The Henley Classic, or
Two adventures for the price of one
Last year I did my first ‘swim only’ event and I have to say I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. Take a look at my Henley Mile 2014 race report to find out how I got on.
This year I decided to up the distance and entered the Henley Classic. A 2.1km upstream swim along the Henley regatta course on the Thames. Despite the early start, the fact it was upstream and 1/3 mile further than’d previously swum it seemed like a good idea back in November 2014 when I signed up.
As the date approached the more worried I got, with each email from the organisers a new tidbit of information emerged. The most pressing of which was the ‘Dawn Start’ which got progressively earlier — one had to attend a briefing first, oh actually before that you have to assemble and walk to the start. Until finally the race pack was published online “Registration opens at 2am” Oh my goodness — for the Henley Mile I had stayed over in reading and got a Taxi but that wasn’t going to cut it this time.
So I decided to opt for camping! Now I haven’t been camping for years, in fact the last time was with my friend Dave when we cycled to Great Tew and camped near the Falkland Arms. All I remember was we stashed the tent under a tree in a nearby field so it wouldn’t get stolen, but then struggled to find it on the way back from the pub! That’s got to be nearly 20 years ago.
I have a pretty decent sleeping bag but was missing the main ingredient — a tent. So on the Friday before the swim I went with my girlfriend to Gooutdoors to get one. We had a look at the small tents and realised that the cheap (20 quid!) offerings were so short I would’t even be able to lie down! And they certainly would’t be any good for the two of us on future adventures! Having narrowed it down to a 2 person 2.5-3.5 kg tent we choose the Vango Hera 200. After a failed attempt at asking how many tent pegs it needed I added a pack of light weight ones based on how many the tents that were pitched outside seemed to use. Next up was a sleeping mat, I went for the cheap £5 one that you just roll up, despite my gf wanting a fancy self-inflating one, though as they were £70+ she agreed they were a bit over the top for an overnight trip. I think it was more the concept of “self-inflating” than actually wanting the mat! We got slightly distracted by the climbing gear but by the end of lunch time I had a tent which just about fit in the pannier of my bike.
When I got home on Friday night I figured I should check out how the tent went up so, as it was raining outside, I unpacked it in the middle of my lounge!
Here are the “instructions” in their entirety:
- Assemble poles and lay them on the ground
- Open out flysheet and position in required direction
- Insert all poles through the pole sleeves on outside of fly sheet
- Poles are colour coded to match corresponding pole sleeve entry points
- On both sides of the tent, locate the ends of each pole into the corresponding ring & pin
- Push poles into an arch from opposite ends and locate pole ends into corresponding metal pin
- Peg out the rear point of the flysheet.
- Pull flysheet forwards, away from pegged points, until tent takes shape. Peg the front anchor strap.
- Peg out the remaining poles and pegging points using pin pegs at the base of poles
- Peg out ALL guy lines using pin-pegs ensuring that guy line fabric attachment points are evenly tensioned.
Faltered at the second step as I (not having studied Tent Terminology 101) had’t a clue that the fly sheet was the blue outer part of the tent. You’ll note the instructions make no mention of the grey ‘Ground Sheet’ at all! Also all three poles were black. with no hint of being ‘colour coded’.
So after figuring out which giant sheet was which it seemed simple enough though obviously I wasn’t going to stake it out into the floorboards so used a few chairs and some climbing gear to hold it taught. Had a scary moment as the fibreglass tent poles made a godawful noise when bent into shape but I put up the
outer shell flysheet successfully. I figured the ground sheet would be easy enough to figure out once I got to the camp site.
Worth noting is that the pack included a ton (well not quite but they were a considerable weight) of tent pegs, so I swapped some for the light weight ones I’d bought and then packed it all away ready for Saturday. This turned out to be much easier than I expected as the bag was easily big enough to fit everything back in.
With a spot of excellent luck my Mum & Dad offered to give me a lift to Henley so I avoided having to take a bunch of trains and then walk to the camp site. That meant I had time on Saturday morning to do the Park Run — which incidentally I set a new PB with my first ever sub 20 minute 5km.
