One of the best things about open water swimming is that every location is unique. In fact, every swim is unique. Even if you return frequently to the same spot, it’s likely something will be different – whether it’s the water temperature, the weather, the wind direction or the angle of the sun across the water. This also means you can never be fully prepared for an open water swim – there’s always an element of uncertainty, which of course adds to the fun and excitement.

But just because you can’t be fully prepared, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do as much as you can to give yourself the best experience and swim possible. Let’s have a look at some of the characteristics of the lake and course at Ragley Hall and how they might affect your swim.

The lake is a shallow, stream-fed man-made body of water in the extensive and scenic grounds of Ragley Hall. It’s relatively small at about 450m long and less than 100m wide. It lies east-west, has a wide ‘base’ at its eastern end and tapers to a point at the western end.

Your first concern will probably be the water temperature. As a shallow lake, it has the potential to warm up quickly but as this year’s event is very early in the season, it could still be quite fresh. I’d estimate anywhere between around 12 and 18 degrees, depending on the weather in the days leading up to the event. Try to swim outdoors in similar temperatures at least twice before the event. If you’re susceptible to the cold, consider adding a neoprene swimming cap to your kit list for the day.

On the day, do a good warm-up on land. I like to use stretch cords to work my swimming muscles. Try to loosen up your back, neck, shoulders and hips with gentle mobility exercises.

Take your time getting into the water. Get to the start line in plenty of time to take advantage of the opportunity for a pre-race acclimatisation dip. Remember that while it might feel painfully cold initially, your body adapts in a matter of minutes and you should soon begin to feel quite comfortable. Make sure you submerse your face several times before you start the race.

The swim starts at the eastern end and swimmers line up between the final turn buoy and the entry point. The course is rectangular and you do two big laps of 600m and one smaller 400m lap to complete the mile, all in an anti-clockwise direction. The finish point is on land just to the left of where you enter the water.

To get the best line on the course at the start, take up position near the turn buoy. However, lots of other people have the same idea so it can get crowded at this spot. I therefore prefer to start a little to the right. This only adds marginally to the distance and should allow you more space. Be careful not to drift too far to the right however, otherwise you will end up in shallow water or run into weeds (although these shouldn’t be too much of a problem at this time of year).

While the water at Ragley is safe for swimming, it can get murky as silt from the bottom is stirred up, which means you can see very little when your face is down. This, unfortunately, is just something you have to deal with. Stay calm and keep swimming.

Take it steady at the start. There will always be someone who takes off like it’s a 50m sprint. Don’t be that person, and don’t waste energy trying to keep up. Save your efforts for the final lap.

The course is straightforward. You swim roughly parallel to the shore in a westerly direction until you reach the second marker buoy where you make a 90 degree turn to the left, cross the lake to the next buoy and again turn 90 degrees to the left.

At this point, if you’re lucky enough to be swimming on a sunny morning, you may have the sun in your eyes, which will make sighting difficult. Ideally, you will have packed two pairs of goggles: one suitable for overcast conditions and the other tinted. However, even with the best goggles your vision may still be limited. Remember that sighting forwards is not your only option. The course roughly follows the shore of the lake, so just try to swim parallel to that if you can’t see forwards. Hopefully you won’t have too much of a correction to make when you finally can see the buoy again.

When you reach your final lap, remember it’s shorter than the first two so make sure you turn at the right point, unless you want to swim 200m extra.

Save your final sprint until you’ve made the last left turn at the eastern end of the lake. It’s about 50m from there to the end. To finish, you exit the water up a shallow ramp and run under the finish banner. It’s hard to see this from the water until you get quite close. If you aim to swim about 10m to the right of the buoy you lined up against at the start you should be roughly on target. Swim until your hands hit the ramp before you stand up. Be aware that you might feel dizzy at this point, so don’t feel ashamed to grab hold of one of the willing helpers or lifeguards to keep your balance.

Punch the air to celebrate your finish and smile for the camera!

Simon Griffiths is the founder and publisher of Outdoor Swimmer magazine, previously known as H2Open. He has taken part in the Ragley Crawl twice and won the men’s race in a time of 20:59 in 2016.

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