From marathoner to mermaid

Follow my journey as I take the side-step from mastering marathon distance on land to swimming a mile in the great outdoors, a massive challenge and learning curve for me which will hopefully culminate in my first open water swimming race.

Session 1: 23/5/18
Exciting! I was off for my first open water swim!

State of mind: Mermaid-ready!
Post-swim summary: An absolute shock to the system

A few months ago I signed up to Swim Serpentine, an open water race (it’s NOT a race!) in Hyde Park in September. I’m not sure what made me enter, perhaps it was a Sunday afternoon Prosecco-fuelled decision or the enthusiasm of my friends Karen (who is a great swimmer) and Dan and Andrea (who have both done an Ironman). I am not a super swimmer – not very fast and never quite sure how to get the breathing right but I thought I would get out of my comfort zone and take on a challenge. I am always telling people to give parkrun a try and that it’s ok to be slow so I thought I would take some of my own medicine.

Swim Serpentine offers a distance of two miles, one mile or half a mile. Optimistically I suggested half a mile was not worth schlepping into London for, so we entered the mile distance. I can swim a mile in the pool, so figured it would be fine. Hmmm, read on.

We are so lucky to have a beautiful lake in Shepperton which is open from May to October available for public use several days a week. The website updated us on the water temp daily, until one day it was declared warm enough to OPEN for season and Karen and I decided to get down there and start training.

The lake crew were really friendly and got us kitted out in hired wetsuits for £15. Mine felt like it was suffocating me but I squeezed in (after getting my legs in to discover it was on backwards, it took me about 20 minutes to get it off and back on again the right way) and we got in for the safety test to prove we could swim out to the first buoy.

The shore was sandy, not quite the Caribbean but much nicer than mud. We headed off and it was cold at first as the water trickled through our wetsuits. I dipped my head in only to whip it straight back out – it was a green wall of water and so cold on my face it took my breath away. We swam breaststroke out to the first buoy, gave them the thumbs up and swam back to the beach area. It was nothing like swimming in the pool but we passed the test so that was a good start. My wetsuit felt like it was closing my throat off and as my head wasn’t properly submerged the material was pulling across my chest. It wasn’t a nice feeling. We decided to swim the smaller loop of 400m. We were both swimming with our heads out which was so inefficient and uncomfortable but every time I tried to put my face in I just gasped and couldn’t breathe exhale/inhale properly. I’m not sure how we got round the 400m loop but we did and it was a great feeling, albeit tinged with the reality that a mile in open water was going to be NOTHING LIKE the pool. You can’t see the bottom, or the sides, there’s no lane rope, you’re not sure if you’re heading in the right direction, and what the hell just touched my leg?! All these things seem really obvious but I think you only appreciate them when they’re taken away. Of course you have no idea what is below you (teeth? tentacles? tangles of weeds?) and to get back to shore you have to keep swimming. However, fresh water swimming is exhilarating, without the chlorine, overcrowding or the boredom of counting lengths and I felt pretty privileged to enjoy all the nature around me in this little watery haven. We left the lake feeling good that we’d taken the plunge and would be coming back again. All in all, pretty good but very different. Whilst I have no hopes of being fast, I want to finish and feel relaxed. Which is why I am not referring to Swim Serpentine as a race 🙂

Session 2: 30/5/18
Here we go again!

State of mind: Apprehensive
Post-swim summary: So that’s what the canoes are for

We rocked up a week later, eager but also apprehensive about all the things we need to get accustomed to. I opted for a bigger wetsuit this time but it still felt imposing. I realise now this is kind of what wetsuits feel like and just takes getting used to but I was already pulling at the neck as we waded in to get going. I knew it was not going well as I kept stopping, feeling anxious and had a weird sort of cough going on (due to airways restricting) and couldn’t get enough air even with my head above water. I also started thinking about silly things like sharks and monsters….and how it would feel to be dragged under….

