A Weekend Break in the Lakes

Going into 2009 I decided that this was going to be a big swimming year. In order to keep going all year round I wanted to aim for a total of kilometres swam in the year so that I didn’t slack off at any point. The word seemed to be that 1,000km was very difficult to achieve while holding down a job and having some resemblance of a life. So I thought why not, but wanted to add the caveat that 100km of these would either be in races or swims challenges. Resident lido wine guru Tom put forward the carrot of a magnum of claret if I achieved this. I would have called this generous except for the fact he thought I was doomed to certain failure.

Fast forward to July and feeling quite fit, but only having taken part in three races: Champion of Champions in Dover (nine miles in coldish sea in June) coming third in the men - yes an 18 year old girl beat me; Lake Bala six miles in what turned out to be quite pleasant conditions, came 4th; and Exmouth which was meant to be a five miler but was reduced due to rough seas to a three miler, another 4th. So I needed to up my game and to decide which challenges to go for and how daft these should be pretty quickly.

Ben Pen who I have done a fair bit of training with this year was murmuring about doing 2-way Windermere (a 21-mile swim and the hardest BLDSA race/challenge of the year). I wasn’t convinced, but as I grew fitter and he continued to mention it, I thought why not and got my application in not thinking too much about it.

The week leading up to the event and I started to get a bit concerned, not sure I had done enough cold water conditioning this year. With only one six hour swim under my belt and that on a lovely day in Dover, would I get too cold swimming over night in what is renowned as a chilly lake? Then there was the small fact of having to swim 21 miles. Suddenly I went from being fairly nonchalant about the whole thing to thinking this could be a bit of a nasty one.

Saturday came round and I set off with my crew (Katie and Claire) from Euston for what would be one of the more bizarre weekend trips. As the journey wore on I was finding myself getting into race mode, which basically involves not talking or listening to anyone and feeling pretty agitated and slightly lethargic. All in all not the best for me, or my crew, who have given up their weekend.

We got to Windermere by 2pm (good old public transport, just 3.5 hours) and went to buy vital provisions:

• 4 litres of water, to mix the maxim energy drink.
• Peaches, easy to swallow and digest at feeds.
• Mini rolls, sometimes you just need chocolate.
• Vaseline to protect from rubbing.
• Surgical gloves to keep the grease off when applying Vaseline
• Cups for feeding.
• Safety pins to put the light sticks on.
• An ice cream scoop to measure and mix the maxim with.
• String to put light sticks on the boat.
• A children’s fishing hoop that we could attach the flag alpha to. (The international flag that tells other boats there is a swimmer in the water, not that you need one in the dark).
• Plenty to eat for the crew

So, all sorted we got a taxi down to Ambleside for a bit of lunch. Meatballs and pasta seemed the best option and while I started to feel even more nervous I did managed to eat. Katie and Claire went on a mission to get someone to heat up the water so that the maxim would be warm. A kindly café owner agreed and four flasks were filled.

We got a bus down to Waterhead where the start would take place. The starts were staggered to try to ensure that people finish at the same time. As we arrived three people were heading off for the 5pm start. We saw them start as we got off the bus and suddenly the excitement of the event set in, the apathy lifted and I felt ready to go.

We went to chat to the organisers and saw Mick a fellow swimmer who I had known from a Swim Trek training camp and swimming the Channel with his crew. I felt reassured that his longest swim this year was just three hours, but figured he could be in for a hard night, while telling him he would be fine and knowing he would as he is as tough as they come. Before long 6.30pm came around and Mick and three other brave souls set off. By now a decent crowd had gathered all not quite believing what we were about to do.

Ben then arrived with his crew and we all started to get ready, mixing up the drink, sorting out the rowing boat, getting the light sticks in place and finally administering the grease.

Following a crew briefing the swimmers were briefed just before the start. The usual alarming stuff, “don’t be a hero if you are getting hypothermia let us know and we will get you out”, “it’ll get very cold around dawn, don’t worry it will get warmer again” (didn’t know that one), “stay close to your boat, there are always joy riders out at night you don’t want to be run down”, “you must finish by sunset tomorrow night”, “most importantly enjoy the swim”, given the rest of the briefing that was sounding increasingly unlikely. We went to wish the other swimmers well and then the seven of us headed into the water at just after 8.30pm. The temperature could best be described as ‘bearable’, possibly 16 degrees C, 62 Fahrenheit. When we arrived at 5pm the conditions weren’t great, with lots of cloud around and a wind that was causing some chop. By the time we entered the water however this had calmed down, it was still light and a bit of blue sky was poking through, but most importantly the water was nice and calm, given where we were I couldn’t have asked for much better to be honest.

The crews lined up 50 yards out ahead of us, all of them getting used to the rowing boats. As the crowd of passers by all started to cheer we were finally off and swimming. I soon got up to the boat and tried to get in a rhythm alongside them. I was sandwiched between my boat and another, this wasn’t ideal and for the first half hour I was a little put off by being so near the opposition’s oars. I decided to make a little push so that I went ahead of them and could swim my own race. This worked and I started to settle in to things a bit more.

The first hour is always the longest it seems to go on forever. You are just getting into it, but with so long to go it is hard not to think about the cold, the distance, where your boat is positioned and numerous other complications. Finally Katie gave me the five minute signal and finally the first feed came around. We had decided to go for the cold maxim which wasn’t pleasant so I ordered the warm version for the next sitting. At these feeds you tread water and are passed a cup, you feed as quickly as you can so not to waste time or get cold.

It was now getting dark so I cracked the light sticks that were attached to my trunks and the crew did the same to the ones on the boat and we headed off again.

I had never really swum in the dark for any great length of time before, but soon realised that it was absolutely fine, it tends to make the water calmer and while you don’t benefit from the sun on your back, you can tell yourself that it is warmer in than out. It was true that you don’t want to get far from your crew though as very quickly as it seems you are the only person out there and feel quite vulnerable.

The second hour wasn’t great. I was still getting my rhythm and sensed that I was going quite slowly. Nothing seemed right, I couldn’t decide on what pace to go, I was lagging behind others whom I knew I should be ahead of and my body wasn’t feeling great, I just kept thinking this could be a long night.

The second feed really perked me up finally I was getting into the swim. Just after the feed there was a massive firework demonstration at Windermere which lit up both the sky and the water. It wasn’t in our honour, but still looked pretty special. I began really picking up and everything was well in the world. For the next two hours I could not have been happier, possibly the best I’ve ever felt on a swim.

It was during this period that I knew I would complete the swim, there seemed no reason not to, I knew I could do the distance, it wasn’t too cold and my body was holding up well. For two hours I was able to think about other things and really could not have been happier, the adventure and excitement of the challenge really took hold. The result was that I started to climb up the field until I was second of the group leaving at 8.30pm, plus I had overtaken most of the 5pm and 6.30pm starters.

Going into the turn you leave your boat and get taken by a canoeist as you have to navigate around so many boats that are docked. This seemed to take quite a while, but gave the crew a chance to rest and refresh. I was round the buoy in 4 hours 45 minutes which was seven minutes better than my one way time three years before. When I found this out at the five hour feed it gave me a further lift, but I soon found out that this would be a temporary one.

On around five hours thirty I hit the wall, where you have used up all your natural resources and are starting to rely on your feeding for energy. I had hit this in the Channel and in Lake Zurich at exactly the same time, so it came as no surprise, although you forget how painful it is. With five hours to go though and having just turned this seemed particularly harsh. Symptoms for me include a bad lower back, slight cramping in the legs, feeling a bit colder and less powerful.

I really had to focus to make each feed and started needing the peaches and mini rolls, not to mention the odd pain killer. The next two hours seemed to really drag, while I never once felt like getting out, I didn’t expect the downside to last quite so long.

I think the seven hour mark was quite significant and I felt like I started to pick up once again. The pain had lifted a bit and I was definitely feeling stronger again. Ben Pen had over taken me and claimed his place in second, however, I had managed to stay ahead of the rest of the field.

I had never realised that dawn was the coldest part of the day. On the eighth hour feed suddenly it felt like swimming in 14 degree water rather than 16, which after eight hour isn’t that amusing. However, it did seem to numb the muscles a bit and ease the pain in my shoulders.

By now at every feed I was getting cramp in my leg with the sudden movement of having to tread water, these really hit home and took a good few minutes to go away after each feed, I just hoped they got no worse. I had never experienced this before and was not quite sure why I suddenly got it. I put it down to lake swimming where you have no buoyancy from salt water. Alternatively maybe I need to look at the diet leading up to swims as I really don’t want to experience them again.

By now my crew had skilfully guided me around all the islands and I was on the home stretch. I could see the finish mark in the distance, but having only just had my eight hour thirty feed I knew I had a good time to go. As the lake widened we had to swim across the inlet and for the first time there seemed to be a strong current and progress started to be very slow. The finish line seemed to remain a dot in the distance and while I felt quite strong I was definitely being held up.

I continued to advance slowly, but by the nine hour thirty feed I could now see the shape of buildings and the water had warmed a little as it grew lighter. I kept wanting to pick up the pace but had nothing left so just had to fight it out plodding along, while the mind was willing the body couldn’t respond and the minutes kept ticking by.

On the ten hour feed I was told that this should be the last feed. I could see the jetty where we were to finish but it was still about a mile away. I knew I was almost there and tried to stop thinking about the swimming and focus on the breakfast and warm bed that I would eventually get to. The end was very much in sight now and I gave it one last push and soon heard the hooter sound.

I had finally made it in 10 hours 23 minutes and third person home. I gave the crew a quick hug and then walked ashore to congratulations from the organisers, those swimmers who had beaten me and some random members of the public.

As I was getting dry someone came up to interview me for the local ITV but my tongue had swollen up a bit and I couldn’t speak clearly, so not sure that would make the local news. I was soon dressed and while I had a bit of a shiver, it was nothing that a big breakfast wouldn’t cure.

It was a really successful night with eleven out of the fourteen swimmers finishing. Two remarkably made it in around eighteen hours, one of which had to be lifted from the water and taken to hospital. Both were fine though once the cold and exhaustion had worn off. A long night’s work for one and all.

After breakfast we headed back to London on the train, managed to make it home then spent the next fourteen hours asleep. Monday morning I was wide awake, just couldn’t walk or move my back, all temporary inconveniences that were remedied by a shower.

So 33.4km closer to my 1,000km target for the year. Next stop the Baltic. I hope the body mends before then.

Thank you to all of those that have supported my swims. If not it is never too late. Please visit http://original.justgiving.com/gilesmeyer to find out more and to support VSO in their tremendous work alleviating poverty in some of the world’s poorest communities.

By Giles Meyer