Saturday, 14 September 2013

Reflections on the 2013 Open Water swim season

I've travelled in excess of 5000 miles in pursuit of refining the ancient art of open water swimming (in the budgies of course) during the 2013 open water season. It's been SO EASY motivating myself after being flat on my back last November. (Wish I could bottle up and sell this stuff!).

With only one race/swim in the BLDSA calendar remaining I feel obliged to acknowledge the amazing swims I've witnessed , new friends met and simply incredible achievements that this exceptional group of people have attained. I just can't let any of this go without writing - life is too short.....

2 swim 4 life
The whole season kicked off for me with a mere 24 miler in 24 hours in an Olympic pool which is Guildford Lido. 17/18 degree water and 1 degree air overnight. Frosty.... I finally had the chance to  meet (in the flesh) the self-appointed Global Head of Open Water Publicity, Paul (Basher) Bates, who magically appeared (in one of the photos) to walk on water - walking it was easier than swimming eh Bash?!! In my lane, I made new friends with Sara Marley who really showed the lane how to swim quickly - she was the only one able to keep up with the speedy Dave Granger (who is one 1/2 of the dangerous brothers duo with Ollie Wilkinson - super-league swimmer extraordinaire who evidently went on to win Lake Zurich) - Dave led the lane and made most of us look stupid for 9ish hours until cramp forced his swim to end. The most touching moment was Jo Norton-Barker (herself hit by illness with 5 miles to go) staying till the end and congratulating me in limping along until the end when most people had gone home. Still can't work out whether that picture in H2Open mag is Ollie or Basher. Either way, they eat up the miles quicker than most of us mere mortals... The real star of the show again was Lesley Zimmerman who single-handedly has facilitated over £30k of charity fundraising in organising this event. She never stopped encouraging and smiling in helping us achieve our personal goals. Complete saint. Gotta be on everyone's to do list in 2015.

Dover - May training - cold enough for ya?
Then spent each Saturday in May in Dover Harbour under the stewardship of generous Freda, Barry and Irene. These people are gods to me and without them most of the season wouldn't be so easy. That first Saturday was one for the brave with 20mins and then a 30mins (after 1 hour's rest) in 7 degrees - there weren't many of us! This will give me confidence that I can get in the sea in the winter.... Finally got to meet legend Sarah Tunnicliffe who then went ahead and swam the channel in a very useful time of ca. 16 hours. Super swimmers Alexia O'Mara and Ian Sall? also endured the unforgiveable cold in those first few weeks to achieve their awesome personal goals in swimming the channel. I was present 2 years prior when Alex struggled with the Champion of Champions - what a transformation & for everything she has had to overcome - well done Al - I'm so happy for you.

Colwick Park 5km - start of the BLDSA season
I observed Zoe Sadler with amazing newly-found extra speed. No wonder she is known as the pocket rocket....also pocket bag-leaver (that we then hauled with us back to Kent)!!.....I had the good fortune of swimming round the course with the completely charming Mike Read (he of ex- King of the Channel status) who finished with me in a dead heat - he even offered to wait for me whilst I took a comfort stop 1/2 way round!..... If any of us swim that well at his age would be pretty chuffed to say the least..(if I get to his age, let alone swim that well - I'd consider it a triumph!)

Wykeham 5km
Another chance to support the Llewellyn family who kindly organise the swim. This family do so much for the BLDSA and if you don't know them, your life is not complete. A chance for my 11-year old girl, Squidge, to time-keep and get motivated to swim next year. Saw Ray Ash struggle around but got the 5km done. Let's not underestimate what these swims mean to some people - he was going to frame his certificate and put on the wall. Well done Ray who got stronger in Bala. I finally got to see how Tom Robbo can shift - that boy in the 1k was just awesome and left everyone in his wake...gonna see way more of this lad...

Champion of Champions 9m
This was cold this year at 12 degrees. Everyone who just got in and endured any period of time did well. There are so many brave swims I witnessed but me being slow am always impressed by others enduring the water for as long as me > Helen Beveridge came all the way from Inverness to take on this self-inflicted mullering and finished. Amanda Bell swam bravely and experienced that huge feeling of accomplishment finishing as did Annabelle Lavers completing one of her first big swims. Pip Barry endured the water longer than everyone and that  takes total respect. HB, AB & Pip would go on to be in a relay team with yours truly that succeeded in Loch Ness.....I never questioned that we would finish Loch Ness (no matter what the temperatures) after seeing them swim this..
The bravest swim I saw all day was from Sarah (Salli) Roberts who at only 13 years old got in and swam 200 metres. She got out (and beat herself up) but she certainly had a go. It's easy for many of us with a few more roast dinners/nights out/misspent youth under our belts. Another one of the Roberts family who is going to feature in the future. Well done.

