Monday 17 July 2023

Lake Epic - New Swimming Record

Still taking sponsorship Donatons!

As I stood at the south end of Lake Windermere preparing to start my epic swim, I was purposefully trying not to focus on the whole challenge of swimming 13 lakes and 70km over the next two days. I was focusing on the immediate task of swimming the 17.7km of this lake, and wondering whether the ribs I had fractured 3 weeks prior were going to let me get through this.

At 07:19am I called out to my crew, who were standing ready to support me through my toughest challenge yet, ‘time on.’ And the long swim began. I had Rich and Jimbo flanking me on either side in kayaks to guide me and feed me for the duration of the swim. I was tentative with my stroke to start with, feeling out the ribs and how they would hold up. I had managed to do a few training swims the week before, which had gone well, considering. I was still worried though, that the meticulous planning we had done in the months leading to this point, would all fall apart in the first lake.

I was pleasantly surprised, as we made it out into the clear water, through the boats moored at the start of the lake. My confidence grew and I was able to relax into a relatively pain free, full and steady stroke. I was conscious not go out too fast on this first swim and tire myself out, it was certainly a marathon and not a sprint. The swim passed quickly, as I got into a rhythm, stopping briefly every 30 minutes for a quick feed. I had to remind myself at each stop to take a little extra time and get as much food in as possible. I wasn’t just feeding to get through this lake, I was feeding to keep myself fuelled for the whole challenge.

About an hour from the end, I got a searing pain in my back, it hurt every time I took a stroke on my right side. The muscles in my back had been damaged during the go-karting crash that had caused my rib fracture. This was a major issue, to say the least. It hurt so much that I was yelling into the water with each stroke. I was close enough to the end that I could assess how to tackle this problem when I got out.

A massive ferry sent waves through the water as it did a flyby when we entered the pier area at Ambleside, north of the lake. As I reached the end and stood up, a crowd of people standing on the beach gave me a round of applause, which was a lovely surprise. They were there supporting another swimmer who had also just finished swimming Windermere.

My crew were ready for action, got me out of the wetsuit, to clean it in preparation for the next lake. It is important to try and reduce the contamination between lakes, due to invasive plant species killing off marine life. They got me warm, fed and a drink in hand to fuel me for the next lake. When I stood up my back pain almost vanished. I hoped it had just been a spasm of some sort and nothing to worry about.

For support vehicles we had Graham’s minibus and Max’s car. In his haste to get to the next lake Max hit a rock, giving him not one, but two punctures. I tried not to catastrophise what this meant. I just sat in the minibus munching away trying not to get stressed about the situation. This is where I knew the guys would spring into action and sort it out. I had to focus on swimming, whilst the six of them could focus on the logistical issues. They drove me to the south of Coniston for the next swim, whilst phone calls were being made to get the car fixed.

Within half an hour of starting this swim, the pain in my back returned in full force. I was seriously concerned as to whether I could finish all the lakes. It was already impacting my speed and slowing me down. I kept thinking that I just needed to get to the end, take some pain killers and use the roller on my back to ease out the pain. These thoughts went round and round my head. At the next feed stop I asked for pain killers, I could not wait any longer.

Over the next couple of hours, I made it through the swim without too much incident, I could not really enjoy it, but the pain did subside a bit. At the end of Coniston, I could not have been happier to get out. It wasn’t a feeling of achievement at having just swum the 1st and 3rd largest lakes back-to-back (about 27km) it was more a relief that I could try and work out how to manage the pain.

Stripped of my wetsuit I lay down in the car park with my foam roller and eased out the pain in my back muscles. Which in itself was a certain kind of torture. This was going to be a constant theme through the rest of the challenge. As I finished and got into the minibus, I caught a glimpse of a very moody storm cloud through the trees. It did not look promising. Leading up to the event I had been checking the weather constantly, as if checking would somehow make the forecast better. It didn’t. Heavy rain and lots of it was promised, it looked like the heavens were about to deliver.

At Elterwater, a 15-minute drive away, I was preparing to swim one of the shortest lakes just as fat, heavy blobs of rain thudded down on us. The wind picked up at a pace, forcing Joe backwards in his kayak. He had to paddle hard just to stay still. There was no time to mess around, so I jumped in and started swimming as quickly as possible. Whilst the rain did not bother me in the water, the wind made it much harder going. To add to the fun, this lake was very shallow in places, full of fallen trees, lily pads and plant life to navigate. At times I could barely even do breaststroke without plunging through the muddy bottom. Joe did his best to help carve a path through the lily pads. Thunder boomed overhead, quickly followed by a flash of lightning.

