The origin of the Champion of Champions (CoC) format swimming race and it’s rather hyperbolically overblown title lies with the British Long Distance Swimming Association (BLDSA) who have run it as an annual event for many years often in Dover, the home of Channel swimming.
The CoC is a three-part (“Two and a Bit“) race and given its origin it uses imperial distances. The first leg is five miles (eight kilometre) long. Then there’s a break out of the water. The second leg is three miles (approximately 4800 metres) and the bit or “final sprint“, as long distance swimmers call it, is a mere mile (1600 metres).
The second and third legs are scheduled to start at specific times so the longer one takes for the each leg, the less time in between while out of the water. The second leg was set to start four hours after the start of the first leg, while the third leg was set to start two and a half hours after the start of the second leg. So swimming at an average speed of two miles per hour would therefore have a first break of an hour and a half and a second break of an hour.
Apart from the total distance of nine miles, which is daunting for new or intermediate swimmers, the challenge is less about the distance than about the repeat immersions.
The Champion of Champion format has as far I know, only been run twice previously in Ireland, both at Sandycove, back in 2008 and 2009 and I’d swum both.
The first Sandycove CoC in 2008 was held in mid-May and I wore a wetsuit. Yes folks, I’ve never denied my rubber-clad open water swimming, (though I did actually start and swam a couple of summers without a wetsuit). You too can shed the body-condom!
A mere 12 people non-wet-suited and wet-suited finished nine laps of the island in the 2008 swim, from a starting group of around 50. Conditions such that there was a swimmer’s vote as to whether we’d risk the outside of the island after the first leg, which had started well but deteriorated in a nasty mess. I voted yes as even then I liked a bit of rough for strategic reasons.
The second three-mile leg was extremely difficult and included what is still my longest ever single Sandycove lap,of which it took 20 minutes to swim from the first corner to the second corner, a distance of only about 500 metres, due to a south-easterly wind which had risen, and which like the Copper Coast, is the worst wind for Sandycove swimming.
The long laps of the second leg ate into the time before re-entering for the final leg, and it was during the second break that the highest rate of attrition occurred, as swimmer’s temperatures dropped further and they couldn’t rewarm to face the final immersion.
Apart from the conditions of the second leg, what I most remember the 2008 CoC for, is that it was the last time I ever wore a wetsuit for swimming.
Later that year I had my first visit to Dover as part of a two-way English Channel relay and the next winter of 2008/2009 was the first winter I decided to swim through the entire winter without a wetsuit, not all that long ago.
The 2009 event took place as part of Cork Distance Week and was slightly later in June. Instead of five laps of Sandycove the first leg included “the Spec” as the exposed swim from the Speckled Door pub on the Old Head of Kinsale across to Sandycove is known locally, a swim which marks a step up for local distance swimmers, not so much because of the moderate distance, but the exposed rough conditions. The 2009 CoC was when I first met King of the English Channel Kevin Murphy, as I held his jacket while he used the Port-a-Loo. This was understandably a less-than-memorable event for him so when I met him over a year later on the Dover pontoon, he of course didn’t remember me. Otherwise the 2009 event was slightly later and though the cold was still a problem, completion rates were far higher.
Both events and particularly the second when I hadn’t any rubber protection demonstrated that the real challenge was rewarming and that the second leg was the hardest. One could swim the first leg, but the limited time outside the water merely allowed you to get colder from Afterdrop, so you began the next leg with a lowered temperature. The time period between the end of second and final sprint third leg could be as short as 30 minutes so it was even more difficult to re-enter but most people surviving the second leg could tough out a quick final mile.
Waterford Channel Swimmer and former national 400 metre champion Colm Breathnach decided to revive the swim for 2014 for mid-August and run it on the Copper Coast, at the small harbour of Boatstrand, based out of the recently renovated and improved safety centre.
The swim was also open to wetsuit swimmers and to foster and encourage those who might be considering beginning or stepping up distances, each individual leg would be open as a single event.Slightly over two dozen of us were signed up for the full distance non-wetsuit. The entrants included Dublin, Cork and particularly even some Sandycove distance swimmers. Cork swimmers are notoriously afraid to leave embrace of the People’s Republic, and all clutched new road maps and Sat-Navs purchased to enable them to find their way the long hazard-laden fifty miles into the wild east. There are Sandycove swimmers whose only ever swim locations are Cork … and the English Channel.
Eoin Big Fish O’Riordan was surprised to find Waterford had “the ‘lectric” installed a few years ago, while others bought Cork food of Murphy’s, drisheen and corned beef all blended together for their feed stops. Carol Cashel also brought a Waterford-Cork dictionary but really struggled during Colm’s pre-race safety briefing. English Channel swimmer Zoe Matron Sadler travelled from the UK and enjoyed her trip on the train and during which she was entranced to find that Ireland had an inland, completely unfamiliar as she was with the geography of our neighbouring island, while Swiss North Channel Swimmer Sabrina Weidmar also represented the international contingent.
In Part II, I’ll cover the 2014 Copper Coast CoC swim.