Things didn't start well. On the long drive over my car got bopped by someone trying to overtake three vehicles at once. No one hurt but I felt pretty shaken up.
Eventually arriving next day at our camp site, things weren't ideal either - though obviously not as unsettling as the previous day. We had a beautiful view of Bantham beach far below, but were perched high up on a very blustery, windswept ridge. The strong wind, rain in the middle of the night and a tent as porous as a teabag didn't make for the best pre-race sleep.
At 4:00am we woke up to get over to Bantham for the dawn swim - along with 424 others who'd opted for the early start. There was also a dusk swim that evening with another 425 swimmers (more of which later).
After registering and lots of standing around in the early morning cold, eventually we were taken up to the start point in buses, everyone in their wet suits and orange swim hats. More standing around, raining again, starting to get shivery. I tried to keep my focus on being ready to go while moving around and loosening up.
Finally they let the swimmers dribble into the river, trailing our way over a beeper mat and gingerly wading in. I was far off the front and could see a long line of orange caps and flaying arms already in full swim. And at last I'm off - get the breathing under control, into my rhythm, remember the feel of everything in synch from all those long training swims.
The water was murky and full of floating twigs and leaves and other debris from the rain. Keep to the rhythm. I found I was cruising past other swimmers, feeling more excited with each set of feet and swinging arms passed and the next group of swimmers ahead sighted and closed in on.
After a while the water became much clearer. You could see the sandy floor and weird and wonderful plant life swaying. All heading down river. A flow of neoprened, orange topped penguins.
Make every stroke count. I kept sighting groups of swimmers ahead, making my way up to them and then past in a continuous, steady rhythm.
With each breath to the side I could also catch a glimpse of the beautiful surroundings - deep green woodland tumbling down to the water's edge, steep sided tributaries, very occasional lone white houses peaking out from the green canopies.
Another long line of swimmers ahead. What's the collective noun for a group of swimmers? A flailing? A splash? A flamboyance? Whatever, they're now behind and there's fewer in sight and they're more apart.
On and on. I've no sense of how much further to go. Just keep going. I tell myself my trusted mantra - roll, stretch, tip, roll, stretch, tip. Still overtaking people, though its getting harder and one person is slowly inching up to my side.
To the left I could now see a waterside village. More yachts. Could this be near the end? Why didn't I look more carefully at the swimmers map last night? Just keep going. I've been overtaken - but inch it back. Come on Mike! This is hard - and that's what you do.
Suddenly we're in really choppy water and I'm feeling as if whatever I do with my body something bigger is picking me up - the legendary swoosh. We're at the beach and people are helping us clamber out. I feel like I've lost my legs, meander slowly over the timer mat and try and raise my arms in victory. It is done and I feel elated.
What a brilliant event!
What's it for:
As I make my way up the beach a lady who has also swum is looking back at the incoming staggering of swimmers - "how great to see so many people so happy" she says to me.
Happy indeed. There's a joy in completing and being a part of such an event.
A great thing about this year was that, with a dawn and then a later dusk swim, there was a chance to see others do their thing. We had good friends Emily and Anne-Marie taking part in the evening swim so a great reason to come back (after eating everything within reach and buying a much better tent).
High up above the final bend we could see just how quickly swimmers are caught up and swooshed to the end - next year I'll know to flip on my back in that final few metres and enjoy being carried along.
We went back down to the beach to cheer everyone coming in - such an amazing sense of individual achievement and elation. Big wet grins. Old friend Raj appeared, dishing out high fives to everyone within his long armed reach.
Then Anne-Marie came out, looking as fresh as if she'd been for a short dip. She insisted on waiting to see Emily come in. That's another part of the magic: a warm feeling of all being in it together whilst each individual has their own experience - a collective conscience of swimmers.
And for me, I love the sense of aiming for a big challenge, going into it feeling ready to be surprised by what I can do and being utterly absorbed in every moment. To find that fluid, flow like state in such beautiful surroundings. Lots of other people also said how they felt it was over too quickly even though moments before I'd been hanging on and desperate to know when it would finish. How brilliant!
I also caught up with Ian Thwaites who set up and runs the charity Level Water that I was swimming the Swoosh for - and will also be doing the Dart 10km in September. Ian told me that the £500 I am hoping to raise through these two big swims is enough to buy 50 one to one swim lessons for disabled children. Just think of the joy that could bring! And of course please donate here.
So here are some more nice photos from the evening finish and a bit of advertising for beautiful Devon.
Finally, huge thanks to the Outdoor Swimming Society and everyone who helped make such a brilliant event.