Now and again I would stop completely and felt very panicky when I looked around, like claustrophobic but in a big open space of water. I pulled at my wetsuit neck and cold water flooded in which made me even worse. During the last third of the course, heading back to shore, I lost it completely. I HAD to get out there and then, but of course, I couldn’t, which made it worse and I experienced the most scary panic I’ve ever had. Karen waved for the rescue canoe (apparently they had already spotted me and were on their way….). When it arrived I just held on and lay back and at once felt relief. After a while I was breathing normally again and they gently towed me back… I started to feel a bit silly…. and disappointed in myself. However, it reassured me immensely that you really will always be OK with the canoes patrolling and wearing a wetsuit. In hindsight I should have laid on my back, floated and breathed deeply, drawing upon the wetsuit’s buoyancy but my instinct was to stay upright, struggle and breathe rapidly. After the canoe rescue, I knew I should get back in and swim a bit more so that I would leave the lake on a positive. Karen and Dan went to swim the loop again (they were doing fab) and I swam out to the buoy and back, feeling OK. I looked around the lake at all the swimmers and thought I can be like them, and I will do this. The lake crew were lovely and said it happens to even experienced triathletes and that made me feel slightly better. Here’s my Strava entry – you can see where the canoe takes over – I did remember to pause my Garmin at least!

I had my wheezy cough all day and someone mentioned a condition called Swimming Induced Pulmonary Edema which I pondered but it did sound a bit unlikely… I just had to sort my mindset out and stop picnicking. During the week I considered lessons and group training but part of me also questioned if it was really worth it, and maybe I was just not destined to swim in open water. I also knew Karen would kill me if I pulled out, so I knew my only option was to dig deep for courage and determination.

Session 3: 13/6/18
Third time lucky

State of mind: I’m scared but I’m not a quitter
Post-swim summary: slow and steady wins the race (it’s not a race!)

We actually missed a week due to family commitments but we made it down again the week adter (bet they were pleased to see me! “Get the canoe ready….”) and one of the lovely ladies, also an Emma, offered to come out with me. I jumped at the chance. She made me slow down completely and take more frequent breaths and with her beside me in her canoe I wasn’t at all scared. She got me to lie on my back to see how easy it is to remain completely buoyant. We also just practised submerging our faces and exhaling. Emma and I did a few hundred metres and then went back along following the bank so as not to get in the way of other swimmers. It was just what I needed. After that I practised swimming out to the first buoy and back, just feeling calm and breathing properly. I realised I should have done this from day one, but you live and learn. The good things is we have months to train. Some people try open water the week before their first triathlon and have a major panic when they realise it’s not the same as the pool. I have plenty of time to be as slow and steady as I need to be. Oh, and as for sharks…what sharks? 🙂

Session 4: 20/6/18
Swim with Suki 

State of mind: Let’s do this
Post-swim summary: I did two loops!

After much umm-ing and ahh-ing over wetsuit styles, prices and sizing, I settled on buying an Orca from Wiggle which wasn’t too extortionate (more expensive than any of my trainers tho). I figured if I had my own wetsuit I could become accustomed to it and focus on the swimming and was confirmation to myself that I was absolutely doing this event and finishing with pride. My Orca arrived the day before my next swim so was a sign that I should definitely go!

My running friend Suki (another good swimmer) offered to come super early on a Sunday so I could get back in time for junior parkrun. My mum also said she was coming down to see me which I thought was a good thing and would make me pull myself together. The water was warm. We had a nice slow loop, stopping at the buoys to have a little chat (it helps me stay calm) and finished it without any panics from me. I was sure mum was watching and she’d be dead impressed but we got out to discover she hadn’t arrived yet. Ha! She did arrive shortly after and so we got back in to do the loop again. It really helped knowing I had a spectator and I thought that maybe having a crowd on race (!) day would be motivating rather than intimidating. I felt like I was making progress and Suki didn’t seem to mind my pace. I headed off to junior parkrun after to see my family, feeling really optimistic.

Coming soon…. 

Session 5

State of mind: All the gear, some of the idea!


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