Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Windermere 10.5mile Swim 2011

The longest swim to date. This was not some kind of non-sensical 'spur of the moment decision'. This was at one stage a mammoth undertaking and required the logistical skills of the greatest administrator just to get the crew (and myself) to the start line!

I called the swim secretary for the BLDSA (British Long Distance Swimming Association) swim, Gill Stables, in January 2011 to express interest in swimming Windermere that year at the BLDSA-official swim on 3rd September. I was taken aback at the time about how serious she was about training for cold water and she noted she had plucked a 'fit lad out of the water' the year before due to cold - this was not just about 'being fit', she remarked...this was about 'being comfortable in your stroke'. Gill enquired as to where I lived (rural Kent) and pointed me towards Freda Streeter who would 'sort me out' (or something similar). I then proceeded to eat as much as possible as a decent insulating layer before taking myself down to Dover in May. She finished the conversation by noting the pre-requisite for the swim just to make the start line (swim of 5.5 miles in open water in under 3.5 hours and no wetsuits). Never done that distance before....

To cut a very long story short, I managed to edge myself across that pre-requisite fulfilment after finishing the BLDSA Champion of Champions 5 miler in 3hrs 17 mins in 13 degree water in weather that can only be described as atrocious (even Freeda Streeter's lot didn't train that day which is unheard of). I trained every Saturday in Dover with the Channel Swimmers with a few swims of 5, 6 and 7 hours.
I managed to locate a wicked crew - Kevin Dalton - my best mate from Uni who was going to be in charge of feeds and navigation. Luckily I had the best oarsman on the Lake that day in Michael McCarthy (the father of my eldest daughter's best mate). He takes a great pride in everything nautical being an engineer on the Thames and his attention to detail (even having the nicest flag pole for the flag alpha) deserves some major OCD accolade. He even properly spliced my feed bottle onto the line the night before the race in the hotel bar!

I was nervous for quite a few reasons and these were difficult to ignore (forgive me for being human!). I had trained in Dover mainly in salty seawater which is so buoyant you don't have to kick to stay upright. I had undertaken a 7 hour swim in the harbour but that was in a sunny day in July and I never felt cold once. That was 17 degrees and we were now back down into the realms of 14.5 as I had taken the temperature after showing the crew the lake from the Bowness ferry.
I had raised £6000 for my charity, the Rainbow Trust, and didn't want to let them down. The stories of how these kids and their families handled terminal illnesses had moved me many times during the summer as I fought with the training sessions and motivation. I really wanted to do what I could to help.
I had endured rotator cuff pain during long swims in training and didn't want this rascal to be my undoing on the day. There were so many uncertainties I resigned myself to yoga breathing (into the belly) and listening to some chill out music to get back to something resembling reality.

After getting zero sleep whatsoever, I woke up at 5am on the day of the race/swim to mix my feeds (3 thermoses of tea with maxim and 3 with hot water, orange juice and maxim). How naive that plan now seems. I also, for good measure, thew in a load of bananas, some gels, milky ways and even a can of red bull that I thought might help in dire straits....(remains untouched to this day thank God)
I had spoken to the managing director of energysports who had recommended carbo cake to me as a pre-race feed. I therefore mixed up a load of this with porridge (& maxim) which was a super combo and felt absolutely stuffed & almost ready for action. I then met the crew outside our Hotel in Bowness at 6.30 am and we drove down to Fell Foot. I looked at Kev in the eyes and said, 'whatever happens, don't let me give up...' .....he remained silent....

This drive seemed like an eternity (20mins) and we were only covering 1/2 the lake. OMG moment. The size of this body of water really dawned on me...
We had all the kit ticked off by the swim secretary's team and made our way to the cafe to get last minute refreshments. Yet another cup of tea that seemed so vital...... After the crew returned from the 'crew briefing' they were absolutely soaked right through already (this was northern not southern rain)  and the race hadn't even started yet. Picture of Kev prior to the swim here (very hopeful of sunshine that the rest of the country was going to experience that day complete with sunglasses on bonce)....

They looked reasonably well prepared in their waterproofs when I saw some of the other crews in shorts! I recall was worried about my mate Kev's ability to deal with the damp and cold given how thin he is given his athletics background (under 10.5sec 100m runner).... I gave my kit to Kev and in a dignified manner as possible asked whether he could Vaseline my shoulders etc to stop them rubbing against any chin stubble during the swim. He then got the rest of my things and I was then sitting in the cafe with the rest of the swimmers armed with swimming cossies, caps and goggles. 'Good lucks' and tense but impromptu conversation amongst unrecognised swimmers began to take place. I bumped into a young lady wearing a green costume & cap which said 'Ireland' on them. I asked what her feeding plan was - she remarked 'well..... after the first hour, I'll have completed 5km so I'll probably stop then and have a feed'....I realised some of these endurance athletes were in a different league. (Unsurprisingly she finished first in the Ladies race..)
Just before we were set on our way, it transpired that 2 of the men were not wearing 'regulation' trunks (Speedo shorts instead of the banana-hammock variety) and we therefore stood around for 1/2 hour for someone to get 2 speedos for these guys. What a pollava and nerves continued to jangle...

