Review: Battle of the Jelly Babies

It was a genius idea by Dee.

Jelly babies are notorious favourites of open water distance and Channel swimmers. Tiny parcels of coloured and flavoured glucose perfectly anthropomorphised, that sate a craving.

Relatively waterproof and easy to pass to a swimmer, or for crew to snarf a few themselves, they provide an instant hit of processed dextrose for an quick burst of energy, an easily digestible treat to anticipate on a upcoming feed, and the source of one of the oldest jokes I know.

(“What’s the difference between boy jelly babies and girl jelly-babies?” Snaps fingers while saying “boy jelly babies have that much more!“).

But are all jelly babies made equal? Here at the Loneswimmer Demesne, we decided to finally end this perennial debate amongst distance swimmers with a, no … the definitive review.

In this article we pit the metaphorical Big Three of the small edible homunculi against each other and a token El Cheapo discount brand.

Don’t say LoneSwimmer.com does not strive to answer the big questions, to expose the most contested and controversial questions in the open water swimming world. 

  • Are Bassett’s Jelly Babies the Daddy?
  • What about Haribo Delicious Infants², (“Happy Happy Haribo, The Happy World Of Haribo)?
  • Or are the weighty non-humanoid creatures³ of relative newcomer The Natural Confectionary Company more morally acceptable?
  • How do vegans feel about Jelly Snakes and Monkeys?
  • In a fight between a Dino Mix Tyrannasourus Rex and a Haribo Brontosaurus, will the lesser mammal replicate the historical success of its lesser forebear over the mighty King of the Thunder Lizards?
  • What’s a Jelly Baby’s best stroke?
  • Does anthropomorphising sugar actually make taste it better?
  • What effect does the Jelly Babies colour have on its perceived taste?

We engaged in a two person two round competition, the winner of each round progressing to the final Jelly-Off.

Heat 1: A battle of classic Jelly Babies. Bassets surely go into this round as the 100 Pound Gorilla Baby favourites.

Bassets.rotated.resized.resizedBassetts Jelly Babies. Bag weight 190g. 345 Calories per 100g. €1.40 per bag.

Versus

Aldi.resized.resizedDominion (Aldi) Jelly Babies. Bag Weight 230g. 345 Calories per 100g. 55c per bag. By far the cheapest.

 

 

Heat 2: Between non-traditional shaped gums. Does not include testing those jelly and white “foam” mix confections, as these are abominations.

Haribo .rotated.resized.resizedHaribo Fantasy Mix. Bag weight 200g. 342 Calories per 100g. €1.00 per bag.

 

 

versus

Dino Mix.rotated.resized.resizedThe Natural Confectionary Co. Dino Mix. Bag weight 200g. 320 Calories per 100g. Wide range of prices from €1.25 to €2.60 per bag depending on location. Usually €1.85. Significantly the most expensive.

 

*

The arrival of The Natural Confectionary Co. into the cut-throat (well, biting heads off anyway) Jelly market has changed the manufacturer’s messages. Each proudly now boasts Natural Colours, and all except Haribo also say Natural Flavours. This may be the reason Haribo has a shelf life six months longer than all the others.

But since this is high calorie empty glucose, so I don’t really care one way or the other.

Heat One

Heat_1 jellies.resized

Bassets’ twisted confections give names to the individual babies depending on colour. The Aldi Jelly were obviously never christened. Both contain among the other ingredients, Bovine Gelatine. The Basset’s Jelly Babies have more distinct facial features and have two different shapes, a standard jelly Boy or Girl. One shape is saluting before being ingested, another sick twist that I particularly enjoy. Though maybe it’s doing backstroke? Notably the Aldi Jelly Babies have no black colour child, thought the Bassets have. Bassets are of a more uniform shape which they hold better and are a very slightly larger size. Most important though is the Taste Test.

Our independent tasters could detect NO DIFFERENCE in texture or taste. Neither displayed any noticeable variation in taste between different colours.

This lack of taste differentiation allied with the significantly lower cost makes the Aldi Jelly Babies, ironically called Dominion, the Winner of Heat One5

ITS A GIGANTIC UPSET! 

Heat Two

Heat 2 gums.resized

The Natural Confectionery Co are the arriviste upstarts of the highly-contested Jelly market. Along with the laughable conceit that they are “healthier”, monkeys, snakes and shapes and dinosaurs enhance their politically-correct middle-class offering and no actual babies (Boo!).  But dinosaurs. Each bag usually contains two or larger Tyrannasaurs. Who doesn’t want to bite the head off a Tyrannausus Rex?

On the other side of Heat Two, Haribo are so well-known that we all know and hate that damn Haribo jingle. Swimmers in Dover rave about Haribo. The Fantasy Mix is a range of animals, including two dinosaurs, a zebra, a couple of white foam half alligators, a two-tone Triceratops, an elephant, a transparent monkey, a turtle, a race car (Le Mans winner 1959), an infant soother (because that’s the perfect message for new parents; sugar-shaped soother, right?), four of the dreaded abomination of childhood, that excrescence, that shame on the global gum market: The Cola Bottle. And of curse course proving before we start that Haribo are demonic, four green Devils.

Rather than pit the mighty Tyrannosaurus we pitted the slightly larger Haribo Brontosaurusagainst a lesser TNCC baby Raptor6.

The TNCC gum was firm yet yielding. It had a dense mouth feel7, and an actual flavour. There was a slight difference in flavour between colours.

The Haribo was dense. Almost impenetrable in fact. Not chewy in a good way. Chewy in a dog-toy way. It makes a good spare rubber foot for a laptop. It was vile. I shudder at the mere reminiscence.

Winner of Heat Two is The Natural Confectionery Co Dino Mix8.

Another shock!

Final

TRex vs Baby.resized

In an extraordinary development it has to be admitted that both judges were pre-disposed to The Natural Confectionery Co. No supply of free gums was received in exchange for this favouritism though we are both open to any future bribing.

By-the-bye, dear American readers, I hope all this repetition of the words favour, colour and flavour, isn’t causing you too much distress!

The Brontosausus/Raptors having been dispatched, the Final pitted the mighty Tyrannasurus Rex versus the puny Aldi Dominion Baby.

Puny Aldi Baby put a good fight, armed as he was by his all-round Value For Money special ability which he used to fight the Mighty Thunder Lizard almost to a standstill. But the ThunderSuarus unleashed a devastating blow: The ability to retain shape better without melting in a hot car glove compartment during summer.  It was close. But then a shock. The bag only had ONE Tyrannosaur!

The gums of the TNCC were ultimately defeated however by the simple fact that jelly babies are smaller and softer so can be eaten in a single bite by a swimmer in the water.

Winner: El Cheapo Dominion Aldi Jelly Babies!

Well, that was utterly unexpected.

P.s. I’ve got a bag of Haribo Fantasy Mix left over which even the dogs won’t eat.  As to preferred swimming stroke, they’re made of sugar … so they sink.

I did all this just so I add this as new banner pic
I did all this just so I add this as new banner pic, Aldi are the left four, Bassett’s are the right five

_______________________________________________________________

May not actually be a real debate.

² Not the actual Haribo product name.

³ If you are a bluebottle.

Me ‘n Dee.

Except for you borderline cannibals for whom accurate sugary replication of human infants is important.

Yes, I know there was no such thing as a Brontosaurus. Paleontologists please use the site’s Contact Form to send me your classification of the TNCC dino’s.

7 I read heard this phrase on a cookery program.

Unless you are a fake-Satanist, in which case the Haribo is the preferred choice.

The Swimming Smoothie – food for swimmers

(This is a repost and update, due to a resurgence in interest in this post. As it’s a few years since the original post, I’ve played with other variations of ingredients since.)

Swimming generally and open water swimming especially is a sport of high energy demand. Many swimmers struggle to keep weight stable let alone increase it. The demands of cold water training are extraordinary and can project an average person’s appetite into the realms normally associated with power lifters and Olympian swimmers.

A favourite of endurance athletes of all disciplines for its slow release of energy, porridge (oats) is the quintessential breakfast to fuel any high energy effort.

Though I dislike it, I can force myself to eat it. I think the only time I’ve ever enjoyed it was in the middle of the night of the 24 hour swim.

One solution was a homemade Oat, honey or syrup & peanut butter bar,  which is very useful for a travelling breakfast or high carb snack, and has some real advantages, high carbs since it’s also made from oats and protein. With honey as a binder.

I played around some more and hit on the Swimming Smoothie. I’ve actually been eating this for about two years, and completely forgot to mention it.

This makes a really quick and tasty meal, whether breakfast or otherwise. It contains plenty of slow release calories from oats, but also has quicker release carbs from berries and juice, with protein for better carbohydrate metabolisation.

Ingredients before mixing
Ingredients before mixing
  • Apple juice or milk* (grape juice may need to be avoided**)
  • Smoothie IMG_9949.resized.rotatedLow fat natural yoghurt
  • Small banana or pineapple (optional)
  • Berries including blueberries, blackberries, raspberries and strawberries (frozen berries work fine and have the advantage of cooling the smoothie).
  • Half mug of uncooked porridge flakes (oats). (That’s about the amount you’d use to make a bowl of porridge. You won’t even taste them in the smoothie).
  • Depending on mood, requirement and what’s in the fridge, I might add pineapple, creme fraiche or even full cream if I have it.
Finished smoothie. Yum.
Finished smoothie. Yum.

*Apple juice is chosen because it has lower G.I, (slower release and thus effect on insulin) and higher fibre BUT it has higher fructose than glucose and tastes sweet. Orange juice also works of course is less sweet than apple but any fructose has a lower G.I. than sucrose. Milk works well as a liquid alternative to juice, and for lactose intolerant people soya or almond milk would also work well.

**For swimmers in very heavy training who are concerned about becoming anemic, they can easily add an iron-rich water like Spatone. When taking any iron supplementation though, it’s important to avoid grapes or grape juice as this binds iron and stops absorption.

A nutritionist make suggest other substitutes, but I’m all for convenient and easy. And I know this works after using it for many years.  

It’s possible, and might even be necessary, for you to tinker with this, especially if you have any Irritable Bowel Syndrome caused by fruit, or fructose mal-absorption problems.

The fruit chosen should have the fructose balanced with glucose, meaning ripe bananas, berries, pineapple, kiwi, orange, grapefruit, lemon, lime, plum.

Remember this started as, and still is primarily, a morning meal, specifically to fuel long swims, and I’ve been happy with the use and results over years. 

You could add whey and/or Maxim also, I’ve never felt the need.

A half litre (about a pint) of this Smoothie will give plenty of energy to last for hours. I’ve often made it for lunch on the go, and it works great to have as breakfast in the car. It’s flexible both in making and consumption.

A smoothie doesn’t stay fresh for long. It’ll start to ferment within a few hours because of the fructose, so if you make it the night before for the morning,  you’ll obviously have to keep it refrigerated.

I’ve gone through a new blender about every two years. Last year my sister gave me a gift of a Kenwood Smoothie2Go which makes the smoothie directly inside a large plastic smoothie cup. It comes with two cups and lids and is a great improvement over a larger blender, with less waste, quieter, quicker and it’s easier to clean. Recommended.

Ice Mile Dilemmas – III – Black Rain

Part 1

Part 2

Ten minutes after briefing and the swimmers were lined up on Lough Dan’s so-called beach for the group photo seen in the previous part.

Sometimes writing about the minutiae of swimming is really boring. Sometimes such reportage can mask some other truth. Sometimes I think that the more I try to explain the less I succeed.

Unlike a marathon swim that can take multiple hours, the Ice Mile swim was short enough to recall detail of each of the four 400 metre laps, especially for someone who is used to trying to capture sensations for writing. But an ultra-detailed analysis can often be to see the paint on the building rather than the architecture.

Me at the start, sighting on the pontoon, taken by Vanessa Daws
Me at the start, sighting on the pontoon, taken by Vanessa Daws

The entry and swim out to the start pontoon was fine. I can get into extremely cold water comfortably after years of winter swimming and the 3 degrees Celsius (37.4° F.) at the edge was better than wading through ice as we had the previous year. Entry is easier when there is no wind or rain and you are swimming with others.

I relaxed through the first two laps. Almost certainly too much in retrospect. I was much slower than normal for the first 800 metres.

At the start of the third lap, I allocated part of my awareness as a monitor. Its only job was to check myself, my perceptions and reactions for as long as was possible. Cold slows and thickens the blood, cognition becomes impaired but the hypothermic person doesn’t realise this. Those movies where a hypothermic person clearly realises they must get moving or they will freeze are mostly nonsense.

By the third lap I had developed extreme pain in my hands and feet. Please remember I am used to really cold water, and I don’t describe that pain lightly as extreme. I began to get nervous about one of the lesser-known possible side effects of extreme cold water swimming, that of nerve damage to fingers (not frostbite). So I started clenching my fists and fingers hard during stroke recovery. I also put the pain away, walled it off. It was severe, but I’m a distance swimmer so it wasn’t relevant and I ignored it.

That penultimate lap hurt. So much.

Finbarr passed me. Everyone else had already moved in front of me though I’d been first to swim away from the beach. (I had swum to the pontoon to start, which wasn’t necessary, but I had wanted to so do). On the third lap I had reached the 75% distance that mirrored my 75% pre-swim confidence. I touched the buoy on the pontoon for the seventh time and started the last lap. I never took any notice of Eoin Gaffney on the pontoon or the kayakers or the RIB crew for the entire swim, except for the occasional taste of diesel in the water.

I was cold, then colder. Into hypothermia. As you know, cold is a word that holds no meaning in this situation, but I don’t have a better one. Unless you are cold water swimmer you have no idea what I mean, you just think your experience of an ordinary cold winter day is analagous.

There was pain, present but also distant because I disregarding it. Still swimming. Still focused. Hands quite extraordinarily not in The Claw. Still slow. I tried increasing my stroke rate. I couldn’t hold it for long.

Going down the seventh leg in the last 400 metres, the Black Rain developed.

The Black Rain. I have not heard any other cold water swimmer describe this. I have suffered it once previously. Spots before the eyes is a poor descriptor. It is more like a shifting rain, starting very light, almost imperceptible. Varying sizes, speed and seeming distances in front of me.  Just like rain, except its colour.

I touched the far buoy for the last time. 200 metres to go. Then the swim in. Okay, just the 200 metres to worry about. I knew I would make it.

The RIB was near. There was a kayaker beside me. I could not tell what or if they might have been saying. I didn’t really focus on them, and didn’t think to try. I didn’t think of anything beyond monitoring myself. Swim in. That was all. That was everything. The Black Rain was heavier and I was developing tunnel vision. Not a metaphor, but actual vignetting of my sight. The boats were near but felt far away, not really having anything to do with me, on the far side of a veil. Head for the beach.

Cold blood. Cold enuf blood becomes viscus blood. Viscous. Swim. Thick blood. Thick blood flowz slowly. swim. coLd blub blood Passes oxigen 2 ur brain slowli. always swim. keep swim. Your thinking. ur Thinking gets slowly. never stop swimin. never stop, never stop. never stop cccold. izh beach. shallow. stand. colm’s son. Mr Awesome. OUt. Dee. gEt Drest.

I didn’t need to touch the pontoon at the end of the 1600 metres. Since the beach was further away I had de facto completed the distance. Warren Roche and Tom Healy helped me once got into shallow water and stumbled semi-upright.

*

Despite the ever-encroaching cold, I had never stopped swimming, never stopped making forward progress, never lost sight of what I was doing. Years of cold water swimming makes a difference. Deeply ingrained habits and patterns and thinking mean everything.

The last two legs of the swim had taken both zero time and infinity. Time travel jokes become inessential when time itself ceases to have meaning. Cold is the universe’s ultimate time machine encased in the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Time, like my trap, is a mental construct of swimmers. Time is a beast, or a wall, something huge, not the little parasites of seconds and minutes. If we are close enough we can’t see it all and it either slips away or fills our sight and becomes meaningless.

Immediately afterwards the freight train of Afterdrop took me harder than it ever has previously. Many people helped me as I was virtually unable to dress myself, but especially Tom Healy. I was almost unresponsive. My memory of the fifteen or twenty minutes post swim is hazy at best.

I’ve had mild hypothermia more times than I can recall, like most cold water swimmers. We don’t call it hypothermia of course, we just say chills and shivers. It sounds safer, doesn’t scare others. I have been in serious hypothermia (by my scale of experience) twice before. I’ve had memory loss. Loss of motor control. Inability to speak, to walk, to drive. So I can with confidence say that this was the worst hypothermia experience I’ve yet endured.

I am thankful specifically for the help of Mr Awesome Tom and his partner Rachel, Nicola Gilliland, Alan Smith, Colm Breathnach’s friend Warren Roche whom I thought was Colm’s son. (Should I apologise to Colm or Warren or both?)

And of course my regular accomplice Dee, who didn’t panic either and is still making fun of what she describes as the manic rictus of my face post-swim. I think she’s mixing it up with my regular face.

For reference, you have seen me write many times that I am an average range speed swimmer. The Sandycove Island Challenge each autumn is a similar distance when including the extra Ice Mile start and finish portions, about 1750 metres when the water is flat.

My time for the 2013 Sandycove Island Challenge, which had similar flat conditions and was maybe 14°C. , and my best ever race lap, was 25:30. Course record is held by Irish International swimmer Chris Bryan at 19:40 or thereabouts. My time for the same distance Ice Mile was astonishingly over 37 minutes. That’s what cold can do to a really experienced cold water swimmer. For reference I am 171 centimeters tall and weighed 76 kilos for the swim and my resting heart rate the previous morning was 53.

I had stopped shivering and was recovered and was out and about for photographs in under an hour, thanks to heat, hot water bottles applied correctly, glucose, rubbing and all the techniques used on a hypothermic person. Core temperature took a while longer to recover, until about the time we were half way home, two and half to three hours after the swim.

Seven of the nine Ice Milers finished. Colm Breathnach and Donal Jacob pulled out at 1200 metres due to not feeling right during the swim. You should recall that Colm is already an Ice Miler and a faster and better cold water swimmer than I. Fergal says, and I agree, having done the same myself last year, that for a swimmer such as Colm to pull out during a swim displays self-knowledge, confidence and experience that others should take note of and emulate, and hopefully indicates to others just how seriously this swim should be approached. I have great respect for both swimmers for the decision they made on the day.