Bala 6- and 3-miles
Cannot avoid discussing Bala without commenting on the weather. The long-awaited heat wave, 24.5 degree water and other than swimming, spent the entire time 'swanning around' in Speedos (not a pretty sight). This weekend is why I took up this sport. Just open water swim heaven - can we please have precisely the same for 2014 Andy?.... First swims for my mate Hugh Yarrow who pushed his personal boundaries to get the 9-mile weekend done. Never forget an amazing 2 hour dip on the Friday evening at Langower with Hugh, Joe Kane and Yorkie. It was bath-like and we didn't want to get out! Yorkie went on (at the end of August) to complete Windermere 1-way breaststroke in tricky conditions 30 mins within the cut-off time in 8 1/2 hours. So happy for him and of course Joe who helps him. Heat wave in Wales with Hugh getting his money's worth..

Loch Ness Relay
Flew to Inverness to take up position no.2 in the relay team where the 'Six-in-Ness' (organised by leader and local resident Helen Beveridge) enjoyed one of the calmest days in Loch Ness history (thanks to the heat wave). Enjoyed loads of eating, washing that down with drinks laced with maxim, joking about...and, oh yes, Swimming for 2x1 hours.....a right ordeal (not)....All that washed down with a mixed Grill and a few pints of Guinness as I had of course really earned them..... Well done Six-in-Ness and brilliant Jim in the Rib, Pat (who I incorrectly called Pam for the whole day) and her smiley husband (someone I called Jim when his name probably isn't). Not laughed so hard in a weekend for ages. Got to know some great brave swimmers better in Brian Bain, Helen B, Amanda Bell, Pip (Squeak) Barry and Laura Knowles. Great to witness Laura (with less experience than the rest of the group) test her personal boundaries and get back on the boat smiling after her 2nd hour. What an amazing place. Hope to return next year....
Also was completely honoured to watch James Leitch finish his solo in ca. 10 1/2 hours. This man is a machine and just finishes this tricky swims smiling. He beat himself up that he didn't do the record and therefore went back for another crack the following weekend! This guy is in another league altogether.

Around this time, had my article/piece published in H2Open magazine - and became a long distance runner again in the process! If only.........The spirit of the piece hit the right tone I think...hope that inspires people the way Thomas Noblett had an effect on me (and many others).

2-Way Windermere (21 miles)
Raised £5k for The Marsden and The Rainbow Trust - my main charity event of the year. Swim was relatively easy as the water had to have been 19 or 20 degrees - complete Bala-like heaven again!!! Someone was looking down upon us. Another chance to swim alongside the greatest oarsman on the planet (and 3rd time oarsman for me) Mick McCarthy and absolute star Louise Bingham - chief fundraiser of the Rainbow Trust.
The buzz before the start time was absolutely kicking with so many swimming legends with Kevin and Jane Murphy helping super swimmer Pavel (to victory as it later transpired).  Even had the pleasure of been waved off by the great Karen Throsby who then went on to complete MIMS and achieve that rare beast called the Triple Crown. Wow.... Her blogs have helped me SO much. If you are a swimmer and haven't read The Long Swim then your swimming (and mental state) will definitely benefit. Well done KT for going back to get it done.
Special thanks at the end of this swim for Andy Wright for helping to get me out of the water and Pat Llewellyn for helping me get dressed as my muscles cramped like mad. Jane Murphy gave me the biggest hug when I finished and that meant the world to me.
Thomas Noblett and Andrew Tighe scooped up the limping gimp and da crew and treated us to an enormous breakfast, a guide of the man cave, the boat house and their jetty. So thrilled for this generous man that he swam the channel. Another great role model and publicist for all things swimming. His swimming inspired me to get off my backside 3 years ago...not played the Xbox much since!
Louise (crew member) described this as Life of Pi minus the it and it's going to get into a print in the den above the fire - will remind me of great memories of this season.....

Ullswater 7-mile and Derwentwater 5 1/4 mile weekend
Thank god for kayaker extraordinaire Pete Fellows for such great guiding. Ullswater swim was sensibly called off with kayakers dropping like flies. I know we would have got to the end as Pete is a complete legend but safety first.... Derwentwater wasn't warm at all but witnessed Robbie Bonner absolutely smash the field and take the gold in the men's. This guy is going to be one to watch also  - charming with it and under the expert guidance of (the man who has done it all) inspirational Al Stocks will be in good hands. Still giggle when I think of a poorly Alastair Stocks proposing to Dawn at 9am in Drumkinnon Bay in a gloomy morning after the Loch Lomond swim that we completed. Love knows no boundaries....

St Mary's Loch - 6.5 miles
One word - stunning. Greta who suggested this location for the BLDSA should receive a medal in next year's honours list. Without joining the BLDSA would never have come across this unspoilt paradise for swimmers. Water was a bit nippy (shivered the whole 6.5 miles and my shoulders evidently were blue for much of the swim) but saw the bravest of the brave, Yorkie, complete the swim breaststroke (40 mins after the rest of us) and then swan around in shorts. If they gave a prize for the most amount of smiles in a season this man would be a legion ahead of everyone else. His mum, Christine, kept time for the first time and supports all swimmers achieve their goals with huge encouragement.
My Kayaker Jean and I giggled and giggled so much - both of us losing 1/2 the feeds after the 1st mile! Who needs feeds when you have loch water?? I also learnt that I quite like a finger of fudge instead of a milky way at feed time....only 20p too.... Without Chris Hickling coming out to usher me out of the water, would never have made it out alive as my body and mind simply froze. Magical place and will be back with Mrs Sheridan for a weekend hopefully next year. I hope loads of us have a massive party here next year.

