Sunday, 18 January 2015

Intelligent Racing

With the inevitable post Christmas and New Year lull it is always good to have a few events in the pipeline to focus the mind and keep the interest. To that end the Annual Ice Swimming Championships at Parliament Hill have been earmarked since the summer for this purpose.
Having been involved in Ice Swimming for a few years now I am aware of the training benefits, such as making the open water swims easier come summer, the mental discipline etc etc, but if I am honest it isn't about that. The truth is its fun. It's a really good atmosphere, full of decent people and some good sport thrown in. It makes the most of an otherwise miserable time of year that can hinder training, turns it on its head and makes the most of what we have.
A niche sport such as this is tight knit, and you quickly get to know, and get known among the regular competitors. From The Lake District to the South Coast there is a hard core of the same faces at the events, and some of these faces are regular winners. Off the back of a successful run to Windermere last winter, and a previous trip to Parliament Hill I was keen to pick up the mantle of our fallen comrade Paul Fowler and build a worthy contingent in his memory, to revisit The PHISH and put right what was lost there last year. I had a plan to take an army, an army of unknowns, and challenge the accepted order.
About the same time the invites went out we had a new man appearing at Louth Tri Club called Craig. A friendly bloke who took people on face value - I struck while the iron was hot, and he was still na├»ve to my workings. After googling his form and discovering he was an ex GB 1500m man I set about the charm offensive, and in the heat of the summer he cracked and agreed to enter the Cold Water Swimming Champs, oblivious to the pain he had just subscribed to.
With my race plan in mind, I now had the base around which to build the team. Deliberately earmarking myself as the weakest link I set about recruiting Jp Hemmings and Suzy Hegg too. Timing my run fresh off  the high of the 24hr Swim success where they had both been in relay teams - Jp had also just bagged his first Iron Man. Suzy was breaking records and hauling back gold's from across the country in masters for her county, with Jp also putting in similar swim performances on top of his triathlon successes. They agreed without quibble. Now it was just about being patient until the weather turned, and we could start training.
We had the relay team sorted. I was never winning gold solo, but now I had given myself a seriously good chance of sharing the spoils of a relay win.
On top of the relay team we had another relay team taking part headed up by The Ice Miler extraordinaire Alex 'The Walrus' Ferguson. Alex has started a winter season of serious Triathlon training for his first attempt at a half iron in May, and so I was keen to see how he got on now the weight had started dropping off and the focus had shifted from serious cold water swimming as his primary aim.
And so we all met at Parliament Hill Lido, bright eyed and cold, ready to race on a frosty Saturday morning in January. 8 largely unknowns and their entourage, in our collection of home spun gear, surrounded by a sea of Dry Robes (the Ice Swimmers clothing of choice) and eccentric swimwear. We slipped nicely under the radar of suspicion as we entered..... by simply not looking too flash.
After a quick welcoming speech the races were underway. Parliament Hill is a grade 2 listed building built in the early 1930s, refurbished in places, a beautiful & unique pool a daunting 61m in length. With a dark steel lining throughout the underneath and sides that reflects the heat in the summer and the Cold in the winter the water temperature was confirmed as a respectable 4.4 degrees celsius. I overheard a lady say it was like swimming in a fridge. That seems a pretty good analogy. Last year I entertained that it was like swimming in space. Freezing, dark, and strangely sterile in the cold. Now I prefer the fridge thinking.
At 61m in length the standard race distances here are 122m, 244m and an invite only endurance race of 1000m before a relay of 4x61m. The shorter distances were mixed heats with male and female finals, the enduro and relays being heats only with the winning times extrapolated.
A whopping 61m of open air fun!
Lining up for the start.
We got lucky that none of us clashed in the heats, and I took to the poolside first for the 122m with Craig in the same lane, in the heat straight after me, him again followed by Jp. Competitors announced, we disrobed and jumped in for the off the wall start.
Suddenly in and cold, the realisation that you are here, in the pool ready to go dawns on you. The early mornings getting up to swim in a lake in preparation. The cold showers, this is what it was all for. That focuses the mind, the time put in, it would be remiss to squander the investment put in to get here.

With heart racing, a sudden blast of adrenalin, struggling to calm the breathing from the shock of the cold, the horn sounds. Head down, push off... resisting the urge to gasp for breath, and swim, swim hard. I had decided that as it had the feeling of a 25m pool I would swim it like it was one. And so I set off at my 50m sprint pace. The more distance I could get behind me before the cold set in the better. I would deteriorate regardless in this 4degrees, so it may as well be nearer the end than not. Arms turning over rapidly to generate heat and propulsion, the cold seems to make the water seem clearer but also thicker, like swimming in syrup, as you feel the chill seeping into your muscles while they fight to work as hard as they know they should be.