This was another big worry, that I would be forced out of the water due to the danger of lightning. We were in the middle of the lake at this point, so we just had to keep going. We battled to the other side of the lake and were incredibly happy to be off the water, although it looked as though the worst of the storm had passed. Typical!

Back in the minibus, I tried to take on more food. I usually love to eat, but when I’m forcing it down and knowing that it might come back up in the next swim it’s not so pleasant.

Grasmere and Rydal were the next two lake, which were nice and quick. The water was lovely and calm after the storm and no major issues to deal with. The planning was paying off, everyone knew where they needed to be and what their job was, significantly reducing unnecessary stress.

Brothers Water was the shortest of the lakes and therefore I thought it would be nice and warm. Wrong! It was by far the most cold so far, properly freezing. I realised as I was swimming, that small bodies of water warm up quickly but cool down quicker. The weather had been poor in the lead up and these lakes were fed by run off from the surrounding hills and mountains, which was obviously very cold. I was very happy it was a short lake.

Ullswater was just a few minutes up the road, and this was the one I had been building up in my head to be the worst. It was the second longest lake of the challenge, and when I had seen it for the first time on the recce weekend, I was intimidated by just how vast it appeared, with the mountains looming over the water’s edge. When we arrived the water was like glass, completely still and the sun was setting giving us a beautiful scene to swim into.

Joe and Rich were supporting me on this one, keeping close as I started the 14km swim. The water wasn’t as cold as the previous lake, but I still felt cold. I picked up the pace to get some warmth into me and the first couple of hours passed without incident. I stopped about every 30 minutes to take on some warm carbo drink. I was really struggling to keep the liquid down and lost the fight a couple of times. I knew that I could not hang around though, otherwise this swim was going to take too long and just get harder and harder. In my mind I drew on previous experiences, when I had struggled through tough times in other endurance challenges. I knew I could get through this, I just had to keep going.

Darkness descended quickly, and I was struggling to make out the boats on either side. Even when they cracked the glow sticks and turned on their head torches. My mind was playing tricks on me, and I was seeing some very odd things with the way the lights played on the water around me. I hadn’t noticed at first, but when I stopped for my next feed, I realised the rain had come in hard and was hammering it down. A few minutes later the sky lit up, like it was day time. I popped my head up and asked if that was lightning. No, nothing to see here, yelled Joe. But I knew.

The lightshow went on for the next couple of hours and I was getting increasingly worried about the danger to myself and the kayakers. I tried to inject more pace into my swim, but I felt like I was going nowhere. I wanted this lake to be over as quickly as possible. Joe told me later that they were discussing what to do if lightening hit the water. They were trying to get closer to one side of the lake so that they could get me out quickly if needed.

After what felt like an eternity I had my final feed, Rich estimated it would be about 20 minutes to the end, he could see the lights the shore crew had setup to guide us in. Unfortunately it’s very hard to judge distance when its dark, cold and pouring down. It was another 45 minutes at least before we finally got to the end. Rich and Joe were soaked-through and freezing cold, and I wasn’t feeling much better.

Russ got me into the minibus which was heated to the max. I got out of my wetsuit and stuffed two hot water bottles inside my changing robe. I was able to get some hot food inside me, but I was exhausted. I was tired from having swum 45km, but also because my body was telling me this the usual time I should be sleeping. The crew could see I was struggling and they gave me an extra 10 minutes to close my eyes and get a little sleep and properly warm up.

When we arrived at Bassenthaite, I really did not want to get back in the water. I knew that I would, but I could not think of anything less I would rather do. Leaving the warmth of the minibus was a real wrench.

Russ coaxed me along to get me to the water’s edge, into the water and to get going. Hanging around wasn’t going to make it any better. Graham and Jimbo were back in the water to guide. I tentatively stepped into the water and was pleasantly surprised that the water was not too cold. The sky was starting to lighten ever so slightly, which helped to lift my spirits. As we got towards the end of the lake 2 hours later, it was fully light, with a mist playing nicely on the water. The final few hundred metres of the lake were freezing cold. I couldn’t believe just how cold it was. And could not understand it. The water was getting shallower, so in my mind it should have been getting warmer. Those last metres were just not pleasant. When I got out, I was shivering uncontrollably. Russ was there again to greet me with hot water bottles, I almost hugged him I was so happy to get the bundles of warmth.

