On Sunday morning, I went down to Bowleaze Cove with Stu, Suzanne and Roelie for the first of this year’s Big Cove sea swims. There are two distances on offer: 1.5 miles and 3 miles. I’d looked up information about previous events online and in the past couple of years the number of entrants has fluctuated between about 24 and 40, which had advantages and disadvantages. I knew that it meant I would be less likely to be crushed in a melee at the start of the race, but it also meant that I would quite likely be out on the course on my own for long stretches.
As it was only a swim and not an aquathlon or triathlon, there was no need for the event to start really early, so we didn’t need to leave Southampton until 8am. We arrived in Weymouth quite early, but then we had to work out where we needed to get to. Stu’s satnav was determined to take us down a route that was inaccessible and then we ended dup driving around a caravan park before we looked at some online maps and found an alternative route.
It was a beautifully warm and sunny day (20°C by 9am), so there were already quite a few people on the beach and eating full English breakfasts in the nearby café when we arrived. We parked the car and I was surprised by how cheap the parking was for a lovely tourist destination (£2.50 for 4 hours).
We had a bit of time to waste, but none of us wanted to out our wetsuits on and stand around in the sun for too long. We went and registered, which was a very simple process. We were all given green hats to indicate that we were doing the shorter distance; the 3-mile swimmers were given orange hats. We also had our numbers written on our hands. It’s a trivial detail, but I was pleased that the woman who was doing it has neat handwriting – I hate having a number scrawled badly on my limbs!!!
We thought that we had seen the course marked in the bay, but as we were waiting, we realised that more buoys were being towed out into position. In terms of running, I can conceptualise how far a mile is, but seeing it marked out in the sea, made it look like a huge distance, and was more than a little terrifying.
The email that we had been sent before the event had stated that all entrants should be strong swimmers who are experienced at open water swimming. I’m not really sure that I fit either of those categories. I’m definitely not a strong swimmer as I’m most definitely in lane 1 at Tri Club (although I can hold my own in the middle lane when I go to public lane swimming sessions). I’m not sure that I’m an experienced open water swimmer either – I’ve swum at Lakeside and HOWSC as well as a lake in France, but the only ‘sea swim’ that I’ve done was Fowey Harbour swim last summer, which wasn’t too long and was in a very safe environment. We had also been asked to state how long we thought it would take us – I had written down 90 minutes.
At last it was time to put our wetsuits on. Foolishly, I ran and cycled on Saturday with a vest and shorts on, so I had burnt my shoulders, which was not the best preparation. I liberally applied bodyglide to my neck and just hoped that nothing else would chafe during the swim. I meant to put on lip-gloss, but I forgot. I also had to use my inhaler as I was finding breathing difficult and was wheezing a bit.
I’ve got really poor eyesight, so I still had my glasses on. Without them, I can see nothing, so if I took them off, I would have to walk around with my goggles on, which is not a great look. I had been undecided about which goggles to wear. I prefer my tinted goggles as they were more comfortable and have slightly larger lenses than my clear goggles, however, the replacement strap that I’ve been using since my last one broke just doesn’t seem to work well and I ended up stopping frequently at the pool to empty them out, so I decided that the clear goggles would be the sensible option.
I also dislike getting water in my ears. I’ve never tried earplugs, but find that if I wear a good swimming hat, my ears are well enough protected. The temperature meant that I thought a neoprene hat would be excessive, but I decided to go for two swimming hats. I put on my favourite shark motif hat, then my goggles before finishing off with the green Bustinskin hat.
We had time for a quick dip in the sea before the event. In hindsight, I should have spent a bit more time acclimatising to the water. My hands felt cold, but the rest of me was OK. The sea temperature was actually quite pleasant at 17.3°C, although the wind speed was 8 knots – according to local weatherman Bob Poots.
Just before the event started, we were called over to the blue start mat for a briefing and roll call. I’m guessing that the event’s proximity to the Challenge Weymouth course accounted for the surge in popularity, as there were 36 people in the 1.5-mile event. We were given some instructions about staying with 5m of the buoys and to pass them on our right hand side in both directions. The 3-mile swimmers were told where the turning point was, and then there were some other comments. I gathered that the gist of them was about jellyfish and bumping into things, but my hearing is not great, so I wasn’t really sure what had been said. After the event, I read a news item that said there has been a huge influx of jellyfish in the area because of the warm seas encouraging plankton growth. I was so glad that I was unaware of that when the event started.
I positioned myself at the back of the pack and to the side, as I knew I would be one of the weakest swimmers there and I didn’t want to have anyone swim over me at the start.
The start of the race was in very shallow water, which started to deepen as we reached the end of the pier. At this point, other swimmers were still in sight, but it was already clear that I was going to be last. I was doing my best to relax and swim with smooth strokes, but my breathing was all over the place and I did wonder whether I would make it around.
For the first quarter of the race, I was accompanied by a stand up paddle boarder, who kept saying reassuring things to me and checking whether I was OK. I did wonder whether I should just turn around, but I didn’t want to fail. I was grateful to have someone beside me, but I also felt guilty that I was so far behind everyone else and that so much attention was having to be focused on me.
