Part I here.
The morning of the race I woke early, but not crazy-early. Registration started at 9, but my wave wouldn’t hit the water until 11:30. My main point for showing up in Totnes early was because of parking. Parking would cost me 6 pounds for the whole day (about $9.50), but I wanted to get close to where the bus at the end would drop me off. (There would be a bus from Dittisham, the end point, back up to Totnes. I wasn’t sure how beat I’d be, so wanted to plan on as little walking as possible.)
I got there bright and early. I was one of the first there, so I walked around to check out the start. I had found some guy’s youtube video of the swim from 2010, so I knew we’d be running (walking!) down the boat ramp into the river. The water looked cold. And in some parts, the current seemed to be going upstream. Stupid Mother Nature.
Registration was quick; got my swim cap, numbered armband (really a blue rubber band) and bag-tag. Now I just had two hours of anxious waiting until I needed to be in the starting pen. My wave, the blue wave, had to “pen up” at 11:00, where they’d check our numbers to our names. There was no electronic chipping, to keep prices down, so they were especially keen on us checking in and checking out (not the permanent way) of the race.
Because my wetsuit was sleeve-less, I had to go through the process of getting approved as a non-wetsuit swimmer. It involved an extra paperwork drill, but wasn’t onerous. It meant I’d wear an extra armband, really just a white rubber band. You’ll see in a bit that I wish I’d just worn my grape-smugglers.
Each wave left at 15-min intervals, starting with my new-found friends Liz, Liz, Charlotte and Charlotte (yes, those were their names). I stood on some stairs that led into the water, where the rowers would exit the water. Poor rowers were all kicked out of the river prior to the start by the river authority! Anyway, I stood on those stairs getting used to the water temp. Cold! I figured I’d watch my friends walk from their pen, past me, to the boat launch. Nope! Unlike 2010, the swimmers entered at the stairs! So I got the hell out of the way, and cheered from a different vantage point.
Some guys were wearing blueseventy booties. I laughed it off, until I had to start walking on pavement without my flip-flops. Ouch. But the water temp didn’t feel too bad after standing on the stairs for 15 minutes. That would change in about 30 minutes.
Waiting in the pen went fast. I checked in and marveled at another blue waver wearing his speedos only. Boy, how jealous I’ll be of him in a matter of hours. Our wave moved from the check-in pen to the “go” pen. We got our pre-race brief. Huge emphasis on checking out at Dittisham. Apparently the OSS conducted a swim a couple weeks prior and five people didn’t check out, and they started a search before those folks called someone to report that they’d already gone home. Jerks!
The pre-race brief ended with “Is everyone ready?” and us shouting “No!” Then we were off. I managed to be about mid-way through my wave, hit the water steps, okay so far, then the leap in when I ran out of stairs. Ay, caramba. Or, since I was in England: “Bloody hell!” Terribly cold. Definitely colder than Copenhagen last year. My first thought was: this wetsuit does nothing against the cold.
I made it across the river, as we had to keep to the right in the river, but the rowing club was on the left bank. The river at this point was not too wide, perhaps 30 yards or so, so that left-to-right crossing was quick and cold. By the time I got to the other side, tarzan-swimming the whole way, I realized I hadn’t started my chrono. Remedied that, put my head down, and just started swimming.
The cold feeling went away within a couple minutes; seriously, I would feel some cold spots during the swim, but nothing that really made me fearful of hypothermia (I’d gotten that once before when I was 16, so I know the signs). Waves of people passed me, as they always do at these races. Is it me not giving an honest seed-time? They asked for our one-mile OW time, which I said was 31:15, a time I did last year in my first OW race. Did the other blue-wavers give slower times so they could feel cool when they passed people? Did they have more adrenalin flowing? Who knows.
And unfortunately, each wave wore the same swim cap, so there was no way for me to see if I was catching any of the earlier waves, or being run over by the wave behind me. (OSS started the waves in slow to fast order; they wanted everyone finishing as close to the same time as possible.) The water tasted very salty, and the water level was much higher than when I scoped out the start two days prior. There must have been a huge influx of seawater; hopefully that meant the water was going back out!
In the NC 5K in July, I started a little swimming process that I thought would help me swim straight, and make the time go. I’d swim for a set number of strokes between sightings. If I noticed myself going off course, I’d cut the stroke count down. If I was going straight, I’d increase the stroke count. So there I went, sighting every 8, then 10 for a while, then 8, occasionally 6. That made the time go, and there were enough swimmers around that I could also just follow them. For the most part, I seemed to always be on course. A couple times I seemed way left, but turned out when I sighted a few times in a row, that I was cutting the corner.
