|Courtesy of Siobhan Russell|
Every July, Ned Denison and the Sandycove Island Swimmers host the Distance Week Training Camp, where swimmers from all over the world take part to help prepare them for the toughest swims imaginable. When I first read about it in Matt Bondurant's article for Outside magazine, I thought "Good Jesus, that's crazy, no way would I do that!" A few years later, armed with nothing but a perverse sense of humour and a desire to be a better swimmer, I e-mailed Ned to see if I could partake in Torture Week 2016.
To my dismay, he said I could.
Here is what happened:
I woke up Saturday morning to heavier rain than had been falling the night before. Hoping it was strictly localised, I drove to Kinsale and then on to Sandycove to find it still raining with poor visibility. The most important thing was that the island was visible. Sort of. We gathered round as Ned asked how many present did a solo English Channel swim. Of the sixty odd people present, almost half the hands went up. Holy shit, even by Sandycove standards this was a hell of a lot of channel swimmers! Of the remaining swimmers, easily half or more were scheduled to swim it in the next few weeks and months. Even holier shit! Ned continued to call out various marathon swims, (Catalina, Manhattan, North Channel, Windemere etc.) with less and less hands going up each time. Eventually for the last few it was just Ned and a tiny little tanned guy. His name was Attila, he was from Hungary, and he had recently been inducted into the International Distance Swimming hall of Fame. To put this in perspective, this tiny guy who was only up to my shoulder, had swum further and faster than most other human beings, EVER. Holiest shit!
|Attila - Photo courtesy of Gordon Adair|
Not everyone present was a speedster. A German named Peter had recently done the channel in twenty four hours, which is nearly twice the average time, but is impressive as he spent that amount of time in the water without dying of hypothermia or losing focus. He wasn't slow and steady, he was slow and hardy as fuck!
The idea of the first morning swim was to do a lap or so (but no more than four) at our own pace and hopefully slip into rhythm with someone else who would be your swimming buddy for the week. The sea was rough and cold, so I did two wide laps on my own to avoid getting hopped off the island by a rogue wave. After not finding a swimming buddy, I towelled off, wrapped up, and hit the complimentary goodies on the picnic table. Bit by bit swimmers drifted in from the sea, all but the locals freaked out by just how bloody cold the water was.
After a while, the only outstanding swimmer was Peter from Germany. Nobody was particularly worried as slow swimming was his MO, but as the minutes ticked by and he didn't materialise around the corner of the island, everyone started to get worried. Two search parties were sent out (an Aussie and an Ossi) but neither could find him around the back of the island. Now everyone started to get more worried. The coast guard was called, and we waited. The training camp was already infamous for being one of the toughest in the world, but a floater turning up on the first day would definitely give its already questionable reputation a massive thumbs down.
After what felt like far too long, the coast guard called back to say they had found him on the road. We didn't get exact details where, all we were told was that he was cut up from having to climb over rocks, but he was otherwise fine. Two valuable lessons were learned from this. One was to be cautious in rough waters, as even experienced swimmers can get into trouble out there. The other was to always drive carefully on Irish country roads, as there might be a bewildered German in speedoes waiting around the next bend.
After exhaling a collective sigh of relief, it was time to head to the afternoon swim. It was in Lough Allua (trans. the lake of Kahlua), which was way over on the darkside of Macroom. After a long drawn out drive through the absolute middle of nowhere, which involved getting stuck behind the same tractor twice (don't ask, just DON'T ask), we rocked up to the Inchigeelagh GAA club for registration and safety briefing. The route looked straight forward enough on paper, but there were only three marker buoys over the wiggly windy 7km course, and the only notable landmarks were some cows, a caravan, and some uncharacteristically tall trees. Ned then took centre stage and assured us that the entire of point of this swim was navigational bewilderment. If one manages to stick to the route, it's a handy 7km, but a few wrong turns could easily bring it up to 8 plus. This was worrying, as I had done a freshwater swim recently which was a straight course, but I had managed to oscillate wildly from bank to bank while swimming downstream. It looked like Loch Allua would be the perfect opportunity for me to mess things up completely and set the record for the longest swim of the day.
