Sunday, 13 October 2019

10 things I wished I had known when I started marathon swimming

(Embarking on Wastwater 2011 - ca. 3 miles - my 1st major marathon swim) enjoy a few lengths, the buoyancy of the water, can swim a mile (maybe a mix of freestyle and breaststroke?) and think you want to take it to a new level? Take the plunge! It will take you on an AMAZING journey but you might want to consider the following (from my very own experience!):

Before you embark on your marathon swim journey ensure you are putting your hands (and legs) where your mouth is. You will simply NOT be able to lay down a mountain of training & events on poor technique plus you’ll get injured and end up throwing money at physios and/or surgery which might have been totally avoidable in the first place. Prevention is better than cure! I saw Ray Gibbs at SwimCanarywharf but would also recommend Dan Bullock at Swimfortri and Chris Malpass for the northerners. There are many others but make sure it is in a pool with cameras where they are looking at your stroke BELOW the water not just above! Keep working on that stroke. Every week I watch the YouTube videos from Brenton Ford’s Effortless Swimming who I really rate and often watch something from his channel before a session.

Easy in the summer as there’s the amazingly supportive Channel Training group led by Emma France for example. But where are you going to go in the Winter? My recommendation is to swim with some sort of club at least 1x per week plus outside 1x per week to keep the acclimatisation up. They’ll provoke you and help you improve. Keep dipping in the winter. You’ll find loads of groups along the length of the country from the Kent Sea Swimmers in the south east to the Fausto Bathing Club in Sunderland! If you go to the pool on your own HAVE A PLAN of what you want to achieve. Don’t just go there and faff - you can do that in the bath-tub!

No matter how demotivated you might feel at times you will ALWAYS feel better (and more relaxed) after going for a swim - plus you will probably sleep better. Even if you don’t achieve the set goal of the day ensure to take the positives out of each swim/event. I have been at the start line of so many events and heard other competitors almost talking themselves out of it before they have even started therefore not surprised to see them pull out. Remember, it is still all experience in the bank and its cumulative. Swim in many different conditions and locations as you can. Life isn’t just about going up and down Dover Harbour or your local lake. Each sea or lake swim presents different learning points no matter how many years you’ve been doing it.

As soon as you register for events (and pay the race fees) your training will get renewed focus and you’ll be less likely to skip sessions. I personally find that most people don’t stretch themselves enough - you’ll be amazed at what you can achieve when push comes to shove. 
There are literally thousands of events to chose from globally. I never set out to do this but completed the entire BLDSA calendar and am now taking on most of the what the USA has to offer. There are so many sources of inspiration many of which you will find in the links section to my blog!

This mights seem obvious but have seen many a swim fail as the swimmer has left too many things to chance and hasn’t taken control of all the issues they might be confronted with ahead of time. Take care of every minor detail so that all you need to do is swim. Don’t leave this to chance or others. Also, spare a minute to think of your crew. On a long swim they are there for YOU and not the other way round. Make sure they get fed, watered and reimbursed for their time. I reckon a successful swim is >50% down to the crew. Etiquette dictates you ALWAYS reimburse your crew.
The more you swim and do events the easier it is to find crew. Kayak for someone and they will kayak for you. 

It really isn't all about distance travelled per week - I never stress about that.
I use the colder months to work tirelessly on technique and speed (100m repetitions). I am a firm believer that if you train well in the winter you will find the summer months easier where you escape the confines of the pool and lay down more time in the water. If your shoulder hurts then you are probably doing something wrong as your body is giving you feedback. Listen to that and work out what you can do to mitigate or see a coach. I swim 3-4 times per week in the winter and this mantra has worked in the last few years. I am lucky as the finest outdoor 50m pool in the UK is 30mins from my house at Charlton Lido.

In the last year I volunteered on the Dover beach to be a grease-monkey for the odd Sunday early in the season and it was eye-opening how we all seem to create chafe in different areas given body types and stroke technique. I know over a long swim that I get sore in the area called the ‘cubical fossa’ or inside of the elbow for most people. #weirdo!

Many UK swimmers boast monumental hat-tan lines after swims but with global warming we are doing ourselves quite a lot of skin damage which is magnified if you are in the water. One of the only sports where one can get hypothermia and sunstroke at the same time!!! If you swim in the parts of the US they really don’t mess around and know from an early age how to apply suncream AND zinc (sudocrem) to protect skin from the suns rays. I did a Torbay 8 mile event once and forgot to put suncream on the backs of my legs - didn’t sit down at work for a week afterwards! LOL!

So many of us sit behind the desk during the week and then expect our bodies to take 100s of miles of swimming throughout the year. Eventually your body will complain about something even if you have the finest freestyle stroke in the history of mankind. I did a 1:1 with a Pilates coach for 4 years and arguably the best money one could spend on oneself. The older you get the longer it takes to warm up the muscles therefore respect the warm up (and warm down!)

If you are contemplating big events take the time and money to know your bloods, ECG and other measurements. Many swims are self-declared and even if they are not if you do extensive medical then you at least will know where you are at physically and will get advice on what you need to work on to help your results. I do this every year and am living proof that such a thing can save your life.

Good luck and happy swimming!

