For seven days in July, each year, for five years of my childhood, the morning routine was always the same.
I would be awoken by the crump of a sheep tearing grass from the earth right by my head and I would start the slow process of quietly coming around, warmed by the first rays of the sun diffused by the blue polyester of the tent. A moment of stillness as the systems re-boot to the early morning.
In simpler times of the rubiks cube and three tv channels, in the days before weather apps, waking up under canvas was the best indication whether John Kettley had got it right the night before.
Senses on high alert.
I would listen. No rain. But who cares about rain? No wind. Yaaaasssss, once again we would dodge the curse of long summer days spent on and around the water in the heart of Scotland. Today will be a good day.
I would reach for the zip with genuine anticipation. My first glimpse through the thick, crumpled plastic window of our tent, sitting halfway up the hill, high enough to get a heart-stopping view but still half an hour’s hike from the summit. I would step outside, abandoning my shoes in my eagerness, my feet enveloped by the long, wet, dewy grass and stand to my full height. Taking in a view that was almost too big to comprehend – looking down over the village to Loch Earn below, the hills and the blue sky reflected in it’s glassy surface as it cuts a shiny path down the glen to my left. Like a mirror. Today will be a great day.
My best friend, my constant companion at swimming club, summer waterskiing, raft races and general mischief, and I would look at each other. We were fit to burst with the genuine explosive childhood excitement that made the cycling and mud and wandering expeditions of the long summer holidays so magical.
But before we could burst into the cabin and wake everyone else and drag them down to the loch in soggy, cold wetsuits that we had only vacated a few hours before we had one more job to do. We were responsible for the hike to the village shop and picking up the rolls and milk, an important task that we were allocated and the only detail that we would ever remember was “and you can keep the change”. The change invested, always, in the crumpled, white, paper bag ubiquitous of the quarter shop stuffed with cola cubes or flumps or, if we were feeling extraordinarily brave before breakfast, the Highland Toffee.
As we drove up the north loch road, the night before the Loch Earn 10k swim on our way up to Killin, those long summer days were very much on my mind. I had already explained to Rory as we approached the loch that when I was wee the fish and chip shop in Comrie, the place we stopped on our way home from holiday, was the best fish and chip shop in the world. But the best fish and chips were always hungrily guzzled with a tinge of sadness that summer was over. Over thirty years later, St Fillians at the east of the loch is still a foreign country. A place I never visited as a child and have only rarely visited as an adult because why would anyone go to St Fillans when Lochearnhead was so perfect?
Reaching Lochearnhead I spot my favourite jetties, older and rotting and not the fresh blonde wood that I remember. The Clachan Cottage where we would go for tea on the rare occasion that we would go out for tea and where I had my first stolen sips of warm, flat Tennents Lager. The huge loch side Boat House that wasn’t there when I was a kid and the gap where the watersports centre had been the jewel on the west side of the loch when I was a kid. And then the junction and the village shop, Rory’s imagination momentarily captured by “keep the change” amongst the fog of dad’s droning nostalgia. And then onwards to Killin.
The night before wasn’t a polyester tent with crumpled and cracked plastic windows. We got a late room at the wonderful Courie Inn where all four of us piled into a huge room and Ted paced until the bar below us closed. As usual the night before a swim, I went out like a light, early and aided by a few pints of Schiehallion and spaghetti carbonara.
My alarm woke everyone with a start and I went into race mode. Kettle on, porridge made, bag double checked, clothes on, shepherd everyone to the car. Roar and Pam would come back for a fine cooked breakfast after they dropped me off.
At the event site, near where the watersports centre used to sit, we got a glimpse of the loch. I was transported back 35 years. As the sodden grass seeped through my salomons I could see, through the gap in the trees, mirrored water down the glen as far as the eye can see. Pure unadulterated joy.
The registration gazebo was right at the gate. Kirsten and Phia were issuing our kit and allocating our numbers. As expected, following my idiocy at the Forth Crossing Swim the week before, I was repeatedly and deservedly reminded not to forget my cap.
Andy and John arrived and we had a quick chat as they joined the queue to register; then Pam and Roar shot off because eggs benedict and fine coffee were calling them.
