BLDSA Loch Lomond – The prequel

It had been a long road and on the swimming front at least, all that could be done had been done.

I had booked a Forest Holidays cabin at the northern end of Loch Long, which would be our base for the days leading up to the swim and for several days after. The cabin looked amazing and much to girls’ delight it had a hot tub (which was the real selling point for them).

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View from Loch Long towards the Forest Holidays Cabins.                                                           (Picture from Forest Holidays website)

I was very much in organisational mode now and was slowly working through my growing checklist:

  • BLDSA Loch Lomond Entry Form
  • Boat hire for crew familiarisation on Friday and then the swim (cash to pay for this)
  • Extra fuel for the boat (just in case)
  • Two paddles for emergencies
  • Accommodation
  • Return flights to Glasgow booked for crew
  • Hire car booked and paid for at Glasgow Airport
  • Feeding plan
  • Drugs (Paracetamol and Ibuprofen)
  • Water
  • Thermos flasks x2
  • Torq carb powder
  • Torq gels
  • Hot chocolate sachet x12
  • 6 bananas
  • Flapjacks 1 box
  • Milky bars – mini size
  • Fruit jelly sweets for the crew (special request from Albie and Barry)
  • Large watertight box for all kit
  • Navigation lights for the boat
  • Glow sticks x10
  • Alpha flag
  • Plastic zip ties
  • Duct tape
  • Searchlight
  • Swimming bag
  • Change of warm clothes
  • Dry robe
  • Goggles x2
  • Trunks x2
  • Hat x2
  • Garmin watch
  • Green light for swimming at night x2
  • Safety pins
  • Lanolin and Vaseline
  • Towels x2
  • Crocs
  • Batteries
  • Crew food, drinks and hot water
  • Navigation charts
  • Compass
  • Binoculars
  • VHF radio
  • Life jackets
  • Mobile phone and key contact phone numbers
  • Knife
  • First aid kit

I packed and re-packed my box  (a scuba box from B&Q) with everything needed for the crew and boat. My swimming stuff was safely packed away in my trusty North Face bag.

I would have time to shop for fresh produce if I had forgotten anything as Dumbarton was not far away and I could source most things from there.

We drove up to Durham the weekend before the swim and stopped over at Debbie’s parents before travelling on to the cabin on the Monday morning. I have been told that I was not particularly pleasant to be around for those few days. I don’t know if it was nerves and apprehension but I felt quite ill and started to get really worried that I might actually be coming down with something just prior to the main event. I really just wanted to get to the cabin so I could sort myself out, test the water, get my bearings and settle into my surroundings before the swim.

Driving alongside Loch Lomond on our way to the cabin was the first time I’d actually seen it for real. It was stunning but seemed much bigger than on Google maps!

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Loch Lomond & Loch Long to the left of Tarbet

We settled in to our cabin and after settling on who should have which bedroom, tested out the hot tub almost immediately.

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I had solicited a willing crew many months before and I was confident in my selections; they would be the perfect crew.

Albie was always going to take the lead, he had a huge amount of crewing experience having escorted numerous Channel and BLDSA swims before. Albie would be in charge of navigation and would keep a close eye on my stroke rate and general well-being throughout the swim. Barry (of flapjack fame) would join Albie and would take control of the feeds and video. I had known them both since my childhood and they had crewed together many times. They were a safe pair of hands and I trusted them and their judgement.

That left one space left, the job of that crew member would be to pilot the boat! A difficult and important task, as I would be taking my lead from and swimming next to the boat all through the night.

I considered this selection carefully and realised some time ago that what I really needed was a Rock Star!

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Rock Star !

Luckily for me one lived next door.. Meet Paul, Rock Star, neighbour, friend and newest member of my crew.

We spent the next few days exploring the areas surrounding Loch Lomond and visiting almost all of the landmark spots I would see during my swim. I’m so glad we did this as it helped a great deal during the swim as I could actually visualise the places Albie and I had earlier highlighted on the navigation map along the proposed swim route.

Just a stones throw from our cabin, I decided to ‘keep my arms in’ and have a short swim in Loch Long, and this proved to be a real eye opener… Mainly because it was bloody baltic! It could only have been about 10/11 degrees and I was not prepared for it. Having been swimming in the sea and lake all summer in temperatures of between 16 and 24 degrees this was a real shock to the system and I was shivering for some time afterwards.

Loch Long, unlike Loch Lomond is a sea water Loch and joins the Firth of Clyde to the south before in turn flowing to the North Sea. This would account for the cold temperature and the abundance of unfriendly lion’s mane jellyfish in attendance.

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Better out than in!