Sunday, 21 July 2019

25 mile Lake Memphremagog Swim - A British First, 16th July 2019

If you are into connecting with nature, seeing bald eagles & ospreys overhead, stunning vistas washed down with warmer waters in the summertime then Vermont might well be your ideal venue. NEKOWSA (North East Kingdom Open Water Swimming Association) boasts a ‘ladder’ swim series and a unique selling point arguably not seen anywhere else in the world with a proper graduation of events from 1mile, 5km, 10km, 10mile, 25km culminating in the ultimate 25 mile (In Search of Memphre) length of the entire lake of Lake Memphremagog between Newport in Vermont, USA to Magog in Quebec, Canada. Indeed 4/5ths of the surface area of this lake is actually Canadian. There’s a monster in there too named Memphre and this is part of the 3-part lake monster series (along with Tahoe in California/Nevada (which I did in 2018) and Loch Ness in Scotland which I have yet to attempt in solo format).
Check out the Kingdom Games events here:

The seed for attempting this swim was planted by Paula Yankauskas whilst breakfasting at the Apache Lake Motel after swimming 17-mile Lake Apache as part of our 42 mile SCAR swim series in Arizona in 2015 led by Kent Nicholas (here: She, in her typical humble fashion, regaled the story of a stunning 25 mile swim which crosses the US border into Canada (requiring passport on support boat), the fabled monster and her ca. 18 hour conquering having battled the elements, testing her physical and mental limits but ultimately coming out victorious on her journey to her English Channel swim and also the Triple Crown. No mean feat for someone who was 60 at the time which totally earns my (and everyone in the sport's) utmost respect.

The notion of this attempt for me was further cemented during a 10 mile Swim the Suck Swim in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 2016 (here: as the kayaker serendipitously chosen (by race director Karah Nazor) to guide me that day was none other than Phil White who is race director of the 25 mile ‘In Search of Memphre’, founder of the entire Kingdom Games series and one of the key figures in US extreme swimming and other sports. He’s a bit of a legend in the area and you can feel that the events are run for athletes by athletes who are great ambassadors for the beauty of the area and rejoice in the achievements of others only wanting athletes to succeed.

So, fast forward 3 years to July 2019 and 3 swimmers (Natalie Rose from Boston, Massachusetts  and Jim Loreto from Bethesda, Maryland plus yours truly) managed to arrive at the start line of this year’s July 'Search' where the programme commenced with the ominously named ‘Last Supper’ which combined as a safety briefing, get-to-know-each-other-session and crew meet on the Sunday night before pinpointing the best of the three day window (Tuesday 16th). The idea was to give participants the best possible chance at completing rather than being anchored to a specific day. (I devoted a whole week to being in the area just in case the weather blew up so I could get it done). Check out this sunset!

(Jim, Natalie and Shez befriending each other and the butterflies!)

So the 'jump' was set for 5am on Tuesday 16th July 2019 with getting ready (zinc-ing up) from 4am so much more civilised than so many other swims and we even had a room to do it in! The short 5 mins ride from the apartment in Newport to the start line confirmed the forecast that their was a reasonable 4-6mph tailwind as the wind had veered overnight as denoted by the flags on Main Street as I drove across town. After forgetting the lucky duck for the recent 20 bridges ‘round Manhattan’ swim I knew fortune was going to be on my side as he complimented by Union Jack swim cap recently presented to me by colleagues ahead of my successful round-manhattan swim.

(thumbs up if you only do this sport for the zinc!)

Each crew and boat captain had been presented with a laminated map which I had studied extensively so I pretty much new at all times how far I had covered and in what time given my feeds were programmed to be hourly. Check out the map!

(errr - that's one helluva long way innit)

I had barely known Theresa Gerade, one of my crew, for a couple of hours and then here she was donning rubber gloves to a complete stranger and helping to protect my body from the sun proving to be a dab hand with sun cream and zinc! Here she is on board with the lucky duck the day before feeling proud to have 'duck-taped' him to the bow area! Looking across at the duck all day really does  put a smile on one's face. One of my crew on my victorious 43-mile Geneva swim is also called Teresa so I knew luck was on my side.

(Theresa getting to know the lucky duck)

At 4.53am Phil set us off (with the rattle of his metal cup, lol!) and we entered the water at the Eastside restaurant in Newport at the southernmost end. The water was a totally bath-like 72f which takes getting ones head around as in the winter the ice on the lake can be over 3 feet thick!

(only 25.2 miles to go....)

As usual got into my usual catatonic ca. 50-stroke rhythm  and was matching fellow competitor Jim stroke for stroke whilst Natalie was giving it more beans moving clear ahead of us. Jim had just returned from a distance week in Cork and although I was slightly envious of his training camp, I was secretly glad that was not my taper as I tend to shun salt water when gunning for a major fresh water event. My taper comprised of barely swimming in the prior 2 weeks (other than with the Fausto group in Sunderland at 12c!) and concentrating on eating mostly whatever I wanted and drinking gin! I planned to feed every hour on the hour to keep things totally simple with the first 2/3rd comprised of very diluted carbohydrate & cordial drink followed by flat coke in the final 1/3rd with the odd treat thrown in at the discretion of the crew (either strawberry wafer, Oreo mini, 1/2 banana or soft  oatmeal cream pie (the latter was a total revelation btw given soft and sustaining)!)

(ultimate marathon swimming nutrition)

As we rounded the first jut of trees to our right a bald eagle took off from its nest and flew over the swimmers and crews. It was squawking away probably complaining that we were interrupting its key early morning hunting agenda. The sun then started to rise and it was a really magical feeling being free in the lake taking on such an expedition surrounded by highly supportive local crews hell-bent on seeing us succeed.

(My boat in the distance with Natalie's kayaker closer to the camera - photo credit Charlotte Brynn)

(Rounding the first bend where the bald eagle lives - photo credit Charlotte Brynn)

After another mile or so (we learnt later that) Natalie’s husband in the kayak turned over so he had to be rescued whilst Natalie swam in circles waiting! That would have driven me slightly potty! The paddle sunk to the bottom of the lake so the monster must have had that for breakfast. That must have been around 1/5 into the swim where we entered the Canadian border as denoted by the line of trees cut down on the mainland and one of the islands! She must have taken it in her stride as still got the job done but would have thrown others for six.

(Jim and Shez enjoying the new Olympic sport of long distance synchronised freestyle!)