River Dee 6 miles
The first swim where the current assistance helped me to sub 3 hours for 6 miles. Amazing scenery and terrifically well organised from start to finish - thanks Steve Breary (and Sam for doing such a great job kayaking)....felt honoured to be able to walk on Duke of Westminster land/water at the start and see the trees simply fly by from start to finish. Don't get this in many other swims!
Another great splash alongside Sian Williams who is a new face to me this season who has decided to absolutely thrash me in Bala and this event since the Champion of Champions.

Finally, wouldn't be right to finish this blog without mentioning 2 of my Nemes Nutters brethren (who train also near Sevenoaks at Holbrough Lakes/Nemes Diving Academy). Firstly, a training partner Liam Cameron who last week swam Windermere in under 7 hours (this guy is gonna do it all) and Giovanna who also achieved the same personal goal this year in swimming England's longest lake. Giovanna is a complete inspiration to so many of us (not just through her coaching) and I have her to thank profusely for encouraging me to head down this road after all her enthusiasm in the heated outdoor pool at David Lloyd in 2010 washed down with egging me to head to the local lake to push the boundaries. This lady knows no limits and is the greatest mentor to so many of us.

If you are around Sevenoaks during the Winter Season and fancy a swim. Call me and bring yer cossie!

If I've omitted someone from this piece, please forgive me (and don't take it personally). Without the volunteer, crews and safety guys, would be stuck at home still on the Xbox. Thanks guys.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

21 Mile 2-Way Windermere Swim 2013

This is an interesting blog as it is comprised of 2 parts, reflecting the views of 2 people involved in the same event/ordeal!!:

Part 1 - The swim through the eyes of the swimmer (me)
Part 2 (below) - A much more intelligent account reflecting on the swim through the eyes of a support crew member (Louise)

Part One

The longest swim of the year on the 2013 BLDSA calendar, the legendary 21 mile 2-Way Windermere. Similar length to the Channel with less buoyancy and the swimmers having to take it head-on predominantly during the hours of darkness to ensure fewer users to contend with on the water.
Again, I had been able to hire the greatest oarsman on the planet, Mick Macarthy, who had guided me on Loch Lomond and the single Windermere so expertly. Also roped in the great Louise Bingham who is a superstar Chief Fundraiser for the Rainbow Trust – the charity I’d raised £5k and £8k for in the previous 2 long swims and she was cornered into experiencing a one night stand (more like sit) on an uncomfortable boat with a man she had never met before! They were both awesome and without them just turning up wouldn’t have happened.  Needless to say previous crewman Kev has been relegated now to the subs bench as Mick confirmed ‘I’m not rowing one of these events ever again unless Louise is there….’ (Sounds like they got on ok then..).

Photo of limping gimp with the so-solid crew before the onslaught of relentless mullering!

An eventful train journey for the swimmer and crew bumping into our new friend Gill Dixon who was returning to Ambleside after visiting her daughter down south as Gill had very tragically lost her son-in-law within 1 month of being diagnosed with cancer. Struck another chord with me after my escapades in the Marsden only 9 months previously and all the extensive surgery. Meeting Gill and hearing her story certainly was inspirational in learning how they are all trying to cope and provided me with a mountain of mental fodder to keep me going during the swim. If you live in the lakes and don’t know Gill, you should as she is an absolute rock star and even turned up with her husband at the start line to wave us off. Thanks Gill.
Taxi-driver 'uncle' Howard (who I've known since starting my swimming career in 2010 with a Swimtrek in he Lakes) dropped us off at the Waterhead Youth Hostel for grub as heard that the new food menu there is good and cheap. First schoolboy error of the day from boy Sheridan ordering a slightly dodgy cheeseburger and chips which wasn’t going to be the easiest thing to digest. What a loony. Why on earth didn’t I go for the veggie lasagne...idiot.

We then rocked up to the beach start area and had a couple of hours for the crew to get the rowing boat capable of a night’s ordeal, hot water filled into pump-action thermoses and then attend briefings. During the swim briefing we were told the story of how Captain Webb came to Windermere in the 1800s to do a demonstration swim but got out early due to the lack of buoyancy! 

By the time came around to get undressed into budgies, there must have been what seemed like hundred people milling around (not including all the restaurants, bars and punters on the ferries) watching the 3 swimmers off at 5.30pm (me, Kevin Welsh and Jo Norton-Barker (4 faster swimmers due off at 7.30pm)). I remarked to Jean Wilkin-Oxley that the crowds were a far cry from the start of Loch Lomond which was more of a ‘one man and his dog’ affair.

