Saturday, 8 October 2011

New York Record Swim - 28/9/2011

My first thoughts are to thank the team that made this possible. I had two great kayakers, Margaret Mann and the legendary Richard Clifford. I had wonderful crew support from my great buddy Knowles Tivendale, who brought his whole family out to NY from Melbourne, and my ever supportive brother-in-law Tim Freeman. Logistically the swim was masterminded by the dynamo Morty Berger who plotted and planned the course and tides to perfection. And my constant inspiration and motivator my darling wife Vickie.

I'm not a believer in fate, I've always felt you make your own choices and luck but somehow the closer the swim came the more it seemed to transform from a simple race into a genuine belief that circumstances had conspired to make the record attempt a reality. When I first was invited to race I believed the record well beyond me, after all, only the previous year two professional long distance champions had fallen considerably short, if Peter Stoychev the record holder for the fastest English Channel crossing and Mark Warkentin, a 2008 Olympian, had failed, I didn't fancy my chances.
However the tides were better this year, plenty of rain and optimal lunar influences meant we had some of the most favourable conditions for years, at least on paper. Lessons had been learnt from the previous years race and several areas for improvement were anticipated. In the days before the swim I swam in the New York waters and I found myself not only believing that I could break the record but perhaps it was meant to be this way.
I kept my feet on the ground, I knew I would have to earn any success and I had an extremely competent rival, Rondi Davies, to beat also. Rondi is an Australian living in New York and a very experienced, successful long distance swimmer.
The morning of the race arrived, I felt excited and only a little nervous, keen more than anything to get the race underway. The start time was 2.14 pm to coincide with the peak tidal movements. Rondi would start approx 10min ahead to ensure we had no assistance by drafting or pushing each other along. The weather was overcast but warm and the water at about 21deg very comfortable, ideal for a long hard race. Rondi started bang on schedule, the tide was starting to build up the Harlem and before long she was out of sight. Our boat hovered in position, I had rinsed and re-rinsed the goggles, we drifted slightly and had to remanouvere the boat, exactly 11min after Rondi they counted me down and I started the swim.
The Manhattan swim can be divided into 3 roughly equal parts being the 3 main river systems. I had studied the time predictions and knew where I needed to be in each river to be on track for the record. The first river was the Harlem. There is always a risk of going out too hard in a race, especially when the adrenaline surges, I wanted to swim hard throughout but I knew I needed to get into a steady rhythm and work through the first part of the race. I felt very comfortable at the start, the Harlem was a great loosener, there are a dozen or so bridges to swim under that cross the river, each bridge you pass makes you feel like you are making progress and provides easy landmarks along the way. My feeding regime was energy drinks every 30minutes with gels hourly. The first 30min flew by and when Richard signalled the first feed I couldn't believe we had been going 30minutes already. At the 1 hour feed I grabbed a quick drink but as I kicked away my right foot cramped. It was a potential disaster, I've never been bothered by cramps in the open water, I was well hydrated, I had been resting up and staying off my feet, this shouldn't have been a problem! If the cramps got worse I would be reduced to arms only swimming and could forget about winning the race let alone the record. I tried to stretch my calf while I swam while easing back my kick strength. The cramp finally settled but every now and again it twinged and each time it sent a surge of anxiety through me as I thought is this it? Is this the end of my race?
