I felt my right foot miss a step, heard a pop from my bent – over ankle, and experienced a gush of pain that doubled me over. I cursed myself for successfully spraining my ankle just two weeks before Annur Marathon. Now I had no hope of long distance running in the next two months. There was mild swelling and tenderness over the ankle but I was able to bear my bodyweight while walking. Mine seemed to be a grade I ankle sprain.
To help you get a general idea of ankle sprains and how to grade them, here are two illustrative diagrams:
Then came the memory of my friend Ramu’s invite for the CTC’s Swimathon on March 4th. Being a doctor I knew there was a fair chance of swimming by then, if I give my ankle adequate rest, ice and physiotherapy before the said date. But things didn’t go as well as I had planned and the pain from the grade I sprain kept coming back at work whenever I got up and switched places .
I don’t know what hit me, but as I was looking to register for the swim, I noticed there was a 15km swimming category along with the 5km and 10km categories in the competition and I signed up like a madman on a hunch even though my ankle hurt in certain awkward positions and extended range of motion during plantar flexion. The maximum distance I had covered in a single day during a swim was 7km and that was way back in 2010. This was definitely going to be interesting.
Two weeks went by and I had managed to hit the gym twice a week, walk 10km once a week and had visited the swimming pool twice every week, with mild jogging for a kilometer or so, whenever pain was absent.
The pain slowly withdrew three days before the event and I tapered my activity to be fresh for the swim. Prayers were said, not just by me but my family members as well, because they couldn’t fathom how I could complete such a distance which I hadn’t done during my days as a state level swimmer in 1999 , now, without any practice and that too with a messed – up ankle.
March 3rd: The days flew by and the time had come. I finished my work at my hospital then visited Apollo for a visiting consult before leaving to Chennai by car, with my wife and mom. The venue was the same as the CTC ‘s triathlon (refer previous post) and we checked into Hotel Holiday Inn, which was nearest the venue on OMR road, after dropping my wife at her parents’. I wouldn’t recommend the dinner I had to anyone else preparing for a Swimathon, but I crammed myself because I knew the next day would easily burn off everything I ate in a period of three hours max. So, in went three butter naans, chicken gravy, spicy chicken salad and chicken dosed with pepper and salt, followed by curd rice and mousse. I was worried if I had enough space for my 330 am snack which would determine my actual performance during the swim.
March 4th: 3:30AM
I did manage to get up and swallow two banana oatmeal muffins before sleeping till 430AM, following which I brushed my teeth, washed my face, changed and I was on my way. Mom would join me later at 8AM and Sanju, at 2PM.
Owing to unavoidable circumstances, my friend Ramu who had intimated me about the Swimathon couldn’t make it. I arrived at Ottiyambakkam Open Water Swimming site at 5AM sharp , filled the disclaimer form, had my BIB number (158) written on my arm with permanent marker to help me remember it (we had to shout our number on completing each loop for the officials to keep track of our progress) then located the baggage counter where I undressed to my swim shorts, and donned my swim cap and goggles.
The warm – up session for 15 km, 10km and 5km races started at 550am and we went through the usual exercises to loosen our joints and increase our core body temperature to prepare us for the gruelling event, followed by a group photo.
I felt a strange calm envelop me and I told myself I just needed to focus on finishing 15km , within the 10.5 hours cut off time. Nothing else mattered, including placing. There were only 13 participants en toto for the 15km event out of which 5 people downgraded to 10km because they felt they could not complete it. Now, here I was, swimming in a 15km event which hadn’t even been introduced into the Olympics, which in itself is a privilege. All I had to do, was focus on finishing.
I got into the pond, which was surprisingly refreshing and not freezing. The time had come, and I said a quick prayer asking God to spare me from cramps, which is the worst enemy of all swimmers and to give me energy to complete 15km in one piece. For those who don’t know this small water – body, it’s in Ottiyambakkam, Chennai, around 3km from Navalur on the OMR highway via Agni College.
