In August this year I took part in my first long distance swim event. The Bridge to Bridge race is one of a series of swims put together by Henley Swim along the Thames. The Bridge to Bridge starts from the famous Leander rowing club where Steve Redgrave the 5 time Olympic gold medallist rowed.
The Bridge to Bridge swim is a 14.1 km swim from Henley to Marlow with four feed stops along the way.
I signed up for this event in May having only ever swum a maximum of about 3km in one go before ( in a pool with plenty of little stops), but you’ve got to have ambition, right?
Two of my friends also signed up for the event. Both of whom swim as if they are related to fish, so I tried not to think about being the slow one and got stuck into training.
I generally trained by swimming four times a week, completing drill sessions twice during the week which averaged about 2500m and longer distances at an open water venue called TriFarm at the weekends. My training distance in a week built over the course of the period from 9km to 18km per week.
Through June and July I built up my Saturday distance and it was on one of my long distance Saturdays that I met Jason Betley a fellow English Channel aspirant for 2014. Our meeting was made memorable by the fact that he was wearing a Nemo the fish swimming hat. The last weekend in July I swam 10k in a decent time and started tapering for Henley.
We arrived at the Henley start at 7 am queasy with nerves. One of my friends supplied us with a rubber duck each to tie to our wetsuits so we could be easily spotted by our family and friends who’d come to crew, cheer, support and share the day. Ryan Bowd was also official photographer.
We had a safety briefing and then it was into the water. I’ve never seen so many wet suited bodies at once – about 200 of us. I jumped in and headed slowly across to Henley bridge from the pontoon wiggling myself to the back of the start line so that I wouldn’t be swum over by a faster swimmer. The water was lovely at 18.6 degrees and crystal clear which was a big surprise. At 8am Duck and I were off !
We were guided by kayaks to our first nutrition stop after 2km to be put into pods ranked by speed. It was a first chance to fuel up and speak to friends who were walking along the riverbank. Quick photo stop and back in for the next 4km. This stop was on an island in the middle of the Thames so I waved at my crew as I scoffed Mars bar pieces and then we set off again before we started to chill.
The water is actually quite clean and I did take a couple of lady like sips and it wasn’t too bad to taste either although my tummy objected for the next 24 hours ( or maybe I’d overdosed on Mars bars). I kept turning my arms over consistently and not thinking of anything other than trying to take in the beauty of the river and enjoyment of taking part in the swim. People did chat a bit from time to time as we were held up when we caught the pod in front, so it was much more sociable than I thought it would be.
When we got out at 10-ish km my shoulders felt the same as they had after my 10km swim in training so I was pleased. I’d been fed my peanut butter cups and Gatorade and had folks cheering me on a beautiful sunny and warm day so life felt good.
At the 12 km stop my shoulders felt the same as they had at 10 km so I felt really reassured and quite relaxed even. I’d taken in good nutrition all through the swim and had kept my pace well within myself- I’m a bit of a metronome, so once I get a rhythm I can keep it.
Once back in the water, I felt so good that I decided to really push on for home for the last 2 km. I caught up and passed folks which gave me a massive boost and all of a sudden, the Marlow Bridge appeared and I heard cheering and clapping and I felt like a child, not wanting it to end. I was helped out of the river and given a medal and it all got a bit surreal. I couldn’t actually take in what I’d done. I still can’t really although I’ve got the medal to prove it.
B2B is a fantastic event. It’s extremely well organised and gives an opportunity to swim in a stunningly beautiful location in a safe and non competitive way with other like minded folks. Sadly, Duck made a bid for freedom somewhere along the way but he will never be forgotten.
Lessons I learned
Long distance swimming has to be properly trained for, you can’t wing it.
Find nutrition that works for you and your tummy and you can look forward to eating. Mix it up – don’t just have one type of fuel.
Make sure you use plenty of Bodyglide to protect your neck from chafing, although in freshwater this is generally a lot less than it is when swimming in salt water.
Consider using a neoprene under hat and booties if you’re going to be in cooler temperatures for longer than an hour. They really help if you are prone to getting a little chilled.
There are lots of great open water swimming events all around the country and loads of fun people of all ages and backgrounds to share this amazing sport with.
“The wheels on the bus go round and round” gets pretty annoying when sung over and over in your head for longer than an hour.
I can swear under water.
Tie your rubber duck to your wet suit, don’t just rely on tape.
All photographs © Ryan Bowd, 2013