Journey’s End - The Serpentine 2 Mile Swimming Event

Posted on: 27 Sep 2019

Saturday 21st September – Journey’s End - The Serpentine 2 Mile Swimming Event

Three lots of toilet trips overnight and the last one kept me awake well before the alarm was due to go off. That solitary pint of beer in my mind has a lot to answer for although I had been told by my doctor that it is the tablets I take for high blood pressure that gives the cause. But lying awake, there was something strange going on, but I couldn’t quite work it out for a while. The alarm eventually went off at 06:30, but as I said I was already awake at 06:05 waiting for it to go off. When it did finally sound out I was already tucking into my oats and sink cooled milk with a cup of black English tea to the side. Not being able to bring my personal breakfast over in my hand luggage meant I had to try and find something similar here and opted for an oat-based breakfast, not quite like my normal nut based muesli though. I just add cold milk to it although it is meant to be heated up according to the instructions. I don’t think it makes much difference to be quite honest.

The TV was on with the news going on about something quite obscure and dated. This added to the strangeness that didn’t feel quite right. Then a thought occurred, why hasn’t there been a sunrise, it is 06:30 and sunrise was due at 06:40. I glanced at the TV only to find in the bottom left corner of the screen the time was shown as 04:33! Well blow me down with a feather and slap my face with a wet haddock, I hadn’t taken into account the two hours time difference between London and Bulgaria and I was halfway through my breakfast wide awake. What do I do?

It was a curtailed muesli and tea, a quick brush of the teeth, TV off and back to bed after resetting my alarm again for 06:30 GMT. You guessed it, a man full of expectation and enticement of the day ahead trying to get more sleep, IMPOSSIBLE. Lying there in bed with reoccurring thoughts about today’s event and how I would cope.

06:30? Nah, it was 06:00 and I couldn’t relax with my mind working overtime just lying there I had to get up and do something to take my mind and body into physical activity and time in reality rather than let oracles sweep over me.

My now oat mix had solidified and the tea now stone cold but I finished them off looking forward to a fresh coffee that was made to keep me company in the bathroom. No daily crossword puzzle today which is my normal routine on the throne.

A limp shower, but a shower nonetheless after which had a primed and trained athlete raring to go. Having shaved my whole body a few days ago, yes I’m a hairy beast, it felt great feeling water on my skin and not worry about being looked at and compared to a gorilla. The wetsuit is a great disguise for hairy people maybe for other swimming moments in the future. another advantage of wetsuits not having to shave each time I use it go swimming.  No stomach issues at the moment, and it felt less nervous than the evening before. With time to spare now, it was rechecking everything before I left the room. I was technically of no fixed abode for another 36 hours when I was due to arrive home again.

All ready with baggage rechecked, repacked and now confident all was spick and span for the day ahead. Just as I was about to pick up my Asda shopping bag, the gurgling stomach started and it was a short delay where I had to, ‘See a man about a dog,’ before leaving. Nerves rose again, but I knew there were toilet facilities in the park so that calmed me down.

The walk to the park on a warm sunny morning was great once I entered Hyde Park. Funny how every other swimmer walking towards the event that I saw had rucksacks, designer sports bags or the supplied kit carrier from the event organisers sent to them in the post. Then there was me with six-year-old crumpled and colour faded Asda shopping bag. Yet again, there is something about being different from others that is quite stimulating, but then I’m away from the influence of peddling fashions.

One of the first things I wanted to do at the event was to give my personal thanks to one of the London Marathon Events staff, namely a woman called Ellie who helped me so much to over the issues of registration for the event. When I inquired as to where she was, I was told that she was not at the event today. (Subsequently, I found out that her absence was due to attending a wedding this weekend.)This was a major disappointment to me being so keen to thank her personally. All I could do was ask her colleagues to pass my message of thanks on to her when they see her. Whether they do this will remains in doubt. However, I will email her my thanks once I get back to Bulgaria which will at least make me feel better and hopefully make her and the team she works with feel appreciated.

