John Hancock is an adopted Wellingtonian who’s evolved from Ironman to marathon swimming in the last few years. He’s one of many who took the opportunity of closed borders to swim Lake Taupō this season.
A lot of the marathon swimmers I have met seem to have backgrounds in competitive swimming. I didn’t. I grew up as a bookworm in London and spent my school swimming career as a gap-filler rather than anything serious.
It wasn’t until we moved to New Zealand in 1998 that triathlon piqued my interest. After a couple of seasons, I joined the familiar path of middle-aged men obsessing about Ironman. It’s easy to make fun of myself for the single-mindedness with which I focused on it for six seasons, but I learned heaps about myself, elite sport, and endurance training. My coach for most of this phase was Jon Ackland who literally wrote the book on training for endurance sport: The Power to Perform. I can still quote passages of the book from memory and apply it to all of the adventures I’ve taken on.
Ironically, for all his distinction as a triathlon coach, Jon was quite dismissive of swimming in the Ironman puzzle: “it’s technical – find a coach and train with a squad – just do the sessions I set you”. I did and by applying his insights into training and racing endurance sports to some solid technique work (“you must have learned how to swim in the 1970s – your stroke should be in a museum”). I swam up to the front of my age group only to spend the next 2 hours being overtaken by them all on the bike. A couple of times I managed to come back at the end of the run. Rather stupidly that was attempts 3 and 4, not quite sure what possessed me to keep going for 2 seasons after that.
Towards the end of taking Ironman seriously, I dabbled with open water swims, a couple of Epic 10 km, Kapiti to Mainland swim, and then a 3-man Cook Strait relay in 2016.
The relay took us 5 hours and 42 mins. “Well, if it’s as easy as that surely I could do it” I thought (incredibly naïvely looking back on it).
My last Ironman was 2013. I floated around for a few years until 2017 when I heard about this wonderful new sport, Swimrun, from Scandanavia: you swim in your shoes and run in a wetsuit. The longest races are huge – over 50k of running and 15k of swimming. It’s been a blast, Brenton “Effortless Swimming” Ford and I did the first swimrun in the Southern Hemisphere off the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria. Breca arrived in Wanaka during 2017 adding the incredible Bay of Islands race in 2018 with the highest ratio of swimming to running of any Breca event. It was a dream, you start at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds and finish at Urupukapuka Island in the middle of the Bay. It takes an hour to retrace your steps and strokes by boat, which is a pretty cool feeling.
I did more swimrun events around NZ and overseas in my favourite places in the UK and even Norway, swimming more and running less each time!
The 2019 Breca Bay of Islands had 12 km of swimming which was pretty amazing. So, in 2020, Anna Marshall persuaded me to do the FEAR Society Long Swim: 25 km from Te Anau to Manapōuri, 23 of which were at 12-kph down the Waiau River.
Closed borders with Covid meant Phil Rush had space to support a few more locals on the Triple Crown swims so it seemed like the right time to have a go at Taupō. It was a short buildup between other activities, but I thoroughly enjoyed what turned out to be an Ironman buildup by volume but just swimming.
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the marathon swimming community. There’s a balance and self-awareness that’s sometimes missing in triathletes. I can’t believe anyone would be very interested in my story in the company of legends who have swum further in their lives than most people would walk but it’s been a privilege to get to know you all.
Footnote – I crewed for Corrina and Rebecca’s tandem Cook Strait two weeks after my Taupō swim. I have a healthy respect for the project now.