Trailing the adventures of an ultra-marathon runner; Sheffield & the Peak District National Park, UK

Hathersage 24 hour Solstice Swim

Time for a bit of a swim gloat.

Solstice Weekend I had planned to be at the start line of the 96 mile West Highland Way Race, but due to many factors including a back injury and disfunctional legs as well as crew & logistics, I pulled out, along with other summer running plans. I sulked like an injured runner sulks. I sulked some more, I beat myself up about my running and sulked even more. Whilst I was sulking I was taking myself down to the swimming pool to not just teach swimming but to swim and spin. Whilst on holiday in the Swizz mountains I knocked out my fastest ever 5km swim in 126.46. I began to think.

Swimming: From the outside looking in, you can’t understand it. From the inside looking out, you can’t explain it.

Cue Hathersage Open air swimming pool, a mere 20 minutes away from where I live. Hathersage have been putting on a solstice swim for a few years now but I have never taken part as always thought the water was too cold for me. I began to ask around to see if anyone wanted to be in a team with me for this event to see how far we could swim in 24 hours. I thought it would be a good fun way to spend lots of day light hours in the midst of British Summertime.

Unfortantly after endless attempts of asking friends and facebook people it was not meant to be. I sulked a bit then wondered if I could do it on my own. I had to work for 1.5 hours on the Saturday but if I planned right I could have a go myself, go to work and then go back to the pool.

It wasn’t until 24 hours beforehand on the Friday that I received a text from my friend to see if I was going down for a few hours, that text hit one of my ‘stupid’ brain cells I decided to have a go at the whole 24 hours.

If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you

The Friday afternoon I rang up the pool to see if I could just turn up, pay my £20 and see how far I could swim. So I did. I shuffled a few bits and bobs into a couple of bags, the bits and bobs included a bowl of tuna pasta and some of those sandwich thins bread, some tins of tuna, some tins of rice pudding, dried (black) banana (from Switzerland – this is awesome stuff for fuel and I can’t find it in the UK), a packet of jelly babies, a packet of old shot blocs that I can’t run on any more, a couple of sachets of tailwind that I love for swimming but not so much for running, 2 jels just in case that I never used, some crisps that I never touched, rice cake bars and porridge pots alongside a few other snacks that I never touched. Of course I had to take along a couple of flasks of hot water, chocolate milk and coconut water. Then 5 towels and 3 costumes and 2 pairs of goggles. That was not enough swimwear but live and learn.

So 2.30am the alarm went off and after about 2 hours sleep I grabbed my stuff and drove the dark 20 minutes to the pool. Already there were some of the hard core swimmers setting up. I found a place on the bench for my stuff paid my £20 which included a tee-shirt and set my watch to 30 metres. No one apart from my friend and cats knew I was doing this, no tracking, no nothing, silence on social media, silence in the middle of the night, the silence of the challenge.

It’s not a real day if you haven’t watched the sun rise from the swimming pool

post-swim3.30am and we were off, what a surreal moment. It was still dark as the swimmers in 2 lanes started a swimming. The picturesque darkness remained dark for about half an hour and then daylight began to creep through the Peak District and into the pool. I didn’t really have a strategy at this point. Some of the guys were doing 1 mile each hour to reach 24 miles. Due to work I couldn’t take on this strategy so I was just going to swim instead and try and aim for 24 miles.

The first couple of hours went very quickly. I think my first 5km was in around 1.45. I normally swim 5km anywhere between 1.30-1.40 so happy with that. Taking it easy with quite a bit of ‘blockage’ at times. It tended to get busy in the lanes then ease off after the 1 mile an hour swimmers got out and got back in again. After about 6km I needed a wee so a quick 5 minute stop allowed my toilet break and a quick sip on some chocolate milk. I had my tailwind water mixed at the side of the pool as well.

pic-dryrobeMy friend who is a season ticket holder was due to come down at 7.30am for a 1 mile swim so this was something to look forward to. By the time she arrived I had done about 6 miles, I think. It was nice see a familiar face but the best bit was that she had brought her ‘dryrobe’ with her for me to borrow. OMG the dryrobe is just the best thing ever! I didn’t really know they existed apart from seeing all the pro’s around me with them on. No more soggy towels, just stick this amazing dryrobe around you and you are instantly warm. I can’t thank her enough, that dryrobe was my lifesaver.

