It’s been a couple of weeks since I undertook my swimming challenge for this year and I still can’t quite believe I did it!
Last November I signed up for the Henley Bridge to Bridge Marathon swim. This a 14km swim from Henley to Marlow. My swim coach took part in 2015 and decided to get a team together and make it a social event for 2016. This meant we could train together and set up days when we would all do long distance swims so we wouldn’t be alone.
It was a long journey of training, but it actually kept me going through a time where I really could have given up swimming. I gave up pool swimming and solely focused on the open water swimming. It made huge difference to my mental strength to just focus on the one thing. Taking the pressure off made it much easier to enjoy the journey. I also changed waves so I could swim in the middle one, rather than the faster one – best decision ever!
It was a very early start on Sunday 8th August – 4am to be exact! I drove to a friends house so we could then car share to Henley. We arrived at Henley at 6am and registered, waited for the group to arrive and got ready. This is where my nerves started to kick in and I focused on thinking about swimming at my own pace and making it to the end.
The sign in the photo below was from the very start and it was a great reminder of what the event was really about. We didn’t need to worry about time as it wasn’t a race. it was run as a sportive and all focused on getting everyone to the finish.
The swim we split into 4 stages with 3 feed stops at the locks. The first stage was 4km, then 6km, then 1.5km, then 2.5km. Each feed stop had drinks and a variety of food. Hand sanitiser and extra vaseline was provided and you had a to walk at least 100m from the exit to the entry points.
The fist 4km was easy and the stop came up to surprise me. It was a very busy section as everyone in the one wave started together. It meant getting clear water was hard and I lost the two friends I was swimming with (we caught each other at the stop) so I just focused on swimming steady and trying to notice where we were on the river. I felt good for this section.
The second section was the big one – 6km non-stop. it’s the furthest I’ve swam non-stop and I was surprised at how good I felt. The river changed as we swam along. We passed green fields and very big houses and felt like there was no one else around. When we got in at this section we were asked to keep to groups with a kayak, but there was a steady stream of people that they didn’t make anyone wait to start (they did in the slower wave I was told). There were a couple of points along this route where you could have taken the wrong split, but the kayakers with us were great and kept us on course the whole way. My friend got cramp around 4km in and we pauseda minute, but got going again and this is where my arms started to feel it. My friend picked up speed and I started to slow, but we worked well together and kept going.
We stopped for a little longer at the next stop to make sure we had the energy and were hydrated. I topped up the vaseline around my neck and then was ready to go. We had to cross the river and walk across an island before getting back in at quite rocky point, but the flow of the weir was a nice push off to start the last 4 km. I found this stage the hardest as my arms ached and it was not quite long enough to find my rhythm after the 6km stretch. Mentally I had to work hard here and kept focused on even arm strokes and moving forward. My friend was able to lose me here, but we caught each other at the last stop.
The last stage was started by a jump into the river after a lock and staying out the way of the boats. It was around 11ish at the time and there were many more boats on the river than the rest of the time. Also we were heading into Marlow so the it was generally much busier on the towpath and the river itself. This stage was easier in a way because I knew it was the last, but it was also hard, because it was the last 2km of a 14km swim! I focused again on keeping steady and getting to the end. Energy wise I was, just tired, but my arms were struggling a lot by this point. I definitely could have done some extra conditioning training in the run up!
I was so happy at the end. One because it was over and also because I had done it! I had swam the farthest I’ve ever swum (and probably ever will). It was also much sunnier than when we started and I knew I would be able to relax for a couple of hours waiting for the others to all finish before heading home.
While we were waiting in the glorious sunshine we talked about what other swims we would like to do. Our coach will probably put another team to together for this event next year, but I don’t think I want to do it two years running. I would come and support though as I think it would be a lovely walk along the river to follow the swimmers. Instead we were thinking about Coniston in the Lake District. That could be a fun trip!
I would recommend this swim to anyone doing long distance swimming. It was fun and really well organised. The feed stops were well stocked and the volunteers at each one were super helpful. The kayakers and start/finish crews were also amazing!
As long as you put in the training and do not underestimate the distance or the mental requirements of this type of swimming then you will absolutely fine. I stuck to feeding as I did in my training, which mainly involved gels and chocolate to take away the taste of the gels. That works for me, and take time to figure our what works for you. Some people didn’t feed, others used what was at the stops, and others used fruit and nut bars only. As everyone has a wear a tow float I found it easy to carry what I needed and it got lighter as you swam further.
Training wise I progressed from swimming around 3km a time to regularly swimming 5km, with longer swims of 7km to 11km every couple of weeks. I didn’t have a set plan in the end, but rather worked out what I needed to get to and fitted into my schedule as well as making sure I took part in the group long swims.
Overall this was a fantastic day and a great achievement for me. If you fancy doing it go to the Henley Swim website and sign up for 2017! They also do shorter swims, including one that end at a pub with the medal being a bottle opener – open water swimming is for everyone!