Even had a surprise appearance from legend in open water swim circles,Karen Throsby, and Denise from the Cumbria care team of the Rainbow Trust. They both remarked how relaxed I looked before I was to take on my 21-mile fate. I reminded them that after limping around all year long, struggling with stairs, falling over loads and generally being ungainly on land, this swimming lark was very much my paddock now where I could still be remotely super-human and feel normal or liberated in some way.

Preventing any potential chafe problems with Louise (complete with Marigold gloves)...

And then we were off. Making headway out into the main channel of the northern part of the lake through the moored boats into a reasonably stiff breeze that moments earlier had boats really healing over in a major way.

Video of start here (brief stop to start my stop watch!): Start of 2-Way Windermere

(You will note from the bits of video footage that I was trying to take the fewest strokes in history to swim 2WW - probably 54 strokes per minute....would horrify Paul Newsome from Swimsmooth but works for me!)

Some more video footage at this juncture here: Swimming after 1st feed

Steady progress made and 1st feed as all 3 were pretty much the same pace in a line.
Managed to ease ahead as we passed Bass Rock on the western side after Wray Bay and had Belle Isle in our sights. The water was heavenly and must have been 19 degrees after the wonderful summer heat wave that the UK has experienced.

Went through the Lilies and down towards the Ferry and couldn’t believe that we were half way down the lake in 2hrs 50 mins!!

Once passed the ferry, the lake again exposed us more to the wind and after (2-Way Windermere 2009 veteran) Thomas Noblett came over to say ‘Hi’ from the rescue boat, we were shortly greeted by darkness which seemed to come down rather too rapidly for my liking. It was only 9pm-ish.
I had completely forgotten how utterly mentally tough it was to swim in the dark relying solely on the crew and the glowsticks on the boat or vague lights in the distance for direction. Next thing we knew, there were a few squalls and the rain was coming in horizontally - I saw Mick scramble to put a coat on over his T-shirt..... I did smile to myself rather smugly in the water that I wasn’t getting any more wet than I was already and was much happier in the water than I would have been on that support boat. The water was WAY warmer than the outside world - probably to the tune of 10 degrees Celsius warmer!

Mick’s 10-odd wagon wheels must be sodden now I thought! Gradually we ground our way down towards Fell Foot at the southern end and I started to feel nauseous. I was feeding off my usual Maxim mixture and the odd bit of banana, potato, jelly baby or milky way but none of it could shift the discontent feeling which I can only put down to that lousy cheeseburger in Waterhead before the swim. Needless to say we finally rendezvoused with the kayaker who was to take me round the turn buoy and re-unite me with the crew. I looked at my watch and by the time I had got back to the support boat it was precisely midnight. Under 6 ½ hours for a length of Windermere left me pretty content given it took me 7hours 5 mins to do the single not even 2 years previously (and that one was with a prevailing wind). Reminded myself how chuffed I was with my technique and that all I now had to do was keep turning over the arms and every stroke was taking me back up nearer the finish and tea & medals. I was the first one round the turn buoy and then could just about make out most of the other crew boats escorting swimmers down to this southern end.... I still felt sick and then told the crew that I just wanted water for a while with the odd jelly baby.
It wasn’t long before we were overtaken by Nikki Fraser, swimmer extraordinaire, who was really flying along and started 2 hours after us! We steadily made progress and saw Rawlinson Nab and then the Storrs Hall Hotel in the distance lit up in all its splendour. I remembered from the 1-way that this stretch is long and can really mess with your head so resorted to staying within thoughts or remembering silly jokes my daughters had told me which in my hypnotic state made me giggle for ages. Eventually we stopped by the ferry and saw 2 other crews passed us make the schoolboy error of going up the east side of Belle Isle as they were disorientated in the dark. Thank god we only made the error following them for 100m and had to confess that Mick was right on the navigating! 'I told you I am always right', he maintained.....
Gradually the darkness was eroded by daylight which gave all of us a huge lift in spirits. The shoulders were painful but the level of pain had completely levelled off and could pick up the pace a bit more. Louise had  expertly recognised that after refusing maxim for 2 hours and only drinking water, I was flagging and ordered me to have maxim and a milky way. It  was absolutely spot on and my energy levels were replenished and finally didn’t feel so sick (must have finally digested that sodding burger!).

At 5.30am it was now light and we passed Bass Rock on the way back up north & into the main channel and crossing ‘The Deeps’ with only the final slog and cross wind between us and the finish.

I was beginning to flag and lose motivation but precisely right on cue to snap me out of my dizziness were Thomas Noblett and Andrew Tighe from the Langdale Chase on their 2-man canoe. Thomas had been inspirational to me in taking up the sport in 2010 after completing his own 2-way Windermere in 2009 which was show on the TV programme ‘The Lakes’. The Gladiator and Admiral as they are known were now escorting us too so had to keep hammering along as fast as possible.

