WARNING!!! LONG SWIMMY POST – a bit like my swim!
After a whirlwind trip driving to Scotland on Friday, swimming the length of Loch Lomond on Saturday night and then driving back to London on Monday, I now have a few moments to sit down and reflect on what can only be described as a weekend where I learnt how important teamwork is and delved into both the depths and the highs of where my emotions can go. Lets start with the facts:
I am now one of a small group of 63 people who have swum Loch Lomond and my time of 11 hours 31 minutes puts me in the top 25% of that group. I mention 63 for a reason. This swim came around as a 10th year anniversary swim from my English Channel swim. I now understand why there are about 1850 people who have swum the channel (don’t quote me on that figure) and only 63 people who have swum Loch Lomond overnight. In my opinion, it is one of the most brutal swims I have ever done and the photos show that.
In my swim with the data I managed to collect off my gadgetry, I used up 13000 calories in the 11.5 hours. I do not now how much I took on. Eight people started this year between the hours of 5pm and 8.20pm. Six people finished, 1 retired due to the cold and another due to boat problems. The finishers are
To even get to the start of this swim is a huge task in itself.
No matter how good you think you are: THERE IS ALWAYS SOMETHING YOU CAN LEARN!!
Upon reflection, I can see that I was woefully under-prepared. I honestly thought that I had done enough with the training and the mental preparation but there were a few things that I had not really taken care of properly. The biggest one of these was the fact that I had very little cold water training. Yes I have swum in 2 degree water and yes I had done a few 6 hour swims that I managed very well but living in the south, coupled with the summer we have had, the water temperatures in the lakes have been well in the twenties for pretty much all the summer. As a result I had not done a good long swim in waters below 15 degrees for a long time. The alarm bells started ringing on our drive up to Scotland on the Friday. As we entered the Scottish borders, the temperature plummeted from 17 down to 7.5 degrees on the car temperature gauge. Thankfully as we passed over the border, it rose again to about 15 degrees.
With my swims, I have always opted to have family on the boat as crew. This comes with its inherent problems, the main one being the emotional attachment they hold towards me. I will not change this in the future and I do not think the Slimhippo will let me change it. I cannot imagine what it is like watching your partner or family member going to hell and back and the anxiety it can cause. The last time my brother did it was 10 years previously in my Channel swim; Audra had never supported me in a swim that was this cold and, with a knowledge of hypothermia gained exclusively from Google and Wikipedia, she had never experienced someone actually going through it on a swim.
I had a feeding plan which was pretty comprehensive. It involved hourly feeds made up of some of the following
1 – Double strength CNP mix (Specialised Energy drink mix)
2- Normal strength CNP mix
3 – Pre made warm coffee
4 – Hot chocolate
5 – Electrolytes
6 – Fruit
7 – Breakfast bars or chocolate
8 – Mix of half coke, half water
I had printed out a document of exactly when and how to feed. All preparation was done prior to arriving at the boat. So all in all, pretty organised for someone like me. Mostly due to the Slimhippo nagging me to get it done.
I also had food for the crew – 9 litres of boiled water – which would eventually save my ass but leaving them going nearly the whole way without food – porridge pots, cup-of-soups, crisps and fruit. Again, pretty bloody organised!
Slimhippo and I travelled to the start the day before, and stopped all along the way to view the lake. It was a stunning afternoon. I tested the water with my hands and feet and albeit being a bit fresh, I was not too worried about the temperature.
Saturday. Wake up, do some final shopping, collect my brother from the airport and have lunch then get some sleep. Weirdly for me, I did manage to have an afternoon nap and I was extremely calm, confident and composed. I did not have any butterflies in my stomach. A very faint thought about the cold at night but nothing to worry about.
The time came to meet my other shore crew – Colleen Blair – a veteran who at the age of 40 has been doing ultra-swims for 33 years. If there is anything you want to know about ultra-distance swimming, if Colleen does not know it, it probably is not known anywhere. She very kindly offered to drive the route on the shore so should anything happen and I needed to be pulled out, there would be land support to carry on the rescue once on shore. She drove us up to the start, and we saw a few of the early starters coming down the lake. We arrived at the north end of the lake about 2 hours before I was meant to be setting off.
