Back from Croatia on a hot sunny Saturday, regular sea swims are in Weymouth Bay on a Sunday morning at 9:30. I hardly joined them for one swim in 2017, and certainly none without a wet suit.
How to prepare myself for the cold. Immediately after the London Marathon, just prior to going to the swim camp in Croatia, I started to eat, and eat and eat. My aim was to go from just under 9 stone to somewhere between 10 and 1/2 to 11 stone by the time of my swim.
Contrary to popular belief the grease we wear is not to combat the cold, it just prevents salt sores. I needed to put on ‘fat’ to keep me warm.
I also started to grow my hair (both it and I don’t like it long) in the belief that slightly longer hair under my hat will give me just a bit more insulation on my head. It is well known that you loose most of your heat through your head and I would only be allowed to wear one regular swim hat on the swim.
For my initial swims back in the UK I intended to continue to wear the bright orange neoprene hat over my regular one, and don a ‘skin suit’, used by triathletes over their tri suits for non-wet suit swims, just to keep the wind off my back.
In addition I’d always wear silicone mouldable earplugs, which prevent any cold water getting in the ear, plus, of course, apply Vaseline to stop salt rubs on my neck and under the edges of my swim suit on my shoulders.
On my Channel swim, I will mix Vaseline with Lanoline, a thick gooey white mixture, and apply it on almost every bit of exposed skin.
Now’s the time to put my toe in and test the waters !
We are so lucky living where we do in the middle of Dorset and having Weymouth Bay to swim in. Just under two and a half miles long, running north- south. Being partially sheltered by Portland, it’s swimmable on all states of tide and weather. Although in extreme conditions when fighting the waves the drift can mean we swim for 20 or 30 minutes in one direction only to be swept back to our starting point in fraction of that time.
The water warms up quicker than the main body of the sea due to the tides coming over the beach, but the temperature can drop by over two degrees overnight if the wind picks up. Conversely in the winter with the sea coming over the frozen stones, it can get very cold!
In the middle of the Bay are the Greenhill Beach Chalets. A number of us have been using Rod’s for years, a local keen sea swimmer who swims practically every day, enticed us with his heater and kettle. Swimmers meet every Sunday morning at 0930 throughout the year and on Fridays at 1700 during BST.
Then a few of the regular ‘cold water junkies’ persuaded Weymouth & Portland Borough Council to allow them to use the long unused former lifeguard station and balcony above the huts to securely dump their swim kit, change, swim without worry and then warm up with a hot drink at any time. A brilliant enterprise much appreciated. Now known as Weymouth Bay Sea Swimmers (WBSS), enthusiasts can pay on line to get a code for the lock to use use it for either one day, a month, six months or a year.
Most swims in the winter and colder weather are to the south, with a measured mile to the Tower and many interim points for shorter swims.
In warmer weather we also go North, but however calm the bay might seem it is always a bit lumpy up that end.
For the more adventurous, and with boat or kayak cover and favourable conditions, we can continue north to Osmington, Durdle Door and then onto Lulworth.
With virtually no long distance open water swims in 2016 nor 2017 and pool training not great either would I be ready with less than eight months of training.
On the plus side, I was the fittest I had ever been in my whole life, and in particular for endurance events.
I thought of a spring break in Lanzarote or Majorca with husband in tow, but then started looking at specific swimming camps.
Swimquest – just the job “Long Distance Training”, Croatia 28th April. Specifically stated as Channel and Distance swimming building up to a six hour swim – perfect.
London Marathon was on the 21st April and my race weight was still just under 9 stone, would I tolerate the predicted 12-16 degree C waters, especially as they programmed two swims a day? I bought a Dry Robe and a neoprene swimming cap and packed my wet suit just in case.
Day One: Acclimatization Round the Bay
Flew to Split in the morning, 2pm Cat to Hvar where Palmizana Menehello, a bohemian retreat, sent a boat to ferry us across to our base for the week.
