Thursday, 1 September 2011

Bridge to Bridge

My last event of the season was a nice, end of summer, current assisted swim. An easy one I hear you say .... Well first of all, summer made a brief appearance back in May and hasn’t returned much since, so the water was not as warm as expected (touted as 18 degrees C, but it certainly didn’t feel that warm!). Although the UK has had what can only be described as apocalyptic rain at times this year, the flow of the river was down by about 70%. All the better I thought, as I was lining up with the other 100 or so folk planning to swim the 14km from Henley to Marlow in the Henley Swim Bridge to Bridge challenge, this way I can really challenge myself.

I had debated as to whether this would be a good swim to end my season on (with the imminent arrival of another baby I felt it better not to book past the 3 week to go mark!). After the Weymouth sea swim I was looking for another sea event to really push me further, but with everything that has been and is going on at the moment it just hasn’t been possible. This was my best local option and as the organisers agreed that I could swim without a wetsuit I felt it could be challenge enough.

There were only a handful of us swimming in just our cosies, huddling amongst the neoprene clad mass to keep warm at the start as the safety briefing was given. The most important point made a number of times – This is NOT a race.... As is my way I like to get in the water as soon as possible to get loosened up and to get in a good position for the start of the race...I mean event. On this occasion this was a big I slipped into the water my breath caught in my throat, there was no way this was 18 degrees! I couldn’t believe how cold it felt. As I swam hard to try and warm up the thought circling round and round in my head was There is no way I can stay in this water for 4 hours . As we hung around waiting for the rest of the group to get in the water I was very tempted to swim back to the shore, get out and wait for the last minute to get in....but instead I vigorously trod/treaded(?!) water in an attempt to build up my core temperature. Finally the starter set us on our way and although it was a long way to go and it wasn’t a race I put my head down and swam with all my might!

As the banks of the Thames passed by and some clear water opened up around me I started to feel a little warmer and reminded myself that the worst thing I could do was allow negative thoughts to take root in my mind. So, I repeated the mantra I am warm and I am doing well over and over in my head until I believed it, I smiled and started to enjoy myself. We swam through the Henley Regatta course and on toward the first lock at the 4km mark. The pace was good and although it didn’t feel as though there was a significant current assist, there must have been something as this first section literally flew by, in just over 55 mins I arrived at the lock.

The organisers had decided that the best way to group us was to allow us to start as one big group and then split us into smaller groups as we arrived at the first lock. I lost sight of where I was in the grand scheme of things, but felt that I would probably be in the silver group as I could still see plenty of people behind me, but as I got out of the water I was told I was in bronze. I wasn’t bothered about which group I was in, but I was bothered that we had to wait for the silver group to get going and a few others to catch up before we could get back in the water. As soon as I was out of the water the cold start set in, although I wasn’t shaking I could feel that the shakes would only held a bay for so long with positive mental thinking. I downed a cup of hot choc which helped and complained along with another couple of skins swimmers – one of which was start to shake quite badly (I thought there is no way she is going to make this swim if she is shaking like that at this stage of the swim). After just over 7 mins(!!!!) we were back in the water and although we hadn’t been given the all clear to go, I saw one of the canoeists up ahead so I put my head down and started swimming. Once I got going again I felt fine and the cold no longer bothered me, but it was too long a stop.

The next section was a little more interesting as we passed by a large island which felt as though we were swimming through somewhere more exotic than the Thames, there was almost a mangrove feel to the area. Although best not to think about that too much as there are a few nasties that live in mangroves! Again this section seemed to whizz by, before I knew it we were at the next stop point just over 3km from the previous one where we had a quick top up on fluids and food. As I drank some sports drink I managed to miss my mouth and get it down my front which was when I realized the cold had started to creep in and the shakes were starting. I needed to get back in the water and just keep swimming. As we started the next section the sun came out which lifted my spirits and although my jaw was shaking a little at the start I clamped my teeth together and swam a bit harder.