Evidently Jim Loreto and I matched each other largely stroke for stroke all the way until the Il Ronde island which marked the 8 mile completion point. (On the maps above you will see that this key island and also Lord's Island break up the swim into thirds (south, mid and north basins)).

The next feature above us was Mont Owl Head granting us rite of passage and it drew fond memories of Ben Lomond also being the key mid-way landmark on my Loch Lomond solo in 2012. Owl Head dominates the skyline from both Newport at one end and Magog on the other so I thanked him (and of course the monster) for looking after us as we passed. Phil informed me that this was the deepest point at 400 feet to which I pointed out that I could see the bottom and the monster was definitely not at home! Captain then relaxed, had a pee in the bucket, leaned back in his seat and put his feet up on the side of the boat proudly boasting 2 odd socks (one with flamingo's on of course). OMG how these odd socks started to mess with my OCD!

We nudged our way past the halfway point and slogged up to the sweet town of Georgeville on the eastern shore that I had visited the day before just chilling out. We continued to be pushed down the lake and feeds continued at hourly intervals. Some of the waves were 1 feet high which made feeds thoroughly inconvenient dissolving my creme pies and diluting my cordial before I had even taken a bite or a swig! I swear I was drinking most of the lake and surprised there was any water left. At this stage I was getting so thrilled about my new feeding treat of the oatmeal cream pies that I had the let down of having consumed the last one and not packing enough leaving the balance in the apartment!

The view on the western shore after the main inlet on the left was then dominated by the stunning monastery on the Western bank which I knew from memorising the map was only 2 miles to go until Ile Lorde island. I asked Phil what was the name of the place and in best English (totally bastardising French) he offered 'Abbaye De St-Benoit-Du-Lac' which I replied 'you were f-ing wasted in the legal profession, you should have been a French teacher!' We all giggled and carried on.

(Shezza closing in on the final third with Magog in the very far distance - photo credit Phil White)

We then rounded Ile Lorde island and this was the first time since the start that I saw the bottom not even 6 feet below me and I feared the support boat might come stuck but relented to say anything realising that they must have it covered. First rule of marathon swimming = always trust your crew and never second guess them I reminded myself! Once round the island Phil confirmed forthrightly '7 miles to go'. Oh Ullswater then I thought. Simples and not much more than a cheeky 10km! The plan I had in my head was to get to this point and then flood my brain with feelings of joy of finishing and what I would do hanging out in the US relaxing for the next 3 days. I also vowed NEVER to look up at the finish line. This largely worked a treat but the last 3 miles were tough as this distance is >4 miles longer than the Channel and in fresh water so the body was really beginning to hurt.
After what seemed like an eternity we started to encounter more boat traffic, chop, windsurfers and moored boats which heralded 1.5 miles to go which I reckoned was exaggerated so told myself we would be done within the hour. After 45 mins I finally allowed myself my first glimpse of what was ahead. Barely able to see out of the goggles after the suction had been so strong in the waves making my eyes hazy, I finally reconciled Peter and Geneve  the arrival party cheering the swimmers in.
Probing ones feet down into the sand & rocks was divine and the conclusion in stumbling to clear the water meant stopping the clock was imminent.

After 13 hours and 8 mins I realised I was the first swimmer home in a time I would have bitten your arm off for beforehand having put ca. 14-15 hours on my form. First thing I was offered from the land crew of Peter and Geneve  was a beer (!) which was hilarious as I was adamant that would have made me queazy - I politely declined that in favour of a ham sub sandwich with lashings of mayo and tea! Amazing how one craves savoury after a day of sweet things!

(Boat Captain Phil White with awesome crew Theresa Girade and Owl Head in the distance)

Once Jim finished ca 40 mins later we shook hands and basked in mutual respect and glory of achievement. Then only 5 mins later Natalie emerged from the water with the biggest grin on her face and we were all so thrilled for her having stepped up for the first time to a distance north of 20 miles.

(A 'Rose' between two (bald) thorns - Jim Loreto, Natalie Rose and Shezza)

One of Natalie's crew, the lovely Charlotte Brynn,  came  bouncing over to the bench I was recovering on beaming from ear to ear presenting me with a congratulatory hug and a look in her eye you could only earn from a former soloist of the lake. Natalie had indeed almost caught Jim in the final stages which took some doing given the kayak woes earlier in the day. I duly informed her that if she could do this then the world would be her oyster given most events in extreme swimming  are at least 4 miles shorter! We were put into the record books as only the 37th, 38th and 39th amateur swimmers in history to have completed this swim.

Read the official swim report from the organisers here:

Here are my observer sheets:

Observations and final thoughts

This swim was really no bother given the temperature of the water and I'm glad I only fed 1x per hour to let the crew just get on with other things. I'm amazed that no amateur Canadian has even completed this yet. This swim will get more popular imho. My training was perfect and I definitely didn't overtrain for it but then I have amassed a few miles in the tank over the years (and I am very happy with my technique) which stands for something!

The views from the water of the surroundings are totally stunning. Probably the most remarkable scenery on any 20+ mile swim I have ever done. Water temp was so perfect that when I exited the water I strutted around in T-shirt and shorts with no shaking. The organisation was first classs and well-briefed feeling safe all of the time.

I flew into Boston which is a 4 hour drive from Newport. There are more daily flights into Boston than Montreal plus they are cheaper.

I stayed at ‘Vita Huset’ - an apartment, surprisingly good value and clean with my own bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and living area with access to laundry, fridge-freezer etc.

Much of the lake frontage plots are private and residential but my favourite swim spot is Eagle Point on the east side just below the Canadian border - right by a nature reserve where you will spot the Osprey’s nest and otters.

Don't forget to take your passport everywhere with you. The border police pulled me over one morning on the way back from a sunrise swim with nothing better to do than to question me.

You should definitely take a day or two to go and explore Lake Willoughby and Crystal lake that are only 30 mins away.

