You know its the night before a race when you find yourself setting multiple alarms starting at 5am with gradually more and more aggressive “get out of bed” messages on each one!
Thankfully I had managed to find a lift to Grafham and it was from one of my first open water pupils, Nona, who was doing the 3km swim. She picked me up at 5.50am and we were both a bit grumpy and tired, but there was also an excitement in the air too. The drive only took about 15 minutes but in that 15 minutes we almost killed about 10 pigeons because they wouldn’t get out of the road, clearly they had a joint death wish.
As soon as we got to the car park you could instantly see the wind, waves and swell across the lake and it’d be a tough swim. With the option to go down a distance quite a few people did, Nona decided to drop from the 3km to 2km but I stuck with my 5km as I wanted my 5km PB and I didnt feel I could use waves as an excuse, since im swimming the channel in less than a month!
We headed to registration and got all our timing chips and bands ready, I was number 162 and I requested a different colour swimming hat so that the people at the finish would know to get me my walking stick! Nona headed to grab her stuff and I bumped into a few friends for a natter and started getting changed.
There seemed to be a lot of people in wetsuits and not many skins (non-wetsuit) swimmers, in fact I could only see 2 other female skins swimmers! Nevertheless I got changed and went over to listen to the safety briefing but I knew as soon as it was done everyone would be getting into the water so I headed back to get the rest of my stuff sorted (I could still hear the briefing) and headed down the slope to the beach area.
I got in using my walking stick as it was a really short and easy walk for me. As I started getting in I was greeted with weeds, lots of weeds but they don’t bother me too much so I was ok, I think a few people were hating it though!
I swam out to where I wanted to be when they started the race and off we went. It was the normal washing machine and arms and legs going everywhere; with waves hitting us it turned on the spin cycle in the tumble dryer too. It took me a while to settle, I just couldn’t relax or get into any kind of rhythm, it just felt uncomfortable. It felt like a fight to swim, which for me is unusual as normally it’s fairly effortless. Eventually the group of swimmers thinned out a bit and it made it easier to see/know when I was going to get a wave to the face and not to take a breath on that side!
The 5km swim was round the light green triangle (3km route), the furthest point being the water tower which we would swim under the bridge to. That was then followed by swimming back to the far side of the lake following the orange buoys – the dark green loop (2km route). I am normally pretty savvy at working out where I am on the route but I struggled with it on Sunday. Until I got back to the start after doing the triangle I just couldn’t figure it out.
Once the field had thinned out a bit I actually had a chance to relax into my stroke a little and I found myself at the front of a small group. I intended on staying with them and every now and then let one of them slightly in front of me so I could draft and have a break from the constant waves hitting me. When we got to the water tower I decided to press on but as you came round the corner it was like you were suddenly hit by a brick wall, it reminded me of times in the river when you feel like you aren’t moving anywhere at all. Thankfully, I am pretty good at getting through those sorts of currents because of the amount of experience I have had with them. As a result I pushed through them and suddenly found myself swimming way ahead of the group and moving up through the field of swimmers that were struggling with it. I went to my usual race technique of swimming to catch up with and over take the person in front of me. It’s always worked well as it gives me something to focus on and makes me swim harder and faster to catch up with them.
As we came through the current I found myself on the final side of the triangle and in a group of 5 swimmers, one of which was the female amputee, with whom I had entered the water. In the middle of the group there was a gentleman with an orange tow float blown up as hard as it could be which was flying all over the place. Both myself and the other lady were stuck behind this man and trying to get round him, we were both swimming faster than him but just couldn’t get past him! We tried both going one side, then the other, then one either side; I will freely admit I was swearing at him under the water. At one point he kicked me on my shoulder and in the end the only way for me to get round was by going really wide into the bigger waves and then cutting in front of him; it was hard, but it worked.
I pushed forwards and found myself swimming alone but by this point I could see the start and there were a few swimmers coming towards me swimming to the other side of the lake. I got to the final buoys and was overwhelmed by which one I was supposed to be going round! A kayaker spotted me and had to point me in the right direction!
I knew at this point I was over half way and had just 2km to go and in the grand scheme of things 2km was nothing, just over to the other side of the lake and back! However, I looked at my watch and wasn’t sure I was going to get under 2 hours, I thought it would be close so I tried to swim hard. I found the buoys on this route much easier to follow than the triangle ones from the first 3km of the course. I played catch up for the entire swim, aiming to overtake the person in front of me and then the person in front of them until I could see the finish line. I was swimming in a small group when the finish line came into view and I assumed it was just under 500m away so I turned on my turbo charge swim mode and swam as hard as I could. I ended up basically racing a lady next to me to the finish, it was backwards and forwards like a push me pull you. I looked at my watch and I knew I was easily going to get my PB under 2 hours but figured I might as well sprint the final bit. I knew we were going to hit the weeds very soon and when we did I just ploughed through them but the lady clearly didn’t like them and started swimming head up breaststroke.
I saw that the helper at the finish had my walking stick so I aimed for them and got as close as I could before I stood up as they passed it to me. I then had to walk up the hill to the finish, which wasn’t ideal but I knew I was well under 2 hours so didn’t mind so much that the person I had been fighting to get past for the last 500m just walked past me and over the timing mat before me. Once I was on my feet I heard my friend Will (who won the 5km event) cheering me on, which was lovely. As I was walking up the hill and realised that the person in front of me was in fact Colin, one of the other coaches from The Cambridge Swim Company.
Once across the finish line I was given my medal and a drink and I went to go and sit down in my wheelchair and discovered it wasn’t where I left it. My heart sank because I desperately needed to sit down. I spoke to the woman handing out water to see if she knew where it was and thankfully she went and got it for me! I sat down to soak in the atmosphere of lots of happy and knackered people near the finish line. Especially when I got my official chip time – 1.53.15!
I started getting changed and overheard someone whispering to someone else that “that lady is swimming the channel”. I wondered how they knew and had totally forgotten I had the sign and QR code for my channel swim on the back of my wheelchair!
Whilst waiting for Nona I had several people come up to me and wanted to know more about my swim and some donated there and then! I was even handed some cash by one lady which I then added to the just giving page. It was great to talk to so many people about my plans and swim, about why I am doing the swim, about the STA’s STARLIGHT campaign to make swimming more inclusive.
Overall, a great, inclusive local event with several people I knew, some incredible times, lots of smiles and I came away with a huge PB, a sub 2 hour 5km timer (FINALLY) and of course a medal – what more could I ask for?!