A Sunday run round Dorney Lake and how not to do your first open water swim in a race

 Today I went for a run through Bray and on to Dorney Lake. It was a beautiful early summer morning - birds singing, sun rising over the horizon, the smell of horses and wild flowers. There is something so special about a summer's day in England, unlike any other place I have been.


Around 2 miles into my run I came off a public path and through a gap in some bushes to see Dorney Lake in its full glory. As I started to run around it perimeter so many happy memories came flooding back to me.....


Until 2009, we lived about 20 minutes drive from Dorney, in Farnham Common. We regularly came down this beautiful place. We walked the dogs; our kids rode their bikes for the first time here; we debated our dreams and future together; we witnessed some amazing rowing in person at the 2012 Olympics; and I took part in my first sprint triathlon.


It was 2006, 10 years ago this year. I had done several marathons and also some bike cyclosportives in France and Belgium over a few preceding years. I was walking in Windsor one Saturday morning and there was a group of people milling about in the park near the town center. They were setting up long thin poles in lines. I had no idea what they were, but was curious, so I walked over to take a look. I asked someone about what was going on and they said it was the Windsor Triathlon the next day. When I saw all the people, the wetsuits, and bikes I almost immediately became fascinated. Right then I knew I had to do one and soon. A couple of weeks later I entered the following year's Windsor Olympic distance triathlon along with an entry to a sprint triathlon at Dorney Lake as a lead up.


Flash forward three or four months later I stood on the platform at Dorney Lake in my wetsuit ready to get in the water for my wave in a sprint triathlon. This was a 750m swim, 21km Bike and 5K run. I can't tell you how nervous I was. My fear, above all else, was the swim. But, I thought to myself, with my good run I may have a chance to race well in my wave.


Despite being fit enough to run 26 miles and cycle over 100 miles I had never been a swimmer beyond the odd dip on summer holidays. I could swim, my parents made sure I was capable of staying alive in water, but I was never competitive or properly trained.  Come on, I thought, I can run a marathon, how hard can it be to swim a mile!


I walked with confidence into my local gym, the Monday after my visit to Windsor, got changed into swimming trunks, donned my rather old goggles and almost swaggered to the edge of the 20 meter pool. 'I will do a quick 500 meters and then get some lunch' I thought to myself. I dived in, belly flopping rather painfully, but unashamed I proceeded to start my best front crawl. 


About 150 meters later I stood, exhausted, at the shallow end of the pool, completely out of breath. How could I possibly swim another 1350 meters, then get out, cycle 26 miles and run 10k? I decided to get out, shower, and retire for lunch to consider my next steps. I walked away from the pool certainly more humble than when I got in. Such lessons have been taught to me over and over again in triathlon!


As I sipped on my smoothie and munched my sandwich I decided that I was not going to give in so easy. How to solve this swimming problem? I know, hire a coach!


A few days later I met with Francesca, a GB age group triathlete team member, and so began my long journey of drills and hard work to becoming a very below average swimmer. The most exciting part for me was buying my wetsuit!


Back to Dorney Lake. I had never done an open water swim but I had practiced in the pool a fair amount. Francesca had advised me to try an open water session but I thought to myself 'this can't be that hard' as I looked over the very short 750m course - a half loop from one jetty to another. It's just a lake after all, no real difference to a pool right?


The horn for the wave before me shook me out of my thoughts and the race starter shouted for myself and my fellow wave participants to get in the water. Great...here I go, as I jumped in.


Suddenly I could not breath - the water was freezing cold and was working its way down my back. I literally could not breath! '30 seconds' shouted the starter. My feelings of excitement and nerves were now drowned out, by panic. I wanted to get out of the water now. 'Hey come on, you have run marathons, cycled in the Alps, you can do this' I thought to myself.


The starter's horn bellowed out. All of a sudden everyone in the wave started swimming. I was still out of breath and in the middle of everyone. I briefly got dragged under by one fellow swimmer who quickly went past me in a cloud of bubbles and rubber. Another competitor hit me in the head and my goggles came loose. Water started to leak in.


As the pack started to get quite a way ahead of me I started to swim. Water still leaking into my goggles and the cold environment still taking my breath away, I struggled away with the stragglers. After a few strokes I could not breath any more, I started to do breast stroke to try to get my composure back.


By the time I made the first turn the leaders were already into the home stretch. I was in despair, what a disaster I thought to myself. I am going to be last!! I tried to break into front crawl several times, but ended up quickly out of breath and back to breast stroke.


Finally, it was over, I dragged myself out of the water. I was third or fourth last I think. It didn't matter by then. I ran over to my bike, this was the first time I felt the disappointment of seeing your kit in empty space on the racks. You never forget it!


The rest of my race went great! I cycled hard and did a very fast run. I caught up and passed many of the people in my wave before I crossed the finish line. But I had learnt a very valuable lesson - be humble and always respect the race. I made the same mistake once again, and had a lesson taught to me again 5K from the top of Mont Ventoux, but that a story for another day.


Despite my swim disappointment I loved my first triathlon. I was caught by the bug and still take part 10 years and 10 Ironman races later. But it was a lesson, hard learned, that I have never forgotten.


Funny what you remember on a Sunday morning run!