The upper part of the Harlem went by quickly, we rounded the tip of Manhattan and I knew we were bang on time - approx 1 & 3/4 hrs. Morty had warned that getting into the Hudson might be hard work, the river would be in full flow and may be working against us coming out of the Harlem. As it was we passed under the final bridge and I felt a great surge of fresh water hit me from my right. We were pushed south, I knew the tide would weaken the further we travelled, we had to make the most of the help while we had it, I also knew it might help Rondi more than me as although I had closed her lead down slightly she had reached the Hudson 6 minutes earlier and would have had more time in the fast water before it eased off. The Hudson had been a tough slog in June, it was the last part of the race and by then my eyes were so sore I could barely see my kayakers let alone the shoreline. This time we made great early progress and again the landmarks - the George Washington Bridge and city skyscrapers passed by at regular intervals. The Hudson wasn't reading the script though, the wind was picking up from the South and East and blowing against us. Great swells of waves started to drive into us. I was starting to feel the effects of a hard 3hrs of swimming and the conditions were making it even tougher. It takes so much more effort to swim in choppy conditions and I had to concentrate on holding as smooth a stroke as possible while not being deterred by the rough water. I told myself I still had a trailing current so not to worry about the 'lumpy' conditions. Eventually the Manhattan piers came into sight and the Battery (the southern tip of NY) loomed in the distance. We moved close into the shore and I hit the 4hour feed right at the bottom of NY which I knew meant we were still on target. Richard got hit by some huge backwash from a ferry and disappeared momentarily from view, I was being tossed around like the proverbial cork but I wasn't stopping for anything and a second later Richard reappeared not looking any the worse for the excitement. We reached the enormous Staten Island ferry which very kindly waited until we had passed before pulling out and we entered the final part of the race, the East River.
The sun was setting as we reached the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, at the next feed I asked Richard how far ahead Rondi was, "2min" was the reply which I thought meant I had nearly caught her but in fact she was still 9 minutes ahead and had made time on me in the Hudson. She continued to pull away until my overall lead was reduced to only 7 seconds. With no way of knowing where Rondi was and believing myself well ahead of her my concern had switched to the record. I was telling myself I had 1hr to go if I kept on pace. I was feeling exhausted, but I knew this was where I would 'earn' this swim, I thought of Grant my cousin who I dedicated this swim to, I thought of Vickie, I told myself I would never have this opportunity again and I found some extra strength. It was soon completely dark and I was relying on the city lights and glow sticks on the kayaks to see anything. We hit 5hours, 30min to go, I told myself. I stole a look up and saw the large Queensboro bridge in the distance. I knew that was some way short of the finish and just hoped the East river was still flowing fast beneath me. I drove on and on, every time I felt myself fading I gritted my teeth and lifted the effort. We hit 5 hrs and 30min and I still couldn't see the finish. Unknown to me the current had dropped to a crawl and if I was going to break the record it would be with no help at the end right when I needed it. Richard egged me on one last time, "You have 1 mile to go, this is it, I want to see you vomiting when you cross the line!"
I was mentally ticking off the minutes, 5 minutes passed and in the dark I had no idea where we were. 10minutes passed, I was so completely spent I thought I'd have to roll onto my back with exhaustion, 12min, 13min, I really had no idea how much further to go or how long I had been swimming, I just knew I was potentially out of time. I could hear Margaret yelling at my right, I could see Richard smacking his kayak and waving me forward, faster, faster he was motioning. Suddenly my right hand smacked into the side of Margaret's kayak and I looked up, there was the official support boat, literally right in front of me. Morty was yelling at me "here, here, you have to finish up here" I spun my arms 5 more times and crossed the finish line. I looked up, utterly spent. Morty leant over the side and said "You did it, Rondi broke the record and you just beat her time by about a minute". I heard him clearly but I asked him to repeat himself anyway, I almost couldn't believe it. It was the hardest most intense race of my life, I had never pushed myself that hard for so long before and I had beaten the 16year old record by 1minute and 23sec or as Richard liked to point out later, "actually you beat a 10minute old record by 45seconds".

