Adventures, Events, Inspiration, Training, Wild Swimming

The Dart 10K Swim

So let’s start with the legitimate observation that 10km is a long way to swim, hell for many people it is even a long way to run.  But, like most things in life, if you just keep making steady progress towards a distant goal, believing it to be achievable, then you will slowly but surely get there, even if you are swimming…

A long way to swim…

And it was with that attitude that I found myself at the start line of the 2017 Dart 10K swim, one of the Outdoor Swimming Society’s flagship events that is extremely popular (the 2018 swim later this year is already a sell out) and draws swimmers from all over the country to take part.  The event had extra significance for me since Brittania Royal Naval College, where I started my Royal Navy career at the tender age of 18, sits just downriver of the finish line and the whitewater sections of the river just upstream of the start are where I now find employment as a professional Whitewater Kayak Guide.  So, the River Dart has been a presence throughout much of my life, and to complete this event had special significance for me.

…if you just keep making steady progress towards a distant goal, believing it to be achievable, then you will slowly but surely get there, even if you are swimming…

All I had to do was keep going at a steady pace, enjoying the benefits of an outgoing tide giving me a gentle push and, well, how hard could it be to swim from Totnes to Dittisham?!?!  But, there was a minor problem; I’m not really a swimmer.  I can swim, and have swam long distances on occasions, but you will never find me lapping a pool, I’m not really very quick through the water and I hadn’t done much training.  You see, I find swimming in a beautiful lake, river or coastal location a joy, for a while, but much more than about an hour and it does start to get boring.  Sorry, it just does.  So, in the build up to the event I had done a total of 10 swims, all outdoors and none much more than 3km.  And here I was about to start a 10km race.  As I said, what could possibly go wrong?

Nice day for it…

Well, as it turns out, very little.  The event is a well run affair and I did myself a favour by arriving early, getting parked up and giving myself plenty of time to register and change into my faithful Alpkit Lotic wetsuit.  It was a mild September day and although there had been recent rain, which has the effect of lowering the water temperature, it was pleasantly dry for the start as I massed with several hundred others, some brave souls even swimming without a wetsuit aka ‘skins’.  There were smiles and cheers as the start horn went off, and everything was sunny, until I got into the river that is…

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And they’re off, blimey its a bit brisk!

Blimey, the rain really does lower the temperature!  One of my strengths compared to people I’ve swam with in the past is that I’m actually quite tolerant of the cold (plenty of insulation I hear you say) but it took a little while for my head and face to come to terms with its new reality.  Once they accepted their fate and my breathing had normalised it was time to simply execute my plan; keep swimming until I reach the end…

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Worth studying the swim map so you could recognise landmarks en route…

Swimming with so many others was both disturbance and encouragement.  It is hard not to be carried along by the spirit of the event, the sheer volume of human willpower, but equally the reality of swimming into somebody else is that it is somewhat off-putting.  So things were best when I could see others each time I sighted, but had a bit of water space around me.  It was worth studying the swim map before setting off so you could recognise the numerous markers that keep you on track, but if you start to stray off course one of the many surf lifesavers, who did a fabulous job all morning, would paddle over to you to gently nudge you back.  There were even a couple of ‘feed station’ pontoons where you could get refreshments.

It is hard not to be carried along by the spirit of the event, the sheer volume of human willpower…

Are we nearly there yet?

I hoped it would take me less than 3 hrs to finish, so it was going to be my longest ever swim by quite a margin, but I knew my upper body conditioning from kayaking and paddleboarding was highly transferable and on previous long swims it had only ever been boredom, not exhaustion, that had stopped me.  And so it was that slowly the landmarks passed by, the river widened and warmed (higher percentage of warmer sea water as we headed downriver) and despite a head wind causing some surface chop over the last kilometre, eventually the finish was in sight.  Struggling to find my land legs again, I emerged from the deep tired and sore but after about 2hr 50mins I had completed the Dart 10K and the only thing wider than the river was my smile…

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Can you tell I’m pleased with myself?

I was delighted to have the chance to complete this iconic event, and if this article has inspired you then here are a few tips to get the best out of your first Dart 10K

Top Tips for the Dart 10K

1)  Train lots, or don’t…  The organisers provide a suggested Training Plan for the event which is great but suggests you swim 3 times a week for 3 months leading up to the event, slowly building up to an 8km swim in training a few weeks before the race.  I swam only 10 times in the 6 months before the event, with a longest swim of 3km and completed the course comfortably in the middle of the pack.  So, I am not saying don’t train, but if you have experience of endurance events, a confident swim stroke, know your mindset is solid and have no aspirations for a fast time then perhaps you too can wing it a little…

2)  Get Slippery…  Over 6 months on and I still have scars from the areas where my wetsuit chafed!  I had trained in the wetsuit, and it hadn’t rubbed before, or since, but this was over twice the length of any of my training swims and I really should have properly lathered the barrier cream around my neck and armpits to prevent me getting so sore …

3)  Take it outside…  I may have followed a very minimalist training plan, but every swim was wild, facing conditions similar to the race and using the equipment I would use on the day.  So, when I was faced with cold, brackish water, sighting in windy conditions, surface chop and spray, and tidal currents it was all comfortable and familiar and part of normal swimming for me

4)  Embrace the cold…   Since the event I have embraced a routine of taking daily cold showers, baths or outdoor swims based on the teachings of Wim Hoff that are summarised in this article.  I’ve found my tolerance of cold water immersion has really improved and wish I’d followed these methods before the Dart 10K.

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A long way to go, but absolutely achievable…
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