‘What happens on tour, stays on tour’. So says the unwritten code of honour.
Invoked to safeguard the privacy of outrageous behaviour when people come together in common mischief, I actually find the code an arrogant tease intended to incite further enquiry and build walls between ‘us’ and ‘them’. This just doesn’t sit right in a world where we’re supposed to value diversity and promote inclusivity, and where shared experiences can enrich the lives of others (or at least inform their choices for purposes of damage limitation). What actually DID happen on tour was probably nothing as dramatic as protectors of the code would lead us to believe. So why shroud it in mystery?
Equally, the code may be called upon for those experiences which are intrinsically difficult to put into words, spoken or penned. And here I identify a challenge:
TO BREAK THE SILENCE SURROUNDING THE POST-ICY SWIM MELT-DOWN WHICH GOES ON BEHIND THE CLOSED DOORS OF THE SAUNA
Saunas have always been a place for surreal experience in my books. Probably because I had my initiation while spending a summer living and working in Finland as a 20-something-year-old. In contrast to the measly six hours of daylight that Helsinki sees at the Winter Solstice, midsummer days last a whopping 19 hours so the Finns tend to go for it. It’s not frowned upon for them to start and finish work mega early or to take a full month off work to cash in on the better part of the year. Hence I received a phonecall one day from my co-worker, Kari Hämekoski, who was enjoying a break with his wife, newborn son and a group of friends sharing a holiday home somewhere in the countryside outside Helsinki.
‘We are having a party’, he said, ‘You will come?’ So off I went for the weekend, to find a group of around thirty 30-somethings sat around a campfire drinking vodka and toasting sausages on sticks. Sausages would become a theme for that weekend….
Around 9pm Kari stood up, looked at his watch and declared ‘Nine o-clock! Now să’ūnă party will begin!!!’ At that, no word of a lie, everyone around the campfire stood up and took their clothes off. Feeling self-conscious in my jeans and t-shirt I felt obliged to disrobe as we relocated to the riverside sauna, taking the bottle of vodka along for company…. All the things those signs in UK health-clubs tell you not to do…..
Some merriment later, one of the party suggested we move upstream to the traditional ‘smoke sauna’. Leaving the heat behind and diving into the cold river was shocking in more ways than one, endowments displayed for all to see as we plunged in one by one and slogged it upstream against the current. Inside was a huge stone. The guys had kept a fire stoked for much of the day to heat it up and had opened the windows to let the smoke out shortly before we arrived. Then out came the birch twigs. And so began the whipping…. WTF????? ‘It is good for the circulation you know’, a gentleman explained, as he beat me briskly. Back in the office on Monday morning eye contact was exceptionally difficult but the Finns remained unphased and it didn’t take too long to embrace their culture……
Rather than remain an establishment for purification, drinking and naturism rituals the sauna has, in latter years, evolved for me as a life-line after prolonged exposure to extreme water temperatures. Yes the sauna: that little wooden mad-house crammed to the rafters with hypothermic souls as they ride out the afterdrop together. For the benefit of those sensible folk who prefer to keep their clothes on and stay warm and dry over the winter months, the afterdrop phenomenon is a medical term relating to a:
‘decrease in bodytemperatureobserved as a complicationduringrewarming of a hypothermicpatient‘
Without going into all the geeky detail, the most convincing explanation for afterdrop is redistribution of blood once a hypothermic stress is removed. In cold environments peripheral blood vessels constrict to increase the insulation distance between the temperature threat and the core. Warm blood becomes locked in the deeper layers where it protects vital organ function. Once the risk has passed vessel walls relax again, warm and cold blood mix and core temperature falls. All things being equal physiological mechanisms, including shivering, kick in to return body temperature to the normal range. But thermoregulation also carries with it BEHAVIOURAL responses which in my mind are far more interesting and shall form the subject of today’s musings.
Retreating to the sauna typifies a behavioural response of seeking out a warmer environment. Those folk who are happy with a sheltered changing room and several layers of clothing are said to engage in ‘passive rewarming’, their own thermogenic capabilities seemingly enough to safely restore body temperature.
A hot sauna provides ‘active external warming’, a treatment of choice in mild to moderate hypothermia or where shivering responses aren’t up to the standard of those stumbling around the changing rooms. Arguably it is in our interests to rewarm slowly, the reason reportedly being that external warming induces vasodilation which speeds up the mixing of warm and cold blood, bringing on a more rapid, extreme and intense afterdrop. With that in mind let’s open the sauna door…..
I can’t speak for everyone but for me I’m usually in a heightened state of emergency in transit from the water to the mad-house. Feelings of unease often begin in the last 75% of the swim when that ‘out-of-body’ feeling and disorientation kick in. With my skin completely numb it’s hard to differentiate between ‘self’ and ‘water’and, aware that I’m pushing the boundaries, my inner head-monkey reminds me that the worst is yet to come. I’ve heard it said before that a cold swim isn’t over until you’ve stopped shivering. With the passage of time I’d actually extend that to say that it hasn’t even STARTED until the shivers hit.
So get me to that sauna NOW!!!!!
There’s a window of opportunity on arrival, a lucid interval that tells me to stake my claim on an area to sit down, to don a hooded towel and dryrobe and to get my wet stuff off ASAP, leaving my swim cap on. Sensible conversation and greetings to those around remains possible at this point, though is often somewhat slurred and hyper-excitable as I race to ready myself for the come-down.
And then it hits.
A skin sensation that I can only describe as ‘minty fresh’ rushes over my body and within a minute the violent shaking of recovery begins. The cup of hot ‘beena that the lovely sauna lady handed out on entry gets thrown all over the place and has to be put down. Arms and legs get pulled inside my towel, I assume a foetal-like morphology and begin rubbing my limbs furiously. As much to warm myself as to curb the panic. ‘It is good for the circulation you know’, says the voice of a Finn inside my head….. ‘So long folks’, I think to the other occupants, ‘see you on the other side.’ Whether it actually happens or not, there always seems to be that moment where things go deafeningly quiet, conversation and eye contact cease as everyone around internalises and gets on with it. Benches shudder as the sauna reaches a crescendo of shivering unison. We all, for a moment, have a serious battle for survival on our hands.
Once the initial rush subsides I look around to find people clapping or shaking their hands and stamping their feet, eyes wide open and wild in response to the circulating endorphins. Some strip off and press their bare skin against the hot wooden walls or ceiling of the confined space they find themselves in. Others grunt or shout out to release the intensity. Neighbours reach out for each other, grabbing, squeezing, rubbing and feeding each other hot ribena in a kind of symbiotic relationship. With an overwhelming urge to huddle together and move to generate heat/control the shakes it seems productive to do that whether they know each other or not. Entirely reflexive.
And then comes that hallelujah moment when, shaking less heavily, we’re through the other side. Laughter and conversation resume slowly. The sauna doors open and in come the next batch of revellers. It’s time to move on or get penned in by them as they go through the whole process from the top. Rejoining the outside world we probably appear residually crazed and gibbering on along the lines of ‘WTF just happened in there?!!?’ Unable to actually put it into words……
Thermal leggings, underarmour, 2x trakkie trousers, 3x hoodies, fluffy socks and a couple of wooly hats later and we’re on public transport heading home. Getting weird looks but feeling exhilarated and giving zero of a shit. There’s probably a question about that on a mental health questionnaire but don’t judge us OK? Yes there’s something special that happens behind the closed doors of the sauna after prolonged exposure to stupidly low water temperatures. Instinctive survival. A lot of shivering. A lot of gibbering. A lot of touching and talking to strangers. But above all else what goes on is camaraderie. And that’s priceless at any temperature.
Next stop to find out how the Baltic folk ‘do winter’……
Long live the cold water season 2016/2017 and all who swim in her 🙂
Loch Lomond was nowhere near my radar. Cripes I’d only got a couple of 10k’s behind me when Tony came out with his ludicrous proposal. That year we would step up to the 10.5 miles of Windermere, but Loch Lomond was just over double that. It was also in Scotland. In cold, cold Scotland. 21.6 miles in a freezing Scottish loch? Ridiculous. I laughed in his face and sent him packing.
Little did I know that those would be the last words I’d ever hear Tony say. Just an hour and 20 minutes later he collapsed and died, sending a shock-wave through literally everybody who’d had the good fortune to cross paths with him.
