The British Long Distance Swimming Association Torbay championship is held on the second Saturday of every July, and this Saturday 9 th 2022 was its 59th year running. Torbay has a remarkably civil start time- a 9:45am safety brief, ready for an 11am start.
The preparation started the night before for me- I wanted to try out a new nutrition method and so Will and I spent a fair bit of time painstakingly measuring out energy gels into individual bottles and making them up with water for an evenly diluted feed.
The TORQ energy gels that I use have considerably less salt (in the form of electrolytes) in them, and I wanted to explore if this option in salt water would sit on my stomach better than something with added salt (which could hypothetically lead to hypernatremia). In the past, although have used TORQ energy drink in all of my trainging swims and events, I have sometimes suffered from an upset stomach during and after the swims. This time, I’m pleased to report, there was no stomach upset at all!
BLDSA Torbay is a race where you can pay slightly more in an entry fee to be assigned a volunteer kayaker, or you can pay slightly less and take your own kayak support with you (as I did in the form of Will as a mostly-willing volunteer). We got to the beach at 9:45 and lined our kayak up with the others- a raft of flag Alphas and boxes crammed full of drinks and jelly babies.
Each swimmer was assigned a number, and their kayaker was given a bib with that number on to make them easier to recognise for the safety RIBs that patrolled the race. With 10 mins until the start, the kayak army took to the water and floated 50m out, while the swimmers lined up in number order on the shore.
We all walked into the water as one until we were waist deep in our numerical line, to make it an easier and safer start than running in. Then with a 5-4-3-2-1 count down, we were off!
The start wasn’t as physical as I have experienced in some mass starts: there were no elbows thrown or hands reaching out to dunk, but there definitely was a degree of concentration needed. I found myself on the bubble trail of the pack of lead men with some kayak blades coming nerve-wrackingly close to my head as the flotilla broke up and tried to chase down their allocated swimmers. The woman who eventually went on to win came up my right hand side, and for a few seconds I lost Will as her kayaker cut across the middle of us to get over to her.
But within about 400m, the pack had started to spread out, and Will and I could find clear water and begin to settle into our race rhythm. A side note here, is that it was VERY useful for Will to have chatted before the race to another kayaker who had done Torbay 10 times. In a race like this with a 1:1 kayaker:swimmer ratio, the swimmer relies completely and entirely on the kayaker for direction and navigation. And unfortunately, this was not at all clear for the kayakers! There is no line of buoys to follow, no route map, and it isn’t necessarily the best idea to follow the kayak in front of you, because you have no idea if they know where they are going or not. Luckily for us however, the kayaker in front of us was that very same 10-time veteran, and so we followed their route the whole way across the first length of the bay.
Our feeds went well- every 30 mins like clockwork and almost entirely under 20secs each. I had an unfortunate bit of fussing and fidgeting with leaking goggles about an hour in, but once we sorted it and swapped to a pair of emergency goggles from the kayak, all was right as rain.
We got to the halfway point at Brixham in 2 hours 15, and I was feeling GREAT. There had been a fair few jellyfish- all compass jellies- but they were quite deep and I had managed to avoid them all. The feeds had gone well, Will was comfortable on the kayak and I was holding a threshold pace that I was really pleased with.
We turned back for Meadfoot beach, and immediately started to notice the wind pushing us inland.
Will could see the field ahead of us heading off to our left, taking a path that would let them work with the wind across the bay and then (hopefully) come back up into the wind in the sheltered shadow of Torquay cliffs. Will decided to take us on a more direct route, meaning that we were battling the wind constantly but swimming a far shorter distance; we IMMEDIATELY began to see the improvements.
We started to reel in the swimmers in the next few positions in front of us. As they took wider routes and we went direct, we passed 2 swimmers way off to our left halfway back across the bay. Will was updating me on the positions of other swimmers at each feed stop, and knowing that we were gaining places had my adrenaline pumping! When he finally told me we had about 30 mins left, I was beyond ready to put the hammer down.
I upped my pace, going from a comfortable threshold pace to what I called a “tickling threshold” pace- constantly pushing my body up to the lactate threshold at which I could feel the acid just starting to form in my muscles, then dialing back the pace the smallest amount to make it maintainable. In gasped single words each time I breathed towards him, I let Will know this so that he knew I had another gear to go yet. We got closer into the coast, until eventually the wide swimmers began to turn and creep towards us under the shelter of the shoreline.
Will told me that we had 15 mins left, and that the wider swimmers were coming up. 15 mins left, time to put the pedal down.
I picked up the pace, moving to my ~200-400m pool pace. Within about a minute, I had to change from breathing bilaterally to breathing to my left (my preferred) every 2 strokes, getting in as much oxygen as possible. Will in the kayak swapped sides from my right (upwind of me to shelter me) to my left so that he could continue to guide me.
Holding that pace for so long is tough. For me, it’s the mental effort of not letting yourself drift back into your comfortable neutral stroke- it’s constantly being mentally aware of every single stroke you’re taking, willing your burning muscles to engage properly, pull that little bit faster, kick that little bit harder through the pain.
To my left towards the shore, I could see the swimmer in line with me start to drop back. In front of me, I could see the orange buoy that marked the finish. I knew I was doing enough to pull ahead of the near swimmer, but I was desperate to stay ahead.
We turned the headland and into Meadfoot bay. I came into line with the first of the bright blue beach huts and knew that I had 200m left. Time for another gear. I hit my sprint pace: 6 beat kick, breathing every 2, sighting every 6. Everything was burning and my shoulders were screaming, but I knew that I had less than 3 mins left and I had no idea how close behind me the other swimmer was.
The last few meters passed in a blur, it felt like seconds later the buoy was beneath my hand and the commentator was announcing my name to the crowd on the beach.
I had made it! 3rd woman, 3 hours 59 mins and 53 seconds for 13km.
I absolutely loved this race, and would definitely do it again. The water was clear and clean, and the jellyfish weren’t too numerous. It was also just so lovely to be able to race something fast again, to really push my pace rather than holding out for an indeterminate amount of time (English Channel, I’m looking at you….).
What I did unfortunately learn though, is that when I swim faster- I must lift my legs out of the water far higher when I kick. Because the backs of my legs and calves were burnt like they have NEVER burnt before. You win some, you lose some!