A guest race report from Team Mermaids’ friends, Mollie and Daniela. Without having previously met each other (not even at the race) they wrote a Henley Classic race report together and realised they are closer* than they realised.
*See timings below
The Henley Classic is a 2.1km upstream race along the same course as the Henley Royal Regatta and is held each year the weekend before the regatta. It began in 2004 with two friends wanting to swim the course and has grown considerably to become a staple of the summer race season. This year’s race has 819 people competing.
With so many swimmers, the Classic is divided into several waves. The start time for the first wave is 4:30am, as the racecourse needs to be clear by 6:30am. Although this means a very early start (a pre-race brief is a must and means you need to be at the start around 90 minutes before your wave) it also means getting to swim along a pristine stretch of the Thames as the sun rises.
This course is upstream, although current varies year on year making each race a bit different, on the whole not very perceptible. The Henley Classic is the only time of the year you can swim in this course, which is a nearly perfectly straight.
Our waves started at 5:15am (Daniela) and 5.40 (Mollie). This was Daniela’s second year and a maiden for Mollie swimming the Henley Classic. We both swam in wetsuits, although you can register to brave it in skins. With water temperatures around 18C, the 2019 conditions were actually perfect for either choice!
After some anxious limb flailing on the riverbanks in an attempt to loosen up, all swimmers were ushered in to the water a few minutes ahead of the starting gun. This just gives time for more limb flailing, but this time accompanied by a lot of erratic splashing! There’s quite a bit of excited chatter before the gun and then you’re off! The beginning is a bit of a frenzy, but it quickly thins out. For a swim race, the course is wide (about 80 feet across), which make sense given that it is usually reserved for rowing boats and the width of their oars. Depending on your navigation skills and your pace in comparison to the remainder of the wave, it can sometimes feel like you’re swimming the race completely alone.
Daniela’s tactic was to stick to along the boom on the left-hand (the ‘Berks’) side of the racecourse. Rumour has it that the current is less intense here…although there are significantly more weeds than further into the river. Mollie’s wave was frantic from the outset and did not calm down until halfway along the course, consequently she swam where there were no thrashing feet; left bank, right bank, centre – the current was a secondary concern to a black eye. Even though we (Daniela and Mollie) were in separate waves we only finished 3 seconds apart with times of 41:02 and 41:05 respectively, coming 55th and 56th out of the 342 women. Concluding that Daniela is a way better swimmer than she gives herself credit for!
The course is a scenic stretch of river and offers some lovely views of the country side, especially magical with the changing colours of the morning sunrise. You will be forgiven for being transfixed by the sunrise, but we guarantee the appearance of the enclosures will jolt you out of the day dream, as they signal a few hundred meters to go. It is not until you stop at the finish that you are aware of the current – no sooner have you stopped are you floating back downstream! By the time you get out of the water at the end of the race the memory of early morning start begins to fade into memory and a satisfied post-race buzz takes over. By 7:30 you’re done and tucking into a well-earned breakfast…back in London!
While a 5am start does mean an alarm going off around 3:30am, it also means staying in Henley the night before is a must. Henley is an idyllic town on the banks of the Thames. It’s well worth going up a day before the race for a mini break and enjoying Henley in full summer glory. You will get the added bonus of the pre-Regatta buzz in the town too. There are of plenty spots to lounge by the river and store up energy the day before the race, whilst you watch the rowers getting ready for their races. The Henley Classic is a fantastic swim and registration 2020 is already open. Undoubtedly, one for the swimming bucket list.