Henley Mile – Skins vs. suits 2016

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.


Boulter’s to Bray 2016

Thanks to Paddy for giving us an insight into open water swimming events from the spectator’s point of view.  It is as glamorous as we thought!!

Massive well done to Kate for her swim!

I’m not a sports spectator and never have been. I also can’t swim. I can float and vaguely control the direction of travel, but it’s not for me. The smell of chlorine evokes vivid memories of being thin and blue, shivering at the poolside in school swimming. I love lakes and the sea, but further schoolboy misadventures involving nudity and canoes (not at the same time, you understand) mean I don’t relish going for a dip in either. Rivers? Right up there with ‘rip tides’ in my list of reasons to decline an invitation from the swimming club.

So now we’ve established that I don’t enjoy watching sport, nor swimming, perhaps we can consider a pertinent question: what moment of lunacy has led to me getting up at 4am to go and watch people churning through a 3km stretch of the river Thames? It’s Saturday – I should be in bed, sleeping off a light hangover before getting up for a leisurely, high-cholesterol breakfast.

Thing is, Kate owes half of south London a lift (with IOUs ranging from Tooting Lido to the Lake District). The other thing is that Kate doesn’t have a car. Or, in fact, a licence – though that is a work in progress. Muggins here does, and has been enlisted. So, at 4am I’m at the wheel and we’re Maidenhead bound for the Boulter’s to Bray Swim.

Aside from the horribly early start, the day begins well. The sun is shining, we don’t hit traffic, we don’t get lost, we find a parking space immediately, registration is completed in the time it would take to buy a newspaper and there is a promise that later we will be offered bacon sandwiches. And coffee. Both will be needed.


Organised sport is not my natural habitat, but Kate quickly finds changing rooms and seems to have a good idea where the start of the 2.8km race is. I am promised the start will be “the exciting bit”.

Arriving at the starting area, things do get more interesting. Kate slips into a crowd being addressed by someone with a megaphone, leaving me to chat to the three other spectators (there are 180-odd entrants). But looking back on the throng, I notice that everyone has turned identical. As the starting gun looms, everyone has pulled on matching event-branded swimming caps. The uniform also includes a black wetsuit.

I can’t find Kate. Some more spectators turn up with a couple of labradors. Even the dogs look confused. It does look a little like the aliens have arrived. It doesn’t help that half of them are ‘windmilling’ like The Who guitarist Pete Townshend.


After a lengthy game of Where’s Wally? I manage to pick out a pair of distinctive pink goggles. It’s Kate, and I’m able to get missile lock long enough to see her enter the water. But now there’s a new problem: the organisers are ‘floating’ the swimmers around the corner for the start. I set off to get a better view.


I just catch the start, but there’s something surprising. Swimming is faster than I expected and this lot are heading downstream. I adopt a brisk pace in the hope of catching up. Problem is, I keep stopping to see if I can pick out a highlight of pink goggle among the rhythmically churning arms. Fat chance. I also have to cross via a bridge, which adds to the lag, following which I’m led down a riverside path where the dense foliage does not afford a clear view. I can hear arms slapping into the water, but I’ve no idea which end of the swimming order I’m walking next to.

Eventually, I come across a dozen or so panting wetsuited men on the towpath, just in time to see Kate (also panting) emerge behind them. It’s the first time I’ve had a definite ID on her since before the start, but I haven’t seen any of the other woman swimmers on the way down here, and there don’t appear to be any looking for their shoes in the pick-up area. Has she won? She doesn’t think so.

Back at HQ, important things are afoot, mainly involving pork and caffeine. Several men are trying to mend a computer. A small queue has formed. One of the men plugs in a new cable, gives it a wiggle and presses some buttons. He looks across the table hopefully and the expectant swimmer taps in his race number. A ticket is printed out. The queue begins to move.

Kate’s ticket reveals that she’s come 21st overall, and is the second fastest woman in the grid. During prize giving, we find out that she was off the leader’s pace by just seconds.


Swimming hasn’t revealed itself as the best kept secret in spectator sports, but Kate thinks having the support has helped her to put in a good time and there’s clearly a bonhomie among the swimmers. Would I get involved? Not on your life. But I might watch again, although I’d hope for a later start. And it’s definitely Kate’s turn to drive.