It’s all very well me talking about how anyone can run 100 miles. I can sit here safe in the knowledge that I’ve done it, knowing from my experiences that anyone really can run 100 miles if they want it enough (unless there’s a medical reason why not). But I can really appreciate how many people just won’t believe me. I’ve seen the look in people’s eyes when I suggest that they try running 100 miles. Their response usually involves an expletive of some kind, followed by an unfavourable comparison to driving 100 miles. It’s a hard thing to sell, but try I will. And I’m going to try to convince people by attempting, once and for all, to conquer my fear.
The boy’s changing rooms, Thomas Alleyne’s High School, autumn 1991
‘Err, yes sir?’
‘Let me see this toe!’
Err, sorry sir?’
‘This toe, Vincent. This toe that supposedly stops you from swimming. Let’s have a look.’
I fumbled nervously in removing my sock. What if he says it doesn’t looks so bad, and goes off to find some spare swimming trunks?! Thankfully, the toe has bled a little and there’s blood on the padded bandage. My fumbling to remove the bandage itself is interrupted – ‘OK Vincent. Stay on the bike. But I expect you to be swimming in a few weeks, after the operation.’
‘Yes sir.’ There were conflicting feelings coursing through me as I made my way to the small room where the exercise bike and a few weights were kept. On the one hand, I didn’t have to go swimming for at least a few more weeks, but on the other my stave of execution wasn’t as long as I’d hoped for (like say, the end of the school year!). The toe in question had an in-growing nail, which had been giving me some grief for some months now. Knowing it was a great reason to get me out of school swimming lessons, I was in no rush to sort it out, despite the pain. I really did hate swimming that much! For one reason or another, the operation had been postponed a couple of times, so my PE teacher was well within his rights to demand a look. Long may it continue, thought a 13-year old me, I hope that the operation is put off a little longer.
Swimming terrifies me
You see, for many years, I’ve utterly hated swimming. I’ve hated it for many reasons, the beginnings of which probably stem from slipping off my dad’s shoulders into the sea off Aberdovey beach when I was a young kid. I got badly rolled by a wave, and couldn’t make my own way up to the surface. My dad pulled me out, but not before I’d swallowed lots of water and panicked to the point of incapacity. From that point on I was happy to paddle in the sea, but rarely ventured to a swim, and never got out of my depth. Our local swimming pool was closed for quite a while when I was a kid, as it was completely rebuilt, so I never really got back on the horse, as it were. So for me, school swimming lessons were the low-point of any school week, and I would do anything I could to get out of them.
Alas for the 13-year old me, the operation did go ahead and the toe was fixed. Much to the amusement of the others in my class, my PE teacher did a massive double-take when he read the register out at the poolside that Tuesday morning. I hugged the shallow end of that pool for all I was worth. Despite hating swimming, I honestly did try my hardest, but I was so god-awful at it that a width of the pool left me utterly exhausted. Everybody else had swum a width and then swam back to the starting wall before I’d even got half way. It was embarrassing for all, and I was very glad when I didn’t have to take swimming classes any more.
For years after leaving school, I didn’t go anywhere near a pool and had no intention of trying to conquer my fear. Then, in my mid-twenties, I went on holiday to Rhodes. On one of the days, we went on a boat trip to a beautiful bay, and when we stopped there, almost everybody on board jumped into the sea to cool off and enjoy the crystal clear waters. My heart was pounding in my chest. Something inside me was telling me that I had to do this, I had to get in that water, I had to conquer my fear! I think the fact that I could see the bottom despite it being deep gave me a little bit more confidence, but I was still shaking with fear when, last of the people to get in, I climbed down the rungs of the steps and slowly slipped into the water. I was breathing rapidly and the beginnings of panic were creeping over me. I forced myself to move a little further from the boat, and forced my breathing into slow deep breaths. After a few minutes, a semblance of calm was restored. I began to look around and the beauty of where I was really struck home. Seeing the cliffs and beach from this angle was a new thing for me, and I drank the details in with hungry eyes. Emboldened by the fact that the salty water was making it easy to float, I decided I was going to swim round the boat (it wasn’t big, holding maybe 50 people). So I swam round the back, to the opposite side which was furthest away from the shore, and when I got there, I forced myself to stop and face the horizon. My breathing immediately quickened again, the panic shooting to the surface. I could see nothing but open water, and despite knowing that the boat was behind me, my panic became very real. I tried to regain my calm, but couldn’t quite manage it, and so swam for the ladder as calmly as I could muster before being one of the first back into the boat. It was progress, but it was hard fought, and I was shaking from head to toe despite the mediterranean sun.
