Confessions of a Virgin Splasher: my first summer of open water swimming

‘Everyone’s got a plan until they get punched in the mouth’ – I found that out in Lough Key

It's not often I like to quote Mike Tyson, but here's an exception. Splashing about like a one-winged, disorientated duck in Lough Key last June, farcically attempting to swim 1,500 metres in the open water, despite not having actually trained once in the open water, his words came to mind: "Everyone's got a plan until they get punched in the mouth."

Having scribed a fitness feature in this paper in June on how to get into open water swimming, I proceeded to then ignore so much of the excellent advice offered by experts in that feature. Smart, eh? Then, I turned up with a plan on the big day and, well, got punched in the mouth.

My fitness was theoretically strong enough to swim roughly a mile in the open water. In May, I started training with the welcoming Master Club at ASLAA at Dublin Airport, with the uber-supportive Swim Ireland coach Peter Conway at the helm. Remaining largely still a once-a-week swimmer, my training and times improved in the pool, while other cardio and core work certainly didn't hurt.

I bought myself a swim wetsuit (roughly €150) and open-water goggles (€25) online from the UK, and was booked in for the 1,500m, June 16th Lough Key Loop through Open Water Swimmer, who host three open water swim events on Irish lakes through the summer. I had the pool training behind me, I had the gear, the time and the drive. So, where did it all go wrong?


No Sense, Logic or Reason

Well, put it this way: you can lead a pool swimmer to open water, but you can’t make him put his face in it. It was like trying to reason with a mule. My face steadfastly refused. The initial shock of the cold on the head was one thing (I would later learn that this typically passes within 3-4 minutes, if you just stay calm and keep swimming), but what was more shocking was the creepy darkness of the water beneath, with visibility little more than arm’s length and the reeds reaching up from the murky depths like the haunted limbs of the departed.

With no cue of the pool tiles or lane markings to help keep you straight, you zigzag to blazes until you learn how to sight

Much like primates’ innate fear of snakes and spiders, water remains a well-earned antediluvian terror humankind will be millennia more in trying to shake off. In such times, you’re reminded that for our ancient ancestors the water, and what lies beneath it, should only be temporarily entered upon in the face of emergency – such as fire, or a lion. And this wasn’t either of them.

So, I resorted to breast stroke and the back stroke, despite not trying either for years. Mad, eh? I was in no danger with my ever-buoyant wetsuit on (a de facto life jacket in such still water) and kayaking-lifeguards paddling about us (which you can hold onto and rest with, if you wish, or even call it a day and be immediately brought back to the shore), but no sense, logic or reason in the world was going to sway me. I neglected the advice I’d lent readers weeks beforehand: no matter what strength your pool-fitness may be, if you want to compete in the open water then you need to train in it.

“Sighting” in open water is another challenge that pool swimming can ever prepare you for. With no cue of the pool tiles or lane markings to help keep you straight, you zigzag to blazes until you learn how to sight. So bad was I in June, coupled with the non-visibility, that thrice did I land onto – not even into – a nearby female swimmer, near sinking her in the process each time as I apologised, yet again, profusely. It was starting to resemble some sort of Marine Mr Bean, and considered knocking this open water lark on the head there and then. But it didn’t. I kept splashing away and finally finished, coming in somewhere around the 48-minute mark, and entirely determined never to let myself down so much again.

The rush of wellness during and the hours after is truly addictive

For the next month, I got out at Low Rock in Portmarnock once a week, starting with 750m and slowly building up – amid waves, currents, jellyfish and seaweed – to prepare for the Hodson Mile on Lough Ree in late July. And that's where I found my flow. I learnt to direct that adrenaline into rhythm and technique and consistency, while keeping a clear, calm mindset throughout: mindful swimming, you might say, whereby you pay close attention to the quality of your posture, strokes and breathing, and let the speed come second.

Define Personal Best?

And when in the flow, it really is magnificent: you feel so utterly in the now, so truly alive. If you can marry your breath with your strokes and find your mojo after those first few minutes, the endorphins start to sing and it’s so damn invigorating, so damn sexy! The rush of wellness during and the hours after is truly addictive - it’s no longer You Vs The Water but you being one of thousands of other living creatures swimming in the water during those minutes.

I came in around 36 minutes for the Hodson Mile, and for the final event of the year – the Glendalough event in early September, with swims ranging from 750m to 3.9km – I got my time down to 32 minutes. And yes, I'd love to one day have a "2" before my 1,500m time, but it really isn't about the clock.

So, how do you define personal best? Does it really come down to a few digits on some clock, or other such cold calculus? My arse it does. My personal best was that morning moronically splashing about in Lough Key: my personal best was not giving up on my first go, when it was so very tempting.

Aside from the fresh air, vigorous exercise, the escaping of comfort zones, the camaraderie and the craic of the field before and after the event, what does it mean to swim in such aesthetic – even stunning – surroundings, and in such a well-organised, safe, supportive environment? It’s a rich and rare thing, and an edge few countries can provide as well as our own temperate, beautiful island. My only quip? That Open Water Swimmer only host three such events each summer.

So, where to from here? For me, it's to properly join the ASLAA Masters Club this winter and continue in the pool once a week until late Spring, and then consider ditching the wetsuit and attempting a Leinster Open Sea swim event or two next summer, if I don't go down the triathlon route. And for you? No matter what your swimming ability – from non-existent to kick-ass – go find your nearest Masters Club and put a toe in the water this winter.