Friday, 28 December 2012

Swimmers Without Frontiers

Swimmers Without Frontiers

I feel inspired. I just received the annual report from the BLDSA for 2012 and very honoured to have come third in terms of points for the 2012 season after struggling with 30 lengths front crawl in 2009. I kind of feel like I also earned most of those points the hard way as I didn't win any of the races (those that come first not only get the mileage, but also get 10 points, 2nd gets 9 and so on...). This blog ain't about the past. That was just me feeling smug for a second.

When I first took it upon myself to start this website I was pretty much 100% fit (save for dodgy knee) and embarking on a project/goal to swim Loch Lomond. This digital journal was therefore chronicling the steps I was taking and was hoping to impart knowledge & inspire others to get stuck in wherever possible. Loch Lomond happened and all went fine and dandy...

I am now disabled. I suppose if I were to swim & qualify for the Paralympics they'd stick me in with the S7s which is like an amputee. I have even applied for my very own blue badge to occupy one of the empty disabled spaces by the pool and supermarket!  Due to having a benign tumour removed from my left abdomen, the surgeons had to sacrifice the left femoral nerve that governs my left quad which I no longer have the use of. I have no real leg kick to speak of in my left leg. The disability is no real bother at all but just takes me longer to get anywhere and you generally feel more vulnerable. BUT not in the water.

I am now 8 weeks post operation and absolutely thrilled to be back in the pool and slamming out a mile in under 32 mins (I was around 30 mins pre-op). Words cannot describe and do not express the liberating feeling that swimming gives me and each length is definitely more special than before this disability. I don't beat up myself as much and appreciate taking more time getting to know others and what they are training for. I also look over at the slow and medium lanes and consider most of that front crawl to be an utter disaster which is a shame and doesn't need to be with much training.

These last 8 weeks has presented me with ample opportunity to reassess what I want to do on the earth given I can't get around as easily and what I can do with swimming which is obviously central to my existence. One night in the Royal Marsden in Chelsea (high on morphine) I came up with the idea of Swimmers Without Frontiers.

What is Swimmers Without Frontiers? I have returned to the pool after massive abdominal surgery and a disability but there's only one person who can swim faster than me in the fast lane at the local baths on the Saturday & Sunday lane swims. How many people with disabilities can swim well and believe that they could swim well? I guess not many. There's only one disabled athlete I see in the baths and he's awesome & passionate & has no use of his legs but he is there everyday no matter what. He's the kind of guy I'll reach out to for technique help. Basics...

One of my heroes, Rosalinda Hardimann is the only person that I know of who has swum the channel as a disabled swimmer (Polio & wheelchair all of her life) and has surely been the beacon of hope to many an able bodied channel swimmer that they can make it to France.

Indeed,  one of my mates who cannot even drive due to severe Epilepsy, finished 3rd in this year's Ullswater 7-miler in very cold 12 degrees is a terrific swimmer and has overcome a whole bunch of fear and worry including some of her natural instincts and believe that she can swim heroic distances (she swam round Jersey this year and is doing the Channel in 2013).
You know what, when I think about it there are loads of us who would count as 'Less-Able' and slightly disabled. Open Water swimming seems to attract us!

What I want to do is to find a way of inspiring the 'less-able' to realise that they can float and in most cases improve speed & belief. I am disabled but, oh boy, you put me in the water - I feel super-human compared with most pool swimmers.

What I think Swimmers Without Frontiers will be is a resource base (probably a blog or website) where the 'Less-able' can write down their inspirational stories of their endurance swims to provide motivation for others. They'll also be a whole bunch of stuff on technique there and once I've got my coaching badges I'll be able to instruct from more of a position of authority. This could be global and showcase anyone's inspirational swimming endurance story. Dick and Rick Hoyt (Link on the side of blog) are an inspiration to me. There are tonnes of others.

In 2013, I have my name down for 2swim4life (www.2swim4life.com) and the big aim will be becoming one of the first (if not THE first) disabled athlete to swim a double Windermere (BLDSA swim  - www.bldsa.org.uk). I also am putting my name down for the Channel in 2015 to put my name alongside Rossalinda Hardiman. That would be an honour.

This will need some tweaking but you get the idea.....Let me know any thoughts!

Swimmers Without Frontiers - Inspiration Thru Endurance

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Take all your chances while you can....2012

I am one of the very few people on earth who can say with 100% certainty that taking up extreme marathon swimming definitely saved their life.

'Take all your chances while you can, you never know when they'll pass you by....'

The opening lyrics to the song Chances off one of my favourite albums of all-time entitled Tourist by Athlete is left ringing loudly in my ears as I write this blog.......

The following blog might rock you upside down and inside out but if it's any consolation it helps me as part of the healing process. The story has an underlying script that I could never have dreamt up in some of my worst nightmares but feel obliged to make you aware of so you have regular health screening checks....I wouldn't want to inflict the following episode upon anyone....

So, as you might be aware, on 25th/26th August 2012, I became the 44th person in history to swim Loch Lomond in a pair of budgie-smugglers as part of the BLDSA organised swim. I felt I flew down the Loch in a respectable time of under 15 hours (for a non-swimmer) and finished with no shoulder pain or any pain anywhere other than inflamed eyes due to a goggle irritation.

With this supreme and massive confidence about my physical wellbeing, I decided to embark on a project to swim the 28 mile Manhattan Island Marathon Swim (MIMS) in June 2013 - as one does! Well,  that was the plan until I went for the medical on Friday 5th October 2012.....

Urine clear, bloods fine, blood pressure normal...
'Get up on the couch Mr Sheridan and let me feel your tummy.'

'Eh? That wasn't part of the medical sheet - just sign the form!'  I joked... 

Dr. Lianne De Maar at the Nomura (office) health centre had identified the beginnings of a one month nightmare. She had identified a mass in my left flank (abdomen).

'Are you constipated, Mr Sheridan?'
'No, absolutely not!' I said confidently
'Well, I want you to take Fibregel for a week and come and see me in a week's time - I'll send you a planner'.

To my mind, my tummy felt completely normal and I had even been doing 200 sit-ups in the gym for the previous 3 days in a row! (which was a first in itself). I felt as awesome as I had felt....ever...

To cut a very long story short, I took the Fibregel for a week and the mass hadn't gone away when the appointment took place on 11th October. She then immediately referred me to a colorectal cancer specialist called Mark George on Friday 12th October at the London Bridge Hospital much to my worry and disgust. She had quite a worried look on her beautifully sculpted face.

'Are you out of your mind? I've just swum Loch Lomond!; I'm in the shape of my life!!! Why in God's name am I having to see a cancer specialist??'

Mark George saw me straight away the very next day on Friday 12th October and admitted that there indeed was a rascal lurking beneath the surface in my left abdomen and thought it might be something underneath the organs but would only be found with the technology of a CT scan. He wasn't willing to speculate and present me with anything that resembled a diagnosis without the evidence presented to him by technology.....

So, armed ith a CT scan under my belt (on Wed 17th Oct), I went along the following Friday (Fri 19th October). I sat down thinking that this was all going to be a big mistake and mix up. Surely I was just constipated and just needed to do some squatting for England. Not so Shezza.....

The scanners had found something. They had found something ABSOLUTELY MASSIVE!! I was shown a scan very slowly of the slice by slice visual of my torso. Dr George said that the lungs were fine (phew!) and then scrolled down the body.  What they had found was almost too ridiculous to believe (I was almost laughing rather than crying) - it was clear in the black and white ink on the letter that he gave me to go home with that weekend:

'There is a soft tissue mass in the retroperitoneum which involves the left psoas muscle and extends onto the iliacus muscle. The mass extends superiorly up to the lower pole of the kidney but does not arise from it. The maximum diameter in the transverse plane measures 11cm x10cm. The mass measures a craniocaudal diameter of 11cm.
Opinion. The appearances are in keeping with a soft tissue tumour in the retroperitoneum which probably arises from the right psoas muscle. A sarcoma is the most likely diagnosis and a specialist referral is advised for further imaging/management.'

