Marathon swimmer and doctor Nick Murch, 40, tells of his experiences of the Lake Geneva Swimming Association’s Signature swim, which he has completed twice now, first as an individual (2016) and then in a relay (2018). The lead clinician on the acute medicine team at the Royal Free Hospital in north London, Dr Murch has been marathon swimming for a dozen years and has completed some exceptional swims, including both the English Channel and North Channel. He holds the British record for LGSA’s Signature swim, which he achieved in terrible weather.
As a daunting 70 kilometre swim (approx 44 miles) from Chateau de Chillon at the eastern end of Lake Geneva/Lac Leman to Geneva in the west, completing the Signature Swim is an immense achievement – only six people have made it so far. The LGSA is not an event or a race as such: it is an individual swim in which entrants book a week and complete the distance at a time of their choosing, with an observer by their side.
Dr Murch is an ambassador for Selkie Swim Co. Just back from swimming Lake Annecy and before heading off to the Catalina Channel in California, he let us have his thoughts on swimming Lake Geneva and the merits of ‘bioprene’. Images courtesy LGSA. See more about their Signature Swim.
First a bit of Form
Nick Murch : My background is one of pool swimming and beach lifeguarding in Devon as a teenager and then 15 years playing water polo up to international level (subs’ bench) for teams in Wales and then London.
In about 2007 I was reintroduced to open water swimming by some masters swimming friends who had signed up for an open water swimming holiday in Croatia. This was a mix of island crossings, coastal swims and river swims with stunning scenery, wildlife and some geeky history in the form of forts and submarine tunnels. All that and the camaraderie - and the ability to eat and drink anything we wished, to keep up energy of course! – led the four of us to agree it was the best holiday we'd ever had.
Since then I've been on swim safari trips to Mallorca, Montenegro and the British Virgin Islands, where the scenery is also stunning; there’s amazing wildlife and historical significance, with turtles, sunken ships and the original Treasure Island, plus the chance to swim from British to US waters in an afternoon.
In 2015 I entered the 10 mile Windermere one way swim, which I finished in 4hrs 36 mins, placing first in the skins category. This gave me the courage to sign up for an English Channel solo attempt in July 2016, which I also completed, in 11hrs 40 mins, in arduous conditions. Less than 2000 people can claim this accolade in standard kit (1 standard hat, 1 pair of goggles and one pair of trunks), far fewer than have scaled Everest.
Historically, a marathon swim was one that was 10 miles or longer: I like the romanticism of this. More recently it has been defined as 10km or more, as the time it takes a top swimmer to complete the distance is about the same as Mo Farah takes for a marathon. I’ll stick with 10 miles, I think.
I enjoy doing things that are perceived to be difficult, so I decided to do some swims that were really outside my comfort zone. In June 2018 I swam the North Channel – 21.5 miles from Northern Ireland to Scotland - in one of the coldest Channel crossings on record. The water started at 10 degrees Celsius and finished at 12 degrees. I had to deal with lion’s mane jellyfish and hypothermia as well as currents trying to pull me away from the coast. My hands clawed after two hours due to the cold, but I finished it in 11hrs 48 mins, becoming only the 53rd person to do so. This was still easier than my Lake Geneva Signature 70 solo as the sea was flat for the majority of the swim.
Other swims I have planned include one across the Wash, for 2019, the Catalina Channel (off Los Angeles). The latter, with the North Channel and English Channel, forms part of the Oceans Seven swims, which I may or may not complete. (The Straits of Gibraltar, Hawaii, New Zealand and Japan complete the list – they are akin to the 7 summits. I’m sure finding crew for these won’t be too hard…)
Finally, like in Virgin Islands, swimming from Switzerland to France and back to Swiss waters is a real border buster – and before you ask, my passport was on the boat!
Why the Signature Event?
Whilst training for the English Channel in 2016 I decided to attempt the Lake Geneva Signature 70km solo swim in late September. There was a drop out and I thought – well, I am training anyway… One of my friends, Mark Sheridan, had just become the first Brit to do this swim, so I thought I’d join him. My mother’s family had Swiss origins – she spent time on lakes there in her youth – so it felt like a home-coming.
I thought that as it was double the distance of the English Channel, but in warmer water, it would take me 24-26 hours – ie 24 to 26 one hour swims back to back (that’s the way my mind works). The first half went to plan – 11 hours to half way, but then I hit conditions described as 'unswimmable,' and found myself in a watery treadmill for hours at a time - the second half took me 21 hours. Add to this the fact that swimming in September means the nights were longer than the days. At 24 hours I was told there was about 8 more hours to go - I said to myself, hey, that's only a third what I’ve done already…
I was the fifth person to complete the swim, with an official time of 32 hrs and 46 mins (still a British record), and it earned me membership to the '24 hour club', a group of people who have swum unaided for over 24 hours. Completing it in those conditions, with racing yachts zipping past me towards the end, led to an award being named after me - for ‘Most Courageous Swim of the Season’. That said, I didn’t feel particularly courageous when my sister told me off for wanting to get out after about 20 hours – she just told me to get my head down and get on with it.
In 2018 we returned to Geneva for a four person relay (2 males, 2 females) – an attempt at the record for the fastest crossing. We made it in 22 hrs 4 mins, complete with a thunderstorm and waves at the half way point. I did it again partly because of an affinity for the swim but also because I wanted to remember bits of my individual crossing that my mind had blanked out, presumably as some sort of a protective measure. We held the record for nearly a week, when a five person relay (3 males, 2 females) from the UK beat us by less than a minute!
