Thursday, 21 July 2016

Lac Leman/Lake Geneva solo (43 miles) 2016

It was the 27th August 2015. I was on another packed and sweltering train home from the City (of London) to home.  As usual on the journey back to the popular commuting town of Sevenoaks, I logged into Facebook to see what had been going on in the wonderful world of swimming. It emerged something TRULY REMARKABLE had just happened - an American lady who I had never heard of called Jaimie Monahan had just finished swimming Lac Leman/Lake Geneva - all 43 miles of it in almost 33 hours! Wow, bloody wow I thought! She was caked in white zinc all over and looked fresh-as-a-daisy despite a massive feat of human endurance.

(Before I go any further with this blog, we are going to have to name this body of water Lac Leman as the Swiss get properly haUIKeyInputDownArrowcked off with people changing the name - which I find entirely understanding btw!)

Social media had single-handedly delivered me (& the world) a truly amazing feat of human endurance in almost real time. The joys of modern technology. The pictures looked simply stunning and reminded me of a post shared by my swim buddy Adrian Rotchell earlier in the year with this being heralded as the 'New Everest of Swimming' or 'The Ultimate Trophy Swim for Pride of Place in your Trophy Cabinet'...the seed must have been planted in that previous post....without realising entirely what I was doing I then went onto the LSGA site and registered my interest for the swim....The qualifier involved a 7 hour swim on one day followed by a 6 hour the following day in water no warmer than 16 degrees within 30 months of the swim (already done that training for my EC swims so at least that formality was outta the way...yay!)

When I got home to tranquil Rose Cottage, I got changed to go out for a walk (as usual) and said to Emily (my wife), 'You are not going to believe what of your fellow country-women, an American lady has just swum Lac Leman - all 69km of it'!  She gave me a knowing look as I then left out of the kitchen door......My solo walk round the woods in our magnificent village was 15 mins of release zoning out of work issues into more relaxing home time. When I got back we were in the kitchen and I was getting quite emotional. 'What's wrong?' Em asked....'I am going to swim Lac Leman' I answered....'I knew it, I just knew it before you got outta the door earlier' she said 'I know you SO WELL!!!'.
I was pretty moved and we called the 2 girls down to see if they would endorse the plan too. I told Emily, Sophia (13) and Issy (11) that there would be a mountain of sacrifice, loads of hard training ahead that I (yet again!) would need their unflinching support (can't do this on your own - this is a team sport!) but I asserted to them that I genuinely had been PUT ON THIS EARTH TO DO THIS. We all embraced in a family group hug....
A big gulp moment of what lay ahead..... All roads had led me here after 7 swims over 21 miles and countless other events....I also started messaging back-and-forth with the victorious Jaimie and felt more and more comfortable that this should be the goal as she had done the English Channel and Catalina like me.

(My feed above was flavoured UCAN with optional Justin's Hazelnut butter - easy to feed as slightly opened and held with duck tape)

Over the winter, Ade, Sabina, Mikey, Danny, Liam, I and various assorted others did some truly horrendous interval sets at a local heated 50m lido as my mate Mark Bayliss had suggested that shaving 5 seconds off my 100m time might take the better part of an hour off Lac Leman time (we peaked at 100 X 100m off 2mins on 20th Dec which included swim buddy Steve Wand who is sadly no longer with us. (RIP our friend Steve who died tragically on Easter weekend 2016 out on his bike training hard as ever.).
I also spent 8 days in Sands Beach in Lanzarote with the family at Christmas enjoying the pool and sea, getting ca. 50km in and did one of the awesome swim training sessions with Bella and Stephen Bayliss. It was such a productive week, we booked again and went Feb half term (doing another 50km). The kids went surfing, I swam! (We love it over there and highly recommend it to you especially for winter training).

My first open water swim goal of the year was also my longest outright swim before Lac Leman was but a mere 17 mile Lake Apache in Arizona (the 'A' in the SCAR swim series - subject of another post after completing that event in 2015!) BUT this was going to be late March so still nippy. This was a huge confidence booster as it took 7 hours 18 mins,  this was the earliest swim ever done there in that lake and great to hook up with Kent, Danny, RT and the team. The rest of the training was mind-numbingly spent going round-and-round the 500m loop at the local lake with some of the other Nutters. . The longest weekend I did was half the distance (35km) over 2 days. The last few weeks tapering was spent just doing 10km swims on Saturdays and Sundays as a new job was dominating the week. You CERTAINLY couldn't argue I was over-trained for the event! At least I was uninjured and ready-to-go which is my usual want! I did feel that I was mentally in great shape though.