The world had gone mad. I was insistent to Dr George that I felt fine and had no symptoms relating to this stupid  mass and was boasting about my new ab-workouts. I said he could feel my tummy again and that I'd been to the bog loads. I was kidding myself.... He immediately  pointed out the rather terrifying news  that this was an area of expertise way beyond him - he was a seasoned expert he had never seen a tumour like this before. Oh my giddy aunt I thought.  Only 3 oncology surgeons in the country are evidently known to operate in the 'retroperitoneum' & might perhaps be able to help me now.....He suggested someone who he would want to see faced with my utterly dire predicament.  He had already referred me to Dr Meirion Thomas at the Royal Marsden as his first 9.15am patient on the following Monday the 22nd October. I was too scared to google 'Sarcoma' for fear of dragging up unwanted grief. I knew that would serve no constructive purpose whatsoever.

I got the train home from a rainy London Bridge with teary eyes, the heaviest heart known to man &  just trying my best not to break down on the train and to keep it together.........
So that's that then.....All that was left for me to do was to go home tell my wife, kids, parents and brother that I had a tumour and I was pretty much  buggered with a few months to live if that. 38 years on the earth packed with fun and laughter & never wasted  one second. I had taken ALL my chances..EVERY SODDING LAST ONE OF THEM. I didn't cry when I told them all in person face to face (they all deserved more respect than the findings over a phone call as I drove around to see everyone individually that Friday evening (30 min visits to my  parents and  my brother ). I never lost it once there OR at work (it took everything I had to hold it together everywhere I went). I felt proud of everything I had done in my life and if I had months to live then so be it.... If I could man up to Loch Lomond, then I could man up to this.

Fast forward. An inclement Monday 22nd Oct came, Professor Meirion Thomas fiddled around and was interested to hear that I was asymptomatic. I had no symptoms relating to this mass WHATSOEVER and that I felt absolutely 100% fine with recent perfect blood tests at Nomura from the previous fortnight. He was particularly enquiring about any quad pain I may have encountered. No Sir. I told him about my recent conquering of Loch Lomond and plans to swim Manhattan. Although he looked at me strangely and asked why anyone in their right mind would want to swim in the dirty waters of the Hudson, he keenly put forth that his son had completed the Arch to Arc as part of a 3 man relay that year. Funnily enough an event I know a reasonable amount about as I helped solo world record holder Mark Bayliss (Superman) on his way down to Dover with feeds for his run & as a training buddy during the year...

I felt myself involuntarily exhale massively and be slightly relieved as his initial view after prodding around was that it was benign (surely they aren't that forthcoming about this stuff and err on the side of caution?) but I then became aware of the consequences which were carefully dished out to me....

HE was visibly moved to tears with a shudder in his voice as he explained them.....

He said that if the scan was right and it was emanating from the Psoas muscle then the mass would likely involve damage to the femoral nerve upon removal. The femoral nerve, he said, was the most important nerve in the body as it governs ones stability (quad function). He said that I would almost CERTAINLY lose the quad function in my left leg as a result of ensuring complete removal of this ball the size of a grapefruit or a small child's plastic ball. For me, though, that felt like a small price to pay. After the despair of Friday and a thoroughly desperate weekend (even a Sunday emergency visit to the Vicarage for prayers with the vicar!) there might be a decent chance they could get this crazy thing out. I still didn't know if I had cancer or not.

Results from the biopsy that he took showed NO malignant cells BUT he only took blood (which seemed to bother him) and would have preferred to have taken tissue too. The Royal Marsden CT scan analysis was thorough but inconclusive as to the true nature (it had features of benign and malignant tumours...nothing like covering oneself and all the medical terminology seemed so foreign, complicated, bewildering and horrifying in equal measure).  He therefore booked me in for EMERGENCY surgery on Tuesday 30th October to try and get this rascal out . Still no diagnosis! Arrggghh...



Fast Forward again. This is hard to believe I know but Boy Sheridan had a two hour operation (they were relieved that the rascal tumour came out easily and they didn't have to damage the bowel or left kidney and therefore didn't have to induce me into a 24 hour coma). Oh the joy of small mercies... One night in Intensive care (picture above) complete with dramatic drop in blood pressure at one stage to panic everyone on a proper level (the effects of a massive hit of morphine on top of an epidural like a proper OD from a rockstar took my blood pressure down to 28 at one stage!).... 6 nights in a private room later, I was tearing around on crutches playing tricks on nurses Ana, Danielle et al and looking forward to heading home and saying good riddance to morphine on tap (which was making me irrational & highly paranoid). Picture of me in my own private room on the Fulham Road for 6 nights...the joys of private health insurance! (there wasn't a machine I wasn't connected to)!






Today, Wed 8th November 2012, I was called by Professor Thomas who said that results from the pathology were in. What they have removed is a BENIGN cellular Schwannoma that seems to have almost nothing much known about it at all in science - will need to do more sniffing around....(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schwannoma). Relief tears, 2 mins of pulling myself together washed down with a pub Lunch with mum. There is a god and I can start to rebuild my life......

Due to the removal of the mass, they had to cut the femoral nerve. I have lost all of my quad function in my left leg and will need a knee brace & stick/crutches for the foreseeable future/life. I had left knee acl reconstruction in Oct 2007 so am familiar with all the moves on the crutches....I always was a limping gimp. Just more so now.

It's quite hard to stomach entering hospital reasonably able-bodied and leaving with a life-lasting disability. But if that is the price, then it is very much worth taking and getting on with.

At this stage, I have a sore tummy due to major abdominal surgery (the greatest scar in history from chest to pelvis (100 stitches?)) and with any luck that will subside in 2-3 weeks. I can barely walk 3 laps round our 1 acre garden at the moment without searing abdominal pain but I'm sure that will calm down. Quite a difference from a man who swam 21.6 miles! The main benefit is being put on tramadol which is a terrific opiate and great for a permanently elevated mood!!

This won't (with any luck) change my sport and love for open water swimming as I am often able to recite the story of my friend Rosalinda Hardimann who swam the channel as a polio sufferer having never been free from her wheelchair. She has long been an inspiration for me and will continue to be so. In my opinion, people like her are the true stars of this world, not politicians or celebrities.

Whatever you do, don't bloody feel sorry for me. Don't get upset as I really don't want any pity. I just want to make people aware to go for their regular health checks. Maybe that's why this has happened to me - I need to make more people realise.....I feel lucky that I have a life to rebuild given it wasn't long ago I thought I had a 12cm inoperable tumour.

I feel completely honoured to have experienced this and hope that I can be a benchmark for other physically-constrained athletes to realise that they can still float! I am very happy that over the last 2 years that I've lost 2 stone through open water swimming and when turning up for the pre-operation checks, it reminds you how important it is to stay fit and healthy. My daughters now really understand why I encourage them to do something physical - whether it be gymnastics or swim club.

I experienced an amazing experience through all of this nightmare. On the Tuesday of my hospital visit, I awoke at 1am feeling very positive and felt inspired. I knew if I could get back swimming in some way, I could create greatness that might motivate others. That would give me a huge purpose and drive.

This is rare. VERY rare. Something that I never knew about (didn't go into this in my GCSE Biology) but have been chosen  for some reason to part of. The medical teams don't know why it was there. All I can say is thank god for open water swimming and applying to swim Manhattan. If I hadn't gone down these roads that 2.5kg (!) mass would have become a greater problem further on as I heard about a female martial arts teacher who had one which was 8kg..it doesn't bear worth thinking about...Most of all, I owe a huge level of massive gratitude to the professionalism of GP Lianne De Maar, the acting GP at the Nomura Health centre who absolutely made sure I got on the couch to look at me properly (she didn't need to). I will be booking all my 2 year well-man checks with her going forward - strange to think that my last one was only April 2011......

This was a really terrific way for my adorable wife to spend her half term away from school in her first term as a newly-qualified teacher. What one has to sign up for in a marriage!

I think I need to have a chat with the BLDSA president Double L and race organiser Janet Wilson to try and have my time adjusted for Loch Lomond as I was towing along a 2kg, 12cm mass (bag of sugar). That should take at least 5 hours off the time and be close to a new world record!!

I am exploring whether I can represent the country as a Paralympian and will continue to do any ambassadorial work I can do for my mates at the Rainbow Trust and will immerse myself with renewed vigour into the BLDSA - looking forward to next year's calender - the 2swim4 life will almost certainly have a disabled entry!

The surgeon reckons I can be back in the pool in 3 weeks.