When I swan the Channel, I did it following Channel swimming rules; swimming trunks, goggles, and a hat only, no wetsuit. I felt like I was cheating on this challenge, before I started, but there was no way I could have done this in skins. It’s a tough enough swim with a wetsuit, let alone without. I don’t doubt though, that someone will be able to complete it without. But it needs to be done when the lakes have had a chance to warm up, a lot!

The next four lakes came thick and fast, but the sun was out shinning down and making everything feel better. A head-wind on Derwent slowed us down a bit, Buttermere was ice cold freezing me to my core. Fortunately Crummock Water was a little warmer and a tail-wind meant we made excellent time and Loweswater was by far my favourite swim. The water was lovely and warm and the sun was beating down and this time I could feel it. When I got to the end, I felt really good.

The drive to the last lake was the longest and gave me time to eat a decent meal, well maybe not a meal for champions, mac’n’cheese but it tasted good and filled me up. Wast Water is a stunning lake to look at, especially on a day with bright blue skies and sunlight shimmering on the water.

Rich and Graham were my final support crew, they were quickly ready and waiting. I walked into the water, and at the risk of repeating myself, I got a shock as the cold hit me, but I knew this was the last one. I put the pace on to help acclimatise and build some kind of warmth. It didn’t work. I was cold through to my bones and shivering in my wetsuit. My hands, feet and face felt like they were made of ice. I kept looking at my hands as they made the swim strokes, surprised at how white they appeared.

I was getting seriously worried that I wasn’t going to be able to finish this lake. Its never a good thing to let negative thoughts take hold, I knew this, but the thoughts were hard to shake. At each feed Graham gave me hot carbo drink, which really helped. I had anticipated that this swim would take 2-2.5 hours, because I was so tired. This meant I would have 3 or 4 feed stops. At the second feed stop Graham asked me what I wanted next, I told him, but was also disappointed. I had thought I had caught glimpses of the beach at the end of the lake, whilst swimming. A big no-no when swimming is to not look at the horizon. It will take as long as it will take to get there, looking at it will not get you there any quicker and it won’t seem like it’s getting any closer.

I counted one hundred breaths, to give myself something to focus on and not allow myself to look up until I had completed them. When I did look up, I was certain now that I could see the beach. As I started to count another set of one hundred, the water suddenly felt warmer, then I could see the lake bottom beneath me. I tentatively looked up at Graham. ‘Are we there?’. I wanted it to be over, and really did not want to find out that there was still another hour or so left to go. But Graham said yes, with a big smile. I could not have been more relieved!

I was directed me to the end point, I got to my feet unsteadily and made my way through the shallows to where they were pointing. I stopped my watch and raised my weary arms. We had done it! The total swim had taken 33 hours and 31 minutes, beating the existing record by 7 hours and 29 minutes.

I could not have attempted, let alone completed this challenge without the support and dedication of my crew. They made this happen and helped me turn my crazy idea into a reality. Graham, Jimbo, Joe, Max, Rich, and Russ, thank you!

Justgiving link

Saturday 6 May 2023

Record Attempt: The Epic 13 (70km swimming) in under 41 hours - July 2023

The challenge is simple, actually that’s a complete lie, it’s really not that simple! There are 13 publicly accessible lakes in the Lake District, UK (see below) and the challenge is to swim all 13 consecutively. From the research that I’ve done I’ve found; one person has swum and hiked/run between them, one person has swum and cycled between them (Danny Longman and his mate, but only Danny was able to finish), and a couple of people (including Danny) have ‘just’ swum the lakes and driven between them. Danny holds the current record (lets call it a World Record!) or Fastest Known Time (FKT) of 41 hours. I had planned to have a go at the cycle/swim option, before finding out people had done any of the above. But on reflection, with the time needed to do the training for both and extra time I’d need to be away to do the actual challenge, I have decided to simplify things and go for the FKT of Swim only.
The most amazing thing about this challenge, so far, is that I was able to get in touch with Danny, he agreed to have a chat, which followed by him sharing his whole planning document. In how many sports do you get that kind of help?! Having this information has been incredibly helpful to plan the challenge. When I had a chat with Danny we debated whether the route should be fixed, or whether the challenge should be focused on swimming the longest stretch of the lakes. Leaving the logistics and working out the route open, to add a little spice and ingenuity to the challenge. We opted for the latter.

