BLDSA Loch Lomond

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.

start

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.

Lanolin

Sticky stuff!

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.

s1

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.

buoy

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.

swim

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!)

start2

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!

night

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.

lesson

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

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.

supp

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 straight

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.

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.

LL.jpg

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.

boatcrew

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.

prize

Prize giving

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…

crew

Marathon Swimming is a TEAM sport!

BLDSA Champion of Champions

I forgot an important milestone in my last post. Those of you that know me well may have guessed what it is already…….

The 15th June 2014 was not just my daughter’s birthday but it also happened to be Father’s Day! I was very excited to receive one particular present that helped me overcome a key challenge during the CoC event.

A Dryrobe!

It was a very early rise on Saturday and I decided to head off to Dover alone, it was going to be a long day and Debbie and the kids could head down later to enjoy the finish and hopefully the sunshine! (It also happened to be the girl’s school summer fair and they’d never have forgiven me if they missed out on jam jar hoopla to watch me swim for the whole day!)

According the BLDSA website the Champion of Champions is an epic challenge! Swimmers aim to complete a 5 mile, 3 mile then 1 mile swim with only a short gap in between each one. The swimmer with the lowest time across the 3 swims will be crowned the ‘Champion of Champions’. Although most swimmers enter to complete all 3 swims there  is also the odd swimmer who just enters a single event.

‘It’s one of the most brutal and challenging events of the BLDSA swim calendar and being early in the season can be a huge confidence booster for training for Channels, Windermere’s etc later on in the season’. (BLDSA)

Arriving on the beach in front of the sailing club I came prepared with all my kit, a folding chair and cool box filled with soup, hot chocolate, pasta and other assorted snacks.

I registered early and got my race number (20) written on my back, shoulder and hand in black marker pen. I was to shout this number out every time I passed the lap counters, who would be sitting on an inflatable boat keeping track of everyone’s progress.

There was a briefing before each of the 5, 3 and 1 mile races to make sure everyone was aware of the course, starting instructions and more importantly the safety protocols. I will say at this point that the BLDSA are very well organised and unlike other organised events outside the BLDSA, the swimmers safety is always paramount. There was a safety officer, fast safety boats on the water, numerous kayakers in support around the circuit, St Johns Ambulance service were in attendance and everyone was well briefed and ready to leap into action and I felt confident that they could cope with any situation.

briefing.jpg

5 Mile briefing

It was time to race, I recognised some of the faster swimmers lining up at the start line. It was a race but I had decided to treat it as a training swim.

Who was I trying to kid?

cocstart

The starting klaxon sounded and I shot off like a bullet from a gun. I was leading for all of five strokes and by the time I reached the first turning buoy I had been overtaken by a pod of speedsters who actually had a leg kick! I relaxed and slowed my stroke, 5 miles was a pretty long swim and I needed to conserve some energy for the 3 and 1 mile swims later.

The water was about 14 degrees and after my efforts in Dover over the past few weeks I knew the temperature was not going to be a problem. I got into my rhythm and finished the first leg in 2 hrs 30m.

Swim1

The three miler was next and to be honest, I didn’t really fancy it. I was feeling quite tired after the first swim and surprisingly I was also pretty cold waiting for it to start. It was a clear day on the beach but it was still quite breezy, I huddled inside my Dryrobe which helped a bit.

There was no sign of the family yet and I was hoping they would turn up before I finished the next leg.

The water felt colder and I was starting to realise that it’s not the swimming so much as the getting in and out that made this swim a real challenge. I didn’t bother with a sprint start this time and just focussed on getting it done.

swim2.jpg

I was pleased to see that the family had arrived as I exited the 3 miler and my youngest daughter was on hand to bring me one of my crocs!

exit3

Finishing Buoy ( The tide had gone out) – Where are my crocs?

I was actually feeling a bit better than after the first swim and knowing that there was only 1 mile left was a massive relief. I knew I was going to complete my first CoC. As I entered the water for the last leg I knew that I could probably have pushed a bit harder in the earlier swims and this was born out by my average speed for the last mile. (It should be noted that I still struggled to actually swim in a straight line, so probably covered a little extra distance, all good training though).

swim3

I had finished it and I felt proud of my achievement, it had been a great day out and although I finished outside the top ten it was a great swim and I highly recommend it to anyone, even if it is just to earn the prized BLDSA Champion of Champions swim hat!

presentation

Nice certificate as well

My next milestone was a split 6 in three weeks time! This would involve a 6hr swim on the Saturday followed by another on the Sunday. I was intending to head back to Budleigh for this one and I was keeping my fingers crossed for no wind and calm seas…

When the going gets tough..

