First open water swim at Hever castle
This weekend took me to Hever Castle. Nestled in the glorious countryside of Kent (known as the Garden of Britain – A name well earned), it has been host to the Hever Castle Triathlon for 9 years and is a weekend event with disciplines for all the family. This year they teamed up with the Outdoor Swimmer magazine to put on a swimming-only event to run alongside the Triathlons. As this is a very popular event, it was deemed necessary to have a seperate registration for the swimmers and this was situated in the Italian Garden just on the banks of the lake that makes up part of the Hever Castle grounds. After checking in and meeting with a few people that I knew, it was time for the Race Briefing on a balcony on the edge of the loggia, a statue that overlooks the Whole lake. It was a fairly detailed briefing as the course was somewhat complicated, with us changing directions regularly and then also moving from the lake into the adjacent river and then back into the lake.
As you can see from the map, the briefing had to be pretty comprehensive to attempt to explain to approximately 80 swimmers which way they should be going and when. At this point I lost interest as I really was just focusing on the swim. I was one of a handful of people without wetsuits, flying the bioprene flag. As is normally the case, bioprene swimmers in amoungst a sea of neoprene always garner some odd looks from fellow competitors. Normally at this point they are all baking hot standing in the sun and all they want to do is get into the water to cool down a bit. Soon the briefing was over and we were ushered to the pontoon where we would enter the water. As is normally the case, I waited right at the back as I am not that keen to get into 16 degree Celsius water (60.8 F for my american friends) only to hang around for everyone to get in. When I did finally jump in, there was no time to get acquainted with the water as you just have to get in entirely off the pontoon. I think their thermometer was a bit off because it felt way more frigid than 16C!
So as the start gun sounded, being right at the back, I had to spend the first 300m of the race picking my way through about 70 swimmers until we were more spread out. Most of this 300m was spent doing either head up freestyle, or sighting every stroke, so as not to swim over anyone. I came through with 9 people ahead of me and many snapping at my heels, and I settled into my rhythm before we had to veer off to the right for a while, turning left around a buoy to go round the extremities of the course, then turning right again. At this point, 7 were long way ahead and I could see two people ahead of me that I was trying to chase down but I was gaining little ground on them. Soon, the course demanded a right hand 180 degree turn such that the leaders were coming back past me. I checked if there were any Bioprene swimmers in there, but I felt safe in the knowledge that I was the leading bioprene swimmer. After coming back on ourselves, we turned left into the river where the two ahead of me were about 50m ahead but, at the entrance to the river, the water temperature plummeted. If the lake was in fact 16 degrees, I would put the river temperature closer to 13 degrees. Being clad only in my budgie smugglers, I was very aware in the drop in temp and prone to the effects of this lower temperature.
When in the river, the sides closed in damatically and the edges on either side were only metres away. If you swam too close to either edge, the weeds and the detritis became problematic so we were constantly trying to stay in the middle as much as posibble so as not to get caught up in the overhanging foliage or the weeds on the bottom. The two ahead of me were slowly disappearing into the distance. They had the luxury of warmth and bouyancy whereas I had to expend some of my energy just to try keep warm. Soon, we were nearly through the river section and back into the lake itself. It was like moving from a pool to a jacuzzi with the temperature change. I began catching up to the people in front; slowly, but I believed I was reeling them in. With 2.5km left, I was fairly confident that although I would catch the group ahead, it would be unlikely I’d catch them before we reached the river section again.
So as we meandered through the maze of the swim course and its extremities, the 2 ahead of me came round a left hand bend; I followed them, only to be told that we were all heading in the wrong direction by support kayakers. They put me and the swimmers in front, back on course, but as I was corrected slightly earlier, the race began to change.
We all descended on the next buoy at the same time so their 50m lead had now vanished. My mind had to adjust to the new reality that if I push, I might be able to keep up with and maybe beat them. Up to this point, I had been happy to plod along on my own as I was not under any pressure from anyone chasing me. Now my mind was switching into race mode so with Derek on my left and Danny Bunn on my right, I was matching strokes with Danny. My aim was to try to get ahead before we had to do that 180 degree right turn. I pushed hard and got to this buoy in front with Danny right on my heels and Derek just behind.