I did a recce of the some of the lakes in October last year, which showed me that this is not as straight forward as just turning up at one end of the lake and swimming to the other. For a start, the beginning and end points of most of the lakes I saw were not that obvious or easy to get to. When I swam Windermere a couple of years ago, that was simple, jump in a boat get taken to the start and just swim. Some of the lakes, even with Danny’s document, I couldn’t find how to get to the start of the lake. It required climbing over gates (publicly accessible gates I must add), walking across fields or through fallen trees in one instance. This made me revise the ideas I had about whizzing between the lakes as quickly as possible and shaving off chunks of time there. Much more to think about and work out. I have another recce planned for later this month, let’s see what that turns up.

A few other things that need consideration; what and how much kit will I need, how to deal with not spreading invasive plant species between lakes, what feeding strategy to take, whether I’m going to have any sleep or just keep going for it, how to make sure the crew knows exactly what to do, especially when I become an incoherent mess in the latter stages. I need them to be able to make the important decisions on my behalf.

When I was in the local lake training this morning I was having a tough session and thinking how on earth am I going to do this for 40ish hours! What I keep telling myself though, is that in every long distance challenge I’ve done I get into the zone on the day. Its usually the same leading up to the challenge ‘how am I going to do this’. During the event ‘just keep going, you’ve got this’. After the event ‘how did I do that’ or ‘did I really do that’. It almost feels like somebody else has done the challenge.

The training has been a difficult one to work out. I’ve been progressively building up my distance since the beginning of the year. I was so happy when the lakes opened in April (yes the lakes have to open around my way, can’t just jump in when you like!) and I could shift some of my swims to open water. Doing 10km regularly in a pool is a bit soul destroying, especially when the longest lane session is 2 hours, so the remainder of the set is done weaving in and out of families who don’t seem to be able to spot the swimmers going up and down in a straight line!

About a month ago I started to slow down and struggle with a good (for me) pace. I recognised the signs of over-training, I modified my schedule. Looking back I had been doing 30-40km per week, with the odd recovery week thrown in. I was doing double days to make up the distance between work and when lanes were available. It basically meant I wasn’t getting the chance for really good recovery. But then when I did allow myself a bit of time to recover, I started to fret that I wasn’t training enough.

This is the really hard thing, to train for something that not many people have done before, so it’s difficult to gauge what the right amount should be. I have started to think that with any endurance event that I’ve done – marathon swimming, marathon & ultra marathon running, Iron Man, 1,000 burpee challenge etc… at some point it stops being about the physical and starts being about the mental challenge and what’s going on inside your head. It’s just at what point the switch happens. I know that swimming through the night is going to be really tough, having done this a few times before. You’re obviously tired from all the swimming and on top of that because you’re used to sleeping at night, the body temperature drops and that’s when it’s difficult to stay positive. This is when the demons can come to visit. I’m planning to combat that by swimming some of the shorter lakes through the night. I think the change of getting in and out of the water will help and changing things up rather than endless swimming in the dark. Although getting back into the cold water each time will present its own mental challenges!

What's great though is that when it starts to get light in the morning of the second day, the circadian rhythm will kick in and I’ll feel more awake ( I will I will I will!!! He says trying to convince himself). The weather is going to have a massive impact on the comfort and ‘ease’ of the swim. I need the crew to keep their morale up, so I don’t have to worry about them. Heavy rains and strong winds are the things I want to avoid, but very little I can do about that. The date is set for 8 & 9th July this year. Its not an easy one to change and get the crew’s availability so I just have to hope the weather is good enough.

I’ll post an update after my next recce and update on how my training and mental state is in the month leading up to the challenge. I’ll also be posting a link to a GPS tracker on this blog for anyone interested in tracking the swim.

Thursday 1 August 2013

Swimming the English Channel

I have been looking forward to writing this blog post for almost 3 years!!  Its going to be a long one, so please bear with me.