I spent about 14hrs swimming during April, mostly at the lake. I did venture back down to Devon at the beginning of May because I knew that I needed to start upping my distance in the sea before Dover training started.

Albie was happy to sit on the beach at Budleigh, watch over my stuff and count my stroke rate at regular intervals, an incredibly boring way to spend a morning but the data he recorded proved really helpful, and I enjoyed reading his notes.

May 1

I was happy with the way things went (2hrs 50m on Saturday and another 55m on Sunday) as it was still pretty chilly. I decided that I should swim mainly in the sea at Dover for the rest of May and really ramp up my training in the first weeks of June before the Champion of Champions (CoC) on the 21st.

We were heading off for an early season holiday to Corfu at the end of May. It was not the most popular decision with the family but we would be in Lomond in August and with the training schedule already mapped out there would be no time to go away during the school holidays. Corfu would at least be warm and the hotel looked lovely.

c1

View from our room

I swam for 6 of the 10 days we were away, training in the morning and spending the afternoon with the family. The water must have been about 18 degrees or so as it felt comfortable, and I took full advantage covering  just over 50k with my longest swim being 4hrs and 15mins. I swam in circuits making sure to avoid the odd boat and jet ski as I went.

c3

Debbie sat on the beach keeping one eye on me whilst sun bathing, then every hour or so bringing me a diet coke or half a banana (squirrelled away at breakfast).

c5

Debbie’s spot

England was somewhat colder than Corfu but I still headed down to Dover the following weekend and knocked out 4 hours as per Freda’s instructions.

DJ

Champion of Champions was now at the forefront of my mind and I was determined to complete a 5hr swim the following week and then 6hrs the weekend before the big day. Unfortunately this also happened to be my eldest daughters birthday and she was not overly impressed with the idea of me disappearing to Dover for a day. I had promised to be around for her party on the Saturday though, which helped a little.

d2

All went to plan and a number of hardy souls with planned Channel swims managed to complete 6hrs that day. It was a hard slog, and as we crawled up the shingle beach everyone was happy for it to be over.

66 hours and 250km of swimming since the start of the year and I was ahead of schedule. I was confident that under normal circumstances I could complete the CoC distance but this was not normal, it was a race.

No, actually it was three races…

I wondered if my inability not to try and beat the person next to me in the pool, sea, lake  or in anything actually, would be my undoing…

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..

 

 

 

Back in the pool

It’s Christmas 2012, I’m sat in the living room trying to figure out a plan for my first year of training in 2013.

The plan was to swim a lot in my local swimming pool in the beginning until the water temperature in the sea was warm enough to venture outside. A good plan I thought, get back into swimming, regain some of my speed and then work towards achieving a six-hour sea swim in the summer. I had never swum beyond 3 hours before and but as this was the qualifying distance for a Channel solo swim, it seemed like a logical goal.

I was training 4 or 5 times a week in the evenings after work and at the weekends.

2013 calendar

2013 Training Days

Initially I was covering no more than 2-3k in each session, and you can see below, although I was swimming frequently my monthly distance rarely exceed 60km by much.

2013.112013.12

I swam in the pool until May when I decided to enter the H2Open’s first National Open Water Ranking Series, this consisted of a number of swims in lakes around the country and I thought this would be a good way to add some intensity to my training and finally escape from the pool.

My first was a 5k at Box End in Bedfordshire on the 4th May and I was one of only a couple of skins swimmers in a crowd of rubber. I was afraid that it would be too cold for me and I even tried to sit in a cold bath at home to replicate the anticipated temperature. As it turns out my worries were unfounded, as although it was cold at about 14.5 degrees, I managed it well, even if there was a bit of shivering following my exit.

I thought I was swimming pretty fast at Box End but as it turns out I was well down the field at the finish. I only realised later that I had lost a lot of time due to the fact that I was struggling to swim in a straight line, the data from my Garmin confirmed this as the 5K swim had turned into nearly 6km for me.

boxend

Box End 5km H2Open swim statistics

Nevertheless, I took confidence from this swim and went in search of somewhere to train outside where I could practice sighting.

