A bridge too far

If you’ve been following along with my adventures you’ll know I’m a sucker for signing up for events without thinking it through. Well this time I’ve really gone and done it. It’s called Bridge to Bridge and is from Henley to Marlow. Yes, you read that right. Total distance is 14.1 Km for most people that would be a train journey. It’s even further than the longest run I’ve done to date. Starting along the same stretch as the Mile I swam a few weeks ago it then carries on for another 7 3/4 miles.

I have to admit I’ve not done anywhere near enough training. I genuinely don’t know if I’ll make the full distance. With previous swims, runs and even the 100 Mile bike ride I knew I could do at least 75% of the distance this time the event distance is many times further than I have ever swum before. Oops.

Burger Time Burger Time

I’m currently having a pre-race burger in Reading. Yes I know what you’re thinking I thought it started in Henley. That’s true but no camping for this one so staying in Reading tonight then taxi to Henley in the morning. Should have booked a hotel earlier but they are all so expensive in Henley. Oh, that wasn’t what you were thinking? You thought why is a trained athlete having a burger instead of carefully calculated nutrition. That’s an easy one. I had a ton of pasta for lunch and I’m really nervous about the race so am having some comfort food.

Walked back to the hotel and stopped at a shop and bought some water & flapjacks for the morning as well as a bag of salted caramel pretzel pieces for dessert.

Back at the hotel thinking about the swim. I’ve decided that as there are 4 locks/food stations I’ll break it down into 5 swims. Even though the majority are further than I’ve done before they don’t look so bad when you treat them individually: 4km, 3.1km, 2.9km, 1.8km and a final 2.3km.
Looking at last year’s times I was aiming for 5:30 but even the slowest wave this year is supposed to be done in 5 hours! I think I need to get to the first lock in around an hour and a half. Oh heck!

Slept fitfully to start with then had a really good deep sleep until I woke 5 minutes before the alarm was due to go off. So that was as a good start, much more pleasant to wake slowly than be jolted awake by the alarm.
T-2 hours
Eating my flapjacks and reading messages from friends & family. Feeling surprisingly calm. There is still doubt at the back of my mind but part of me is going “Hell yeah, let’s do this”.

Taxi arrived early

Swim Cap Swim Cap

Only by five minutes but still makes a change. It’s a 20 odd minute ride to Henley and the taxi dropped me off at the Bridge. Walked across it and down to the Leander Club for registration. Having collected my chip and swim cap (green this time — and yes I did remember to check the name on the envelope) I went to put my swim shorts on. I thought it best to go to the loo seeing as this was going to be a long day. The queue was very long and time was running out before the briefing. Moral here is always allow more time than you think you need!

Even though there were three distinct waves (Green,Blue & Pink) within each of those were different pace groups. Sadly I had no idea what pace to aim for but decided I would set off in the very first group so as to have the best chance of having time to actually finish!

I bought a tow float a while ago for swimming in the lake — it’s like a cross between a dry-bag and an inflatable rescue float. you can put a few bits and pieces inside (like my glasses!) and then it attaches via a waist belt and lanyard. It is fluorescent orange and works both as a visual safety net so you can be seen by boats etc and also you can hang on to it if you need rest. The Henley Swim organisers said that anyone not in a specific group should have a float. In fact probably more than half of the participants had one.

Lovely day for a swim, with the sun shinning down on the water.

Ready to go Ready to go

After a brief bit of confusion once we had entered the water (a lot of us were facing the wrong way). Thinking we were swimming under the bridge but actually we were swimming away from the bridge. There was very little current which was a shame as I had kind of been banking on it to help me out. It was also a bit colder than I had anticipated which was great — I was worried about overheating in the wetsuit and the weather was steadily improving.

And we’re off!

Ready, Set, Go! Ready, Set, Go!

At 8am we were facing the right way downstream set off. A nice leisurely start, this was after all the ‘Steady wave’. I hit a snag instantly as water leaked into my goggles and there was just enough to irritate my right eye. I tried several times to empty it out but it kept getting worse. I discovered that as I had pulled the swim cap down quite far the top of the seal round the goggles was half on the edge of the cap making a tiny gap.

