The challenge last week was the frigid water of Melbourne (14 deg C), and this week's menu of punishment could not have been more different! I flew on Wednesday to Darwin (Northern Territory), then drove 800km west into Western Australia to find Lake Argyle, where a seriously mouthwatering but difficult swim was being hosted (10 & 20km only).
So this event was not for the faint hearted, in fact it could be said that even to get there you need to be seriously committed. To help paint the picture of how remote this place is (I strongly recommend a quick look on google maps), for all but 15 minutes of the 800km drive, there is no mobile reception! The scenery is amazing, changing from tropical almost jungle-like greenery in Darwin, through plain-like very australian savannah / floodplains around Katherine and Timber Creek, through to the rocky, dramatic red rock outcrops of the Kimberley region in Northern WA. The small community at Lake Argyle is about 100km from the nearest town, and, mobile phone reception. I don't mean to harp on about technology, but it's uses are many and I'll explain more about this later............
So, the trip began well and we had our first dip in the lake on Thursday afternoon. The air temperature was 33 degrees, humidity felt 150%, and the water was 27 degrees. We were impressed with the size and jagged beauty of the lake. Sheer red cliffs dropping off into deep water. Lots of fish, but thankfully no sign of the much touted 25,000 fresh-water crocodiles which inhabit the lake (and apparently only eat things they can swallow whole, making me safe). After a brief 45 minute arm loosener, when i took off my cap, the sweat poured out. My body was clearly not happy with the warm water!
On Friday morning we had another swim, and this time my reaction was less dramatic. The acclimatisation process was well underway and my body seemed happier in the heat. What had become apparent though is how much less buoyant fresh water is than salt. I've been training for 6 months in sea water, and have come to take for granted how easy it is to float. We struggled to tread water to have a conversation! Feeding was certainly going to be interesting, and I was concerned at how much slower my pace would likely be!
On Friday afternoon we went on a wonderful cruise around the lake with Lake Argyle tours. This was a real eye opener for several reasons. Firstly, whilst we'd thought the lake was big, based on the little corner we'd been swimming in, we had completely underestimated this – it is absolutely MASSIVE. Secondly, we saw a bunch of crocodiles, some as big as 3m, just hanging out on the beaches. Thirdly, we were given a sneak preview of the course for the swims. The 20km course started what felt like an unimaginably long way from the finish, and involved three almost straight 5km legs followed by a windy final 5kms to the finish. The 10km course was the second half of the full course. There’s something wierd about actually physically seeing distance across water. 5km does not sound far, even to swim, but when you see it, and see how far off in the distance the end is, it is pretty scary! So, whilst others were drinking Champagne and beer watching the sunset, I found a quiet corner to compose myself and have an internal panic!
After the cruise we attended our race briefing, and I was really hoping to meet my boat crew and paddlers. Any of you who have done any long swims will recognise how critical these people are, and given my nerves and how hard the swim was going to be, I was really needing a chat with mine. When none of them appeared for me, I was a bit concerned, and this is where a phone would have been really handy. I had all their numbers, but no reception and nor would they have! So, my all important discussions about roles would have to wait, and I would just have to pray they turned up at 6am when we were to load the boat! Luckily they did show up........................and my night’s worrying was all in vain.
Robert the skipper was very friendly, but the boat was not quite what I'd expected - picture a good-ol Aussie tinnie - no more than 10ft long with a small outboard. This was to be loaded with two swimmers, four paddlers, a skipper, and two kayaks for a choppy 20km journey across the lake for the start at 7am?!?!? Seriously???? Anyway, the primary concern soon became my paddlers...........who, thankfully both turned up at 6.30. Lovely ladies, but neither had ever done anything like this before. So we all boarded the boat (I wish I had a photo), and pottered around the bay for 15 mins waiting for the convoy to the start to begin. This was the only opportunity I had to brief the paddlers.
The two critical roles for a paddler are navigation and feeding (which relies on timekeeping). The paddler can see, and the swimmer can't due to chop and generally wanting his head down so he's more streamline and faster. So, it's the paddler's job to steer the swimmer (not vice-versa), and this involves positioning yourself to one side (preferred breathing side) of the swimmer, and then pushing or pulling them gently in the direction required to continually aim for the next buoy. A straight line, being the shortest distance, is critical. Feeding requires knowing how long since the last feed, and according to a schedule set by the swimmer administering fluids and food (in my case gels). My heckles were a bit raised when neither of my paddlers even had a watch on..............
Anyway, picture 7 of us, on the tiny tinnie, trying to bash our way out to the start into the wind and a 2 foot chop. It was clear to both James (friend also swimming, sharing the boat) and I that we were not going to make it on time. This combined with inability to brief paddlers properly and mentally prepare ourselves, was very stressful. We could see the panic in each others' eyes. Whilst the skipper was having none of our suggestions to re-attach the kayaks, and was intent on plodding (unaware of the deadline), we managed to diplomatically wave down a much bigger, faster boat, allowing 5 of us and the two kayaks to jump-ship and stand some chance of getting there for the 8am start. Bewilderingly, the skipper of this boat didn't know where he was heading, and due to the delay now had no one else to follow. Luckily we knew from the day before where to head and pointed him in the right direction...............