July had been a reasonably good month of training. I completed 2 split weekends of a 7 hour sea swim on the Saturday and 6 hours on the Sunday, and was surprised at how well they went.  I had a few pains in my hips and legs, but assumed these would go during the taper (recovery) leading up to the big swim.
A couple of days after the last big training weekend I received a call from my boat pilot (Paul Foreman) asking if I wanted to go early, as the condition were perfect.  I had seen photos of the Channel, it was flatter than a swimming pool and the sun was shining high in bright blue skies....literally perfect conditions. However, I had to decline as I was still pretty sore from the big weekend swims and needed the recovery period.
In the lead up to my swim window I became obsessed with the weather.  After months of willing the sea temperature up, I was now focused on the wind.  The weather had turned and it was now looking as though the swim would get blown out.  Then I received another call from Paul telling me that there would be a small window just before my official window opened up.  This would mean that I would be going on a Spring tide (higher high tides, lower low tides, so more movement of water) and would have to swim through the night.  Not ideal I thought, but I also didn’t want to enter into the unknown and potentially have to wait weeks to go. So I accepted and my date was booked, Friday 26th July, 11pm start!  My stomach did a few flips, but now I could put months of planning into action, mobilise the crew and focus on getting this challenge under way.
The evening of the swim my crew arrived at my house to pack the car, with what seemed like a ridiculous amount of kit, and whisk me to the coast.  On the journey down I kept saying, I can't believe this is actually happening.  As we neared Dover, in the dusk , I could make out a flat sea in front of me, which was reassuring.
The crew, from left to right Marcus, Mark, me, Ben, Adam
We arrived in Dover with plenty of time to spare, too much actually, as we had to wait around with nothing to do but think about what lay ahead.  Mel had come down with Toni and Giorgio to offer their support, which was fantastic.  There were lots of  'you can do this', 'I know you can make it'....whilst this was all meant in the best possible way, it also felt as though there was extra pressure on me to get across.  The negative thoughts and doubts were already circling overhead, I just had to keep them at bay.

At last there was something to do, the boat (Optimist) was ready for us.  My crew (Adam, Mark, Marcus and Ben) took all the kit down to the boat and started loading up,  whilst I made a couple of calls and said my farewells to Mel.  As the boat pulled away, I had to take a few deep breaths and try and trick myself into believing that this was just like any other training swim, break it down into manageable chunks and not think too far ahead.
Marcus got the short straw
We were given the 10 minute warning, which meant I needed to get greased up, thick layers of sun cream and Vaseline to protect various body parts from chaffing.  Not a job the crew were fighting over to do!! 

Shakespeare Beach
And then we were there, facing Shakespeare beach, me fully greased up with green swim lights switched on and a black sea in front of me. 
Last drink before the big 'Off'
I was given a quick run down on what to do; go down the ladder, jump into the water, swim to the beach, clear the water, raise arms in the air and the clock would start when I got back in the water.  Easy enough! As I climbed down the ladder I was taking it slowly because I really wasn't looking forward to the shock of the cold,water, but I was shouted at to get in, so in I jumped. It actually wasn’t too bad, the water felt warm, which was a great relief.  I took a gentle swim to the beach, checking that my goggles and hat felt fine.  As I got to the beach I saw three silhouettes standing some way off, then I heard a yell 'Go Matt-Fish' it was Mel, Toni and Giorgio, they had come to the beach to wave me off.  I turned, gave them a quick wave and then walked back into the sea to start the swim of a lifetime.
Nice warm water....
My navigational skills were immediately challenged, I swam straight out from the beach expecting that was the direction the boat was taking, but before too long there was some distance between me and the boat and I realised that the boat had turned, I quickly adjusted course and got alongside the boat.  However, I found it really hard to stay next to the boat and keep my stroke natural.  When I was alongside the boat I was paranoid I would swim into the boat or it would go over the top of me, so I would swim away a little and then straighten up, but having no point of reference in front of me in the dark I just swam further and further away from the boat, until I realised that I had gone too far and had to swim back.  This went on all night, I needlessly added extra distance to what was already a long enough swim.
Just me and the jellies

Within the space of a few minutes in the water I had my first jellyfish encounter, being stung the length of my body and then a few minutes after that a full on face sting, which left my lips tingling.  Suck it up and keep on swimming was what I had been told to do, so that I did.  For the first couple of hours I felt pretty good in the water, I was able to find a good rhythm and get used to the dark and generally felt comfortable. 