All ready to get kitted out into the swimming outfit, but a wait until the last moment was my plan in case my stomach had needs. The wait was a wise move along with my bowels 30 minutes before the starting time. I knew that there was now a window of opportunity to go swimming in a wetsuit with the risk substantially lower of unwanted urges during the time in the water.

As usual, it took a while to get the wetsuit on with the atmosphere rising along with all other swimmers. The smell of lubes and heat rubs filled the tent, maybe that was a good idea with the weather temperature at around 16-17 C. Having never swum in temperatures less than 26 C it was an unknown territory that I was entering. A bit of Vaseline which I bought in Sainsbury’s yesterday was smeared around the lower part of my neck where the wetsuit rubs and all was ready bar the zip fastening at the back of the.

The kit bag that was given to me from the information tent, (not posted to me as I live abroad) was stuffed up with my clothing and personal belonging and despite traveling light, there was a fear that it all wouldn’t fit in. With the volume seriously overloaded the plastic ripped at the top and the seal had to be improvised, wrapped and knotted up to stop thing spilling out. Got away with it though, pity I couldn’t have just given them my Asda bag, it would have done a better job.

In the 50 metres from the baggage drop off point to the starting grid, at least five people asked me if I wanted my wetsuit zipper done up. It was very disappointing to realise that all these offers were from men. I finally found someone who I could reciprocate zippers fastenings up with. He was a very tall Dutchman I found out as I made a pig’s ear of an effort to do his zipper up. The reason being it zipped up from top to bottom, not bottom to top, the opposite of mine.  I finally got him sealed up after the fifth attempt, after four previous attempts trying to zip up in the wrong direction!

There were photographers all over the place and it was quite disorientating knowing where to look as we all made our way to the starting point. What a colourful sight it was seeing hundreds of swimmers gathering, our group had red swimming caps and was the first group to do the 2-mile distance along with the gold swimming capped Super 6-milers, respect man!

Talking to others confirmed that the main issue was being whacked and kicked by other swimmers. There was a great void of understanding why this only happens in the sport of swimming, a non-contact sport. In cycling and running if you got to overtake someone you don’t ride or run into the back of them you pass on the side. Why doesn’t this happen here was  begging to be answered

There was a warm-up area many ventured into before diving in for the swim, what a paradox. ‘Warm-up?’ The water felt bloody freezing. They said it was 17C. 17C is 17C which, to me doesn’t sound cold or freezing on paper, but put your body in and it is. Entering the water in a wetsuit did the job but it was freezing cold on my feet, hands and face. A little bit scary thinking I could be in for around two hours in this temperature. Yer, I could bear a short sharp cold shower, but these are always short-lived. The only thought that was a little saviour to my brain was that this was that after a while, just as in cold showers, cold it never feels too cold after acclimatisation.

Without my glasses I can’t see; with earplugs in I can’t hear. It feels like a case of being blind and deaf and it did affect things. Not being able to clearly see buoys in the distance and not hear other swimmers or staff in the canoes giving advice and instructions. It was almost like being in another world or encapsulated in a bubble isolated.

10 seconds breaststroke was all I could contend with. Why breaststroke I wasn’t’ going anywhere and swimmer were all gettgin ahead. What the hell, forget the warm up and it was straight into freestyle feeling a little stiff with the cold, but that wore off very quickly also with my mind on keeping up with others with the new freestyle technique I had learned.

It wasn’t long after I’d set off and just getting into the comfort zone of the second wind that my left leg filled up with cramp. I’d only been swimming for around 15 minutes and this was far too early for these kinds of problems. Not sure whether it was solely from dehydration, or from the cold waters, or even from the tiredness from extensive walking I did yesterday. The only solution was to just try and keep my leg moving, no time to stop and massage. This cramp continued throughout the whole swim coming and going.I was put up with it without stopping just as I did in the pool when this happens. Can’t say it’s pleasant, but there is something quite heroic about dealing with these issues and makes the achievement at the end of the day more special.

