Having completed my second Thames Marathon swim in 2018 thoughts had turned to my goals for 2019. I felt confident enough in my swimming that my goal for 2019 was to break the 20km swim distance. 2018 had seen a time improvement on both the Jubilee and Thames Marathon swims and my ever dependent swimming partner Karen and I had also completed our longest swim to date earlier in the year, a 6 hr channel qualifier albeit with wetsuit that had seen me clock up 17.5km and Karen knocking on the door of 20km of swimming.
Thumbing through Open Water Swimming Magazine I had read an article regarding a endurance swim in Sweden called Vidösternsimmet; essentially a 21km + end to end solo swim event across Lake Vidostern; it peaked my interest. With the event just under a year away I immediately contacted Karen and we hastily talked each other into it and agreed to sign up for what would be our longest and toughest swim to date.
A couple weeks after I had signed up for Vidösternsimmet so I had come across a company called Windermere One Way (#WOW) who organised a solo end to end crossing of Windermere with individual kayak support. It was 3 weeks after Sweden and although short of the 20km marker; I convinced myself that if I were to train for one swim, I may as well do two. Luckily, I know a keen kayaker who was happy to help me out, so the idea of swimming two marathon events in one month became a no-brainer. Again, I contacted Karen and without too much hesitation she agreed as always to the Windermere attempt, so I now had my ever-dependable friend and swim buddy onside for both swim attempts. Knowing that I had company on these swims and a training partner for the coming Open Water season made all the difference with my decisions to enter these events.
Fast forward into 2019 and my swim season began in earnest. I made the most of the pool during the OW close season and was clocking up the mileage. Every year I swim the Aspire channel challenge a 12-week pool-based challenge to swim 22 miles. Clocking the number of laps on their website, by the end of the challenge I had swum 40 miles over the course of 12 weeks. This had included a successful attempt at 100x100 with Dave and Jenny which I had been keen on trying for a while. Karen and I were regularly meeting early Sunday mornings for distance pool swims before I joined the Tri N Swim Well team in Lanzarote for their March skills swim camp, which turned out to be a massive step forward for me.
I had also started Trifarm early doors as an accompaniment to my usual Saturday morning visit to Stubbers. I hadn’t been a fan of the place in previous years but as the OW season started, I was heading there most weekends and had become a convert. The swim camp had finally committed improved technique to muscle memory, and I was working on stamina by complimenting regular spin sessions with short sharp 10 x 100 pool sprints which complimented my Wednesday morning JBR club swims.
My first endurance event was a 2-man relay (2swim4life), a 24 hr / 24-mile open air pool-based swim alongside Antony Oliveri. With this successfully navigated (albeit a real tough event) I felt both ready and somewhat nervous for the swims ahead given how much 2swim4life had taken out of me. Karen had now moved from water to road and had dedicated most her time to cycling as she was about to take on (and smash) her Team GB age group Aqua bike event in Pontevedra.
As confident as I was feeling as the season progressed, so the wheels fell off slightly, nothing like a dose of reality to bring you back down to ground. I had entered The Great East Swim 10km as a training event; the advice Karen and I picked up frequently was to get to the stage in which 10km swims were bread and butter and use these as a platform to kick on from. I was regularly swimming double digit laps at Trifarm and had completed the Scottish version of the Gt East swim last yr. so believed this event would be straight forward. I really struggled posting my slowest ever 10km swim time and could not have been happier to see the back of the swim. Despite a couple more long OW sessions including a 6hr 15km training swim, self-doubt had crept in and July was turning into a bit of a non-event for training. I was not swimming anywhere near the amount I needed to and doubts were starting to cross my mind with thoughts turning more to hope that muscle memory and prior experience would get through Vidösternsimmet.