I started to get into some sort of rhythm and was really surprised by just how much I could see. Suddenly, I saw something ahead of me… Oh My God! It was a dead baby! I have no idea what must have been on my mind for that to be my first thought! I put my head back into the water and realised that I was mistaken. It was only a jellyfish… hold on… a jellyfish?! Aarrgghh! I panicked and started swimming sideways as quickly as I could.
When we did the Fowey Harbour Swim, there were list of jellyfish and some people got stung. They said it wasn’t too bad, but I didn’t want to find out what it would feel like. The only parts of my body that were exposed were my hands, feet and arts of my face, but I was still frightened.
Unfortunately, the jellyfish were part of the event. I would get into a rhythm, only for it to be interrupted by me freaking out about the appearance of something in the water beside me (mainly jellyfish, but occasionally, faster swimmers who were lapping me).
I also realised that there was a mark on my goggles that looked like a huge black jellyfish whenever I looked out of the corner of my eye. (On inspection after the event, I’ve realised that it is the prescription label on the lens – these will definitely be picked off before I do a similar event in future!)
The course was well marked out with enormous yellow buoys that were clearly visible even for someone with eyesight as bad as mine. I think the buoys were about 250m apart, but I don’t know, as I didn’t check my watch.
It took me a long time to feel like I could breathe comfortably. I also realised that my legs weren’t doing anything useful and my shoulder still isn’t quite right after my accident.
By the time I was halfway out, I could see the lead swimmers coming back on the other side of the buoys. At this point, the stand up paddle boarder swapped roles with a chap in a kayak. There were quite large distances between some of the buoys, and not everyone is very good at sighting. I realised that unless I moved, then a large group of swimmers would swim straight into me, so I started heading further out to sea. The kayaker shouted at me, so I had to explain what my manoeuvre was.
I decided that I needed to start pushing myself harder, so I tried to get into a better rhythm. Unfortunately, I somehow ended up swimming very close to the kayak and its shadow. For some reason, this made me think about Jaws. The thought of sharks in the water did no help my mental state as I became aware that if there were to be anything in the water, I would not be able to get out in a hurry.
I carried on and eventually reached the final buoy. I glanced back towards the beach and realised just how far I had to go. Part of me was tempted to look at my watch, but I knew that wouldn’t help me and that I just had to keep going.
My breathing had finally settled down, so I thought I could swim in a good rhythm, but the swim back was much harder. Some of the others reckon that it had become breezier and the number of ribs, jet skis, and motorboats out in the cove had created some waves. I hadn’t particularly noticed any swell on the way out, but it was definitely there on the way back. I had been swimming bilaterally, but breathing to my right wasn’t really an option on the way back, so I settled into a four-breath rhythm.
The return leg seemed to take forever. I was passed by a number of the 3-mile swimmers, some of whom swam extremely close to me.
Towards the turn, I could see lots of people on jet skis riding about. Although the logical part of me knew that I had on a striking coloured hat and that there were marshals around, I became a bit paranoid that I might meet an untimely end being hit by some sort of craft.
Eventually, it was time to head back to the beach. I was feeling exhausted and was ready to divorce Stuart for convincing me to join in with this madness. Two three-mile swimmers passed me, but I had no energy to try to keep up with them even for 5 seconds.
The water was very clear and it looked like I could touch the bottom with my hands. I wasn’t sure how soon I could stand up or whether I was expected to swim as close to the beach as possible. With about 15m to go, I stood up and waded to the beach. I’d done it!
One of the marshals put a medal around my neck, but I felt so shattered and numb that I was unable to do or say anything. I barely spoke for 10 minutes. My legs and arms were not as tired as after running a marathon, but the adrenaline caused by my fear throughout the event meant that I found it mentally exhausting.
Stuart, Roelie and Suzanne were waiting for me on the beach, having finished quite a long way ahead of me. They had all changed and were starting to get cold and hungry, whereas I wasn’t particularly interested in eating.
Stuart finished in 11th place in 43:12.
Roelie came 22nd in 50:36
Suzanne was 26th in 55:59.
The winner was a woman who completed the course in just 36:38!
As expected, I finished last, with 9 of the people doing the 3-mile swim finishing ahead of me. This was not unexpected – as I’ve never swum further than 2000 metres before, and have only ever spent an hour swimming in the pool. It took me 1:22:32, which is a few minutes ahead of my estimated time of 1:30, but really not good enough. If anyone wants to see the full results, they are available here: http://www.bustinskin.com/download/big_cove_swims_2014/big%20cove%20swim%20race%201%20.pdf
New swimming PB for distance, time and calories
My Garmin data for the course is here: http://connect.garmin.com/activity/526034617 Zooming in on it, you can see just how wonky my swim was!
Stuart and Suzanne have already signed up for the next two events in the series, and if I’m going to make the start line of Challenge Weymouth, I guess I’d better give it another crack! Hopefully, next time, some more people that we know will be able to make the event.
I decided not to swim yesterday, as I was feeling exhausted. My poor technique combined with the duration and length of the swim and wearing a wetsuit mean that I have got some very stiff muscles in my back. Also, although we all applied plenty of body glide, all four of us have been left with burns on our necks.
Overall, it was a very difficult experience for me. However, it does now mean that I should feel more confident about Challenge Weymouth. I have now swum the distance in similar conditions; cycled for about the right distance with the Wiggle Spring Sportive and run the distance (plus more) at Brighton Marathon.
What’s the toughest event you’ve done?