Swim serpentine was a challenge like no other, for it not only involved training for something totally alien, but before I could even get in the water I had to address my fear of open water swimming. I studied environmental science and geography for my degree, which involved a lot of talking about bacteria and algae in open waters and as a result gave me a real complex about swimming in anything other than a very well chlorinated, pristine swimming pool. This coupled with a nervousness about the unknown depth, currents and coldness, meant that the biggest challenge of this open water swimming journey for me happened at the very start of my training. I knew I wanted to do swim serpentine and complete the London Classics, so I knew this fear was something I just needed to take a ‘suck it up’ attitude to and get on with it. The main turning point in my journey was when we went out to Stockholm and I was the first person in the water one morning, I realised then that the joy swimming brought me, outweighed my initially shaky start.
Out of all my Classics challenges swim serpentine was the one I was most excited for. I think it mainly has a lot to do with the fact we were doing it as a couple and I could enjoy getting my super huge classics medal. I had also been swimming 3 miles comfortably in training, so suddenly 2 miles didn’t seem as far! I was much more relaxed about this. Plus it was on a Saturday so there was all of Sunday to recover.
The day of the swim had a chilly autumnal feel with the odd bit of rain which was sad after all the glorious sunshine we had had, but lucky in comparison to the forecast for the rest of the weekend. I made the mistake of using the dunk zone too early to acclimatise and got pretty cold at the start, so I was glad when our wave was called forward to head to the start. Getting in was quite chaotic with arms and legs everywhere. Once the initial shock of the cold and the amount of people swimming around me passed I settled into a rhythm, making the most of the sensation of drafting other swimmers- it really is amazing how much swimming in a group can help move you along.
The first mile passed quickly and we were storming onto our second mile when disaster struck and I started to struggle with cramp in my calf. I am so pleased to have had my tow float with me, and took a quick breather for the cramp to pass before carrying on. I was so worried that I had thrown it all away and lost my chance to complete so I slowly switched from front crawl to breastroke, keeping the use of my legs to a minimum.
As we approached the finish things became quite chaotic. The fast swimmers from the mile wave behind ours caught up and were fighting their way to the finish. Some were clearly going for times and were pushing swimmers out the way, one grabbed me by the ankle to drag me out of his way which triggered my cramp again and meant Guy and I were separated at the finish. I had been looking forward to finishing together as this would be the only one of my classics challenge where we would have the opportunity to do so. I felt momentarily sad but the sheer relief of simply finishing outweighed this, and I guess there is always next year!
The organisation of the event was fantastic. The volunteers were so helpful and the post swim hot tubs were a real treat. There were so many marshals in kayaks out on the course, keeping a very watchful eye and assisting anyone who needed it. Having the chance to swim in the Serpentine was so special (even if it did mildly taste of goose!) I am definitely aiming to be back next year!
My top tips for anyone trying Swim Serpentine for the first time:
- Pick a wave that doesn’t have a mile wave starting after yours, the mile swimmers tend to go flat out and will catch you if you’re slower. If you’re a lady trying this for the first time, there is an early morning ladies mile which sounds fabulous.
- Get there early, it isn’t like a run where you can pitch up close to the start time and just go, you have to leave enough time to change into your wetsuit, drop your bag off and have a quick dip in the dunk zone.
- Pack flip flops for when you finish- easier than getting shoes on! Or better still- pack some Oofos!
- Take a tow float if you think it is useful. If you aren’t in a wetsuit you must take one, if you wear a wetsuit it is optional- but i’m so glad I took mine.
- Do at least one open water swim before the big day- open water swimming is very different to swimming in a pool and putting your head under for the first time is quite daunting. If you’re going to do front crawl practice your sighting too (basically learn to look ahead periodically!)
- Don’t go off like a rocket- pace yourself and give yourself a chance to adjust to the cold. It is pretty congested at the start and if you’re nervous going down the ramp, stick to the side and take your time.
- You don’t have to front crawl the whole way or even at all. There were plenty of people doing breast stroke- some of whom weren’t even putting their heads under the water. Its your swim and your choice.
- The changing is predominantly single sex group changing, but there are some tent pods so don’t worry if you’d prefer to change more privately.
- Pack a bottle of coke for after- it will help with any nasties you might have swallowed!