At 61m the pool should look long, but it doesn't, maybe its a trick of the eye with it being outdoors, but it seems only to be similar to our regular 25m at home. That said, once in and under the surface, it seems to take an age to swim the first 61m. Looking around I have established a comfortable second as we approach the wall. I fall into the trap of racing in heats that I have experienced before. With no chance of first, and holding on to 2nd I don't push myself as hard as I should, forgetting the bigger picture, that I am also racing people in other heats that I cannot see around me. The same is true in triathlon, and I need to remember that. When I find myself alone in the bike or the run, there may be some invisible individual on my shoulder, within a fraction of my time, just starting in a different wave. Like racing the ghost data in Mariokart. Always push hard just in case. Always.  Half way back at around the 90m mark the pace drops off as the chill takes its toll, making it hard to keep performing at 100% effort. The legs feel sluggish as they acclimatise to the first race of the day. I finish my heat 2nd.
Quickly pulling on my robe I avoid the sauna for a re warm to stand and cheer on the other racers. As Craig jump in this sets a pattern for the day. The pattern of him abusing me as he enters and again when he exits at the agony of the cold, and roping him in to the stupidity of the event. This anger makes it all worthwhile. I have successfully bullied a grown man into freezing his proverbials off. I can tell he is loving it really.

After his first race it is apparent he is is going to wipe the floor with the competition. Jp takes his turn, and fly's from the blocks. A man of near zero fat he had really felt the cold in training and I remain impressed and motivated at his resolve to see it through and race his events. Of everyone on the day he looked to suffer the most. Comparing the results afterwards he had beaten me by just under half a second in our times, and I knew I would live to regret easing off because I wasn't being pushed in my heat.
The finals were announced and sure enough I missed them by 1 place. No matter, we had 2 of the Shires finest in the men's final and Suzy in the ladies. Craig romped to an easy 1st, but Jp to his immense credit touched level with him for first place at the half way point. It was in the final stretch the cold got to him, and hampered him badly. It was a prime example of the punishing effects the conditions can have on our bodies. Suzy quietly determined, got stuck into her final and was rewarded with a solid second. A great initial result for the team.
Jp post 122m final
Next was the 244m. Jumping in this time the body was more accepting of its fate, knowing it was in there for at least as twice as long as the last time. Pacing myself from the off I again found myself in a comfortable second after holding level with the lead to the first turn. He was much larger than me, and as the cold took its toll his padding paid dividends. He pulled easily away. Turning for the 2nd time was hard, knowing it was only half way. Focusing on maintaining stroke and reminding myself that as an endurance athlete this was about mental strength, and the cold was only superficial I ground it out and held on to come home 2nd again.
Shivering for home.
The effort earnt me spot 7 of 8 in the final. This immediately brought delight from Alex as he had beaten me in the heats by around 2 seconds. He had placed 5th. A competitive man to the end, I could see the glint of delight in his eye at the prospect of a final with me, and mutual banter ensued. It was suddenly like standing in transition.
Getting back in for another 244m so soon after the heats was painful. I almost entertained dropping out of the race, but ashamed of myself at the thought I plunged back in on the whistle, my body flinching like a poke in the eye from the shock. With Craig in spot one, and Alex further up the rankings we had put up another tremendous effort, filling 1/3 of the final places with our team. That thought in mind made me resolve to give it my best shot.
This time I went out harder, pacing against lane 6 between Alex and myself. I could see The Walrus pulling steadily away from the off, his big paw like strokes frothing the water 2 lanes across, and so held onto the shoulder of the lane 6 man instead for 3 lengths, trading a nose in front throughout. On the 4th length the cold was biting badly, eating away at the strength in my arms. I could see them moving, but could no longer feel my hands or my feet. This is where regular exposure and training paid dividends. The experience was nothing new and could be dismissed from my mind. To fight for the mini victory I would have to kick like hell. So as he turned it up in the final 50m I started to do just that. With every movement I could feel energy from deep within being spent, the water sucking the heat from the muscles the harder they worked. Heat that couldn't be replaced. I was now getting cold to the core. Still he pulled away.
My mind turned to the relay in 20minutes time and for the first time in my life in the midst of the battle I considered the bigger picture. I could kill myself to claim this small victory, or I could remember the effort I put in to construct a killer relay team some months back. They were all here, and on form, I needed to play my part and have the reserves to do so. With that in mind, and 10metres from the end I let it go. I came in 6th, with Alex in 4th. We had both climbed a place up from our initial placing in the final, and I had taken 5 seconds off my heats time. Craig had taken another easy 1st. Again all in all a pleasing result.