Tony’s widow Sarah insisted from a very early stage that we carry on with all the swims we’d planned to do: Champion of Champions, 2-Way Bala, Windermere, Southend Sea Urchins Channel relay. They all had to go ahead…….. ‘But Sarah,’ I confessed, telling her what Tony had said to me that evening, ‘You know he wanted to swim Loch Lomond?’ ‘I know he did,’ she said. ‘And that must be done too….’ She gave me Tony’s favourite swim cap for encouragement and said that she was sure I’d find a way to make it all happen. And by the end of that summer, with good friends around, everything had been done. Everything apart from the Loch…….
I knew that Tony was serious about Loch Lomond. Sometime in the Autumn before his death we’d had the conversation that he wanted to do something ‘mental’ for his 60th…… totting on my fingers I put that at 2019. It had to be proper nuts with all that time needed to train so I went for the most obvious and high profile: ‘So you’re going to swim the Channel then?’ ‘Nope,’ he said, going all evasive on me. ‘2-way relay?’ ‘Keep going……’ ‘Well what then?’ ‘Something really hardcore.’ ‘WHAT?????’ Were my guesses not hardcore enough? ‘Give you a clue. It’s just as far as the Channel, usually colder and less than 50 people have ever made it across’ He wasn’t selling Loch Lomond to me very well and I kinda thought ‘good on you mate’ i.e. ‘good luck with that one.’
It has only recently been suggested to me that perhaps my 2-way crossing of Windermere was actually a training swim for Loch Lomond. And thinking about it that could very well be true. I fully intended to exit that swim, my first 21-miler, going ‘Right, Loch Lomond next,’ however I had the swim from Hell, dragging myself out 16+ hours later physically and mentally destroyed and with a lot of soul searching to do.
One more time for old time’s sake. Yes it really was that bad…..
I didn’t write Lomond off but did put distractions in my way to hide from the truth of what I knew needed to be done. It took a full 3 months to pull my head out of the sand and start making arrangements. The words of a handful of respected swimmers were pivotal in that decision. ‘Put it all behind you Jane,’ they said, ‘Learn the lessons and move on.’ Obvious really. And after some serious dissection, so I did…..
By January I was all booked up and in early April myself and my Mum headed North of the Border for a week’s reconnaissance on the Bonnie Banks. Staying with my pilot Chris Sifleet, we would spend the day out in the car getting a feel for the loch, her proportions and landmarks. We hiked along the less accessible Eastern shoreline and swam in various locations.
Mum didn’t get in, she was a cat in a previous existence and hates water. Her job was mostly towel holding and ordering me out when she’d decided I was risking hypothermia. She almost shouted at me on one occasion when I tried to do ‘one more lap’ and, as if to try and prove she’d forced me out prematurely, I attempted to hide the shiver-fest that followed. While she was horrified, I was pleasantly surprised by the seven degrees that the loch offered and it seemed that she was less of a bitch than I’d built her up to be. Given that it was only the first week of April, things were looking positive for our date in early August.
By night myself and Chris would sit down and talk logistics. Having analysed the shit out of 2-way Windermere I had clear ideas on how to control for those aspects that had contributed to an uncomfortable experience. Looking back now, and in a twisted kind of a way, I’m actually glad that I’d had such a rough ride. There is much to be learned from a triumph earned the hard way. I would do everything in my power to prevent my crossing of Loch Lomond from turning into a re-run of that misery.
Taking one topic at a time, by the end of the week myself and Chris both knew exactly where we were with each other. All things being equal I wanted a North-South swim from Ardlui to Balloch, jumping in between midnight and 2am to get the colder part of the loch and the darkness bashed out while I was still fresh. In my ideal world I’d then swim into the daylight and into the warmer waters of the loch’s southern reaches, finishing with the sun on my back and a smile. I’m clearly still a mere junior in this game and haven’t yet dropped those rose-tinted spectacles…. While my own condition might be deteriorating, everything around me should be getting better. Downhill all the way. I accepted that Chris couldn’t make any promises. While she would try to accommodate my wishes, there would only be so much within her control and I had to appreciate that water temperature, weather, wind speed and direction sat outside of that, in the lap of the gods. I headed home focused and with my eyes open to the scale of the challenge ahead, respectful of Loch Lomond but no longer afraid of her.
Dissection of 2-way Windermere told me that better cold water acclimatisation and more freshwater training would be critical to my success. Over the winter I kept up with swimming outdoors in the Thames Estuary and in January/February completed cold water endurance events at Parliament Hill Lido and in Windermere. Come April I was swimming weekly with the Nemes Nutters at Holborough Lakes, steadily getting used to longer distances in the cold and the lack of buoyancy offered by freshwater.
Being prone to shoulder problems, arriving at the start line injury free was also right at the top of my priority list and, opting for quality over quantity, I tried to avoid over-training. Keeping up with stroke analysis at Tri n’ Swimwell with Gill & Dawn, we worked not only with my crawl but also with backstroke technique, the latter to develop a strong and efficient get-out-of-jail card if things went pear shaped on the day. The idea of having a 2nd stroke took on a greater significance at the end of April when the shoulder issue that had bothered me for six years was finally diagnosed on MRI as impingement secondary to instability and partial thickness rotator cuff tear. My consultant and I agreed on a round of steroid injections and focused strength training to bring things under control and stave off the need for more aggressive intervention. I’d been swimming 50:50 front and back since the New Year as I felt no shoulder pain on backstroke. I figured that if flared up in the loch then backwards would be the way forwards. If this was going to be a valid life-line though, I had to be sure that I was capable of long distance backie. By the end of May I’d comfortably hit 8 miles and in mid-July, with two and a half weeks before my Loch Lomond window, I put backstroke to the test for a length of Windermere. And that’s when it all started to go wrong….
Within the first 10 minutes or so of my swim, without any warning whatsoever, I strained my biceps tendon at its insertion onto the elbow. In order to control the pain while maintaining sufficient power to complete the 10.5 mile distance, I adapted my stroke and carried on. Not the brightest move I’ve ever made as this put excessive strain on my already compromised left shoulder. While it felt perfectly fine during the swim, the minute I got out it was an absolute killer and I knew in an instant that I’d buggered it up pretty badly. I tried not to panic too much, total rest, hefty drugs and intensive treatment from fellow Osteopath Jim Watson would save the day. No pressure Jim 🙂 I convinced myself that there was time for this to get better, all would be good in a week or so. But progress was frustratingly slow and with just a week to go I still couldn’t swim or move my arm without cringing. And so came the tears…… Loch Lomond was off. All the hard work and planning had been in vain. The very thing that I’d done to try and save myself had become my downfall…..
The weekend before I was due to head North, I had a visit from Philip Hodges, at that time reigning BLDSA Loch Lomond Champion. He told me of his swim and it sounded utterly magical. A cloudless night, cold and windy at the start but millpond flat as he progressed down from Ardlui towards the islands at Luss. He spoke of night swimming and finding his groove. Our conversation had me realise how badly I wanted Loch Lomond and I told myself that it wasn’t off until I called it off….. I figured that it would be sensible to do a three to four hour test swim as soon as I arrived in Scotland. How I felt during and after that swim would inform my decision whether to go ahead or whether to axe my attempt. In the back of my mind I couldn’t help but think ‘Really Jane? 21.6 miles on THAT? Never going to happen….’ The conditions looked shit anyway. High winds blowing all over the shop. There was every likelihood that we would be weathered off and a part of me prayed for that to be true…… to remove me from the decision making and to stop me from doing something really stupid to myself.
I avoided sharing my concerns with Chris and my supporter Lesley Cook for as long as possible, ever hopeful that I’d wake up one morning absolutely fine. But with just three days to go before I would hit the road, and only 60-70% better, I felt obliged to fess up. Lesley had a plane to catch and Chris had a night pilot and kayaker to co-ordinate. Taking a deep breath I dropped them both a line. ‘Erm yeah so I’m injured,’ I admitted. Both of them were really supportive, Lesley saying she’d fly into Glasgow anyway and we could have some girlie playtime, Chris reassuring me that my booking was safe and that we could defer to later in the year or next season if necessary. That lifted me a bit and I started packing my kit and feeds, ‘just incase.’
The kids were booked in to a week-long residential PGL adventure holiday in Dalguise for the time that we would be in Balloch. Rather co-incidentally so were swimmer Helen Beveridge’s children, to free her up to take revenge on Loch Ness after she’d called it in 2015 due to deteriorating conditions. We dispatched of our respective offspring and relocated to a coffee shop for a ‘wee blether.’ At that point we both had an amber light for our swims. I was on standby for just after midnight on Monday morning and Helen for five hours later. The knowledge that somebody else might be in at the same time as me, albeit in a different loch, was comforting and uplifting. We were both proper psyched up and certainly talking to Helen had me thinking more positively about coping with pain.