After 5 and 3/4hrs I beat Shelley's time by less than a minute and a half! So many things had to go right for this swim, the tides, the currents, the conditions, water temp, weather. It was plotted down to the last minute and I was guided round by possibly the most experienced Manhattan kayaker in the world! Only the rough conditions in the Hudson were less than optimal and I swam at my absolute limit for the whole day. Maybe it was meant to be, maybe I made my own luck, maybe fate smiled on me. One day, next year, or the year after or maybe several years from now someone will beat my time, you can't be the fastest forever. Shelley was the fastest for 16years, Rondi, 10 minutes. But for now I have the record. I couldn't have done it without Richard, Morty, my whole support crew, a bit of luck and a lot of work. It still hasn't really sunk in, I'm not really sure what to make of it but I like what my twin brother said when I spoke to him afterwards "Well it's nice to know what I'm capable of".

Related race links:

Friday, 30 September 2011

In memory of Grant - World Record

On Wednesday the 28th of September I broke the 16year old world record held by Shelley Taylor- Smith for the 45km circumnavigation of Manhattan Island. The swim is dedicated to my cousin Grant Bates, he passed away 10days ago after a short battle with cancer. Grant was a wonderful man, a great father, husband, doctor and filled with seemingly boundless energy and enthusiasm. He accompanied me on my first ever marathon swim, a double crossing of lake Windermere in 2009. It was a challenging swim for the crew who had to row a traditional heavy wooden boat next to me all through the night, I don't think Grant stopped smiling once! In honour of Grant I have been fundraising for the SharkTrust, an environmental charity Grant was particularly supportive of. This one is for you Grant, thanks for the memories.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Andrew Vidler's Channel Swim

This was always going to be a novel experience for me, as a swimmer I've never been part of the support crew. I've always appreciated the importance of those around you, the invaluable assistance from those who feed you, advise you, navigate and encourage you but up till now I've always received this crucial support and never given it. The opportunity to be part of someone else's adventure seemed like a great opportunity and when I discovered Andrew's swim would take part at a time when I was back in the UK I offered to help and my offer was quickly accepted.

July came around and we moved back to England a few days before Andrew's tidal window was due to start but as is often the way, channel swims don't often stick to the schedule. Andrew was the second swimmer in his tide which started on the 7th of July, the first swimmers were getting away a few days into the window but the weather was closing in fast and Andrew's pilot only managed to get one swimmer away in the 11 days available. So Andrew's tide came and went and like many swimmer's before him Andrew was left high and dry in Dover. Getting frustrated and having exhausted the few diversions Dover had to offer, Andrew packed his family off to Paris and came up to Cheltenham to stay with us and clear his head. Andrew spent three days swimming in the local fresh water lake and outdoor lido and managed to relax and refocus. By the time he headed back to Dover the weather was improving and a swim date mid week on a low spring tide looked possible.

The call from the pilot came and finally the swim was locked in for an early start on the Wednesday morning. I headed off from Cheltenham late afternoon. For me it was like going back in time two years. When I swam the channel we also headed down the evening before the swim. With the car packed I set off on the long drive to Dover. This was a route I was very familiar with having done it so many times in the build up to my own swim. When I finally crested the hill above Dover I could see France as a distant speck on the horizon. It was all very reminiscent of 2009 and I felt a twinge of excitement as I saw the familiar buildings and harbour. I arrived at Andrew's B&B and met up with the rest of the crew; Caren, Andrew's wife and Fraser, Andrew's kiwi friend and swimming buddy from year's gone by. We managed a quick power nap before the alarms sounded at half past midnight and we jumped into action. A quick bite and then down to the marina. Pre-swim nerves were building slightly but Andrew seemed focused and ready to swim. We loaded up the boat and met Chris the pilot, his crew and the somewhat fresh looking observer Marcus. The boat chugged round to Samphire Hoe where Andrew would start his swim. We could see all the other boats ahead of us that had started in the last hour, we were the last to get going and I could see Andrew chomping at the bit to get into the water. Andrew's final preparations of greasing and attaching light sticks were done and he quickly launched himself into the cold channel water to swim to the beach. It was watching him ready himself that I felt the strongest flash back to the start of my own swim and I was so glad I was staying on the boat this time. Caren and I were struggling with the dreaded motion sickness and before Andrew had even reached the beach Caren lent over the side and revisited her dinner. I felt queasy but not quite as desperate and we both took another sea sickness tablet. Andrew cleared the water and then jumped back in and at 2.20am he officially started his English channel swim.

The first couple of hours were pretty steady with Andrew settling into a nice rhythm and the feeds of maxim going down well. By 4am the horizon was getting lighter and the sun eventually popped up just after 5am. As the first three hours drifted by Andrew could have a support swimmer but there was no way I could rally myself at this stage. The nausea was making moving around the boat an effort and the sea sickness tablets were leaving me wiped out. That along with the cool night air the last thing I felt like doing was stripping off and jumping into the water. The hours slowly ticked by and we encouraged Andrew at each feed. Marcus the observer and Caren took turns to feed the fish on the opposite side of the boat and we saw little else of Marcus as he retired below deck to try and sleep through the ordeal!

By 7.20am we were 5hours in and tried to feed Andrew some solid food along with his energy drinks. That feed was promptly followed by a spectacular projectile vomit. Knowing exactly how he felt and having discussed this scenario before the swim, I yelled out to him to keep going and get on with the swim as if nothing significant had happened. True to form he put his head down and kept swimming. To try and boost his spirits we unfurled the first of two banners Caren had brought. The first was of their two daughters cheering him on telling him to not give up. We could see his immediate pleasure at the sight and I started to contemplate getting wet!

