On Sunday I finally made my way to Dover to get my first taste of the Channel. I was a little apprehensive as the last long swim I had done was the 10km a couple of weeks ago, the water temp had shot up to a scorching 19+C in the lake and the sun was beating down on us. A complete contrast to Dover, it had been miserable for the week leading up and the wind was out showing off a little of what it can do, the sea was looking cold and choppy.
When I checked in with the beach crew i discovered that the water was a mild 13.5C, so the 3 hour swim i was given was looking to be nice and fun! I quickly changed and stood In line to have Vaseline applied generously by another member of the helpful beach crew. The infamous Freda called us all together for a quick briefing - only swim as far as the last pole that way and see how choppy it is when you get to the other end, the first feed will be at 11. And that was that. Although swimming is pretty straightforward and not particulary complex I was expecting more, but in hindsight, what else could she say?
Without further ado we made our way to the water front, there we nothing left to do but jump in and get swimming. There was a little bit of a shock and the inhalation reflex (can't remember the technical term) but after a feŵ quick strokes had my breathing under control and actually started to feel warm! I wasn't expecting that, I kept up a good pace so that the cold wouldn't get to me, I felt good. I headed toward the groynes not sure how far to go. I followed the other swimmers, as we passed the first groyne the sea seemed to boil and churn....ooh this was getting more interesting. The challenge had just got harder. I dug in and tried to feel the rhythme of the sea to work out the best way to swim with the motion of the water rather than against it. Well that was the idea any way. I got a few mouthfuls of sea water as I turned to breathe. Spluttering, I continued on as close to the wall as possible and then turned to head back against the current.
At one point I looked around to see where the other swimmers were and couldn't see a one. There must have been about 30 of us setting off at the same time, all wearing bright red swimming caps and I couldn't see one of them, it was that choppy. My mind wanted to go on a wander and start to panic me, but I put an end to any nasty thoughts before they could take root.
I didn't want to check my watch until I did one full lap as I didn't want to be disappointed at how much I had left to do. I started to let my mind wonder, realising that I rarely do when I am swimming. I am always counting laps in the pool and lakes that I can't let my mind loose, this was different all I had to do was swim for 3 hours without having to count anything. 1st lap down in half an hour, almost the perfect distance for a lap swim, 4 per hour, nice and easy, but enough variety and turns to keep it interesting. I started to think that as this was going so well, that I might stay for an extra hour and clock up 4 hours on my first Dover visit...
Finally I spotted some of my fellow swimmers, I didn't realise quite how far from the beach I had swam out, as I moved closer to the shore I could see more and more of them. Comforting, some how.
As the 2 hour mark approached I could feel the difference the choppy water was having on my shoulders. A stiffness was creeping in. This was not a good sign, I didn't think it would stop me from completing the 3 hour swim, but I did think how am I going to be able to do this for 12+ hours next year? Well it certainly made me realise that no matter how much time I spend in the pool I need to get my arse down to the coast a lot more often, oh and some time in the gym to build more strength into these shoulders.
I joined the rest of the swimmers at the beach for our feed. I had heard of Freda's legendary maxim mix and I was not sure I would be able to stomach such a potent sports drinks. As I neared the shallows a cup was thrust into my hand which I gulped down, it was delicious, absolutely delicious, warm, sweet and gloopy. I reached for a second which went straight down, I stood hovering considering a third before I was snapped out of my reviere with a brusk "off you go". Without thinking I turned and dove back into the water to complete my last hour.
It was getting harder with every stroke, whilst the drink had revitalised me somewhat there was still the feeling that liquid cement was leaking slowly into my arms and legs. Thoughts of doing a 4th hour were quickly dropped as I did my best to focus on a quality stroke and get through the last hour without losing too much morale. More mouthfuls of sea water didn't help, as the wind picked up and the chop got choppier I started to slow ever more. Finally I was on the last lap and before I knew it heading to last turn back toward the beach. I checked my watch, 4 minutes early! So, on I swam each minute seeming to take 5 to pass.
Turning toward the shore to finish, digging a little deeper to swim against a current that seemed intent on taking me further out to sea, I contemplated where I am in my preparation. I felt tired, sure I could have swam on if absolutely needed, but not for many more hours. The positives though...I didn't feel cold, mentally I felt fine and I didn't get bored.
A few days later there is a little post swim stiffness but nothing too much which suggests I am in reasonably good shape....just need to get in even better shape :-)