I was really worried that Loch Lomond might be the same temperature and I didn’t have the nerve to swim in it before my swim, just in case I lost my bottle. I swam in Loch Long three times that week, each time for a little bit longer until I was swimming across and back. The shivering got easier and at least I had a few days to acclimatise, whereas some of the other competitors would be in for a shocker if they turned up to Lomond on the day expecting tropical conditions.

My crew arrived on Friday and I immediately felt more at ease, my meticulous planning was paying off and everything was starting to fall into place. I had arranged to hire the same boat for the afternoon  (from Loch Lomond boat hire) so the crew they could familiarise themselves with the Loch (specifically the route through the islands) and Paul could learn to pilot a boat in advance of the swim. I enjoyed an ice cream with the girls as the small boat motored off at a sedate pace towards Inchmurrin island.

Albie and Barry would stay with us in the cabin on the Friday night but Paul, who had driven up to the Loch with his family towing their caravan, would stay in a campsite overlooking the Loch itself. We agreed to gather at our cabin that evening for pizza and pasta (CARB loading!!!) and to discuss final preparations for the big day ahead.

It was decided that I would drive the guys to Balloch to pick up the boat early the following morning. They would then pilot the boat to Arduli, the start point for the swim on the northern edge of the Loch. It would take most of the day to make the journey and I would track their progress from various vantage points along the way. We thought it would be nice for them to come ashore at Tarbet to stretch out and have a picnic lunch before they set off again on the final leg of the voyage to Ardlui.

I was supposed to be taking it easy in the run up to the swim but to be honest it helped to keep busy and I just wanted to get started. I re-checked and re-packed my box several times that afternoon before we piled into the car leaving plenty of time for our short drive to the start point.

LOCH LOMOND  – BLDSA’S EVEREST of SWIMMING

A 21.6 mile swim for the most serious/delusional. Records suggest that up until the 20th day in August in 2014 when nine somewhat nervous swimmers, including myself, graced the northern banks of the Loch, only 48 people had ever completed this swim before. Lying in the shadow of Ben Lomond the Loch is the largest body of water by surface area in the British Isles and one of the most beautiful places I will ever swim.

The weather can be pretty unpredictable and my crew would likely have to contend with cold temperatures as I swam through the night. I knew I had a reasonable tolerance for cold water, having swum in the cold earlier in the year and swimming in Loch Long over the past few days. I was going to need all of that resilience and more if I was going to emerge triumphant at Balloch on Sunday morning….

 

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A split 6 followed by a perfect 10!

Anyone who has spent the summer training for a Channel swim under the ever watchful eye of Freda Streeter will know all to well the emphasis placed on completing a split swim in combinations of 6 or 7 hours over a weekend.

I had followed my plan to the letter and thus far, achieved every goal I had set for myself. My wall planner indicated that the weekend of the 12/13th July would be my first and only opportunity to complete a split 6hr swim.

My longest planned training swim of 10 hours was highlighted in bold, red letters just two weeks later. The importance of a successful weekend’s swimming was not lost on me.

Again, Albie kindly agreed to support my swims, this time he would be a bit busier as on top of recording my stroke rate and general well-being, I would also be feeding after the first two hours and then every hour or so after. The plan was to drink water mixed with carbohydrate powder and for solids I would eat either banana or home-made flapjacks (kindly provided by Barry Westaway). I wish I knew about LCHF back then as my nutritional choices would have been entirely different (more to follow on that in later posts).

Albie and I headed over to Budleigh beach early on the Saturday morning, aiming for a 9am start. I choose to do the majority of my biggest swims in Devon because the sea conditions are much more akin to those I would find in the English Channel. It was always very different swimming at Budleigh than in Dover harbour, but looking back, neither of these locations proved ideal as a training ground for a long swim in fresh water.

The first 6hrs went well, I was trying to pace my self effectively throughout but feeding took a little longer than normal as it is a pebble beach and getting ashore was sometimes tricky with the waves.

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I was feeling pretty sick after and had to stop at the side of the road for a ‘tactical chunder’ as it’s known in the trade. I felt better after that though and made sure I had an early night in preparation for the following day’s exertions.

The second swim went much the same as the first, it took a while to loosen up but overall I felt better than the previous day.

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My average swim speed seemed a little slow on the Garmin but I was aiming for about 2 mph which, when factoring in feeds is pretty much what I achieved.

It was a good weekend’s work but the thought of swimming further than I had ever done before in just a couple weeks was still quite daunting…

I took the next few weeks pretty easy, in fact I only did a 2 hr swim the following Saturday in Dover but I did manage to submit my Loch Lomond entry form before the deadline and suddenly everything was feeling very real.

Before I knew it I was back standing on Budleigh beach, this time it was 7am and the air was fresher at this time in the morning!