The next buoy was a left hand bend into the river, and at this point, I was about 2 body lengths ahead. Whether Danny pushed hard or I just succumbed to the cold, we were soon side by side going into the river and we fought out way through this together with neither of us giving an inch. Even having to negotiate our way through the 2.5km swimmers who were littering the path ahead, nothing separated us in the river, with Derek remaining hot on our heels the whole time. Soon, we were out into the lake side by side with Derek hard on our heels and about 300m to go…….. and the temperature getting nice and toasty again.
As is often the case in these shorter races, I have plenty left in the tank should it come to a sprint finish and this looked exactly like what was going to happen. At this point we spread out a bit with me leading, Danny next and Derek out to the left with us. We turned into the finish area which took us under a narrow bridge in front of the Laggio. There were still swimmers that we were catching and I apologise to the swimmer in the yellow hat whom I nearly drowned.
Honestly, I really do apologise to that swimmer, I thought this sort of thing only happened at the beginning of a race, not at the end. Soon we were at the finishing ramp and fighting our way through the other 2.5km swimmers that were arriving at the ramp at the same time. Then it was all over – with only 12 seconds separating us three after 5km and a few detours along the way. Thank you to Danny and to Derek for pushing me on for the last 2 km. It was awesome having such great swimmers to battle with.
A great little Race and another first place for me in a time of 1 hours 17 min 5 secs. This bringing the tally of Podiums for me in the skins sections up to three this year. Best enjoy it now until before the fast swimmers get in on the act. Thank you to Simon and his Outdoor swimmer team for bringing this together.
So what can be improved
One thing that cannot be faulted is the venue. Such a stunning location for a swim and with surrounds like that, it is a great day out for the whole family. The gardens are stunning as is the castle itself and you can while away the whole day in the gardens alone. There are several areas for spectators to view the action along the lakeside and also on the various bridges that cross the river.
The lake can be a bit murky as it is quite shallow so be aware of this. Nothing can really be done about it but just be aware that at the start specifically, you can actually stand in the mud thus stirring it up and making it a lot more murky than normal.
The biggest letdown is the course. I understand that it might be the safest route but I would use both edges of the lake so go out on the right hand side hugging the shore and then go into the river and if need be just go down the left of the lake and then back into the river for the extra distance. I am sure that there are other ways but a very convoluted course that entails left and right hand turns and complete switchbacks is very hard for a swimmer to follow, especially when the groups are quite large and you have swimmers coming toward you.
I know that this next issue is something that changes a lot but having a very narrow river to swim in and different paced swimmers can be very disconcerting. It might be an idea to let the 2.5km wave start ahead of the 5km so that the leaders of the 5km have got past the slower swimmers before we end up in the river.
One thing that was noticeable on this swim is how some people succumbed to hypothermia. Yes, it is the responsibility of the swimmer to be confident in those temperatures be it in bioprene or neoprene, but if you are not then please use the neoprene. The one thing that would be useful is for the medics to have both female and male operatives at hand to deal with swimmers who develop to hypothermia, as one of the first things that should happen is to get a sufferer out of their cold wet costume, but with ony male staff availabe, this might not happen quick enough if for instance a lady is afflicted. Those mini changing pods at the finish that can hold one, maybe two people could be useful in this instance so the recovery can take place in private.
Apart for the above niggles, which will always be a part of a first time event, it was a great swim in a great location that I will most likely do again; I need to defend my title! I may not be so lucky next time, when the fast swimers get wind of this event.
Season coming to an end
This might be the last swim in the lakes for me and from here on it it is back to the pool. I have so loved being outdoors to do most of my training but with the lakes closing soon, I will have to venture back into the River to get my cold water fix so I will hopefully be there on the weekends as I cannot really swim in the rivers on my own in the evening.
I am trying to decide what swims I will be doing next year but that is very dependant on doing grown up things. I will continue to blog about my adventures but Happy swimming to all and I hope that you have all had a great season. with many ups and downs along the way, this sport does not fail to deliver in the enjoyment stakes.