A different way to spent 24 hours
On so many levels this was a truly enlightening and inspiring swim for swimmer and support folk alike!
Going back a while, I noticed the entries to this event had opened and I was discussing doing it as a solo affair. Life got in the way, I was sent to Cardiff for work for a few days and by the time I got back, all solo places were gone. I emailed the organiser and she mentioned that I was 21st on the waiting list so I just carried on about my life in the hope that I might get a spot.
Early this year, Simon contacted me as he had entered a team and his team mate had double-booked, and was unable to do it. So I was approached, as was another friend Laura James to join Simon’s team making us a team of three, team name:- OUTDOOR SWIMMER. Swimmers were Simon, Laura and myself and our trusted support team was made up of Katia Vastiau, Martha Ruth and the Slimhippo. So 8 miles each of the event: – swim every third hour – well so we thought. What Simon failed to tell us was that he actually has a social life. So we had to arrange our swims so that Simon was relieved of swim duties for 7 hours between 5pm and midnight.
What is technically a 24 hour event, starting at 9am on Saturday. It is actually lot longer. On Friday night, we made our way to the Lovely Guildford Lido. a 10 lane 50m outdoor heated pool, to set up tents and have a quick catch-up with the participants. Then it was off to prepare for the days ahead, to sort out the kit I needed to swim and also the food and drinks that we would take with us.
Saturday dawned, and we were up early and off to the lido. First challenge – find parking!! We managed after a bit of a drive around the place, but it’s not for the faint hearted (or spatially challenged). We unloaded the car and headed for the start. Simon had already checked us in and he was leading us off in this event. It was a beautiful day, and a bit of a who’s who event really, as the very nature of this event attracts some very hard core marathon swimmers. At 9am on the dot, swimmers were under starters orders for the event to get underway.
At the end of each lane, printed out for us was the set for the day -as follows
1 x 1600m warmup.
22 x 1600m main set and
1 x 1600m warm down.
There were people from all levels taking part from 17 man teams to soloists and medley relay teams, all swimming 1600m (32 lengths) of the 50m pool. Yes, there are people who think 1600m butterfly is fun!!!! Oh and let’s do it 6 times!! (You know who you are). There were some who had been swimming for years and others who had taken up swimming fairly recently and had been hoodwinked – probably by Tracy Clark – into taking part. Yes, Tracy, with her exuberance for life could sell ice to an Eskimo – and she went on to do the whole thing solo with a smile from ear to ear throughout the whole affair! A big Well Done to her son Connor whom she’d coerced into supporting her. Lets hope he has not been scared off Open water swimming for life.
As the event is a 24 hour affair the only rules are: 1 mile on the hour, every hour, for 24 hours. To accommodate more participants, swimmers were started on the hour and on the half hour. Wetsuits are optional. Fortunately, the day was a beautiful spring day with the sun spending a fair amount of time bathing us in its glorious glow. If you are unfamiliar with swimming in the colder climes, you will have no idea of how much of a difference a bit of sunshine makes. Some opted to swim the day time in Bioprene (skins) and the night time in Neoprene (wetsuits), whilst others, chose to use only Bioprene for the whole event and others suited up for the whole event. Each swimmer has to have their own support buddy to count lengths for them and help with feeding and getting warm and the likes.
