Of the triathlon disciplines, I usually find swimming to be the one which assaults the senses most fiercely. It’s particularly true when you are throwing yourself headlong into (reasonably) cold, choppy water right in the heart of one of most beautiful places in Scotland.
That’s just what I, and many others, did on Saturday as part of the Great Scottish Swim at Loch Lomond. With a couple of Standard distance triathlon assignments coming up, I figured the mile option (there were half-mile, 2-mile and 5km events too) would be an ideal training exercise, plus it gave me the excuse to try out my first ever specifically swimming event. As it turned out, it was just the kind of pre-tri experience I needed, as it threw up all of sorts of challenges.
I have an on-off relationship with swimming. I’m a runner who has only recently entered the world of triathlon and I’m finding swimming by far and away the toughest nut to crack (albeit the cycling needs some pretty serious work too). I love the training but, in the pool, just when it feels like I’ve sussed out one part of my stroke, another part breaks down – that challenge is both the most frustrating and fantastic part of the sport. Then you get in the open water and the rules all change again – but oh my word is it fun!
Loch Lomond is my back garden, essentially, so I’m no stranger now to swimming in the spectacular shadow of that fabulous, mountainous backdrop. But with the loch you rarely find that two swims are the same. One day, it could be the flattest of flat calms and progress is nothing but serene, the next the wind could be whipping through the water and progress is nothing but…sideways! It really is the most incredible way to experience somewhere and it seems rude not to enjoy the facilities when they happen to be right on your doorstep.
But to Saturday’s swim. The pre-event nerves were making their presence felt much more strongly than I expected – which meant I must have been taking this a little more seriously than I cared to admit. I wasn’t calmed much by the sight of the elite men, including the likes of Ross Murdoch and Robbie Renwick, setting off before my wave and cutting an impressive swathe through the water.
But a quick warm-up and briefing later and our red-capped troops were being guided down the slipway towards the water and, with a couple of strides (or was it more of a slip and stumble?) in we plunged.
The loch has not been all that warm this year and even though it’s fine when you get going – we were given a quick ‘acclimatisation’ dip beforehand too – the slap to the face you get from that first touch of the water always has an impact.
My swim ended up falling into three stages. The first third involved trying to find a rhythm, getting used to sighting and sorting out my system for how often I would check I was going in the right direction. The second third involved the section of changing direction from going northwards up the loch to turning westwards and into the choppiest part of the course – one wave slapped me so hard I had a ringing in my ears for while. During the final third, the sun came out, the wind dropped a little, I found my stroke from somewhere and actually realised I was swimming with a smile on my face. That might not have helped my breathing, but I was having too much fun to worry.
Through the final part of the course and I stumbled out of the water feeling exhilarated and aware that I’d certainly put in a shift. I might not be getting faster at this swimming lark but I’ve realised that the correct parts of my body are starting to hurt now, which I’m taking as a good sign! I put to one side the thoughts that the next time I’ll be swimming close to that distance, I’ll then be hopping straight on my bike and having a wee run too.
My wife Fran, having done the 2-mile swim, was experiencing her own high. My two sons were there to cheer us on as well and my eldest, Callum, had his day well and truly made thanks to a photo with and autograph from Ross Murdoch. ‘Dream Big’ was his message to my wee boy. It was a pretty inspirational day all round.