Sunset on Lake Memphremagog on my last night:

Wednesday, 5 June 2019

28.5 Mile Manhattan 20-Bridges Swim 1st June 2019

The attempt at a circumnavigation swim of Manhattan island was special in so many ways. It helped me close the file on wanting to do this swim since 2012 but so many things kept getting in the way. The result of the swim is that it has enabled me to feel SO much more at ease in New York being able to see the much quieter and more thoughtful spaces that I like to occupy in my mind with when not at work. After being quite down on NYC, I can see how people can cultivate a life here now having done the swim, stayed on the Upper West Side, having visited Governor's island and being taken training to Brighton Beach on Coney Island (many thanks to Arik and Jaimie). Given I work in a big city myself (London), unsurprising that I like to find quiet on vacation days.
Thanks to the generosity of colleagues and clients, this swim also raised over £4200 for Haven House Children’s Hospice in the UK

For this swim, I had enlisted the kayaking skills of all-round swimming California legend and one of my best swim buddies in Dan Simonelli (pic above) who had been my observer on Catalina and fellow completer of SCAR, Arizona in 2015. We were afforded an absolutely top observer/crew and all round great guy in John Humenik who looked after everything on the boat with NYPD fireman Eric (below) at the helm. At the end of the swim, fireman Eric literally gave me his fireman's T-shirt off his back!
It’s worth me, at this juncture, noting that I had updated many vaccinations (MMR 1&2, DTP and Hep A 6 weeks before the swim) plus was prescribed Doxycycline to take pre- and post swim to ward off any potential nasties. 

Our ‘Jump’ was 09:20 and due to the tides the start was held at Mill Rock Island which was half way up the Eastern shore of Manhattan (just off Randall island) which was different to most of the swims starting and finishing at North Cove.

After an early 06:30 registration, some nervous ‘Hellos’ complete with group photo taken above, I finally got the chance to meet the charming Rondi Davies and Dave Barra, we made our way round to the start, John ‘ghosted me up’ using the rubber gloves caked with sun cream and zinc (sudocrem) to prevent any ill effects of the sun. I applied Vaseline where I usually chafe and luckily our diligence paid off as not much chafe or sunburn ensued save for patch on front left shoulder from stubble that one will always get on a long swim. It always seems to get you somewhere no matter how you try and prevent it!

I was in wave 3 out of 5 with the slower swimmers heading off first led by Jessi from Vancouver. The start was a whistle and we all jumped out off our boats into the cold <60f (ca. 15c in British money) water to get the party started. The first hour was a tough battle without the pull of the tide (in fact the remnants of the ebb were hitting us head on) and constantly needing to pee but didn’t want to stop so battled on and tried ones best to cope whilst moving!

After the first feed post the first hour, you could now feel the current helping to push the swimmer up the Harlem and many of the 20 Bridges came thick and fast with one of the group who started 10mins after me (Israeli swimmer) Avishag, absolutely leathering it past me like a rocket. That made me want to raise my stroke rate so I upped the game and got stuck in. We were being swept along and although the water was brisk it wasn’t totally unmanageable given the time of year and being the 'earliest ever in the season' swim in history of Manhattan swimming. Given the tow we were getting from the current, at the next feed I joked to paddler Dan ‘Even a sodding plastic bag could swim this’ and he came back with ‘yeah - even a condom!!’. We overtook Ger Devin from Ireland and Jessi from Canada during  this stretch - it was obvious who they were as their kayakers had small Irish and Canadian flags flying from poles at the stern of their kayaks respectively.

There was one doubt though in my mind that kept nagging me as I had forgotten to bring my lucky duck (!) who turns up to all swims and events usually sitting on the bow of the boat (on my Channels) or kayak taking the conditions head first. I was hoping that wouldn't be my undoing but one stroke of luck I counted was my new shiny union jack swim cap presented to me from a few kind colleagues at work. I consoled myself that would mitigate the duck staying at home. I had fretted pre-swim that the unique tight fit of swim caps can be very personal but amazingly this one worked a treat so will be getting another outing next month in the US.

Anyway, we continued moving northwards and we passed the Yankees stadium on the right and I continued to hold most of the chasing pack (starting at later times) well at bay. We passed a shack on the left which looked like one of the coolest residences on the island:

Then the super humble Anna-Carin (Ocean’s 7 first female) caught us up with another swimmer both turning over their arms in quite a rapid stroke rate but we cracked on and she never really managed to get past us the whole race thanks to Dan’s expert kayaking and me trying to get my head down.

Rounding the top of the northern part of Manhattan island gave the swimmer a huge sense of achievement having clicked off ca. 1/4 of the endeavour and all of a sudden after passing the ‘C’ representing Columbia Uni (above), the next thing I knew the swimmer and Kayaker basically got jettisoned at pace thru a rail bridge (looking East below) into the temperate (5 degree warmer) Hudson. As we were 'whooshed' under the rail bridge into the Hudson I let out a massive yell of excitement - this was sensational - both warm, fast and now non-salty!

We could then see the George Washington Bridge (GWB) reveal itself (below) spanning the brackish Hudson in all it’s iconic majesty. I just felt this overwhelming sense of privilege to be able to be here to do this with Dan by my side and gunning for the triple crown. I didn't want to be anywhere else and found it really easy to stay in the moment for a change.

The flow from the previous days rains in the Hudson allowed us to fly down to the GWB in 30 mins from the top of the northern part of the island and now the enormity of the swim started to kick in with a plethora or sky-scrapers (what’s the plural?) WAY further down in the far distance. This was a low point for me and probably due to giving it too many beans in the Harlem river trying to chase Avishag and fending off Anna! I did, however, take the opportunity to do a few turns of backstroke under the GWB which is a customary rite of passage!

