Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
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Dart 10K swim, check! While swimming 10 kilometers/6.2 miles sounds daunting in distance, the Dart10K is nothing but. This classic back-to-school British swim is known as scenic, friendly and laid-back. Does that sound like a Bear Grylls swim to you? Not to me, and not to 1,600 other swimmers who take part in the event the first weekend of September. I completed the swim both in 2015 and 2016 and I am doing it again in 2017.
Organized by the Outdoor Swimming Society, the Dart10K is one of these events that sell out in minutes when they are announced. Who would have thought that 10K was such a popular swimming distance for non-competitive swimmers? Indeed, the swim is not a race and to prove the point, there’s a Leisurely Wave for those who wish to enjoy the British countryside.
In fact, the swim might as well be sponsored by the local tourism board. Rolling green hills, quaint riverside villages and lush forests is what you get each time you breathe. You even finish across from Agatha Christie’s summer home. Exercise and tourism, what’s not to like?
Of course, because it’s relaxed doesn’t mean that you have to be lousy in your training. You still have to do your bit in the pool. When I entered the Dart 10K swim in January 2015, it was on a whim. There were Sunday spots open, I thought “hey, why not?” and that was that – 75 pounds gone, poof (twice, I signed up my husband too). I had no idea what I was in for, as January is when I focus on less than 100m in ice swimming. Anything beyond 1K in open water was a rainbow unicorn as far as I was concerned.
As the spring months rolled in, it eventually dawned on me that 10K was no walk in the park and I structured my summer to build up in distance until September.
In 2015, I swam 5K in June, 6.5K in July, but August did me in with the kids’ summer vacations and training suffered. In 2016, I only took part in a 2K swim in July and a 2.8K swim in August, but the bulk of my training consisted of 1+ hour swims (and two two-hour swims) with friends and my husband. I was much more consistent in doing longer distances more regularly and this translated into much a much faster swim.
I completed the Dart 10K and to my delight, finished at 3 hours and 26 minutes in 2015 and 3 hours and 4 minutes in 2016. That’s 22 minutes scraped off my time in a year! The differentiating factor between both years? I blame it on the water temperature and better training.
In 2016, the water was much warmer than in 2015 and what a difference it made. Between 13C/55F and 19C/66F, the temperature difference meant a struggle to close my hands during 3K versus a pleasant swim without any claw hands. When you don’t have to worry about water temperature, you can start focusing on technique and sighting (also, sightseeing).
The scenery of the Dart 10K is every bit as beautiful as advertised and the swim is a very enjoyable event organized beautifully by the Outdoor Swimming Society.
The swim takes place over two days and we were signed on Sunday in 2015 and on Saturday in 2016.
On Saturday in 2015, we headed for the registration tents in Totnes after having visited the village’s Norman castle. We met lots of people carrying their registration packets and it felt a tad intimidating. The nice news was that Rod, one of our good friends, was manning one of the registration tables and that made me feel somewhat at home. “I didn’t find your name in the Medium wave,” Rod said. That’s because I registered in the Leisurely Wave.
I’m no swimming legend and I do enjoy taking in the scenery and the odd picture (such as the ones below). He found my envelope, wrote a swim number with a permanent marker on my hand and I got my goodie bag.
What was in the goodie bag? I couldn’t wait to peek inside – yellow swim hat (nice and thick), ankle timing chip, label for stuff bag and wrist, a small dry bag (red in 2015, dark green in 2016). You can never have too many dry bags. Good pick, OSS.
Though I feel on edge on the eve of most races, I felt strangely relaxed on Saturday. Clueless, perhaps? Or knowing that we’d be swimming with the river’s flow. What was the worse that could happen, truly? There were no risks of be swept away by fierce currents or being fished out if the tide turned early. Some people say that the Dart10K is not a “real” 10K because it’s current-assisted. It’s true, but it’s still a long way to swim. Make that a friendly, scenic and relaxed long way to swim.
This is the 2015 group picture with our friends from the Serpentine Swimming Club in London. I’m the 3rd one from the right, black suit. Out of our lot, special mentions go to
Big respect, they are amazing and inspiring. Tell you what, I was really glad to be surrounded by this friendly bunch before walking in. It would be good to see their faces at the other end.
This is the 2016 group picture at the finish in Dittisham. As you can see, swimming with friends is very uplifting.
At the 15-minute call, I stuffed 2 packets of maple syrup in my wetsuit sleeves that I planned to squeeze and drink at the two feeding stations on the way. Raw maple syrup gives me great energy boosts and the sweetness is much welcomed in salty water. I then joined the Yellow Wave security briefing. After a brief recap on how to signal for help or tips for the swim course, we all walked in a semi-orderly line to the steps that get in the river.
Now, this photo was not exactly planned. I wanted a last picture of my husband and my friend Vanessa in the water when I tripped on a low wall in the water and fell backwards! Though Vanessa tried to keep me from falling, it was too late and by the time I was in, everybody else was starting to swim so I tagged along. Obviously, not intended. I plopped my brand new earplugs in (attached by a cord, so as not to lose them), adjusted the seal of my goggles and swam away.
What’s this? Not a Pantone color card, only the color of the water. It was a silty grey at the start and somewhere between sweet and salty. With a lot of alone time in their heads, people think the darndest things when they swim. I like to analyze my surroundings like a nature documentary and do silent monologues on water clarity, taste, local wildlife or obstacles.
This shows you exactly what I saw directly under me–nothing. I have no idea what the local geology is but it was quite silty and it reflected in the taste of the water. Besides the slight saltiness, the river had a sweet earthiness to it that reminded me of Pu-Ehr tea.
With zero visibility, good luck spotting pikes and perches in the great grey blur.
In the first couple of miles, the river is quite narrow and we swam close to a shore initially lined with tall green trees. Every time I took a breath, I couldn’t help smiling inwardly at the sunlight piercing through the foliage. I could have written a poem in my head had I not been struggling to find my stride.
I never wear wetsuits and this was not my idea of free movement. It’s great for warmth but the comfort of rubber is very overstated. To while away the time, I came back to my nature observations. The treescape was short-lived and soon enough, we were swimming though lovely open views with rolling hills in different shades of green. Only in England do you see so much green outdoors.
By now, I had found a good rhythm and even some swimmers at similar speeds who helped me pace myself. Our safety escorts consisted of a few people on jetskis and a lot on paddleboards. When they directed us to swim closer to the shore, I guessed something was coming our way.
Sure enough, the coal-fired Dart river paddle steamer cruised by and we were photographed at length by tourists on the boat. Shame we couldn’t wave back, but our hands were busy elsewhere.
After a while, I started thinking that the 4-k feeding station must be near. Would it be obvious? It’s not that I was hungry or anything, but it would give me a pointer as to the distance covered and the maple syrup pouches in my sleeves were a bit itchy.
In 2015 when I spotted a swarm of swimmers in the middle of the river, I guessed that must be it. In 2016, I looked at the distance covered on my Garmin 920 XT and saw 3.7K. Very Mad Max-like, the feeding stations are square river rafts with handles that people hang to to get their drinks and jelly babies. The first feeding station was packed with red and yellow hats.
In 2015, I removed one of my maple syrup pouches, tore the top with my teeth and squeezed hard while holding on with one hand. I didn’t want to pollute the river so kept both parts and once empty, handed them to one of the volunteers. In 2016, I drank half a bottle of water and grabbed a cup with gummies that tasted great and gingery.
Off in the river again.
At that point, my 2015 swim went south. The cord connecting my earplugs kept getting tangled in the velcro closure of my wetsuit and was seriously rubbing at my neck, a not-too-pleasant feeling every time I breathed on the right. Bad chafing ensued.
Second, my hands reacted to the cold water and though my body was completely warm, my hands clawed up in the water. I couldn’t close my hand. Try swimming with fingers open, you’ll see how efficient it is. For the next 3K, I swam like a stunned chicken. I can’t tell you how relieved I felt to swam in warmer waters and reach the 7K feeding station.
In 2016, I had learned my lesson and used my regular earplugs (no cord). The water was also warmer, so the claw hand issue didn’t happen.
Another Mad Max scene, made all the more surreal by the fact that the water was waist-deep at the most in 2015. Believe it or not, I stood up to take this picture! The bottom was smooth and silty, making me sink a bit but not enough that I disappeared underwater. So shallow! It’s also when I took the standing selfie at the top of this story. Surprised to see me standing up, other swimmers stood up too. Look Ma, no hands!
As a few of them readjusted their goggles or swim cap, I tried to tuck the earplug cord in my swim cap as it was seriously rubbing me the wrong way. The bad boy kept escaping and getting caught up in the wetsuit velcro. Not only could I envision the big old rash in my neck, I could already feel it. Such a delightful feeling! My right shoulder was also giving me a bit of grief. I had probably done a wrong move earlier and each right stroke was painful.
In 2016, the water was much deeper and the current so strong that I could barely hang on to the side handles. I looked at my watch and saw 7K. When the organizers tell you that the second feeding station is at 8K, it’s not true at all. That explains why the last “2k” feel so long to many people.
OK, only 3K to go. Off I went again!
You’ll forgive me but I didn’t take any pictures during the last 3K. I just plodded along, counting strokes backwards from 100 and checking the hills and river creeks to reconcile the landscape with my mind map of the swim course. When at last we crossed a tiny inlet leading to a small harbor, I knew that the finish was around the bend. Dittisham!
The last K seemed all the longest because I had no idea how long it would take to swim around the bend. Again we swam in shallow waters and a few yellow hats around me stood up, casually asking one of the paddleboat guys if it was OK to walk the last hundred meters. Though it probably was, walking was so slow that they went in swimming again.
If you’re going to swim 10K, you might as well finish in style! I sprinted during the last 100m, forgetting my sore shoulder. My girls were on the river’s edge at the finish and I waved to them, very happy to see their faces light up with big smiles as they spotted me. They’re the best greeters ever at swim events. They kissed me on the cheek, which in hindsight must have been a big sacrifice as my face was covered in green river slime.
The upside with finishing in the tail end is that you got cheered on by total strangers who are really happy you finally made it. I got the biggest “well done” hug from an enthusiastic volunteer (who hugged all wet swimmers, bless you Queenie Martin) and a mug of hot chocolate with marshmallows. The hot chocolate lady handed me a wet wipe, saying “You’re filthy!” Indeed I was.
As a reward, I bring back home this great wooden medal and a Dart10K tin mug that will see many more swim-inspired hot chocolates! I had a ride in 2015 but in 206, I enjoyed the shuttle bus service back to Totnes where I’d left the car and it worked wonders.
Many thanks to my father for watching my girls and taking them to Agatha Christie’s Greenway house during our swim, as well as for bringing our bags of stuff at the finish. Without him, logistics would have been a bit tricky. Many thanks too to the other Serpentine Swimming Club swimmers for their words of encouragement and for their training tips.
Last but not least, thanks to the Outdoor Swimming Society for stellar organization and for keeping things enjoyable to the salty end. I love my mug!
I’m already looking forward to the next challenge.