River Spey 10km swim

The start of the race at Kingussie

The start of the race at Kingussie

One of the reasons why I went to Croatia was to get lots of swimming under my belt to prepare for my first 10 km swim race. The race was billed as the Highest Open Water Race in the UK, and was down the River Spey in the Scottish Highlands. Those of you with knowledge of whisky will know that this River is the source for a large number of producers of the national drink. However, it is also known as one of the fastest rivers in the UK, so when it was advertised I jumped at the chance to swim down a river.

I can remember sitting in Australia and reading blog posts and reports of swimmers who had swum 10km, and being amazed that anyone would do that. There was only one 10km race in Sydney from Bondi around the coast through the Harbour Heads to finish at Watsons Bay. I never thought that I would be able to swim that far. But since coming to Scotland I have completed two 5km races, swum 10 miles down a loch, and done several other swims of around 10km.

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Part of the course in the river

The course was simple, start at Kingussie, and then swim 9 km down the river, then one km across Loch Insh and finish at the Loch Insh Watersports Centre. But these things always sound easier than they actually are. A group of us from the Wild West Swimmers stayed in an amazing manor house not far away (thanks van man for finding this gem), and we drove up from Glasgow on the Friday afternoon.

We assembled at the finish line on Saturday morning, and I was feeling a bit nervous. I had done lots of swimming in Croatia, but I had not been in the water for two weeks, and on the Wednesday before the race I doubted whether I would be healthy enough to swim. I decided that I would get to the half-way point, and would reassess my fitness there. We got our race numbers, put our wet-suits on, and then waited for the bus to take us to the start. Finally it arrived and we were driven to the start, with a late change in plan to access it, arriving 30 minutes later than schedule. But this was the first year of this event and there is always likely to be a small hiccup or two.

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Loch Insh looking calm before the start

The briefing was held under the shelter of the A9 bridge with some large horses looking on. The water temperature was 12c, and there had been rain in the last few days so it was likely to be a nice push. The first feed station was at 2km, with another at 5km and then 8km. As I entered the water I thought of the non-wetsuit swimmers who had started earlier.

I had settled on the far bank for the start near the back, as I wanted to take it easy for a while, as it was going to be a long swim. I was hoping to finish, and then if I swum under 3.5 hours I would be happy. The race started, and despite their being 170 swimmers in the water in a narrow river, I was soon able to get a space around me and settle into my stroke. Yes it was cold, but I was wearing boots and a wet-suit, and I had been swimming in this part of the world for a while now.

Just after the start we had to stand up and walk a short way as the water was too shallow to swim. I was observing the different tactics of the competitors: some were cutting the corners for the shortest line; while others would use the faster flowing water on the outside of the curves to swim faster but further. I tried to stick to the fastest flow, and it was only 30 minutes or so before we arrived at the first feed station.

For this feed station, you had to get out of the water and walk down a designated path to a small island to get your food. There was no other way through, so I grabbed an aussie bite, and a cold drink and then went back into the water. Now for the fun bit we had been told about. For about 40 metres or so the water was fast and shallow so there was no option but to lie down and let the water take you. Wow, that was great.

By now the river was getting wider and deeper, so the water was not moving as fast. I had settled into my stroke and was feeling strong, catching other swimmers along the way. Before long the 5km mark arrived, and another feed station where I had a gel and more cold drink. I checked my watch and it said 80 minutes. I was impressed with the time and with the fact that I still felt great. So I decided to keep going. It was also great to chat to other swimmers, and some of the water safety who I knew from previous events.

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The finish line with no sun in sight

For around a km after the middle feed station, I was swimming with some others, with sometimes them in front of me, and at other times I was in front. There was no advantage in getting on their feet, as the current was coming from behind us. I really wanted to swim by myself, so I veered away from them and swam on the other side of the meandering river. Before long I was pulling away, and by now I knew I would finish. My mind kept doing the calculations, and I realised that if I swam the second 5km in under 100 minutes, I would break three hours, well inside my goal time of 3 hours 30 minutes. So I put my head down and concentrated on getting my stroke as efficient as possible.

At the 8km mark I had another gel and my time was well inside the three-hour mark. I was told that there were a few more curves and then the loch. So off I went full of energy feeling the gentle pull of the water as I dodged the rescue boats getting cold swimmers to safety.

Into the loch and the finish line looked so far away. By now a breeze had picked up and for the first time there was chop to deal with. I saw a couple of swimmers 100m or so in front of me and I was determined to catch them. I would swim 70 strokes and then look up, and each time they got closer, but the finish line did not appear to. Keep going I told myself, you can do this, you swam 40 k in a week a fortnight ago and you are feeling strong. Inexorably I caught the first swimmer, and I could feel a smile on my face. Then with the finish line only 200m away, I caught the other swimmer, and for the first time in 10km I kicked to get some distance.

The line got closer with each stroke and the loch became shallower, and before long I could stand up and get across the line. I had done it; I had swum my first 10km race and finished in under three hours. I felt elated and tired.

I caught up with lots of people I knew at the finish and watched the presentations. I was in awe of those who had swum 3 hours without a wet-suit. But the biggest cheer of the day was for one of the last to finish who we learnt later had a hairline fracture in his elbow from a stray foot at the start.

So back to our digs for a night of celebrations. All I will say is that you find out the craziest things about people when you go away for a weekend and have a few drinks (the words meatloaf and cornflake box are memorable). We had all finished our races, and a few of them even were on the podium.

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Just another summer’s day in Scotland

Driving back down the A( (the highway to the Highlands), a small convoy stopped for a swim near Pitlochry. Unlike them I did not go in as I was tired after my exertions of the day before, but they enjoyed a short dip without a wetsuit. The next adventure will be…well somewhere in Scotland I assume in one of the stunning lochs.

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A nice wee dip

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