Come on a journey with IRONMUMS ambassador Lee Bova as she takes on her biggest goal yet.
In December 2016, still on a high after completing Ironman Australia in May but unable to continue running because of a knee injury, I set myself the challenge to swim 5km at the Williamstown Open Water Challenge. The weather was wild, windy and cold on the day of the event and it whipped up an impressive swell in the normally calm waters of Williamstown beach. Having never swum that distance before, I wore a wetsuit for extra buoyancy and protection against the elements…and regretted it every minute I was out in the sea. It was uncomfortable and chafed me horribly, and I felt like a powerless cork fighting against the current in the rough seas. I finished that swim elated I had been able to make the distance…but disappointed that I hadn’t enjoyed it as much as I thought I would, having felt suffocated and restricted in my wetsuit. I made a promise to myself as I crossed the finish line that I would return to this event in 2017 to take on the 10km challenge, and that this time I would ditch the wetsuit in favour of the feeling of freedom swimming in the open sea.
Fast forward almost 12 months, and as the recently appointed ambassador for Ironmums, I had enjoyed success in the events that I had entered so far under the instruction of my new coach, Naomi. The idea for the 10km swim was still bubbling away in the back of my mind but I had been doing a lot of run training and brick sessions, and swimming was something I did only a couple of times a week, and never for more than 3km in a session. With two weeks to go, I sent a message to Naomi that I was hoping to compete in the event and asked her thoughts about whether I could do it. Barely missing a beat, she typed back, “Ok, cool. Confident you can do 10km swim?” And I knew in that moment she was going to get me to the finish line of this epic swim.
I should explain at this point that for me, swimming has always been my “natural” thing. I can find no trace of any other swimmer on either side of my family history. I am also THE most inflexible person in the world, and previous visits to physios and therapists have left them aghast that I would even consider swimming long distances with my ridiculously stiff shoulders and back. Nevertheless, I can put this unlikely combination of body parts into the water and they somehow come together and seem to work pretty well. This certainly doesn’t mean that I am a great swimmer by any definition; it just means I don’t stress about swimming events. So in my mind, I was hopeful, if not actually confident, that with a bit of specific distance training, I could indeed swim 10km.
Well, I certainly got what I asked for in the way of specific distance training in the next two weeks – I did a double swim day every second day, peaking at a total of 7.6km over a double swim session on the Monday before the event. That was a massive swim and whilst I felt ok at the end, I also felt the first shadow of doubt that I could actually achieve this goal. My long-time slightly dodgy left shoulder was pinching a little and my back was sore, and I knew I had still only reached ¾ of the race distance! I babied my shoulder for the next day or two and put my sore back down to having done so many tumble turns in my local 25m pool (for the record, 7.6km in a 25m pool is a whopping 304 laps!) However, I tried to comfort myself with the fact that I had a slight taper week ahead and would also not have to face a single tumble turn during the actual event.
Both the day before the swim and the day after were absolutely perfect – still, calm and mild. Unfortunately, the actual morning of the event was nothing short of vile. The wind was blowing a gale, and looking out to the bay, I saw the huge turning cans marking the course bobbing about wildly. The sea looked rough, grey and uninviting and I wondered as I stood with the twenty or so other nutcases about to embark on this monstrous task, what the hell I had been thinking when I had decided this was a good idea.
The course was a somewhat rectangular shaped 2.5km journey that we had to complete four times. The bonus was that there was to be a small dinghy positioned in the shallows at the turn around point where we could access our nutrition and take a break if needed. My plan was to swim the first two laps without stopping and then take a gel and maybe a chunk or two of an energy bar if I was hungry at the end of the second and third laps. The swim started with a deep water start about 30m from shore, and as we headed out to the start line and I looked ahead at how far away the first turning can seemed, I again seriously questioned my sanity as it became very real that I was finally going to really put my swimming ability and mental strength to the test over the next few hours.
