Without question, one of the greatest and funniest episodes of television I’ve seen is episode 1.6 of the cult comedy sitcom Spaced, titled ‘Epiphanies’. For the uninitiated (get yourself acquainted now!), Spaced featured Simon Pegg and Jessica Hynes (nee Stevenson) as Tim and Daisy, two twenty-somethings who meet following splitting from their significant others, and pose as a ‘professional couple’ to get off the London streets and into a flat run by Marsha, a divorcee landlady with a penchant for alcohol, who doesn’t know they’re not actually a couple. It ran for two series and is a celebration of millennial positivity, bristling with pop culture references while riding on the dynamic between the lead characters. I discovered it 14 years late and its my favourite show ever. The said episode in question basically involves Tim, Daisy and their friends going out clubbing and forgetting their arguments in a night of pure hedonism. The rave scene absolutely has to be experienced, so immensely well executed, funny and true to life in equal measure.

Hold on, what does this have to do with my amateur sports lifestyle, you ask?

Well, I’m deep in training for the Ilkley Aquathlon, which, discounting the Go Tri Yorkshire Aquathlon which was a taster race if anything, will be a bona fide multi sport experience for myself. A race I’ve wanted to do for just over two years, involving a sport I ignored for just as long as I overlooked Spaced, it involves a 400 metre swim and a 3,000 meter run, consisting of 5 laps of 600 metres. And in recent weeks I felt I’d hit a bit of a snag.

See, I’ve absolutely no concerns about the run. Given I spent the best part of three months regularly pushing blistering pace around the Halifax Harriers running track, trying (and successfully managing) to break my 10K PB, I’m fairly confident that if my legs are working when I complete the swim – and they normally do – that I can have a storming run. But lately, its the swim that’s been concerning me. Although I’ve managed as far as 240 metres, swimming in a 20 metre length pool, I’ve lately got back to 25 metres and even once a 50 metre pool and have been finding it a little difficult to adapt back to that slight increase in pool length.

I can’t exactly pinpoint why this is and it had left me perplexed. Whether its a pacing issue, a technique issue, or something else, swimming in the main pool at my local has been a bit of a conundrum. Add to this no lessons due to summer break, an outbreak of head lice that my kids encountered, enforcing a break from the pool, and one night where I forgot to take my goggles, I went into last week actually questioning my ability to do a 400 metre swim. The question is not whether I can swim 400 metres cumulatively – I can do it in stages at the moment and can keep swimming for an hour. I have no problem swimming 25 metre lengths, per se. But its my competitive streak. I want to at least be competent. I want to be able to complete the majority of the swim in one take, if not all of it. Maybe I’m expecting too much from myself, but I genuinely felt in the last three weeks or so that I’d hit a wall. It frustrated me when I couldn’t go swimming. And when I did go swimming, I wasn’t getting out feeling I’d accomplished anything. Like I’d essentially hit a peak but was now on a plateau.

So this Wednesday, with my wife and kids away for the week with my mother-in-law, I was free to effectively go swimming without worrying about getting back to maybe help with housework or settle the kids if they were unsettled. I’d watched a vid on the newly launched Global Triathlon Network on YouTube, discussing different swim workouts. I picked a threshold session which involved the following:

4×100 metres at 80-90% max effort

100 metres easy

with 10-20 seconds recovery.

I’d never carried out a specific swim workout before – I get instructions in my lessons to do x of one stroke and y of another, and so on – but this was entirely how I would define it.

After a couple of warm up lengths there and back, I embarked. Initially, I had the problem of a crowded lane, meaning my rhythm would be disrupted, or I’d have to wait for a faster swimmer to pass before I could resume. But before long, space began to open up as one or two swimmers left, and the more I built into the session, the better I seemed to feel. I judged my fast efforts better and my easy lengths were working to great effect. For a first time, itI went extremely well, and I finished the workout much stronger than when I started it.

Having now swam 900 metres, I decided to finish by seeing how far I could swim without stopping. I’d had a touch of calf cramp in my right leg but I’d taken time to shake that off before getting back in the pool and resuming. Off I went, and back and forth I went. The longest I’d ever managed was 240 metres, and that was in the shallower, shorter teaching pool. Here, I seemed to be going great guns, reaching 150 metres and barely feeling out of breath. I reached 175 and genuinely felt good. I actually had belief. Real belief. 

And here’s where the post title becomes relevant. I suddenly didn’t just believe I could go beyond 240 metres. I absolutely knew I could. And I was going to do it right now.

I began to swim towards the 200 metre mark, when all of a sudden – yeeeeeeooooooowwwww! The calf cramp had returned with a vengeance. I immediately couldn’t swim further, and I instantly reached for the lane rope to save myself from going under. I assured the lifeguard I was OK. My swim was done. All I needed to do was haul my carcass back towards the shallow end. Only I then realised I’d actually swam half the length and was actually able to stand on one leg in the water. So instead, I sheepishly hobbled to the shallow end, acknowledging the concern of fellow swimmers and simultaneously trying to avoid eye contact – why I felt shame I’ve absolutely no idea, though its hard to be cool when swimmers are having a nosey at my predicament. I sat on the side once out of the water, tried to get some feeling back in the calf muscle, which at this point felt and looked rock solid. Having relieved the vice that was causing the worst of the cramps, I eventually I stood up and walked back to the changing room, to get changed and then to live with the effects of that temporarily excruciating cramp for a couple of days, costing me a second swim that week.

The cramp could be a result of a few things, though on this occasion it can’t have been hydration, and I’m not sure I was severely lacking magnesium – though I hadn’t had much in the day of dairy (for calcium), but I was on a High5 electrolyte drink during the swim. Maybe it was my technique. Maybe I hadn’t warmed up quite correctly. All, according to research, as apparent underlying contributors. Whatever it was, I’ve got time to work out why I occasionally get these cramps and how to stop them. I particularly don’t want that to affect my race, or it’ll be game over, a first ever DNF. Though I’m not thinking that will happen; its something I can control, and I doubt I will be in the water long enough for any cramp to emerge. The race doesn’t start until the afternoon, so I’ve no excuse not to be warmed up, fuelled and well-prepared for the race I’ve only targeted for the last two years, and the only one I could certifiably say at the start of the year as absolutely nailed on, no matter what else.

The cramp episode hasn’t eroded my sudden improvement in my self-confidence. I felt like I’d suddenly cracked how to prepare for the swim part of the aquathlon, a mere four weeks out from the race itself, and suddenly I wasn’t feeling so unsure of myself. All it needed was to change out how I approached my swim. Not to go in full pelt from the off. To actually warm up in the water correctly, build into my swim and to stay relaxed. From there the confidence will flow. And everything will be OK.

And with that, this budding multi-sporter got his swimming groove back.

Ayyyyyy!