Abu Asad takes us on his journey from being a new swimmer to finishing the Serpentine two-mile swim.
Swimming is hard. Swimming a long distance is very hard. I found out the hard way that being a good cyclist or runner doesn’t make you a good swimmer.
This is the story of a relatively new Serpie who signed up for the Serpentine lake swim to continue a relatively recent change in lifestyle, who came to realise that having relatively little swim experience could prove tricky when swimming two miles in open water.
The foolish excitement
Had it not been for the London Classics stand at the RideLondon Cycling Festival the summer before last I would not be two-thirds of the way towards completing the series, and in all likelihood would not have given any serious consideration to swimming two miles in the duck-infested Serpentine lake. Yet, being a late starter to the healthier way of life — which may or may not have been a mid-life crisis — and feeling positive after conquering 100 miles on a bike, I wanted to line up the next challenge. I was a little hesitant of the swim discipline but thought why not make an effort to go from being overweight and unfit to being able to say “Et Ego Londinium Vici”, that I too have conquered London? So, I hastily signed up as soon as registrations opened.
My gym at the time gave me pool access and I spent a lunch session doing a few laps, quite literally. It bore no resemblance to an interval session, but observers might have been curious about my stoppages every couple of laps, clearly panting for air after a hard rep, recovering for a good few minutes before the next. Other swimmers in the pool would have soon cottoned on that I struggled to do even a few laps of non-interval pace before needing to stop and recover.
It turned out that my technique was what might be described as thrashing arms about in the pool to propel myself just enough to desperately reach the other end, before gasping for breath and using the aforementioned thrashed arms to hold on for dear life.
The club swims
I was in need of coaching, and fast! Having seen the criteria for joining the Serpie Monday night swim sessions at the Seymour Centre — being able to cover 400m in ten minutes or less — I had doubts if it would be suitable for me. Undeterred, however, I wrote to Alex Elferink, explaining that I had foolishly signed up for a two-mile swim event and needed some serious coaching to stand a chance of making it. To my surprise — bless him — he showed no hints of writing me off, and instead encouraged me to come along and try it out. I promptly signed up to the quarterly block that started the following week, feeling a renewed confidence that seven months would be enough time to become two-mile-open-water-ready.
Those early sessions on Monday evenings were brilliant in terms of the Serpie coaches, but not so much my own output. I was honoured, for all the wrong reasons, to have had an entire lane to myself on occasion, which certainly is something to be proud of when the three other lanes were being shared by eight or nine people. Admittedly, it was probably for the best to avoid their repeated efforts of needing to overtake me on every single lap. I fondly recall a retrospective comment by one of the coaches post-event about how far I’d come since I started, who was even thinking back then that I was perhaps in the wrong class.
By the end of March, with less than six months to go before the main event, it was apparent that progress was slow and there was a niggling doubt that I would not be able to make it. I discussed it with Alex and considered doubling up on Serpie coaching by doing the Thursday night swim at St Pancras. However, his suggestion was an external coach who does sessions on Tuesdays at the Queen Mother Centre which are geared exclusively on building technique. I had to double up on practice and I was persistently annoying enough to be allowed to start those Tuesday swims halfway through the block. And start I had to as by now there was only five months to go! Doing drill after drill, without any yardage element, wasn’t a surprise. What was though, were the drills themselves. The names of some of the drills might give you an idea of the shenanigans that went on there (or they might just muddy the waters more than they already are!): washing machine, waving not drowning, draw a pig, door knobs, John Travolta, and so on. To say that these sessions were anything short of bonkers would be an understatement. But tremendous fun and remarkably effective. My instinctive feel for the water improved hugely, my breathing became a lot more controlled, and I was beginning to do laps on end without needing to stop to avoid drowning. Taking these positive technique developments back to Serpie swim every Monday allowed me in turn to positively develop on the yardage front. I started covering more ground per session and feeling quietly confident about the September target.
The first open
Pool swimming was going great but there was no getting away from the fact that the event was in open water. Jumping into open water for the first time at the event itself would not be the best preparation, especially given that my open water experience amounted to dipping toes on the sea and snorkelling, once. There’s an inherent fear of the deep. Not knowing what lies beneath, that fills me with dread. There was no way around it though, I had to dive in, get over it and get used to it.
The Tuesday swim instructor offered open water sessions from the start of the season but I wasn’t quite ready for it in May, probably in equal parts being swim unready but also not being massively keen on 11-degree waters. So, I gave it another month or so for both my technique and the temperature to improve! Of course, the Monday Serpies were already making headway into the open-water season and I enquired about my readiness to be able to join in. It was maybe the first time that I felt serious doubt when I heard that I should probably give it another couple of months. Progress over the previous two months had been great and if I continued like this, I should be ready for open water in another two. I was definitely pleased with progress but a little concerned that getting into open water for the first time ever only a month before the event might be cutting it too fine. I resolved to try and get a head start with the Tuesday group instead as the coach would come along and probably jump in if there were any potential ‘drownee’ incidents. As it turned out, life got in the way and I wasn’t able to make a weekend slot until late July, exactly two months before the main event!
