‘Open water swimming! Are you mad?’ That’s what people say when you tell them you spend your Sunday mornings swimming in a cold loch just outside Glasgow. We are few and far between, open water swimmers but we are growing in number as more and more pool swimmers discover the joy of swimming chlorine free, lane free and with no tumble turns at the end of each length.
I participated in my first organised open water event late in the 2012 summer season. I had swum for hours in the pool and could easily swim 100 lengths. I had even managed into a Loch before the big day. A friend of my husband had agreed to take me with him on one of his training sessions at a very cold Loch near Dumfries, it did not go well! I ended up telling Chris I was fine just swimming around near the shore, while he and his buddy swam across the Loch and disappeared from view. Liam, my husband, stood on the shore and shouted encouragingly to me but I could not get my face in the water without complete panic taking over. I felt invigorated though and realised that I loved being in the water, even if my face didn’t.
The day of the event arrived and I found myself standing on the shores of beautiful Loch Eck, waiting to swim a 2k. Looking around I could see a diverse bunch, of all shapes and sizes, all of us squeezed into our bought, begged and borrowed wetsuits. I watched as the folk doing the longer distances started off and then it was my turn. We had all had our safety talk from Robert who runs Vigour Events and who had organised the swim that day and I kept his voice in my head as I went onto the water. ‘If you are in trouble or just want a safety boat to come over so you can speak to the crew, just lie on your back and raise your arm!’
Liam and my three girls were on the shoreline shouting ‘Go Mummy! Go Mummy’! I had to turn to them and smile and reassure them I was fine as I turned on my back and went under the water. I managed to get my face in the water a few times before the race started and I gave Liam the thumbs up. ‘I can do this’ I said to myself. The race began and I was left for dust by everyone around me and after 25 strokes I had no breath left in me. I completed the race and came....last! I didn’t care though, I had done it half front crawl and half breaststroke and had a little rest and chat with the safety crews on the way round but I had finished and received huge cheers from the small band of spectators who were still on the shoreline, including my very loud children and husband. It was one of the hardest things I had ever done but I had loved every minute of it and could not wait for the new season to begin.
I kept training in the pool all winter and only had a little time off due to a period of ill health. So when the 2013 season came upon us I felt I was more than ready to get back in the open water. I had learned that Vigour Events ran open coaching sessions at Bardowie Loch just north of Glasgow and I had been eagerly checking their website for updates as to when the sessions would begin.
So the first Sunday that I had free I made my way to Bardowie full of anticipation and trepidation! I arrived and started chatting to the folk who were already there and to Robert and his wife Kirstin who helps with the business. I filled in the forms and collected a number tag which we wear round our ankle or wrist, depending on how flexible you are, and then got changed in the ample changing facilities. We all gathered together looking out at the Loch through the floor to ceiling windows of the club house and listened to Robert explain the course and how to stay safe, then it was out to the shoreline.
‘Right you can make your way unto the water now’ Robert says. The eager ones are in first, keen to get on with it, then the swimmers who are less confidant, then me. Robert has explained the technique of how to get our faces in the water and how to gradually begin to swim to keep our body temperature up. It feels like everybody has managed this and they’re now beginning their swim round their chosen course route. I follow but I am really struggling with the panic I feel when my face goes in the water. I decide to head back to the shore and I shake my head when Liam shouts to me from the jetty. ‘It’s not for me’ I tell him, ‘I’m coming out’.
‘Keep trying’ Liam shouts ‘You can do it’. Robert realises I am giving up and throws a Chill Swim float into the water for me. He tells me to swim up and down in front of the jetty where he can keep an eye on me and to practice breathing out under the water. It starts to get a little easier but I am now cold as I have not been swimming the whole time. After around half an hour I give up and leave the water.
The warm shower in the club house is so welcoming but as I stand under the warm water I can’t help but feel really disappointed in myself. I love the feeling of being in the water and even managed to get my face in but keep running out of breath and stamina. I begin to think I might not be an open water swimmer after all.
A fortnight later I find myself standing on the edge of Bardowie Loch again. This time I have the Chill Swim float on before I even get in the water, a little safety blanket for me. It’s the same as last time! I just panic when I have swum more than a few strokes and start to gasp for air. Robert calls me over to the jetty and gives me a little golden nugget of advice about my breathing technique. Slowly, but surely a little light bulb goes on in my head, like a low energy lightbulb heating up. Before I know it I have set out to swim the shortest course, safe in the knowledge I have my swim float to hold onto if need be and the safety boat crew to call on if the light bulb goes out.
I only go round the course once but I feel euphoric. I can swim open water after all and I loved it. There is no stopping me now. Every opportunity I got I went to Bardowie and was even joined by my two older girls, Maisie and Isobel , who have come along with their Vigour run, tri club coach, Bryan.
