3km Open Water Swim – It’s Not Just About The Distance

I thought long and hard about a title for race 2 of ‘Six Races in Seven Weeks’ and I think this is very apt. Maybe it was because of recent mentions of Lance Armstrong that reminded me of his book and it’s title but I have learned that swimming in an open water race is not just about the distance.

As I’ve said in my blog ‘Six Races In Seven Weeks’, the London Triathlon is my ‘A’ race, the biggie, the daddy, the one that all my training in 2012 is geared towards. I’m doing the Olympic Distance which involves a 1500 metre swim and for me to do well in the triathlon, it’s the discipline that I feared most so to tackle this fear head on I booked my place on the Marlow 3KM (not 750m or 1500m)open water swim. A bit crazy, but I read so often about people I admire really going for it and succeeding or if not they at least ‘aimed for the moon and reached the stars’.

This may sound familiar to those of you who read my ‘Sub 3hr Marathon’ blog where I aimed for a hard target time of under 3 hours but in failing that I actually got well under my original goal of beating 3hrs 15.

So here we go again, another goal that scared me but I HAD to achieve it for me but also because I want you guys to get out of your comfort zone and go for things that you would think crazy, be it a 5km run or Ironman Triathlon etc. ‘Pressure is not just for tyres!

Firstly, after discussing arrangements with Kirsty I joined Thames Turbo Triathlon Club to go along to their swim sessions. Thursday nights at Hampton Open Air Pool and Saturday mornings at Shepperton Lake. For £22 a month I thought that’s a bargain and they offer ‘triathlon’ sessions on most other nights too.

Being a pool lifeguard as a teenager, I can swim but as most of you will know you only really need to be strong enough to get someone to the side. As part of a ‘keep fit’ regime I have swam 8 x 8 lengths of a 25 metre pool (a mile) but with 1-2mins rest and out of the 8 lengths 4 of them were breaststroke. Marlow was a tough challenge.

I went to my first swim night and thought ‘Just Do It’. If they say 4 lengths, then do 4 etc. I’m not going to say it was easy because it certainly wasn’t but that is what I needed. Namby pambying would not help me conquer 3 THOUSAND metres!

It was hard to see improvement over the weeks but I knew that the more you do something the better you usually become. Next challenge however was to get out of the pool and into ‘Open Water’. I went to Sigma Sports in Kingston and bought myself the Blue Seventy Reaction wetsuit which was originally more than I wanted to spend but with saving money on getting a bike I felt it was justified. A swimming wetsuit had different thickness’ of neoprene for increased buoyancy and for less restriction around the shoulders and range from £100 – ?!?!?! but you can also hire so don’t worry if cost is an issue.

With my new wetsuit, polarised goggles and swim cap (What the hell do I need that for?!? ;-)) I went into Shepperton Lake and knowing what to expect from reading all about the differences between lake and pool, I still cannot explained what happened. I felt uneasy, I couldn’t take a full breath, I began to worry but at the same time my head felt fine. Something was happening to my body and I couldn’t work out what.

I swam a slow 400m around the buoys and came back in. Phased, I looked up and saw Graeme and explained what had happened. Thankfully he said that happens and that I wasn’t the first. I think I let out a big sigh of relief and then after gathering my thoughts I swam a slightly faster 400m.

The very next day I went to The London Triathlon’s training day with Paul who was even more worried about the swim and after a 60-80 minute coaching session from Marsha I was on fire…I was kicking ass on the practise starts, 400m swim and in the race we all had. Paul joined another group of weaker swimmers but he too came out of Ham lake feeling much more confident.

Since that day I continued with my Thursday night sessions and managed to swim 1500m in the lake on the 11th August. Zoom forward 2 weeks and there I was, registering in Marlow to swim 3km.