One of my problems had seen a reoccurrence of an old shoulder injury on some of the longer training swims originally caused by a motorbike fall many years ago, resurfacing again in 2017 during training for the channel. The injury hadn’t at this point caused me to stop swimming, but I was stiffening up after each swim. With this and a tough Great East swim and a lack of distance training in July at the back of my mind both Karen and I headed to Sweden on the 8th August with a feeling of apprehension ahead of us.
Vidösternsimmet – Lake Vidostern - Sweden
The town of Varnamo is roughly 175km south of Gothenburg. A quiet place that sits at one end of Lake Vidostern and would provide the backdrop to a 21km + end to end swim. Vidösternsimmet is the brainchild of 3 Swedish swimmers whom 9 years ago wanted to put on an OW event that would test the endurance of like-minded swimmers. From humble beginnings this year’s event had a record turnout of 102 swimmers and whilst the vast majority are Swedes and Danes, there are more than a smattering of other nations including the UK. Indeed, this year the event organisers were particularly happy as Simon Griffith’s (editor of Open Water Swimmer magazine) was himself taking part as well as the people behind the London Docks OW swimming club. So, there are a couple things to know about the swedes; firstly, they can organise an event very well. Furthermore, they are calm about weather conditions, no obsession with temperature or the fact rain, winds or lightening are forecast. To then it just adds to the test and from what we understood most years had experienced dreadful weather at some point or another. The weekend Karen and I were to attempt the swim, Europe had just been hit by a major storm front and Sweden was getting the tail end.
Race briefing was held the night before, so we arrived nice and early into Varnamo which gave Karen and I a chance to head down to the event start to get our baring’s for the next day. Unsurprisingly the lake looked huge and quite daunting. We could see the 1st 3 marker buoys way into the distance and saw the lake stretch out over the horizon. Surprisingly the water was both warm and very shallow for quite a distance, indeed on race day I clocked around 110metres of walking before I started to swim. There would be 22 marker buoys roughly placed at 1km intervals which would serve (aside from other swimmers and the odd boat) as the only markers on the course. There would be a safety boat for each section of the swim with 5 feed stations, 2 on the water and 3 on land.
Each swimmer is assigned a numbered tow float but that really is about it. If anyone got into trouble or needed to retire, they would simply tread water until a safety boat picks you out of the water.
The swim was a mass walking start from the beach, and it became obvious to me very early on that there seemed to be 2 mass banks of swimmers. The first bank of swimmers kicked off at an alarmingly quick pace, the second main bank of swimmers were also quick, and I think this was where Karen was nestled.
Fairly quickly I was dropped by the main pack but felt that if I could sit on the tail enders, I was ok. You see my sighting is terrible and I wanted to rely on a fix from other swimmers. Fairly quickly I started to drop off the main pack albeit with a good number of other swimmers thankfully I was still able to sight without going off course too much. The first section up to the first feed station had us swimming in quite an exposed area of lake. The swimmers had chopped the water up and the wind was dictating that the swirl was hitting the side I breathe so it took a little time but eventually I had got myself into a nice rhythm having survived the starting couple km’s and I even remember thinking about my 2020 goals as I was swimming. The first feed station was a floating one and came up after 3.7km. As I arrived, a quick look around and I was happy that there seemed to be a good smattering of swimmers both behind me and just in front. This obsession of where I was in the pack would come back to bite me, I was using up energy to keep up with the pack plus my entire thought process was beginning to settle on this one thought. I knew my first mistake was not to settle in and enjoy the 1st feed station. I arrived and re-set my goggles before a quick drink of water and a quick bite to eat. With probably only a couple mins spent here I set off again to try to stay with the back markers of the main pack. As I had approached the 1st feed station so the rain began. With the rain reducing visibility I started to expend more energy than I wanted to pace myself with swimmers I could sight. Fairly quickly I was losing sight of the pack as we started the second section and it took me a good couple km’s to adjust my mindset to keeping company and spotting off 5 or so swimmers (2 to my side and 3 just in front). By now the lake had widened right out and as I tend to swerve off to the right when having not much of a marker to work towards it was a constant battle to keep left and out of the middle of the lake where the water was choppier and much deeper.
