Lido of the pack: urban swimrun adventure in London

Jul 30, 2019

By Nancy Heslin

As the ÖTILLÖ World Championship draws closer, swimrun cofounders and race directors Mats Skott and Michael Lemmel must surely be scratching their heads wondering where the last 14 seasons have gone.

And while the ÖTILLÖ calendar is exploding – a new race in Malta (November 23 & 24) and one in Catalina (February 29 & March 1) now make a total of eight Swimrun World Series weekends – Michael and Mats have always maintained that for them, the success of the sport will be when swimrun is as commonplace as going for a leisurely jog.

Well guys, look no further then Phillip Benns, who did ÖTILLÖ 2017 Isles of Scilly and is signed up for this year’s ÖTILLÖ 1000 Lakes in September. Phillip lives in London where he says “it’s a challenge to capture the spirit of swimrun when training”.

Not to be deterred, a few weeks ago Phillip and a couple of friends decided to map out their own swimrun adventure: 43km of running with 5 open air swims all in London.

Nearly a century ago, open air swimming in the U.K. became hugely popular in Lidos – an outdoor unheated public swimming pool. There are six surviving lidos in central London and Phillip & Co. thought why not run between them and swim in each? 

They set out on a glorious day with water temperature at 17°C – “not quite as cold as Scilly, but still cold enough for a swimrun wetsuit” – starting with the Charlton Lido just east of Historic Royal Greenwich, where they hit their only snag of the day. “It was closed and didn’t open for another two hours,” says Phillip, “but adapting to setbacks is a skill often needed during a sporting challenge, so putting our disappointment behind us we started our watches and a 13km, mainly off-road run to their first swim London Fields Lido.

This took them over the Meridian Line in Greenwich, under the Thames by an historic 19th-century foot tunnel and alongside another historic waterway, the Regents canal, to London Fields Lido in East London, with the only heated pool of the day, and at 50m it was the fourth shortest. “We wanted to cover a reasonable overall swimming distance of around 3km, and so joined reasonably busy lanes for 12 laps (600m). We then captured the ÖTILLÖ Isles of Scilly spirit with a coffee and cake stop at the Lido café.”

Refuelled, the group rejoined the Regent’s Canal eventually heading northwest toward Parliament Hill Lido, which lies on the southern edge of Hampstead Heath.  “Unheated, 61m and lined with stainless steel, it’s both my local and favourite Lido.  When the sun comes out with a blue sky it’s like swimming in a deep blue ocean. After 10 laps (610m), we were ready for our next leg,” Phillip enthuses.

Eight kilometres southwest in Hyde Park, one of London’s Royal Parks, lies the Serpentine, a 40-acre recreational manmade lake dating back to 1730 that was used for the 2010 Olympic Triathlon. It’s also home to the Serpentine Lido, a 100m long roped off section of the lake. Here, the swimrunners completed 6 laps (600m).

From there, they ran south through some of the busier and most expensive parts of London: Belgravia and Chelsea. Crossing the Thames for the second time, going over by bridge, they refueled at a local supermarket at the 32 m mark before heading to Brockwell Lido, which is almost identical to Parliament Hill Lido. After 12 laps (600m), “it was time for a visit to the ice cream van outside” before the final short “dash” over to Tooting Bec Lido, which at 90 meters was the second longest lido after the Serpentine.

“Honestly, the sight of our final 90m destination was a sight for sore eyes,” Phillip shares. “It was pretty hot and a cold dip was just the ticket. But it felt like each lap was never going to end.”

When finished, watches clocked in at just a few seconds under 8 hours, a credit to Phillip’s determination and creativity.

“It felt like a real achievement and captured an urban swimrun spirit. I’m looking forward to 1,000 Lakes and maybe even another London lido swimrun challenge.”

Maybe Michael and Mats will join in.

Don’t miss out on the legendary Final 15 August 31, 2019

Article first published July 2019.

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