Monday, 30 May 2011

The First 10km Swim

On Saturday 28th May I joined around 250 others to swim 10km at Eton Dorney Rowing lake. When I first floated (no pun intended!!) the idea to Human Race of doing a 10km race HR Owner John Lunt said, if you can get enough people interested then we’ll put the race on. I spent a few days trying to gather support. The response was swift and it was abundant, after just a couple of days I had over 60 people interested. I returned to John with this number and true to his word he agreed to put the race on.

To both of our surprise the race was much more popular than either of us could have imagined. The numbers kept growing steadily; from that initial 60 to close on 300 signed up in the lead up to the race, it just goes to show there are quite a few nutters out there!

Prior to the event I had the dilemma of whether to wear a wetsuit or not. On the one hand I was thinking that this is my first 10km swim and its more important to get that distance under my belt. On the other hand I was thinking that if I cannot even do 10km without a wetsuit, how am I going to get through 4 times that distance in the colder sea of the Channel!! In the end my cold training (or lack of) made the decision for me. In the week before the race I did my weekly Serpentine swim (without a wetsuit) and managed an hour, but I was getting pretty cold by the end of it and I just did not think I could stay in the water for up to 3 times longer for the Eton swim. I know that psychologically it would have been a great stepping stone in my journey to swimming the Channel. However, it would also have been quite a blow if I had to get out of the water due to the cold and not complete the distance. So, wetsuit it was...

With the decision made I was pretty relaxed going into the swim as I had done a 10km and 8km pool swim without stopping in the two weeks prior to the race. So I knew that I could do the distance comfortably. Plus, all my training had been done without a wetsuit, so having the extra buoyancy and less friction of the wetsuit was only going to make it easier.

In the week leading up to the 10km swim I reduced my training volume and intensity, whilst loading up on the carbs as I wasn’t sure how well I would be able to feed in the race. I had a really dodgy stomach the day before which did not help in the prep, but was back in control by the morning of, hoping I still had sufficient glycogen stores and not lost it all!!

The registration and preparation area at Dorney Lake was buzzing with around a thousand swimmers split over the 4 distances (750m, 1500m, 3km and 10km). There was a big mix of ability, some people doing their first open water swim, worrying how they would cope with the mass start, the cold water and the distance. Others talking about target times unachievable by most of us there and making their fellow swimmers feel a little inadequate! Overall there was a great atmosphere and a real feeling of camaraderie - we're in this together...

Before long it was our turn to line up and get into the water. Around 90% of the field were wearing wetsuits, only a few braved the water without. We took a leisurely swim to the starting point and looked down the course unable to see the last buoy over 1600m in the distance which marked our turning point, only 3 laps of the course, easy right!.

My target time for the race was 2hrs 30mins, I had no reason to assume that I would be able to managed this time as my pool time had been 2hrs 42 for 10km. I think I was expecting the thrill of the event and race conditions to knock 12mins off my time!!

I was in the middle of the pack, my favoured position being nearer the front, but we were hemmed in like tadpoles in a bucket with nowhere to go. The starting hooter went off and the water boiled and erupted with hundreds of arms and legs slamming into the water in an attempt to find space. I think most of us forgot that this was a marathon not a sprint at that point. For the first half of the first length there were people all around me, I couldn’t get into my own rhythm banging into the feet of swimmers in front and having my feet banged into by swimmers behind me. By the time I hit the first turn the field was starting to thin out and there was space starting to open up. The great thing about swimming at Dorney lake is that there are buoy ropes running the full length of the course, so if you can get a view of the rope there is little need to sight. You can just keep your head down and swim.

I felt pretty strong throughout the first lap and kept pace with those around my, claiming a couple of positions as I went along. My aim was to swim each lap in around 50 mins, but try and do them as descending efforts so that I would get quicker with each lap - that was the plan anyway! I arrived at the feeding station at the beginning of the second lap in around 49 mins. I took a swig of my sports drink (maxim), I couldn’t take too much in as my stomach was a little unsettled. Head back down and into the second lap still feeling strong - each land mark I passed I kept saying 'I will only have to swim past that one more time' to motivate myself.

It was working well, but at the turn at the halfway point of the second lap I started to feel my energy levels drop. I stopped worrying about what was going on around me and just focused on putting one arm in front of the other, maintaining good technique and not thinking about the waning power in my arms.

