There was something about the sheer enormity of swimming for as long as it used to take me to run a marathon that appealed to me back in 2015 when this lingering, frustrating knee issue had already made itself a perpetual partner in my life. Although my training wasn’t perfect, I built up a strong swimming base throughout the year, and was confident as I dipped my toes into the less-flowing-than-I-would-have-liked Thames amongst other be-capped swimmers. Having entered the 2016 event without too much thought, however, swimming soon took a backseat as my love affair with my bike blossomed. The stark reality, as I tucked my hair into my cap during the safety briefing, was that – apart from the River Spey 5k – I had been in the water approximately twice in the 2 months preceding the event. Not optimal. Ever confident of my mental strength, however, I resigned myself to the fact that it was going to be a long slog, but I had nobody to blame but myself.
Not one to break a beautiful tradition, I met up with my old friend Lisa for what should have been a riotous Friday night on the tiles. She most inconveniently fell ill – and had to be briefly hospitalised – in the days before my arrival, and so while she was housebound, I met an old Aberdeen acquaintance for some beers in Camden, before staggering to the tube. We did get the chance to spend some time together on the Saturday when she was feeling a little more human, and we grabbed lunch before spending some time sunbathing in the park.
Rather foolishly, I overlooked sunblock application to my neck and shoulders. If you plan on spending hours in a wetsuit the following day, don’t get sunburned: it sucks hard.
After a leisurely day in London, I dragged my luggage to Paddington station for a train to Twyford, then ultimately Henley. I arrived at my AirBnB, had a beer and chat with my friendly host, and then, armed with a good book, went in search of something calorific (and something else alcoholic) to fit the nutritional bill for a pre-race meal before staggering (again) back to my room to sleep.
Sunday morning saw cloud cover and chilly air as I approached registration. Having entered the slow wave again, I was slightly disappointed to realise the organisers had shuffled the start so that I would be going in the final wave, but I chatted to some of the other competitors to while away the time pleasantly. Just like last year, there was a great atmosphere as people shared their training (or lack of) and nervously awaited the race briefing.
As tow-floats were compulsory, it was not necessary to swim in groups, so from the offset I focused on steady exhalations and smooth, relaxed arms as the ghosts of reeds whispered at my face in the murky water. As the clouds arced across the sky, the sun broke through casting shards of light through the river, flickering through each stroke and revealing more of the plant life below. My lack of training was a minor but constant niggle at the back of my mind, but I hadn’t set off too quickly, and was comforted by the fact I was surrounded by other swimmers. I began humming ’99 bottles of beer on the wall’, deciding that – for the first time in my life – I would legitimately finish the song. Keeping to the beat of my stroke, I entered a trance, counting down to zero, hoping that I would reach the first checkpoint before I lost myself to delirium. I made it with 68 bottles to go. During the second run through of the song that was to plague the remainder of my swim, despite conscious efforts to sing any other song in the universe.
After the first feed station we had a 6k slog until the 10k mark, and the next feed stop. I settled back into my rythm, and back into the countdown, running through the song a further four times, and stopping only to marvel briefly at the tree I had crashed into last year. All I have to say for myself is that my sighting, though lousy, must have been utterly shit last year, as it climbed above the surface of the river and was painfully easy to avoid if you took more than half a breath to look where you were going. Progress.
The penultimate section was a short 1.5k along moored boats, and at times you could taste the gasoline as you breathed. The water during this section was also markedly choppier as there was quite a bit of traffic along here. I only made it once through the song.
Finally I found myself launching myself into the water for the last stretch. It seemed a shame to break with tradition, so I nearly made it through the song twice before the giant orange buoy appeared on the horizon, and the kayakers instructed us to keep right, and head for the riverbank after we had circumnavigated the buoy. By this point my shoulders were aching, but I gave a final burst of speed in a desperate final gasp to finish, cutting over ten minutes off of last year’s time, despite the lack of swimming. Critics could note that the average finishers’ time was substantially quicker than last year, and attribute that to a stronger current, but I’ll choose to remain ignorant of any such facts.
After counting down bottles of beer on the wall for nearly four and a half hours, it was only fitting after I dropped off my belongings in Brixton (after a train back from Henley) to find a suitable place to enjoy one or two. As luck would have it, the beer garden I chose also had a stall that sold Venezuelan street food, so I was able to indulge in one of my teenage favourites: arepas!
I told all my friends “Never again!”, especially after suffering from some ill-effect of swallowing Thames river water, but now that the shoulders have had over a week to recover, I’m forgetting the pain and considering round three.