Arriving in Balloch Chris confirmed that we were all systems go for 28 hours time. ‘But that leaves us with a problem,’ she said, ‘You NEED to test that shoulder. I’ve got crew travelling long distances and have to let them know ASAP whether this is going ahead or not so that they don’t waste a journey….’ I did indeed need a test swim but, with the starting whistle so close, three to four hours were out of the question. I would have to limit myself to just one hour at Luss the following morning. When morning arrived however, that hour whittled it’s way down even further to 20 minutes as I’d had an invite from Adrian Rotchell to meet himself and Mark Sheridan in the Loch Lomond Arms for lunch. Both were veterans of the loch. A day earlier Adrian had become the first soloist to conquer the 24 mile length of Loch Awe, and a week before that Mark the first Brit (and only 4th person ever) to smash all 43 miles of Lake Geneva. The swim at Luss was twingey from the outset but didn’t get any worse with time. I knew that 20 minutes was no measure for 17+ hours in the water but neither would an hour be. Or three hours, or four, five, six etc….. There was nothing I could do about that now and this was a rendezvous not to be missed. So I cut my swim short, got out, dried off and headed to the pub. Priorities eh?
One lesson that I learned from our meeting is that you’ll never get any sense out of people when they’re on a high. After their respective monster lake spankings, the air was thick with chorus after chorus of ‘AVE IT’s. ‘Hmmmm, not sure I should be doing this,’……. ‘Ave It!! ‘It’s loads better but I can still feel it’…… ‘Ave It!!!! ‘What if I have to call it after an hour?’…… ‘Ave It, ‘Ave It, ‘AVE IT. If the worst came to the worst, Mark said, then I should consider that a plastic bag could float down the loch and I had another three limbs to get the job done……
One MASSIVE reason for ‘aving it was the forecast: one sent from heaven itself. Everything was just how I’d hoped for it to be. Wind speed and direction meant that we could start from Ardlui and swim North-South, a midnight departure was feasible, the water was sitting between 16 and 17 degrees, daytime air temperatures would hit the same…….. For a loch who’s temperament had beaten so many people beforehand, you just couldn’t write it and like a spoilt brat it looked like I’d be getting my own way. My own way all the way…… Add to that, Lesley was arriving in a couple of hours, the kids were dealt with for the week, Mum was on-hand for shore support, Chris had everything under control. I couldn’t ask for more. Everything was perfect apart from me but there were more reasons to swim than not to and I’d be just as much a fool to forego the conditions and support as I would be to jump in and give it a go. The positivity in the Loch Lomond Arms was infectious and tales of Adrian and Mark’s swims truly inspiring. I picked up my phone and, well aware of the gamble I was taking, dropped a message to Chris, ‘OK, we’re on.’
With 10 hrs til blast-off we collected Lesley from Glasgow airport, whizzed around the co-op for last minute supplies, got some extra scran down and went to bed. Sleep was impossible. Same old same old with these things I guess. ‘Where did I pack the milky ways?’, ‘Did I tell Lesley where my feed bottle is?’ I was already in the shower by the time my 10:30pm alarm went off. Laughing at the irony of having a shower before swimming the loch, double laughing at the fact I was laughing at a relatively normal activity of showering to wake up, triple laughing at the concept of needing something to wake me up when the cold water of the loch would do that job perfectly fine. Bloody losing it really. Karen, who ran Tighnairn B&B, was furiously boiling kettles for us to take on the boat. She must have filled at least 5x 5L pump action thermos dispensers and I was seriously impressed with the efforts going on to keeping me warm for what lay ahead. Fast forward to midnight and we pulled over into the car park of the Ardlui hotel. Chris and the crew had left Balloch two to three hours earlier to get the boat to the top of the loch. I was introduced to night pilot Mike and kayaker David and we proceeded to the jetty.
Walking along in my dry robe I felt like Rocky. ‘Oh this is nice,’ I thought, ‘All these lovely people here with me in this beautiful place.’ And then my protective denial fell away. ‘This isn’t about group hugs and having a jolly old time with this lot Jane. This is about getting into that cold water on your own in the pitch black and swimming until you hit the other end in 17 or so hours time.’ Shit, where was that written in the contract? Lesley greased me up and applied midgie spray and suncream. Yes midnight is exactly the right time to be putting suncream on……. I said farewell to the people off for a jolly old time on the boat and walked with my mum to the lonely beach where I would meet David and his kayak. Waiting in the darkness for the start signal, my heart and breathing rate went up as fight or flight mode kicked in. We watched the boat chug around from the jetty and take position. I said bye to Mum, handed her my dry robe and stood there in nothing but cap, goggles and cozzie waiting for the flashing light that would tell me the clock was ticking. Then there it was. And there was nothing left to do but to get in and get on with it.
Apprehensive that the top of the loch was supposedly the colder end, within seconds of striking out I found myself thinking ‘Oh, OK, this is fine, not cold at all. Totally do-able. Bye bye Mum, bye bye Ardlui.’ The loch was millpond flat and OH MY GOD JUST LOOK AT THOSE STARS……. I can still see that night sky now, the starriest I’d seen in a very very long time. Not a cloud in sight, the whole sky was lit up with a million, trillion, gazillion shining stars. I broke a smile, switched my head right off and got stuck in. After about two hours I noticed cars travelling along the road on the Western shores. WTF? I guessed that after all the prep on the start line we must have set out closer to 1am than midnight so it was coming up for three in the morning now. I wondered what kind of nutter would be out driving the shores of Loch Lomond at this ungodly hour. Another round of manic laughter set in when I questioned just what the hell I was doing myself, in the middle of the loch in the middle of the night. Far more acceptable to be travelling along the road. Anyway they might be shift workers on their way home or something……
Around the same time my left shoulder started to kick up a protest. The adrenaline of the build-up and the start had worn off. I’d only got two decent hours out of it. ‘Jane,’ I told myself, ‘You knew it would be like this. You chose to get in a do this. You took a massive gamble and chose pain over postponement. Here it is. Now deal with it. Push the over-ride switch and crack on.’ I had indeed chosen pain over postponement, but I’d also chosen the conditions. They had me with a happy heart which put my head in just the right place to focus on the positives rather than the negatives. I looked forward to every single breath, just so I could marvel at that magical night sky. I badly wanted to flip onto my back to relieve my shoulder, more to the point to do some star-gazing, but it was too early in the swim to be experimenting with backstroke which would definitely add to my time in the water and exposure to the cold. I also couldn’t risk any another issue with my elbow which might further jeapordise my shoulder. Lesley had been instructed to feed me painkillers whenever I was allowed them so I kicked on in crawl, looking forward to my next fix as I watched the dynamics of night sky.
Around 4am the blue light of pre-dawn began and my lovely stars faded away. I could now see more clearly just how spectacularly flat the loch was, mirror-like waters fading into the distance for miles and miles ahead, as far as the eye could see. Loch Lomond was properly showing off to me saying ‘Don’t think the show’s over just because those stars’ve gone Jane. I can impress you with all this as well. Prepare to be amazed.’ Night pilot Mike had business meetings that he just couldn’t get out of and I could see him getting ready to disembark the boat. It was only now that I understood what Chris had meant when she’d said to me at Ardlui that we had ‘acquired a jet ski.’ Watching Mike climb overboard and zoom off into the distance was without doubt the most surreal experience of the whole swim…..
Overnight I’d seen nothing but darkness in the water. No weeds, fish or anything else which might have freaked me out. This didn’t change as dawn broke. The water was kind of black, crystal clear on the surface but with visibility limited to perhaps no more than two or three metres. I neither knew nor cared to know why. Probably something to do with depth but it was good enough for me to think of the loch as only as deep as a swimming pool. With a vivid imagination, I was far more comfortable thinking that way and it was working well. At 5am my thoughts turned to Helen Beveridge who would be jumping into Loch Ness to start her own marathon swim. It felt good to be sending my wishes her way, kind of like ‘Yeah this is OK and you’ll be OK too, all the very best with it and enjoy.’ I had no idea how she could possibly be getting into Loch Ness to swim all that way. I wouldn’t. Because of the monster. Clearly. ‘Yeah but you can’t see anything in here Jane, it’s black. I know you’ve told yourself that it’s shallow but it really isn’t. It’s proper deep. How do you know there isn’t a monster at the bottom of Loch Lomond?’ FFS!!!!!!!!! I’d survived the darkness of night, when it’s quite normal for the imagination to run wild, without a single thought of anything ghastly. And there I was, in the early light of day trying to put a monster where there hadn’t been one before. ‘F.U.C.K…..O.F.F,’ I shouted into the water. Both at myself and at the monster. Just to be sure…..