Swimming on, at the second turn the next wave of blue-capped swimmers battered their way through us, without care or due attention. It wasn’t’ fairy tales speaking to others swimmers who complaining about this. Treading water and a short-stroke breaststroke was much harder work whilst letting them through with my head above water. It is a kind of hopelessness in this situation, you can’t steer away from them as they come right for you from behind hitting you on the way past without any remorse. Bangs on the legs and head were frequently felt whilst pausing for them to pass. This was the advice given from one of the safety crew in a canoe. ‘Let them go past’ was the order shouted out. There were a couple of other red-capped swimmers in exactly the same situation, but they didn’t seem to be disturbed too much by the chaos that surrounded them. I wanted to swim during this being competitive but had stop every few seconds after being hit. It was impossible for me to swim through the madness. If I had more confidence perhaps I could have just ploughed on and done as they do. My greatest fear was now here and realised, swimming with other people in close proximity was the big test for me today. These people here were possessed and acted like wild animals without manners or care for others. They have one thing in mind, namely themselves, which does leave a bad taste in your mouth.

There was one point during this time where great anxiety kicked in. With a swarm of swimmers jostling me going around a buoy. Treading water was the only option thinking I hate this and don’t want to be here. I was cursing them and trying to regroup my thoughts without knowing that it would be short-lived. And it was thankfully. Anxiety gradually subsided and the swim goes on.

One thing I was quite proud of was the fact that at no time throughout the whole swim did I have the need for the tow buoy. Even in and anxiety situation it was not used. The reason for that iis quite strange, at no point did I fell an urge to grab it and managed to survive the onslaught of aggressive swimmers just by keeping my head above water and a two float wasn’t needed for this with a wetsuit on. Without a wetsuit perhaps it may have been clung onto, I’ll never know.

A big learning curve when it comes to the use of sighting whilst in freestyle. I found out is essential, but we all know disrupts rhythm and consistency in technique big time. Training is needed to get the sighting in without too much interference with the technique. It’s my own fault with lack of practice in the pool with this, the reason is simple, it is a difficult and awkward skill to master, which is a great put off. What do you do when you catch someone and about to hit them anyway? I found that there was many people I passed but had to slow down steer either left or right and start speeding up again. This, of course, isn’t race tactics so perhaps there is a strange logic to being a steamroller swimmer in competition. Beginners options for approaching a slower swimmer are simply to stop or go left or right, whatever you do it will slow you down and impinge on rhythm and form.

The rest of the swim was a bit of a blur, but enjoyable throughout. I do recall lots of intermittent freestyle due to swimmer traffic, it would have been great to just freestyle it all the way round. One thing was for sure, even with continuing cramp I had loads of energy to spare throughout the course and at the end. There was the thought that pperahps I had overtrained. The final stretch came too soon in my eyes, I wanted to go on and swim more and felt I could have easily done another 1-mile lap. I finished with a long sprint over the last 300 metres with energy to spare. Even with my cramped leg that was not kicking but just wiggling about to aid my balance.

Getting out of the water, people might look at me and say this guy was completely exhausted. I was collapsing many times trying to walk up the ramp out of the water. This was not from tiredness, but solely from cramp which caused my legs to seize up. And of course, I was too proud to accept help from the safety staff and the medical team waiting there. Limping towards a photographer I realised this would be recorded, so in an instant, my pose and stance changed from an embarrassing contortion to a winner’s pose for the camera. Somehow the brain controlled the physical issues with the showman striking up a show again! Had to chat with the photographer who told me he will have taken over 2000 pictures by the end of today and loves his job. And what a rewarding job he has recording peoples’ happiness and achievements!

A few seconds later there were lots of helpers each with footstools in front of them waiting to retrieve the timing devices strapped to each swimmer’s ankles. All we had to do was raise our leg and place the foot on the stool for the helpers to unstrap and you are on your way again. As I raised my leg cramp hit in again and the leg was back down to steady me before the inevitable falling over. The only way I could get my foot on that stool was to lie down and roll over on my side legs now horzonal with the footstool, much to the amusement of all watching. This was not the showman, but just practicability.... I think.