I got to fanboy a bit, meeting some of the Vigour legends whose endeavours this summer have shamed me into actually going for a swim – Darrell, who swam a length of Loch Lomond, and Phia who swam a length of Loch Ness. Unfathomable achievements for a ageing sprinter like me.
Robert took centre stage and gave us his usual excellent briefing. Buoys on the left, then swimmers, then kayakers and powerboats on the right. That instruction seemed simple on dry land. And also a cautionary briefing on the dangers of hypothermia and the symptoms. The water was about 15ish C and we were going to be in for a while, so safety was paramount.
The first wave set off down to the waterfront and I staked my claim for my changing room. A perfect spot with facilities for hanging up my wetsuit – which could also be described as the pavement outside the village hall with my wetsuit hanging over the chevron sign. I got a couple of toots from passing drivers as I dropped my shorts and some looks of sheer horror as I dragged on my rubber suit.
As I walked down the sodden field I checked four times that I had my cap. I did each time. Just before the barbed wire fence I bumped into Andy and John and we did some wetsuit zipping. We loitered for a moment on the beach and then without fuss we wandered into the water. I had a quick general splash of the face and neck but didn’t swim.
Robert talked us down from a minute to go. Then we counted down from ten. And then we were on. With 10k to swim I was going to take the start very easy indeed.
The start of a loch swim is always the same. The slightly metallic tang on the nose, the hint of peat on the tongue, the harsh chill of the dark water as it seizes you into it’s unknown depths. The icy nip on the face, the rising ice cream brain under a thin layer of latex, the constant battle to relax and manage my breathing.
I started right at the back and then started to set a steady pace. For a couple of hundred metres all I could see were swim buoys. Then I could see nothing. No other swimmers, no sighting buoys, just sky and the silhouette of the hills with Ben Vorlich looming over my breathing side where the Forth Bridge had sat the week before.
My catering plan was to follow the approach for the Great Scottish Swim by taking a gel, stashed under my goggle strap, at 3.2k and 6.4k. The plan had some flexibility since we weren’t swimming loops so I was thinking I would stop at the 4k buoy and the 7k buoy.
When swimming in glass-flat, fresh water I normally feel like I am slashing through the water. Cutting a fine line with a swish or maybe a zing, and focussing on perfect hand placement with every stroke so as not to disturb the perfection. But this was different. It wasn’t like that. The water was still like a mirror but my arms were clattering down on it like the hooves of a clydesdale on a wet cobbled lane. No matter how much I concentrated, my stroke was hard work.
Sighting was confusing. I had worn dark goggles imagining swimming towards the east in the early morning but the glare was already blocked by the high hills on the south side. With a kilometre between markers it was tricky to find a line and other random buoys loomed large and confused me without Father Ted drumming ‘small versus far away’ into me.
I was pretty sure I had passed the 1km buoy at a distance, 2km close by after being shepherded back on course by a kayaker and 3km again at a distance. It definitely felt like 3k swimming had passed – I would feed at the next buoy. Time dragged, I began to doubt myself, I meandered off course again and got another nudge in the right direction. Finally, the 4k buoy.
Goggles up, gel top ripped, swallowed, a gulp of loch water, gel stuffed in neck of wetsuit, quick watch check.
3.1k. Hell. This is odd.
Open water swimming is an odd thing anyway. Swimming the length of a loch is odder still.
Riding a bike you have a bike computer for feedback – cadence, power, heart rate, speed – all building up a picture of what is going on. If you are going slower than expected you are probably riding into a headwind, like it or not if you are going fast you have probably got a tailwind. When you run you have a watch giving constant feedback and lamp posts and pavements and your skin validate that feedback and help colour the picture. But in water you just have hands and arms. Unless a wave is washing over you it is impossible to get a feel for the environmental conditions.
Several years of long distance open water swimming have provided me with the experience to know that even still water has a life of it’s own below the surface. You can barely feel it but there are complex patterns that go on in the depths, fuelled by the weather and temperature and probably by the wakes of ancient loch monsters.
Something was going on in the water.
Sometime after I fed, I bumped into a female swimmer. I am guessing that because she had a pink stripe on her wetsuit. I sat on her toes for a bit and then tried to pass on her right. I couldn’t get past her waist. I dropped back on to her toes. I tried again and went up her left this time so I could sight her, as I breathed right. Again I couldn’t pass. We carried on like this for about a kilometre until a kayaker pointed us back towards the north shore. I could see the 5k buoy so I set a straight line for it.
