The plan was good. The week after West Districts was the first of two key weeks. It was 36km, the biggest week I’d done all season so far. The week after was 38km, followed by a regen week and then the Bangor meet. After that I would do 38km. Then 40km. That was my peak volume and the end of the capacity-building phase. It would be followed by another regen, Edinburgh International, and then…taper. We were finally building for Trials. And building seriously. Time to get stuck in.
The plan had taken Josh and I a few conversations to put together and it was the first solid block of work where I would get to do lots of key sets on both Breast and Free. Barely two days into the first working week however, I fell ill. I couldn’t even do the first key set on Tuesday evening. With much work already lost and more metres and key sets likely to be missed, I suggested re-shaping the programme – that week could be another regen, with next week being the first of the key ones. Josh agreed. It was frustrating, but the best option. When I finally got into some work, I managed a whole week and a half of hard work. Then I fell ill again. I barely swam from Thursday to Monday and missed a key set on Saturday. Luckily, I overcame the worst of the virus in time to do part of a key set on Tuesday before flying to Bangor on Thursday. Luckily, I would get to race. Afterwards though, there wasn’t much time for capacity-training so if I was in bad shape that was ominous for Trials.
The session I missed on Saturday would have been Breast, with Free pencilled on for Tuesday. Hence, I had the option on Tuesday of doing Breast or Free. I chose Free. The 100 Free was the event I had the highest probability of producing a miracle on at Trials, and after daydreaming about such an occasion a few times the event had become slightly more appetising than others. I felt like I was leaning towards it.
Duncan and Bain were in my heat and even though it was impossible for me to beat Duncan and very unlikely I would challenge Bain…just imagine if I did. My stomach knotted. The first 25 of the race was ropey with lots of splash and very little catch but I settled more in the middle of the race, holding a good pace on the way home. I was surprised to see a sub-52 on the board – 51.8. That was an encouraging way to start the meet. I’d never been sub-52 in February before.
But that was an evening swim. Could I go faster in the morning? (Finals were in the morning and heats the afternoon at this meet, to replicate the Olympics). Would I have the improved feel that normally comes for an evening final? It was also the first night a new bed – what if I had a bad night’s sleep? Either way, a good swim was already in the bank. Even if I went 52, I’d already been 51. I could just focus on trying to improve the areas of my heat swim which Josh highlighted. The main thing being my rates which had started high and dropped a lot down the first 50, and then dropped again, albeit less, on the second 50. Smoother rates on the front end would give me more juice on the back end. On top of this, I felt my start could be better: it could be sharper, more aggressive, the underwater phase could be longer and have a flatter trajectory between entry and breakout.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t as sharp as I wanted. Each step of the start seemed to happen slowly – I pulled on the block, lifted my head up, jumped, threw my arms up and forward and hoped for a clean entry. When I hit the water, I pushed forward with my chest and shoulders at the point where I normally start rising to the surface. It made my underwater longer and flatter.
After the breakout I started to sprint, then I stopped myself and held my rate steady. My stroke was cleaner than the heat, catching more water with the arms and holding my body position well. I lifted the pace a little into the turn, had a smooth flip and push-off, and then started to gently build. I was at Bain’s hip again, gaining on him. With 25 to go it seemed like I could have him if I went for it. But no, I had made this mistake before. There was still a long way to go. I should build gradually, rather than shift up a gear and go for it. I kept building. It was hurting more and more but I still had some more to give. By the last 10 I’d put my head down and started windmilling, which I just about managed.
The time was 51.5, so I’d achieved the improvement and managed to get myself a 51-mid! The cleaner stroke was visible on video and Josh clocked my rates as having less of a drop than in the heat. Both of these showed in the 50 split which was where I’d dropped all the time, even though it felt easier. That was a good lesson: efficiency and good execution on the front end are imperative for a strong back end.
Even while swimming easy in the warm down pit I was riding high in the water. My catch was crisp and my hips surfed effortlessly. Obviously, I was in good shape. Better than I had been for ages. Perhaps I could also do a fast time in the Breast this afternoon, a 63, or even a 62. Once I’d made my mind up about what to do with it, that is.
