Photo Credit Ed Smith
There is a moral to this story boys and girls: Never agree to anything when drunk.
When you do, chances are that you may find yourself, a year later, at 6am, dressed head-to-toe in Neoprene, with 150 other Neoprene-clad nutcases, about to swim across Loch Tay.
It all started at 4:30am last year, following the 2014 Artemis Great Kindrochit Quadrathlon. After a long day of massaging participants, myself and my fellow Athletes’ Angels colleagues were chatting by the bonfire, watching the sun come up and considering heading to bed to get a few hours sleep before our next massage shift.
I’m still not entirely sure how it came about, but someone suggested that maybe next year we would like to enter the Quad. In fact, let’s enter an Athletes’ Angels relay team! Sarah: You’re good at swimming: You can do the swim.
I am good at swimming. In a pool. A nice warm pool. Where you can see the bottom. And the end.
Like all great ideas conceived at 4:30am by bonfires after a few drinks. The reality soon sunk in about a week later when I broke the news to my mother:
“Why on earth did you agree to that??”
“Oh mum, it’ll be fine!”
“No really, you will get too cold. I think it’s a bad idea”
My mum has a point there. I am one of life’s cold people. I am that person whose hands and feet, even on the warmest summer day, remain stubbornly icy cold. Some people are not designed to be immersed in cold water for extended periods of time. I am one of those people. It was entirely likely that, after about 5 minutes, all of my extremities would turn blue and drop off. My mum was right. But I wasn’t going to admit that. I am, after all, a woman of my drunken word.
So began a year of training. Our team consisted of Sue, who was to complete the whole event, plus me swimming with her, Laura joining her on the hills, Sabita in the Kayak, and Caroline on the bike.
My swim training began in November, when my friend Tim, seasoned two-time Quadrathlete, gave me my first swim-coaching session in Aberfeldy pool. It was agreed that I would build up my techniques and distance in the pool and, as soon as the weather allowed, we would start open-water training.
Then the great Scottish “Non-summer” of 2015 arrived. The water remained stubbornly cold, the snow still on the hills, into July. Eventually, two weeks before the event, we decided to bite the bullet and just get in Loch Tay for a practice.
When I met Tim in Kenmore, the loch was black, the sky was a slightly lighter shade of black and the wind was biting. Neither of us was feeling especially enthusiastic about entering the water as we gingerly waded in. Then I put my face in the water. Imagine the brain freeze you get from drinking a cold drink too fast. And thousands of bits of broken glass stabbing you in the face. It was a bit like that. And I couldn’t breathe. It felt like someone was strangling me.
Within minutes, I had stopped and put my feet down, gasping for breath.
“Tim, I am swimming like a feckin’ five year old! What is the hell is going on??”
Poor Tim took it well as he witnessed my minor meltdown in Loch Tay. The horrifying reality had hit me. Two weeks to go, and I could barely swim a few metres in this water. There was not a chance I could even consider swimming across this Loch…
Despite reassurances that I would be fine on the day, all my confidence had gone. My mum, bless her, tried to provide words of encouragement when I broke down on the phone to her that night. Calling up the girls and pulling out was seeming like my only option. It was madness to even attempt to do this. I would get hypothermia and need pulled out of the water. If the cold didn’t kill me, the embarrassment would!
For the next two weeks, my heart would start pounding every time I thought about the swim. I found myself getting teary at inopportune moments, I would wake in a cold sweat in the middle of the night. The day before the event rolled round all too quickly and soon I found myself standing in the Marquee on the banks of Loch Tay, trying my best to return the smiles of the lovely Wildfox and Mercy Corps team as they checked me in for registration. This was it. No turning back.
I have only vague recollections of the pasta party and pre-event briefing by David Fox-Pitt, the owner of Wildfox. Had it not been for the obvious antisocial implications, I would probably have sat in a corner, rocking. Possibly nibbling my own arm.
The alarm was set for 4:30am, and, being sensible, I went to my bed early. Similar to when I have to catch an early flight, I then proceeded to lie staring at the ceiling, snoozing occasionally, waking every half hour to check I hadn’t slept through my alarm, before finally falling into a deep sleep about an hour before my alarm jerked me awake. All in all, the perfect restorative pre-event sleep.
