Alexander Popov and the English Channel Swim

Alexander Popov, just 20 years old, will be attempting to swim the Channel in mid August 2019. A student at Imperial College in London, he will start at Shakespeare Beach near Dover and he expects the crossing to take between 12- and 15 hours. This is his first attempt at the classic swim.

First completed in 1875, the cross-Channel swim is 21 miles long, though swimmers end up covering a greater distance than this because of tides. Wetsuits are not allowed - gear is limited to swimsuit, goggles, a swim cap, ear plugs and a nose clip . Swimmers are acompanied by a safety boat with crew who can help with feeding and encouragement but no physical contact is allowed. Swimmers book a boat for a week and the captain decides on the best moment for the crossing.

Alexander has a Just Giving page, with proceeds going to Crisis, a UK charity dedicated to helping the homeless.

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First a bit of Form
Alexander Popov: I’ve enjoyed swimming for as long as I can remember, and for the last few years we have been to Greece as a family every summer for a week by the sea. One year I had a go at swimming for a long time in open water and found I got a kick out of it. So each time I have been back I have tried swimming longer and longer distances. This will be my first challenge on such a big scale, but perhaps not the last…

 

Why the Channel? Why now?
The Channel is considered one of the ultimate challenges in the sport, and since I live in England it always seemed like a natural goal to go for. I spent a few months mulling over the decision in 2018, then a year ago I booked a slot with an escort boat for August 2019. Since then there’s been no turning back! 

I haven’t really thought too much about what to do after swimming the Channel, but there are quite a lot of other big swims around the world which would be fun to try.

 

What training have you done?
In the months while I was still deciding whether to go for it, I made sure to do a few good pool swims each week just to stay fit, but nothing too serious. 

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Then in September 2018 I started proper training, around 11 months before the scheduled week of my attempt. Initially I was doing four or five pool swims per week, trying to get comfortable swimming at a consistent and fast pace. In October I did a few outdoor swims in the Serpentine in Hyde Park, just to have a feel for some cold water swimming, but over the winter months I worked solely in the pool, focussing on technique, strength and stamina.

The Channel is pretty cold, particularly after several hours in the water, so I had to get more resilient against low temperatures. This meant gaining quite a lot of fat through excessive consumption - of ice cream, cakes and fatty meat - as well as never wearing more than one layer outside in the winter. 

Since May, almost all my swimming has been outside, building up the distances in the sea (in June I have been doing exclusively 6 and 7 hour swims). My swimming style may have got a bit prettier recently as well as I try to look the part for the curious spectators on the beach!

 

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What about fitness and nutritional ?
There is no single correct way to prepare for a Channel swim. While I have been fortunate to receive advice from a few past Channel swimmers, each person’s regime is unique to them. Typically everyone does the same sort of sea training, but there is much more variation over the winter, when it’s important to figure out a balance between quality and quantity to maintain a high level of fitness whilst also maintaining the focus on technique.

My nutritional regime hasn’t been too precise – obviously it’s not very easy to gain fat whilst doing so much training, so the main requirement has just been to eat a lot!

A lot more thought has been required to work out a feeding routine for the actual swim. In my long training swims I have been trying various combinations of bananas, jelly babies, chocolate, shakes and water – after a bit of trial and error I have now settled on a routine which will give me enough energy without the risk of making me sick.

 

What support are you allowed in the attempt?
I will have an escort boat alongside me the whole way. The boat pilot is responsible for planning and executing the route, as well as deciding on the best window in which to attempt the crossing. I will also have a small support crew on board – their main job is to feed me, but they will also serve as enthusiastic fans! If things start going wrong, I’m expecting them to show me a bit of tough love to keep me going. If necessary, my brother may jump in and swim alongside me for a bit just to keep me at a decent pace.

 

What’s the balance of mental and physical?
The physical challenge is obviously very tough – I will be trying to keep a consistent stroke rate for perhaps upwards of 12 hours in cold water. However, I have done so much preparation and my fitness is really good right now, so my body should manage.

Any swimmer would admit that the mental battle is the true challenge in such a long swim. I will be in the water for many hours, and I am not allowed to even touch the boat. Between the cold, fatigue, jellyfish stings and all the other aches and pains that can arise, I will face many things which may tempt me to get out of the water, but I’ll have to ignore those thoughts and just keep swimming.

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jelly-fish stings

 

What will be the most challenging aspect/moment of the crossing?
It’s hard to say what the biggest challenge will be on the day. In my last training swim I got painful jellyfish stings on both my arms and on my right leg – having avoided any hairy encounters all summer, I got attacked twice in the space of half an hour! It is very likely I’ll come across quite a lot more jellyfish on the day, and even if I get loads of stings I will just have to swim through the pain.