What support are you allowed in the crossing?
In the swim you are allowed: 1 pair of standard swimwear, 1 pair of standard goggles, 1 standard swim hat, 1 pair of ear plugs (note, no earphones or music devices are allowed) and 2 lights on your back so you can be seen in the dark.
We also use petroleum jelly or perhaps swimmers’ grease (petroleum jelly with lanolin – an extract from sheep’s wool) to prevent chafing, though chafing is less of a problem in freshwater than salt water. Before you ask, we don’t use duck fat - there is no thermal property to a layer that is generally applied just under arms, around the neck and perhaps in the crotch area.
A boat is alongside the swimmer with tracking devices, sustenance and an observer / crew to keep up your spirits. You become very paranoid about what happens on the boat in a swim – you imagine people talking about you, and wonder exactly how many times they have used the loo etc. If someone eats a sandwich with a cuppa in front of me I’m livid.
One crew member must observe the swimmer at all times, to check for hypothermia, disorientation and other problems such as swimming induced pulmonary oedema (SIPE) in which fluid builds excessively on the lungs, causing a cough and then perhaps cardiac dysfunction – which becomes a medical emergency. The boats for Lake Geneva have on board, as far as I understand from a paramedic, first aid kit, defibrillator and oxygen.
Personally I find messages on a white board invaluable. Other swimmers dislike them. Geneva 2016 was meant to be 26 one hour swims – so we decided to break down the time into 1 hour per letter of the alphabet. I can’t remember what happened beyond the letter N…
Lastly it’s worth mentioning the benefits of my layer of ‘bioprene’… (in other language this is called body fat – I am built for comfort more than speed and don’t really look like an athlete…), but it helps both to retain warmth and in sustenance, see below.
What training do you do?
I'm lucky to have the amazing Parliament Hill Lido (unheated, 61m by 27m) near my work place, and I have built swimming there into my general routine and around work commitments. I do anything from 100m to one mile swims three times a week. For my Wash and Catalina Crossing swims this year I have also been training in indoor pools, doing speed work and technique training, and then I’ve done some longer pool swims in the heated 50m London Fields Lido. Endurance training stunts the speed, so you need to mix speed and technique sessions in with long swims. Also video analysis to stop imperfections creeping in. I definitely don’t over-train now, anywhere from 4km per week to max 30km.
Interestingly saltwater and freshwater swimming require a completely different body position and style – I hadn’t fully addressed this by the time of my 2016 swim, which came just two months after my English Channel crossing. For this reason I have been training in Dover harbour (saline).
One thing that doesn’t often get a mention is training the mind. I do this most days – perceiving successful swims and having a positive outlook – although I have had to battle some mental demons in all my swims.
How precise is the fitness and nutritional regime?
The training is an imperfect science – many people were swimming more than I was for the channel and Geneva, for instance, but I weigh up training versus the potential for injury (often shoulders, mine went mid-Geneva 2016). You don’t want to injure yourself in training, even if you have to suck it up on the actual day. My mother has had severe arthritis all her life – I thought one day of pain for me, a lifetime for her.
The nutritional regime means I can eat and drink pretty much as I like. There are some old wives tales that don’t really work for me, so I’ve worked out a system based on burning fat – ketogenesis - which is gaining credibility amongst distance swimmers. I’m a big believer that we should train as we mean to fight – and while I was preparing for my English Channel crossing and Lake Geneva traverse I spent several weeks on a low carbohydrate, high protein, high fat diet. I would train for up to 7 hours with just a coffee beforehand and the odd sugary treat every hour – clearly relying on my bioprene to provide the majority of my energy whilst swimming.
The main reason for a periodic feed is, in my mind, two fold: first for a psychological lift via some human contact, and to look forward to that placebo effect Jelly Baby - it’s definitely true that in times of hardship one swims to the next feed. The other reason is for the crew to assess how you are performing and whether you are hypothermic, hallucinating etc.
There is no right answer with nutrition, but the take home message has to be - train as you mean to fight. Train on empty and consider running ketogenic at times (though not if you are diabetic – this can be dangerous). Keep feeding regimes, and hence your metabolism, versatile and do what works for you.
What’s the balance of mental and physical?
Open water swimming is 80 percent mental, 10 percent luck and 10 percent the rest. The key is to visualise success. I imagined becoming a Lake Geneva Signature Legend and joining the 24 hour club. That’s immortal status in my opinion. To date, I understand only 6 people have officially finished the swim – that’s a nice small club to be part of. The physical stuff is overrated in my opinion.
One mantra /meme that stuck with me was the one where ‘the Devil says you cannot withstand the Storm’ – and I answered I am the Storm. Well, I am The Storm – I cannot see how I cannot swim through anything Mother Nature throws at me. That nickname has stuck.
Finally, it’s hard to over-estimate the importance of the crew’s input and support.
What is the most challenging moment of a long swim?
Not falling asleep whilst swimming, something I’ve done a few times. It’s even possible to keep going, although stroke rate drops off a little... My medical training of 32-hour shifts really came in useful that day!
On the Signature swim, the Jet d’Eau (the huge fountain in Geneva, which is 140m high) is deceptive. It is visible from miles away – which makes you think you’re nearing the finish, when in reality you’re not.
What is achievement?
Pushing your boundaries.