Phia has written a great piece on her challenging 2018 swim season I am sure you will enjoy reading as much as we did.
A friend of mine likes to tell people he specialises (academically speaking) in Failure. In 2018, in swimming terms, I owned failure. I finally got to experience that agonising moment in a big swim when you realise you can no further, no matter how much you want to. Not once, not twice even, but three times. And all three experiences sucked, though in all three cases the outcome could not have been any different if the circumstances were exactly the same. In two my butt would still have been hauled out the water in the name of my health and safety. In the third, well, there is not much one can do in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere in Scotland when your escort boat breaks down.
The fact that it took so long to get to this point is a bit of a wonder. I still recall Kevin Murphy pointing out that the sum total of my open water experience before I went on the Swim Trek Long Distance Training Week in March 2014 amounted to participating in Swim Trek's 2013 Monster Mile in Loch Ness.
Fortunately my ‘Swim CV’ is now a wee bit longer, though this year a new category was added which I am calling 'Failed Swims'. For some it will be an unacceptable term since the open water swimming community prefers to see these as unfinished business or simply incomplete swims. I do not necessarily disagree with these views. But, I do prefer to refer to my own failings as 'Failed Swims' and I have every intention of keeping these on my ‘Swim CV’ even if I manage to complete these swims in the future.
I have both personal and public reasons for embracing my swim failures and in refusing to hide them. Personally it reminds me … that I am fallible and have physical and mental limits; ... that success, regardless of how hard you work is not a given; ... that the journey is as important as the destination, sometimes even move so; ... that every experience, good and bad shape me into who and what I am – I am not the product of just my successes; ... that I have unfinished business to attend to in the future; … that open water demands my utmost respect and awe. Swimmers, after all, are but puppets on strings in open water subject to whatever mood Mother Nature is in when you find yourself submerged in water.
Failing in public hurts that tad more than failing in private. There is nowhere to hide; afterwards there are often awkward encounters with fellow swimmers who do not know what to say; there may even be some relishing in your failings... Many open water swimmers decide to fly under the radar and only publicize their big swims after it is successfully completed. After my failed North Minch swim, my coach became a convert to this model. Consequently, we tried it out with the remainder of my swims this past summer.
I have come to realise that I am not a fan of this strategy for two reasons. Firstly, when open water swimmers only make public their successes it creates the impression that it is easy to succeed in our sport. In reality I think the opposite remains true. Even if a swimmer gets into the water in perfect physical condition, did everything that s/he could to prepare for a big swim, left nothing to chance, the changes of a big swim in open water failing remains relatively high. The tide could turn early making it impossible to reach the shore; the actual weather on the day can be very different from the forecast, especially the wind strength; bad weather can build up and break unexpected leaving a swimmer with no option but to leave the water; life-threatening sea creatures may put in an appearance; your body can fail you in ways that you have never encountered before… Even the relatively short, by marathon swimming standards, 7.5km Robben Island crossing in Cape Town is a challenging swim unless you are really fortunate and are blessed with good conditions. One would be mistaken to assume only longer distance swims dish up unexpected challenges. Vigour Events’ Forth Swim this year illustrated in just 1.4 miles how challenging open water can be for a swimmer, especially if conditions change while the swim is in progress. A rough and difficult crossing resulted in some experienced open water swimmers getting stuck in a spot on the northern side where the tide and the current made forward progress almost impossible and they had to be taken out of the water. Afterwards some critics argued that the failure of experienced open water swimmers to finish the Forth Swim clearly illustrate that the event should not have taken place (despite a dynamic risk assessment on the day determining that the conditions were swimmable). I think these critics missed the point entirely – what the Firth of the Forth reminded all participants that day is that there are always uncontrollable elements involved in any open water swim and that success is not guaranteed. An important way to address delusions that success in open water swimming is a given is by acknowledging and discussing failures.