By the time I got to my first land-based feed station (around 8km) it was fair to say I was knackered. My wife and Karen’s husband Andy were both there providing much needed support and I was pleased to hear Karen had only entered the water a few minutes in front of me. Again, stupidly I spent less time than I should have done at the feed station. Chucking in cinnamon rolls, water and Jaffa cakes I spent most of this time worrying about losing sight of others. Looking at my watch I was well up on the cut off time by over an hour, but my overriding sense was to ensure I was swimming with others and so I spent less time than I should have done at this feed station and within a couple mins trudged back out into the water. It was only later when I watched the slower swimmers come into feed, some spending 20 mins at the feed station that I kicked myself at the sense of urgency which I felt cost me dearly on this swim.
Leaving the feed station, I was about to enter one of the longest sections of the swim. Somewhere in the region of 6-7km. the exit point of the feed station had a massive bank of reeds to the left. You had to swim out past these reeds and then turn left towards the next marker buoy. Almost immediately as I passed the reeds the rain sheeted down. It came down vertically and very heavy. I remember breathing a heavy sigh and thinking to myself I was starting to not enjoy the experience. After a little time, I suddenly was aware that I had no idea if I was going in the right direction. Treading water, I did a 365 degree turn and initially couldn’t make out any proper landmarks which would give the game away. One of the big challenges on this swim for which I had never felt before was the sense of isolation. All other swims I have completed have always had swimmers or land mass nearby, so this was a steep learning curve; and I remember feeling suddenly knackered treading water attempting to understand which way was forward with very little clue. I remember sighting the top of a boat and thinking that must be the way I needed to head.
Lake Vidostern has several micro-climates and I found that as the rain cleared so briefly the sun came out which was glorious. You could see behind you the thick black clouds and rain which I was pleased to have passed through and much to my delight I found I had again picked up company. My left side swimming companion (not that they would have been aware) was a fair way in front but I could reassuringly pick out their orange buoy and furthermore my slower swimming companion to my right whom preferred to swim very wide further out into the lake had also appeared into my immediate view.
Knowing that I had my left and right markers made sighting easier and the next few km’s passed incident free. I know I was getting tired as I remember the yellow km markers beginning to look further and further away as I passed each one, but the weather was holding. However, the same cannot be said of my left shoulder. Many years ago, I had fallen off my motorbike causing damage to my left shoulder and had required a cortisone injection at the time. Then back in 2017 during training for the Channel, I pulled my left shoulder getting into a boat during a Loch Ness relay and again this had been placated by a cortisone injection to the same area.
My shoulder had been stiff during some of the longer training swims leading up to Sweden but had yet to give. I had found a mixture of voltarol and rest had fixed the issue. Indeed, during 2Swim4life voltarol had got me through 8 of the 12 miles. However, on this occasion I was not to be so lucky. A combination of excessive sighting pulling my head clean out of the water; constant course corrections on the lake and swimming harder than I normally would battling chop and speed, had in this instance bought my shoulder problems on early than I had hoped.
I was beginning to slow, managing no more than a few strokes before stopping and breast stroking. By now my left side companion had been lost from view and the swimmer to my right had moved significantly ahead. I must admit that the dark thoughts had won through on this occasion. I was allowing the negative issues to override my thought process. Every niggle, chop of water began playing on my mind. I could see the 3rd feed station some distance up ahead and had hoped this would give me a newfound energy but turning my shoulder over each time was becoming wince inducing and excruciatingly painful. Treading water with no other swimmers around me; as I looked at my watch, I still had around 9km to go and I felt that a mixture of front crawl and breaststroke would not be good enough to make the 9km certainly within the timeframe. I had also convinced myself (wrongly) that I was last. As such I decided to quit the swim before hitting the feed station as I felt people would try to encourage me to continue.
