So, yesterday, I completed my tenth Liffey Swim. It is a race run annually through the beating heart of Dublin that is the river Liffey. I came last on account of swimming the 2.1 KM course breaststroke and in doing so, I became the first person to swim the course in all four traditional FINA strokes and I remain the first person to have completed the course in only Butterfly (2019). At the time in 2019, I wrote an essay about the endeavour and I feel it is fitting to share it here now….
Halfway to Mellows
So, its 2019, the year of the hundredth Liffey. The Liffey swim is a swimming race that starts at James’ brewery and passes underneath twelve car, train, luas and pedestrian bridges to bring you to the finish line at the Customs House. The men’s race starts an hour before the ladies and they are handicapped by time which means the faster swimmers give the slower swimmers a designated head start. There is a handicap team made up of a handful of volunteers who thirty times a summer get more abuse than the token honest guy on the late-night radio debate panel. I am one of the handicappers.
I would be lying if I said, I have no interest in winning the Liffey swim. Every open sea swimmer in Dublin dreams of that moment when they raise their clenched fists in jubilation at the national media. On the morning of race day, 500 victory speeches have been drafted mentally. Mothers have been name checked before the eggs have been boiled for breakfast and the fastest togs are sitting on the gym bag like a museum piece. But because I am one of the handicappers, I would go down in history badly were I to win the race.
After last year’s season, I came up with an idea. An idea that might get me into the history books while at the same time not be regarded as insider trading. I was going to do the race butterfly. Just to give a bit of context; I don’t believe this has ever been done before. I know Claire O’Dwyer who is Ireland’s only ever swimming world record holder, did the course with a version of one-armed butterfly due to a shoulder injury, but one and two armed fly are entirely separate animals. To add to the context, one of my peers in Belvedere, Dermot Canavan, likens the latter half of a 100 metres butterfly race to ‘carrying the grand piano up the stairs’. Indeed, my coach, Tony Morris will say that that the 200 metres fly event is a test of intelligence: once you have stood on the blocks, you have failed the test. The Liffey swim is 2100 metres.
The race was scheduled for the bank holiday weekend in August, but the preparation started in January. On a drab Sunday afternoon, my youngest two children and I walked down to the Liffey and followed the course bridge by bridge, measuring the distance to the next with a laser measuring tool. The laser measure was designed to tell you the distance you are standing from a flag on a putting green, so it was able to tell me for example, that the distance between the Mellows and Mathews bridges was 321 metres.
I think I had done a 400 metre fly swim once as a teenager and in the last 30 years, I would have done 200 metres fly once as a bucket list item. I didn’t know how I was going to achieve this so I blotted it out of my head as I measured the rest of the Liffey. My measurements were also cross referenced by my seven and nine year old, who knew of my plan but nonchalantly though, this is what grown ups do. They were happy for the hot chocolate pit stop.
When I got home and digested the analysis, it became a decision to make as to how many breaks to take and when. If I stopped every hundred metres, spectators would witness more treading of water than swimming. If I stopped under every bridge, my rest would be secluded and it would look more glamorous, but I would give the game away under the Millenium and Halpenny bridges. Plus it would mean three bridges with distances of 321m, 239m and 296m in a row. Butterfly was only ever a novelty for me so at the very least, this was going to take a lot of work.
The training began: at first it was 1 km in the pool with every second length fly. This was an immediate grounding in a stroke technique that didn’t cover the ground quickly but was more energy efficient than the racing genre of 50m butterfly. That’s not to say after the session I wasn’t a spent force fit for a ten hour sleep.
Within a few weeks I had ramped up to 1500m fly in the pool in the form of 30 x 50’s with 15 seconds rest after each. As I reflected on the race I thought, even if I did it in 50 metre segments, I would still be the first to do it fly. By April I had managed the distance. I had still done it in 50 metre chunks, but at each rest I treaded water rather than holding on to the wall. This was it, now I knew I could do it. By May I had achieved the distance using a mix of 50’s and 100’s but still didn’t have a plan for the race. I dare not commit to anything as I didn’t want to tempt fate, but I made the jump in confiding in my coach with this ludicrous plan. My logic was that I was making a commitment but one that would not be general knowledge, should it fail before it starts.
Then came the inevitable setback. I badly strained key muscles and tendons in my shoulders while assembling a set of bunk beds. The instructions clearly had a positive tick beside an image of two workmen and a big unhappy ‘X’ beside the image of a sole operative with his spanner. I was the man with that spanner. The damage I did stopped me dead in my tracks. I had a six km race 4 weeks later and I couldn’t do 25 metres in the pool without extreme pain. At this stage I had been dreaming this idea for 6 months and I kept on scheming someway I might achieve it. For two weeks my training was one arm only, the good arm, or long distances of butterfly kick. Then for two weeks, leading up to the six km race, the Warrior of the Sea from Rosses Point to Strandhill, I trained a precarious and painful front crawl. I breathed only to my right as breathing to the left was not sustainable.
I consulted my friend Mick Kelly on the Warrior of the Sea and he said the best chance I had was taking an over the counter pain killer before the race. So I took an ibuprofen before I set out into the open sea in Sligo. The race was 100% caution with a blend of fear of failing with a glimpse of hope. I had told myself I could always pull out of the race at any stage, but while the race was in progress, I didn’t want to entertain this option. In the end I finished the race, mostly breathing to my good side and I was able to start dreaming about the Liffey and butterfly again.
