A wise person once said, the only bad race is one you don't learn anything from. The 2017 Karma Resorts Rottnest Channel Swim provided plenty of learning opportunities and then some as challenging north-south currents disguised a much tougher day than what the anticipated good weather promised.
I was privileged to have an excellent vantage point of the entire race from the front of the field again with one of the swimmers I advise, Brad Smith (3rd this year overall). In the first 30 minutes Brad was leading the entire solo field in the Champions of the Channel event, including olympic marathon swimming super-star Jarod Poort who eventually went on to win the event in 4h12m:
This tweet at 28 minutes into the event shows Brad in 1st place with the words "Keep Your Cool!" echoing ominously to avoid him blowing up!
It's been an honour to work together with Bobby Jovanovich to aid this great swimmer Brad Smith towards his goals over the last 3 years
Brad's quick start was possibly an over-compensation for last year's event where he placed 2nd overall but believed he went out a bit too steady (I beg to differ of course!). Having this vantage point allowed me some deep reflection time amongst the chaos and stress of trying to lead a top athlete towards the very front of the field. This combined with the past 48 hours or so of reflection and feedback and listening to everyone's highs and lows has allowed me to compile the following musings which I am hoping will help you make sense out of the day that was supposed to be "perfect" but for many, many of you, resulted in being anything but!
It's only now, with all the objective and subjective facts from the day, do I feel properly versed in what actually happened out there.
It all started in the Kitchen:
I had a fair few duties as Ambassador and Head Coach of the Karma Resorts Rottnest Channel Swim once we'd touched land in Thomson's Bay, but given the heat and exhaustion from the day and jet lag from the last weekend of coaching in the UK, I made an early exit on the 4pm ferry back to Perth once I knew that sadly not everyone was going to make it (more on that later) and also because I didn't want to miss Jackson's 8th birthday weekend celebrations:
Paul (right) with 2nd place team (5h22m) in the Lavan Legal Charity event and Richie Strahan (left) from the Batchelor. I had lunch with Richie - I'm not sure if my coaching aspirations really impressed him that much but my winning of the UK TV Show "Blind Date" (25 million viewers in 2001) certainly did: https://vimeo.com/135334082 - you have to laugh!
So I arrived home early and collected a few brownie points all round until myself and Michelle got talking in the kitchen about one of her best mates and previous duo partners, Karlee. Prior to moving south of the river, Karlee used to train with the Swim Smooth Perth squad, but this year has had to follow our Rottnest Solo Program by way of the www.swimsmooth.guru She's done a great job of keeping me posted with her progress and would regularly do some of the open water training sessions with coach Sally and coach Cyndy, both of whom raved about how well she was swimming so fast that she would drop them in their wetsuits!
Furthermore, the following chart shows how despite a dip in performance in early January due to a bout of gastro, Karlee was in great form and tapered perfectly for the event:
Given all this information then and the fact that I knew Karlee had finished 11th female overall (a great result!), you'll appreciate how when Michelle said "Karlee did awesome, she did 6h45m! That's so quick for her first ever solo!" I must have frowned and muttered something like "that's not quick Mish - I expected her to be at least an hour quicker than that!" and unwillingly unleashed fury in the kitchen.
Even by this point in the afternoon, even I hadn't grasped just how challenging the conditions had been out there for everyone. So whilst it nearly cost me a punch to the gut for seemingly disrespecting the missus's best mate, really, it was simply a case of not knowing all the facts.
Side note: even Karlee is waiting for the blog report to make her "feel better" about her performance, so I'm obviously not the only one who thought the times were massively slow. More on that in a moment though...
You'll note that there was absolutely zero hubbub in the media and local chitchat about how the event might be cancelled because of foul weather in the lead-up to the event. This almost always happens before Rotto. This year? Non. The weather and winds looked amazing and highly conducive to some fast times. I was getting particularly excited myself to see the prospect of Jared Poort perhaps breaking Mark Saliba's 17 year old record of 4h00m15s given his prowess and the forecast conditions:
The day before: buzzing about what was possible...