I went straight into auto-pilot: Eat breakfast, wetsuit on (always entertaining, usually using about as much energy as the actual swim!) and then to the hub for the pre-swim warm up.
Loch Tay was flat calm, and shrouded in mist. I met the girls and we headed to the Marquee for our warm up. To say that what followed was a bit wierd would be an understatement: Picture 150 people in a marquee at 5:30am, all dressed from head to toe in black neoprene, en masse, doing squats and lunges to music, ably led by Wildfox Pete.
You could feel the nerves in the room. As one of only a few women taking part in the event, I couldn’t help but feel slightly intimidated by the enormous, strong looking men that surrounded me. And all the women looked equally hardcore. What the hell was I doing here??
As I slipped on my very attractive yellow swim hat, I caught the eye of the man next to me, and we shared a nervous giggle. “Don’t worry.” He said, “We all look equally ridiculous.”
At which point, Chemmy Allcott walked past. Looking more glamorous in a wetsuit than I do on a night out. I’m pretty sure she still looked equally stunning by the end of the whole event!
So began the procession to the edge of the Loch, led by a lone piper and David FP. The atmosphere was both electrifying and really quite eerie as we arrived on the lochside. By this point, the mist was so dense that you could barely see the other side. I was, however, hugely comforted by the sight of so many safety kayaks in the water.
One last hug from Evie, which successfully reduced me to a snottery, teary mess. Inwardly screaming “DON’T MAKE ME DO THIS!” I took Sue’s hand and waded into the water.
Taking Tim’s advice, I got into the water up to my neck as soon as possible to acclimatise. I could hear the collective intake of breath as all the big, strong, proper athletes dipped their toes in. It was cold, but as I plunged my face into the water, I realised, to my relief, that it was considerably less icy than two weeks previously. I could breathe and everything!! There was a chance, just a chance, that I may survive after all…
Before we knew it, the big countdown had begun. No turning back now. Both Sue and I had decided in advance that we would let everyone go, then go at our own pace. Amongst our starting group were Mike Tindall and Rory Lawson. I didn’t fancy competing with professional rugby players for water space!
The swim itself? It was almost like being in a trance. I focussed on my movement and my breathing, checking with each breath that I still had a kayak to my left and swimmers to my right, occasionally looking up to see if I could see the other side of the Loch through the mist. Before the event, a friend had sent me a cartoon with Dory the fish from Finding Nemo, with the caption “Just keep Swimming”, which I found myself singing in my head. (This was the point at which I really questioned my sanity)
Before I knew it, the end was in sight. To my right, one man was visibly flagging. I slowed to breast stroke and shouted “Not far now, keep going, you can do it!”
I never thought I’d be that person.
Laura and my friend Martin were waiting as I came in. Apparently I had a look of total surprise on my face as I pulled off my goggles. “I just swam across THAT!” I shrieked. Euphoria had set in, the stress of the past two weeks lifted. I wasn’t cold, I wasn’t tired. I was ON-FIRE! I could probably have jumped back in and swum back to the start!
But first, we had the important matter of cheering Sue in and getting her ready to press on with the rest of the event. when she came in, we went into F1 pitstop mode to get her dried, fed, warmed up, changed and ready to take on those Munros.
It did not start well.
“Sarah, I can’t find my knickers”
I took one for the team and handed my pants over to Sue. Kinda like an underwear baton. I assured her that they were lucky pants.
Martin, ever the gent, took surprisingly well when Sue asked him to unzip her and help her out of her wetsuit. Bet he wasn’t expecting to get asked THAT on a Saturday morning…
Just when the whole situation couldn’t get any more surreal, Laura piped up:
“Well, I don’t think I have ever seen so many naked, hairy bums in my entire life!”
The next time I saw Sue was at 10pm. When she had climbed seven Munros, kayaked 7 miles, and cycled 34. What a hero.
All 5 of us ran towards the finish line, cheered on by the Athletes’ Angels who raced out of the massage marquee and waved pom poms for us as we raced across the finish line, picked up the sword and cleaved our watermelon in half to stop the clock.
I will never forget that day. It was, without a doubt, one of the scariest physical challenges I have ever faced. But, I have never felt so proud or grateful to be part of Athletes Angels. And I cannot thank Wildfox enough for the way they looked after us throughout the weekend.
Here’s to next year!