After that holiday, as time ticked on, I felt that trying to conquer my fear properly would be the right thing to do, so I enrolled on a 6-week adult swimming course. The first two lessons were ok, but then I got a flu bug, and this wiped me out for a couple of weeks, and I never went back. That was about 12 years ago.
Since then, through force of will, I’ve been in the water a few times. Most memorably were a couple of snorkelling excursions – one to a small rocky island on Lake Malawi, the other just off the spice island of Zanzibar. The flippers and the snorkel gave me more confidence than I would have had otherwise, and I honestly enjoyed those experiences. Bobbing in a calm Pacific and looking back at Easter Island was also a huge highlight of my life! The only other times I’ve swum since then is on holiday, in small pools, and it’s always felt like a very tiring experience – a couple of lengths and I really am utterly shattered.
Time to conquer my fear once and for all
Not being able to swim at all well isn’t something that I think about on a daily basis, but it is something that niggles away at me inside, a gnawing feeling that grows stronger whenever I’m by the sea. I really feel inside that I should do something about it, that I should conquer my fear, so that when opportunities come to swim in amazing places, I’m not too scared to do it. Luckily for me, I have some very inspirational people in my life, some of whom love nothing more than being in the water, surfing, swimming or drinking cider… And it’s because of these friends that I’m about to embark on training for something I never thought I’d do, a Half Ironman. This format of triathlon finishes with a half-marathon, before which is a 56-mile bike ride. I’ve never ridden 56 miles on my bike in one go, but given the amount of cycling I do commuting to work and back, I figure it shouldn’t take too much to get me up to that level. And the run only concerns me because I know I’ll be tired by this point. But ultimately, I know I can run 13 miles, no matter how tired I am. It will just hurt more than normal. But before either of these two disciplines, of course, is the swim. In the case of the Half Ironman, this is 1.2 miles…
So now, I have to alter my mindset and learn to, if not love swimming, at least not be terrified by the prospect. I’ve recently bought some swimming goggles. I’ve resisted the urge to put the goggles on and laugh at myself in a mirror. The ludicrousy of me buying some swimming goggles! The reason I’ve not even got them out of the packet yet is because the first time I wear these goggles, I have to be in a strong place mentally with regards to swimming. This may sound silly, but my terror runs so deeply I’m employing every tactic I can think of to help me beat this. If I put those goggles on and am immediately beset by doubts about swimming, then that thought may well return to weaken or even defeat me when it comes to race day… So I’m using all of the tips and tricks and knowledge I’ve learned through years of running long distances to get my mind ready for putting those goggles on for the first time, so that I can finally conquer my fear. And that’s before I even set foot in a pool!
Fear is the mind killer…
1.2 miles of swimming is just over 38 lengths of an Olympic size pool. Or nearly 78 lengths of a regular size pool. I could probably manage two right now, so two to seventy-eight in nine months. That’s daunting enough. But this swim isn’t in a pool, it’s in a lake. I can’t touch the bottom there, can I?! At least in a pool I’d have the comfort of knowing that I could put my feet down in the shallow end if panic gripped me entirely, rendering me a coughing mess! So I know that the key for me is to rationalise the panic and reduce it to what it is, tackling the underlying reasons for it and making it either go away entirely, or make it so that it’s always controllable. This is the first step I need to take to conquer my fear. Secondly, I need to learn to swim properly – I don’t want to be fast, just strong and confident in my ability to get round the distance. If I train hard and properly, I know I can do this. My first swim is next week. Am I nervous? Yes, very. But I’m also excited. Excited to finally be doing something to tackle that which has for too long haunted me, to finally have a tactical approach to help me conquer my fear.
Experienced swimmers and triathletes will tell me that I’ll do it easily. They’ll offer advice about how best to go about training, as well as tips on nutrition and race day strategies. Do I believe them? There’s a part of me that looks at them with disbelief in my eyes. Me?! Swim 1.2 miles?! You’re insane! I must be insane to be even thinking about it! But then there’s another part of me, the now much larger part, that believes every word they say. They really do know I can do it, because they’ve done it themselves and know what it takes. They know how to get the body and mind ready for swimming for an hour or so in open water. They know that I can conquer my fear.
Just like I know that anyone who really wants to can run 100 miles. If I’ve convinced you of this (or at least if you’re thinking about it!), check out the 6-part series starting here, which explains how I inadvertently managed to do it.
Join me on this sure-to-be memorable journey as I conquer my fear. Any tips, tricks or strategies more than welcome – please comment below! I’m gonna need a little help along the way.