I should start by saying that the Outdoor Swimming Society doesn't market the Dart 10k as a race and I'm sure this fact really adds to the festival atmosphere of the event. That said; A measured course, Timing chips and 4 waves of differing ability (Leisurely, Medium, Fast and Elite) have all the elements necessary for good competition. Add to that the fast flowing tidal waters of the river make for a potentially fast time.
It is run from Totnes to Dittisham through the very picturesque rolling Devon countryside making it one of those must do events amongst distance swimmers. I entered back in February amid the scramble for places, 800 slots selling out in 45 minutes!
Having completed the swim in 2012, I had a good idea of what to expect, but 2 years is a long time to remember the geography required for good navigation. So the day before race day I dragged my family on to the Totness - Dartmouth ferry, packed with lots of other swimmers nervously clutching maps and route info, for a recce of the course. Taking the slow ferry down the river made me realise that both ignorance can be bliss and 10k is a long way. But it did help to locate where the feed stations should be, having missed one last time round I didn't want to make the same mistake twice, nor did I want to repeat my wasted effort of swimming up dead end creeks. With registration also available the day before all was set for a relaxed evening and smooth morning.
So to race morning, up early, big bowl of porridge with honey, check my bag for wetsuit, tri suit to go under for added warmth (11 degrees C last time!), hat, goggles, gels, water, bananas, glide, warm clothes for the other end and I was all set. I blagged a lift from the B&B with some fellow swimmers I'd reconnected with from last time so Jo and the kids could make their way to the finish in their own time.
Down at race HQ, all we had to do was collect timing chips and be ready for our wave briefing. I had chosen to go in the most popular Medium wave, but it really makes little difference as everyone follows the same path and crosses the timing mats immediately before entry into the river. Though my plan to be at the front of the wave to minimise overtaking was scuppered by chatting too much and I soon found myself at the very back. Good job the river is wide!
Water clarity at the start was never going to be good with the brackish run off from Dartmoor but at least it was a warmish 17 degrees C. No time for my usual warm up routine, straight into a steady stroke. The first stretch of the river is fairly straight with one important instruction to keep to the right so as to avoid oncoming traffic of the boat variety. I set a course to the centre of the river and set about over hauling those ahead. It didn't feel too long before I could see the first feed station. I swam up to the platform and braced myself against the flow. Fished out a gel from up my wet suit sleeve and took on some water (bottled). I took a sneaky look at my watch as I pushed off, I was 54 minutes in. This got my brain working as I tried to predict my finish time. First feed station was published as being at 4k. It took me a while, but calculated this to be 13.30 minutes per Kilometre, 135 minutes for 10k or 2hrs 15. Not possible. I soon realised the feed station was in the same place as last time and that was said to be at 3k and there was no way I was swimming that fast, flow assisted or otherwise. I promised myself no more time check till the finish.
The next two kilometres see the river flow through quite wide meanders, requiring good sighting and positioning to get the best route. This is also one of the most beautiful sections with steep wooded sides to the valley. After this the river opens out into the most exposed section where it is up to 1km wide. This presents a few new challenges, for the first time it becomes quite possible to swim up a creek if you're not careful, also some sections of the river are very shallow and the amount of silt churned up can create a total brown out. I touched the bottom a few times with my hands and had to modify my pull stroke to pass closer to my body. And lastly wind blowing against the flow created quite a big chop. Waves of 12 to 18 inches making for interesting experiences, on more than one occasion I found my upper body completely out of the water as I crashed through. This did test my bilateral breathing as you couldn't rely on getting a clear breath in. At about this point the first of the Fast and Elite wave swimmers started to pass me.
I found the second feed station and took the opportunity to take on my second gel and a few glugs of water. Not wanting to hang around too long I pushed the empty wrapper back up my sleeve and kicked on. It is amazing what a 30 second breather and a burst of sugar and caffeine will do. I was feeling in good shape. True to my promise, no clock watching but I knew I still had between 2 and 3 km's to go.
The route takes a final right hand turn, through 90 degrees with about 500 metres to the village of Dittisham. On seeing what I thought was the turn point ahead I decided to push hard for the finish and maximise my chances of a PB. You guessed it, it turned out to be another creek. I have to admit to a moment of panic, not knowing how much further it was and suffering self-inflicted oxygen debt. A little self-reasoning and I realised I couldn't be much more than 500 metres short. One stretch of the reservoir loop. No problem.
At the real turn you find yourself swimming past the moored pleasure boats and get a real sense of the 'run in', spectators line the shore for the first time and you can see the marquees and catering stalls on the Ham. I even spotted my daughter and gave her a big wave, must be something about my style as she had already picked me out.
It was fantastic to be greeted at the finish by my family, my 74 year old Dad even ran back to the car to pick a pair of flip flops for me to ease the stony walk up to the field. Hot tea in a commemorative mug, medal and event photos were waiting. It was a great village fate like atmosphere with local produce stalls, Ukulele band, art exhibitions, Lamb roast, burgers, cheese and cakes of all shapes and sizes. Just what you need to refuel for the five hour drive home. As to my time, I clocked a PB of 2 hours 34 minutes and 19 seconds. A big thanks to everyone who gave me a confidence boost when my training plan was knock off course on Lindfield High Street. You really can do quite a bit more than you think.