As I finish this blog I am super excited about what the future holds. Watch this space......just do me a favour? Can you beat anyone and everyone over the head who is avoiding taking exercise or opting out of a physical challenge - it could end up saving their life:

Take all your chances while you can, you never know when they'll pass you by......

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Long Distance Freestyle Technique

I am not a qualified swimming coach and am not necessarily the world's authority on front crawl but I've swum ca. 22 miles & almost 15 hours in cold Scottish water,  I have completed the 24 mile 2Swim4Life, swum the 21 mile 2-way Windermere, swum the English Channel TWICE and was the 1st Brit to swim 70km Lake Geneva in 33 hours wearing only a pair of trunks which is more than any qualified swim coach that I've ever met..... The swimming bit was reasonably easy...it was the dealing with the cold that was the harder more character-building bit!! There are therefore some observations I feel like sharing regarding what I've leant on my long distance swimming journey so far...

I hope you find this blog insightful as I try to delve into a bit more detail on what I consider to be an effortless technique used in long distance front crawl.....

When I uncovered this lark of long distance swimming in 2009/2010 (after countless knee surgeries and realising I couldn't run anymore), I naively thought that after 2 lessons in an endless pool learning a bit more about Total Immersion and the like, I thought I had learnt everything there was to know about this front crawl malarky...... I convinced myself I could therefore contemplate taking on 10.5mile Windermere in 2011. No guts, no glory.....it wasn't pretty, but it happened.....

Is there a long distance swimming technique? Is there some kind of secret here? Well, yes I think there is and I want to help others try and avoid the mistakes, pitfalls & some of the pain I encountered as at times I felt utterly helpless as my new-found sport was going to be pointless if it was going to cause pain.

In 2011, whilst training to swim Windermere, I trained in Dover Harbour under the stewardship of Freda Streeter with the Channel Swimmers every Saturday. This comprised of being 'told' how many hours was going to be expected of YOU (everyone was different). Of course, after an initial 40 mins one Saturday in early June, I went back and got 2 hours the next Saturday but didn't struggle to complete the task UNTIL on the third Saturday when 5 hours was being demanded of me!!! Oh boy. What a ramp up and having never swum more than 2 hours straight in my life !! Agony....After 3hrs 15 mins, my shoulders had frozen stiff and I walked out of the water and up the steep beach to my bag. I was ready to walk away from the sport in a right huff (I'm glad I didn't). Little did I know that this is NOT the 'done thing' and was much to the disgust of Freda & co. I felt half-way like a failure as others (much slighter than my 17 stone) seemed jovial after 5, 6 or even 7 hours......!

To cut a long story short, I kind of ambled on and 'dealt' with the pain in my shoulders my own way and instead of going to see a proper coach, I just read what I could in my long distance swimming book for assistance (Penny Lee Dean's Open Water Swimming). I didn't give up and kept going down to Dover on Saturdays - just cuffed it and extended up to 7 hours with the wonderful assistance of the great Sue Murray who waited patiently for me & helped me through some dark moments....She, with her much slighter figure, made me realise that I COULD swim through the cold for 5 hours+ if I just swum hour to hour (and feed to feed). However, my bad stroke was still causing the shoulder pain (directly in the front of my left shoulder), or 'rotator pain' and it was, of course, getting worse (due to spending longer in the water) and lasting for days. In the end I kinda got through Windermere my own way really not knowing what I was doing stroke-wise - hence finishing a good 3 hours after the winner. I felt slightly clueless but had bags of desire.

Therefore, after I had set myself a goal to swim Loch Lomond (in the summer 2012), it was during the January and February of 2012 that I realised I had much to learn from uncle Ray Gibbs at Swim Canarywharf.

THERE IS A LONG DISTANCE SWIMMING STROKE that does NOT result in shoulder discomfort, leaves you feeling 'in control', not fighting the water, not constantly trying to keep yourself from sinking and being able to leave the water reasonably refreshed & not demoralised. I am living proof. I finished Loch Lomond with NO shoulder pain WHATSOEVER.

What I want to do is in the following break down what I have learnt as the most salient points that beginners to long distance swimming can take on board and learn for themselves if they care to.  This is not the magic pill or cure-all for everyone. Like a golfer, you cannot learn this sport from the comfort of your armchair reading a book but I hope I can convey some aspects that you can work on and take onboard.  I suppose we have to remember that front crawl is an art form that perhaps we never really perfect BUT I really think that there's some significant learnings from my experiences that I want to pass on....(Some of below assumes some basic knowledge of front crawl)

A few areas that has made a difference to my comfort in the murky world of long distance swimming:

1. The Bent Arm Catch (a. Propulsion and b. Streamlining)
2. Breathing
3. Kick
4. Hands
5. Rotation

1. The Bent Arm catch

a. Propulsion
In my experience, most pool swimmers try and blast up and down the pool cracking on with their 20 to 30 lengths complete with a straight arm leading their very carefully crafted S-shape
test-book style straight-arm catch (when I read Penny Lee Dean's Open Water Swimming Book - that's all that was offered up as advice). That might be fine for the sprinters amongst us  but for the long distance swimmer, can this can be the origin of something causing rotator pain?
I've spent more hours than I would care to admit to to studying the strokes of the greatest male and female swimmers of their generation - Sun Yang and Becky Addlington. Look at the front of their stroke - they BOTH DO NOT USE A STRAIGHT ARM!

Sun Yang: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6uqZd8Tn3Y
Rebecca Addlington: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PuJo_lVmO1Q

When I encountered rotator pain in 2011 after many hours in Dover Harbour I hunted around to find answers and really genuinely couldn't find many. I surprised myself in coming back from that kind of pain to swim pain free. Indeed, when I completed the 24 mile  2swim4life the swimming was the easy bit - I finished with no shoulder pain at all and went swimming the next day. I suppose the reason behind this blog is that I just find it terribly sad when I hear people retiring from the sport in their 20s due to injury - what a shame. I wish more of that retirement (and surgery) were avoidable through coaching technique.

Why do swimmers not automatically swim with a bent arm catch? Well, we aren't taught front crawl that way from nippers and, more importantly, it requires more 'buy in' from the swimmer as it results in a temporary loss of speed as we have to develop new muscle memory. Persevere!! There are many drills that will suit here (but will be subject of another blog).

b. Streamlining
This is super interesting. If fast swimming were merely about propulsion drive then the greatest weight lifters would presumably be champions of the fastest times.....BUT the reality is something different. There are some really informative clips suggesting that terrific front cawl is actually MORE ABOUT MINIMISING DRAG and the bent arm catch really helps to this end. If only some of the swimmers down the public baths at Sevenoaks this morning knew this rather than continuing to thrash around.

There's a whole load of stuff on youtube out there that I've found and especialy from The Race Club who go into quite some detail into reducing your frontal drag. It's fascinating stuff and really thought provoking (there are 4 parts and an introduction).....

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_aiNmq77i70&list=UUDic_JQLVw9JK_iJMyIna8w&index=15&feature=plcp

2. Breathing - Do not Underestimate - *MOST IMPORTANT ASPECT OF FREESTYLE*!!

One of my favourite front crawl technique companion books that I go back to time and time again is Paul Newsome and Adam Young's 'Swimsmooth - The Complete Coaching System for Swimmers and Triathletes'. It is really interesting to note that breathing is the first section that addresses the dynamics of the front crawl stroke and the authors note:

'....It would not be an overstatement to say that breathing technique is the singlemost important aspect of freestyle swimming......'

Did you read that sentence? Are you sure? Is it worth reading again? I can't recall seeing many average swimmers working that hard on their breathing down the pool....

Look at the great Sun Yang clip again. Look how he breathes.... There is a reason why the greatest swimmers take what seem to be the most shallowest of breaths. They breathe into the 'well' created by their head. There's no real head out of the water - barely one goggle out of the water. If you want to swim in a much more effortless manner, it's worth working on this....your head is a heavy unit that can really through the whole balance off, contort the spine, spoil inertia  - if you get this right it can really make a serious difference... Takes time and tenacity but stick with it - elite swimmers take on water at times!!

After working hard all winter on this aspect, I am now breathing bilaterally effortlessly which is improving my stroke cadence - something that I've struggled with in the past. If you are serious about swimming the channel, for example, you want to get this right you will need to be able to adapt to which side your pilot is on. If you are only a left-side breather and the boat is on your right then it might well be a show-stopper! That's one hell of a way to waste £2500.....Good breathing technique will only help in getting most of everything else right.....

