After the cancellation of the Great North Swim I wasn't about to let about 9 months of training go down the drain, not to mention sponsor money. In addition, the build up of carbs and nervous energy had left me with a whole planet of frustration bearing down on my shoulders (quite broad from training but not broad enough). So I pledged to swim 6k in a pool, in under 2 hours. And then things really went pear shaped.
A cold turned into a cough, which transformed into a chest infection. I was bed ridden for 3 days followed by about two weeks of creaking around like the waitress in 2 soups.
No swimming obviously. So the plan was a couple of weeks to get back into it and then,finally do the cursed swim and move on. But then Marcus put himself in hospital walking for Dr Peter Figge and shamed by his bravery, I decided to get on with it.
So last Wednesday morning, I went to the pool, did a few stretches, a quick warm up and just started swimming.
Let's be clear about a few things. I was never a distance swimmer, part of the fun of this year has been finding out what my body would do over long distances. The official swim marathon is 5k, I did that once as 10 year old and never bothered since. I've done plenty of 5,000 and even 6,000 training sessions as a teenager and once or twice as a grasping at youth man in his thirties, but that's interval training with plenty of rest, even as a youth that was tough.
So it was a little foolhardy to do it coming straight out a pretty bad illness, but, you know, nothing ventured....
The first 1,000 wasn't that great. You lose your feel for the water amazingly quickly if you don't keep up up and it was nearly three weeks since I'd last got wet in anger. It took the first 1000m to find any sort of rhythm and I was a little worried at my shortness of breath. But by 1,500 things had changed. Psychologists talk about Flow, that weird point when you get lost in a task and the body and mind blur together, everything else is shut out, you're fluidly doing, aware of the tiniest detail within the task, but nothing else.
When I used to train for 30 hours a week it was nearly always like that, it doesn't come often enough now, especially when a big chunk of th build up was sorting out a malfunctioning stroke, but it was here now. My breathing stabilised, my hands felt like frying pans in the water as they pulled through, nothing seemed to ache too much - after 60 lengths i could finally start.
The intention had been to keep to 20 minutes per 1,000 metres, for first 4,000, and then go for broke in in the last 2,000. That should have been a nice controlled pace, and hopefully, quite easy pace before letting rip.
I can still do 1,500 metres in under 21 minutes (or could before I got ill), that's 1.45 per 100, I was giving myself lots of leeway at this pace, and with a sub-two hours target. But this was the unknown, I'd never gone this far before.
That dreadful start made a mockery of all this and after 2,000 I was on 45 minutes. 5 minutes behind pace. Bollocks. I was out of condition and the first 1,000 or so had been controlled thrashing, it's was understandable but not acceptable. So I decided to push it. I felt good now, I didn't feel tired, quite the opposite, I was buzzing.
I hit 4,000 metres in, almost exactly 1 hour 20. Bang on course. I was breathing harder now, but nothing to write home about, so I began to increase the pace. Which worked for 500m or so, then things started to go a little wrong.
I've some scar tissue in my right shoulder that sometimes flares up. If I'm swimming, it means that when I pull my arm through the water I get a sickening pain that feels like a rusty scalpel being gouged right in. And perversely, it decided to say hello. I can get around this usually by my arm entering the water a little to the right instead of in line with my shoulder and an hip and pulling through a little further out. The rest if the stroke needs to compensate and in training that's fine. But not after 160 lengths.
Suddenly I was thinking again, and my body decided to tell me it was tired. My lungs were struggling and I was gulping air in, turning my head to get as much as I could and making my stroke lopsided, while accounting for the right arm. The more I thought about it, the more I began to thrash. Then everything began to hurt. The right arm was working harder than the left and really ached, the legs were working too hard to keep my wobbly body lined up properly and everything just ached.
By 5,000 I didn't dare look at the time, I just kept going, concentrating on only two things: keeping my breathing as regular of possible and that right arm. Then suddenly the pain in the shoulder went away again. Straight away I put my arm right and things started to work again, it felt relatively smooth, thought it still hurt. Now I was putting in effort and getting something back.
Everything was hurting, my lungs were on fire and I was at that point in sport when you want to stop as much as you want to carry on. You viscerally hate the pain, yet you welcome it too, it shows you're doing something worthwhile and the same time it tells you how fallible you are. I wanted to find out what my body could do and it was telling me (at least what it could do after an illness and lay off).
I think there's a choice you can make at this point. You can focus on the excruciating sensation in you body, or you can choose to ignore it and focus on something else, so I began to count my strokes. When my stroke works, I do a length in 11 strokes, when I go ragged it starts to go up. I focused on stretching out and counting to 11 in each length. And it seemed to work, I can't remember anything from the last stretch apart from the counting, until my body went numb.
With 200 metres to go the pain went, the form disappeared, I couldn't feel a thing. The harder I tried the less anything seemed to happen. So I flailed for those final eight lengths. And then it was over.
I looked up at the clock and found it was 1 hour 58 minutes and 43 seconds. I didn't even care, I was just pathetically grateful it was all over.
I had 10 minute swim down, drank a litre of water, had a long coffee and a mountain of sandwiches in the cafe and then drove to the station and got on the train to London. That was it.
It was an odd sense of anti-climax. When I was young, Mum and Dad and other swimmers were there to cheer, congratulate and commiserate. This felt as personally important as any other sporting thing I've ever done, apart from beating Dad at tennis for the first time maybe, but there was no one to see it apart from me. And that was fine, maybe even better. This was done for the joy of doing something well (adequately as it turned out) the only things to beat were the clock and my own weakness. Totally fitting it was all done alone.
So it's over. No big fanfare, that's the end of this pointless exploration in grasping at youth and self delusion.
The only other thing to say is that I seem to have spent my swimming energy for now. I've only been in the pool once since and it seemed much more effort than before, like that swim depleted some sort of swimming pool of energy. I've done a workout in the gym, which I quite enjoyed for a change (don't really like gyms that much) and look forward to more cycling, but I need to force myself to swim.
So I need another goal. After a rest, time to start training for next year's Great North Swim - hope they don't cancel the damn thing or this time next year I'll have to do something really extreme.