January 2017 – In at the shallow end

At the start of the year everyone makes new year resolutions.  Most resolutions are to lose weight or stop doing something like smoking or to start exercising everyday or read a book a week or something for a whole year.  Many resolutions have often lapsed by the end of the month and the written commitments end up in the same recycling bins as the Christmas wrapping paper.

For me, my resolution was slightly different in that it was not to start or stop anything or to complete a certain task by the end of the year.  My resolution was simply to get to the Winter Swimming World Championships in Estonia in March 2018.  Whether I got there as a competitor or spectator didn’t matter too much to me.  I’d never been to Estonia or to a swimming World Championships, especially not in Winter.

My interest in competitive swimming had never really existed.  The last swimming lesson I had ever had I was aged 12 and at high school, where the instructors just made sure that you could splash your way through a 25 metre pool length.  A year later the school held a swimming gala and I came sixth in the 25 metre freesytle event.

Over the years I had grown to love swimming, especially outdoors, but my technique was very unique, splashy and powered by determination rather than knowledge and I saw it very much as something I did for myself so until mid 2016 I had never joined a swimming club.  Even when I did join a swimming ‘club’ it was more a social group than a club #ChesterFrosties and it was these people who set me on my ambition to get to a World Championship swimming event in 2018!

#ChesterFrosties are a social swimming site on Facebook for people who enjoy swimming outdoors, year round in the Chester area of the UK.  People who’d seen me swimming would often tell me to join up with them as they were fun people to be with.  So I joined up on Facebook and my first swim with them was actually for a TV advert for the Co-Op which was screen over the Christmas period.  The swim itself was short dip in the sea off Blackpool beach with a bunch of extras and swimmers and my day ended with an invitation to join the Frosties at an event called ‘ChillSwim’ in December at Lake Windermere.  They’d be having different races including a fancy dress event and having already dressed up once for the TV advert, it would be nothing worse than I’d already done.  ‘Why not?’ I thought to myself.

I entered the 120 metres, 240 metres, and a 4 x 30 metre fancy dress relay.  The races I’d entered were quite short and if I felt it was too cold I could just stick to the fancy dress event and at least the outfit could keep me warm.  On the day itself, I went for a morning dip in the lake to acclimatise a little and I realised it was really quite cold (that’s classic British understatement, in reality it felt like ‘Oh My Goodness I’m going to die if I do this’).  Nonetheless as I was there with the ‘club’ I felt duty bound to do my races.  The organisers had built a 30 metre long pontoon on the lake in a small marina and I knew that at least every lap I could get out if I got too cold and they also had safety divers on the pool side to rescue anyone who didn’t quite make it to the end of a lap.  I swam my races in a messy, splashy and determined style and then the relay I was dressed in a full body roast turkey suit, with bacofoil wrap as I entered the water, I was dressed as a big wet blob when I left the water.

After recovering from the cold and thinking nothing of my times, positions or performance as it had been my first race since I was 13, someone told me it was actually a World Cup event!  Looking around there were people from all over the world, literally Chileans, Americans, Russians, Latvians, Australians even French people and many more each wearing their national flags on their costumes and swim hats.  I was intrigued!  Why had I not seen this before?  I went over to the results board to see just how fast the elite people from all over the world were going.  They were going much, much faster than me.  I was impressed.  Then I was shocked.  The organisers had broken the listings down into age groups and there to my disbelief, it showed that I had come third in the 120 metres for my age group and second in the 240 metres.  I was now a World Cup medallist!

If ever I have grandchildren, I can sit them on my knee and tell them grand (and mostly made up) stories about how I came to win all my swimming World Cup medals, even if I never swam again I’d have something to brag about.

But winning the medals felt hollow. I hadn’t won them.  There’d only been five people of my age group in the 120 metre race and the silver was given to me by default in the 240 metres as there were only two of us in our age group swimming it.  If I got the medals mixed up it might look like I came third in a two man race!  One of my new swimming friends from #ChesterFrosties saw through both my happiness and disappointment and said to me “It’s grand that you’ve got your medals, but your swimmings all over the place.  Learn to swim properly and next year you can win them properly”.  His words rang true and that is when I made my resolution, not just to get to the next World Cup event but to earn my way through to the World Championships.

It was true, my swimming technique was awful, utterly awful.  I could plough a mile or two in the pool, even a kilometre in the water but every few strokes I would lift my head out of the water completely, breathe out, breathe in again and put my head back under until I ran out of breath again. Knowing where I was going was quite easy because I could always see where I was everytime I took a breath but it was irregular, unco-ordinated and messy and for the amount of energy I put in it was very slow.  My friend had told me to buy some swimming textbooks, watch some youtube videos and start learning to swim again from scratch, literally forget everything I knew and start again.  So, after a cold midnight swim in a lake on 31 December 2016 I decided to get back into the shallow end of swimming and learn everything again from scratch.

I’d picked up a basic training plan online and then youtubed all the techniques.  Each swim was at least 2km but had plenty of rest breaks in the pool so I would build up technique and stamina and possibly speed by following these programmes.  My plan was to follow each week’s programme until it became comfortable to do before moving on to the next week.  My reality was that the first week was so hard that I had to spread the days out into two weeks.  I also began reading my copy of #totalimmersion that I had bought in 1996 but never actually bothered to read from start to finish.

The first laps were warm ups 25 metres in each different stroke, nothing new, nothing heavy.  The second set of laps were swimming without my arms, three seconds on my left side, three seconds on my front, three seconds on my right side.  Even though it was only a 25 metre pool it felt like these laps would kill me. The third set were called a catch up drill where before my I could release one hand to do the next stroke, I had to swim with them together for three seconds so I was long and thin through the water.  Then the programme said to these sets four times with a two minute breather between each set before warming down with 200 metres.  I think I swallowed more of the pool than I swam through but at the end of the session I could feel something had improved.

Two days later, I was back in the shallow going through the programme ‘day 2’, similarly it worked on my arms and my balance in the water and it needed me to kick more than I had kicked in a long time.  A week later I went back and did ‘day 3’.

Each week I reckoned on doing at least two pool swims and at least two open water swims so I could get used to the cold.  The pool swims were easy to fit in as they were indoors, in heated water and well lit.  The outdoor swims were more of a challenge as I could not easily get out of work in daylight so outdoor swimming soon became night time swimming.  Though a one night stay for a work meeting in London boosted my morale, London Fields Lido is an outdoor pool. in which I did one of my now regular 2km training sessions in.  It is also heated to well over 20’C and floodlit.  If you ever get chance I do recommend it regardless of whether you consider yourself to be an outdoor swimmer or not.  Brockwell Lido the next morning was a different experience, the lifeguards told us to avoid the middle lanes because of the ice and the grab rails round the edge of the pool all had icicles hanging from them.  It was cold, beautiful, serene, safe with the lifeguards and the sauna on hand, but it was cold.  A lady remarked to me that “it’ll put hairs on your chest” to which I replied “it’ll snap hairs off my chest”.

Developing technique and cold exposure was only part of my plan to get to Estonia, I also needed to enter races, so buoyed by my success at ChillSwim I decided to enter the British Ice Swimming championships which were being held in early February.  Not only that but I entered a whole host of other races too and rather optimistically registered for the Winter Swimming World Championships in March 2018.  All I had to do now was work out how to get there.

Book of the month : Total Immersion by Terry Laughlin and John Delves available from http://www.totalimmersion.co.uk

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