Tuesday, 31 July 2012

BLDSA Ullswater Championships 2012

When I joined the BLDSA, it was the Ullswater Swim that grabbed my attention round the scruff of the neck and I was desperate to have a crack at swimming its 3 beautiful reaches. Trouble was the swim filled up quickly in 2011 and I couldn't get in. Therefore made sure in 2012 my name was the first one on the list.

The 3 reaches are different and interesting in their own right. The first one at the Glenridding end of the lake is cold as it is fed from the mountains of Helvellyn and High Street. This 1-mile reach is filled with 5-ish islands and bays with crags which drop down into the clear water which looks intensely inviting.

The second reach is ca. 3 miles long and more remote on the right bank and is filled with little bays which seem untouched for centuries.

After Howtown, one enters the final 3-mile reach which is more populated with sailing the order of the day and much more accessible to the day trippers from Penrith etc. This reach is also more exposed to the elements and when we saw the lake for the first time on Saturday morning with my canoeist (and uncle) John, we remarked that whitecaps were countless and this was going to be a battle for the Canadian canoe that I had just bought and just to get to the end of this reach in one piece with the kayaker not capsizing would be a battle in itself.

And so, it was with an element of uncertainty that we checked in for the swim on Sunday. We had practised paddling the Canadian canoe on the Saturday afternoon and even turned it upside down - thank god I had riveted in some buoyancy tanks otherwise recovery would have been a right old battle. After turning the boat turtle in the middle of the first reach we managed to swim it to the waters edge and get the water out!!!

At 8.30am, I was set off with the 2 other 'leisurely swimmers' as we had put slower 1-mile times on our entry forms than most of the other 'elite' punters.
Just before entering the water, Janet Wilson (the swim secretary for Loch Lomond) put her hand in the water and said to me that the temperature would be perfect training for what Loch Lomond was going to offer. It felt no more than 11 or 12 but manageable. We soon got going and I was out in front of the group of 3 and round the corner of the first reach and hugged the rocks closely as the came down sheer into the water - to my left at the end of the 1st reach was the beautiful Norfolk island and it really felt like a privilege to have all the safety cover in place to have this terrific opportunity to swim in such a place with relative safety. My canoeist and I felt relieved to have a canoeist out for the day in Pete Fellows not that far away who gave my man some confidence as Uncle John only had 1 hour of paddling under his belt.....(Pete Fellows is a legend btw...)

We rounded the first bend and it was shallow as I hugged the bank and could see massive majestic rocks underneath me. The lake opened up and our view was unobstructed the way it usually is with other swimmers and I was aware to take this 2nd reach with caution as it is at 3 miles long and no walk in the park. I didn't get ahead of myself and literally took it tree by tree. The water felt comfortable now and I feasted on a double strength dose of maxim and half a banana. We made good progress towards the end of the second large bay in that reach which took us to an awesome craggy outcrop at the end. It looked absolutely magical. We then crossed over to the other side to make for the final reach. The wind now started to howl (25-30mph was the forecast) and we were not disappointed!! Half way across to the final 3 mile reach I took a feed and looked behind me all the way back down the 2nd reach that i had just swum and was honoured to see one of the greatest sights a swimmer will ever experience from a lake in Britain - the peaks of the Helvellyn range from the water - this has to be the selling picture for the BLDSA!!. I said to Pete Fellows and Uncle John 'wow - look at that' and the feeling was so intense - just reminded myself why I took this on in the first place...

We rounded the corner into the last reach and passed some cute boathouses and could see multiple yachts in the distance screaming around effortlessly in the strong winds that were capable of making any of them capsize. We plodded on until I asked for a gel to keep me going but it was so choppy my canoeist felt uncomfortable even to pass that over so I said don't worry, I'll just swim to the end and that's what we did. I was expecting the elites to catch us but they didn't....the joy of small victories!!

After a while the rest of the swimmers finished in various shapes and sizes. There were 2 retirements. The lady who set off with me at 8.30am finished in under 5 hours which was immensely impressive given this was her longest swim since Conniston the year before and she had travelled up with her husband who rowed for her and he had only recently had a tripple heart bypass.

