Race Review: Irish 10 km Championships

Once again, I’m very late in getting this post up – I’d almost forgotten that I even had a blog! Anyway, last weekend I travelled to Northern Ireland for the Irish 10 km Open Water Championship which were being held at the Camlough Lake Water Festival. The venue for the event, Camlough Lake, is a long narrow lake in the hills of South Armagh. The lake is only a 5-minute drive from the city of Newry. Watersports are very popular on the lake and swimming has really taken off over the last few years, with a record-breaking relay which made it into the Guinness Book of World Records and Northern Ireland’s first Ice Swims all taking place in the lake. Great credit is due to local man, Pádraig Mallon who swam an International Ice Mile, the English Channel and the North Channel all in 2013, for driving forward open water swimming in Camlough Lake and bringing together all of the team involved in the Water Festival…

Photograph – Owen O'Keefe

There was an excellent set-up at Camlough Lake for these events. I particularly liked the finishing zone with the overhead touch-pads…

As the Irish 10 km Championships were also being held as part of this year’s Water Festival, I decided to make the effort to travel up. I left my home in Fermoy in the afternoon and settled in for a long drive. To my surprise, I was crossing the border less than 3 hours later and it was only another 15 minutes to the lake – the joys of traveling on Ireland’s new and largely empty motorways! It was 6:00 pm when I arrived and the last even of Day 2 of the Water Festival, the Try-a-Tri, was just about to start. The set-up at the lake was very impressive, with swimmers being funneled into the finish by two swimming pool lane ropes and finishing by slapping overhead touch-pads as is done at all of the major international events. The safety operation was also top-class!

Photograph – Jacqueline Galway

Me swimming not long after the start of the second lap. I was falling well behind at this stage. (Photograph: Jacqueline Galway)

After a good night’s sleep, I made my way to the lakeside for registration at 11:00 am. There, I met Jon and Jamie Glover and their dad, Michael, who had travelled to Fermoy for the Irish Long Distance Swimming Party last November. Jon would be doing the 10 km, his first swim of this distance, and Jamie would be doing the 5 km. I also met Stephen Kelly and Warren Roche from Waterford. Stephen did a 10 km in the Blackwater in Fermoy about a fortnight before and would be swimming in a wetsuit while Warren, whom I had narrowly beaten at GaddinAbtGarnish in June, would be racing the 10 km in skins. Once we were all changed and had handed in our feeds to be taken to the feeding station, Pádraig gave the swim briefing: the course would be very simple – two 5 km laps of the lake (with the feeding station being at the far end). Pádraig then made sure that everyone in the skins category met the suit and cap regulations so that the event had the integrity expected of a national championship. Once everyone was ready, the klaxon sounded and the race had begun!

As we entered the water, my initial impression was that the water was quite warm: it felt to me like it was 16ºC or 17ºC and pretty uniform. As in most lakes/reservoirs that I’ve swum in, the underwater visibility was quite poor, but I wasn’t hear to admire the subsurface scenery – I was here to race. From the start, Stephen Kelly and Alvaro San Miguel (both in wetsuits) took off and Warren Roche, Lisa Comerford and myself (all in skins) stayed together in a [very small] pack with Warren leading most of the time and me falling back every so often to clear my goggles. We diverged for a time after about a mile but all converged again at the bottom of the lake, where we passed Alvaro. I was hoping to have a liquid feed at this point but the pack kept going, the feed would have taken too long and I wouldn’t have caught up. As we went back up the lake, Warren sped off and Lisa did the same just before the turn at the 5 km mark – I decided to have one of the gels that I’d stuffed into my togs at this point…

