Book Six: Patience and passion: A work in progress

Chapter Four: Training for life at Jan Juc

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Extreme weather conditions changed the open water swim race calendar in Victoria this weekend, with local race Sorrento Bay Swim calling it very early in the week, that conditions were too dangerous for the race to go ahead: "Forecast conditions for Sat 3rd Jan 2015 are for 25 to 40km Northerly winds and a temp of 38deg. Organisers have moved quickly to postpone the event that has been a safe and enjoyable swim for the past 12 years". With a clash of events already on the calendar, this made the choice easy for many, with the Jan Juc SLSC still forging ahead with their scheduled "Danger Swim Series" on Saturday, January 3.

I had missed the Point Lonsdale swim the weekend prior, despite having it on my race calendar, just needing to take stock and sit still with the family for the day. Life had taken its toll after a very hectic end of December, finishing up with work, Christmas and New Year and my mind and body just craved a little quiet. My next planned race had been Sorrento, but with this important change, I hitched a ride with the Peninsula Pirates unofficial ex-"president" and hit the road at 6am for a two-hour trip to Jan Juc.

From the moment I was up, the weather was sweltering and the wind was super gusty. I chose not to enter online prior as, in the back of my mind, I still half expected Torquay/Jan Juc to take a similar line to Sorrento and postpone the race. On the Friday, there also had been a second fatality in one week on the Surf Coast, with a four year old girl drowning at Torquay and a twenty-one year old man dying the day before at Jan Juc. As a water lover and an ex-life saver, I feel nothing but regret and sadness when I hear of misfortunes such as this. It's a stark reminder of just how unsafe and unpredictable the open water environment can be. Emotions would surely be high on the beach and with conditions this unpredictable, I'd left my decision as late as possible.

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The air was heavy, hot and thick as we made our way to registrations. Towel carriers sought relief from the sun under the tall pines, leaving the beach to organisers and athletes. The sun was already high in the sky and there was little to no cloud cover. The water glistened through the tall pines, but the wind whipped around us, swirling and suffocating as we processed our entries. The white t-shirt would come in handy after the race as sun protection. The silicon cap would be a welcome addition to the collection as water temperatures drop in the later months. And who could say no to a cool Jan Juc Surf Life Saving Club gear bag? Good value for the $55 on the day entry. Tomato Timing transponders were despatched as we were ready to hit the water in what was to be a race to keep me well and truly on my toes. Casual chit chat from the volunteers mentioned that the weather had had an impact on entry numbers. This certainly was not a surprise, considering the beach was being battered by 37 kph northerly winds moving straight into shore.

The wedding rings came off and, as you know, I take them off rarely. No point the family jewels being lost to sharks or sinking with the ship. This water and wind were worrying me; how could they not? In fact, if I took it for granted that I could just throw myself into this water and swim it easily, well that would surely be my first and last mistake. Never, ever take for granted the unknown. At best, the water looked a little lumpy. In fact, she was more deceiving than ever, but that blasting wind could only mean one thing, and that was swell and waves the further out of Cosy Corner that we ventured. Today, it was not cosy at all.

I entered the longer 2.5km race, for it seemed nothing short of ridiculous to travel four hours in a day for a 20-minute race. I considered entering both this distance and the 1km swim but that would mean I'd have at least a two hour wait on the beach between races and all I wanted was to get out of that oppressive heat.

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The pre-race briefing for the 2.5km race was held right next to the start line. It would be two big waves: men (of course) and then the ladies. But would the race organisers change the course compared to last year's, to account for the dangerous conditions? Last year was a one lap race over an elongated rectangular course parallel to the beach. With waves like today, this would be almost impossible for water safety to manage. And so, as expected, we were directed through a new scenario: a 2 x 1.25km course. This was far safer for swimmers as we weren't stretched out along the length of the beach. It was, though, a little more tricky for us, as we had to move out of the water and run around a huge cube shaped buoy to re-enter the water to do it all over again.

The shotgun went off for the men and I stood on the start line and waited for the signal to go. Here, I met Esther, who asked if I was AquaGirl. "Yes I am!" I replied. "Oh I read your blogs on oceanswims." And with a further introduction of myself as Nicole, Esther and I chatted on and on about our website, swims in Victoria and how we'd both go swimming without our wetsuit today. My race plan was simple as it always was: start, swim, finish. I could not have fathomed, not even in my wildest dreams, standing on that start line, in a black neoprene cocoon, on a 41 degree day, in a wetsuit. WHY? WHY? WHY? I'm no glory hunter; podiums are out of my reach, especially in an open race as this, where all women raced together in one category. Money buys speed, but on a day like today, in my mind, a wetsuit buys liability.

Like child birth, when you forget the pain until you're right back amongst it again, this race was tough, probably the biggest water I've swum in. I over-rotated as much as I could and gasped for breath looking right under my arms, and still copped big mouthfuls of white water. I was having trouble converting the fear and nervous energy into exhilaration, as I often do when I swim in challenging conditions. In fact, this adrenalin was sapping me of energy, rather than re-energising me. The sun was directly in our eyes, the buoys always never quite in reach as the waves were pushing us off course, and the relief was never quite enough. We swam into the chop and swell on the way out, had them crashing over us along the short length to the turn-around buoy, and had them sweeping along behind us as we headed into the beach after our first lap.

