A First Timer's Experience of Swim Serpentine

So, there I was in the pub with my friend Chris, talking about how we had both completed the London Marathon at some point in our lives.  Then Chris says “Have you heard of the London Classics?”  I stopped to think what that could be? “Nope never heard of it.”  He explained it is when you have completed the three hardest challenges in London, The Prudential Ride London-Surrey (100 miles), the London Marathon and Swim Serpentine.  That’s all he needed to say for me to reply “I’m going to do it this year!”  That night after the pub I went home, got into bed and started researching the London Classics.

I signed up for the Ride London ballot just in time and got in!  I thought the ride would be okay but then I saw the two mile Swim Serpentine challenge.  I’ve never been a good swimmer but I’m okay in a pool as long as I have the sides to rest on. 

I started my training for the two challenges four times a week, which my wife wasn’t particularly impressed with considering we have a one year old little girl.  I swam in the pool once a week and rode on my other training days.  I completed Ride London and felt great.  My training had paid off. 

Now came the hardest of the two challenges for me; the two mile Swim Serpentine which is an open water swim. This year their charity was in aid of Children with Cancer UK. I started swimming three times a week, once in the pool and twice in my local lake, Horseshoe Lake Activity Centre.  

Joe open water swim training at Horseshoe Lake Activity Centre

I found swimming around the lake a very solitary experience, no music, no chat, just me and my thoughts.  This is where I cleared my head after those hectic days in the office.  As I increased my distance in the lake, I started to realise the further I went would mean no stopping.  This worried me a little because as I mentioned before I am not the most confident swimmer nor am I that good. 

I spoke to a fellow swimmer at the lake and she said “why don’t you use a tow float if you are swimming that far out?”  I thought what is a tow float?  I then looked out at the lake and realised all the long-distance swimmers had one.  I made a note to myself that on my next swim I’d use one. Luckily enough at Horseshoe Lake Activity Centre, they allow you to borrow them for free!  Bonus.  I clipped it around me and off I went.  I swam a mile and a half in my best ever time.  I thought wow this tow float will help me get rid of all my anxiety and doubts for this upcoming swim!  Six weeks later, with all the training in the bag, came the last of my London Classic challenges; Swim Serpentine. 

I arrived at Hyde Park in plenty of time before the race.  It was a beautiful sunny day and there was a great atmosphere with lots of other people taking part.  I got myself ready and clipped the tow float around my waist.

Joe before the swim

I was lucky enough to have borrowed one from the guys at my lake.  I walked up to the start line and noticed not many people had a tow float.  I thought to myself why would you not have one?  The swim began and I was off.  Overtaking all the breaststroke swimmers and even some of the front crawlers.  Cruising around mile one with no issues at all, feeling fairly comfortable but also saying in my head “I’m never doing this again!”  I came around for mile two and was now half a mile away from the finish.  Then every swimmer’s nightmare.  Calf cramp set in.  The worst pain I’ve ever had during any sport.  I grabbed hold of my tow float and thought thank god I’ve got you!  A lifeguard paddled over in his kayak and asked “You stopping mate, you finished?”  I looked up at him and then over to the finish line.  “I’ll finish this with one leg if I have to.”  I stopped for about ten minutes holding onto my tow float stretching my calf in the water, trying to ease the pain.  I obviously hadn’t drunk enough water during the day.  After ten minutes I was off, swimming to the finish line with one leg dragging in the water completely locked.  It wasn’t pretty but it was done!  Two miles in open water in one hour and thirty minutes.  I was so pleased with my time even though I wasted so much of it sorting out my cramp.  But then I suddenly thought if I had not had my tow float I would have been pulled out.

Joe completing the Swim Serpentine and also the London Classics challenge.

Over the line and walking with a slight limp, I collected my Swim Serpentine medal.  Result!  I then noticed a lady holding the London Classics medal.  She had seen I was wearing the wristband which meant I qualified.  I limped over and said “I’ve done it” and with a smile she replied “Congratulations”.  

 After months of research, pain and hours of training it was over; I had finally completed the London Classics. Something my friend Chris still needs to do 😁


Thanks Joe for sharing your experience of the Swim Serpentine and well done!

You can find out more about the Swim Serpentine 2021 event here.

1 comment

  • Fair play to you. I feel like im in the same boat as yourself. Being able to run and cycle at a mediocre level but as for swimming i can swim to save my life and thats about it. Reading your story has given me that confidence to know that if i train as much as possible in and around work life then i will be able to achieve this goal. Fair play to you and a very well done.

    Andrew scotting

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