It was’t long before I started to fall back and, I hoped, this was because I had set off with the slightly faster of the Green pace groups. I had my float so just carried on on my own, every so often someone would come past but I was set on getting to the first lock. I couldn’t care less if I ended up being last.
The first part of the swim felt very familiar — it’s the 4th time I’ve swum this stretch of water. We passed temple island and then the field where the Henley Classic had started. I thought this is good going, half way to the first lock!

Hambledon Lock
4km done! 4km done!
Hambledon Lock Hambledon Lock
Walking through the lock Walking through the lock

After an age we approached Hambledon lock. I was ecstatic. This was the furthest I’d ever swum! I’d not done enough training. In my mind this had been my actual goal — just to make it to the first lock. I knew the chance of doing the whole swim was pretty remote. 4km is a hell of a long way. As we clambered out of the water and through the lock to the feed station I was feeling really good. Looking at my watch it had taken around 1h 20 which was much better than I had hoped. I had though maybe 1h 30m for the first stretch.

Setting off from Hambledon Setting off from Hambledon

After a bit of banana and a gulp of energy drink it was time to set off again. So far everything was going swimmingly! There was a group of fellow Greens just setting off and even a couple of blue hats had caught up. I tagged along and stayed with them 10 minutes or so but it didn’t take long for them to disappear into the distance.

The next stretch was 3.1km and I kept plodding along. By now more people were coming though the field and I knew I was falling behind as an entire wave of blue hats came past me.

Medmenham Lock
Medmenham Lock Medmenham Lock

Reaching the 2nd lock at Medmenham was such an achievement. I was so elated to have made it half way. I was starting to think I might actually make it the whole distance!

Leaving Medmenham Leaving Medmenham

After a 10 minute break and more re-fuelling it was time to set off again and I could now see a smattering of pink caps — according to the timetable they had started an hour after me. Still I was feeling good and happy to carry on, with another 2.9km to go to the next stop.

By now I was pretty much on my own with the odd swimmer coming past now and then. The tow floats helped a huge amount — even without my glasses and slightly fogged up goggles I could see a trail of little orange dots ahead of me in the water, like runway lights illuminating the path ahead.

Still, I had to pause once in a while to de-fog my goggles. This caused a bit of embarrassment —
All along the course are support people in kayaks who look out for the swimmers, whether to guard them against oncoming boats, sunken trees or indeed to assist a struggling swimmer.
No matter when I tried to time it one of the support people would shout over to make sure I was OK. This was reassuring that they were paying attention but I felt guilty for wasting their time. However, if I didn’t rinse my goggles and ended up in the reeds that would have been worse. I guess I need to practice swishing my goggles out while still swimming.

Hurley Lock
Cross the river Cross the river

Just under an hour since getting back in the water I reached Hurley which marked 10km. To put that in context imagine doing 400 lengths of your local 25M pool. Even more significant was that is further than the longest run I’ve ever done! Almost as soon as we had scrambled out of the water we had to get back in! We had do cross the river to a small island along side the weir.

Hurley foodstop Hurley foodstop

Unbelievably, although things were starting to ache and was feeling pretty tired I knew I could complete the full distance. The feeling of relief at the food stop was palpable. Everyone from Green through to Pink was excited that we had come so far and now had relatively short distance to go. Another ten minutes or so and was back in the river with an amazing curved weir as the backdrop to our next section where we would hug the left bank until the next stop.

Hurley Weir Hurley Weir

This was when things started to go off. I had entered the water with the last of the Green caps but I could’t even keep up after the first few hundred meters. It was very unpleasant as the boats moored alongside obscured the bank. The water felt different too — much more choppy and if anything there seemed even less stream. After the relief of making 10km I was disheartened. It hit me that I was out of my depth on this one. I had got this far by sheer will power. I should have had a better fuelling strategy — A flaw (in my mind) with the tow float is that once inflated it is all but impossible to get to the contents. Yes, I know I should have practised. I should also have sum more that a couple of km before attempting what is, lets face it, the swimming equivalent of a marathon.
So I was without my usual supply of energy gels that I use to get through triathlons and long bike rides. The food stops were really good, don’t get me wrong, but I was running on empty and it was with enormous relief that Temple lock came into view.