Due to a few complications, my boat was not there yet. I was assured by the boat crew that he would have it there on time; there was just another issue that he had to sort out. We watched a few others start. The starts are staggered so the faster swimmers start last. This way we all finish at about the same time down the south end of the lake. Myself and another lady were due to start at 8pm and were the last two to start. Soon, Robert Hamilton from Vigour events arrived; I had hired my boat and pilot through him. He introduced himself to my team and then left me his tracker. When he realised that my boat was still not there he excused himself to go and sort it out. 7.45pm. Still no boat. I had to get all my kit and my foods and support crew kit checked by the safety officers. Whatever we did not have just seemed to appear from Colleens car! 7.55pm – still no boat. This seems to be a common theme with me! At 8pm the other starter set off while I waited for a boat to hopefully appear. At about 8.15pm, the organisers, who had verified my boat was on its way up to the start, agreed for me to start without my boat or crew and use the BLDSA safety boat for the first few miles. Once my boat had collected my support crew they would come and find me.
I dived into the water and it was cold but not as cold as I was expecting. About 14 degrees Celsius. I thought no problem; go out hard for the first hour and that will start generating body heat which I need. About half an hour after my start, my boat arrived and relieved the BLDSA rescue crew of their task of looking after me. They transferred my kit from the safety boat and off we went. Surprisingly, Robert Hamilton was on the boat; I thought this was a bit odd as I had only hired a boat from him and not him to be on it as well. It did not bother me at all as long as my team were alright with it.
So off we went down the loch. In about an hour I caught up to the lady who had left about 10 minutes before me. I then stopped for a feed according to my well thought out plan. Then back to the grind. Stroke rate about 68 – 70 and I was feeling confident and fast. I was taking out the last 8 weeks of frustration – due to other problems in the hippo world – Believe me when I say there were many – taking it out on the water and it felt gooooood! Soon another hour was up and another feed was due but now, the wheels were starting to fall off. I had been cold from the start and nothing I was doing was making me warmer. Warm thoughts – nothing! Harder workload – nothing! Calm thoughts – nothing! Pretty much nothing I was doing was working and I felt I was getting colder. At the second feed I told my crew we would have to switch my plan so that ALL my feeds needed to be hot as I was losing heat and starting to shiver a bit.
And we carried on. My stroke rate began slowing a bit and became a bit more haphazard. Unbeknown to me at the time, Robert very kindly offered to assist my crew. He had not taken over at all but had seen a few of the more subtle signs of the deteriorating situation that Google or Wikipedia do not warn you to watch out for when a swimmer is going hypothermic. By hour three, I was broken; cold, shivering and ready to throw in the towel. I was also disorientated. When I stopped I could not find the boat even though it was right behind me. I went into cold water shock and started hyperventilating and had to struggle really hard to get it under control. I tried floating on my back and promptly disappeared below the water surface for a while, freaking my wife out. This was weird for me – I knew there would be a distinct lack of buoyancy in cold water but I had been practising keeping my lungs inflated enough to at least keep my nose and mouth above the water.
When I eventually found the boat, bottles were thrown at me with warm feeds in them. My feeding plan had now ceased to be relevant and my team now had to adapt to the deteriorating situation. I was now getting shouted at by that bloody irritating Glaswegian, my brother and my wife to carry on and get my stroke rate up. Obligingly, with tears in my eyes and mustering all the mental capacity I had, I pressed on, fighting hard to justify WHY THE HELL I WAS IN THE MIDDLE OF A COLD SCOTTISH LOCH AT MIDNIGHT ON A SATURDAY NIGHT!!!! The following list of thoughts – which is by no means exhaustive came to the fore of my mind and the answers had to be found
Why are you doing this?
What would I feel like if I pulled out now?
So many people have so much invested in this swim.
My parents in Africa, My friends around the world.
How would the greats deal with this situation?
Thoughts about recent and ongoing inspirational swims – Lewis Pugh, Ross Edgley to name a few
Who would I let down if I failed?
My Charity supporters?
What would they all think of me?
I signed up for this rubbish!!! I made my bed so I better lie in it!
My standard go to question came up over and over and over
Can you still put one arm in front of the other?
