Learnings of Lake Argyle - Diary of an Amateur Open Water Swimmer
Sometimes there are no words to describe this deeply personal journey, the ups and downs, highs and lows that go with challenging yourself to the very end of your limits and beyond them. Such a profound learning curve in life has Lake Argyle been that there are a few lasting memories to be shared from this once in a lifetime experience. Note I never never want to swim 20km for the first time again – and yet if it meant that I took half as much from it as I have from this journey – I would do every agonising mile twice.
When I nominated for this event in November last year I had no idea that I had no idea what I was doing. In fact, until I stood on the bow of the boat prior to race start on Saturday the enormity of the undertaking had been lost on me. The truth is as I dived into the water to tackle a marathon of a race I knew nothing about; I found myself in the same space I was on the morning of my very first open water race, scared, excited and with no expectations of what the experience may be. In all, my only expectation was that I would finish. I never dreamed I may not.
The final week of preparation has been a up and down rollercoaster of emotion, frantic training sessions, double checking of gear and the all-important decision of which swim suit I would wear! I actually pinched myself on Wednesday as I sat in the ABC studio with Graham Bell and talked about the last 12 months, almost feeling like I was telling a story about someone else’s adventures. Coming to realise that it was less than 12 months since I had first stood on The Strand and prepared to dive into the water for my very first race… Its like doing the park run one May morning and the Ultra-trail 100km the next year. I had questions for myself… is experience a necessary item in the world of endurance sport?
Is the game all physical or all mental? What does one think about after hours on end in the water? Where does the head go when the heart stutters in fear?
The first thing that hits you when you step off the tarmac in the Pilbara is the heat. The intense furnace of wind blasted hot air that washes over you like a different continent. And then you walk through the airport door and are greeted by a very excited parent and large warning about swimming with Crocodiles. Welcome to Kununurra.
Having never been to the Kimberly’s we gave ourselves time to acclimatise, try out the lake and meet our amazing support crew. We checked out the lime green Kayak (now known as Luke), talked serious race tactics (how to not take the scenic route to the finish line) and strategies to block up the sweeper boat if they tried to take me out of the water if I didn’t make the all-important completion time of 7 hrs and 30 mins. I was determined that no one was going to pull me out of the water on race day. To cap it off we watched the molten red sunset you see in so many tourism broachers and dinned out on the Ord river with Fred. Now while we ate seared salmon and strawberry mocktails and admired the view Fred had be content with raw Barramundi Steaks and the very best water the Ord River had to offer
Fred the Freshwater Croc chilling in the Ord River by the Pump House
The only important thing to do on Friday was to check out the Lake. We loaded our lime green Kayak into the Petty team’s boat. (A 10km duo out to do the same thing) and head out for the Lake. The only thing we forgot to do was tie it in! So imagine our surprise, 50km out from Kununurra when we looked in the rear view mirror and Luke the Lime Green Kayak had run away. As we tore back towards town to find our wayward watercraft we all wondered how many pieces Luke would be in on the hwy. Apparently kayaks not only float they also fly! So you can imagine our relief when we pulled out to pass a Caravan and happened to look sideways at it to see Luke strapped loud and proud to the roof!!!!!! Our friendly caravans had barely dodged its aerodynamic adventure and where taking it back to town in an effort to locate an owner.
Reloading Luke the now flying Lime Green Kayak
Crisis Adverted we had attempt 2 at our practice swim. Going out to Lake Argyle the day before the swim was always a risk. Not physically but from a mental perspective. It is a very big lake and the first thing you notice when you dive in is that you sink like a stone. It takes the no buoyancy to a whole new level. I tried not to freak out at the supreme size of the swim when we went for a little tour of the 15km buoy and the finish line. I wasn’t brave enough to ask to go further – if there was a point at which the enormity of what I was going to pull on hit me it was then, the massive expanse of water that spread out like a ocean in every direction I could see.
Getting out on the water at Sunrise on a boat is every fisherman’s dream and thanks to our super organised boat crew of Chris and Katrina we were first out on the lake and headed for the 20km start line in the quiet peace that can only be found in the early hours of dawn. However as we cruised out past the shelter of the inlet our peaceful morning turned to a windy and wave filled adventure. To try and keep us on course our skipper took GPS co-ordinates of the 5 buoys that mark the course. At the time I took no notice however later in the day we would discover that this may have been the difference between finishing and giving up. As the water warmed up, boats gathered and we all got together for the 8am start I stared across at my team. Chris, Katrina and Alice had looked at the 20 gel packets, 16 magnesium water bottles, handful of jelly shots and 2 litres of Coke Cola and my tiny 5ft 2 frame – yep – I was going to need all of that. There is little else I can remember about the race start now. I folded myself into a compression suit, lathered on 50+ zinc, downed 2 gels and a litres of water and dived in to join the 40 other nervous peeps on the start rope.