The other aspect I had changed completely was my diet. I wasn't bothered about the water  temperatures as I thought it might be 20c (which it generally was) so I went on the Banting regime (  recommended by Sam Jones at the Nemes Nutters Xmas party. I cut out beer, ice cream, pasta and was limiting myself to 50g of carb a day but swapping beer for gin or wine, pasta for cauliflower rice and ice-cream for raspberries and double cream ('ave it!). This is subject of a separate blog below but I think ABSOLUTELY made me feel I could rely on my own body fuel to finish rather than needing to carbo-load and end up with gut inflamation and a sore tummy which was such as common feature of my other swims. I ended up losing over 2 stone and feel great on this regime!

(Top crew - Teresa on the left and Kate on the right just before we boarded the boat)

I had a very carefully hand-picked duo of crew in Teresa Roberts and Kate Robarts. I didn't just pick them as their surnames sounded similar! I was thrilled when they took me up on my offer to help! They are seriously impressive endurance athletes in their own right. Teresa used to be GB Skulls rowing champ and has done 24 hour ultra runs recently finishing the Chamonix 1/2 marathon!  Kate has swum the Channel and 2WW amongst others. They are both  mentally hard as nails.  Realising I would be in the water for well over 24 hours would mean the crew would have to be endurance practitioners too! They never let me down once and were stars of the highest order. Teresa's mantra of 'just keep moving forward' was genius and all I needed to hear at feeds. Kate made the excellent executive decision that she and Teresa would stay up the entire night (getting the odd little nap during the day) so that I would feel completely and totally supported during the darkest hours. It was absolutely spot on. I never had a need to panic and didn't. I also took a great pride in being very polite at feeds and never complained once. No point throwing toys outta the pram as it just unsettles everyone! After one long hard bay in the early hours of the morning I had been observing  the Chateau at the end of it for hours...after we finally went passed I said 'Thank God we are going past that Chateau as I am sick and tired of f-ing looking at it'! The entire crew erupted and it lifted everyone materially for the final stretch.

(A British smurf in front of the most visited monument in Switzerland, Chateau Chillon)

The Swim 
The swim itself is all a bit of a blur to be honest. Now as I write this blog, 2 days after finishing, it feels like I was never there. I am not sure why that is...perhaps I just spent the whole time in my mind in some kind of catatonic trance.  I do remember tho'  that this scenery and water quality is the most stunning I have EVER experienced. The water was about 20c on average but much colder only when mountain streams entered the lake.  Then it was absolutely baltic for a patch that you would just have to man up and endure! Everything went amazingly to plan as the weather was ideal. Hardly a breath of wind for most of it with blazing sunshine (hence applying factor 100 sun cream and zinc everywhere). I fed once on the hour during the first day starting at 10.30am on one of 2 flavours of UCAN (only 1 scoop with 400ml)  with a Justin's Hazelnut butter taped to the side for easy application if desired. Worked a treat. I knew I would get bored of that feed after 12 hours so switched to a bit of maxim at night but mostly just rehydration focus. Also had the odd tea. In the morning time on the 2nd day then switched back to the UCAN and then had more tea in the final straight coming in as I was feeling colder.

You know the most amazing part of this swim? After 3 hours, I looked to my left and could see 3 snow-capped peaks in pure  Swiss mountain  air whilst swimming in crystal clear blue  water which must have been over 20c. I thought 'If Simon Griffiths (H2Open magazine editor) were here now even he would love this water and not want to get out'! The sunset and the sunrise was amazing and the 100% moonlit sky made enduring the night much more comfortable.

(Ideal conditions as long as you weren't swimming thru a mountain stream!)

The hardest bit was not knowing the lake and brainwashing myself into thinking that I was MUCH further ahead than I actually was! The finishing straight was hard but then again, it ALWAYS is no matter the distance. Adrian and I had talked about taking it VERY GINGERLY at the begining tho' so the crew reckoned I negative-splitted and I pretty much kept to 48 strokes per minute (forgive myself for that being 6ft 3!).

(Near the start overlooking Montreux)

The mental side was pretty  easy tbh as whenever my body felt pain,  I remembered my poor  Mum suffering in Kings Hospital in April having survived a stroke and brain aneurism of the type  which usually wipes out 50% of its victims. I recalled/witnessed her enduring those terribly dehibilitating  headaches and anything I was experiencing was just  nothing in comparison to that pain. My stroke never let me down thanks to Uncle Ray's coaching at Swim CanaryWharf from years ago not been for 18 months! I remember spending huge parts of the swim humming songs from my Indie Rock hero, Bob Mould, over and over in my head. There were so many times wend random funny things from my past came into my head to help occupy my mind. I did giggle to myself in the water at times but I think you really need to be your own best mate in these long swims to hack them!

(Heading towards Geneva which never came the jut of trees it was to be 'only' 7km to the finish!)

I was physically most apprehensive about RSI in my wrist which had impacted me in Catalina in 2015. It was even aggravating me the day before this swim. Teresa had some great advice beforehand that I put into practise during the swim and it worked a treat - every once in a while, I pretended to 'play the piano' which relieved any tension build up in my hands. Genius!

