Five kilometres, for most of us that means 30 minutes of running around a park on a Saturday morning (remember Parkrun, oh those were the days). A few month’s ago five kilometres meant two and a half hours of pain, doubt and a lot of water.
In 2015 when I started running I had many, many people say that I couldn’t run a marathon and at 20 stone, struggling with my mental health and with little motivation to exercise I believed them. But the phrase; “Do what you can’t” has been my fuel when fear stops me since the very start of all this. I ran through all those horrible training runs and crippling self doubt on the way to that first marathon using all the voices of people who have said I can’t do something throughout my life as fuel; teachers, bullies, friends and family. Proving them wrong was the driving force I needed when all I wanted to do was to stop.
It led me to going from barely able to run 1km non-stop to completing the London Marathon in 6 months back in 2016. And last year the desire to push past my self made limitations led me to finishing the Marathon des Sables a race that many people said, quite rightly given the odds stacked against me, I couldn’t do. Now it has led me to Open Water Swimming; specifically the Dock2Dock 5km swim.
At the start of this year I was a complete swimming novice, even today I still can’t swim front crawl and I only zipped up my wetsuit for the first time two months before lining up for the race.
The voice in my head whispered “you can’t” once more and I dared it to question me.
The big day rolled around and travelling down to London filed me with anxiety about the race but also about Covid. It was the first time I was going to be in a crowded space, albeit outside, since lockdown. Throughout the day I spent a lot of time moving out of the way of people stood too close and as we queued for the start it really jarred my mindset as I tried to mentally prepare for the swim ahead. It wasn’t until my body hit the water of the Royal Victoria Dock did I feel the rush of reality and I’m not sure if it was that or the cold water which made me struggle to catch my breath.
I’ve never been someone to sugarcoat things on here; to throw on a filter on both my pictures and words and pretend everything is hunky-dory. My 5km swim was no exception; I struggled way beyond my expectations.
I thought it would take me less than two hours, in the end it took me two and a half. Before I headed down to the race I spoke with my swim coach who said the only thing that would stop me from finishing would be hypothermia. As the cold wind whipped painfully against my face I could hear those words echo in my head and I was drowning in the fear of getting hypothermia. As I still hadn’t got to grips with front crawl the uncertain waters meant I only did breaststroke for the full 5km and the action made my knee hurt like hell. Sharp pain erupted with every stroke but I could not bring myself to change stroke out of frozen fear. Because I was swimming breaststroke, twinned with my lack of pace, I was constantly being overtaken by everyone else a morale destroyer at the best of times, let alone when you are struggling more than you ever have.
Worst of all the slightly salty water made me feel like hurling whenever I accidentally swallowed it, which was a lot. I’m not proud to admit that I debated quitting at a few points. The 5km route is simple, you swim up the dock for 2.5km, turn and swim back. The moment I really considered it was at the turning point. The floating aid station had no water so it was only electrolytes and it just tasted of the dock water I had been trying not to swallow for the past hour. I grabbed hold of my towfloat and stopped moving for the first time and cried tears of defeat, my morale at an all time low. The mental drain of swimming slowly next to buildings is something I had not experienced and it was that which was the real morale killer. You swim for feels like an eternity but is probably only twenty minutes only to look to your left and see that you are still swimming next to the same building. Your progress feels snail-like and you can’t help but feel like a failure.
It took all that I could to continue, buoyed metaphorically by my partner and her aunt shouting words of support from the comfort of dry land. They followed me for ever stroke and that support is what kept me going when the easy way out of quitting seemed far too tempting.
The swim back felt endless but having the view of the City to swim towards was an experience I will not soon forget. Those towering pillars of steel and glass, laid empty by covid, watching over me as I moved inch by inch towards the finish. Swimming past the City Airport, with the stagnant planes, my mind couldn’t help but think of all the things Covid had robbed from me this year. It had gifted me this sport, I thought in a vain attempt to bolster my mood, but right now this sport was making me want to rip off my leg so I wouldn’t have to feel the pain ripping through it, so it did little to help.
Finally, the finish line finally came into view but open water swimming had another trick up it’s sleeve as I was still half an hour from it, cruelly out of reach and seemingly getting further away! It wasn’t until I reached the finish line and walked back on to dry land like I had spent the last two and a half hours drinking vodka rather than swimming that the achievement sunk in.
I managed to walk ten metres, supported literally and metaphorically by my partner, to a patch of grass before collapsing on the ground. I was utterly drained, utterly defeated but utterly proud of myself.
I don’t want anyone to look at my blog and think that I’m just smashing goals like they’re nothing. The challenges I set myself aren’t easy but that’s the wonderful thing about them. I’m never going to win or even come close but to complete something that was impossible months or years before takes work and it’s that work that makes my life brighter.
Swimming 500 meters seemed impossible at the start of the year even in the pool but now I have swum upstream against my self doubt and completed a 5km swim.
So after that 5km, will I ever swim long distance again? Hell yes I will, Hurly Burly 10km swim next June here I come…