Thames Marathon weekend.
Well, the weekend has come and gone and on Sunday I took part in the 14km Thames marathon. It was an idyllic little swim down the Thames from Henley-upon-Thames to Marlow, taking in the beautiful scenery, starting in the county of Oxfordshire and finishing in the county of Buckinghamshire. As we swimmers float down the river, we are seduced by the stunning scenery on the banks of the Thames (the bottom of the river is pretty insipid), whilst many support crew, including Family and friends are treated to a leisurely walk while following their swimmers, if you are able to find them in amongst the sea of neoprene.
The day kicks off at about 6.30am with registration and collection of your timing chip followed by a briefing and then the first of three waves takes to the river for a 7.30am start. 1st wave is the speedsters – those who can consistently maintain about 25minutes or less per 1500m. They are followed by the Blue wave, the swimmers taking between 25 and 35 minutes for 1500m. Finally, a third wave of the more leisurely swimmers heads out, and all converge to finish just outside Marlow. The finishing area is laid out there in a great little park, where you can spend a leisurely afternoon catching up with other swimmers and friends or just watch in awe as nearly 700 swimmers make their way to the finish line.
I was in the speedster group so a silly o’clock start for the pod of hippos to rise and then across to the registration. Luckily I am a morning person but the Slimhippo, not so much. We arrived just in time to register, collect my timing chip and listen to the briefing before a plethora of neoprene clad swimmers with a smattering of Bioprene swimmers jumped into the Thames to make their way to the start – which spread across the width of the Thames. I was next to a Happy Hippo (Nerys Pearce – whom had joined me in my last notable swim in the Jubilee river) In amongst a sea of pink Hats, Nerys had her white Help for Heros hat on so she – and subsequently me- could be easily spotted. Less of a headache for the SlimHippo! Seeing as she was already harbouring a head cold.
Soon the countdown was underway and we were off. Nice temperature, a bit shallow, a bit of weed brushing the fingertips – at least it was not the detritus which can usually be found on the riverbed. After the usual melee at the start (as there always is when it is a mass start), we started to settle into our strokes and the pack thinned out a little bit. The first stretch was 4 km to the first lock, with a walk/run/crawl around the lock to the next entry point. Already, this was now further than I had swum this whole season. In the first part of the year, I was focused on ice/cold water swims so the distances were not that big at all. In the early summer, I took part in a few 4km swims and I did the Jubilee Swim as part of a team. The middle of the summer (about 6 weeks) was taken up by Wedding and honeymoon craziness, before I got back into a few short races , a few of which I had won – but now we were entering unchartered territory. In my head, anything past this point was an admirable achievement, but I was quietly confident that I would get to the end – somehow!
From that point I was just happy to get to the next lock without either hitting a wall or encountering injury. Due to my focus on small distances, and the early summer, I had at least arrived at the start with zero injuries, feeling confident and looking forward to the swim. I knew my focus had been elsewhere during the run up to this event and was just happy to be here and use this swim as a bit of a test as to 1 – what I could do and 2 – see if I could maintain my 4km per hour pace over 14km.
Surprisingly, the first 4km was over quicker than I anticipated and the next stretch of 6km took us to the 10km mark. About half way through this I started to see the signs of the proverbial metaphorical brick wall. I looked at my watch for the first time on the swim. It was just over 7km and it was the first time that someone had passed me. No, I was not leading the pack but I had settled into about 30th place (4th Bioprene swimmer) out of the 100 that had started in this wave. I was still on course for my 4km/h so this did give me a bit of a boost. I am not normally one to swim with a watch but as they can now track your route as well, I find them quite useful. My stroke still felt good and I had found a swimmer that I could pace off for a while till I let them go and got back to swimming my own race.
I find it a huge mental burden when I have to swim with others as I stop swimming my own race and style and fall into their patterns. I much prefer swimming alone – especially when I am doing the longer distances. This is where I know my capabilities and swim a lot more efficiently. I looked at my watch again, just over 9km and still pacing at 4km/h. Soon we arrived at the next lock, which was the 10km mark. My watch said 2 hrs 25 min so surprisingly, I was ahead of schedule.