There was another short walk to the hot tub area after asking for directions like I said I’m as blind as a bat without my glasses on. This area was almost void of anyone hot tubbing it, surprisingly! There was a great sense of liberation from the wetsuit being stripped off and to be quite honest that was the moment it felt like the swim had come to an end. There was no hesitation in my wanting to get in the hot tub with an eager swimmer gingerly stepping into it trying to suppress cramp symptoms. It was a lovely moment with steam rising giving a rising curtain in front where there was the view of the lake. A full ten minutes and cramp subsided, it was a trip to the medal presentation stand and then an official picture. Pity the picture taken with swimmers donning medals was done after their wetsuit was taken off, nevertheless, a proud moment with two medals hiding each of my nipples in the shot.

The time for the swim was just under 1 hour 28 minutes, 44 seconds a time funny enough I predicted during training sessions. It was almost frustrating knowing this time wasn’t’ a true reflection of my swimming and should have been substantially cut with more confidence dealing with other swimmers knocking and battering me. Also, without starting the race dehydrated and with stomach issues, this would also enhance the time. All said and done though, I have to be happy with any time considering I couldn’t swim and more importantly conquering the fear of water, minimising panic/anxiety and training myself to a new freestyle technique that now can manage much more than a few strokes as in March this year. 

It was a re-visit to the information desk and thank the staff for a fantastic day. It was then I broke down halfway through my thank you sentence ending up in tear. I had to walk away with them thanking me for the compliment which made their day. Talking to strangers and getting onto the subject about why I did the swim. The story naturally came out about me learning to swim by myself with the history of nearly drowning trying to save a friend. Subsequently, this led to a hangover of fear and anxiety over the decades being close to other swimmers. More emotions and tears overflowing again. I decided not to talk about it anymore from that point. Can you get dehydrated from floods of tears I wondered?

After pulling myself together again, the stomach instructed me to find the toilets. This was unexpected as I didn’t think I had anything left in my stomach after all the visits this morning. Well, when you are called you are called and of course, felt much better afterward.

Not wanting to waste the beautiful day and take advantage of the atmosphere for as long as I could lead me to stay in the park right up until the last swimmer came in at around 17:30. The last swimmer was called Helen, she had massive and loud support from her family as I offered to take their family photograph. Of course, the last swimmer becomes a VIP on-site and in the media, nice to see that happen. My vision a couple of months ago was me being in that position.

Leading up to cheering in the last swimmer it was a joy to speak to three strangers who joined me on a free bench (rare today with so many tourists) on the other side of the lake. One of the strangers it was find had Bulgarian parents and that was enough for us to talk for nearly an hour and a half whilst watching the swimmers go by only 20 metres away. The other two in conversation with us were mother and daughter, the daughter having done the 2-mile swim in a later group with a pink cap. Swimming had helped her get over asthma and we tried to get her to contemplate doing all three London Classic events. After seeing my medal, you could see there was a wee touch of ‘I want one’ there. It was a pleasure chatting about many things, but not Brexit!

Fish and Chips and beer had always been the plan after leaving the event. I looked at the prices in Hyde Park and they were far too expensive for me to enjoy the meal. With this, I left the park to hunt a fish and chop shop down. It was 18:00 and my plane left Stanstead some 12 and a half hours later, so plenty of time to kill. However, I think I made the wrong decision to leave Hyde Park.

After walking for half an hour towards Victoria Coach Station, which is where I had booked a coach to Stanstead at 22:30, there was not one fish and chip shop in sight. There were horrendous traffic, noise and pollution and I’d had enough of this by the time I got to Victoria and decided not to hunt for fish and chips anymore and it was Marks and Spencer this time, a former employer of mine. I bought a chicken-based wrap that was half price and was not entirely content with that in view of my original plan to feast on fish and chips and beer. That was my evening meal which was eaten sitting on a bench in Victoria Train Station. The next two hours I didn’t move from that bench, just reflecting on the day and people watching which is something I enjoy. The better plan would have been to stay in the clean and healthy Hyde Park until dusk, then make my way to Victoria. Too late now.

It was now 20:45 by the time I had taken a short walk to Victoria Coach Station only to find that there was a coach to Stanstead leaving in 10 minutes time. Better there than this place I thought. The drive had no issues with me traveling early, beside which there were only six people on board by the time he left.