3. Kick
Let's face it, this is the bit that we are all a bit lazy at? I am the King of the ultra-lazy leg kick with a mega-dodgy left knee and no use of my left quad. I swam Loch Lomond with a (very vague) 2-beat leg kick and that worked just fine. I am a believer in using the kick as you swim and move in rhythm with the movement of the body (from the hip!) - the 2-beat leg kick works . Some keener individuals seem to go 'hell-for-leather' with the legs BUT even the greatest coaches reckon that 85% of front crawl is arms so perhaps we don't need to get too hung up with the leg propulsion AND if you kick like mad you will get knackered very fast and might mean you have to get out early! I have observed many swimmers kicking like mad only to get completely wiped out and not complete swims due to cramp - I was at that stage in the middle of Windermere in 2011 and it is not nice.
I think swimmers should spend their training time working harder on stroke timing, rotation, breathing (not to mention the catch).... Look at Sun Yang again - he kicks WAY less than everyone else in the race and only really kicks in the last 4 lengths where the outboard rocks into action! If a 2-beat leg-kick can work for the best in the world why not for mere mortals?

4. Hands
This is interesting as apparently a small change in the gap between your fingers can have a marked change in your shoulder pain. If you pull your fingers tight together like a clamp or a vice and use a straight arm catch then you can perhaps feel the immense tension directly? There is a school of thought out there that if you open up your fingers ever so slightly the water cannot escape through the gaps and you can still execute a masterful stroke without the resultant tension being created by being more tense than a string on a guitar. This can result in greater stroke rate and less grief....This was what I was doing in my first season and caused me untold grief!
The other important aspect to work on with the hands is where to point your fingers at the front of the stroke - look at the great long distance freestylers such as Hackett and you will observe that the fingers point down slightly at the front of the stroke. This certainly helps with engagement of the catch and improving cadence. Work on this and see if this helps?

5. Rotation
Basics...... Is it worth reminding ourselves the power of swimming on our sides versus square to the water? Perhaps not....but if you've never done it, put on some flippers and swim a length with your arms by your sides rotating from one side to the other. Note how each time you swim with shoulders 'square-on' to the water, it's like putting the brakes on big time..... Keeping to the sides creates quite a level of propulsion. Oh, if only many pool swimmers at my local baths knew this!

Conclusion
I really would urge you to reserve one pool session per week for drills to work on these aspects of your swimming. Perhaps there's a reason why the greatest long distance Olympians of our time have succeeded.... They have spend loads of time slowing down their particular stroke to create the best 'bang-for-their-buck'. Is it ridiculous to look what Matt Biondi did?  Count how many strokes per length Sun Yang takes versus his competition.....

I suppose the ultimate piece of advice is perhaps consider seeing a decent coach (with access to undewater cameras) reasonably regularly - we really just are not aware of the bad habits that we have created for ourselves at times! Golfers that get better at their game have constant update with the slow-motion film - swimming is arguably no different....

My typical 1 hour pool drill/speed session in local 25m pool
If I am on my own and head to the local 25 metre pool for an hour this is the session I have developed that works both technique, form and pace. I really love it! You have to focus on this session hard to get the most out of it to improve. I am living proof that it works as I have PB'd all year in 2018.

Warm up Part 1: 400m/16 lengths easy alternating between swimming with hands and fists. (Breathe every 3 strokes and swim with fists clenched for those 3 strokes then normal freestyle for 3 stokes alternating). Focus on head position, breathing with 1 goggle in the water and trying to put chin to chest. The idea of the clenched fist is to work on the early vertical forearm and creating that early pivot that holds water sending it back from you rather than down. Make sure you tumble turn after each length - this gets the core engaged.
Warm up Part 2: 200m or 8 lengths with pull buoy working on skulling for front end of stroke for 1 length and then working on glide and finish of stroke with return length. When doing this try to think hard about finishing each stroke towards the knees. This is where some of the real propulsion in front crawl is achieved. I rarely see anyone working on the finish but it is so important for picking up the pace and feeling comfortable in the water! Tumble turn after each length.
Warm up Part 3: 200m or 8 lengths doing breaststroke with your hands but kicking hard front crawl with legs. Try and keep butt cheeks firmly together and kick with the hips.
Main set: 15x100m off 2 mins: After doing the warm-ups above, you now have the main set. I try and complete each 100m under 1minute 30 seconds which leaves me 30 seconds to compose myself for the next 100m meters. I try and do the first 2 lengths of each breathing 3 strokes and then step it up for the last 2 lengths breathing every 2 strokes. Make sure you tumble turn, think about streamlining and making your rotations on each stroke snappy. Focus on clenching butt to make the most of what your legs are giving you. If you take longer than 1'30 that is fine just pick a time including rest that works for you and then over time try and bring it down. You might feel comfortable starting at 2'15 or longer - it doesn't matter but we all have to start somewhere!
Warm down: 400m backstroke mixed up with old English. Relax and stretch out hamstrings etc properly at the end.

If I go to a 50m pool then I tend to do 50x100 meters off 2mins including rest. Thump out 1 after the other and try and hang on! Great for stamina and maintaining pace. Good to take the feed in this training session that you would use on a longer swim. Try and do with no breakfast to provoke the body!

(Also wanted to point out that I have written a sister-blog to this about the mental side of long distance front crawl: Long Distance Front Crawl - The Mental Side)

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

BLDSA Loch Lomond 21.6mile Swim 2012




The first person ever to swim Loch Lomond was Gerald Forsberg in 1959 - that must have been quite some feat.. When the BLDSA conceived the notion of a Loch Lomond Championship in 1959, the swim was 'naturally felt to be impossible by the pundits'

Gerald notes on page 86 of Modern Long Distance Swimming:

'....This swim is fractionally harder than the Channel. Water is less buoyant; air and water temperatures are less...'

After having a solo Windermere under my belt in 2011, I entered 2012 slightly rudderless and not knowing whether I should just have a more of a ‘cruising-around’ type year with nothing silly to over-burden me too much. Rejected that thought quite quickly as that has never really been my style and thought about which challenge could surpass all others in my mind (what could possibly be way beyond my reach?). All roads led me to Loch Lomond, the longest swim in the BLDSA calendar. That sent some right old shivers down my spine. On paper, one of the toughest swims of the lot.  
Quite a bit of teamwork added an exciting new element in order to get this done....
This was going to be right up my Strasse (although everyone I knew thought I was bonkers). The main aspect that appealed was that only 40 (yes, forty) people up to the start of my swim had ever swum this body of water (since records began in 1959) in a basic swimming costume, goggles & swim cap (no wetsuit). To put this into some kind of perspective, ca. 500 people have flown into space, 3100 climbers have ascended Mount Everest (over 500 in 2012 alone) and over 1000 people have swum The Channel. The exclusivity of this swim made it really precious to me.

I am sure I don't need to tell anyone that this is a vast body of water. Let's get the perspective right here.... The BLDSA notes that the swim is 21.6 miles. Wikipedia puts the length at 24 miles (and I didn't see where else it was possible to swim as we started at the absolute top and finished at the very bottom) so I'm not sure where the difference comes from - I think its more like 23... Either way, it's a reasonably long way... It is the largest body of water in the UK by surface area and 2nd only to Loch Ness in volume. It's deepest point was measured by a local boat recently at over 680 ft which puts it over 300ft deeper than the average of the North Sea!! There are 60 islands on the Loch and the largest is 1.5 miles long. Navigating these islands in the dark adds quite an extra twist to the swim!! More on that in a bit...

There were two areas I could never get my head around properly before the swim. One, was the fact that as we were setting off at 3.30pm, I was going to have to swim for 7 hours in daylight then swim through the entire night before landing in the first 30 mins of sunrise. Can't remember reading about that extra challenge in many other swims. My mates attempting the English Channel always seemed to be starting at 2am or 3am. Many have asked why they do this overnight and it goes without saying that conditions are often calmer, there are fewer water users plus no sea planes landing!
The other, was that I'd never swum longer than 10.5 miles and 7 hours (Windermere '11). How on earth was my body going cope with that. Was I going to encounter massive bouts of cramp? I noticed that all the other swimmers (bar one who in the end retired) had already ALL swum the English Channel, 2-Way Windermere, Lake Zurich etc. I felt like a real amateur but we all have to start the initiation some time!

