It’s sometimes said amongst distance and marathon swimmers that everyone suffers (at least) one nightmare swim. The kind of swim where everything seems to conspire against you. Nature, circumstances, events, planning, details. Nightmare swims are sometimes ascribed to over-confidence by the more self-aware kind of swimmer.
Rather than blaming everyone except yourself the self-aware marathon swimmer will probably admit that they over-estimated their own speed, fitness or training, or underestimated a particular swim or the conditions or a combination. All my many swimming friends fall into the second category. I don’t have
much any time for those in the first category.
Long distance swimming requires a certain outside view of yourself, whether that view be (ironically) to delude yourself into thinking you are more capable than you may be (thereby breaking your own limits) or to understand your own capabilities and swim up to them. You can even combine the techniques, if such they can be called when they are more usually a reflection of your own personality. With correct preparation either can work very effectively. But that preparation is the real key.
It had been a while since I’d done a long swim. But the summer was here. 10k+ seemed like a good idea. I’d slept well the previous night, and the start time was mid morning at 10am, and the distance to travel was less than an hour so it didn’t require one of those Stupid O’Clock early morning/middle of the night starts. A big Swimmer’s Smoothie with extra banana. My digestive processes, shall we say, co-operated so I wasn’t looking for a sudden “comfort break” while driving along a country road heading toward the midlands, or worse, 10 minutes into the swim. Sure, I’d forgotten my feed bottles but I remembered in time to return home and not be late.
The weather forecast was bad. First of June, a full month into summer (as us Irish count the seasons by the Gaelic calendar). Gale force winds forecast for later in the day, with torrential rain, worst on the east and south-east coasts. Shur, what else would you be doing on a summer morning in Ireland?
I was relaxed. Maybe too relaxed, but I’ve done this kind of thing a lot over the years. Maybe I didn’t think enough about what could happen. Maybe I was too casual, and didn’t take all the factors that could influence the swim, or what could occur during it into account.
For goggles, I opted for clear Swedes. But in all honesty, that was because I’d apparently forgotten to bring a backup gasket pair. Only three weeks from the longest day of the long northern latitude summer days when the day is 19 hours long, I wasn’t getting my toes in the water for six and half hours after dawn, but the heavily overcast though still dry day reduced the ambient light so I didn’t want tinted goggs.
Recently I’ve started thinking of the first 100 metres as the “test and fix my goggles” phase as I’ve frequently found that on some days Swedes just don’t co-operate with my funny-shaped face. But hey, this time they were perfect. But I’ll tell you now, it wasn’t the goggles that did me in.
I started out well. I’ve had a seemingly interminable series of head colds and other minor ailments and injuries over the last few months. That and lack of time, the marathon swimmer’s echo stolen from Andrew Marvell: “Had [I] world enough, and time“… I would have trained more.
Ah, but Marvel also said:
“But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity”.
Marvell, you should have been a distance swimmer. Time. The obsession of all swimmers. Oft inverted to its reciprocal. v=d/t, d=vt.
Speed is time is distance.
It started well. Swim smooth, ignore the others. Ease steadily through the first two kilometres. I’d know when I was warmed up, as my heavy breathing would almost suddenly ease and release, the transition usually taking only 50 to 100 metres. I only recognised one guy. A strongly physically built swimmer, he had a stroke flaw, leaning heavily onto his right hand side and gliding too long, putting the brakes on every stroke. I knew he’d chase me, knew he’d sprint to catch me, and maybe succeed but I knew I would as always burn him off. Maybe I was over-confident, but I’ll tell you now, it wasn’t that guy that did me in.
Then I developed a mild cough. A mild cough is one of the worst things that can happen while exercising to a swimmer with mostly controlled asthma like me and is worse if it happens when swimming. At least for me. It can develop until I start coughing under water. It’s like sinking in quicksand, I have less oxygen to power my hand, and my hands themselves don’t catch. Four kilometres in, it hadn’t deteriorated. I coughed a little and cleared some phlegm underwater. Ooh! But I’ll tell you now, it wasn’t the cough that did me in.
Apart from that guy, the rest were a mix. A few triathletes, which meant common triathlete scissors kicks to be avoided. A few who shouldn’t have been there, who’d obviously and too casually over estimated their ability. One guy wearing a University College Dublin cap was college level fast, but he was a greyhound competing with a border collie. Forget about him, he’s too fast. Different dogs, different worlds. But I’ll tell you now, it wasn’t the greyhound or the triathletes or the over-confident ones that did me in.
The water was murky and it got murkier. It was choppy but I’ll tell you now, it wasn’t the murk or chop that did me in. It was full of things and stuff. It was so murky and choppy that each thing or bit of stuff hit me unexpectedly. My goggles, my nose clip kept getting knocked off, I was swimming up on people, not deliberately for once and dodging or not dodging legs or arms. But they stopped or fell away behind and I kept going. For a while anyway. No, it wasn’t the things or the stuff or the people that did me in.
I’d decided not to feed, and just hydrate, so nothing went wrong there at least. And I was swimming okay. That’s the thing. Despite the break since the last long swim, I felt fine, though of course my times were a bit off. At nine and a half kilometres someone got onto my legs to draft. When you’re well into a swim a drafter is the worst of all leeches. You know they are there because they reckon they aren’t fast enough to easily swim past. So they use your exertion, your breaking the water to cruise with less effort until you are goosed. I know this, because I have drafted, have been a leech, have used drafting to my advantage.
I got a head on me. Hey, if he can’t pass me, then he’s made the mistake of thinking I am cooked, and there’s nothing I can do. No, I wouldn’t use any of my tricks. Instead I’d burn him. Crank it up, oscillate speed, pace then push, pace then push. I’m a distance swimmer, I can do this. I’ve taught myself to swim on the edge, the threshold is the very nature of the distance swimming beast. And I was coming up on 10 kilometers. So what if you were on the shorter distance? Try me, just bloody try me. I’ll tell you now, it wasn’t the speed that did me in.
200 metres. He was still there. I didn’t have any sprint in me, I wasn’t fit enough. Speed up, pace down, let him catch me, than push again and make him chase. The old cyclist’s trick, how to break your opponent. Take the initiative. No matter how much you hurt at least you are still the one in control. 400 metres. Breathing heavier. He’s still there. 600 metres. Is the gap getting a fraction wider each time? Ah, Marvell, you again.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.
Another two minutes, then go. Crank it up now. No relenting. Push, then keep pushing. It only took 100 metres and he’s broken. Done. In seconds he’s disappearing behind me. Stick a fork in his arse and turn him over.
“What is best in life, Conan'”
“Crush your enemies. See them driven before you. Hear the lamentations of their women“.
No, it wasn’t him that did me in. Five hundred metres to go. I swam 100, then 100 more. Then I stopped and I didn’t finish. But it wasn’t the distance that did me in.
I’ll tell you what did me in.
It was almost everything. The non-swimmers and the people who don’t understand lane etiquette and the murk and the chop and the stuff and the kicks and the punches and movable floor being raised to shallower depth than the shallow end and the kids and the guy swimming underneath me, and the lack of preparation and lack of training.The other swimmers had merely unwitting walk-on, or should I say swim-on appearances in my own private drama.
But mostly, mostly it was my stupid decision to do an 11k swim in a public pool on an Irish summer public holiday Monday while there was a storm raging outside.
Yes, it was only a pool swim, so it couldn’t really qualify as a Nightmare Swim.