Category Archives: open water swimming

Operation swim-confidence week 1

I ended the last blog with the question of whether or not to continue with swimming, specifically open water and triathlon. As much as I would like to walk away, I just can’t quit. I know if I quit now I will regret it and, if truth be told, I have dreams of going further. So with that in mind the next few blogs will be about the tears, triumphs and tantrums that come with facing my swimming fears.

Tuesday nights are TriBB’s swim session, an hour of attempting to transform my “swimming” into something that resembles front crawl. I’m in lane one, it’s relatively safe, the wall is right there and there is no crazy long sets. We work on technique, well we’re supposed to, I work on trying to relax with occasional snippets of technique. It’s tough, the sessions break down aspects of breathing, kicking and arm stroke whilst building our fitness and speed. I’m often at the front, though I prefer not to be, for this makes me panic more and more, I try and relax, I remind myself of the coaching point – Popeye breathing, turning your head just enough to breathe keeping one eye in the water – I try it, 20% air, 80% water, not enough air, I’m panicking! 3 strike breathing is quickly failing as anxiety levels rise, I need more air and resort to 2 stroke breathing, this achieves nothing, I’m shaking my head trying to refocus only to forget to breathe. I’m 34, how do I forget to breathe? Then the wall of safety appears, I grasp it quickly, stand on the steps, “1 minute until you go again”….I smile trying to fake enjoyment, trying to trick my head into relaxing, trying to believe I’ll get it right next time: 3,2,1 go… the cycle restarts.

Don’t get me wrong, everyone at TriBB is ace, supporting each other’s journeys whether it be to your first sprint or to an Ironman. It’s good to see other people on that journey working hard to make progress, pushing each other along.

The weekend brings the dreaded open water session. The lake (Blue Lagoon, Darlington) is lovely but that doesn’t stop the nerves from kicking in as soon as I’ve left the house. They build as the drive progresses, why am I doing this? We arrive get our safety red wrist band, get changed into our neoprene coffins and slowly wade into the water. The water seeps into the wetsuit, I wait for my body to warm the water between suit and skin, I tell myself to work on my breathing, 1 small lap focusing on relaxed breathing! I set off the first marker never gets closer, in my head I’m panicking, arguing with myself to relax. At the first buoy I take a moment to talk to myself, set a new target and then get moving. Breathing every 2 is my go-to strategy but makes swimming straight tough. Second buoy down I wait for a large pack to pass, then set off, 1 lap is only 200m but might as well be 200 miles, I’m knackered as I reach the final buoy, breathing is all over the place and I feel sick. It takes all my resolve to set off for lap 2, I try and focus on 3 stroke breathing, it’s tough, a head battle but it’s almost working, occasionally I realise I’m actually swimming, not relaxed but swimming. Second lap done and I’m out of there! First week of operation swim confidence done, water is definitely winning but I’m still in the battle.

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Leeds Triathlon – yes I’m still scared of water.

Last week I raced, well participated, in the AJ Bell Leeds Triathlon, an Olympic distance triathlon consisting of a 1500m swim, 36km bike and 10km run. Having completed the Rutland half marathon and Rat Race Dirty Weekend recently I knew that physically I can push myself over the bike and run legs. However what hadn’t been tested so far was my ability, or lack of, to remain relaxed and swim, specifically swim in open water. I knew this would be a stumbling block of epic proportions and yet it still took me by surprise and having survived it I’m now considering whether triathlons and open water swimming is something I want to continue.

Swimming has never made sense to me, as humans we have lungs and limbs, not gills and fins, we have invented boats to safely travel on/through water and yet a proportion of our population still think it’s appropriate to flap around in a semi-coordinated fashion called “swimming”. I avoided this activity until my mid twenties when love and romance took over; Yes I fancied a swimming teacher! For the most part I can swim in a pool relatively comfortably(ish), occasionally though a completely irrational fear of the water takes over as my brain tries to convince my body it can’t swim and can’t breath, I’m in desperate need of air as I panic and lose all sense of calm and technique. I’m drowning, not literally but drowning in a wave of self doubt and negativity.

Can I swim? Yes. Do wetsuits aid buoyancy? Yes. And yet before we had even arrived at Roundhay the fear was eating away at me like some kind of parasite (probably one picked up swimming in lakes!). As we set up in transition the organisers announced that for safety reasons the swim had been shortened, relieve flooded through my veins temporarily relieving me of the fear. However in a cruel twist of fate the mist lifted as we entered the swim start area and the announcers announced excitedly that it was now “safe” to swim the full distance. Psychologically this really threw me and I never really recovered my senses.