Around the next buoy, Warren was out of sight, Lisa had about 50 m on me and Alvaro was passing me. However, I slowly began to gain on Lisa. There was no point in worrying about Alvaro; we were in a different race. I caught up with Lisa as we neared the bottom of the lake and I could see by the trees on the shore that we were moving along at a good pace. This time, we did stop at the feeding station and I had my liquid feed. Lisa got away a bit faster than I did so I had to do a bit of work to catch her back up again. We settled into a good pace going up the lake and I just paced myself off Lisa (and accepted that Warren had the race won). There was a big tree marking about 500 m from the finish so I stopped to have another gel (this time with caffeine) for a final sprint to the finish: it was well worth the few seconds to stop and have the gel! I steadily pulled away from Lisa and, as the finish came into view, I noticed Warren on my left. I started sprinting, passed him and went all out for the touch-pad. At the finish, I threw my right hand up to slap the pad as the timing chips were on our right wrists and walked out. As we finished we each got warm cordial, a finisher’s medal and a multi-purpose scarf/hat/wristband thing, as well as our finish times, which for me was 2:28:29 – a new PB for 10 km!

Photograph – Stephen Kelly

The podium for the Irish 10 km Championship race. Left to right: Pádraig Mallon, Patricia McParland, Warren Roche, me, Bill Donnelly, Aoiffe McCourt-Lynch and Myles McCourt.

Lisa and Warren finished about 45 seconds after me and the other swimmers came in in dribs and drabs over the next hour and a half. Once the last swimmer was in, the presentations were made. I was delighted to not just be on the podium, but to be the Irish Champion for 10 km for 2013. I never expected that, especially just a week after my longest swim ever! I came home that evening with two trophies, two medals, a wooden plate, the finisher’s prize and an Amphibia X-Bag. I had a fantastic weekend at the Camlough Lake Water Festival and would highly recommend it to anyone. The bar has been set very high for other event organisers with this one!

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Swim to Tory

At the end of the summer, ideas for swims come flowing into my head as though I could do anything after a long winter in the pool! Last year, an idea hit me to swim from Tory Island to mainland Donegal, a distance of eight and a half miles. I knew that it could be done as it had already been done by Anne Marie Ward from Donegal, Kieran Fitzgerald from Sligo and others. It had been in the back of my mind to do it since I was in third year of secondary school, when I heard, in an Irish listening comprehension test, about Anne Marie’s swim of over eight hours. Recently, I have come to know Anne Marie and, last winter, she offered to help me in whatever way she could if I wanted to do this particular swim. Without further delay, I decided to give it a go!

Grianghraf – Owen O'Keefe

Tory and Inishbofin from Magheraroarty. (Photograph taken on the day of the swim.)

Straight after coming home from Dover, I saw on the weather forecast that there was to be a good day on the Friday of that week. I called Anne Marie and we arranged to meet in Letterkenny on the Thursday. It was a long arduous journey from Fermoy to Letterkenny! After meeting Anne Marie at the bus station, we headed north for her house, we had a bite (actually a big meal) to eat and put together all of the things that we would be needing during the swim. Finally, Anne Marie called Brendan Proctor, the man from the sub-aqua club and he said the weather would be good enough in the morning to swim from the mainland out to Tory, rather than the other direction.

Grianghraf – Anne Marie Ward

Going ashore at Magheraroarty beach for the official start!

In the morning, we got up early and drove to Magheraroarty, the starting place. On our way there, we passed through places that I had only ever heard about on the radio, Gortahork and so on. When we arrived at our destination, the sun was shining and there was little wind. Magheraroarty is a beautiful place, with a large pier, white sandy beach and clean clear water. After a while, Brendan and John Joe from the Sheephaven Sub-Aqua Club arrived with the boat. I put on my togs, hat and goggles. Then, we all got on board, we turned on the GPS tracker and I swam into the beach for the official start.

Grianghraf – Anne Marie Ward

Coming around Magheraroarty pier…

The same rules that apply to English Channel swimming apply for swims between Tory and the mainland. Because of this, I had to go ashore to start the swim properly. As soon as I was on dry sand, I turned around, ran back into the water and started swimming in the direction of Tory!

