I did my first ASA open water swimming championship on 10/7 in Norwich. It was the starting point for me to become a competitive open water swimmer.
The race was the East Region Open Water Championships. However, it was also the London Region Open Water Championships and an open age-group competition. The distances on order were, in race order, 3 km, 1 km, 2 km and 5 km, and it was possible to do both 3 and 5, or 2 and 5.
My age group for the national qualifying purpose is 19+, of which the distance is 5 km, however, the age groups for the competition itself are in 5-year groups for those above 20, i.e. I’m in the 25-29 age group.
I found out about this race not long after I moved to London. As the deadline was fast approaching and I didn’t expect to get qualified for the nationals at my current ability (which turned out to be wrong), I hadn’t decided which swim team to join in London by the time I signed up for the race, but instead I used a temporary category 2 membership to enter. I was thinking about joining South London Open Water as I have friends there, but the closest open water swim club to my home listed in Swim England catalogue is Hampstead Heath Winter Swimming Club. I am having the same dilemma in orienteering as well as my friends are in South London Orienteers but my closest club is London Orienteering Klubb, based in Hampstead Heath in Northwest London.
I did both 3 km and 5 km races on the day. Normally I’m only interested in the 5 km national qualifier but because I’m training for a Channel relay, it would be a good idea for me to do the 3 km, in addition to the 5 km, to see how I would perform in 2 races on a day.
The race was in Whitlingham Adventure, south of Norwich and far from any transport that I had to ride my bike to get there. As the 3 km race was in the early morning, I booked a night of homestay in Norwich and went there the day before.
There was a spectator area and commentators in the race. In the pre-race briefing, it was announced that the air temperature was 22°C and the water temperature was 21.5°C, therefore wetsuits were not allowed in the race according to the FINA regulation. Also, FINA regulations mean that watches and jewelleries aren’t allowed, and nails have to be cut.
The 3 km race was the first race on the day. There were 3 waves, the boys’ qualifier, the girls’ qualifier, and finally the older age groups I was in which were not the qualifier, with the first wave starting at 10:05 and the subsequent waves 5 minutes apart.
The 3 km course was rounding a rectangle 3 times anti-clockwise, with the bottom of the rectangle acting as the start line. At the end of the 3rd lap, I had to enter the finish funnel and tap on the finish banner, in the manner of how FINA races are done.
I was hoping to get the race done in an hour. However once I got in the water, I didn’t feel that good. I felt very weak and didn’t have the strength to follow a pack, and by the time I finally got used to the effort there were already no packs around me to draft, until I got caught up by the fast boys in preceding waves.
I kept a steady pace throughout the race, trying to get to some feet if I saw one. However in the final lap the course became empty. Fortunately I saw a girl near me, then we swam side by side and I basically kept to her speed until I hit the finish one second before her. I completed the race in 1:01:42, 98th out of 100 participants. Although I didn’t meet my target time of 1 hour this was still close enough to be a satisfactory result.
After a few hours of rest, I did the 5 km race which was the national qualifier. The course was 3 laps of a larger loop. There were 2 waves, males first, females second. I hoped to get the race done in 1:40 – 1:45.
I felt as tired as in the morning when the race started, and I couldn’t follow any packs until I was caught up by the girls starting 5 minutes behind me. The fastest girls were too fast for me to even stay on her feet, and it was only until the 2nd lap I could have a chance to get some good draft.
At the half-way point of the 2nd lap, I was lapped by the leading boys. At that point I already became so tired that I couldn’t hold my form well, but I still had another lap to struggle with. In the final lap I was totally on my own with no one close to me, at that point my body was done already, and with no one next to me I just went slower and slower until I hit the finish line.
My result was 1:55:50, 80th out of 81 participants. The winning time was 1:03:07. I was truly disappointed about my performance with such a large drop off compared to the 3 km in the morning, which I now have doubt what will happen when I have to do the 3rd or 4th 2-hour swim in my upcoming Channel relay.
Given how bad my current swimming ability is, I had no expectation to get qualified for the nationals at all this year, as the winning time was about 1:05 in past years and there are 3 qualifying places in each region. It is totally unrealistic for me to get to 1:05 for 5 km given my current ability.
However, I was wrong after I saw the result list. There was only 1 participant in the London Region male 19+ national qualifier (Paul Hilditch, who swam 1:20:56), while there were 3 qualifying places, which meant there was no competition in the London Region at all, and I might have actually got a place if I joined a London-based team instead.
Despite that, even if I made it to the nationals I wouldn’t be able to make the standard cut off, which is 15 minutes from the winner for 5 km, at my current ability.
However, if I can bring my 5 km time down to 1:20, I may be able to get the entrance ticket to the nationals and complete it at the very least if the competitiveness in the London Region doesn’t go up a lot, making my swimming goal a bit realistic again. Therefore I’ll continue training, with the aim of getting my time down to 1:30 first, then 1:20 afterwards.
The race was a good beginning for me to get on the pathway to become a competitive swimmer. Although unlikely to become an elite, I am getting some hope to actually race at the national level if I can get some serious training done. I had some thought to give up swimming but I overestimated the level I want to get to, which led to my mistake of not joining a team in time.
In the coming winter, after I get my long distance stuff done, I’ll focus on getting my 5 km time down to become competitive in the nationals.