*

Given a choice between a "heroic" pic and this one, there was little option
Given the choice between a “heroic” image and this one, I think the truth is more important

Did you think it might be different? More macho or inspirational?Something with less…pain?

I can’t do macho. Don’t know how. King of the Channel in the late 70′s, Des Renford used a phrase “Doing It Tough”. I did my Ice Mile tough. Frankly and honestly in my opinion this stuff is too dangerous to load  macho bullshit onto it.

Winning ugly” according to DeeNot pretty”, she also said, (though that may have been a general observation about me).

Getting it done. No need, no plan, to do it again, I swam out of the trap. I wish I could swim out of other traps.

The Ice Mile was awful, painful and horrible.

Cold is such an insufficient word.

*

Similar images of Finbarr are often the last thing many water polo and open water swimmers see before leaving the surface. Be afraid!
Similar images of Finbarr are often the last thing many water polo and open water swimmers see before departing the surface. Be afraid!

Afterward:

Later after warming up my heart rate was elevated for a few hours. Two days later I developed muscles pain for 24 hours almost identical to what I experience after the first five or six-hour pool swim of winter similar to what Colm reported after his Ice Mile swim last year. It felt like lactic buildup aches in my triceps, lats, pecs, along with lower back and thighs. The aches over the kidneys lasted another two days. I had an unidentified bruise and swelling on one finger, when I rarely bruise even after impacts. Minor issues and otherwise I am perfectly fine.

Here at the end of Part III, I’m taking a temporary break from the subject before returning with reflections and thoughts on the wider context of Ice Mile swimming, with the challenges, dangers, frauds, difficulties and some recommendations.

*

Fergal’s  writeup is here.

Vanessa’s excellent video is here.

Ice Mile Dilemmas – II – Surprisingly Cold

Driving to Wicklow that morning, it never once occurred to us that the water temperature would be cold enough. I was absolutely fine with that.

Here’s anther stupid thing we are doing on yet another early morning“, may have been something Dee said.

We passed over the Wicklow Gap pass, and there was no snow or ice on the mountain tops. The outside air temperature was about two degrees Celsius on the high pass.

We reached Lough Dan just after ten a.m. It’s the main outdoor location for Ireland’s Scout troops but there weren’t any present this weekend. Down at the lake edge everyone had arrived before us, and there were many people milling about, from kayakers and family, to support and safety personnel and half- and mile swimmers. North Channel “earliest, coldest and boldest” Fergal Somerville, the man behind the swim, and others were busy erecting a welcome new addition, a large tent for changing.

After 10 or 15 minutes of chat, I asked about the temperature and was surprised to hear it was somewhere around three degrees. I literally did not believe that but Fergal pointed out the four thermometers out on the rocks around the cove for me to check. They did indicate a range of temperatures from 3.0 ° to 3.5 °Celcius. So it looked like the Ice Mile swim attempt was on!

Four thermometers for certainty.
Four thermometers for certainty.

I did have an initial reaction that the water was again too cold for me. If an Ice Mile can be done at exactly 5.0 ° C., then honestly that’s the temperature at which I’d prefer to do it the swim. I am not in an ego match with anyone who can swim in even colder water. But such precision or luck is not in the nature of Irish weather and water.

Unlike last year though, once that initial reaction passed, I was always going to do the swim. If last year there was only a 25% chance I might do it, this year there was only a 25% chance I wouldn’t do it. To allocate a greater degree of certainty would be to ignore the ever-changing nature of cold and open water swimming and many lessons learned over years of open water swimming. 75% was what I needed.

Mentally I was engaged. After years of hurling myself into cold water, I’ve long ago shed fear and even nervousness and I’ve discarded negative pre-swim thoughts. I might have put myself into this trap, but that didn’t mean I was going to be negative about it. Such a mindset is not conducive to extreme cold water swimming. A swimmer needs to be positive and in control of their thought processes, because that is all they have power over. I was going to swim my way out of this trap.

There were originally ten swimmers planning to take on the full mile challenge, with nine present on the day of whom four were already Ice Milers from last year: Fergal Somerville, Colm Breathnach, Patrick Corkery and Finbarr Hedderman.

To those were added the Aspirants; Moldavan Irish-based Ion Lazarenco, Swiss and also Irish-based speedster Sabrina Weidmer, Eastern Bay Channel Aspirant Paraic Brady, Waterford triathlete Donal Jacob, and myself. There was another group of swimmers who would attempt an 800 metre (half mile) swim.

Two-time English Channel swimmer Eoin Gaffney was on time and lap keeping duty out on a pontoon for the 400 metres laps. Five kayakers and a RIB. A medical Doctor (and swimmer) Nicole Gilliland. Three Fire Brigade staff, all extremely experienced and knowledgeable open water swimmers and paramedics, Tom Mr Awesome Healy, Irish Republic English Channel record holder, his partner Rachel Lee, holder of multiple Irish swimming records, and Alan Smith from Waterford, who had a big effect on the Sandycove Swimmers in his methodical planning. And more:  John Daly,  English Channel Solo and Ice Miler, Mark Lynch, Eastern Bay SC and organiser, Declan Proctor, Swim Director, Barry O’Shaughnessy, Lough Dan Scout Leader. Families and individual helpers and even multiple dogs.

Fergal puts on his happy face for the safety briefing
Fergal puts on his happy face for the safety briefing

There may have been 50 people present to help us out, to watch over us, to keep us safe. All necessary. All potentially essential.

In the last post I wrote:

An Ice Mile requires experience, training, planning and safety and support personnel.

Eastern Bay Swim Club’s Declan, Mark and  Fergal put on the safest, best planned and supported Ice Mile conceivable.

This was an Invitation Only event. The swimmers all had a record of recent cold water training, medicals, and all were known to the organisers and most of us knew each other and Fergal knew each of us. At the start of the winter he had requested we each keep training logs (which I do anyway). We all had recent medicals. I’d been swimming more than last winter, though the extraordinary series storms of mid-December to mid-February had severely impaired almost everyone over the preceding four weeks, when I’d only managed two ocean swims. At 76 kg. I weigh all of 1.4 kg more than last year. Not much, and not what I wanted to be (77-78kg) but more importantly, I haven’t had a recent weight loss like last year.

A portion of my Jan 2014 ECG!
A portion of my Jan 2014 ECG

The safety briefing was comprehensive and included all the important caveats which which open water swimmers should be familiar:

  • It’s only a swim. You can always swim another day.
  • You MUST obey anyone in a boat if told to get out.
  • You can always pull out and you are never more than 200 metres from land.
  • You can always swim another day. Always worth repeating.

A very important rule was added for this specific event:

  • Swimmers must be on the last 400 metre lap by 40 minutes or at least making steady progress to the finish. (Otherwise they would be too slow and too cold). Swimmers also could not stop, tread water or switch to breaststroke, all excellent local rules to ensure safety.

At about 11.10 a.m, as people drifted from the safety briefing to get ready, I spoke quietly in an aside with Tom Mr Awesome Healy.

Tom. I’ll get badly cold. I wanted to warn you, so it doesn’t come as a shock.

I think I may told him not to panic, which Tom with swim and Fire Brigade and paramedic experience was absolutely NOT going to do anyway. I’m sure he’ll forgive me.

It’s good you know yourself Donal. Thanks for letting me know.”

All the swimmers before the start.
All the swimmers before the start.

*

I hadn’t planned to split the account of the Ice Mile into two parts. However, I did not wish to de-emphasise the excellent support of and importance of Eastern Bay Swim Club’s pre-eminent support and the safety aspects of such a swim. Therefore the next part will cover the entire swim itself.

Lough Dan on swim morning before the buoys were placed
Lough Dan on swim morning before the buoys were placed

Ice Mile Dilemmas – I – The Trap

Sometime back in winter of 2010, Sandycove Island Channel swimmer and local legend Finbarr Hedderman and I discussed attempting an Ice Mile.  At the time the International Ice Swimming Association was very new and less than a dozen people had joined its ranks, and half of those were the founders. For those unaware of the Ice Mile challenge:

1) You are better off.

2) It’s a mile (1600 metres) swum in open water of temperatures of five degrees Celsius or lower, wearing only standard swim costume and cap. It’s pretty much as least as horrible as it sounds, and in probably worse. It’s governed by the International Ice Swimming Association founded in 2009 in South Africa by five swimmers. The goal for the IISA is to have the Ice Mile introduced to the Winter Olympics.

InternationalIceSwimmingAssociation_logo

In retrospect the best time for me to have done an ice-mile would have been the previous winter of 2009/10 when I was training for the English Channel and doing a lot of cold water and the Association had just been founded but unfortunately my time machine is temporally out-of-order. (Gee, I wrote a time machine joke.). 

I’m going to put an important disclaimer and reminder here early on, and a subject to which I will return. I cannot stress these enough.

An Ice Mile requires experience, training, planning and safety and support personnel. An Ice Mile should not ever be attempted casually, and for most people should never be attempted.

The temperatures here in Ireland are marginal in two ways: For most of the year the temperatures are such that only experienced open water swimmers are comfortable in our cool water. The other margin is that the cold winter sea temperatures usually hover about six degrees Celsius, just above the prerequisite five degrees to allow an Ice Mile attempt.

Therefore any Ice Mile attempt in Ireland usually requires co-operative (cold) weather and there are only a few usable locations, the most suitable of which are cold mountain lakes.

As those who read this blog last winter will recall, English and earliest-and-coldest-ever North Channel swimmer Fergal Somerville hosted on an Ice Mile attempt at Dublin’s North Wall in February of 2013. We didn’t get the necessary temperature, and I suffered significant post-swim hypothermia due mainly to a then-recent  weight loss of almost six kilos. I’m not a big person anyway so that was not insignificant weight loss. I turned down another opportunity just a week later to join others of my good friends and personal heroes Finbarr Hedderman, Ciarán Byrne and Rob Bohane in an Ice Mile swim in the Kerry Mountains.  A few weeks later Fergal again hosted another Ice Mile attempt, moving location to Lough Dan in the Wicklow Mountains.

That day in 2013, surrounded by snow and ice, my mind mostly elsewhere, I decided against swimming the full mile, ans swam half the distance, partly because of the very low temperatures; one point four degrees through surface ice at the lake edge. And partly because I was just wasn’t at all mentally engaged for personal reasons that weekend. I remember saying to Dee that I didn’t have it in me that day to mentally go where I would need to go in order to complete the mile.

Indeed I wrote here afterwards: “most importantly, I knew I was unwilling to dig into the mental reserves I knew I’d have to access in order to complete. I know how to find and access those mental reserves for swims but [knew they] would come with a physical price. And I also know that sometimes pushing myself too far isn’t the wisest thing to do”. 

I’ve got a little thing I like to say when appropriate. It’s not poetry or memorable but I really believe it very strongly and it’s my own open water mantra:

Safety decisions are best made OUTSIDE the water.

That day Fergal, Colm Breathnach, Patrick Corkery, John Daly and Carmel Collins all completed the swim and became Ice Milers, all excellent cold water swimmers.

Glendalough log MG_1374_01 (Unsharp 3.0).resized
Taken at Glendalough Upper Lake, hours after the 2012 Lough Dan Ice Mile.

It was unexpected that afterwards people both commiserated with me and congratulated me on my decision, even at the CS&PF Channel Dinner in the UK. I wasn’t at all bothered by not doing the swim and was happier with making a personal educated decision to not swim the full mile, (despite irresponsible pressure from one swimmer). I made that decision based on knowing myself; my experience, my physiological state and my thought processes.

One year later, in this 2013/2014 winter, which isn’t as cold as last year’s bitter season, Fergal and The Eastern Bay Swim Club once again decided to host an invitation-only Ice Mile attempt in Lough Dan high up (relatively speaking, our mountains are low) in the Wicklow Mountains. The actual date stayed flexible to allow for weather and temperature changes. but the third and fourth weeks are usually the coldest water temperature here. The date was finally fixed one week beforehand and I indicated I’d accept the invitation and made my final decision to go only 24 hours beforehand. But honestly, with the milder temperature, I certainly did not think we would have the necessary low temperature, nor did most of the other attendees. And I wasn’t at all bothered. A swim at six degrees would suit me fine and I’d be hypothermic afterwards anyway.

Now let me say, and this is also important and key to this whole thing, that I’ve changed my mind about the Ice Mile challenge over the last couple of years since Finn and I first discussed it, starting before last year’s attempts and solidifying early last year. I was no longer particularly interested in the challenge for myself.  I’ll get into those thoughts about the Ice Mile challenge later in this series.

So this was the context of my first dilemma.

I write about cold water swimming. It’s my favourite subject, my favourite palette, and my articles on the subject (index on top right of the page!) are part of what define Loneswimmer.com.

I love cold water, love that bite. But it’s Hobson’s Choice: We don’t have warm water here so it’s cold water or no water, love it or leave it. I also believe in trying to help educate about open water and cold water swimming’s dangers and benefits.

And specifically, I also know that I like cold water, down to about six degrees Celsius (42.8° F).

Sure, I can and have, swum in water of five degrees and colder. But I don’t (always) enjoy it. The balance of reward versus difficulty doesn’t really work for me unless I also reduce the time commensurately. At five degrees, 15 to 20 minutes is fine. (For me). At four degrees, I don’t like swimming longer than 12 to 15 minutes. I also don’t want to increase my weight significantly, nor do I want to push the swimming time limit weekend after weekend, as I would need to do and have previously done, to increase my cold tolerance. For most of the coldest winter months here, I generally swim anywhere from twenty to forty-five minutes depending on the day and conditions and month. I want to enjoy it, to explore my own mind while doing so, to feel what inspiration may come.

But there’s an increase in attention to the International Ice Mile Association and the numbers doing Ice Mile swims are growing, particularly in such areas of regular cold water swimming as Ireland, the UK, South Africa and the northern latitude American continent. I started to feel pressured.

How can we take Donal’s writing on cold seriously? He’s not even an Ice Miler“.

It was a mental construct and a trap entirely of my own making. Sure, I knew it for the fancy that it was. But I couldn’t shrug it off and I still felt I needed to do an Ice Mile, if only for the sake of my existing cold water writing, rather than any particular desire to achieve the target.

We do this, us stupid swimming apes, build imaginary mental obstacles and make them real, and sometimes impossible. I’m a master at it.

*

Allied with this was another dilemma, what I think of as The Paul Kimmage Effect.

Paul Kimmage was a Irish professional cyclist in the late eighties and early nineties. He was not successful and retired quickly and wrote a very good expose of his experience and the drug culture of cycling, including his own use of prohibited substances. He later became one of the long-term key anti-Lance Armstrong journalists and subject to one of Lance Armstrong’s more famous and vicious attacks.

Because Kimmage (of whom I am a fan) had not been successful in his cycling career and because he had exposed something that many cyclists didn’t want discussed, he was heavily criticised and even disregarded.

There are aspects of this challenge that I wanted to write about that I felt could be disregarded if I myself had not completed the challenge. Ironically, I had built that trap myself by completing the half mile swim last year. Had I said up front that I wasn’t at all going to even attempt that swim and proceeded from there, subsequent discussion may have been easier as I’d have just been an educated observer and commentator. Otherwise I’d have been one of the people who didn’t or couldn’t do it. So this really felt like a Catch 22.

I didn’t particularly want to do it, but I felt I would probably have to do it sometime.

Force Twelve - Hurricane Force

The Atlantic – III

This is the third and final part of the series on the Atlantic. I hope you enjoyed this private tour. Part 1 & Part 2.

Summer
Summer

 

Comber
Comber

 

Atlantic Trance
Atlantic Blackgreen

 

Scale
Scale

 

Permanence in Motion
Scending Wave

 

The Island
The Island

 

Chop
Chop

 

Storms Pass
Storms Pass

 

Tidal Lagoon
Tidal Lagoon

 

Storm Wave
Storm Wave

 

Night Sea
Night Sea

 

Force Twelve - Hurricane Force
Hurricane Force Twelve

The Atlantic – II

This is the second part of a three-part series of a pictorial exploration of the Atlantic Ocean as I know it, primarily on Ireland’s south and south-east coasts. As with the last time, these images are best viewed individually at a larger size. All will be added at full resolution to my Flickr account.

Atlantic Pulse

Atlantic Pulse

 

II -  Interface IMG_4757 USM rad 3.0.resized
Atlantic Assault

 

Evening with Groundswell
Evening At High Tide

 

Force Three
Force Three

 

Beach Ripple
Rippling Onto A Beach

 

Storm
Atlantic Storm

 

Anvil of Rock
Anvil of Rock

 

Force Two
Force Two
Force Ten
Force Ten

The Atlantic – I

The Atlantic Ocean is in me.

For almost 20 years since it got its hook into me, I’ve been haunting, (in a moderate non-weird way), the Irish Atlantic coast, primarily the west, south and my own Copper Coast in the south-east.

For many years, in the depths of grim nights, I have stared into the dark and summoned the ocean as a blanket. I can float on groundswell as it pulses and lifts and lowers me. Experience the ground vibrations from huge breakers. Smell the plankton. Feel the wind tighten my face. Taste the salt. The Atlantic became as much part of me as I become a miniscule part  of it.

It’s a grey ocean. Grey, not gray, my American friends. The word was surely invented for the Atlantic. Not a dull description of colour, it’s a dimension, a world, a universe, The Soulstealer Sea. The Grey Atlantic, not the Blue Pacific. It’s a metal ocean. Steel and iron, verdigris if you are lucky. Hard.  Complete.

Welcome to my ocean.