I was definitely going to go for a 100 time during the 200, which meant either stopping and getting out at halfway or swimming through the second 100 easy. But I’d never even heard of someone climbing out of the pool in the middle of the heat, and yet the idea of trying to swim easy breaststroke after going 100 all out seemed impossible – ‘easy’ breaststroke is still difficult when fresh! I wondered if there could be a training effect, in which case it would be worth swimming through. Plus, maybe it would be disrespectful to get out.
My mate who was also planning to go for a time said he was swimming through, joking about how painful it would be as he told me. Fuck it, I thought, I’d be a pussy to not do the same. So I checked with Josh that there would indeed be a training effect, in the hope of validating my reasoning thus far, but he told me there wasn’t one. In fact, the only benefit to completing the race would be if I wanted to make the 100 time official. As I’d already qualified for my target meet in April however, I didn’t need to worry about this. Unless I did a PB, in which case I definitely wanted the time to be official. So, I had a new plan: stop at 100 and check the time, if it was a PB I’d swim on, if not I’d leave the pool. Now that was sorted I could attend to my 100.
With no one else to race it would require focus – focus on my own race, my goals and my execution. The goals were simple – easy speed on the first 50, don’t over-sprint it, rely on my natural speed and then let the second 50 take care of itself. As I was in good shape I would naturally attack hard in the final 15-20 metres, unlike those in the heat before me who lurched into the wall like exhausted prisoners of war, no zeal or attacking spirit. There was an air of lethargy as I stood beside my block, foot up on it, arm lightly shaking as I tried to feel sprinty.
Like my start on the 100 Free, I lengthened the underwater phase off the start, pushing through with my chest and shoulders. I came to the surface and started taking fast but long strokes, easing down the first 50, increasing the tempo slightly as I came to the wall. The turn was smooth, the underwater long again, and when I broke out the strokes quick but still long. At the wall I had a quick look around and saw no one, they were all way behind (sticking to their 200 paces). I was alone. Exposed. As I approached 75 I pushed my hands forward faster during the recovery, diving my head down. I pulled harder, tried to kick faster. Everyone watching must’ve been able to guess I was going for a hundred time now. doing my own thing. But never mind, I should push on. It still wasn’t hurting. I should attack. Go max. But as I tried to increase the rate water started hitting my mouth. I couldn’t breathe. Gulp. Gulp. Gulp. Only a slither of air was getting through.
The time was 1.04.9, so I got out. I explained to Josh that I swallowed a lot of water which meant that something in my stroke wasn’t right. Or that everything was being mistimed. Furthermore, the only area of my body hurting was my biceps, which suggested that I wasn’t engaging other larger muscle groups to generate propulsion – very frustrating as it felt like I had only used a fraction of what I had in the tank. Josh informed me that, similar to the Free, my rates were uneven. He then showed me the video where the miscue(s) in my stroke were impossible to pinpoint, which meant I had no idea what to work on. But if I thought back through the training I’d done this season, long course key sets on Breast were completely absent. It may simply be a case of insufficient practice. I had a few weeks until Edinburgh International where I would get some Breast training in and hopefully see everything come together more.
The DQ gave me the morning off. In the last evening heats session I had the 50s of Breast and Free back-to-back, in that order, and I’d come up with a plan for the warm up in order to avoid the ineffectual hybrid warm up that I’d done at BUCS. In the morning I would do my 50 Free warm up and then in the evening I could do a pure Breast warm up (with a little bit of Free swimming) and focus on that event completely since it was first. In the middle of my morning warm up Zak stopped me and asked which order the 50s were in that night.
‘Breast first,’ I said.
‘One hundred percent, that’s why I’m doing Straight-arm Free now.’ I remembered being relieved when I saw the order of events in the programme. 50 Breast wasn’t very taxing but would be intense enough to prime me, physiologically, for the Free, which was very taxing. If it were the other way around I would struggle.
Back at the hotel a Whatsapp message came through on the team chat. It was Tiggy, who said that those doing the 50 Free were to get a taxi to the pool first, followed later by those doing 50 Breast. I was an idiot. What’s more, now I somehow had to warm up for 50 Breast even though 50 Free was before it. And how on earth was I going to do the Breast anyway, I’d be ruined after the Free!