There were three other swimmers in my wave that I was familiar with. Aidan, a Sandycove regular who recently whooped me in the Carrick-on-Suir river swim; Barbara-Anne, who had indulged in some cheapo vino the night before and was now hammering into energy gels and electrolytes to compensate; and Angela, who I knew little about but had done a few laps of Sandycove with me the week before. When we were unleashed, I kept swimming long and strong strokes and staying abreast of Angela in her wetsuit and orange hat. Bit by bit we pushed to the front of our wave, then gradually started picking off the slower swimmers from the previous waves. Water temperatures were quite hospitable, and between us we kept a pretty straight course. After the third marker buoy, Angela stopped for an energy gel, and I knew that it wouldn't be long until she started pulling ahead of me. My arms were still sore from doing battle with Sandycove earlier, but at this point there was no choice but to just keep swimming.
|The afore-mentioned cows. Photo courtesy of Gordon Adair|
After the swim, we were loaded up into the van to go back to the changing area. "We were neck and neck there at the end weren't we?" It was the lady with striped straps, sitting opposite me. I nodded. "My name is Kate, do you want to swim with me for the week?" I nodded again. The first day was done not only had I already swum further than I normally would in a week, but I had also found a swimming buddy. Success!
|Barbara-Anne: Equal parts hungover and victorious. Photo courtesy of Gordon Adair.|
Sunday morning was two more torturous laps of Sandycove. Kate was a fierce and determined swimmer, and really made me give that extra bit of push as we went round. She was scheduled to do the English Channel in a few weeks, so came over with her partner Rory to get some training in beforehand. She kept tight laps, but never once cut herself on the rocks. Two locals Eoin and Alex, and a visitor Dani, all came out of the water that day looking like shark attack victims after brushing off the rocks, but Kate somehow had the instinct to not get too close. These laps were inconsequential really, as that evening we had the notorious torture swim.
|Dani, a bloody foreigner. Courtesy of Gordon Adair|
Ned devised the torture swim to mentally prepare swimmers to deal with the unexpected things that might happen in an open water marathon swim. He gleefully told us of the various ways he had messed with swimmers' heads in previous years. These all make for very entertaining reading, but instead I'll leave it to your own imagination. I'll now add that whatever you're thinking, what he has done in the past is waaay worse. Then to show us that he was not just an unhinged sadist, he told us of genuinely insane situations swimmers had to deal with in the middle of marathon swims. The ultimate goal was to turn us into swimming machines, devoid of emotion, who will keep swimming regardless. When he repeatedly explained that all of this was for our own good, I couldn't help thinking that this is what Jim Jones must have told his followers before passing around the kool-aid. The craziest aspect of the torture swim is that it's an optional extra. Not only is it not mandatory for the swim camp, it also costs extra to be psychologically abused by the charismatic cult leader of the Sandycove Island Swimmers.
|Ned "Koresh" Denison. Photo courtesy of Gordon Adair|
A support boat waved us over, told us we were swimming well, and asked if we wanted water? We nodded and they threw bottles at us. A common trick throughout the years is to offer swimmers water, and then give them something else entirely. Myself and Kate eyed each other warily as we broke the seals on our bottles. It looked like water and was in a sealed bottle, so this time they
had gone above and beyond with their pranking. We had been swimming for god knows how long, so we took a risk and started gulping it back, waiting for a reaction from the guys on the boat. It turned out that this was actual water, they were being nice, and this was not a prank in the slightest. What a headfuck! We threw back the bottles,were instructed to swim off in an arbitrary direction, and we just kept swimming. After a while the cold jumped up a notch and the water started stinging my skin. I wanted to get out, but just kept swimming and stayed abreast of Kate. After an eternity we were instructed to go back to the slipway, our torture swim was done. The week can only be easier after this, right?
|Post Torture Swim Dishevelment|
This was the nicest morning to date in Sandycove, and myself and Kate got three laps in. Some of the overseas visitors still hadn't acclimatised and had yet to complete their first lap. Others were stamping their feet afterwards in a crude attempt to get the circulation going while inadvertently paying homage to Riverdance. The good news was that the afternoon swim would be up the Blackwater which would be comparatively warm.
We met at the Fermoy rowing club later on, and the route was to swim up to Michael Flatley's mansion and back again. We would have to stay close to the left bank on the way up as if we got too close to the centre we would be swimming against the current. The water close to the bank would vary in depth, be weedy and rushy in places, with the occasional tree sprouting up here and there, and there would be the added bonus of dealing with low hanging branches. In its own way, this swim was a perfect metaphor for the futility of existence: either you struggle against the current, or else deal with a whole host other obstacles doing their best to grind you down. The good news is that the swim back would be with the current and a hell of a lot easier, a perfect metaphor for life as a privileged white male.
