Adventures Across the Pond Part 2: Swim Serpentine

Time flies, innit. Last weekend I was milling around in Hyde Park at the Swim Serpentine Festival. It was a grey and rainy Saturday, and I probably didn’t have enough warm layers.  I picked up my package from the registration tent and spent some time exploring the sponsor booths and food trucks. Several waves were already swimming, and the announcers kept the crowds (yes, there were crowds!) entertained with music and anecdotes about several of the swimmers.

Swim Serpentine is a one day open water swimming festival in Hyde Park, right in the heart of London.  The site was the location for the open water events in the London 2012 Olympics. Hugely popular, 6000 swimmers descend on Hyde Park for a day of distance events, talks, films and chilly cameraderie with fellow wet-suited open water lovers. The beautiful, colourful centerpiece of the lake was the London Mastaba, designed by famed architect Christo.

Swimmers can register for the half mile, one mile, 2 mile, or Super Six events. I signed up for the 2 mile and was put in Wave 11, which meant I wouldn’t swim until 2:45. I arrived around 10 so that I could catch the talks and films and drink as much hot tea as possible.

I decided to include the Swim Serpentine event as the culmination of my 2018 open water season. I wanted a destination swim, so that I could celebrate my birthday and the summer that was. I chose London because I love it there, and I was eager to go back and visit my friend Sadie. The open water swimming community in the UK is huge, and I wanted to soak up some of that energy.

Festival-goers and swimmers congregated in a tent to escape the chilly drizzle and watch the speakers and films. We sat on cozy, blanketed hay bales and enjoyed programming specifically geared to swimming. I sipped my tea and nibbled my cheese toastie and wished I had worn more than a t-shirt under my light jacket.

Up first was Beth French– who is a force – and her power comes through on the stage. She spoke of her attempt to swim the Oceans Seven Challenge, and covered everything from training, her recovery from being wheelchair-bound with ME, to mental strategies, to her experiences with man-eating creatures. She left me inspired and honestly wondering if I would have the fortitude to take on such a daunting challenge. I challenge you to watch the trailer for her documentary Against the Tides, and not feel the feels.

Jenny Landreth is just as funny and entertaining in person as she is as the narrator of Swell, her “waterbiography” of swimming’s suffragettes. She told some inspiring stories about the pioneering women of this sport, peppered with her own experience discovering cold water swimming. She is hilarious and brims with interesting information. I loved her book and it was very cool to see her live on stage.

Libby Page read from her best-selling book The Lido, which I really want to read, especially after my lido-full week of swimming around London.

The series of short films was also awesome and inspiring. I need to make friends with someone who has a drone so that I can make my own epic swimming movie. Know anyone? It can wait til next summer. 😉

Around an hour before my wave time, I headed to the change tent to begin the laborious process of shimmying my cold, goose-bumpy body into my wetsuit, lubing my neck and stretching. The change rooms were al-fresco with a few changing tents for the shy among us, myself included. I’ve just never been able to get down with being naked in a room with 200 other naked people.

The start area was crowded with excited swimmers (and one weird guy in a gorilla suit), some warming up and others milling around, jumping off nerves etc. We had a quick, large group dryland warm up and then it was our turn to jump from the deck into the cold, brown Serpentine. Many more than seven swans were also swimming, and pooping.

The course was a one mile loop, and for the 2 mile we would swim 2 laps.

From the start, I noticed that there was way more traffic than any race I’ve ever been in. There was plenty of foot touching, head smashing, and elbow pokes. The straightaways between each end of the course provided a chance to break away and find some space.

The water was cold and not very “fresh”, but I soon warmed up and settled into my pace for the first mile. Swimming past the vivid red and blue Mandaba was really cool.

At the end of my second lap, I was quite fogged up and wasn’t exactly sure where to swim through the orange buoys to the finish. I overshot it by about 100 metres and had to turn back (after saying a big loud FUCK – in my head of course) and round the corner again to make it to the ramp. I climbed out of the water, posed for a photo, collected my very nice medal, and made my way down the runway to an area where several hot tubs were set up. I spent a few minutes in warm human soup (shudder) and made my way to change back into my cold and damp clothes, and pretty much bee-lined for a kiosk to buy the biggest hot chocolate I could find. No Venti sizes here – this is England. So I bought 3.

When I reflect on the event, I feel good about my swim and I really enjoyed being part of something at that level of scale – 6000 swimmers! If I did it again I’d sign up for the 6 mile option, where you swim in several waves to make up the distance, just to try something new. Although, I can’t imagine being in a wetsuit for that long, or changing in and out of cold rubber all day long. Future me would bring a cozy parka and maybe a lackey to fetch me hot toddies.