The morning of: even more excitable?
Here was the diagram I drew up prior to the 5.30am squad arriving at the pool on Friday 24th February indicating how I had seen from m2.mapswim.com/rotto.php that currents were going to be running in a southerly direction which, combined with the forecast north easterly winds, would see swimmers being gradually pushed south in much the same way as happened in 2009 (my first solo) for those of you who remember that year. The aim therefore was to try to capitalise on the conditions and avoid being pushed too far south by taking a northerly line instead:
My schematic (posted and liked many times on social media) showed the need to stay north
Totally unbeknownst to me, that same morning the following article was published in the West Australian by a prominent oceanographer saying exactly the same thing (just call me "Doc"!):
The fastest predicted route to Rottnest? North - damn right!
But whilst it was acknowledged widely that the northerly current would be running, I don't think anyone had predicted quite how strongly. Here's a viewpoint from squad member and Rotto stalwart, John Turner (JT):
"That was a tough day, made worse by forecasts. Not just yours, everyone's. The normal things we all worry about are temperature, wind, swell and stingers, with current not getting too much of a mention. I know very little about these things, but current might well be the 'silent assassin'. Maybe because we don't see it? I remember impressive pictures in 2015 of swimmers riding high on breakers with whitecaps etc, but my time on Saturday was worse than 2015!"
Two of my favourite open water swimmers, Jared Poort (left) and Rhys Mainstone (right) after a cheeky bum-slap on Cottesloe Beach. I like to think they're saying something along the lines of "we're going to kill this today - look how flat it is!"
The trouble is, expectation can be a literal killer in the isolated, lonely world of open water marathon swimming when you're not quite sure if you're just having a bad day or if everyone else is suffering the same as you. JT again:
"I spent most of my swim yesterday thinking I was having a total nightmare whilst everyone else must be enjoying the predicted record sub 6 hour times etc as forecast. I had anticipated going through 10k in 3 hours, but it took 3 ½! Worse than that, I think 10-12km and 12-14km both took about 50 mins, so we were only doing about 2 ½ km an hour. That saps spirit. Every hour you swim, you are 'losing' 1km compared to expectations."
Firstly, here's the link to all the results from the day to devour over:
But if you want a simple snapshot of what went "wrong" from the perspective of managing expectation with reality, consider these three simple facts:
Data compiled and published on Facebook by swimmer Bob Tarr from Perth City (whom I've been assisting with stroke development over the last 4 or 5 years and who finished a very commendable 8th overall in the solo division)
Data from JT's last 7 solo swims - it was his second slowest solo time, but his highest relative finishing position - indicating the times are almost irrelevant with respect to performance
Mike Fischer (solo swimmer from the Swim Smooth Perth Squad) gets pushed significantly south (nearly 1km south of the rhumb-line) after 12km of swimming. Sadly, Mike didn't make it. I mean he's not dead or anything, but he didn't make it to the finish and withdrew at 16km after swimming on the spot for 2hrs (more on Mike in a bit).
Here's more from the philosophical JT:
"It's one of the tortures of the event that you are pretty much completely alone and cannot take any solace from the shared misery of others!! If you're running uphill in a marathon, at least you can see others in the same position. It's only when you get on dry land that swimmers start to gain a perspective on things."
Coincidentally, had you swam across to Rottnest today, you would have had the exact opposite current conditions:
These arrows were pointing north to south on Saturday and quite viciously too!
From my perspective on Brad's boat, I couldn't be sure if his quick start was what caused a slowing from 12 ½ minutes per km in the first 5km to 15 ½ minutes per km around the 8 or 9km mark, or the current, as it appeared that he was also losing ground to Jared and Solomon up ahead. With Tim Hewitt and Jaime Bowler breathing down our necks at this point just 50m back, I gave the instruction to Brad, "9km: the race starts now!" to which he promptly accelerated admirably and put 10 minutes into Tim and 20 minutes into Jaime in the final 10km - that's smoking hot and easily cemented 3rd place on the podium.
