Having developed a passion for open air swimming at Tooting Bec Lido and trained with many swimmers whilst they prepared for long distance events, one big swim had been on their 'rite of passage' - Lake Windermere. A stretching 10.5 miles in England's longest lake..not to mention the cold factor. I felt that this was a step up from my Channel relay (2007) - I wasn't to be disappointed.
So training began in earnest with Mid Sussex Marlins. I upped my usual twice weekly sessions to three at Easter and started sea swimming in mid-May. The first outing was an 80 minute session in 12 degree water and waves the size of houses. I knew from then on it would be a tough training regime. Other swims followed - Shoreham to Brighton (8km), various 5km races, several circular Brighton swims, a 7km session at Pells Pool and a 9.2km session at Tooting Bec Lido. In August I also started to catch a 5.30am ride up to Tooting Bec to increase my weekday outdoor mileage. I was starting to get fit!
Race day loomed and I had a mild coronary trying to gather my crew together to row me up the lake - my thanks to many of you who volunteered. Steve Mac and Tim Creswell signed up with an evening curry to discuss strategy and tactics. I'm not sure what Steve thought when he asked about my feeding strategy..in honesty I didn't have one! Thank god Steve knows what he's talking about on sports nutrition matters.
So we convened at Euston station before a 4 hour journey took us to the Lake District, our hotel (for blind people!) checked into and off to Bowness for the last supper. Not sure if the calming Peroni was a good idea but the lasagne was perfect. Lights out was midnight and I started hearing the rain fall outside at about 4am. I knew the weather was going to be grim the next day.
We convened for breakfast at 6.45am (with a group of very fit looking Irish swimmers) before a taxi to the start line. Our driver pointed out a few landmarks along the way as the rain teamed down. We registered, cleverly borrowing some safety gear I'd forgotten from some Windermere veterans, before crews, then swimmers were briefed. Our old wooden rowing boat was loaded and I made my way to the start recognising a good few people from other swims I'd done...and triathlons!
The water was certainly brisk when I lowered myself in from the jetty (16°c) and within 90 seconds the gun went off. It was 9.25am and we were swimming. I could see a lead group make quick progress and we rendezvoused with our crews after about ½ a mile. The rain was coming down and I could see Steve and Tim in their waterproofs. The 15 mph wind was pushing the boats along quickly and it was a job keeping up with them (or rather them slowing down for me!). My stroke felt strong and the cold wasn't a noticeable factor.
It was shame I couldn't see the mountain tops but I was gradually eating up the shoreline, even starting to recognise a few milestones. The first feed stop saw my diet of an energy gel, lucozade sport and the odd banana whilst treading water beside the boat - this was tough and I often drifted off. I fed every 30 minutes and by the end I could hit Steve or Tim with my bottle and empty gel from 10 yards! After 2 hours I'd reached a childhood landmark and knew I was 6km into the swim. My stroke still felt good. The boys were getting damper by the minute and they took turns rowing and feeding me, with Steve urging me to up my stroke...little did he know I was going at the max and couldn't change pace even if a shark had been on my tail!
The fun really started at 3 hours. I knew I was only midway and by this stage Steve had started feeding me 500ml of double strength carbohydrate drink and the odd chocolate roll. Luckily it was made with warm water as when I stopped I was noticeably shivering. We picked some choice places to stop - directly in front on the incoming Hawkshead ferry and beside a large, extremely cold stream that was running in to the lake. The cold was getting to my crew's brains too!
The scenery along the length of Windermere is very picturesque. I had hoped to see the peaks and steep valley sides, watch people on the lake in sailing boats and shirt-sleeves. All I got was low cloud, incessant rain, moderate wind, a few marshals in ribs and empty water. It wasn't the prettiest day but we did swim through some lovely water - the group of islands we navigated through, superb clarity of water, some short weedy sections, flat water & wavey water, times when I contoured the shore and saw the bottom.
So I ate into the miles and was starting to feel that I would make it. Truthfully I never had any doubt that I wouldn't but by 4.5 hours I was getting bored and apparently a little blue on the lips/chin and shoulders (didn't feel it though). I was getting 30 minute reports on how far to go from the marshals who seemed to pay us quite a few visits and at 5.5 hours I could finally see the finish - maybe 8-10 small white houses. The finish line was near but by now my stroke was feeling a lot more "deconstructed" - it was as though I was swimming catch-up drill and was sitting low in the water. The only thing I knew would correct this was to go hard, so for the next 45 mins I did up my stroke and power. I had a good line into the finish and, although it did feel as though I swam my slowest single kilometre ever, I could see the jetty and finish.
Suddenly I looked right and saw an umbrella-wielding figure sat on a deckchair on the jetty - she blew a loud blast on her whistle and I was done. I had reached Waterhead/Ambleside in 6 hours 32 mins and swam the 10.5 miles (17km) from Fell Foot in south Windermere. I swam 25m to the shore and took a final celebratory pee in the lake. I staggered over to the admin tent to shelter from the continuing rain and let Steve and Tim get me dressed. I knew I would be cold and had to warm up fast so we went into the next door pub before I had hot water and hot chocolate. Once they'd put down their well-earned pints I gave Steve and Tim a huge hug and spoke to Michelle to tell her I'd made it. Chips, pasties, rum/coke and fine red wine were to follow!
It's only when you stop that you get the chance to rationalise everything. I'd spent 4 months in training to swim England's longest lake in Speedos. As I sat in the pub warming up the tears in my eyes were a reflection of the effort a huge team had put in to get me to the finish - my family, the swimming clubs at Haywards Heath and Tooting, the tri club, hardy swimmers I keep in touch with, people I met at events who gave me advice. Everybody helped and I thank all of them.
Some stat-o type facts: I consumed 4198 calories but expended 6000+ calories during the swim - probably around 10,000 throughout the day. I never moved my googles once throughout the swim because they never steamed up. The winner took 3 hours 50 mins, which was 3 minutes outside the record. 28 swimmers started, 26 finished. And finally, the only time it stopped raining on the day was when we arrived at the station to go home..
Author: Mat Record