What in the world am I doing here? Why am I doing this? I ask myself. These questions and others race through my mind as I shiver, my arms wrapped around my body trying to keep myself warm.
I’m standing on a beach at Point Lonsdale along with other wetsuit cladded swimmers, each with maroon swimming caps designating our respective age group, awaiting the starter’s pistol for this year’s Ripview Swim Classic.
It is cold, it is overcast with some drizzle gently falling, I am still shivering and the sea looks very unwelcome. Water temperature is 16 degrees so the announcer states, I can’t decide whether he is trying to be informative or just plain sarcastic! Great, I mutter to myself wishing my wetsuit was a long sleeved one instead of the sleeveless one I’m wearing. Looking around me I notice some brave souls without wetsuits, mad, I suggest to myself. I’m still shivering, I’m not feeling well, and, really I just don’t want to do it. Too late I tell myself, to pull out now would be a real sign of weakness.
I look at the buoys in the distance outlining the course ahead of me. There’s a large orange buoy about 100metres offshore that we must firstly swim to, pass by on its left, and then a long row of smaller, yellow buoys direct the course to follow that we are to keep to our right as we swim. I try to count the number of buoys but I get no further than half a dozen or so as they fade into the distance. The total distance to swim is 1.4 km.
The sea is choppy and the wind will be forcing the waves directly into our faces but, as the announcer tells us, the tide will be with us which he says should give swimmers some confidence for a reasonable swim time. Yeah, I think to myself, noting the announcer’s sarcasm again. Again I wonder why I am doing this!
But I do know why I am about to put myself through all this self-inflicted pain that is shortly to come. It is the culmination of all the training I have been doing over the past year or so. All those laps, up and down the 25 metre pool, usually 2 to 2.5 km each session to build up my fitness and improve my swimming technique in preparation for the forthcoming ocean swims over the summer period. All those lonely laps, with my mind all over the place, trying to psyche myself up into a positive frame of mind about swimming. But it’s chalk and cheese when comparing the respective swimming environments of a heated indoor pool and the cold, outdoor sea. Your rhythms and routines are different, you are more buoyant in the sea, your feet generally are out of the water, and of course the sea conditions will affect the way you swim and, continually, adjustments to your stroke technique need to be made as you swim There’s no edge for a quick breather and kick off at the end of each 25 metres, and no black line down the centre of a lane to follow. This is the hardest aspect of ocean swimming I find, the ability to swim in a straight line. Will all my training over the past year help me to adapt to the unpleasant and uncompromising conditions ahead of me? These and other thoughts rush through my mind as I try to psyche myself up for the start until they are interrupted by the starter’s countdown, ……..5, 4, 3, 2, 1; the pistol fires and we’re off.
Bodies bump into one another as we sprint the short distance to the water’s edge, some looking for that competitive edge in whatever way they can, some start swimming as soon as they hit the water, others continue running for as long as they possibly can before plunging forward to swim. I keep running but not for long, too difficult for a vertically challenged chap like me! As I dive forward and start swimming the shock of the cold water literally takes my breath away. Breathing, breathing, get your breathing right I order myself as I struggle to catch my breath but I’m still gasping for air because of the cold. The murky water is churned up into a bubbly foam by wildly kicking legs and rotating arms as punters endeavour to establish their advantage over their fellow competitors. Arms and legs are going everywhere!
My body is slowly trying to adapt to the cold but I’m having difficulty in developing my routine and stroke technique.The choppy motion of the water whipped up by the headwind proves difficult to swim into and I’ve had to modify my stroke because of this. I’m taking a breath for every stroke instead of my regular one breath for every four strokes requires greater exertion from me. Also, I’m swallowing sea water, thankfully only in small doses and I wonder how long that will continue for and whether it becomes unpleasant. However, I manfully soldier on! The consequence is again I have to modify my stroke and rhythm. My head needs to turn further skywards each time I take a breath so it is clear of the water placing increased pressure on both my neck and back and soon both begin to ache. But the choppy sea has no concern for how far my head is out of the water and continues to splash over my face as more water is swallowed.
The water is dark and murky, my goggles are fogged up and I do not have a clue whether I am on course or not. A lifesaver in a rubber ducky yells at me letting me know I’m off course and waving his arm, points in the direction I need to go. Treading water, I lift my head and look around me to establish my position then follow the lifesaver’s direction. I realise I’ve been zig-zagging quite a lot which means I’m expending more energy by swimming further than I need to. The black line, where is the black line when you need it!!
I will myself on; I’ve got to beat my rival, David. For a number of years, David and I have had a friendly, competitive rivalry between ourselves and this swim will be no different. I’m determined to beat David to the finishing line in all our swims this summer. I’m a small person, fairly strong for my size but David is much bigger, more solid and a lot stronger from working out in the gym on a regular basis. The conditions certainly favour him more than me and I’m concerned his strength will a contributing factor in the heavy seas. But, I’m quietly optimistic. I know I’ve done the training and put in the hard yards and I’m probably fitter than him. With this in mind, I push myself even harder. Surprisingly, considering the unconducive conditions, I finally have a good rhythm going and hope I can maintain it. The wind has either dropped in intensity or has swung around, but momentarily there is some relief from this constant driving wind and for the moment, I’m feeling the best I have all race.
Finally, I reach the buoy indicating the turning point into the beach and eventually the finishing line. Only 100 metres to go! After what seems an eternity, the sandy bottom and some rocks become visible. Not far to go now! I stop swimming and drop my feet, thankfully they touch the bottom and I start running, or I try to start running. The crowd is clapping and cheering, the announcer is urging the swimmers on with words of advice and encouragement as we struggle out of the water exhausted. It’s amazing though, no matter how knackered you may be, you still manage to find that little bit extra for the final, gruelling dash to the finishing line.
Staggering past the timer, the electronic ping recording my time, a bottle of water is pushed into my hand and I gladly gulp down its contents while a volunteer removes the timing device from my ankle and another unzips my wetsuit. My breathing is more regular, but my legs still feel like jelly as I continue my staggering exit. Outside the finishing area, my eyes dart all around me looking at the other black wetsuited, maroon capped finishers congregated there wondering if David is amongst them. I can’t see him and a quiet feeling of elation starts to creep over me. I’ve beaten him! I look back towards the finishing line and there, about two minutes after me, I see David staggering, red faced and looking absolutely stuffed coming towards me.
For all my moaning and groaning, I know the effort has been worth it as David shakes my hand, acknowledging my win with a wink. I feel pleased with myself but I know it all the agony and pain will occur again next week in Lorne for the Pier to Pub. I’m quietly confident I can beat David again!