The very best day and the one that bolstered my confidence the most was an early morning Thursday session at the Loch. The weather was perfect and only a few of us had been hardy enough to make the 7.30 start time. It was just the best, totally the best, way to start a working day. I loved my swim and felt confident and at ease in the water. My fellow female swimmers and I chatted about how wonderful the experience had been as we showered and changed before heading off to spread the word to anyone who cared to listen that day.
I decided to enter the 1k swim being held at Loch Venachar by Robert and the team at Vigour events. They have around 5 organised events throughout the season where swimmers can enter a range of distances and even swim sans wetsuit if they are brave enough and can prove to Vigour Events they are able enough.
It was a beautiful day for the swim, for people and midges alike! The setting was just gorgeous and there was a grand coffee available at the Loch Venachar cafe, which opened its doors early for us to use its facilities. The water was so calm with a light mist hanging over it and a watery sun fighting to come through. I could not wait to get in the water, not least to get away from the midges.
Robert called all the 1k swimmers to the shoreline and we made our way into the water. The temperature was ok and I stuck my head under the water. Sheer panic engulfed me, as the look and feel of the water and bottom of the loch was so completely different to Bardowie Loch. I looked to the shore and searched for Liam and the kids to try and signal to him that I didn’t want to go ahead with race. Too late, the hooter went and everyone around me set off. I thought ‘what the hell’ and set off after them with my chin fairly and squarely above the water.
I could hear the familiar sound of ‘go mummy, go mummy’ as I slowly ran out breath and stamina. Then the shout went up! It was Robert’s voice shouting over everything else ‘ Rhona...get your face in the water,....come on, get your face in the water! You can do it!’ So I took a breath and went under. One stroke, two strokes, breathe, one stroke, two strokes, breathe. A swimmer beside me stopped and I stopped to ask if she was ok, she said yes and I started swimming again. Then I spotted the safety boat heading in our direction and I turned to see she put her hand up and was asking to leave the race. Very selfishly, I thought ‘at least I won’t be last this time'.
Before I knew I was half way round the course, keeping my breathing under control and worrying more about my stroke and how quick a time I could finish in. Way too soon I had crossed the finish line and was having hugs with my family on the shore and loving every minute of it. I was so proud of myself and could not wipe the smile off of my face for the rest of the day.
Due to a hectic family life and work commitments I have only managed two other swim events this season, one of which was a 2k at Loch Ard, another Vigour Events race. This was to be the greatest distance I had challenged myself with but felt confident that I could do it. Having this time left the kids at home with Granma, Liam and I set out nice and early and arrived at a gloomy but calm Loch Ard. The 10k swimmers were already racing when we got there and I went to register and watch them from the shoreline for a while.
Just as the 5k, 2k and 1k swimmers were called for our safety briefing and for the course to be detailed to us, the rain started.....and then stopped and then started and stopped. Robert and the safety crew explained that they were keeping an eye on the weather and would advise us if they felt conditions had deteriorated too much to swim.
The 2k race started at 10:45 and I set out with the rest of the swimmers, with my face in the water, and feeling great. As usual, I felt like I was swimming backwards as everyone pulled away from me but this time I felt strong and in control and knew I just needed to keep to my pace in order to finish, even if that was in last place. The stretch to the first buoy was a long one and the swell was quite high but I was enjoying myself and could see the safety boats nearby. Once I turned at the first buoy the swell seemed much worse but I made it to the next buoy and turned to look for the next one. It wasn’t where I expected it to be and I felt a little disoriented. I headed for it anyway but as I drew closer to it and the safety boat nearby the water started to become really shallow. I then spotted one of the 10k swimmers standing up in the water and I thought ‘I know its shallow but that’s cheating'.
It was then that I heard someone shouting from the safety boat. I stopped and looked up and realised everyone was heading for shore. I asked the person in the boat what was happening and he said the weather had turned and it was too dangerous to continue. The buoy I had headed for had lost its mooring as the wind had changed direction and was coming straight down the Loch. It was all over and we needed to head for shore. It was so disappointing that it had to finish that way but as we all chatted and swapped stories about how far round we had gotten we all agreed that Robert and the event safety officers had all made a difficult, but correct, decision. We all lived to swim another day.
The very next day I took myself off to Bardowie Loch and swam 1.5k, in perfect weather. What a difference a day makes! It has been a few weeks since that last swim and I have yet to manage back to Bardowie and the season is almost over. Life and children keep getting in the way. Oh well I will just need to wait until next year....or maybe not! Winter swimming at Bardowie has been announced on the Vigour Events facebook page. Can I...should I...think I will!