Paul had booked to do the swim too but he unfortunately or fortunately for him was away on business, however, a new client Sean who was there with Graeme the day I had my wobbly moment in the lake decided he wanted to do it as he ‘used to be’ an awesome swimmer and needed some goals too. It’s great to do these type of things with someone else for many reasons but I feel to be able to share the experience afterwards. Kirsty and Sam went to an airshow through choice but also as I said that it really isn’t much of a spectator sports as everyone looks the same…

Being with Sean helped me take my mind off the fact I was about to do something I’d never done before in swimming 3000m and with so many other people. I’d watched Keri-Anne Payne ‘battle’ her way around Hyde Park Serpentine and had a fair idea this wasn’t going to be a clean fight! This photo sums up why I was able to relax and laugh at Sean’s misfortune, it shouldn’t take you too long…

Anyway, jokes aside it was time to get into the Thames. We all went through a timing gate (chip was on the swim cap) and into the cold river. I jumped in and proceeded to swim away from the others coming in when I felt a sharp pain in my left leg…some t**t had jumped in and landed on my calf…instant deadleg!!!

I turned around to see loads of people in wetsuits and orange caps…NOT the start I wanted, I was in pain and about to do something that I needed as much help from all four limbs as possible. Luckily, I’m a lazy legged swimmer but even though this was not good. I tried my best to ignore it but even Sean could see that my excitement had gone and the challenge suddenly became harder.

We got briefed whilst treading water but all I could concentrate was all the other swimmers gathering around ‘my space’ and I didn’t like it. I held my arms out to stop people getting too close but enough was enough, I swam back about 5 metres to be at the side after all it wasn’t a sprint was it.

The horn sounded and off we went in a mass of thrashing and splashing. Straight away I thought this is gonna be much tougher than I initially anticipated. My calf only hurt when I used my leg but with so much else going on I had to battle with sensory overload. What I mean is I had to swim, breath, spot (buoys), avoid being kicked, slapped, seeing nothing but green water, bubbles, arms, legs…it was pandamonium…survival of the fittest!!!

I got to Marlow Bridge for the first time, breathing every 2 strokes and seeing limbs and orange caps everywhere. On reaching the two buoys I became the swimmer I was at 7 years old (swimming front crawl with my head out of the water) to see everything that was going on. Once around the buoys, I headed back up-stream with much more space around me. I think the buoys caused a bottleneck and therefore spread everyone out a bit. Sensory overload was still there but at least I was away from other swimmers, so much so that I think I was about 15 metres away from all other swimmers and heading towards the oncoming ones. I even think I heard loads of people shouting and screaming telling me to get back across…anyway.

The upstream leg(s) seemed to take ages but I kept thinking that I have to keep going, no other option! The buoys were huge and you could see them from way back but they never seemed to get any bigger. Eventually I got to the ‘750 turn buoys’ and I still didn’t feel like I was any sort of rhythm, I had to sort this out but couldn’t. I just kept swimming and breathing, swimming and breathing and slowly I managed to get into a bit of bi-lateral breathing and settle but only in spurts. Eventually I’d made it to the ‘1500 & 3K turn’ buoys and I felt a huge sigh of relief. River swimming was new to me but in my limited experience I could tell that we were swimming against a current and this was confirmed when I headed down stream and felt like I was motoring! This is where I started to settle down and get a rythym…around 1000m but at least I could relax.

At certain points during the race I saw quite a few orange capped swimmers fly past me, which caused me concern until I realised it was the 40+ 3Km swimmers overtaking me and then a wee while later came the pink caps of the 3Km women. It was amazing to see how quickly and effortlessly these people swam and definitely a quick wake up call to how far I had to go in terms of swimming ability.

I got my head down and started to think positive thoughts, London 2012, my family, #FitTeam12 and I got into a zone. It feels wierd having so much going on but still being able to zone out. It was like when you drive somewhere and on arrival you can’t really remember the journey…No? Just me then, oops! While thoughts were passing through my head my eyes were picking up all sorts of frantic movement, the green choppy water, the beautiful blue sky, the occasional foot or arm or orange cap but still I seemed in a tranquil state. That’s when a very strange feeling came over me…mmmm drowning would be a nice way to go!!! WTF?!?! Had I swallowed too much water? Had I taken a knock to the head?!? Whatever had happened I felt so calm whilst it was absolutely mental around me.