Being joined by Tom and Andy: Final Stretch

I simply love this picture that Tom took with 2-3 miles to go - Louise describes as the 'Life of Pi' without the tiger!!:

Before we knew it, we rounded the final Steamer jetty at Waterhead and into the finishing line. 13 hours 29 mins and way ahead of expectations. Round of applause and relief all round. Andy Wright, in his dry suit, helped to pull me from the water as I struggled to exit up the rocks and in typical fashion every muscle in unison started to cramp. Thank god that ever-present Pat Llewellyn and Louise were on hand to help dress me as I felt dizzy and utterly pathetic as all my stomach muscles cramped at once. Just felt humbled again by the BLDSA & support crew who gave up all of their weekends again (not to mention much personal expense) all in the desire to further the ancient art of long distance swimming. The BLDSA family were there in numbers to welcome the swimmers home with huge smiles and applause as they knew how much it meant to the individuals completing such an epic event. Thanks guys.

Another weekend where without the BLDSA volunteers, the event would not have been possible. Here I am being inaugurated into an exclusive club of those who have completed by Thomas Noblett - even coming a surprising 2nd in the men's race (2 men completed and 2 DNF).

For this swim (as ever) I raised money for the Rainbow Trust who care for terminally ill children and their families. I split the total raised (ca. £5k) with the Royal Marsden for helping to patch me back up in October/November 2012 - if you can donate, please donate here:

Rather symbolically, as if on cue, after we finished and enjoyed breakfast courtesy of the Langdale Chase, a Rainbow came out to complete the weekend. One of the most complete and perfect rainbows ever:

>>Below I have attached the views of Louise Bingham, Crew Member, who sent the following to her colleagues as soon as she got back to work of the whole experience!!

Part Two - 2WW - through the eyes of support crew member, Louise Bingham, Chief Fundraiser of the Rainbow Trust

In November last year, only a month after Mark underwent major surgery to remove a tumour from his abdomen I got the call to say he was planning on taking on the 22 mile open water swim, organised by the BLDSA and he wanted me to be a member of his two man crew. After everything he had done for Rainbow Trust, the money raised, the support during our time with Nomura, as well as the surgery, how could I say no?

So………… ten months later…………

We set off from London Euston at 10.30am on Saturday, carrying everything we needed by hand, a surprising large amount considering we were leaving the south for little more than 24 hours! I met my other team member, captain of the ship, and third time rower for Marks swims, Mick. The train journey was spent reading out the messages of support and inspirational stories sent by various members of care and FR/M team.
After arriving in Windermere, having a large lunch and getting full instructions on my role as part of the crew we headed to meet our boat. As you can see (from the photo's above), when I say boat…………..
It is at this point I would like to say a massive thanks to Denise who (despite not finishing her packing for her family holiday to France the next day) came down to surprise Mark shore side with a stunning piece of artwork done by some of the children supported by the Kendal team, along with cards and messages of good luck. Mark was totally overwhelmed that Denise had come to see him off and wish him well, it was a lovely touch for him.
Mark entered the water at 5.30pm Saturday evening, after getting greased up (another one of my jobs!!) Mick and Myself, along with all the gear needed to see him through, where just slightly ahead of him.
My role in the crew (apart from occasional rower and maker of tea for Mick) was to make up Marks feeds and call him in every 40 minutes to take them, along with the occasion bit of banana, a jelly baby or sometimes even a mini milky way! There are many rules around the swim, including not touching the boat at any time and treading water to feed.
If you look at a map of Windermere, we started at the top, went all the way down and came all the way back again. It's not a straight forward lake, there are many islands to navigate, a ferry to avoid and some crazy shoreline to lookout for.
As the sun went down, we lit up the boat for Mark to follow with glow sticks, these sat below our eye line so we could adjust our eyes to the dark, Mark had a small green light on the back of his goggles so we could keep an eye out for him. I had a head torch that went on when I made up feeds and Mick had a small torch for checking the map when needed.
On occasion we got a visit from the support boats, two high powered RIBs that came to check we are ok. Apart from that, mostly, we were on our own.
There were only seven people undertaking the challenge, all with their own support crews, four setting off at 5.30pm and three at 7.30pm. Two gave up after they got half way.
Navigating/rowing a boat in complete darkness, with the only noise being marks rhythmic splashing and the flickering of his green light as he turned his head to breath is quite a feat. Then it rained! Three times!
It took six hours 29mins to get to the bottom of the lake, and another seven hours to get back up to the top again. Apart from treading water for about 30 seconds, every 40 minutes, Mark never stopped. We watched his green light constantly during that time, occasionally reminding him to follow the boat when he veered off to close to moored pleasure boats or headlong into the various buoys along the route.  
As the night faded and the sun came up (behind the clouds) we continued on our journey, back towards the shore at Ambleside. It was kind of like the life of pi (if you take away the angry tiger!) as per the picture above.
Just before 7am on Sunday morning Mark made it to shore, knackered and very cold. 13 hours and 29 minutes taking with it the silver medal. His crew, slightly damp, a little tired and a tad delirious followed him in.
Watching Mark keep going for that amount of time, was amazing, the man is a machine! Especially if you take into consideration the guy has no use of his left quadriceps (thigh muscle) as the tumour was removed from his femoral nerve, so he swims using his arms and right leg only!
And despite the wind, choppy waters, rain, lack of sleep and numb bottom – it was worth it to see him crawl out the water with the biggest smile on his face.  And, as if by magic, a Rainbow appeared over the lake!
After his operation Mark was told he will always walk with a stick and he will never swim any kind of distance again, but he did, and he plans to again…….. the Channel in 2015!  

