What is the Arch to Arc?

The Arch to Arc is a mega-triathlon from Marble Arch in London to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. It involves an 87 mile ultra-marathon run from London to Dover, a 21mile swim across the English Channel and then a 181mile bike ride from Calais to Paris. When it is raced in a relay format it is classically done by 6 individuals doing an hour of exercise and then 5 hours off. Vickie and I will be the first 2 person team to attempt the Arch to Arc and we intend to break the 40hour barrier which will challenge some of the fastest 6-person relay teams. To make it even more unique Vickie will do the entire 87mile run, I will do the Channel swim and we will relay the bike ride (got to play to our strengths, plus I don't like running).

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Champion of Champions

The Champion of Champions is one of the British Long Distance Swim Associations (BLDSA) key annual events. It is a challenging format of a 5 mile race in the cold water of Dover harbour followed shortly by a 3 mile race and then finally a 1 mile race. The water temperature is not likely to be much above 14 degrees and it might be calm and sunny or it might be wet, overcast and windy. I had done this event twice before and to say I had not enjoyed it would be an understatement. I may have finished it, I even won the men's trophy but I felt it got the better of me both times and this year I was determined to come out on top.
In my mind the real challenge of the event is the 3 mile race. Each year I have done this race I have nailed the 5 mile race, got out but been very cold and struggled to warm up. Then got back in and about a mile into the 3 mile race fallen into a deep dark hole and really laboured to finish.
I had a different strategy this year which involved skipping the hot showers after the 5 and 3 mile swims (a controversial method to warm up anyway). Instead I would throw on multiple layers of clothes and critically I would eat, eat and eat. I theorised that previously I had wasted too much time warming up in showers which may not have been getting my core warm anyway when I needed to be replacing lost energy by refuelling. I also understand that you are burning a large amount of energy shivering and warming up, maybe as much as when you are exercising (if you get very cold) and one of the main reasons I have struggled in the 3 mile race was not a lack of fitness but a lack of glycogen used up trying to maintain my core body temperature. With this new strategy in mind I was almost looking forward to this year's race and when I headed off at 5am to make my way down to Dover, I was as upbeat about the challenge as I get when contemplating a long, very cold swim.
I arrived in Dover just after 8am and was greeted by the new event organiser Mark Sheridan. It was 3 years since I had last swum in Dover harbour and one of the nicest things about doing another BLDSA race was all the familiar faces. BLDSA events are not for the faint hearted so attendances are not going to challenge the Great North Swim, as a result there is always a sense of familiarity and camaraderie among the regular faces and swimmers. As people steadily arrived the sun was shining, the water was calm and I was almost looking forward to getting wet. Despite the fact that this was really a training event for me and I needed to save myself for the 6 hour qualifying swim I would be doing the next day I was sizing up the competition. I suspected Chloe McCardel would be my main competitor, Chloe is a good friend and I have swum and trained with Chloe many times over the years. She is an extremely accomplished long distance swimmer having swum the English Channel 7 times and is the current world record holder for the longest unassisted ocean swim, she is also very quick!
I was a bit slow getting into the water for the first race and was still making my way out to the optimal start spot when the siren went. I jumped into action and headed towards the first turning buoy of the 1/2 mile circuit. I was second to the buoy behind a green capped swimmer but I soon passed him on the way to the second buoy and by the time I reached the 3rd and final buoy, of the first lap, I had opened up a small lead over Chloe who was now in second place. I settled into a steady pace and tried to tick off the laps one at a time. By the time I was on my 3rd lap I was passing the back markers and I could no longer tell how close Chloe was. I had a few uncomfortable moments between laps 3 and 6 as I went through the normal phases of feeling the cold and then adjusting. By the time I turned for the start of the 7th lap I felt reasonably comfortable and started to think it would be more desirable to keep swimming and get the 9 miles over and done with in one hit rather than having to get out and back in again. I was swimming strong in the last few laps and was surprised to find myself lapping the green capped swimmer who had led me at the start, nevertheless as I made the final turn and headed to the finish line I felt glad the first part was over. I got out quickly and threw on the clothes just as the shivering started. I quickly got some hot energy drink into me and saw that I had a opened up a small lead of about 5 minutes over Chloe. A good start, but I knew it was not enough if I struggled in the 3 mile as I had in previous years.

Finishing the 5 mile race
Over the next hour and a half most of the rest of the field finished and it was interesting to see how differently people had coped. Many of the seasoned open water swimmers and 'larger' individuals looked comfortable and barely affected by the cold while some like myself were looking decidedly uncomfortable. There were a couple of retirees at this stage (including green caped swimmer) who had really suffered with the cold. Meanwhile I had soup, jam sandwiches, chocolate puddings, energy gels, sweets and various high energy snacks. The 3 mile race came around and I nervously prepared for what I considered the real challenge of the day. This time it was Chloe who led me to the first buoy and I initially contemplated just sitting on her feet but I found I was comfortably swimming quicker than her so I moved in front. I once again opened up a lead and as I completed the 2nd lap (1mile) I thought, right this is where it has all gone wrong in previous years. To my surprise and happiness I found I was swimming well and not feeling like I was out of energy. The sixth and final lap was hard as my muscles were cold and fatigued but I was able to maintain a good pace so it felt like my strategy had worked well and I was even more pleased to discover that not only had I finished first again but I had extended my lead by even more time than in the 5 mile race. More shivering followed but I warmed up again and refuelled with as much as I could stomach. The final 1 mile race is mentally relatively easy as the worst is well and truly behind you. For the first time I led to the first buoy but instead of opening up a lead I found a junior swimmer sticking resolutely to my feet. Three junior swimmers were doing just the 1 mile race and this particular 14 year old was obviously up for a race which slightly disappointed me. About half way round the final lap he came up next to me and looked to be making his move, for a very brief moment I contemplated just letting him go but it was only a very brief moment. I picked up the pace and swum on his shoulder until we rounded the final buoy, we both picked up the pace in the final 200m and with 50m to go I decided to sprint, I touched the finish line 6 seconds ahead and felt a twinge of guilt for being so competitive when it really didn't matter, but again it was only a twinge. In the end my aggregate time for the 3 races was 15 minutes clear of Chloe in 2nd and 30 minutes clear of the next male finisher. But my main achievement was the feeling that I had finally managed this race properly and for the first time felt like I had defeated the event rather than being defeated by it. That said as happy as I was with how I swum I suspect it'll be another 3 years before I contemplate tackling it again. Big thanks to Mark Sheridan for organising a great race and well done to all the swimmers who took part.  
Champion of Champions - Chloe and me 

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