Outdoor Swimmer catches up with Matt Dawson after he set a new record in the Lake District
Outdoor Swimmer: Can you give us a brief overview of the challenge?
Matt Dawson: The challenge was to swim the 13 publicly accessible lakes in the Lake District, equating to approximately 70km of swimming. The timer starts when you get in at the first lake and stops when you get out at the end of the final lake, so all swimming and travelling time in between counts towards the overall time. I started at Windermere and finished at Wastwater. I had an awesome crew supporting me on the water in kayaks and transporting me from lake to lake in a minibus and a car.
OS: What was the toughest part of the challenge for you?
MD: The toughest part of the challenge was getting back into the lakes through the night. I knew this was coming though. When I did the 2swim4life 24-hour events, I found it harder to get back into the water during the night because of being naturally tired and therefore feeling the cold more during the dark hours. Another issue was not being able to take on enough calories, which meant that I felt the cold even more. I was getting out of the water shivering and needing to be warmed up before getting into the next lake.
In hindsight, I would spend more time during training working out what food I can actually take on. In the water I was mainly drinking carbo drinks only. I struggled to take on solid food because it kept coming back up. I also couldn’t take on too much food between the lakes for the same reason. The times that I was able to take on food I noticed a big difference in my ability to handle the cold and an improvement in the quality and power of my swimming.
OS: Did you ever think you wouldn’t make it?
MD: There were two times when I seriously questioned whether I was going to make it. The first was about 40km into the swim, in the middle of Ullswater in the dead of night with a thunderstorm raging around us and lightning flashing overhead. I thought I might get pulled out because it was too dangerous to stay in the water. The second time was in Wastwater. It was absolutely freezing, I couldn’t believe how cold I felt. I didn’t think I would give up but was actually worried I could start to get hypothermia.
OS: When did you become confident that you would make it and set a record?
MD: The most confident I felt was at Loweswater. It was the penultimate lake and the water was warm and the sun was shining. I finished the swim feeling really good and knew I had one swim left and 5.5km. Of course, I didn’t realise how cold Wastwater was going to be.
OS: How did you manage swimming at night?
MD: If there hadn’t been the storm to contend with it would have been fine. The most difficult thing to deal with is not feeling like you’re making any progress. The only points of reference were the boats which were festooned with glow sticks and gave a party boat feel to the occasion, and the lights on the horizon which never seemed to get any closer.
OS: How did you cope with the temperature?
MD: Four of the lakes were utterly freezing, the others varied in levels of warmth. The best thing that my crew did for me was to provide hot water bottles after each swim. I could get warm pretty quickly after each swim. It did make it harder to get into the next lake when I had been freezing, warmed up and then knew I had another lake to get in just a few minutes later. I didn’t dwell too much, I knew I wasn’t going to give up, so I just had to get into the water and start swimming. The hardest strokes were the first few, once I was away from the start of the lake I knew I just had to keep going until I got to the end.
OS: What were the hardest parts? Did you have to cope with any injuries, for example?
MD: I fractured my ribs and did some damage to my back muscles three weeks before the swim. The ribs didn’t cause me too much trouble but I had searing pain in my back on and off throughout the whole thing. This was the hardest part to cope with other than the cold and not being able to get enough food down. Towards the latter half of the swim it was getting harder to keep food and drink down.
OS: Did you have fun along the way?
MD: I had good banter with my crew throughout and they helped to keep my spirits going. Whilst I wouldn’t say I had a huge amount of fun during the swim itself, I did have a lot of fun on the journey to get to the start of the challenge, taking the idea from concept to reality and bringing my friends together to plan out the route and the kit. From testing out various boats, and light options in local lakes in the middle of the night, to doing a recce weekend to plan out the best route and then various evenings discussing and refining the plan over a few beers. That was the really fun part and spending time with a good group of mates focused on a common goal.
OS: If you were going to have a go at breaking your own new record, what would you do differently?
MD: I would start by not fracturing my ribs 3 weeks before the challenge 🙂 In all seriousness though, the damage I did to my ribs and back muscles made swimming the distance more difficult than it needed to be.
Aside from this, the main issue I struggled with was the cold water in some of the lakes. I was shocked at how cold some of the lakes were. I’d estimate the temp to be as low as 10-12c in some of the lakes. When I did a recce in May the lakes were a lot warmer, but due to the poor weather in the weeks leading up to the challenge they’d cooled considerably. Doing the swim later in the season would certainly help getting warmer temperatures.
OS: As someone who has swum the English Channel (non-wetsuit), you chose to do these swims with a wetsuit. How much harder do you think it would be without a wetsuit?
MD: I think it would be a lot harder to do this swim without a wetsuit. Even if the challenge is planned when the water temperature is warmer, without the extra buoyancy the impact on one’s body is significant. Over the past few years, I have struggled with back pains when swimming long distances in fresh open water, less so in the sea. This is part of the reason I opted to wear a wetsuit this time, without it I’m not sure I would have made it.
If you’re interested in repeating Matt’s challenge or trying to beat his time, there is now a website dedicated to swimming all 13 swimmable Lake District lakes: https://www.the13.info/
Also, see Matt’s blog: http://swimmingthechannel2013.blogspot.com/2023/07/lake-epic-new-swimming-record-as-i.html
And his JustGiving page: https://www.justgiving.com/page/matthew-dawson-09072023