I eventually dragged out my wetsuit and overcoming the medication induced lethargy and persistent nausea I readied myself for a swim. At about the 6 hour mark I jumped into the English channel, I remembered vividly telling my wife Vickie if I ever contemplated swimming the English Channel again she could hit me over the head with a shovel, but I rationalised this wasn't quite what I meant. The water was cold but in a wetsuit quite comfortable, I swam beside Andrew and took some good footage with the waterproof camera. Andrew is a tad slower than me and in a wetsuit I felt like I was only floating along. The crew warned me to not get ahead of Andrew (for fear of getting him disqualified) and after 30minutes I was ready to get out. It was one of the few moments when I didn't feel too unwell, climbing out of the water I felt refreshed and energised. I made the most by eating some pot noodles and we all felt boosted by the fact that the French coastline was slowly getting clearer.

We reached halfway and Andrew still looked strong if a little cold each time he fed. His stroke count had dropped slightly but he showed no real signs of flagging. In the night we had heard of one swimmer who had pulled out but all the other boats ahead of us were making steady progress. I dozed occasionally between feeds but tried to rouse myself as often as possible to encourage Andrew each time he came along side the boat. With Caren and I debilitated by the sea sickness Fraser had become the chief supporter, he mixed up nearly all the feeds and stayed awake and attentive the whole trip, a feat that was critical to Andrew's success. At ten hours Fraser decided to jump in and I found myself temporarily in charge of feeds which took a supreme effort to steady myself and focus on the mixing of maxim and tea without contributing to the mix myself. Finally Cap seemed to be directly ahead of us probably only a few miles away and we passed the C2 buoy which marked the end of the French shipping lane but at almost that exact time the tide turned and we started moving away from the closest bit of French coastline to England. Chris the pilot was looking concerned. He had plotted our course once the tide had shifted and he could see we were getting swept further away from the coast with each passing minute. He passed a gloomy forecast that Andrew might have another 6 hours to swim before the tide turned again and would bring us back to land. We were already 12 hours into the swim at that stage and the prospect of another 6 hours appealed to Caren and I about as much as it would have done to Andrew! Fraser, Caren and I debated as to whether we told Andrew to push harder to break through the tide. Knowing how I would have been feeling at the same stage and seeing how well Andrew was swimming I was reluctant to tell him anything. He was already swimming as hard as he could and if he pushed himself even harder for 30minutes and failed to make any progress it might be the nail in the coffin mentally for him. We decided to stretch out his feeds (to reduce time spent treading water) and encouraged him to feed quickly and he got the message anyway. Thirty minutes later Chris reappeared looking much more buoyant, he informed us Andrew had broken through to the shallower in-shore waters and was now making progress towards land. He only had maybe 2 more hours to swim if he could just make it! We all felt a surge of excitement on the boat and could see Cap Blanc away to our left where we were now heading towards on the tide. The feeds ticked over and Andrew kept making what seemed like slow but steady progress. Over the radio we heard one more swimmer had given up having hit the same tidal problem as Andrew but had failed to break though. Eventually we came to the time when Chris wanted to know if Andrew needed a last feed or not and I was keen to give him a final boost before his last push to shore so we called him in one last time for an energy gel. I yelled down to him that this was his last feed and he needed to give one last push. Fraser got back in to accompany Andrew to shore and we readied our cameras. The last 500 metres were interminable, Chris had taken his boat as close to the cliffs as he was game and we were left to watch Andrew from afar. We could finally see Fraser touching the rocks and trying to find a safe place for Andrew to clear the water and then the triumphant moment as Andrew stood up in the shallows, promptly fell over and then staggered slowly out to a shallow beach. Arms raised triumphantly we cheered from the boat and the horn sounded to signify the completion of an epic swim. Marcus appeared momentarily to record a finishing time of 14hours and 40minutes exactly.

It was a wonderful moment, surprisingly I felt much more elation watching Andrew finish than I had felt at the completion of my own swim, the swimmer feels relief and gratitude that the swim is over but the support crew really feel the elation of the achievement. When Andrew finally got back on board the boat he was exhausted. He hung on to the back of the boat as they moved out to deeper water and we unceremoniously dragged him onto the deck. Overcome with emotion he realised the enormity of his swim and sat down as a wave of realisation swept over him. I could't wipe the grin of my face as I welcomed him to the club.

