The Routine: Kevin Murphy, long-distance swimmer - and a regular at the Serpentine's Christmas swim

Across the Channel in 12 hours, jellyfish and all
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The Independent Online

Kevin Murphy, 52, has swum the English Channel 32 times. On Christmas Day, he will plunge into the Serpentine in Hyde Park, central London, for the annual 100yd race, held every year since 1864 and known as the Peter Pan Cup because the trophy was presented by J M Barrie, the author of the children's classic. A radio journalist, Kevin spends his free time training for long-distance swims. He has swum round Manhattan, the Isle of Wight, across the Irish Channel and the length of Loch Ness. Next year, he plans to swim the Bering Straits off Alaska.

Why do you do the Serpentine swim?

I quite like it as a rather fun, eccentric, traditional way of starting the day. I swim in the Serpentine all year round, every Saturday morning. I'm not just training for the Christmas-morning swim as such, but it's good acclimatisation for long- distance swimming in cold waters. I don't think many long-distance swimmers swim outdoors all year round, so I'm a little unusual, but I enjoy swimming in the Serpentine. It's my drug – if I don't go I feel there is something wrong.

Can anyone take part in the swim?

They are a little bit wary of people just turning up on Christmas Day, because there is a certain amount of danger involved. Most people find that, although it's not very far, one of the problems with very cold water is that it becomes very difficult to breathe. I have a habit of dipping in moments before the start, just to acclimatise myself.

How do you prepare for the cold?

Every instinct tells you not to go in and physically your body is saying: "I don't want to know anything about this." But once you've done it you feel extremely elated. It's an act of willpower. One of the things I am noted for is that I can withstand the cold – and that is partly because of what I do in the Serpentine every week.

Do you ever win?

No. They make sure that the race is handicapped, so I never get to win.

Do the family come out to watch you?

Usually, but it's not guaranteed. My wife is always there, which is nice.

What got you into long-distance swimming?

I used to be a very mediocre club sprint- swimmer. When I was 12 I discovered I was much better at long-distance. At the age of 15 I took part in a national long-distance swim in a lake in Wales, and I won. From then on I was hooked. The pinnacle of long-distance swimming is the Channel. It took me five years to train for my first Channel swim, in 1968. Like training for the marathon, you have to build up strength very slowly, and plan your training year by year. In the summer I swim about four miles a day, in the winter I swim outdoors and indoors four times a week. My fastest Channel swim is just under 12 hours.

What is the hardest part?

Just before you start, because you know what is lying ahead. Also when it starts to hurt, in the long swims. I don't enjoy that. What I love is the sense of achievement when it is all over.

Any encounters with sea creatures?

I once swam straight into a jellyfish, which stung my mouth. I didn't see it because I always swim front-crawl. But it's just like being stung by a bee in your back garden. You have to keep swimming.

How long will you carry on for?

There aren't nearly as many injuries in swimming as there are in other sports. You get problems around the shoulders and hips, but one of the reasons that I, a 52-year old, can do this is that swimming doesn't cause too much strain on your body. One of my jokes is that when I retire, it will mean I will have more time to swim. The oldest active Channel swimmer is 67, and I have an ambition to beat that.

Interview by Manfreda Cavazza The Serpentine swim takes place at 8.30am. For more information on the swimming club, contact Alan Titmuss on 01344 291 578; annual membership is £15, swimming times are between 6.30 and 9.30am daily