The beautiful Windermere provided somewhat different swimming conditions to Ellerton Lake, the venue for the Elvet Otters’ two training swims this month. The Ellerton-based beginners’ training session, run by Donna James (thanks, Donna!), was held in bright sunshine in the lake with barely a ripple on the surface of the water, giving swimming conditions much like an indoor pool (but in wetsuits). Last Saturday’s informal practice swim was much the same, with the Otters enjoying blazing sunshine and a post-swim barbeque. I guess it was too much to hope that there’d be barely a ripple on the surface of Windermere when we arrived at the Great North Swim venue. I’d received inside information from Rachel Terry, who was lakeside to watch husband (and Elvet Strider) Michael’s 11.30am swim, that it was a bit windy and choppy, but Michael’s finishing time was great (32.50)so I remained optimistic.
Arriving at Bowness nice and early, Alister and I looked carefully at the lake surface as we enjoyed the ‘park and sail’ ferry along Windermere to make our way to the swim start (well, I enjoyed the ferry – I’m sure Mr R won’t mind me saying that he was more than a little bit nervous…). There was certainly more than ‘just a ripple’ on the surface of the lake but at 1.30pm and from a vantage point high up on the ferry it didn’t look too bad. As the afternoon progressed, however, I could see the waves on the lake increase in size as the wind picked up and I realised we’d be in for a bit of a hard slog to stay on course during the swim. Joined by the other Otters at the swim village, I hoped they hadn’t noticed the swell because it was clear that there were an awful lot of nerves among the first-time open water swimmers, so after watching the ‘yellow’ wave enter the water, and checking out the course (all well signposted by enormous yellow or orange buoys), we quickly got our wetsuits on and made our way to the starting pen. The bloke acting as MC for the starting pen warned us that the water was a bit choppy for the first 100m, but he said it was OK after that because when we turned towards the 200m buoy we’d put the waves behind us, but as I looked out over the lake I could see all the route buoys jumping around in the waves and was sure he was lying! It was going to be a bumpy ride!
Rosie Lindsay (daughter of Striders Fiona S and Steve L and honorary Otter) and I positioned ourselves in the start pen near the line, ready to jostle for position during the sprint in to the lake, whereas the more cautious swimmers moved towards the back for a more gentle and sedate entry to the water. As the hooter went, Rosie and I legged it for the water and I was chuffed to be the first to dive in from our side of the entrance slipway. Within seconds, though, Rosie streaked past me and disappeared into the waves ahead of me and that was the last I saw of her. I busied myself with wrestling for position with the big lads who were trying to swim over the top of me while I tried to outsprint them to the first buoy and the sharp right turn. Some were clearly not expecting the ride to be so bumpy and there were a few taking on lungfulls of water, needing to stop and breaststroke to clear their airways, and I got a few bumps and bashes (and gave a few back) as their legs kicked out, but I ploughed on and found some space at the first buoy. It was really rough, and I began to pant as I couldn’t take my breaths when I needed them due to the waves breaking over my head, so I took an inside line towards the 200m buoy so I could breathe facing inland with no-one swimming inside me to produce any more swell.
From 100-200m, the swimming was tough and I drank a few litres of Windermere, needing to tread water a couple of times to clear my lungs, but I bounced along, struggling to spot the 5ft high-viz route markers ahead of me over the swell but managing to track the swimmers around me and make good progress. Trying to keep swimming in a straight line occupied most of the first half of the swim, but I soon started to gain on the orange triangular buoy marking halfway. The waves were still so big I was able to body-surf around the halfway buoy, and I hoped the second half would be easier for me as I could breathe to my more comfortable side. The swimming definitely got a bit less scrappy, but staying in a straight line was tough as I tried to claw my way through the waves to make up some of the time I’d lost in the first half. Like the last time I did the GNS, I got off course at the same point, nearly swimming into the front door of a green lakeside cottage, and I was a bit miffed that I’d given myself extra distance to swim. Once back on course, I pushed hard for home. A couple of big lads behind me were trying to draft off my feet for an easier swim, so I kicked hard to keep them away and sprinted in towards the finishing buoys, managing to hold them off. Finally I made it underneath the finish gantry and was hauled out of the water by the very obliging life guards (I hope their backs are OK this morning, having hauled many hundreds of disoriented swimmers out of the lake!) and I ran over the timing mat to stop the clock (35.35).
The first person I spotted was Bill Ford, taking pictures and cheering us coming in, and I was chuffed to see I’d made it round faster than my first attempt two years earlier, even despite the rough conditions. I quickly made it round through to the exit area, collecting my medal and T-shirt, and bumped into Fiona Shenton, who was quite understandably very proud of her daughter Rosie who’d managed to win the entire wave with a storming swim. Her time was so fantastic (22.34), she finished 9th overall for the whole day, out of almost 3500 swimmers, and finishing 2nd lady overall. A phenomenal achievement! I also bumped into Angela and Sue who had had a rough time (quite literally) in the water and had withdrawn, getting a lift back to shore via kayak and safety boat. I made it back around to Bill’s viewing position by the edge of the lake to watch the other Otters come in safely, and to watch for Alister who I was quite concerned about. A non-swimmer just 18 months ago, he’s targeting a decent length triathlon sometime soon and so has worked really, really hard on his swimming, but he’s no real fan of the water (especially open water) and I admit I was quite concerned about him making it back! But I needn’t have worried! I missed Otter Louise Billcliffe finishing as she came in while I was collecting my T-shirt (40.03), but I made it round in time to cheer in Rachael Bullock, all smiles and having a Great Swim indeed (42.05), followed by Flip (43.03) and Jill (43.58). Flip had struggled with cramps in the choppy water, but Jill emerged smiling triumphantly, still elegant in her pink goggles, of course, and posing for photos! Carolyn Bray (44.27), David McKinney (46.57) and Camilla Lauren-Maatta (47.18) all made it out looking tired but elated to have finished, and John Greathead completed in good time (50.05).
I was beginning to worry, but then a friend came to tell me he’d sighted Alister with his binoculars and we spotted him coming in towards the orange finishing buoys. I was really worried he’d be exhausted but he came powering in like a steam train, overtaking swimmers on the race to the finishing gantry and emerging from the water at speed. Unsure where the timing mats were, he sprinted up the ramp towards us, looking every inch the triathlete racing to the bike transition (52.02). Once we’d got him to stop and pose for a photo, he was elated and grinning widely and I was a very proud wife! Not far behind Alister was Emma Detchon (58.59), who has been unable to do any preparation for the swim due to recent eye surgery, but who came steaming in well within the hour despite only putting her wetsuit on for the first time that year at the start of the race.
Congratulations to all the Otters who competed – it was great to have so many Striders/Otters involved. Open water swimming doesn’t get much tougher than that in my (limited) experience. Who’s up for next year’s challenge? You never know, the lake might be calm and still … !