The unimaginable fear
I will never forget that first time in open water! I had already built up a picture in my head of what the water would be like at Wraysbury Lake. From all the anecdotal evidence, it was a fresh spring compared to the dirty Serpentine, so I was apparently in for a treat. The site is a dive centre, hence nicely set up with slipway access into the water and was certain to have lovely artefacts to look at whilst swimming. The coach was brilliant, guiding me step by step to get halfway down the slipway, sitting down to let my wetsuit fill up, slowly making my way to the edge of the slipway and into the lake. It wasn’t so much the quality or clarity of the water that took me by surprise but the fact that I could no longer see the bottom. As soon as the slipway disappeared from view and I was faced with a murky grey green void, I literally had a panic attack. I started kicking my legs desperately to turn around and get back to the safety of the slipway, or at least have it visibly beneath me. I was in a state of shock, breathing heavily and close to hyperventilating, save for not wanting to let the coach down. I couldn’t face it. The end of the slipway was known and quantifiable, beyond that — and with such sudden immediacy — was the deep unknown and ever so frightening.
I could so easily have decided to get out of the water and back to safety, and I know the coach would have supported me, but I knew that if I got out now there was no way I would be getting back in. It was a case of mind over matter now. I had to have a bit of — quite literally — blind faith and just trust that it was safe and nothing untoward would befall me. I treaded water and drifted further and further away from the slipway, avoiding looking down into the depths, until the coach made me try and drown myself! I raised my arms, put my feet together, pointed them down and sunk down. As much as I tried, I could not sink to the bottom. I just bobbed back up. That gave me so much reassurance, it was like a switch for me. I started swimming across the lake, intently observing the water, the different shades as the sun shone through it or how it darkened as the sun hid behind clouds. And, of course, the sunken bus and shipping container that the divers seem to like, could not be missed. I even started looking for fish, to no avail. I was told that they only appear in the presence of smooth and effortless swimming therefore I gave up that endeavour fairly promptly. In the end, I think I may have enjoyed my first open water swim session.
A couple more open water sessions seemed prudent preparation for the big event. Casual onlookers might have witnessed that I enjoyed each session more than the last. Each one of those open water sessions felt like a mini event for me. I felt a real sense of achievement after each one and was feeling confident and ready to take on the ducks in the Serpentine.
The big day
The day itself was glorious. A day of sunshine in the otherwise dreary start of autumn, with water temperature at a comfortable 17 Celsius. The organisation was outstanding and the crowds were amazing, lining the area behind the grandstand and freely milling around between the swimmers, almost forming a pathway between the changing area and the start. It felt like a red carpet walk to the start, just in a wetsuit.
Two laps of the Serpentine lake daunted me, but it wasn’t going to get the better of me. I jumped into the dunk zone to get acclimatised and ensured my goggles were nice and secure. Then it was time to join the 470 other swimmers in my wave. A high-five from the race director on the start ramp was encouraging. And then we were off! The ducks and swans kindly kept themselves out of the way on the banks so that I could focus on getting into a rhythm, forget about the distance and take it one turn at a time.
Whilst simply doing the distance was the primary goal, I had still formulated in my mind that 90 minutes was a good time to aim for, knowing that the elite winning time would probably be half that, or even less. I did not once look at my watch during the swim, as once I got going, I did not want to do anything that would disrupt the consistent and flowing rhythm I found myself in. There was a bit of contact in places, especially at the turns, but I didn’t get swum over or kicked unconscious, which was reassuring.
The buoys passed by, the turns came and went, the sun stayed out and before I knew it, I was heading past the entry/exit for the second lap. Energy levels remained high, no uncomfortable chafing set in, but a new colour of swim cap in our midst — from the wave after us — was a little bit of a downer. But I had less than half a lap to go at this point so kept my spirits up and worked towards that final turn and then the exit. I was a bit shaky coming out of the water and was really thankful to the guys on the exit ramp lending a stable hand.
Once I got my composure back and looked at my watch, I was stunned to have come in well under the 90 minutes that I had in mind. I was thrilled to have not only completed an open water swim distance that seemed out of reach only seven months ago, but in a time that surpassed my own expectations.
The top Serpies
Serpies are used to crossing the finish line, whether it be leading from the front, holding up the rear or any part of the spectrum in between. There was a point in my journey that I thought I might not have crossed the line at all and I’m grateful to so many of the Serpie swim coaches that helped to avoid that happening, especially Reinhard Kreth, Stephanie Muth and Alex Elferink who were the mainstays of the Monday swim sessions. Additionally, Lan O’Connor, Paul Wilson and James Brown, who covered sessions and encouraged gracefully.
It was a journey that I would not have been able to complete without them. Thank you.
Abu Asad was a late starter to the healthier way of life and has discovered that he enjoys cycling and running, and now open water swimming. He might even be thinking about combining all of the disciplines and doing a triathlon.