As the hooter sounded I stayed back avoiding the rough and tumble of a triathlon start. All this succeeded in was putting me further behind than I already would have been. Each and every time I lifted my head the sea of pink swim caps moved farther away, until they were replaced by the blue caps of the wave behind. So there I was flapping about in a state of fear and disappointment as people 10 years my senior made it look easy. The physical energy it takes to panic and argue with yourself to keep going for 45 minutes took a lot out of me and as I left the water, announcing to everyone that I would “never do that again” I was feeling less than fresh.

The bike leg was all about staying with Beck, which also meant a not-so-quick tyre change thanks to the obligatory puncture. The bike leg was over far too quickly for my liking and we were off running up the hill out of Roundhay before settling into a steady downhill to the City Centre. Leeds has some nice uphill sections that tested energy supplies and leg strength. Whoever decided the split for Olympic Distance for the final 2.5km should be 100m from the finish line is one evil soul, it took so much not to just ignore the man with the foam finger and run straight through the finish area, our time would come. The final 2.5km was the longest 2.5km ever, as Beck was really pushing herself further than I’ve ever seen her do before, I noticed Barburritos was closed (my motivation for finishing was a burrito bowl – thankfully it opened a short time later) and the road just continued. As we rounded the finishing straight we knew we’d both had tough times but we had kept going, we ran along the blue carpet and over the finish line together. We had done it, we had completed our first Olympic Distance Triathlon.

So where to no? With no more challenges booked in I need to get looking. Firstly though I need to decide where I stand with swimming. Two years of open water and I still break out in hot sweats just thinking about it. Part of me wants to walk away and never place another foot inside the neoprene coffin that is a wetsuit, the other part doesn’t want to give in. Who knows where this journey will take me.

Winter training phase 1

Another week down on my back to basics phase. The exercises are still pretty dull but the progressions are coming. I’m at a similar point to where mistakes and impatience slid into my training post-op. I know I can do more, push past it, muscle through but taking time now will payoff long-term, well hopefully! Keeping my ego in check in pilates classes or at the gym, keeping the tantrums and frustrations to a minimum is the challenge but the long-term goals are there. 


With the chill in the air there’s no denying that summer is over. The daylight is getting shorter the high visibility tops are out and the open water swimming has come to an end. I never thought wading into a cold lake squeezed into a less than flattering wetsuit would be something I’d actually miss. There I was dodging other swimmers in a lane, staring at the black line going up and down, back and forth boredom building and I’m wishing I was in a lake. There will be many more sessions in the pool over winter. The plan is to build on my technique and endurance so that come next year the swim will be just a little more comfortable and I will be just further away from dying when I leave the water.


Cycling is still off the menu, and will be for another week or two minimum. The spin classes and Turbo are calling my name, I’m so tempted to answer the call. I’m pretty sure that when I reintroduce cycling this drive will shrink, after all who actually enjoys spending hours on a stationary bike or turbo. Isn’t it strange how you always want to do what you can’t. 


Time for the run talk. Running is going well, distances are on the up, times are coming down and most importantly I’m enjoying it. Running with a fibroid felt horrible, feeling it bounce around, the pressure on my bladder and bowel, the fatigue from the sleepless nights. I ran because I had too to keep some normality in my training, some control in my life. The feeling was so far from the enjoyment I feel now. Here’s hoping this enjoyment continues. Running will need to be a staple in my training with the challenges I’m setting for next year. 2018 is going to be a big year to make up for 2017!

Trying to find balance. 

At some point in the last couple of months I had the bright idea of booking onto a second triathlon just three weeks after the Aquathon and 2 weeks into my PGCE. 

This week hasn’t been great training wise. Starting my ITT has been a shock to the system. I’ve gone from training being the focal point of my week to having a To Do list the length of my arm. Combine that with my first ever couple of days in a mainstream nursery (shock to the system!!) Training has been a battle, intensity hit and miss and actually getting to the gym took a fair amount of will power. Triathlon specific training has been virtually non-existent, my focus has been just on getting moving. Sessions have included more weights and functional training and boy have I felt it.

I’m realising more and more that post-op my focus wasn’t on recovery but I getting fit for the triathlon. Yes they should go hand in hand but in reality my core work has suffered and I’m paying the price now. More and more I’m discovering things that I should be capable of doing but because I’ve skipped steps in recovery those things are still a challenge. The main areas that suffer are cycling and lifting. This is something I know I need to address after the tri.

One Tri-specific session I have managed this week is an open water swim. Yes the wetsuit still fits, yes the fear is there, and no im not feeling overly confident for the swim portion of next weekend. Queen mermaid assures me she wants to do it together, a big part of me really wants to complete it solo but in reality the fear is creating a wall I’m not sure I can climb. 

