and wind. Fuck you cold. I’m coming. I’m fucking coming. Third Corner? I fucking OWN the Third Corner.”

(It lasted until said Third Corner by the way, by which time I was back to whimpering.)

Update: Months later, thinking this was a great achievement and also reflecting that we were all borderline hypothermic (and we all know hypo), I discovered that Lisa had done nine hours in similar temperatures during her EC Double training!

But a year and half later memories of this swim are still with us all, and it often discussed. Ihope to never have to do anything like this again.

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2 thoughts on “Six hour swim in sub-eleven degree Celsius water – my longest cold swim”

  1. I complete contrast i had my first swim in the bath that is Iniscarra on sunday, with Gabor as tour guide. Heaven.

  2. Well done – yet again you have me crying!!! I can’t wait for the phone call!! to let me know you reached France – ALL the way!!!!

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