First dip in just my swim costume, a silicone hat and the neoprene one on top. After all you loose most of your heat through your head – or so I have been told. It was an acclimatisation swim of about twenty minutes in the bay that was just a few 100m from our accommodation. All was well, felt a bit ‘chilly’ but not ‘cold’.
Day Two: Another Tootle Round the Bay
Morning: An hour’s swim, again in the bay. No problem.
Luxury, we must have had the only bath on the island in our bungalow – time for a soak and warm up (the only real way I ever warmed up in the UK when swimming all year round).
Afternoon: Again in the bay for about an hour and a half, with some videoing of our swim stroke, both above and below water.
Day Three: One Swim OK – Two Swims – No Way!
Morning: Out on the boats to head round to the two bays to the west. We were going to swim back into our bay, but conditions were rather lumpy. A two hour, rather vigorous swim. I thoroughly enjoyed it and kept up with the faster guys and gals, ’cause once I get going I don’t stop, even for white water over the head – not that there was any on this occasion.
Back on shore, bath, changed and lunch that seemed to take forever, then back to the bungalow for a brief ‘snooze’. A habit I adopted during my Ironman training that had been really beneficial. However, it was cut short as we were due back in the water and I felt I had done enough for the day and didn’t really need another swim. But, I was there and it was on the programme, so off I went.
Afternoon: Due to the wind and sea state we went from the harbour, just a few 100m on the other side of the island. We broke into two teams, one boat with John covering the faster swimmers and Charlotte and Rachel covering the others from their boat.
I was with John and the faster swimmers, so didn’t hear the briefing given by Charlotte and Rachel in the other boat. Needless to say, no way could I keep up with the faster guys and ended up swimming stroke for stroke with a swimmer from the other group as we swam into the second bay. I was relatively happy, until John stopped us to say,
“You’re swimming so well together, keep it up.”
Almost immediately my buddy suddenly decided to swim across the bay, as she had been briefed to do, whilst I continued to swim down it as I had been briefed. After this my mood deteriorated rapidly, I felt cold and annoyed. Upon approaching the swimmers from Charlotte and Rachel’s boat, who had been stopped, I really did not want to be stopped again. I felt cold and miserable and I think I might have blasphemed had I been asked to stop I was in such a foul mood – so made the decision myself and call it a day. Only an hour of the two hour afternoon swim completed.
Day Four:The Demons are Playing with my Head
One swim of four hours planned for the day. I think they sensed my mood and was pleased to be kept with John’s group and we arranged that I swim across the bays to keep pace with the faster swimmers. My orange cap being of great benefit to John as he could see me ‘miles’ away.
It started OK but not long into it I was finding it difficult, I’m not sure why. The first feed at one hour came and went and but I found I was having to force myself to keep swimming and began to think of the 73 year old guy who swam the Channel to prove a point about age being no barrier. He said he’d never do it again – he found both the training and the swim so tough, which at the time I couldn’t understand. I now knew what he meant and was having serious thoughts of whether I should continue on my Channel challenge or not. Would I be able to keep going through such black moments? How arrogant was I to think I could do it? I struggled on to the second feed but could not facing swimming another stroke.
I would need to do some serious thinking and talking to myself. Did I really want to Swim the English Channel, did I really believe I could?
Day Five: Six Hours Swim
I woke up determined to do better and told John not to let me out of the water until I had done at least three hours, but hoped to do more.
One hour feed came and went, no problem, two hour feed, and then three hour feed. At this point John said,
“Out you get you’ve done your three hours,”
“No way,” I replied, I was feeling good.
I also made it to the four hour feed but when stopped by John to do a loop back to stay with the others I began to get annoyed, felt cold and my swim stroke had slowed right down so decided to stop at four and a half hours.
I didn’t complete the six hour swim, but was happy. I know both my body and my head, it takes each a while to adapt, no point it pushing it further and I was ready for a longer one next time.
Day 7: Relaxation, Fun, Games and Frustration
I woke up with a totally different frame of mind, and confident in what I wanted to do, but I was a day late. The programme didn’t allow for any long swims and I felt like a wound spring.
