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?