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Long Distance Front Crawl - The Mental Side

You may be familiar with the technique side of long distance front crawl and if not, it might be worth reading some sentiments that I've put down in a blog as I think you might find it useful: Long Distance Front Crawl - The Technique Side

Some of the most famous long distances swimmers have often maintained that 50% of the actual ability to complete the extreme swimming goals we set for ourselves are mental. That's really interesting but why is it that most of us don't work on it?

Recently, I caught up with a Swimmer in Dover who is a legend in long distance swimming circles and one of very few people to have swum the North Channel (among many other things). He noted that when he was in the run up to the actual swim he would take the dog for a walk on his own around the bay in Dover and try to get his head around the swim and think about how much he 'wanted it'. He spent countless hours alone walking a dog who obligingly didn't answer back but arguably the key part of the swim was probably swum in his head before even getting his trunks wet!

I can empathise with him. When I was training to swim Loch Lomond I had many quiet times digging into why I wanted to swim this so badly and what mental strength I could draw on to get the job done. I spent hours in our local village church just sitting in the rear pews when no-one was around. I drove home from the swimming pool pretty emotional so many times recalling how much I wanted to make an impact and raise funds for the Rainbow Trust so that terminally ill children and their families would receive support from carers. Something had to be done and I didn't want to leave it to the next person to raise money.
When I stood on the beach at Ardlui with 23-odd miles of swimming ahead of me, all the effort I put into the mental side paid off - I'm really sure of that.

Indeed, if you watch the Martin Strel film about conquering the Amazon, he would spend hours in quiet contemplation about how he saw all what nature could throw at him as friendly - he seemed to befriend all the terrifying fish, alligators, eels etc that could have been a show stopper. He would spend hour after hour in a quiet room or cave (if I recall correctly) in a meditative state which was going to no doubt assist in conquering the goal he had set himself.

We are all different. We are probably motivated by different things. Some by grief or loss, some by anger, some by empathy, some by pure escape, some by messing with name it.

I've seen some really great swimmers completely melt under the strain.

To stress the point, last Sunday 26/05/13, in 10 degree water, I came to the aid of a relay swimmer. A guy probably in his 30s training in Dover Harbour who was one minute swimming along in cold water with an orange cap on and then the next minute in a complete panic shouting his head off that he was 'losing his mind' and he couldn't go on. I managed to get him to realise that he could swim the 800m or so back to swimmers beach with me and back to safety.  'Charlie' (the swimmer in question when he could finally tell me his name) will have learnt a great deal from realising he actually COULD overcome his anxiety and look after himself. The coastguard had been called out but I'm glad this lad may have learnt a life lesson. By the time the coast guard would have got to him the situation would probably have become pretty serious.

One turning point for me in overcoming the cold water (in 2011) was to try and learn from experiences that other human beings had from taking on either swimming challenges or other endurance events. I went on to read all the 'Escape from Gulag', 'World War 2' and 'Endurance' genres which sit proudly on my study shelves but the ultimate thing I learned is that we are all capable of greatness when you just realise what other mere mortals have had to get through in history.

I have attached a reading list below with what I consider to be essential reading for the distance Swimmer. I suppose the advice is don't neglect the mental game as it will help you cultivate the reassuring thoughts which can help you get through difficult moments as we all have them.....

Shallow Graves in Siberia by Michael Krupa (My personal favourite)
Extreme Survivors by The Times
With the Old Breed by E.B Sledge
Close to the Wind by Pete Goss
Swimming to Antarctica by Lynne Cox
The Long Walk by Slavomir Rawicz
As far as my feet will carry me by Josef M. Bauer
We Die Alone by David Howarth
Lost in the Jungle by Yossi Ghinsberg
Walking the Amazon by Ed Stafford
Achieving the Impossible by Lewis Gordon Pugh
The Great Swim by Gavin Mortimer

I hope to add more sentiments to this blog over time.......Happy to receive any other anecdotes from swimmers and the like...

Saturday, 27 April 2013

2 Swim 4 Life 2013

So the time had finally come to take on the mighty challenge of swimming 24 miles in 24 hours. I was 5 months on from a major life episode which involved the Royal Marsden Hospital in Chelsea and an emergency operation performed by the Head Surgeon of Oncology which had me fired up and I had used this as my goal. That episode is subject of another epic blog altogether here: Take All Your Chances While You Can.