Despite my frustration on the last day, the trip had been 100% successful in giving me that ‘kick start’ that I needed. I was ready to start some serious training.
However, the proof of the pudding would be when I was back in the UK in water only 11 or 12 degrees !
Boy did I cycle that year, in fact it started at the end of 2016. All I could think of was to beat Cullen Goodyear at the Ironman World Championships the following October. I was on a mission.
Then, somehow I ended up in Flanders in April with eighteen experienced cyclists from Weymouth. This was a chance to see the Pros and then ride the course ourselves with it’s notorious cobbled hills.
I was way out of my depth and yet again came a ‘cropper’. It was after lunch, inattention, chasing the faster guys and on a cobbled cycle path. My left buttock blew up like a balloon and turned black. A grazed knee nearly down to the bone. But it was fortunate it coincided with my appointment at the tattoo parlour upon my return – so out of the water for 4 or 5 weeks.
Swim sessions were still down to only two a week with Weyport Masters. I had cut out the late Wednesday session as I found with my training for the Ironman it was just too much.
Although one hour sessions, I frequently only swam for 45 or 50 minutes, often taking time to get in, chatting and generally procrastinating. Unlike in September 2016 when I had been so motivated to get my swimming back on track, after breaking my collar bone, that in addition to full one hour pool swims, I happily did several two hour open water swims a week, albeit in my 2mm sleeveless wetsuit. And in 2006/7 for my previous Channel swim I was always first in the pool and last to get out and did many extra sessions.
All bode well when I caught a cold early in 2017 and happily had a winter dip in the sea just in my costume (something I used to do all year round) to relieve the symptoms and boost the immune system. So once the Spring came, I’d be in the sea regularly, or so I thought!
Spring and summer came, but try as I might – could I swim barely more than an hour in open water.
As with all sports its about 20% physical and 80% mental and it was so true in this case.
My head kept telling me I was cold and no way could I continue. Despite the sun being out, husband on the beach with feeds ready, and even keeping my wet suit on, each time I did one circuit of the Tower and back I got out, unable (unwilling) to continue. It was a round trip of less than two miles. I didn’t even get to do a two hour swim.
I was cold – I had convinced myself it was because I was now a stone lighter due to the triathlon training – down to just below 9 stone – but in truth it was my head – I just could not get myself motivated.
However, once in Kona my swimming felt good in the clear warms waters. I also took the opportunity to book a session with swim coach Karlyn Pipes – what a lady – look her up – amazing. She lives in Hawaii but travels the world coaching swimming, which is when I first met her in London years previously.
The 2.4 mile non-wet suit swim went really well in lovely clear water with the fish and turtles – but I saw non of these as I had perfected my drafting. I was in a sea of bubbles for 1.2 miles to the turning point where I then latched onto one swimmer just a tad faster than me and I got a ‘tow’, following her feet, all the way back to the beach. I beat my previous times and the ‘new kid on the block’ in my age group by less than two minutes. Phew, that was close. Then I smashed her and all the others on the bike – I had achieved my aim and thoroughly enjoyed it the whole experience – unlike the previous year.
A cycling holiday was booked in Tenerife for November so I promised myself that in the New Year I would have to seriously start swimming – but would I be able to – would I be motivated to ???????
July 10th 2016 saw me in a pickled heap on the verge by a roundabout nursing a broken collar bone. It was the end of a cold and damp ride where I had continually had to work hard to keep pace with the guys. I lost them when we got back to Dorchester and should have called it a day, but ‘red mist’ clouded my eyes and my brain and I ‘went for it’ down the hill onto the roundabout in order to catch them up which proved to be much tighter than I anticipated so I chose what I thought would be a soft landing.
That was three months prior to my second attempt at the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii. In my first, the previous year I had come 3rd in the 64-69 age group. Being a Moto GP fan (motorcycle racing) I was not deterred as when my hero Lorenzo had similar injuries he was back racing in less than two weeks – I had months – no problem!