After a while we got to the pub and the presentation was soon underway. The winner, Mark Gardner, not only got the trophy but we were told of a story that he saved a child's life in open water recently - truly amazing (and must hear the details of this again). They then read out the bronze medal prize for the men's that went to none other than boy Sheridan who finished in a time of 4hrs 5 mins. Very surprised and chuffed.... So much for a leisurely swim! Uncle John and I then barrelled back into the Canadian canoe and enjoyed the lake for another three hours with a paddle against the wind and waves all the way back to Glenridding where we plonked the boat back on the Monster truck - no sooner had we done so, we were greeted with a symbolic rainbow - the most intense one I had ever seen (very surreal experience):

To conclude, if you like Open Water swimming, this swim is the most picturesque swim in Britain by a country mile.......Also, as an aside, met some incredible people again. Shook the hand of a remarkable man who saved a girl's life recently. Also met a very brave woman who challenged herself to the limit (in her 60s?) to swim these 7 miles accompanied by her husband rowin' after a tripple heart bypass....You never meet a dull open water swimmer or their crew for that matter!!!!

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Lake Bala BLDSA 6 and 3 mile 2012

Got back from Bala and one thing keeps striking me. It doesn’t matter how long these BLDSA swims are but the feeling of achievement doesn’t diminish as they are all tricky in their own right……….

Was feeling slightly nervous ahead of the Bala ‘training’ weekend. My longest mileage weekend in fresh water with the absence of buoyancy from salt water (had a 6 hour Gozo and 9-mile champion of champions under belt but both in salt water).
Went across the border into Wales on the Friday afternoon and it started to lash it down. Nice return to Wales I thought. Had a coffee in the hotel with my canoeist for the weekend – an English guy who lives locally called Darren who runs trips to Nepal via his company (http://www.purelandexpeditions.com).  A very useful extreme canoeist whose skills would not really be severely tested during the weekend – but it saved me havingthe hassle of dragging a mate up from Kent to accompany me….(will be a great contact going forward). His parting shot after imparting advice on the local chippie was to warn me not to step into pubs at the eastern end of town as they often housed more of therascal element of the local population (I was to hear from them later).
I then drove round the lake and went for a magical pre-supper swim at Langower where there is a stone jetty & where the Bala railway pulls into a small station (This, funnily enough was to be the start of the race on Sunday). All very quaint. A few ofthe locals stopping to watch a lunatic go for an evening swim – the fisherman at the end of the stone jetty admitted to ‘swimming a width of the lake once but watch out as it is cold’. After an early night, was awoken at 1am on Saturday by the local ‘yoof’having a right old go at each other in the car park out of the back of the hotel shouting aggravation at each other in Welsh. A charming interlude to the night’s sleep from some lunatics with way too much time on their hands and sweet f.a. to do.

After watching the 3k loop race finish we led into the water which seemed reasonably pleasant at what the officials said was 14 degrees. In fact, it felt warmer to me as it had done the night before. The mission was to swim 3 miles to the other end ofthe lake, turn round the boat at the end and then swim the 3 miles back.

Beginning of 6-miler (i'm the gimp in the red hat refusing to tow the line and wear green...):

 I was warned by Janet Wilson (the organiser for Loch Lomond) in no uncertain terms that if I quit during this 6-miler then my entry form for Lomond would duly be used for confetti..that fairly galvanised the mind!
Set off quickly to try and set the tone for the race. The first 2-ish miles went without incident and after pulling in line with the sailing club was beginning to wonder how much furtherwe had to go but the turning boat was nowhere in sight so the final mile before the turn seemed like a slog (we all felt the same way!). The boat turned, banana dispatched and decided to kick harder to lose a few of the punters who were on my tail.  There mustbe more of a current at this top end helping as I felt like I was shifting much faster compared with the slog in the previous mile to the turn and with it my mental state was more euphoric. Continued to make decent headway until the last mile when could seethe end of the lake that felt like it was never ever coming closer. It must have done as got there in ca. 3.5 hours which was in the parish of 40 mins off my personal best. What a difference a year and 5 more swim lessons has made.  I concurred with Liane,the BLDSA President, that this is not an easy swim and the last mile is really tough. My kayaker (who had a race radio) reckoned that a quarter of the field retired (in fact I think it was 3 out of the 25). We all stood on the side to clap in Chris Evans who finished ca. 10 mins before the cut off time and his longest swim in his swim career – a remarkable personal achievement. He looked pale and cold and that swim to the end must have taken a fair amount of determination. He was still shaking when he picked up his certificate.Very gutsy performance.