I made my way back to the Green Park underground station and headed to meet friends and eat carbs. I was tired, cold, and not feeling great, but I was so happy to have swam well and participated in something so different.

Today I am drinking some nice, hot Kicking Horse Coffee in my kitchen, still dealing with the horrid cold virus that has lodged in my chest, and thinking warmly about my week in London. It was both liberating and refreshing to indulge in a holiday that centered around swimming. It gave me the structure I like to have as well as the freedom to change plans as needed and desired, and I liked that it built up to a big event that helped to keep me focused and motivated through the week.

I am learning a lot about myself and what my motivations and values are. Now that my official “event” season is over, I’ve started to think about what I need to do this fall in order to maintain my fitness level and distance goals.

This year I really enjoyed the chance to swim long events. I think I’m made for it. While all distances are fun, I like the idea of pushing my body and my mind to places I never  thought I could go. I’m building a list of events that I’d like to try. There’s this lake in Italy….

Strength of mind has been important for me, especially going through the end of a relationship and all of the ugly challenges and energy that extrication from an abusive deadbeat involves. I’m now a single parent exclusively, which means heightened responsibilities in terms of my time, my finances, and my mental energy.

It’s a challenge, but one I’m definitely up for.  Swimming gives me solace and structure. It gives me hundreds of deep breaths, strong shoulders, and best of all, buoyancy.

Adventures Across the Pond Part 1: London Lidos

I arrived in London half a day later than expected due to some typical local flight cancellation shenanigans that required me to book another flight to Vancouver and take a later flight to London. But better late than never, because I had big swimming plans!

When I arrived, I felt a lot worse than the typical jet lag/breathing in airplane farts for 9 hours/travel ickiness with a sore throat and congested head. I could hardly keep my eyes open on the Tube on the way in. Nobody noticed because everyone else had their eyes closed too.

I met up with my pal Sadie in Hoxton and started planning my week of swimming.

I knew I wanted to swim in as many London lidos as possible. But I also know that I’m happiest with a flexible plan that allows for some spontaneous decision making. I’d done a little research and learned about the London Royal Docks Open Water Swimming Society, who run a daily swim in the eastern docklands right in the Thames. It sounded like my cup of tea (when in London, right?) so I added it to my itinerary.

After an early first night, I set off  early Wednesday morning southbound on the Northern Line for the Tooting Bec Lido. You’re darn tooting!

I’d learned a lot about this lido from Jenny Landreth’s book Swell, and I was eager to soak in the history and significance of this London landmark. The Tooting Bec Lido opened in 1906. It’s the U.K.’s largest fresh water outdoor pool – 91 meters long, non-heated, rustic, and oozes charm. The boxing scene from “Snatch” was filmed here, but nobody was fighting, not even Brad Pitt, during my visit. The only thing I fought was the fear of my nipples falling off in the cold cold cold water.

I changed in one of the colourful cabana lockers and prepared for the chilly rush. At 15 degrees, my first few minutes were rather “exhilarating” and I wondered why I wasn’t cozied up in a nice pub with a hot toddy and and a good book like a normal person. But as soon as I started swimming, my happiness meter rose and I did a kilometre feeling strong and rejuvenated.

After my swim, I grabbed a hot tea from the on-site cafe and started making my way to Brixton to the Brockwell Lido for swim #2. The Brockwell Lido opened in 1937 and did not disappoint aesthetically with charming brick buildings, cabana lockers, and a poolside sauna. This pool was a tad bit warmer at 19 degrees, but I noticed that there were several wet-suited swimmers and I kind of wished I’d also brought mine. Read More

Chewing the Scenery in Lake Chelan

The Lake Chelan Swim is an annual community event in Manson, Washington, held on the first Saturday after Labour Day.  It’s a 1.5 mile (2.4 km) shoreline race from Willow Point to Manson Bay Park. I’ve been looking forward to this weekend all summer. It’s the second last of my planned 2018 races (although – never say never!) and awesome because it’s a) a road trip, and who doesn’t love a road trip weekend and b) it’s one I hadn’t done since 2014 and I was eager to see how I’d fare with a few years of training under my belt. I should add a c) here – I’ve done such long swims recently (28 k and 12 k in the last month), that I knew a 2.4 k would feel very different!

