The question is age old – how much difference does wearing a wetsuit make?
It is almost impossible to answer that question. Races, courses, water flow, how you feel on the day are all different. The closest you are ever going to get to answer the question however is doing the same swim twice on the same day, one with your wetsuit and once without. That is what I (Katie) did on 10 July 2016 at the Henley Mile event.
Henley swim run four events a year: the Classic, Thames Marathon (aka Bridge 2 Bridge), Club to Pub and the Mile. Team Mermaids have competed in all of these events before apart from the Mile so I wanted to complete the “set” this year. I went on the website to enter and saw that they were running the suits vs. skins challenge which I thought looked like fun so I signed right up!
The Henley Swim events are always really well organised and professional. They also tend to have a little something which makes them different and standout from other events I have swim in such as club to pub where the swim ends up at a pub!
The Henley Mile was a full day of races covering different distances from one mile down to 200m for the kids. The first wave went off at 9am which makes it a much more civilised start than the 4am classic start time. The event was combined with the Open Water Swimming Show hosted by H2Open magazine which had a combination of talks, demonstrations and stalls selling swimming gear. Our very own Dan Bullock was there giving talks and doing demonstrations along with Cassie Patten – Olympic Bronze medallist in the 10km open water swim in Beijing.
As the rest of Team Mermaids and friends were out of action for one reason or another I managed to persuade Dennis and Max to come down and support me and keep me company during the day.
My first race was at 10am – this time in my wetsuit. The day has started off quite overcast and by the time we were walking the mile down to the start it was pouring down. Once you get in the water though a little rain doesn’t matter and we were quickly off. The course is absolutely lovely – swimming downstream between the Henley Royal Regatta boomed course. It is nice not to be just going round in circles for a change but also not needing to constantly slight.
I was uncharacteristically enthusiastic at the start and tried to keep up with the three leaders. I managed to stay with them until just over half way but then dropped back. I was then swimming neck and neck with another lady for about 500m. I lost sight of her at around 200m to go (where there is a helpful sign telling you to sprint) and I had a sneaking feeling I would find her on my feet. A minute or so later I had that tell-tale tap on my toes which spurred me on to sprint down the last 100m or so. I finished fourth in my wave of skins vs. suits participants in a time of 21 mins 5 secs. The river flow must have been pretty strong as I would generally be happy with anything under 24 mins for a mile. Overall I was pleased with my swim but I was also pretty tired and now sure how I was going to mange to do the whole thing again!
My next race wasn’t until 3.40pm so while Dennis headed off for his long marathon training run Max and I hung out at the open water show looking round the stalls and chatted to people. Once Dennis had finished his run we drove into Henley itself for a bit of carbo loading at a local Italian.
By the time we got back to the event the sun was out and it was lovely and warm which was good news as I registered and got ready for my skins race. The water was a balmy 18.8 degrees, however, I haven’t done any skins swimming so far this year so getting in was still a bit of a jolt to the system. Once I was swimming though I didn’t feel too bad. For this wave we also had elite and other traditional swimmers with us so it was harder to tell where you were in the field of suits vs. skins participants. There were two young elite swimmers who sprinted off from the whistle and I settled down to swim with three or four others – not sure if they were the same swimmers as the morning swim though.
I think my morning exertions had taken its toll a bit and I didn’t feel as good in the afternoon swim. Again I tried to keep with the three leading ladies but lost touch a little over half way. Over the final 200m I was racing against another lady. She was half a body in front of me and my efforts to catch her were being hampered by my goggles being totally fogged up and not being able to see the finish line. In the end I didn’t quite manage to catch her.
So what difference does a wetsuit make over a mile? Well in my case 1 min and 31 seconds as I finished my second mile in 22 mins and 36 second. So in percentage terms I was 7% slower without my wetsuit. I think to be honest some of that will down to not having such a great swim and not taking out as fast as I did in the morning. Overall though a wetsuit makes less difference that I would have thought!
I would absolutely recommend this event for next year. It was a great race but also a fun day out.