Sunday, 21 July 2019

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

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

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

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

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


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

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



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


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




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


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


(Theresa getting to know the lucky duck)

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


(only 25.2 miles to go....)

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


(ultimate marathon swimming nutrition)

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


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



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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

Read the official swim report from the organisers here:
Three-Complete-In-Search-of-Memphre-on-July-16th--2019

Here are my observer sheets:




Observations and final thoughts

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

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

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

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

Much of the lake frontage plots are private and residential but my favourite swim spot is Eagle Point on the east side just below the Canadian border - right by a nature reserve where you will spot the Osprey’s nest and otters.
http://discovernewportvt.com/eagle-point-wildlife-management-area.html

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

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

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Willoughby



https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crystal_Lake_(Vermont)



Sunset on Lake Memphremagog on my last night:



Wednesday, 5 June 2019

28.5 Mile Manhattan 20-Bridges Swim 1st June 2019



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



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



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



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



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

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

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

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



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



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



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



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

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

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



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



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

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

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

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



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

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

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



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

You can read more about that here: https://db.marathonswimmers.org/triple-crown/

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

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