For the soloists, you have the greats like Oliver Wilkinson – who, with his wife Vickie put on a total masterclass in how to tackle an event of this magnitude (21 – 23 min swim, get out get dry, get warm, rest and eat in 25 min the get ready to do it all again). I am certain that the other soloists were just as regimented, but Oliver and Vickie were camped near us so I was able to watch in awe at his dedication to his routine. For others who do their swim in about 40-45 min, there is very little time to do anything before you are back in the saddle again. It is gruelling on so many levels. Not only is 24 miles of swimming a bloody long way to swim in any marathon swimmer’s books, but the format adds a completely different aspect to mental fatigue in the form of sleep deprivation and the ability to maintain your body temperature with getting in and out. Yes, the pool was heated to a temperature of 20 degrees (68 Fahrenheit), but even still, as the outside temperature starts to drop, you struggle more to maintaining your body temperature. This is compounded by fatigue and lack of sleep as the day progresses
It was a wonderful day with many swimmers and their support dressing down and getting some well needed vitamin D in their systems. By about 8pm, night started to descend on us and with it, the temperatures started to drop, the floodlights came on and the Big marquee, which had been completely bereft of people for most the day, now slowly started to fill up. Through the night this became the haven where most came to change and get warm as the organisers had the marquee tent heated. It doubled as a change room, a catwalk – really!– open water swimmers have a very unique fashion sense, with not a lot left to the imagination – and a place to sleep and eat and refresh before your next swim. Most swimmers and crew had their own tents as well but this marquee was heated and if the pipe that fed in the hot air was bigger, I am sure we would have lost a few swimmers in it as well. From the hours of 10pm to 6am, it became a hive of activity – or inactivity for those who succumbed to the grips of sleep with swimmers and supporters alike littering the floor, mattresses, fold up chairs or just a patch of grass to lay ones weary head.
For the soloists especially, you could see the challenge starting to take its toll. People who had been very upbeat and happy a mere 10 hours ago were now looking like walking zombies with their support buddies now taking on a lot more of the burden of this event, having to get their swimmers fed, abluted, warm and then ready for the next mile onslaught. Whilst the darkness outside gripped us, the pool was still a buzz of activity, with swimmers ploughing through the lengths under the artificial light. Morale was kept up by the wacky work of the ever diligent cheery support or swim buddies, counting length after length (or trying to) in the cold.
As with any gruelling challenge that involves 400 plus swimmers, as the night progressed, the lanes started to thin a bit due to swimmers succumbing to the relentless regime. I have no figure of what the attrition rate was but everyone put in a monumental effort to even get to the start so to get to where they did is totally admirable. For all, there were some very dark times in the middle of the night.
With the Rain keeping away, the temperatures dropped to near arctic (according to the Slimhippo) where it was actually a pleasure to get into the water. Another feature which had appeared since about 9pm was the hot-tub, where swimmers could take a plunge to warm up after their event. I tried this once but figured it was not a good plan as when I came out of that I was colder than I had been when I went into it; so I steered clear of it after that, allowing my body to warm up on its own.
The end is in sight
As night passed, the birds began to cheep, and dawn was on its way. The pool and pool side began to buzz again; supporters fueled by coffee, more coffee and more coffee – and various other stimulants – were still out there watching their swimmers. For some swimmers, dawn heralded the end of their swim with the notable exception of the Medlers – a 4 man relay that were taking on the event as a medley relay. 1 mile butterfly- 1 mile backstroke, 1 mile breaststroke and 1 mile freestyle – repeat 6 times. The lady who was doing the butterfly was greeted by her teammates doing the can-can dance at the end of her last mile.
My last stint was at 6am. In our lane, we had thinned down to four of us, 3 solo swimmers and myself. As I was in a team, and as I had on my previous 2 swims, I agreed to lead the lane and let the solo swimmers tag along in my slipstream. It worked really well with a nice easy pace for all of us and the Solo swimmers could benefit a bit. It made for some great shots of 4 swimmers hot on each other’s heels, moving as one, up and down the pool. Earlier on in the day I had not been so nice, setting a much faster pace. For anyone who takes on this challenge in its entirety, there are no medals for being the fastest. It is not about speed at all, there are so many other attributes that are being tested on this swim. For a lot of solo swimmers, they just churned out the same time hour after hour after hour. They were literally like clockwork.