We reached Tarbet in five hours, having covered a third of the Loch. There was very little by way of landmarks to look forward to in the middle third. Pretty much just the Inverbeg caravan park on the western shores with the Rowardennan hotel vaguely opposite on the east. These marked the approximate halfway point which would be a major milestone in the swim. Approaching Inverbeg I had my first blip. My ability to lift my left arm high enough to sight or breathe on that side was limited by pain so I avoided doing so. That and the fact that my shoulder felt easier if I flung my left arm across the midline had me with a hideous right bias. I kept cutting the boat up and Chris became concerned that she might clip me with it. She re-positioned to my blind side and left me with no choice but to look that way. And it was absolute murder. No way could I carry on for the remaining 11+ miles like that. I slowed down considerably, dropping any kind of catch that I had on the left and keeping my arm underwater at the hip whenever I sighted for the boat. Lesley picked up on my drop in pace and told me to get on with it, ‘Don’t go into your happy place just yet,’ she said,’we need to get some distance behind us first.’ There was absolutely nothing happy about the place I was in. I could see a show-stopper developing.
Knowing that I’d had ibuprofen at the last feed I asked Lesley to dispense me two paracetamol. ‘You can’t have any,’ she said, ‘it’s not been long enough since the last lot of drugs.’ ‘PARACETAMOL,’ I barked. ‘Now. I need it now. I NEED PARACETAMOL NOW, DON’T MAKE ME HANG AROUND HERE GIVING YOU A LESSON IN FUCKING PHARMACOLOGY.’ Well that wasn’t very friendly was it…… Sorry Kookie 🙂 In a calmer way I explained my problem. Chris reciprocated with hers and we had to find a compromise. ‘Right,’ she said, ‘See that hump in the distance? That’s ‘The Whale,’ on one of the islands beyond Luss. That’s where we’re headed. I’ll stick to your left so I don’t kill you and you aim for the whale so you don’t have to look this way and kill yourself.’ Perfect. Even more so because I reckoned there was three hours in it before we would get there. Time enough for the drugs to kick in and for me to switch back off again.
Lesley was doing a fabulous job as ship’s cook and it was most unfair to have gone off at her like that. Although I had some on board, I’d given up on Maxim this season, believing that it had provoked blood sugar spikes and crashes that were in part responsible for my lethargy in Windermere the year before. Swapping this for UCan was working really well. At no time during the whole swim did I ever suffer an energy crisis, staying on hourly feeds for the duration. I’ve learned over the years that I’m no decision-maker when it comes to solid feeds, answering with grunts and dunno’s whenever asked what I want. ‘Just surprise me,’ I’d told Lesley, as I handed her a box of all-sorts: milky ways, jelly babies, custard, fruit in jelly, bananas, tracker bars…… Lesley is of the type that bores easily. There’s no way she’d be handing me any one of those items in isolation. A medley of the above was more her style and the custard seemed to be a favourite base for her creations. She’d mash anything solid right up into it until it was basically a thick milky froth with the odd tasty lump. Each feed was like a lucky dip and well worth looking forward to.
I’d never used a feeding pole before this swim. Just had stuff thrown at me really (or hand delivered in my princess backstroke swim). The pole was telescopic with the basket of a chip pan integrated at the end. This was easy to work with, taking my feeds out and delivering bottles and containers back with no flapping. The pole also doubled up as something for me to sight off for the times that Chris needed to be back on my favoured right hand side. To stop me from cutting the boat up and pissing everyone off again, Lesley balanced it so that it stretched out over the side and told me not to get any closer to the boat than that. I’d had to hand Tony’s yellow smiley swim cap over to Lesley as it was too big for me and let water in, running the risk of me becoming cold. She stretched it over the chip pan basket and that really made me smile. It was as if Tony was there, grinning away and guiding me forwards, ‘Over here! Come on, follow me. This way to Balloch and to Glory’……
I felt a bit cold as we approached Luss, approximately two thirds of the way down the loch. This had me almost start to feel miserable again when I recognised the familiar landmark of Luss pier where I’d tested myself out 24 hours earlier. Chris had been in contact with my mum and told me that she’d be standing on the pier to give us a wave and a cheer as we went by. A little part of me jumped for joy at the sight of that pier. ‘Yay Luss!! Yay Mummy!!!! Yay that middle section of the loch where there is mostly fuck all is done and dusted…… I could see people on the pier but couldn’t work out which one was my mum so I did a general wave at everyone before continuing South. We’d broken the back of it. Only the islands to negotiate now and then to cross the basin into Balloch for the finish. There were plenty of landmarks along the way to break things down into. The downhill section was rolling. Or so I told myself…..
There’s something rather pleasant about swimming behind a string of islands. My favourite part of Windermere, I knew I’d enjoy this stretch on Loch Lomond too. It’s probably something to do with diversity of scenery and warmer, sheltered waters. Chris gave me my next landmark to aim for, a row of six or seven tall, thin trees. ‘What are they?’, I enquired. ‘They’re just trees,’ came the reply. ‘No I mean what ARE they?’ ‘Well, I don’t know, Cypress trees I think.’ Chris clearly didn’t get what I was asking. Either that or she was playing that game where a pilot thinks it best to protect their swimmer from potentially harmful information. I didn’t feel the need for protection. Mentally I was all over this swim. We were nearly there and I knew what those trees were. They marked the end of Inchmurrin Island. We’d be there within the hour and then I’d be able to see Balloch, approximately two to three miles to the south-east. Eccstatic with joy, I got stuck into reaching them so I that could peep around the corner and catch sight of the prominent sealife centre of Loch Lomond Shores. After what seemed like a reasonably brief period of time we reached the row of trees. ‘Right, where’s the end?’, I asked myself scanning around. No really, where was it? I couldn’t get my bearings. David the kayaker was sat in the front of the boat holding the navigation chart. ‘See that bit sticking out over there?’, he asked me pointing at something a good few miles away, ‘That’s the end of Inchmurrin Island.’ WHAT THE HELL?????????
In my enthusiasm I’d completely forgotten that Loch Lomond’s islands sat in two discreet bands. The first a group, between Luss and Bandry Point on the west across to Millarrochy on the east. The second more of a chain, reaching south west from Balmaha in the direction of Arden. In a hideous case of mistaken identity, I had wrongly convinced myself that the tip of Inchtavannach was the tip of Inchmurrin. This was not the time for such errors…… The wind was up, blowing straight across from Balmaha and making for sea-like conditions between the two islands. Bollocks. ‘OK, take that one on the chin Jane, we’ve a little further to go here. Keep calm, kill your disappointment and swim on.’ The flat waters that had delighted me for the past I-don’t-know-how-many hours were a thing of the past and I was bounced around in the peaks and troughs of waves, the chop doing my dickie shoulder no good whatsoever. Sitting at an angle, Inchmurrin was a deceptive beast. It just never seemed to get any closer. One minute I thought I’d have it in 20 minutes, an hour and a half later I’d be screaming ‘why the hell aren’t we getting there!!!!’ To gee myself along, my thoughts turned back to Helen in Loch Ness. She had some serious mileage yet to cover, and here was I whinging about this piddly little bit which would reward me with sight of the finish. ‘Shut your moaning, consider yourself lucky Jane……’
Out of nowhere I felt a familiar sensation in my left armpit, the same that I’d felt in Windermere the previous year. My lat muscle was tearing. Six or eight strokes later and it was gone. And with it so was any workable catch on my left arm. Here was the plastic bag moment that Mark Sheridan had spoken of. Bollocks, bollocks, bollocks. I didn’t tell Chris and Lesley what was going on. They would have me out in a shot if I divulged that information. I’d been swimming like a spaz all day anyway and thought I could hide behind that to get through to the end. ‘Adapt and conquer,’ I told myself, ‘Give that over-ride switch another tickle and get your head down.’ Six weeks down the line, and still paying the price for my decision to swim, I’ve now renamed that switch the self-destruct button. But we live and learn…….