{The photographs of the Atlantic in this three-part series are the best I’ve  taken, over a two and half year period, of various representational of elements of the Atlantic. It’s a personal, creative and a continuing journey. It is as important to me as taking the photographs to let them be seen. I feel like a photographer for once. All are better on full screen for a more, well, immersive experience.}

A Wave
A Wave
Winter Horizon I
Winter Horizon I
Winter Horizon II
Winter Horizon II
Sky & Sea
Vast
I - Swell.resized
Visitors from Far Away
The Sky In The Sea
The Sky In The Sea
Squall
Squall
A Reef
A Reef
The Storm Will Pass
Storms Always Pass
Local
Local
Evening Sea With Two Islands
Evening Sea With Two Islands

 

Force Nine
Force Nine

Cold Water Acclimatization

This post was a companion to HABITUATION, both of which I wrote in early 2010. Since I revisited and largely rewrote that as Cold Water Habituation, my plan was to do the same in this post also.

Acclimatization (acclimatisation for those of us who forego the use of the z)  is a different factor to habituation.

While habituation is simply the process of adapting to getting into cold water, acclimatization is about a person’s ability to stay in cold water for longer.

(Acclimation is the same process but done in controlled or lab conditions).

In brief, as every open water swimmer knows, the more you train in cold water, the better you will be able to tolerate the cold, and the longer you will be able to swim in the water.

Acclimatization is a more difficult and often almost mysterious process than habituation. It takes longer to develop and longer to lose. It tests one far more, requiring a greater willingness to push ourselves.

I’ve luckily gotten to know a lot of cold water swimmers, originally through the Sandycove swimmers group, many of whom say you can think your way through cold, at least up, to a certain point. I know one swimmer and psychologist who helps people in this area, and stress overcoming the fear, that the swimmer should tell themselves that they are warm when they feel the cold, or to focus on different subjects, or to imagine they swimming in warm water, etc. These are classic sports visualization methods that are used to transcend different problems.

Guillamenes platform during winter storm, long exposure
The Guillamenes platform during a winter storm, (long exposure)

I have certainly found for myself that even getting into  6 or 7 º C., after the first minutes of pain, that I now have a definite whole-body feeling of warmth, (excepting feet and hands).

However, there is the problem that physics and the laws of thermodynamics are absolute. A favourite quotation of mine is  “eventually the dead hand of the Second Law will hold sway over everything”. (Yes, I have a melancholy bent). However, this alludes to the fact that entropy increases and heat is lost in everything in the universe. As open water swimmers we are affected by such facts as:

  • One loses heat in water at 30 times the rate in air (thermal conductivity).
  • Heat loss is slower on sunny calm days than overcast windy days which strip body heat away even more quickly.
  • You lose 10% of your heat through your head, (in proportion with the rest of your body).
  • The ratio of heat loss is proportional to the volume and surface area, so larger people lose heat more slowly as the ratio of volume to surface area is increased.
  • Fat is an insulator and slows heat loss.
  • Insufficient food and fluids, alcohol intake, illness or not enough sleep all make one feel colder.
  • Pockets of changing water temperatures have a significant effect.
  • The Second Law of Thermodynamics: In a closed system, entropy increases. In the case of swimming, the closed system is the body, the air and the water. heat will flow from the warm body to the cooler water. You lose heat unless you input sufficient heat energy.
  • No-one is immune to heat loss or hypothermia.

Put all that together and all you get is what you already know. You get colder quicker in water, but the rate of change is dependent on a range of factors.

One factor I didn’t put in there is the mental aspect, because it’s difficult to see how thought (Werner Heisenberg & Quantum Mechanics aside :-) ) can have any effect on the rate of change of the system, i.e. how can thought slow your cooling rate? Many experienced swimmers will say you can think your way into extending your time in the water. I’d never been able to say this. I do believe that you can stay calmer, and accept what’s happening, which makes it feel easier.

I think that you get more used to being in cold, and you recognise your early hypothermia indicators better so you can push your limits more. You learn to swim further into your own cold experience. You get better at preparing and recovering. Some of those very experienced swimmers I know have learned to accept and box off the cold, realise it’s there, know the efficiency is decreasing but at the same time know there can be a long gap between the early hypothermia indicators and remaining period during which much swimming can still be done.

The simple positive feedback process of improving cold ability
The simple positive feedback process of improving cold ability

There is also the case that with improving  habituation, that heart rate and stress hormones decrease, and therefore the person feels better about getting into cold water and less nervous. Less heat will be lost in the initial minutes, which also leads to greater capability. This is the positive adaptive feedback system that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.

The small improvements drive confidence, the confidence allows the swimmer to push themselves while staying more relaxed. The mental aspect of cold water swimming was the single thing I most struggled to understand in my first few years of winter swimming. It seemed too trite, too easy, without really saying anything useful. It is easy to say that mental attitude allows one to swim longer but it has taken me years of winter cold water swimming to really realise this, to integrate it and to try to convey it. To understand what it means and to comprehend the effect that thought has on my own cold acclimatisation and ability, and not least to be able to explain that better for myself and hopefully others.

It has not been a short journey. If I could do it, so can you.

Cold Water Habituation

HABITUATION was one of my very first posts, and the first post I wrote about cold and cold water swimming, over four years ago, little realising it would become my favourite subject. Although it is linked in the Cold Water Articles Index, I decided to air it out and rewrite it. (And change those capitals).

Back then I mentioned how I  had progressed in cold. I used myself as an example to demonstrate progressive cold water ability. I was previously a surfer, wearing wetsuits year round and thinking I knew what real cold was. I later realised I had only ever once been close to getting as cold as I regularly get as an open water swimmer after 30 or 40 minutes. I had been surfing for six hours straight with no hood in winter that time.

 I started swimming open water during summer, but wore a wet-suit for the first winter for very irregular swims, and I was still surfing regularly. Toward the end of my second winter of swimming, which wasn’t as regular as I swim now, I decided to do my first non-wet-suit swim of the year, which was in late March I think, only a month after what is usually the lowest temperature of the winter here. March is still very cold water. 

Ballydowane Cove across to St. John's island
Ballydowane Cove across to St. John’s island

I clearly recall, will never forget in fact, arriving at Ballydowane Cove on a cold Sunday morning, with chest high waves, and feel physical effects of profound apprehension, even fear.

I recall that first experience of 7 or 8 degree water like it was yesterday, and I swam for 10 minutes. Disappearing in the waves, and ending up swimming the short length of the beach, and taking ten minutes to so do, and having warned her I’d only be in for a few minutes, Dee thought I’d been drowned. It seems a long time ago. The fear lasted for the next few swims before it disappeared.

The process of getting inured to getting into cold water is called Habituation.

It is not special, it’s not a reflection of an innate ability to handle cold. it doesn’t mean or signify anything. It’s a purely physical response and almost everyone can do it. (Excluding people with cardiac problems or certain circulatory or cardio-respiratory illness or other underlying contra-indicated health issues).

It will hurt for a few seconds or even a few minutes. Increased adrenaline beforehand may elevate your heart rate before you get in the water. You will find it difficult to breathe the first minute or so. You may flail about for the first one hundred metres. You can just relax and float in the water, you don’t have to swim. In fact that’s what King of the Channel Kevin Murphy prefers to do in cold water.

But, you will also settle and relax and get used to it.

coldI know it won’t kill me.

This is a primary mistake that some people make. They think that other swimmers, (more capable or tougher swimmers than them, in their mind), don’t feel it. They do. I do. It just matters less. Of course I also feel the same about other’s swimmers capability. Somewhere is a swimmer who really is better at cold than everyone. It make be Finbarr Hedderman. Or Kevin. Or Fergal, or Lisa or Alison or someone else. But we are all on the same spectrum of tolerance, just in different locations.

When I wrote this in 2010, I’d just met cold water Sandycove legend and Channel swimmer Finbarr the previous weekend, river swimming in Fermoy in 7½º Celcius (45½F) water, in October. At the time of writing, I wrote that seemed too cold for me as a sudden transition  from sea swimming in 10º Celcius. And I had a few years of cold water swimming behind me already.

It made me feel like he’s good at cold and I’m not. But Finbarr is much taller than I, meaning an overall greater heat retention.  He is also exceptional in his ability. He swam 35 minutes in that temperature. I was seriously impressed. I’m sure it hurt him too though, just as much as a 10ºC (50F) hurt me then.

Finbarr's smile here belies the fact that his foot is planted on Liam Maher's neck underwater.
Finbarr’s smile here belies the fact that his foot is planted on Liam Maher’s neck. Underwater.

In 2013/2014, I don’t consider that exceptional, and regularly swim the same or longer in that temperature. Of course Finbarr is swimming an hour.

The first few times you immerse yourself in very cold water will provoke a fight-or-flight response, elevating heart rate and stress hormones, potentially leading to anxiety or even fear.

I saw this with a friend recently when we were going for a swim at around 7.5º C. He hadn’t been in cold water for a couple of months so he was very anxious beforehand. He was utterly fine during his swim and afterwards.

Habituation just means becoming accustomed. In our case become accustomed to getting in cold water. It only takes four to six repetitions before the pre-swim anxiety abates and your heart rate to stay controlled. It become easier. The pain of immersion will decrease, though never disappear, and cold shock response will also reduce somewhat. Indeed there are few physical activities from which we can have such a speedy response.

More importantly, is you will realise that it’s not going to kill you. All the pre-swim anxiety will start to diminish. That the pain is not what you anticipated, that your imagination is worse than the reality. That every time you experience that initial response, you are reducing the power that cold may have over you.

You will start to see Cold in a different way, as a more intangible ghost over which you also have power. Until you too are part of this cult.

A Cynical Devil’s Dictionary of (Open Water) Swimming

In the early twentieth century, American satirist Ambrose Bierce collected his weekly newspaper columns into a book which he intended to call a Cynic’s Dictionary. His repeated characterisation as a devil by various US politicians of the day led to its publication under the title of Devil’s Dictionary.

I have neither the wit not skill of Bierce, but I thought it would be fun to devise a brief Cynical Devil’s Swimming Dictionary. It so transpired, such that I may continue to add to it.

***

Anti-fog: The biggest lie told by the swimming industry.

Butterfly: Vicki Keith & Sylvain Estadieu are nut-cases. More importantly, a type of post-swim cupcake. Mmm, cake.

Bioprene: The next big thing in celebrity diets. Just you wait. Sunday supplements and Horizon specials, here we come.

Cake: See Butterfly.

Carbs: Cake in another form. Sometimes chocolate. Or just cake. Mmm, cake.

Catch: The nonsensical idea that swimmers grab onto and hold and pull the water, under water, with their hands, in order to move forward. Clearly they move by micturating prodigiously behind themselves. Or open water swimmers anyway.

Costume: Swimsuits, Cossies, Bathers, Budgies, Banana Hammocks, Speedos, Togs, Swimmers and “middle-aged men shouldn’t be allowed to wear those in public” are all various terms for wisps of artificial fabric swimming apparel that are changed and cleaned less often than a hobo’s underwear but cost more per gram than real fur.

Channel: A body of water stretching between Stupid and Broke.

Channel swimmers: A cult or a club. Or both.

Cold: No. No, it’s not, you baby. Get in.

Copper Coast: My paradise. My playground. Bloody cold. Full of bloody jellyfish. Few swimmers. Applications to swim must come through this office.

Depth: It’s not under me, it’s not under me. It’s not under me.

Diana Nyad: See Marathon Swimmer.

Dover: Why so many people swim away from England.

England: More people try to swim away from it than anywhere else in the world. See Dover.

France: Bloody hell. I suppose it could be worse. It could be Belgium. Or England again. I gave up my two-way attempt because I didn’t want to swim to Dover. Two-way attempt? Hey, if you ever have to swim from France for an hour to get back to your pilot, you too can reasonably claim it was a two-way attempt.

Feeds: The technical description of the vast quantities of infant food open water swimmers stuff into their gaping never-satiated mouths, like huge baby birds.

Fish: The Men in the Grey Suits. The Landlord. Does not include any other fish.

Fraud: See Diana Nyad.

Goggles: When asked the first time what is best in life Conan The Barbarian said: “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women. And new goggles. I love new googles.” That’s a Hollywood Fact.

Grease: The best stuff is made from baby dolphin juice. I can hook you up. Call me.

Imagination and Intelligence: Lack of. Why marathon swimmers keep swimming. How marathon swimmers keep swimming. Really, we’re pretty dumb. Ted Erikson said so and he’d know.

Ireland: Home of swimming Gods and Goddesses, Ocean Giants and Sea Conquerors, a coastal cold water heaven. And a lone swimmer.

Jellyfish: Boom. Right in the kisser! Who says the little bastards have no brains?

Kick: This is how you stop triathletes trying to pass you. In the head, for best effect. I do not condone this. On a completely and utterly unrelated note, triathletes can’t tell one skin swimmer from another, we all look alike to them. So if you accidentally kicked one in the head, that would have nothing to do with me and you probably wouldn’t get caught.

Lakes: Old-timey version of pools. No chlorine but you do get the urine and dilute cowshit for free.

Lengths: Not as commonly thought, a  pool measurement, but in multiple figures is the real distance in body lengths between a swimmer who tells their wife/husband they came third in a race, and actual third place. Cannot be a fraction.

Marathon swimmer: Not Diana Nyad.

Marathon swimming: It’s a dumb thing.

NST: Non-Shivering Thermogenesis. This is the technical description of the time just before  male cold water swimmer’s testicles become safely ensconced within their bodies.

Nude: Ned Denison’s scary predilection for swimming without togs on club swims. Never mentioned in his IMSHOF induction.

Ocean: Home. See Water. Also sea water. Free.

Observers: Hauled-out crusty old sea dogs. Bring your own food. Lock up your daughters.

Open Water Swimmers: the very zenith nadir of the swimming world. Above Below Tadpole Age Groupers.

Pilot: Someone you pay a lot of money to insult you, while you swim, just at the point when you already feel most stupid.

Pool: A box of urine and chlorine. Pay to use.

Propellor: Anyone who worries a lot about Fish hasn’t been too close for comfort to a moving propeller. Aka The Spinning Blades of Sharp Cutting Pain and Dismemberment.

Qualification: The complex and lengthy process of incorrectly and fraudulently  filling out multiple forms and questionnaires, forging signatures and lying about swim times in order to swim somewhere stupid so that next time, you won’t have to write the entire work of fiction from scratch.

Recovery: That morning you stayed in bed and still regretted it. The day you went swimming … and still regretted it.

Reefs: If you are racing, don’t get between us and them. See also Kick.

Swimming: A bad metaphor for life. A good substitute for life.

Sharks: The Landlord. The Men In Grey Suits. Bitey. Grey. Also gray. See Fish.

Swedes: Either butterfly nut-case Sylvain Estadieu’s fiancée, Great Greta, or a type of elitist swim goggle. Depending on your geographical location and preference. We all know Sylvain’s preference, right? Right?

Technique: It’s a little-known fact that before Atlas was condemned to roll a stone uphill for eternity, he was first put to perfecting his front crawl swim technique, but it deemed too cruel a punishment. Any swimmer left to their own devices will rapidly devolve to the worst technique possible, except open water swimmers, who have none to begin with.

Tides: Often treated a fairy tale  by swimmers who swim on lakes. The variability in time, height  and location prove God is a woman. Or a man. I dunno, I’m no theologian or misogynist.

Under the boat: Don’t go there. I’ve been. It’s not nice.

Viking Princess: Reg Brickell’s Channel boat. You ain’t crewed till you crewed on Viking Princess. Unless, you know, you have crewed.

Water: Are you frequently damp? That’d be the water. You’ll find it’s wet.

Wildlife:  Technical swimmer’s collective noun for all things that are Not Jellyfish and Not Sharks.

X-Men: A supposed superhero team which has no swimmers. You know the rest of the world makes fun of Aquaman? That because they all can’t swim. Aquaman would kick Wolverine’s ass in the water. And I doubt that wheelchair of Professor X is much good as a pull-buoy. Also, begins with X. You try it if you are so smart.

Youghal: A coastal town in Ireland that begins with a Y.  Goddamn it it’s late!

Zip-line: Every open water swimmers’ favourite  race technique, that they pretend to utterly deplore and sworn they’ve never used. I’ve myself have certainly never used it. Ever. In unrelated advice, grease your ankles.

***

Related (humour) links:

Open Water Swimmer’s Fashion & Beauty Tips. (loneswimmer.com).

Two Distance Swimmers meet. (loneswimmer.com)

Swimming Taxonomy (loneswimmer.com)

GRANT PROPOSAL AND APPLICATION – TOWARD A POST-MODERN CONTEXTUALIZATION OF SWIMMING SUB-CULTURES (loneswimmer.com)

Introducing a precise open water  temperature scale (loneswimmer.com)

Cold Shock Response and the Mammalian Diving Reflex in cold water swimming – Positive & Negative Feedback systems

I read a blog recently about cold immersion and cold baths, and cold swimming to a lesser extent. The author was speaking about the positive physical and mental benefits of regular ice baths. Similar benefits to what we as cold water swimmers regularly experience. All well and good. For aspirant Channel swimmers without access to regular cold water swimming, the recommendation for cold showers and baths is old and trusted.

However in his explanation of what was happening in the body the author focused exclusively on the Mammalian Diving Reflex as the primary response of the body when being immersed in cold water and completely ignored or didn’t understand the effect of Cold Shock Response and its place in the equation. (I didn’t save the blog link, sorry.)

That blog wasn’t the only place you see this. If you search on Mammalian Diving Reflex you will see it widely referred as the (only) process  in action when people are immersed or submerged in (cold) water. It’s a classic example of people taking all their knowledge from Wikipedia, because it seems the same Wikipedia core text is used all over the place.

I’ve covered both before and as a cold water swimmer, rather than someone sitting into a cool water bath, and I’ve focused as  much on Cold Shock Response, and the issue of Habituation, the process of getting used to getting into cold water, (not the process of staying in it).

The blog author just cut and pasted a Wikipedia article on Mammalian Diving Reflex, and while the Wikipedia article wasn’t wrong, both it and the blog were incomplete from the perspective of a  cold water swimmer.

So what are each of these and do they interact?

While swimming in Tramore Bay the other day, the water having risen by a degree in two weeks to about 7.5 Celsius, I got thinking about these two responses and how one, Cold Shock Response could be considered a positive feedback system while the Mammalian Diving Reflex could be considered a negative feedback system.

It’s not the first time I’ve wondered about Positive Feedback in a biological sense in open cold water swimming. Previously I considered that the Habituation/Acclimatisation process in cold water swimmers could also be a positive feedback system.