I found myself lining up along with 120-odd other swimmers representing themselves as solos or in relay teams to undertake swimming 1 mile on the hour for 24 hours at Guildford's outdoor lido. Sounds easy 1 mile per hour but the reality became somewhat different!

I decided that I was going to undertake this challenge with only trunks (no wetsuit) and going solo. I left the wetsuit in the car and said to my Dad that I would opt to quit rather than wear it. It was just a personal choice and I hadn't used it since 2010.With the help of my Dad, Mum and wife Emily being staggered as buddies, I would have someone fresh helping every 8-odd hours. I managed to convince organiser Lesley Zimmerman that I needed to put my Gazebo as close as possible to the water due to my lack of left quad disability so I wouldn't have to limp around far to get in and out.

(Temperature check with the great Mick Blackburn at 8.15am)

(Lucky Duck goes everywhere on swimming adventures looking after everyone)

It was thrilling. 5-odd people in each lane going off every hour and on the half-hour. I had been allocated a space in lane 5 (out of 10) according to speeds we'd written down on the entry forms. At 9.25am, someone shouted '5 minutes' and we lined up for our first mile.  I looked across and saw some really talented swimmers and mates in Paul Bates, Jo Norton-Barker, Oliver Wilkinson, Bryn Dymott, Nuala Muir-Cochrane > Paul did a video of the start here: We're off!

The great Ollie Wilkinson below demonstrating catch master class on length no.2 of 768.....he makes it look terribly easy...

And we were off......Dave Granger took the lead in the lane and was absolutely hammering along like a jet engine doing 26 minute miles (lapping me twice) with Sara Marley and others all really shifting. I was determined to stick to my plan to try and come in between 30-35 minutes to give me enough time to regenerate for the next mile without blowing myself up swimming!

It was going fine for the first few miles and the air temperature reached its high of a 'whopping' 12 degrees celsius with mainly cloud and the odd burst of  sunshine that really warmed the body & soul - if only we had seen more of it..... The water felt absolutely lovely after the initial 50 meters and strangely warmer in the middle of the pool (where we took the temperature above). It all felt rather manageable and easy really when swimming. It was the getting out into colder air that was slightly frustrating.  If only the sun had been out more as it would have made the whole challenge way more pleasurable - we also heard that back in 2011 all the buddies spent the day 'swanning around' in shorts & T-shirts...

I decided to switch down a lane in the hope of not being lapped as much which generally worked and was more psychologically beneficial. I had found a pretty consistent rhythm which was repeatable and felt the most confident in my stroke than ever (thanks to all the great advice from Uncle Ray at Swim Canarywharf). As I was aiming for 30-35 minute miles there was always 4 lengths with the O'clock group blasting past which one had to just get on with.

I was using the rest periods to get some warm maxim mixed with summer fruits down my neck with either an egg sandwich, some crisps, bananas, fun-size mars bars - just little bits every hour. As soon as I was out of the water, we had a military like drill organised to get wrapped up in blankets and towels to not get cold as it never felt warm in the gazebo save for the sunshine pouring in once for 10 minutes around 6pm.

The miles all merged into one and I was determined to be smooth and long with my stroke without pulling too hard to cause any shoulder irritations. When my left rotator hurt a little I just focussed even harder in engaging the latt muscle group more. We got to 6.30ish and I noticed the leader of lane 5, Dave G, holding onto his legs as he had acute cramp - he seemed to be in agony. His swim was now over. Wetsuits gradually became to be more the order of the day and darkness soon got grip of the Lido. The steam began to rise and then we couldn't even make out the other end!!

I was starting to run into a really low point that hit me when I got out all of a sudden and I just couldn't snap out of a malaise..... My Mum had taken over from my Dad as buddy and she was asking whether I really wanted to continue to do this challenge - it was around 7.30pm.... This was the first time my family had witnessed me undertaking such an event. I was numb and not even half way although I'd swum 11 miles.... And then, as if on cue to bring me out of my depths of despair, Mark and Lucinda Bayliss were opening the Gazebo door to say hello. My mood rose through the roof...Mark suggested that I now look at the balance of the swim as a 13 mile training swim..(I was thinking to myself  'that's bloody easy for him to say as he wasn't involved'!)...I remembered all the really fun moments we'd had training in 2012 helping each other get though various sessions (Gozo, Torbay) and I really didn't want to let them down.


We then got 1/2 way and over the mood continued to be vaguely more positive.... People were dropping like flies and the air temperature was working its way down to 1-2 degrees (witness steam above!). It was absolutely bloody freezing! Even being in the water now wasn't feeling warm. Although it was 17-18 degrees, it was cold each time the shoulders were lifted above the water. I now realised the enormity of the challenge and it was really messing with my head - I felt like I couldn't access the quiet head space that usually comes to me in these events.