Taking my pain and frustration out on Inchmurrin I looked up at Chris and shouted ‘Where’s the end of the island gone? ARE WE CAUGHT IN A FUCKING CURRENT OR SOMETHING??????’ ‘It’s an optical illusion Jane, you’re making progress, just keep going,’ she replied, then tried to fend me off with some crap about how we’d been near some golf course or other and now it was fading into the distance. Blah, blah, blah, I didn’t believe her. ‘Right Inchmurrin,’ I thought, ‘I’m not looking at you anymore, you can just do one.’ A few moments later I was right back looking up at that dreaded tip. No closer. ‘Count your strokes Jane, count 100 of them before you look back again,’ I decided. 1 (left arm, right arm), 2 (left arm, right arm), 3, 4, limp, limp, limp……….99, 100. WTF??????????? Still no closer. I was seriously grumpy at this stage and rather loudly told Inchmurrin to eff off. I could see Lesley had a whiteboard with stuff written all over. Stopping for a shouty feed she read out messages of support from facebook friends which made me briefly happier. I upped my stroke counting to 200 and then to 400 sets of arm pulls to stop me from looking at that cow of an island. By now I was hallucinating. I’d gone to bed on Saturday night and here we were late afternoon on Monday, still swimming. The things that I saw bore no relevance to my life whatsoever. Mostly items from a sewing theme (see, I told you, zero relevance). Buttons, ribbons and cotton reels cascaded from the tops of the surrounding hills. A red balloon drifted across the sky……
Finally we reached the tip of Inchmurrin and I could see the way home. David got back into his kayak to guide me for the final three-ish mile leg. ‘Just the length of Bala to go now,’ I found myself thinking. And as I did I was immediately transported back to the evening of 1st May 2014. Me and Tone were sat outside my house in his red camper, Kitty. He passed me a map of Bala that he’d printed out earlier that day so that we could start researching the lake ahead of our 2-way crossing in a couple of months time. ‘Poxy and small isn’t it? Here, take it, it’s for you’ he said. ‘Thanks Tone,’ I replied, accepting his gift. And then came those preposterous final words of his, ‘If you want a proper big lake, just wait ’til we swim Loch Lomond.’ ‘Tone, you’re absolutely right,’ I said to him through the water, ‘This is PROPER big.’ I caught sight of his cheeky face somewhere in the depths as he retorted with his catchphrase ‘I fucking hate swimming,’ ‘No you don’t Tone, you love it,’ I said. ‘And I’m not hating this, it just hurts but we’re nearly there and I’m doing this now. I’m bringing it home for you mate.’ ‘Smash it then bitch.’ My eyes welled up briefly but I put a stop to that in an instant. This wasn’t the time for going all soppy. There was work to be done and I had no doubt in my mind that I’d land this swim now. It was just a case of grinding it out through the pain to reach Balloch.
The sealife centre grew steadily closer and it wasn’t long before we reached the sticks a few hundred metres from the beach. A small figure dressed in a bright orange vest was jumping up and down on the shore, screaming wildly at me and willing me home. I instantly identified it as that personage and trumpet of Jade Perry who had recently relocated to the area for work. She was going absolutely bonkers. Mum was stood nearby eagerly clutching my dryrobe and waiting to throw it around me. Chris peeled the boat off towards the slipway and it was just me and David now. I could see the bottom of the loch. Mud and weeds gave way to slate. I no longer had enough water to swim but equally I didn’t want to stand up yet as I feared cutting the bottom of my feet. Clawing my way along the bottom I got to a point where my knees could go down, and I began crawling. Finally I stood upright and David blew the whistle to signal Lesley to stop the clock. 17 hours, 42 minutes and 36 seconds after taking to the waters at Ardlui, Loch Lomond and the number 52 were mine 🙂 🙂 🙂
Clapping and cheers erupted on the beach from mum, Jade and a group of swimmers who had gathered together for an evening dip. Mum threw my towel over me, wrapped me in my dryrobe and thrust a hot water bottle into my hands. Nice touch mum. Unlike the terrible condition I’d emerged from Windermere in a year earlier, I didn’t break a single shiver. While my body had nearly let me down, my mind had been in exactly the right place for this swim and hadn’t allowed negativity in. Granted there had been a few grumpy moments and a lot of pain but I was absolutely fine. Energy in the tank and everything, it was totally unexpected. Having jumped off the boat at the slipway, Lesley came flying across the beach towards me and grabbed me in an emotional Kookie bear-hug. ‘Thank you Lesley,’ I said, ‘We did it!!!!!!!’ What a team!!!!!!!! The Lake Wardens had allowed mum to bring the car as close to the shore as possible and her and Lesley bundled me in sharpish to get me back to Chris and Karen’s B&B in Balloch, where I was ushered straight upstairs to run a warm bath.
Lesley came to me in the bathroom. ‘I’ve got something to tell you Jane and you’re going to be really cross with me,’ she said. How on earth could I be cross with a person who had helped me realise a dream? A person who had flown the length of our isles to look after me with feeds, with jokes, merriment, encouragement and laughter. In all 21.6 miles she had understood the battles that I’d faced and hadn’t shouted at me once for taking my sweet time or having a shabby stroke. What could she possibly have done wrong? ‘I don’t quite know how to say this to you but…… Tony’s hat…….,’ she paused, ‘It fell overboard Jane. I’m so sorry Bellie but it’s gone.’ Lesley knew how much that hat meant to me. It was all that I had to remind me of Tony and she looked absolutely devastated. I pulled her in towards me and gave her a huge cuddle. ‘It’s fine Lesley. It really is. Thanks for telling me. Where did it go in?’ Turns out that it had been knocked in by accident when David took his kayak off the boat, just after we’d cleared Inchmurrin Island. Tony’s hat was sitting on the bottom of the loch just off the marina. In precisely the same location that I’d had my inner dialogue with him and made my resolve that, in spite of excruciating pain, I had to land the swim for him. It was hugely symbolic and absolutely the right thing to have happened.
I’d worn Tony’s smiley to get through every swim that we had planned: Champion of Champions, 2-Way Bala, Windermere, it had also been on a daytrip to France with the Southend Sea Urchin’s channel relay team and worn by Lizzie Long in honour of their fallen team-member as she stormed the beach at Wissant. Loch Lomond was the last one on our list and it was time to let Tony go. ‘Yes it’s fine and fitting that his hat has gone overboard Kookie, you have no apology to make whatsoever.’ We hugged for a moment longer before I got into a blissful, bubbly bath for a long and relaxing soak……
I remain forever indebted to all those who made this swim happen. To Chris and Lesley, Mike, David and my Mum for the day itself. To Karen Whitehouse for her hospitality at the B&B in Balloch, to Karen Weir for accompanying me on reccy swims in April, to Jade Perry for her screaming on the beach at Balloch and capturing the end on camera, to all those members of Chalkwell Redcaps, the Quarterdeck Crew and the Nemes Nutters who trained with me at home in Southend and in the lake at Holborough, to Gill and Dawn for our time ‘in the tank’, to Philip Hodges, Helen Beveridge, Mark Sheridan and Adrian Rotchell for their pep talks before the off, to the BLDSA for recognising my swim and allowing it to be recorded in the history books, to my husband and children for allowing me to train and disappear off to Scotland to put this one to bed and to all the people who sent messages of encouragement through social media. These things just aren’t humanly possible without the support of others so I thank you all enormously and from the bottom of my heart.
My final thank you’s must go to the Mellett family. To Sarah for insisting that I go through with this lunacy and to Tony himself. I still don’t like the way that you went about things mate, but thank you for pushing me, for setting me a series of huge, huge challenges which paved the way for this one. I’ll miss you for ever and ever but the fact that your hat was lost to the loch is the perfect ending and gives me a profound sense of closure. Time to move on now. May your smiley face shine on up through the waters of Loch Lomond from now until eternity, giving encouragement to weary swimmers as they prepare for the final push on into Balloch to complete their own ‘Proper Big’ adventures.
Sleep tight now bud. Our work is done xx
(Here’s a vid of how it happened, sorry but YouTube doesn’t like it so its in Dropbox. Hope it works…..)
There’s only so many times that you can do the same swim in the same way. So on 13th July 2016 I set out from Fell Foot for my 4th length of Windermere. Erm, on backstroke….
Mile after mile of front crawl does my dodgy left shoulder no favours but with another 21-miler on the to do list this season I needed to put in some decent mileage. I figured that if I could rack up to half the distance on a 2nd stroke then I’d have a fair chance at starting injury free and would have a get-out-of-jail card if things got messy. Clearly I’m laughing at the word ‘if’ now…..
After wasting a whole year chasing red herrings in rheumatology, come April I was finally presented with an MRI which rumbled the 8mm tear in my left rotator cuff. Not the best news but it was part of a chronic issue rather than the result of an acute injury so I figured there was one more season in it and blagged my way out of any major intervention until the Autumn. Having a second stroke suddenly took on a greater significance.
