A Lesson in Taking Life as it Comes

Frustrated and disappointed after niggling injuries had caused my partner and I to have to withdraw from our second Swim Run competition, I reluctantly agreed to marshal for the event in exchange for deferred entry. Now don’t get me wrong, normally I really enjoy marshalling. Cheering on and looking after competitors pushing themselves to their limits gives me a real joy and satisfaction. But having trained hard and got ourselves sorted after learning from our first competition, not to mention having dragged four of our friends across from Sweden to compete with us, standing on the sidelines was a bitter pill to swallow.

I had been signed off by the doctor as fit to race two days before the event, but by this time we had already withdrawn and my partner wasn’t yet fit to race. As we watched our friends building up towards the event, preparing their kit and eating copious amounts of food I felt my disappointment growing to irrational proportions. The next day we arrived at the start line a day early for the brief, amidst standard Scottish summer weather of 10 degree mist and rain, to a briefing that should have put most sane people off even wanting to start the race but which only made me want it more.

After unsuccessfully attempting to guilt trip my injured partner and her husband into competing with me the next day, I desperately signed my name up in case any one else’s partner became injured last minute. I wasn’t going to hold my breath. The road up to Glen Coe is long and winding and pretty grim in the poor weather conditions of the weekend – you weren’t going to bother getting yourself there unless you knew you were set to race.

We had spent the evening before helping our Swedish friends celebrate midsummer festival – which, similar to Christmas in the UK, seems to consist mainly of eating a lot and drinking more (sadly we didn’t get as far as jumping around the tree/maypole pretending to be frogs…). As a result our SwimRun champions were pretty knackered, so after a hearty home cooked meal of Spag Bol we sent them off to bed to prepare for their race. However, since we were not competing the next day we set off to find a nice spot for the camper van before tucking into some red wine and cider, followed by a nice swim in Loch Leven. The water temperature was around 10 degrees (for those of you to whom that doesn’t mean much – that’s COLD), so of course it seemed the perfect opportunity for some skinny dipping at the end of a relaxed swim across the bay.

After the initial shock of getting into the water without the wetsuits, I felt the same feeling of liberation I always do when swimming naked. There is something soothing and exciting about paddling about with no clothes on. But it was short lived given the cold! Soon it was time for a shivery sprint up the mud track to the van, wrapped in towels and clutching soggy wetsuits for a hot chocolate and bed.

The next morning was carnage, with three people in the camper van attempting to organise themselves for the day ahead in a hurry and a confined space. Eventually Niall was safely on his bike and Ely had dropped me at my car to collect the Swedes before heading off to find out our marshalling duties for the day. The Swedish lot were characteristically organised and on time and I couldn’t imagine they had suffered the same difficulties we had, in spite of the fact they had been four people try to get ready in a similar sized space. As we approached the start line for a second time I had begun to resign myself to the fact I would not be racing today. I turned all my energy instead towards supporting my friends. We sat for as long as we could in the warmth of my car, listening to inspiring songs in a mix of English and Swedish, before the time came to bundle out into the freezing summer morning.

The good news came that the high winds had died down temporarily and the long course competitors might be able to get the ski lift to the top of the hill after all. This rather unusual start had been plan A until 60mph winds had caused a rather brutal alternative to be thought up – the crippling ascent from the ski centre straight up the hill behind, on cold legs, had been a daunting prospect. Though as the six of us sat shivering out way up the slow-moving two-man chair lifts we weren’t sure this was a much better alternative! The winds were certainly still howling at the top, and the twenty athletes were soon chilled in their short wetsuits as they stood waiting for the start. By the time the pre-race brief was finished and the starting whistle went, the athletes seemed relieved to be able to start the steep ascent just to warm themselves up.

I stood watching my friends begin to stretch ahead into a comfortable lead, even at this early stage, before turning to walk back down to the ski centre to meet them as they looped back. Back down at the ski centre we were asked to man the first feed station, which was perfect – the athletes would pass through this twice as they looped around a long swim section which had been extended. I knew my friends were not looking forward to this section so I was glad to be there to chat with them and support them as they passed by.

At the feed station we didn’t have long to wait until the radios crackled to tell us we would soon be expecting the leading male team through the first aid station. Sure enough, a moment later two red swim caps and fluorescent bibs bobbed into view around the side of a nearby hill. Ely and I flew into a flurry of activity, emptying snacks into easily accessible places, peeling fruit and wrappers and organising some hot drinks to warm up the cold bodies emerging from the nearby swim. Progress halted slightly as our friends headed of in the wrong direction a few times due to obscured signs. You didn’t have to be fluent in Swedish to imagine what they were shouting at the marshals as they were forced back into the freezing water to head off in a new direction. But as they came through the feed station, followed closely by our others friends who were first place mixed team, and second overall, they all seemed strong and focused.
There was a gap of around 9 minutes before the next teams started filtering through. The team in third place were struggling a little with the cold, one of the team members was shivering quite badly. But after a brief pause to down some warm coffee they set off for the next swim. The distance between swims at this point of the course was short and warming back up between swims was the most difficult part. It was about 20 minutes later when most of the long-course athletes and trickled through our feed station, and we were expecting the short-course teams through in the next 10 – 15 minutes, when it crackled through the radio system that team 7 had pulled out due to hypothermia and would be returning to the feed station. As medics Ely and I snapped into action and began to heat up water for hot drinks and we hunted for Ely’s dry robe to wrap the competitor in. Sure enough, a short while later the team came back and the same man as previously was shivering uncontrollably and stained a slight shade of blue.

