Thames Marathon 2016 – Bridge to Bridge

The Thames Marathon was our favourite swim of 2015 so part of me was really looking forward to the 14km swim from Henley Bridge down to Marlow Bridge. The other part of me was pretty nervous as I probably hadn’t done quite enough training. While Coach Manda has been on ‘sabbatical’ we have not been as organised as we might be! Manda caught Brian and I trying to do some cramming training at the lido a few weeks before and just shook her head at us.

The event had a number of changes of format this year to go along with the change in name (previously it was just called Bridge to Bridge).

Historically swimmers had to swim in a pod of similar paced swimmers which were allocated at the first lock. In 2015 you had the option to swim solo with a tow float or to swim with a pace group. You chose your own pace group at the start of the event. This year it was mandatory to swim with a tow float but you also had the option to swim with one of three pace swimmers (one per wave) or you could be allocated to a pod at the first stop. I swam solo which made for a much faster race as you can go through the stops at your chosen pace rather than having to wait for the other people in your pace group. I choose to go through the feed stops as quickly as possible. On the other hand it does make the swim a bit lonelier as you don’t have a group to chat to which is a bit of a shame. I had not ever swum with a tow float before and I was a bit nervous that it would get in my way but I hardly noticed it at all.

Typically at these type of swims the slower waves set off first and faster waves later. For the Thames Marathon however this has been reversed with the fast wave leading it out. This definitely makes things easier as you are not having to pass the other waves. I can only imagine that with everyone having tow floats that this would have been carnage.

This year the second and third legs had been joined together to make one uber leg. This meant you started with a 4km leg, followed by 6km, then a shortie of 1.5km followed by a final leg of 2.5km. I was worried that the second leg would be really tough being so long but it was actually fine and it was really nice to finish that leg and to feel like you had broken the back of the swim with just two shorter legs to swim. I do wish however that I had tried to find some people to swim with on this leg as it was mostly by myself which I think made my overall pace suffer.

The event traditionally finished at the rowing club at Marlow Bridge but due to the event’s popularity this is no longer possible and the event now finishes about 200m short in Higginson Park. While it is sad not to swim right up to the bridge it is great to finish right in the swimming festival at the end for snacks and shopping.

Given all the changes along with a pretty rapid river flow it is really hard to compare times from year to year but I was happyish with my 3h 11m finish. Brian did an amazing job breaking the three hour mark finish in 2h 58m and Kate was pleased with her 3h 44m.

Overall I think the changes in format have pros and cons but I understand why they have all been made and I really enjoyed the swim again. We will definitely be back!


Bridge to Bridge 2015

Sunday saw Team Mermaids in attendance at the 11th edition (we think?!) of Henley Swim’s Bridge to Bridge. This is a 14km swim in the Thames from Henley Bridge to Marlow Bridge. Brian participated in the event last year (see here). However, this year was going to be different for 2 main reasons. First, the pod format had been replaced with either solo swims (tow float required) or paced pod swims (more on that later!). Secondly the weather. Last year it was taking place the day the impact of hurricane Bertha arrived in the UK, which meant horrific weather but a compensating current. We had sunshine and clouds but a slower current!


You were given the option of registering on the Saturday at the Angel pub in Henley. Henley Swim’s love of the pub (they put on the Club to Pub as well which ends at the Angel) makes it one of the best, if not the best, swimming event companies in our eyes. So registered and a pint down we settled down for some pasta and an early night at Chez Barker in Reading.


The Sunday saw a relaxed start in comparison to some of our other departure times and we got to the Leander club, where the event started, at 8am, at which point the green wave was setting off.


Soon enough the blue wave, including Kate, was gone and the pink wave, where me and Katie would be swimming had our briefing. We were both going to stick with a pacing pod for the swim. The swim isn’t a race and by surrounding yourself and sticking with other swimmers you stick to this ethos. Katie decided to swim with Pace Pod 9 (aiming for 3:45) that was paced by Simon Griffiths from H2Open magazine and I made a last minute decision to go into Dan Bullock from Swim for Tri‘s Pace Pod 10 (aiming for 3:30).

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At 9am we departed. Now here at Team Mermaids we are plodders, one pace wonders, the tortoises. Call it what you want but we stick to this plan of going out at a pace we know we can maintain for the whole distance and generally it works for us. People sprinted off the start line so much so that it took me a good 15 minutes to reach a pacer to only realise it wasn’t Dan but Simon! I decided to stick to my own pacing plan even if it meant dropping down a group at the first stop.