The changing tides in the Channel can also pose significant problems. As a swimmer enters French waters, they tend to drift sideways a lot due to the strong currents (no one swims the Channel in a straight line – it always ends up being more of an S shape). It’s very important that I don’t flag at this point, as I will need to be swimming well to avoid being pushed past the nearest point of the French coastline as this would add several hours to my swim. In some cases, the sea can start pushing a swimmer backwards – this usually leads to the swim being aborted, regardless of how close to France they got.

 

What is achievement?
To me achievement is the reward for dedication and sacrifice – it’s always good to know that all this hard work can lead to something great.

  

What does adventure mean to you?
Adventure is trying something new or difficult or crazy, pushing the limits of what you can do.

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Jonas Deichmann and the Cape to Cape Record Attempt

Jonas Deichmann, a record-breaking ultra-distance cyclist, will be attempting the fastest ever Cape to Cape, the 18,000 kilometre ride between Cape North, at the far northern tip of Europe, and Cape Town, at the southern tip of Africa. His aim is to make the crossing in 75 days, taking around 25 days off the current record of 102 days. He was going to travel as part of a pair, but his partner, Mexican Charlie Meta was unable to get all the relevant visas, so he may now ride it alone.

Jonas already holds two exceptional records, first for the unsupported crossing of the Eurasian landmass, from Cabo da Roca in Portugal to Vladivostok at the eastern tip of Russia (14,000km, 2017, during which, interestingly, he picked up the then record for crossing continental Europe), and second the Panamerican record, for cycling the length of the Americas unsupported (2018, Panamerica Solo, from the Alaskan Arctic coast to the tip of South America, 23,000 km, 97 days).

Jonas is an ambassador for Ortlieb and Shimano. You can see more about him at his website JonasDeichmann.com. He will set off in late August and hopes to reach the southern tip of Africa in early November. There will be live tracking of his Cape to Cape journey on his site. We caught up with him just as he set off to ride the Inca Divide, a 473 kilokmetre challenge with 11,000 metres of elevation gain, starting at Conococha Lake in Peru..

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First a bit of Form
At university I had no money but I did have a dream – to see the world. So that’s what I did. I cycled around the world (slowly, touring), visiting 64 countries in 18 months. While I ws doing it an idea formed, to set a world record, so two years later I set off on an attempt to break the record for the crossing of Eurasia. I succeeded, covering 14,000 km in 64 days. At that stage I had a full time job and barely any sponsors, but I decided that being out there was better than sitting in an office. There was no concrete plan for making a living out of adventure, but I thought if I promoted it as much as possible, I could figure that out afterwards.

After the Eurasia world record I decided I couldn’t stand being in an office any more, so I went into full time adventuring. It was tough to start with, but since the Panamerica Solo record I can live comfortably from it. I have a long bucket list, with one major expedition each year with a number of smaller adventures in between.

It might be worth adding that I don’t have a home. I have lived on my bike full time for 18 months now and I travel non-stop. 

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Why the Cape North to Cape Town, why now?
I set the world record for the crossing of Eurasia two years ago and then Panamerica last year: Cape North to Cape Town is the world’s third big continental crossing and so it was fairly obvious as my next project. I love the idea of looking at the map and simply riding from one extreme of a big landmass to another one. This is part of my goal, to become to be the fastest unsupported cyclist on every continent.

My Cape North to Cape Town ride is a world record attempt, yes. The current record stands at 102 days. I want to complete it a month quicker than that.

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An average day…
The ride will split into two halves which are very different. Across the Nordic countries and Russia I will average more than 300 km/day, but in Africa, due to the danger of night riding, it will be no more than about 260 km. However, progress over the longer term is really about the average number of hours in the saddle: my daily goals are 14 hours in the northern section and 12 hours in Africa. I don’t take rest days, but I will have 3-4 recovery days where I ride only around 200 km.

I usually get up between 4 and 5 am and cycle until it gets dark. I sleep an average 5-6 hours. I use up a few hours each day while finding food etc, but how much depends largely on what country I’m in.

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Sustaining it…
I never go fast, but rather at a constant pace that I know I can keep up for months. Food is the main challenge and I know I will have a calorie deficit every day - during Panamerica Solo I started with a slight belly and finished 12 kg lighter. I have a very simple rule on food: eat as much as you can of whatever you find. If I am outside Europe this tends to be a lot of cookies and fast food from petrol stations. Hydration will be a huge challenge in the Sahara. I’m carrying a few foldable water bottles which I can tape to the bike for extra storage. I also use hydration tablets if I’m lucky enough to find them.