The first thing I felt I needed to do was to hook up with my old mate Ray Gibbs at Swim Canary Wharf as I’d only had 2 lessons in 2010 since very feebly taking up swimming in 2009 with very much huffing and puffing through 30 lengths once a week. During the winter months of 2012 we had 5 lessons that would build me towards a Swimtrek long distance swim camp in Gozo with complete legend Nick Adams in late March 2012. My immature stroke had led me to rotator pain during the 2011 season and being unable to run (due to multiple knee ops) I was getting very upset as swimming had started to become my new found life-passion that might be cut short. Uncle Ray gradually taught me the merits of the bent-arm catch and I studied front crawl as an art form better than anyone I knew could. He looked at my stroke in slow motion with his cameras and I promised to myself that I was going to have to become the best student that was ever going to grace his tank if I was to be successful in bonnie Scotland.
Before going to Gozo, I had heard from the Loch Lomond swim secretary, Janet Wilson, and had the basic reports from the previous 2 swimmers (Vanessa Hammond and Gez Lyon) who had finished in 2010 (out of 6 swimmers who started!). Janet Wilson e-mailed me and stated ‘I hope you find the strength to enter’. I did a whole bunch of soul searching and figured that to complete this swim, I was going to have to cultivate a neat effortless stroke but the other 50% was going to be toughening up mentally. This was reasonably easy given the work I do for the Rainbow Trust who care for terminally ill children and their families – the stuff these individuals had seen and been through was going to be fertile ground for my inspiration. I have 2 beautiful blue-eyed and blonde-haired girls and watching the DVD of poor Josh James struck down with a life-threatening illness rocked me so hard for weeks (and still does) that I knew I needed to do something to help and this was a big mission now. Whenever I hit low points in training (which wasn’t often) I thought of Josh and his family.
I therefore started the swim season with my big goal and before I knew it , the first entry form for Loch Lomond had hit Janet’s post box. That was February.
Fast forward thru the season….I bumped into Liane Llewellyn and Dee Llewellyn at the H2Open day and they advised that to swim Loch Lomond that the BLDSA events would provide good training. I had decided that this would also provide me with more intensity than just bobbing around Dover Harbour in salty water or down my warm local lake. The longest swim I therefore did (other than the 6-hr at Gozo) before driving to the start line was 7 mile Ullswater which I completed in 4hrs 5 mins but all those BLDSA swims had some intensity about them that I often lack in training. Felt undertrained but please tell me who really feels overtrained for such an event??
In terms of Crew, I was mad keen to have my mates there who looked after me in Windermere. Long distance swimming can be stressful at times and I needed these lads who could cope with a little bit of the unexpected and are hard as nails mentally and in reasonable shape. Kev was a hero as the mast man on the Sydney-Hobart yacht race in 2005 when he spent 35 hours on a shift on a 40ft boat while most were re-acquainting themselves with their breakfasts/stomachs. And Mick, who is an engineer on the Thames and displays an attention to detail with everything nautical completely unrivalled. He had bought a 12ft rowing boat and repainted each centimetre creating quite a masterpiece - the smartest rowing boat ever to grace Loch Lomond. These 2 guys never let me down.

(Do not approach the following men on your own if you come across them in the street - they are dangerous.....Mick on the left who goes weak at the knees for Scotch pies and eats them for every meal in Scotland. Kev on the right who is partial to a wagon wheel or two and either refers to you as a 'Dude' or a 'Squirrel'...you don't want to be the 'Squirrel'. Couple of right rascals).






When we turned up at Luss we bumped into some locals during the first few hours....'Yell neer doo it, the'll fiesh yer oot like they did this wee laddie off Inchmurrin. Ye'll neer swim this Loch'!! We heard this repeatedly from the wonderfully optimistic locals....how ideal......gave me some nice mental fodder to want to prove them wrong!!!

I have added a very basic map to help with the rest of the narrative!
So, there it was, on Saturday the 25th that we turned up an hour ahead of our start time and got ready for the briefing with a start time (alongside another swimmer – Jo Norton Barker) of 3.30pm. The lads rowed the boat over from the pontoon of Ardlui to the ‘beach’ where the start was to be and I walked around and bumped into probably the nicest person you would want to bump into when you are suffering from nerves, Gwyn Llewellyn, one of the cheeriest men I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. His lovely soft and calming welsh accent made me feel at ease and now comfortable I was now around my swimming fraternity again.

After a kit check, where we had at least 2 of everything (apart from the swimmer of course), the whistle was then blown and we set off alongside Jo & her team. I entered the water and the Sheridan body thermometer reckoned it was ca. 14 or 15 degrees but you never quite knew what temperatures were about to approach you further down the Loch. I had trained in Wastwater only 2 weeks prior in 10-11 degrees so this felt absolutely fine (in fact never once felt cold).

(the enormity of the size of the Loch over Kev's shoulder taken near Inveruglas...)





We took it steady in that first stretch of water and benefited from a cheeky northerly wind that slowly pushed us passed Island I Vow which was beautiful. I reassured myself that we were flying along and the new chilled out stroke felt effortless and I was beginning to find a rhythm.







We gradually passed the power station at Inveruglas (visible in the background in picture below) and the water then was like a sheet of glass. Completely still – it was like swimming through finest silk – it was absolutely lovely. I don't mind admitting to you that I really struggle with my faith but all of a sudden felt I was getting recompense for spending many Sundays in our local village Church and a higher being was looking after us. Over the mountain above the power station the late afternoon sun was reflecting pink against the clouds being formed on the mountain and Kevin looked so positively moved by such beautiful scenery. If there was a magical moment I will never forget this was it.



We proceeded to take the most direct route as the weather was on our side and passed Rob Roy’s cave which conveniently said 'CAVE' on a rock! As soon as we were parallel with Tarbet, all of a sudden a bit of a wind was churning up the water and making head way difficult now with a wind that was coming from the south west (a marked contrast from the previous northerly). To make life easier I made for the eastern shore and found good shelter all the way until we crossed the Loch just after Firkin Point (which the lads had a new name for as ‘What’s the Firkin Point?!’).







We then went past Rubha Mor (which the lads called Ruby Murray) and darkness had now completely set in....The full moon never snuck through the clouds and it was pitch black. It must have been around 11pm and the next few hours were a bit of a slog down to Luss. We had the lights of Inverbeg caravan park that never seemed to get closer and the crew were desperately seeking the navigation buoy that was supposed to be working by flashing a red light at us. Well, it wasn’t, and before you knew it the lads were within 1 meter  of it and the next thing was that they were aground!!! Kev got out and pushed them off (much to his disgust) and we carried on looking out for more navigational lights that didn’t also appear to be working (the Rangers assured us the day before that they were). We FINALLY went passed Luss which was hard as our cabin was there with warm beds and a warm shower. It would have been easy to get out but I was conscious my mind might play that game on me...... We ploughed on......the lads were navigating during these dark times solely by the compass bearings they had super diligently taken the day before. It was really professional stuff from Mick utilising the diligent markings he'd made on the Navigation map. 

Finally took a sharp right between the last western island and the mainland and I saved my energy as I know that the final 5 miles were going to be tough. At the end of this Island called Inchtavannach we knew from looking at the Loch that we were going to have to make a small left turn back out to the main body of water and passed the golf course. We think we saw Alister Stocks struggling in that bay as the wind was suddenly south-easterly across the whole loch with no island to shelter it and after the flat calm of the island was  suddenly harder work. Kev thought that we flew across to Rossdhu House were the water was very shallow and I was keen that the crew weren’t going to run aground again! We benefited here from the crew having a day on the Loch the day before - I am sure of that.

(Picture of small part of the Loch looking north from Invebeg towards Tarbet...)





