A couple of years ago I joined the Outdoor Swimming Society after reading a book called Wild Swim by Kate Rew. I had recently walked the Three Peaks with my son, Will, and we had dipped in icy lochs, tarns, and llyns on the descents, so I was into the idea of swimming in mountain streams and from remote beaches. It never occurred to me that I would think twice about a swimming marathon.
But sometimes one has to try to do something beyond what one has achieved before. Something beyond existing self-belief. And the OSS had just sent me an email about the Dart 10k.
Obviously it is essential to distinguish between the improbable and the impossible. Most of my friends and family reckoned I had failed on that score and, at the beginning of the year, they had good reason for such a point of view. Not that I told them, of course! Not having swum for ages, I was struggling with swimming 10 lengths crawl. My shoulders and arms were hurting, joints and muscles aching. 10k is 400 lengths! 6 ¼ miles, and the furthest I had ever swum before was about 3 miles – ten years ago. And then I had frozen shoulders for the next few months.
In late July I started swimming in my wetsuit in a lake. One lap is 750 metres, and I was overjoyed when I made it first time without stopping. I got some advice on how to “sight”, because not being able to look at any lines on the bottom of a pool causes one to veer away from the intended route. I practised this, and taught myself to stroke more slowly, and to try to glide over the water.
During the Olympics we went to Hyde Park when the women’s 10k swim race was on. They did it in 2 hours! I was swimming a mile in about 35 minutes at that stage, and so expected to be in the water for about four hours. That’s how long it took me to run a marathon twenty years ago!
Nevertheless I approached the event undaunted, my fragile conviction propped up by belief in the potency of the combination of technique, concentration and determination. Some were thinking more along the lines of self-delusion and mid-life crisis – but they have been saying that for two decades now!
Swimming in the lake had allowed me to learn to enjoy the feel of fresh, cool water. I had discovered how to relax and enjoy the immersion. Buoyed by my wetsuit I was starting to feel very much at home in the water. I was reassessing the pleasures described by Roger Deakin in his book “Waterlog”. I was increasingly finding a great sense of calm while easing through the water.
There is a poem called “Dart”. It is an imagined narrative by the river, inspired by the people and places along its length. It is beautifully and imaginatively written by Alice Oswald, and I re-read it during the days before the swim:
“then I jumped in a rush of gold to the head, / through black and cold, red and cold, brown and warm, / giving water the weight and size of myself in order to imagine it, / water with my bones, water with my mouth and my understanding / when my body was in some way a wave to swim in, / one continuous fin from head to tail / I steered through rapids like a canoe”
Lucy and I went to stay with Debbie, our long time Hampshire neighbour who now lives beside the Dart. The day of the swim had arrived.
Unlike the prissy instruction about no nudity at the triathlon the previous week, the command from the OSS was more down to earth. “There are no changing facilities at the start, but you are wild swimmers and used to changing al fresco. If you don’t like it, change before you arrive.”
There were quite a few bared buttocks on display because over 800 swimmers arrived at the start.
There was a wonderful sense of camaraderie amongst the swimmers. As we readied ourselves for the plunge into 12C water, there was constant happy and encouraging banter. Some had done it last year, others were going to try breaststroke all the way. A few had no wetsuit, others had gloves and shoes. Young and old, fat and thin, aesthetes and athletes, we mingled. Unlike Noah’s animals we followed each other into the water two by two.
My first few strokes were breaststroke as I found my way across the river, occasionally dipping my face into the cold stream, its cool waters emerging from the oaks, fresh from Dartmoor. Tentatively I started to do crawl, reverting occasionally to breaststroke to steer around others and to reset my direction. After a few minutes I was clear and away, and found my rhythm.
I could not believe how quickly I reached the first feed station. It took me exactly an hour to do about 3½k. I would have missed this floating sanctuary had it not been for one of the many volunteers directing me towards it. There were scores of volunteers, on rafts, kayaks, ribs, at the start and at the finish. They were ensuring we were safe and offering encouragement all the way. What stars!
This first feed station was at Sharpham, renowned for its cheeses and wines, but we had jelly babies and lucozade on offer! Perhaps it is not that surprising that many of the 150 starters who did not complete the 10k left the river at this point.
After this it all became rather tougher. The river opened out, tributaries merged and the wind got up. Then we reached the point at which the tide locked horns with the upstream current. The water became very choppy. Swimming with an easy rhythm then became nigh on impossible, as I had to pull my head higher out of the water. I tried breathing on one side, rather than both, to make breathing easier, but the respite was always temporary in the fluky waters.
The water was starting to taste unpleasant, so it was a relief to reach the second feed station and to rinse my mouth with sweet lucozade! I had got to 7k in two hours.
At this stage the green-capped elite swimmers, who started later, began to overtake me. They were seriously fast. They were inspiring too. I was by now quite tired, and I could not employ my rhythmic action because the water was so choppy. Chafing was becoming increasingly a problem, thanks to having to lift my head so high, despite wearing a rash vest. The green caps sharpened my determination.
So I ploughed on. This last stage seemed eternal. I could not stop myself from looking ahead repeatedly for the finish. At last I could see it, but it could not come quickly enough as all forward motion seemed to stop.
But I got there. 3 hours almost on the dot. The elite took two hours, the slowest arrived after nearly five.
I stumbled up the beach, over the pebbles and towards the tented reception area. There in the distance I could see Lucy and Fenella. Fenella gave me a cup of hot chocolate, and Lucy went to get some soup. The best chocolate and soup I have ever had.
I then went to get my Dart 10k hoodie! I had done it.
Hug a hoodie!
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Huge thanks to those who have.