The finish was amazing. When we passed the jut of land and trees with 7km to go, I had a VERY strong word with myself and shouted at myself to claim this swim. I asked Teresa and Kate for my first pain killer of the swim (!) and had a hot cup of tea and got my head down and grafted. Liz Fry had told me once on Apache in 2015 that 'now is the time to own your swim' - this memory had the desired effect and after 3 more feeds the tender boat came out and then and ONLY THEN did I realise that I had this cracked.  (Shouting at yourself can be very productive!)  The local bathers at the Bains de Paquis (all 500+ of them)  were cheering me in all the way until I cleared the water backwards (this then went viral on social media!) - I remembered Liane Llewellyn's 2-way EC where she didn't go vertical after so much time in the water! I then shook (mastermind of the swim) Ben Barham's hand a bit dazed and I was surprised that I wasn't emotional in the slightest. Relief that I was alive!  A very surprising feat of human endurance from the plucky lad from Woolwich who only started this lark 6 years earlier!  I had become the 4th solo of Lac Leman in history and 1st male soloist since 1986 and 1st Brit to complete. 33 hours and 6 minutes was the final time also presenting me with the bonus of becoming the 141st person to join the open water 24 hour club with the 54th longest length of time in water in history...! My very own piece of fame.. (Never too late to aim at greatness!)

(Proof I did it thanks to the MSF)

TOP TIPS from da Crew and me as we immediately reflect:
1. MOST IMPORTANT!!! - You need to know your stroke is good and will NOT get you injured. I (and many others) have Ray Gibbs to thank for that. My shoulders never let me down, I could lift my arms over my head at the end and mainly had pain in the chest and back.
 2. You need to have great sun cream and zinc. Sun stroke could be a show-stopper as alpine sun is VERY strong. You will get sore lips too so put something sun resistant on those. I'm glad I packed strepsils for afterwards as the worst thing I had was a sore underside of right tongue like an ulcer.  
3. Know your nutrition but have many alternatives as what you might desire during the 1st half, you will reject on the 2nd. I used  well OVER 30 litres of water (we took 36 litres on the boat which was just enough!!), 9 sachets of Justin's hazelnut butter, 2 UCAN flavours (Raspberry & Cranberry plus Blueberry & Pomegranate alternating), black tea and a packet of hob nobs. (The one fig roll and 2 feeds of hot chocolate did not agree with me but I never threw up once).
4. Arrive in Geneva at least 2 days ahead to get supplies and REST
5. Get an apartment near the finish. We found a gem on AirBnB which was £1300 for the week but PERFECT when needing to stagger back from the swim!
6. Build a mental map of what exactly you are going to think about when it gets tough. I had all 43 miles dedicated to various people who have moulded my life in this sport.
7. Split the swim up into manageable chunks - you could consider it 7 X 10kms. When it gets tough, don't look up but look to the side and remind yourself you are making forward progress (thanks Teresa for that!)
8. Swim feed to feed - don't worry about time and don't go out too hard. Enjoy each bit for as long as you can. Appreciate your surroundings! I said many times 'Isn't this just stunning'
9. 2 absolutely essential bits of kit  are Duck tape (for taping anything to feed bottle) and clothes peg on a string (for goggles and administering hob nobs!)
10. Make sure your kit is organised. The crew knew where to go for all my belongings at all times! Feeds weren't mixed with goggles/lights etc. You will need to have 3 goggle changes in the water - that's tough treading water and trying to avoid getting zinc in them when you are tired!
11. I actually think the best endurance training you can get in before this is the Swim4Life which is 24 miles in fresh water over 24 hours. If you can endure that and your shoulders hold up, then I think this should be achievable, mental aspect/injuries  notwithstanding!
12. Don't beat yourself up for under-training. Most of it is mental and stroke related but don't under-estimate the importance of FRESH water training!

That's it! Good luck and get in touch if you want more info?

(I love this picture. Looks like we are coming back from a pub crawl.....but this is after the swim and my legs wouldn't work. Covered in zinc. Ben carrying an (empty) bucket and Teresa and Kate lugging all the kit). We were asked a couple of times whether we needed an ambulance!



  1. Bloody fantastic Mark and a very thoughtful and generous write up as this will help many others. Looks like you shed loads more weight as you seemed almost as skinny as me when you got out. Interested to hear in due course you take on the physical effects of the swim, post swim recovery etc. You seemed very puffy eyed too and was not sure whether that was from a lack of sleep or an effect of wearing goggles for so long. Normal life must feel a bit weird now!

  2. Your story popped up on my Facebook news feed through a fellow swimmer! I am in awe of your achievement, you are incredible. You have now sparked my first burst of enthusiasm for open water swimming again since my EC in 2013. I laughed and almost chocked reading this story as all us open water swimmers can relate In some way. Im pretty sure I'm back for the foreseeable and am extremely tempted to even enter this or a different mammoth swim! Thanks for inspiring!