John Cheever, The Swimmer
I’m standing outside Hampstead Tube station in my running kit, my swimming trunks and towel in my rucksack. Will is stuck on a bus in Brixton. Bus and Tube – these are the sensible ways to travel across London; instead, we will be swimming and running the 10 miles and four pools between Hampstead and Tooting. With October 13th and the first Swimmer event only one month away, it is time to test Will’s route. The plan is to run through some of London’s most beautiful parks, past a few tourist landmarks, and swim in Hampstead Mixed Pond, Parliament Hill Lido, the Serpentine and Tooting Bec Lido. It’s a little bit of an adventure, and hopefully a little bit of a challenge.
Will arrives and, after some last-minute layering issues, we are off. The first run is short, from the Tube station to Hampstead Heath and the Mixed Pond. South London might have more open spaces, but Hampstead Heath is always impressive. It is almost like being in the real countryside – we even see a tractor. There are no other swimmers at the Mixed Pond. We are filming our progress so set up the video camera and dive in. I swim past a duck. Unfortunately the lifeguards are too busy doing press ups to be that impressed by Will’s butterfly drills.
After a few laps of the pond we get out and get dried. There is a suggestion that we should run in our trunks, but I worry about chafing (and looking like a tool). First run and swim completed, the route now takes us across the Heath up to Parliament Hill. I haven’t been to Parliament Hill Lido before. The water has a silvery sheen to it, and when you dive in you understand why: the pool is lined with stainless steel. Underwater it isn’t silver though – it is like swimming through an electric blue disco. It’s quite disorientating and at the end of each length I stop short to avoid crashing into the end of the pool.
From Parliament Hill it is a short section of road running, weaving our way to a sprint up Primrose Hill. A quick stop to admire the view (catch our breath), then it is down the hill, across the canal and into Regent’s Park. We cross the park, skirt the boating lake (resisting the temptation to add another swim to the route) and exit the park by Baker Street. We are now in central London, still a bit damp, and glad that we’re not running in swimming trunks. The route sticks to back roads, avoiding heavy traffic, and we soon reach Marble Arch and cross into Hyde Park. The miles are clocking up now, but we still have the two swims and the final run ahead of us. Will had sensibly carb-loaded the night before, whereas my pre-race nutrition was fish fingers, waffles and beans. We reach the Serpentine only to find it closed to the public for the summer. No problem for the actual Swimmer events, as we will be setting off early enough to swim with members of the Serps, but a shame that we can’t do swim number three. Instead we disturb the ducks by posing for pictures at the water’s edge.
We’re a couple of hours in now, and still have the last run leg to go. At this point we decide to do what any team would do: we split up. I sprint off homewards to let my dog out, while Will heads for Tooting Bec Lido. I cross the river at Chelsea Bridge and run along the bank of the Thames through Battersea Park. My innate lack of navigation then takes me on a long and stupid detour to a slog up Plough Road back to Tooting. I map my route later and it comes out at eight miles, two miles longer than it should have been. A little bit of refinement needed there…
Will texts me when he reaches the Lido: “Last leg horrible!” In ‘The Swimmer’, Neddy Merril’s swim home ends in physical exhaustion and emotional and financial ruin. We manage to get away with just the physical exhaustion. It has been an adventure and a challenge, and I’m looking forward to a well-deserved curry. Bring on October 13th!