After 4km I got to the first lock and pod 10 had just arrived… Phew! We then got in the water and waited for our kayakers. Katie appeared at this point all chipper and suggesting she might come into my pod. The pace for the first section had been pretty rapid. I didn’t want to sound negative so just said a casual ‘ok’ rather than screaming ‘DON’T DO IT TO YOURSELF’ in her face. She then asked how long we had been at the lock… 10 mins by this point. Upon doing the maths and realising that we had done the first stage in 49 mins she promptly disappeared back into the comfort of Simon’s pod whilst I whispered ‘take me with you’.

After the first stop the pace settled down and a routine of haribo, gel and water became standard at each lock. There are five stages to the swim with four stops. The swim, like the Jubilee, has decreasing distances for each stage, which means after 2 stages you are half way. The final stage somewhat bucks this trend and is 2.3km. However a fellow pod 10 swimmer who had swum the event previously told me ‘it isn’t 2.3km.. It must be at least 2.7km. That church never appears’. Therefore, whereas for a lot of swimmers that final stage was mentally and physically breaking, I was surprised but happy to see the bridge appear so quickly. Admittedly I did try and get out early only to be shooed away by a man on the banks pointing me to the real finish!


Thanks to Henley swim for putting on another great event. We both really enjoyed it. Thanks to all the people manning the feeding stations at the different locks and to the kayakers for being the silent comforting presence they are. Thanks to Simon for pacing Katie and I think, thanks to Dan for pacing me….

Additionally, a special thanks to the Barkers for letting us stay over again so we didn’t have to get up at a silly hour to register on the Sunday morning (although I am not happy about MY room having no bed now!!) and to Dennis for driving us around.


Top 10 most memorable swims…so far!

This blog summarises our top 10 most memorable swims. We have excluded the ‘big’ races e.g. New York, Zurich etc. as while very memorable we have already covered these in other entries. We decided on what swims we were going to cover together but we as we often have very different perspectives on the swim we have written separate accounts.

No. 10 – VOtwo Endurance Day 3.8k

MANDA: Before this race I was ambivalent about the whole thing as I had lost my “mojo” after winning Zurich with Katie. This caused much chuckles, concern and confusion when I said it would be like an athlete being bothered about a diamond meet after winning Olympic gold. Deluded … yes I am! Ha! So I got in and set about getting the 3.8k done. There was a tight pack of us from the start, which included Katie, Brian and another friend of ours Dave, who had travelled down from up North for this. Dorney is an “easy“ course due to the lane ropes at bottom and perfectly rectangular course so I just sat with everyone putting in a bit of effort but not too much. On the last lap the argy bargy around the buoys got a bit much, which normally I wouldn’t be shy in dealing with but in this case I thought I can’t be bothered with it so sat back and drafted off Katie and another girl who were leading. With approx. 500 metres to go, due to drafting and general ambivalence I had energy left so I decided to make a move. The idea was to swing around the other girl and Katie and then position myself in front of Katie so she could draft off me for a bit. That’s what I did. This move involves no hesitation so full throttle off I went. I turn backed at one point and didn’t see Katie or anyone else for that matter so appeared I had dropped them all. I exited the water and realised Dave was right behind me and was obviously hiding well. Next followed Katie, Brian and the other girl in the pack. Top 5 out within 20 seconds of each other!

KATIE: I do love a race at Dorney Lake as it saves all that bother of doing that pesky sighting. We had a big crowd down for this race as our friends Brian and Dave joined Manda and I and our friends David and Tom were competing in the 10km. Manda and I were swimming along nicely together up until the final buoy when another girl managed to get in between us. The girl then proceeded to push and shove me for the final 400m, pulling my arm under so I couldn’t catch back up to Manda. Now I am normally quite mild mannered during a swim but this girl got under my skin especially when she tried to push me over on the run up to the finishing line so I tried to push her back! The race commentator even shouted at us to stop pushing each other.

No. 9 – Tooting Bec Lido – Members race 1 mile – May 2011

MANDA: This was somewhat of an accidental race. Every week SLSC hold a race at the lido on a Sunday morning. Despite being members for 4 years we have never done one. This Sunday we turned up and were training when we got asked to vacate the pool for the weekly race. The race can vary from 100 yds to 1 mile, this day it was 1 mile so we would need to be out of the pool for a while. If can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. So we took off our wetsuits and joined in. You were asked to line up in speed order and we cautiously put ourselves in the top 10, which drew some looks but we had faith/delusion on our side. Needless to say we were beaten by some awesome swimmers, including a pregnant lady!

