Starting on June 9, 2017 the Great North Swim in Windermere is one of the most exhilarating open water events in the UK. I know because I swam it!
The very thought of immersing myself into the icy depths of Windermere filled me with dread, but a few years ago I decided to take the plunge at The Great North Swim, and attempt a one mile swim in open water with 10,000 other mad people from around the world.
I live and work on Spain´s Costa del Sol and although swimming is a particular passion of mine, there is a massive difference between flopping up and down the pool under the Mediterranean sun for 30 lengths, and chucking yourself in Windermere, in what must be probably the coldest water in England.
On the day of the swim it the water was 17º, as the announcer at the event cheerily told us that the water on the day ´was colder than the English Channel.´ Gee thanks for that!
Having signed up for the Great North Swim about 6 months before it took place, I confidently predicted there would be plenty of time for training in the outdoor pool at the complex where I live near Fuengirola. Well there was …. but as I mentioned before, swimming across Windermere is nothing like a dip in a Spanish swimming pool.
Having booked a cottage in Windermere, and a few days´ stay at the Aphrodite´s Lodge (thank God for those hot tubs), 10 of us set out for the Lakes the day before the swim. As we were all leaving from different parts of the country, we arranged to meet up at the Queen´s Head in Windermere in the late afternoon (BIG MISTAKE .. note to self .. never drink alcohol the day before you are attempting a 1 mile swim in a large, cold lake).
So the day went swimmingly (rather too swimmingly as it happens) and we ended up having a good sing-song back at our cottage, and a few vinos.
I was woken up on the morning of the swim, wondering if it was all over. I ached in every muscle, and my body was screaming out .. don´t do it!! Not sure if this was a result of over-indulgence the day before or simply my body telling me: ´you just ain´t fit enough.´
After a light breakfast of bacon sandwiches (whose idea was that?), we set off for the ferry at Bowness Bay, which transported us to Ambleside. The walk from Ambleside to the swim site at Low Wood Marina had half of our party panting for breath (the Olympic swimming team this was not) although they were very vocal in their support. On arrival my support team all donned masks with my face on them (lovely surprise that was NOT), and made vain attempts to lift my flagging spirits.
After a few more bottles of water and having donned my wetsuit, swimming cap and goggles, and had my ankle timer fitted, I was as ready as I was ever going to be for the ´Off´. As the orange hats were called forward at 11.15am, we were invited to plunge into the lake in what I can only describe as a ´sheep dip´ type experience, which was meant to get our bodies acclimatised to the cold water. All it made the majority of us do was mumble expletives under our breath. Even with a wetsuit it was freezing!
So back to the start point, where 300 other crazy fools were waiting to plunge in to the icy depths (around 10,000 took part and 300 went every 30 minutes). We were then shown how to do some warm-up exercises, as my support crew sniggered in the background. As the klaxon went, to the sound of ´We are the Champions´ we sprinted, or in my case, staggered to the start. Let the show-offs go first I thought, which was the best decision I made, as those who are in a rush tend to swim over the top of you.
All I can say is, that on entering the water, I panicked. I have never had a panic attack in my life but I could not breathe properly, I couldn´t see anything and all these bodies were elbowing me, limbs akimbo, kicking me and basically trying to kill me (OK, OK maybe they weren´t but that´s how it felt at the time). Suffice to say the safety procedures were excellent and canoes lined the course looking for strugglers and stragglers, and called over the safety boat immediately if it was needed to transport swimmers back to shore.
The woman in front of me yanked off her goggles almost immediately and screamed, which was rather un-nerving to say the least as I was thinking ´that´s just how I feel.´ I told myself ´you have swum this distance a hundred times, calm down .. relax .. take your time ..´ It seemed to work, and as the field spread out, there was more space and I started to feel much less panic-stricken. Having said that, it looked a hell of a long way to that pink buoy which was the half way marker.
Anyone who has swum Windermere will tell you that if the wind gets up, it is more akin to swimming in the sea than in a lake, and it makes the going even tougher. As I approached the half-mile mark, instead of feeling spurred on at having completed half of the 1 mile course I was thinking ´Bloody Hell, I can´t swim that distance again …´
At three quarters of a mile it really did become a struggle and I started to feel a little bit faint and light headed. Of course I could have stopped then or even had a rest by holding on to one of the safety canoes, but I could not face the ridicule of certain members of my ´support team´ and I use the phrase loosely, if I failed to finish. It was basically s..t or bust for me, so I carried on.
Now by this time, the fastest of the 300 swimmers who started 30 minutes after us were catching me up, and overtaking .. which felt like being lapped. Even 10 minutes from the end I thought I would not be able to complete the course, but I ploughed on. By the time I swam under the finishing arch, with swimmers gliding underneath me, over me and across me to gain a better time (fools), my legs had turned to jelly.
On clambering out of the lake, with the help of some of the event helpers, I thought I would either throw up or faint … or worse case scenario .. both! I could not even see my friends who assure me they were screaming my name at the finish post, as I felt so disorientated. Having stood, and taken stock of my life for five minutes, while holding on to a gate post, I found the crowd, who revived me with sugary glucose drinks and gave me chocolate to eat (I felt like I had climbed Everest and back in a day).
To much hilarity among my so-called friends, I managed to stop for photos with medal swinging around my neck, and received an official time of 59 minutes and something … phew the relief was palpable.
So what did we do? We trekked back to Ambleside, boarded the ferry to Bowness Bay and partied away the rest of Sunday in some fantastic pubs and restaurants around the town – what an incredible weekend.
The moral of this story? If you plan to take part in the Great North Swim, train in open water if you can (lake or sea) and avoid all alcohol the night before!
If you are planning to take part in the Great North Swim, why not book a few nights at the Aphrodite’s Hotel and enjoy a hot tub suite and full spa facilities?