I stretch when I am in training before a record attempt, in order to make myself more supple. However, I never do this during a ride. I think working muscles feel better without stretching.

The toughest aspect of a long event is of course the mental part. In training I sometimes put my bike on a home-trainer in front of a white wall, and allow myself no distractions - no music or tv, just me and the white wall for 10 hours.... It makes your mind stronger. During a ride the most important thing is to have small goals, so I focus only on the next few hours and the chocolate I am going to buy as a reward at the end of it. In this way I make many small steps towards the big goal.

 

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What will be the most challenging aspect of the trip?
Cape North to Cape Town is 5000 km shorter than my Panamerica Solo ride and there is less climbing, but it will definitely be just as challenging in its own way. Africa has very limited infrastructure, so if something goes wrong I might be in more trouble. For this reason my preparation has been around building the most reliable bike possible and avoiding illness. The heat in the Sahara - probably higher than 50 degrees Celsius - will be very hard on the body. I have been training in similar conditions and have used the BikingMan Ultracycling series to get accustomed to it.

 

Are there things you enjoy?
Of course. I like the adventure of the ride as much as I like pushing myself to the limit. That’s why I go unsupported to explore exotic parts of the world. Even during a record attempt there is time to talk a bit with locals and explore the culture. My favourite moment is when I can make a campfire at night.

 

What is success?
Success for me is to have a great adventure and when I am pleased with my performance, when I can say I did my best. On Cape North to Cape Town there are a lot of external factors which I can’t control and if I for some reason don’t break the record, I will still be happy to have made the expedition.

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Dr Nick Murch and Marathon Swimming

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 chosen in consultation with their boat pilot, with an observer by their side.

Dr Murch is an ambassador for Selkie Swim Co. Just back from swimming The Wash 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.

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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.

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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!

 

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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.

The Relay Team 2018 - Swimmers Nick Murch, Michael Jennings, Nichola Murch and Dawn Palmer, plus Ali Gregory as crew

The Relay Team 2018 - Swimmers Nick Murch, Michael Jennings, Nichola Murch and Dawn Palmer, plus Ali Gregory as crew

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…). It helps both to retain warmth and in sustenance, see below.

 

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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Ellery McGowan enters the Lake Geneva Classic 2019

Ellery McGowan, 72, an extremely accomplished long-distance swimmer, will be entering the Lake Geneva Classic on 13th July 2019. Although she restarted swimming only in 2005**, she has a string of firsts, long-distance records (including winter swimming records) and a number of cold water gold medals to her name.

The Classic, staged by the Lake Geneva Swimming Association since 2017, is a 13 kilometre swim across Lake Geneva, amid the spectacular scenery of the Jura Mountains and the Alps. The event starts on the northern side of the lake, in Lausanne in Switzerland, and finishes in France, almost opposite on the southern shore, in Evian les Bains. The LGSA Signature event, a 70km crossing from the east to west end of Lake Geneva, takes place over several weekends between June and September. See more about the Lake Geneva Swimming Association.

Images courtesy LGSA and Ellery McGowan

Images courtesy LGSA and Ellery McGowan

How did you get into long-distance swimming?
Ellery McGowan
: In 2005 I did a “Swimtrek” holiday in Turkey, which included a 10km swim to the island of Bozcaada and the Hellespont swim, the crossing made by romantic hero Lord Byron from Canakkale to Sestos. I found I loved being back in the open water**, so later that year I also completed a six person relay English Channel crossing.

After a three person relay of Lake Zurich in 2009, in splendid conditions, I was keen to do a solo of the 26.4 km course. This I successfully accomplished in 2010. Then I was invited to swim the Toroneos Gulf in 2014, a 26 km crossing where everything is provided and everyone is treated like a champion. Coming out of the water surrounded by local children, with a huge olive wreath placed over my head and music from Vangelis playing loudly was very emotional.

In 2015 I had a failed solo attempt of the English Channel, being pulled out after 11 hours. Although it was a disappointment as I don’t like to “fail”, I was not sorry to be removed from the water. To date I have done six successful relays across the English Channel, including being part of the oldest 6 person ladies team.

Ellery in the 50m freestyle in Murmansk

Ellery in the 50m freestyle in Murmansk

2016 saw me doing “Five Swims in Five Countries for a Five Star Son”, in which I raised money for C-R-Y (Cardiac Risk in the Young) in memory of my youngest son, James, who died suddenly of Sudden Adult Cardiac death in December 2015. One of these swims was in Kalamata, Greece, a 30Km swim done between sunrise and sunset. It started off in perfect weather but late in the afternoon it deteriorated and the seas became rough. Fortunately I persevered and finished but some did not! It’s possible that I some hold records for being the oldest female to complete some of these five swims. However, I definitely hold the record for the Robben Island to Cape Town crossing, which I completed in February 2018.