The simple process of improving cold ability
The simple process of improving cold ability

In Systems Theory (and elsewhere) a Positive Feedback System is where a small change causes a further bigger change. Therefore positive feedback is often considered a de-stabilising process. One example might be the international banking system that led to the 2008 collapse: Increased risks led to larger profits which led to larger risks until the system collapsed. However positive feedback can also be a process for change or improvement: If you swim more, you get fitter and able to swim even more, i.e. the training effect. Or the more you get in cold water, the better you get at getting into cold water.

Negative Feedback is often considered a stabilising process, the most common example is a thermostat which regulates heats by switching off when it gets too hot, switching on when it gets too cold: Negative Feedback acts in the opposite direction to the initial impulse.

Cold Shock Response is the bodies response to sudden cold water immersion. It results in varying degrees according to the person’s habituation experience, primarily in elevated heart rate, and elevated stress hormones. It is the elevated heart rate which is dangerous, to lesser extent in the increased chance of cardiac arrest, but more commonly in the chance of aspirating water due to shock and subsequently drowning. Less habituated or experienced swimmers will note an increased heart rate and nervousness even before immersion occurs if they are expecting the cold. I noted some years ago that the first time I ever swam during winter without a wet-suit, I was literally terrified beforehand. Then the initial cold shock drives the heart rate higher. This is a limited example of Positive Feedback, where the initial is destabilised by something (cold) that acts on the input.

The Mammalian Diving Reflex is another innate biological response to immersion. As the name implies all mammals exhibit this, human to weaker extent, but it exists to extend the time that animals can survive while submerged by reducing the need for respiration. This occurs in swimmers through two main biological reactions; decreasing heart rate (brachycardia) and therefore slowing the buildup of carbon dioxide in the body, (as excess carbon dioxide is what cause us to have to breathe); our constant companion, peripheral vaso-constriction, where the capillaries and blood flow in the extremities is restricted to allow more oxygenated blood to be available to the heart and brain.

The Mammalian Diving Reflex is initiated when the fact is submerged, and this is the reason I have previously written many times that you should splash your face before getting in the water, rather than the incorrect but widely cited slashing water down your back.

The Mammalian Diving Reflex is obviously a case of Negative Feedback, where the body reacts in opposition to submersion to protect itself.

So we can see that there is both positive and later negative feedback in operation in cold water swimming, where the negative feedback occurs to stabilise and protect a human through adaptive physiological response. But the initial negative feedback of Cold Shock is very significant and should not be ignores, as so many non-cold water writers seem to do, as it carries its own significant risk factor.

The bottom line though, is that this is another way of saying, that ability in cold water swimming improves with repetition. Habituation improves much more quickly than Acclimatization. In a little as four to five repeats, people become much more comfortable with getting into cold water.

Now get out there!

Loneswimmer.com is four years old

I had forgotten about the anniversary but I started LoneSwimmer.com on a whim on the afternoon of 18th of January, 2010. Little did I guess where it would lead.

Since then LoneSwimmer has grown year on year, and often month on month. It was viewed in 185 countries in 2013 though the countries that most read LoneSwimmer are the USA, UK, Ireland and Australia, in that order. English Channel aficionados will know those are the four biggest Channel swimming nurseries. It’s possible that LoneSwimmer, which amazingly won the inaugural 2012 award for the best sports and recreation blog in Ireland, may be the most popular entirely amateur open water swimming blog in the world! This is both gratifying and terrifying to me. Though as you may know I did once get some free goggles and paddles for review, nonetheless LoneSwimmer is just me, one average swimmer on the south-east coast of Ireland, still talking shite from the middle of nowhere (and making nothing from it). Let me mention up front here my invaluable behind-the-scenes editor, partner and second-shooter photographer and all round supporter Dee. The longer a post here is, or the more typos it contains, the less likely it is that Dee proofed it. Like this this one.

LoneSwimmer monthly charts 4 years no data
47 months of LoneSwimmer.com

Writing LoneSwimmer has been challenging, time-consuming, frustrating, dispiriting, heart-breaking, seemingly never-ending, boring and exciting. Remarkably like open water swimming in fact.

I have a typically cynical Irish view of many things, including “mission statements”, but I’ve striven to keep the blog on the (extended) subject of open water swimming, and to keep anything else about me or my life away from here, and that has occasionally not been easy, because … life. My original idea for this blog was to share everything I’ve learned the hard way about open water and that has remained my guiding principle. It has also meant increasingly covering pool training aspects and ranging into entirely unexpected areas. I discovered over the four years that there many things that open water swimmers all know, but that no-one had written down. So there are other versions and opinions of everything I write, and I’d encourage you to keep those opinions, or to seek them out elsewhere or to write them down and publish them yourself. I’ve been asked by a few people about writing blogs and I’m always happy to share all the many mistakes and long learning curve I’ve endured.

I re-organised the blog in mid-2013 to index all the How To articles and they range in utility for all levels, from beginners to resources for Channel and marathon swimmers. The compliment I value most continues to be the simple “Thanks” from anyone whom I’ve helped by something I’ve written.

When I started I just knew my own swimming friends here in Ireland. Now I have swimming friends all over the world.

I read many swimming blogs, so many I had to make a separate fixed page of links for your ease-of-use. Sometime after I started LoneSwimmer, I came across another blog called Freshwaterswimmer.com by American Channel swimmer, Evan Morrison. (That link will take you to the newer version of Evan’s blog; Farther, Colder, Rougher). Evan had started Freshwaterswimmer.com within two weeks of LoneSwimmer.com.

Somehow, and I’m not even sure how or when looking back, Evan and I became transatlantic writing partners and collaborators. I suspect it was partially because Evan and I agree on many aspects of marathon swimming and the people and challenges involved, and neither of us like people hoarding information to gain some spurious power. As you know by now, that link with Evan led through various discussions with many people to the formation of the marathonswimmers.org forum by Evan, who is the site owner, and myself.

The forum is now the most vibrant community of Channel, marathon and aspiring marathon swimmers globally. This in turn led to the Global Marathon Swimming Awards, the only peer-voted marathon awards in the world. And from there it led to the recent release of the Rules of Marathon Swimming by a core group of authors and reviewers, which rules have already been welcomed and endorsed by an astonishing number of well-known marathon swimmers from around the world. (If you haven’t endorsed the rules yet, regardless of your accomplishments or level, it’s never too late, you can do it over there or email me, or email rules@marathonswimmers.org).

The foundation of marathonswimmers.org and the writing and release of the rules of marathon swimming may be the two most important swimming-related things I have or ever will do, though Evan and I are not finished with our ideas. We both believe in the democratization of open water swimming and the power of community input and ideas. 

Whew. How did all this happen an average swimmer from and in the middle of nowhere?

My very first posts were about my local swimming area, Waterford’s then not widely-known but gorgeous Copper Coast. When people think of Ireland’s coast it is often the west and south-west coasts, but four years later the Copper Coast has now become better known and more appreciated. It’s a quiet, isolated 40 kilometre stretch of cliffs, intermittent coves and small villages, and it’s my playground. A small number of you have even come here to swim it with me and you are all always welcome to join me at play here.

Kilfarrassey rocks_MG_8854.resized
Kilfarrassey on The Copper Coast

My next post was about cold water habituation. Little did I realise that for four years I would continue to write article after article about cold water swimming.  I collected those ongoing articles into a Cold Water Swimming Index in mid 2013 and was amazed to find there were about 50 articles on that subject alone to which I continue to add. Surprisingly only nine months later, the index page itself is now the second most popular, and the most linked into and referenced page on LoneSwimmer. Two of the articles on that subject are the site’s most popular individual articles, the perennial and humourous Introducing a precise open water swimming temperature scale and the eternal question “What temperature of water is too cold to swim in?”.

This_is_your_brain_on_open-water_swimmingI’m not a naturally funny person, so when I write something humourous I get a special kick from it. I can’t draw, at all either, so I did one cartoon in a simple graphics package that I’ve seen appear elsewhere a few times since and I still think is accurate.

In 2011 I wrote an April’s Fools post that caused outrage across the Channel swimming world. I got some shall we say strong messages, which made me laugh all the more. I remember leaving the pool that Friday evening, to a phone that was almost red-hot with all the emails, calls and SMSes. DNOWS and many in Dover and elsewhere were all caught. That post is long deleted, I did a another one on a different subject  in 2012 that caught many actual Channel swimmers but when I suggested to Evan that we combine our blogs for the 2013 version, we once again sucked in more people, including, again, the open water swimming media. A good April’s Fool’s joke should sting the victims, and hopefully made them laugh later. Catching people globally once was great fun, twice even more, but three times? Well I don’t know what that says about you all, or me. I am now retired form April’s Fool’s jokes.

I almost stopped writing LoneSwimmer in late 2013, as was obvious to regular readers, for what was and continues to be a combination of many reasons but for the moment, LoneSwimmer struggles fitfully on. Actually even this post has had three different revisions, one more negative, and one more positive, than this one. I never know where LoneSwimmer is going, I never had a plan beyond that original idea. Most often I have panic, when I think I have already written everything I could say. Right now, as I write this, I don’t feel like continuing, but tomorrow I may be different. I’ve learned to mostly ignore how I feel about it. Sometimes writing has been almost all I have had to hang onto.

One thing I do know, is that had I not started writing LoneSwimmer I would never have written the posts of which I am proudest:

Two golden rules of open water and marathon swimming. This ideas in this post have become embedded in the rules of marathon swimming linked above. It’s worth it all for that alone.

My multi-part series on Trent Grimsey’s and Sylvain Estadieu’s English Channel records. Our sport to this day is still one that is essentially done in private and we still huddle around the electronic campfire  telling stories of swims. It was a fantastic honour that both swimmers and friends allowed me to see firsthand and later tell their stories. I have other stories of other friends, which were not covered here, not willingly, but because I did not think it was my place to so do. These most obviously include Rob Bohane, Alan Clack, Gábor Molnar, Owen O’Keeffe and Páraic Casey. I love covering swims, and you know where to find me…

Part Five of the series on Diana Nyad: Probity & Integrity. Evan & I, as co-founders of the forum were dragged into the astonishing unveiling of the truth in the Diana Nyad story on that extraordinary thread which set international headlines. I had written previously about her a few times before this series, changing from being a fan and supporter into a cynic and eventually an opponent, while the swimming and regular media embarrassed themselves, again, with their unquestioning sycophantic acceptance of her duplicitous lies and bullshit. I’ve been saying recently when asked, that when you see a sportsperson whom is suspected of cheating, who has an asterisk beside their name in the records books, someone had to put that asterisk there. Someone cared, someone wanted honesty and integrity in their sport. I believe all us honest swimmers put the asterisk after Diana Nyad’s name and I am proud that that post seems to articulate something with which every single swimmer I’ve met has agreed.

The series on MIMS 2013. I think NYCSwim treated most of the 2013 Manhattan Island Marathon Swim entrants shamefully and things currently look no better for 2014. I put a lot of effort into covering what happened, once again doing a news story which none of the actual swim news sites covered ,especially since LoneSwimmer isn’t a swim news blog.

Much of what I write is intended to be functional and/or instructive. For example, when I wrote down the etiquette of lane swimming, I wasn’t saying anything new. Others had written similar before me and I was just exercising the demons that all pool swimmers are plagued by, when joined by people who don’t know what they are doing. A couple of years later, those rules have now been read thousands and thousands of times.

When writing you can’t always go to the well. You’d run dry very quickly, run out of things to say. Had I stopped writing LoneSwimmer early on, maybe I wouldn’t go the well at all. I certainly wouldn’t have written this post from just over a week ago which I think is the single best post I’ve yet written.

Another Winter Dawn, my most popular image on Flickr.
Another Winter Dawn, on Flickr.

Had I never started writing LoneSwimmer, I’d also likely never have taken up photography. Luckily my tastes in photography tend toward the exact images that we open water swimmers enjoy, and which are often disregarded by others as mere landscapes.  You can check out my Flickr page  RSS in the sidebar and you can always contact me if you want prints of any photo here. For the record, this has never happened! I shall keep trying to get better.

I’m an average swimmer and resource-restricted so I don’t or can’t aspire to extraordinary undreamed of swims.

I’m Irish, where we as individuals are not encouraged to be proud of our own achievements and where as a country very many people are still in a very dark place, including myself.

Writing LoneSwimmer, friendships in the swimming community and your continued interest, all have allowed me to achieve and aspire to other things in swimming.

My name is Donal Buckley. Some people now even call me the lone swimmer. I’m a Channel Swimmer, and a swim blogger.

Thank you for visiting my site.

The Worst Three Minutes

Over a year ago I wrote a popular post called The First Three Minutes, which investigated just the first few minutes of a cold water swim. (A real cold water swim, not your balmy 10 degree Celsius getting a tan (50F) water for softies).

We know, us cold water swimmers, that passers-by focus on the water and the time of year. They ask themselves and us, how could anyone possibly get into bitterly cold water in the depth of an Irish winter, without a wet-suit. It’s behaviour that borders on the insane to everyone else. It certainly is at best aberrant, definitely risky, beyond any conceivable reward.  The tourists, passersby and pass-remarkers extrapolate from their own personal experience of cold on land or an occasional cold shower and from that they believe they can understand our world. Or at least believe that what we are doing is a sign that we are lacking in something.

They cannot and will never comprehend why we do what we do and though I have explained why we swim in cold water, that explanation will only resonate with fellow cold water swimmers or similar adventurers.

I had long thought that those first three minutes though were not the worst three minutes. Nor indeed was the worst time during swimming , afterdrop or when enduring the usual mild or moderate hypothermia that many of us endure on a regular basis.

The worst three minutes occur at T-minus. That is, the worst part of cold water swimming happens before you swim, or at least, before I swim.

It’s a cold mid-January Saturday. It’s lunchtime, past mid-day, late for a weekend swim. I didn’t sleep much of the previous night, I’ve been oscillating into and out of insomnia for months now and the previous night I got almost no sleep, finally drifting off only shortly before dawn, and stumbling awake after a couple of hours. The morning was the cold wet grey that is Ireland’s other natural colour. On such a dispiriting morning the lack of rest sapped my desire to get down to the coast but I eventually bestirred myself and arrived at the Newtown and Guillamene car park about 1 p.m., with the car thermometer reading 2.5 degrees Celsius. The bay at least was calm but that only meant that the light breeze was cross-offshore which meant cold. Combine that with the air and the ambient temperature felt about zero degrees. Wind chill is a stupid phrase. Winter swimming is stupid.

Zero degrees. Grey skies, grey water, breeze, rain. Out in the bay the big Dunmore East RNLI Trent-class lifeboat was steaming toward Powerstown Head, quartering the bay. Dunmore East is about 10 miles away, the local big fishing port. The reason the Elizabeth-and-Ronald (as an entirely charitable organisation which receives no government funds, RNLI boats are named after significant philanthropists) was in the bay was to search for the body of a poor lost soul, likely jumped from Powerstown Head across the bay, two days previously.

RNLI lifeboat in rain P1020036.resized.rotated
(Thanks to David Dammerman for the camera! A friendly and generous gesture more appreciated than he maybe realises).

Down on the concrete, the morning polar bear dippers had all left. Just myself, the breeze, the rain, the cold. Given the rain I put the box in the single occupant alcove which I only use in these circumstances. I took my thermometer out of the box and stood there and looked out. Rain dropped off the rocks into which the alcove is hewn, the yellow-green algae and lichen everywhere seeming almost to glow in the wet conditions.

The alcove, the box, the rock, the rain, the algae.
The alcove, the box, the rock, the rain, the algae.

Clad in my heavy winter coat I gingerly went down the steps to the water’s edge, the algae on the steps having reached a dangerously lethal slippiness since last week. The tide was almost out, so all the steps were exposed down to the final ladder. Spring tide, over five metres range between high tide and low tide.

Zero degrees. Grey skies, grey water, breeze, rain, low tide. 

Such was the surface underfoot that I had to use the stainless steel railings on either side. The steel was colder than ice-cubes and utterly necessary. By the time I’d measured the water (7.4 degrees Celsius, ~ 45 F., up three-quarters of a degree since the previous weekend but the combined air and water temperature was colder) and made it back to the alcove, my hands were painfully cold.

Zero degrees. Grey skies, grey water, breeze, rain, low tide, cold water, tired.

No-one around for a quick chat or  hello. A lifeboat in the bay looking for the body of another likely victim of the recession in Ireland. Grim.

I started to get undressed, pulled my freezing cold and wet togs over my bare luminous white arse, there being no-one around to require the towel-dance. Togs on, coat still on, I stopped. I just … stopped.

I stood there. In the alcove, my feet getting cold, my hands sore even before I was ready. So tired that I knew the cold would hurt more than usual.

It wasn’t the first time. There have been other days, other winters like this. Every winter has days like this. If it happens, this is the worst three minutes.

All you have to do either swim or go home. Nothing will happen if you go home. The world won’t end. Except, you tell yourself, or I tell myself, maybe this will be the first crack. Fail to get in the water once for no good reason, and maybe the next time it’ll be easier to not get in. Worse, next time, maybe it’ll be easier to stay at home. Maybe not getting in the water means it’ll be all over for me. Maybe I’ll lose the thing keeping me going.

I stood there, and there was no epiphany. It remained desolate, cold, wet and grey. No lesson about anything here. I imagined I looked grey because I felt grey. Pathetic fallacy writ large. Nothing new for an open water swimmer. Nothing to see here.

And then I finished getting ready and I got in the water and I swam. And afterwards I went home.

They think cold water is tough? They don’t really know what’s the hard part. The worst part. And this week there was no Reverie. There was just paying the price of entrance, paying now for some warmer swim later or some other cold swim, swimming in the bay watching the lifeboats searching for another soul lost at sea, similar to me. And like all entry fees, there’s a single person supplement. A lone swimmer supplement.

A temporary sandbar appears at lowest tide beyond the rocks at Benvoy
A temporary sandbar appears at lowest Spring tide beyond the rocks at Benvoy. Maybe I am the only person who ever walked on it. I walked around the edge so not to leave even footprints.