The next morning we went to the White Horse pub in Dover. It is a tradition to sign the wall in the pub after you have successfully completed your channel swim. I never got the chance in 2009 as the pub was closed at the time so Andrew and I sized up a square of unblemished roof space and signed our names to add to the heavily tattooed walls and roofs. Along with his signature Andrew added a thanks to his family and friends and I noted a similar message under another friend's signature which said "No-one does it alone", how very true.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

MIMS 18/6/2011 - Swimming Around Manhattan With My Eyes Shut

A 45km swim race is not the time to make ‘school boy’ errors but less than an hour and a half into the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim race my vision was blurring and my eyes were stinging so badly I was struggling to see. I couldn't initially work out what was wrong but even with a change of goggles I knew I was in trouble.

Four days earlier I had arrived in New York for this iconic swim. One 45km (28.5mile) lap of the rivers around Manhattan Island. Starting at the southern tip you swim up the East river under the famous Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges. Hopefully navigate the volatile currents at "Hells Gate" as you enter the slow moving Harlem River. Swim steadily up to the northern tip of Manhattan where you meet the massive, unpredictable Hudson before swimming the entire length of Manhattan back to the start. I had taken a ferry around Manhattan on my second day and tried to spot as many landmarks as possible to help me navigate myself on the swim. Two hours into the swim I was thinking to myself that all my research and preparation was getting wasted as I struggled to see my kayaker 2m away from me never mind the skyscrapers of downtown New York.

The start of the swim had gone well, I had started in the 3rd wave of fastest seeded swimmers. As the siren started I set off at a fast but manageable pace and only Erica Rose, the American Champion swimmer, had set off quicker. I was very conscious of three-time-winner Johnny Van Wisse being the man to beat and I also knew he had such great stamina that if he got away from me at the start I would never be able to reel him in. As it was, by the time my eyes started playing up I was holding 2nd place and we were passing many of the swimmers from the earlier waves.

By two hours we were well into the Harlem, the swift but churning waters of the East River were well behind and the unpredictable ‘Hells Gate’ had been expertly navigated by my kayakers. I then hit my second problem I was starting to bonk! Bonking has several meanings, but in endurance sport it refers to the dropping of blood sugar levels and the resulting deterioration of performance. I shouldn't have been feeling depleted at such an early stage and I had already had several feed stops so fueling shouldn't have been an issue but for whatever reason I had hit a wall. I eased back the tempo and just tried to grind through it knowing I would hopefully bounce back as the feeds kicked in but along with my increasingly blurry vision and a sharp ache in my right shoulder I was starting to think it wasn't going to be my day. At that moment Johnny swam past me and I thought to myself ‘well that's the last I'll see of him!’

The Harlem River is the slowest section of the race with the least tidal assistance but it is also the most dotted with bridges and I used each consecutive bridge I swam under as a little mental marker to note progress. By half way up the Harlem I was feeling noticeably better, I had increased the frequency of energy gels and my right shoulder, while still twinging occasionally, was bearable. The best boost however was that I was gaining on Johnny. I upped the tempo as I reached the top of the Harlem and moved slightly ahead of Johnny and back into 2nd place. The low swing bridge that marks the junction of Harlem and Hudson came into view and in an instant we were swept through into the expansive Hudson River. Nearly 4km away the massive vista of the George Washington Bridge was blurry but obvious. I also knew the tides were yet to swing into our favour and it would be almost an hour before we passed this last bridge. Johnny and I continued to cat and mouse, his very experienced paddler (Richard Clifford) had taken him much closer into the shore at this point where he later confided that the currents moved quickest. We had made some progress on Erica who at one point was less than a 100m ahead of us and it was all to swim for!

Behind us, one by one the following swimmers were coming into the Hudson and getting the increasing benefit of the rising tide. It was about this stage though I was really struggling with my eyes. My left eye was so sore that I had to stop every 15minutes or so to rinse it and try to relieve the intense pain I was feeling. I swam mostly with my eyes squeezed shut only opening them momentarily to check I wasn’t going off course. I had wondered whether it was sunscreen that had run into my eyes at the start but then I remembered the anti-fog spray I had liberally applied before the race. Usually I rinse the goggles thoroughly after applying the spray but we had jumped in and started so quickly I had barely immersed them before the siren had started.