After a bit of online research I discovered Swimmers Beach in Dover. Freda Streeter and her team would observe and dish out regular beastings to Channel swim aspirants on a Saturday and Sunday morning. This sounded ideal as I could drive down to Dover on my own and the family did not need to worry about me swimming alone.

dover

Swimmers Beach Dover

I swam at Dover on and off for several weekends in the summer that year, slightly in awe of those around me I went about my business and completed a number of 3-4 hour swims en route to my 6 hour swim. I also continued with the 2013 H2Open Ranking series and to my great surprise I finished third in the mens non wetsuit category.

ranking

I decided to attempt my 6 hour swim in the sea at Budleigh Beach under the watchful eye of Alan Franks aka Albie, an old friend who swam in the relay with me all those years ago and for whose Channel solo I crewed in 1994. Albie, had over the years trained and supported a number of Exmouth swimmers in their own solo swims across the Channel, and I thought it was highly likely that he would later accompany me on my attempt.

1st 6hr

My first 6hr swim at Budleigh Beach

1st 6hr stats

I remember it being a tough swim but I felt incredibly excited to have achieved my 2013 goal. Having swum over 375 km in the year, it felt like I had laid a good foundation for what was still to come.

I decided that my target for 2014 would not be the well trodden route that my friends had taken in preparation for their Channel swims, and instead of the recommended BLDSA two-way Windermere swim, I wanted to do something different. I decided I was going to swim the BLDSA Loch Lomond Championship!

Everyone except my wife Debbie thought I was mad to even consider it, the distance, the cold, the success rate and not to mention the logistics.

My mind was made up…

 

 

 

 

 

When did the madness start?

I think I learnt to swim when I was about four or five, I couldn’t tell you for sure. I do remember waiting for a bus to pick a bunch of us nippers up at the end of St Johns road, not far from my childhood home. I’m not sure where the bus took us exactly and I’ve never managed to find that pool again, despite looking in the years since. It turns out that my now sister-in-law also learnt to swim with me but she can’t remember either.

All I know is that I stopped swimming and left the swimming club at some point during primary school and did not return to swimming in a big way until I was about fifteen. I joined Exmouth Swimming and Life Saving Society (ES&LSS) and found within about six months that I had taken all of the club records for the open age group, except the backstroke (I still hate backstroke now). Given the amount of time I was spending in the pool at the time it made sense to me that I become a lifeguard at the sports center. I was earning and swimming every day and life was good.

It was not until competing in the ASA Devon County championships that I went under a minute for 100m freestyle, you never forget that day as a young swimmer. Progress beyond that though was really hard work and very slow going, it was not long before younger, faster swimmers were beating me and I was looking for something more rewarding on which to expend my energy.

I found what I was looking for in the game of Water polo, I love this sport and will return to it, maybe next year. I learnt my trade playing for Exmouth, determined to break into the senior team, and rarely winning a game but enjoying the experience non the less. It took a year or so before I started training at Newton Abbot, they had a National League team and my progress was rapid. It was not long before I was playing in the Bristol and District and National Leagues with Newton Abbot and whilst at University for Reading in Division One of the National League and for the Berkshire County side. A short spell playing for Bedford in the National League followed and I was selected for the Bedfordshire County team but when I moved to south London I found myself playing more socially in the local and London leagues for Penguins and latterly for Crawley at the amazing K2 Leisure Centre, although not with the same vigor as in my younger years.

It was at some point during my transition from swimming to Waterpolo that I dipped my toe in the open water swimming scene. A fellow swimmer, Waterloo player and now dear friend suggested doing an English Channel Relay to celebrate the centenary year of our swimming club. I was keen to take part and started training for the challenge.We spent many happy hours swimming at Budleigh beach and regularly took part in the Starcross Swim, a swim organised by the ES&LSS for its members as an introduction to open water swimming, only 1.75 miles in length down the Exe estuary, but finishing opposite the clock tower on Exmouth sea front. I also had my first experience of the BLDSA (British Long Distance Swimming Association) when I took part in an affiliated swim in Exmouth called the Fairway Buoy swim. The swim was about 4.5 miles and was tidal in nature, I even won a Trophy for first Exmouth swimmer home one year. I remember swimming against some amazing open water swimmers back then, the King of the Channel amongst them. This Fairway Buoy swim has morphed in recent times due to the changing shape of the beach and sandbar and last year the swim was renamed the Exe to Exe swim and has a completely new course.

We successfully completed our channel relay in 1993 in a time of 10hrs 23mins and following that several members of the team worked hard to complete their own solo channel swims with the Channel Swimming Association (CSA), I crewed for the first of them on the Viking Princess back in 1994 and I always believed I would join them in that feat, but life and work took over. I met my beautiful wife and my three lively daughters followed in subsequent years.

Three years ago my life changed…

One evening and a phone call to my wife from an old friend of mine ended in a snap decision to finally get off my arse and swim the English Channel….

I don’t believe my wife really understood what that would mean in terms of sacrifice and I realised very quickly that I was not the swimmer I once was…