Open water swimming and marathon swimming is dangerous

Eilís
Coach Eilís

In November 2010, Cork and Sandycove Channel Coach Eilís Burns held one of her irregular brief seminars for prospective Channel solo swimmers for the 2011 Channel season.

It wasn’t an open-to-all seminar. Those attending were people who had contacted Eilís asking her to coach them. Eilís is careful in whom she agrees to coach, requiring a proven desire, a willingness to do the required work, and the temperament to do what she says.

As part of that seminar Eilís had asked four of the local Channel swimmers to attend and speak briefly on subjects of our own choice. The four were; Lisa Cummins, two-way English Channel solo; Imelda Lynch, first Sandycove and Cork female Channel swimmer and a local legend amongst Sandycove swimmers for her tenacity and tough training regime; Rob Bohane, aka The Bull, who as part of the Magnificent Seven, first attempted the Channel in 2010 a few weeks after me; and the fourth was myself.

Six of The Magnificent Seven. From left; Ciaran Byrne, Donal, Liam Maher, Jennifer Hurley, Rob Bohane, Gabor Molnar. Channel swimmers one and all.
Six of The Magnificent Seven. From left; Ciaran Byrne, Donal, Liam Maher, Jennifer Hurley, Rob Bohane, Gabor Molnar. Channel swimmers one and all. Not a gram of fake tan between us.

I remember all the presentations with varying degrees of clarity. But my own and Rob’s are much clearer.

Rob had attempted the Channel in late August, a couple of weeks after Jen Hurley and I had swum, and within 12 hours of Ciarán Byrne soloing. Liam Maher, Jen Hurley, myself and Ciarán had all succeeded, the first four of the Magnificent Seven, with Rob, Danny and Gábor still to go.

All through training, and Eilís’ training regime for us was brutal, we became increasingly convinced we would be one hundred percent successful as a group. The Channel taught us all otherwise. Rob encountered the horrendous weather of which the Channel is still capable of throwing at Solos even with modern forecasting. Ciarán had gotten to France before getting shut out by the Channel but Rob ran into the full force of the Channel’s brutal face. After a dozen hours of swimming, Rob was pulled from the water by hos crew and later hospitalized with cold water pulmonary edema. That story continued because Rob recovered and on his second attempt in 2012 he was also denied with more horrendous weather. But he eventually prevailed and indeed Rob went on to set the Sandycove club Channel record. Less than the fast time, what is far more important is Rob’s journey to get there.

Wearing the Hardship Award Hat in 2011
Wearing the Hardship Award Hat in 2011

In 2011, following a visit to the Cork University Hospital Emergency by Liam Maher after a particularly … challenging, Sandycove Island Challenge race, a new Sandycove Island Swimming Club annual award was introduced for the most dangerous swim undergone or most damage suffered by a club member, known as the Hardship Award. I was the retrospective inaugural 2010 winner for my Channel solo, followed by Liam, then Rob, with Ned being the 2013 winner for the emotional damage he suffered for losing many of his records in 2013 to other club members. The not-at-all-coveted Hardship Award is a Hard Hat!

At EilÍs’ 2010/2011 seminar, still raw from the first crossing, Rob spoke eloquently of how he had a great family and life, and that if not making it across the English Channel was the worst that had happened him, then he was a very lucky man.

My own input was brief, I only wanted to say one thing really:

I told the assembled aspirants that the thing they most needed to comprehend themselves, that they most needed to discuss honestly with their partners or parents or family, is that solo Channel swimming is dangerous.

We don’t like to discuss this aspect. We like even to pretend otherwise.

In 2010 I had my own near-lethal experience in the Channel and then Rob had been hospitalised. Lisa had been hospitalised after her two-way Channel swim, Ned had been hospitalized after Santa Barbara. Four members from one club, and while I was the only one of that four not hospitalized the experience was no less dangerous. (BTW, as Evan once pointedly asked me, just where is the full account of my Channel swim, given the other swim’s I’ve covered? The answer is, it’s a long comprehensively written account and part a longer term project that may never see light and so may eventually surface here, Frankly the story is far too often told and repeated as a rumour in Ireland, such I’ve been asked, “did you hear about the guy who swam and the Channel and …”).

Let me repeat: Open water swimming is dangerous. To be responsible to the others we help, advise or even inadvertently inspire we MUST honestly acknowledge this. Channel swimming is especially dangerous.

2012 we lost Sandycove swimmer and our much-loved friend Paráic Casey in the English Channel. In 2013 the Channel swimming community and her family and friends lost Susan Taylor in the English Channel. I mean no disrespect to any others by not continuing a roll call, as part of my point is these are the dangers and losses incurred within the community of people I know myself. (I’d met Susan in Dover in 2012).

I looked at those people in Cork at the seminar and told them this was their first task as Aspirant Channel swimmer: To be honest with themselves and the people important to them. Open water, Channel and marathon swimming is dangerous.

Regardless of our experience and skill, the sea particularly is a vastness beyond us. To accept this and the inherent risk is to improve our ability to survive.

If you can accept that fact, integrate it as well as it is possible for anyone who thinks they the measure of their own dreams, you have taken a significant first step to being a real open water swimmer.

After that seminar, one of the attendees, who had been present with their partner, decided against the Channel. As someone who encourages open water and Channel swimming, I considered and still consider that a good result. 

I am obviously not against people being open water swimmers or setting their sights on extreme swimming goals or following dreams. But I do strongly believe that you should do it from a prepared base. I will not help someone whom I don’t think takes the risk seriously.

I’m (mostly) a lone swimmer. As a consequence I am not reckless (despite views to the contrary) but consider carefully both my own abilities and thresholds, and each day’s conditions, and weigh each and every swim before I start.

By accepting the existence of risk and hazard (the potential outcome of risk) we actually gain another tool in our repertoire.  By being brave enough to stand our ground and know when not to swim, when not to risk our limits is to know ourselves.

No-one swims, or at least no serious open water swimmer, with the thought of not returning, any more that mountain climbers or polar explorers do. But the possibility is part of what makes open water swimming what it is and a properly cognizant open water swimmer is pursuing a type of existentialism, not fatalism. By realising that understanding our constraints and boundaries and the immutable superiority of nature, which we don’t actually conquer, but temporarily deceive or elude, you are making yourselves a more capable and adaptable swimmer. 

Be safe.

The Reverie of Cold

Look away, look away.

My head whirls, sentences and clauses. Words and incantations. I need to hold the intent, remember the state. I need to write. I have swum, and now more than anything, I need to write. More than I need people or food, more even than I need heat, I need to vomit out the words.

This time we run
This time we hide
This time we draw
On all the fire we have inside.

My foot is heavy on the accelerator as I drive homeward, the car’s heater blasting warm air around me, an illusion of warmth, my core temperature still depressed, and dressed as I am in four layers of clothes with a heavy coat, gloves and a wooly hat over all. 

So look away, look away
Hide your eyes from the land
Where I lie cold.

I’m in a fugue, and I know I will soon forget. I am one-millionth of a second displaced from the world and I am untouchable and redeemed. That one-millionth gap is a void. Lone swimming ninja ghost. Invisible, alone. I have tunnel vision and I feel like I’ve taken all the world’s narcotics. But I will warm up and then I shall be returned from the Fey Lands, rewarm and forget the connection. Forget the disconnection. Forget the Fey Lands, forget the fugue, start to distrust myself again. I will become normal and insufficient and lose the brief Redemption.

The Fey Lands. Jotunheim. Tír na nÓg. Tuatha Dé Danann and Lachlanach. Celts and Vikings, on the edge of the World. They knew. Earth, fire, wind and water. Cold also is elemental, a succubus. I can only get there in winter, in cold, through cold, with Cold. There is no map, no Google Earth, no App for the Fey Lands. When we leave the Fey Lands we forget their existence. To remember is madness. Others have found different entrances, different landscapes, different climates. Hell is ice not fire. I neither believe in hell nor heaven. Ascetics, hermits, ecstasists. All pilgrims to the Fey Lands. I’m a pilgrim of Cold. Holymad. I approach by swimming, in cold water, enrobed by cold, into Cold. Soon the Fey Lands will slip away, my memory of their existence will attenuate and dissipate, I will distrust my own words, you will think me cracked, the ecstasy of extremism lost to my mundane failed existence. I will forget the reverie of the Cold. Pools cannot ever do this. Other people are masking agents that stop me losing myself to the Fey Lands. Chlorine and warmth are bulwarks, palisades that stop me throwing down heaven, bar me from finding the Fey Lands. 

Look away, look away
From the love that I hide
Way down deep in my soul.

Do this. Don’t do that. Be careful of. You are not allowed. You will fail. You have failed. I am not capable. I couldn’t. I was not able. I failed. I’m embarrassed. I shouldn’t say it. I shouldn’t write it. Bollocks. Out there I am invincible, untouchable, inviolate.

Look away, look away
From the lies in the stories
That were told.

I swim to the edge of the Fey Lands. If things are sufficiently marginal, I will glimpse them from the water. I didn’t know, I never knew, I never know that I am swimming to the Fey Lands. 

Cold water. Cold isn’t cold. It’s fire. It burns your skin. Fingertips sting. The soles of feet excruciate. You feel the entire surface of your body at once, you feel the entire skin of the waters and the world. The Cold possesses you, becomes you. No. You become the Cold. The holy Cold. No synonyms are required, nor sufficient.

The currents were strong. Stronger than in years. Not as strong as me. Not this time. All my years there I never had to swim to avoid that reef. Swept past the steps and the concrete, the water still wants me but I turn back, fight back, swim back. I know, know it’s enough and the time doesn’t matter.

Then I broke loose
You weren’t around
So I raised banks
And trains until I tracked you down.

Out of the water, the first glimpse of the Fey Lands is gone. I only know later there was the glimpse. Or was there?  Illusion. Delusion. I get dressed and feel great, powerful, more alive, more life than one body can hold. I have a window of time. An absolute learnt span when I must get dressed before the Freight Train arrives. Grab my box, shamble up the steps.

Fifty steps. Sea to world. Why fifty? Why does fifty seem important? I know. But I feel great. I’ll go for a walk.

Open the lock box on the car. Fire my stuff inside the boot. It’s here. The Freight Train is here. The Freight Train always arrives, inevitably. No walk. I’ll just sit into the car, turn on the heater. Warm air, warm clothes. I’m on the Freight Train. I am in the fugue. Shivering and shaking, the Freight Train takes me. What will the ride be like this time?

We made some friends
But now it’s done
I always knew that we would
Never find the sun.

Short but intense. The Freight Train isn’t a commuter train. No light shivers here, it’s a ride of clattering shakes and chattering jaw.  I don’t feel cold. I never feel cold. I never feel cold. You misunderstand cold. You walked in the rain and got wet on a cold day? I am a connoisseur of Cold. The Fey Lands are different. Your commuter colours are pastel shades but my Freight Train is primary hues. I am alive on the Freight Train. No nodding off on the Freight Train. No mere commuters on the Freight Train. The Fey Lands are around me on the Freight Train. I see them. You cannot. Are you a pilgrim too? How long will I be on the Freight Train, this time?

Afterdrop. Hypothermia. Cold. Rewarming. Mealy words, accurate but inaccurate.

I just realised I am, what do I say, cool? Chilled is the word. Not cold. Cold, that cold, the Cold, the fugue, is a different state. Cold is sacred. The fugue is gone, I’m off the Freight Train. I catch a branch line back. I’ve left the Fey Lands. 

The words. The words weren’t right. I didn’t hold the intent. The fugue. The Fey Lands. The Reverie of Cold. So easy to lose, to forget. People, hot chocolate, fingers on a keyboard. I’m just a cuckoo again. What are these words about? They consumed me and I don’t know. Did I imagine it all?

I shall just have to swim again. In cold water.

Maybe I’ll stop. Maybe I won’t. 

So look away, look away
Hide your eyes from the land
Where I lie cold.

Look away, look away
From the lies in the stories
That were told.

Look away, look away
From the love that I hide
Way down deep in my soul.

__________________________________________________________________________________

* Words by Chowning & Randle

Advice for New Year Swimming Resolutionistas, whether for exercise, swimming improvement or weight loss

For the entire  year your pool is pretty predictable: “Hey Larry“, “How are you Mary?”, “Want to split the lane, Conor?“. (These are a fictional Larry, Mary and Conor in my local pool, not the actual real-life Larry, Mary and Conor in my local pool).

Then it’s the start of January and the first full week after New Year, they arrive, the Resolutionistas. The New Year’s Resolution to lose weight and/or get fit folk.

Every single year we see them and every single year they are usually gone by the last week of January or the middle of February at the latest.

On the one side they can cause problems for regular swimmers as they fill lanes with Furious Bob’s who have no idea what they are doing. (Thanks to Niek Kloots for the updated link. Just in case that link breaks, I’m mirroring the letter on a static page on LoneSwimmer.com).

On the other and more important side, people who really want to make a change need help and encouragement.

So in a spirit of encouragement for those Resolutionistas who are embarking on an attempt at building a better new life with swimming as a component,  be it to lose weight, get more exercise, become better swimmers or any of the above, I thought I’d offer some advice from someone whose primary qualification is a lifetime throwing himself into and off of things.

  • Swimming is hard. Really, It’s far harder than you think. Sure it doesn’t seem so, as undistinguished-looking middle-aged folk like myself saunter down the deck wearing (shudder) Speedoes like that TV ad singing I gotta be me. Surely the fit looking young people lounging outside the sauna are more worthy of emulation? Good swimming is a combination of superb cardio-respiratory conditioning (heart and lung fitness), highly attuned proprioceptive senses (understanding what every part of your body is doing)  and multiple hours and years of technique training. And I’m an average swimmer by swimming standards. Almost no other sport you have done will compare, thought ballet or dance, about which I know nothing, come to mind as analogous. Think you could pull off a Swan Lake prima donna performance based on 20 minutes practice every second day for two weeks? I don’t. So give yourself a break and take your time. By the way, dump the board shorts and bikinis and take a look at swimming etiquette. There’s a good reason all swimmers wear proper swim wear: Everything else adds drag and therefore difficulty.
  • Pepe-Le-Pew-cartoon-classics-756112_388_335As with any physical exercise consistency is the single most important aspect. You can’t go from zero to hero in four weeks. You have to think long-term. Not a day, instead a week. Not a week , instead a month. Not a month, instead a year. A year is long isn’t it? No, it’s not. You have to rationally understand your improvements are made through attainable and sustainable improvements and measurements. Ridiculous targets in fitness level, ability or weight loss will either not be reached and will lead to disillusionment, or if you make some unexpected change, like weight loss accelerating after four weeks of exercise, it will not be sustainable. Swim, then swim more, then keep swimming.
  • Keep realistic and consistent measurements. There’s hardly an engineer or sportsperson alive who doesn’t think that measurement is vital to improvement. Measure simple things in swimming. First if you can swim 100 metres or yards continuously, whether that’s two or four pool lengths. Forget about how long it takes you because you are not ready for racing. Then see if you can repeat that five times. Then keep an eye on long you have to rest between each 100 metres. I’ve been keeping a detailed log for years, and I enjoy seeing my own progression. But remember, swimmers don’t think or talk in lengths or laps.
  • Learn to breathe. Seriously. The most repeated complaint any swim coach or swimmer has ever heard from a non-, beginner or improving swimmer are the words “I can swim fine but I have problems breathing“. If you cannot breathe, then you actually aren’t a good swimmer. That’s like saying a particular car is good except for the small problem that it needs fuel. Swimmer all repeat coaching aphorisms. I have always liked; swim around your breathing, don’t breathe around your swimming. That means that breath comes before movement in order of priority. You learn to breathe properly in a controlled fashion and integrate that into your stroke. Want the super-secret swimming secret of how this is done? Exhale constantly underwater. Don’t tell the other swimmers I told you the secret.
  • Swimming really does take effort. The other thing swimmers all hear is that their swimming looks effortless. Swimmers are like swans in that way, all seeming grace on the surface, but furious action underneath. We warm up in the pool then we do the main swim sets, then we cool down by easy swimming at the end.
  • Swimming is poor for weight loss in beginners. You will not be getting as much exercise as you think, because you really probably are out of breathe. That is not the same as effort. Swimming also stimulates appetite, unlike many other sports and people often overeat after swimming. (On the positive side experienced hard-training swimmers can generally eat as much of anything as they want as they consume so many calories. Ever eaten 6000 to 8000 calories, in a day, every day and not gained weight?) But some good news also results from a 2013 scientific study that shows even moderate exercise results in changes in the genome that affects fat storage.
  • Keep it simple but vary each day. You should not be trying to emulate the good swimmer in the lane. Be Pepe Le Pew: Relax, and set your sight on eventually catching up with Mon Cherie when they are not expecting it. Don’t do complex sets but don’t do the same thing every day. The main part of your swimming set is that central portion, where you do one particular thing. Today you can do sets of four lengths with a shortish rest. Tomorrow you can do single lengths and try to do them faster with a longer rest between.
  • Gon on red top
    On the red top

    The clock is your friend. Learn to watch it, not for how fast you are swimming, but for how long you are resting. Reducing rest interval times means your heart cardiorespiratory  (heart and respiratory fitness) is improving. Cardiorespiratory fitness is one of the most important predictors of long-term health.

  • The Internet does not know what you are doing. I don’t mean Facebook or Twitter etc. By the way though,  don’t post what you are doing there until you are sure it will stick (at least a year). Instead I mean that YouTube etc have great swimming advice. I even have some here. But I or YouTube are not as effective as the good swimmer in your pool or the local swim coach who can see you. Someone who knows what they are doing who can make actual suggestions relevant to your specific swimming is the best option.
  • Enjoy the improvements. People often say to enjoy the process and that’s true but it’s deceptive. It is the case that every swimmer will tell you, that swimming is full of frustration and exhaustion. Sure there are those indescribable days of “flow“, but they are rare. But the real enjoyment comes from being consistently healthy and fit, and from actually seeing improvement. Your bad swimming days are not special. Your bad swimming days only become special if you allow them to be your last swimming day.

I’m with you. It’s never too late to start, and you can do it.

