Ulls Well That Ends Well

July 20, 2023  •  2 Comments

“I’ve completely forgotten”, came the reply in a panicky voice.  It’s 9am and my new soul mate and I are on a bus, heading through the winding roads of the Lake District on our way to the start line.  I’ve known this woman for about 10 minutes or so, during which time we’ve shared thoughts of how we’d trained, how we felt and “what the hell was all this rain doing here in July?”.  We had clearly prepared in different ways.  I had trained hard for 12 months, where she hadn’t been able to commit much time.  I had prepared my race fuelling based on what was provided by the race organisers, while she had secreted several energy gels in her wetsuit, something that I thought was a high-risk strategy, given the tightness of the fit.  What had prompted her panic was something really simple; she had forgotten to stick her number label on her tow float.  I, and my fellow swimmers, tried to reassure her that the number was just for there for identification when we finish, and that a kindly person at the start line could probably lend her a Sharpie to write it on if necessary.  I sympathised with her, because I had also recently had my own organisational brain fog a couple of days before getting on the bus.  I had just completed my last training swim the night before I was due to leave for the Lake District and, as it turned out, lost my goggles in the process of packing up my gear.  Now, I’ve generally found that people who do endurance events like this one are a cautious and superstitious bunch, for good reason.  For example, runners won’t replace their shoes just before a race for fear of the fit being slightly different, resulting in issues during the race.  Those issues could be real, or they could be a cause of worry that might psychologically affect their performance. Knowing this, I wouldn’t have replaced my goggles, even if they were completely knackered.  However, I found myself having to do just that.  I had a brief test in the pool just before we left, to check that they wouldn’t leak, but the whole experience was an unwelcome stress. 

In case you are wondering what on Earth I’m prattling on about, I’ll tell you.  Last weekend, I completed the Ullswater 7.5 mile swim, which runs from one end of the grand lake to the other.  In context, that’s 480 lengths of a standard 25 metre swimming pool, which is what makes it an ‘endurance’ swim that relatively few people would consider doing.  While the experience of that event doesn’t relate directly to photography, I’ve learned some things about how my mind works, which may be recognisable to a challenge being faced by readers of this blog.  Fear not, it’s isn’t some trite piece of ‘self-help’ bullshit aimed at changing your life, or an Instagram life hack that anyone over the age of 20 has known for several years.  It’s just my reflections on what happened to my mind while I undertook this challenge. Make of it what you will. 

The swim was organised such that we had to be taken to the start so that we would be swimming back to Race HQ, hence the bus, which I found to crank up the anticipation before even dipping a toe in the water.  The weather was shockingly bad, with the whole area being battered by heavy rain and high winds for 48 hours before the planned start.  The organisers had sent emails about their contingency plans which would kick in if the forecasted thunderstorms manifested on the day, which almost everyone I talked to on the bus thought was a really bad thing.  We’d all signed up to swim the length of the lake, so the idea of changing the route to smaller looks of a presumably sheltered area, didn’t really appeal to any of us as it would feel a lot like our training swims in smaller lakes.  Thankfully, when we arrived at the start, we were told that the route would remain point-to-point.  The first thing to note about the format was that once in the water, it was impossible for any supporters to ‘follow’ the swimmers.  Supporters could be at the start or the finish, but the long bit in the middle would be a very lonely experience.   I entered the water supremely confident because, unlike my friend on the bus, I had fully prepared for the distance over nearly a year in training.  The first mile was all smiles, although when I reached the first feed station, my fellow swimmers confirmed my suspicion that we’d swam closer to a mile and a half, according to our GPS watches.  Never mind, I thought. I knew I had the physical condition to cope and, being a silly sod, I asked the feed station volunteers for a ‘large Scotch, no ice’ when offered a cup of energy drink and some jelly babies.  The mood was certainly light at this point.  The next mile was straightforward enough too, but at this point my body decided to let me down.  Both calf muscles started to cramp, which is something I always have to manage on long swims and am not entirely certain of the cause.  Two miles in wasn’t great news, though, as I had a long way to go from here.  Again, I had prepared for ‘cramp management’, so I pressed on.  It was mile 4 when things started to affect me psychologically.  The weather was now so bad that the temperature had dropped considerably and was matched by waves tall enough to surf on.   Waves on a lake surrounded by mountains?  It was a reminder of how powerful nature is. They were in the same direction of travel as us, but anyone who believes that this helps push you along, is an idiot.  Timing your strokes to coincide with any push from the waves is a tricky thing to do and, it was frequently counter-productive.  I was now working twice as hard as I should have been to achieve a slower pace than in training.  My mind started to wander, and not in a good way.  I became angry at the organisers for proceeding with the event, when I know of some triathlon companies who would have cancelled it.  I started to question whether I’d done enough work in training, despite my experienced athlete friends telling me that I had.  My calf muscles had invited my hamstrings to the pain party, which now meant that I had more stretching and relaxation exercises to do, all while being thrown around by the waves.  On a couple of occasions, I was informed by the safety crew that I was drifting off course, which would need correcting.  In the end, I drifted nearly half a mile off course over the length of the swim.  It’s fair to say that the stretch from 4 to 5 miles was possibly the worst physical experience of my life.  My anger gave way to a total fear of failure.  Could I keep going? If I couldn’t, would I quit voluntarily or be forced to by the safety crew? What would I say to my family and friends who’d been so supportive? Would I end up reflecting on quitting and realise that I could have done more?  These questions whizzed around in my head with images of my loved ones, who I thought I was in danger of letting down.   I kept seeing my mother, who we lost 28 years ago, but they weren’t images of her as a I want to remember her.  Instead of the vibrant, strong woman who raised me, I only saw the memories of her being desperately ill, a shadow of her former self.  I’ve consciously tried to suppress every day since she died, so for them to reappear now was pretty distressing.  It was like I’d accessed an old hard disk from a long-lost computer and creating a random slideshow.  If my goggles hadn’t been so tightly (and uncomfortably) fixed to my face, I’d have probably cried.  But I didn’t.  Instead, all this conscious noise became just that…noise.  I really don’t remember the actual swimming during that mile, but my arms just kept turning over. When I reached the 5-mile marker, the feed station wasn’t there as we’d been told at the briefing.  It had moored at 5.5 miles, presumably because the water was so rough.  I swore (a lot) as I considered the irony of that, but pressed on.  The final feed station was supposed to be at 6 miles, and I figured that it had also moved, but I was wrong.  It was missing entirely.  Instead of the previous stream of consciousness and rage that I’d encountered way back at half-distance, I just kept turning the arms over.  At 6 miles, I could see the huge inflatable duck (yes, a duck!) that marked the finish line.  I still had to swim a mile and half to get to the big quacker, but again for some reason my mind was switched off and my body was just doing what I’d trained it to do.  At the finish, I was helped to my feet as my legs had decided that enough was enough.  I got my medal and was reunited with my wife and our friends who were supporting, which was wonderful but undramatic.  It wasn’t until much later that the elation at completing the swim, under those awful conditions, started to outweigh the horror of actually doing it.  I’ve been riding that euphoria ever since. 

