‘A mile is a very long way to travel when you have no jet pack ... and you are in a pool’

Malachy Clerkin took the challenge to Swim for a mile. Find out how he got on.... .

“At the start  I could not-drown for a length. Two lengths, tops,” Malachy Clerkin wistfully recalls.  Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

“At the start I could not-drown for a length. Two lengths, tops,” Malachy Clerkin wistfully recalls. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill


Malachy Clerkin

1 A mile = 64 Lengths = WTF?

Before you criticise a man, walk a mile in his shoes. When you’re done with that, swim a mile in his togs.*

A mile is a very, very long way to travel when you have no purchase on the ground and no jet pack. While I presumed on some level that this was so before I got into it, I was vague on the specifics. I got less vague in a hurry. * Wash the togs before giving them back, now.

2 I thought I could swim

If you’d asked me 12 weeks ago whether or not I could swim, my reply would have been: “Of course. Sure who can’t?” Well, I couldn’t. Not really. I could not-drown for a length. Two lengths, tops. Then sort of quasi-breast-stoke around for a while before getting out and declaring I’d had a grand swim.

Ask me now if I can swim and I’ll go: “Well, sort of. I mean, I’d be a very low-level, amateur plodder really. I go only three or four times a week.”

The lesson? Swimming turns you into a humblebragging a***hole.

3 My brother was right

As brothers will know, this is tough to admit. But it’s unavoidable at this point. For years, Our Niall would roll his eyes when I landed in groaning and limping after being out for a run. “Swimming, Mal. Best exercise you can do. No impact, uses every muscle.”

He is a lifeguard by trade so I presumed it was the sort of spiel that he had to give, like me banging on to him about how buying newspapers is vital to the future of society.

Turns out, he knew what he was talking about all along. I presume he thinks I do too. Let’s not tell him, eh?

4 Being a swim coach means being lied to. A lot

Peter The Coach (PTC): Well, how are we today?

Me: Good, yeah. (Not good at all.)

PTC: Get much swimming done over the weekend?

Me: Ah, you know, bits and pieces. (Zero. Barely washed myself.)

PTC: Ready to go?

Me: Think I maybe tweaked something. (I didn’t. I’m lowering expectations.)

PTC: Sure give it a go.

Me: I’ll do my best. (I won’t. I’ll get halfway through and start fiddling with my goggles, pretending to swallow a belly of pool water and generally looking for a way out.)

PTC: Liars drown, you know. (He never said this. I feel he should have. I would have knuckled down far earlier.)

5 Swimming doesn’t hurt

I thought there would be pain. Any time before this that I’ve put a bit of effort into getting fit, there has been pain. I’ve played five-a-side. I’ve done 10km runs, I’ve done marathons. Throughout, pain was a constant. Very often, it almost seemed to be the point of it. Sore ankles, sore knees, sore back, sore neck. Blisters in places I didn’t know I had places.

Swimming makes your lungs scream and your eyes pop and your brain panic. It’s traumatic at the start when you’re trying to get the breathing right and tiring at the end when you’re turning for your umpteenth length of a long session. You are routinely knackered when it’s over. But it never, ever hurts..

In fact, it feels like it regenerates you, lengthens you, stretches out your muscles, clears out your lungs (and nostrils, apologies). Maybe it’s similar to how a car battery replenishes itself through use. The more you swim, the more you swim. And when you get out of the pool, you feel great.

6 Swimming alone is awful

I know me. I don’t trust me. I swim like nobody is watching, which is to say that if I can take a break, I will. Three days before I swam for a mile, I went to the pool on my own and couldn’t force myself to do any more than two lengths at a time. On the day itself, I swam one block of 16 lengths, took a break and then basically did the remaining 48 in one go. The human body can do pretty much anything. It’s the human mind that’s the problem.

7 Swimming together is great

In the end, I couldn’t believe how doable it was. Not easy, not straightforward, not a walk in the park. It took a bit of teeth-gritting and the odd keep-at-it but really, after all the doubt and all the worry, it was completely achievable. And the best of it was the end of it – obviously – surrounded by the people I’d trained with.

Now if they could all be on standby and at my whim whenever I take a notion of heading to the pool, I might even keep it up.

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