It’s taken me a while to do this partly because there’s almost too much to say and yet too little – all I did was a bit (okay, a lot) of swimming. And also partly because I probably won’t write it as well as this post.
But I’m going to bite the bullet and do it. The pretentious “too much to say” stuff I’ll leave for another post and instead I’ll write about the day as it happened.
The Day Before
It all started quite relaxed with a leisurely drive up to the lake district on the Friday afternoon. I had a few friends and family coming along (most with rowing or childcare duties), so I was able to relax and be driven, which meant it was even more relaxing for me. We also got chance to go to Fell Foot and see the start which helped to settle the nerves, letting me know what to expect for the morning.
We were staying just near the water at Bowness in a pub and we just found that and after a quick walk to look at the water again in Bowness it was time for lasagne and chips for tea. I was sharing a room with Joshua, my 6-year old son (my wife had to be away in Germany for the weekend), so I took him to bed and settled down myself, although I didn’t get a lot of sleep. It wasn’t terrible, but not quite what I was hoping for and the 6am alarm felt a little too early.
But here it was, swim day, so I got up and got on with it. I wanted to give myself plenty of time to stretch and get all my food (including making some jam sandwiches) ready. At 7:20am I dropped Joshua off with his baby-sitter for the day (my cousin’s husband) and we set off back down to Fell Foot. It’s funny though, as I said goodbye to Joshua I couldn’t stop crying. I knew it wasn’t “goodbye” and that I would be safe, but I felt really emotional and I sniffled for the next 15 minutes or so.
As I said it was a real family affair, as swimming as well as me was my cousin Sonny and we had a load of family members in our boats. I had my uncle Graham, my Grandad‘s eldest son, and his wife Margaret – herself a very good long-distance swimmer and the person who persuaded me to enter this year’s event – in my boat, along with a friend of theirs. Sonny had his mum Veronica (or Ron), my uncle Tony (Ron & Graham’s brother) and Tony’s daughter Alison. I hope you’re following all that, there’ll be a test at the end!
Anyway – we all met up at Fell Foot and did all the family hugging, wishing of good luck and then hanging around a lot and slightly getting on each other’s nerves – it was like Xmas!
The wait did seem a long time at the start and while there was stuff to do (check the boats, buy tea for the flask, organise the food bag again, strip off to our swimming kit, have the safety briefing etc) there was also some time with not much to do. I was quiet during most of this – not nervous exactly, but certainly thinking about the task in hand.
I was as confident as I could be. I knew I’d done all the training I could have managed in the time I had, I also knew that I’d been in similar situations (running a couple of marathons) and I’d survived. So it wasn’t nerves, more a healthy respect for the task at hand.
And They’re Off
But then it was time to go. We’d been told the water was about 17 degrees, it felt colder getting in of course. But once we’d all managed that, at 9:22am we were on our way.
The first thing we had to do was swim around the corner to where the boats were and then as the swimmers our job was just to stay with the boat – they guided us down the lake and got us to the end. And this is the point to say a great big thank you to my crew for that. They had to sit there for 8 hours while I plodded down the course and they did an amazing job. As I’ve said before, we swimmers couldn’t do this without the willingness of the kayakers and rowers to support us and in Windermere this is even more important. So a massive thank you to Graham, Margaret and Stuart for their support during Windermere and another thanks to Jon for Bala and Lucy for Coniston.
From that point on it was just the swimming that needed to be done. Pretty quickly I could tell I was last as there were 3 safety boats that sped up and down the lake checking on the swimmers. Well every time they got to me they would chat to the boat crew for a minute and then turn round and set off back up the lake – obviously there was no-one behind me to check on.
I can’t remember too much about the swimming itself. I just got on with it. And without my glasses on and with only ever breathing to one side I don’t see much of the scenery either. The weather held, but I just swam … and swam.
After 3 hours and 43 minutes we crossed what is nominally known as the halfway point which is the ferry that crosses over the lake just south of Belle Isle. We were on the western side of the lake by now and so swam behind Belle Isle and found a spot to allow me to get a bite to eat. I’m not very good feeding on the go and I wanted to make sure that I got enough food inside to keep my energy levels up.
We stopped in the area known as the Lillies and I had a jam sandwich, a piece of flapjack and a couple of mouthfuls of tea. Even while feeding though, I had to be careful not to touch the boat and once finished I made sure I walked backwards a few paces so no advantage had been gained. We set off after “lunch” at 1:45pm, or 4 hours and 23 minutes after the start.
It was around this time that we realised that Sonny had got out – he just wasn’t enjoying it and after over 5 miles of swimming decided that he didn’t fancy another 5 miles. However, I was feeling pretty good at this point and I noted 5 hours to myself as the longest I’d ever swim and almost certainly the furthest too.
Nearly There …
The first hour or so after lunch was good and I swam strongly, but soon it started to catch up with me. After about 6 hours I could really feel it and it became a real battle of willpower with myself. I was confident I would complete it, but I needed to keep reminding myself of that fact. I didn’t have the same searing pain as at Bala – and that in itself was a huge confidence boost as it meant that my training had been effective – but it did hurt and I had to dig deep to keep going.
At the start I’d written “S & J” on my hand (Sylvia and Joshua) and this was the time that I needed to keep seeing that to help me to keep going. The other thing that was keeping me going was seeing Joshua at the finish.
And then we could see the finish. It was still probably about a mile and a half away, but we could see it and it got a little bit easier for a while. At this point we had to cross back over the lake from the western edge to Waterhead in the north-east corner and I got my head down and tried to do just that.
As we were crossing one of the safety boats came up behind us and I heard them shout out “two thirds of a mile to go.” It was a great thing to hear as I knew I’d finish then – there was no way I wouldn’t complete it. But strangely that knowledge also took all the “fight” out of me and for a while it felt as if I wasn’t moving forward at all. Clearly I was, because soon my boat was waving at me to dig in for the last few hundred metres to the finish.
To finish you have swim past the short piers at Waterhead and turn into the beach, with the finish in line with the end of the last pier. I only breathe to my left and the piers and the beach were to my right, so I couldn’t see them at all. All I could see was my boat and Margaret urging me on and I just followed the boat, turning when it did and begging for the whistle to blow to tell me I’d done it.
And then it did and I had.
I looked up at the beach and there was a big crowd of people cheering – not only all of my family, but many other swimmers and the race officials, although I’m sure many of them were just cheering because it meant that they could pack up and go inside to get warm! All I did was look to see Joshua and give him a wave, it’s all I cared about at the time. Then someone came in to help me up the beach and I was out and had a Union Jack put around me. It felt a bit surreal, so the only thing I could think to do was the Mo-bot!
Hugs and handshakes were exchanged in equal measure and as I was just coming to terms with it all (and getting used to being vertical again after nearly 8 hours of being horizontal) a woman came up to me. She was clearly just a passing tourist or local (i.e. not part of the swimming crowd) and she said she’d heard what I’d done and though it was “bloody marvelous” or words to that effect – it was very touching.
All that was left to do now was to get dry and warm. Fortunately it was quite a mild day, so it wasn’t too hard to do both. And then that was that.
I had swum the length of Windermere in 7 hours, 42 minutes and 36 seconds.