My family had been in Devon for the whole week and as it was Debbie’s mums birthday on the same day as my swim, both her parents had joined them for a weeks holiday. We were planning a birthday tea at the River Exe Cafe following my swim, which I was looking forward to as the sea food was rumoured to be excellent.

Albie was with me once again, and this time both my family and a few of the other Exmouth swimmers were planning to make an appearance at some point during the day. It’s always nice to know there is someone else on the beach or in the water swimming at the same time as you when you are doing such a long session.

This was the last big training swim before Lomond and I would then be tapering down in the weeks leading up to the swim. This was my one chance and I was determined to finish on a high. I strode into the water and got down to business..

10hrs

After about 8 hours of swimming I was finding swimming against the tide more and more difficult. I would fly down to mum’s bench in one direction and then fight my way back. I hadn’t really noticed it much for the first eight hours but the last few laps in particular were incredibly difficult both physically and mentally.

Crawling up the pebbled beach I felt knackered and happy in equal measure. I was struggling to stand upright after being horizontal for such a long time and after a couple of minutes I felt sick again. I was aware that I had ingested loads of sea water during the latter part of the swim, I think I must have swum with my mouth open quite a bit as well because my tongue was somewhat dehydrated. This is quite common amongst Channel swimmers and it makes your tongue swell and crack. It would take a few days for my tongue to feel normal again but it did, thankfully.

I went straight to bed and unfortunately missed the birthday celebrations.. My daughter still raves about the seafood platter to this day!

When I eventually started to feel more like myself again, the realisation that I could keep pushing through the fatigue was huge for me. It was only then that I truly began to believe that if I could maintain the mental strength to continue when things were that tough, failure in Loch Lomond would not be an option…

and without the salt, hopefully I would not be sick either..

 

It’s all in the planning

I had a thirst, not only for a drink (I’d been off the booze for a year) but for knowledge. Whilst I was researching everything I could find related to swimming Loch Lomond, I stumbled across a blog that would change my life forever!

There was this guy, Mark Sheridan who swam the Loch in 2012, having read his story I knew that I needed to track him down, buy him lunch and as my American friends would say ‘drink from the fire hose’.

You should check out his blog here:

http://reminiscencesofalongdistanceswimmer.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/bldsa-loch-lomond-216mile-swim-2012.html

Eventually after much online searching, I managed to track down Mark’s email address. Luckily it turned out that he worked in London not ten minutes from my own office and I dropped him an unsolicited email with an offer of lunch, and hoping that he would agree to meet and share his wisdom. I was excited when Mark agreed and felt that finally I was making some real progress.

We met for lunch in Wagamama’s a week later, it was a bit like a first date. Mark trying to get a feel for whether I was really up for the challenge, or just another wannabe Loch Lomond swimmer. He was probing for the tell-tale signs and searching for common ground. I remember, when mentioning to Mark that the swimming and the distance would not be a problem for me, the wry smile that lingered from across the table.

Mark gave me some solid advice about choosing my crew wisely, and sorting out a boat early. We discussed the best route and the challenges of navigating at night, all invaluable for planning my swim the following August. Mark also mentioned that he often trained with some Nutters at Holborough lake in Kent. I told him that I would check it out as it was only about 30 mins from my home, and much closer than a drip to Dover. I paid the bill and we parted company.

Over the next couple of months in the lead up to Christmas 2013 I started putting plans in place to recruit a crew, book a boat, and propose (sell) a great holiday in Loch Lomond to the family, which would by chance, coincide with the swim.

As with the previous year Christmas was the time for planning but it became quickly apparent that this coming year, things needed to change.

My family suffered in 2013, I was single-minded, selfish and didn’t include them in my plans. I had tunnel vision and did not realise the extent to which my training and state of mind was impacting my family. My wife and I had a long and emotional discussion, the outcome of which was that I promised to find balance, to make time during the year for them and to include them in my plans. It dawned on me that they were really invested in my endeavour emotionally and wanted to contribute and feel part of what was to come. It was no longer my swim but our swim, and I realised I could not do it on my own.

This reset manifested itself in a written plan of activities for the next eight months to include not only all training swims, key milestones, events and associated travel but also dedicated family time, short breaks and holidays.

My simple aim was to swim further and faster every month than the previous year. I planned to swim in the pool until April then the lake at Holborough or the sea either in Dover or Devon. I also planned to swim my first BLDSA swim in 2014, the notorious Champion of Champions, and decided that a successful ten-hour sea swim off Budleigh beach prior to Loch Lomond would give me the necessary confidence going into the swim.

I stuck a daily planner on the wall of our study and used various colour coded dots to indicate progress.  I was ready to execute our plan to the letter..