The pond/lake is 150 meters long and since we had to cover 15km, we needed to finish 100 laps (50 loops)
615AM to 8AM:
It was soon 615AM, and the race started. I preserved my strategy of doing mainly the ‘breast – stroke’ to prevent my ankle from getting aggravated, with a few strokes of ‘freestyle/front-crawl’ thrown in to keep up the rhythm and to prevent overload of the muscles used during the breast – stroke. The crowd was huge but aside from a few kicks and punches from other participants, nothing went bad for me. I had soon completed 3.5 km by 8AM and made my first fuel – stop at the 3rd km mark. The volunteers were at the water’s edge with plates and gave us bananas, Electral and ‘kadalai mittai’.
815AM TO 1145 AM:
I was feeling pretty confident when I had crossed 5km and was going strong, when the inevitable happened. I was shouting out my number for the officials when someone from my side kicked my right (injured) ankle. There was a burst of pain – I closed my eyes and floated for a while before slowly proceeding with freestyle. In a minute my ankle felt better and things were back to normal – power of prayer!
I spotted mom at the 6th km, waved to her and proceeded with breaks every 1.5km. I had soon crossed 7.5 km (half the distance) by 1030AM. A much – needed toilet break followed at 1145 AM with mom helping me out of the pond.
A few shots of the event:
(Youngest participant in the 5km race)
(Lifeguard at the other end of the pond)
(Lifeguards from Bay of Life on surfboards watching with an eagle’s eye)
(Volunteers(and sometimes tired participants) hung on to tyres that were tied together through a rope to the other end of the quarry)
1145AM to 2PM:
Following this, I felt very refreshed and zoomed past many who had crossed my distance during the break. By the 10th km, I felt early signs of my body giving in to fatigue.
I continued to follow my fuelling strategy but for every 1.2 km (4 loops) instead of every 1.5km(5 loops). This kept my burning tummy at bay, with adequate refueling via mom’s banana oatmeal and Electral from the volunteers. Bananas had unfortunately run out by then and I had to make do with ‘kadalai mittai’. Both Thomas Habel and Vinolee (two of CTC’s best swimmers) and Mr. Anil Sharma had lapped me several times by then.
There was, by now, a mild stiffness in my left calf, which, as a long -time swimmer, I knew , could be a sign of cramps – to – come. I switched to doing more freestyle and used only half my usual power for kicks.
2PM to 250PM:
“5 loops to go!” It was awesome to hear it from the officials but my body was in robot – mode, much like what happens when I spend prolonged time in cataract surgeries – the mind automatically takes control. The tightness in my left calf increased, despite my increased consumption of Electral, and by the 14th km I knew cramps were coming on.
I fuelled one last time, with three loops to go, and increased the power in my arms in as relaxed a state as possible, to compensate for my poor kicking. Saw Sanju and Aunty during the last two loops and waved.
The last loop would probably have seen my best timing, with a finishing touch of 150 meters of freestyle. I breathed out in the water to lower my heart rate, then proceeded to be helped up by a kind volunteer. The time was 250 PM and we had started swimming at 615 AM – a total of 8 hours and 35 minutes.
I sat down, dazed, sun – burnt, partially dehydated, but overjoyed to have clinched the title of ‘Finisher’ of one of the world’s longest distances swam in an official competition.
Peter, the hero of the day and the founder of Chennai trekking Club, came by to give me my medal after starting the 3km event.
It was a memorable moment for me to meet my role – model, and to pose with the two ladies who have encouraged me to pursue my passions, with special mention to mom who oversaw my nutrition needs during the swim (since the bananas had run out by the 10th km, I would have definitely cramped up earlier if not for her banana oatmeal)
Post – event:
Mom answered worried calls from relatives, assuring them I was indeed safe and sound and had completed the event well within cut – off time. I gobled up ten banana ‘adais'(wheat and sugar thrown in with bananas and cooked), had ‘Tang’ then proceeded with total rest till dinner time. I ate up food to fill my still – ravenous gut during dinner, as expected and slept soundly that night.
The following morning saw us depart from Chennai at 10am and reach Trichy at 330 PM.
It was an eventful journey – one that I will remember not for my performance but for God’s immense grace and mercy for helping me finish 15km of swimming without even practising a 1km swim in the previous month, due to my ankle.
This is Vinod, signing off, before I meet you on my next adventure.