You are already the captain, pilot and owner of the greatest vehicle you will ever own, your own body. You just need to get a bit more familiar with the controls.

What about we meet here next year and you can tell me about your success?

Related articles

HOWTO: Write a simple swimming training set (loneswimmer.com)

How To use the pace clock (Farther, Colder, Rougher)

HOWTO: Read Swimming Notation (loneswimmer.com)

HOWTO: Lane swimming etiquette (loneswimmer.com)

HOWTO: Introduce interval training to your swimming (loneswimmer.com)

HOWTO: Why you SHOULD shower before you use the pool and why you SHOULDN’T pee in the pool. (loneswimmer.com)

Introducing new Global standardised Marathon Swimming Rules

We humans cannot avoid applying patterns, recognising changes, marking time, and marking time. We impose arbitrary markers, and the years begin and pass and end with signs and notifications, anniversaries and announcements, resolutions and changes.

In 2012 Evan Morrison and I started the marathonswimmers.org forum. Evan and I believed marathon and aspiring marathon swimmers and the wider community of observers, fans, friends and others, needed someplace to connect, to make friends, ask questions and get answers, to essentially catch up with the online times. Nick Adam’s Google Channel Chat Group already existed but we wanted to supplement/improve the email-only format and build a public online space, something outside the constraints of a single organisation and outside commercial interests, and so the forum was born.

Marathon Swimmers New Banner cropped & levelled properly-resized

A second stage in the forum and global community development was the introduction at the end of 2012 of the forum’s Global Marathon Swimming Awards, for best solo female and male swims and the Barra award for most impressive body of swimming in a single year. In 2013 those awards were further expanded with the Barra award being divided into female and male categories, and the introduction of a Services to Marathon Swimming Award.

In the lead up to the formation of the forum there was a lively email discussion about the possibility of forming some kind of umbrella marathon organisation amongst a group of fairly well known swimmers, (and me, the Zelig of open water swimming!). Almost everyone came to the conclusion that this was not currently possible. This discussion was part of the origin of the forum.

With the forum now just coming up on its second anniversary Evan and I have not forgotten our desire to progress the development of global community of open water swimmers, and especially those of the marathon persuasion.

Some events of autumn 2013 showed that our sport was still woefully misunderstood by the wider public and media. Swimmers were even willing to deliberately mislead the public and media and use and abuse the loose and collegiate nature of the swimming community to further personal aims and in the process tarnish long-held traditions.

In 2013 Evan, (whom for those who don’t know him, is a creative powerhouse) had suggested we revisit our original intentions. And so we set out to write a draft umbrella set of marathon swimming rules with a core set of authors, comprised of Andrew MalinakElaine HowleyEvan and myself.

Over the course of a few months we edited and expanded and rewrote those rules, circulating to a wider global group for appraisal and criticism, before arriving at a final set by year’s end. Quite a few people from around the world contributed comments and feedback to the various drafts, they are named on the document and we thank them all.

So it is that with both pride and enthusiasm the four authors confidentially release the marathonswimmers.org global:

Rules of Marathon Swimming.

About these rules 

This is a set of guiding standarized rules and is the only such global rule set. If you wish to understand or use marathon swimming rules, barring accidental omissions in the writing, this set is as close to a core global set as we believe possible.

The rules have been peer-reviewed by many experienced swimmers including marathon and Channel swimmers and swim organisers all of whom are identified in the document.

This rule set can be used to govern any new swim by a single swimmer or by any organisation.

The document is open to further review and discussion.

Despite a number of people working on them and all our efforts, we expect that when we open these rules up the wider world and the wisdom of crowd-sourcing, improvements or edits will become obvious. Therefore we plan to review these rules with a core committee every year. In the meantime, suggestions can be made here, Evan’s blog or most especially on the forum and the core authors will be able to review at any time.

These rules cover the areas of observation, equipment, definitions, and swimming rules.

This document is available for anyone or any organisation to use or adapt, under a Creative Commons Attribution License with Derivative and Non-Derivative sections. This means anyone may use and partially adapt these rules to their own requirement, but they must attribute the original marathonswimmers.org forum rules. The sections which are covered by a Derivative License may be changed, but the sections which are covered by a Non-Derivative may NOT be changed.

These rules are not currently the explicit rule set of any existing marathon or Channel swimming organisation. They DO NOT supplant the existing rules of any marathon swimming organisation nor are they intended to so do. The rules DO NOT cover assisted swimming of any kind. Marathon swimming is about unassisted swimming, and as such assisted swimming is variable and beyond our scope of interest.

They are not an expression or elitism or exclusion, merely a codification of existing traditions for the benefit of the marathon and indeed non-marathon swimming world by a group of swimmers who feel the time has come for this, not for our own self-aggrandisement, but for the benefit of our sport and our friends and those we esteem.

The question of other swim types similar or related to marathon swimming will inevitably arise and many swimmers will swim other types of swims, or what we call Special Swim Types (Stage, Relay, Circumnavigation and Multi-Leg). Outside the core rules there is a supplement defining these other related swim types.

With the release of these rules, we will also be issuing a press release to major online and print media, including swim specific organisations such as H2O, Swimswam.com, FINA, Swimming World Magazine,  DNOWS, USMS. Please click here for the full press release

IMPORTANT: Evan points on the forum that acceptance by the marathon swimming community is vital. To this end he’s created an Endorsement page where you can leave your name without having to be a Form member. I would URGE to please so do.

Related links:

The announcement on the marathonswimmers.org forum

Evan’s blog announcement.

Direct link to rules.

Direct link to Press Release.

H2Open Magazine‘s article on rules release.

Swimswam article on rules release.

Swimming World Magazine article on rules release.

Images of 2013 – 3 – Affinity for water

When I started writing loneswimmer in 2010, almost four years ago, I didn’t add a single image for months. I was learning to write regularly, learning, as I still am, to express my thoughts about swimming, and trying to stick rigidly to one of my guiding principles, not always easy for any Irish person, and especially me, of keeping this blog to the subject!

But with the blog writing, the demand for illustrative images grew, and I didn’t like searching for vague random images. Why not just start taking my own?

So it started. The photos were initially purely illustrative, and for the last two years, I have been getting more on top of the technical aspects.

I think I mentioned in Part 1 of Images of 2013 – People, that I just completed a 365 project, as it’s known in photography, a shot every day for a year, and as I reviewed the year, my progress and improvement and increasing technical ability, it struck me, not for the first time, that the photographs I most love capturing, that I spend the most time on, that I chase the most, nearly all involve water: whether the sea, rivers or lakes (to a lesser extent , as like swimming them, lakes can be boring to photograph). Beginning photographs are sometimes advised to find their photographic passion. It turns out mine was exactly what anyone reading here could have predicted.

Sea pinks
Sea pinks were one of the first things I loved photographing around the coast.

I am limited in my ability to photograph actual open water swimming to a few events where I am crewing. Otherwise I have no exposure to swimming galas or open water races where I am not swimming.

But I guess it is no surprise that I have an affinity for water. Last year I did a round-up of what I though were my best images, but for this last round of my images of 2013, I thought I’d explore my favourite watery images of the year.

The shot below was taken on a very cold January Saturday morning. I’d been at Newtown Cove since before dawn, been there for about two hours. I hadn’t taken anything of merit, though I didn’t realise that at the time, and I was almost as cold as if I’d already swum. I was just starting to play with longer exposures at that time. I left Newtown Cove, putting my gear in the car and wandered down to the Guillamene Cove before I went for a swim. No tripod, no remote, just a handheld camera and the cove was in deep shadow. I braced the camera on the railing and tried to hold it steady in the breeze.

Guilamenes_Painted_waves.resized
Waves breaking over the old steps at the Guillamenes Cove, Tramore Bay, Waterford, Ireland

Of course I was back in Varne and Dover this year a few times. Every time I return to Dover and Varne I hope I’ll get a chance to shoot some better pics for myself but the nature of Channel swimming and Varne and Dover, is a lot of hurry-up-and-wait. I can’t spend dawns and sunsets off by myself chasing photographs and I’ve looked off the Varne cliffs as often as any Channel swimmer. This year, I did want to shoot one thing in particular though, that I have also shot before: In November 2012 a bench was installed in the Varne clifftop garden by Sandycove swimmers and friends to commemorate Páraic Casey and his tragic loss in the English Channel and while I’ve taken quite a few shots of it, I didn’t feel I’d done it sufficient justice. I’m not sure I have yet captured it as I want but I shall keep trying.

9-September_Paraic's_bench_IMG_0235_01.resized
Memorial bench for English Channel and Sandycove swimmer Paraic Casey at Varne Ridge, Capel-le-Ferne, UK

I live close to the river Suir, one of Ireland’s longest rivers. Rivers are more changeable than lakes, but less mercurial and unpredictable than the sea.

Winter dawn on the river Suir
Winter dawn on the river Suir

The cool blue dawn light is the best time to capture the river.

Foggy river dawn IMG_8767.resized

But the golden glow of evening enhances the river and adds further depth to the name of the river Suir valley; the Golden Vale.

The Golden Vale and river Suir on the borders of counties Tipperary, Waterford and Kilkenny
The Golden Vale and river Suir on the borders of counties Tipperary, Waterford and Kilkenny

I do however notice other rivers than the Suir.

Abhainn na Ri, the King River, rushing past the old mill in Kells in Co. Kilkenny.
Abhainn na Ri, the King River, rushing over the weir past the old mill in Kells in Co. Kilkenny.

Kilfarassey on the Copper Coast I mention frequently, as it’s my alternative main Copper Coast swimming location, which offers a range of challenges, routes and explorations.

Kilfarrassey rocks_MG_8854.resized
The Sea of Not-So-Tranquility

Not everything is open water. A swimming photographer with a simple waterproof camera, (before he kills it, another one gone) will always be on the lookout for the shot that the non-swimming photographer on dry land can’t see. This photo intrigued quite a few non-swimmers who saw it on a forum as I explained what an upside-down sunny pool looks like to a swimmer going through a flip turn.

3 - Upside down pool world-P1010026.resized
Upside-down water world

In summer I traveled south-west to Kerry, the greatest of all Kingdoms, for Rob Bohane’s record-setting Round Valentia Island swim. Travelling out of Glenbeigh in the late long summer evening, Dingle Bay was quite spectacular.

7-July_Dingle_Bay_sunset_MG_6158_01.resized
The blue-layered sunset mountains of the Dingle Penninsula across Dingle Bay.

The next day the distant crag of Skellig Michael island was barely visible from the boat, through the haze of what later proved to be the single best day of summer.

Skellig Dream_MG_6250.resized
Skellig Michael, twelve miles out into the Atlantic in the summer morning haze

Toward the end of the year, I was still shooting on the river, using the different lower angle and setting point of the northern latitude Sun.

River of fire IMG_8931.resized
River of fire

As I swim almost every weekend in Tramore Bay during the winter, I revisited a location on the cliffs from where I like to shoot, as recently I’ve been shooting a lot of black and white long exposure landscape and took my own favourite shot of the year. It looks gorgeous printed. Hint! If anyone is looking for a full resolution print of any of these, we can do that. Limited edition and signed!

At the end of a year, I’m happy with my photographic progress. Water inspires me, transfixes me.

Dreams of Newtown Cove IMG_8599_02.resized
Dreams of Newtown Cove

I may have missed a few of my favourite shots in this quick roundup. If you want to see a wider range, here’s my Flickr account.

I can guarantee, there will be water!

Images of 2013 – 2 – Swimming Locations

I didn’t think 2013 was a great year for swimming new locations for me, though early in the year I’d hoped that would be different. Unsurprising, I suppose, as the longer I’ve been swimming, the further I would need to travel to swim new locations. I’ve covered all the Copper Coast, much of the rest of the Waterford coast and I’m not a fan of river swimming, and there are no significant lakes anywhere near me. Also, I had no big swim this year, not being able to afford one, and the situation looks the same for 2014. :-(

But that didn’t stop me having a look through the year’s locations, and there were a few I’d forgotten to add to my favourites and in review the year wasn’t bad.

I’ll start with my watery home, Waterford’s Copper Coast, and most specifically Tramore Bay from my usual starting location of the Guillamenes Cove.

Tramore Bay_MG_8972.resized
A very calm day in Tramore Bay in December, made even calmer through use of a very long exposure. The orange buoy is about 450 metres out, can’t be seen from distance in the water, and what I use to test my navigation skills during the summer, requiring of myself that I reach it with no more than a 25 metre deviation to either side.

It wasn’t all good at the Guillamenes this year. The increasing litigiousness of Irish society and the nonsensical and fearfully reactionary approach of Tramore town council and my own club led to this steel monstrosity, which so incensed Wallace.

Wallace Guillamenes

Newtown Cove is only 200 metres away from the Guillamene Cove. Though I swim past it on at least half of all my swims, dependant of swim direction, yet I start there less than one time in a hundred. We did however start the distance camp swim from Newtown Cove.

Cove entrance_MG_8971.resized

My favourite other location on the Copper coast is Kilfarassey, providing as it does a range of reefs, caves, tunnels and swim distances and directions, centered around my favourite playground of Burke’s Island which sits about 600 metres from the beach. As a swimmer and blogger I use more representational images. But as an aspiring photographer, I’m increasingly drawn to try to capture more of how I feel about a place.

Burke's Island IMG_8614_01In the first two of the extraordinary five whole weeks of summer that Ireland received in 2013, while the water hadn’t yet risen above 10C, I swam more on the coast at the east side of Tramore Bay. Swimming out from Ballymacaw, Portally and Dunmore East, including finally swimming partway into Seal Cave between Portally and Ballymacaw, a scary place. I’ve never swum this wild stretch of coast without experiencing strong tidal currents running east or west.

One Saturday in June, I took some photos of an inshore fishing boat passing below the cliff walk. Three days later I heard of yet another boat from the local main fishing port of Dunmore East lost with all three hands, all of them brothers, off Powerstown Head, which marks the entrance to Tramore Bay and can be seen in the first photo above, and which is the terminus of the easternmost stretch of Waterford’s coast. When I checked my photographs, it was indeed the same boat, the Dean Leanne, with two of the three tragically lost brothers onboard, probably the last every photograph of the brothers at sea. I found a connection to the family and passed on all the photos.

Dean Leanne & Hook head

In January a group of us attempted an Ice Mile in Dublin at the Bull Wall, but the water wasn’t cold enough, even though I got quite hypothermic.

The swim route. Nothing much to see here.
The swim route. Nothing much to see here.

A few weeks later In March, the same group swam in the Wicklow Mountains at Lough Dan. For a variety of reasons I decided against the full attempt but the trip was great, and wading into ice-covered water measuring less than two degrees at the edges was … interesting.

Lough Dan_IMG_1304.resized

 In the coldest spring in over fifty years in Ireland, Dee and I took some Mexican visitors to the West Coast for the view. The howling Force Eight wind and five degree (Celsius) air meant they were unable to emerge to see much of the scenery. But apparently the most shocking thing they saw was me going swimming in Doolin harbour in a three metre swell in a howling wind and crashing waves, wearing a Speedo, with a dolphin and two fully dry-suited divers. How Dee & I chuckled.

Beyond Doonagore Castle the Crab Beast roars
Beyond Doonagore Castle, Doolin Bay with Crab Island bearing a full Atlantic attack. This shot was taken three miles from that wave.

I don’t think my first Sandycove trip of 2013 was until April, but I managed more Sandycove laps in 2013 than in 2012. My lifetime total is still well below 200, so joining the Sandycove “D” Club of 500 lap swimmers seems distant at best and I shall to remain content with being  “C” club member. Most of the rest of the County Cork Coast eluded me this year, despite early promises from other Sandycove swimmers. And I guess I’ve written and shown you plenty of Sandycove before.

Morning view from the outside west entrance with the sun in the east. The slipway is on the left, some of the reefs at the first corner are appearing and the tide is dropping toward low.
The Red House above is no longer red.

April and May saw me returning to my usual caves on the coast, but leaving exploration for new caves until the water warms up later on in the summer.

Newtown Cave
It is impossible to capture the range of light visible to the human eye with a camera in one photograph but I love the reflections of this shot from inside Newtown Head cave.

I made it back to Coumshingaun in the Comeragh Mountains during both winter and summer. Coumshingaun is the closest lake to me, if one ignores the 45 minute climb, but only I swim it during summer as the edge is circled with rocks and being so far from a road the risks are too high to swim in winter. 

Coumshingaun in winter (Nat Geo filter).resized

Loneswimming Coumshingaun.resized

I’m not sure if I made it out to Carricknamoan rock off Clonea in 2012, but I was back there in 2103. It’s a swim that looks simple in the picture below, taken from the slight height above the beach, and is only about three kilometres round trip, but it still requires experience as the rock is so low that it can’t be seen until the last couple of hundred metres, and there are changing tidal currents.

Carricknamoan & Black Rock_MG_4927-resized.resized

 I also completed a short swim I’d scouted in 2012, swimming out of Ardmore Bay to the wreck of the Samson, under the cliffs of Ardmore Head. (Ardmore is the oldest Christian settlement in Ireland). You can take a shorter 10 minute swim to the wreck if you climb down the path to the angling point and start from there, but what’s the fun in that? While rounding Ardmore Head into the bay on the return swim, Dee took a favourite photo with mine.

Loneswimming IMG_4749.resized

While Distance Camp final weekend and the qualification and torture swims were on, I instead cancelled my planned attendance on the last weekend to catch up with a swim I wanted to do for many years, to circumnavigate Skellig Michael, the 800 feet high island peak the site of a 1500 year old ancient hermetic site, 12 miles off the Irish south-west on the end of the Continental Shelf. Another swim not for beginners, despite its short course.

NW reef IMG_7077.resized

During the summer, I also range out along the Copper Coast away from usual entry and exit spots, particularly liking to risk swimming across Ronan’s Bay, as the return trip can present currents strong enough to cut swim speed by two-thirds and generate a significant challenge.