With my triathlon ruck sack filled with wetsuit, goggles towel and change of clothes for Sunday and water bottle as well as the tent and bed roll I had a fair bit of kit. Will be interesting getting to the Henley Mile on my own with the same amount of stuff! We arrived about 5 pm with an hour or so before registration closed.
First order of the day was to put up the tent, and it was here I discovered my weight saving plan of not bringing a mallet was a bad idea ( though I could —and should — have just asked a neighbouring camper if I could borrow one…) as trying to put the tent pegs in using the heel of my shoe was less than perfect.
After I had the basics of the tent setup my parents headed off and I went to register. In the race pack was my blue swimming hat indicating I was in the first of the ‘open’ waves and a timing chip as well as a bottle of water and a chocolate biscuit (woo!). Next up collected a velcro band to attach the timing chip to your wrist — the finish is while you’re still in the water and you reach up and tap the finish gantry.
Went back to the camp site and finished putting up the tent — basically attaching the inner ground sheet bit to the flysheet. It has a bunch of toggles like on an old fashioned duffle coat so that the inner and outer skins don’t touch. It was really warm so unzipped the sides so air could flow though the vents and then went off to the “Pasta Party”.
This was an all you can eat buffet meal of 3 kinds of pasta and three sauces. Had a couple of portions of spirals with bolognese sauce and a pint of beer. It was a lovely warm evening so sat on the benches looking out at the river watching a few of the rowing crews practicing.
After dinner went back to the campsite and even though it was only 9pm I tried to go to sleep but it was both too warm and too light. Some how (err, that would be me unzipping the side panels) a bunch of horse flies had got between the inner & outer bits of the tent but luckily not actually inside. So wandered around a bit more and then listened to some music on my headphones.
Why did I try to go to sleep when it was only 9pm? Well…here’s the thing we had to be back at the registration desk at 3:30 am for the walk to the start line. Ouch.
So I lay in my tent listening to music and ate the, now slightly warm, chocolate biscuit.
I woke up at about 3 am and decided there was little point in having a shower if I was about to go and swim in the Thames for an hour! Also there was a constant stream of cars driving past the campsite — presumably other competitors — so there was no chance to have a bit more of a kip. So got my wetsuit, goggles, camera, timing chip and swim cap and headed to the registration area in my flip flops.
I was amazed by how many other idiots brave souls there were who were prepared to get up before dawn in order to swim 2.1 km upstream! I had a coffee which turned out to be a mistake as it was drip/filter and gave my heart burn about half way down the course — oops, should at least have added some milk I guess.
It was still well before sunrise at this point and the organisers had set up a green laser at the start of the course pointing upstream like a light house beacon showing the way to the finish. Very very cool, though sadly impossible to photograph with my little waterproof camera!
It was’t long before the torch-lit parade along the river bank to the start line. Proper flaming torches — not battery powered ones! At the start line there was an event briefing, explaining safety measures like what to do if you got in trouble etc.
Then it was time for the Elite wave. After getting in the water they swam a quick warm up to the start line where they all jockeyed for position to be dead on the line between the two start marker bouys.
The speed they set off at took my breath away, absolutely flying. Then it was the Women’s Elite wave, just as impressive if not more so, the top women swimmers always seem to me to have better form than the men. After the Elite waves it was the Performance wave — an opt-in for people who think they are pretty good. As they were getting ready to start I heard someone exclaiming in panic that Blue was supposed to be in the water. Oh rats. Was so busy spectating that I’d missed that call! After a ‘few excuse-me’s and ’sorry I’m supposed to be over there’ we pushed our way through (there were quite a few of us who had’t heard the announcement) we reached the entry to the water. There were buckets to put your flips flops in — colour co-ordinated with your hat/wave colour. I put my glasses in their case and tossed them in with the flip flops.
The water looked pretty grim, nothing like the lovely water out at Queenford Lakes, or even Blenheim Palace for that matter. Oh well, getting in felt surprisingly good, the water was still warm despite the slight drizzle of rain overnight.