My mind was a mess. I then started to close my eyes and swim totally blind to block out ANY UNNECESSARY stimuli – not that there was much at midnight on a cold dark night in the middle of a loch – but it helped a huge amount. More and more, I started swimming blind only opening my eyes every 8 – 10 breaths to check where the boat was.
Soon it was my next feed and it had been decided that I would now feed every half hour and in so doing my feeds were quicker, generally 1 bottle rather than two. The improvisation process was working. After each I got a bollocking to lift my stroke rate up and get a move on. After about 6 hours I took on some ibuprofen and then asked for that to be followed up with paracetamol – a trick my wife taught me. While the feeding plan was now changing constantly it was all going really well until my brother decided that as I was not having more than one bottle handed to me per feed, in his infinite wisdom he decided to throw EVERYTHING IN; double CNP mix, electrolyte mix, coffee, coke and paracetamol. To say it tasted terrible would be an understatement but it was all I had so I dealt with it then got back to the job at hand – one arm in front of the other until I hit land!!! Actually, due to the course we were taking in the lower end of the lake, that is exactly what I did do, swimming between the islands. I left my boat for a while, swimming with my eyes closed and next thing I knew I was scraping my hands on the bottom. Sadly it was not the end, just a shallow edge of one of the islands.
I swam back to my boat and carried on. By now my goggles were leaking a bit so swimming with my eyes closed became more of a necessity than a luxury. I did have a spare pair but they were dark ones so I did not want to use them. Retrospectively, as I was now mostly swimming with my eyes closed and trying my damnedest to focus on keeping my stroke rate up and also muster my best stroke, it would have been the better option, but I carried on. Feeds carried on at half hour intervals with the standard ‘get that down you!’ ,’Stop wasting time!’, ‘You got to get your stroke rate back up!’ being barked at me by the aforementioned annoying irritating Glaswegian. It was possibly around 5 in the morning when I shouted back, ‘best you not get to close to the boats edge or else I will haul myself out of here and punch you’. For the uninitiated, my response may sound harsh but it was exactly what Robert and my crew needed to hear from me. This is a big turning point for someone who has been teetering on the edge of full blown hypothermia for the best part of 8 hours. My humour – sick as it was, was coming back and with it my determination to get out of this hell I was in. From then on, I think I threatened to punch him on most my feeds with the banter getting more and more quick between me and my support team.
Soon the sun was rising and at that point I knew in my head that the end was near. How near, I did not know but it was coming. My focus was coming back and my stroke rate was now consistent and my feeds a lot smoother. This is also a point that most support teams will not let their swimmers know how far they have to go. If the question is posed, there is a standard answer. You will get there. Just put you head down and get it done. I on the other hand like to know and Slimhippo and PygmyHippo know that so they dropped a few hints, enough for me to get an idea.
Soon we rounded the last island and I was told that there was one more swimmer to pass before the end. I had passed all the others so Amanda Bell was now in my sights. A challenge was laid down to me to overhaul her and arrive at the finish first. Another reason why it is not good to let swimmers know how far they have left is that on this swim in particular, once you round the last set of islands, it is still another 3.6km to the end. After 10 hours of swimming, that can still take an age so it is best to just put your head down and swim. As my goggles were leaking, it made no difference as I could not see even if I wanted to; so back to blind swimming it was.
The day had long since dawned and there was a light drizzle and all too soon, I swam past the final swimmer in front of me and shortly after that, I could see the pier where we were due to finish. All that was needed is a push to the end and I swam in front of the boat until I could hear Robert shouting STAND UP. With that I put my feet down and the finishing horn blew.
Somehow from somewhere my team had taken our swim from what I had considered a certain failure in my head to an 11hr 31 minute journey down A Scottish Loch. I am immensely proud of all of them for turning it around – yes, even the irritating Glaswegian – whom I did not end up punching as he had conducted himself with the utmost professionalism in helping me – and my team. We all learnt a heck of a lot from Robert. He may be brash, he may be irritating but in this case he did an amazing job. I cannot fault his approach and professionalism and all my teams’ ability to think outside the box and adapt to a very fluid – excuse the pun – situation which teetered on the edge.