At the start of the last lap I was able to take on more fluid from the feeding station and felt a lot better almost straight away, although I didn’t get any faster. 2 laps down in 1hr 44, so not doing the negative splits I had hoped for, but still within reach of my target time. I started to feel a stiffness in my lower back, hands and arms. The thought going through my mind, as is the case whenever I start to struggle in any swim, was, if I am finding this hard how the hell am I going to cope with the channel! I felt myself slowing and at the final turn toward the home straight I had 21 mins to reach the end to hit the 2:30 target - no chance, so I quickly reassessed my position and thought, under 2:40 would still be a good time!!

I took a quick look up in front of me and couldn’t see any swimmers near by, I took a quick look behind me and could see a couple of swimmers about 30ms back. Head down, arm over arm I plodded on. Shortly after looking behind me one of the swimmers overtook me which told me I had slowed too much. I dug in, upped my pace and started to pull with power, the guy in front was motoring passed me but I was determined to sit on his toes for the remainder of the race - the last kilometre. We hit a bit of traffic which split us up, some of the slower 3km swimmers. I managed to get around them and back on his feet, but then we hit another traffic jam - a lot more 3km swimmers and some of the 10km swimmers finishing their 2nd lap. I got round them, but lost the guy in front. I kept on going, passing the laps buoy with just the last couple of hundred metres to go. With each stroke I pulled harder, turning my arms over faster and faster to get to the finish in under 2:40. As soon as I was in shallow water I got to my feet, steadied myself and jogged over the finishing mat to claim 37th place and 3rd in my age group in a time of 2:39:45!!! I was very happy...

I did find it a hard swim and let myself slow down too much when I was worried that I wasn’t going to make the distance due to fading energy levels. As I said earlier this is one of the easiest 10km swims I will do - closed water with no currents or waves, I had a wetsuit on and buoy ropes to guide the way for most of the course. Its only going to get harder, but two days after the race I am looking forward to my next event - a 10km sea swim at Weymouth, no wetsuits allowed........I foresee a lot of cold water in my future!

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

My thoughts on training plans

Throughout my years of triathlon I have been self-coached, by that I mean I read some magazines and books and from that got an idea of the kind of training I should do. I never sat down and structured each phase of training or sessions for that matter  My training plans were pretty rough simply to do a little more this week than I did last week, with the aim of building up to the race distance(s)....I rarely did interval training, mainly straight runs, cycles and swims...It wasnt until, by chance I got involved in a triathlon swimming group last year that I started to understand the benefits of structured swim sessions.

At the first session I was expecting the coach to tell me that I had a great technique and that I just needed to continue with what I was doing.  Oh how wrong can one be!!  It turned out that my technique was pretty rubbish, I had picked up most of the bad habits in the book and invented a few of my own....slightly shocked at this I resolved to improve.  Over just a few months of focusing on some swimming drills and mixing up my sessions with interval and pace work I was able to knock over 5 mins off my 3.8km OW swim time from the previous year.

Obviously this opened my eyes to the benefits of following a structured plan. So, when I decided to commit to swimming the channel I also decided that it was time to employ the services of a coach. The difference it made was instant, instead of working out what I was going to do on the way to the pool each day, I had a plan to follow and knew it had a structured approach. In the past I had committed many hours to training but always felt that I wasn't getting the most out of the hours I was putting in. I now realise that plodding up and down the lanes was not the best way to improve my swim times.

Each day my session has a different focus; pace, endurance, technique etc and each session is broken down as follows.

Warm up
Build set
Main set
Cool down

Not only does this breakdown give me a structured approach and ensure that I am getting the most out of each session, but it also helps keep mental fatigue and boredom at bay. Previously when i was swimming 3 or 4km straight I'd start to spend more and more time preparing my goggles at the beginning of each session, which was a sure sign that I was putting off starting the swim. Now I look at a 5km set and look forward to doing it as it is broken down into small chunks. By having a variety of aspects to each sessions means I challenge myself more, by sprinting hard for 10 x 50m and then going on to do a descending set and challenging myself to keep a steady pace.....I love it!

I always thought that taking a break during a session and using the various floats was cheating. It wasn’t until I regularly incorporated these into my training regime that I realised the benefits.

Since early March I have been doing at least one open water swim each week in the Serpentine in Hyde Park. I still do a lot of my swimming in the pool, but plan to split the time 50/50 with the open water to ensure I don’t lose the pace sessions and don't get back into plodding up and down.

Ultimately I want to be able to swim to the best of my ability and feel that I am gliding through the water, some days it feels that good others it feels as though my arms have been injected with lead and I am swimming through treacle. Swimming different sets in different locations helps to keep me fresh. All bodies of water are enticing when you feel strong and confident in your ablility. And there is nothing quite like being one of the first to arrive at the park as the morning sun burns the dew from the grass, forming a warm mist over the water. It even makes the duck poo murky waters of the Serps look stunning ......... from a distance!

