On 7th July 2013 at approximately 9 o’clock in the morning I was standing breast-deep in water underneath Brownsea Castle, waiting to start the Brownsea Island swim. My sister was standing next to me. We were suited and goggled up, we had hugged, we were ready to go. Just waiting for the starter to commence the countdown. It was at that point that I remembered that whilst I was wandering around before the race with my wetsuit round my waist I had shoved my earplugs down the front of my swimsuit for safekeeping and omitted to remove them and put them in my ears. Thus it was that when the hooter went to start Brownsea 2013 I was standing on the beach, raking around down the front of my wetsuit, trying to find my earplugs.
This turned out to be a good thing on the whole, as the start of big races is not generally a very pleasant place to be. The fast swimmers charge into the water first and swim like crazy to be ahead of the pack. Everyone follows them in a big mass, churning the water up and creating significant chop. It’s often compared to swimming in a washing machine, but it’s a washing machine full of other people, all trying to do the same as you. For the first few hundred yards of the Great London Swim 2012, it wasn’t a pleasant experience at all. I lost Cal immediately, but that wasn’t a problem; I hadn’t expected to keep in touch with her. What was a problem was what my mum used to call “peepull”; there were just too many of us all trying to swim in the same bit of water.
It was impossible to settle into any kind of rhythm. I’d get going, bish bash breathe, bish bash brea….and find myself with somebody’s feet in my face. Or I’d be swimming along fine and somebody would swipe me from the side or try to swim up my arse. Every few yards I had to stop, breaststroke for a couple of strokes and try to work out what the hell was going on. Fortunately this didn’t last for very long, and after a bit I found myself comfortably off to one side, bish bash breathe, bish bash breathe, popping my head up every so often to make sure I was still going the right way.
In any long swim there are bits which seem to go on for ever when you wonder what on earth you have let yourself in for. During Brownsea it was the first stretch past the nature reserve at the end of the island. I knew that there was a breakwater to my left which went on for maybe a mile before I got to the woods and I swear, there were moments when I thought that bloody breakwater would never end. During that first Great London Swim it was the long stretch to the turn. There was a bridge across the dock about three-quarters of the way to the turn point, maybe half a mile from the start, and for ages it just loomed there, stubbornly refusing to get any closer. At one point I was swimming along the side of a moored dredger. It looked monstrous from water level, like some sort of industrial age leviathan, and as I crawled along in its shadow it felt as though it would be awfully easy to drown. (In fact I couldn’t have drowned if I’d tried, not in a wetsuit with dozens of safety kayakers around, but it still felt a bit scary).
Once I got past the bridge things got better. There was lots of space, I was swimming with people about the same speed as me, so there were no feet in the face, and I could see the turn buoy, from which it was only four hundred yards to the finish. Once I was round the buoy I even managed a bit of a sprint and passed a couple of people myself. I was an ace swimmer! I rocked!
And then it was me climbing up the exit ramp being applauded by the volunteers, walking dripping between the spectators grinning like a loon, collecting my goody bag and my medal, getting my picture taken with my face all red and my hair sticking up in a bizarre fin. I looked like a dick but I felt like one of those ComicCon superheroes. I had done my first big swim.