“Technically a crisp packet could do it.”
The unhealthily speedy amphibian Steve Mott certainly intended these as reassuring words but, as I drank more wine the evening before the Thames Marathon swim, I began to get pre-occupied that I would reach Marlow with a somewhat forlorn breast stroke, some distance behind a carelessly discarded prawn cocktail carcass.
This would be my first attempt at a marathon swim and I had no concept what to expect.
It started so innocently in September.
Jan: Fancy coming down to do the Bridge to Bridge swim?
You’ll notice I didn’t pause to think about it. If the same offer was a run or a bike I would at least have spluttered into my gin and tonic, just before a significant monologue of expletives, finally ending the conversation with at least one “NO”.
How hard could it be?
Somewhat contrary to my usual approach to swimming I tried the training thing. That didn’t work out so well for me as I wrecked my shoulder (yet again) and got an ear infection. However it was probably better preparation than drunkenly commandeering a taxi in Newcastle to drive thru Mcdonalds the night before a long distance swim.
But it’s all swings and roundabouts. Ying and yang and all that. As long as I could feel my fingers and had some Monster Munch as a pacer I would definitely make it from Henley Bridge to Marlow Bridge the long way.
Thursday night I chuck the wetsuit and goggs in the case. Friday morning we pack up the entourage and head south. Friday lunchtime the Google Maps lady kidnaps Sharon and holds her hostage in a dark part of the T5 car park until we offer Roar as a ransom. Or she just got lost. But I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt.
As ever, Londonshire gently poaches me. And grills me. I get sweaty and turn red. I turn my mind to the Thames. I will probably need to cut my wetsuit arms and legs off. In fact I will probably have to transform it into neoprene speedos just to get to the end without expiring. But if I do that I’ll end up on some register. Decisions, decisions.
Weekend events progress. Beer. Wine. Blackwoods Gin in the campest glass EVER. A foregone fancy burger. Pokemon Go. Taking a picnic up a hill. Arriving back at car sans car keys. Children talking. And talking. More effing Pokemon. Waiting. Rediscovered car keys. SUNBURN. Children talking at 5am. About Pokemon.
We get to Saturday evening. Shits getting serious. Jan and I do goggle and rubber suit stuff. While drinking beer. We carb load on Sharon’s amazing risotto. Asparagus risotto. (Hold that thought) Wine? Don’t mind if I do. A few last minute texts along the theme of “don’t be shit”, “don’t die”, “beat the crisp packet”, “don’t drink the shit flavoured water”. Awe inspiring stuff.
I lay down the law. “Be in the car at 6:30 or we’re leaving without you”. Which was quite bold given that I wasn’t even the driver.
Awake. Jammers on under my shorts. Porridge. Tape my neck up like a fetishist.
The bold statement works; the 6:30 headcount confirms no children have been left behind yet Pokemon playing adults are borderline. We’re off.
We arrive at Leander Club in Henley. Not a bad spot for a race. I find my own square of grass amongst the rubber suited fetishists and organise my neoprene and lubes and tapes. Wetsuit to the waist I wander over to watch the first (mainly fast) wave start.
Hooter. W.T.A.F. THEY ARE ALL GOING THE WRONG WAY.
Oh. Wait. Maybe it’s me that is disorientated. Yup, that’s what it is.
Race briefing: basically along the lines of try not to die. I paraphrase a very thorough briefing but that’s kinda all I heard.
Set my Glympse app to transmit. Zip up. Inflate tow buoy. Into the Thames we go.
According to Leander club the river flow was normal, however, the difficulty that we had holding a start line suggested there was a decent current. Which was lucky because I followed my usual swim race routine. Remember the asparagus? Yup, already on it’s way to Marlow.
Jan and I have a final moment of bon mots and the horn goes.
As has become the norm I have assumed everyone has seeded themselves with some degree of self awareness. As has become the norm I swim straight into frog’s leg soup and head up breastroke.
I know to keep my cool so I just go with the flow. Find a space. Fill it. Move on to the next space.
I will emerge from the stramash without concussion.
After a couple of hundred metres I look up and I am in a small group, maybe a dozen. A few minutes later I look up and I AM WINNING THE FRIGGING RACE. Admittedly it was a bit early to call it victory.
A group of three of us start working together and a breath under the arm suggests that we are making some distance on the pack. Something bizarre must happen with the flow in the Thames. Groups would suddenly fracture and disconnect with no change in pace and then come back together, which must have been to do with currents within the flow.
I lost all sense of time on this section. I knew I had 4k to swim but I had no idea how far out we were. And then I breathed and noticed the exit sign behind me. My group of three had swum past. Anyway, I backtrack and get out. I’m handed a wipe and use some antibacterial gel. I slop some vaseline on my neck. Grab half a banana and a square of soreen and make my way through the transition. I instantly realise the error in the order of the aid station table as I try to eat soreen preserved in petroleum jelly.