We headed down the slipway in single file, Kate had got in ahead of me and taken off. There were too many people ahead of me so that when I finally got in, was unable to close the distance between us. Nevertheless I trucked on, focusing on doing long and strong strokes. Even though Ned had briefed us on what to expect, the constant variation in the swim was a nightmare. At one point the water got so shallow that I couldn't do an effective stroke, and tried digging my fingers into the riverbed in an effort to claw my way forward. This didn't work, and I then had the bright idea of standing up and walking until the water was sufficiently deep again. I got two steps forward in the knee deep water and suddenly it was waist deep again. Fuck you river, now just keep swimming. At another point I popped my head up to sight and saw some over-hanging branches that were too close to avoid. There was no choice but to plough forward and hope that my arms wouldn't get mangled and entangled as I did my best to power onwards.
Eventually I saw a mansion ahead on the right hand side. What was worrying was that the lead pod of swimmers had not passed me on their way back yet. What if this wasn't the mansion in question and we had to swim even further up this poxy river to the next mansion? After a whileen more of just keep swimming, they appeared in the centre of the river and I gurgled a sigh of relief. When I eventually got to a point where I could see the front door, I turned tail and wearily swam back down the centre channel.
Normally I try not to swim on consecutive days so as to give my muscles a chance to recover. After three days of two swims a day it was really taking its toll on me. With every swim I could feel the cumulative effects of the previous swims with every stroke taken. It was only the third day of nine, and already I felt like certain muscle groups were being highlighted in red marker every time I moved. On top of this, I was going through a shit ton of calories a day and needed to monitor my diet carefully. For this, I would need a high intake of carbs, protein, and fats, as well as hammering as much sugar into me as possible. To translate this into real world terms, it meant eating as much as I wanted of whatever I wanted, and then eat a bit more just to be sure. The MMA credo of steak for breakfast is laughable by open water swimming standards as it implies only one breakfast! Bowls of porridge, followed by bagels laden with bacon and brie, yogurts and custard, and anything else that happened to be within reach was going down the hatch with gusto. A bit of flab goes a long way in the sea as it provides a barrier against the cold water, and if things start getting bad it will get eaten into and transformed into energy. The main goal I set for myself this week was to not lose weight, and even that was proving difficult.
In the morning myself and Kate did three and a bit laps of Sandycove, and then that evening we went to Fountainstown for a low-tide swim to Myrtleville and back again. There had been weaver fish stings in the area before, so we dragged our feet through the shallow water as we walked in single file, like a group of inmates shuffling grimly towards death. The horizon was filled with dark angry clouds, which contrasted nicely with the gorgeously tanned (non-Irish) bodies in brightly coloured swimsuits. When we finally started swimming, the heavens opened and fat drops of rain pierced the water around us. Everyone should experience sea swimming in the rain at least once. This sounds like a ridiculous statement as most Irish summers and family day outs are rained off, but when you get the right kind of rain (fat and heavy, not light or drizzly) it's a fantastic marriage of the elements!
|Courtesy of Gordon Adair|
Today would be two nice swims in the beautiful Lough Hine near Skibbereen. The only catch was that it was nearly two hours drive from Cork city and we had to be in the water at 9 am. It was gorgeous swimming. The water was really clear with lots of interesting fish, plantlife, and seashells visible below. We swam over some rapids (wheeeeeeeee!) and then around some gorgeous rock structures. An immense bronze Moldovan named Ion (pron. "Yonn") was really taken aback. "Holy fuck, it really doesn't get any better than this!" he boomed out. "Oh my God, this is it, THIS IS IT!" After the swim we went to Skibb for lunch, which was followed by a discussion on keeping one's head together in tough conditions. Normally I'm cynical and pessimistic about people's inspirational stories about overcoming difficult situations, but I heard some serious shit that day. Tracey the upbeat Kiwi told us about tearing a bicep tendon with several hours to go in the English channel. She couldn't get her arm up out of the water to do a complete stroke, so she did a pseudo dog paddle with that arm while the other swam as normal. DAMN! Attila told us how his feeds take an average of 3-4 seconds, that he doesn't focus on what distance or time he has clocked up during a distance swim, just swims between feeds. "I don't want my crew to talk to me unless something is going wrong, just swim, feed, swim, feed". Others told of night swims in Catalina when they were certain something big and shark-like was swimming in the dark below them, and trying to focus on just keep swimming while that was happening. You might be scoffing, saying that's just the mind running wild, but when a large shoal of something small and luminescent suddenly disappears, it's fairly certain that an oceanic big bad wolf is on the prowl. In spite of my best efforts, I was seriously impressed and inspired by what everyone had to say.