KATIE: Manda and I are members of SLSC so we can swim all year round (for us this means a bit in May and October but never in the cold months). One of the other ‘perks’ of membership is that you can compete in the weekly races. We had turned up for a swim one Sunday morning at the same time the race was about to start so we thought we would join in only to totally embarrass ourselves by being soundly beaten by a very pregnant lady and a gentleman who must have been 60+. We haven’t been back.


No. 8 – SwimFesT 3.8k / 5k – July 2012

KATIE: I love the Swim for Tri SwimFesT course. I always say to Dan it feels very intrepid as it is not just a boring circular course. For the last straight you have to swim across the lake and swim under a bridge tapping the timing mat like a proper Olympic swimmer. As part of our New York training we decided to do a double race weekend (see no.4) with SwimFesT on the Sunday. The day was lovely and sunny and the water was not too chilly even though we were swimming skins. After battling in the river at Marlow the day before 5k felt like quite a long way. I guess that is why Manda decided 3.8k was a better option!

MANDA: Yes it was me that only did the 3.8km. You can always rely on Katie to make you feel inferior! But in my defence it was the morning after No.4 swim at Marlow. It is always a really nice event down at Lakeside for SwimFesT and the course is really nice. Unfortunately they aren’t doing them this year but if they do again be sure to get yourself down there.

Katie coming into the finish at SwimFesT
Katie coming into the finish at SwimFesT

No. 7 – XT Swim 1.5k – September 2010

KATIE: This race was back when we were novices on the open water scene. I think we have been very spoiled as the other races we had done before were at Dorney or Bray lake which are nice and clear with lovely changing rooms and warm showers. This race was a bit ‘different’. It was on an army barracks covered in mud. The water was peaty black and FREEZING. Changing rooms and showers were a distant dream. We didn’t even have our swimming costumes on when we arrived and had to change in the car. #rookieerror!

MANDA: I think this was the 2nd race I did with Katie. Maybe it was inexperience but this race felt really really cold and I also recall seeing a sign saying if you got flu symptoms afterwards to head straight to the doctors as could be weil’s disease… arggh. It was also the first time I met Kate. On the way back to London the 2 of them were discussing this girl called Suz they knew from Uni who had done Swimtreks… little did I know that in a year’s time I would be going on my first Swimtrek with the 4 of them.

No. 6 – Human Race, Dorney Lake 1.5k / 3k – May 2011

MANDA: A year later we would be doing the 10k but I felt like the 3k was a massive step up after having only competed in max mile swims. I really enjoyed it, despite the shock that we weren’t swimming in the main lake with the lane ropes at the bottom, but the side lake. Later in the year we did a 3.8km swim, which again felt like the longest swim in the world… if only I knew what was coming!

KATIE: This time it was my turn to wimp out. 3k just sounded so far (little did I know what Manda had in store for me for 2012!) so I opted for the 1.5k alternative.

No. 5 – Great London Swim 1 mile – July 2011

KATIE: Racing at the Great London Swim is always great to remind yourself about how popular open water swimming has become and how anyone can enjoy the sport. Thousands compete in event. For some this is the first (and maybe last!) open water swim and some people have completed in hundreds of races. Times range from an elite 18mins to 1 hour plus. All you need is a love of open water swimming.

MANDA: This was an exhausting event for me despite the 1 mile distance. I got in and did my 1 mile but after that I had to run back to the start to swim again with my friend Joanne. I had bullied her into swimming the mile but had promised to swim it alongside her… what I didn’t know was she was planning to swim breaststroke. It was exhausting. 1 hour of breast stroke was harder than the 24 minutes front crawl. Chapeau to those swimming breastroke.

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No. 4 – F3 Marlow 3k – July 2012

MANDA: This swim was the afternoon before we did SwimFesT (No. 8) and we were swimming it skins in preparation for NYC (that turned out to be warmer than the local leisure centre!). We set off against the current and would turn at a buoy for a swim with the current and repeat once more through for the 3km distance. With Thames swims, sometimes the current can be strong and sometimes it can be weak. Due to heavy rain it was very strong. A lot of people were trying to swim against the bank so as to avoid the strong current working against them. I tried this but still didn’t seem to be progressing, then I turned at the buoy and in what only felt like seconds I was back at the bottom for another go at battling against the current. When I got to the buoy to turn for the return leg, I didn’t realise that the buoy had come loose with the strong current and was drifting, albeit it slowly due to a kayaker trying to hold it in place, downstream. I furiously chased after it until a kayaker told me to stop. I think he had been trying to tell me to stop for a while but obviously I couldn’t hear him and it was only after we had clashed that I took note. I drifted to the finish line, where Katie has been waiting in the cold and no wetsuit for some time.. Sorry!