Just as I reach the entry point back into the river I see the sherpas. “I WAS IN THE LEAD. Briefly”. KEEP GOING.
The next 6k section is going to make or break the day. I get back in but I’ve lost the group. They are about 50m ahead. I decide not to burn any matches but to make my way back up to them very gently.
It’s a lonely business. I check out follies and giant estates on either bank. Something catches my eye in the sky. I take three exaggerated breaths to properly look. It’s a plane. But now I’m waaaay off line. BANG. Canoe. Soz.
For the first couple of km I swim alone and then I see the lead group start to splinter. (The tow buoys and perfect for sighting groups). I think I’ll catch those that are dropped, take a brief draft then move on to the next one. But those that are shelled by the group are dropping back like stones. A lot of pink caps from the first wave starting to struggle.
About 4k into this section I catch the group just at a sharp left turn in the river. I feel surprisingly amazing.
I see a weir up ahead. It can’t be that time already. Nah. Everyone is definitely swimming past it on the right. I breathe. Haud on, that’s Sharon. I hear Rory cheering. Yaaaaaaas. 10k nailed.
Volunteer: “How are you feeling?”
Me: “OH MY GOD I AM LOVING THIS I SO WANT TO DO IT AGAIN OH MY GOD IT’S SO MUCH FUN”; my inner 10 year old girl escapes in the excitement.
I clamber out. My neck feels raw. And my ear. MY EAR.
I am handed a wipe. I wipe my face. Pam asks where all the blood is coming from. Nowhere apparently. But MY EAR IS SORE.
I eat about an inch of a Boost bar and take a handful of crisps. Rory eats the crisps. All kids look at the aid station with the covetous eyes of confectionery predators. I chuck back two cups of energy drink (Jesus shit, that was buggering awful stuff) and two cups of water. Neck lubed. Ready to go.
I am held by a canoeist as a couple of boats pass.
We swim about 20m to a stepladder, up and onto an island. A short trot across the island and back into the river. It’s rocky. I watch people ahead of me mince in on the sharp rocks. I note where they get just above ankle depth. I get there and bellyflop into the water and drag myself, belly down, over the rocks.
The third section is only about 1.5k, narrow and we swim on the left hand side. This feels like the home straight.
At the third exit I fumble on the stepladder. The lowest step is just about at water level leaving me contorted on my back, in a rubber suit trying to get out.
Quite a long walk this time. Crisps. Water. Lube. I’ve mastered the order of the aid station.
I chat to all the marshalls thanking them for an incredible day. I chat so long in fact that a bloody great cruise ship gets between me and the main group. I get held back.
Then it’s time for the final section. “Once you turn the corner you’ll see the bridge. 2.2km”.
“Is this deep water?”
I bomb. Like a naughty 10 year old. I am loving this waaaay too much.
The last section is lonely. I swim alone, only ever seeing dropped pink caps.
I am mesmerised by the weeping willows that line the bank. Then the long balustrade that the pushes long shadows onto the Thames. Then the little cube hut. Then I see the buoy.
I am probably tired but I don’t feel it. This race should be shown the respect it deserves. I start to pick up a kick, turn my arms over faster. This is a proper event; I’m going to finish this like a proper swimmer.
The buoy gets closer. My mind searches for the memory of the finish procedure. Nah. It’s gone. I ask a canoeist.
“Over there”, he points at a densely populated bank with dayglo signs and marquees.
“Ah, yes. Now I see”
“You’ll need to wait for these boats to pass”.
“OK, on you go”
Head down. Elbows high. Long strokes. 6 beat kick. This is what it’s all about. This is why I love to swim. This makes all the hours in the pool worthwhile. I. AM. A. MARATHON. SWIMMER.
I get medalled. But, more importantly, I find out I finished in 3:27. Ridiculous. A bit ahead of my anticipated 4:30 and probably indicative of a decent current. I beat the crisp packet. But Loch Lomond will give me an idea of my real pace.
I get dry and change. Jan comes in at 3:59:58. Now that’s a proper sub 4!
What can I say about the Thames Marathon? An amazing event – expensive, with very little fluff over and above the swim but an incredible venue, assuring water safety, the BEST volunteers and a buffet that would delight any 10 year old at every stop on the river.
Incredible thank yous to Jan for asking me, and to Sharon, Jan, Molly and Finn for being the best hosts. It was a proper whole weekend experience!
The show moves on to the Great Scottish Swim 10k in 3 weeks. I need a solution to a chafing ear and I need a bit more release by the physio of my shoulder and my thoracic spine.
But in all other respects:
I. AM. READY.
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