Being next fastest to my front crawl, backie was preferable to breast (do I need to justify why 10.5 miles on fly didn’t make the shortlist?) and by the end of April, in the dying days of single figure temperatures, I was up to 4k in open water. Crashing into things is an obvious problem for backstrokers. Without the clues given by lane ropes, spots on the ceiling or 5m flags it’s pretty easy to zig-zag and end up in the reed beds (let’s face it, it’s pretty easy to do that anyway). Wherever possible I’d put my trust in another swimmer and follow their line. If there was nobody nearby then I’d flip onto my front and sight as for front crawl. Over time (I think) I got better at holding a straight line.
According to World Open Water Swimmimg Association (WOWSA) rules, for a legitimate backstroke swim I could do no wrong by staying on my back. Body rolls up to or beyond 90 degrees from the horizontal would give grounds for a DQ so flipping would be strictly out. I’d also have to be careful to avoid laying on my front during feed breaks and to ensure that I stayed on the spot, not taking any illegal crawl, breaststroke or fly (yeah right) strokes.
Suspecting that not many people had swum Windermere on backstroke before, I wanted recognition by the British Long Distance Swimming Association (BLDSA), the main body for organising, verifying and maintaining historical records for long distance swims in England, Scotland and Wales. In addition to standard rules, my non-freestyle swim would need to be observed by a BLDSA, ASA or STA official. An added bit of organisation but their role as stroke judge would be critical to verifying my claim and avoiding any after the event argey bargey.
Honorary Recorder, Zoe Sadler, checked the database and established that there were only two previous records for Windermere on backstroke. Pam Aldam in 1953 and John Todd in 1959. The Association was established in 1956 and took over the organisation and awarding of Windermere ‘length’ badges from Bradford & District Long Distance Swimming Club. Originally the course started at Lakeside and finished at Waterhead, however sometime in the early ’90s (I need to check this!) it was extended to begin at Fell Foot, 400m or so closer to Windermere’s outflow into the River Leven. Paperwork was duly submitted with route and stroke declaration, proposed dates and the names, membership numbers and contact details of witnesses including my BLDSA observer, Mr. Philip Yorke. Satisfied that we knew how to play this, the game was on!!
22nd May found me driving up the A1(M) with Danny Bunn, Notts-bound for the BLDSA season-opener at Colwick Park. After the main 5k Championships would be a ‘sign-up on the day’ 1k novice event. ‘So, erm Danny?’ ‘Yah?’ ‘You gonna to stick around for the 1k?’ ‘I will if you will?’ ‘Wicked. Will you swim it breaststroke then?’ ‘Que¿’ ‘I want to do it backstroke and wonder if you would be my guide-dog…..’
It was a cheeky ask, but with Danny a safe bet for a podium finish in the 5k I figured he’d be happy to sacrifice a top 3 in the novice. Besides that’s not what these events are all about. As predicted Danny scooped bronze in the main event and, a true gentleman, then spent 22mins 21 seconds babysitting me for a lap of the course shouting and signalling ‘left a bit, right a bit, turn-buoy ahead’ until the back of my hand hit the finish pontoon. My first legitimate OW backstroke event and Danny’s first breaststroke. What a team 😄
With water temperatures pushing the 16 degree cut-off for qualifying swims, the following weekend was one of the last chances for the 6hrs that I needed for this year’s big one. I was doing long swims every Saturday and alternating stroke each time to ensure that I kept up with training both front & back. This being a backie weekend I set off in reverse to clock up 30 laps of the lake at Holborough.
And it was the most pleasant and enjoyable 6hr swim ever!! As the morning clouds evaporated a lovely day broke through, entertainment provided by swallows as they dive-bombed the lake to take a drink, coots going about their business darting in and out of the reed beds. With a comfortable 6hr backstroke swim under my belt, Windermere was mine for sure. As were those rather attractive idiot cap and goggle marks to remind me that nothing less than factor 50 would be good enough on the day…..
As per previous offences on Windermere the plan was to use a rowboat for support. On this occasion however boat hire were overly obstructive, insisting that we take five boats and provide them with risk assessments. The latter wouldn’t have been a problem but 5x boats and all the crew to go with them? Really?? We did have the option of a sit-on-top kayak but I wouldn’t inflict 10.5 miles crewing from one of those on anyone…..
Settling for a more expensive but infinitely more comfortable electric boat we faced a different problem. While blindness is the most obvious handicap of the backstroker, I’d learnt in training that it isn’t the only one. With both ears in the water the whole time they are also deaf. Effectively we’d have a deaf-blind swimmer in the water needing to stick close enough to the boat be able to take instructions to stay on course and avoid collisions (including with fast moving ferries), while also keeping a safe distance so as not to be hit/run over by the boat or sliced up by its propeller. I needed somebody closer to water level to indicate the way and sign instructions. Employing Danny as a guide at Colwick Park had worked really well and with Philip Yorke already on the team (arguably the most badged-up long-distance breaststroker of modern times), the answer to the problem was clear. The BLDSA Emergency Committee was consulted for permission to have an escort swimmer and it was agreed that so long as Phil remained behind the line of my hips then his role would be construed as guidance rather than pacemaking. Phil needed the training too so Windie Back was back on again!!
Sunday 10th July myself, John Willis, Mandy Byrnes, Helen Liddle & Philip Yorke descended on The Lakes, holing up in the pissing rain in a barn frequented by a 3-legged cat to wait for a break in the weather. Phil had swum 9 miles in Lake Bala over the weekend and would swim another 10.5 in Windermere before observing and guiding my backstroke length. Tuesday was John’s day. Piloting the electric boat I realised how familiar I had become with England’s longest lake and how small I could make her when breaking her down landmark by landmark. John successfully touched down at Waterhead after 8hrs 17minutes of swimming then (clearly after a jar or two) hell’s bells were set for 4am. What is it about this bloody swimming lark that we’re not entitled to a decent night’s sleep??
Although there was wind and rain forecast for later on, we were greeted with a fine sunrise, calm waters and clear blue skies as we motored down from Bowness to Fell Foot. After entering the water by the National Trust cafe, Yorkie counted me down and at 07:04 I flipped onto my back as the crew hit ‘go’ on 3x stopwatches. Myself & Phil settled into position early on, finding it easiest if he sat around 3-5m from me, directly behind my feet. From there all I had to do was lift my head and look beyond my feet to find where they were in relation to his pink bobbing hat. Sometimes I had it spot on while other times I’d have a bit of an ‘oh dear’ moment, requiring some adjustment.
As we approached Lakeside my thoughts turned to Pam Aldam & John Todd. I wondered how, and even why, they had chosen to slap it into reverse for a length of Windermere. I kind of assumed that most long distance swimmers of that generation were quirky eccentrics and that’s why. Maybe they’d swum it a zillion times before and fancied something different. Maybe it was the only stroke they could do or it was their favourite. I’d have loved to have met either one of those backstroke pioneers and quizzed them about how their day on the lake had gone. The highs, the lows, crewing logistics, guidance, what they fed on, wore etc. Sadly my research told me that both of them were long gone so I could do nothing more than wonder and speculate.
Shortly after clearing Lakeside the inside of my left elbow started to hurt. Quite a lot actually. Right at the insertion of my biceps onto the forearm. This had bugged me in the early days of building up the distance but quarter of a mile into a 10.5 mile swim? I didn’t need that!! I opted to bend my elbow less during the catch phase and give it less welly through the water. At my first feed I asked for painkillers and, while things didn’t get any better, they didn’t get any worse either. I swam on accepting the pain and popping pills all the way to Waterhead. Completely oblivious to the damage that my stroke compensation was causing to my already compromised shoulder and the jeopardy under which it would place my up-coming 21-miler……
Apprehensive at first, we slipped into the rhythm of feeds quite easily. All I had to do was STOP when told to, stay upright where I was either treading water or standing, and let the others do the rest. One thing I absolutely COULDN’T do was swim on my front to the boat, which would invalidate my claim for a backstroke classification. Mandy & John shared the driving and would get the boat into a position where Helen could pass my feeds to Phil. He would then deliver them to me, like a silver-service waiter, AND tidy up my mess afterwards. Such a princess!! This method was for sure more time consuming than for a freestyle swim, however the rules were clear and that’s just how it had to be to keep things legit.