We were then ushered in line (number order) into the water and I was really touched when some of the young kids on the pier at Fell Foot said 'good luck' to each of us in turn. How considerate for young kids at early o'clock on a Saturday. I looked at the remaining southern part of the lake that was virtually non existent save for a buoy that stopped people from going any further otherwise they were going to come out of the Lake via the river at Morcambe.....

The moment of truth had arrived. Had I done enough? Was it going to be as freezing as some had said? I got into the water and immediately thought this is going to be absolutely fine (the training I had done in some lakes was much harsher). It was raining hard and the water felt warmer than the air. (I actually prefer swimming in rain).. After a minute we were set on our way by the race starter. I remembered in that first few strokes what my mate (and fellow swimmer) Kevin Welsh had offered by the way of advice 'remember to relax your shoulders and just find your stroke'... 'Get into the zone and don't snatch at the water'. I let all the elite athletes just slug it out down the middle and made my way to the right hand bank where I knew my crew would be rendez-vous-ing with me. I made steady but sure progress in that first mile, lashed back my first feed which was tea (with maxim mixed in). We then made our way up to the first Island, Blake Holme and swam inside it for a bit of fun (we were told we could go anywhere on the lake as long as we stuck to the west of Belle Isle. Round the corner we past the Tower Wood Outdoor pursuits centre with loads of teenagers learning the ancient art of using a Kayak. They asked the crew what kind of braincell I had loose and when they realised what we were up to, they just started cheering and clapping like crowds do during the London marathon. It was very moving and gave me a huge lift.

Shortly after that we had a decent backwash and it felt like I was being taken up the lake by some kind of eddy or back current - it was so strong that Mick on the oars was even very animated (it takes a lot to get him going!). After the long sweeping bend of that east bank, and at about 2 miles, we then could see the vast expanse of water that would take us to halfway marked by the Bowness ferry. It looked like light years away. We made for the Storrs Temple next to the Storrs Hall hotel that protruded out into the lake. The lake was now wider and more exposed and was beginning to whip itself up into some fair old chop. This now felt like I was beginning to find out what I had signed up for..... a real slog! For the next 3 miles we fought the motion of the water and I longed for the shelter of the bay after the Ferry. Feeds were becoming problematic as each time we stopped, the boat kept getting swept away with the wind and feeding bottle was being yanked out of my mouth as it was attached by lanyard to the boat (how naive). (I was still foolishly feeding on tea thinking that it was going to warm me up but all it ended up doing was making the tank feel empty and me needing the loo!)

Anyway...eventually, we passed the Storrs Temple and made for the Ferry House on the Western Bank. The chop again was hard and I recalled having 2-3 other swimmers with boats close to us. This now felt competitive and I wasn't going to let these teams past (this was now a race to try and avoid the wooden spoon!). We got past the Ferry house and immediately turned left into the shelter of the bay where I said to the crew that I need to have a proper feed and switched to the orange juice & maxim mixture other than tea that was just running through me. After some OJ, a milky way and a bit of banana, I felt more human and noted that one of the swimmers in front of me about 200 yards ahead was doing breaststroke. This was no ordinary breaststroke of long glide but short vigorous bursts of up and down (I assumed to keep warm). I decided I needed to put on my best freestyle for the rest of the event to keep going past.... I then got my head down and we swam with more purpose past Belle Isle. I stuck like glue to that West bank and made decent progress up to Bass Rock. I could see the bottom again and felt more comfortable that I was actually moving.

I was, at this stage, completely unaware that this stretch of water was the highlight of the crew's entire weekend. They had spotted a gorgeous young lady in her early 20s deciding to go for a swim completely nude - not only that she was taking her time thinking about it and was enjoying the lads watching.....oh why didn't they alert me?? This caused much excitement and aided by me swimming slowly past completely unaware and focused with the swim at hand feeling more and more worn out....The crew will be talking about this decades from now, I'm sure....

Soon thereafter, we were now into the final 1/3 and made our way across High Wray bay which seemed to take an eternity as I was beginning to feel the effects of having been in the water for 8 miles and 5 hours. Kev suggested I have a Gel and a warm feed and he was absolutely spot on and I felt better. We got to the point after Low Wray bay and then decided to make for the finish across the Lake at Ambleside. Half way across, Mick on the Oars noted that I was going close to nowhere as this was the point that the two rivers that feed Windermere at the North end show a decent current. We then swam to the East side and made our way gingerly through the moored boats and into the finishing line near the pub. The President of the BLDSA was waiting on the beach to greet us. That was very touching of Bev Thomas to greet all the swimmers as they came in. (absolutely spot on). I recall giving her a kiss and noted 'I can't believe it', 'I can't believe I did it'. (Bev in the background in the blue top)....