I navigated the warm up successfully by doing all of the drills on Breast and then doing the spikes, which were the last thing I did before getting out, on Free (also, luckily, in the taxi there Zak was too nice to mention that I’d misinformed him). That seemed to prime me well enough for the Free heat because I barely broke sweat. No burn afterwards, just out of breath. That was good for the Breast but probably explains why my time was disappointing – 24.1. That was the slowest I’d been since adopting Straight-arm. Had I been scared to really go for it? Never mind, there was only time for a couple of hundred metres swim down before drying myself off and jogging over to marshalling in just my jammers. Hat and goggles still on my head.
On the blocks for the Breast I still hadn’t caught my breath and was breathing deeply to get oxygen in. Unsurprisingly, the start was sluggish. My stroke felt clean but not very sharp. At 25 the rate seemed too low so I lifted it, but then I was spinning, catching less water, going no faster. The time was 29.4, which was slower than last year but almost identical to West Districts.
I pulled out of the 50 Breast B-final to focus on the 50 Free, for which I was in the A-final. Had I been A for the Breast and B for the Free I would have done the same though. I was targeting that event more this season and plus, I love 50 Free. I love the rush, the power, racing the big boys. I wanted to race them here, take them on, show them what I had. It was the last race of the meet and I wanted it to be a big one. I knew how to step up and do a big swim when I wanted to. And here, I really wanted to.
The execution of the heat hadn’t been great. The initial phase of the start was fine but the underwater had been weak and the breakout mistimed – it felt awkward. I’d tried to tweak my stroke after West Districts by engaging the shoulder more to generate momentum on the recovery, just like I had done when I first began doing Straight-arm last year (for me, this is the essence of the stroke), but clearly it hadn’t worked. It felt harder and was much slower. I wasn’t exactly sure how to correct it either. Perhaps I should do what I’d done on Breast countless times when failing to make technical advances in the heat – stop thinking so much and just race. Swim ‘naturally’. I was capable of firing myself up for a big swim when I wanted to do, I just didn’t want the technical elements to hold me back. I couldn’t will perfect technique to appear.
So here I was. Here we were. The sprinters. I wanted to challenge them, I thought, as I stepped onto the block and bent down. The start had to be good. Arms had to pull. Fast. I waited. When the beep went…I fumbled. I went up and out and my legs trailed in the air, I hit the water flat and felt the splash behind. So much drag. The deceleration made it feel like I was wearing boardshorts. I flicked hard underwater and then came up but started my breakout a little too deep. Then I tried to get into a rhythm with my stroke.
It felt smooth and I was stable in the water, attacking the water with force on the entry of each arm. I knew I had to go harder at 25 but didn’t want to fuck up my stroke, so I just nudged the effort up a touch. Then again at fifteen. But my legs! Footspeed! I had to maintain that in order to maintain rate. Was that my competitors pulling ahead in my periphery? I couldn’t let them. But others were miles ahead. I wasn’t fighting for gold. Still, tried hard to force my rate up.
The time was 24.0 so, I guess I did step up in the sense that it was an improvement. I’m never happy going so slowly but that was about the same time I went at Edinburgh International last year, so if I could beat it in a few weeks’ time at that meet that would be encouraging. On video it just looked like a limp swim. I was making a lot of white water, my hands were flailing around instead of facing forward for a clean entry, and of course the start was a mess – the splash was huge. It was impossible to get going in the swim after stripping myself of all speed on the entry. On top of all that, my rates dropped off massively.
Time-wise, there was cause for optimism in that I can aim to be ahead of where I was at Edinburgh International last year. Technique-wise, I’m lost. How would I ever get my stroke right? How would I ever go sub-23? Somehow, I find myself in the desert with nothing on the horizon. How will I ever perfect Straight-arm, which I believe I have a talent for. I want that momentum over the top as I throw the shoulder forward on entry, driving my whole body through. I want that deep powerful pull, engaging my whole back. I want the power and the momentum to torque my entire upper body – shoulders, back, chest, core, hips – and to create savage, lightning speed along the surface of the water.
I suppose this will take much practise and many races to find.