Someone left my van's lights on overnight, so I woke up to a flat battery Thursday morning. I wasn't able to get a jump start and missed the morning swim, so used the morning to recharge my battery, and recharge my batteries. The week was really taking its toll on me. I had never been seriously sporty, but now could fully understand those motivational posters which featured arty black and white shots of marathon runners captioned with "I can't go on. I will go on!" The cumulative muscle pain of the swims had eased off and become the muscular equivalent of background noise. Each upcoming swim no longer made me nervous, instead it filled me with an all-consuming dread that I would tank during it and get swallowed by the murky waters.
For whatever reason, I was late arriving to the evening swim and missed the carpool to the speckled door. Feeling a mixture of disappointment and relief, I sank back into the driver seat and decided to take advantage of the chance to rest.
Disaster struck Friday morning when I discovered a langer load of mouth ulcers all over my tongue and gums. This would mean that I'd be unable to eat anything with texture or flavour, but still needed to get an ungodly amount of calories into me for the day's swimming. Not having the stomach to swallow raw eggs, I went to the freezer and took out a tub of ice cream and a pack of Lidl-brand mars ice creams. Half the ice cream and three of the bars were stuffed into a pyrex jug and microwaved until soft. These were then blended, poured into a pint glass and gulped down rapidly. I repeated the process with the rest of the tub and bars, and felt a remarkable combination of satisfaction and shame all at once. [Hashtag] Eat like a swimmer. [Hashtag] Diet of a champion.
The morning swim was meant to be in Garryvoe (east Cork), but it was too foggy so we went to another beach just down the coast. The route was to swim parallel to the beach down as far as the grey house and back. This would be a 2km swim, the shortest swim of the camp so far, but it made up for this by being a terrible slog. Conditions were horrible, lots of wind and waves combined with poor visibility meant it was hard to get a straight line. The grey house was half hidden in fog and seemed to take forever to materialise, then even longer to get to. The swim back was just as bad, and I constantly felt disoriented as the sea had its way with me.
The afternoon swim was the Copper Coast, so I stopped off in Lidl in Dungarvan to stock up on ice-cream and yoghurt, then called in to my sister in Tramore for lunch. I'm mad about my niece Clionadh, but was glad she was away at summer camp and wouldn't have to witness me and my wonder diet. What hope would my sister have of telling her that she needs to eat her vegetables to grow up big and strong when her giant of an uncle eats meals that consist solely of puréed stracciatella? My sister did her best to glower at me while I made use of her microwave and blender, so I threw her one of the ice-cream bars which softened her mood considerably. When I was using her jacks, I noticed how itchy my t-shirt was, especially on my back and shoulders. Taking it off and looking in the mirror, I saw lots of red splotches on my skin. Just my luck, went swimming in miserable conditions, and now I'm destroyed with wind burn.
The afternoon swim was along the copper coast through choppy water, and then into a really dark cave (optional). As enclosed spaces and the dark are two things that give me the willies, I swam along the cliffs and let the others go cave swimming while I hung out on the swell outside. The swim back was with the wind, which meant less chop and greater speed. We were then treated to a massive feed in a tiny cabin (there were blaas for days, maaahn) which I couldn't enjoy because my mouth was still pissed off at me. I had gotten even more burned that afternoon (thank you and fuck you, Mr. Wind!) so had a fantastically itchy back to keep me company on the drive back to Cork.
The morning swim was in Myrtleville, and I did roughly a mile at a leisurely pace. Kate and Rory were missing, and Ned was not joining in the swim today. I put all of these things down to the Lee Swim being on that afternoon. Rory and Ned had competed against each other eight times, and currently were tied at four each. Today's swim was going to be a serious grudge match, and whoever won would have serious bragging rights. Conor, my childhood next door neighbour would also be swimming that day, and I had a score to settle with him. A few weeks earlier I had been up at my hometown for a river swim, secretly hoping to beat him, but he gave me a proper trouncing. It was of utmost importance that I come a close second to him today. Beating him was not conceivable as I was at the end of a hard week of swimming and there was very little tiger in the tank at this point.
After getting home, registering, buying a new pair of shoes and a tub of High-5, dropping off my gear at the finish, then walking through town in my togs and t-shirt to get to the starting point, the pre-race nerves were starting to kick in. I met with Conor, and we joked about, then got in line and began the weary shuffle toward the starting scaffold. My dives had never been too fantastic, so when the horn sounded, I did a straddle jump and and started ploughing forward, outputting as much power as possible as I made my way to the first bridge.