In training, whether ‘sprinting’ (loosest possible definition please) or pacing for a distance, I’d been consistently 15-20% slower on my back than in front crawl. Cutting that down the middle and taking my previous times for a length of Windermere I guesstimated that a backie length would take anywhere from 8hrs30 to 10hrs. Although I hoped for the faster end of the spectrum I really had no clue which time was closer to reality and prepared myself, Yorkie and my crew for the possibility of a 10hr stint. John had hit the chain-link ferry in 4hrs dead the day before so I thought my 4hr feed would give an indication of how long we might be in the water. With the ferry in sight at 3hrs I turned up the pace to try and clear it before the 4hr feed. It felt like a good effort but in the end I fell a couple of hundred metres short, hitting Oven Bottom (roughly halfway up the lake) in 4hrs. All was looking good for a finish in the 8’s but I knew how quickly things could deteriorate so wasn’t counting any chickens just yet. I was also feeling it after hammering out that last hour and Phil, at that point having swum 25 miles in the past 5 days, was dropping behind. I was actually finding this set-up more agreeable than having him closer as sighting for him was putting less strain on my neck.
I decided to kick back for the next hour or so to save some energy for both of us and take in the view behind the islands, my favourite part of Windermere. I went into my happy place and established the direct positive correlation between daydreaming and zig-zagging. Yorkie chuckled away to himself at my incompetence and demonstrated that when it comes to swimming in a straight line breast really is best…. Suddenly I was startled to upright, shocked from my slumber by two jet fighters as they roared through the skies above. Quite a spectacle!!
With complete and utter faith in my crew and guide-dog, the only other time my vulnerable position had me jumping was when they executed a precision manoeuvre to get me safely past a light-buoy. With the boat squeezing me one way and Phil the other they chased me into a channel where I quite literally didn’t see it coming until I was right on it, it’s huge green body suddenly appearing a mere whisker away from my face. Nice job!!
Hours 6 to 7 were the hardest without doubt. We’d cleared the islands and were in the top quarter of the lake. The wind was up and conditions had become choppy. Until then I’d not taken on any water but now it was being sloshed relentlessly up my nose and into the back of my throat. This swim needed putting away but I knew there was still a couple of hours left in it and had to accept that it couldn’t all be sunshine and roses. I gagged frequently and on a couple of occasions had to stop for a reflex heave. To avoid the worst of the conditions we decided to stick to the shallows of the Western shore as long as possible and take a last-minute cross-over for the approach to Waterhead. With things calm again I could get stuck back in and became ridiculously excited when I caught sight of Wray Castle. A mile and a half (ish) and Windermere was mine once more.
With less than an hour to go, the crew fed me early for the final push. I set off hard for home, way too early for a sprint finish but I couldn’t contain myself so let it go anyway. Poor Philip was now approaching 30miles in 5 days and backstroke was giving breaststroke a run for it’s money. I had to calm down on the last turn after passing ‘the rock’ just past Low Wood. Boat traffic was heavy and steamers were negotiating their way to and from the pier.
We both needed the protection of our crew and I needed those last minute instructions from Phil to get past the public jetty where the clock could be stopped. We passed the youth hostel and steamer pier then a wooden jetty came into view to my left. ‘Not that one Jane, keep going’ I told myself, eagerly watching Phil to see when he would nip in and head for the shore. We came to a second jetty and there were people standing on it, obscuring the board that would signal to me that we were home. Barely able to lift my head now I watched Phil every four or five strokes to see what he was doing. Then there it was. As he took a sharp right I knew there was just a sharp left in it for me and the job was done! The clock stopped at 8hrs 29mins and 6seconds as we landed to the applause of the freaked out people on the jetty who didn’t quite get how we’d chosen to spend our day.
None of our swimming adventures are ever possible without the support of others and with the unique handicaps of backstroke this swim epitomised the definition of teamwork. Deaf-blind it would have been utterly impossible alone, a non-starter and quite frankly dangerous.
Here’s a shout to the special people who made it happen. Massive thanks to you all. It was an honour and a privilege to share the journey with you:
Captain of the Ship John Willis: Congratulations on claiming your own length of Windermere, enjoy your title of ‘Marathon swimmer’ and thanks for only hitting me with the boat once 😀
Co-pilot Mandy Byrnes: Your role as chief abuse hurler had me in stitches. Can’t repeat most of it due to the watershed. Looking forward to returning the favour next year (laughs an evil laugh)….
Chief banana thrower Helen Liddle: Your aim is great and your experience looking after lunatics second to none. More to come there methinks xx
And last but by no means least my guide-dog Philip Yorke: 30 miles in 5 days and not a single moan or complaint. Just happy bobbing all the way babysitting some fool who decided to swim with their eyes closed and fingers in their ears. Thank you from the bottom of my heart xx
Like I said there’s only so many times you can do the same swim in the same way. Windermere: 1-way, 2-way, wrong way.
‘Don’t tuck me in, don’t close the curtains, don’t turn the lights off, don’t shut the door and DON’T kiss me.’
Orders from my little brother to our mum every night without fail as she tried to sign off from her duties. Sleeping in the same room as him wasn’t exactly conducive to a restful night but I didn’t share Robert’s anxieties about being in a dark house.
I was far more concerned about the mad woman called Mary who lived round the side of the beech tree at the end of our garden. So afeared of her was I that I NEVER went there alone after dark and had recurring nightmares about not being able to lock the door fast enough behind me once she’d chased me back into the house….
Camping out with a friend at the age of 18 I was forced to vocalise my worries about Mary for the first (and last) time ever. To justify why I wouldn’t take a wizz behind the trees in the middle of the night.
Backed into a corner I blurted out my most deep-rooted insecurity. ‘OK so there’s this mad woman called Mary who lives round the side of the beech tree. I didn’t want to tell you about her ‘cos she scares the shit out of me and I don’t want her to scare you too.’ The preposterousness of my revelation provoked an hysteria of such proportions that my parents and several neighbours had strong words with us through their bedroom windows…..
The ability of the darkness to impart fears of the irrational seems to be a function of us having retained a primitive nocturnal hyper-vigilance to compensate for our poor night vision, while evolving as intelligent creatures capable of imagination. With the threat of lion attack or night-time pillaging by rival tribesmen virtually zero in the West, our minds are at liberty to fill in the sensory blanks in whatever way they see fit. Suddenly every little creak or shadow becomes a ghost, a monster, axe murderer, headless horseman, child-devouring witch round the side of a tree….
Now let’s add another layer to that: deep water. The first time I got the proper willies when swimming in deep water was in 2010 in Loch Leven, not far from the foot of Ben Nevis. It was mid-June and snow still capped the mountains; the loch was cold but conditions were bright and sunny. Her shallows being weedy, I moved a couple more metres offshore to avoid entanglement. And as the flora fell away so did the floor of the loch, sunbeams shining through the water into eternal nothingness. The temperature dropped from cold to fucking cold and my immediate thought of ‘where’s the bottom?’ was replaced with an overwhelming anxiety about ‘what’ was at that bottom. The guard went up and I faced a choice: be dragged under by some vile creature from the depths or become trapped in the weeds, which in my hyper-defensive state had become the desperate, grabbing arms of the ghosts of the drowned. Later that year I did my first night swim. Jeez really? With an imagination as overactive as that??….
Thinking back to my time in the dissection labs at Kings College London it was addressing the eyes and rationalising that the specimens weren’t going to jump up shouting ‘Boo!!’ that settled me into the surreal scene of chopping up dead bodies. Likewise what I’ve learned about deep water over the years tells me that while there are inherent risks in the daytime or at night, they (generally) aren’t so fanciful as stumbling across waterlogged corpses, treasure chests surrounded by skeletons of the greedy or cursed, undiscovered predatory fish or sea monsters. I might have the odd moment where I catch myself trying to have disturbing thoughts, but have learned to control them. As I’ve heard no ‘Boo’s’ thus far then I’m fairly certain nothing is going to eat me.
For me marathon swimming starts and ends with delusion: an outrageous self-deception which over time morphs into a self-determination or auto-punishment strong enough to get the job done. So far.
Yielding agreeable memories, successful outcomes seem to be the most dangerous. Egos can be taken hostage; rose-tinting climbs the agenda; the world seems a perfect place where we are invincible and capable of increasingly ludicrous schemes. Delusion passes the baton to double delusion and so the world turns.
In part 1 I promised an account of my first sighting of a dead body (before I began chopping them up). I use this to illustrate how easily positive experiences can trick us into thinking that everything in the world is perfect all of the time.
