The Great Scottish Swim

For years now, I've watched coverage of the Great Swim series on TV and thought to myself, "I want to do that!!" 

First launched in 2008 with a swim in lake Windermere, the open water series now takes place annually in five locations across the U.K: the original Great North Swim in the Lake District; the Great East Swim in Alton Water reservoir, Suffolk; the Great Manchester Swim in Salford Quays; the Great Newham London Swim at Royal Victoria Dock; and the culminating event at the Great Scottish Swim in Loch Lomond. There are courses covering half a mile, one mile, two miles and 5km distances, with participants ranging from inexperienced amateurs to elite athletes with World Championship records and Olympic medals.  

I'd never tackled open water, but I have a long-time love affair with the sport of swimming, with galas and competitions playing a significant part in my childhood. I haven't kept it up as much as I should in more recent years and my swimming ability is not what it once was, but the atmosphere and buzz I'd seen depicted in previous events got me really excited to join in! Of all this year's challenges, the Great Scottish Swim was the one I was most looking forward to when I signed up.

Alas, the last few months have sapped me of enthusiasm for much of anything, replacing any excitement with abject fear, and I spent much of the week leading up to the event sobbing down the phone to my mum that "I .... Don't .... Want .... To .... Gooo." 

Yay, anxiety! Thanks for that.

It wasn't so much the swim that was filling me with dread (though having only made it to the pool about 3 times in the last month, I hardly felt prepared for that either), more the other things that inevitably accompanied it: the packing, the decisions, the travel, the logistics, the noise, the crowds, the socialising, the need to navigate the unknown...  

I was completely overwhelmed by all of it and so very tempted to call it quits. 

Quitting wasn't really an option, though - at least not one that was any less anxiety-provoking - and so it was that Friday found me bundling myself and my wetsuit into my car and driving down to Glasgow, where Eve kindly let me crash in her flat, ready to face things head on.

And boy am I glad that I did!

I met Gemma in Glasgow on Saturday morning and we hopped on a train to Balloch, where the event was being hosted on Loch Lomond's shores. My navigation anxieties began to subside when I saw how clearly the venue was signposted from the train station on and we quickly found our way to the heart of the "swimming village".

Much to my surprise, said village was a far calmer, more organised affair than I had anticipated given that some 2500 people had registered to participate across the day's eleven "waves"! There was a happy buzz about the place with strangers gladly exchanging encouragement and bonding over bottles of water and wetsuit-related advice.

We arrived just in time to see the first of the orange waves finish their warm-up and be signalled across the starting line by the sound of two air-horns blasted by Scottish Commonwealth gold medalists Robbie Renwick and Ross Murdoch (who actually hails from Balloch itself). I regressed into something of a teenage fan-girl and had to have my picture awkwardly taken with them before we could watch anymore of the swim!

Ross Murdoch, moi, Robbie Renwick // The boys start off the orange wave

Having time to explore the site properly and observe the swimming process from start to finish really helped to calm some of my nerves and it was exciting to see the look of satisfaction on the faces of other swimmers as they completed their mile lap.

It wasn't long before it was my turn to head to the changing rooms (and then back out again to a toilet, because communal nudity is not my comfort zone!) and wriggle into my gear, just in time to watch some of the Elite races before my own mile attempt.

Olympians, World Champions and Commonwealth competitors from across the globe came together to battle it out in a race around the one-mile course, with Germany's Christian Reichart taking first place in the men's race in just 18 minutes and 5 seconds (!!!), followed by Tom Allen of Wales in second; while Christine Jennings of the U.S took gold in the women's race, with Team GB's own Keri-Anne Payne knocked into silver by a touch.

The red wave setting out from the starting line. (Photo by Christine)

It was soon time for me to activate my timing chip and join the rest of the red wave in heading into the water to acclimatise (oh my word was it cold!), warming up and then beginning our own one-mile attempt!

Save a brief lap in Peterhead's Lido when I tried my wetsuit out, I have no experience of open water swimming whatsoever. Apart from the obvious drop in temperature, it's different to pool swimming for a number of reasons: the "free-for-all" as you try to find space among other swimmers; the complete lack of under-water visibility; the currents and wind-driven waves; and the use of sighting buoys as a guide around the course.

The latter was by far the hardest part for me. With the exception of the bright pink one which marked the half-way point, all of the buoys were yellow and I really struggled to spot them in the distance. At one point I ended up too far out and slightly off course - something I was completely oblivious to until a nice blue kayak appeared by my side and gently guided me back in the right direction!

Once I found myself back among the other swimmers, I managed to settle into a nice, comfortable rhythm and really enjoyed the rest of the swim. It was surprisingly good fun! The orange buoys and floating platform of the finish line were upon me before I knew it and it felt like it was all over as quickly as it began.

Getting out of the water was one challenge I hadn't quite anticipated! Finding my footing was tricky after being horizontal in cold water for so long, my head felt like it would never stop spinning and I couldn't see much of anything while I tried to remove my timing chip and grab my finisher's pack.

But as I posed for my photo and was greeted at the finish line, it struck me that I had done it - I had actually completed the Great Scottish Swim! - and I was riding a high of satisfaction and relief.  

I completed my lap (including my little detour!) in just under 40 minutes - not bad going considering I average about 35 minutes in the pool - but was just delighted to have made it there (an equally big achievement, as my mum pointed out) and actually conquered the course! 

Gemma's  orange wave were just beginning their own acclimatisation process when I arrived back and I was able to watch on as Keri-Anne Payne signalled them over the starting line. Never one to do things by halves, Gemma - who also had no prior open-water experience - wasn't content with just one mile and instead set out to tackle two.

Whilst she was busy ploughing her way through the water, I enjoyed exploring the site some more, soaking up the atmosphere and taking lots of photos before greeting her at the finish line. Not only did she complete a whole two miles, but she did it in a downright phenomenal 1 hour and 17 minutes! I swear that girl is superhuman. 

Gemma and I (photo by Christine)

A successful day all round, I'd say! And to make it even better, I learned that I've so far managed to raise £800 for the Scottish Association of Mental Health, with Gemma also contributing to the same cause. Knowing that that money will be put to good use makes the whole thing feel worthwhile!

It was a really special day - so much more enjoyable than I was anticipating - topped off by the fact that I was able to meet Christine, whose blog I've been reading for years now. She very kindly made the journey all the way from Glasgow to Balloch to cheer us on and I was so touched by her efforts and encouraged by having her there. I'm very grateful to her for that (and for her photography skills throughout the day!) and it was so good to meet her in person at long last.

With Christine after finishing my swim.
Bryan Burnett and Keri-Anne Payne motivating the two-milers.
Tried *so* hard to take a selfie with Keri-Anne Payne in the background. Epic fail.
The Starbucks barista was a cutie. (And also my friend Eve.)

Such a good day all round. And shhhhh, but.. I think I might have caught the open-water bug!

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  1. Fantastic, Laura! I'm so pleased I was able to come and cheer you on, and meet you in person at last. It was a great atmosphere and you have the nicest friends. Well done on raising such a big amount for SAMH. And most of all, well done for overcoming those fears and achieving your ambition. You should be very proud of yourself!