As we progressed down the Hudson my vision was so blurred I could see very little of other swimmers, I could just make out some of the bigger structures along the Manhattan shoreline and I looked out for the more memorable buildings that I had seen during the boat trip a few days before. Johnny and Erica had slowly pulled away as I struggled to cope with my eye problems. Finally we hit the large piers that marked an hour or less to go and I tried to give it one last push to the finish. As we came to the last kilometers the support boats directed Johnny’s crew and mine to come closer to the shoreline, some of the trailing competitors took a wider line and made better use of the faster moving currents. I finally made out the large buoys that marked the last few hundred meters and I could suddenly see a swimmer just 20 meters ahead of me. With no idea who it was I kicked as hard as I could (which after 7 and ½ hours was a struggle!), I was making slow progress but the final bouy was suddenly upon us and we turned into the finishing area. I touched the steps just seconds behind the swimmer who turned out to be 3rd placed Evan Morrison, he had swum the better tactical line to the finish and nipped me at the end! Johnny was less than a minute ahead and Erica a few minutes ahead of him.

My emotions at the end were a mix of happiness at completing such a memorable and iconic swim but tinged with disappointment at being so close to 2nd and 3rd place and falling just short. Erica swam fantastically and at the end of the day I was beaten by great swimmers in Johnny and Evan but I had gone into the race with a belief I could challenge for a win and I fell just short.

Every swim offers you opportunities to learn and improve and sadly I learned a fairly basic lesson on this one but the increased feeding regime had worked well in the end and New York is definitely a swim that inside knowledge can be a huge benefit, so if I ever get a chance to swim it again I will be very much the better for it!

This was my 8th official marathon swim race, and like all the others before, was successful largely because of the brilliant support around me. I had two great paddlers in Terry and JC who were just fantastic and looked after me so well. My wife and mother were the official crew once again on the support boat and at every stop I could hear them yelling and encouraging me. My independent observer Darren was anything but independent! He cheered and yelled as loudly as anyone (perhaps not as loudly as Vickie). Finally my in-laws and father had also come to enjoy the spectacle and it was great to have so much personal support so far from home!

I really enjoyed New York, I met some great local and international swimmers, the local open water swim community, CIBBOWS, were incredibly welcoming and friendly and the race organisers put on a fantastic event. Who knows maybe I have some unfinished business in New York…..

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Rottnest 2011 - the race that almost wasn't!

Unbeknownst to me my race almost never happened. At 4.15am my support crew (my wonderful parents) headed off in the pre-dawn dark to meet our boat and boat crew at the launch spot. They arrived to help Don our boat captain launch the 'Wave 'N Looney' into the Swan river, as they all settled aboard Don turned the engine over to a resounding nothingness. Disbelief with Don was met with rising panic from my parents. With no way of communicating with me the first I would know about the boat failure would be when I reached the 1500m check point where swimmers must have met up with their boats or their race is over, it loomed as one of the shortest marathon swims I would do.

Meanwhile for me my day had started much more relaxing than the previous year. Last year I was pretty anxious about how I would find my paddler and then boat in the dawn light and I was still acutely aware of how hard I had struggled in my last big swim; The English Channel just 6 months before. In reality it had all worked out just fine and although any swim of this distance (20km) is tough I enjoyed the warm water and conditions and was happy to contemplate doing it again. So by 4.30am I had met up with Paul my paddler/kayak support on the beach and soon after I was checked in, sunscreened and vaselined up and was ready to hit the water. At 5.45am the siren sounded and we were off, like last year I quickly spotted Paul among the masses of paddlers lined along the swim chute and we headed out to the 1km mark where the boats waited. The previous year Don's boat hadn't loomed into view until nearly the 1.5km cut off mark so I wasn't overly worried when I couldn't immediately see him or even when I noticed Paul repeatedly looking around. In the back of my mind I did know if the boat had a major problem we had no way of being told, it just wouldn't turn up and I would be stopped in another 500m.