Great Scottish Aquathon.

Spoiler Alert:!!! We finished. 

The day started with the queen mermaid completing her 5km in 1:32hrs, around 20 minutes faster than anticipated. I was so proud of her, the 5km is swimmings equivalent of a half marathon and she has trained so hard for it. She left the water with a smile on her face and there it stayed all day.  


I was so nervous all day but standing in transition in our wetsuits with running kit laid out I was literally shaking. Those around us discussed their previous conquests while I buried my head into Becky’s shoulder questioning my sanity. As we warmed up the Great Swim staff were packing up, I remember thinking why would they pack up now. As the event progressed it became more clear that the Aquathon was the poorer relative of the Great Scottish Swim, close enough to be invited but not quite part of the family. 


As we entered the waters of Loch Lomand we stayed at the back, clear of everyone, I wanted my own space to try and swim. 150m in I felt pretty good, I was even contemplating telling Becky to go off ahead. Then out of nowhere the fear and panic exploded inside my head, everything was going wrong. As calm as ever Becky talked me down, waving the safety boat away, 600m to go I was refocused on each buouy. As ever Beck stayed by my side coaching swimming and psychology. The water was choppy, and this combined with swimming alongside the giant Maid of Loch my brain was fried with fear and emotions. 


The swim finished (and breath) we were into transition, changed and off running. Looking at my watch we were running at a decent pace which shocked me knowing how much energy I’d wasted panicking. We kept the pace going, enjoying the scenic park, focusing on on people in front of us, working to overtake them. Before we knew it we were back over the bridge, rounding the corner and running towards the finish line. Crossing the line I was relieved, happy and grateful. Looking at my watch I was only a few seconds short of my PB, this time last year I watched Beck at the same event my immediate future and health was in turmoil yet here I was surviving swims and chasing PBS. 


It was disappointing that so much of the event village had been dismantled, they had ran out of small and medium tshirts (I’m 4’11 a large tshirt just won’t work). As we collected our kit and made our way back to the car the announcer talked about those left on the course while even the photographer packed away.  To the organisers, everyone has worked towards this event, yes they may be slower but they are working, putting the hard work in, please treat us ordinary people with the same respect as those guys and gals finishing in impressive times. 


As for us, we have another triathlon in a couple of weeks, I’m aiming to swim without my personal lifeguard by my side. I’m loving this journey back to fitness, im probably fitter in many areas than I have been in over a year, there’s still some areas to work on and goals to be set!

The big showdown!

So tomorrow is the big day, the battle between two powerhouses. No not Mayweather and McGregor! the battle between my brain and body (powehouses? Who am I kidding). Tomorrow is the day of the Great Scottish Swim Aquathon, 800m loch swim followed by 5km run. I signed up for it all confident that the months of training would be long enough to convince my mind that I am more mermaid and less ugly sucker fish at the bottom of the ocean (I’m sure they actually have a name.) with 24hours to go this is not the case. My mind is convinced that I will sink, certain the water will sweep my off somewhere and positive I am a fool for agreeing to this. This is crazy, I’ve done the distance, I can swim and yet the battle continues.


So here I am in the back of the camper van with queen mermaid (aka the wife), her mother, Gary the open water widower and my trusty (waterphobic) dog Lexi, embarking on a 5 hour drive to Loch Lomand. Queen mermaid will be completing the swimming equivalent to a half marathon, 5km and her mother 2 miles first thing, I get the pleasure of waiting and watching all day before I dance with danger and dive (read waddle slowly) into the water. Kit has been packed twice already today, I’m convinced I’ve forgotten something but we are actually going to do this.


The swim is the precursor to the 5km run which a few months ago would have been a challenge in itself. I am looking forward to this part of the challenge, the finish line will be waiting with a medal and a tshirt and I will walk away slightly taller (metaphorically of course), once the relief has died down. The journey continues and I keep finding and booking challenges to keep life interesting. In the mean time if anyone finds my comfort zone please hand it back, I like to visit it from time to time.

My next challenge

I’d told myself I’d take a week of rest and relaxation after Castle Howard. The reality though was that I was left with a greater drive to push on. Having put myself under so much pressure to be able to participate in the triathlon it was a relief to come through relatively unscathed. The relief was soon overtaken by the desire to evaluate performance, why did the swim go so wrong? Where could I have made time up? When is the next challenge.


Thankfully the next challenge has been booked for some time. The Great Scottish SwimRun, 800m swim followed by a 5km run. My two weakest disciplines in the triathlon? Swim and Run. My biggest disappointment last week was my inability to overcome the fear during the swim, so to face a swim twice the distance in unknown waters in just 23 days is both petrifying and exciting(ish). 


