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Swimming the Thames: Henley to Marlow

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On Sunday 7th August 2016 I took part in the Thames Marathon – a 14km swim from Henley to Marlow – to raise money for Alzheimer’s Research.

As they say on TV, this is my story. (Spoiler alert: it’s long.)

Introducing the Thames Marathon

The Thames Marathon is the proverbial jewel in the crown when it comes to open water Thames viewswimming events in this part of the world. About 500 people enter this spectacular summer event every year, from elite athletes who use it as a warm up for even more extreme feats, to wildly optimistic yet not-very-fit people who can’t even swim that well to start with. (Second spoiler alert: I’m in the latter category).

This difference is reflected in the structure of the event, with swimmers divided into 3 separate waves with different start times:

Pink Wave – 7.30am start, aiming to finish in under 4 hours

Blue Wave – 8am start, aiming to finish under 5 hours

Green Wave – 8.30am start, aiming to finish in under 6 hours*

(*In this context, substitute ‘must’ for ‘aiming to’ – 6 hours is in fact the cut-off, at which point the safety crew take you out of the water and your time reads 0:00 next to your name and ‘Did Not Finish’.)

The swim is split into 4 legs, with feeding stations at 4km, 10km and 11.8km, and a large safety crew in kayaks accompany all of the swimmers to negotiate river traffic on their behalf and save them from assorted hazards.

Leg 1: Henley to Hambledon (4km)

Green WaveIt’s fair to say my swim started badly. Ironically, the first leg was the only part that I hadn’t worried about beforehand, as I had exceeded the 4km distance in training and unlike later sections I wouldn’t have to worry about compounded exhaustion. What I would have to worry about, it seemed, was nerves. More precisely, a debilitating panic attack within seconds of the starting gun being fired (OK, I don’t actually know if it was a gun. I was too busy hyperventilating).

I’ve experienced sporadic panic attacks on numerous occasions in the last few years, but never while treading water at the same time. Unsurprisingly, they tend to appear at times of stress, and in fairness having 200 people swim over your drowning body because you started at the front of your wave instead of the back as planned is reasonably stressful. Trying to swim was quickly downgraded to trying to breathe, and although I forgot all of my rationalisation techniques, I did eventually succeed in diverting my blurred vision away from the imaginary giant writing that spelled out FOURTEEN KILOMETRES, and towards my sister and husband, standing on the riverbank, who coached and calmed me into breathing steadily again (thanks Char and Ady!). A few faltering strokes later and I was off.

It didn’t take too long to catch up with the back end of the green wave, and I was pleased to step out at Hambledon Lock at exactly 10am, which was my predicted time for the first leg sans-panic. Chatting to the other swimmers at the lock (over an amazing cup of isotonic hot chocolate!) I began to think maybe I could do this after all.

Leg 2: Hambledon to Hurley (6km)

Just as Leg 1 was the exact opposite of what I expected, so was Leg 2. This was the biggie: in Warning signprevious years, this 6km stretch had been split into 2 shorter sections of roughly 3km each, with a food station in the middle but for the first time, it was to be swum continuously. This was literally the stuff of nightmares, as I never gained enough speed in training to exceed 5.5km in a lake, and that was without a preceding 4km swim.

I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, to find that I enjoyed this section immensely. The carnage of the starting line at Henley was replaced by the relaxed camaraderie of a 6-person swimming ‘pod’ (a group of swimmers of roughly the same ability), and together with our two kayakers we made our way as a group along one of the most beautiful and peaceful stretches of the Thames. Only the last kilometre started to drag, and the kayakers were kind enough to a) provide chocolate, and b) lie to us that the next lock was “just around the corner” (trust me, this was for our own good). I was certainly ready for a feed and a sit down when I reached Hurley Lock, although the time seemed to fly by – it wasn’t long before it was time to cross the lock for the “easy” short swim to Temple.

Leg 3: Hurley to Temple (1.8km)

First lockBy this time, the pod had fragmented, as some of my fellow swimmers were tough enough to carry on without much of break at Hurley.

When I set off for the swim to Temple, I had just two other swimmers for company, and together with yet more trusty kayakers we made our way along what seemed to be the world’s largest boat park for wealthy people.

During training, I had discovered that my left stroke was noticeably more flawed than my right, and this weakness really came to the fore during this section. This was the only part of the swim that took place on the left hand side of the river, which was lined with the aforementioned luxurious boats. I stopped counting how many of them I crashed into but suffice to say that this leg, although short, was far from my favourite. The faint taste of petrol in the water was certainly not pleasant and I was relieved to arrive at Temple Lock within the hour.

Leg 4: Temple to Marlow (2.2km)

All boating troubles faded away when I approached the lock at Temple, and raised my headSupporters from the water to see my Mum smiling and waving at me, and when I got out she insisted on giving me a hug despite my being (obviously) rather wet. To my delight, my whole group of supporters had managed to find each other and congregate at the lock. Several more hugs and high fives later and I was ready to tackle the final section.

I was back on the right hand side of the river for this part, but had to be redirected several times by my kayaker. By this point in the event, I was too tired to exercise much control over my stroke, and my errant left side was tugging me back to what was now the wrong side of the river (it’s important to stick to the correct path, as the kayakers can only do so much to stop the yachts and steam boats running over you.)

At 13km, my kayaker told me “just one kilometre to go!” I intend to enter this kilometre in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest of all time.

The finish line

At finish lineEventually, a large orange buoy appeared within sight: it marked the end point. Hooray! I swam around it and started making my way over to the left side of the river to exit the water. The faint sound of cheering from the remaining crowd at the finish line grew stronger and louder, and I found one last burst of energy to race (in as much as that was possible) to the ladder where more friendly support crew offered me their hands, and helped me out of the river and into Higginson Park at Marlow. I had done it! What had seemed impossible that morning had become a reality.

Within a matter of seconds, a timer chip was removed from my ankle (5hrs 49mins – 11 minutes before the cut-off time, yippee!), a fizzy drink was placed in my hand, my tow float was unbuckled from my waist and a long-awaited pizza was placed in front of me. Best of all, however, were the kind words and congratulations from my family and friends, as well as the fantastic support crew and other swimmers and spectators.

I don’t have any real experience of sporting events, but it’s obvious even to me that the Thames Marathon is truly special. It is certainly not easy, and not something that should be attempted without months of training, but to spend a day swimming such a gorgeous stretch of the Thames in a supportive and friendly environment is an experience I would recommend to anyone.

The credits

Completing the Thames Marathon is a lot like winning an Oscar: it feels incredible, and Ady and Char.jpgthere are so many people to thank.

I could not have completed this event without:

  • Kim at Swim Solutions, who patiently coached me in the Total Immersion swimming style. Without her, there’s no way I’d have finished within the 6hr timeframe, or swum that sort of distance injury-free.
  • Alzheimer’s Research UK for their support, encouragement and the big box filled with brightly coloured tshirts and cheer sticks.
  • My cheerleading team on the day: Mum, Dad, Lindi, Char, Ady, Will, Sophie, Becca and Wayne. Thank you all for coming!
  • The support team and safety crew at Henley Swim – you were fab 🙂

Finally, and most importantly, I have to thank everyone who contributed to my JustGiving page. There are so many sponsors I can’t even list them all here, but I remain grateful and overwhelmed at how generous people have been in supporting vital research into Alzheimer’s Disease: a condition that is terminal in 100% of cases because we still know too little about it, and we have underfunded its investigation for generations. The world is one step closer to destroying this disease because of you. Thank you.

Written by Emily

August 17, 2016 at 11:08 am

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