Back at the boat ramp Don had gone into Mr Fix It mode and had been running backwards and forwards to his car to retrieve a spare battery, a little juggling and jump-starting later they were in action even if a little later than planned. They took off at a rate of knots to get to Cottesloe arriving not long after I had started but knowing they still had 10 minutes to find me before the cut off. The problem was by then there was such a mass of boats in the way it was hard work just getting up to where the swimmers were and at one point they found themselves hemmed in by boats on one side, paddlers behind and an official support boat in front, a little nudging ensued, a few words were exchanged, the support boat got 'maneuvered' out of the way and finally they were in the clear. They shot threw and finally spotted Paul's kayak and with less time to spare than was comfortable we had successfully met up! I spotted my mum's fluro rain jacket out of the corner of my vision and mentally relaxed knowing that the race was really underway and it was now up to me.

My parents however weren't able to share my relief as Don soon realized he had another problem, the radio wasn’t working! Being the good honest man he is, he signaled a support boat and informed them of his dilemma and to confirm he was still contactable on his phone. The reply from officialdom was 'No radio, no race' and the stress levels started to rise again. Don wasn't to be defeated having got this far and put his mechanics hat back on to have a go with the radio, a few tense minutes later it crackled into life and after confirming it's function with ‘the powers that be’ we were back on track.

The race unfolded steadily with a race leader, the favourite Tim Hewitt, making some early ground and then a cluster of swimmers, myself included just 50-100m back. We had just started to spread a little when a large tanker decided it would head across the shipping channel and I found myself almost head butting a water traffic boat which was stopping all the swimmers. It meant a delay of about 5 or 6 minutes which instantly compressed the field again, any lead built up was gone. We finally received the all clear and set off with Tim once again setting the pace and my training partner and closest competitor Peter Thompson deciding to make a charge.

I was in 3rd place by half way and although I had hoped for a podium finish hanging onto 3rdwas by no means guaranteed and secretly I had hoped for better. I knew I would have a dark moment at some point – all endurance events have some hard stretches. When you are swimming in the wide open seas you have a long time in your own head and it can be very hard not to start thinking some negative thoughts. About 2 to 3 hours in I was feeling tired and with a long way still to go the support boat looked very appealing, if someone would have offered to stop the race then and accept my 3rd place I would have jumped at it. But slowly as the kms ticked by I was closing in on Peter, having courageously blasted himself to have a crack at the win he was starting to suffer and when I finally got my 2nd wind at the 3 and a half hour mark I had passed him. I kicked harder and increased my effort, I knew if I could keep up my pace I would be hard to catch, I just had to be able to maintain it.

At about the 4hour mark I had an ‘interesting’ experience, I was passing over a deep part of the channel, the visibility was so clear that you can see the bottom most of the way but at that moment it was just deep blue nothingness and there way below me at the limit of my vision was a shape heading in the opposite direction. I might have just assumed it was a large fish had it not been for a very distinct hammer-shaped head! Before I could even get a better look it was gone, the only consolation being it was clearly heading in a different direction to me! I wondered if I had really seen a shark and I might have been happy to believe I was mistaken if it wasn’t for the announcement of a shark sighting at the finish and then in the paper the next day a sighting of a school of 120 hammerhead and whale sharks of the coast. I’m not sure if it actually made me swim faster but it took my mind off the nausea and muscle fatigue I had been worrying about!

Why is it that no matter how fit you are the end of the race is always so hard? The last 2kms seemed to go on forever. I have enough experience now to know looking up to see if the land is getting closer is a mistake so I just kept looking across at Paul in his kayak and trying to egg myself on. Finally we started passing boats moored off shore and when Don disappeared I knew the end was less than a kilometer away. ‘Only 20 laps of the pool’ I told myself, ‘Finish strong, you don’t want to get beaten in the last 500m!’ I didn’t exactly power home but I finished well and when the sand finally loomed close, I stood up, running/staggering across the line in 4hrs and 56minutes. I turned around at the finish and was surprised to see a competitor only metres behind me. Louise Stevenson who had nearly ‘chicked’ me last year had gone even closer this time and as I congratulated her I was very relieved to unknowingly have held her off again.

Every marathon swim is a different experience. I was very glad to have been unaware of the various boat issues, my parents would have liked to have been just as ignorant! Racing 20km this year was very different and much harder than just completing it last year and to have broken 5 hours and finished 2ndoverall was fantastic. I read in the paper the next day that Tim Hewitt was planning on skipping the race next year, I am supposed to be back living in the UK, but who knows, maybe I should have an Australian holiday come late February?

