It’s 7.30am on a Sunday morning. A brisk wind is ruffling the feathers of a swan gliding across Shepperton Lake. Everyone around us is heading into the water in wetsuits; it’s so nippy some people are wearing neoprene socks and gloves. Meanwhile, I am in a nervous huddle on the grass with my friends Dipa, 43, and Lisa, 34. We’re clutching our warm Dryrobes to us, waiting for the right moment to dash into the 12-degree water in our swimsuits.
‘What the hell have we done?’ we ask each other (not for the first time). After all, we’re beginner openwater swimmers: I only learnt to do the front crawl properly a year ago and I have never swum in a lake without a wetsuit. Even then, the furthest I had swum was 800 metres. But within 10 minutes we’re all slowly on our way round the first of three 750-metre circuits for our first open water swim of the spring season because we have to train for an epic challenge: a 70km (43-mile) marathon swim across Lake Geneva on 17 July 2017.
Six of us will take one hour turns to cross the Swiss lake through the night in what we hope will be a 35-hour (or less) swim.
Our mobile phone WhatsApp group is called Geneva Nitwits and everyday it pings with messages from five like-minded people saying more or less the same thing: just keep swimming.
For four months that is what we have been doing in between jobs, life and parenting 12 children between us (aged four to 16 years). It has been tough and there have been moments when I wished I’d researched the Lake of Legends Signature 70 more thoroughly before booking a flight to Geneva.
My low points include: the first fitness session where I struggled to do the 16-length warm up of a 25-metre pool; the day I was nearly sick in a lake due to a weird dizziness; the day it took me over an hour to do 2km non-stop; the moment I plunged my body into 8-degree water at Parliament Hill Lido and thought my eyeballs were going to pop out; and the day I was so exhausted from two big swims I slept motionless on my front like a drunk all night and required a neck brace for two days due to muscle spasm. It’s been ‘a journey’ as they say.
Obviously, we could have started with the English Channel (which is half the distance) or stuck to UK lakes but Geneva’s water is clean and clear, in July the temperature is around 22 degrees and there’s talk of shooting stars at night. In short, Geneva ticks all our different individual boxes for doing something out of our comfort zones. Have I mentioned we’re beginners? Apart from triathlete coach Dan Bullock, who runs Swim for Tri, and who is swimming with us, we’re not even what you would call amateur athletes. We’re just a group of five normal women looking for a summer adventure.
It all started when I wrote about my dream of swimming Lake Geneva in The Sunday Times magazine (I am the editor in chief of Style but contribute to the whole paper). The piece came out on New Year’s Day and mum-of-five Katy Orr, who has swum the Bosphorus in Turkey and enjoys a spot of open water adventure though the winter, spotted it mid-hangover. She quickly searched the swim online and miraculously got a rare place for July. Now she had to find a team because everyone she knew said ‘no’ due to the distance. My friend the shoe designer Rupert Sanderson knew Katy and connected us on Facebook. It was a meeting of minds! Neither of us care about personal bests, stroke rates or all that malarkey – we’re just happy to be swimming outside.
Next, I asked my school mum friend Dipa Shah, who works part-time for the charity Housing for Women. Two of her three children are in the same class as two of my four children. I knew she’d done Blenheim triathlon the year before (doing the swim bit breaststroke) but was always up for a challenge. Then I asked Lisa Potter-Dixon, head make-up artist for Benefit Cosmetics. We’d done Blenheim sprint triathlon together twice and accidentally took on a much longer course triathlon at Woburn Abbey together. She is the most positive person I know and a good foil to my occasionally Eeyore outlook. The team was shaping up but we knew we’d need an expert or we’d face hours of swimming. Enter Dan, the most patient swim coach in the world. Through Dan we were supported by Speedo with swim kit (we chose matching red suits for the team as it reminded us of Baywatch and we knew we’d want to have red painted nails for the big day).
Dryrobe gave us personally monogrammed robes too. And Tudor watches, who test their dive watches in Lake Geneva, agreed to sponsor us – their motto being Born to Dare.
The Lake Geneva Signature 70 is not easy to enter. It costs just over £4,000 plus flights and hotel. You have to hire a boat, two pilots, an adjudicator and a lifeguard. The qualifying swim is based on Channel rules (two hours twice in one day at 17 degrees or under). Remember, apart from Katy and her daughter Elsa, 16, who joined up too, three of us had yet to crack being able to swim one hour non-stop.
Dan devised a training plan which started inside and built up to us swimming 8-10km a week (at least three sessions). By May we had to move outside and alternated between Parliament Hill lido and Shepperton Lake with an occasional session at Stratford’s 50-metre Olympic pool. Due to work and family commitments we mostly met at unholy hours of the morning.
We also had to cold water acclimatise as most of us had not swum outside at all for a year. We started by enduring temperatures from 8 degrees through to 17 before hitting perfectly acceptable no-wetsuit figures of around 20 degrees. One degree makes such a difference and I also trained in the north Cornish sea during school holidays, discovering the wonders of Bude Sea Pool. We probably all know more about ‘brown fat’, which heats your organs from inside and grows with more exposure to cold water than we need to, but I have to say once you have swum without a wetsuit I doubt you ever go back to wearing one.
We started to swim more than once a day in June while still practising our drills in the pool and enjoying being in the slow lane at Swim for Tri’s weekly fitness sessions.
We researched our trip more thoroughly, meeting a man who had attempted the swim in a butterfly relay and reading the uplifting blog of the four-person JenBo Jets who’d swum it last year. The sight of them wearing glowsticks in the water at night and enjoying a dance music playlist from the boat thoroughly cheered us up. Plus they helped us complete a definitive kit list and advised us to make a wall chart of the swim rota, ensuring someone was always motivating the person in the water.
Now with only five weeks to go we all face different mental fears. Mine is the dark and as I write we are trying to secure a night swim; Lisa is worried about what is in the water; and Dipa is fearful of injury. Elsa remains stoic, focused as she is on her GCSE exams, but Katy is just keeping us all calm, as is her way. “It’s going to be fun,” she keeps saying. And she is right.
It’s already been fun. We’ve met such lovely people swimming and if I am ever a bit down I revert to the Outdoor Swimming Society’s Facebook page and other swimmers cheer me up with their tales of derring-do.
I will be 50 in a year’s time. I am no doubt more than halfway through my life. I can’t muck around with half measures and almost experiences. The creeping sadness of midlife sometimes wakes me in the night and now more than ever I want to feel really alive. Swimming does that for me. Wish us luck!