Where every third thought shall be my grave, says the magician , Prospero, at the end of Shakespeare’s Tempest. I suppose Prospero had his reasons, but I try not to subscribe to them. I am the small child who does not want to go to bed; the party is going on and I want to stay up to enjoy it, not be sent to bed like the naughty child I am.
So, on the 9th of March, 2019, I arrive on the shores of Loch Tay to swim in the first Scottish Winter Swimming Championships. My competitive age is apparently 78 and I have this delicious feeling that I shouldn’t be here at all, too old, too slow, with people who are terrifyingly good at what they do. My dad was a good swimmer; I am not. He was County Backstroke Champion. I got to know him when I was five, when he returned from soldiering in North Africa. He died early, at 57, 20 years younger than I am now. I still dedicate every decent swim to his memory.
So, why Loch Tay? Pure nostalgia. We took our little girl around the botany trail on the skirts of Ben Lawers in 1973. She moaned about chocolate biscuits all the way and we
saw just one sundew. Later I returned and climbed it alone and later still, in 2000, I climbed it with others to celebrate the birth of our grandson. On the way to Loch Tay for the swimming races we met our grandson near Glasgow University for lunch. Strange how time rolls around.
Let’s set the scene. The venue, Taymouth Marina, is about 45 minutes from The Perth bypass, not far upstream of Loch Tay’s outflow into the River Tay, at Kenmore. Loch Tay stretches for miles and miles, relatively narrow. The floating pontoons enclosing the competition pool are exactly in the eye of a very strong wind coming straight down the Loch, bringing white topped waves a metre high at times, crashing onto the rocky shore and making the pontoons an uneasy platform for the swimmers to negotiate on the way to and from their events. The main cafe and assembly area had been burned down a short time earlier, leaving the jetties, crannog, changing rooms and sauna intact, so shelter from the elements was scanty. People cringed behind buildings or increased the cuddle quotient by hugging their friends and strangers, too. Every half hour or so, a wild snowstorm came rampaging down the Glen, the final flurry just after the prizegiving making it impossible to see across the carpark.
The water was 4.9C and the ambient a degree or so above freezing, so Spartan conditions for the competitors. And let’s not forget Alice, her friends and helpers, the people time keeping, judging and helping groggy old things like me up the ladder after races. A safety team travelled all the way from Doncaster, and ambulance people and nurses were standing by in the bitter wind. Altogether an astonishing performance, at a point in our history when not enough people seem prepared to help others. You all made me lump in the throat proud. Most of all, though, my wife, Glenys, a magnificent supporter not just of me, but every other swimmer she helps.
Now I’ll try to tell you what it feels like for an ancient relic in a winter contest. I cunningly time my 50 metres and 150 metres to be nearly 3 hours apart, with the relay a little while later. I look at the schedule. I look again. The white topped mountain Gods have arranged for my 150 metres and 50 metres relay legs to be next to each other, with just a 5 minute break in between. Try not to think about that just now.
Here’s the 50 metres. The water looks menacing. How will my tender wrinkled cringing flesh deal with that? An outrageous rambunctious snow squall adds to my comfort, as I climb down the entry ladder. I miss my footing and fall in, which should bring disqualification, but doesn’t. A rope to duck under, interesting refinement of the torture. The 79 year old lady moves smoothly ahead, as do all the rest. Sorry, but just inside 90 seconds is the best I can do. I finish in triumph, and willing hands hoist me up the ladder, ungroggy me into my robe and shoes. This wobbling frigid platform is no place for a man who would be better off in a twilight home. Then my Fife team mates cheer and I feel a lot taller. The safety man who congratulates me should maybe go to Specsavers.
At last, the 150 metres, with a logistical problem of how to enlist with Fife Wildswimmers Sonnet relay team without perishing with hypothermia while being briefed for the relay. My 150 metres rivals are all female, stringy and athletic. 6 lengths of more humiliation. I can’t bear it. I push off and watch in dismay as the stringies speed away. If it becomes too much for me, I hope I shall remember the safe word and say it to make the torment stop. I forget the safe word and finish when everybody else has lost interest and gone home. Dressed and shoed, I head for the safety of the jetty. Don’t trip over the ropes, they shout, so I do.
The Relay. My daughter stays in Dunfermline so I have met Fife Wild Swimmers a few times over 6 years. My relay team would be immeasurably improved if I weren’t in it. We are: me, a Sassenach; 2 Fife ladies; and a wonderful, polite, humorous Romanian gentleman, with a stroke like an outboard motor. When our No. 1 swimmer sees my pitiful condition, she demotes herself to No.2, and makes me go first, an act that probably saves my life. I have the enormous satisfaction of seeing that I am moving slightly faster than the guy in the next lane, altogether making us fifth. That would be third if I were replaced by a swifter swimmer.
In spite of my fears, I warm up quickly, and in the gathering gloom of yet another miniature blizzard, I am awarded a winner’s medal in each of my events. So is the 79 year old lady who beat me all ends up in the next lane. So, a happy Glenys and Alan returned to our Perth hotel. Job done.
The medals were very nice, circular, and made out of wood, so that they didn’t stick into me when I rolled over in bed.
Want to find out more about the Scottish Winter Swimming Champs? Maybe you fancy giving it a go next year? Check out the link: Swim Wild
Note: I absolutely love receiving messages from Alan, in the latest he greeted me with ‘Hi Mel (Latin for Honey)’ that made me smile – he sends photos, links, poems and ideas for blog posts – this is the latest and I love it as I’m sure you will too. I related instantly to the opening paragraph – that’s me – I don’t want to go to bed before the party ends for fear of #fomo but most of all my heart shouted hurrah when I read Alan’s acknowledgement of the power of people coming together – ‘A safety team travelled all the way from Doncaster, and ambulance people and nurses were standing by in the bitter wind. Altogether an astonishing performance, at a point in our history when not enough people seem prepared to help others. You all made me lump in the throat proud. Most of all, though, my wife, Glenys, a magnificent supporter not just of me, but every other swimmer she helps.’ This resonates so much with why Swim & Tonic was established – to get people connecting and coming together to make things happen. Thanks for yet another beautiful piece of writing Alan. I’m coming with you next year!