Beware of being last. After having swam through the English Channel, expectations are high.

Last year, I participated in two mass-participation long-distance swimming events. Both were significant, the largest being the Jubilee River 10km swim. Then shortly before the swims, I decided to withdraw from both swims.

I live in anxiety—fear of not being the last.

If you’ve done something as dramatic as swimming across the English Channel, people think you’re superhuman: Invincible and fearless. A lot of time has passed since my Channel swim days. However, I believe that the expectations of people of me remain high, and my expectations are high.

In the build-up to the two races, I realized I could not bear the humiliation of finishing last. I analyzed the swim times of competitors who had competed in the previous year’s events and determined that, at my current speed, I could have been ranked at the bottom of both events. I couldn’t bear it.

I’ve always been a decent swimmer with poor technique. Among the last marker during any event. A noticeable speedy plodder. This led me to quit swimming in the pool and begin open-water swimming, in which speed and speed matter less. No matter how cautious I attempt to be, it’s depressing to start an event in the pool, only to quickly see everyone else advance of me while I’m in the middle of the pack, with just one kayaker who is swaying along behind, making cheerful faces and saying “Aren’t you courageous!” I’m sure they’re contemplating, “Oh God, I’m going to be here ALL day!”

And, last year, during a sad moment of self-loathing could not bear the thought. I decided it was okay to be a “no show” at the Jubilee swim if I simply attended the swimming pool and did 10k that day. In the evening, I went onto Facebook to see post after post with proud and shining faces of friends who finished the Jubilee swim, giggling joyfully with medals around their necks. I could have wept.

I told them straight up if I was asked why I didn’t do it. “Someone has to come last,” they told me, or “It’s not about the time, it’s about finishing.” The friendly murmurs reassured and astonished me: “You would have been faster than all the people on the sofa.” True, I was aware. But the end of the summer rolled around, and I “Did not start” the second event that I had planned for a long time, leaving me disappointed in myself at the end of the year.

However, I firmly believe in resolutions for the new year and blank slates, so when January 2016 rolled around, I decided to participate in the same activities again.

The process began by emailing race organizers for the Jubilee River 10k. I inquired whether they had a cut-off point for the event to be completed because I was concerned I could not make it. A private response from the race’s organizer reassured me that I was in good hands: “Please come and swim – and don’t worry about a cut-off time, we’d love to have you.” His non-judgmental and enthusiastic invitation was exactly what I wanted. I completed the form to enter. I also advised other members of my swimming club to sign up. I hoped that this would make it more difficult for me to get out of it and cause me to train harder.

In the last few months, I worked intensely but couldn’t get any quicker. I was contemplating getting to the bottom of the line. Indeed, I wondered whether I could even make it to the finish line or the end.

Then it was Sunday, 5 June 2016, the day of the Jubilee River 10k. I woke at 6 am, put on some sunblock, packed my swimming gear, and drank a cup of porridge before setting off. It was a struggle to leave home. I prepared myself for an extended day of swimming. The inevitable anxieties accompanying these experiences weighed heavily on me: concern about the cold, fear of being unable to complete the task, failing to provide enough motivation, or failing in my own eyes. Fear of being last.

I had informed my teammates from my club that I could not give them a lift because I’d spend too long in the water, and they’d be finished ahead of me. I traveled in my thoughts. With a T-shirt that read “WORLD’S BEST SWIMMER, I hoped humor and self-deprecation would mask my nervousness as I showed on the early registrations for slow swimmers.

The Jubilee River is a relief channel for the Thames located just outside London. The swim route is curving and flows downstream to Eton swimming, with swimmers leaving the water three times to make their way around the weirs. The river is lush and green, without boat traffic Swans and red brick walls line it, making it appear like a Stanley Spencer painting scene.

The race began at 9.30 am. I was among over 100 other swimmers waiting to start with the first (and the slowest) wave. THE WATER WAS CALM AND CLEAN while I was swimming in the water, and the surrounding was serene. The sun was shining. The water was awash with flowers, and reeds lined the riverbanks, and once in a while, a walker from the path would look up or wave at the action unfolding in the river.

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