Friday 20 August 2010

Swimming 19.2km across Fiji for 19.2 cocktails

Signing up to an 18km swim race in Fiji was exciting. Sun, sand and cocktails were at the forefront of my mind. The 18kms swimming was... well 18kms.  It also had some potential problems:

1. I would not be able to see the destination or any land for 4 hours
2. I would have to rely on my boat captain and paddler whom I had just met 12 hours ealier to guide my course 
3. I could swim a serious distance further than intended
Destination: Beachcomber Island
(although I could only see it after
4 hours of swimming!)
3. I might get spooked by reef sharks
4. Or conditions might be really rough and tough

When you are standing on the start line thinking about the fact that you have 6 hours continuous swimming ahead of you, the last thing you want is for an annoying song to pop into your head. What’s even more annoying is when you don’t actually know all the words to the song so you have to sing blah blahs every few words until you get to a part you do know the words for.

This was, however, exactly what happened to me in last week’s 18km Fiji swims, and ended up being my only problem for a what ended up being a relatively enjoyable race!

I arrived in Fiji the afternoon before the race and had a warm up swim. Not that it was really necessary as Fiji was extremely warm – 29 degrees Celsius in fact, a marked improvement from Sydney’s 13 degree days! Signed in at registration and seeing my old water safety buddies, Nick and Raellie from 2010 when I did the swim as a team relay, and hit the race briefing and afterwards the pre-race dinner. I was introduced to my boat captain Knox and paddler Kelly and had the fortune to adopt a second paddler, Russ at the briefing.

Kelly, my paddler, and I

Fijians are the warmest and loveliest people around. They are so kind and obliging and really just super nice people. This is great when you are staying in a resort and want a hassle free holiday. This is not so great when you are heading out to sea swimming and you can’t see your final destination. I had to trust that these guys would guide my course directly from Fiji mainland to Beachcomber Island and would try and ensure that I did it as directly as possible.

I tried to reason with the team, offering them the following incentives:
- If I go off course then it means I have to swim longer, which means you are out on the water longer
- I will not shout or get angry at you
- I promise that whatever you say, I can’t get mad
- I will be really, really happy if you tell me when I am wrong
- I want to make this a happy day

But of course I had the most response when I presented them with bright yellow Australian Rugby Union t-shirts which I asked them to wear for the race - mainly so I could see them from the beach and whilst I was swimming and distinguish them from the other boat crews, and also so they could have a memorable “Aussie” thank you present.

I was excited. My captain seemed to be all over it. He filled me with confidence saying “Tori, I live on the island next to Beachcomber, I will get you there no worries” and when I watched he relay my instructions over and over to the paddlers I knew this guy was one I could depend on!

Hit the sack early and slept like crap – always the way before a race. I think I woke up every hour and checked my watch, extremely frustrating! When the alarm finally went off at 4.30am I was already up and awake. I packed up my race nutrition consisting of carb drinks and energy gels, jelly lollies and some milky way bars to break it up and we headed over to the race start.

My paddlers and boat captain luckily had managed to avoid “Fiji time” and were waiting for me at the start. I set up my support canoe with gels taped onto the side, antihistamines and painkillers taped to the other side in case of any stingers and attached my drink bottles to ropes for them to retrieve and taught my second paddler how to use my waterproof camera.

Then before I knew it, we were waiting on the start line. I set up my GPS systems (both a tracker to send my signal to all you people at home who thought I was insane and could follow me live on the web, and my training watch set up to buzz at 1km intervals so I could track my own progress in real time and see the data post race) in my swim cap in order to get the cleanest line possible to the satellites, covered my back in sunscreen and walked into the bath like temperature water.

Lou and I before the start
Then out of nowhere came Train’s hit song: “Hey soul sister” – the Fijian captain’s phone was ringing... “oh no” I thought... “oh no” I yelled out.. “Si, do you realise I am probably going to have that song in my head for the next 6 hours!!!” The race MC, CJ, got excited! “Tori, I have 7 minutes to think up an even more annoying song for you to have stuck in your head” boomed through the mike. Oh dear, I thought, what have I started!!! Thankfully, 2 minutes before race start, CJ came back on the mike with a dedication for me and started singing “Come on Eileen”.

Thankfully it didn’t stick in my head, but there were plenty of other swimmers who commented at the finish that they had!!

And we were off. I swam off at a nice even pace looking for my paddlers and boat that picked me up at the 200m mark. My second paddler was quite excited and spent the first 10 minutes taking heaps of photos of me swimming. It’s a pity there was a nice big droplet on the lens, as he could have had some winning shots there, but it was very entertaining for everyone. After about 10 minutes he got bored and climbed in the boat, opting to sit in the chair and watch me rather than paddle with me. Thankfully Kelly was tougher than that and stayed with me the whole race.

