“Go Claire! Is that a smile or a grimace?!”

This was coming past the campsite for the third and final time on the Outlaw Holkham 70.3 run course, and against everything I thought it would be at that point, it was more smile than grimace.

It was a day of two halves: I arrived at the race at 5.15am to a flat back tyre, and had my first open water swim panic attack as the start hooter went off.

First rule of every catastrophe: don’t panic. Lexa’s back tyre had been plump like a peach all week since my last long ride. A couple of little scratches on the tyres but nothing that warranted a new one. Or so concluded my rookie assessment. Never trust a rookie. A million blessings and unicorn kisses to the wonderful people who’d chosen to open their stash stall at 5am who changed my inner, then my outer, and to Andrea, the absolutely lovely Norwegian lady racked up next to me who helped put my wheel back on.

Everything from there to the hooter went well. Laid out my kit, popped back to the car, drank my coffee, watched the elites exit the swim, got ready to go. As our wave went into the water I didn’t feel the cold, and felt nervous but ready to go. I’d swum in colder water, I’d swum the distance in open water in about the right time. I paddled around a bit, tried to get towards the back and side of the wave, tried not to be freaked out by the foamy layer of duck poo that prevented us from touching the bottom.

Then, the hooter. Brain went from its social “we’re all getting into a freezing cold lake of a Sunday morning, tra la!” mode, sending reassuring smiles to other people standing on their own and nervously staring out into the water like a Bronte heroine, to six weeks ago. Unable to breathe, unable to swim. Except that never happened six weeks ago. I was fine. I’ve always been fine. But here I was, surrounded by people who *were* fine, and swimming past me. Very fast.

Okay. Don’t do nothing. Just do some breaststroke. Don’t… Oh God. DO. NOT. CRY. We’re just going to do front crawl. Just to try. That’s right. The world’s most expensive open water swim session. £150 quid plus all the training, kit and your supporters coming all this way. Best get your money’s worth and panic paddle out the rest of this seventy minutes. STOP BLOODY CRYING!

Breathe, reach, arms wide like you’re holding a broom handle, pull scoop flick, relax those pinkie toes; nose and ear swap places… All of the swim mantras came out. A new one got added too, which had something to do with the fact I was sick in my mouth a couple of times. Not a happy place.

Once I my eyes had, ahem, stopped watering (and I’d found a way of ignoring my stomach), I decided firmly that I was not going to look at my watch. Whatever I did, it would be my best. Knowing how long it was taking wasn’t going to change that.

The course swims out, round an island, and back. By the time I reached the island I was swimming alongside people, now and then. I seemed to be swimming straight and found the sighting quite straight forward, partly because the course was simple, and also thanks to the hot pink hats the organisers had allocated to our wave. By the time I was on the return stretch there weren’t too many people, but the other swimmers that were nearby seemed to be swimming crawl and seemed to be swimming it with a good, regular stroke. There was absolutely nothing to lose, and I found more strength to kick on, stretch out, pull strong and even managed to get onto the exit ramp ahead of a couple of people who’d been ahead of me.

I found my run legs straight away and my eyes found the clock – 53 minutes! I just couldn’t believe it: the fastest I’d swum the distance in training was around the hour mark. No part of me thought I had that in me. All I had to do now was keep my stomach in check and hope that my technical bike woes were behind me, and there was every chance I was going to finish this!


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