Cork Long Distance Week

Posted on 6.19.12

On Sunday many swimmers and volunteers arrived to Sandycove in Kinsale, Ireland for what would be the final day of the Cork Long Distance Week. Considered one of the most challenging weeks of open water swimming, the camp spans 9 days and many swimmers tallied over 100K. The first seven days are double swims, one and a half to two hours in length. About half are around the famed Sandycove Island and the other half are at some of the many intriguing and beautiful swimming venues around County Cork. Day 8 is the TBBC swim and Day 9 is the 6-hour qualification swim for English Channel aspirants.

Thankfully, I have met my qualification requirements for my English Channel attempt, the window for which opens 3 weeks from today. However, I still had my heart set on achieving a 6-hour swim in some of the coldest water I’ve been exposed to. After a week of Sandycove bouncing between 13 and 14 C (55-57F), the water on Sunday was a brisk 12C (53.6F). As the swimmers waded tentatively into the low water, no one said much. Our support had made their way to Hedderman Beach on the island with our feeds and plenty of hot water, and we set off around the island.

Because the water was low, those of us who choose to do laps had to run a small stretch of beach just after the feeding station. I did 2 laps before coming in for a feed (which the four volunteers skillfully found my bottles of the dozens of swimmers, topped it off with hot water, and had it ready by the time I was on the beach). It was a bit too hot and I did not take in enough, and as Ned pointed out, made the mistake of not telling them, swimming for 5 minutes, and coming in for a full feed. Rather, I continued on for two more laps. Each lap around, I was concerned to find there was no change in temperature. All week the inside has been ever-so-slightly warmer, a reprieve of cool from the cold, but this day it was all 12C. At my second feed, Donal handed me my more temperate bottle and asked how I was doing. I told him I was cold. I could feel his concern as he said, “It’s miserable, it’s awful. Believe me, I know.” For some reason, his empathy gave me a surge of energy. It also reminded me that while it is cold, it was a beautiful sunny day, and fairly calm conditions. Lap 5 felt pretty good and some of my doubt was released.

Lap 6 was a different story. I began to have this strange feeling that I would like to levitate from the water to escape the cold, and subsequent dread that there was no escape from the cold. Then my core started clenching, like a huge delayed shudder. I couldn’t shake this off, and started to get sad about what I knew was happening. You can mentally tough out a 6-hour swim, but hypothermia isn’t mental, there’s no coping mechanism to get you out of it, you just have to get out. I stood for my third feed, conscious I wasn’t fully upright. Carol was with me and remarked that she had the claw also. Also? I looked down and all 10 of my fingers looked broken and splayed. They were also protectively in front of my chest. I was Quasimodo.

Riana brought my bottle, but also a blanket. 3:10 was all I was going to get today. It was the right call, but it stung. I cried and swam back to the slip with Carol.

Barbara Held helped Carol and I rewarm, and put up with my sobbing. I was so embarrassed to be quitting in front of this group of people. It took so long to warm up, and I didn’t feel comfortable for about 2 hours.

As many reminded me, over 3 hours in 12C is great. Much more than I would have thought I could do a week prior. It was also at the end of almost 100K and the tail end of being sick. I am pleased with it, just not satisfied.

Overall, Ned’s camp was fantastic. Taken together, it is without a doubt the hardest swimming “event” I’ve done, harder than my toughest 8-hours, harder than my marathon swims. Many past participants claim it’s harder than their English Channel swim. I hope to make the same claim soon. The organization it takes to run such a camp for so many people, many from out of country, is extensive. Yet each swim was well-planned with back-up plans, on schedule, clearly communicated, with biscuits and hot coffee after, and Ned still managed to swim much of it, aside from Days 8 (how could he miss out on torturing us?) and 9. Dozens of people helped Ned with the camp, generously volunteering their time and resources. And Carol, who graciously offered to put me up, take me to swims, and unquestioningly picked up my slack around the house when I was sick. There are so many people to thank, and I owe so many person hours back to this incredible community.