Cut the corner once too far, and a paddleboarder sent me back right. That was okay; safety is paramount, and I didn’t want to do anything that forced them to pull me. Another fear of mine, a fear of the macho side of me, was the OSS policy that if you were so far back that you might not finish in the minimum time, they’d pick you up in their boat, take you a mile or so down river, and drop you back in. And if they decided to do that to you, you had no appeal. I didn’t want my first 10K to really be only 8K.
I hit the 4K feeding station really quickly. My first thought was that my “count, count x 8, sight, repeat” really helped the time go. I figured I’d hit 4K, taking into account my poor navigation skills, at about 1:20. Imagine my surprise when I looked and it was 54:05. Of course, being me, I was sure the OSS measured incorrectly.
Watching the other swimmers at that feeding station was hilarious. The station was a couple inflatable boats lashed together. All you saw were red caps around every inch of the boats. I don’t know how long any of them stayed there, but it looked like a cafe with everyone shooting the breeze. Only later did I find out what they served.
Head down, continue swimming, still amazed at the time. Only in this next stretch, 4K to 8K, did I start to realize the river pushing me. A few times I really felt the current. I have no idea the speed of the current, but it was noticeable.
We passed many boat yards, and the occasional wavy sections when rescue boats went by, but for the most part it was enjoyable and flat. It was between the feeding stations that I started to feel the wetsuit rash. I knew what it was, and just got more and more pissed as I went. Next time, no wetsuit.
The 8K feeding station looked the same as 4K, and I got to it at 2:04. Skipped it just like the other one. Shoulders, arms, legs, everything felt great. I started to do the math. My goal was 3:40, so I knew there was almost nothing that could prevent me from hitting that. How fast could I swim 2K? with river help? Who knows?
The last 1K was brutal. Not because of tiredness; I really felt like I could keep going. However, the waves were crazy. I really got to put to the test my ability to gulp a mouthful of water instead of air, but not panic. I’d worked on that the last year or so; I gulped nasty silt-filled river water every 10 or so breaths, and didn’t panic. I simply coughed it out underwater, and then got air the next right-breath.
The ending was the worst part of the swim. Since OSS sold this as just a relaxing marathon swim, especially for (us) first-timers, there was no finish gate or timers. When you got shallow enough to stand up, you were done. I stood up at 2:34:55. Then I fell down.
The “beach” was nothing more than a silt field. My initial move to the vertical resulted with my legs buried in silt to just above my knees. It literally took me 10 minutes to get out of the water. Then the rough walk up to the Ham, a green area where the after-party was. Again, I thought the booties a good idea. My feet are too wimpy nowadays.
I joined some of my fellow marathoners to change under some trees. They actually had a portable hot tub! No way I was getting in that human soup bowl. But it was funny. I also saw the most ingenious “towel” that apparently a lot of these “wild swimmers” in the UK use. Imagine a swim parka made of terry cloth, with slits up the sides of your legs to about mid-thigh. They would don this robe, and then doff their swim suits underneath, keeping all the private “bits” covered, while I struggled to take my dripping wet speedo off with one hand while holding my beach towel with the other hand.
Changed, I went to get in line for my hot chocolate. The OSS provided a nice coffee mug and free coffee or hot chocolate. They ran out of hot chocolate when I got to the front, but they had soda. So I drank my soda, to kill whatever river creatures I ingested. Then I waited in line for a bus ticket and to pick up my pre-paid hoody. I also bought a nice sweatshirt. Then I bought a Cornish pasty. If you haven’t had them, you must. Very good post-exercise calorie refiller. Imagine a calzone, but filled with lamb, potato and mint, or steak and potato, or cheese and onion. Very filling.
I hung out with my fellows for a while, then made the trek to the bus. No one said anything about climbing a hill! I must say up until that point I thought, “this marathon business isn’t too bad!” But that short walk up the hill killed me. Thankfully there was a nice green area to lay down on when I got to the top.
Bus ride was nice, talking to a lovely Brit lady who works in London dealing with international schools. She and her two friends invited me to have a beer with them in Totnes, but after swimming 10K, I was afraid one beer would put me over the limit, so I declined. I hopped in the car and drove back down to Dartmouth.
At the BRNC I surveyed the damage. My body looked like someone took flexible wire and ran it up and down my back, chest and neck. Ouch! This would take some time to heal. I showered, rinsed my wetsuit, and had a full dinner. I then walked into Dartmouth, to my favorite pub, and had a beer or three. I found out later that the official temp of the water was 15C, and 399 of the 400 starters finished, one having to be pulled for cramps. Not bad! I also found out that the feeding stations were giving out flapjacks, digestives and energy drinks. How crazy is that? Anyway, Marathon Mission complete. I am a marathoner!