I’m still trying to focus on my journey and my progress and achievements. I’m fully aware that for many an 800m swim is barely more than a warm up but this is the point that I’m at with my journey. I remember the days of learning to get my face in the water, the days where 2 lengths of a 25m pool was a challenge, my first terrifying attempt at open water swimming. I’ve put in the hours of hard work, tears, tantrums and failures to get to the point of looking at an 800m open water swim. Just over three months ago there’s an entry in my training diary referring to a failed attempt at a 25m swim. It’s been a rough journey so far with so much more to come. How do I feel about the 5km run? Well let’s think about that if I survive the swim. I’m excited and anxious to discover what part the Great Scottish SwimRun will play. 


In terms of personal journey this week has been great for reflecting on how far I’ve come. Don’t get me wrong, being one of the last out of the water and being overtaken by all ages on the bike and run isn’t great for the ego but you can’t judge without knowing individuals journeys. My journey in the last four months from open hysterectomy to triathlete has been a mega rollercoaster, it still is. I feel like I’m chasing my own expectations, expectations that are probably unrealistic, and expectations that are constantly changing. Less and less I’m looking at the performances of those around me, but rather focusing on where I’m at and where I’m going. This new mindset isn’t always easy to maintain, the competition is now me rather than others. Will this mindset help get me through not only the SwimRun but also my second triathlon? Well there’s only one way to find out. 

It’s the journey that counts.

Training for a triathlon while recovering from major abdominal surgery probably isn’t a recommended combination but that’s the challenge I’d set. I had 17 weeks, just under 4 months, from knife to skin until the start of the triathlon. It was a journey with a ready made excuse to take the easy path, to accept failure. There were days when I felt like sitting there and crying, giving up and letting the recovery process take it’s time. There were days when frustration boiled over to anger, days feeling lost, scared tired and in pain, taking one step at a time the start line was in sight.

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Arriving at the venue the nerves were bubbling, looking around everyone looked so fit, I felt like an outsider invading an unknown land where neoprene and lycra were the dress code. In transition people chatted about previous conquests while I worried about where to put my trainers. Wet suit on and the long trek to the lake for the safety briefing. The lake was taunting me like a Dementos from Harry Potter. “Don’t panic, take time to acclimatise and you’ll be fine” I keep telling myself. Suddenly the safety briefing was over, I had no idea what had been said. Into the water, 30 seconds until the race starts. WAIT!! What about acclimatising? I’m not ready. The weeds were everywhere, my head is going crazy, the weeds will pull me down, we haven’t even started yet and I’m not sure I ca go much further.

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The horn goes. Head down, stroke and breathe, No, PANIC! My legs feel like they’re tangled, my hands come out holding green slime. There’s nothing I can do, coordination and rational thinking has long gone. I’ve not felt this scared since my first open water swim. I’m not even 50m into the swim, there’s still 350m to go. Becky stayed with me talking me through each stroke, reaching the turnaround point things were looking up. I was swimming towards the exit, the weeds were virtually gone, I was doing it, I was swimming. Not soon enough the swim was over, a short 300m up hill jog to transition added an extra dimension to the transition.

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Transition one was a success, the coconut oil helped me escape my new speedo wetsuit (note to anyone wanting to try OW swimming, an actual swim wetsuit makes a huge difference).Wet suit off, top, race belt, shorts trainers and helmet on I un-racked my bike and I was off, careful not to mount my mean machine until after the white line. Having visited the area recently I knew the first couple of kilometres were nice climbs, what I hadn’t figured was the amount of energy wasted from panicking in the water. As the ride progressed my lower abdomen ached and twinged, almost as if it was reminding me of the journey we had been through. I was enjoying the challenge, the views were great and the kilometres were flying by. I was overtaken by the full age range of people, kids and veterans alike powered past me as I battled through the course. At first this frustrated me, then I smiled, sat up looked at the views, smelt the lavender and reminded myself of how far I’d come. Before I knew it I was dismounting and making my way through Transition.

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Transition 2 was over in a flash, I smiled knowing I only had 4km between me and the finish line. The first kilometre was completed in a PB time of 5:45, probably too fast but my legs felt great (thanks Ironholgs for introducing me to brick sessions in his books) and the ground was firm and flat. As we entered the wooded portion the ground worsened, the rain had taken it’s toll, it was largely up hill making the next 2 kilometres nothing short of an energy sapping muddy trail run. Progress slowed but with every step we were a step closer to the finish line. As we passed the 1km to go sign we noticed the mother in law just 500m back, the decision was easy, we waited for her and crossed the line together.