In order to quit you just must wait for one of the patrol boats to spot you. It took about 10 mins before I was picked up and bought to shore at the feed station feeling rather embarrassed and disappointment. My wife however could not have been more supportive of my decision as were the race organisers. They made sure I was warm and fed and had arranged for a car to bring my clothes down to the feed station and give me a lift to the end.
Standing there I had to keep reminding myself of how painful my shoulder was as the back-marker swimmers started to come in, in drips and drabs. None of them seemed bothered about placing or time and they took their time to fully feed and rest before hitting the water again. What I hadn’t realised, there were a good 10 or so swimmers behind me at the time I threw in the towel. I knew I couldn’t carry on due to my shoulder, but I learnt a massive lesson about committing too much head space to worrying about position in a race. It’s a pointless waste of energy which I used up too early in the event. Race your own race is a great mantra to remember, so simple but true.
In the meantime, Karen had powered on albeit with similar arm issues completing the event in under 9 hours which was truly remarkable. A wonderful swimmer who does JBR proud.
Windermere One Way - Lake District
Whilst in Sweden I had managed to get a doctor’s appointment for the day after we returned. My doctor knows I OW swim having donated to the Havens Channel relay and as such was sympathetic to my plight when I explained that I wanted him to inject my shoulder given that I was swimming Lake Windermere in 3 weeks’ time. Three days later I had my shoulder cortisone injected.
Between Sweden and Windermere besides Wednesday morning JBR sessions I retired from swimming save for a couple short sea dips. Besides resting the shoulder, I felt that having made it to 15km in Sweden I should be able to power on the additional 3km’s even if my shoulder went again. The only big swim I undertook during this period was on the day before we left for the lake district, joining Jan Harvey, Louise Young and several others for a 7km swim from the Crowstone to Harry’s bench as I wanted to test my shoulder; it held up nicely.
There are various companies that manage Windermere swims, but I chose to go with ‘Windermere One way’ for several reasons. Firstly, the timing fitted in with Sweden. I also liked the idea that each swimmer was assigned their own kayak support. This appealed to me as it meant I could fuel on my own food, determine my own feed strategy and most importantly largely forget about sighting. ‘Windermere One way’ also put on what I believe is the biggest mass attempt at Windermere and I liked the occasion of mass participation. There is also (for those 5hrs and up swimmers) a compulsory stop at 10km which I would come to realise was the saving of me on this swim.
Luckily my friend Ian is a keen kayaker and jumped at the chance to help me out. Steph Milligan (also from the JBR parish) happily stepped up to the plate at the last minute to help Karen out. It is the kayaker’s job to steer the swimmer, sort the feeds and help with motivation, so having a friend to step in helped us both.
Arriving in the Lake District to rather inclement weather both Karen and I were thinking that this would be Sweden all over again, the bad weather hadn’t let up on the Saturday as we went to register for the race. As all of you will know the day before a race turns out to be a hectic one. Getting around the Lake District by car on the last Saturday of the summer before the kids went back to school meant we spent quite a bit of time in traffic jams back and forth between the start (‘Fell foot’) and finish (‘Ambleside) where we were staying; however finally around 9ish we have taken ownership of our kayaks, eaten, prepped our feeds for the morning and grabbed an early night ready for the 4am alarm call.
Competitors were being picked up in Ambleside and driven down to the start with the coach leaving at 5am. My swim start time was around 8am so we had a couple hours to kill by the time we made it to Fell Foot. Luckily the facilitates were great with abundant hot drinks, food and most thankfully loos.
Having gone into my normal moody teenage strop / faff mode, before long we were in race brief and were minutes away from setting off. We put Ian into the water a little early which benefitted me greatly as I could set off 10 minutes earlier than my original start time.
We had been told the temperature was 16.2 degrees, I remember walking over the timing mat and being enveloped in cold. That initial gasp was a touch shocking but the wonders of wearing a wetsuit meant that I soon warmed up.