Back in 1994 I lived in Helsinki where I worked for the Council’s environmental department. One day a guy called me up and introduced himself as ‘Marti from Landfill’. He invited me to join a local running club. Ha ha ha!!! Running? Me???? Not on your nelly. Turns out that said club was part of the Hash House Harriers movement, where ex-pats came together under the pretense of paper chase style running. OK so we did do a bit of gentle jogging, but beer-drinking was a better description of our activities.
One weekend we decided to go International and crossed the Baltic Sea to ‘run’ in Tallinn, Estonia. The weekend that we went just so happened to coincide with the Estonian National Song and Dance Festival. This in turn ‘just so happened to coincide’ with the Tallinn beer festival and it came as no surprise that our trail went straight through the main beer tent….
The atmosphere in Tallinn was just wonderful. Taking place every five years, this was the first festival since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. The Baltic States had regained their identities; 25,000 people thronged the streets wearing national costume. Everywhere around there were people singing, dancing and making merry. Neither before, nor since, have I seen so many people so genuinely happy.
The day after our ‘run’ we took in the sights of the city, including the Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky cathedral. Inside a long line of people queued to receive holy communion to the sound of the most heavenly singing . Looking around I saw no choir. Nudging one of my fellow hashers to enquire where the music was coming from I suddenly realised that it came from the people themselves as they patiently waited their turn to receive Christ. I was completely and utterly bowled over by the beauty of that scene and it remains with me to this day.
Over my time in Helsinki I wrote home regularly to update my sister on what I was getting up to. She was to visit me around mid-summer that year and I told her that we absolutely HAD to do three things: go skinny dipping in the Arctic Circle, watch the midnight sun and go to Tallinn where EVERYBODY is happy ALL of the time. Our trip to Lapland went off as planned and, after a rather more refreshing than expected dip, we sat on a hillside eating wild cloud-berries as we watched the sun boing off the horizon to start a new day without actually setting. Yes life’s pretty awesome is it not?
Back in Tallinn, however, the carnival had packed up and left town. People were getting on with their mundane existence and, while Soviet independence was bringing an economic boom, the poverty of the majority remained plain to see. Surely Sunday morning Mass at Alexander Nevsky Cathedral could pull some of this back? People coming together and singing in communal praise? So off we went. Rather than being greeted with an angelic chorus, however, the cathedral doors opened onto a starkly more sombre scene. Yes there were people gathered around but this time they met in mourning. In the middle of the room was an open coffin. A blue nose pointed heavenward; the peoples’ singing replaced with an almighty wailing. The rose-tinted bubble burst and we left swiftly……
My point here is that when things go well it is easy for us to deceive ourselves into thinking that that will always be the case. It won’t necessarily and we should be prepared for the unexpected. Swimming Windermere in 2014 I was happy as Larry for the whole length and believed that this would be the same when returning in 2015 for a 2-way crossing. How wrong could I have been? Misery took hold long before I turned around for the second leg. Life isn’t all roses: a lesson learned the hard way.
One year on it remains to be seen, but in as much as good things can go bad I guess when things don’t go to plan that doesn’t mean that they won’t go better another time around. Failures (or successes with a hefty physical/mental price-tag) provoke reflection. Dissection of the in’s and out’s to help find the necessary course of action for the healing or resolution process. It would be easy to walk away and take up another hobby (chess, mountaineering, crochet, sailing, writing, dog grooming, shoulder surgery….). But who ever said that these things are meant to be easy? And so we carry on.
On a more positive note ‘D’ can also be for discovery. While some prefer not to set eyes on or immerse themselves in their chosen body of water before D-Day, I like to walk the route. It’s a kind of ‘know thine enemy’ thing. Picking off landmarks, working out the distances in between, finding half-way, three-quarters of the way, the home straits, where you expect to be when it gets dark, what the finish looks like etc….. The idea being to befriend that body of water, visualise how things might go and curb any anxieties. I ain’t afraid of no ghost. At least that’s what I keep telling myself.
This perhaps we should call ‘Informed Delusion’ and let the cycle rotate once more…..
At least that’s what they tell us in love. In dissection, the first cut is certainly the crudest. You’ve got to get inside your subject and can be ham-fisted. Caution comes later on, when the preservation of structures is essential to avoid the risk of missing out on valuable information from which we can expand our knowledge, deepen our understanding and develop our skills.
[Dissection] demands of us only the skills to handle a sharp knife and to apply our knowledge of fault lines.
So what has any of this got to do with Marathon Swimming? And, being a relative newcomer to the sport, what would I know anyway? The skeleton of this text was born in the immediate aftermath of my first, and to date only, 21-miler. I exited that swim ambivalent to the fact that I’d achieved what I set out to achieve. Written as I sat recovering by a private lake in Upstate New York two weeks later, this was an exercise of reconciliation.
My ramblings started with reflection. Defined in the subject of Anatomy as the bending back of a part or structure upon itself to expose the contents of a cavity, I can find a similar truth in the reflection of critical analysis. We deconstruct to find the involved components, learn some lessons from them, fix the broken parts then reconstruct and grow, coming back bigger, stronger, wiser, faster: whatever goal it is that best serves our needs and aspirations.
The problem that I inflicted upon myself to solve in that idyllic lakeside setting on the New York-Vermont border was to find answers to the question ‘what went wrong.’ To find the fault lines that had nearly jeopardised my success and that had certainly soured my relationship with long distance swimming. It took a full three months for me to realise the absurdity of that enquiry, given the fact that the bigger picture was one of triumph. That triumph was, however, more guts than glory and the lessons learned are more encompassing of a question of ‘what could I have done to cope better.’
My discoveries were nothing unique or new: preparation, motivation, underestimation, acclimatisation, medication (nutrition and crew don’t end in ‘ation’ but they were still areas where I could have pulled things back into control)…. It is not my intention to go into these any further, they have been explored and blogged about in depth by others. Others more knowledgeable and experienced than me and who may be (or think they are) in a good position to shell out advice. I’m not saying that we can’t learn from the experience of others. Just that I tend to learn more through balls’ing things up. Only after my own introduction to the 21-mile club have I begun to see the relevance of, and contextualise, the writings and speak of others. In the light of my own experience, on that day, under those conditions, I agreed with certain apparently ‘gospel truths’ and disagreed with others. That could easily change under different circumstances.
The most significant piece of advice that I dismissed ahead of my baptism of fire was that for a freshwater swim you should train in freshwater.
Another thing that I’ve realised is that some people analyse the shit out of things.
The second time that I set eyes on a stiff was in the dissection labs of Kings College London (the first time is not relevant at this point so please excuse me for breaking with chronology). I’d survived the hour and a half train commute on nowt but a caffeine free diet coke and a double portion of apprehension. The purpose? Intrigue, voyeurism, CPD points. Whichever serves you best. This was an optional and interactive tour of the remnants of folk who had donated their good selves in the name of medical science, research and education.
The doors swung open, the stench of formaldehyde poured out and we were ushered in by trainee surgeons eager to share with us their knowledge of the human form. Lying around on metal trolleys were our subjects. Some of them were reduced to a torso, a series of flaps and a game of peep-bo revealing the peritoneal cavity and its viscera. Others were dismembered and relegated to piles of either upper or lower extremities from where they could be carved up to expose the route and fate of branches of the brachial or lumbo-sacral plexus. In plain English: The room was filled with trolleys stacked high with dead people with their guts and nerves hanging out.
While grateful for their offering I neither knew, nor cared to know, the identity of these once-living inhabitants of our planet. Other than the odd bit of skin art I bet even their loved ones couldn’t single them out. In any case, this was not a place to which they should come. Once through the grieving process I hoped that their time was devoted to remembering the greatest moments and triumphs of their dearly departed’s glory days. Not seeing them like this. To me they symbolised a union of science and art. Others may have regarded that scene as butchery.
Aristotle impressed upon us that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Though my profession emphasises holism, I cannot help but be drawn towards the detail and would argue that an in-depth knowledge of our intricacies can only enhance our appreciation of the whole. To deconstruct before reconstructing is of importance to me. That’s why I like dissection. It demands of us only the skills to handle a sharp knife and to apply our knowledge of fault lines. Thereafter it assures us of a fascinating exploration of the minutiae which make up our bigger picture, leading to a deeper understanding of self, of others, of situations and of our relationship with the world around us.
Addressing the eyes and rationalising that the specimens were not going to jump up and shout ‘Boo!!’ were the first steps to becoming comfortable in that room. Some struggled more than others, covering up exposed faces and genitalia while they worked, observing from a distance with a paper napkin clamped firmly over their mouths, spending significant amounts of time handwashing or hiding in the toilets. And shying away from poking their fingers into an aorta. Or worse.