KATIE: This race is one of my favourite racing memories just because of the total chaos that ensued. Highlights are the buoy becoming detached from its moorings and floating downstream. I was swimming towards it at the time and saw this unfold which was lucky or else I think I would have been very confused. My other highlight was desperately trying to remember from GCSE geography about river flows to work out were the river is flowing fastest and slowest to take best advantage swimming up-stream and downstream. I’m not sure I remembered correctly!

No. 4 Marlow
No. 4 Marlow

No. 3 – Human Race – Festival of Sport

MANDA: What a sh$t show. The 10k swimmers were meant to be starting first but due to delays and tides not slowing when people aren’t on schedule, the shorter distance swimmers arrived to the start area to find the 10k swimmers still there and with the tides still continuing to come in, the event organisers decided to set us all off at the same time. Now my swimming friends, if there is one piece of advice I can give Event organisers, this will be it: DO NOT GIVE SWIMMERS THE SAME COLOURED HATS AS THE BUOYS. We set off and no one had a clue where they were going and often I thought I was sighting a buoy (that were way too far apart) but really it was just another swimmer. In the end I did the ultimate sin and just followed another swimmer. When I got out, Simon Griffiths, Editor of H2Open Magazine, who was also swimming, was there and I told him my thoughts re buoy colours etc and some other swimmers who came in earlier thought they might have missed a buoy. I then got changed and waited for Katie, who was doing the 10k. After waiting for her for an unusual amount of time, we saw this very forlorn looking Katie emerge. She looked emotionally and physically ruined. Fortunately Kate was on hand to be her “babushka” and normal Katie service was resumed.

KATIE: Despite all the above this was still one of my favourite races. I had never been to Cornwall before and I loved it. Having the festival around the sport was a great idea as it meant you go to sample some famous Cornish Rattler cider in the evenings and listen to live music. It is a shame they haven’t repeated the event. On the train traveling down to Cornwall there was a whole load of hip and trendy people on the train talking about the ‘festival’. We thought they looked way too cool to be coming to the Festival of Sport with us and we were right as it turned out they were going to a festival called ‘Bangface’ in Newquay. Anyway about the swim! I decided to do 10k as it seemed a waste to travel all the way to Cornwall without making the most of it. I ended up swimming 11.25k as the course was quite confusing and it was very difficult to see the buoys as they were spread quite far apart. You had to pretty much hope you were heading in the right direction. It was gorgeous (if slightly chilly) swimming in the clear sea and I don’t regret swimming the longer distance despite the fact that the 1k back into shore was probably the most mentally taxing swim I have ever done. I was crying into my goggles! My highlight was swimming round the beautiful St. Michael’s mount at the start of the swim.

Mermaid hug
Katie before the swim
The beautiful St. Michael's Mount in Cornwall
The beautiful St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall
Katie exiting the water looking forlorn at the Festival of Sport
Katie exiting the water looking forlorn at the Festival of Sport
Manda's route round St. Michael's Mount
Manda’s route round St. Michael’s Mount

No. 2 – 10k ‘Relay’ Bray Lake – September 2011

KATIE: This race had been advertised as including a relay category but I think we were the only one entered so we had kind of been forgotten which meant we could make up our own rules. The course was 1k long so Manda, Kate, Suz and I all did 2 laps each and then Manda and I did another lap at the end each. I did the final lap and after I got out a man came up to me and said I saw you sprint past me and it looked like you had only just got in. I reassured him that was because I only just had! As we came 1st out of 1 we demanded a prize! Afterwards we went to lunch in Maidenhead and got to see David Walliams swim part of his amazing Thames challenge. What a hero.

MANDA: What I remember most about this race was the realisation of what kind of team member Suz was going to be for NYC. This was our first team race after having signed up for NYC and Suz proceeded to nap through the rest of us swimming. Welcome to the team Snoozy Suzy. Oh and we came 1st out 1.

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No. 1 – Henley Swim Classic [2.25k] – June 2011

MANDA: Whose idea was it to start a race at 4am?!? We stayed in reading at Kate’s parents’ house the night before and then when they were off to the pub we set about going to bed in order to get some sleep before our 3am alarm. Whilst driving to the swim we drove past people who were still walking home from their nights out. Things just kept getting more surreal. We registered in the dark and then put the wetsuits on ready for our swim. The swim was relatively uneventful, apart from the fact that as the men are set off first, the faster woman had to plough through the slower men. Once we got to the finish we walked back to the club house and had some breakfast then headed back to London. We got back to London at 9AM… YES 9AM. I went to go back to bed but there was a street party on my road with a brass band so couldn’t. I remember the Monday at work me feeling worse than I did the Tuesday morning after Glastonbury. .. That’s how rock and roll outdoor swimming is.