There was a rope to hang onto in the water - no buoyancy here
Before I left Queensland I had asked my coach Graham Pemberton and mentor Kylie Muldoon what it is like to race this distance. They certainly gave perspective however its noted that the experience is truly different for every individual. The next 3 hours of my life broke down into 18 minute intervals. Swim a Kilometer, choke down a gel with a mouthful of Lake Water, throw the packet back head down and swim finger-tip to toe. The Lime Green Kayak was easy to see in the water but the swell did mean that staying close to it was challenging at best. The girls worked hard to keep me on line. IT was not without its hick-ups. We dropped water bottles, Katrina got vanilla flavored gel all down her face in one ill aimed throw and we had one heart stopping moment as I got caught in the swell and nearly swam under a competitor’s support boat. the cold steel slicing under the increasingly warm water, hands reaching down to grasp my arm and push me clear of the impending danger and the adrenaline spike in my blood at the near-miss sharped my focus. I tried to catch the eddies of the swell, use every trailer on the waves and the time and distance ticked by. As we rounded the 10km Buoy and swam smack into the 10km race field, a cross wind and some more serious waves my world expanded to 19 minute intervals. I felt the burn in my arms but the shock of being ahead of my own race plan in pace gave me confidence that all the training was paying off.
Spread Out from the Rest of the field - somewhere between 10 and 15 km
We continued, heading for a narrow in the lake called Hick’s Gap and all was well. Exciting even… and then around 16 km things changed. I looked up to breath and spotted a yellow buoy off to the right – a long way to the right. I paused for the first time in the race and looked up at Alice. Don’t worry about it – she assured me, We are heading for the green one. I looked ahead and all I could see was the hills in the distance. Miles of dark water and a faint throb in my skull, the 29 degrees of the lake starting to feel like a too hot bath tub with no edge to sit on.
There is that point where you just have to trust your team and this was it for me. I knew we had blown off course, by at least 500 meters. I knew they would have a plan. What I didn’t know was that we where not the only ones. There was a distress call out for a paddler blown way off course and another out with heat stroke. There were quad teams still behind us and one solo swimmer had already finished the race. Another’s day had ended at the 10km mark, her Argyle dream to wait another year. All around me, people where swimming their race and I was swimming mine. It was my job; my team were responsible for everything else and I had to focus on me. Focus my own personal negotiation with my body to give me 100%. To leave it all in the water. I was just beginning to realise this race was going to take everything I had and then 10% again after that.
We often read about the wall in endurance sport. But what does it really mean - is it physical? Is it mental? The answer is its both, it’s the black part of self-doubt, the moment when despite all the resolve you have, all the distance you have come, the hours of training, the early mornings, the miles of water you have already crossed where you begin to wonder if you have what it takes to finish. And I did doubt myself. For me the wall came on the final bend of the race. Past Hicks Gap, 3 km out from the finish line. There is no buoyancy was dragging on me and every time I stopped kicking I would sink below the surface. For the first time in my life I wondered if I was going to drown. I wondered if the crew would let me get back on the boat, or just hold onto the kayak for a bit – after all – who would know. I would know and deep down, I truly didn’t want to have come that far to fall at the last hurdle. I started to ask how far every 100 meters. Like a toddler on a road trip. You get this drift as you work against the current, a nauseous feeling of the final glycogen stores burning out. I was hot, I was tired, dizziness clouded my vision and I knew I was running out of time. It wasn't just a race to finish in the time allowed but a race to finish while I still could.
The Dam wall – a mere 300 meters took forever to crawl past as my body started to send warning signals that I had hit my limits. I even stopped and put my head up for a bit, breasts-stroked as I vomited up all the Coke I had just drunk for some last-ditch attempt at energy. I considered asking to get out, wondering if they would let me after I had made them promise not to quit. And then I heard the music coming from the speakers on the boat. A playlist complied of all the motivational songs my friends had sent me in the lead up. A group of amazing people who did not doubt that I would finish. That had believed me when I told them I could focus for that long. So if they believed that I could focus for that long, then I could believe that I had what it took. That I could just keep swimming. The importance of a mantra suddenly became clear. Stronger than you know, faster than you think, just keep swimming. It went in time with my strokes. What the mind believes the body will accomplish. And then I realised what this swim was all about, I got the why I had been looking for. It wasn’t Argyle I was out to conquer, it was me.
7hrs 5mins and 25 seconds in the water. Somewhere between 20543 metres and 21075 metres depending on who's watch you believe.. I held Alice’s hand across the finish line. Saw the tears in my mothers and grandmother’s eyes and let the cheers ring in my ears. I could not have swum one more stroke. I had looked over the edge and found my answers in the depths of a 29-degree Lake in the first week of May 2018. For those of you who wonder what it really is that one thinks about on a 20km swim – the answer is in who helped you get there, who inspired you to take to test your limits. It is them that you will think of. I will always be grateful for the very special group of people who have supported me over the last 12 months to prove you really can do anything you put your mind to.
A podium finish was icing on the cake and a chance for me to send out a massive Thank-you to the amazing group of people who made this possible.