I also hold several age group world records for Winter Swimming, all swum in zero degrees water, with distances up to 200m. My aim in 2020 is to increase this to the 450m event!

**I taught myself to swim in an estuary aged 5 in Tasmania where I grew up. When my twin sister and I could actually swim across this estuary, we asked our father to come and see us. On our farm we swam in a dam, built our own platform and made lane ropes out of “bind a twine”.

 

Why The Classic? Why now?
I first heard about The Classic three years ago when a swimming friend entered and said positive things on Facebook. Also I know Jamie Monahan, an inspirational swimmer who has done the 60km event. And I have swum in Lake Geneva - over 30 years ago, when I was on holiday visiting friends in Lausanne - so I decided the Classic would be a great event to do, especially after my successes in Lake Zurich. Why now? I know life is short and mine is getting shorter, so now is the best time!

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What training have you done?
I keep a fairly rigorous weekly schedule. I find indoor swimming in a warm pool rather boring, so I have been doing plenty of cold water swimming over the winter: at least once a week in 3-9 degrees in the unheated, outdoor pool at Tooting Bec Lido; also in my local river! Over Christmas I was in Brazil for two weeks and I swam in the sea every day there, and I spent a week in Cape Town in February. Now I am back to pool swimming, 10-15 km a week, which I will increase to 20km at the end of April when our local outdoor 50m pool opens. I have a 10km fresh water swim in London to do in June which will be good also.

Each week I do two sessions of Pilates, two 45-minute spin classes, one yoga and one Gyrotonics session, a two hour session of tennis plus my swimming sessions. I find this cross training keeps me fit and injury free.

I love the cold water and in January 2019 I competed in the UK Cold Water Championships at 3 degrees. Then I was in Murmansk, Russia, swimming in zero degrees. In both of these competitions I came away with three gold medals.

 

At the Serpentine Swim

At the Serpentine Swim

What other preparation will you do?
I have a good feeding regime during long swims, but with the Classic I will have to rely on stuffing gels down my swimming costume and just grab water from a support boat. Normally I have a carbohydrate drink after an hour and then an isotonic gel on the half hour, plus half a banana every few hours, but this will not be possible on this swim.

Mentally I am strong. If I want something badly enough I should be able to accomplish it. I will be thinking of my son James who was a great sportsman and he will get me through!


Do you enjoy the competitive format?
Not at all. I see distance swimming as a challenge, not a competition. I am realistic and know I will be in the back half of finishers but I do very much want to achieve this. I do worry that at my age, no matter how good my technique is, I am getting slower.

I don’t like mass starts with hundreds of swimmers, but I settle into my stroke once the field spreads. If someone is close by and swimming at a similar pace, then a competitive streak does set in and I do want to keep abreast of them!

What constitutes success?
In my case, success is doing a realistic amount of training, keeping fit and healthy, having a positive mind-set and enjoying each day.


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Expedition to Papua New Guinea - Charlie Walker

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In mid-March 2019 Charlie Walker, a professional adventurer, will set off for Papua New Guinea, on an expedition to summit the three highest peaks in the country and then paddle the longest river. In all he will spend approximately two months hiking 300 miles, paddling for 700 miles and cycling for approximately 600 miles between the various access points.

He is certainly not new to this sort of thing. Walker spent four years in his mid 20s cycling 43,000 miles through 60 countries and he has hiked in the Eastern Gobi Desert and Mongolia, as well as descending a river in Africa. In 2017 he made a 5200 mile journey that followed the border between Europe and Asia – by skiing, kayaking and then cycling.

He is aiming to cover the 1600 miles in Papua New Guinea in two months. You can see his website here, www.cwexplore.com, and his Twitter and Instagram feeds @cwexplore. His book, Through Sand and Snow, about his journey to the furthest points on three continents, is available through Amazon here.


First a bit of Form
Charlie Walker: The idea of becoming an adventurer happened slowly for me. As I was growing up I always enjoyed travel literature and maps, but I never thought I’d end up travelling for a living. When I left school I started taking short trips whenever I could afford the time and money. At first it was just backpacking, but soon this developed into more active and intrepid adventures. The decision to cast off from home on a bicycle for several years was a defining moment in my life and everything else just followed organically from there.