The lake is one of Washington’s cleanest and most pristine, which is another reason I’ve been craving a return to this race.  The water temperature, at around 18 degrees Celsius is also perfect. Perfect for a bracing wake up if one is a wee bit hungover, which you will be if you really make the most of your Chelan weekend. With dozens of wineries and bars in the region, a visit (even for a sporting event) must include a good sampling of the nightlife and fun stuff. The Shore to Shore Marathon is held the same weekend, just in case you’re particularly hardcore or maybe training for swim run. (Insane. How do you swim with shoes??)

The drive from Rossland to Lake Chelan is spectacular. Washington is a beautiful state, with winding roads that take you alongside the mighty Columbia River and through to the more arid and badlands-esque Okanogan County.

Having secured an amazing VRBO, I was eager to arrive and relax lakeside (and bar-side) before Saturday’s swim. I’m accustomed to events that begin at the crack of dawn, so it was nice to know that a restorative lie-in would be possible. The morning sunrise over the south side of the lake was beautiful and inspiring and the situation of the property was almost like an infinity pool – I could look down and across the water from the deck. If you’re planning to visit the area, you’d be treating yourself with a stay here. Treat yo self! But book early – places fill up fast!

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The Skaha Lake Ultra Swim…is OVER!!

I woke up this morning having achieved something I wasn’t sure I could do.

Yesterday I competed in the Skaha Lake Ultra Swim – an 11.8 km event in Skaha Lake, BC from Penticton to Okanagan Falls.

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I’ve been training for this swim for the last few months. I followed a plan and stuck with it as well as is possible for me to stick to any kind of plan.

I learned so much about myself during the lead up to this event. I learned not only what my body is capable of, but also my mind.

It’s often said that long-distance swimming is more of a mental than a physical game. The long training workouts required for a big distance can be boring, isolating, and frustrating. You are effectively trapped with your thoughts. I’m no stranger to this, especially with the annoying personal issues I am currently working through.

Physically, I knew I was strong enough for the marathon distance after last weekend’s 27.17 km. I had put in the work.

But mentally and emotionally, the work is so different. I have sought to create a positive inside space for myself when swimming. It’s so easy to dwell on what’s not going well because you have so much time alone with your own brain.  My work here has been to learn to focus on breathing, the movement of my arms and legs, and the rotation of my body. And to not focus on the things I can’t solve in that moment.

Sometimes it works for me, and sometimes it doesn’t. The work continues, and that is the whole point of it all, really.

Yesterday it did!

The swim started at Skaha Park in Penticton at 7 am. The weather was cooler than it has been recently, but the smoke of 500 forest fires hung heavily in the air.

The atmosphere was lively and positive, as you can see from the group photo taken before we started.

Swimmers and kayakers assembled on the beach to share last minute strategies and plans. I was so lucky to have my friend Christine as my support kayak. Christine drove all the way from Victoria for this event, and I am so grateful for her support and encouragement before, during, and after the swim.

We talked about my nutrition plan – Clif Bloks every 45 minutes with no dolphin tricks required. We plotted the straightaway to Ponderosa Point, and how we would approach each of the landmarks.

I swam my first 3 km the way I always do, easy and relaxed (unless something is chasing me). I focused on the rhythm of my stroke, my excellent tunes, and getting a feel for the water. At 20 degrees Celsius, it was quite a bit warmer than anything I’ve swam in recently.  I really noticed the smoke in the air, and I was thankful for the fruity flavour of my Bloks to take away some of the bbq-esque palate of the lake. Read More

Here Comes Skaha and I’m Ultra-Excited

It’s almost here!

It’s the event I’ve been working toward since the early new year – the Skaha Lake Ultra Swim.

The Skaha Lake Ultra Swim is an 11.8 km event, encompassing the length of the lake from Penticton to Okanagan Falls. It’s one of BC’s longest swims, and it’s the longest swim I have attempted in my short life. I’m confident due to last weekend’s long swims, but also nervous because there has been so much build up to this weekend.

I thought I’d write a post about my preparation for an event such as this, in case it’s helpful to anyone else with a big life-changing swim coming up. Read More

Sunshine Bay to Nelson: Day 3 (Six Mile to The Prestige)

If you want to indulge in a lush, boozy brunch, you’ve gotta earn it!