I emerged from the water, did a quick run round the buoy on the beach, and for about 20 seconds felt absolutely pole-axed. Now no longer weightless, I felt depleted, listless, heavy and completely wiped out. Every inch of me hurt. My arms felt like they were dragging on the ground and I could not lift my knees. And for the first time in as long as I could remember, I considered for a split second, whether I could actually go on and finish the next lap DNF... I've never had one. Was this race really worth it?

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Like life was happening in slow motion, I clicked over my pros and cons list. Self talk ensued: "You can do this; you've just survived one lap. Your time's not disastrous. You can still do this. How will you feel if you have DNF after your name? One stroke at a time. Kick a little harder. Glide a little longer. Pull a little deeper." I closed my eyes as I looked into the sun, and just took it one stroke at a time. I could barely hear myself think, the wind in my ears and the waves crashing around me were oppressive. I passed a bloke from the prior wave: he was suffering a little a too. I passed a couple of female wetsuits and considered this a victory for the little people. I split the race up into thirds and ticked them off as I went. Far buoy, tick. Second last buoy, tick. Home stretch. I came across the line in 51:15. My second split slower than my first. And yet, it was almost a little sweeter. The heat hit me instantly. The sun, the wind and my muscles were on fire.

Only three Pirates did the longer distance. We were joined by others on the beach, ready to hit it out for the 1km sprint. Rinsing off at the outdoor showers, a local swimmer said he swam this stretch of water most days and said he'd never swum in water like this. "Peninsula Pirates eh? You could have been blown across from the other side of the peninsula today!"

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After taking a few snaps, (which, quite frankly, make the water look nothing but inviting and tame) I ran into local Dromana Life Saving Club member Jo, who is one of the hard working members who organised the annual Dromana Bay swim. This year, I'd noticed the swim wasn't being advertised and learned that after all of the hard work the club did last year, they only made a profit of $400. Can you believe that? It's all about the sponsorship. And so, the club had decided to give it a miss this year due to its high cost in man/(wo)man hours and time. What a shame to see it go, after we've been following the emergence of club house transforming from a mere shipping container into the beautiful two storey club house that looks over and patrols the clean, glossy sands of Dromana today. I hope we see this swim reinstated in years to come: it's a great favourite of mine and will be sadly missed by many. I do, of course, completely respect and understand the club's decision not to run this event given its circumstances.

The ex-pres and I didn't muck around much, hitting the car in half an hour to get home quickly. Fires had broken out in places not far from home and a lady had been reported as missing from a Mornington beach where we swim frequently. This day was loaded with many serious incidents.

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I arrived home, ate for Australia, and hit the couch, emerging from my slumber two hours later mildly reenergised. I was more than poleaxed; I was down for the count with a K.O. My muscles ached and my head hurt. I had, in fact, gone two rounds with Mother Nature and she'd schooled me in the art of ocean swimming. Still, I felt the victor.

Garmin confirmed that my navigation was again second rate but I didn't care. Swim, start, finish was achieved and that was good enough for me.

Looking ahead, next week's race is the Lorne Pier to Pub. With a reduced number on the bus this year, the theme for dressing up is Halloween and Horror Movies. Hopefully, no one is arrested. Michelle Massy, our resident ground crew Virgin flighty from Brissy, is joining me for this swim of all swims. She's considering the wetsuit option after last year's water temperatures were all kinds of artic.

It's been great continuing the twitter-verse chatter this week with open water swimmers from far and wide; swimming makes the world seem a little smaller and more intimate.

Till next week, keep in mind what Dame Edna once said, "See, you've gotta drive through the skids".

See you on the beach,

Nicole Chester
@AquaGirl72 on Twitter


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Alien conditions

We were in Geelong for 10 days over Christmas and swam in 3 swims down South; Point Lonsdale, Anglesea and Torquay and each swim was in completely different conditions.

Point Lonsdale was beautiful and we were in time to see the Spirit of Tasmania head out of Port Philip Bay. There was a little bit of chop and we saw one small set of waves come in and then disappear just as quick but we could see the surf pounding against the cliffs on the other side.

Anglesea was cold - I was supposed to do both swims but after the 2.5km I'd had enough. Even though by the end of the swim the sun was out there was still a cool breeze which again created a bit of chop and a small swell - enough to swallow a few mouthfuls of water while trying to sight the buoys up ahead.

Torquay was a scorcher (like Anglesea last year) and a tough swim. As I was on my second circuit and I was sure the swell was bigger than the first time around I was thinking about what my mother had said to me as I left that morning "if it's too rough don't swim it's not worth it". I pushed on and kept looking up at the first turning buoy ahead, having already gone around it once I seemed to approach it surprisingly quickly. Once I turned I kept saying to myself that there was only one more buoy to go before turning for home. As I approached the buoy and swam around it I realised the girl in front of me had cut the corner. This was motivation for me and I started to kick hard and with the swell behind me (and with an occasional slap in the face by a wave as I breathed to the right).

I started to enjoy the swim and cruised to the finish line. I've got no idea if I beat the girl who had been in front of me I was just happy to finish. Later while we were having a coffee (my other motivator) I glanced at the paper and realised someone had drowned nearby the day before - it was a brave decision for Jan Juc Surf Life Saving Club to go ahead with the swim under the conditions. Hopefully next year the conditions will be better and I can find out why it's called cosy corner.

Jo-Anne Elliott

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