V Cars Dairy of a Novice Triathlete
Sunday – August 5th 2012
My first VCARS Open Water Swim
It’s 4.50am. Sunday morning. Nottingham. The day and I are waking up together. I’m tangle-haired, pouring out of bed, sleep-walking my way towards a kettle.
At 8am, I’m due to dive into a London lake and see if I can swim half a mile. I’ve said I’m going to do it. So I’m going to do it. Having spent the previous evening watching Ennis, Farah and Rutherford, I’ve REALLY got no choice.
5.07am. I get into my new (to me) car, hoping it’s going to make the journey. There’s synergy there. We’re spirits kindred.
7.32am. I arrive at Ham Lake, TW10 7RX (Everything is a postcode since satnav took over. Is the sat nav the end of streetnames?).
The first pang of nerves. I introduce myself to John Brame. John looks everything I’m not: tanned, fit, perky. Stood together we look like the before and after advert for weightloss supplements. I am introduced to the impossibly pretty Marsha. A shaft of All-American sunshine next to the murk of Ham Lake. She’s all ‘great job’ and ‘way to go’. The sort of person it would be crushing to disappoint.
In fact, look how attractive all these people look. There must have been forty or fifty men and women of different ages, up at 7.30 on a Sunday morning about to do embrace the dangerous and arduous, and each of them look fantastic. Is this what this type of exercise does to you?
I’ve never been a group person. I’m a lone wolf. It can be lonely, but that’s the way I’m drawn. My incredible wife aside, my default setting on my fellow human beings is distrust. I can find other people exhausting and meeting people for the first time largely excruciating. I ALWAYS say too much, which must come across awfully. I garble excitedly and draw strange metaphors to explain how I’m feeling. It must be terribly off-putting. But you know, the kindred spirit of triathletes? The knowledge of shared hardship? The fact that we all know this is something to OVERCOME? There’s something special about this group of people and I can sense it. There’s none of the stupid bravado. There’s a sense of unspoken belonging.
In the showers beforehand, I tried to canvas opinion and advice but, again, probably came across as an excited eight-year old. I got the strange looks. Always the strange looks.
My fellow swimmers, including one, incredibly, who grow up no more than a mile or two away from my birthplace in Middlesbrough. I asked him why he did this?
“Well, there are a few reasons: the first is being out in the quiet, away from life. There’s the athletic element – you’ll find out where you are physically and what you need to do to improve. I found the first time I did it, I panicked a bit but got round. You’ll do the same.”
8am. Into the water. I’ve never liked the cold. Or the dark (The by-product of a fertile imagine, I tell myself while hyper-ventilating). The cold at Ham Lake wasn’t a problem. It wasn’t as shocking as I might have imagined – and I can imagine pretty cold. Getting used to the wetsuit that I was assured would keep me buoyant and stroking leisurely toward the start. I’m going to do this.
Go! All the splashing. I feel like one of the fish from the catchnet of a Norwegian Trawler. I’m taking in mouthful and mouthful of Ham Lake as though I’m trying to filter out plankton. I can feel panic setting in. Real, all-encompassing panic.
The panic is a murky cocktail: One part I’m going to drown, one part I’m going to look like an idiot, one part I haven’t prepared well enough, one part it’s another thing I said I was going to do and didn’t and a dash of what the hell am I doing here?
It’s a cocktail I’m tasting with each further mouthful of Ham.
“Stay calm Paul. Oh Christ. This is tough. (mouthful of water). I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I’m going to drown. I’m going to have to swim to the side and just say I can’t do it. You idiot. You haven’t trained enough. You’ve tried to take a short cut – you just thought you could jump in and do this without the proper training. You’re an idiot. Get out of the water. But what the hell am I going to say to VCARS? They’re your clients and you’re writing this blog for them. They’re going to think you’re all mouth and no wetsuit. You can’t quit. I need to quit. I’m going to get out.”
Oh, look, there’s the first buoy. The Ham Lake swim is split into three groups – 750M, 1300M and 2600M. I’m in the first, 750M white capped group. It takes all my resolve not to try and keep up with the other swimmers. We go in a large circle around three buoys. The first is 100M from the start, the second around 400M, the third 500M then 250 to the finish line. I’ve got past the first buoy and can see the second a way off.
“That’s better Paul. You’ve got past the first buoy. I can’t see a thing. Am I last? Don’t worry about that, you’re doing okay. I’m not going to finish. Yes you are, you’re doing okay. I’m swimming all over the place. Don’t worry, take your time, get into a rhythm. That buoy’s miles off. Just take it steady. I think I can do this. I’ll have a rest when I get to that buoy. Hey, this is okay. I’m all over the place. You’re making a fool of yourself. You’re not one of these people.”
I’m now trying to focus on the peace and quiet aspect of this swim but trying not to drown is actually taking precedence. Physically I’m feeling okay and reach the second buoy, turn the corner and can feel doubt evaporating.
“Come on Paul, you’re doing great. Get to that second buoy and you’re on the home straight.”
Ahh… how to swim in a straight line. Breathe to the side that has a shore and keep maintain your distance. Why didn’t anyone tell me that?
“You’re going to do it Paul. You’re going to complete your first 750m swim. You’re in a moment where nothing else matters. Enjoy it. No thoughts on work, on whether you’re a good dad, on money, on household chores, on relationships. Just the freedom of endurance exercise – this is worth doing. You’ve done okay, you know?”
I close in on the bank that signals the quick sprint up a hill to a grassy finish. I’ve made it. 15 minutes 48 seconds is, frankly, a pathetic time but hey it’s a start. I said I was going to do it and I did.
I can understand the addiction.
Being from Middlesbrough, there’s an inbred distrust of anyone who doesn’t access sport primarily through football. It’s our cultural heritage. But getting to 42 and unable to play contact sport in the way I’ve done previously, it’s time for a change of tempo. I’m not a great swimmer but I think, in time, I might really learn to love the Zen-like, get-away-from-it-all, silence-the-internal voice nature of endurance exercise, of triathlons.
The swim at Ham Lake was, I hope, a real turning point for me. A chance to see another side of myself, a better side. A person I’d like to be around more often. The person who says he’s going to do something and does it. No more sitting on the fence. No more big talk and small results.
A baptism? Yeah, why not. It was a short swim, nothing major to most people but to The Novice Triathlete, it represented the start of something. Ultimately, getting over the start line is often more difficult as getting over the finishing line.
If you’re in London and fancy a bit of Open-Water Swimming, I’d recommend giving the VCARS Open Water Swim a go. As I said, I’m not a great swimmer and I did panic a bit at the start but I’m going to do it again. And possibly again and again. If you’re in London and fancy giving it a try, I whole-heartedly recommend RGActive’s Sunday Morning get-together. They’re a good bunch of people. People you’d like to be around.
I’ve been talking to my dad a lot about the post-race interviews from Olympians and how they differ from footballers. How the best Olympians represent the value of hard work in and of itself. Not trying to take shortcuts or do the minimum for the greatest gain. Of cheating in any way. Football is a sport for cheats. They’ll cheat their opponents, their team-mates, the sport, themselves. In endurance exercise, there’s nowhere to hide. I think I can see that now. Football? You had your chance. I’ve got a better friend.
The Novice Triathlete.
V Cars proudly sponsor RG Active and are title sponsors of two of the popular RG Active Training Races.