Grianghraf – Anne Marie Ward

The Tory Ferry on its way to the mainland…

I was very happy at the start of the swim; the sun was shining on my back and the water was much warmer than I had expected – a pleasant 14.5ºC today. As well as this, there wasn’t a jellyfish in sight, something that put me at ease! After a few minutes, the ferry came against us and we got a big wave from all on board. As I was swimming on the west side of Inishbofin, it became cloudy and the wind started coming from the West. This wasn’t the ideal wind direction as we wouldn’t get the same assistance from a westerly wind as we would from a southerly wind, and it was a southerly wind that was forecast. In any case, I kept swimming from feed to feed.

Grianghraf – Anne Marie Ward

Tory still a fair distance away…

After about an hour and a half, we cleared the shelter of Inishbofin and entered the Tory Sound. The tide was running from East to West, directly into the wind, and because of this the waves rose slightly. This didn’t bother me too much as the lee of the boat was giving me some relief from the wind and waves. We continued on like this for about another until the sun came out again. About three hours into the swim, the waves became much higher for between thirty minutes and an hour and there were white horses on them. That was a tough half hour to an hour. At the last feed, however, it calmed down a lot and that gave me a chance to go ashore at my ease.

Grianghraf – Anne Marie Ward

The finish is in sight at last!

I was very relieved when I was able to see the bottom underneath me as I was starting to get some pain in my shoulders by that time. Once we got to the pier, Anne Marie pointed out the beach to me and I swam into it. When I arrived at the beach, 4 hours 21 minutes after I started, I stood up on the sand. There was a crowd of children on the beach, the Islanders’ children, and after a few words with them, I turned around and there was a good crowd on the pier as well. I was very surprised as there’s usually no such welcome at the end of a swim like that.

Grianghraf – Anne Marie Ward

Coming into the beach in the harour on Tory Island.

After a minute, I spotted an older man coming across the beach. One of the children warned me that it was the King of Tory. The King, Patsaí Dan Mac Ruaidhrí, gave me a big welcome and said that it was a great honour for the Islanders that someone had swum out from the mainland. With that, he introduced me to his family and the Islanders and asked one man to take us back to his house and make sure that we got a shower and a cup of tea.

Grianghraf – Anne Marie Ward

With the King of Tory, Patsaí Dan Mac Ruaidhrí just after the swim.

After having a shower and a cup of tea with biscuits, we went back to the harbour. Then, we decided to go to Caife an Chreagáin for some food. On our way there, we met the Queen of Tory who was looking after a young falcon who had landed in Tory after going astray from County Clare! He was a magnificent bird. We met Patsaí Dan again in the café and we all had a great chat. After eating our fill, we went back to the boat and hot the waves. But before we could leave, a young boy asked me if I was going to swim back to Magheraroarty because the “rule” is that if you come on the boat, then you can go home on the boat, but if you swim out, you have to swim back!

Grianghraf – Owen O'Keefe

A bottlenose dolphin as seen from Magheraroarty pier just after the swim…

Half an hour after leaving Tory, we were almost back at Magheraroarty pier, but our adventure was not over yet. Suddenly, four or five bottlenose dolphins came right up to the boat. They stayed with us, playing, for about ten minutes. That really made our day! That was pretty much the end of the day, a long day, but an enjoyable one at the same time. The excitement continued for a few days after the swim; it was in the local papers in Donegal that a young man, from Cork even, had swum from the coast out to Tory and Anne Marie and I had to do an interview with Áine Ní Churráin on the programme “Barrscéalta” on RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta.

Grianghraf – Owen O'Keefe

The Hills of Donegal and Magheraroarty beach.

I’d like to thank Anne Marie Ward for all her help and advice in organizing this swim and during the swim itself. I’d also like to thank Brendan Proctor and John Joe Roland from the Sheephaven Sub-Aqua Club for their great support! Finally, thanks to the people and King of Tory for the great reception that they gave us at the end of the swim.

Grianghraf – Owen O'Keefe

Another one of the dolphins that came to greet us on our way back to the mainland…

I dedicated this swim to the memory of my friend, William, who died in the days just before the swim. RIP, Will.