Relays. 15 minutes later, no time to rewarm properly, I found myself standing at the shallow end waiting to begin. I was shivering. Distracting ourselves as best we could, I spent the time waiting for the start by visualising the race. The stroke, the form, feeling the water in my catch as I moved through the water, kicking for all I was worth. Finishing. This was the last race, it was time to leave everything in the pool.
The horn sounded - the still of the water erupting as Craig plowed down the lane towards me. It was all about timing now. Getting in at just the right moment to be ready, but not to be floating there cold. I jumped in when he had 20m to go. Immersed, composed. His hand hit the wall and I was off. A big push and a kick and into the stroke. Turning the arms rapidly, and settling into each catch with all the force I could muster. I could see there was nobody around me. No easing off this time, pull harder. Kick harder, breath harder. There was no turn. Just one straight swim, wringing myself out in the process. My sole thought was to increase the gap I had been handed, and give Jp and Suzy something to build on. This one felt good, and I barely noticed the cold. Hitting the line with my hand and Jp was off at full bore as I climbed out to cheer him, and then Suzy for home. By now we were a good 40m ahead of the nearest competition, Suzy stretching the lead throughout. 
We went to warm up as the next heats were held. Then we dressed as it was announced that the relays were close. A few teams in the next heat had put in some fast times, they wouldn't announce it until after the Endurance. We dressed and cheered Alex as he entered the blue ribband event. Only accessible by prior approval and sign off due to the extreme nature of the endeavour.
The Walrus. Purple hatted, and a nose in front.
Watching the endurance event it is easy to forget how it must feel for them. With all swimming it often looks so graceful and calm from the surface, but when you are there, underneath, in the mix, only then does it seem so desperate and frantic. Heaven above. Hell below. This is magnified exponentially in the cold. Not only are you racing, you are fighting the elements and the drive to give up at every breath. It is a true test of mental over physical resolve. I know it was beyond me at this event having competed in the previous 3 races. Watching Alex take this on after the 244m heat then straight back in for the final and then the relay I was impressed at the way he tackled it. A strong even pace though out. He finished in the top 10 of 50+. Great result, even if his mouth was so numb he was unable to speak afterwards.
The racing done, it was time for the presentations. After a day of every weather, swimming in rain, wind, sleet and snow, the sun had come out for the endurance event, and began to dip behind the buildings as the rewards were claimed.
It was brilliant to see Craig as an unknown come in and clean up. He took the mens 122m and 244m Gold. You could see this threw the established old guard, unsure of where he had come from, or if he would return. You almost felt sorry for the hotly tipped favourite who now had a beautiful if un expected collection of Silvers!
Suzy collected her Silver for the Ladies 122m and then we were onto the relays.
Needless to say - The Lincolnshire Elite had won. Not only that, but by a massive 12 seconds over our nearest rivals. Of 31 relay teams entered our other team had also come 6th. Another fantastic result. Collecting the win is a reminder of how good it feels to get the results, and it gives me a renewed motivation to push harder in the training for the season ahead.

Nice touch on the gold winning caps.
Home, and I sit writing this off the back of a frosty morning run with the dog. On reflection over breakfast and coffee I know that the ice swimming community is a small, but special one. I have learnt something from everyone that I shared the day with, be it to always expect the unexpected (Craigs effect on the meeting) to the personal determination and resolve of people like Jp who genuinely suffered the effects of the cold, but still embraced the day and performed incredibly regardless. Alex who doesn't understand the concept of physical limits and would push on to death if required. I need to also mention James who injured his ankle badly in the week, but still swam regardless in the 122, and also for the good of the relay team. And Lesley, who doubted her own ability, but still rose to the challenge of the relay and has come away wishing she had competed in more and is now making noises about an ice mile. Then there is the family & friends who come to support, re warm us, cheer us and get behind the competitors all the way. It is special they can be bothered to back us (and feed us) :-).
Finally I have learnt that as I get older it pays dividends to plan ahead, and understand where your strengths lie. In this case it was the people I know and surround myself with. They motivate and encourage me, and by gentle persuasion they agreed to help me to my best chance of gold. And they delivered. All in all a great day out where the warmth of the people and the atmosphere shares an inverse relationship to the temperature of the pool.
Fun over, its time to look forward to a 2015 of Sprints, Olympic, Middle Distance and Full Irons, and (hopefully) similar results!