Suddenly the race started and everyone surged forward. Right from the start I knew I needed to hear only nice words and calming reassurance from inside my head. I knew I simply didn’t have the miles in the bank to make this into any kind of race, and the only way I was going to get this done was to go slow and steady and rely on my favourite race mantra, “Of course you can do it. Just. Don’t. Lose. Your. Freaking. Mind.”
The first part of the swim was busy – I was overtaken and did some overtaking myself with swimmers from the waves starting before and after mine. However, the course thinned out quite quickly and before long I felt like I was swimming all on my own. The swell was impressive, to the point that sighting was a problem as every time I looked for a turning can or buoy, a huge wave would rise in front of me and completely block my view. I have been doing a lot of Pilates and yoga in the past several months in an attempt to ward off injury and I was grateful for the visualisation and steady breathing techniques I have picked up in that time as I was tossed around in the sea right from the start, spending most of my time concentrating on keeping my body long, balanced and relaxed. As long as I’ve been a swimmer, I’ve only ever been able to breath to my right side, and I got into a steady rhythm of 4 strokes/2 strokes which I maintained for the entire swim. Despite the rough conditions, I was still pleased with my decision to leave my wetsuit at home, as the sea was clear and beautiful and I can’t describe the wonderful feeling of peace and relaxation as I made my way steadily through the first lap.
There were two long straight stretches in the course, parallel with shore. The first straight was actually with the current, which was quite enjoyable despite the rolling swell, and I didn’t have to work too hard to move forward. Of course, this was countered by the straight stretch in the reverse direction on the way back to the starting point. It felt like it took a great deal of time and energy to get from one buoy to the next, and it was frustrating to feel like I was working quite hard and not getting anywhere. Don’t. Lose. Your. Freaking. Mind.
I finished the first lap in under an hour. It was mentally tough swimming past the feeding station without stopping, knowing I had another hour before I would return and be able to have a gel. But once the feeding station was behind me, I thought no more of it and concentrated again on just getting to each turning can. The second lap was again done mostly on my own. I found myself wondering whether I was really far behind everyone else and was going to be last to finish, but I realised quickly that even if this was indeed the case, there was nothing I could do about it but ignore the rising fear of being last and continue to swim at my own pace. Don’t. Lose. Your. Freaking. Mind.
The second lap also saw the beginning of the jellyfish parade that only got bigger as the morning wore on. They were clear and domelike just like in the memorable Finding Nemo scene, with a frilly little tail coming out of their bodies. I knew I would have to let go of my fear of jellyfish just a little if I was going to get through this swim, so I let out a particularly long, calming breath and put my faith in Mother Nature that she wasn’t going to let these little critters actually kill me. And they didn’t. Although I did touch a couple of them as I swam through and have to admit I let out a distinctly un-Ironmum squeal a couple of times into the water…
Finally the second lap drew to a close and I was able to stop at the feeding station and have my gel. A quick stand up in the shallows and I was off again. I don’t know if it was the gel or the 20 second rest, but on the third lap I was pleasantly surprised to find that I felt amazing! My stroke rhythm felt good, I felt light in the water and I seemed to arrive at the first turning can really quickly. It also helped that the 1.2km swimmers had started and it appeared I had been caught up in the wave of junior swimmers. Their little legs kicked furiously under the water and their stroke rate seemed about three times as fast as mine. It kept me entertained for the next kilometre or so as I admired their determination and apparent absolute lack of fear being out in the open sea in such rough conditions. The jellyfish grew more plentiful towards the end of the second lap, but I maintained my bravery and wasn’t even squealing underwater anymore whenever I brushed past one.
I stopped again at the feeding station for my final gel and gathered enough bravery to ask the volunteer manning the feeding station whether I was still in front of cutoff time, as I had not encountered any other swimmers for quite a long time. He laughed and assured me I was way in front of some of the others, who hadn’t yet completed two laps. This gave me such a boost and I knew all I had to do was “just keep swimming” for one more lap and I’d be done.