Me swimming past Roar. Roar more interested in getting his feet soaked.
As I neared the shore I could see people on the shore then I spotted Ted. I sat up and gave a big wave. Re-starting with a couple of big strokes and settling into a rhythm once I got moving. And then weird water patterns kicked in again – I shot past the pink striped wetsuit that I hadn’t been able to pass like she was standing still.
Somewhere about 6 or 7k I reach for my gel. This was definitely going to take longer than I had planned for and I needed to keep topped up. It had fallen out. OK. I *REALLY* need to find that feed boat.
Bang. Bang. Bang. Go the hooves on the cobbles. Finally, I see the 8k buoy and it has a kayaker at it. It was Grahame, who I had met at North Queensferry the week before. We had a brief chat and he fed me a handful of jelly babies and pointed me in the right direction.
2k to go. Home straight. Although I knew it wasn’t. Doing some due diligence before the race I knew Loch Earn was 10.5k long, so 2.5k to go.
All I can say about the last 2.5k is that it was 2.8k and it was bloody hard work. I have never felt such slow progress in the water. It got choppy, wild choppy, then subsided. But mainly it was flat, and it was slow.
Finally, I could see high viz vests ahead. I knew the river left the loch there so I expected a pull but it never came. The finish was confusing, as we were advised in the briefing. Jetties a plenty obscuring the view and our slipway was slow in coming. So, so slow.
And then finally, really finally, I could stand up. Four swim marathons done and this was the hardest by miles. I am pretty sure that was exactly what I said to Robert and Kirsten as they met me on the slipway. Three hours and 16 minutes after they saw me off from the other end.
I don’t know how to analyse this one because it was so different.
The Great Scottish Swim was short for a 10k and this was long. Adjusting them both to 10k GSS was 2:41 and Loch Earn was 3:01. At GSS I went through 5k at 1:17 and in Loch Earn at 1:26. My 100m averages for my last three swims were GSS 1:37/100, Forth Crossing 1:36/100, Loch Earn 1:49/100.
Boy, that was one badass swim. Pop that one up on the iconic swim list, I say. A challenging, thoroughly enjoyable, bucket list swim.
I grabbed my bag and got changed and as I stood at the back of the car I saw Andy and John swim in together. Pam ran down and instructed the paramedic to commit Andy to the med tent because “he feels the cold”. Whether he liked it or not Andy was getting a warm up cuddle.
We watched a few more swimmers come in and then headed off for a burger. A very credible burger, as it turned out, at the Four Seasons Hotel. The Four Seasons was the only thing in St Fillans that we could see from the other end. St Fillans wasn’t a foreign country after all.
After lunch we headed back to race HQ to cheer the last few swimmers home.
Three years ago, when I did my first Vigour event, my first Forth Crossing, I wrote that I was impressed with their organisation and water safety. Now I am impressed by more than that.
As I’ve got to know Kirsten and Robert, and their crowd of like-minded, slightly daft weekend swim companions, it has felt more and more like a big swim family. Each event I do I chat to more people and find more in common with them and enjoy their company and their support.
David, last swimmer in. Tough as nails
And that is how the Loch Earn End to End ended for me. Chatting on the jetty with Grahame and Laura, cheering in David, a man I had never met, the last swimmer home. A man who spent six and a half hours in 15c water IN SKINS and looked pretty damn fresh when he got out. Rory splashing about with Ethan. Chatting to Julie about her Mersey crossing and her outrageously flamboyant swimwear.
So much swimming experience, so willingly shared amongst like minded people.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll unapologetically say it again, Vigour run the best swim events that I have done bar none. Many thanks to Robert, Kirsten, and all the volunteers who have kept us safe and kept throwing amazing events at us in 2017.
And that, sadly, is the end of the swim season. I have enjoyed it this year more than any other and I am as excited as the lady looking down on a glassy loch to see what 2018 brings.
Total Immersion Sessions
Our weekly Hamilton College sessions will start back Monday 23rd October at Hamilton College. Click here for more details.
We also have Total Immersion Workshops running in November. Click here for details.
Summer Swim Sessions
The last summer swim session will be on Thursday 28th September at Pilmuir Quarry.