Following Ironman Texas and Ironman Boulder this year I made the decision to take a midseason break from racing. Both races had fallen well short of my goals and I felt like it was necessary to take a step back so that I might be able to take a step forward in the future. On the upside, I was able to take on a couple new projects with this unusual flexibility in my summer schedule.
First off was an event in England called the Thames Marathon Swim, a 14K "non-race" point-to-point event. I put the non-race in the quotes as the event had timing and people clearly were racing for the 'win.' However, the event didn't technically recognize a winner so I suppose it wasn't a race. The best comparison I can make is to a cycling Grand Fondo; an event that has no specific race categories, but does have timing and a group of people that are trying to cross the finish line first.
The idea to do this event came about because of an athlete I have worked with many years, Larry Creswell. Larry is a cardiac surgeon from Jackson, Mississippi that has transitioned from a triathlete into an ultra distance swimmer. Over the past few years he has taken on more and more ultra swimming events leading into his ultimate goal of crossing the English Channel in September of 2019.
Larry and I had been discussing the idea of us traveling together to Dover, England to see where the crossing will take place, but we had yet to nail down a time to do so. When I saw that Larry was planning to do this swim race in early August, I suggested that I come along, swim the event and then we could recon the channel crossing on the back end of the trip.
I don't think Larry ever believed me when I told him I was pretty nervous about swimming 14K, but I was. Granted, this was a somewhat "easy" way to do a 14K swim; the race was down current (although the current was not particularly noticeable), wetsuit-legal, and it was broken up into 4 sections because you had to physically exit the water on three separate occasions to transfer from lock to lock. This meant we had to swim the following legs: 4K, 6K, 1.8K, 2.2K. The first and last locks had a legitimate walk of a few hundred meters, while the middle one was probably less than 10 meters in total.
Leading into the event, I didn't really change up my swim training very much, but I did incorporate one 9K swim session in a long course pool that coincided with the annual birthday swim hosted by my friend, Monica Byrn. I finished that session feeling pretty good, so I felt as though I was at least prepared for the opening 10K of the Thames Swim and I could probably fake the closing 4K if needed, particularly since it was split into two shorter legs.
Larry and I arrived in London on Thursday and fought off jet lag for a couple days by doing some early morning swims in Hyde Park in London as well as visiting a local swim coach and doing some sight seeing. We managed to make it over to Churchill's War Rooms one afternoon which was something I really enjoyed. We transferred over to Henley-on-Thames on Saturday afternoon and got ready for the early morning race on Sunday.
This 'race' was much bigger than I would have expected with more than 750 participants. I was impressed that so many people would want to do an ultra swim event and I think it speaks to the popularity of ultra swimming in the U.K.
I lined up on the far left of the start and I assumed that it would be easy to get clear water within a few hundred meters.
I honestly don't think it would be an exaggeration to say that there were at least 200 people in front of me at the 100-meter mark of the race. My personal goal was to try and get through the opening 4K feeling like I hadn't done much at all. As such, it took some time to start working my way up through the outside of the swimmers. As I did, I saw some pockets of people that were dropping back very quickly; similar to what it looks like a mile or two into an open road running race.
By the end of the opening 4K I had probably moved inside the top 30-40 swimmers and as I entered the second lock, I could see a cluster of what I assumed was the "front group" aside from one lone swimmer off the front. Throughout the 6K segment, I felt pretty good and kept a good rhythm. I caught some more swimmers and I had hoped to bridge across to a group I could see by the end of the 6K, but never quite got there. At the end of the 6K leg I took a couple extra minutes at the aid station to get in some calories as I couldn't think of anything worse than bonking late in the day.
The final two segments went by fairly quickly, but I started to reach the limits of my fitness. The folks in front of me that I was keeping in sight began to put some considerable distance in front of me and some folks behind me were starting to catch up. I was pretty achy in that final 2K, but I held it together to finish in 11th overall in a time of 3:03:xx. I wore a Garmin during the event and only let it run while swimming with a time of 2:55:xx. So about 8 minutes was spent either walking between locks and/or taking in some food/water at the aid stations. This was both the farthest and longest I have ever swam in open water or in a pool.
Larry was competing in the non wetsuit event and did very well finishing in a little over 3.5 hours. Later I was asking him if he felt sore or tired and he did not. That certainly wasn't the case for me; I felt absolutely worked after the event, both in soreness and fatigue. It took me a full two weeks to feel good in the water again when I got home so it definitely took a solid physical and mental toll on me.
I can't really say that ultra swimming is high on my to-do list in the future, but I thought this was an outstanding event. The venue is amazing and the way it's laid out makes it not feel as extreme or over the top as it might be if it were a 14K swim held elsewhere. So, if you do ever want to dip your toes (pun intended) in a long swim event, I'd highly suggest this one.
After the event, Larry and I set out to Dover, England. I passed out at about 8:00 p.m. that evening and then we were up early for a ferry crossing over to France to see where the Channel Swimmers attempt to land. On this particular day, there were several people making the attempt and they could not have picked a better day. The sun was shining, the visibility was great and I cannot imagine a day with calmer seas.
After landing in France, we had about a thirty minute drive to the point where people try to land on when swimming the Channel. This spot in France is the closest physical point to England which also makes it a significant historical location as the Allied and Axis Powers fired many shots against one another to and from this point. It was estimated that more than 2,000 shells had impacted that location and remnants of German bunkers were scattered around the area. As we visited the area on a beautiful day it's hard to go back in time and think of it as a war zone, but the concrete barracks all around us were a clear reminder.
After scouting out the location, we made our way back to the ferry and headed back to England. While on the boat Larry asked me "So what do you think?" I responded by saying that this all now seems doable. Prior to really being there, the thought of swimming across the English Channel seemed somewhat novel, crazy even. But after seeing it all, it started to become real and I was able to wrap my head around someone taking on this challenge. By all means, any swimmer is going to have to take their chances with the weather, the currents, their stomach (and health), etc., but if they are strong-willed enough, then I think they have a fighting chance.
I'd like to say a big thank you to Larry for showing me a different part of the world, both literally and athletically. I'm proud to have taken a part in his journey so far and I hope to be there through its completion.
In my next blog, I'll cover the 29029 Event in Snowbasin, Utah that I just returned from.
Now, some photos: