Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Coniston end-to-end swim, 2 September, 2017

This was the third time I’ve done the Coniston swim - and I’ll be signing up with Colin Hill at Chill Swim do it again next year. It’s an iconic event here in the north that rivals the southern offerings such as the Dart 10 k and the Henley Thames Marathon. The swim starts at the southern end of Coniston Water in the Lake District and finishes at its most northerly point. It’s 5.25 miles. I like it because it’s superbly organised swim and draws a range of swimming abilities. And then there’s the camaraderie.
Hoathwaite early race day

The campsite view

Swimmers are organised into waves based on a self-assessment of swimming speed. There were six waves, from superfast to slow head-up breast stroke. This year there were more than 750 participants.

Colin Hill stamps his personality on all aspects of the swim. He’s there at registration, at the start for all the waves and to help you out of the water at the end. Finishers are garlanded with a medal rather than just handed their trophy. Colin provides training videos and advice for swimmers working up to the end-to-end swim.

I signed up months before it took place. (I’m like that.) It was still possible to register one week before the event. It’s not the cheapest swim, costing £90-105 depending upon when you register.  But I think it’s well worth it. The water safety is fantastic and the goody bags are very nice. This year we got fun Arena bags, perfect for carrying soggy wetsuits. The Chill swim swimming hats are large, silicone and very bright. Then there’s the impressive finishers’ medal.

Lime green goody bags

This is a good swim for skins swimmers as wetsuits are not compulsory and it’s possible to change your mind on the day. Tow floats are compulsory. These make navigation very easy as you can see the swirl of orange and pink tow floats ahead of you as you swim. (A sight denied the leaders!)

The best quality swim hats
Registration is in the Jon Ruskin school in Coniston itself and this is the meeting point for the swim. Competitors are bussed to the start. It’s a long drive and quite worrying to think the only way back is swimming up the lake. The start is well organised with swimmers starting in half hourly waves. The slowest waves get off first at 8:20 The fasties don’t leave until 11:40 The swim is chip-timed and once we are off we cross the lake and swim up hugging the western shore until we reach the other end.  The course has mile markers. There are four feed stations and these are on boats moored in the lake. This means there’s a buoy or a marker every half mile. I found this good mentally.
Lovely medal

I managed the swim in just under 3 hours so was very pleased. My gorgeous medal was placed around my neck as I emerged from the lake – I like that, it makes it seem much more important that just being handed a goody bag.
Almost tropical water this year

The conditions for this year’s swim were excellent. It was a clear day without too much wind. The breeze did pick up a bit towards the end, causing a bit of chop. But I think it was a following wind giving us a bit of a push. (I may be wrong about this!).  The scenery is so beautiful with Old Man Coniston (mountain) to our left as we swam.

We usually camp at Hoathwaite Campsite over the weekend as the proceedings start early with buses to the start at around Registration opens the evening before. That’s where you pick up your goody bag, hat, timing chip and number.  Hoathwaite is a beautiful campsite with basic facilities, a toilet block in a portacabin and two showers. There’s also a little shop for essentials. It’s walking distance to Coniston village and there are a couple of nice pubs in Torver and a shop and delicatessen – just a five-minute walk away. As this is in school holidays it can be a bit busy but it is a peaceful and relaxing site on the shores of Lake Coniston.

I’m ready to sign up for next year!
The usual elegant exit. Job done. 

Old man Coniston - the hill, not the bloke

Monday, 14 August 2017

The Henley Thames Marathon swim 2017

The Thames Marathon, also known as the Bridge to Bridge and held this year on August 6, is the last and the longest in the Henley on Thames swim series. It’s 14 kilometres, downstream from the bridge in Henley to the bridge in Marlow.

I had swum three 10km events: the Dart 10km in 2014 and. Om 2015 and 2016 the Kielder Marathon.  I signed up for Henley as soon as registration opened (IN ?) and I vowed to be better trained for this than for my previous long-distance events.. My programme started at the end of January. The plan was to increase the distance gradually to around 30 km per week. Of course, this didn’t happen. It is very hard to pack this mileage in a week given the variables of pool access, time available, stamina and avoiding injury - especially as I am 63. 

I ended up averaging 20 km per week before the event.

There were 643 registered swimmers divided into four waves. The speedy swimmers in pink hats left first followed by the blue hats. The steady swimmers were in green hats and those swimming in groups in yellow. The organisers stipulate wetsuits but applications can be made to compete in skins. All needed to wear tow floats. The swim is downstream so the river flow is a consideration. I had been watching the flow rate in the previous week but unfortunately the speed of the current dropped considerably the couple of days before the swim.

We registered at the prestigious Leander Club in Henley. We were given our swim hats and timing chips and the briefing. The anxiety levels of fellow swimmers was palpable. A lot of people looked very worried. After all, you don’t know you can swim 14 kms in a river until you do it and most had not attempted this distance before. For me, I was anxious but this anxiety dissipated, as usual, once I was in the water. We left at 15-minute intervals starting at 7:45 - pink, blue, green and finally yellow. We were ushered into the water 10 minutes or so before the start. Of course I was one of the first in. I’m not sure whether this wait is factored into the final time or not. I suspect the more experienced Henley Marathoners popped in at the last minute – a tactic that also ensured they were are the front of their wave. 
We registered the evening before in the Leander Club

This swim is advertised as ‘sportive,’ the emphasis being on completion rather than time elapsed. For me there was a 20-minute time difference between my actual swimming time and my recorded time for the event. This is unavoidable as we often had to queue to get out and back into the river depending on swimmers and river traffic.

After a very crowded start we seemed to naturally swim in small groups. Spectators could follow a walking route and meet swimmers at each of the three feeding stations. There are four stages in the swim with exits to cross locks. Stage one was 4 kms from Henley to Hambledon, stage two 6 kms from Hambledon to Hurley, stage three 1.8 kms to Temple, and stage 4 was 2.2 kms to Marlow. Feed stations were located at each stop. 
The pink hats are off!

The blue hats (my wave) are off!

The first leg of the swim was surprisingly easy. Everybody said this. There must have been some current then. We climbed out of the river, had a few snacks and a drink and encouragement from supporters and popped back into the river to swim the longest leg of 6 kms. Again this didn’t seem TOO hard. Out of the river, more snacks and a drink and off for the 1.8 leg, which saw us cross and exit the river on the other side.  By now it was late morning and the river traffic was getting a bit heavy and the water a bit choppy. This made the last 2.2 kms more challenging. My arms were aching a great deal. At the finish, I climbed out to be greeted by having a medal placed around my neck and applause from the spectators. What a wonderful feeling!  A feeling of immense achievement. My time and position were available immediately and I was presented with a goody bag. I managed the swim in 4 hours 11 minutes, including the 20 minutes of getting in and out of the river. I was very happy with that time. I had, like most others, done enough training after all!
Climbing out at the finish 

Feeling pretty pleased with myself at the finish.

The swim is superbly organised and executed. From signing up for the swim through to getting the results. The water safety was first class. The kayaks were with us the whole way, herding us out of the way of boat traffic. The rubber dinghies sped up and down warning river craft of our presence and providing help for swimmers who needed it. There were people there to help us get in and out of the river, which really was much appreciated! There was a good range of snacks:  muesli bars, salty crackers, a host of sweeties and bananas at the feed stations, a veritable buffet. I was particularly impressed by the celebratory atmosphere at the finish. There were plenty food outlets. The wood-fired pizza van was very popular as was the coffee stall.  We opted for Quorn sausage buns which really hit the spot. Then it was on a coach back to Henley.
My new favourite hoodie

 Before this swim I said this would be my most challenging swim, that I’d scale back after this. With all the hard training and the pre-swim anxiety this is understandable. But the feeling on completion is amazing. So where from here? First, I have to shed the weight I put on during the couple of weeks before the swim. I think I may have been a bit too prolonged and enthusiastic in the carb loading phase of my training.  I have the Coniston end-to-end 8.5 km swim in a couple of weeks. After that swim in the Lake District I vow to get stronger. I have puny arm muscles so I’m going to try Body Pump classes to improve that. I have also signed up for one-way Windermere swim with SwimYourSwim in 2018. This is 16.5 km swim – without any current assistance, so a bit of a step up. So much for scaling back!

Friday, 4 August 2017

Swimming with seals in Northumberland

An evening in early July saw me on a boat sailing from Seahouses to the Farne Islands to swim with seals. I was on this trip last year. I would go every month if I could – it is such tremendous fun.

The trip is organised by Jane Hardy of Alnwick Sea Swimmers. This is a closed Facebook group of passionate open water swimmers in Northumberland. The trips happen every year during the summer months usually on a Saturday. The charge is £15 for swimmers and £10 for spectators, children are free.
The amazing Jane Hardy
 We were a mixed group of 20 with swimmers and non-simmers. I went with husband Sid and daughter Leah. Sid is not keen on open water swimming. Neither is Leah but she loves seals, so was kitted out in wetsuit, neoprene hat, socks and gloves (thanks Mum). It was a beautiful summer’s evening with a clear sky and excellent visibility. The boat, one of the famous Billy Shiels fleet, left at 6:30 heading for the Farnes. The trip took about 15 minutes.  During this time Leah’s decision to pop into the cold of the North Sea seriously wavered -“I can’t do it!”
Billy Sheils' boat
At this time of year the seabirds are in a frenzy looking after their young. We saw guillemots nesting on vertical cliffs, artic terns spearing fish, and puffins with beaks full of little silver fish. As we approached the rocky outcrops of the Farnes we spotted the seals basking on the rocks. Lots of them. When they saw the boat they slithered into the water. They were obviously very keen to swim with us. At this point Leah’s wavering resolve changed, accompanied by squeals of delight. “I can, I will!”
Seabirds in the Farnes: Guillemots left and puffins right
"I can, I will"  Leah and support crew Sid

It looks warmer than it is!

Leah heads for the seals: I counted nine.

The grey seals are like Labradors of the sea. This group was very large with youngsters and adults. They’re naturally curious and playful. We all popped into the water, the admittedly chilly water, and off we went. The best tactic is to float and let the seals come up to you and investigate. They come quite close – a metre of so from our faces Then they duck down and perform aquatic gymnastics underneath us. They don’t touch, though. They are so quick. Very hard to photograph.

A Labrador of the sea

It was a wonderful experience interacting with these gorgeous animals in their natural environment. Leah was delighted by the experience but doesn’t intend to take up open water swimming, at least not in the North Sea.
It's hard to take photos of seal

The water is 10-11 degrees and this type of swimming is virtually motionless so even the toughest dipper was back on the boat after 45 minutes. The crew provided hot drinks. We got changed quickly and piled on the clothes. Even wearing a wetsuit, incipient hypothermia sets ins soon after emerging from the water. Quite a few had the shudders despite mugs of hot tea. Wrapped up in jumpers and hats, the shivers subside as we journey back Seahouses. We were back in Seahouses by 8:30.

Jane also organises our sustenance upon our return to dry land. Jane takes our orders for fish and chips before the trip and for Lewis’s Fish and Chip Restaurant in Seahouses. A quick call to Lewis’s from the Farnes and the as the food ready for us on our return. The restaurant is opened just for us as it is normally closed at that time.  Nom, nom!

Alnwick Sea Swimmers:
Lewsis's Fish and Chips:
Billy Sheils boat trips:

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Swimmy June 3: Swimming holiday in Croatia

This year I went to Croatia on another Strel swimming tour after an enjoyable time in 2013 on their holiday in Lake Powell, Arizona. Sid, my husband, decided to come too. He’s not a keen open water swimmer but likes the odd dip - and what’s not to like about being on a boat all day in a beautiful setting? I’d heard so much about Croatia and the wonderful swimming from Australian friends who went on the Strel tour there in 2012.

Sponge diver in Hotel's museum 
I booked the first trip of the season, starting 15 June, to avoid the intense heat of summer. We flew to Split then travelled by road (and ferry) to Krapanj Island using the hotel’s transfer service. The tour is a one-week stay at the Spongiola Hotel on Krapanj. The name Spongiola comes from, as you might have guessed, the word for sponge. Diving for sponges was big business in Krapanj a long time ago and there is a sponge diving museum in the hotel.

The hotel was four stars and comfortable . We had twin rooms, nicely airconditioned and with a fridge in the room. The hotel has a small indoor pool and a gym. They also offer a massage service.  The hotel has its own beach and provides a free ferry service to the mainland - it’s very close, about 100 metres, and some people defy the rules and swim it.

Krapanj is a small traffic free island. It doesn’t take long to walk round the island (longer to swim round!) There’s a local shop selling all sorts but specifically for the Strel Swimmer sun-tan lotion, sweeties, snacks and beer. There’s also a nice ice-cream near the hotel.  

We arrived on the 15th and met in the hotel for a briefing and dinner in the evening. We were nine people on the tour: four couples and a single man. Of that group two were non-swimmers. We had two swimming coaches and tour leaders, Nina Strel and Maja Cizmic. 

Some of the islands we swam to
Nina is is the well known Martin Strel’s daughter and Borut Strel’s sister. She usually lives in Phoenix Arizona near her dad. She, like her brother is an ex-champion swimmer and a very experienced swim supporter She supported Martin on some of his epic river swims such as the Yangze. Maja is a dual national, She was raised in the UK of Croatian heritage  and moved to Croatia her adopted county. She speaks the language and knows the area like the back of her hand. So we were in very safe hands.

The next day we all swam off the hotel’s beach so Nina and Maya could assess our respective abilities. We were then put into three groups according to swimming speed: Gavin and Rod in the fast pink  hat group,  me and Andy in the orange hat  group and then Michael and Fiona in the green hat group. The hats made us easy to spot in the water.
Swim assessment

Our group

The water really is wonderful in this part of the Adriatic: warm, calm and crystal clear. There were no nasty things in the water. No jellyfish. No sharks. No threat from jet skis. No strong currents.
Crystal clear water

The rest of the swimming was off the Strel boat, which was big enough, had shade and a toilet. We jumped into the water from the boat and got back in using a ladder. The trip typically included two swims a day of around 2km, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Nina and Maja provided excellent water safety, following us closely in inflatable dinghies and providing drinks during the swims. Lunches and snacks were provided on the boat and for us vegetarians (Sid and I) this was the best food we got on our whole holiday. Croatia is a fishy sort of place. The itinerary varied based on the weather, specifically wind speed and direction. On the second day we were videoed while swimming. In the evening, back at base in the hotel, we got to view the video clips and were and given feedback. Watch that drooping elbow Lindy!

The Strel boat

As well as swimming we had a couple of hikes to beautiful places. One day we hiked to, Krka Falls, bathed in the waterfall and then swam down the river. We also had dinner together in Sibenik, crossing first on the ferry and then getting a bus into this a beautiful old town. It has Croatia’s only Michelin-starred restaurant – which we saw, but dared not enter. Our trip coincided with Children’s Week, with self-portraits of the schoolkids posted in the streets of the town. I particularly liked Mate’s.
Krka Falls

Maja (back) and Nina (front) our guides, Sibenik
The children's self-portraits, Sibenik

The highlights of the trip for me were the island hopping (swimming from island to island), swimming in Hitler’s Eye (a tunnel where U-boats were kept hid in World War II) and the 3.4-km round island swim on the final day.
Hitler's Eye
Sid kayaking

The coaches were fantastic. Maja is so enthusiastic and loves her work. Nina has a wealth of experience in looking after open-water swimmers. They were very attentive and lots of fun. Nina took loads of photos which she shared with the group every evening.

We really liked Croatia – friendly people, efficient and keen to show off their heritage - and we are discussing next year’s trip.
Diocletian's Palace, Split
The trip cost £899 plus flights. This included accommodation (twin share) and all meals except for three evening meals. (If you tire of eating in the hotel, there is a shop on Spongiola that sells provisions). The hotel can arrange transfers from Split or Zagreb. On the way back to Split we shared a mini-bus with six of the group –15 euros each.

The local currency is the Kuna and this is the preferred currency. Credit cards are not widely accepted. We had to pay for our accommodation in Split in cash. But there are lots of ATMs and we had no trouble using them with our British debit cards.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Swimmy June 2
The Great North Swim 09 – 11 June, 2017

The Great North Swim is a fantastic open water swim in my opinion. It is held in Windermere, a fabulously scenic body of water in the Lake District. The event is now usually held early in June over three days. It used to be held in September but after a cancellation a few years ago due to blue -green algae the date was changed. Blue-green algae like warmer water which is more likely in September than in June.  

Windermere, Lake District
This will be my 5th year taking part in the swim. I usually like to pack more than one event into the weekend and this year was the same. I entered the 5km on the Friday the 1 mile on the Sunday.
The swims take place round a one-mile course in Windermere. It is an iconic fun swim. With over 10,000 swimmers taking part over the weekend. For many this is their first experience of open water swimming and many participate to raise money for charity.  
The first swim for me was the 5km. This involved three circuits of the  one-mile course. The water was warm  enough to wear my thermal wetsuit at around 17 degrees but there was a  bit of chop. This meant times were slower. My wave was at 12:00pm just after the first race which was the 10 km. The swim was lovely although a bit rough and choppy  at times. I finished in a slower time than last year but still managed to nab first place in my age/gender category at 1:46.
5km about to start

5km at the finish

As time passed the weather got windier so the organisers decide to cancel the Sundays events for safety reasons. Those who were scheduled to swim were offered slots on the Saturday instead. This was bad news for those registered for the 10 km and 5 km swims as they were only offered  1 mile spots. Mine was set for 3:30 on the Saturday. It was wet in true Lake District fashion, it rained pretty solidly all day. The reason the Lake District is so green and pretty is because it gets a LOT of rain. The 1 mile was fun, it’s the signature event at the Great North Swim and so popular that over 3000 swimmers took part in this distance. It was choppier than the Friday, the rain was not such a problem for the swimmers as the spectators and the poor dogs!. Again, I managed a category first at 32:57
Wet dogs

We stayed at a fantastic campsite at Low Wray. It’s a National Trust site. It had a free offer for swimmers of a coffee and pastry. Both the coffee and the croissant were delicious. The site also has a wood-fired pizza oven. We had pizzas both nights we were there and they were great.

Feeling great after the one mile

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Swimmy June 1: A weekend in London

June 2017 was an excellent swimming month, with three major events. First, a weekend in London: Sid to explore significant Beatles and Dylan places with his Bob Dylan group and me to do some swimming.  I discovered Jenny Landreth’s book on pools in London and selected a few that sounded good, unusual and not too difficult to get to using public transport. All of the pools I visited had a history.  Alas, some spots in Landreth’s book are not open to the public. And some are expensive. I wanted to go to the  RAC club’s fabulous Grecian-inspired pool in Pall Mall and the Virgin Club’s pool overlooking Canary Wharf but these are only open to members.
Jenny Landreth: Swimming London
Arrived on Friday and managed a swim in the Serpentine in Hyde Park - an iconic swimming spot, lots of geese, ducks and swans, rather soupy but lovely all the same. The lido is a roped- off section of the Serpentine about 100 metres long  with two single changing cabins and a single COLD shower outside.

Serpentine Lido

After a nice swim here I headed off to the Oasis Sports Centre between Holborn and Covent Garden. The entrance is from busy Endell Street. The pools were built on a bombsite after the war, but there has been a public swimming pool on this site since the 17000s. Now there are two heated pools. The outdoor pool is an unusual 27 metres in length and the indoor one 25 metres. Both pools have fast, medium and slow lanes and lane etiquette was excellent 

Oasis outdoor pool
Oasis indoor pool

On the Saturday I visited two large unheated lidos: Tooting Bec Lido and Brockwell Park Lido. The well-known Tooting Bec is Europe’s largest lido at 91 metres by 33 metres. Opened in 1930s. it is well known for its changing cubicles with colourful doors. This was the coolest water I swam in over the weekend, although supposedly 19 degrees. The changing rooms are large and have showers but there are no lockers. People just leave their stuff in a cubicle or on a square of concrete pool surround. Valuables can be left at reception though. It was quite busy poolside but the water was much less so. The pool is big so there’s plenty of room for everyone to do what they like. There were head-up breast strokers, bikini clad swimmers, doggy paddlers, kids in armbands, bombing boys and wetsuited triathletes. But, thankfully, there was no congestion and no arguments.
The café serves good sandwiches and wraps at reasonable prices.

Tooting Bec Lido

After a halloumi and salad wrap and feeling like another lido experience I went to Brockwell Park in Brixton. Built in the 1930s, its 50 m and unheated although it felt warmer than the other lidos. Landreth comments on the choppiness of the water because of the steep drop off to the deep end and indeed I did feel there was a slight swell in the pool as I swam. The pool has lanes and a messing-around section. This play area was very busy as it was a lovely afternoon but it was spacious enough to do lap swimming. The changing room is small but has excellent showers. I had to give up with the lockers as they are too small to accommodate an average swimming bag. 

Brockwell Lido

Sunday saw me opting for two historic indoor pools, Marshal Street Baths and Iron Monger Row. Marshal is marvellous. Built in 1851 and modernised over the decades, it retains its historic charm. In the 1600s it was where plague victims lived, died and were buried. The pool is peaceful and elegant - marble with a bronze sculpture at one end. I managed a quick snap of this one before being chastised by staff! Despite being quite a small pool it was not busy and I managed to get in a decent swim.
Marshal Street Baths

After the Marvellous Marshal Street,  I headed off to another historic city centre baths, Iron Monger Row Baths. The building and entrance to the pool are impressive. The 33-metre pool has been renovated to an infinity pool and is very pleasant to swim in. What impressed me was a spectator gallery that looks as though it is made of church pews. The Turkish Baths downstairs have been reinterpreted as a modern spa. I felt some of the charm has been lost by making the place into a leisure centre with its necessary signs, rules and warnings. I was unable to get a snap of this pool or have a good look at the building as I was nabbed by staff immediately. No photos! No wandering!. 
Ironmonger Row Baths