The sun really was helping and the scenery was changing; we passed some lovely houses and boat clubs fringed with long grass and reeds. Every now and again I felt the current give me a little boost, which was always welcome. As we neared the third stopping point my mind started to play tricks on me, by my reckoning we should be within 4km of the finish, but I had this horrible feeling that we were going to be told that we’d only covered 8 or 9km and there was still 6km to go. At this thought stiffness seemed to creep into my muscles. I stood up to get out and bashed my leg on an unseen ledge in the water, I was a little angry that no one had pointed this out, but realised that I may be getting a little tired when I couldn’t be bothered to wipe the blood away. I heard the happy news that we were 1.5km from the last lock and just over 2km from there to the finish. As I took a drink, I glanced at the lady who had been shivering at the first lock, she was now shivering uncontrollably and in tears, I couldn’t believe she had made it this far and felt sure she was going to give up. She didn’t however she just got back in the water with the rest of us and carried on, incredible!

We crossed the river, scampered over a bank into another section of the Thames and into what felt like a bog, with unseen weeds all around our feet in the shallows. Head-up breast stroke into the deeper water was the best way through. The safety canoeists had told us to wait for them to come round another route to join us before heading off , but collectively as a group we started to swim forward. Myself and the other skins in the group had no desire to hang around any longer. It was tentative at first and then back into full swim, the canoeist caught up eventually.

Now that I knew how far we had to go for each section the swim felt harder instead of easier. I knew to expect the lock in around 15-20mins, but it is difficult to measure time when you are swimming. This section seemed longer than the previous, but was half the distance. As I arrived at the lock the rain started to come down which didn’t help matters. I looked at my hands and saw that they had gone a deep blue and were shaking. The cold was in and it was starting to sap my energy. I walked to the other side of the lock and conscious that I just needed to keep swimming I didn’t hang around to eat and drink. There was a queue to get into the water as there was only a small entry point, which did not help with the feeling of the cold. I watched as the ‘shivering lady’ struggled (mentally) to get back in the water, but with the help of support around her she jumped in and swam off.

I got in started to swim, but felt as though I was swimming against the tide. My muscles were stiff and I lost heart as some of the swimmers overtook me. I started to berate myself in my head at not having worked harder in training, that I should not be letting these people swim past me....but then I remembered, they were in wetsuits and I was not. The cold does take its toll and saps energy, not only did these guys not have to worry about that they had the added benefit of being more buoyant than me. These thoughts helped me and although I felt I was swimming uphill I tried harder to maintain good technique and pull strongly through the stroke. Now I started to overtake some of the other swimmers and got a mental boost.

The last kilometre into Marlow seemed to go on forever, which wasn’t helped by the fact there is a stone wall that runs along the side of the river and as this is uniform all the way there are no markers to show progression which adds to the feeling of swimming on the spot.
Eventually the wall disappeared, I rounded a bend and could see the river straighten out in front of me. I was getting annoyed that I couldn’t see a finishing marker and thought we must still have a long way to go, there was bridge ahead, maybe the finishing point was somewhere after that or even a long way after that. As I was concentrating on maintaining good form and telling myself that I was warm and doing fine a little voice popped up and said ‘As this is the bridge to BRIDGE challenge, do you think it possible that the BRIDGE could be the finish line!!!’ With a little smile on my face I swam the last few hundred metres to the finish getting out of the water in 3:59mins – sub 4hrs for 14km, not bad (we wont mention the current assist at this point). I saw 'shivering lady' at the end having swum the whole way, she was now wrapped up in a sleeping bag, endless clothes and being hugged to warmed by a number of people, what an awesome mental effort!

Once out of the water I needed to get warm, I dried as quickly as possible throwing on my clothes as some people tried to talk to me, all I could do was nod. I was shivering and my jaw had a mind of its own chattering all over the place. It was pointed out that my lips were a lovely shade of blue, so picked up my stuff and headed for a warm shower to ride out the shivers and get back to feeling normal.

It was a great event and not even the swimmers itch that started to appear a few hours after the swim (and gave the impression that I was suffering from chicken pox for the next couple of days) could put a dampener on it....I wonder how much harder it would be to swim the other way, next years challenge!