Adventures Across the Pond Part 2: Swim Serpentine

Time flies, innit. Last weekend I was milling around in Hyde Park at the Swim Serpentine Festival. It was a grey and rainy Saturday, and I probably didn’t have enough warm layers.  I picked up my package from the registration tent and spent some time exploring the sponsor booths and food trucks. Several waves were already swimming, and the announcers kept the crowds (yes, there were crowds!) entertained with music and anecdotes about several of the swimmers.

Swim Serpentine is a one day open water swimming festival in Hyde Park, right in the heart of London.  The site was the location for the open water events in the London 2012 Olympics. Hugely popular, 6000 swimmers descend on Hyde Park for a day of distance events, talks, films and chilly cameraderie with fellow wet-suited open water lovers. The beautiful, colourful centerpiece of the lake was the London Mastaba, designed by famed architect Christo.

Swimmers can register for the half mile, one mile, 2 mile, or Super Six events. I signed up for the 2 mile and was put in Wave 11, which meant I wouldn’t swim until 2:45. I arrived around 10 so that I could catch the talks and films and drink as much hot tea as possible.

I decided to include the Swim Serpentine event as the culmination of my 2018 open water season. I wanted a destination swim, so that I could celebrate my birthday and the summer that was. I chose London because I love it there, and I was eager to go back and visit my friend Sadie. The open water swimming community in the UK is huge, and I wanted to soak up some of that energy.

Festival-goers and swimmers congregated in a tent to escape the chilly drizzle and watch the speakers and films. We sat on cozy, blanketed hay bales and enjoyed programming specifically geared to swimming. I sipped my tea and nibbled my cheese toastie and wished I had worn more than a t-shirt under my light jacket.

Up first was Beth French– who is a force – and her power comes through on the stage. She spoke of her attempt to swim the Oceans Seven Challenge, and covered everything from training, her recovery from being wheelchair-bound with ME, to mental strategies, to her experiences with man-eating creatures. She left me inspired and honestly wondering if I would have the fortitude to take on such a daunting challenge. I challenge you to watch the trailer for her documentary Against the Tides, and not feel the feels.

Jenny Landreth is just as funny and entertaining in person as she is as the narrator of Swell, her “waterbiography” of swimming’s suffragettes. She told some inspiring stories about the pioneering women of this sport, peppered with her own experience discovering cold water swimming. She is hilarious and brims with interesting information. I loved her book and it was very cool to see her live on stage.

Libby Page read from her best-selling book The Lido, which I really want to read, especially after my lido-full week of swimming around London.

The series of short films was also awesome and inspiring. I need to make friends with someone who has a drone so that I can make my own epic swimming movie. Know anyone? It can wait til next summer. 😉

Around an hour before my wave time, I headed to the change tent to begin the laborious process of shimmying my cold, goose-bumpy body into my wetsuit, lubing my neck and stretching. The change rooms were al-fresco with a few changing tents for the shy among us, myself included. I’ve just never been able to get down with being naked in a room with 200 other naked people.

The start area was crowded with excited swimmers (and one weird guy in a gorilla suit), some warming up and others milling around, jumping off nerves etc. We had a quick, large group dryland warm up and then it was our turn to jump from the deck into the cold, brown Serpentine. Many more than seven swans were also swimming, and pooping.

The course was a one mile loop, and for the 2 mile we would swim 2 laps.

From the start, I noticed that there was way more traffic than any race I’ve ever been in. There was plenty of foot touching, head smashing, and elbow pokes. The straightaways between each end of the course provided a chance to break away and find some space.

The water was cold and not very “fresh”, but I soon warmed up and settled into my pace for the first mile. Swimming past the vivid red and blue Mandaba was really cool.

At the end of my second lap, I was quite fogged up and wasn’t exactly sure where to swim through the orange buoys to the finish. I overshot it by about 100 metres and had to turn back (after saying a big loud FUCK – in my head of course) and round the corner again to make it to the ramp. I climbed out of the water, posed for a photo, collected my very nice medal, and made my way down the runway to an area where several hot tubs were set up. I spent a few minutes in warm human soup (shudder) and made my way to change back into my cold and damp clothes, and pretty much bee-lined for a kiosk to buy the biggest hot chocolate I could find. No Venti sizes here – this is England. So I bought 3.

When I reflect on the event, I feel good about my swim and I really enjoyed being part of something at that level of scale – 6000 swimmers! If I did it again I’d sign up for the 6 mile option, where you swim in several waves to make up the distance, just to try something new. Although, I can’t imagine being in a wetsuit for that long, or changing in and out of cold rubber all day long. Future me would bring a cozy parka and maybe a lackey to fetch me hot toddies.

I made my way back to the Green Park underground station and headed to meet friends and eat carbs. I was tired, cold, and not feeling great, but I was so happy to have swam well and participated in something so different.

Today I am drinking some nice, hot Kicking Horse Coffee in my kitchen, still dealing with the horrid cold virus that has lodged in my chest, and thinking warmly about my week in London. It was both liberating and refreshing to indulge in a holiday that centered around swimming. It gave me the structure I like to have as well as the freedom to change plans as needed and desired, and I liked that it built up to a big event that helped to keep me focused and motivated through the week.

I am learning a lot about myself and what my motivations and values are. Now that my official “event” season is over, I’ve started to think about what I need to do this fall in order to maintain my fitness level and distance goals.

This year I really enjoyed the chance to swim long events. I think I’m made for it. While all distances are fun, I like the idea of pushing my body and my mind to places I never  thought I could go. I’m building a list of events that I’d like to try. There’s this lake in Italy….

Strength of mind has been important for me, especially going through the end of a relationship and all of the ugly challenges and energy that extrication from an abusive deadbeat involves. I’m now a single parent exclusively, which means heightened responsibilities in terms of my time, my finances, and my mental energy.

It’s a challenge, but one I’m definitely up for.  Swimming gives me solace and structure. It gives me hundreds of deep breaths, strong shoulders, and best of all, buoyancy.

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