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Simply put, the idea was to see places, meet people and learn things. The physical side of what I do is secondary, however, being physically exhausted brings about a certain mental vulnerability, and this in itself can give an interesting insight and outlook on new places.

I don’t know if I will do this forever. I don’t really plan very far ahead. For the time being I’m doing this and I love it. But if the passion ever fades or shifts then I won’t hesitate to re-assess.

 

A Life of Adventure: It’s worth noting some of the expeditions that Charlie Walker has undertaken over the past ten years -

- Cycled 43,000 miles through 60 countries in Asia and Africa over four years

- Hiked 1,000 miles from Beijing across the Eastern Gobi desert to Ulaan Baatar in Mongolia

- Trekked 600 miles across Mongolia with a pony

- Descended 550 miles of a Congo tributary in a dugout canoe, dodging rapids and hippos along the way

- Skied, kayaked and cycled the 5,200-mile length of the Europe-Asia border.


Why Papua New Guinea? Why now?
I’ve wanted to explore PNG for about a decade and now is just the first time I’ve found the right time and opportunity. Conceptually this journey is quite simple: to summit the three highest peaks in the country and to paddle the longest river from source to sea. I will complete the entire journey without motorised transport, using a bicycle to get from the coast to the mountains and then hike across country to get to the river source.

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The concept is really just a frame on which I can hang the chance to visit this remote and misunderstood country and get a feel of the place. I wanted to complete a different, longer route but was limited by the visa allowance of 60 days.

The trip to PNG is a stand alone expedition, though in a personal developmental sense it is a continuation of other things. The common theme in what I do is that journeys are physically difficult somewhere geographically remote with interesting culture(s).



How important is the physical side? Have you trained for the trip?
If I’m honest, I’ve never really “trained” for an expedition. I tend to start my journeys relatively slowly and build from there. That said, I try to maintain a reasonable level of fitness all the time. Unfortunately, on this occasion, I snapped a metatarsal about three months before my departure date and I am only just able to jog again now (with 6 weeks to go), so I’ll have to balance general fitness with not overdoing it.

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What will be the most challenging aspect of the trip?
The trip will be pretty tough, physically. Papua New Guinea sits just two degrees south of the equator and it is hot and humid all year round, so hacking through dense jungle will be exhausting and slow going. The route I’ve chosen involves about 600 miles of cycling, 300 miles of hiking, and 700 miles of paddling… all in two months. I think the first third of the packraft down the Sepik River will be the toughest as it is very remote with no settlements for at least 200 miles and lots of rapids and canyons to contend with.

Logistically it’s fairly straightforward. I need to buy a basic bicycle on arrival but beyond that it’s fairly simple. I’ll carry everything I need and just top up my food supplies along the way.

People talk a lot about the tribal violence and gun crime in PNG, and of course there are wildly outdated rumours about headhunting and cannibalism. However, outside of the few urban centres, I believe it is relatively safe. My biggest concerns will probably be wildlife. Snakes, spiders and crocodiles (both fresh water and salt water) are all concerns.


What is achievement?
That’s a difficult question. I think it has to mean different things to different people. But I believe there’s more to be achieved by setting ambitious goals and perhaps failing than there is by easily accomplishing relatively unambitious targets. The old adage of ‘strength through strife’ has definitely proven true for me. But I feel a sense of achievement from all sorts of things in all different parts of my life, not just from slogging through jungle or across tundra. Filing my tax return and not being late to meetings both feel like achievements! Perhaps it’s something about managing things that you don’t feel naturally easily able to do.

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Team Antigua and The Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge 2018

Team Antigua training ahead of the start of the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge. CREDIT BEN DUFFY (2).jpg

On 12 December 2018, Team Antigua Island Girls set off on the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge 2018, a crossing of the Atlantic from La Gomera in the Canaries to English Harbour on the island of Antigua in the north-eastern Caribbean. They are one among 28 rowing boats in the event, crews of solo rowers, pairs, three, fours and even fives. The crossing is approximately 3000 miles and teams are expected to take between 30 and 75 days to complete the distance.

As their name implies, the four rowers of Team Antigua Island Girls are from Antigua: they are Kevinia Francis, 40, Christal Clashing, 29, Samara Emmanuel, 32 and Elvira Bell, 37. They have been training since early in 2018 and did not know one another before the team got together. This is the first time that any of them have attempted such a huge challenge, but they are gunning for several firsts, including first all-black team to complete the race and first all-female team from Antigua . They are also raising money for Cottage of Hope, a charity that works in aid of disadvantaged children in St Johns, the Antiguan capital.

Their progress can be followed at the live tracker at the Talisker Whisky Altantic Challenge website.

