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#31miles6days – Harder than expected

When I signed up with #TeamBetter from GLL to swim 31 miles in 31 pools in six days, I didn’t expect it to be quite as hard as it was. After all, I’ve previously swum 10.5 miles in open water and I regularly swim around 15km each week. The total distance, at just under 50km, is less than elite swimmers cover each week and we’ve got readers who’ve swum that far in a day.

We started on 25 February with a one mile swim at Finchley Lido (the indoor pool) in Barnet before racing across London to Greenwich, Crystal Palace and London Fields Lido. We then jumped on a plane to Belfast to complete five miles on day one at Avoniel. The next day, after another early morning swim in Belfast, we flew back to Newcastle where we joined our tour bus and home for three days for a road trip that took us to pools in Carlisle, Cockermouth, Manchester, Rugby, Cambridge, Amersham, Abingdon, Henley, Bath, Swindon, Epsom, Tadworth and Hillingdon. Back in London we abandoned the tour bus for public transport, criss-crossing the capital to visit 12 pools in the final two days.

We were a team of 13, mostly employees of GLL, the social enterprise behind the “Better” brand of leisure facilities, along with representatives from kit sponsor Zoggs, SRS Leisure (a GLL commercial partner) and me! The idea was to swim in a pool in each of the regions where GLL operates. Typically, we had two lanes, sometimes three and occasionally (late at night) six.

It quickly became apparent that squeezing 13 swimmers (plus occasional guest swimmers) into two lanes and asking everyone to swim a straight mile at their own pace was a recipe chaos as we had a wide range of speeds within the group. We therefore decided to swim most of the miles as 8x200m, which was about the optimum distance to prevent faster swimmers lapping slower ones, and it kept everyone together as a team. And this was definitely a team effort, especially as the days rolled on, the fatigue began to build and we began to depend on each other for support and encouragement.

So why was it so hard? A mile isn’t so far, and we had time to rest, eat, drink and stretch between each one. It wasn’t a race and we frequently swam a few lengths backstroke to ease our shoulders. Still, my arms felt heavy, my shoulders hurt and towards the end I felt I was one hard push off or reckless kick away from cramp. The time schedule was relentless as there was barely enough time between swims to travel to the next destination. Swimming pools are not always conveniently located next to tube stops so we actually ended up walking something like 35 miles around London while carrying all our kit (including overnight bags and, in my case, a laptop) on our backs, which was possibly more tiring than the swim itself. And the miles do add up.

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Other factors added to the challenge. Your skin certainly takes a beating, both from chafing and the repeated immersion in chlorinated water (Vaseline helped save the day here). I can’t speak for anyone else but my guts suffered from six days of snacking and very few opportunities to eat my regular diet. Several of us felt travel sick on the tour bus and one person picked up a stomach bug that made him vomit several times. Sleep was in short supply!

But then, as we kept reminding ourselves, it wouldn’t be a challenge if it was easy, so it was a brilliant feeling to swim the final length, at the London Aquatics Centre, with everyone finishing together.

Highlights of the trip for me include seeing such a variety of swimming pools around the country. We swam in new pools and old pools, indoors and outdoors and almost every one had something unique about it. Some pools are definitely easier to swim in than others, with anti-turbulence lane ropes and water temperature being the biggest factors. I’ve got a preference for longer pools, cooler water and swimming outside (so London Fields Lido was probably my favourite, if I had to choose, followed by LAC).

It was also great to hit and then exceed our team fundraising target, with more than £14,000 being collected for Sport Relief, and more is always welcome – see:

Finally, a few things I’ve learnt along the way that might be useful for anyone doing anything similar:

1)      However slow you go to start with, you’ve probably started too fast

2)      Mixing up your strokes is brilliant for easing tiring shoulders

3)      Resist the temptation to satisfy your hunger with sweets and chocolate. Treats are great but real food will sustain you for longer

4)      Counting lengths is really hard; breaking swims up into chunks helps you keep track

5)      Fatigue isn’t a linear progression. You might really struggle with one swim and feel great on the next, or vice versa. Don’t think it’s all over just because you’re hurting

6)      Swimming is a team sport

7)      Logistical planning is essential. The challenge only worked because of the effort that went into planning the route and schedule in advance. Amazingly we arrived at every pool on time.

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I created Outdoor Swimmer in 2011 (initially as H2Open Magazine) as an outlet for my passion for swimming outdoors. I've been a swimmer and outdoor swimmer for as long as I remember. Swimming has made a huge difference to my life and I want to share its joys and benefits with as many people as possible. I am also the author of Swim Wild & Free: A Practical Guide to Swimming Outdoors 365 a Year and I provide one-to-one support to swimmers through Swim Mentoring.