We arrived at the Ardlui hotel at about 6.30pm, my start time was 8pm so we were in plenty of time and it was not long before my crew came into view and landed the boat on the beach. I needed to attach some glow sticks to the side of the boat, fit the navigation lights and alpha flag and do a final check of the kit. It was essential to make sure we had enough hot water to last the swim and I had stowed two large filled thermos flasks and an additional one for the crew, so they could also have hot drinks throughout the night. Debbie had made the crew a plentiful supply of sandwiches and snacks, which they were grateful for.
I changed into my kit and put on my Dryrobe to keep warm whilst we waited for the safety briefing. There were three people starting at the same time as me and one after; by my count that meant there were already five swimmers in the water. Start times were staggered based on an individual’s expected swim speed, and meant that if all went to plan everyone would finish at about the same time on Sunday morning.
The safety briefing went without a hitch and we were reminded of the usual BLDSA rules for the swim -don’t touch the boat or anyone in it, stay close to your escort boat etc etc. As the crew made their final preparations, I started getting ready, put on my lucky Champion of Champions hat and attached a flashing green strobe to strap of my tinted goggles. I needed to attach a glow stick to the back of my trunks so my crew could easily spot me when it got dark which proved a challenge (and I think it fell off only meters into the swim in any case.)
Debbie was on hand to apply a thick layer of lanolin to my upper back and kidneys in an attempt to provide some additional insulation against what was going to be a cold swim.
Lanolin for insulation
Lanolin was also very good at preventing chafing in the areas under my arms and around my neck, where stubble can cause serious friction burns – always worse in salt water but I was taking no risks.
The children were pretty hyper at the start and although excited I think they were a bit worried. I tried to keep things light-hearted but as always before any competitive swim I tend to withdraw and quietly prepare myself for what’s ahead.
Just before the off
We all said our goodbyes to family and friends and the crew were left with strict instructions to provide status updates to the family at designated spots along the swim. The crew took the boat about a hundred yards or so offshore and adopted a holding pattern as they awaited the start. The swimmers were instructed to wade into the water up to our thighs and await the starting whistle. It was quite cold but at least 2 degrees or so warmer than Loch Long and that was a huge relief.
The whistle sounded and we were off, I started steady and proceeded to swim directly into a mooring buoy not 20 meters from the start! This was not ideal as it bloody hurt, it did however take the my mind off the chill in the water for a bit.
Thankfully no damage was done and I settled into a steady rhythm next to the boat, making sure as far as possible to maintain a position adjacent to the boat and not at the back where the diesel smell was unbearable.
Relaxing into my stroke
I never looked forwards but always towards my crew, they were obviously a little nervous as well and it took them a while to find their routine. It was not long though before Paul had mastered keeping the boat the right distance away and was effectively leading me in the right direction. Albie was sat at the front of the boat providing navigational instructions whilst frequently recording my stroke rate, and Barry was filming me on a small handheld camcorder that Debbie had given him on the beach earlier. (I might ask the crew to contribute a post from their perspective at some point as I know they had some fun and games!)
500m in from the start
As per my normal training routine, I would feed after the first 2 hrs of swimming and then every hour. Barry would prepare the feeds and I would tread water whilst taking on fluids and occasional solids such as flapjacks or banana. All was going to plan and I was starting to enjoy my swim. Whilst it was still light I was able to recognise some of the sights we had seen earlier in the week and the views from water level were amazing. I swam from point to point as marked out on our navigational map, and guided by my trusty crew.
As night fell all I could hear was the sound of the small outboard and it was actually quite relaxing. My goggles were great, not steamed up and no leaks at all but I could not see anything except for the blurred green glow of the glow sticks we had attached to the boat and the odd camp fire on the shores of the Loch. I had brought some clear lenses for the night swim but given the ones I was wearing were working so well, I decided not to change them. Although everything appeared much darker than it actually was, that didn’t bother me and I actually quite enjoyed swimming in the dark. The only downside was that apparently the stars and the night sky were beautiful throughout the evening and I missed all of that!