8.20am and 13km later it was time to go to work, I took this opportunity to refuel whilst drying off and getting into the car. A rice cake bar in the car then the plan was to have a porridge pot at work, which worked well. 1.5 hours at work then it was time to return to the pool. I felt refreshed and ready to tackle the next stage. This work lark was a good strategy. I remember a few years ago the female winner of TR24 took 4 hours sleep and still managed more laps than those that kept going. Rest is as good as play.

Back at the pool I was raring to go. 11ish and in I went, swim swim swim. My next big stop was at 23km – 10km later. I probably got out for a wee at 5km as I found that the tailwind was bloating up my tummy after about 4km creating pressure on my bladder to wee lots. It must have been about 3pm by now and time for something else to eat, so I dug out my tuna pasta thing and had some bread and took a well deserved half hour-ish break. I had to buy a cup of tea and some water as I had run out. My friend was due to pop down with the kids about an hour or so later so I worked out that I could probably get another 5km in before she arrived. It was easier to just plan the whole thing in 5km stages by now.

Swimming is easy as H2o

The beauty about this is that it gives you time to think, to dream and to look at the ever changing clouds in the sky. I was front-crawling all the way. Some of the fast swimmers were also doing Breastroke but not for me. The pro’s had the equilivent of a running tee-shirt on their heads – swimgloating that they had swum the english channel or a 10 mile swim across a lake in the Lake District, or the Cold Water Winter Swim or something. I was such a novice, all I had was 3 costumes no cap and my goggles. I overheard one girl saying she had 10 costumes. My 3 was enough, one of which had lost its elasticity and was only decent for Lifeguard training.

So back in the pool to see if I could manage another 5km. The sun kept popping out over the cloudy peak district. At one side of the pool as I turned my head I would see peaks of sun rays at the other side towards Bradwell I would see dark looming rain clouds but it didn’t rain once. The forever changing clouds of Hathersage.

My weapon is my body, my element is water, my world is swimming

29km in and my friend turned up – perfect timing. I got out and smothered myself in her dryrobe whilst we chatting drunk tea on the pool side and I scoffed down a lovely scone and jam. Yum just what I needed. My other costume wasn’t drying properly but I did take off my wet one and put on some warm clothes for an hour to get my body temperature back up to normal. The hard bit was putting on a ‘damp’ costume afterwards as I wanted to save my old one for last. People were asking me how far I had done and what my aim was. Well 29km in and I was seeing that 40km was very feasible but just like in an ultra anything could happen, cramp, dizzyness who knows.

I said farerwell to my friend and contemplated my next stint which was going to be until 9pm rather than 5km. So this would be about 6km. I started breaking it down into 1km chunks. This would take me up to 35km, a nice round number. So in I got and off I swam.

Oxygen is overrated

At 7.30pm the pool was getting busy and the music man was on. The lanes got shortened to just 1 lane to allow more people in the public section. This was fine as not too many people were swimming at this point. I kept going and going and going. I had jelly babies on the side and treated myself to a jelly baby every 1.5 miles. By this time I had gone off my tailwind and was just on water (and jelly babies). However I had some rice pudding to look forward to when I had finished this stint and would also buy some soup. That was my plan to keep me going – food!

You can always breath later

The last 1km of this stint was quite sloppy, I began to feel the need for food. After yet another wee, costume off, I went to the tea tent to buy some more tea, soup and a lovely roll of bread. That warm soup was like a luxurious dryrobe inside my body. I took 45 minutes break to eat half my rice pudding (with a little pot of jam I had brought too). I would save the other half for after midnight. Nothing like rice pudding at midnight.

pic-poolIt was now about 9.45 and the sun had gone down, the music had stopped and there was just the array of swimming noises filtering from the pool. It was time to venture in again. I put my old costume on and my rash vest as I could feel the chill even before I ventured into the water. The temperature felt cooler but I was fuelled up and ready to go. This time I was going to aim for 40km before my next stop – just another 5km.