Back in training with 5 weeks to the big day, I had to get back on the horse. I tried a length of the pool doing fly and it became apparent that the muscle damage didn’t affect the fly technique as much as freestyle. I started again with the sets I started with in January. I consigned myself to the fact that whatever was going to happen, it wasn’t going to be hasty. My training colleagues were questioning, why so much butterfly, when ordinarily there would be little or none, and I was so bought into the idea at this stage, that I had confided in a handful of people, that I was going to attempt it. This was more an exercise in upping the ante than anything else. I still hadn’t formed a plan on the rest intervals in the big race.
On Saturday the 3rd of August, I arrived at the start of the race with old friends, Brian and Marcella from Enniskillen. There was scare mongering all week in the press about the quality of the water and true to form, the river was revolting. I kept telling myself and others that the ESB were going to open the dam and flush, and it was a welcome distraction from the master plan. When it came to the master plan, I just thought, “This is going to go horribly wrong”. My handicap was 13 minutes.
Standing on the starting pontoon, there was a big group of us off at the same time. I could hear the starter give us a ten second count down, and then go! My peers were gone on the button. I stood up, took a deep breath and dived in.
I took 3 casual butterfly kicks underwater realising that the first stroke I took would be the declaration. If it were freestyle, no one would notice which one of the 370 odd swimmers I was.
I lunged forward with two arms reaching over the water at the same time, then a patient double legged kick and then arms reaching over again. Strenuous exertion was not the name of the game at this point. I still was cognisant of the fact I hadn’t formulated a rest plan, but I was cognisant too from my electronic survey of the river that the first 90 metres would bring me to under the Joyce bridge. The perfect warm up.
I got to the Joyce bridge and I felt alive. The people behind me had not yet caught me and I had wandered on a swimmer who was loitering under the bridge in darkness, working on his handicap for next year’s race. He asked me, “Are you going to do the whole thing fly?”. I said “Yes”. That was the end of the conversation and he set off again.
I decided that there was no pressure in swimming solo so I could afford to tread water until I was ready to go again. I made up my mind I was going to swim the 155 metres non stop to the next bridge but if needs be, I could rest half way. Who cares if someone saw me stopping, they aren’t the ones doing butterfly. With each stroke, my head came out of the water and I could get a clear picture of the Mellows bridge. It didn’t seem to be getting any closer, but I wasn’t thinking of the 2KM plus of the race. I was thinking about getting to the next bridge. At the half way point to this famous Mellows, I questioned, should I stop and rest now? I realised I could make it to Mellows, I might need extra rest, but I’m there.
When I got there, I must have rested a full minute amongst seaweed. I looked back at the Joyce bridge and forward to the Fr Mathew bridge. I knew it was the biggest distance to get through, but I was looking at being the first to butterfly the Liffey, even though to be the first to do so only stopping underneath bridges. At this point, it was a blur. I had settled into a cadence that was natural and just about tolerable. Occasionally I thought, ‘once I get to Capeler, I’m halfway there’, but most of the time I was focusing on just getting to the next bridge.
I made it to the Fr Mathew bridge without halting and when I rested there with my thoughts echoing silently under the stone, I could tell myself, ‘I now can do this, I’m fairly spent but I have enough to get to the end’.
I don’t remember anything about the next bridge, the O’Donovan Rossa, other than I was constantly getting knotted up in seaweed. Under Capeler, I took the time to briefly study its engineering of stone, steel and wood. I could hear people cheering and shouting support, which meant the whole hair brained scheme had been worthwhile. I got to the Millenium bridge. I couldn’t hear any cheering any more but as I caught my breath under yet another bridge, I could hear an exuberant “Hi Daddy!”. I looked around and my wife Jen and the two ordinance surveyors from January were standing at the Liffey wall waving down to me. This was the happiest point of the nine months of this idea.
Next was the Halpenny. With each stroke rising out of the water, I could see a flock of swans 50 metres ahead. I was catching the slowest swimmers in the race, knowing at this point, 300 of the swimmers would be finished and half dressed. I got to O’Connell bridge where I had previously imagined having to negotiate with a rescue kayak to be allowed continue to the end, even though the allowed time limit of one hour would be up. When I stopped halfway underneath the iconic bridge, there was eriee silence. The city was two metres above me but it was a world away. A safety kayak was floating outside the exit to the bridge and she gestured at me a thumbs up to inquire if all was ok? I gave a thumbs up back.
At the earlier stages of my hypothesising, I had entertained the notion of flying non stop from O’Connell bridge to the finish at the Customs House. This was not going to happen now as I clung on to the fact that I could rest under every bridge. I rested under the Rosie Hackett bridge remembering my team mate, Ray Hegarty’s story that he made a point of delaying crossing over the new bridge so he could say he swam under it first.
Then to the penultimate pitstop, the Butt bridge. The swans had crossed the finish line. I had 120 metres left of my journey and there was little left to rest for. There was nothing left in the tank but it didn’t matter as I was running on autopilot. Coming up to the finish line, I said to myself, “I’ve done it now! I can now say I am the first person to have swam the Liffey swim from start to finish butterfly”.
When I crossed the finish line and stopped, my swimming stroke regressed into a novice doggy paddle. I couldn’t even backstroke gently to the exit steps.
I got up on dry land and limped to the fire brigade showers, where I was greeted with the Irish swimming institution that is Tom Healy. He squeezed some disinfectant soap into my hand saying, “This won’t be much use to you, it’s too deep in your pores now”.