Gradually we made progress and eased our way down the Western shore and some sights became familiar given the walks we had done having stayed on W 88th Street on the Upper West Side. I was convinced I was swimming slowly and flailing around but we had long dropped any chasing swimmers and Dan reassured we were averaging 3.5-4.5 knots. That made me feel mildly more positive.

(All under control - thumbs up Shez if want flat coke on next feed?!)

We were cracking along nicely and I was beginning to think this was an absolute breeze given the 4 hours taken so far (as I could count them feeding only once per hour) but then we hit the parallel with 40th street and the chop from the wind over tide, boats, helicopters, yachts, tugs (you-name-it) kicked up the water creating a very random rhythm. I generally like it when it properly kicks off and this reminded me of swimming a double Bala 10km in Wales a few years before which almost got cancelled. The only trouble this time was that there was no consistency in the waves coming at you. I couldn't look up to sight as kept getting mouthfuls of water so I resigned myself for letting paddler Dan sight for me so got my head down, endured and properly got stuck into what was coming at me. I was in my element. I caught up a couple of other swimmers who went of in earlier groups and was told by John that the chop would last to just after the battery close to the southern-most end. Water temp was no issue but huge ferry boats and the like were bearing down on us constantly. I didn’t have to worry as I knew Dan was all over it and looked relaxed as only a Californian man can in such a situation. I duly informed him at the next feed wanting to prize a smile that ‘I like it rough’ and ‘love it when it kicks off’ drew a grin. 

I knew we were within 20mins of the southernmost end after going past the North Cove marina where registration earlier on took place but could now see the Freedom Tower standing proudly over us. Very humbling experience indeed. John took the cracking pic above from the comfort of the support boat.

We were close to rounding the southernmost end where the Staten-island ferry comes in and heard loads of hoots of ferry horns and Dan told me to stop dead in your tracks ‘do you need to pee as this is a good time?!’  We were now back in more tidal seawater rather than the brackish Hudson and the temperature dropped back below 60f within a few meters and it stopped me so quickly in my tacks that I couldn’t muster up a pee whilst we spent 30 seconds treading water much to my frustration. The tide was still 45-60mins from turning so in effect we had arrived too quickly knowing that we'd be taking some ebbing current head on.

We rounded the point and it was majestic looking up the south eastern part with the trio of ‘BMW’ bridges (Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg) all within sight. The chop was now really bad, the water was bl00dy freezing and we were stopped in our tracks by the remnants of the outgoing tide. The chop was coming from all angles including some weird under-tows. I began to feel disheartened and cold to the bone with frozen hands and forearms having borne the brunt of the kicking we were getting in the chop which was showing no signs of abating. I did begin to wonder whether I would actually get the job done. Feeds had now switched from carb powder to flat coke which raised spirits somewhat and we battled on through the violently unpredictable water and under-currents clicking off the miles.

(Passed the Brooklyn Bridge in the background - even creating a bow wave with my head if you look closely!)

Eventually we rounded the Williamsburg bridge and made the left turn up the Eastern side of the island, the water calmed down and we now had the tide in our favour feeling the gentle push behind. Dan expertly navigated the fastest course possible but pointed out that my ‘stroke rate had markedly slowed’ (I did warn them I didn't appreciate comments on stroke rate before the swim!). I was feeling very cold and informed him that my forearms and hands felt cramped up frozen solid where I just couldn’t relax them. I felt pretty beaten up having to constantly squeeze my goggles into my face so they didn't get swept away and was secretly glad that this swim was no ‘gimmie’. I was deeply regretting making the comment about the plastic bag being able to do it! I was convinced that there might be someone who wouldn’t get it done given the water temperatures but evidently the extensive screening process for this earliest ever attempt at Manhattan works as everyone made it as the field was littered with cold water practitioners!

The finish was now in sight and with every arm pull the current seemed to power us along, past other swimmers following Dan on the paddles who tried to find the smallest advantage in the fast water. The last mile seemed like we totally blasted back up to Mill rock and before you knew it we went past the imaginary finish line, a hooter went off and I was informed to stop swimming. It was over. Round of applause, hollering and waving from whoever was around. Relief, joy and deep sense of accomplishment as I scrambled back onto the support boat (on the 2nd attempt) and whole body cramping like mad. 

I looked over and saw the safety boat captained by Dave Barra and thought how safe and well organised this day was from start to finish with everyone on radios, NYPD on the water and nothing left to chance. Dan came over and said ‘great job Man’ and I got changed and drank hot water during a particualrly bumpy & nauseating boat right back to North Cove Marina. I realised we had overtaken a few other swimmers in the latter stages but didn't know till later that I had come 8th overall and 3rd male home with a time I would have died for - 7 hours 52 mins! (Rondi later informed me the current we had on the day was about average).

Completing this swim allowed me to earn the right to label myself as the 210th ‘Triple Crowner’ alongside the 20 other Brits who had gone on the journey before me.

You can read more about that here:

In conclusion this is a great swim and I would definitely recommend that UK aspirants choose first swim of the season as I really couldn't bear the thought of doing this in heat and warm water - makes me feel ill just thinking about it. Many will come and not give this swim the respect it deserves. The southern section on West- and East sides present a real threat of chop and all swimmers felt pretty beaten up afterwards. The views of the city are breathtaking but I wouldn't want to do it being a right-side breather only which is worth bearing in mind. Luckily, I am left-dominant on breathing. This swim is exceptionally well run and the safety boats were literally everywhere including race officials, NYPD constantly interacting on the radio with ferries etc. These are busy waterways after all. Highly recommended.

Question is, will I return for the 40 Bridges? Always fancied the sightseeing tour at night!