Albeit, London’s Hyde Park was a great place to do this event, I couldn’t wait to get out of London once out of the park. Out of the coach window traveling through London, I saw and didn’t need reminding how happy I was living away from this City. It has always been said that London is a great place to visit as a tourist, but not to live – I believe that to be very true. Even though I am a Londoner, I feel like a foreigner there, even when I was living there not that long ago.

Stanstead airport arrived and it was now the big wait. I had 8 hours to kill as I lay on the cold ceramic tiled airport floor in the departure lounge, only to be moved on by staff into the arrivals lounge as they were shutting down for a few hours. It was due to reopen at 03:30.

A new location to lay down, but the ceramic tiles floor was the same with the added bonus of clickety clicks every few seconds of luggage traveling along with the squared tiles. No chance of sleep. I had an idea. I took my wetsuit out of my Asda bag and lay it on the floor, then lay on that to give some barrier against the tiles. Luckily the wetsuit was almost dry from hanging out it the park whilst I was chatting to people. It seemed to do the job, but I couldn’t change lying positions without falling out of the outline of the wetsuit.

It was a very long wait and in that time my medal was taken out and viewed at least three times with a smile on my face. It was almost like a relief that this had finally been done. My thoughts were about being back home and embracing the freedom that now awaits me and abstaining from training, dieting and generally being dominated with routines leading up to the event.

Whilst the wait in the airport was on and of course not being able to sleep we witnessed a wedding proposal as a chap with flowers got on his knees when his girlfriend arrived. With hundreds of people watching, the girl had a few moments of pause before saying, ‘Yes’. There followed an immediate cuddle and elongated kiss accompanied by a big round of applause and cheering from the crowds who were now enchanted by the scene. I nice moment which is a complete contrast from the normal coldness of travelers in these places.

Should I do the same thing with Galia one day?

Airports are airports and I was soon back on a plane and in Sofia, Bulgaria. It was a sigh of relief when I finally got back into my car at midday Eastern European time and started driving the 300 kilometres back to my hometown of Yambol. No sleep, no problem as I drove on. It wasn’t until I felt a little tired that I stopped at a service station for a Bulgarian banitsa, (cheese pastry) and a big cup of coffee. This tricked me into concentrating all the way home and it was a very happy man to see Galia again who had prepared a typical Bulgarian meal for the evening. My bowels amongst other things were the most pleased party that evening!

Why do I get so emotional? There are many factors to this, but the main one is achieving something that I thought was nearly impossible. The trials and tribulations getting a swimming technique that could carry me over that 2-mile finishing line. Also, the nightmare of logistics of getting to the event. Then there is the tackling the fear of water and the anxiety that is drawn from it, especially swimming with others. And lastly, the fact that everything that surrounded the completion of the challenge was done entirely on my own, bar words of encouragement from what I now consider online friends.

Having been back now for three days it is very difficult to re-adjust without a training plan in front of me. For 7 months every day was thought about in terms of how it would affect my planned swimming and other core exercises which took place 6 days a week. I had to think about what and when to eat and on swimming days a strict regime and routine was always put in place. I have to admit, and this was something that has shocked me,  I miss the swimming already, probably because I can now swim! I will try to chill out and free wine and dine for a week then rethink about how I can cope without a challenge in front of me. The is the hint of an idea of doing a Triathlon but in Bulgaria, not the UK. but I will wait until the farm has been fully harvested and my wine and rakia made and stored for next year first. There is the winter ahead and lots of time to plan things which we tend to do with so much time on our hands. I have to admit, I’m excited about this and for the first time I am looking forward to winter so that possible concepts of challenges can be explored.  

Galia has always been there of course and she has always been very supportive and in fact quite proud I think about this crazy Englishman doing something that is totally un-Bulgarian. All the energy, cost and sacrifices made just to get from A-B in some dirty water in London just doesn’t make sense to most Bulgarians. She was however very glad I did it, but I haven’t told her of my next challenge yet to be decided.

Well, the final chapter now closes now on this 2-mile swim from scratch.

The boy did well as they say.

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