How did this end up happening?, well a mixture of some inspiring friends of mine going out Open Water Swimming most weeks and making it look easy and a few too many glasses of wine with a friend.
The event had popped up on my Facebook feed and it attracted my attention after I’d been doing a fair amount of swimming recently – albeit in the pool. I happened to mention it to Clare and low and behold 10mins later we were signed up to swim 1.5k in a dock by the Thames.
The next morning the realisation hit home, but we were determined to go for it. So the next week we took ourselves off to the Aquatics Centre at the Olympic Park jumped in the deep end.
My goal was to swim 400m non-stop, Becca (superstar swimmer & all round legend) suggested it was the shortest distance you needed to be able to swim before going to the open water centre – and I did it, twice – 400m non-stop, 200m relaxed and 400m non-stop.
Then due to life being busy we had a week off and all of a sudden it was a week to go before the big day. I need to get two things done – one, find a wetsuit that fitted and two get in open water. I didn’t need to swim far, I just needed to get in and get comfortable with the differences of open water.
Solo, I arrived at the Royal Victoria Dock Open Water Centre and it was not as I expecting. I was imagining a Aquatics centre setup with changing rooms and lockers and a shop to hire your wetsuit.
The changing rooms were the side of a old style caravan or the grass area for those more open to showing a bit of skin, the shop was the wetsuits hanging on the caravan, the locker was a pop up tent and the centre was two blokes sitting behind large picnic tables. Run, run away now.
But I didn’t, I bucked up the courage, asked for a wetsuit, struggled to get it on for 20mins, got zipped up and waddled down the jetty to the water’s edge. I sat on the edge for a good 5mins acclimatising only my feet.
Then it came to buck up the courage to slide in slowly, I lifted myself up and splash, I was in the water two feet of water over my very fetching swim-cap, I bob back to the surface, body freaking out big time. My breath wasn’t under control, my heart was beating super quick and there’s nowhere to put your feet. I held onto the steps from the jetty and fortunately one of the coaches, Georgie, was there to offer a few pieces of advice.
I found a quiet spot and tried putting my face in the water – I heard this can be tough for some people in murky water, but I swim with my head under the water all the time in the pool, I’m cool with this…..I am NOT cool with this. As soon as I stuck my head under the cold shocked me and I wanted to take an in-breath instantly – not good when your head is underwater. I practiced a couple more times, I found starting my out-breath before putting my head under worked a treat.
And I was off – aiming for the peach buoy, eventually getting there, aim for the white one, done then ah – I cant see the jetty through my steamed up goggles. I knew the yellow was close to the jetty so aimed for that.
I clambered out, feeling amazing, I’d done it, wasn’t the perfect experience but I felt so much more confident for the swimathon than I would have been turning up on the day without that experience.
Saturday I spent time preparing my goggles to make sure they didn’t fog up and prepared my kit and ran through what I’d need both pre and post swim.
Sunday morning, fuelled by Nutella bagel and coffee I set off to the docks.
I arrived around 8am, Clare already there and very few other people m, which didn’t help with the nerves. At 8.30 we queued up, scanned in, wetsuit in hand and chose the funkiest swimcap ever.
Trotted over to the Good Hotel for a toilet stop and get the bottom half of my wetsuit on – the most difficult part. We were then briefed on the waves (corrals in running terms) and the routes. I loved that you could choose to do whatever route you wanted to complete your distance – smaller loops & more laps or longer loops & less laps – you could choose to do loops of 250m, 400m, 500m, 750m or 1k.
Despite initially signing up for the 1.5k I wasn’t feeling confident enough, so I set off with the two other 400m swimmers. I checked the course again and it was time to get in and acclimatise.
This time I utilised the steps to steadily descend into the water and this time no shock to the system at all, I was more shocked by the lack of cold shock than the thing itself. I popped my face in the water a couple of times before they announced 10 seconds to go.
3, 2, 1, Go…..the three of us wished each other good luck and it was into my stroke straight away for the longest part out to the red triangle on the far side of the dock.
I kept toe-to-toe with one of my fellow 400metre swimmers for a little while before I changed my technique to front-crawl kick and breast-stroke arms – it’s weird but it works for me.
It was ok, I was swimming ok, got good rhythm, good breathing, hadn’t swallowed any Thames water so I was quite happy. Weirdly the water is salty though, I don’t do seawater, but that’s mostly due to jellyfish and other things that want to eat you!.
The Red buoy did seem to take forever to arrive, but I knew as soon as I turned I could see the finish line/jetty (I’m still adjusting to non-running speak).
I did a few granny-breaststroke strokes (head above water) just to calm myself down and that before I went again, aiming for the yellow buoy, completely bypassing the white one on the way.
I got close to the yellow buoy before making the left turn to home, I was very aware of the wind and current picking up and definitely felt like I wasn’t getting quite as far as quick as I was.
I joined the 1.5k & 5k’ers for the final stretch and got a hint of what it’s like to do a mass start Tri, there was lots of bumping, arms and legs flying and people cutting across. I’m quite glad I’m a slower swimmer so I don’t have to contend with that.
Approaching the jetty to finish, I was tempted to go again, I thought I could at least do 1k – you get the same medal as long as you do 400m (the 5k have a different one). I’d convinced myself I’ll get to the jetty, rest and go again. However I was directed down the finishers lane and was told I wouldn’t get a time if I didn’t tap out, but if I tapped out I couldn’t go again.
So I called it a day, for someone who rarely swims and only been OW once before, I was over the moon with doing what I did. It just means that next time I’ll have a good opportunity to swim further!
I waited for Clare to finish & I think I can safely say we were both on a huge highs – think runners high, only open Water swimming. We sat on a bench staring out at the Dock discussing our races and just like running wanting to share every last detail, every stroke.
We went to the coffee shop to continue the swim chat and I happen to have found the same wetsuit I was wearing for an absolute bargain online – so that’s on its way!
I wish I was around for Swim Serpentine next week as I’d have a good go at the half mile, however I’m back home racing a hilly 15k in the Peak District. I’ve definitely got the bug for it & already looking for different places to swim.
As soon as my wetsuit arrives and I’ve got a busy month out of the way I’ll be diving (not literally) straight back into it & trying to improve.
For me, I really need/want to improve my swimming, I’m not a great swimmer, I don’t get far fast, but I can keep going and going until I get there (ahh if only I was the same running). I might start looking into a coach to help me nail front crawl.
I’ve had so many people say to me they’d love to try OWS but are scared etc. Please go do it. I went on my own because I needed to not have the pressure of having others around pushing me, but get some friends together, go find a friendly OW centre (like Victoria Dock or Shepperton) and go for it. It’s so much more pleasurable than swimming in a pool. If you do end up going alone it gives you the chance to meet others – within an hour of finishing my practice swim Wednesday I was being added to a OWS WhatsApp group!
I noticed how chilled out everyone was too, getting stripped off on the grass, leaving your bags in a pile in the middle of nowhere, turning up to an event with 20mins to go, being able to choose how you make up your distance – it’s so much more relaxed and friendly environment than other sports.
I think it’s the freedom, I thought not being near to the side of a pool would freak me out, but there’s something really nice about it, it feels free of being restricted, free of chemicals, free to swim however far or short you want to.
I did enter a Tri a couple of years ago, but I didn’t do it due to not being brave enough to go try OWS (mainly the wetsuit thing) & I had a really bad fall on my bike. So, if I can get back on the bike, then….who knows! Especially if there’s anymore evenings out with Clare – who knows what we’ll signup for next!!