The second reason why I dislike the notion that one should not make public failed swim attempts is very personal to me: my role models who I looked up to and have tried to emulate ever since I took up open water swimming are all individuals with failed big swims. Some were fortunate enough to make their swims the second or even the third time; others still have to make that second attempt. The open water swimmer I have the most respect for is a female swimmer with a long association with cold water endurance swimming, and a very impressive record of completed big swims, some of which required more than one attempt to be successful. In one instance there was almost decade between the first failed and the second successful attempt. Personally I simply have more time for a person who can publicly fail with grace as well as succeed. These are the swimmers I look to for inspiration when I feel I have to dig really really deep during a big swim. These are the type of swimmers I want to be associated with. This is the type of swimmer I want to be.
To return to my three failed swims in 2018… they were: 1. The North Minch (2-3 Jul): Swim was aborted after 5 hours owing to multiple lion’s mane jellyfish stings. I was stung well over a hundred times over a 4-hour period and had an anaphylactic reaction to all the venom in my body. As a result I experienced my very first ride in an ambulance and stay in a British hospital.
2. Loch Lomond Two Way (14-15 Aug): The escort boat broke down 3km from Ardlui around 02:00 in the morning in the only stretch of Lomond without any light on a pitch-black night with 100% cloud cover. Swimming around the rib while the pilot tried to fix the cable that snapped ranks as one of my least favourite swim snapshots of all time! The short-term solution of manually changing the gears allowed the swim to continue to Ardlui to complete a one way. It would be stretching the truth if I were to claim that I was devastated by the boat failure…
3. Loch Shiel (28 Sep): The swim was aborted after 6h03 owing to me becoming too cold. The water temperature was 11.4°C at the water’s edge at the start and dropped to below an estimated 10°C as the swim progressed. Ambient temperatures at onset was just above 6°C and increased to 9°C, though it was substantially lowered by a very cold wind which also reduced the water temperatures. There were no stream inlets in the 15km (of the 27km) covered in the 6 hours in the loch which meant that there were no warm patches, or rather illusions of warm patches, to heat up in every now and again. When the swim was aborted my core body temperature was 30.3°C in the one ear and 31.5°C in the other.
Thankfully my 2018 open water swim season was not a complete write off. I did manage to swim the length of Loch Morar on 29 May (18.8km) in 7h02 and thereby completed the Four Big Yins of Scottish lochs (i.e. the four biggest/longest/deepest lochs). And, even though the two way Loch Lomond failed, I now have another length of Loch Lomond swim behind me. This one was from Balloch to Ardlui and took 13h47 to complete. In July 2015 I swam in the opposite direction from Ardlui to Balloch in 13h23. In between big swims there were fun swims, all organised by Vigour Events like the 24 Hour Swim (as part of the St Mark’s Mermaids relay team with my friends Julie and Laura), the length of Loch Earn and the Forth Swim. Then there was swimming with Becky Cooper and Angela Beard in Loch Lomond as part of their 1000 Mile Challenge, and a rather memorable attempt at a self-assisted two way of Loch Earn. The best swims of the season were the Forth Swim (#Best.Forth.Swim.Ever!) and Loch Shiel. Even though the latter was a failure, it was a wonderful swim in a beautiful setting. I had none of the problems I experienced after the North Minch with the inability of my arms and legs to withstand even relatively warm water of between 15 and 19°C (while my core was just fine!) and felt normal in proper cold water again which I was profoundly thankful for. Loch Shiel reminded me why I absolutely love cold water endurance swimming and was without a doubt my favourite swim of 2018.
I will go back to the North Minch, Loch Lomond and Loch Shiel in due course to finish what I have started. When I do, I will post the tracker links to allow those who are interested to follow the swims. And I will do this with all my big swims in the future. If some fail, I am choosing that this happen in public because I am not the product of just my successes.
Winter Swim Sessions
Winter swim session will start on the 4th November at Bardowie Loch, in the water for 10am.
Total Immersion Swim Session
Swim Sessions will re-start on the 29th October 2018 at Hamilton College in Hamilton.