Sunday, 19 August 2018

21.3 mile Lake Tahoe Solo, California/Nevada, USA August 11/12th 2018

2 dominant forces drew me irrepressibly to Lake Tahoe. Firstly, the purity of the water (deemed to be 99.994% pure versus commercially bottled water at 99.998%!)  and, secondly, the continuation of the path-less-travelled (the feeling of being a bit of a pioneer). This is a common thread of many of my swim challenges when I reminisce (see blogs on Loch Lomond, Lac Leman, SCAR etc)

This challenge saw me commit over 18 months in the planning then just over 12 hours in the execution. Indeed, for this one, I had to reappraise my adaptability not only to the cold, fresh water but the altitude at over 6200 feet (!) which is considered to be far more impactful on the swimmer than the runner or cyclist. This was a whole different ballgame altogether. When I asked the only other Brit I knew who had completed it solo (Kevin Murphy in 2003) he repeatedly expressed to me the difficulties of altitude combined with a particular lack of buoyancy.

I remember being pretty nervous in the few days leading up to this swim given the altitude, the fresh water, the lack of references or islands breaking up the swim. There had also been widespread forest fires in northern California in the few weeks before so I was praying for the air to clear (which thankfully it did JUST before my swim). The task at hand was still an English Channel distance after all but with way less buoyancy. The best word to describe Lake Tahoe is 'vast'. However, experience definitely counts for something and my 70km Lac Leman swim in 2016 (see blog below) certainly put this one into very meaningful perspective. More recently though, I was appreciative of my friend Jane Bell who had helped me execute an absolutely flawless OVERNIGHT one-way Windermere 2-weeks prior which really stood me in good stead mentally the whole way as we started the swim in the final throes of daylight (see pic below) and the next 10 hours (i.e. 5/6ths of the swim) were pretty much in the pitch black. In this situation you really have to trust your stroke and be on your mental game as there's no sensation of moving anywhere like in a pool or a narrower lake - the only reference points were the feeds on the hour which helped to break the swim down into manageable chunks (I fed every hour on the hour). I told myself, therefore, that it would be a ca. 12 feed swim as I knew deep down I could swim the 1st half in around 6 hours.

(Stunning sunset just before our 'jump' on 11th August 2018)

On the evening of 11th August, my wife Emily and I turned up at Camp Richardson Marina at the southernmost end of the Lake at 8pm to meet with the support team. Thanks to the Swim the Suck swim in 2016 in Tennessee and the SCAR Swim in Arizona in 2017, I had the chance to get to know not only a very able and chilled out swimmer/pilot in Tom 'Reptile' Linthicum but also a very accomplished swimmer and kayaker in Amy Appelhans-Gubser who had recently smashed out a very enviable 14 hour North Channel (body of water between Ireland and Scotland). At 8.30pm I was ready for the 'jump' as Reptile likes to put it. Looking over to our left & at the western-side mountain range on the western part of the lake, we were treated to absolutely incredible pinks, purples and reds illuminating the sky as the previous day's proceedings were concluded. After seeing Bill Shipp, another soloist, and his crew including (the great) Sarah Thomas off, I entered the chilly waters at around 08:30pm.

(Only 21.29 miles to go...)

At first the water felt pretty bracing and the task at hand rather overwhelming but I soon got into my usual predictable swim rhythm of ca. 50 strokes per minute. The water never really felt cold (it may have been 18c) and at that temperature it was never going to bother me greatly or put the solo in jeopardy. Over to my right I could see the bright lights forever delineating the state line between California and Nevada. Reptile warned me that I would be able to see those lights for hours and once long behind me there was then going to be extreme darkness (and a meteor shower that at least the crew would enjoy!)

I am not going to lie. The first 3 hours of this swim were very tough indeed. During the first 25% of the swim, the mind starts to complain along the lines of 'WTF are we doing this again?' & I had to dig deep to combat this & hide it from the crew. This wasn't helped by a very unpredictable and choppy current for the first 3 hours which left the sense of humour elsewhere making it tough for the kayaker, the boat crew and the swimmer. Thank god it settled down and I got into a rhythm, got on top of the swim mentally by deciding to pretend I was doing a Two-way Windermere & visioned all the landmarks that I knew from that swim (Belle Isle, Storrs, Fell Foot, Bass rock, you name it!). It worked a treat putting myself mentally somewhere else!

It's funny but I realise now that it takes me sometimes until during the actual swim to fully understand why I am fundamentally undertaking the thing deep down. The aspect that really cracked this swim for me was visualising a 12 hour swim with feeds every hour on the hour pretending I was doing a 2-way Windermere. There were no islands breaking up the monotony and the notion of having to nail this swim predominantly in darkness that made this very gutsy.

Hourly feeds came and went. As usual I got my mojo after around 6 hours when I promised myself I had to have been half-way with the rest of the swim downhill to the finish. I decided I would throw the proverbial kitchen sink at the swim and my 5:47 overnight 10.5mile 1-way Windermere only 2 weeks prior really stood my confidence in great stead. My friend Amy was nothing but encouraging at feed times telling me 'Mark you are a beast, you are a machine my friend'. Her positivity was infectious and I really didn't want to let her down. All of the crew were here just for me and to see me succeed! At 6 hours I decided to change my feeds from maxim & a mini choc-chip cookie to something entirely new of flat coke & bit of banana (really enjoyed that btw). That was pretty much all I had in the 2nd half save for a bottle of water. Whenever I felt thirsty, I have to admit, I just opened my gob in the lake and drank! LOL.

Nothing was really too much bother other than the air temperature dropping to a fresh feeling on the shoulders at around 4am. I had the best support team in the world being led by swimmers for a swimmer with my wife diligently sorting feeds on the hour. It was lovely having the kayak to my side and the support boat further to my left. I generally kept my mouth shut and got on with the task at hand. It was really no bother.