I took an opportunity to get a bit of food onboard and have a chat wih the organisers – when I find it more fun to chat than to swim, this is another sign that my mental fortitude is waning! Oh well, I was now only 4km from the end and yes, it was a toss up between throw in the towel or carry on. This was now the longest single swim I had done this year so I had achieved one of my little goals. This is where my simple question comes into it.
“Are you giving up because you physically cannot go on or you are just bored?”
The answer in this case was very simple so I better get back in. yes my shoulders were mildly stiff – more so now that I had spent some time chatting rather than swimming.
I hauled my hippo butt back in to do the next stretch (1.8km) to the next lock. I let a few others drift on past and stuck to my own race but I could see the cracks starting to appear. I would stop and look at my watch, adjust my goggles, chat to the supporters walking down the edge, swim a bit of breaststroke, maybe a few strokes of butterfly – but when I did put my head down and actually swim, I felt great. I was still on track when I got out at the third lock; I saw Nerys’ Support team and they told me that she was about 700m behind and there was not enough support to lift her out. I offered to hang around to help her out and then back in, but they did find another guy to do this so I could carry on. I walked through the lock to the next entry point for the last 2.2km, still within my goal and extremely happy that I had gotten this far.
It was the last 2.2km stretch, and although my shoulders were hurting slightly more than normal, I was absolutely fine. Again I took the opportunity to do a bit of breaststroke and take in the opulent vistas that you find in this part of the world – in other words, contemplating what properties I could afford along the river. Actually more realistically, what PARTS of the property(s) I could afford – maybe the tiny boathouse in the garden… I might be able to afford the boat moored out the front. The Gazebo in the garden… Maybe the garage wing…. It is nice to dream. At about this point I spooted the slimhippo on the opposite bank so decided to try an engage in conersation with her across the river. I then realised that I was lucky that she — was on the other side of the river, and, she was not armed with a paddle to beat my hippo butt! And tell me to MOVE THAT ASS! You gotta love your support crew. Okay, back to reality, we still had about another 1.5km to go so best get on it. Off we went – surprisingly, still zipping past the vistas that surrounded us. We were coming into Marlow now so we were pushed right against the bank so as not to take up too much of the river that was now littered with pleasure boat traffic. Now we could easily have nice chats with the locals on the side! Basically my mental fortitude had given way to my need to be social. I asked a few of the yacht helms if they would like to swap places. I wasn’t very lucky though so figured I’d better get to the end under my own steam. Soon the finish was in site and we had to round a buoy on the right hand side of the river then swim about 150m to the finish on the left of the river. Well, it had to be done, I rounded the buoy and finished the last 150m doing butterfly.
I finished in a very respectable 3 hrs 22 minutes for 14km. From the first lock to the end I had only lost 8 places, My shoulders were absolutely fine albeit slightly tender but nothing more than I would expect from doing 14km of swimming. I had gotten to the end and hot on my heals was Nerys, the other Happy Hippo. She had secretly been chasing me down for the last km or so. I climbed the ladder out to the finihing matt and then helped the happy Hippo out.
It was a Glorious swim with outstanding organisation and the people are great, swimmers great, weather held out for the supporters. I cannot fault this swim at all and would recommend it to anyone who wants to do a slightly longer swim. One down side – this has no bearing on the organisers – is that the Bugs loved me and I have subsequently found out it was not just me, we all got a taste of the swimmers itch with me counting 46 bites on my body. I look a bit like a page in a kids “join the dots” book. Who knows, maybe if i do join them there will be a picture of a hippo.
So is switching distances possible?
What follows is just my opinion and I have no scientific proof that it works, only my own bumbling experience.