With the daylight arriving, smiles started to appear on many peoples faces – having been locked in grim determination through the night – the end was now in sight and it showed. Sadly we were not blessed with a stunning sunrise as it was a bit overcast but then again, this is Britain so you take your blessings when you can. The fact that we had nearly come through this whole event without a drop of rain was BLOODY SPIFFING!! 8am soon arrived and it was time for the last hour of the challenge and for soloists who had come all this way, the happiness was apparent. In a challenge like this, if you get to 20 miles, there is not a lot going to stop you getting to the end of it so the smiles had been growing by the hour. The first of the lane 1 group did their last mile in just over 21 minutes. For most people there, doing just 1 mile at that speed is a big ask but this group make swimming look positively relaxing with their slow, even, metronomic stroke over and over and over again. The last group then took off just on 8.30am and the swimming was done with just as much vigour as the first hour. Finally, at a little after 9am on Sunday, Amanda Bell and her team of 1 finished off a truly fantastic event, Amanda was a team of 1 as she had apparently signed up as a team of 2 but one dropped out so she did the whole thing on her own and in true Amanda style, never faltered the whole time. Slow and steady but truly amazing to watch.
So with the event now out the way, it was off home to have a good bath and reacquaint ourselves with the oh so marvelous bed that swallowed me whole until it finally released its grip on me at about 2pm Sunday when the unpacking then began.
Would I want to do this event as a soloist?
For some of the people doing this event, this is a repeat offence and when asked at the last event, Would you do it again? There was a resounding NO! So it seems that many of us are suckers for punishment or just have a very bad memory. It seems that open water swimming is a bit like child birth then? When you ask a woman would they like to go through it again, they will say NO BLOODY WAY and yet, for many, they do do it again and again.
Well, I very nearly did. By the time I got around to booking a solo slot, all the places were gone and I was 21st on the waiting list. It was soon after that Simon, contacted me and he had booked a relay and his teammate could not make it so he invited me and another training partner to do it with him. This event done as a team is so much fun. The camaraderie, the challenge and the great people around you make it well worth it. You have enough time in between swims to check your eyelids for cracks and also have time to help out with other swimmers support teams. I would recommend it to anyone.
As a soloist, this is grueling. The jury is still out if I would like to do it but I know that if I chose to, I would have to alter my mindset a bit. Swimming 24 miles I have no problem, swimming in the cold, I have no problem with, but the added challenge of being allowed to do only 1 mile per hour is a huge challenge. I am an impatient person by nature and dragging something out is just daft. I also think that swimming channels is a daft idea but I have done it and many other swims and would not go back and change that fact.
Doing this as a team, you get to watch many inspiring people go through very dark times, the hours between 10pm and 6pm I would expect to be the darkest. They have to fight their demons head on, after each gruelling mile, you have the time to reflect and this must be the hardest time. Many there exhibited tenacity and determination far beyond my understanding. A huge congratulations to all of you for an amazing effort
No-one is an island
One thing I have been made aware of during my time in marathon swimming is that there is always an army or people behind such events and they all deserve huge praise for putting on such amazing events – generally in aid of charity. With health and safety becoming more and more of a pain in the derriere, the work needed to put on these events is ever increasing and requires you to jump through more and more hoops just to get an event off the ground in this day and age.
Then we come across the most unrecognized group of people in this game, the ones who are always there no matter what, the ones who will be by your side when times are looking bad. The ones who constantly give you a good pep-talk when in some cases they should be slapping you, actually in some cases they do slap you and on rare cases run over you with a kayak!! They are the partners, Swim buddies, friends and family. The people who sit by the pool hour after hour – in the case of this event – counting your laps, always there to offer encouragement. Then, when you get out there they will be offering to help feed you, help warm you up, help get you ready for the next onslaught.
For the likes of other long distance marathon swims, they will be there by your side either on a boat or kayak giving you encouragement and keeping you going enduring sunburn, rain, hail and hypothermia. Their reward is meager but their input is MASSIVE. No matter what any swimmer says, their job is often a lot harder than ours and none of us would ever be able to do these events without them. A huge thank you goes out to all the support crews around the world who follow us around supporting us.
In conclusion, If you want an awesome FUN weekend out, when this event comes around again, make sure your TEAM has a place as you will not regret it. If however, you want some TYPE 2 FUN (aka – it is only fun after the event) then make sure you are down for a solo. Who knows, I could be in your lane, I might even have put on my new improved big mans crocheted pants and signed up for a solo.