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Bloody Big Swim - Bloody Big Effort

Last year I swam this 11.2km event without a wetsuit and came 3rd overall only 6 minutes back from 1st place. This year I was hoping to go a little better and was prepared to sacrifice the moral high ground and don the wetsuit.
Training had been going well since an enforced 2 week break (while recovering from the flu) at new year. Some good sessions in the last two weeks making me think I was getting back to the form I had before xmas. My big rivals would be my training partner Peter Thompson and last years' winner, marathon swimmer John Van Wisse. I had a surprising boost to my title hopes with the news that John was swimming in a relay team this year and Peter had decided to only swim in his open water swimsuit and not the full wet suit (focusing on the Rottnest Channel swim next month). Quietly confident I hoped this might be my year!
I had great support from Rob Davis my paddler who had escorted me last year and knew me and the course well and I even had a boat crew lined up courtesy of the Frankston Yacht club - so all the boxes were ticked this year!
We lined up at Frankston beach for the start at 9am on Saturday the 29th Jan, and although I didn't recognise any other serious competitors there is always that nagging doubt some young gun would pop up from nowhere and nail it.
My strategy was fairly simple - to go out at a good steady pace, not to get too swept up with any excitement in the first km and hopefully build up a reasonable lead in the 2nd half of the swim, coast in for the win in about 2 and a quarter hours! As with many plans this went out of the window fairly early.
When the starting siren sounded one swimmer shot off like he was being fired out of a cannon! He sprinted into the water and by the first turning buoy was already opening up a reasonable lead. I was in second place but could see Peter was just behind me. My title ambitions seemed to be dwindling into the distance fairly early on and I knew that the pace the lead swimmer had set off at was too fast for me. If he could maintain that he would win comfortably, I hoped he might fade at the end but by then he would probably be too far away to catch.
Peter was soon tapping my feet and within a kilometre we were side by side swimming stroke for stroke. We have trained like this in the lakes, Peter breathes to his right and me to my left so we line up next to each other and push each other along in training. I was a little put off by the thought that I really should have been quicker than him given I had the more buoyant wetsuit but we were pushing each other along at a good pace and we settled in to this arrangement feeding at the same time and encouraging each other to keep the tempo up.
By an hour and a quarter (just over half way) our paddlers informed us we were about 100m behind the lead swimmer which wasn't a lot, probably just over a minute but still quite a margin to catch up at that pace. We set off again, each time one of us slowed a little the other one got slightly in front and forced the other to pick up the tempo so we kept up a really consistent speed, I felt I was going as fast as I could maintain over the distance. We had a last stop at 1hr 45min and were told we were only 60m behind now but struggling to get closer, Rob encouraged us to push if we wanted to catch the front runner. With a last word of encouragement to Pete we pushed on knowing we were probably only 2km to the finish. I could see the lead swimmers' paddler and boat and it looked like we were getting steadily closer, with 20minutes to go I started to believe we might just catch him and I tried to step up the pace. Having swum side by side with Pete for nearly 2 hours I could see I was just starting to edge ahead and although I felt a little guilty leaving my training partner and friend I was desperate to have a crack at the win. With about 500m to go I had drawn level with the lead swimmer who having been told he was being caught had tacked across to our line and tried to jump on my feet. He hung on for about a hundred metres but slowly I started pulling away from him. By now I was getting seriously fatigued and I thought I might have timed my run too early. I could just see Pete making a move behind me but he was still 15 metres off my feet. The last thing I wanted was a sprint up the beach, getting passed in the last 50m was a dire thought. So as I rounded the last buoy and turned towards the finishing line, about 100m away, I kicked with all I had and as soon as the sand was within reach I was duck-diving and then sprinting through the shallows. I crossed the line about 13 seconds ahead of Peter and just under a minute ahead of 3rd place. As it turned out he was a young gun who had beaten me in several shorter ocean swims earlier in the season. He was a very fast swimmer over the 1 and 2km distances but on the day the longer distance was a just too far for him and after 7km he had started to tire.

(3 swimmers sprint finishing!)

So a very pleasing win in 2hrs and 9minutes, Peter swam really well and would no doubt have won had he worn a proper wetsuit. I was very happy to have had such a hard fought win, and to catch the lead swimmer in such an exciting manner right at the end.
Many thanks to Rob my paddler, Matt the boat captain and my support crew; my wife Vickie and my parents who came down and found it much more exciting than many of my long swims!

(final sprint up the beach)