And earn it we did – with a grand finale swim of 10.6 km from the Six Mile sand bar all the way into Nelson. The original plan had us wading ashore at Lakeside Park, but cooler and hungrier heads and hearts prevailed and we climbed out at the marina just below the patio at the Prestige Hotel. Brunch never tasted better. More than just an extra mile, the additional distance added another 3.17 km to our grand total taking us to 27.17 km swam over 3 epic days. Read More

Sunshine Bay to Nelson: Day 2 (Kokanee Park to Six Mile sand bar)

You might have thought that your intrepid swimming subjects would have faced the darkness of the new day and the prospect of another 8 km with dread and apprehension.

You might have thought that there would be tears, self-doubt, and…chafing.

YOU WOULD BE (mostly) WRONG! (There was some chafing.)

Another 4:45 wake up call, coffee, poops, pep talks, vehicle drop off and a short portage, and we were off! Our team was one less today, since our triathlete decided to save his shoulders for an upcoming event.

Today’s 8.03 km stretch went from the beach at Kokanee Park to the sand bar at Six Mile. The lake was calm and peaceful for our first half, with mild currents for the second.

Without the challenge of yesterday’s chop, everything felt a lot smoother. I had worried about my shoulders, but the only discomfort I felt was in my lower back. This is usually because of the altered position of my body in my wetsuit.

The Steven Boys took an early lead and reported that they both felt amazing. Mark stated that he could have gone all the way into Nelson. Wanker!

Deanne and I gave Barney, our kayaker and food dispenser, a good morning workout as he paddled between us doling out Shock Bloks and encouragement. Read More

Sunshine Bay to Nelson: Day 1

At 4:45 am, I grabbed my phone in the darkness to check the time. From my cozy Boler bed, I could see a light on in the cabin and I knew that indeed, my hosts were up early as promised and YES – we would be meeting on the beach at 5:30 to take on the first leg of our 3 day, 24 km swim from Sunshine Bay to Nelson.

I drove out to the fabulous Steven Family cabin late evening yesterday, and even at that point I wasn’t exactly sure that what we’d planned would actually happen. I wasn’t sure that I’d swim all 3 days. I wasn’t sure my shoulders would hold up, or that my nutrition and energy levels would be well prepared enough.

My friends Mark, Deanne, and Bruce Steven dreamed up the crazy idea to swim from their cabin on Kootenay Lake all the way to the City of Nelson, BC. They plotted out a 3 day route that would average around 8.5 km each day, followed by a big breakfast and sweet recovery time at the cabin. And “cabin” doesn’t do the place justice – it’s a gorgeous property with a spacious deck, 2 gazebos, a private beach and an outdoor shower.

I slurped back a cup of coffee, having stuffed my face the night before with my favourite pre-swim feast: peanut butter, bagels, apple slices, and more peanut butter.

After a thorough neck slathering, I slipped into my Orca Alpha suit and headed down to the beach. We were joined by Stephen, a triathlete from Nelson, and our 3 support paddlers who would help to guide us and also carry our all-important hydration and nutrition. I chose a variety of Clif Shock Bloks as they are easy to eat in the water and the caffeine works as an effective analgesic when the joints begin to ache.

We set off just as the sun was starting to rise. The water was beautiful and calm and I started feeling awake and alive. After 2 km though, the wind and chop picked up and for a while I felt like I wasn’t making any progress, just flailing my arms and legs. We swam through the ferry crossing and I had visions of being sawn in half by the underwater cables. Thankfully, that didn’t happen. Read More

Gear Review: Vorgee Vortech Max Goggles

Gear review time!

We checked in to the Across the Lake Swim in Kelowna and as always, we took a look at the vendor tables in search of something fun. I like to spend money when I’m a ball of nervous energy. Don’t you?

The Vorgee table had a bunch of interesting stuff, and I had noticed their presence at the Canada Day Challenge in Vancouver a few weeks ago.

I struck up a conversation with the rep about my current struggle to find the perfect pair of goggles for both lake and pool. Sharing is caring, so I’ll fill you in on my situation:

I’ve been almost exclusively using the Aqua Sphere Vista masks for my open water swims. Pool training is a bit more flexible – as I have a bunch of different goggles in my swim bag at any given time. My collection is huge and includes the tiny Tyr mirrored pair that look cool but sit inside my eye socket and threaten to suck my eyeballs right out of my head.  Friends, this can happen!

Let’s get this out of the way – I am blessed with extra large eye sockets. Not quite anime-level peepers, but definitely higher and wider than the eye sockets that most goggles seem to be designed for. Small competition goggles get uncomfortable when my eyelashes bump up against the lens, and I can never seem to open my eyes properly when I’m wearing them. I like seeing. Seeing is fun. Read More