Once we had him sitting inside the camper van, stripped of his wetsuit and inside the dry robe, my mind began to drift to the other competitor. I had already joked with him about whether we should go on and complete the race together and he had seemed admittedly pretty tempted! I mentioned this to Ely but didn’t think much more of it. A minutes later I heard her speaking with the other team member and the course organiser about the possibility of me completing the race in place of the hypothermic man, but us dropping down to the short course due to the time. The course organiser agreed and eyes turned to me expectently.

“How quickly can you be ready?” Someone asked me.

“About 10 minutes?” I replied.

Whilst the others were sorting out logistics of getting the injured competitor home Ely and I dived into the now vacant back of the camper van. As I stripped off, Ely hauled out the still damp wetsuit from out wet kit bag (regretting that late-night swim around now) and as I struggled into that we listed off items of kit that I would need and Ely hunted for them. With a pull buoy, a compass, a whistle and some goggles ready, Niall popped his head around with the red SwimRun swimcap that he had clearly hauled off the head of the retreating participant. Ely showed me how to put the neoprene swim cap she had given me under the normal one – I had never swum any distance in water cold enough to need a neoprene cap. A few minutes later, dressed in a random of assortment of different peoples kit, I stumbled out of the van. I was already cold from the sodden wetsuit, and I hadn’t eaten or drunk anywhere near enough to get me safely around such a cold course. As my new team mate was off on a warm up jog, I downed a few cups of tea and coffee along with some cups of water and as much food as I could fit in my face. We wouldn’t be running any distance for a while so I hoped I would have digested most of it by then.

As my new team mate returned, we quickly introduced ourselves to each other and then set off. This was the first time Euan would be using a tow rope to swim, and since his legs were quite a bit longer than Ely’s I could only trust and pray that he wasn’t going to kick me in the face the whole way round! It was a very short jog which barely got my heart rate going before we were into the first swim. And it was so cold! I felt my whole body reacting to the freezing waters; my muscles contracted, my heart rate and breathing quickened and my feet and hands went numb. I felt myself starting to panic and tried to slow my breathing down. I put my face in the water to try and get a decent swim stroke going but it was too cold and I felt my panic worsen. I swam for several minutes with my head sticking out of the water, and because of that I was able to hear male voices shouting my name. It must be Magnus and Jesper coming in for their second lap of this section. Bouyed by their presence, and driven by an urge not to look like a complete idiot in front of my talented friends, I managed to plunge my faace and head into the icy waters of the loch. By staring fixedly at the yellow rope in front of me and trying to rhythmically count my strokes I got myself most of the way through the swim. As we reached close to the other shore, my desperation to be out of the freezing water turned once more to panic and I found myself almost unable to coordinate my swimming with my breathing. I had to roll onto my back quickly to catch some decent breaths, but knowing this is also the signal of a swimmer in distress I had to force myself back round and to continue. When we finally reached shallow water my body was so cold that I couldn’t stand up and walk out, I just kept falling back into the freezing loch. In the end I half dragged, half bum-shuffled my way to the dry shore before dragging myself to my feet. As we began to jog the short distance to the next swim the boys caught us up. They were excited to see me competing and shouted lots of words of encouragement before bounding of into the distance.

The next swim was the longest one and I was terrified that I wouldn’t make it. But I had too much pride to give up when I had taken the place of someone who had already dropped out. I had no option but to continue! The first part of the second swim was warmer as there was a warm cross current across the loch. It started to get colder towards the middle and when we had to get up and walk across a shallow part I has similar coordination problems. Luckily at this point Ana and Johan passed us at a distance, and although they didn’t spot us it still gave me a boost to carry on. The rest of that swim and the next were brutally cold with only short sections of running in between. In addition the running was over such difficult ground, consisting of gorse and reed swaps and bogs which if not avoided would submerge you to your waist in putrid smelling slime, that actually running it was close to impossible. I felt very surreal running along as my body was so cold I couldn’t feel it, combined with the lack of physical or mental preparation leading up to it. I just watched Euan’s feet closely and placed mine exactly where his had been. This created such a strange out-of-body experience that at one point when he stumbled I felt as though it was me that was falling. After out third swim this sensation began to worsen and I began to feel very strange. Out of nowhere I doubled over and vomited in front of me. I retched and threw up a few more times before nodding my head and we began to run again. A few minutes later I had to repeat this performance.

The rest of the race was an exercise in endurance. My body didn’t heat up to a tolerable temperature until the very last section running up the road to the finish line. The worst point was probably towards the end of the penultimate swim, when my body was very close to becoming hypothermic but we couldn’t get out of the water. It ws too shallow and clogged with reeds to swim, but when you stood up the quicksand on the bottom sucked your legs down to almost knee deep meaning wading out was impossibly slow. I was shivering uncontrollably and unable to imitate the method Euan found of lying on his back and dragging himself along due to the cold paralysing my limbs. To make things worse we were still tied together as we were both to cold to have the dexterity to unclip the rope. I don’t remember how we managed to get ourselves out of the water, but I do remember the euphoric feeling as we finally found a section we could run across, knowing we had only one swim left.

There were many points during the race when I found myself wondering why I had been so desperate to do the race, knowing as I had how tough it would be. I also wondered, if the circumstances had been different and I hadn’t felt I had so much to prove if I would have given up. But the feeling of pride and accomplishment I had as I crossed that finish line reminded me exactly why I keep doing these races. For me, pushing myself to these extremes and proving to myself that I have what it takes to cope is part of being alive. After all, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger – right?!

And for those of you wondering, of course my friends won. Magnus and Jesper crossed the line first after more than 8 hours of being out on that freezing course. Ana and Johan put in an incredible performance and crossed the line only minutes behind them. They were the only two teams out of the twenty that signed up to complete the long course of the Glencoe Skyfall SwimRun 2017. I was more than a little proud 😉

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