After the Henley Bridge to Bridge, I took a lackadaisical approach to my ‘training’ for the Great Scottish Swim 5k. I figured I would treat it the same way I would treat a half marathon 3 weeks after an ultra: get in the pool once or twice to check the arms are OK, then reap the benefits of being accustomed to long distances. This was, I wholeheartedly admit, a bit of a mistake, but not the main reason my first open-water 5k turned into one of the biggest suffer-fests I’ve experienced. That, my friends, was all down to my arch-nemesis: the cold.
Although the actual event was prime nightmare material, the surrounding hours were actually quite pleasant. I was picked up by Roz at 10, and we swung by Aberdeen Sports Village to pick up Kevin, who was coaching at the track until 10:15. We enjoyed a myriad of classic tunes during the drive down (and back) courtesy of Kevin’s iphone and some freshly discovered 80’s and 90’s radio stations, and spirits were high as we neared Loch Lomond’s sunny shores.
Roz was swimming the 2 mile event, and we arrived dangerously close to her start time, so I was on hand as her personal changing assistant in the heated changing tent, dropping her off at her starting pen as the warm-up was ending. Kevin and I decided to head along the shore to get a decent view of the start, and about 20 minutes later failed spectacularly at spotting Roz amongst the thrashing arms, because everybody looks the same in a wetsuit and identical cap. Go figure.
After noticing how off-course some of the swimmers were veering thanks to the current, Kevin and I made a note to stick as close to the buoys as possible to avoid adding on any unnecessary distance to an already sizeable swim. As our wave was approaching, we heading to the changing tents and readied ourselves.
One thing I noticed when I was scanning the information booklet over breakfast was an ‘acclimatisation’ zone, which turned out to be the start, where all swimmers immersed themselves in the water to prepare themselves for the frosty conditions in the loch. Kevin did not hold back his laughter during my experience here, and I alternated between shivering and gasping for air as the cold water literally took my breath away. It was as though I had been transported back in time to the Arctic Enema from 2012’s Tough Mudder. It was fucking cold.
Back on dry land, I was so cold I didn’t even care how stupid I looked taking part in the warm-up, narrowly avoiding being taken out by someone wind-milling their arms in front of me. After the warm-up, a hush came over the wave as the male and female winner from the mile event earlier in the day wished us good luck, and counted us down, signalling for the shoal of swimmers to surge back towards the water.
To my surprise, it didn’t take too long to get over the shock from the cold – I guess acclimatization is effective – and I was soon able to get my head under the water and begin trying to dodge flailing arms and kicking legs (with limited success), quickly passing the Maid of the Loch. To my delight, visibility was much better than I was expecting! I could see swimmers up to about 6 feet away, which, in comparison to swimming in the Thames, is like being in a clean swimming pool. The water was a little choppy, but sticking to the buoys was easier than I was anticipating as well. Maybe this wasn’t going to be too bad after all.
The 5k route consisted of three laps around the buoys farthest away, and the first lap felt like a walk in the park. The second lap started off well as I found someone who matched my speed, and drafting off them for the first half of the lap, but they soon slowed and I was forced to do all the work again.
By the time the third lap arrived, I couldn’t feel my hands. Upon closer inspection, I realized that my limited control meant that I couldn’t even squeeze my fingers together (kind of essential for an efficient stroke) no matter how hard I tried. I had swallowed quite a lot of loch water, and the water had become quite a bit choppier than it had been at the start. My guts started threatening to eject my lunch, my mind was starting to become a little fuzzy, and the buoys seemed to be taking a lot longer to reach. My internal monologue was far from PG.
Although it felt closer to hours, the final 30 minutes of the swim were revolting. I resorted to counting my strokes in sets of 100, alternating between counting in English, Spanish, and Italian to try and ‘keep it interesting’. I tried to ignore the debilitating cold and started overtaking quite a few people before – finally – the bright orange buoys directing swimmers to the finish were within reach. I swam under the floating gantry, and then veered left toward the shore, and the official finish line.
When the water was shallow enough, I staggered, drunk, towards land, watching a woman ahead of me assisted out of the water by one of the lifeguards. Where’s my goddamn assistance?! I thought to myself; however Roz later told me that I looked in good nick compared to some of the people she saw approach the end. I crossed the timing mats, threw my chip into a bucket, and was handed my goody bag before finding Roz, who helped me find my foil blanket and wrap it around myself.
“How unflattering would you like this photo?”
“11/10!” – me.
Once we found Kevin, we compared results. Kevin smashed his sub 1:30 goal, I was disappointed with my 1:45 after a sub 1:40 pool 5k, and Roz’s timing chip is somewhere in Loch Lomond, so it was a mixed bag. We could all agree, however, that a Dundee McDonald’s stop on the way home was non-negotiable, and tucking into my quarter pounder with cheese tasted just as good as the last time I indulged in one – with Elaine after the Dundee marathon.
Although I’ll probably be back to try and pick up a faster result next year, I will happily go on record saying that I would prefer to swim 14k in one of the UK’s filthiest rivers than anywhere, no matter how clean, that requires the use of thermal gloves.