I took part in the inaugural Swim Serpentine last September, swimming mostly a panicky breaststroke for the mile of open water, chatting to marshals as I went. I vowed to nail this open water thing and return this year to ‘swim it properly’. Of course, a year goes very quickly and this time various marathons and endurance events have got in the way, so there I was on Saturday, wetsuit on and feeling decidedly nervous. The weather last year was glorious, the hottest September ever (or something like that) and I remember being in a t-shirt and sandals. This year was a little bit more grey and almost scarf weather.
As I skirted the edge of the Serpentine, hot drink in hand, I observed the wave of swimmers who were just entering the water, looking closely at those at the back, ‘Ah, good, breaststrokers!’ I thought. To the changing tent I went, chatting nervously to fellow swimmers, ‘Is this your first time? Are you nervous (too)?’ and was delighted to feel a tap on my shoulder and see my parkrun friend Bonnie, who was swimming in the same wave as me. Hoorah! Squeezed into identical wetsuits and caps, we took some pre-race photos and pootled over to the start area. Now the water had been going up and down in temperature during the week and had politely settled at 15 degrees for us, thank you! Feeling brave, we ventured into the ‘dunking’ area to acclimatise (best way to do this is to lean forward, pull the front of your westuit down and let in some of the icy cold liquid, shaking it down your body with a shriek and a shiver). It really was chilly and I wished I had left my dip until nearer the start, as we stood around getting cold, listening to the pre-race briefing.
All waves at this event are special, with one mile swims and, for the first time this year, two mile and even a ‘Super Six’, giving those magical mermaid types the opportunity to swim six miles over the course of the day! Our wave was special for a different reason, the ‘London Classics’ was announced not long ago, for those people who have run the London Marathon and cycled Ride 100. By swimming the two mile Swim Serpentine, we would enter the Hall of Fame and earn a really rather smashing medal for completing all three disciplines. A quick round of questioning amongst us established that many of these people ‘are not swimmers’ (yeah, right) and were there for the massive medal!
Last year, as we entered the water at the start, I held right back, allowing everyone to go ahead of me. This time I decided to be bold and go for it, keeping to the left and jumping forward into the dark depths (my reasoning was simple, in a two lap race, I didn’t want the fasties to catch up too quickly, or for the next wave to be lapping me on the first mile). After all my sea bobbing in Cornwall in the summer and my self-pep-talks, I was still head-out, breath-short-panicking. The first stretch felt so cold, my face resisting the water and I looked to my left and the bank, seriously considering finding a spot to climb out. ‘Don’t be silly!’ I thought, ‘The medal! The supporters! Hector and Edward! The hot tubs! The medal!’ and I kept going. I reasoned that, if I could get to the purple turning buoys ahead, I would be facing the right way to complete the first lap, so on I went, counting in sets of twenty to keep my focus and not panic.
I did reach the turning buoys, I didn’t speak to the marshals, I continued on to the big yellow buoys and eventually to the bridge and the next turning buoys. I was doing this! At this turn I could see the finish area, how very cruel! To my left I sensed some swimmers in the same silver caps easing towards the finish, ‘they must have got confused’ I thought, but no, they were actually finishing, a whole lap ahead of me! Machines! And off I went again, one more mile to go. I started to feel a bit dizzy now, coldness taking grip and, as I neared the Serpentine Lido for the second time I was overwhelmed by a hideous stench, which made me feel nauseous. I turned my head to the other side, where the smell of petrol from the little safety boat hung in the air. Keep going, keep going, get away from the smells! Now the fast swimmers from the next wave caught up, splashing by, churning the water up and I felt that surge of excitement you only experience when the end is in sight (though I now felt as if I was swimming backwards and the finish wasn’t getting any closer!).
Embraced by the long orange edges of the finish funnel, I attempted to pick up the pace, but I was exhausted, hungry and cold. At the exit ramp, a kind volunteer took my hand and steadied me, helping me out of the water but, as I tried to walk, I discovered my toes were so numb, I could only hobble! I grabbed the side and paused, as a fellow swimmer asked if I was OK, at which point I also realised my mouth was so numb that I couldn’t speak either! Oh dear, what a sorry sight!
But I had done it!
Right now the hot tub was just what I needed, squashed in with a bunch of strangers who had most likely weed in their wetsuits along the way. I wasn’t moving though, until I could feel a tingle in my toes. On clambering out, I was asked for my name by a chap with a clipboard, ticking me off for having completed the London Classics, ‘Go over and collect your two medals’ he said. Two medals! One for Swim Serpentine and one very big one for the London Classics. I was over the moon!
This medal meant so much to me. Each of those events had presented me with a real challenge, they didn’t come easily, two London Marathons (2009 and 2017), Ride 100 (2016) and Swim Serpentine. I’ll say it again, this time next year, I WILL conquer my swim panic and I will be back, stronger, faster and braver!