Jewel in the Country
Rather than bother everyone with my personal experiences, I will separate this blog into two sections. As this is the first time that this swim has been done, I feel a part dedicated to the swim would be useful. Then, if you are not bored, you can read about my personal experience
As the swim is organised by the same group that operate and run the very successful Jubilee River swim, it was a given that the organisation would be superb and we were not let down. Car parking was ample followed by a 500m walk to the Race headquarters where the tables were all set out. It was a seamless operation to collect our caps and bag tags and then onto another table to get the timing chips. There are toilets and change rooms at the race headquarters, but be aware that as it is small Cricket/local sports club, not designed for huge amounts of people; it is probably better to get as ready as you can before you arrive.
From there it is a short walk down to the rivers’ edge where we dropped our bags with the van to transport them to the finish line. This time there were three waves based on expected timings with the slower waves going off first, and 15 minute intervals between waves.
We all gathered for the a briefing (basically a run through of the event details as on the website) next to the bridge in Wallingford and then entered the water to swim across it to the other side. Because it is the Thames, it is open to other boat traffic so our aim as swimmers is to stick to the right hand bank. Soon, under the backdrop of the beautiful Wallingford Bridge, we were all in the water, on the right hand side and ready to start. Each wave was accompanied by boat support for safety, support and keeping swimmers on the correct side of the river.
The water was a tropical 16 – 18 degrees by my standards and it wasn’t long before we were off; a group of wetsuits led a pack of about 15 people that broke off, with smaller groups that joined together. The water was typically Thames like so not that clear, but if you got close enough to the banks then you felt your hands brushing the weeds on the bottom of the river. If you swam slightly further out in the river you were not bothered by it. There was always a kayak if you decided to stray too far into the middle of the river to put you back on course, or a motorised rib to fish you out should you be in distress and ferry you to safety.
As is normal with a swim of this distance, there are feedstations along the way, some where you have to get out of the river and some where you just stand on the edge of the river. The snacks on offer are perfectly adequate with flapjacks, Coke, water and fruit for everyone, but for those who are more into their nutrition, you can leave your favourite snacks with the organisers to take to specified feed stations. There are three along the way at 2.5km, 4.3km and 6.5km, all well manned by very friendly and helpful staff.
About two thirds of the way down there is an island that you have to stick to the right of. The path narrows alot with over hanging branches and foliage. Not a problem if you are swimming in single file, but could be interesting should a big group of similar paced swimmers try to get through it together! As you emerge from the end of this island you are then swimming under the arches of a very picturesque large railway bridge.
The finish, marked by a big orange buoy (or bu-ee for any Americans who might be reading this), is situated in a field just above the village of Streatley; this is where the locks start and it would be a bit of a logistical nightmare to get swimmers and support through them. There are helpful staff to assist you out of the water where the timing mat is situated. Once out, your bags are there and there are areas for changing in and more snacks and bacon rolls. From here the organisers put on buses, at regular intervals, to transport swimmers and spectators back to the start to their cars.
For the Spectators…
It is a lovely part of the country for a nice walk where you can follow most of the swim along the rivers’ edge. There are a few areas where you have to leave the river and then wind your way along the local streets before coming back to the rivers’ edge to spot and support your swimmers.
All in all, it is a wonderful swim in a picturesque part of the country, where spending a couple of hours making your way along the river for both swimmers and spectators is an extremely good way to start a Sunday.
One thing that this Swim does not afford is the ability to have teams. I am sure that with a bit of thought, this could be worked into the event but at present, it is a solo swim.
Main thing is that it was so great to see so many familiar faces from OSS Windsor and Maidenhead group and also Teddington masters, the two main groups that I often train with.
So – another fun swim, and it was great to be part of the first time this race has been done. For me, it was not the best swim I have ever done. I was quite well down on my expected time despite winning my category; I was hoping for better but the craziness of this year has taken me away from the lakes and pools with my mind focusing on other more important things. Despite this I have been keeping a little bit active but my lack of proper training was very evident on this swim. More so than the 14km that I did two weeks ago.
Just before the start, after dropping my bag in the van and finishing the briefing, I put my new cap on and it shot straight off my head. I thought, this could be interesting as this will come off in a matter of seconds. Never fear, the engineer in me had a cunning plan – which seemed very good at the outset. Just tighten your goggle strap a little bit and put them on the outside of the cap, that should do the trick!!! It did, for a while. We made our way in to the river and prepared for the start, then we were off, with part of me wanting to get caught up in the melee of the mass start and another part of me shouting, ”JUST SWIM YOUR OWN RACE!” Cannot really say which part won, but I settled down into about 15th place.