My arms hurt and my shoulders burnt with each stroke, but I kept repeating "Long-And-Strong (breath) Long-And-Strong (breath)" to myself as I made my way past several wetsuits and on towards the next bridge. Before the race I had been told how many bridges there were in total, and which one represents the half-way point, but all that was soon forgotten. Even though I had no idea where I was in relation to Conor, all that mattered was beating him or not getting too badly beaten by him. If either of those things could be achieved without swallowing any of the river water, today would be a good day.
Eventually I got to the big boat on the docks, and as I was still gaining on and overtaking other swimmers, I made a point of swimming uncomfortably close to them so that they got mashed against the boat in passing. The final leg was literally just around the corner, and this meant that after swimming the bulk of the race with the current, the last dash would be against it. I switched on my legs and gave it my all as I kept aiming for the big yellow inflatable thing at the finish. When I reached the finish, it looked like I had beaten Conor, so I started breast-stroking slowly towards the quayside to get out. Out of nowhere, a wee wave came along and splashed me in the face, sending some water right up my nose and down the back of my throat. It was only the tiniest of drops, but the thought of all the rubbish, rat-piss, and god only knows what else that it contained was nearly made me pass out.
It was the last day of distance week, and as a fun way of wrapping things up, there was a six hour channel qualifier swim. I had no intention of swimming any of the channels, but thought I'd do the swim purely for the craic of it. It was low tide at Sandycove, so for the first hour I did my best to keep up with Sligo Clodagh and French Phillippe as they swum around the inside of the island. Then it was over to the feed-bay on the island for some High-5 topped up with hot water. YUM! Even though it was still low tide, I started doing laps of the island, getting a feed after each lap (more Hi-5, more hot water, more yum). Although I didn't have a watch to time it, each lap was roughly half an hour, so if I could keep some tally of the laps, then I'd have a vague idea of how much time had elapsed. A few laps in, Carol and Donna at the feed-bay complained that they were a bit bored, so if I could tell them a joke and make them laugh at the next feed, that'd be great. At first I thought this was a ploy to keep me mentally engaged while swimming, but when I came around after my next lap, they made it clear that if I didn't make them laugh, I wasn't getting fed. "Surely, you can't be serious?" (Blank stares, no feed). Jeez, tough crowd! "Why did the toilet paper roll down the hill? To get to the bottom!" (Lots of laughs, High-5!) The next lap: "What do you do when you see a spaceman? Park the car there, man!" (More laughs, more High-5.) I only had one joke left, and after that I'd be relying on my Rodney Dangerfield routine. This was worrying as it really depended on getting his mannerisms down, which would be tricky in swimming hat and goggles. At the next feed, Ned was sitting at the feed station. Maybe he'd heard of my comedic prowess, and had stopped by for a much needed chuckle. "What do gay horses eat?" He responded curtly with "Stop telling jokes, your feeds are taking too long." Feeling cowed, I slugged back my High-5 and hot water in silence. Then just as I turned to swim away for the next lap, I shouted back: "Haay-ayyy!"
By now I had completely lost track of how many laps had been done or how much time had passed, it was just a case of lap-feed, lap-feed. There were a few warm pockets of water that were worth looking forward to every lap, but there were also some icy cold bits, especially around the back of the island. The bottles of High-5 started off as a treat, now became less tasty each time and it was a struggle to get it all in to me. The sugary bubbles would linger in my throat for the first leg of the lap post-feed, and eventually I started fantasising about the little lunch boxes of jaffa cakes that Clodagh had packed for her feeds. Maybe if she crapped out early, I could eat her jaffas? At this point I was torn between wanting to see her succeed, but also hoping she didn't so I could claim her tasty orangy cakes as my own. Would it be rude to ask at the next feed how she was faring?
English Jane jumped in and joined me for two laps to keep me company. When she tapped out, she said it was too hard to keep up with me. I wasn't sure if she was being serious or just saying that to keep my spirits up, either way there was nothing to do but to just keep swimming. Eventually during a non-jocular feed, Kiwi Donna said: "Well done, you're doing great, that's over five hours done now!" I thanked her and went off on what would be my last lap. At the next feed Cork Carol said: "You've twelve minutes left, so swim over to that house and back again, and then head over to the slipway and get out!" I did as I was told, and got out at the slipway to a big round of applause. Afterwards at picnic table I asked Clodagh how she got on, being genuinely interested at this point as I physically and mentally in a place that was waaay beyond jaffa cakes.
"I finished it, so will be able to do the Channel in a few weeks!"
"Well done Clodagh, delighted for you!"
"Ended up doing the six hours."
"Good stuff, looks like you have to swim the channel now!"