 


Is this a first, or have you done this sort of thing before?
Kevinia: For all of us, the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge is our first time rowing. We only started to learn during our training so just being here is an achievement. Samara has previously done a lot of sailing and we’ll benefit from her nautical knowledge so that’s a great skill to have within the team.

 

What was the dream?
All: Successfully row the Atlantic in the 2019/20 race!

Elvira: It’s only been since earlier this year that we realised that we were strong enough to be a part of the 2018/19 fleet. We’ve come a long way in a short space of time.

Samara: It’s also an opportunity to raise a lot of money for the charity Cottage of Hope.

Team Antigua Island Girls at the start of the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge 2018 (from L-R Elvira Bell, Cristal Clashing, Samara Emmanuel, Kevinia Francis) CREDIT BEN DUFFY (1).jpg



How did you come across the event?
Kevinia: The Antiguan Government put a call out looking for a team of rowers to do the race, and they were specifically looking for females. We all applied separately without knowing each other.

Christal: There’s been two Antiguan teams in previous years so we’re following in their footsteps. But at the same time, we’re going to be creating a new path - we’ll be the first all-black team to take part in the race, the first all-black team to row the Atlantic, and the first all-female team from Antigua.

 

What do your friends think?
All: That we’re crazy!

Christal: They are all really supportive, but for each of us, taking up a challenge like this is not completely out of character, so in some ways many of our friends and family kind of expected it.

Team Antigua training ahead of the start of the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge. CREDIT BEN DUFFY 1.jpg

What sort of training have you done?
Samara: Once a week we’ve been out on the water and we’ve been practicing doing long rows of a minimum of 8 hours at least once a month.

Kevinia: Then around 5 or 6 days a week we’re in the gym training, doing weights and just preparing our bodies as best we can.

Elvira: We’ve also done a lot of mediation for mental preparation and tried to learn techniques and skills that will help us keep focus but also to re-gain focus when we need to dig deep.

Christal: We’ve been able to have the added bonus of training a lot in the kind of environments out at sea that we’ll face during the row due to where our island is, which will hopefully give us an advantage as we get closer to home.

Samara: Our first major row was in April, from Antigua to St Kitts. We set off at sunset and just got on with it, we knew we wanted to practice rowing at night as it is something we’ll face every day during the race so it was just one of those things we needed to do. We actually came to the UK in October whilst our boat was being upgraded and adjusted so we trained there as well; we did a 12 hour row on the River Crouch in Essex, which was a journey!

Kevinia: We had the guidance and advice of the previous Antiguan teams and Eli Fuller has given a lot of his time to help prepare us as best as possible. But there’s a saying you hear a lot in the ocean rowing community and that’s that nothing can really prepare you for rowing an ocean.


 
What strategies do you have?
Christal: Like a lot of the foursomes we’re planning on having two team members at a time rowing 2 hours and then having 2 hours off. But in that ‘off’ time you have to do all of the other things that are needed; eating, trying to keep hygienic in the conditions, sleeping, navigating making water… its relentless.

Kevinia: Staying hydrated will be key to be able to function and do everything that needs to be done. And we’ll keep morale up with our music. We’ve got a lot of gospel to keep us going and of course some Christmas songs!



All expeditions are about endurance, how will you balance out the mental and physical demands?
Christal: Our team spirit will keep us together and push us on.

Elvira: And the meditation skills we learnt will be crucial to just re-setting and re-focussing when something doesn’t go to plan rather than getting stressed out.

 

Team Antigua Island Girls at the start of the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge 2018 (from L - R Cristal Clashing, Samara Emmanuel, Kevinia Francis, Elvira Bell) CREDIT BEN DUFFY.jpg

What will be the most challenging aspect of the race?
Elvira: I think experiencing the sleep deprivation in full for the first time will be a challenge, you can’t really prepare for it or know how we’re going to handle things until we’re in that place.

Samara: I’m going to miss having fresh food! All the food we eat whilst out there will be dehydrated, I can’t wait to have fresh fruit and vegetables when we get home.

Christal: Sea sickness is another thing. We won’t know how it will fully affect us until we’re out there. It can be completely debilitating and has made many previous strong teams and team members retire. If we get it really bad, we’ll be too weak to carry on.

Kevinia: And the calluses and blisters we’re going to get will be huge! I don’t think we’ll be able to avoid them but they’ll definitely make things more challenging as time goes on out there.

Samara: We’ve got waterproof notebooks to record how we’re feeling and to help deal with our emotions. And to cheer ourselves up we have dehydrated mango we’ve brought from home and ginger for snacks. And playing our music nice and loud!