Temple Lock
Temple Lock foodstop Temple Lock foodstop
Temple Lock Temple Lock

Eventually I arrived at Temple lock and this time the food station was actually alongside the lock which was really cool. By now there was quite a bit of river traffic and there were a few people at the lock asking what we were doing. I was tempted to answer that that was a question I’d been asking myself for the last few hours!
I was finished. My arms ached, my shoulders ached, my back ached. Even my fingers ached from pulling through the water. The only thing that seemed alright were my legs. I thought about giving up. I really didn’t know if I could carry on. but to be so close to the end…that hurt more than anything. While my friends and family would have ( I hope!) been supportive of a failed attempt I knew I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself if I gave up. Maybe another piece of banana would help? I knew if I waited any longer I wouldn’t get back in so just five minutes after arriving at the lock I got back in for the final 2.3km stretch.

Crossing back to the right hand side I followed the now rather sparse line of orange dots floating along infant of me. My mind cycled through “Think about the stroke” “Your legs aren’t tired so use them!” “Nearly there” with the odd, rather negative, “What on earth am I doing”.
The boat traffic was getting much heavier now, though still only a boat every few minutes. Some slowed politely, other seemed to make a point of being idiots. The chop as they passed was horrible. You would turn to breathe and find your mouth still under the water line. Ugh. Not good when I was already knackered.
Can’t be much further now…can it? I tried counting strokes. In the pool I cover around 1M per stroke so I guessed I ticked off 100. then swam for a bit, then another hundred. The river curved to the right and there was a small copse of tress overhanging the edge so I could’t see very far. There was a country house with its gardens along side the river with marquee set up and a lovely ornate stone balustrade along the waters edge. A couple sitting on the grass having a picnic. I zoned out. just. keep. swimming. I paused to rinse my goggles. Looked like we were getting to the town centre. So close now. Another pause. No energy left at all. Each stroke felt like a challenge. And then, yes a bridge. That had to be it. Then I saw the few remaining orange dots in front of me start to cut towards the bank.
So close now. A burst of speed from my legs, but that was too much. I had to pause, again.


Under the bridge now, There’s the ladder. I’ve done it. I’ve actually done it.
I was shattered but the sense of achievement will stay with me for a long time, after the soreness has gone away and the murky water is but a distant memory. I can say I’ve swum from Henley to Marlow. It may have taken me 5 3/4 hours. I may have nearly given up. But I did it.

As I collected my rucksack I saw one of the ladies I had chatted with at the Henley Classic. Her friend was there too and they had both just done the swim. Sounds like their training had gone well and had both been in the blue wave. Really impressive stuff.

After a shower I changed into my shorts and walked over the bridge to the event area in the local park. The queue for food was quite long so decided the most important thing was coffee. How the hell I made it to 2 o’clock with out one is a mystery! I collected my medal. Then had a very nice pizza. Bought myself a commemorative t-shirt, and then it was time to head home.

Achievement unlocked! Achievement unlocked!

Last year I swam the Henley Mile. At the time it was the furthest I had gone in open water. At the same event was Olympic open water swimmer Keri-Anne Payne. It amazed me to think that to her this 1 Mile race was little more than a warm up. I could’t believe that anyone even swam 10km let alone raced it. And I mean raced — her time for the 10km in the 2012 Olympics was 1 hour 57m 42.2s. Absolutely amazing. She inspired me to push myself and so that is why I signed up for Bridge to Bridge.


This reply to one of my tweets, from Keri-Anne Payne no less, made my day:

As always, thank you for reading,
You can follow my antics on twitter as @netboy and don’t forget to comment and check out my other articles.

One Response to A bridge too far

  1. Hi Mark

    I think we met briefly at the last food stop when you were taking a picture of the sign with that camera tied to your tow float. I wish I’d thought of that as I would have had some of my own pics.

    Enjoyed your post and I’ve written one myself



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