My specialist was rather sceptical to say the least but he did prioritise my operation for a metal plate and was much more supportive and positive when I went back seven weeks later for a routine check.
Walking, hill walking, jogging, turbo training (indoor cycling) were all possible, but swimming was a ‘no no’ until the middle of September when I tentatively competed in the Weymouth 70.3 (a half Ironman) that I had already entered and paid for.
Despite everything the Channel swim was still on the cards for 2017 until I was in Kona, Hawaii for my second year at the Ironman World Championships.
I had trained hard, I had moved up an age group, now in 70-74, so it should be ‘easy’. How wrong could I be? It was my hardest race ever, I was in a very black hole on the run and swore I’d never do another. Despite that I beat the two women who had come first and second the previous year but they were still in the 65-69 age group. I had not bargained for a phenomenal cyclist in my age group, Cullen Goodyear, who left me standing and I ‘only’ came second.
Then serendipity took over – of all the thousands of volunteers, who should I chat with but someone who knew Sue Oldam, the then current oldest women to swim the Channel and apparently she was aiming to swim it again in 2017. But being a year older than me – I wouldn’t get my title back – not that that was the only reason to swim it. Well, perhaps it did help to motivate me.
Also, after a couple of days I had recovered from the race and resolved to come back and beat Cullen. Little did I know there would be a ‘new kid on the block’ to beat – and beat them all I did.
In addition I hadn’t managed any long swims that summer, as I had done in the year previous to my last attempt. So …………………..the Channel attempt delayed to 2018 with some long open water swims planned for the summer of 2017.
At 20:53 on the 25th August 2007 I stood up on Cap Blanc Nez in France with my daughter beside me having just accomplished a child hood dream. I had swim the English Channel in 15 hours 11 minutes.
In doing so I had also become a World Record holder being the oldest woman to do so, at the age of 60 years and 10 months, narrowly beating Sue Oldham of Australia by one month!
Knowing that after such an event with all the build up and preparation comes an inevitable ‘low’ and I was sure Sue would try to get her title back, I immediately vowed to try again when I was 65 in 2012.
But my heart wasn’t in it and I had no inclination to ever swim the Channel again.
However, a life changing moment turned my life upside down when I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer in September of 2012. I suddenly ‘woke up’, “Life is for Living” and within a millisecond I resolved to swim it again, but would do it at 70 with my chosen charity Cancer Research. Oh, and in that same millisecond I decided to buy that new Triumph Tiger 800 that I had test ridden a few weeks previously.
Through all the checks I was also diagnosed as having osteoporosis, I said I was fit as I swam regularly but apparently I needed an impact exercise such as walking. I said,
“Yes that’s good but not recommended you might fall and break something.”
So I started running.
Well sort of, not far, not long, more walking and running. At school I wanted to emulate Roger Banister. Whilst the under 15 boys had the full range of races including the mile, as a mere female we were restricted to the longest being 150 yards! Even as under 17’s we were allowed neither the mile nor cross country running.
Toward my half century I had started Masters swimming and accompanying my daughter all over the country for Biathlons I decided I could swim better than the Seniors taking plart so I took up running. Boy did I cough as I trained for the 1 km sprint. And that was the extent of my running until…………….
Weyport Masters Swim Coach Kate Mason, (who I had thought was far too old do the Ironman in Austria that she had bought for her husbands 50th birthday), eventually nagged me into dipping my feet into triathlons in 2014 with the view to eventually do an Ironman myself.
Secretly I had been rather envious of the triathletes running the streets of Weymouth, but cycling! ……. The thought of cycling ten miles, let alone up or even down the slightest incline horrified me.
As it turned out I took to cycling like a ‘duck to water’ – running was my nemesis which took over three years to master in what I thought would be the easiest discipline. (Boy was I gobsmacked when I learned I was the first female over 70 to cross the line at the London Marathon 2018, I feel I can now call myself a runner.)
Having qualified for the Ironman World Championships in Kona in 2015 – I was well and truely ‘hooked’ and my Channel attempt would have to be delayed a year whilst I chased the elusive World Title for my age group.