Swimming through the night
It was about midnight when the air temperature started to drop dramatically. I found out later that it dropped as low as 3 degrees and the crew were pretty cold. Thankfully they were well briefed and came prepared with warm waterproof clothing. They were wrapped up in multiple layers with hats and gloves and had enough hot water for cups of tea or hot juice. Crewing on a swim like this is a massive challenge in itself and I have a lot to thank them for.
I was still feeling pretty good but the water was feeling icy cold, the crew stopped me at one point during the night to ask me some hyperthermia questions because they thought I might be suffering. I remember counting out loud to ten as quickly as I could, a little put out that I had to stop swimming, but I was fine and would rather that than the alternative. I kept telling myself that as long as I could feel the discomfort, I was probably doing fine. I also remember skipping a feed at some point during the night because I felt it was too cold to stop moving.
NB: As an aside to any prospective crew, if your swimmer requests a Paracetamol or Ibuprofen at the next feed because of some slight ailment, please do not think it is a good idea to stick the whole 500mg pills into half a banana without telling the swimmer. I took a healthy bite of said banana and started to chew, if you have ever bitten into a paracetamol, you will now what my reaction was! After much coughing, spluttering, spitting and general abuse of the crew I threw the rest away and carried on.
Just for avoidance of doubt!
I was drinking Torq carb powder mixed with mineral water for the first half of the swim supplemented with the odd 1/2 banana or flapjack. In the middle of the night I switched to warm hot chocolate because the Torq was making me feel a bit sick. This was the right decision as I immediately felt better and looked forward to each subsequent feed. (I no longer use carbohydrate as fuel but we will discuss that in another post).
Swimming in the dark and the cold when you are tired can sometimes play tricks on your mind and there were several occasions where my crew and I struggled with communication. I think at one point I swam off into the dark without the boat, but this was nothing too serious and at no point did I really throw my toys out of the pram.
Dawn on Loch Lomond
I think our biggest challenge was navigating through the islands in the dark. It was almost impossible to find the correct course, and without the massive search light I’d brought along, I doubt we would have successfully found the entrance to the narrow and very shallow channel. (Even though they had mapped the route and sailed through and around the islands the previous day). If you’re thinking of entering this swim I would recommend skirting the islands rather than going through them. It’s a bit longer that way but I’m sure it would have been quicker in the end.
Supporters shouting encouragement from afar
I didn’t know at the time but Debbie, the girls and Paul’s family were following the start of the swim by road and then were up early the next day to find suitable vantage points to wave and shout encouragement.
Final couple of hours
We finally exited the islands and psychologically I convinced myself that we were on the home straight. In reality though this was a mistake on my part as I still had over three hours of swimming ahead of me!
I was aware that the safety boat had visited us a couple of times in the night but to be honest we hadn’t seen that much of it. It turned out that this was because the boat had been quite busy elsewhere and my crew informed me that out of the nine swimmers to start there were only two of us remaining! This spurred me on and I wondered if I might even finish the swim in first place, which was never part of my thinking previously.
I never doubted that I would finish and although I was tired I just kept putting one arm in front of the other until I was able to stand at the finish.
Finished – 13hrs 58 mins 58 seconds
Phillip Hodges was 49th person to swim Loch Lomond and the only other swimmer to complete the course, he started earlier and finished well before me, completing his swim an hour or so faster than me.
I wore my Garmin for the swim and was excited to see the results. Unfortunately however, it lost its GPS signal for the majority of the swim and although this rendered the stats useless, the tack was accurate for the first 3hrs and the last couple.
My crew was awesome and I would not have made it without them, it’s just a shame that Albie and Barry had to leave pretty much straight after the swim to get a flight back down to Exeter. Paul and his family would be around for a few more days so we would get the opportunity to celebrate.
From the left – Paul, Barry and Albie
Afterwards it took about 45mins for me to stop shaking enough to accept my BLDSA award. It was a tough swim and although it took much longer than I had expected, it didn’t matter, Loch Lomond for me was just a training swim on my journey towards swimming the English Channel.
I was the 50th person in history to swim the Loch Lomond and looking back on the swim now, it was actually a much tougher swim than the English Channel…
Marathon Swimming is a TEAM sport!