Saturday 3 September, 6.30am, and my alarm clock goes off far too early. I’m in a B&B in England’s Lake District, and I’ve had hardly any sleep, tossing and turning and fretting all night. I groan, swear, and growl to my room mate and swimming partner in crime, Hilary: “Why the hell am I doing this?” It’s a rhetorical question – I certainly don’t want an answer. She laughs. I look out of the window into the rugged countryside below. “At least it’s not raining. Yet.”
We are here, in the middle of nowhere, because six months ago, with much bravado, we signed up to Chillswim Coniston, an open-air swim . At 5.25 miles – around 8.5km – the lake, Coniston Water, is the third longest lake in the Lake District.

As always before these things, I’m impossibly anxious, grumpy and cross with myself for entering. I force down some porridge, grimacing the whole time. Poor Hilary is probably battling her own pre-event nerves, but mine are definitely shouting the loudest at the breakfast table.

Soon we are at a local school in the town of Coniston, for pre-race registration: queueing up to collect timing chips for our ankles, bands with race numbers for our wrists, swimming caps that indicate which wave we are swimming in, and tow floats that we must tether to our waists to aid visibility in the water. The school is a hive of activity, not least because over 600 swimmers have signed up.

Swimmers start boarding buses to take them to the other end of the lake for the start. The race is set off in waves – with slowest starting first. My wave is boarding the bus. I give Hilary a stiff hug and frown and say, ominously, “See you on the other side,” as I board.

As the buses travel the length of the lake, I try to not pay attention to how far it seems. The bus is full of swimmers chattering nervously. I try to join in but am not finding it very easy. I hate this bit. The bus stops by the side of a road and we spill out into the fresh air and pick our way, bare footed, through a field to the start of the race.

The race director briefs us for the event and we’re off. There is no gun, or mass start, we just gently queue to get into the water, walk over a timing mat, dive or shuffle in, and start to swim. And so it begins.

I always hate the start. I’m pumping with adrenalin, I swim into people and they into me. I can’t get my rhythm. And then inevitably everyone streaks off ahead and I feel utterly utterly disconsolate. Why the hell am I putting myself through this? Again? Seriously, Sally!

There is a wide open section to the first mile marker. I curse every single person who told me this is a beautiful swim. I want to get out. I will get out. I can get out. I pass the first mile marker. OK. There is then a beautiful section between an island and the side of the lake which is calm and interesting, and I feel a tiny bit better. The first feed station (a little boat, where volunteers will hand us cups of energy drink) is at 1.5 miles. There are exit points at each feed where you can “DNF” or withdraw yourself from the race. I look at the shore where medics are waiting to help people who want to stop. I sigh and swim on. I swim to the next mile marker quite happily. At the second feed I realise it’s 2.5 miles in and I’m almost half way. I take a feed and swim on.

My left shoulder suddenly really hurts. I’ve never had a sore shoulder while swimming before. The next mile is a complete slog. I’m being overtaken by more and more people. As I come to the 3.5 mile feed I again eye up the medics on the shore and contemplate a DNF. But as I’m feeding I notice the wind has really picked up. There is a strong tailwind, which will help. I decide to carry on. Instead of swimming in towards the shelter of the shore, as some have, I head further into the more exposed bit of the lake and have a great half an hour or so body surfing the waves. I stretch my stroke out further and glide on the waves. The wind is lifting my feet and pushing me along. I love it. I reach the 4 mile marker and know that it’s almost over. I take another feed and head towards the final mile marker, and for home. Finally, well over 4 hours after I started, I’ve finished my swim and stagger up the finish ramp to cheering.

At 5.25 miles, swimming Coniston is not an insubstantial challenge. Most people will take between three and four hours to complete it. Despite this, over 600 people took part, making it one of the longest mass participation swims in the UK. Unlike some other rival events, you don’t need to be a member of any swimming organisation to take part – you just pay a one-off entrance fee. What’s more the swim is billed more as a “sportif” event – with the emphasis on completion rather than racing (although, of course, some people swim to win). And while the majority choose to wear wetsuits – only around 80 out of 600 didn’t – all are welcomed. All of these factors mean that many people who probably wouldn’t have ever contemplated swimming such a long distance are signing up to challenge themselves.

At the start, waiting to enter the water, I was one of the handful of people who had chosen to swim in just a swimming costume. A wetsuit-clad person beside me looked me up and down and, nodding approval, said: “You’re a real swimmer”. I felt proud, and slightly superior. I have long held a healthy scepticism for wetsuit swimming and feel sad that almost everyone thinks that it’s an essential bit of kit for swimming outdoors.

However, I can’t argue with the popularity of Chillswim Coniston. I can’t argue with the sheer number of people who have challenged themselves to swim a long way in fairly grisly conditions and spend several hours swimming in the rain and cold. I can’t argue with the camaraderie of sharing the journey with swimmers of all shapes and sizes and ages and abilities, of knowing that probably many people were just as miserable as I was but still toughed it out. I can’t argue that it’s a bloody long way to swim for anyone. I can’t argue with the popularisation of swimming long distances. Quite frankly, we were all real swimmers on Saturday.

Despite all of the misery and grumbling, Sally has already signed up for a 9k swim in Wales next July and is contemplating swimming the length of Ullswater (7 miles) next year – it’s one of the few lakes in the lake district that she hasn’t swum …

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