Monday, 2 May 2011

24 Hour Swim4Life

The goal - to swim 1 mile an hour, on the hour, every hour, for 24 hours.......mission accomplished!!

We had the perfect start to the day, the sun steadily rising through the clear blue sky, shimmering down on Guildford open air 50m lido. The sparkle from the water gave a false sense, as the impulse was to jump in and float around leisurely; however at around 21 degrees C this was a pool to move quickly through to keep the body temperature up.

The poolside was surrounded by the tents of the 60+ participants, which gave a festival atmosphere to the place. Old friends of the swimming fraternity meeting up at yet another event to test their personal mettle, some testing themselves ahead of a Channel swim attempt, others just there for the hell of it.

At just before 9:30am we swimmers, some very colourfully clad, were called to the pool side to receive our starting orders, this was it the first of 24 miles. As the clock struck the half hour The Lady Mayor of Guildford gave a short speech and then set us off. One by one, in our allocated lanes, we dived in and started pounding out the lengths. As to be expected in any mass event, competitive spirit took over and some of the fastest laps of the day were recorded in that first mile.

Twenty four and a bit minutes later I was out and feeling reasonably good. My plan had been to take advice from the previous 24 hour event a couple of years ago and break the mile into 4 x 400m and do 300m front crawl and 100m back stroke, but I got caught up with the others in my lane and just front crawled it all the way. During my first break I started to work on my post swim routine, in my mind it had been – shower, dry, dress, eat, stretch, sit down. However, I was worried about getting food into my stomach early enough to allow it time to settle before the next mile, so the routine went – dry, eat, dress, toilet, sit down – the stretching was quickly binned!

For food I had a good mix – simple pasta with salt and olive oil, marmite sandwiches, cake, oat and seed flap jacks, cake, jelly babies, mini rolls, chocolate, bananas, cake and Maxim sports drink to supplement it all. I found it difficult in the first couple of miles to eat much, but managed a few bites. As I got into the swing of things it became easier to eat every hour. I drank just water for the first couple of hours so as not to give my stomach too much of a pounding with the electrolytes, which worked well. The regular toilet stops after each mile told me that I was drinking plenty and keeping nicely hydrated. As we moved into the cold hours of the night I started to have hot Maxim drinks in a bid to keep the energy and heat levels up.

The first break seemed to last for ages, I wasn’t really sure what to do with myself. I had to stop myself playing with my son who was happily splashing around in the kids pool area with Mel, my wife. He looked as though he was having a lot of fun, but conscious to heed the warnings of those who had done this event before, I sat passively, saved energy and watched.

The following 4 miles were pretty straight forward, although the pace was starting to drop off. In Lane 2 we started to discuss positioning and swim strategy, who was going to swim where and for how long before it was someone else’s time to take the lead. Invariably once we got going it was just a case of hanging on to the feet of the person in front long enough to conserve as much energy as possible.

During the 6th mile I started to hit a bit of a mental and physical barrier, my arms weren’t functioning quite as my brain was telling them to do so and for the first time I started to worry that I wouldn’t make the distance. My training had taken me up to 8 miles in a single day over 3 sessions as well as 4 other swim sessions and a couple of weights sessions each week. So, I felt that I was about as physically prepared as I could be (granted painting the whole of the downstairs a few days before the swim was possibly not the best prep!). My mind was wondering in that 6th mile as others started to lap me – how could I be so far behind and slow with all this preparation? What had everyone else been doing in training that I hadn’t? Questions I couldn’t answer, so I just kept on swimming. At mile 8 I felt stronger and was able to get through the lengths with relative ease, now completely ignoring those around me and swimming at my own pace, with a 50m back stroke thrown into every 400m. My mile splits were getting slightly longer, now up to around 27mins per mile, but I was very chuffed that I had made it to a third of the way.

We had been blessed with a beautiful sunny day all day, but as the late afternoon took hold the sun started to dip behind the trees and the wind started to pick up. Getting out of the cold water and being dried by the sun was now over and it was time to start working out how to get dry and warm quickly. I used a shammy to remove most of the water and then put on some clothes and sat in my tent which was still warm having had the full force of the sun on it throughout the day.
Some of the competitors had started to don wetsuits as day became dusked and quickly turned into night. A few had started to drop out due to various injuries or just because it had got too cold, the water temperature had started to drop by a few degrees. We were now down from 7 to 5 in our lane. Myself and one of the other competitors, Rich, had decided to complete 12 miles without the wetsuit, which we duly managed. That last mile without the wetsuit was an absolute killer, it was properly cold by this point and my arms felt as though they were full of cement, I managed the mile but felt awful, coming in at just under 29 minutes.