We then got ourselves dry and I had 4 hot chocolates with extra lashings of double cream to warm myself up.
The swim was completed in 7 hours 5 minutes and although the winner of the men's race was done in under 4 hours, I was mindful of not being too harsh on myself - the person who couldn't swim more than 25 lengths 18 months prior. I was surprised to note that 4 others actually could swim slower than me with the last swimmer leaving the water completing his 50th Windermere in 8 hours. Well done that man...

After we nestled into the pub, we were joined by the seasoned breaststroker and his crew. He was much more at home with this swim as he started to work his way immediately through 5 pints of ale. Rock and Roll...

The year's aim was done and I hadn't let myself and my crew down plus I could give the Rainbow Trust the £6k cheque which was going to enable a carer to accompany a terminally ill child to treatment at Great Ormond Street for a year. I called my wife and then the enormity of what I had done with all the emotions behind started to pour out and there was nothing I could do to stop it. The release of all those training concerns and worry now fell away amongst the tears of unadulterated joy.

We got back to the hotel and went out immediately in search of the finest Steaks the local area had to offer. We dispatched of 3 fillet steaks with remarkable ease... We talked about challenges we had all undertaken and I was really blown away by this humble duo in front of me. Kevla, my best mate from Uni,  recited stories of being in charge of the foredeck of a boat during the Sydney to Hobart yacht race in the most gruelling and costliest year in terms of lives lost. He stepped in on the feeds and encouragement at the right times when I was unable to make sense of it all....
And Mick, who had, in his quiet & humble manner, saved countless lives on the Thames after plucking people out of those treacherous waters to get them safe. Mick, was head and shoulders ahead of any other Oarsman on the lake that day and I only wished I could have tested his abilities by swimming quicker! In Kev and Mick, I had some remarkable people supporting me and without them, this epic swim at the end of all that training wouldn't have been on the cards. These guys are legends.
I then dropped the crew off at the pub (didn't feel like getting bladdered) and they were hoping to get re-acquainted with that skinny-dipper they had fallen in love with two thirds of the way up the lake....

Picture taken the day after when the conditions were absolutely perfect!


  1. Love this post and massive congratulations. I'm planning to do Windermere this year and starting open water swimming this year. I was actually at the Bala swim with you a few weeks ago - I did the two-way (finishing about an hour behind you), but not the one-way the following day.

    If you don't mind, I'm going to link to this post on my blog - 1000kmstowindermere.

    Good luck with your other swims and hopefully we'll get chance to chat at a future event.

    1. Hiya, glad you enjoyed it. When i started this nonsense last year couldn't find much material on these Lake swims as everyone usually is focused on the channel. Good luck with Windy and let me know how you get on. It's a terrific experience. Best, Mark

  2. A great read Mark, congratulations.

    Paul Duffield

  3. Thanks Paul. Good luck in your endeavours. Mark.

  4. Hi Mark,

    Really enjoyed reading your blog. I am currently doing a University research project on swimmers who have completed Windermere. Can I send you a questionnaire??

    All the best.


  5. 50th ?! who was that loon

  6. Loved reading this. I'm starting to plan a swim in Windermere and found this story very enlightening

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. That's great and confirms my motivation behind starting this blog. Good luck. Mark

  7. Read this quite a few times, brilliant, so many tips. Doing Loch Lomond 1mile first time doing outdoor swimming. 62

  8. Great blog. I'm swimming Windermere beginning of July....(longest I've ever done was coniston end to end last year)....I'm trying to figure out 'the feeds' and what's best so it was great to read this blog to give me some ideas. Thankyou and well done on your swim ! 😄

  9. Hi Mark!

    Appreciate your attempt was a few years ago now, but wondered what your top tips would be for a solo swim?

    I'm not *too* scared at the distance (will be completely different on the day!) - swam 10k at Great North Swim 3 months ago and used to be serious swimmer until few years ago. Only just had the idea to attempt a crossing in 3 weeks time weather dependent as will be nearby for the weekend so more trying to ensure it's safe - planned to hire a kayak and flag for the day and ask my partner to guide me. Wondered if you had any advice for swimming solo in the lake, what it's like with other traffic and route to take, anything like that?

    Many thanks

  10. Be safe and be seen if you are not part of an organised event. Ensure to have a kayaker with a flag alpha and/or you with a tow float. Good luck