After about 400m, Liz, From Teddington caught me up and we then matched pace for the next 3.6km, swimming side by side for pretty much all of it. Together we overtook a few other swimmers, and swam past the first feed station where a few of our wave, that were ahead of us had stopped. They joined in with us so now there were 4 of us side by side, Zimhippo in his best bioprene and 3 swimmers in wetsuits. We were pretty much equally matched, with one of us nudging ahead every now and again but not able to open up a gap. Soon we were at the second feed stop, where my brilliant idea of tightening my goggles had to be remedied – and soon. I had tightened them too much and from about 2km, the resulting headache had been getting progressively worse. I had to stop to let the headache subside a bit, loosen the offending goggle straps and take on a bit of food. This is where I lost the group that I had been with but also got to say hello to some other swimmers that were in the wave ahead of me. After a few minutes, my headache had diminished enough to let me carry on.
Thanks to Phil for these awesome images of Liz and I swimming side by side
(Where? Oh! There!! – Ed.)
Back in the water and I was now on my own, which I quite enjoy, as I can set my own pace and work on catching the tow floats bobbing ahead of me. At this point in the race, I was on track for a time of about 2 hours 8 minutes. I had caught up to the waves in front quite quickly, so I had to negotiate my way through the people, sometimes having to go wide and sometimes closer to the bank.
I then reached the island in the river where I had to follow the right hand path, pushing this Zimhippo into a fairly narrow channel. I was very aware of the overhanging foliage and trees and thought to myself, this could be interesting with a whole group of swimmers going through it all at once! I passed under the aforementioned lovely railway bridge and into the main river course again. I always love swimming under these bridges and seeing them from a different perspective. At this point, for the first time ever in my open water swimming career, I got cramp in my one calf muscle. I had half been expecting it as before the swim I felt that my calf muscles were a lot tighter than they have normally been.Must have been down to all the grdeining and housework that needed to be done whilst the Slimhippo was on holiday. I managed to just reach down and pull on my foot and I waited for the cramp to subside enough for me to carry on. Fortunately it did and I swam on with my one foot stretched up to give my calf a break. Not really good for efficient swimming but I did not want another bout of cramp.
After a quick feed at the last feedstop manned by a lovely team, I drifted back in for the final stretch, about 1.8km from the end. I took the opportunity to check my watch and I could see I was behind schedule a bit. I had noticed that my stroke was becoming more and more laboured and without a wetsuit and my cramp, I had not been able to use my legs for a while so my whole hippo hide was sinking in the water, badly affecting my aerodynamic form and forcing me to use my shoulders more.
I laboured on like this and very soon, whilst breathing, out of the corner of my eye, I saw “THE WHITE HAT”. That only meant one thing, one of the Happy Hippos – aka, Nerys Pearce – was hunting me down, and FAST. Nerys swims in a white hat as she is a paraplegic. She uses this to let the support staff differentiate her from the rest of us in case they have to intervene. Put her in the water and she is a phenomenal swimmer. I had narrowly escaped her tenacity in our last 14km race, where I finished just ahead of her. With about 500m to go, she steamed past me. I tried to keep up with her but with my form fading fast (oh, and the fact that I am a gentleman; ladies first and all that!) she stormed past me and soon, the finishing marker was in sight where I relinquished the mantle of Head of the Happy Hippos to a far superior and more deserving athlete. Way to go Nerys, you had an awesome swim and it was an honour to share the water with you. I put your speed down to the triathlon you had done the day before, or the rush to get into your wheelchair for two games of wheelchair basketball after this event. It was wonderful to meet you at the finish and help you onto dry land. I may not be so nice about it next time!
With memories of my last Thames swim, the first port of call was to find my bag – a breeze thanks to the organisation – and get my towel out have a good rub down; I really did not want to be ripping my skin off that night. It either worked or the bitey things don’t like that part of the Thames, as today I only have two bites on me, a far cry from the score of 46 I had with my last adventure into the Thames.
All in all a great swim in a great location, organised by an awesome team. If you get an opportunity to do it next year I can fully recommend it.
Well done to all of you who took part in this awesome swim and I hope to be back next year, when I am sure it will be a much bigger crowd.