Race Review: Sandycove Island Challenge 2013

Last Saturday, 7 September was the date of this year’s “The Edge Sports” Sandycove Island Challenge, the second biggest event on the Munster open water swimming calendar. The swim has been running for, I think, 18 years and I’ve been taking part each year since 2006 – I admit missing the 2009 event as I was swimming across the English Channel at the time! It’s a fantastic event run by Cork Masters SC and is a great reason to make yourself visit the home of marathon swimming in Munster, Sandycove Island.

Entries were slightly down on last year for a number of reasons, with a total of just under 200 people completing the swim on the day. Dave Mulcahy, Dave Dowling, Ellen Brooks and myself all swam for Fermoy SC. Conditions were near-perfect: it was very overcast and occasionally wet but the water was glassy calm with very good visibility under water. The still flooding tide meant that swimmers would also get some assistance from the current on the one-mile circuit of the island. After registration in Kinsale around lunchtime, we headed to Sandycove to mill around and wait for the race briefing.

Ned gave the usual briefing at the slipway and all of the swimmers assembled into their start groups (of 30 swimmers each). I was seeded #2 so was in the first group. When we were lined up, it became clear to me that #4 or #5 would have been a more accurate seeding for me: in front of me was Dan Sweeney, a former Sunday’s Well SC and Plymouth Leander swimmer now swimming with the elite team at Loughborough, and behind me was Ethan O’Brien of Limerick SC who is making a name for himself as an elite triathlete. I was not competing with these guys, they are way out my league – I was much more focused on Carol Cashell, Ned Denison and maybe one or two others who are my usual competitors!

The start was very clean and non-violent: the 30 swimmers in the first group assembled on the slipway. Carol and I were stood next to each other in the middle while Ned was off to the right, picturing himself beating the real fast guys! The whistle went and we were off before we knew it. I got a nice clean dive and came back to the surface unobstructed by flailing arms. Carol and I were stroke-for-stroke and, as we approached the first corner, we caught Ned at the end of his initial sprint phase. Carol was on my left and Ned was on my right, I was sandwiched between the two of them as we headed for the rocks. I figured that the best thing to do would be to pull back and go around the outside of Ned – this would give me more water to swim in and also psychologically destroy Ned to see me pass him on the outside.

The calm conditions allowed for a tight line around the rocks at the first corner and the very good u/w visibility made it easier to find the deep cracks in the rocks. Carol, who was about 5 m outside me said afterwards that she thought that she was cutting it fine so was surprised to see me well inside her. She was scraping off subsurface rocks, confirming my theory that, at the first corner at Sandycove, it’s best to go as close as you can to the rocks that you can see, thus avoiding those that you can’t see! I started to pull ahead of Carol at this point and started reeling in a guy in a wetsuit who, it would appear, is probably a great 750 m triathlon swimmer but broke down a bit after 800 m. Having passed him on the back of the island, I was satisfied that it was only Dan and Ethan left at the front. I could see them approach the second corner but knew that a mere mortal like myself had no chance of catching them – I just focused on maintaining my current position, keeping a close eye on Carol just behind me…

I went incredibly close to the rock on the second/far corner, relying on the gentle swell to carry me over the shallowest parts – I lost no blood this time! The race after this was quite boring. The two lads were off in front, Carol was about 15 m behind and there was nobody on either side of me. The water was calm and there was no battle to be had. I have become used to ferocious battles at this event over the last few years! At the third corner, I picked my line to the marker buoys near the finish and went for it, readjusting my heading every few stroke cycles. As I reached the first of the large yellow buoys marking the approach to the finish, I saw Ethan and Dan getting onto the slipway. I tried to sprint in but the extra gear just wasn’t there; it didn’t matter though, I held my position and finished third person home in a time of 21:44.0 – a new PB, I’m pretty sure.

As Carol finished about 20 s after me, she informed everyone that the water temperature was 14.6ºC. Cooler than previous years, despite being about a fortnight earlier, but it made no difference as I didn’t think about the temperature for a second from start to finish. I enjoyed watching all of the others come in, especially the Fermoy SC swimmers. Dave (Mulcahy) did a very impressive swim: he got a new PB of 29:06 – his first sub-30-minute lap of the island! I spotted one swimmer just after the finish though and thought: “he looks fast, and familiar too…” It turns out that the swimmer, seeded #221, was Aaron O’Brien of Limerick SC who is today competing for Ireland in the Junior World Championships in triathlon!

There was great post-race banter back in Kinsale afterwards while we waited for the prizes. The best local result had to be Carol’s win in the female non-wetsuit category, she was flying only a week after her pioneering swim around Bere Island. Despite being third home, I had to settle for fourth place as, as was to be expected, Aaron had a faster swim than me by 7.7 seconds – I’m pretty pleased with 7.7 seconds behind a national squad triathlete over 1.6 km! It was a great event and credit is due to all involved in organising it. Sorry for the lack of photographs, I haven’t seen any myself…

I’m back in the pool now (sort of) but have a few more open water events left before returning to the real world of college and training. Tomorrow, I’m off to Catalonia to bask in the sun and reflected glory of swimming with FINA Grand Prix Champion 2013 and therefore World #1, Damián Blaum (ARG) and his wife, Esther Núñez Morera, who also just happens to be World #2! The event in which I’ll be swimming is the 6.5 km race from Cap de Creus to the village of Cadaqués in the picturesque North of the country. It is part of the Copa Marnaton “eDreams” and I’ll be there thanks to my friends Mauricio Prieto and Susan Moody who swam the Strait of Gibraltar this summer and keep a great open water blog, OWSwimming.com. I can’t wait for the race!

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