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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!)

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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Marathon Swimming is a TEAM sport!

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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..

 

Fed up with the pool!

From January to March 2014 I swam frequently in the local (very heated) 25m pool and I hated every minute of it!

The pool was always busy and the swimming lane was a ridiculous double width fast lane full of head up, screw kicking breaststrokers. All in all I swam 60 sessions in the pool over this period covering 114.5 km and  wasting in the region of 47 hours. On the plus side my Garmin told me that I had burned 39,000 calories, but I more than replenished these with cake! Apparently cake was the staple diet of all aspiring Channel swimmers and I was very happy about that.

Things were starting to look up, the wall planner showed that I was on track and on the 17th April 2014 the family and I were heading down to Devon for the Easter weekend, and hopefully my first dip in the sea.

Thankfully, I had also managed to secure a boat for my Loch Lomond swim, I was confident that it would be suitable for my crew and sorting that out had lifted a huge weight from my shoulders.

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Only the best for my crew. (Thanks to Loch Lomond Boat hire)

I still hadn’t submitted my entry form for the swim because I was sadly lacking in the pre-requisite open water swimming experience. The entry form was asking for evidence of at least an 8 mile swim within the last two years. Although I had achieved this during my first 6 hour swim, the entry form had space for 4 swims in the experience section and I wanted to fill it. I knew that ‘swimming in Spain on holiday’ was probably not going to cut it in this instance, and I wanted to beef up my experience with a couple more 6 hour swims before the entry deadline in July.

We always looked forward to heading down to Exmouth as since my mum died suddenly of cancer a few years before, Terry (my mum’s hubby of ten years since my parents divorce) had retained the house when he moved to Australia. It is great that we are still able to stay there when we visit and I certainly feel closer to my mum when we are at the house.

Being at home also gives us the opportunity to visit mum’s bench. We commissioned a commemorative plaque which has pride of place on a wooden bench at mum’s favourite spot, overlooking the beach at Budleigh. It’s right next to the war memorial at the top of the hill and marks the spot where we scattered mum’s ashes.

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View from mum’s bench at Budleigh Beach

I always love swimming at Budleigh, the swimming area is well-marked with equally spaced yellow buoys and offers a challenging mile long circuit. You swim 1/2 mile up and 1/2 mile back and always against the tide in one of those legs. Coincidently the turning point is level with the easily visible war memorial and mum’s bench. That always keeps me going on the long swims, thinking that mum is somehow present when things are getting tough.

Anyway I digress, my first venture into the sea was not as warm as I would have liked and lasted for exactly 12 minutes and 55 seconds, not even one circuit.

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The whole family was back on the beach the beach the next day. Slightly unhappy that I’d only managed a short dip the day before, this time I was determined to swim a lap. As you can see below I still hadn’t mastered swimming in a straight line, but at least I managed a mile.

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Slightly wonky course, I need to work more on this.

I exited the water in real style, very much like a beached whale and then hobbled gingerly up the stoney beach ( I will never get used to walking on those stones). I managed to dry and dress myself but when handed a cuppa tea I proceeded to spill it all over myself due to the onset of the shakes. The shakes took a while to subside but I’ve learnt since that shaking is good news and it’s all part of the fun..

Having enjoyed our short visit we decided that heading home on the Sunday would allow us to miss the bank holiday traffic, and would give me the opportunity to check out the lake that Mark Sheridan had mentioned before Christmas when we had lunch.

As it turned out I needed to do a swim assessment at the lake before I was able to swim alone, and the bank holiday weekend was the very first opportunity to do this. Apparently swim assessments are only conducted when the water temperature reaches double figures!

I was feeling confident following my dip at Budleigh and was wondering if the Nutters Mark had mentioned previously, would be in attendance at the lake…

 

Realisation!

With the decision made to swim the English Channel, the next item on the agenda was when? Deciding on the best possible tide in August 2015 sounded reasonable and three years to prepare showed plenty of respect to the task ahead.

Within the week I had dropped £1,000 on a deposit and my slot was booked on the second neap tide in August 3 years hence, and with the same pilot as my earlier relay swim with the Viking Princess.

All that remained was to plan my training schedule and get back in the pool. oh and to buy loads of kit! New goggles, bag, trunks, hat and of course the obligatory Garmin 910xt swim watch.

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It was a Tuesday night and I was ready for my first visit to the pool for a number of years. I strolled onto poolside just as the aqua aerobics class was coming to an end and slowly lowered myself into the chilly waters (29 degrees I think) of the fast lane. Setting off like I was 17 again, I imagined the lifeguards watching and thinking what a rarity it was to have a competent swimmer in the pool for a change.

That was extremely short-lived as I lasted exactly 10 lengths before running out of steam, feeling physically sick I sat on the poolside pretending to have cramp in my foot and calf and only after about ten minutes did I hobble dramatically back to the changing rooms.

I knew then that this was going to be far more difficult than I had previously imagined.