We then saw Inchmurrin Island and the lights of Balloch and Dumbarton in the distance. The horseshoe-shaped bay opposite Inchmurrin felt like it was going on forever and I was getting delusional thinking that we weren’t moving forward. My eyes were now swollen from my goggles and each light was magnified looking like stars which made my personal navigation hard. It was at this time that I think I started to begin to understand the meaning of the word ‘endure’!! The last few miles were tough and we finally headed for Duck Bay where Mick could make out orange lights and this was going to be close to the finish. FINALLY, darkness left us and the world of bonnie (or gloomy) Scotland started to get light. The street-lights went out and out of the murkiness we were starting to get our bearings again gradually.
Kevin was pretty animated and said all of a sudden that he could see the finish and we were going to be there within 15-20 mins - 'We're taking you HOME, Boy' he assured me... I was hallucinating and delusional, not thinking straight and didn’t believe him. ‘Are you sure?’….Needless to say we rounded a group of trees where it was very shallow and passed the expensive boats of Cameron House Hotel. I could make out the finish but still didn’t believe we had got there until slapping the yellow boy. It took a few counts to 50 in my head to make it across the last bay to the yellow buoy (the finish of these events never comes at you quickly!). A round of applause amongst the 20 gathered took place and then the support crew landed. In my silly state I decided I was going to immediately push the entire boat up the beach so that the crew wouldn’t have to get their feet wet. Silly idea. I immediately started to sway and fell flat on my face in the water cutting my hand and bleeding. I didn’t care. Kev got my clothes and hugged me hard. We had done it. After getting warm and drinking a load of warm water, I was really emotional and couldn’t believe that it was me that had achieved this feat. I can only explain this as an out-of-body experience where my mind took over my body. My shoulders didn’t feel that bad or tired. My eyes were swollen and bloodshot and looked like I had been punched by some of the local Balloch massive. I was pleasantly basking in this utterly emotional state (being the gold medalist and listening to your country's anthem doesn't come close!) and called Emily in floods of tears closely followed by my parents. All 3 people had been worried sick and not slept much back down in Kent. What had I just subjected these good people to? ....



I was still very overcome during the certificate presentation and especially so when Alister Stocks, after his certificate presentation, got down on one knee to propose to his girlfriend. Picture the scene - Alister after the rough end of a 17 hour swim in tracksuit & hoodie with a Robie over the top looking liked he'd aged during the swim by 15 years presenting the ring to a very glamorous lady in a pink jacket with the romanticism of the finest Italian. Who said us Brits aren't romantic??? I couldn't hear it but apparently Dawn said 'Yes'.....Hooray for the happy couple! Honoured to be present to witness that. Well done Al.

The crew and I had 3 hours sleep, went down the pub (for a medicinal Guinness) then went in search of the finest lobster known to man to wash down with a bottle of Montrachet. We were disappointed as Lobster was out of season but our landlady managed to book us the top table at the Harbour Club which was opposite from the finishing line. Much less strenuous viewing that finish line whilst nursing a pint rather than on the rough end of 14-odd hours swimming....
This had been a long old journey from the start of training to this point.  I had done a week in Gozo, swum lake Bala 3 times in 2 days, the Champion of Champions 9-miler, Ullswater 7-miler, Wykeham Lake in Scarborough, finished the Torbay swim in gale force winds and now I had raised over £7k again for my mates at the Rainbow Trust (http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/MarkSwimsLochLomond). No wonder my eldest daughter wouldn't let me go for 3 hours when I got home - they hadn't seen that much of me..... I really felt right then that I had just transformed my life. I had become one of only 47 people lucky enough to say that they had conquered the Loch and had the certificate to prove it. My finishing time was 14 hours and 44 mins. Taking 3rd in the Gentlemen's category...Apart from being chuffed to finish, I was secretly pleased with the finishing time after putting 16-17 hours on my entry form. Must have really improved as the season went on.
Nothing great is easy (in the words of Captain Webb)…..that may well be true….AND nothing great has to be impossible either.
There aren’t words in English that describe how contented deep down I am with myself for doing this…'amazing' or 'incredible' don't come close...... Not bad from that plucky little lad from Woolwich who could only swim 30 lengths in 2009 had put his name alongside some real greats who had graced this body of water. What an supreme honour. This glow gonna last a lifetime. I hope my story will give others the belief that they can do it. I am only too happy to encourage others..... Here are 12 bits of advice I’d pass on…..
Swim advice for Loch Lomond
  1. Get your stroke sorted properly. I didn’t have any shoulder pain at the end of the swim. You don’t have to put up with that nonsense if you have the right technique. If you live near London, go and see Ray Gibbs at Swim Canary Wharf to look at you underwater with the slow-motion cameras. It’s not cheap but worth every single penny and no amount of swimming pool lessons could ever compare. There is swim-life in you after rotator pain!! I am living proof...
  2. Do not underestimate the need for the right crew, boat and navigation. My crew had a day on the Loch in daylight but the whole game changes at night. I can give you 2 instances at least where swimmers could have saved 1 hour EACH. Go there in daylight and in the night. Buy the navigation map from the Balloch slipway rangers. That’s the best £12 you’ll spend in your life. I owe Kev and Mick big time. They were rock stars of the highest order.
  3. I fed every ½ hour and started after ½ hour. I had mainly warm Summer Fruits & Maxim for the first two thirds, then hot chocolate for the final third. I used up 7 litres of hot water in total. I used the pump-action thermoses recommended by Nick Adams – they were ideal. I had also the odd gel, Mrs Sheridan’s boiled home-grown new potatoes (when I wanted something non-sugary), fun-sized mars bars and bananas. All settled well and would do the same again. The feeds came around quickly and the swim never really dragged.
  4. Swim feed-to feed. Don’t get ahead of yourself and don't overstress about the body of water. it's just an extension of a pool or a small lake where you might train. Try and stay in (and enjoy!) the moment (you are only in this stunning location for a short time) - swim bay to bay and tree to tree and keep 'bigging yourself up' .... very few people will get a sight of the Loch the way you will as a swimmer with such stunning mountains.
  5. Have jokes with the crew. We had some giggles at times. Typical lads when you get us together
  6. Get a good boat. Mick’s was perfect. It could keep up with a swimmer as it was thin but was also heavy so wasn’t going to get blown around all over the place.
  7. There is mobile reception on the Loch. Get your crew to text and interact with loved-ones during the swim. It’ll keep them calm and they might then get some sleep....
  8. Make sure you wear Crocs at the beach end. The rocks are sharp. Don’t try and stand up and be a hero. Just relax and crawl up the beach if you have to!
  9. To qualify for Loch Lomond, you have to show proof of 8 miles in open water in the prior 24 months. I was arguably under-trained but I think my training was about right. I spent many hours in colder water (Wastwater, Buttermere, Crummock) but never submitted myself to 2x 6 hours back to back mullering..... As soon as I got into the water there was no shock. The longest freshwater lake swim I did before in 2012 was Ullswater 1-way (7 miles). Ullswater was way colder and was ideal prep. My advice is to have a good efficient painless stroke rather than mullering yourself with 100 miles per week. That’s my take on it but others might say differently.
  10. Don’t underestimate the mental side. I had many compartments and doors to open with thoughts to help me if I really needed to call on them. I hardly needed to open the doors as I didn't struggle with the swim mentally. In terms of the cold water, I wasn't phased as I had given up warm showers and baths on 3rd February of that year. Every time I felt cold, I reminded myself that a warm shower (or 3 as it turned out) would be on the cards if (and only if) I were to finish....
  11. Be organised. The preparation that you put into this will make the D-Day landings look like a spur-of-the-moment decision. We had to tow our own boat, outboards, petrol, kit, you-name-it from Sevenoaks to Loch Lomond. I would do it again knowing that we had all the kit. No stone was left unturned and nothing left to chance. I could easily see how the best swimmer in the world would never finish this without the skills of his boat crew.
  12. Finally, and pinching some advice off Andy Wright – Get there a few days early, leave the crew to their business of plotting navigation etc and ‘just bloody chill out’. I spent a day on the bonnie banks eating, reading and listening to tunes. Glad I had a whole day to recover from that drive. I therefore started the swim refreshed and raring to go. That was really great advice from Andy.








There's not many of these in the country....





I even had a shout out by the local paper: Sevenoaks Chronicle Article

    Tuesday, 31 July 2012

    BLDSA Ullswater Championships 2012

    When I joined the BLDSA, it was the Ullswater Swim that grabbed my attention round the scruff of the neck and I was desperate to have a crack at swimming its 3 beautiful reaches. Trouble was the swim filled up quickly in 2011 and I couldn't get in. Therefore made sure in 2012 my name was the first one on the list.

