On the back of two very different swims at Loch Earn, Phia has very kindly shared her experience with us. I am sure you will enjoy reading !
This past summer I developed an obsession with swimming from end to end in lochs when out training. I finally reached the point where I simply did not want to swim in a circuit of any form. Instead, I head straight for the middle of the loch (I hate swimming along the edges of lochs unless it is the most direct route around a corner), and turn around when I run out of water to go back to the other end and am presented with similar circumstances. So lochs, and especially Loch Lubnaig where I did most of my training, became in a sense, very long swimming pools for me. For example, one length in Lubnaig is about 5-7 km long depending on how close you take the turn on its elbow. Most days these training sessions worked really well and I liked the fact that my hydration float allows me to carry feeds for 4 hours of swimming, which means that I only need to go onshore every 4 hours during really long training sessions to replenish my feeds.
Tasked by my coach Robert to do an 8-hour training session, I opted to do a self-supported 2-way of Loch Earn. I had been itching to try a proper self-supported swim for weeks and thought Earn was a safe place to try it out since it is very popular with lots of boat traffic and campers. With the details all worked out in my head and newly purchased water shoes (in case I needed to get out of the water and walk), I set off at Lochearnhead very early on a Saturday morning in peak summer with 2 tow floats stuffed with: 3 x 600ml stainless steel bottles filled with warm CNP, some Racefood, a few Clif products, a mobile phone, £10 for in case, water shoes, inhaler, waterproof camera and my trusty flower thermometer. I knew the wind was going to be an issue and that it would be head on coming back, but ever the optimist I ignored the predicted gusts speeds (46-49 km p/h) on the return leg and went with the general predicted wind strength, which was below 20 km p/h.
The swim did not quite turn out as anticipated. On the first leg things went relatively well – the tow floats were a tad heavy to drag along and kept on being pulled back by the waves before being released seconds later to both slam into my back. That went on for about 2 hours. After just under 4 hours I finally made it to St Fillans to find that the sculpture of the man in the water, which I had tried in vain to spot in the last hour, had been removed. Okay, I was slightly miffed by this and not really looking forward to going back the way I had just came. But, my car was parked at Lochearnhead which was 10km away and I needed to swim back. The first 2km on the return leg was really good – nice light headwind that creates my favourite water to swim in. Then the wind picked up and the nice light headwind became a really strong headwind that made waves – lots of them – and they came one after the other within seconds of each other. At 2.5 km I switched to an aggressive breaststroke because I could not see anything doing front crawl, and there were lots of speedboats, windsurfers and jet skis about who were definitely not going to spot a swimmer with a couple of bright tow floats that constantly appears/disappears from sight with the waves, even if I was uncharacteristically literally hugging the coastline that day. I could only manage 1km of the breaststroke, which took about 45 min, before the muscles on the sides of my knees decided that they had enough. So back to ploughing through 1 metre high waves doing front crawl and not being able to see a thing. 4km into the return leg I decided that it really was too unsafe for me to continue swimming in these conditions and that I would have to walk back to Lochearnhead. So, I got myself out of the water, put on my water shoes, walked to the road and started walking back on the grass verge next to the main road in my costume, swim cap remaining on my head with goggles propped up, and a tow float under each arm. The interesting thing was that not a single person who drove past me while I walked right next to the road dressed as I was thought that something might be wrong and that I might need some help. I only asked one driver for help – a guy who was getting into his car in the area where I exited the water – he took one look at me and mumbled something like ‘sorry, no room in the car’ before driving off very quickly. It took a female cyclist to register that all was not well when she passed me the second time and I was still walking. By this time I had covered about 3km on foot. Shortly after, I slipped and fell quite spectacularly. Now with legs and arms covered in a fair bit of blood, a really sore foot which I could feel had been injured, and adrenaline surging through my body I decided that I had enough of walking and that I was getting back into the water and swimming to Lochearnhead even if it kills me. Of course, minutes after I made this decision someone stopped and offered me a lift, but I was an arsy mood by then, declined the offer and got back into the water at the boat yard just after the fish farm. It was the longest 2ish km I had done in quite a while but I finally made it back to the slipway right at the head of the loch more than an hour later. As far as swims go, this was a dreadful training swim which put an immediate stop to silly notions I had to get more adventurous and do longer self-supported swims.
On 8 August Vigour Events offered me the opportunity to put the Loch Earn demons that had been eating away at the back of my mind to rest. I had hesitated about entering their Length of Loch Earn event for weeks, but finally made up my mind and registered a week before. Things started ominously that morning with me oversleeping by an hour which meant a rush out of the door in record time. Fortunately everything improved once I arrived at Lochearnhead. The local community had opened their village hall for us, and even offered us a table filled with lots of yummy cakes to go with the tea and coffee they were serving. This allowed all the participants to socialise in a nice warm environment prior to us being bussed up the loch to St Fillans to start the swim. Here I met met a young guy up from Cardiff doing his first 10km, a Polish woman who lives in the Netherlands who does a 27km swim in Italy every year, a guy who drove 150 odd miles that morning from Aberdeen to be with us, along with old friends. The mood was good and as the bus drove up we pointed out the buoys that marked the route and we were really excited to spot the first wave swimmers in the water busy rounding the corner at Ardtrostan. After faffing about getting everything on in the case of wetsuit swimmers and off in the case of skin swimmers, we finally set off from St Fillans.
Officially Loch Earn is 10.4 km long (6.46 miles) which makes it the 18th longest loch in Scotland. Open water swimmers, unfortunately, do not have the sighting abilities of geographers measuring lochs, and from discussions afterwards it seems like some lucky swimmer registered only 10.7km on his smartwatch, while others went as high as 12.7km. My meandering route down Loch Earn measured 11.72km at the end. The water was lush - 13.3 degrees C at Lochearnhead side and 15 odd degrees at St Fillans and varying hugely in between. The water itself was just perfect - a full body experience that definitely did not disappoint unlike the previous swim. But, best of all was the safety support provided by Vigour Events in the form of lots of kayakers staying close to pods of swimmers, and a few speedboats that zipped up and down the loch to make sure that no swimmer was ever in danger from the other water users on the loch. What an amazing difference from my own self-assisted training swim a few weeks earlier! This time round I could simply switch off and just swim. Oddly, for me at least, as I swam that 2km section that caused me so much bother the previous time, I was a tad apprehensive and kept spotting landmarks that I used to motivate myself to keep going until I passed the bit where I got out. Swimming the 3km that I walked the previous time felt like a release of some sort and by the time I passed the fish farm, I knew my Loch Earn demons were no more.
While I loved being back at Loch Earn that day and was really chuffed with what I did, I tip my hat to two swimmers in particular: my friend Laura Ormiston who did her first 10km swim (wow, wow and wow again!) and nailed it; and a guy called Joe who was up from London, had taken up swimming only in April as part of a radical health intervention, and he finished his first 10km in Scotland (which has that tad colder water than London!) today! How awesome is that?
Vigour’s Length of Loch Earn was a fab event. A swimmer really can be 100% certain that safety cover will be extensive and professional at a Vigour swimming event, and you know you can trust them with your life when you are in the water. This makes participating in their events a no brainer really….
Please note the weekday sessions are now finished as the reservoir has been drained for maintenance.