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I felt a little emotional crossing the line. The journey to this point has been tough, an emotional rollercoaster mirrored somewhat by the triathlon. The physical journey has been witnessed, it’s easy to see the progress from the first walk to the day room (20m) that exhausted me, the first pilates class through to finishing Castle Howard super Sprint. What’s not easy to see is the psychological journey, the fear of not doing enough, of doing too much, the frustrations of slow progress and watching others doing so much more. There have been times when I have been way too hard on myself and those around me, even crossing the finish line I wondered if I could have gone quicker, but for now I can smile, I finished my first triathlon, I pushed through fear, pain, the ups and the downs and I crossed the line holding the hands of those I love and care for. How can I not be content with that.

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Swim, cycle, run, sulk

As I write this I’m laid sulking on the sofa battling the after effects of a hill focused training ride. Whether it was the potholes, the hills or the overall training load of this week catching up with me my abdomen is screaming at me to rest. This is not how I imagined I’d be feeling 5 days out from my first triathlon. As frustrating as this feeling is I have to remember I’m still recovering, I’m little over 3 months post op and even a sprint distance tri is a big ask at this stage. 


My focus needs to change, it should be on finishing the challenge and a personal journey not on racing others. I’d love to take the credit for this change but in reality it came from a vomit infested pool that led to a chance meeting with an Ironman competitor while waiting for pool tests to give the green light to enter the pool. He had just got back from completing Challenge Roth despite falling ill early on the bike section. Our conversation didn’t focus on him but rather a chance encounter he had had with an older lady at an event in South America.  Long story short this lady had told him that it was all about focusing on yourself and that anything really was possible. As he recited the story I could feel the goosebumps on my arms, I felt on top of the world ready to take on any challenge. As inspiring as this was, it was also a reality check. I’ve spent too much time comparing myself to others (namely my wife and mother in-law) rather than focusing on my own journey. Thank you Mark for the lesson (pretty sure my wife has been trying to say this for a while but who listens to their wife?). I’m pretty sure the 5 minutes I spent on pool side listening to tales of triumph has had a huge impact on me and my journey.


Training wise I actually enjoyed an open water swim, the day had started with tears and tantrums as my fear of water raised its ugly head but ended with a steady 1.3km solo swim. On dry land I’ve broken my race-distance (4km) PB by 3 minutes and seen a marked improvement in my cycle times. The training is paying off, I can’t believe how far I’ve come in such a short space of time. Days like today are a stark reminder of what my body has been through. Am I fit? Am o good to go? Not at all, I’m still early in this journey but it’s exciting to see where this path leads.

My wife is fitter than me – When did that happen?

Reality hit home this week, my wife is fitter than me! When did that happen? Now before I go on let me just say I am immensely proud of the work she has put in. In the last 8 months she has lost 4 stone and turned around her health and fitness habits. I love the change in her and the happiness it’s brought. It’s also amazing to share the enjoyment of fitness with her rather than feel guilty about leaving her to train. The reality remains though. As I’ve battled with il health and recovery my fitness has dropped as hers has increased to a point I can only aim for. Great for her, not so great for me! It’s a reminder of the last year, it’s proof of the progress I’ve made since surgery, but also demonstrates how much can be achieved through hard work and perseverance.


The circumstances surrounding this realisation was a simple post-swim run. As we transitioned from our wetsuit to running gear a nervous anticipation built in the pit of my stomach. Running has been the slowest discipline to improve post-op and I knew Becky had had some recent PB success over 5km. We set off, almost immediately alarm bells rang as the pace picked up and I settled at the back of the group, a position I hate. My watch alerted me to the 1km mark, completed at a pace 30 seconds quicker than my post-op best, my legs, brain and lungs screamed at me to stop, this pace was not sustainable. There was no get out option though, I had to continue. I took a deep breath and continued, counting down to the turn around Mark at 2km I resigned myself to hanging on at the back of the group. Just then Becky informed me we had just over 500m before turning around, looking at my watch that would be 2.5km, since when were we running 5km? Holy S**t could I actually keep up?


 The burning and screaming of various body parts continued far beyond the turn around point. I dropped further off the pace as the enjoyment of the run continued to drain quickly. Suddenly the sign post was in sight 200m and we were finished. A new 5km PB, the run was over and I’d survived. 


The run came at the end of a busy training week. Swimming, cycling and running have all progressed. My biggest achievement was a full solo (I.e. Out of arms reach of Becky) open water swim, my first ever and a full kilometre. Smashed it! Progress is coming, the triathlon is rapidly approaching, doubts are creeping in. Can I complete the challenge and defeat the demons of open water and doubts about fitness?