Suzy Hegg finds out what it takes to complete one of swimming’s most gruelling challenges
On Wednesday 22 June 2016 at 6.43pm, Jackie Hall finished her final mile of 100 Percent Swimming’s 24 miles in 24 hours swim. She had swum a mile, on the hour, every hour, since 6pm the day before, in a lake. She was the final solo swimmer to complete the challenge. Exhausted but elated, she clambered up the jetty to rapturous applause. There wasn’t a dry eye around the lake.
A picture of pure grit and determination, Jackie had barely 15 minutes to rest, recover and eat (forget sleep) between each swim. For the final five of her miles she spent every minute she had out of the water being treated by therapists from the Sports Therapy Association while trying to drink and eat at the same time.
Jackie admits she’s not the most likely athlete: a grandmother, she lost five stone (30kg) in 2011 and had an operation to remove spare skin a year later. She then completed a half ironman in 2013. Knee problems saw her return to swimming last year.
“This challenge has undoubtedly changed me,” she says. “I was shy, nervous and had low self-worth, and now I have people shouting my name, saying I’m amazing.”
Like all the swimmers who finished, Jackie had to push through pain, fatigue, cold, hunger and self-doubt. A few swimmers even admit to having hallucinations, seeing flying cats and dark shadows. Some turned to singing and talking while they swam to keep spirits high. Around a quarter reported having digestive issues; for one, vomiting meant the end of his swim, for others a painful few miles. Most reported pain or injury in the shoulders and arms. All told of self doubt, of thoughts in the middle of the night that they might not finish. In this challenge, there’s a fine line between success and failure and small things can make that difference. So how do you swim 24 miles in 24 hours?
1. Establish a winning routine
Event director Paul Fowler says there are three key points he works on with all endurance athletes: pacing, nutrition and remaining injury free.
“The most important aspect of a 24-hour swim, with so few minutes between swims, is timing. Poor time management can leave you hungry, cold or injured,” he says.
The best way to make sure you get everything done that you need to is to have a strict routine.
The priority for most swimmers is to get warm and fed between swims. Non-wetsuit swimmers should prioritise changing into a dry costume and putting on warm layers. All swimmers should eat (even if you don’t feel like it) and rest as much as possible. Put your hot drink order in before your swim, and make sure it’s ready waiting for you.
Other swimmers have individual needs. Will Hall, who completed the challenge solo, says: “Make sure you have plenty of indigestion tablets since my stomach didn’t appreciate huge amounts of food and swimming. Being horizontal for 75% of the time means digesting is hard.”
Lesley Hutton, who completed the swim as a pair says: “Don’t get dragged out of your routine. I’m a nurse and my natural instinct is to make sure everyone else is OK, but I had to be selfish this time and do my own thing, but being in a pair meant I still had time to give out free hugs.”
In summary, prepare your dry kit, food, and pain medication in advance and have it arranged so you don’t have to rummage to get what you want. Most importantly, let your buddies do everything for you, so you have time to recover for the next mile.
2. Consistency, not speed, is the key
Common sense says the faster you are, the more likely you are to succeed because of the amount of rest you have between swims. But that’s not necessarily true. The data captured throughout the event shows the successful solo swimmers were not necessarily the fastest (the average pace per mile around 35 minutes), but they were the best in holding a consistent pace. Michelle Hardy (solo, non-wetsuit) was the most consistent swimmer with 70% of her miles deviating only a minute.
“I don’t stop, ever. I’m not the fastest but I always finish,” she says.
In my case, my pace kept dropping and I struggled with this. Paul suggested this was because I had a racing mindset – he’s probably right.
“Rather than focusing on competing for each mile think about completing all of them,” he advised. “Swim calmly. Being too fast can be as bad as being too slow. Know your pace.” I tried to take his advice, but I found it hard. That’s because I didn’t prepare mentally…
3. Prepare your mind
Although it sounds like advice from a second rate martial arts movie, the consensus among the swimmers is that mental preparation is probably more important than physical training. That doesn’t mean you can drop the training, but you do need to be in the right place in your head to succeed.
Know why you’re there, otherwise the lack of mental focus might lead you to quit. Local club (City of Lincoln Pentaqua) swimmers elected charities to swim for and raised £2,500. A number of swimmers did it in memory of loved ones, or to support those going through treatment (Ethan Maull Foundation). Others did it to prove their worth, progress or ability. Whatever your goal, keep it close; don’t lose your focus.
Treat it one mile at a time. Thinking about the next two laps is easier than thinking about the next 10 miles. Split the challenge into sections: e.g. it’s only 2 miles until the sun is up and then it’s only 6 miles until the final mile and that’s the victory lap!
Give yourself something to look forward to after each mile. Think ‘after this one, I’ll have a massage’, ‘after this one, it’s pasta bake’, ‘after this one, my mum’s coming to support’.
Surround yourself with support and buddies but avoid inviting the doubters to watch.
Smile and say thank you a lot to those around you. Staying positive and happy promotes a great mental environment for success.
4. Eat, eat and eat
Whatever you do, don’t rely on your hunger to guide you, says Michelle Hardy. She puts her failure to complete a 12-hour swim back in May to not eating regularly. Her routine for her successful 24-hour swim relied on pre-prepared nutrition: easy to digest nuts and snacks combined with gels, delivered on-time, by her support team (her husband and son).
“Have a choice of food and make sure it’s all readily available,” she says.
5. Remember it's a team event
Lastly, the one common theme across all swimmers’ reflections of the event was the camaraderie between swimmers, their buddies, the support crew and visitors. Paul Fowler spent virtually 24 hours on the jetty with the microphone in between swims as a one-man motivational speaker. One relay swimmer pledged he would also run a kilometre for every additional £20 raised for his charity (he ran 28km in addition to his swim). All the event crew were volunteers and they were simply amazing. The event crew also included the Sports Therapy Association who provided 14 hours of free massage on site which helped ease our shoulders and necks and kept us injury free. Choose your support team carefully as they have to fully embrace the event in order to carry you through.
Summing up, the best thing about a 24-hour event such as this the opportunity to test yourself to your limits within a safe environment of a professionally delivered but friendly event. Personally, I’m front of the queue for next year’s 12-hour (solo) swim. Who’s joining me?
Do the swim
The 24-Hour Open Water Swim is organised by Paul Fowler of 100% Swimming and Activities Away. The 2017 12-hour overnight swim (solos and pairs) and 24-hour swim (solos, pairs and teams) are sold out. However, an invitation to apply for 2018 events will be released on 1 July 2017. You will like the process, you get to apply in writing and you can even expect a personal telephone call from Paul as he really likes to get to know the participants. Be quick though folks as there are only 24 places available! Find out more: onehundredpercentswimming.co.uk
Expressions of interest to firstname.lastname@example.org
Images: Roger Taylor