All in all, I did find my happy place on this swim. It was knowing that I had a superb team who coaxed me all the way I never felt I was alone, I knew they had my back and in this more than any swim I have done. I only made up a very small part of a great team. I do not feel proud about my swim, I feel proud that I had a great team for OUR SWIM. I was just the bloke in the water whilst my team worked so much harder than I did to get me past the three hour mark and onto a very successful swim
Now for a word from one of the real stars
Well, I don’t usually add to Zimhippo’s blogs, but given the events of this last weekend, I thought I’d throw my 5 pence in! Loch Lomond… what can I say, except I knew it was going to be a tough one. Now on the support crew scale of 1 to 10, I was nowhere near in the leagues of the amazing lady that kayaked the whole 21.6miles, with their swimmer (that’s a 10.5!) but it is not an easy one to crew for, even sitting in a decent comfortable boat. A lot comes down to your preparation, your swimmer and the way your team works together, and for us, I had two out of three. I had planned, and we had many of the provisions that we needed, but for those of you reading who plan to crew for this, here’s the kicker – read ALL the emails that come through prior to the swim.. I hadn’t read about needing certain safety provisions, hadn’t thought about midge spray, (you’ll need it while on shore) and while I THOUGHT I was prepared for the cold, ha! I suppose the fact that I developed hypothermia in Arizona while kayaking should have given me a heads up, but hey!
Fortunately for me that’s when our great team came in – Colleen, our very experienced ground crew (and all round Scottish legend) produced thermal blankets, Smidge bug spray and – and – the most vital part for me – a dry robe. Yup, I may not be a swimmer, but boy was I glad I had one that night, and one that I wouldn’t need to hand over to ZH at the end. Waterproof and warm, it saved me from being completely miserable from 2 hours in!
So if you are going to crew for this, expect cold (single digits) and rain, and plan on being in that boat for between 10-16 hours. Layer up and bring some provisions for yourself and crew as well as your swimmer. It sounds obvious but when you think you won’t need that extra layer, take it anyway. Wear wooly socks, a thick beanie, and cut-off gloves. Hot hands really worked well inside my gloves and I had a few for my feet and pockets as well. Waterproof trousers and hiking boots also worked for me; if you have sailing waterproof gear, then use it!
Plastic bags to keep things dry and a way of mixing warm feeds for your swimmer is essential; bring plenty of hot water. The loch slowly sucks out all the warmth of your swimmer and once the sun goes down, and the wind gets up, you need all the help you can get to keep them warm.
Know the signs of hypothermia. In the case of this swim, it is inevitable to a certain degree. You need to know exactly what that fine line is between encouraging your swimmer on and pushing them too far. Even though I have kayaked and supported Zimhippo in various locations all over the world, I have been fortunate that its been warm and during the summer, and so I didn’t know enough about it. Fortunately we had Robert aboard who is experienced enough to know what to look for. If it had been up to me, I’d have had ZH out after 3 hours, but he knew the danger signs, and motivated ZH to keep swimming. We were kept very busy deciding on and mixing feeds, and counting stroke rates all night; it is worth having at least 2 people apart from the pilot so that you can catnap a little to avoid becoming a zombie at the end (Spencer, you were a star, thank you).
As this is also such an epic swim, its also good to make sure you have a great pilot who is very familiar with the Loch. You do not want to be trying to navigate in the dark and cold. We were fortunate enough to have Stuart Griffiths at the helm and together with Robert, they took us in the straightest line possible.
Finally, I hope this is helpful for future support crews and its not too obvious. As just one of the support crew team, I pass on sincere thanks to the rest of the crew, without which we could not have had such a successful night – Stuart, Spencer, Colleen and Robert, thank you for keeping these Hippos going. Our gratitude also goes to the awesome safety crew who supported us throughout the night, the Organisers who give up their time to run it every other year, and our sponsors Altered Images. Last but not least, congratulations to all the swimmers – my deep and abiding respect to each of you for taking on such a challenge!
If you have managed to get to this point of this blog, Please spare a thought for the families and children that do not have an opportunity to do anything of this magnitude and the charity that helps them at least accomplish some of their dreams – Shooting Stars Chase.
It is not to late to help the Hippos and Altered Images make a difference in these amazing peoples liives by clicking the link below