 

What are you looking forward to?
All: Getting home!

Kevinia: The whole island knows about the race and will be there to support all the teams when they get in.

 

What does achievement look like?
Christal: For us, definitely winning.

Kevinia: We’re going for the titles, we want to take the record for the fastest female four.

Elvira: Even if it’s only beating it by a second, we’ll do what it takes!

The elation awaiting them at the finish line…

The elation awaiting them at the finish line…

Just Before Departure @Shirls Row

In about ten days Shirley Thompson will be setting off on her double-record breaking attempt on the Atlantic Ocean. She has tapered her training and is finalising her planning and getting everything in place for the three month voyage. Her boat, RV Amigo, is already on its way to Puerto de Mogan in Gran Canaria, where she arrives around on 15th November. She will set off for St Barts on around 22nd November. Read her earlier thoughts on the adventure from early September here. Below are her thoughts shortly before departure.

During the crossing you can follow her on facebook at Shirl’s Atlantic Row and at her twitter account - @ShirlsRow.

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How has the final training been going?
Shirley Thompson: It has gone well. I have been out rowing at every possible moment, building my time on the water and getting to know how the boat handles, and I now feel comfortable in her and geared up for my imminent departure. At the same time I have been accustoming myself to how the equipment works and learning knots, weather, navigation using the stars. And of course gathering together all my kit and food. 

The boat leaves for the Canaries by road this weekend, 10-11th November and I fly out there on the 14th, so I am there for its arrival on 15th.  I expect to depart for the crossing around 22nd November.


The physical side can only take you so far. What have you done to prepare yourself mentally?
I will break the crossing into tiny pieces, into one hour, a rowing session of a few hours and then a complete a day. If I can do an hour then I can do another hour, if I can do a 2-3 hour rowing session then I can do the next one, and if I manage a day then I can do another day and so on. My mind will control my body - I know this challenge will be a huge mental battle.

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Have you settled on a routine?
I will row each morning from 6 am to midday and then row 2 hours on 2 hours off until midnight. I will then sleep from midnight to 6am.  This is a minimum. I would like to increase the rowing time to 14 hours a day if possible. The “off oars” time is for admin, eating, coping with sores, aches and pains, cleaning the boat, repairs etc etc

What approach do you have to food and hydration?
I intend to use the same strategy as I do in endurance races, ie never allow myself to be thirsty, so I will keep hydrated and I will eat often, both snacks and 3-4 dehydrated meals per day. I am mixing my food with cold water, I am not carrying any facility to heat water.

I think hydration will be the main priority at the beginning of the crossing. I am likely to suffer from seasickness so I will need to make sure to keep hydrated. 

What are your final preparations?
There are so many last minute things to do, down to the practicalities of being away and out of touch for 3 months. 

In terms of preparation for the row I think I am pretty much on track, though I frequently wake up in the middle of the night remembering something which I then have to write down!!

As it departure comes more sharply into focus, what are your main concerns?
The enormity of it. The unpredictability of the ocean, the weather, going through potential problems in my mind and how to resolve them. 


What will be last your indulgence before you set off?
An ice cream!!!

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Shirley Thompson attempts a double-record, solo crossing of the Atlantic

In mid-November, Shirley Thompson will set off on a solo, unsupported crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, from Puerto de Mogan in Gran Canaria to the French island of St Barts in the Caribbean. The distance is some 3000 miles. She is going for two records in the attempt – to become the oldest woman to make the Atlantic crossing solo and to be the first Irish woman to row any ocean solo. She will make the crossing in a Pure Class boat, which is 1.8 meters wide and around 7m long, and depending on the Tradewinds, the journey could take her as long as 90 days.

Shirley has never done anything quite like an ocean-crossing before, but she is no stranger to adventure, having organised the Jungle Marathon in Brazil for many years. You can follow her crossing on facebook at Shirl’s Atlantic Row and she has a website at www.shirlsatlanticrow.com.

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First a bit of Form
Shirley Thompson: This is my first monumental adventure, though over the years I have competed in many endurance events, including the Marathon des Sables, Trans 333 (a 333km non-stop desert run), the Guadarun (7 day staged run in Guadeloupe), Antarctica Marathon, Verdon Trail and the Yukon Arctic Ultra. And of course Jungle Marathon, which I organise. 

I got into adventure by accident At the age of 42 I took up running, swapped a 60 ciggies a day habit for a running obsession. I got into ultra running 6 months after that and never looked back!