The trouble with all of this is that the slower you naturally are and the later you started after the leaders, the more susceptible you would have been to these currents on the day. The trouble is (especially as a solo swimmer), you'd never have been aware of that, only that you were massively under-performing based upon your expectation. Psychologically, this is never going to be a favourable thing for anyone. Last bit from JT:
"It would be fascinating if 5,10,15k split times were available, just to see how one's position fluctuates during the event. As a swimmer we are oblivious to what's happening around us. I came 96th but have no idea whether my position improved or worsened during the swim. Maybe have checkpoints like they do in orienteering/rogaining?"
I think there are three key take-home points in all of this:
- the beauty of open water swimming - especially channel swimming - is that it is unpredictable. It's an adventure. You never know what you're going to get and Mother Nature can be a wickedly cruel b***h when she wants to be! You have to prepare for every eventuality.
- your crew has a much better viewpoint on what is happening than you do. Trust them. They might not necessarily know what the implications are on your time or your finishing position but so long as you and they have heeded the words of the "experts"* then really it's down to you to keep those arms turning over as long as you can and as quickly / powerfully as you can until you reach your goal
- you're never going to accurately know how everyone else is going so don't waste time worrying about anyone else but you. That being said, "shared solace" on Saturday might have been a wonderful thing for many people.
* interesting fact - despite the massive publicity that the predicted northerly current got, upon arriving at the beach at 4.30am and watching everyone set-up, there were still more kayaks and support boats aligned to the south-side of fleet than there were to the north. This spelled disaster for many even before the race began in my honest opinion. Did people distrust the information or did they simply downplay it? Who knows, but even if you did start and head north, it was still a very challenging day and possibly in many cases an average of 60 minutes slower than what could have been expected on a "normal" day.
An Ode to Everyone who didn't finish:
Firstly, if you, your duo or your team did finish, a massive well done. I absolutely guarantee that you've been sat there frowning though since you finished about how tough it was, how you'll never do it again and how your times were seemingly "rubbish", but quit that thinking right now, OK! I'll never forget 2009 as my first solo swim. I wanted to break 5 hours, that was my only goal. I got caught in the same northerly current as Saturday and swam into Thomson's Bay in 5h23m. I was mortified. So miserable. I couldn't even acknowledge my 38 week pregnant wife Michelle who'd come across to the island on a hot day as I was so bitterly disappointed in myself (yeah, that idiotic). It wasn't until I saw that I had finished 6th overall that I began to feel better and to date, it's probably still my best ever performance across to Rottnest and it was my first. Don't be a grumpy geezer like me, recognise what you have achieved however long it took you to get there, because you know what? Not everyone did make it.
Sadly four of our solo swimmers didn't make it across to Rottnest this year. When I arrived home after the event I felt flat, drained and totally deflated and expected these four swimmers to feel equally so. Not at all. Not one iota! I have spoken to Jodie Edwards, Sue Oldham, Mike Fischer and Greg Madden and they are all incredibly philosophical about their experiences and all got to or past the 15km marker buoy. There's even talk of "unfinished business" which I am both proud and incredibly impressed to hear. Well done guys! Your tenacity is infectious.