Just as the start came into sight, and we could see the other swimmers in the water and boats all lined up ready, the rope attaching two kayaks to a boat in front of us snapped, and we stopped to help rescue one of the kayaks which was clearly sinking. Definitely the right thing to do, but we were horrified to hear on the radio a call from the organisers that they were ready to start the 20km solo swim, trying to confirm whether there were any soloists still not in the water! That was James and I, and we were a long way from being ready, as were our paddlers. A rush at this point is the last thing you need.......... The last thing I remember before jumping inelegantly into the water were some wise words from James - something to the effect of "focus on the task ahead, not the stress behind. We can do this".
We swam about 50 metres over to the other six swimmers gathered, floating on "noodles" at the start line, and almost immediately that we’d arrived the gun (or something similar) signalled the start. I have no memory of what is was that triggered the start, I was already withdrawn into my mind, focusing on the long, meditative period ahead, and importantly the goal of finishing the race within the 8 hour limit.
I saw the others sprint off ahead, and just began stroking, and breathing. I was going through the three session-starting catch focus drills Peter gave me. One - breathe out constantly and relax; two - monkey grinder high elbows, enter in front of the ears at four o'clock depth elbows higher than wrists, higher than fingers; three - feel the "claw" and then hinge the elbow to create the ball of water with the elbow.............thinking like this the first few kilometres had flown by, but as I lifted my head to see where we were I realised that we we 250 m+ off course on the opposite side of the channel to where the buoy was. A quick chat with my friendly, helpful, but poorly briefed (my fault) paddler, and I realised that she thought I was navigating! Not good. We had some relatively tense words, then I powered off around the buoy and tried to calm myself and regain my poise.
Between this buoy, and the next, the paddlers switched leaving me to navigate towards a buoy which was 5km away and I couldn't even see. Not great, so I just picked a boat in front and tried to follow that. The change took ages, and I figured they were probably refilling my bottles, and paddler 1 was reaffirming with paddler 2 that their job was to navigate. So, when she rejoined my side, I continued swimming and followed, and we went reasonably straight towards the other boats. We talked at a feed, and my confidence improved that we were understanding each other. One less thing to worry about.
My swimming felt pretty good, nice rhythm, reasonable pace, catch felt good. However, the journey from the first to second buoy was slow (2.5km), the section from number two to three took ages. It turned out to be 5km to the half-way mark. I had thought it was only 2.5 km and there would be a 7.5km buoy, and expecting this to be the case I really feared not making it in time. Amazingly, the next buoy we reached was the 10km, half-way marker, and although I swam past it, then had to swim back and pass it on the other side after swimming on 100 metres or so (very annoying!), the elation at being half way was strong! I was also made aware that it had only taken 3.5 hours or so to get here, so knew now that I would definitely make it and all the effort would be worthwhile.
We had expected the third leg of about 5km to be down wind, but the wind had died off, reducing the support it was to have provided! Slightly disappointing, but nonetheless it was a good solid straight 5km to a natural gap between two mountains. Head down, strong effort, feeling good, enjoying the feeds and having some variety (gels, fruit bars, powerbar chews).
The next turn took us through a beautiful narrow canyon, then around a painful 5km triangle all within sight of the finish. What a great feeling to see the end, and as I approached the finish I knew my friends would be there waiting. Low and behold Iain was in the water with a cold beer for me.............appropriate celebration after all the effort! Finishing in 6 hrs 55 minutes was brilliant. It took more than 35 minutes off my Rottnest time, showing I have improved considerably (I'm assuming the chop and fresh water cancel themselves out).
Overall the swim was a great mental boost for me. I finished strongly, and both physically and mentally could have gone further and faster. My stroke was ok, although on viewing the videos taken by the crew I have a few things to work on, and also have a sore shoulder to think about.
The event itself was pretty well organised, in terms of resources available. It seems the local community had rallied together, but the organisers would do well to try and professionalise the operation and could learn a lot from the Rotto team in terms of ensuring everything happens on time, and all contingencies are catered for. Paddlers, boat crew, and swimmers must meet before the day to organise how everything's going to work, and a good paddler is worth their weight in gold to a long distance swimmer.
Next challenge is shorter and will be a light relief by comparison. Revisiting the South Head Roughwater (Bondi to Watsons) 12km on Sunday 20th May. This was the swim that started it all for me in 2009, and it will be great to tackle it now I'm much stronger, fitter and faster.
Beyond that, it's the tough and lonely road to September. Will have to dream up some challenges to keep the journey interesting. Back to squad with Vlad this week, and now will be dragging myself out of bed at 4.30 for a 5.30am start in the pool! Not good!
Thanks for your ongoing support, and apologies for the long blog!