Keeping yourself ticking over when it comes to training is more important than doing the bigger distances. Moving from 3km to 14km or 8 km training sets to 28km – like I did last year for Lago D Orta is definitely possible but, one thing that was apparent in both these swims is how my mental state is far more important than my physical state. In both the aforementioned swims ( If you want to read about a huge mental blowout, search through my blogs for the write up on Lago D Orta.), it was my mental side which started to deteriorate first, not the physical side. In both swims, when I did actually swim, my stroke was fine and – according to my watch, which I know is not very accurate – the time I was actually moving was consistent to the pace that I was aiming for, surprisingly. In the Thames swim. I came in under the 3 hours 30 minutes that I had mentally set for myself but in reality, I honestly expected my pace to drop off significantly – it did not. It would be very interesting to see what I would have come in on had I not spent time at the locks chatting, talking to the passers by on the banks, checking my watch and asking kayakers for a tow.
It all comes back to what I totally believe to be true, when it comes to endurance, it is not your physical side that is important, it is your mental side of things and although I spend a lot more time trying to train my mental side, I have a lot more to do. So I will have to get back to my imagination on this one.
However, I did happen to catch up with the human mermaid, AKA Jaimie Monahan. If there is a long swim out there, she has probably done it, if there is an Ice swim out there she has probably done it! We were very fortunate to have met her in Italy last year, where we became friends, and I got chatting to her at the end. Amazingly, 7 days earlier she had swum into the record books – again – alongside others by swimming twice around Manhattan island – now known as the 40 Bridges swim. A quote from her facebook:
57-miles (91.6 km) around my beloved Manhattan Island twice in 20 hours, 12 minutes on 28-29 July 2017. I am proud to call this magical city my home and this opportunity to circumnavigate it twice, the second time in stunning, sparkling, peaceful night meant the world to me. My spirit is still soaring looking back on this amazing experience
I specifically wanted to discuss a possible swim that I have in mind, one that she has done twice, the 2nd time shaving 5 hours off her time. The information that I gleaned from her was as follows:
Firstly that big distances in Fresh water are harder than big distances in salt water – bearing in mind that both her and I swim in Bioprene. I know this, as in salt water you are far more buoyant than in fresh water so it requires less energy to keep your hips up and hence keep your stroke even.
Keeping your fitness up is a huge advantage – she mentioned that when she did the swim a second time she was far more physically prepared for it than when she did it the first time, so reducing her time.
The mental side is hugely important but if you going to take on a 20 – 30 hour swim, you need to know what your capabilities are and what will happen when your mind starts to go walkabout. Take my last two big swims; I managed to get through them but the very small tell tale signs that you are losing the battle mentally start to show through. For me, I can now recognise them – the looking at my watch more frequently, the swimming different strokes other than the one I should be, the chatting to ANYONE who will give me the time of day – usually it is the Slimhippo – the looking for a way out. In the Thames the obvious would have been at the locks and I nearly succeeded when I offered to help one of the Happy Hippos through one of them. I would have had they not found another guy who was not taking part in the swim to do it.
So whilst I am a huge advocate of taking care of the mental side of things, it is only part of the complicated puzzle that is Open Water Endurance Swimming. To find out what your mind does, you have to challenge it – you have to do some big swims in order to test it and challenge it. In so doing, you get the physical side of things more on track. However, I do not condone doing long 25km swims as a training swim most weekends. I do however truly believe that adopting a bit of both, the mental training and the physical training is the best route. I do not condone overtraining for various reasons that I have mentioned in other blogs but work within your means to find a happy medium between the mental training and the physical training, all whilst trying to fit in daily life. If you have no idea how to approach the mental side then please comment and I will happily share some of the techniques that I utilise to get me to the start of a big swim without all the doubts that I know can cloud and in some cases destroy your dreams.
Recently I read a post about someone who is looking to move up to bigger distances and he went out to the Internet and found a training plan that he mentioned was pretty hectic and he was looking for advice about how to move up to – what I call marathon distance. I again advocate that this journey is yours and yours alone. take advice and get help by all means but bear in mind that:
WE ARE ALL DIFFERENT AND WHAT WORKS FOR ME MAY NOT NECESSARILY WORK FOR YOU AND VICE VERSA
Next stop for me, Small 3km race this week and then it is back in the Thames Next weekend in a different location for the Long Reach swim – 8.3km. Lets hope the bugs stay down the Henley end!!