My spirits were gradually raised further with the arrival of Emily, my wife, at 1.15am who being American has oodles of encouragement on tap and was really diligently seeing to affairs at intervals making sure I was as warm as possible - her enthusiasm was infectious. Even rubbing my legs to get the blood back in them after every mile!! It really was freezing cold in the Gazebo and I felt absolutely cold to the bone. I couldn't focus on anything and was in shit state feeling terribly sorry for myself. The mission really seemed close to unassailable... We made sure the Gazebo 'door' was zipped up which made marginal difference and still exhaling steam! - I overheard someone going past the Gazebo complaining about having to clear frost from their windscreen to make it over to the lido!!! When it was time to get back in the water I was absolutely shouting at myself in my head to throw off the sleeping bag and blankets and just to get going. After 'sprinting' the first 50m each mile, the temperature was just about bearable. The self-inflicted mullering continued!!

Legend Paul Bates depicts the brutality at the 15th hour here: Darkest Hours..

And then we got to 4.30am with 5 miles to go. I had just had a cup of freshly brewed coffee that Mrs Sheridan is famous for and a Werthers Original & was due back in the water. I felt nauseous, cold and out of it. My vision was blurred and I just couldn't focus on anything. I thought if I was going to swim another mile then I might be sick. I had to shout at myself under water a lot and think of anything I could that could be positive to change the course of this mood. I looked over and there was no longer Jo Norton-Barker, my mate who started (and completed) Loch Lomond with me and a fellow member of the BLDSA committee. I really felt for her and wondered why she wasn't there swimming alongside me. I figured that she must have been experiencing the same cold/hypothermic/exhaustion feeling. That bothered me for quite a few lengths and I was praying she was alright. If Jo Norton-Barker with a remarkable swim CV (Channel, Double Windermere, Loch Lomond, Double Ullswater etc) had been forced to pull out through illness then I really couldn't take the last 5 miles for granted. I really felt for everyone who had to pull out due to illness that overcame them.

There was now only 2 soloists in the lane (me and Mark Padley) and a ladies' relay team alternating. Mark was thumping out 32 minute miles but I was only being lapped once and able to keep it constant at ca. 34 minute miles (all the mile times listed at the bottom of blog).

The birds then started chirping and at ca. 5am the small signs of daylight came through and the sky was blue-ish. I couldn't seem to focus my eyes on anything and needed much more help just to stand up (the joys of having only one quad!).
Although the end was in sight I was conscious of the potential to blow up though sickness in miles 22 or 23 which were taken very steadily indeed as I didn't want to be ill. Finally 8.30am came and the final mile. This mission was going to be accomplished no matter what.....

(Limping gimp > 8.30 am with one mile to go looking like he'd been in a fight with the Guildford massive)

I pushed hard off the wall at 8.30am to start my last mile with the cheers of all the other spectators and my wife Emily being the loudest (and best buddy) behind me......All of a sudden, tears started to well hard into my eyes in the goggles - I was really overwhelmed by it. It was a gloriously emotional mile that was perhaps heaven sent..... I had been through so much in the last 5 months with major abdominal surgery and spending the best part of November 2012 not knowing whether I had cancer or not (I didn't in the end). I didn't know how my major abdominal surgery scars were going to react to such a relentless bout of punishment during the swim marathon and I was particularly worried therefore about pain in the belly.
I had proven a whole bunch to myself. I felt I had given myself confirmation in this swim that I can put that Marsden episode behind me and try and be an inspiration to others. Above all, I think secretly I wanted to make my lovely oncology surgeon eat his words that I'd never be able to accomplish anything like this again....You really can push yourself harder than you could ever imagine......

I became the last one home to the cheers of the awaiting spectators trying to demonstrate some more effortless front crawl and then sprinted the last 50 meters & finished. I stood up and then smashed my fists into the water (photo below!) splashing the spectators in the process. The relentless pounding was over and in the words of one of my heroes - the late & great Jane Tomlinson - 'the pain was always going to be finite'

I can't help but feel that this undertaking is one of the hardest challenges a solo swimmer can ever encounter. Many warned me before the event (and during) that it's harder than the channel. I think I now know why (I'll be able to update you on that when I have swum the channel in July 2014!). The swimming bit I generally found easy as I tried to use as little energy as possible - it's the recovery in freezing temperatures which is the really character-building bit!!

(Mission accomplished.....where has everyone gone?!)

Hugest thanks to buddies Dick and Trisha Sheridan (Parents) and my wife Emily. Without you I would never have finished. No question.

Thanks for the camaraderie from all people I interacted with (you know who you are) and above all to the magic of Lesley Zimmerman for staging the event. Well done Lez!

Here are my times mile by mile:

9.30               30.34
10.30             31.11
11.30             32.48
12.30             32.24
13.30             33.31
14.30             34.01
15.30             35.09
16.30             35.27
17.30             34.37
18.30             34.03
19.30             33.50
20.30             34.00
21.30             34.19
22.30             36.44
23.30             34.32
00.30             34.37
01.30             34.41
02.30             35.06
03.30             34.36
04.30             35.06
05.30             35.48
06.30             35.37
07.30             36.15
08.30             36.01

Joy of finishing..

(Post swim barely-warm Jacuzzi chatting to Jo Norton-Barker):