Ian and I had agreed on a 45-minute feeding routine with the first couple of feed stops passing without incident. The cold was only really affecting my toes and fingers and I was feeling good. Every now and then I would look up to be greeted by a slice of fluorescent colour dotted across the lake which looked amazing
I was pleased with my pace averaging around 1:58-2:00/100 pace which I kept up until my 3rd feed stop a couple hours into the swim. I remember the searing pain and pressure that immediately hit me as I went from a front crawl to treading water as cramp hit my left calf muscle in an excruciating way. Having let out an audible gasp it was a struggle to get back to the kayak as I had let go of the side as the cramp hit. With one leg spasming I kind of had to doggy paddle over to Ian and cling on to try and stretch out the leg.
To say I was disappointed that cramp had hit so early was an understatement and I can only think the cold water was to blame this time around. For all the issues I had in Sweden cramp was never one of them. Furthermore, I also see Kieron at Back2best before any major swim for acupuncture / massage as I firmly believe this has been a massive help in the past.
At the next feed stop again the cramp hit again but this time in my right calf. The pain was different this time round; it felt like someone was pushing a specific place on the side of my calf to the point that it felt like my leg was going to cave in on itself. A brand-new cramping sensation to me and quite possibly the most painful I have ever felt. I am used to fingers and toes cramping all the time; indeed, I now suffer from arthritis in my toes and is something I attribute to swimming, but this type of cramp can be ‘wiggled out’, unlike the bolt of pain searing across of my calf.
My water bottles contained a mixture of high5 tabs and energy powder, and I was making sure that a swig turned into good gulps. I was also taking on home made breakfast bars which I knew had a good dose of salt in them, however I was cursing the fact that I had run out of salt tablets. I had divided up the last tablets between Karen and I at the start of the race but had no more for the duration. I was annoyed at the oversight of not ordering more beforehand.
The war on cramp continued pretty much to the compulsory stop. I was having to swim whilst wiggling toes consistently as the cramp was now kicking in during the swim. I made sure I kicked a little just to keep the legs moving and warm and used the time to practise my 2-beat leg kick I was trying to learn from my time with the Tri N Swim Well ladies.
To make matters worse I was also having problems with my goggles. The night before I had cleaned them up and double checked the seal tightening the goggles up a little. All was well and good for the first 7-8km’s, but I started to get a headache as I was swimming; my goggles were too tight and were pressing on the bridge of nose causing a constant dull ache. I knew I had spare goggles and not wanting to interrupt my stroke I decided to carry on regardless and put up with the pain until we reached the compulsory stop. Swimming is unusual in this occurrence. There is no one to really talk to and share your issues. Minor problems can become all-encompassing and it really is a struggle to compartmentalise these thoughts. I kept positive by watching the far shoreline, seeing that we were coming into a more built up area could only mean one thing. Bowness and the rest stop!
The rest stop was in an unusual place. For those that know the Lake District there is a chain ferry that crosses the lake from Bowness. Quite understandably the organisers main concern is for swimmers and kayakers not to interfere with the ferry; after all there would be only one winner. Therefore, with the stop just on the horizon and my body begging me to get there in order to sort out goggles and cramp; so, a flashing blue light came into my field of view as the harbour master appeared ordering all swimmers to stop.
In truth part of my quite liked the unplanned halt to things as we waited for the ferry to go by, it gave me a chance to re-jiggle goggles and wiggle my toes a little.
With the compulsory stop came much relief. After struggling to stand up I passed the band on my left arm to the official in order that they could cross me off the list and headed straight for the steam coming off the tea urn. Ian parked the kayak and headed off the loo’s whilst I gulped down warm sweet tea before starting some stretches. After making sure my calves were suitably stretched, I headed over to the feed tent and zeroed in on Jaffa cakes. It wasn’t until then that I realised that Jaffa Cakes were my number 1 go to nutrition staple. Ignoring the peanut butter sandwiches, I ate my weight (which is a lot) in Jaffa cakes, drank more tea and downed some malt loaf.
