At the beginning of last week the water temperature in Windermere was 12 degrees. While that might not put off experienced open water swimmers, for the organisers of the Great North Swim it could have been a bit of a (frosty) headache.
Thankfully the sun came out and by Friday the water temperature was hovering around 17 degrees. No need for contigency plans to deal with thousands of mildly hypothermic swimmers.
The Great North Swim is a beast of an event. Europe’s largest mass participation swim, over 10,000 swimmers of all abilities took part in three days of races in what must be one of the country’s most stunning swimming locations.
The first day’s action kicked off in glorious sunshine with some serious swimming: two waves of 5km and 2-mile races. As the event has expanded it has upped the distances it offers to attract more experienced swimmers. Colin Hill won the three-lap 5km race. H2Open’s Simon Griffith’s finished in a very creditable 11th place. I was somewhat behind them in 58th place.
But the main event is Saturday’s one-mile swims. Many swimmers were there chasing a PB, more were there simply for the challenge. For many it was their first time in open water. As wave after wave entered the water, the number of bobbing hats of swimmers setting off doing heads-up breaststroke was testament to the success of the Great North Swim in getting non-swimmers and first-time open water swimmers into the great outdoors. And the smiles (and not a few grimaces) on the faces of swimmers as they exited the water to the cheers of their families and friends showed the sense of achievement that they felt having completed their races.
First-time open water swimmers on the day included 60 pupils, staff and parents from Sedbergh School, who raised over £4000 for the Great North Air Ambulance. The pupils ranged from 13 to 18 years of age. “Everyone was buzzing afterwards and loved it,” said teacher Faye Barker. “We were so glad the lake temperature warmed up a lot, as many were very cold a few weeks ago when we were training.” Hopefully for many of those young swimmers it will be the start of a life-long love of open water swimming.
Saturday’s action ended with the elite 5km races. Since the water was (just) warm enough, the races were run to FINA rules – no wetsuits. For the junior UK swimmers the races were qualifiers for the European Championships while for the seniors places at the World Championships in Kazan were at stake. Both races also attracted stars from the international circuit, including Christine Jennings, Lexie Kelly, Alex Studzinski and Rhys Mainstone. In the women’s race Christine Jennings from the US took first place in 57:37:6. UK junior Alice Dearing was second in 57:40:0 and Sophie Evans was third in 57:41.6. In the men’s race Caleb Hughes broke Tom Allen’s lead to finish in 53:48:0. Allen finished in 53:52:4. Ireland’s Chris Bryan was third in 54:08:2.
Highlighting the fact that the weekend is for swimmers of all abilities, Sunday started with a series of half-mile swims before more miles and another two waves of 2-mile races. The weekend finished with a new event for Great Swim – a 3 x half-mile relay. 25 teams took part in what looked like a lot of fun and which I am sure will return bigger and better next year.