Awoke on the Sunday to a rare sight for me in Wales – blue skies!! Decided to make the most and go for a drive 5 miles up to the north into the middle of nowhere before the 3-mile swim for the day. Young buzzards were making sounds and could see all the mountain ranges (Cader Idris etc) & swallows flying acrobatically. I thanked whoever was looking down on us for such beautiful weather that I don’t think I’d ever seen in Wales before. All that was to change by the time the swim came around a few hours later!!The cloud  came in, and with it, a wind. The only benefit, however, was the wind helping to push us down to the finish. Yorkie (the only breaststroker) and I were desperate to get into the water as it seemed warmer than the cool that the wind was creating.We set off on a course across the lake and then down to the finish from the day before. There were catamarans on the lake going so fast they seemed like fighter jets compared with us swimmers. I think some of us were just waiting for the aggravation that was going to happen at the turn buoy with those boats screaming around. (We were told about the previous year’s near miss!)

Took it steadier than the day before and struggled to find rhythm as the shoulders were mighty stiff. Made steady progress and looked to the shore and kept it in mind to just take it tree-by-tree, bury head into water to breathe and not get ahead of myself. It was way choppier than the day before and this now reminded me of my time between mile 2 and 5 on Windermere where the waves were picking up my feet and drilling my head into the water which was making it hard to get any breath (let alone rhythm). I said jokingly to my Kayaker that I thought I was going to drown – the one saving grace was being able to drink oodles of Lake water as I went along which is a refreshing change from the ghastly water in Dover harbour.…. Daz, my canoeist, saved me some time again on the swim by going headland to headland where some of the punters seemed to go down the middle (despite race organiser’s (Andy Wright) multiple recommendations). We touched the timing mat after ca. 1.5 hours. Chuffed to bits and 15 mins off my PB! This was wind assisted so won’t qualify on Olympic rules….
Really didn’t feel cold once and managed to swan around in shorts without shaking afterwards wacking back latte’s from the slowest café known to man....

The buzz of achievement stayed with me all the way (5.5 hours) back to sunny Sevenoaks. Another part of the world discovered that is really truly beautiful – as long as it isn’t heaving it down – and water that is much warmer than one would have thought for Snowdonia. There were some really majestic and tranquil moments during the weekend as whitnessed before really early on the Saturday  morning...... Within 2 weeks, Ullswater, and arguably England’s most beautiful swim on the cards.

Monday, 9 July 2012


So, Superman (Mark Bayliss) and I decided the best plan of attack for the Torbay swim, and in order to not to use up any holiday, would be to hit the roads after work (7ish) and mosey on down to the English Riviera, pitch a tent somewhere and then report for swimming duty at the Meadfoot beach at 7.30am for the 8 mile swim. Like any good plan, we found out that flexibility was going to be key! I packed the monster truck with tuck box with food, stoves, tent, cool box with goodies and scooped up Superman at 7.30pm. We duly avoided all the tailbacks on the M25 and wormed our way past Guildford whereupon the heavens opened. I said jokingly, I bet it rains now until we get home….Wish I had been wrong…… We rocked into Torquay at around 11.30pm with some pretty heavy rain continuing and pulled up by Meedfoot Beach where the sea was coming all the way up to the harbour wall and it was going to be apparent that no tent would get pitched on the beach…. What were we thinking?! Suddenly realised I couldn’t get out of the truck as a local taxi driver pulled up so close alongside preventing me from getting out – he and I both wound windows down and he noted ‘I put money on it that you’ve been drinking’ – I retorted ‘I wish I had – just driven down from London and have been up since 5am this morning’. He wasn’t budging – ‘don’t worry I have called the police and given them your number plate’!!! Utter nonsense…. Being too tired to really give this rascal a piece of my mind I just said ‘Bring it on. Just Bring it on’’. He then drove off….What a charming welcome to Torquay. To cut a long story short, we nudged up the road and found a small park with a large tree 200 yards off the road. Exhausted, pitched the tent, pumped up my airbed and launched ourselves into the tent with the rain hammering down.
The rain continued but was then accompanied by an ever greater wind and all i could hear was the sound of an avalanche the whole time (oh, that'll be the sea then!)..By the time daylight came, my feet were soaked in my pod sleeping bag due to the tent caving in on my legs and we then hastily packed up the tent at 6am as soon as humanly right to cook breakfast. Never had tried to sleep with wet feet before…. Up the road we found a storm shelter to rustle up the finest outdoor breakfast known to mankind and Superman was treated to Museli, fresh milk, boiled eggs, bacon sandwiches and never ending coffee from café Sheridan. The rain and wind continued to come in horizontal fashion……  