I had been very lucky to have had a lot of support from my lovely wife and son throughout the day and friends and family drop in when they could. It was a great morale booster to have them around. Some friends lived just next door to the pool – Sue and Dave, who kept dropping in throughout the day, night and early hours of the morning to give me support. After getting out of that 12th mile I was frozen to the core and I had to brush Sue aside as she popped in to say hi, so I could get to some warm clothing. She said she had a gift for me, at that point all I could think about was warmth and couldn’t focus on her, until she thrust a hot water bottle into my trembling was as though she had given me a the Elixir of life, I could have wept I felt so happy. Suddenly I was energised again and felt that I could do anything. Coupled with the fact that at mile 13 I put the wetsuit on I felt that I could go on for another 24 hours let alone another 12. It gave me the extra padding I needed to endure the cold. Putting on the wetsuit was like putting on Superman’s cape, I flew through the water, now leading the remaining swimmers in my lane (most with wet suits, but a couple without) and actually on a few of the next miles lapping some of them. I felt so strong now and although the cold was still a bit of an issue when I got out, the hot water bottle and a hot drink sorted that out. I was able to eat and drink pretty consistently throughout the night so my energy levels were balanced.

As we moved into the depths of night it was hard to stay awake between miles. I would get into the tent, stuff some food in and snuggle into the duvet Mel had very thoughtfully brought for me on her evening shift to get warm, laying my head down and dozing until I heard the shout for 5 minutes until the next mile began. Getting out of that warm tent into the cold night air just got harder and harder each time. Once I was in the water and had sprinted through the first 100m my core temperature was high enough for me to relax back into a nice gentle stroke. The wetsuit allowed me to glide through the water with relative ease. There were still some around us swimming without wetsuits, I have no idea how they managed it.

As the dawn began to break and the blackness in the sky gave way to morning our spirits began to lift even if the temperature did not, the end was in sight, there were only 5 miles left to go. About half way through the 19th mile I started to feel a twinge in my right elbow, which intensified the further I swam. It was just about bearable to complete the mile, but I was seriously worried that I wouldn’t be able to go on. This was hard to cope with mentally as we had just got through the hardest part of the 24 hours, with the sun rising it was only going to get warmer and easier. Before drying off I downed a couple of ibuprofen to give them maximum time to take hold before the next mile. At the start of mile 20 the pain was still there, but I could feel the intensity passing, although it still slowed me down I was able to complete the mile.

Before too long we had just 2 more miles to go, we were now down to 3 remaining swimmers in our lane. Each time we met at the start of the mile, we tried to joke and cheer ourselves along before getting in. Just as we were about to jump into the penultimate mile I heard my name shouted across the pool, I looked up to see Mel and Jack running toward me to give me that extra boost. I hadn’t known what time they would be back, so it was lovely to see them just before jumping in again. This mile was extremely hard, about half way through I hit the wall pretty hard, it felt as though someone had just hit the off switch, my energy levels were drained and felt very low. I pulled myself to the end of the mile and staggered out of the pool. Only one more mile to go, but I had nothing left in the tank. Friends started to appear to support me through the last mile, but I could barely speak to them. Back at the tent I stuffed as much sugary stuff I could get into my mouth as quickly as possible plus a few big swigs of energy drink and the feeling of the sun on my face started to do the trick.

Psychologically the last mile was tough, not because it was the last, but because I had felt so bad the previous mile. However, it passed pretty much as every other mile before it, my mind wondering a little, but mainly just counting out the lengths trying not lose count, I didn’t want to do any extra! And then the final 50m was ahead of me, I would have loved to have sprinted in at the end, but I had just about enough energy to maintain a constant speed, I touched the wall at the end to the sound of clapping and whooping......initially it was a feeling of relief, but now a day later it feels fantastic to have completed such a massive challenge. I have learned a lot about my swimming and myself. Plenty of work to do on acclimatisation before I hit the Channel in a couple of years, I would not have completed the challenge without a wetsuit, so I have the utmost respect for all of those that managed without.

My Kit List

Maxim energy drink
mini rolls
oat energy bars
chewing gum
carbo gels
throat sweets
Goggles x 3
Swim hats x 5
ear plugs x 2
Drinking bottles
washing line
Hoodies x 2
Warm hat
Towels x 4
Trunks x 3
wet suit
rash vests x2
flip flops
beach shoes
waterproof/ Winter jacket
tracky bottoms x 2
sport tops x 2
sport T-shirts x 3
body glide
shower gel
pain killers
toothbrush and paste
baby oil
wet ones
head torch
sleeping bag
Hot water bottle