Back in June after the Cork Distance Week, Owen O’Keeffe, aka the Fermoy Fish, Ireland’s youngest ever English Channel swimmer, suggested a swim in Tipperary’s Bay Lough, up in the Knockmealdown Mountains.
And so it was that the Fish, Dave Mulcahy, myself and Jen Schumacher, visiting Ireland for the Camp from California, met one morning in early summer at the car park two kilometres from the lake, which is at the end of a long boreen (small road).
I never knew the lake as Bay Lough, when I visited it on summer Sunday afternoons as a child. It was always the haunted lake, the bottomless lake or the Vee lake. The Vee is the scenic drive up through the Knockmealdown Mountains.
The lake is a glacial corrie, scoured out of the mountains during one of Ireland’s regular glaciation periods, the last of which ended 18,000 years ago. There are stories about the lake the two of which I had remembered was that it was allegedly bottomless, and that no-one could swim across it.
Both superstitions seemed reasonable to a credulous teenager, even though the lake is modest in size. The lake and environs are very scenic, in a grim desolate way. I clearly recall on every visit how my father would try to skim a rock across the lake, never succeeding. Never did I see anyone swim in it, not even my Dad, no stranger to doing stupid things outdoors himself, a trait I seem to have inherited.
It’s a pretty small oval lake, maybe four hundred metres on the long axis, two hundred on the short axis. The pass looks down on the Golden Vale, valley of the Suir river, often said to be the richest and most agricultural land in the world.
The mountainside is covered in rhododendron which blooms in late May and early June and can be pretty spectacular, if you ignore the fact that it is an invasive highly aggressive bloody big weed. Mountain lakes tend to be a bit colder than the lower ones, the temperature was about 9 or 10 degrees Celsius. The water is dark and peaty from the mountain run-off, and underneath it’s black as pitch, the blackness that inspired the legends of bottomlessness, and the cold dead hand of the poor drowned Colleen Bán, with whose legend I tried to scare Jen. Channel swimmers aren’t easily scared.
There’s a misogynistic legend about Petticoat Lucy, the Witch of Bay Lough that’s worth reading, just for the context. This bit though is true: “If you were ever to visit the lake itself you will be struck by the feeling of loneliness that surrounds the area.”
A nice little swim. No legs were grabbed by the cold dead hands of the lost souls of the lake.
“I can still remember the day I first believed I could swim the Catalina Channel. Growing up as a swimmer in Southern California, I idolized Lynne Cox and was captivated by her book, “Swimming to Antarctica.” My family took many trips to Catalina Island, and on the ferry our dad would egg us on, saying, “You know, people swim this channel.” I considered myself an open water swimmer, but to me that meant a weekly ocean swim in the summer, a few 1-mile races, and because I was a super long distance swimmer, the 3-mile Gatorman at La Jolla. How that perspective changed…
A good friend of mine who was training for Catalina convinced me to do a 10K in Santa Barbara. I was skeptical – I’d swum 10K in a pool plenty, but there’s a wall and a bottom. The ocean? I wasn’t so sure I could do without. When we arrived the morning of, I was so nervous I was sick to my stomach. I couldn’t believe I was actually going to do this. Sure enough, as soon as the race began, all my nerves and doubts were left on shore. Dave and I raced the whole way, always within 25 meters of each other. It was a soft 10K and took us just over 2 hours. We were neck-and-neck at the last turn buoy, but I had so much energy at the end, and much more kelp experience, and motored past him. After that swim, I was hooked.
I tagged along with Dave on so many of his training swims for Catalina that he finally let me join his crew. I started with him at midnight at Doctor’s Cove, pitch black aside from a few bobbing glow sticks. I was there when the hypothermia set in at the 6-hour mark. I was again in the water with him when he lost his feeds and sobbed. I watched with horror as the observers demanded he count backwards by odds from 13. He struggled. I felt the energy on the boat deflate. Four painful hours later he climbed those slippery rocks at Terranea. With Dave warm and safe on the boat, the crew cheered and celebrated as he stared off into space, in a dull fog. Looking back, I have no idea why that experience encouraged me to do this. Somehow, and thankfully, that day, as messed up as it was, convinced me I could swim Catalina. I also knew I would swim it in a very different way.
I committed myself to training that very next day. I pestered Dave’s mentor, Jim Fitzpatrick, until he graciously agreed to help me. Luckily for me, Jim is generous with his time; I had much to learn. My goals: to swim Catalina, and to be in high spirits the entire time. A tall order.
I soaked up all the advice Jim and other great marathon swimmers had to offer. I was concurrently working on my graduate degree in Sport Psychology, and I picked the brains of every professor at Cal State Fullerton who would spend time with me. I prepared for everything I could possibly imagine happening. Night swimming, sleep-deprived swimming, nauseous swimming, energy-depleted swimming, painful shoulder swimming, cold water, choppy water, crawling over kelp, you name it. My longest training swim was 85% of the distance of Catalina and 88% of the time I ultimately spent in the water on my day. Every crew person was required to spend some time with me in the water – either as a swimmer or kayaker. I worked the mental game too – using imagery most nights to visualize the start, the finish, and swimming in the middle, on top of 3,000 feet of water. I had a routine before ocean swims that helped me let go of other things, reminded me of the purpose of the swim, allowed me to be present, and ultimately got me into the mental state I needed to be in. I had ample opportunities to practice letting go of frustration, anger, pain, and distractions on long swims. I used systematic tricks, like focusing on a specific part of my body or repeating a pre-determined word or phrase. After swims, I discussed with my main kayaker (my mom) what went well and what we could do better.
The day I believed I could swim Catalina was a year and 8 days before my attempt, but when I stood in the pitch black at Doctor’s Cove, I knew I could swim Catalina. I reminded myself of the massive amounts of smart training I did, and all the discomfort I endured along the way to get there. I reminded myself of whythis swim was meaningful to me: Catalina was a symbol of family and it represented the romanticism of marathon swimming as I knew it at the time. I went through my routine, and began.
9 hours and 2 minutes later I had achieved both of my goals. I had swum Catalina. More importantly to me however, I was happy the entire time. It was the only swim over 3 hours where I had absolutely no low point. There were times when I actually smiled in the water at the simple thought, “I’m swimming Catalina!”
Before Catalina, I had intended to be a one-and-done swimmer. Do Catalina and move on with my life. As they say, the bug bit. It wasn’t even that I needed to do the English Channel, or any other particular marathon swim for that matter. I just needed the training, the ocean swims, the lofty goals, my training partners, the marathon swimming community in my life.
As 2012 begins, I have set my sights abroad. This season will be a busy one, with Molokai in March, the Strait of Gibraltar in early May, Jamie Patrick’s Swim Camp in Northern California in late May, Ned Denison’s Long Distance Camp in Cork in June, the English Channel in July, and perhaps another mysterious swim after that.”