I think Mike says it best though in his piece below, "What An Alternative Ending Looks Like":
This is what an alternative ending looks like (Mike Fischer after 16km)
What An Alternative Ending Looks Like:
"If I rewind to lunchtime on Saturday morning, I had had the perfect start, hooking up with paddler and boat as planned and cruised past the 10km mark on schedule after a little over 4 hours. The only hint of the problem to come was that I was around 200m south of the southern marker, rather than hugging the northern marker as per the pre-race plan. Soon after 10km mark the current really kicked in though and I kept getting pulled further and further south. By the time I was level with the 15km mark I was around 1km south of the rhumb line, swimming NNW, with the island in sight over my left shoulder every breath, but still getting taken further south. A 1knot current is around 2km/hr and I wasn't swimming much faster than that by then and so decided to call it a day at around 16km when it became clear that I just wasn't going to make it. My Garmin decided to stop recording my location at around 12km but Ive been able to recreate my track from the boat data and you can clearly see the effect of the current. I was actually only around half a red-mist session (an RMS is now an official measure of distance...) from the closest point of the island when I got onto the boat and in that moment lots of things run through your mind, but none of them involved the word "failure". I'm sure that some people with brains wired differently to mine may see it that way but to me it was just an "alternative ending" to an amazing adventure that really crystallised for me why I swim and why I think about the 500km of training which led up to the day as an amazing experience in its own right.
There are actually a whole raft of reasons why I swim and I think that is why it is so different to most (all?) other sports; I love the feeling of being in the water, particularly the ocean or the river. The first dive under a wave, the first few strokes as my arms slot into the "right arm-left arm" rhythm or the feel of cold, crisp water on my face as I take off into the river. The incredible experiences, such as being the only person on a beautiful beach at dawn as I started a long, pre-work, swim, seeing a large Eagle Ray glide underneath me or watching as a pod of dolphins cruise past. I don't think I have a competitive bone in my body, but I do compete - against myself. There was a moment after 7.5km in a very rough 10km at Mullaloo where the beach was 30m away and there would be no shame to hop out early, where I pushed myself to turn right at the marker knowing it would mean another hour or so bashing into a 25 knot sea breeze, but I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it, both mentaly and physically - and I did. Swimming is so good for my head and many times I have walked into the water with a thousand different things buzzing around, all of them needing attention and all of them telling me that I shouldn't be swimming now but should instead be going into the office to deal with them. It's incredible how often I would then get out of the water an hour or two later after a long, meditative swim, with the familiar "bubble-bubble-breathe" mantra for company and realise that I had been able to come up with solutions to half of them while I was swimming and that the remainder didn't actually need solving in the first place. In many ways, I think that swimming is what has kept me sane over the past decade or so!
Finally, and most importantly, is the friendship and camaraderie that seems particularly unique to the swimming fraternity, at least in my experience, and which manifests itself in many ways. The numerous morning sessions at Claremont pool with your ever-present advice, support and challenge from the pool deck as I knock out yet another session are an essential part of my daily routine now. Then there are the friends who regularly swam with me, or unexpectedly popped up beside me on a long swim, just to keep me company for part of it. Or the ones who hung around long after they have finished their own swim to join me for a coffee after mine. Or those who paddled beside me for hours, both on the day and in training, keeping me fed and watered. The ones who I laughed with on an unseasonably rainswept beach where it was so rough that I kept getting washed unceremoniously onto the sand every 100m or so only to dive back in and bash out another 100m. On my own it would have been torture and I would probably not have got into the water, but somehow seeing those other caps bobbing around turned it into an adventure, and the coffee afterwards was really well deserved. And the friends who turned up at Cottesloe beach on Saturday morning to make sure that I was fully covered in wool fat, vaseline and zinc and the ones who texted and messaged me during the day and into the evening to see how I was going and to check that I was OK. As I said, those are the moments that I will really treasure.
So for me, my black line isn't about the destination, whether it be the finish line at Thompson's Bay or Swanbourne or Mullaloo, it is about enjoying every stroke of the journey (even if they aren't as Mr Smooth as I'd like them to be!) and laughing at as many of them as possible, even on those "Mega" days when there there are stingers and shark alarms….! Who knows where mine will head next but I know that I will always have one to follow and without wanting to get too philosophical about it, I think that the trick will be to see it as just that - an amazing journey which sometimes has alternative endings along the way."