Speaking to Paul at the end of the swim, he said  'you were flying for the first 3 hours' which was how I felt, I had an idea of how the tides would turn and wanted to get as far across as possible for when the tide turned so that when it turned back 6 or so hours later I would get the best of  the tide pushing me toward Cap Gris Nez (the closest point of the French coast to England).  However, as Paul rightly pointed out, the wheels fell off into the 3rd hour.

The hip problems I had in training started to niggle pretty much from the start of the swim, but I thought if I can just keep up a decent pace and not get cold I'll be fine.  The pain in my hip  wouldn't go and at one point I felt like hot fluid was pouring inside my leg and down to my knee, which was swelling up.  It wasn't, but that’s how it felt.  The pain only got worse as time went on, and then my hip flexors started to ache and that was when I started to slow down.  I tried a number of things to stop the pain; not kicking, kicking harder, mushrooming in the water……...anything to alleviate the pain, but it wouldn’t go.  It got to the point that I would count to 100 to get through one cycle and them mushroom or stretch out the legs again.  Then try and swim without stopping for a count of 100 or 200 before trying something else.  This went on until about two hours from the end of the swim.

Pretty much from the start of the swim there was a lightning storm going on in the distance.  The water would light up around me with bright white light.  I started to worry that I would get pulled out of the water if the storm got too close and then I started to hope that I would.  This early into the swim and the demons had already raised their ugly heads.  I went through circular thoughts; 'shit I'm going to get pulled out', 'good that means this pain will stop', 'but then I'll have to start all over again another day', piss off demons!  At least it gave my brain something to think about.
Ah, the 2013, an excellent year
My feeds started at 1 hour which consisted of a hot maxim (carbohydrate) drink, I tried to down the whole bottle (about 300ml) as quickly as possible.  I managed to keep all my feeds less than 30 seconds.  If there was any motivation for not hanging around on a feed , it was that I was drifting backwards away from the boat and away from France.  I knew how much energy it would cost me to cover those lost 30 seconds of drifting, so didn’t want it to be any longer. 
I didn't enjoy the feeds at all, forcing liquid down my throat as quickly as possible, to get the much need calories for my body to fuel me across the Channel.  Going from; being horizontal in the water, to vertical to feed and then straight back to horizontal, without giving the fluid time to properly hit the stomach, meant that I kept getting hiccups and reflux which at one point led to it all coming back up.  I managed four feeds of solids during the whole swim; half a banana (ok), jelly babies (tolerable) tinned peaches (disgusting) and flumpy sweets (tolerable).  I gave up on the solids as it just wasn't working for me.  I had thought the feeds would give me the chance to have some contact with my crew.  This was not the case, because I was wearing earplugs, the crew were quite high up and I was trying to stop for as short a time as possible, there was very little contact.  During the night was even worse as I couldn’t even see them, which made for a bit of a lonely time.
Cometh the dawn
Marcus providing light relief
Finally the dark sky turned to grey and then briefly to pinks and oranges as the sun made a brief appearance on its way up.  There was also a sighting of a dolphin, which I was gutted to have missed, but probably best that I didn’t see it as I may have mistaken it for a shark!  At around this time Marcus jumped in to swim alongside me for an hour.  The Channel swimming rules allow a support swimmer to swim for 1 hour at a time at 3 hourly intervals.  Before the swim I wasn’t really sure what the point was of having a support swimmer in the water, but decided to give it a go.  It was another distraction and helped to pass an allotted amount of time, it also gave me another point of reference so that I could see that I was actually moving forward. As Marcus got out of the water the fog started to come in and then it began to rain.  I was worried that the fog could mean the end of the swim, but fortunately it didn’t get too bad.  By this point I was over half way across the Channel and although I was still in pain I didn’t want to get pulled out.  I just kept telling myself that I would have to do all those miles again if I got out of the water now.
The Channel can be split into 5 distinct zones; England in-shore waters (5 nautical miles) South-West shipping lane (4nmi) separation zone (1nmi), North-East shipping lane (5nmi), French in-shore waters (3.5nmi).  I had asked the crew to tell me when I crossed into each zone so that I could get a motivational boost at each point.  By the time Marcus got out of the water for the first time I was entering the separation zone.  I had thought this would make me feel good, but it actually just made me realise how much farther I had to go.  When I was told that I had entered the NE shipping lane sometime later I tried to calculate how long it would take me to swim the 5nmi to the French in-shore waters.  I quickly gave up when I had a) no idea if I would actually be swimming 5nmi, b) what effect the tides would have, c) any concept of what pace I was swimming at.  All I knew was that it was going to take a while and I knew I should not be thinking that far ahead.  I stopped myself and told myself just to focus on the water in front of me, used the mantra I had been given by my son Jack ‘just keep swimming, swimming, just keep swimming swimming’.
The big boat photo
This phase of the swim went by in a blur of discomfort and hope that land was close by.  I would catch sight of something when I turned my head to breath and thought it might be land, but it just turned out to be a tanker or the fog.  When the rain started the wind picked up a bit and the water was a choppier, which added to the fun.
What a beautiful sight - Thre Cap
After what seemed like hours of swimming on the spot, even with Marcus jumping back in for another hour stint, it all suddenly turned good.  The clouds began to break, opening up to the blue sky, I could feel the sun on my back and, the pain in my legs disappeared and then I was told I had entered French in-shore waters….I was close.  I felt rejuvenated and energised, I felt strong in the water, as though I had just started the swim and not that I had been swimming for around 13 hours.  I could just make out land in front of us, it was the Cap.  I could feel that the tide was turning and starting to push me away from the Cap, so I swam even harder.  At this point I thought the crew was pointing me in the direction of the Cap and that I should swim hard for it.  So, I put my head down and kept swimming in that direction, but this meant that I started to swim away from the boat.  The boat had to come over to me and tell me to follow them.  They gave me one last double strength feed and told me swim towards the bay, I was almost there.  

