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!
(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 hump....my 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:
Joy of finishing..
(Post swim barely-warm Jacuzzi chatting to Jo Norton-Barker):