Cork swimmer Diarmuid Herlihy’s Lough Allua Swim has been growing in reputation for the last couple of years, and as one of the swims I’d not previously done, and since also I’d missed this year’s Garnish swim in the same geographical region, I decided to take the long drive south-west to investigate and see and swim another new location.
Part of the attraction was that as a Cork swim, I’d meet some friends and as it was the first non-Sandycove swim and first day of 2015’s Camp week, I’d possibly meet some previous attendees and friends of the blog, (as proved to be the case).
Physically, and even mentally, I wasn’t in the best of form, though I’m usually content when I’m around other long distance swimmers. Ideally I’d like to have shown up to registration, spoken with a small number of friends, swum, and gone home. I accomplished most of this. Regardless of any other philosophical differences, distance swimmers nearly all share this one addiction that isolates us from the rest of the world, and therefore we generally work well as a group.
The swim is the picturesque length of Lough Allua in the West Cork mountains, finishing in the small village of Inchigeelagh outside the lake after a down-river leg of about two kilometres. Apart from the glorious scenery, (it’s both Ireland and Cork, so that’s a given) what makes Lough Allua a noted swim is the reputed navigational difficulty. Stories abound of swimmers having to swim a kilometre extra because of said difficulty and making mistakes.
At least in my own head, I do two things well in swimming. Rough water and navigation. But rough water in a lake means a head wind, chop and slow progress. That’s just tortuous and not the rough water of the sea I mean.
There’s no mystery to my navigation skills.
Here’s my secret: I read a map.
It regularly surprises me in a world of Goggle Earth, with most of Ireland having finally if belatedly added in high-resolution, why so few swimmers fail to check out new swims beforehand, and even though Diarmuid even sent out a Goggle Earth image of the route.
I mean, if you (by which I mean myself) can’t be fast, why not be prepared?
Off course, this inattention to detail by others has actually served me well, so I’m not complaining. but it would be disingenuous of me to not mention this, when I’m slowly and methodically working my way through every single thing relevant to open water swimming of which I can think.
So, 15 minutes with Google Earth. I added the start and finish points, worked out the likely route (swim from start to first turn, first turn to second turn, etc, it’s not rocket science) noted the distance for the major legs, and what I was likely to be able to use as a marker considering poor visibility from the water surface, lack of prescription goggles, and considering the map is two-dimensional.
The important points I noted were that the lake narrowed in a few places. Without seeing those I could guess that those points would be the most visible route markers.
You know the first lesson you learn in open water racing? Well, maybe the second lesson, after the lesson of aggressive mass starts. Pick a point well above the water surface to aim at. Hills, mountains, steeples and high buildings. I couldn’t tell what the mountains would look like, what buildings or otherwise were markers. So I picked the narrow points of the lake. With the major distances of the legs in mind, I could estimate swim times. All I had to remember was: Straight/Slight Left/Straight/Left/Straight/Slight Right/Pass the Forest, then left into the river for 1.6k. I also tried something new and wrote the basics on my hand (and unnecessary).
At the safety briefing Diarmuid presented us a hand drawn map of the route with the major landmarks and hazards. (Three buoys, mobile home on right, aim for orange house, major problem is reed beds interfering with navigation and difficulty sighting on anything). A friend also confirmed the reed beds as a problem to navigation and laughed at me hand scribbles.
I thought I’d sandbagged my estimated time when I entered but I found I was in the second last (second fastest) wave. I wasn’t interested in racing, despite the aforementioned preparation. I wanted to swim by myself and by sandbagging my times, I thought I’d get into a slower group and would mostly be able to swim by myself. I even packed a camera in my Speedoes, something I don’t do if I’m racing.
After the chats while we all changed we took a trip in the back of a van to the start at the other end of the lake.
As we waited for our starting wave, I actually wasn’t really looking forward to swimming. I am after all, not the most enthusiastic fresh water swimmer. Go time, and I let my wave go. It’s advice that I often give beginner open water racers: “if you don’t want to get involved in the aggressive start crush, wait five or ten seconds”. I wasn’t worried about the aggression, I jut wanted to swim by myself, and over 7 or 8 kilometres, a few seconds would mean little.