    The 3 reaches are different and interesting in their own right. The first one at the Glenridding end of the lake is cold as it is fed from the mountains of Helvellyn and High Street. This 1-mile reach is filled with 5-ish islands and bays with crags which drop down into the clear water which looks intensely inviting.



    The second reach is ca. 3 miles long and more remote on the right bank and is filled with little bays which seem untouched for centuries.



    After Howtown, one enters the final 3-mile reach which is more populated with sailing the order of the day and much more accessible to the day trippers from Penrith etc. This reach is also more exposed to the elements and when we saw the lake for the first time on Saturday morning with my canoeist (and uncle) John, we remarked that whitecaps were countless and this was going to be a battle for the Canadian canoe that I had just bought and just to get to the end of this reach in one piece with the kayaker not capsizing would be a battle in itself.

    And so, it was with an element of uncertainty that we checked in for the swim on Sunday. We had practised paddling the Canadian canoe on the Saturday afternoon and even turned it upside down - thank god I had riveted in some buoyancy tanks otherwise recovery would have been a right old battle. After turning the boat turtle in the middle of the first reach we managed to swim it to the waters edge and get the water out!!!

    At 8.30am, I was set off with the 2 other 'leisurely swimmers' as we had put slower 1-mile times on our entry forms than most of the other 'elite' punters.
    Just before entering the water, Janet Wilson (the swim secretary for Loch Lomond) put her hand in the water and said to me that the temperature would be perfect training for what Loch Lomond was going to offer. It felt no more than 11 or 12 but manageable. We soon got going and I was out in front of the group of 3 and round the corner of the first reach and hugged the rocks closely as the came down sheer into the water - to my left at the end of the 1st reach was the beautiful Norfolk island and it really felt like a privilege to have all the safety cover in place to have this terrific opportunity to swim in such a place with relative safety. My canoeist and I felt relieved to have a canoeist out for the day in Pete Fellows not that far away who gave my man some confidence as Uncle John only had 1 hour of paddling under his belt.....(Pete Fellows is a legend btw...)

    We rounded the first bend and it was shallow as I hugged the bank and could see massive majestic rocks underneath me. The lake opened up and our view was unobstructed the way it usually is with other swimmers and I was aware to take this 2nd reach with caution as it is at 3 miles long and no walk in the park. I didn't get ahead of myself and literally took it tree by tree. The water felt comfortable now and I feasted on a double strength dose of maxim and half a banana. We made good progress towards the end of the second large bay in that reach which took us to an awesome craggy outcrop at the end. It looked absolutely magical. We then crossed over to the other side to make for the final reach. The wind now started to howl (25-30mph was the forecast) and we were not disappointed!! Half way across to the final 3 mile reach I took a feed and looked behind me all the way back down the 2nd reach that i had just swum and was honoured to see one of the greatest sights a swimmer will ever experience from a lake in Britain - the peaks of the Helvellyn range from the water - this has to be the selling picture for the BLDSA!!. I said to Pete Fellows and Uncle John 'wow - look at that' and the feeling was so intense - just reminded myself why I took this on in the first place...

    We rounded the corner into the last reach and passed some cute boathouses and could see multiple yachts in the distance screaming around effortlessly in the strong winds that were capable of making any of them capsize. We plodded on until I asked for a gel to keep me going but it was so choppy my canoeist felt uncomfortable even to pass that over so I said don't worry, I'll just swim to the end and that's what we did. I was expecting the elites to catch us but they didn't....the joy of small victories!!

    After a while the rest of the swimmers finished in various shapes and sizes. There were 2 retirements. The lady who set off with me at 8.30am finished in under 5 hours which was immensely impressive given this was her longest swim since Conniston the year before and she had travelled up with her husband who rowed for her and he had only recently had a tripple heart bypass.

    After a while we got to the pub and the presentation was soon underway. The winner, Mark Gardner, not only got the trophy but we were told of a story that he saved a child's life in open water recently - truly amazing (and must hear the details of this again). They then read out the bronze medal prize for the men's that went to none other than boy Sheridan who finished in a time of 4hrs 5 mins. Very surprised and chuffed.... So much for a leisurely swim! Uncle John and I then barrelled back into the Canadian canoe and enjoyed the lake for another three hours with a paddle against the wind and waves all the way back to Glenridding where we plonked the boat back on the Monster truck - no sooner had we done so, we were greeted with a symbolic rainbow - the most intense one I had ever seen (very surreal experience):



    To conclude, if you like Open Water swimming, this swim is the most picturesque swim in Britain by a country mile.......Also, as an aside, met some incredible people again. Shook the hand of a remarkable man who saved a girl's life recently. Also met a very brave woman who challenged herself to the limit (in her 60s?) to swim these 7 miles accompanied by her husband rowin' after a tripple heart bypass....You never meet a dull open water swimmer or their crew for that matter!!!!

    Wednesday, 18 July 2012

    Lake Bala BLDSA 6 and 3 mile 2012

    Got back from Bala and one thing keeps striking me. It doesn’t matter how long these BLDSA swims are but the feeling of achievement doesn’t diminish as they are all tricky in their own right……….

    Was feeling slightly nervous ahead of the Bala ‘training’ weekend. My longest mileage weekend in fresh water with the absence of buoyancy from salt water (had a 6 hour Gozo and 9-mile champion of champions under belt but both in salt water).
    Went across the border into Wales on the Friday afternoon and it started to lash it down. Nice return to Wales I thought. Had a coffee in the hotel with my canoeist for the weekend – an English guy who lives locally called Darren who runs trips to Nepal via his company (http://www.purelandexpeditions.com).  A very useful extreme canoeist whose skills would not really be severely tested during the weekend – but it saved me havingthe hassle of dragging a mate up from Kent to accompany me….(will be a great contact going forward). His parting shot after imparting advice on the local chippie was to warn me not to step into pubs at the eastern end of town as they often housed more of therascal element of the local population (I was to hear from them later).
    I then drove round the lake and went for a magical pre-supper swim at Langower where there is a stone jetty & where the Bala railway pulls into a small station (This, funnily enough was to be the start of the race on Sunday). All very quaint. A few ofthe locals stopping to watch a lunatic go for an evening swim – the fisherman at the end of the stone jetty admitted to ‘swimming a width of the lake once but watch out as it is cold’. After an early night, was awoken at 1am on Saturday by the local ‘yoof’having a right old go at each other in the car park out of the back of the hotel shouting aggravation at each other in Welsh. A charming interlude to the night’s sleep from some lunatics with way too much time on their hands and sweet f.a. to do.



    After watching the 3k loop race finish we led into the water which seemed reasonably pleasant at what the officials said was 14 degrees. In fact, it felt warmer to me as it had done the night before. The mission was to swim 3 miles to the other end ofthe lake, turn round the boat at the end and then swim the 3 miles back.

    Beginning of 6-miler (i'm the gimp in the red hat refusing to tow the line and wear green...):



     I was warned by Janet Wilson (the organiser for Loch Lomond) in no uncertain terms that if I quit during this 6-miler then my entry form for Lomond would duly be used for confetti..that fairly galvanised the mind!
    Set off quickly to try and set the tone for the race. The first 2-ish miles went without incident and after pulling in line with the sailing club was beginning to wonder how much furtherwe had to go but the turning boat was nowhere in sight so the final mile before the turn seemed like a slog (we all felt the same way!). The boat turned, banana dispatched and decided to kick harder to lose a few of the punters who were on my tail.  There mustbe more of a current at this top end helping as I felt like I was shifting much faster compared with the slog in the previous mile to the turn and with it my mental state was more euphoric. Continued to make decent headway until the last mile when could seethe end of the lake that felt like it was never ever coming closer. It must have done as got there in ca. 3.5 hours which was in the parish of 40 mins off my personal best. What a difference a year and 5 more swim lessons has made.  I concurred with Liane,the BLDSA President, that this is not an easy swim and the last mile is really tough. My kayaker (who had a race radio) reckoned that a quarter of the field retired (in fact I think it was 3 out of the 25). We all stood on the side to clap in Chris Evans who finished ca. 10 mins before the cut off time and his longest swim in his swim career – a remarkable personal achievement. He looked pale and cold and that swim to the end must have taken a fair amount of determination. He was still shaking when he picked up his certificate.Very gutsy performance.