My escort
Land didn’t seem to get any closer, I knew I shouldn’t keep looking up,  but I couldn’t help myself.   Then all of a sudden I could make out the shapes of people on the beach and not long after that I saw Marcus and Mark standing on the ladder of the boat ready to escort me into the shore.  Ordinarily support swimmers only get in the water about 200m from the end of the swim, so I thought we were really close.  I found out later that they had got in 800m from the end as they had to guide me to the shore and make sure i  didn't  drift too far away, as the boat wouldn’t be able to pick us up due to shallow water.
So close

 I was swimming hard for the shore when Mark and Marcus got in as I thought we were very close.  Then I looked up and realised we still had some way to go. And then I could see the sand beneath me, I was so happy.  I tried to stand up, but quickly sank under as it was deeper than it looked.  A few more strokes and I was at standing height.  
The Victory shot
I put my feet down and stood up tentatively, I felt a little wobbly, but got my balance and strode to the beach, cleared the water, turned to the boat and raised my arms in the air to signal I had finished.  I had done it! Then I allowed myself to lie down on the sand.  It was over!  I felt so happy that I had finished, that I had made it.  All those countless hours of training had paid off.  I looked up at the boat and realised we had a good few hundred metres to swim back when all I wanted to do was rest.  I pulled myself up and made myself get straight back in the sea and swim back to the boat so that I could get aboard and properly rest.

Man hugs all round
I can stand on my own, honest


My crew were amazing throughout the whole experience, taking care of me,making sure I was fed and watered throughout the swim and that I got warm after the swim and had everything I needed.  I could not have completed the swim without them.
Nice and toasty

Its much harder than it looks
The come down

It has been an amazing journey these last couple of years.  I have had the pleasure of meeting some amazing and generous people.  I am not aware of another sport where everyone is so helpful and friendly, where people give so much of their time for no personal reward or gain.  It is truly touching to experience such human kindness.  I am ecstatic that I have reached the goal I set myself almost three years ago but perhaps a little sad that this journey is over.

Becoming part of history, signing my name on the wall of the White Horse pub in Dover

Tuesday 9 July 2013

June (T-Minus 1 month)

June started in a very good way, a family holiday to the Greek islands.  The perfect place to relax, do some water sports and of course, swim.  The plan for the week was to do some swimming but spend as time with the family, as the weeks of training ahead were to set to become all encompassing.  Still I managed to get in a good few sea swims in temperatures (late teens) that I could only dream of back home.   I also did my best to put on as much weight as possible by eating a ridiculous amount of food. 

The day after we returned home I was standing on the beach at Bournemouth with Marcus planning to do a 4hr sea swim in 12c waters.  I had suffered from a little food poisoning in the last couple of days of the holiday and still wasn’t feeling 100%, but thought I have to get some long distance swims in the cold waters otherwise I am not going to have no chance of getting across the Channel.  I was starting to get quite worried at this point, that my training was not going to plan.