I started the final lap and expected to feel just as good as I had in the previous lap, with an extra gel under my belt and the finish line almost within my reach. I may have let my mind get ahead of myself though, as the fourth lap proved to be the absolute toughest of them all. Despite the assurance that were lots of people still out on course, I was on my own again for most of the last lap. By now I was surprisingly cold and the thought of a nice warm, dry towel waiting for me at the finish line was deliciously comforting but also felt a lifetime away. I was also hungry, given I’d been out in the water for three hours and my energy bar had unfortunately succumbed to the salt water and had been an inedible soggy mess in its plastic bag at the feeding station. Reaching the first turning can was a struggle and even the long straight stretch with the current assisting me didn’t feel like much relief. There were jellyfish EVERYWHERE by this time and every time I put my face in the water, I was irrationally worried that one was going to wrap itself around my face, Alien-style. Ugh. I really just wanted it all to be over but I knew I had to get my head back in the right space to get through the final difficult stretch against the current to the finish line. I forced myself back to my yoga mindset and concentrated on just keeping my breathing easy and my technique as close to perfect as I could. Don’t. Lose. Your. Freaking. Mind.
I turned the corner to head back against the current and knew I was tantalisingly close to the end. There were guide buoys along the way until the final turning can, which at that point seemed impossibly far away. Back to the yoga. Easy breathing. Perfect technique. Elbow high, reach long. Hand gently into the water then a strong pull. Don’t. Lose. Your. Freaking. Mind. Think of something to sing to yourself. Shit, does it really have to be The Gambler AGAIN? (Throwback to Ironman when the song from my childhood kept me going for the final 6km of the marathon and I cursed the fact that even after all these years, it was still the only song I knew all the words to!) But it worked. The jellyfish, Kenny and I all made it back along that ridiculously difficult stretch together, until suddenly the turning can was right there – barely upright after many hours of being thrown around in the heavy seas – but it was gloriously, unmistakably, stoically THERE. I made the turn and smiled underwater for the entire 300m push to shore, finally being helped rather than hindered by the waves. I swam all the way until my hands and knees touched the sand and then I stood up and allowed myself to take in the amazing reality that I had made it. I had finished the aquatic equivalent of a marathon. I’d bloody done it!
I had to concentrate really hard on walking up onto the beach where the volunteers cut my timing bands off my wrists. My back and my hip flexors were really sore, probably from working so hard to keep me balanced in the rough seas for so long. Weirdly, my tongue felt really swollen too – no doubt from swallowing so much sea water along the way and also not speaking more than a couple of words for almost four hours! I managed to call out to my kids who were playing on the beach with my parents. Two out of the four of them looked up from their position on the sand, waved to me and went back to whatever they were doing. The younger two ran up to me and as I held my arms out to them for a huge celebration hug, my 6 year old stopped in front of me and said, “Oh hi, mum, you took ages. Nan said we can’t get ice cream until you finished. So can we go and get ice cream now?” Ah, those kids, I just love them…..
Words can’t describe how happy I am that I chose a difficult goal and achieved it. I knew that I could swim a long way, but I don’t think I could have ever really appreciated how far 10km in the open water is until I faced it myself. I finished with a time somewhere between 3:40 and 3:55, but in a cruel twist of fate, the event organisers have had major issues with the timing company they used and my official finishing time, along with dozens of others, was never recorded.
So much thanks and recognition for my successful finish must go to Naomi, who could have snorted with disbelief at my ridiculous dream and told me not to be so crazy and attempt such a massive swim with only two weeks preparation. She could have told me to wait, train properly and have a go at it next year. But she didn’t. She took a leap of faith of her own and put in place a build and taper program that was perfectly structured to get me race ready without completely exhausting me. I’m so happy to say we make a great team!
That swim was hard on my body, but it was also hard on my mind, and I am proud of the way that I kept my head space healthy and positive for the whole swim. And I Didn’t. Lose. My. Freaking. Mind.