In pain, but happy at the finish

Beginning to sink in

The medal, which will remind me of how hard it was

What does all this mean? I’m not really sure.  What I do know is that I have a lot of internal voices that start chattering when I perceive that I am ‘in danger’, not of something that will cause me actual harm, but more about potential embarrassment or failure.  When I tried to ignore them on the swim, my mind seemed to react by reminding me of hard times in a way so vivid as to overwhelm the immediate fear.   For example, I was never likely to drown because there were so many people around me in safety boats and kayaks. Nevertheless, I still saw the recent news article about the fireman who was lost attempting the channel swim, as if a subconscious comparison was being drawn.  What surprised me was that after a while, the nagging internal dialogue stopped altogether and I was left with the simplicity of just swimming.  I’ve no idea how, but I became more rational when my brain shut up and let me get on with the job in hand.  Yes, there were some very dark moments, but talking to other endurance sports competitors, this is actually very common.  None of them can explain how they keep going, but they just do.  It’s only at the end that they reflect and somehow appreciate coming through them.  By the time the mind can start asking questions about the lunacy of taking on such a feat, it’s done and dusted.  I went from wanting to cut my wetsuit into tiny pieces in the immediate aftermath, to wanting to sign up for the longer Windermere swim next year, all in the space of about 24 hours.  Now that I’m home, I don’t feel like some superhuman (that would be silly), but I do recognise how healthy it is to push myself, not just physically, but mentally as a way of building a better understanding of what really motivates you.  I said this wasn’t ‘self help’ and I stick by that.  It isn’t going to make me some epic creative, but it has had the effect of shifting my perspective a little.  Perhaps that fear of failure and embarrassment does hold me back creative, so anything that confronts it head on could be helpful.  I wonder if there might be more of these little shifts, the more I push myself with the swimming.  Also, perhaps if we shut ourselves up from time to time, we can actually gain some peace from the chaotic world around us, where we continuously analyse and compare ourselves to others.  Who knows?  What I do know is that I want to find out, and for now, I believe the answer is at the bottom of this hard-earned glass of champagne.  Cheers!

 


Comments

Mat(non-registered)
Great achievement and a gripping read. I can totally relate to this. I did my one and only marathon as a run/walk. At the toughest part i remember thinking it was time to start running again, but when I looked at my feet I realised I already was!
Susie(non-registered)
Enjoyed reading this Rich, although for personal reasons it made me cry, which is ok.
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