It’s one of those things that sounds like a good idea at the time. Dreamed up by Jeremy Laming of http://henleyswim.com/ the BlackSwim held on the summer Solstice weekend , the longest day or in Jeremy’s mind the shortest night. Perfect for an all night swim down the Thames. The swim participation was invite only. A small group, all with previous long distance and cold water experience. This was a proof of concept swim more than anything and the last thing anyone wanted was trouble on a remote stretch of river in the pitch black at 3am in the morning.
Like most of us I juggle swim commitments around our real lives … and so it was on Friday, a 1715 departure due for our pre swim arrival at 6.30pm. I think we were still stuck in London traffic on the M4 at that time talking enthusiastically about all things swimming… and missing the turn off with a 7 mile onward drive before we could get off and turn around. My philosophy after seeing athletes get frustrated when products aren’t available is to try very hard to work with off the shelf products. After losing an hour and a half of time due to the hiccups mentioned above we bought almost all our refuel gear off the shelf at a remote service station. The sports drink was dubious. Every type of energy bar and chocolate bar was purchased. And the old faithful, bananas were in the mix as usual.
Nothing about this swim was normal; The support crew ratio – about three support crew per swimmer, the frosty reception from the elderly folk watching us getting set for the start of the swim – clearly a large convoy of folk on the move at dusk down by the river can only mean trouble (Bless you England). The swim itself deliberately held all in darkness making accurate navigation essential, as in swimming the correct side of islands and avoiding night time boat traffic. Also uniquely there were four locks to physically walk around. The other options of swimming into a lock or over a weir were not really considered for obvious safety reasons. Getting out on a swim is very non-standard but in this case necessary however, imagine trying to get out of the water, no blood flow in legs, by early morning the air temp was single figures, trying to walk in the dark over the other side while your body temperature plummets. The ‘joy’ of slipping back in the water then making your body redistribute blood flow as its just worked so hard to get the legs moving for the walk around the lock. As I said nothing about the swim was normal.
The swim started up at Mapledurham. Right on last light we entered the river navigation lights flicking on the back of our heads and glowing from light sticks pinned to the back of our trunks. We were each escorted by a dedicated paddler. In my case trusted friend, accomplished paddler and provider of good Irish humour in the wee hours, Mark Byrne.
Starting out we had to sort out a navigation process – with little or sometimes no moonlight the use of senses changes significantly. The use of sight is no longer totally reliable. I wear ear plugs every swim therefore my hearing was also limited. The ‘sense’ of feel in the water is sometime unwanted; ‘what was that?!’ All I had was the nav lights on the kayak, the glow of marks head torch, sometimes the stars and often street lights or lights from a home or mansion. Sometimes things would suddenly grow much darker and intense, only for me to lift my head and find us swimming under a bridge. The imagination is more of a hazard than anything else. Those that have done ocean swimming can probably relate to my relaxed state, no jellyfish or marine life to concern myself with and a body of water unaffected by wind and swell, I found river swimming on the Thames smooth and relaxed.
The swim was challenging for me, just as many of the swims are challenging for our swim clients. I also have to balance training and work around my swim training and hardly ever get the training and preparation I would like to these days. That means the ultimate challenge becomes getting the best performance out of the preparation I have done not spending the time wishing I had done more. The first hour was pretty easy and entertaining getting escort and swimmer communication sorted, getting in the first feeds and getting into a rhythm. In the second hour it became clear the last minute sports drink purchase was rubbish and I threw up after 90 minutes. We aborted on the ‘orange stuff’ and switched to water, whole foods (muesli and chocolate bars) and bananas. At two hours I honestly thought I would have to abort the swim but things settled down for me and we got back on with the job at hand. One classic feedback moment a banana came over to me for a feed I clutched it and went to take a mouthful realising at that moment there was nothing left but banana skin, the joys of feeding in the black.
We were extremely lucky with the fantastic UK weather providing warm river temperatures at around 19C. The air temperature to start was also forgiving to start but once we hit 3am they were nudging single figures, after you have been swimming for 4-5 hours the ability to pace oneself for endurance yet move enough to create heat becomes a finely balanced thing especially for those working on the edge of their fitness envelope. That’s when it is time to bring out a secret weapon. For me it was a cheerful Irishman in a boat with a smile and a paddle threatening to whack me if I did not keep swimming. At 4.15am for me in the growing light I swam into the Hambledon lock 25km downriver from the start point. I climbed out and started shivering straight away. No fanfare just some great support crew and the satisfaction of beating a little bit of physical pain and sleep deprivation to achieve a personal challenge. Swimming in its many forms keeps it interesting. It was great to be part of a swim with a difference. How many other kiwis can say they have swum a significant portion of the Thames through the night? Thanks to Jeremy at http://henleyswim.com/ for including me in the invite.
In addition to all the team at HenleySwim a big thanks to my personal support crew and kayaker on the day, Mark Byrne. I could not have completed the swim without his kayak and night navigation skills, endless support and fantastic Irish sense of humour. And to http://www.oceanleisure.co.uk/ for the great goggles and swim training gear and http://dryrobe.com/ kept me warm start and finish.