Seeing Ian was back from the loos and realising that I was starting to shiver as the rain fell, I asked Ian if he was ready to push on. Changing out my Huub goggles for my old trusty Zoggs predator flexes made a massive and immediate difference. They were like hugging an old friend and I instantly felt better now that the dull thudding pain across my nose had subsided. I was also to experience no more cramp. The stretches had done the trick.
As we left the stop with the final 8.4km to go; I managed to face plant the water upon hearing my name being called. As I turned around to see Karen and Steph arrive at the rest stop so I lost my footing and fell straight into the water. Not the most graceful entrance ever.
The second section of the race compared to the first was like chalk and cheese. Thankfully not much happened. The water was smooth, and the sun had come out and with the later day, so the temperature had risen, and the wind bottomed out. I had built up a good system with Ian and had lengthened out my stroke; given that I tend to veer right, Ian would sit the kayak a few meters to my right just in front of me. Every time I veered right, I would catch the back of the kayak in my view and turn left. This seemed to work, and we were eating up the miles. I also had a chance to see where I was swimming and hands down have to say it was a privilege to be swimming in such a stunning location. As we were heading towards the Lakeside area of Windermere hugging the coastline, the swimmers had thinned out somewhat but had given way to a stunning tree line view from the water and I can remember thinking how lucky I was to be given the opportunity to swim in this beautiful part of England. Aside from that nothing of interest had really occurred; it was only at what would be my final feed stop that an old issue of mine again reared its head.
Ian pointed out that this would more than likely be our last feed and as I looked ahead, I could see off in the distance the faint red inflatable finish sign. I was also able to spot Ambleside of to the right and a quick check of the watch showed I was still 40 mins away from the 7-hour marker. I had initially said I would be happy to complete the swim somewhere between 7-8 hours, but the thought of completing 18.4km in sub-7hours had engulfed my thought process and as we set off from my final feed, I was thinking surely the end didn’t look 40 mins away…. And this was the problem. It wasn’t until after the swim that Ian commented that my swim stroke seemed to go out the window on that final stretch; I had slowed down and what little sighting discipline I did have was being thrown away as I zig-zag my way to the end. Ian was having one hell of an issue keeping me on a straight line. I was also starting to stop a lot more; suddenly, I’d have an itch that needed scratching or a nose to be blown or a cap to readjust. It’s disappointing as I have had this feeling many times at swimming events. The nearer I get to the finish I find the pressure somewhat overwhelming and I either get angry or discipline goes to pot.
As we neared the finish line and Ian veered away to park the kayak, I was again unable to stand up. The organisers had put a red mat down into the water, but I had come up to the right of the mat. As I attempted to get myself over to the mat, I found I would just fall over. On the second attempt I managed to scrape my arm across a boulder and stop my watch. It read 7hrs 10mins 49 seconds. Eventually I was able to get some feeling in my legs and was helped ashore, but even as I saw Karen standing a little up the hill waiting to greet me with a beaming smile, I felt I had let myself down, disappointed for not getting under 7 hours. Crazy really, I had just swum 18.4km my furthest ever swim; and had managed to banish the disappointment of Sweden, ending my 2019 OW season on a high, but I felt empty and glum. I need to address this at future events.
Looking back now I am chuffed with my time and understand that in the four years I have been doing this discipline, I have come from struggling to swim 1km OW in 2015 to 18.4km in 2019 so finish times shouldn’t be overly important. Currently I have no desire to revisit Sweden; it is important to keep in mind that rose-tinted spectacles are not always the best pair to wear when looking back at the marathon distances Karen and I have swum. Both swims are bloody hard. I was knackered, hurting and really struggled mentally to keep positive. I now know I have a limit of enjoyment with OW swimming and certainly for the foreseeable future marathon-distance swimming will be put to bed for a little while…. or at least until Karen convinces me otherwise.