The rash vest worked well, I noticed the pro swimmers had on some small body suits so I wasn’t the only one being a bit nesh. I began to get a bit of neck ache as I am quite a ‘high head’ swimmer. One thing I noticed was that the pro’s were swimming more with their heads down, a different technique, I tried it and it helped the neck quite a lot, what do I know about swimming really? Watch and learn its all experience.

I was now feeling challenged. Cold but challenged. I started thinking what else I could do. 40km over 24 miles was in the bag, lets make it to 26.2 miles instead, yeah why not. So this 5km turned into 6km. Again the last 1km became more difficult as the water temperature began to filter into my body making me feel rather cold at times, but I would use the other swimmers to keep me going. If they can do it so can I regardless of their own challenge.

Eat, wee, swim – repeat

The watch said 40.99km and I got out. I needed more tea and more food and it was 11.50pm – nearly midnight, time for a midnight snack. Guess what? Dryrobe on, wee wee and more tea. – Groundhog day? It weirdly didn’t feel like it though, it didn’t feel like I had swam 41km less than a mile off a marathon. I just kept swimming and eating and wee’ing.

Welcome to our ‘ool’ – notice there is no P in it. Let’s keep it that way

So into the tea tent I went and felt like a piece of cake too. There was one piece of flapjack left and they let me have it for free – how kind as I wolfed it down along with hot tea filtering down into my body. Back at my little base I then demolished the rest of my rice pudding and jam and probably had something else as well – I think I may have had some chocolate milk. I had a chat with a couple of others and contemplated my last stance. I would take 45 minutes-ish break to get my body back to where it should be then I would attempt one final 4km to bring me up to 45km. 45km was a nice round number and it would mean a mere 28 miles. An ultra swim. I now had to do this. Forget the 24 hours, forget the marathon. I was going to do an ultra swim.

1am and that was the hardest bit, getting back into the pool at 1am after nearly a marathon. Steam was coming off the pool as both the public and the 24 hour swimmers and teams were still at it. One team had managed 60 miles between them. Amazing! But for me my ultra swim was now my goal and I would get through this.

It was cold, I will admit. My body was shaking at times so I swam faster (even though it was probablay much slower than 20 hours ago). My rash vest was doing me good and some old shot blocs kept me going every 1.5 miles again. I was going a little dizzy as I felt my body wander out into the lane. There were now two lanes and not as many swimmers but I was still swimming wonky. I knew my body was tiring by now but I had to meet my own goal. 1km, 2km, 3km. Just 2 more km to go thats proably about 45 to 50 minutes at the pace I was now swimming, breaking it down into shot bloc chunks. I couldn’t face any more water from my waterbottle which was probably a bad move but I kept going, one arm over the other.

I swam my brains out

2am and I had done 44km, just one more 1km to go. I sped up, my head hurt, my neck hurt but just one more km. Why was I doing this? I do not know, self inflicting madness? Stupidity, just the challenge to see how far I could go. I knew this was my last 1km. Despite the 24 hour swim going on for another hour I knew I couldn’t do anymore than this and I had far exceeded my goal anyway.

pic-watchI was for the first time counting down the lengths, 30, 25, 20, 15, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and do I have the power to do one more length? Yes I do, bang 1.

I stopped my watch and let out a big sigh, yanked myself out of the pool and wrapped myself into the dryrobe. 45km, 28 miles. It hadn’t really sunk in, all I wanted was a hot shower and some toast.

And that’s how I spent my Saturday.

I will be back on the poolside teaching, and hopefully back in the pool myself within a few days. Meanwhile my body smells of swim, my hair is rather dry and my tummy is craving all the toast it can get. Although the running has taken a back seat and I didn’t run my goal of the West Highland Way Race this year, I achieved another goal that I would have never dreamed possible even a month ago. This has been a different challenge, more or less unsupported, no structured training, nativity goes a long way, naviety can sometimes show what our body’s and mind can do when we challenge them. That’s what life is about – crazy fun challenges, we only live once, we only regret the things we don’t do, so go out there and have some fun and see where life takes you.

Challenges are what make life interesting, Overcoming them is what makes life meaningful

Results

45 km, or 49,245 yards or 27.9 miles

Total Time: 22:50:37

Total ‘pool’ time: 16:51:29 (i.e not getting out of the pool, no stopping the watch for sips of water or munches of jelly babies)

Pace: 2:03/100yd

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