As I swam up towards the start line I was quite near the back, which I was more than happy with. This was going to be the longest swim I’d ever attempted, and knew it would be a struggle. I tried to take a few pics before the start but it was still very dark and most came out blurred. Surprisingly difficult to tread water and hold a camera steady ;-) Did get a pretty good selfie — it’s immediately apparent that I’m scared witless!
Before I knew it we were off on our journey. Technically it is a timed race but for me I just wanted to finish in under an hour. There was virtually no stream on the day so I figured that should ‘easily’ be achievable. Such a long way. As mentioned earlier the jet black ‘coffee’ provided an unwelcome distraction about 20 minutes in. Then as I paused to un-fog my goggles I lost more ground and a few others in the Blue wave came past me. It was’t long before people from subsequent waves came past which was a little demoralising. Fair enough though — I pride myself on the fact I have managed to overtake people from the previous wave in most (all?) of the triathlons I’ve done. Karma dictates it should be the other way round eventually!
I desperately wanted to stop and take a few pics along the course but knew that I was struggling and was worried I might not get going again, let alone make my self-imposed deadline of 1 hour.
Allegedly there were bright orange marker boards indicating 500,1500,2000M but as my goggles fog up all the blasted time, and I don’t have prescription ones, I didn’t see any of them. After what seemed an age we started to see the marquees for the regatta along the sides. Naively I thought this meant we must be near the finish. Nope. I had stayed on the right hand side of the course and every so often strayed a little to close to the boom separating the course from the main river flow. I would catch sight of it in the corner of my eye and and panic that I was about to bang into it (long time readers will remember the Barcelona incident). Eventually one of the kayakers saw me look up and un-fog my goggles and shouted “nearly there” and indeed it was time to cut across to the left hand bank and the finish gantry. Managed to grab the camera and take a photo as I crossed the line.
After a few meters there were a some stepladders lowered into the water to exit onto the bank. Then a little cup of hot chocolate and then time to find the bucket with my glasses & flip flops. It was a slow trudge along the tow path back to the event area and I got chatting to two women who had also just finished. They joked about the distance markers which was a relief because if they hadn’t seen them I didn’t stand a chance! Turned out they are both doing the Bridge to Bridge and had, like me, got a bit of a shock at how hard this, relatively short, distance had been. One of them had done the Cotswold Iron Man, the other preferred just swimming. It made me think, yet again, that maybe I should have a go at a long distance tri.
At the event area we queued up to get our times. They type your number in and print out a little slip of paper with your time on. I was seriously happy. I did it in 49:53! Well under my 1 hour goal time. Made me think I could probably do it in 45 minutes next time…They had both done it in under 40 which was impressive, and made me worry even more about Bridge to Bridge! Next up was collecting our finishers medals and a quick photo op.
It was still only about 6 am as we walked back to the campsite. There was a massive queue for the shower facilities so I thought I would just have one when I got home as I wanted to rinse out my wetsuit properly anyway.
Decided to go back to the event area and get some breakfast. Got a bacon roll and watched the prize giving ceremonies. There was a delay announcing the time of the Male Elite winner as it transpired that 1st & 2nd had both touched the finish gantry at pretty much the same time. In the end it went to Caleb Hughes with a new course record time of 24 minutes and 14 seconds! There were a few varsity competitions of which all but one was won by Oxford which generated a substantial amount of cheering. Then there was a random prize draw including a new wetuit, swim wear, goggles, t-shits, hoodies and even a swim holiday!
I say random, but though the initial idea was to call out entry numbers so many people had headed off to get food, to the campsite or home that in the end they just pointed at the noisiest people in the crowd!
Sadly didn’t win anything but never mind it was a a really fun event. Bought myself a rather lovely, if tad expensive, Selkie t-shirt as a consolation prize. It was now about 8 so phoned Mum & Dad who had offered a lift back (yay!) and then headed to the campsite to pack up the tent. This was still pretty easy and managed to get it all back into its little drawstring carry bag.
All in all I had a fantastic time on my first camping trip in decades and the longest swim I’ve completed so far.
Hope you’ve enjoyed reliving it with me and will join me my next adventure which will be……the Henley Mile, twice.
Don’t forget to check out the Henley Swim website for details on all their events.