(magical moment welcoming in the sun with my friend Amy smiling all the way)

(we spotted 'Tessie' - the Tahoe monster)

After about 9-10 hours, darkness lifted and the next day gradually dawned. I could see I was approaching the last u-shaped bay which housed the finish line. It was a bit of an optical illusion (similar to the lighthouse on the Catalina swim) and after enquiring to kayaker Gavin how much longer he noted '5-miles'. WTF....I was feeling suddenly disheartened as I had kidded myself I was closer. My mind was beginning to play tricks on me. I thought I had less than 2 to go! I got my head down and focussed hard on my stroke (especially ensuring to breathe close to the water and get chin to chest). Now and again I would start to try and count to 400 with each stroke to distract the mind. I also reminded myself of Teresa Roberts' mantra of 'Just keep moving forward' from my Geneva swim and Gez Lyon's 'If you can still put one arm in front of the other then you can keep going'.

During this time we overtook a wetsuit swimmer who had gone out 25 mins in front of us and I was also closing in on skins soloist Bill Shipp & his boat ahead who also went out ahead by about 30 mins. I also hit a lump of wood/branch in the water (which I tried to throw to the boat as a souvenir) and then below me saw a massive dark shadow move in the motion of a shark. It was scary and stopped me in my tracks....I laughed and told myself to get a grip: Tessie (the Tahoe monster) doesn't exist - it was just the light & depth playing tricks on me in the water. Now I was in daylight with the sun rising above the mountains (pic above), this was magical moment and nothing but encouragement from Amy and thumbs up from Reptile confirmed that I had this one pretty much nailed.

Slowly but surely we approached the very quiet Incline Village and just before 9am on 12th August we meandered our way through the moored boats. At last I could see the very welcome sight of sand confirming that I was going to be successful. Amy piloted me into the finishing beach where I limped ashore and we had a massive hug declaring our victory - Amy maintaining I 'had smashed it' and that 'I was a beast' and 'a machine'! 12 hours 26 mins and 58 seconds for the 34.2km. I had done a fresh water 21 mile PB by over 1 hour (my prior best was 13hours 29 in Two Way Windermere which is shorter at 33.8km) and smashed Kevin Murphy (King of the Channel's) British Record by almost 90 mins (and note that the route that he took from Pope's Beach to Kings Beach is actually 1km shorter at 33.2km). I had become only the 52nd human in history (and 2nd Brit) to swim the full length of the course from Camp Richardson to Incline Village! That feeling of humble achievement suddenly just sat so well and I patted myself on the back for all the hard training & preparation i had put in over the prior 18 months.

Hugs all-round then a mere 1 hour boat ride back to Camp Richardson where I treated the crew to breakfast at Bert's cafe (which is becoming a rite of passage for soloists!)

(Team Shezza: Gavin (kayaker), Reptile (pilot), Shez, Em, Joel (observer) and Amy (kayaker))

My recommendations for completing Lake Tahoe:
1. Do an overnight swim of over 10 miles within 3 weeks of the swim. This will give you confidence on the night and will be great prep without overdoing it.
2. Get to Lake Tahoe at least 3 days prior to your swim. The altitude might mess with you. I was pretty breathless for the first 2 days but was fine on the night. I have heard stories of many others turning up on the day or day before and feeling very sick the whole swim.
3. Train hard in fresh water. This is not the sea and doesn't offer much buoyancy. Some say that altitude also offers less buoyancy.
4. Try and do some workouts in an altitude chamber. I did HiiT classes on a rower at the altitude centre in London. That definitely got me fitter, gave me a new outlet during the week and replicated oxygen at 2700 metres (which is actually higher than Tahoe).
5. Work hard on your stroke. I did the weekly Tuesday session under the watchful eye of Dan Bullock from SwimforTri. Those sessions helped get me ready.
6. Swim feed to feed
7. Choose a good pilot. I chose Tom as he is a swimmer, has done this solo 3x, follows a straight course marked by GPS and therefore there is absolutely no wasted effort or a question over the course. He only wants to see you succeed and has piloted people who have taken over 20 hours to swim the length! His patience is incredible.

Some random facts about Lake Tahoe:
1. Lake Tahoe is the 2nd deepest lake in the US and 10th deepest in the world with maximum depth of 1645 feet
2. Average surface elevation is at 6225 feet
3. 2/3rds of LT is in California and 1/3 in Nevada
4. The sun shines in LT 75% of the year or 274 days
5. The lake holds 39 trillion gallons of water, enough to cover the state of California to a depth of 14.5 inches.
6. The place is vast - there are 75 miles of shoreline around the lake
7. The average surface temp in winter is 42f with a peak around 65f during the summer months
8. 125 inches of snow falls at lake level every year with 500 inches not uncommon on the surrounding peaks
9. The surface of the lake takes up 191 square miles. If you stood on the lake surface shoulder-to-shoulder you could fit nearly 1.87 billion people on it - that's over 5x the population of the US.

(Southern 1/2 of Lake Tahoe looking south from atop Cave Rock - the start is in the far distance left of centre!)

(Northern 1/2 of Lake Tahoe looking North atop Cave Rock - the finish is below the mountains in the very far distance to the right!)

Monday, 1 January 2018

Swimming La Bocayna Strait (Lanzarote to Fuerteventura)

I have been fortunate enough to have swum all over the world but I think this relatively short ca. 16km swim has served to remind me the entire reason why I took up this fine sport and genuinely define what I want to get out of it...'To plan and complete the pioneering swims of the path less well travelled'. This was a similar vein in why I took on 70km Lake Geneva solo in 2016 (and indeed Loch Lomond in 2012) but this one actually was remarkably easy to plan/execute and involved some fun strategising with a local pilot, Mauro Poggi, who takes a real pride in his piloting. I only knew of 2 soloists in skins prior to our swim in December 2017 but again the beauty of this swim is that it can be done all year round! We completed it on the 27th Dec 2017 so if you are wondering what to aim towards to keep the training fun in the Winter, why not aim at this one which is only a cheap 3.5 hour flight from the UK?