KATIE: Watching the midsummer sun rise while swimming down the Henley regatta rowing course (almost) makes up for having to get up at 3am to swim!

Henley Bridge to Bridge 2014

Brian (@Brian_M_Foley) here – guest blogger and honorary merman for the day.

On Saturday, 9th August, I swum the Henley Club to Pub with fellow merfolk Amanda, Katie & Kate. The next morning it was time for the Bridge to Bridge swim – 14km downstream from Henley Bridge to Marlow Bridge.

This swim almost didn’t happen for me for two reasons.

Firstly, I was due to be a reserve swimmer/crew-member on a two-way, four-person relay across the English Channel. Our swim window was from 9th August – 15 August, so could have clashed with the Bridge to Bridge. The swimmers on that swim were Lisa, Paul, Hilary, and Parviz, and they were raising funds for COSMIC (@CosmicCharity), an intensive care unit for children at St Mary’s Hospital. Luckily, the channel relay was delayed till mid-week due to bad weather in the channel, which allowed me to do the Bridge to Bridge at the weekend.

Secondly, the same bad weather that delayed our channel swim was also threatening to cancel the Bridge to Bridge. Heavy rain and lightening were both forecast for Sunday, and up until the very last minute it was not certain that the swim would go ahead.

Katie and Manda dropped me off at the Leander Club at 6:30 on the way to their F3 Event, and I was able to register in good time. I also met Caroline and John, fellow Serpies who had swum the Club to Pub the previous evening. The pre-swim briefing confirmed that the weather was still a concern, and that it may be cancelled after the first 4km if the weather got any worse. Another part of the briefing explained the “sportif” nature of the swim. The bridge to bridge is not a traditional race, rather the swimmers are expected to swim in small groups or “pods”, and stay together for safety reasons. Each pod would have two kayakers, and would regroup at each feed stop.

The swim was split into five sections: 4km from Henley to Hambledon Lock, 3.1km to Medmenham, 2.9km to Hurley Lock, 1.8km to Temple Lock, and the final 2.3km to Marlow Bridge. Each stopping point was manned by volunteers supplying water, energy drink, bananas, chocolate bars and fruit cake. I took full advantage of the food stops, but also had two energy gels tucked into my wetsuit legs for “emergencies”.

We started from underneath Henley Bridge at just after 8am

The first section started with the reverse of the Henley Classic course (which I had swum earlier in the year with Paul), and was used to divide the swimmers into groups. We all swum at our own pace, and were placed into groups of about 20 at Hambledon Lock. To my surprise, I found myself in the first group.


The first section was also notable for the worst weather of the day. A very heavy shower lasted about 10 minutes, and cut visibility in the water dramatically. At this point I was glad I decided to wear clear goggles instead of tinted, as otherwise I don’t think I could have seen where I was going! As swimmers, we didn’t mind the rain so much, but we could see spectators on the river bank who must have gotten very wet in that shower 🙂

The second section was very fast. Being in the first pod put us all under pressure to keep up with the fastest swimmer, and I swum this section at close to 100%. We had a nice psychological boost when we got to the second stop at Medmenham — as we were eating, somebody announced that we were already more than half-way to Marlow!

As the swim went on, the sections got shorter and shorter. Soon we were at Hurley Lock, and made the short walk across an island to bypass the weir. Next came Temple Lock, and the knowledge that there was only one section left to swim.


Before too long we were passing All Saints Church, which is 600m from Marlow bridge. In previous years this would have marked the sprint-to-the-finish point, but our pod was very spread out at this stage, so we had to wait for a couple of minutes to regroup.


We finished in the shadow of Marlow Bridge, and came ashore at the rowing club. We finished in about 3 hours and 13 minutes, which probably equated to just less than 3 hours of swimming when all the food and regrouping stops were taken into account. A medal and a goodie bag was waiting for every finisher, and then it was off to the leisure centre for a shower, and sports massages or food for those that wanted them.

All in all a great swim. The water temperature was apparently 18.7, which felt nice and warm when you are in a wetsuit and swimming fast. I was a bit worried about wearing my wetsuit for the first time in months (I have been skins swimming all summer to prepare for the channel), but copious amounts of body-glide around my neck avoided any issues, and it was actually quite nice to get the speed boost of swimming in a wetsuit.

The organisers did a great job of keeping us safe in challenging conditions. I’ll be back next year, provided channel swims or bad weather don’t get in the way…

Thanks to Katia Vastiau for the photos (@KatiaVastiau)