After about 700m it seemed like they had taken my instructions of “make sure you tell me if I start swimming off course” to heart. Kelly would flap his hand every 10 minutes or so like he was swatting a fly and I had to determine which way he wanted me to turn. It was like learning a bizarre style of sign language, but after about 3 hours I started to get the hang of it.

And so the 18km swim to Beachcomber went. I sat on a pretty solid pace of 3.5-4km per hour which was faster than I had planned, but comfortable. The conditions were extremely rough, high seas, choppy and I swallowed a hell of a lot of sea water. My paddler was instructed to indicate to me at 15 minute intervals so I could eat and drink on alternates. It was extremely hot, and I quickly started to dehydrate with a good headache kicking in around the second hour. It was just not possible to get enough fluid into me to hydrate (sea water didn’t count unfortunately!)

My captain was extremely supportive bursting into clapping and singing at random intervals and my paddler seemed to be enjoying my race nutrition more than I was at times. When I realised I was ahead of schedule at the 8km mark by 40 minutes, I realised my pace was well ahead of the plan. I considered slowing it down back to my race plan, but decided I was comfortable and to give it a go.

'X' marks the spot - post race tan

So, what went through my head? is the question most people ask me. Thankfully due to the rough conditions, I focused on my technique and stroke for a lot of it. I am trying to lengthen the distance per stroke I get as it is currently pretty short (even for a shortie like me). So there was a lot of gliding and a lot of technique. There was of course the obligatory “I hope I don’t see a shark” every 15 minutes, then I would think about what I would do if I saw a shark, then I would question the reflection in my goggles and think “was that a shark?” and then I would tell myself to shut up and focus on my stroke. I had also promised my boss I would think about work and our new product strategy for some of the swim. I figured it would be easier to convince him to let me take 3 days off work if there was still some work involved. When I said there is a lot of time to think about work whilst swimming for 6 hours he asked if my iPad was waterproof! I also thought about my last big race, the Bondi – Watson’s Bay swim and how much I wished all my supporters were with me today. It definitely makes it easier to swim when you know you have a little fan club cheering you on. I wondered who was actually using my GPS tracker and watching me online. And all sorts of random other crap that floats in and out of your head over the course of several hours, like how bad will my tan lines be this time? will I see a shark, whats the first thing I am going to do when I finish this race, what are my favourite top 10 movies, things that are yellow, etc

At the fourth hour I realised I was going to make the finish well ahead of my targeted 6 hours. I started to get excited, picked up my speed slightly and grooved on. I finally spotted land for the first time in the race and felt a huge amount of relief... it’s quite disconcerting swimming out to sea with nothing to guide you at all except 3 Fijian men, a boat and a plastic canoe!

Before I knew it I was only 3km away. Beachcomber Island looked so close... yet it was so far... the last 3 km were hard. The waves and winds eased but it felt like the current turned against us and I really had to dig deep at this point to hold a solid pace to bring it home.

Then finally I had made it. As I ran up the beach to the finish sign and was greeted by a Fijian band singing I felt a huge immense wave of excitement, a massive sense of achievement and just a massive sense of relief that it was over and I had made it. I was tired, but not broken, sore but not agony. An awesome outcome.

To think that I hadn't even put this race on my radar 6 weeks ago, it was a pretty good turnaround and result. I am seriously lucky to have such awesome support from all my training buddies, friends and family and would especially like to thank my coaches for believing in me and pushing me to that next distance level.

Lou, Ryan and I celebrate our solo swim... in Fiji! 
The rest of the soloists also had great races. The winning time by Olympic hopeful Michael Sheils was out of this world at 3hr 46mins. Lou won the girls in 4hr 10 mins which was an awesome result and Ryan came in third overall at 4hr 37mins. The rest of us girls were within 15 minutes of each other which was pretty close over such a long distance. It looks like I'll be seeing most of them again soon, as Rottnest 2011 seems to be on everyone's cards currently!

Many of my friends suggested I reward my efforts with a cocktail for every kilometre swum, but it was at least 6 hours before I could rehydrate enough on water to even think about drinking. Once the sun went down, the buzz began in Beachcomber bar. In fact it’s safe to say it went off that night, and I earned the nickname “Tornado Tori” due to my endless energy on the dance floor and limbo fun times until about 1am (thanks to the caffeine left in my body from the Gu gels) .

The highlight of the night would have to be when the DJ (who ended up being the guy from the beach with the ring tone that morning) made a dedication to me, none other than “Hey Soul Sister”...

Waking to blue skies and white sands the next morning, and a day to recover before the 2.7km race the next day, I knew I was in paradise. (As long as “Hey Soul Sister” stopped playing in my head!!)

Bring on Rottnest Channel, WA (22km) in February 2011!

Total time 5 hours 14 minutes
Total distance swum : 19.2km
Total Gels consumed: 10
Total liquids consumed: 2.2L
Total marine life spotted: 0
Total celebratory cocktails: ?
Post race: Cocktails and celebrations for all!