As I stroked away from the start, and for most of the first 800 metres to the first course deviation, I thought about the brief discussion I’d had with long time friend of the blog and Distance Camp multi veteran Neil Morton “what do you want the blog to be”?
I’d asked and answered this question for myself many times over the years, but while my over-riding aim stays the same, there are changes. I remain committed to trying to honest, trying to explore and explain all that I have learned and am still learning about open water swimming. If there is any current change, it’s that while trying to do that, I am also pursuing some other, shall we say, possibilities in self-expression, for myself while doing so. The many popular How To type articles are interesting to write in that they give me something to think about, but regardless of how popular they become they are rarely the most creatively challenging or satisfying. Where those benefit me the most is that having to think about every single thing in swimming, and how or even weather to communicate it is the challenge, and results in me having usually thought long about often trivial subject that we sometimes neglect as being obvious, when they aren’t to beginners. This writing about writing or even writing about thinking is an example of the much-repeated question of all distance swimmers: “what do you think about?“.
There’s not much interest in doing a stroke by stroke account of Lough Allua. The course as noted, is not straight. You start heading south-east and finish east, surrounded all the while by the mountains of west Cork. The water is perfectly clean, and not unusually either peaty or black, common features of many Irish lake swims. By the way, Lough is the Irish for lake, as Loch is in Scotland, and both being variations of Gaelic are pronounced lock.
I make fun of Sandycove swimmers, that all the time swimming anti-clockwise around the island has resulted that none of them can swim straight.and take navigation for granted. The Copper Coast and Tramore Bay particularly, at least the way I swim them, are more long point to point swims, requiring straight lines and navigation.
Cruising through the first section, I started to pass swimmers after about 15 minutes and this continued throughout as I passed many of those from the earlier waves. Diarmuid had mentioned aiming for an orange house on the hill as we traversed the long wide middle stretch. This likely excellent marker was however hidden by the torrential rain. I stuck to my original plan of aiming for narrow points, and the swim unraveled behind me as I traveled through that mental landscape of my mind being all over the place initially, into a gradually calmer place, where, in common with most distance swimmers, the more distance swim, the stronger I felt. By the time an hour had passed, I was in a racing mood and starting to swim hard.
Every way point I’d planned was fine and the reeds were never in my path. I ignored the lines other took, and the couple of times someone decided to draft off me, I immediately changed direction to discourage them. There was Sun and rain, and Sun and rain. Doesn’t everyone love swimming in the rain?
As we Irish say, “a soft day“.
I entered and charged up the river. Those few remaining solo or pair of swimmers I passed before the end fought hard to stay on with me. I swam into the branches of a fallen tree that suddenly appeared and to which I only lost mere second. An hour and three-quarters had passed when I checked my stroke rate and found I was swimming at 87 strokes per minute, which momentarily flabbergasted me as my usual rate is and have been for years 71 to 72 for spm for regular open water, and I’d expect about 10% increase for racing distance, rather than 20 and I’m not doing any significant training.
The finish on the bank just outside Inchigeelagh came more quickly than I’d anticipated at just under two hours of gorgeous scenery and what felt like an easy and quick swim. I was somewhat confused by Lough Allua’s reputation for being a difficult swim to navigate, as it seems to me that a little preparation was all that was required. Oh, and apparently, if the results are accurate, I came 6th, my best open water race performance for a while, and which possibly proves my point about a simple bit of navigation being more valuable sometimes than pure speed. After all, when you are racing, every metre you don’t have to swim is a benefit in speed, time, energy and maybe even confidence. The actual distance swam was probably just under 7k, rather the 7.4 to 8k which can apparently happen to those getting their navigation wrong.
That the seventy plus swimmers were segregated into wetsuit and non-wetsuit categories shouldn’t require mention but increasingly seems to be. Lough Allua is a good swim and I’d highly recommend it. Diarmuid’s swim organisation is excellent with lots of family and locals helping out, kayaking, marshaling and ferrying swimmers to the start and providing the meal afterwards and you might bump into a few Channel swimmers.