So, in we jumped, it was a big shock and I spent most of the swim shivering.  I got to just after the 3hr mark and was really starting to struggle, it was as though the battery had been pulled out and the lights were going off, I had nothing left in the tank.  I tried to keep going to get to the 4hr mark, but with the swell and current picking up and my lack of energy I decided it was too dangerous to continue, so I headed to shore.  Still, I managed 3.5hrs which wasn’t bad in the circumstances.

Doesn't look too bad from up here, but trust me the waves were big enough!
The rest of the month has been all about swimming in the sea at the weekends, either in Dover or Bournemouth.  Well actually mostly in Bournemouth as I much prefer swimming off the sandy beaches of Bournemouth than the murky waters of Dover harbour.  Marcus worked out a good feeding strategy, swim course and has a good relationship with the local life guards, who kept an ever watchful eye on us.

Having said that I did spend a weekend swimming in Dover.  I entered the Champion of Champions (5 mile race, 3 mile race & 1 mile race) which became a bit of a farce with the course distance not being known and the late starts for each of the races and lots of hanging around in the cold.  By the time it got to the end of the 3 mile race (or whatever distance it was) I had spent the whole day there, with much of it standing around, I decided I could not be bothered to wait for the last race and headed home.  Looking at the results of the day, I came 4th overall for the 5 & 3 mile swims, which was pretty good.  

Champion of Champion race (photo from BLDSA website)
 The following day I was back to Dover to do a 4hr swim in the cold waters of the harbour.  I have to say that that was the most miserable swim I have done to date.  The weather was unpleasant, the water was unpleasant, it was cold, murky and full of jellyfish.  I shivered through most of the swim and had problems with my hip flexors which slowed me down and made me colder – apparently this is a common issue in cold water and shouldn’t be an issue once the sea warms up.

For most of June the water and air temp stayed pretty cool and the water pretty choppy.  One day there were 5 of us swimming together in Bournemouth, but the swell so big that it was difficult to see each other even just a few metres apart.  There is something about swimming in the waves that makes it more interesting. Something about battling with the elements, although there was never any doubt who the winner would be!  It is  pretty hard work swimming in those conditions, being pushed this way and that just to go forward, excellent conditioning for the core and shoulders though.  

Warming up after a cold swim on a blustery day (Photo: N. Adams)
Finally at the end of the month Marcus and I were ready to attempt our 6hr qualifying swim, a requirement of the  Channel Swimming & Pilot Federation to be able to attempt a Channel swim .  The weather could not have been better.  The sun was out, barely a cloud in the sky and the sea was calm, this was going to be a much awaited, ‘boring’ swim up and down the coast with no waves to battle through.  Prior to this the longest sea swim I had done was 4 hours, so I was a little apprehensive as to how I was going to cope.  Would I have the strength to make it to the end, would I have the energy to maintain a good pace throughout and would I feel like I could go on at the end of the 6 hours as the Channel is likely to be at least double that.

Well the swim was pretty good, its amazing how quickly time passes when you are doing something
repetitive, swimming.  You get into a rhythm and let the mind wonder, just focus on a good clean stroke every time, put one had in front of the other and just keep swimming. 

I use a visualisation technique to help with long swims like this, which I have developed over the years of doing endurance events.  Hopefully I can explain this.  I think of time as a movable line, that I can go back and forward along, so that I don't have to think too much about the present.  When I am in the swim I don't think about how long is left I go back to what I was doing just before the swim or the night before when I was brushing my teeth thinking about the big swim ahead of me the next day.  I think about how quickly that time has passed.  It only felt like a few minutes ago that I was getting in the car to head down to the coast and now I am here in the water swimming.  Then I jump forward to what I will be doing straight after the swim and then later in the day.  From those points I try to visualise being in the future looking back at the swim I am now doing and thinking how quickly that time passed.  I make sure that I actively do look forward to the swim in my mind when I am brushing my teeth and then look back at the swim when I have finished, thus connecting the points in time.   Not sure if this makes any sense, but it is a technique that works really well for me.

Whilst I have not swum as much as I would have liked this month, due to the bad weather, I am pretty happy with where I am.  I am feeling strong and very positive about what lies ahead of me this next month.  July holds the really long swims - 7hours on the Saturday and 6 hours on the Sunday, the dreaded 'Channel in a weekend' swims.  Something to look forward to then!