    Awoke on the Sunday to a rare sight for me in Wales – blue skies!! Decided to make the most and go for a drive 5 miles up to the north into the middle of nowhere before the 3-mile swim for the day. Young buzzards were making sounds and could see all the mountain ranges (Cader Idris etc) & swallows flying acrobatically. I thanked whoever was looking down on us for such beautiful weather that I don’t think I’d ever seen in Wales before. All that was to change by the time the swim came around a few hours later!!The cloud  came in, and with it, a wind. The only benefit, however, was the wind helping to push us down to the finish. Yorkie (the only breaststroker) and I were desperate to get into the water as it seemed warmer than the cool that the wind was creating.We set off on a course across the lake and then down to the finish from the day before. There were catamarans on the lake going so fast they seemed like fighter jets compared with us swimmers. I think some of us were just waiting for the aggravation that was going to happen at the turn buoy with those boats screaming around. (We were told about the previous year’s near miss!)

    Took it steadier than the day before and struggled to find rhythm as the shoulders were mighty stiff. Made steady progress and looked to the shore and kept it in mind to just take it tree-by-tree, bury head into water to breathe and not get ahead of myself. It was way choppier than the day before and this now reminded me of my time between mile 2 and 5 on Windermere where the waves were picking up my feet and drilling my head into the water which was making it hard to get any breath (let alone rhythm). I said jokingly to my Kayaker that I thought I was going to drown – the one saving grace was being able to drink oodles of Lake water as I went along which is a refreshing change from the ghastly water in Dover harbour.…. Daz, my canoeist, saved me some time again on the swim by going headland to headland where some of the punters seemed to go down the middle (despite race organiser’s (Andy Wright) multiple recommendations). We touched the timing mat after ca. 1.5 hours. Chuffed to bits and 15 mins off my PB! This was wind assisted so won’t qualify on Olympic rules….
    Really didn’t feel cold once and managed to swan around in shorts without shaking afterwards wacking back latte’s from the slowest café known to man....



    The buzz of achievement stayed with me all the way (5.5 hours) back to sunny Sevenoaks. Another part of the world discovered that is really truly beautiful – as long as it isn’t heaving it down – and water that is much warmer than one would have thought for Snowdonia. There were some really majestic and tranquil moments during the weekend as whitnessed before really early on the Saturday  morning...... Within 2 weeks, Ullswater, and arguably England’s most beautiful swim on the cards.

    Monday, 9 July 2012

    BLDSA TORBAY SWIM 2012

    So, Superman (Mark Bayliss) and I decided the best plan of attack for the Torbay swim, and in order to not to use up any holiday, would be to hit the roads after work (7ish) and mosey on down to the English Riviera, pitch a tent somewhere and then report for swimming duty at the Meadfoot beach at 7.30am for the 8 mile swim. Like any good plan, we found out that flexibility was going to be key! I packed the monster truck with tuck box with food, stoves, tent, cool box with goodies and scooped up Superman at 7.30pm. We duly avoided all the tailbacks on the M25 and wormed our way past Guildford whereupon the heavens opened. I said jokingly, I bet it rains now until we get home….Wish I had been wrong…… We rocked into Torquay at around 11.30pm with some pretty heavy rain continuing and pulled up by Meedfoot Beach where the sea was coming all the way up to the harbour wall and it was going to be apparent that no tent would get pitched on the beach…. What were we thinking?! Suddenly realised I couldn’t get out of the truck as a local taxi driver pulled up so close alongside preventing me from getting out – he and I both wound windows down and he noted ‘I put money on it that you’ve been drinking’ – I retorted ‘I wish I had – just driven down from London and have been up since 5am this morning’. He wasn’t budging – ‘don’t worry I have called the police and given them your number plate’!!! Utter nonsense…. Being too tired to really give this rascal a piece of my mind I just said ‘Bring it on. Just Bring it on’’. He then drove off….What a charming welcome to Torquay. To cut a long story short, we nudged up the road and found a small park with a large tree 200 yards off the road. Exhausted, pitched the tent, pumped up my airbed and launched ourselves into the tent with the rain hammering down.
    The rain continued but was then accompanied by an ever greater wind and all i could hear was the sound of an avalanche the whole time (oh, that'll be the sea then!)..By the time daylight came, my feet were soaked in my pod sleeping bag due to the tent caving in on my legs and we then hastily packed up the tent at 6am as soon as humanly right to cook breakfast. Never had tried to sleep with wet feet before…. Up the road we found a storm shelter to rustle up the finest outdoor breakfast known to mankind and Superman was treated to Museli, fresh milk, boiled eggs, bacon sandwiches and never ending coffee from café Sheridan. The rain and wind continued to come in horizontal fashion……  

    We reported to the Meadfoot beach at 7.30am for registration with the waves crashing into the harbour wall and going 20m vertically up in the air. It was around that time that Superman and I realised we had actually pitched the tent on the most exposed headland in the area with no shelter from the onslaught of wind and rain. Amazing what daylight uncovers... It was impossible to walk along the pavement without a right old soaking. Swimmers, Kayakers, Safety people and the BLDSA swim organisers then started arriving and gradual decisions made upon the course of action. The 8-miler across to Brixham and back was cancelled as you couldn’t see Brixham so a ½ mile loop course laid out into the bay with 8 laps resulting in 4 miles round the bay starting at 12.15.

    Delightful and inviting sea here....



    Quite rightly, the president of the BLDSA made sure we were reminded that just to get into the water today was going to be an achievement in itself. I kept drumming that into my head as I de-layered into the speedo’s. Counted into the water and set off. The swell was monstrous and after Dover harbour a big change now actually having to swim in the sea (without the protection that a harbour affords). It was a mixture of extreme fun and utterly terrifying. After two or three mouthfuls of sea water heading down to that 1st buoy one of my fist reactions was that I was going to drown, vomit or both. Don’t panic Mr Mainwaring!. In the end I calmed down and luckily remembered seeing the video of Liane Llewellyn on youtube when she did the double channel where she did a stroke that appeared more like catch-up to make sure she held her stroke into the waves and swell. I therefore decided to copy this and I think it really helped to stop my arms from being smashed aside out of control by the large waves. My mask goggles came off twice (will change these next time in a big sea) and the eyes were getting sore with the sea water. I finished the first lap and really wondered how 8 laps of this was ever going to be on the cards. (swim underway here)



    Just when desperation was staring me in the eyes, a canoeist decided to accompany me all the way around and kept pretty close to my side. ‘Ian’ (his name I was to find out later) really helped me to hang in there – owe him big time... In the end, I settled down and after half way was in some reasonably high spirits and had convinced myself that I was absolutely flying – the water felt marginally calmer. In fact, my overall pace wasn’t too shabby as Superman and Simon Lee only caught up with me as I was finishing my 7th lap. There were times that I really wished I had been sick because I thought it might help but body wasn’t obliging. When I finished the swim, something really remarkable happened. Trying to get back to the beach was utterly mental having to avoid getting smashed into the large rocks by the large waves. The great Vince Classen held out his strong hand and scooped me out of the water whilst wearing his drysuit. Amazing and without him I certainly have been injured in some way… The other thing that was touching, and a first for me at a BLDSA swim, - not only did all the people on the beach clap, when I rose the stairs to the undercover area – both finishers and crowd clapped again. I think everyone was well aware how utterly brutal that swim was.



    I couldn’t forget what an achievement it felt like just to finish and mentioned as such to the president’s Mum whether she wanted to hear it or not! I also, 20 mins after, noticed that the super fast winner, Ollie Wilkinson, came over to the last man to congratulate him for finishing. No bullshit ego one sees from Elites, just plain vanilla respect for each other in a gruelling event. Quality. Nuala Muir Cochrane very kindly made me a nice cup of coffee whilst I began to start some shakes and we then awaited the certificate presentation after all the competitors had finished. They started with the ladies presentations  - I thought I had heard it incorrectly – only 2 finished out of 6 starters with 4 retirements? None of the women vets finished the race in order to get the trophy....The men were then read out – winner Ollie Wilkinson finishing in 1hr 41m . I came 5th out of 6th seniors in 2hrs 25mins. Convinced myself that time was irrelevant in these conditions. Even the people who retired did well. Out of 60million people in the country, some of the toughest characters in the country I am convinced were here getting into the water on this day.....Another unforgettable experience...