The challenge really started for me when I had to try to get myself and my bike across to the start at Kingston on the day of a rail strike. Organised though I am, for some reason I hadn’t anticipated that the Overground would be affected and so I had to make a longer bike ride than I would have liked to get to a station. My pannier with ‘last minute things’ was also heavier than anticipated and the muggy weather and threatening rain was making everything hard work. Thank goodness for the refuge of Nerina’s house when I arrived hot and sweaty to relax and sort myself out. Ian and Hila arrived at 5pm so that we could talk things through and have something to eat. Everyone said how excited they were about the challenge and referring to it as ‘an adventure’. I must admit, I had a different feeling about this compared to mass events I have taken part in – it was nice to feel that we had control of how things would run. Of course the things I didn’t have control over were the weather or how I would fare beyond the 7+ hours of test training I had done.
The set-up location outside the YMCA gym at Kingston was mapped out as Hila and Ian got to work setting up the gazebo and inflating her paddleboard. As I unpacked the bags and bags of kit I had assembled at Ian’s I realised how much of it there was – I am sure I had cycled across the Andes with less than this for a three week trip! But there was so much to factor in here, changing light, temperature and weather and I wanted to be sure I had it all covered.
Suddenly time started to run away with us and very quickly it was 7.45pm. Although this event was in my control I was determined to start bang on 8pm and so I found myself dashing about to get my final kit on ahead of my first swim. There was none of the fanfare of a big event, more a case of me squeezing past some end of day sunbathers on the jetty at the Thames to drop into the water and then I was off! We had decided that rather than distance per swim/bike circuit it would be better mentally and logistically to split these sections into time. For the swim this was going to be 30 minutes at a time. With the sun now quite low the river was quietening down and Hila led me off on my first swim on her paddleboard. Well this felt nice, so far so good. I took my first 'transition' a bit too seriously, running the 200m from the river to my bike in my flip flops until I was reminded it wasn't actually a race and I should pace myself. I was still determined though to stick to my plan and make my transitions as swift as possible, and only take short breaks every 5 or 6 hours.
Nerina was waiting there for me to accompany me on the first bike leg as we knew it would start to get dark by the second hour of it, and Ian had my bike ready with hydration and my small bag of snacks. The bike sections were to be 2 hours long and the first one went fairly smoothly, covering as expected, just over 40km on my trusty hybrid. Again, definitely steadily pacing myself for the next 20+ hours.
The light was fading fast as I jumped off my bike and headed to the river for my second swim. Still, I was feeling good and with the lights on Hila's paddleboard and on my swimcap we felt safe. By the time I came out of this swim it was now 11.30pm and I was happy that I had taken my Dryrobe with me as those transitions in the dark are a totally different experience. With no sunlight to dry my trisuit, despite the warm day it had been, I was starting to shiver. Having done 3.5 hours of exercise I stuck to my fuelling plan and was looking forward to half a cheese sandwich (I'm easily pleased!). Ah but there was a smile to light up a dark night - Giovanna arrived ready to do the next dark bike leg with me.
It was quite amazing to ride in the pitch dark with no-one around...well apart from the deer who seemed intent on jumping out at us all over the place. You definitely have to keep your wits about you!
Back to the river and time for another dark swim. I was actually starting to enjoy these night sections. The river was so calm and so Hila led me right up towards the lock at Kingston rather than doing smaller laps, not that I really had any idea where I was in the eery darkness. We had started to find our rhythm here as she flashed her headtorch into the water to indicate when to turn, so that all I had to do was keep swimming, keep swimming. I was averaging about 1300m in each of these sections, definitely not my race pace but slow and steady wins the race here. Back to my little transition area and I decided to treat myself to a change of trisuit after 7 hours in that suit and all that went with it. I was grateful for our little gazebo set up as I forgot how difficult it is to try and get into lycra when you are still damp....many groans and sighs emitted from that little tent! My next bike leg companion, Luisa waited patiently outside. Luisa is another of my river swimming chums, and bless her was the first one to sign up to accompany me on one of the legs. I didn't expect her to do a bike one, but as she said, she didn't think that anyone else would want to cycle between 2.45 and 4.45am. She took it very seriously and set off at a pace - whoah Luisa, I am only about 30% into my challenge here, let's pace ourselves! This leg of the bike was actually even more taxing than the previous ones as the changing light was messing with our eyes and we were both finding it increasingly difficult to differentiate between the road and the grass. And still the deer were being lively to add to the challenge, as was the wind. It was quite something to have cycled through the night into day though and Luisa took us a bit off the beaten path to cycle past Ham House which was a nice distraction. She even jumped in the river after the bike leg in the spirit of solidarity as Hila and I set off to do another 1300m loop.
As it was now about 5.30am it was time for a short break and some 'real food'. Ian had prepped my favourite go-to breakfast of overnight oats, and so for the next 20 minutes there was a flash of normality as I was eating an actual meal at the appropriate time in amongst all of this body clock disfunction!
Time to set off on my fourth bike leg and the first one that I would be doing on my own - this would be the real test as I had now been on the go for 10 hours and in fact had already been awake for 22 hours. I found myself in amongst commuter cyclists now around Richmond Park, and a few people commented on my branded Aquabike top and QR code on the bike, asking what I was doing and giving me a big thumbs up. This was really encouraging and distracted me from the solo effort. As I cycled back to the transition area two hours later I felt really positive as I realised I was now halfway through, and I felt ok! How could this be? I had covered just over 5.2km of swimming, 160km on the bike, and hadn't slept. The word 'machine' was muttered by Ian and Hila as she came over with her Sharpie to add another line to the lap count on my arm which she realised that mentally this was a good motivator.
And so I will sign off with part 1 of my Aquabike challenge report - it's all looking really positive isn't it?
Well in part 2 you will see that I'm not an android after all as things start to get hard...
Denise Yeats is a coach, personal trainer, endurance athlete and avid adventurer. She is passionate about supporting women to achieve their goals, working with, not against their changing physiology.