We reported to the Meadfoot beach at 7.30am for registration with the waves crashing into the harbour wall and going 20m vertically up in the air. It was around that time that Superman and I realised we had actually pitched the tent on the most exposed headland in the area with no shelter from the onslaught of wind and rain. Amazing what daylight uncovers... It was impossible to walk along the pavement without a right old soaking. Swimmers, Kayakers, Safety people and the BLDSA swim organisers then started arriving and gradual decisions made upon the course of action. The 8-miler across to Brixham and back was cancelled as you couldn’t see Brixham so a ½ mile loop course laid out into the bay with 8 laps resulting in 4 miles round the bay starting at 12.15.

Delightful and inviting sea here....

Quite rightly, the president of the BLDSA made sure we were reminded that just to get into the water today was going to be an achievement in itself. I kept drumming that into my head as I de-layered into the speedo’s. Counted into the water and set off. The swell was monstrous and after Dover harbour a big change now actually having to swim in the sea (without the protection that a harbour affords). It was a mixture of extreme fun and utterly terrifying. After two or three mouthfuls of sea water heading down to that 1st buoy one of my fist reactions was that I was going to drown, vomit or both. Don’t panic Mr Mainwaring!. In the end I calmed down and luckily remembered seeing the video of Liane Llewellyn on youtube when she did the double channel where she did a stroke that appeared more like catch-up to make sure she held her stroke into the waves and swell. I therefore decided to copy this and I think it really helped to stop my arms from being smashed aside out of control by the large waves. My mask goggles came off twice (will change these next time in a big sea) and the eyes were getting sore with the sea water. I finished the first lap and really wondered how 8 laps of this was ever going to be on the cards. (swim underway here)

Just when desperation was staring me in the eyes, a canoeist decided to accompany me all the way around and kept pretty close to my side. ‘Ian’ (his name I was to find out later) really helped me to hang in there – owe him big time... In the end, I settled down and after half way was in some reasonably high spirits and had convinced myself that I was absolutely flying – the water felt marginally calmer. In fact, my overall pace wasn’t too shabby as Superman and Simon Lee only caught up with me as I was finishing my 7th lap. There were times that I really wished I had been sick because I thought it might help but body wasn’t obliging. When I finished the swim, something really remarkable happened. Trying to get back to the beach was utterly mental having to avoid getting smashed into the large rocks by the large waves. The great Vince Classen held out his strong hand and scooped me out of the water whilst wearing his drysuit. Amazing and without him I certainly have been injured in some way… The other thing that was touching, and a first for me at a BLDSA swim, - not only did all the people on the beach clap, when I rose the stairs to the undercover area – both finishers and crowd clapped again. I think everyone was well aware how utterly brutal that swim was.

I couldn’t forget what an achievement it felt like just to finish and mentioned as such to the president’s Mum whether she wanted to hear it or not! I also, 20 mins after, noticed that the super fast winner, Ollie Wilkinson, came over to the last man to congratulate him for finishing. No bullshit ego one sees from Elites, just plain vanilla respect for each other in a gruelling event. Quality. Nuala Muir Cochrane very kindly made me a nice cup of coffee whilst I began to start some shakes and we then awaited the certificate presentation after all the competitors had finished. They started with the ladies presentations  - I thought I had heard it incorrectly – only 2 finished out of 6 starters with 4 retirements? None of the women vets finished the race in order to get the trophy....The men were then read out – winner Ollie Wilkinson finishing in 1hr 41m . I came 5th out of 6th seniors in 2hrs 25mins. Convinced myself that time was irrelevant in these conditions. Even the people who retired did well. Out of 60million people in the country, some of the toughest characters in the country I am convinced were here getting into the water on this day.....Another unforgettable experience...