Newtown Head and the Metalman & pillars from across Ronan’s bay

August is the summer peak for open water swimmers. Long warm(-ish) days (this is Ireland after all), warm water (16 to 17 degrees Celsius in August this year, exceptional) and races. Carol Cashell organises the local favourite Ballycotton 4 kilometres race, which is usually cursed with bad weather, late in August. It’s a challenging swim and the conditions the past two years have made it an experienced-swimmer-only race.

After the race, after the pub, I wandered back down to the tiny beach to catch the moon over the island.

Ballycotton Island moon IMG_8815.resizedSeptember saw two visits to Dover for Sylvain’s Channel Butterfly swim. So there were the usual swims in Dover Harbour,

Dover Harbour Entrance IMG_0196

…and a swim into France with Sylvain. Channel dawn.resized

Not a bad swimming year I guess, in reflection.

If the weather co-operates, when this post is published, I’ll be swimming at the Guillamenes for my Christmas day swim.

Update: The Christmas day weather didn’t co-operate. The swim was cancelled due to heavy seas, but I swam anyway and about 20 people foolishly followed me into the water. Foolish as the swell as almost three metres, and I’ve had a lot of practice at timing and rough water particularly in Tramore Bay. But everyone was safe and fun was had.

Maybe we’ll get to swim together next year but regardless, have a happy holiday and my best to you all, my friends.

Related articles

Images of 2013 – 1 – Swimming People (loneswimmer.com)

HOW TO: Annual advice for a Christmas or New Year’s swim in cold water for the irregular open water swimmer

[This is a repeat of a post from the last couple of years. This post is pretty popular at this time of year, some editing to previous versions. :-) }

With Christmas coming, many people who would never consider getting in cold water will be thinking of a Christmas or New Year's Day dip.

If you are wondering WHY you might or should do it, apart from taking part in a local tradition in many places, the great craic of meeting lots of people having similar fun,  doing something that will add more flavour to your Christmas dinner than anything, having a hot punch at the Guillamenes and supporting a local charityand the club I love, then read this.

The experienced cold water swimmers will not need any of this information. And those of you in the Southern Hemisphere who are enduring hot weather and warm water have my condolences. And there's the South Africans, for whom the water can still be cold down there even in mid-Summer.

Guillamenes Christmas swim 2007

I’ll be down at the Guillamenes myself as usual, with the people who never normally go near the sea. The weather forecast for Christmas Day 2013 is pretty poor, winds and rough water, which will reduce the numbers but I’ll still be swimming unless it blows out.

The most important message I can give you is that cold is a skill, not a talent so it can be learned. But if your first cold swim is Christmas Day, you won’t do learn it on that one day. So instead plan and know what to expect. You cannot be too careful around cold water and rocks. Three days before Christmas 2013, the water in Tramore Bay was about 8.5 degrees Celsius, with a very cold strong wind, giving an air chill of two to three degrees Celsius.

PLAN and OBSERVE:

If swimming by yourself, make sure you inform someone where and when and preferably have an observer.

* If it’s an irregular visit, your most important pre-swim action to make sure you know where to exit the water safely. Do not rely on the wisdom of crowds. Many of the people near you will know nothing and some will be acting macho.

* Watch the water before you get in. Regardless of the amount of people in it, if the water is breaking or surging more than about a metre, on steps, rocks or a ladder, the exit will be difficult, dangerous or even impossible.

* If you have been drinking alcohol the night before, don’t do it. Alcohol seriously impairs the body’s ability to deal with cold. The same applies if you haven’t slept the night before. Bravado has no place around cold water swimming when you don’t know what you are doing.

* Consider putting your swimsuit on *before* you go to the sea. You will spend less time getting cold before you swim.

* Make sure you have: a swim cap (silicone or neoprene preferably). If you only have latex, wear a couple of caps; a towel; goggles. And plenty of warm clothes for afterwards. Including a hat and gloves. Warm clothes are many light layers rather than a few heavy ones.

* Bring sandals or deck shoes. Winter swimmer Jack Bright points these are nearly as important as the towel.

* Bring something to stand on while changing. A spare towel, a piece of cardboard, a car mat.

* Forget grease. It does nothing for cold protection and you won’t in long enough to worry about chafing. If you are in long enough to need lubrication, you need none of my advice.

* Neoprene (wetsuit) gloves and booties will significantly reduce the discomfort if you are not used to cold. Wetsuits are definetiely NOT ALLOWED.

Newtown & Guillamene club members, Christmas swim 2011
Newtown & Guillamene club members, Christmas swim 2011

BEFORE THE SWIM:

* If it’s windy, disrobe from your lower body first. Keep your torso and body warm for longer.

* Change as close to the water as you safely can. You want to reduce the time exposed before and after swimming. Make sure your clothes are above the high water line though.

* Wear the sandals as close to the edge as you can. The ground usually will be colder than the sea. Cold = numb = lacerations = blood.

* DO NOT STAND AROUND TALKING once you are changed. Get to the water.

* IT’S NORMAL TO BE NERVOUS. Your body is adapted to avoid cold. Just be positive. Accept the increased heart rate. Tell yourself you are a swimming god.

* It’s not a competition. Depending on your location there may be lots of people who don’t know what they are doing in the water that day. There will be 100s at my regular spot, whereas the weekend before there’s just me. Stay clear and watch everything. Move carefully.

* SPLASH WATER on your face before immersion. This indicates to your body extreme cold is coming (by which I include temperatures of up to 12C/55F. I can’t take someone calling 14C/58F cold seriously, no matter how I try). It will allow your heart rate to settle quicker.

* Just as you get in … tell yourself it’s warm. It doesn’t matter if you hear the sucking sound of body parts rapidly shrinking inwards. Cold is partially about attitude. Tell yourself it’s actually better than you thought: Hell, it’s almost warm. I was worried about this?

* DO NOT DIVE IN. Just don’t do it. I don’t care how tough you think you are. Unless you are a very experienced cold water swimmer this is a dumb thing to do. It causes heart attacks and rock impacts. But don’t stand there trying to get in either. Walk in to your waist. Splash the water. Then off you go. No more than one minute getting immersed.

RNLI Rib on duty for the annual Guillamene Christmas swim
RNLI Rib on duty for the annual Guillamene Christmas swim

DURING THE SWIM:

* Without experience it is difficult to get the face into cold water. This is normal.

* Cold stimulates the gasp reflex through increased heart rate. After the initial 10 seconds It makes breathing difficult for the first three minutes. This is also normal. And why you splash water on your face and get in slowly.

* STAY CALM.

* Change your breathing pattern to head above water or breathing every stroke or 2nd stroke.

* DO NOT STOP IN THE WATER

* HAVE A GREAT TIME. Feel like a hero. Do 10 metres. Or 20 or 50 or 500 metres. It won’t kill you. Probably.

After a very cold 2010 and very low numbers in attendance, Guillamenes Christmas Swim 2011 saw a return of the crowds, with thousands of Euro raised for charity.
After a very cold 2010 and very low numbers in attendance, the Guillamenes Christmas Swim 2011 saw a return of the crowds, with thousands of Euro raised for charity.

EXITING:

* Watch your exit. Be careful. It is at this point most lacerations occur on the feet, legs and hands.

* Get your footwear on immediately and get to your clothes.

* If the temperature is below 10C, you will likely be a vivid lobster-red colour. Your skin will also be tingling all over your body. You will go from pain to numbness. There is no in-between.

AFTER YOUR SWIM:

* AFTER-DROP is dangerous. You have only a few minutes before its onset unless you only in a short time. After-drop is the body temperature dropping after you exit the water. It’s not a problem if you are only in a couple of minutes, though that time is less if the temperature is 5C (40F) or under.

* DO NOT VIGOROUSLY TOWEL YOURSELF. It speeds up the arrival of Afterdrop.

* Dry the torso first. Dress the torso.

* Then put on a hat.

* Then dress the lower body.

* Then and only then, have your chat, your hot chocolate or soup.

FEEL GREAT, job well done!

Go home and stuff yourself, secure in the knowledge you are a winter swimmer, at least once anyway.

Swimming Santas at Christmas 2012
Swimming Santas at Christmas 2012

Related articles

WHY would anyone swim in cold water? (loneswimmer.com)

Images of 2013 – 1 – Swimming People

I wrapped up 2012 with a few posts on some photos I’d taken through the year related to swimming. About the time I writing those posts, I embarked on what is known as a 365 Project, taking a photograph (often many more) every day for a year, which I completed this week. (I started it thanks to Sandycove swimmer Riana Parsons and those 365 photographs can be seen on my Blipfoto account.

Portraiture is a difficult aspect of photography for some, including me, as it requires either a willingness to demand co-operation from subjects or a constant almost covert imposition of a camera. I’m not comfortable with either, but I have been learning to pursue the form. The number of portrait photographs from the year is still low and time goes by when I completely forget to take any.

So here are a few of my preferred shots of swimming people from the year. Once again, i chose mainly based on photographic merit rather than any personal relationships, but the range illustrates, I think, what attracts us about this sport, the people we met, the friends we make.

David IMG_0256.resized

My swimming Dad: David Frantzeskou, along with Evelyn, the owner of Varne Ridge Caravan Park outside Dover, one of my favourite places and amongst my favourite people, with so many different and enduring memories. It took some convincing of both David & Evelyn that this was a shot that I was proud of, displaying that slightly perplexed look we know so well on David’s face.

Getting ready IMG_8674.resized

I was fortunate to be part of another World Record English Channel swim crew for the second year in a row, this time with my friend Sylvain Estadieu. While images of Sylvain butterflying away from the White Cliffs or standing triumphant with the French tricoloeur are popular, this one is my favourite, the moments before the swim, a glimpse into Sylvain.

Liam MaherOn a grey day in summer we took to a few laps of Sandycove to wish our 2013 Manhattan Island Sandycove swimmers, Liam, Carol & Lisa the best. One of my shortlived waterproof cameras from this year (three!) caught a typical Liam Maher pose, English channel swimmer in front of Sandycove’s famous Red House (now beige). The Red House is used to mark final 400 metre sprints, the best line for the slipway and for the marathon swimmers of the club, could be seen from about two kilometres out for those who have braved the Speckled Door to Sandycove swim. The laugh on Liam’s face is entirely typical.

Eoin, Carol & MaeveIMG_9712.resizedAfter the Global Swim Conference visitors had all left the island, there were a few local Sandycovers hanging around chatting. Probably eating cake. Left is Eoin O’Riordan, middle is Carol Cashell and right is Maeve Moran. Eoin joined Carol in an English Channel two-way relay team as a substitute and did some great training, and the team went on to set a new two-way six person national English Channel record, after Carol had returned from getting second placed lady in the Manhattan Island Marathon swim. Maeve is another Sandycove regular and perennial and invaluable volunteer who will be swimming an English Channel relay next year.

Sakura & Nick IMG_9444_02.resized

Nick Adams, President of the CS&PF and multiple English Channel soloist and other swims, celebrates being inducted into the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame as the Global Open Water Conference in Cork. With him is English Channel solo and many other swims, Dr. Sakura Hingley. Nick and Sakura had been married only recently, on August 25th, the anniversary of Captain Matthew Webb’s first English Channel solo. Both have been promising me articles for this blog for over two years. I am starting to lose hope.

Lisa IMG_9716_01.resizedMy very good friend Lisa Cummins, now living down-under and getting a free summer, well-known to all as one of the legendary two-way English channel swimmers. Lisa and I were once again on a few adventures this year, and therefore she had to put up with many attempts at portrait shots by me before I finally found one I was pleased with, in Sandycove of course.

Ray IMG_9237_01.resizedRay is a member of the Newtown and Guillamenes swimming club, my other (non-racing) club. Every day of the summer, from May until the end of September, Ray empties the bins, picks up rubbish and litter, keeps the coves and lawns of  Newtown and Guillamenes pristine, and even cleans the public toilets for the tourists, after the town council refused to so do. Ray is one the quiet heroic volunteers without whom no club in the world could survive and I have enormous respect for him.

Friends_MG_4547_01.resized

Left to right, Ciáran Byrne, Eddie Irwin, Craig Morrison, , me being manhandled, Finbarr Hedderman in back and Liam Maher, after a spring swim in Sandycove. Channel Soloists all. I didn’t take this shot, but handed the camera to Maura (Hynzie) Morrison. When you are being manhandled by Finbarr (6’4″) & Liam (6’8″) it’s like being caught in a landslide, there’s no fighting it. It’s good to have such friends.

President Billy_MG_7754.resized

Billy Kehoe, President of the Newtown and Guillamenes swimming club, 85 years old, and swimming at the Guillamenes for 75 years. I don’t think a single occasion has passed over the years that Billy hasn’t used the same joke with me, that I am not to swim past the Saltees (Islands), despite my offering to write him some new material. Billy is currently working on a history of the Newtown and Guillamenes swimming club that hopefully is almost near completion and to which I am really looking forward and will hopefuly publish her and on the club website, which I have completely neglected .

Paul Foreman IMG_8489.resized

Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation pilot and gentleman, Paul Foreman. Formerly of Pace Arrow, now of the Channel fleet’s best boat, Optimist, pilot for Gábor Molnar and Jen Hurley and our tragically lost friend Páraic Casey, Paul holds a special place of affection for many Sandycove swimmers who know him and were friends of Páraic.

Freda IMG_8419.resized

If you were to come up with any list of the ten most important people in the history of Channel swimming, Freda Streeter would be on that list. Mother of Alison, the Queen of the Channel and CS&PF Channel pilot Neil, Freda has trained hundreds of Channel swimmers and was instrumental in the formation of the CS&PF. For thirty years every weekend from May until September, with Barrie and Irene Wakeham and many others who assist, Freda runs a free Channel training camp for all comers.

Roger Finch IMG_8411.resized

I finally met cheeky chappie and South African Channel soloist Roger Finch in Varne Ridge, where all Channel swimmers eventually meet and then one day on Dover beach. He was training with Otto Thaining, whom I briefly met later. Otto was training to be the oldest Channel Soloist. Roger and I knew many people in common. Unfortunately Otto got weathered out, but my money is on him both returning and being successful next year. With the ebullient  Roger in his crew he’s all set.

Owen O' Keeffe closeup

My young friend Owen, the Fermoy Fish and I voyaged together again this year, most notably on his pioneering Blackwater swim. After Trent Grimsey’s swim last year, I’d come to the conclusion I may have taken my best ever photo of a swimmer. I guess my development as a photographer now leads to me realise that was a laughable conceit.  Reviewing my pics of the year, I’m currently of the belief this is the current best photo of a swimmer I’ve taken, getting past the stroke, the conditions, and inside Owen, as close metaphorically as I can get into another swimmer’s mind.

Group shot_MG_6640.resized

During Sandycove Distance Week, about 20 of the less lazy of the swimmers came over for a swim with me on the Copper Coast. It was one of the best days of the bet summer in a generation. There were complaints about the water being too warm! granted, this photo wasn’t chosen for its photographic merit, but for the sheer pleasure I derived from so many visitors.

Dee on Kilfarrassey Beach B&W _MG_5674.resized

Constrained as I am from publishing a photo of her, here’s my silent partner in most adventures and supporter in others. 

I look to meeting you all and capturing your images in 2014.

HOWTO: Discussing Zone Training

In HOWTO Write a basic training system, I said we would progress from the structure of a simple one hour or more training system to devising a more comprehensive swim training plan.

A long time ago I wrote a post on introducing interval training to swimming and another on heart rate zones, that one really only included the chart below with little further explanation.

To progress in this area, we need to talk about the different types of training. The Zone System in the chart mentioned above is one way of categorising training types.

There are four or five zones depending on your preference or how you categorise them. First below is the five zone system.

Heart rates and rest intervals increase with Zone number and set distances decrease.

Zone 1: Aerobic, sometimes called endurance or even recovery. This is where swimming can be maintained with available oxygen and only low levels of lactic acid will be produced with which the body can cope or dispose. To complicate this mess of terms, Zone 1 is further subdivided into three types, recovery, maintenance and stimulus. The different types are defined by heart rate below maximum heart rate, from 70 to 30 beats below maximum. For distance open water training, e.g. training for a first 3, 5 or 10 k swim. For simplicity it’s easier to divide aerobic into recovery (easy, 50 to 70 beats below maximum), and endurance, (30 to 50 below maximum). A majority of swimming is done in the endurance zone. Strictly however, recovery is the lowest rate of aerobic training, what an experienced swimmer would categorise as very easy, or easy, at 60% to 70% maximum heart rate. Rest intervals are short and set distances can be long.

Zone 2: Anaerobic Threshold. This is where lactic acid (lactate) accumulates more quickly than the body can dispose of it. Heart rate is higher, 20 to 30 beats below maximum.

Zone 3: High performance (or Critical Speed) Endurance. This can also be called heart-rate training. It’s usually marked by increasing effort through the set, not starting too high but increasing in speed and intensity. This is the origin of a typical descending set, where times reduce and speed increases through a set, like Paul Newsome’s Red Mist set of repeating 400s. Rest intervals are longer than anaerobic threshold, from 20 to 30 seconds with heart rates 10 to 20 beats below maximum.

Zone 4: Anaerobic. Also known as race pace training, and not to be confused with Zone 2. This is commonly known also as lactate training. For most open water swimmers, this training comprises longer distances and requires longer rests. You should realise that race pace is NOT the same as sprint. The body is learning to tolerate lactic acid, and also to delay its production.

Zone 5: Sprint. This is maximum speed training and can only be performed over very short distances with long rests to stop lactate building up otherwise it becomes Zone 4. Heart rate is maximum.

One thing that can easily be noticed is the lower the zone number, the longer will be the swim distance, and the shorter the rest interval (swim long, rest short is the maxim). Obviously sprints are short distance, and long distance must be sustainable.

Using heart rate to control exercise
Using heart rate to control exercise

An alternative to the five zone system is a four zone system. This is essentially the same and just uses easier to communicate names and is based more on RPE, which is the swimmer’s Rate of Perceived Effort. Some coaches will explicitly tell swimmers to swim a set at 75% or 85% or 90% RPE. 

I’ve found when explaining this, that it is important to explain that really easy swimming is about 65% of maximum heart rate. People new to exercise often think that really easy effort is more like 10% or 20%. If you use a casual ambling walk for comparison, that will still be 60 to 65% of maximum heart rate.

