Cork Distance Week – Trip Report – Part 1 – Days 1-3

I had heard much about Distance Week over the last year or so.   I had heard that it was very tiring: it was.  I had heard it was very enjoyable: it was.  I had heard that the water had a tendency to be rather cold: it was at times!

Distance Week 2014 started as usual on a Saturday morning at Sandycove Island just a few minutes by car from Kinsale in County Cork.  This spot is enjoys great renown in the world of open water swimming.  A rich training ground for Channel swimming aspirants offering a great combination of beauty and a safe, sheltered spot to swim year round.  It also offers amusing water temperature microclimates, and wild goats on the uninhabited island itself.

Sandycove - just after dawn on Day 1

Sandycove on Day 1

The swim time was 6-8 AM on the programme, with 6 AM being TITW (Toes in the Water).   Distance Week organiser Ned Denison (more on him later) had prewarned everyone to be focused on swimming, rather than noisily renewing old acquaintance, and waking up the locals.

In we went at 6, and it was cold.  Surprisingly cold.  Ned had mailed people prior to the camp saying that the 17.5C water temperature of two weeks before had changed within one day to 12.5C.  I, for one, had written this off as one of Ned’s little jokes to get people worried about the camp.  Surely such gross changes in water temperature don’t happen in British waters did they?

Apparently they do.  It turned out that the water was about 13C for the first swim of Distance Week.  I hadn’t done a lot of swimming in the run up to Distance Week, so I set about my work feeling fresh and strong.  5 laps of the island to kick off the week, about 8 km in 2 h 10 minutes or so.

Distance Week was underway.  50 or so folks from all around the world come to test themselves, and make new friends.  Magical.

The second swim of the day was in nearby Cork, at the annual Vibes and Scribes swim in the River Lee.  This was very different, a mass participation event, covering a wide range of abilities, ages, bioprene and neoprene on display.  With an entry of around 500 people, participants were set off in waves of 30 based on speed quoted on the application form, with 2-3 minutes between each wave.  The course sent you down through Cork under a bunch of bridges, for about a mile, slightly flow assisted, followed by a turn, and a swim up the other branch of the river, to the finish point and against the flow, making a total of 2 km swum.

I was in the second wave, with the super-speedies in the first wave.  The start was from a raised platform, standing cheek by jowl with the other swimmers.

Photo Courtesy Vanessa Daws

Photo Courtesy Vanessa Daws

The swim was a bit of a scrum in all honesty.  I took it a little easy at the beginning to let the sharp elbows and non-existent sighting to settle down, and then concentrated on overhauling people one by one.  Despite this, there was an awful lot of contact going on, people cutting in, even some grabbing of legs from behind.  All the fun of the fair.  The swim also seemed to take forever, though in reality it was only 30 minutes 47 seconds.  27th Out of the non-wetsuiters, and 45th overall.  No speed records were broken that day, but another 2 km in the bank.

Day 2 of Distance week started with more circuits of Sandycove Island, this time at the more agreeable hour of 8 AM.  Only 4 laps this time, but slightly colder than the day before.   Some people claimed that it was measured sub 12C on the back side of the island.  It was really odd to get the feeling of face freeze that I hadn’t felt for so long.

The second swim of Day 2 was another organised affair, this time at Loch Allua.  Very different to the morning: overcast conditions replaced by warm sunshine, salt water by fresh, cold water by a balmy 17C by my biological thermometer.   A much smaller event than the previous day, it was again organised in waves, this time five of them, each with a dozen or so swimmers.   Again, wetsuiters and skin swimmers in equal measure.

I never really got into this swim.  It was very interesting and good fun from a course perspective, but I kinda copped out a bit, and just treated it like a training swim, getting into a nice ploddy sort of rythmn, but not racing by any means.  I wound up coming in in 1 h 57 for the 7 km which is decent, though with a slight assist.  Another 13.3 km for the day.

Basking in the sunshine, pre Loch Allua swim.  Courtesy Rory Fitzgerald

Basking in the sunshine, pre Loch Allua swim. Courtesy Rory Fitzgerald

Day 3, 5 AM, dawn was blustery and overcast.  I know this because I was in the water at the time, heading out from Foutainstown beach ’round the corner’ to Myrtleville beach.  A 45 minute journey, and time to get ready meant a 3:30 alarm call.  This is the joy of Distance Week.  Getting people ready to be up and swimming at stupid times of day, on little sleep, in the dark.

This swim was a lot of fun.  The water was around 13C, and the swim relatively short at 4 km.  The fun bit was the chop we had to battle through on the way back.  It was great fun ‘thinking my way through the water’.  It’s a bit difficult to explain, but I was trying to readjust my stroke in real time to get through the chop with the minimum of physical damage, and the greatest speed.  The fact that it was still only just post-dawn and 13C made it even more fun.  I wouldn’t want to to swim for hours and hours in those conditions, but it was an incredibly invigorating way to start Day 3, and a stark contrast to the lazy freshwater plodding of the day before.

Helen and I had been invited to go sailing later that day out of Kinsale.  The boat was owned and skippered by Mike Harris, Sandycove swimming veteran and resident of West Cork.  Rory and Kate had invited us to join them for a sail around the nearby Sovereign Islands.  Mike was a genial and entertaining host for the day, regaling us with swimming (and other) stories from decades past.  Mike has swum more than 2,000 times round Sandycove Island.  Each lap is roughly a mile – impressive stuff people!


Photos courtesy of Rory again.

The sailing was a great experience.  I won’t put it any stronger than that, because in all honesty, I felt sick as a dog for most of it.  We were out for nearly 5 hours, and the conditions were much cheekier than the advertised ‘light breezes’.  It was Force 5 and bumpy for a good part of it, and I coped badly.  I am VERY grateful that I am going to be swimming the Channel and not crewing, certainly if the winds get up!

Helen was also not feeling good with a stomach upset, so by the time we got back to Kinsale, we made a sorry pair.  So sorry infact, that we bailed on the swim.  It was to be the only swim we would bail from all week, but bail it we did.  A shame in retrospect, as you are supposed to be able to get in and swim regardless, but having been up since 3:30, and been feeling frankly awful for 5 hours, and not having had anything to eat, getting in the water did not appeal.

We missed Ned Denison’s ‘Follow Me’ swim that evening, which was apparently a lot of fun, but over 3 days I racked up 27.1 km regardless.

Days 4-6, and 7-9 in later posts!!

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