Why an Atlantic crossing? Why now?
I wanted to do something huge for my 60th birthday (I was 60 in May). For many years I promised myself I would climb Everest, but the more I have read, the more I have been disappointed – by the lack of helping your fellow man (leaving people near the summit who are suffering, so you can get down to safety yourself), the rubbish on the mountain etc. It’s not very green.

So, I began to look further afield and discovered that although more than 450 women have summited Everest, only 15 women have ever rowed an ocean solo. That was also the moment I remembered that the water is my nemesis - I don't like to be out of my depth and up until a month ago I couldn't swim. It is a huge challenge for me. I started to research it further at the beginning of this year. Initially I signed up for a race, but then I decided I‘d prefer to go it alone. 

I love the idea of being at one with nature, so far from land and humanity. I love the isolation, the struggle and the privilege of experiencing something that so few people will ever do. I want to prove to myself that an ordinary person can do something extraordinary. 

I also like the idea that I can demonstrate that age is just a number, and that a 60 year old woman is not past her sell by date - which is often how we are viewed by society. 


What sort of training have you done?
Until the beginning of August my boat, RV Amigo, was being refurbished, so I only got on the water with her then, but I have been training with her almost daily since and will continue to do so until I leave for Gran Canaria.

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I always keep fit, I run 10-15km a day, I water jog, I go for long hikes, but since I signed up for the crossing earlier in the year I have increased the levels. Before the delivery of RV Amigo in August, I was rowing on an ERG for 4+ hours a day (often getting up twice in the middle of the night to do 2-hour stints). Now I am on the water rowing for as many hours as I can and I will have done at least 200+ hours before I leave. Also I am swimming 75 lengths of a pool a day (I couldn’t swim a width a month ago) and I am doing weights for some upper body strength.

I have been training with Leven Brown, the legendary Scottish Ocean rower. He has refurbished my boat and will provide weather reports for me during the crossing. He will also be my “phone a friend” when I am out there.


Does being 60 make a difference?
In terms of training I don’t think it’s different. In terms of tenacity I think we have more at 60, though my creaky old back might say differently after a couple of months at sea.


And what sort of preparation have you done?
There has been quite a bit of other preparation, obviously. I have trained in sea survival, sea first aid, navigation and seamanship, I got radio operator’s licence and I have been on an ocean rowing course.

I will be eating dehydrated food mixed with cold water to avoid the danger of scalding myself in high seas. As far as the bathroom goes, it’s a bucket and chuck it scenario.

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How important will the physical side be in this?
The physical plays a part, but as long as I have a solid fitness base the rest is mental for me. There’s no doubt that the mental drives the physical, and pushes you through the pain barrier when you have blisters on your hands and feet, salt sores on your bottom, sea sickness and are fed up to the back teeth of being constantly wet and covered in salt water, terrified of the storms and cannot see land….


What safety gear and back up do you have?
I will carry a life raft (a 4-person raft, so it is much bigger than my boat!!), immersion suits, lifejackets, EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio beacon - if I set this off then all ships in the ocean are informed of a Mayday and the closest one will come to the rescue), PLB (Personal Locator Beacon – it will be attached to my lifejacket, so I can activate if I go overboard and cannot get back into my boat), a VHF radio (useful only by line of sight). Also I will have Leven Brown at the end of the sat-phone, so that he can troubleshoot in case I have an issue on the boat that I cannot deal with myself.

I will be wearing a harness and will be tied on to the boat in two places at ALL times. I have three sets of oars with me and back-ups for everything, ie 3 sets of sunglasses, two sat-phones, two radios, a hand-held water maker, hand-held GPS, compass. Also I’ll carry ballast mineral water in case both water makers fail...


What is the most daunting aspect of the crossing?
As I look ahead there are so many things - rogue waves, seeing a container ship on my course that doesn't hear me on the radio! stray containers that have fallen off cargo ships. Rowing 14 hours a day is challenging enough in itself. Other daunting things include capsizing- though I do know my boat self-rights - not eating fresh fruit and veg and missing my dogs. 


Is there anything to look forward to about being out there?
All of it!! The good and the less good and the terror - it’s all part of the journey. I’ll be seeing dolphins playing by the boat, whales, sharks, sea turtles, and no doubt I’ll see a few mighty waves. Even the physical battle of rowing 14 hours a day will be good. Oh, and my survival.

Most of the all though, I will be looking forwards to that very first ice-cold rum punch when I reach St Barts!


What is achievement?
To my mind achievement is anything that makes me feel fulfilled. This is really a journey to test me!

I am going for two world records – first the oldest woman ever to row any ocean solo, and second the first Irish woman to row any ocean solo. Getting those world records will be an achievement. 

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