Your maximum heart rate drops with age, and a rough rule of thumb, (which can be justifiably criticised) is that 220 minus your age is your maximum heart rate. There are many individual variations to this.

Recovery Zone: 60% to 70%. Lowest heart rate training. This maximises fat burn and comprises long unbroken sets with short rest intervals. This is basic endurance and heart rate training. It is  also used to recover from racing, sprinting or higher level exertion.

Aerobic Zone: 70 to 80%. This zone is where much of your endurance and cardiovascular fitness comes from. Some fat is used for energy in this zone.

Anaerobic: 80% to 90%. Long distance swimmers will do a lot of training in this zone, which build up tolerance to lactic acid. However lactate buildup will eventually overwhelm the ability to perform further. Also, all energy is coming from the body’s ATP (glycogen) system and is therefore time limited.

VO² Max (Sprint): 90% to 100%. This area is for pure speed only and in only possible for a short time. The first few seconds of sprint are partly powered by creatine produced in the body, which only lasts for effort under less than 10 seconds.

In spring 2013, Evan Morrison and I collaborated on some training tips specifically for triathletes. Amongst his many excellent points, one that Evan made and noticeable in many pool lap swimmers, was that many people just swam continuously at one speed.

A rounded swimmer, or one training for an event, should be training in all different zones and at different speeds.

In the next part we’ll look at combining the different zones into a larger plan.

 Related articles

HOWTO Introduction to writing a basic pool swimming set

Many swimmers are often confused about how to write a basic pool set. Many experienced but younger swimmers from a club background had become accustomed to having a coach always provide their sets, without ever needing to understand for themselves what the coach is trying to achieve or why a particular set is used on a particular day or even how a set is constructed, though they usually figure it out.

Other swimmers without a club background, (I was one of these), who get training sets from differing sources, often do so without a plan or requirement, or just pick ones that fall within a certain distance range.

One partial solution, and easy, is to seek out free sets online, from basic 0 to 1500 metre plans to longer and more advanced sets. When seeking out sets online or even from friends, you will know your own constraints. If you are training for your first open water mile race, then neither the training sets of a Channel aspirant nor a 100 metre sprinter will be of much use.

There are some simple parameters around coming up with a swimming set.

The first thing you need to decide is the time and/or the distance for the set. For many those two may be different. You may be aiming for a weekly total to build up fitness or strength through distance. You may be swimming during lunch break. You may be more interested in speed and technique improvements, or you may be trying to have bit of everything.

On the red top
Go on red top

At its most simple, it may be that you have one hour available or you want to swim 3000 metres, both of which are common sets for Master’s swimmers. What seems mysterious is quite straight-forward once you understand the basic design. Swim sets are often broken into three or four components:

  1. Warm Up
  2. Kick or technique set
  3. Main set
  4. Swim down

You can see from this that it really is very simple.

1. Warm up. When I was a racing cyclist I was able to seemingly go from cold to high heart rate with little warm up, which made time trials my favourite event. (Sigh, those days are past).  Warm up works well and is a requirement for all endurance sports. It is the simple process of gradually raising the heart rate to where it can support maximal effort. Warm up should start easy and increase in intensity toward the end. Note: Active stretching outside the water before starting is NOT advised for swimming and is not part of warm-up.

2. Kick or technique sets are the optional part of the set, especially for shorter sets such as an hour. But regardless of competence or time or distance, you should never completely abandon technique training. We often, especially open water and distance swimmers neglect kick sets. I’m certainly guilty of neglecting kick. But it’s also easy to neglect technique work as I discovered in 2012, which led to me having to rebuild my stroke last winter after visiting the Swim Smooth clinic. Warm-up and Technique/Kick, 1 and 2 can be combined so that you do technique or kick work as your warm up.  Sometimes this part is called the “pre-main” set and comprises the high intensity part of warm up.

3. Self explanatory, the main set is the most of the work in the set. Your main set will be longer if you are not using a “pre-main” or kick set. This the focus of the overall set. Some coaches and swimmers like to place the kick set after the main set.

4. Swim down, or warm down as it’s known in other sports, is usually short and should be easy, to allow the heart rate to drop. You shouldn’t be finishing your set heaving for breath, though an occasional time this happens to everyone and is fine.

Now we have a plan, and assuming an hour is allocated, we can put some times onto the parts: We can allocate 10 to 15 minutes for warm-up. Then another 10 minutes to 15 minutes for kick or technique. After that, we have 30 to 40 minutes for the main set depending on whether there is a pre-main set, and finally 5 minutes for swim down.

These rules are not absolute. A 3000 metres set of thirty by one hundred metres on a fixed time doesn’t adhere to the design, though the first five to ten repetitions may be used for warm up, and the last two or four for swim down.  Understanding a basic design helps you to come up with your own sets off the cuff.

In the next part of this we’ll look beyond a standard one-day set design to starting to put together a longer term plan and the complimentary variation in daily set design.

Sylvain Estadieu’s English Channel Butterfly – Part 6 – Le Français Volant

Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4. Part 5.

With the sickness, the changes in feeds, how the crew felt, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that Sylvain was still swimming strongly. That despite everything, he was very much the star and focus of our private show, and our entire concern. The earlier change of goggles had finally resolved the ongoing leakages. Every internal downturn or recovery he felt was (mostly) invisible to us, only a hint of how he felt on each particular feed visible to us on his mien, and in his eyes, to try to interpret. Over the late afternoon and early evening period, he undulated his way across the Separation Zone and on toward the north-east shipping lane.

Even his legs display a grace
Even his legs display a grace

Let me tell you about Sylvain’s stroke. Maybe you have swum ‘fly, like most swimmers do. Maybe like me, you sometimes do it for fun, sometimes to make a point, sometimes because it’s on the training set, sometimes because few things say fuck you to the world quite as comprehensively as swimming butterfly. Maybe you even love ‘fly. But how much do you swim? How long before your technique abrades away? How long before you start one-arm fly drill? How long before you feel like you are trying to pull yourself out, out of the water with rubber shoulders, paper biceps, spongy triceps?

For most of us ‘fly is an equation which quickly equalises to zero. Two hundred metres in Dover harbour with Sylle for me, playing hide and seek as we swam out of phase, swimming side by side, but his head submerged when mine was up, every time, knowing he was there, and not seeing him, that was enough before I reverted to front crawl.

Sylle’s ‘fly is elegant and looks easy. He flows through the water. There isn’t the big powerhouse flipper-splash of legs and feet like a 200 meter ‘fly meet swimmer. Instead there is a glide, a slipping and sliding, as Sylle works with the water. He reminds you of nothing so much as an otter, as his feet and legs, on every beat, (28 beats per minute), like the highest rated divers, penetrate the water with barely a splash. In some way that what he did. He dived his way across the Channel. He doesn’t look like he is being pushed by those legs but neither does he look like he is being pulled by his arms. Instead, he demonstrates some other ineffable skill. For swimmers it is beautiful and amazing to watch swimmer, so much so that as effortless as it seems, that you come to think it is effortless, that it is easy. But, of course, it isn’t.

Last daylight shot 7th hour 4pm IMG_8826.resized

Feed changed. Lisa and I regained the feed schedule from Mike over a couple of hours, with every single feed necessitating a discussion of the content: Malto, sliced bread or a roll, cheese, ham or chicken slices, water, a taste of fruit.

By 6.00 p.m. light levels were dropping with oncoming dusk. The sea state was a bit more unsettled. No glorious sunset with the heavy cloudbase. Official Observer’s Log indicated wave height remained, as it had from the start, zero. Feet or metres it didn’t matter, but the sea state was marked “slight” which sounds good but is actually the centre of the scale on Mike Ball’s newly designed Observer’s sheets, which start at smooth, through calm then slight and moderate to rough.

At 18:35 we entered the north-east shipping lane, the ships now passing up the Channel, and around this time the tide slackened briefly. More importantly Sylvain indicated at his feed, now happening on the half and full hour rather than the quarter-to and -past, that he was feeling much better. It had been a long two hours from when he first got sick.

At 7 p.m. the light had almost failed, and before the half-hour feed we could see that the lights that Sylvain had started the swim with were not sufficient for good safety visibility. I had my own Adventure Lights with me, but they had come back from a recent Channel swim not fully functional so were unsuitable. We gave Sylle a light from Mike’s spares at the 7:30 feed for him to place on his helmet strap, but either a wave or catching it with his biceps ripped it off and 15 minutes later we gave him another and a chemical lightstick, the second working better. By that time the light was entirely gone, the usual long twilight attenuated by the clouds, and we were well into Channel night, with a long way still to go.

Last feed I IMG_8879.resized

Conditions on the boat were fine, the evening was mild, if very dark. Conditions in the water still would have been good … if you were swimming front crawl. But butterfly changes so many parameters of a swim. The wave height on Mike Ball’s Observer’s report was zero, all day. But there was that slight ruffled surface. Such a surface, instead of being sliced by a front crawl swimmer’s arms and head, presents a series of physical barriers, into which the butterfly swimmer, Sylvain, will inevitably crash. Repeatedly, hundreds then thousands of times. Each impact is small and transitory but cumulatively exhausting. No wonder his stroke rate dropped, apart from the sickness, he couldn’t fully engage his long stroke, the wavelets and tiredness shortening his stroke somewhat.

Sylvain’s preferred position was about eight to metres out, and with Gallivant using one starboard side main spotlight, it felt like he was really in two worlds, even more so than a usual Channel swim, if there is any such thing. Darkness on three sides of him, in front, behind and on his far side. He was just like a butterfly specimen pinned to a display board, but instead he was pinned to the night and the dark and the water.

Night Flying
The Greater Night Flying Butterfly

And now with night’s arrival and heavy cloud obscuring the moon, almost no light fell on the water’s surface. The swim became a war between Sylvain and the surface. Every movement came at him out of pitch back, each wavelet arriving with no notice. For hours he battled as we cycled feeds for him, malto, some electrolyte, water.  At 10 p.m. Sylle refused his malto and took only water and mouthwash and told us he wasn’t swimming back. As Lisa, Zoe and I sat together on the forward deck

Because there’s another part of the story I’ve neglected to now. Sylle had three potential goals: The first was to be the first man to butterfly the channel. The second was to do so in a record time. The weather and tide change, (not the sickness) has scuppered the record attempt. The third prospective goal was a potential two-way, returning to English by front crawl. He had done the training but hadn’t even told his family. He told them the night before the swim, just in case they managed to be at the point where he landed on France, because if they were and they hugged him, that would disqualify him.

We took Sylle’s assertion, not as the joke it might be on another swim, and we set it aside, unconcerned. It was irrelevant to us. We wanted to get him across one-way and for the long period of the afternoon and night that single goal swung backward and forward, in and out of view and possibility.

Feed to feed. That’s all that counts in the Channel. That’s the swimmer’s world, every new horizon thirty minutes away. The past doesn’t exist, the future and France is away over that horizon. Only now.

At 10.30 p.m. we changed the feed to porridge, once again concerned, as we had been intermittently for hours, that Sylle was still sick or really uncomfortable, even beyond what we could sometimes see in his eyes or twist of mouth at feeds, the roller-coaster of feeling good and feeling bad continuing through the night.

Alone in the dark
Alone in the dark

I asked Sylle to come in another few metres toward the boat while swimming and reminded him of his pull-through, seeing as he’d been struggling with the constant chop for hours had shortened his stroke. Concentrating on it would give him something else to focus on, but during that 10.30 feed he said “I don’t think I’m going to make it“.

Few Channel swims are easy, few cross without daemons presenting themselves.

The eastern most ships in the lane passed between us and France, their presence marked only by occlusion of the lights on land, not even their silhouettes visible. Another hour slid past. At the 10.00 p.m. feed Sylvain was holding his lower back so at the 11.30 p.m. feed we gave him paracetamol. Sylle had never used painkillers in training until shortly before his swim, but Lisa and I had insisted he take them as a test, just in case. They worked and his back loosened and we had finally passed into French Inshore Waters by the midnight feed and were only 1 mile from ZC2, passing well inside it, the buoy that gives experienced Channel crew and swimmers a good indication of their position, but only in daylight, as ZC2 wasn’t visible to Sylle.

90 minutes left feed  IMG_8872.resized.rotatedRaiding our supplies, we found Zoe had some Pain Au Chocolat, and we had brioche and we used these for the next feeds, each bringing a big smile to Sylle’s face, such that he uttered “ooh la la!” in reference to some stereotypical joking back in Varne.

The clouds finally lightened around 12.30 a.m. and while they didn’t fully part, the moon was finally able to illumine the water’s surface beyond the tiny world of the spotlight and the water calmed as the inshore waters of La Manche welcomed their globe-trotting son home.

By 01:30 we were directly outside the lights of Wissant, and I recalled Sylle and I in the same place on Gábor’s swim, and I wished Gábor could have been there with us. For those last two hours, the stress and strain lightened and we knew, finally, that after hours of uncertainty, Sylle would make it.

We were turning into Cap Petit Blanc, the vertical headland north-east of Wissant village, where in 1941 Herman Goring had stood and watched as the second biggest wave of airplane to attack Britain in the second world war had streamed overhead. It was the third Sunday of September, Commonwealth Battle of Britain Day and the invasion was one lone Frenchman, reclaiming La Manche for La Belle France, en papillion.

Not far feed IMG_8881.resized

The last metres wound down. I prepared to swim in. Mike and I discussed the potential turn-around for the return. Sylvain was perfectly placed up a Cap Blanc to catch the tide back into the Channel. But he would have to decide.

My own lights adequate for the short distance, Mike Ball did the correct thing by reminding me of the rules for a support swimmer, especially for a turnaround. Stay behind the swimmer, don’t touch him in any way. If he needed to be greased he would have to do it himself, and I carried a tub of grease in my swimmers. I got the word to enter the water about 2.15 a.m.

Mike Oram had a bright spotlight shining on the cliffs for us to follow in, as Gallivant needed to stay a few hundred metres back to avoid rocks, the tide having risen again. I swam to the far side of Sylvain. I could tell he was still swimming strongly, not the sometimes very slow pace at the end of a Channel swim. Positioned on his right, I lifted my head and heard shouting from the boat, Lisa and Zoe exhorting me to finish with Sylle the only appropriate way, and so I switched into butterfly myself.

Every Channel or marathon swim that I’ve crewed has left some deep personal memory for me. They include swimming in Cap Gris Nez with Alan Clack the previous year, while I cried in my goggles thinking of Páraic, the upper reaches of the early morning Blackwater with Owen O’Keeffe, sunlight streaming over Bray Head for Rob Bohane, Sylvain and Gábor and I hugging on Wissant beach and others.

My favourite moments of Sylvain’s swim will be these:

The searchlight was strong, a white ball exploding onto us. The world was only fuligin and supernova, the water was galactic black, solar white, particles trapped in the glare like insects frozen in an explosion, grainy film strip in my eyes; Sylvain to the left and ahead of me; the usual intense and isolate night swimming sounds; breath and movement, breath and movement, breath and movement. Sylvain, a perfect silhouette moving through the water, imprinted on my retina like a perfect moving negative. 

As we reached the cliff, my only concern was his safety. But he reached out, a rock presented itself perfectly in the water, and he glided into it and touched with a two-handed butterfly finish. He stood and stumbled through the boulders to the cliff two metres away, while I stayed back still submerged. He climbed above the waterline, a spiderman now as well as a butterflyman. And I hooted my head off. And I hooted and the crew hooted and Gallivant’s triumphant klaxon split the empty night for our friend who had just crossed the English Channel, La Manche, in a time of 16 hours and 42 minutes, becoming to first man to ever so do.

Aah, to finish there would be sweet, but incomplete.

We discussed the turn and the return. Sylle did not want to attempt the swim back, after the brutal one-way crossing he had endured. He had accomplished his primary task. But my task was to push him. And so he agreed that he would stretch out while we swam back to Gallivant, and he would have time to stretch his muscles into a more forgiving front crawl. I told him he was perfectly lined up for the tide. I didn’t let him off. Back to the boat through the by-now warm French coastal waters. I climbed out of the boat while Sylvain stayed in the water, and we talked with him and gave him time to decide. For fifteen interminable minutes, for the second time in as many weeks, Lisa and I berated a Channel swimmer to do something they did not want to do. But we pushed them so that if and when they made their own decision, as the swimmer must, they would be sure afterwards it was the right one. Eventually Sylvain put Lisa and I thankfully put us out of our misery of torturing our friend. He ended the horrible task of trying our best to convince him to torture himself further, when he reached out and grabbed the ladder, and we pulled our heroic friend aboard.

It was an enormous and stunning swim, and as has been repeated by Lisa, Zoe and Mike Ball, it was a privilege to witness. Even daring to dream of a butterfly crossing, let alone more, is beyond the capacity of most of us. The timing was personally redemptory for me in reminding of the courage of ordinary Channel swimmers. Sylvain and the CS&PF’s commitment to clear rules were also a lesson to all. Sylvain has not got even one Yellow Card fro a stroke infraction on the entire swim.  At a time when some of us were being falsely accused of not celebrating one swimmer, which only meant we didn’t buy the Diana Nyad lies, Sylle helped rescue us and showed us all true historic achievement, like others have this year.

It was not easy. But it was great.

Sylle & Greta & sponsor IMG_8967.resized
Sylvain & Greta

Proud IMG_8933.resizedNext day in Varne, we took some more photographs, aware that Sylvain’s place in swimming history was cemented forever. I said to him that The Flying Frenchman was a good nickname, and he should embrace it. Because it would last him a lifetime.

With other worthy nominees, Sylvain has justifiably been nominated for the marathonswimmers.org Male Swimming Performance of the Year. (Only forum members can vote).

Vivé La France, and thanks to Sylvain, l’homme papillon, for allowing me to be part of such a momentous swim.

The Flying Frenchman IMG_8963 gmp.resized

I’ll leave you with Sylvain’s English Channel video. It’s absolutely fantastically well put together (and funny).

Don’t forget to pop over to his blog or follow him on Twitter. He’s a great guy and a good friend, as well as an astonishing swimmer.

Who dares swims …

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