Eventually, I’d arrived at the bridge again (not drowned) and was ready for the next battle upstream. Now this is a good time to tell you about a little problem I have when I swim or should I say after I swim. I usually feel very bloated and have ‘trapped wind’ after a Thursday night session and have dealt with it (in private) by releasing it in the two ways the human body can. However, as this was further than I’d ever swam before I started to experiencing the need to ‘deflate’ during the actual swim which I managed to do for most of the race until the point where I felt if I did, I may…well you know. I’m sorry for putting this but it is fundamental to the story. From the bridge, upstream and then downstream to the finish line I had a really tight feeling in my stomach and it wasn’t nice at all. I was in pain!

As any military (ex or serving) man/woman would do, I soldiered on but with this burning desire to put an end to the pain by stopping and getting out (and running to the nearest bush), I didn’t, couldn’t and stubbornly wouldn’t. The only way I’d have stopped now is if my stomach exploded…it wasn’t far off!

The ‘1500 and 3km turning’ buoys couldn’t have come sooner. In my head I’d made it. The next part was downstream so I allowed myself a little smile but had to keep battling. I started to enjoy the morning’s antics as it was like running a race and the last mile being downhill. I saw the smaller yellow buoys of the finish line and started to turn the power on. Just as I did, I saw someone on my right start to come alongside. I was Phelps, Thorpe, Spitz, Goodhew and wasn’t going to lose this battle. I did lose…however it was nice to swim and forget about my sore calf, my aching stomach and about being kicked.

I gave the bugger who beat me a high-five and then realised I was still in pain. I slowly made my way to the jetty that I had to climb out onto. This was gonna be hard. I made it up onto my feet but couldn’t stand up. I felt pregnant, I had a space hopper in my belly. I walked towards the ‘event village’ like I was 90 years old. Someone stuck a medal around my neck and I slowly made my way further. I spotted the very smiley Sean, fully changed and snapping away with his camera phone. I am not proud of the photo below but I’m pretty sure you can see from my face that amount of pain I was in!!!

See, I told you!!!

I needed to get to a toilet and quick! I’ll spare you the details but what followed was like the ‘beans scene’ from Blazing Saddles (don’t click if easily offended!).

Anyway, I eventually got out of the toilet and met up with Sean again who was buzzing from his experience. As I said Sean was once an awesome swimmer, ranked top 3 in Europe and the day before had swam 3Km in 48 mins at the lake, however his time was 63mins which surely shows just how tough the current was. I’d hoped for around 60 mins but on hearing that, I knew I’d taken a lot longer. Here’s my instant print out below.

My official results are as follows – 1hr16m10s. 191st overall, 142nd male and 36th in the 35-39 age category.

I got dressed and jumped or rather shimmied into Sean truck and we made our way home. He dropped me off at the local newsagent for me to grab a special drink that helps me erm…burp and then I got home just before Kirsty, Kirsty’s friend Poppy and Sam left for Dunsfold’s ‘Wings and Wheels’ show. As I walked in Sam didn’t shout the usual “Daddy” but instead shouted “Medal!!!”. Only just turning 2 recently, he’s been obsessed by London 2012 and knows most common words associated with the Olympics but I’d never heard him say or shout “Medal”.

They left, I drank my drink, I lay on my stomach and within 10 minutes felt better. I believe what my problem is that I gulp air when I swim. I’ve never really thought about it before but in doing the 3Km swim as a precursor to the 1500m swim for the Olympic Distance at the London Triathlon, I learned the hard way that I need to sort this out especially if one day I want to attempt the Ironman distance.

I hope this hasn’t post hasn’t put any of you off Open Water Swimming, I’d rather you take away that sometimes to go ‘in at the deep end’ isn’t always the best way and that entering the 750m event would’ve been much more sensible. I would and will do this again, I have too as to become an Ironman I have to swim 3.9km before 112 mile cycle and a full marathon and I ain’t doing it if I have to rely on drinking this to get me through!

Race 2 of ‘Six Races in Seven Weeks!

Next is The London Duathlon ‘Classic’ Distance.


3 thoughts on “3km Open Water Swim – It’s Not Just About The Distance

  1. Fantastic blog Stu ….. very humerous, shame about the pain!

  2. Great blog! U continue to lead/astound/inspire with ur challenges and feats! Love the saying ‘pressure is not just for tires!!’ I feel after these races your next challenge should be to stop exercise, get up to bout 17/18 stone and then work on getting bk to ur current level! Now THAT would be big seller!! Great work – bendigedig!

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