I had been holidaying over the Xmas period for a while in Lanza (the girls can surf and I can swim!) and in the last few years had witnessed posts from Vicky Middlemast (nee Miller) and Ned Denison succeeding so wanted desperately to get a window to execute this before getting any older.

To cut a long story short, organising one of the finest pilots I’ve ever met was just luck. A friend of a friend of Vicky’s pilot was around during the dates, not only had the fastest 34 foot rib Lanzarote had to offer, was willing and keen to meet me beforehand to plot the route, answer questions etc so that all I needed to do was swim. Mauro Poggi was outstanding and a craftsman of his art with a perfect boat for the job - very stable in a wave, easy to get into and out of plus 640bhp thus only a 10 minute ride back to base. It has two engines, great at idle speed and holds the route perfectly with autopilot. We essentially plotted a route which would be longer than the birds-eye route but would avoid 2 very busy ferry routes.

I managed to rope in Lucinda and Mark Bayliss who also came along for the swim and are always up for one mad harebrained scheme or two! (Most of the photos on this blog are theirs btw - thank you).

We decided to start our swim at a particularly secluded beach 1/2 km west of the famous Papagayo horseshoe shaped bay which Lanza is famous for. Our starting beach was ONLY accessible by boat (in centre of pic below). The coldest part of the swim was stripping off at 9am but once we jumped into the water to swim to the beach, it felt so much warmer in the water than on the boat. The beach was magical and encircled by an amphitheatre of steep rocks. Quite a contrast from a Channel Swim beginnings I remarked! We soon cracked on with the task at hand, cleared the beach and slowly got into a rhythm making steady progress as we could still see the bottom and after 20 mins cleared the southern most point of Lanzarote. 

(Papagayo beaches)

We were headed for the eastern flank of the island of Lobos which marks the 2/3 point of the swim and breaks up the vista with a lovely lighthouse and volcanic rock. Our sighting point was actually the large mountain on the left of the picture below which is a volcano on FV. The water was stunningly clear turquoise with terrific visibility but save for the odd fish, very little came into view in terms of marine life the whole trip. Not a single jellyfish!
After 4.5km, we were in the middle of the channel,  Mark’s calves cramped up and his swim was over having to spend the next 10km helping with feeds and chatting to the pilot - his payback from doing too much running (something I will not suffer from)! Lucinda and I upped the pace and we thumped out a good 3.4km hour. We were absolutely flying along with a pleasant 10mph northerly breeze helping to blow us towards FV! After the 3rd feed on the hour, the lighthouse at the northernmost point of Lobos was right upon us and it was stunning having the island as a distraction. The feeling of liberation being out in the middle of the ocean for me was pretty magical. For someone who limps around on land, this felt like proper nectar. I loved every single minute of it tbh. All the winter training (including a 100x100m session only 11 days prior) really paid off as we flew alongside Lobos island. 

(Looking out from the Papagayo beaches across the straits past Lobos island to Fuerteventura)

(Lucinda and Shezza in the middle of the straits with Playa Banca the southernmost town on Lanzarote in the background)

At the end of the island, we had a good 2km stretch to the sandy beach at FV famous for its kitesurfers and we made towards the right side of a big hotel. It was going to be a tough last hour as now a decent westerly wind was cracking in and the sea felt REALLY big. These were some of the biggest swells I have ever encountered in my life but just felt so much fun. I was never far from the support boat and couldn't wipe the smile off my face. Contrastingly,  Lucinda was now beginning to feel sick in the swell but we had come so far, throwing in the towel was never going to be an option. 'Look how far you have come' I urged! She really showed considerable bravery after being sick to crack on to be within sniffing distance of landing the swim.

We battled through a confused sea into the last kilometre and after seeing the sea bed again, felt reassured we were making enough progress to conclude this swim was ours for the taking. One arm after the other we finally got into a position where the breaking waves meant we could navigate our exit which was easier said than done. I raised by goggles on top of my swim hat to try and work out a clear path to take to walk out of the water but a wave came and ripped them clean off my head never to be seen again. I put my right foot in a hole in the sand (there were many voids from a big rocks) which could have been a real ankle breaker if you didn’t have your wits about you. Eventually, inch by inch we were freed from the breaking waves congratulating each other and in search of shells for the kids as souvenirs! I found 2 massive rocks and shoved them down the back of my trunks without realising how much they were doing to drag me down in the goggle-less swim back to the boat!

It was easy to use the stern ladder to haul oneself back onto the boat and the boat ride back was 10 mins of thrill-speakers exhilaration as Mauro unleashed the potential of 640bhp across 2 engines. It was something to behold being on a boat which only takes 2 hours from Lanza to Africa! Back on the dock, Mauro pulled out some lovely local beers (8% strength!) out of the boat's bountifully-stocked fridge and we toasted with smiles all round. He even stopped at the local Queseria on the way back to wash some local goats cheese down with the beer - sure that helped with the recovery!

I never felt cold once and could estimate the temperature of the water around 18c-20c the whole way. Even Simon Griffiths could do this in skins I think! We reckon the swim was around16km all-in which is an ideal marker for someone new to the sport or upping their distance. I actually couldn’t think of better training for Catalina than this. Would I do it again? Certainly. Everyday of the week. I am even plotting returning for a few other swims I want to do in these waters. Mauro was awesome from start to finish and charged us 100 euros per hour whilst on the boat but threw in pick up and drop off from the hotel too. Between us execution was Eur 700 which I think is a bargain for such a trip. Everything was just perfect, all we had to do was swim.  This is no 'gimme' of a swim and the last 2km is tough (but isn't it always!?) but if it were too easy, it wouldn't be worth doing!

Get in touch if you want more details of the swim. You can find Mauro's page here: