Sunday, 18 October 2015

Just keep swimming...

When I started planning my year of suffering, I quickly decided I wanted to add a long-distance swim to the list of pain.  Unfortunately (due to rubbish rotas and a hectic life), I wasn't able to sign up to an organised swim, and this challenge almost slipped by unnoticed... almost, but not quite!!

In late August I remembered I hadn't set a date (or for that matter done any training whatsoever), so after discussion with the parents-in-law, I decided I was going to swim the length of Ullswater, and the only free date that I had, where one of them was also free to support me, was the 10th October... possibly a little late in the year... Brrrr!  I was all too aware of falling water temperatures and a need to get this swim out of the way before things got too chilly!

Swimming is one of my favourite activities.  I love floating around in the middle of a lake, surrounded by mountains.  Relaxed, feeling at one with the water.  Ok, so I love open-water swimming, preferably in beautiful places... I'm less keen on pool swimming.  I learnt to swim as a child, but never really had any technique.  When I moved to North Wales I bought a wetsuit with my first pay cheque, and conquered my fear of open water.  That was just over 4 years ago, and I haven't looked back.  My technique is still somewhat lacking, but is certainly better than it was!  I do swim in a pool now too (begrudgingly), although purely as a means-to-an-end, with great coaching from TnT and also Swim Revolution.  Sheffield is not the best place to live as a passionate open-water swimmer.  I do enjoy swimming in Harthill with YOS, or in the river Chatsworth, but mostly I miss the stunning views when I pop my head up to breath!  I was spoilt in North Wales!

Before this challenge, I think the furthest I have ever swam is about 3 miles; the length of Llyn Padarn in Llanberis; and even that was a couple of years ago!  I have been open water swimming reasonably regularly over the summer, and have started regular pool sessions again now winter is approaching, but it's fair to say I haven't been training for this; the longest I've swam leading up to the 'big' swim was 3.8km, and that was for my IM race in July! :S

But I'm no stranger to suffering (haha), and know that I'm not a quitter!  A quick google and a read of a few articles told me all I needed to know about nutrition for long distance swimming (i.e eat and drink regularly or else...).  I picked Ullswater simply for convenience given that my father-in-law still lives next to it, and hadn't quite realised how long it was (somewhere between 8 & 9 miles depending how you measure it, but I'm going with 9!).  Maybe I should have opted for Coniston instead... whoops.  So my big swim was going to be almost 10km longer than I'd ever swam before.  Hmmm.

After a busy week at work (70 hours worth of busy to be precise, because I'm a lazy, under-worked, over-paid junior doctor don't you know Jeremy Hunt?? Don't get me started...), the car was packed, and I headed up to the lake district with Tom ready for my next dose of suffering.  The weather forecast was for cloud, but minimal wind.  Despite extensive searching, I couldn't get an estimate of water temperature for the lake.  Food was purchased and prepped (flapjacks, sweets, energy gels, plus carbohydrate powder mixed into my water), and my kit sorted.  After an evening in front of the fire we had an early night, which was followed by an even earlier alarm.  Still dark, I rolled out of bed to eat breakfast, and the rest of the house started to wake up.

We (myself, my husband Tom, and my wonderful father-in-law Will) left the house about 8am, and drove down to Patterdale, unloaded the canoe, and I climbed into my wetsuit.  I also chose to wear neoprene gloves, socks and hat (as well as a normal swim hat).  You can debate the ethics of swimming in a wetsuit/gloves/socks all you like, but given that I wasn't swimming in skins (i.e. no wetsuit), the rest was irrelevant; it was about getting to the end in one piece, without bad hypothermia.

Tentative first steps into the water at Patterdale.
Getting started.  Flat water!

At about 8.45am I entered the water at the bottom of the lake, in Patterdale.  It was a stunning start to the day, with no wind, and completely flat water; the surrounding hills reflecting beautifully upon the lake.  The water didn't feel overly cold, and I got on my way.  It would be wrong to say I quickly made progress; there is nothing quick about swimming at an average of 1.5miles per hour, but progress was made regardless!  I knew the only way I would succeed would be to relax and enjoy the journey, trying to have a smooth and efficient stroke, rather than tiring myself out and fighting with the water.  I planned to feed every 30 minutes, each time taking on carbohydrate water, plus either flapjack and a gel, or a handful of sweets.  The first feed went well, and then I would count in half-an-hour chunks, with no idea of time between my feeds.  I would swim, hoping that Tom and Will would gesture towards me that it was time to eat.

The first feed.

Beautiful.  Just beautiful.

Just keep swimming...

By about 2 hours I had swam further than I ever had before.  By 2-and-a-half hours my arms were starting to hurt, especially my right shoulder.  (I have a habit of breathing to the right every 4 strokes; I can bilateral breath but when relaxed I fall into this habit, which wasn't helping!).  By 3 hours I was cold, and shivering when feeding.  At somewhere between 3 and 3.5hrs we reached the shores of Outward Bound Ullswater (Will works for OB), and I was feeling particularly cold.  I decided to pull over on to the beach and drink some hot squash in order to warm up.  Definitely a good call!  When I stopped, I wasn't shivering, possibly because I was too cold... fortunately a warm jacket and multiple cups of hot squash warmed me back up.  In my head (as a medic with a bit of knowledge about hypothermia) I was debating whether I should be getting back in the water again.  I know I'm stubborn and don't like quitting, but equally I needed to finish the challenge alive, not in a hypothermic mess somewhere further up the lake.  I also had to be well enough to get back to work the next day (due to a shift swap).  After about 20 minutes on the shore I felt much better and decided to get back in.

Tom, my husband.  Trying not to steer the boat straight into me.

Will, my father-in-law (doesn't stop working, even in the middle of a lake!)

A quick pause to rewarm at OB Ullswater.
After about 10 minutes more of swimming we rounded the corner and I could finally see Pooley Bridge and the end of the lake.  Suddenly, despite the tiredness and pain, things felt achievable again.  I still had a long way to go; over 2 hours in fact, but I kept swimming... just keep swimming.

The last half an hour was tough.  I started to get cold again, and started to feel sick, and then vomit in the water.  The end of the lake seemed to refuse to get closer!  After what seemed like forever, the shore finally got closer, and the lake got shallower, until I could not longer swim and had to stand up (queue falling over multiple times in the water!).  Tom and Will landed the boat, and Will waded in to help me.  Utter exhaustion!  But I'd done it!!!  6 hours and 5 minutes!

Yes!  Emerging from the Lake at Pooley Bridge

Phew!  I've done it!

Tired?  Me??  No!  Absolutely f**ked!!

A tough challenge, which I thoroughly under-estimated and definitely did not train enough for.  A great day out, a great experience in a beautiful lake with stunning surroundings and very fortunate weather.  I won't be in a rush to do another long distance swim, although I would certainly contemplate swimming Ullswater, Windermere and Coniston all in a single 24 hour period (with training, obviously...) at some point in the very distant future.  I couldn't have done it without the support of my wonderful husband Tom, and my super father-in-law Will; thanks for spending all day on the lake in a boat feeding me and making sure I didn't drown!

Extensive chaffing from my wetsuit and neoprene hat around my neck meant I spent Sunday at work getting funny looks from my patients ("No, I haven't been strangled, I just swam in a wetsuit and it rubbed a bit.").  I've been off this week, although have been unsurprisingly exhausted, so have spent a lot of time attempting to relax and recover.  I'm unsure if the exhaustion is due to the swim, or my work rota; a combination of both I'm sure.  I've been back in the water, swimming in Llyn Padarn and at Fairy Glen on Thursday and Friday respectively.  My arms still worked, although they do feel a little heavy!

When I've been doing my challenges I've spent a lot of time zoning out, relaxing and trying to forget about any pain.  It was hard to do during the swim, as I had to keep focused when tired to swim 'properly' and try not to be totally inefficient!  Concentrating and zoning out don't seem to go so well together.  When my arms were particularly painful, I thought about Dad having surgery and then chemotherapy last year, and about how rubbish he must have felt.  It helped me put things in perspective a little bit and forget about my own pain.  After all, I had chosen to inflict this pain upon myself, so had no right to complain.  Just keep swimming!

Thanks to everybody's generosity, I've already raised an incredible amount of money for Orchid, a male cancer charity.  But its not too late to sponsor me if you haven't yet!  (Sorry, I don't like begging... but it's a good cause close to my own heart!)  You can sponsor me at to help me reach £2500, or maybe even £3000 by the end of the year!

I have 2 more challenges left now.  In November I'll be running 7 marathons in 7 days, along the Thames Path.  I did think this was quite exciting, but have just read about a man who has run 90 marathons in 90 days and now feel very inadequate!  Then in December, to finish the year off in style (I hope), I have just entered my first ever Ultra Marathon; the Tour De Helvellyn!  It is a 38 mile run around Helvellyn, on the shortest Saturday of the year, in potentially bad weather.  It's reasonably hilly as well.  Oh dear!  Wish me luck!