Cancer survivor completes her ‘Sea to Summit Extreme’ challenge

Andrea Mason has become the fastest known person to swim the longest lakes and run the highest peaks in Wales, England and Scotland to raise awareness of women’s menstrual and reproductive health. All this after having life saving cancer surgery in 2017. 

In her attempt to raise awareness of women’s menstrual and reproductive health, Andrea Mason has set an incredible four new world records. 

The ‘Sea to Summit Extreme’ challenge saw Andrea swim the length of Lake Bala, Lake Windermere and Loch Awe, and run to the summits of Snowdon, Scarfell Pike and Ben Nevis. Andrea cycled between each stage and completed this gruelling challenge in just 4 days, 7 hours and 58 minutes.

Over the four days, she swam 65km, cycled 800km and ran 44km up three mountains whilst gaining 3,400m of height. The immense feat equates to swimming the English Channel twice, riding 20 Olympic distance triathlon bike legs and running a mountain version of the London Marathon.  

Her four new records are:

  • The fastest known person to swim Lake Bala, cycle to and run Snowdon
  • The fastest known person to swim Lake Windermere, cycle to and run Scafell Pike 
  • The fastest known person to swim Loch Awe, cycle to and run Ben Nevis
  • The fastest known person to swim and run the longest lake and highest peak in Wales, England and Scotland, cycling between them 

Always a swimmer

A keen swimmer before her cancer diagnosis, Andrea’s love of being in water began at a young age. “Water is my therapy; it’s where I feel most happy,” she said. “My parents often joke that I could swim before I could walk. I swam 5,000 metres on my fourth birthday, which is insane!”

She continued to swim competitively as a child and into her teens, but was unfortunately forced to stop due to ongoing sickness and fatigue. At the time, it was put down to overtraining. Many years later, she was diagnosed with severe endometriosis – a condition in which tissue similar to the lining of the womb starts to grow in other places, such as the ovaries and fallopian tubes. Endometriosis affects 1 in 10 women – which is as many as diabetes – yet many people have still never heard of it. 

“I didn’t swim at all for a good 15 years. Eventually, as I learnt to deal with the condition, I started swimming again. This time falling in love with the open water.”

Andrea’s motivation to put herself through the brutal challenge came after a diagnosis of cervical cancer in 2017, which resulted in life-saving surgery. 

Although she knew this would be the hardest challenge she had ever attempted, the weather pulled out all the stops to make it even tougher with gale force winds and rain on day one. Having worked even harder on her first day, Andrea went into the second day of her challenge already tired. 

A particularly intimidating swim

Andrea found her last swim – a 41km swim along the length of Loch Awe – a particularly daunting prospect. “I can honestly say I have never been so afraid of a swim in my life!” she told us. “It’s the first time ever that I have gone into a swim, doubting if I could complete it.”

“I have done quite a few long swims before, but I have never started one when I was already tired. I just didn’t know how my body would react. Generally when you are fatigued you feel the cold more and I know from experience If the cold sets in then it really is game over. There is no mental strength that can bring you back from hypothermia.”

“I knew I had to keep going. I thought a lot about why I was doing it. Female menstrual health should not be a taboo subject, we need to talk about it! I kept putting one arm in front of the other until I reached the end, hoping that every stroke and stride was helping to raise awareness.” 

Andrea’s anxiety and tiredness before the start of the swim was clear for everyone to see. “I had gone to bed in tears after the long ride thinking ‘what the heck am I doing?’” She told us. “I kept trying to convince myself that it would be nice to get in the water, it would be a good recovery. A 41-kilometre swim recovery, said no one ever!”

“When I jumped in the water, my anxiety disappeared in an instant. The water was still and black, it was almost hypnotic. I swam from feed to feed, just concentrating on 30 minutes at a time, never allowing myself to think about the whole swim.”

Her young cheerleaders

During these more challenging moments, Andrea’s young nieces provided much needed motivation. “Seeing their little faces cheering for me, knowing I was inspiring them, made me incredibly happy and pulled me out of some dark places,” she said. 

The night before the difficult Loch Awe swim, her 10-year-old niece, Libby, told her something Andrea says she won’t even forget. “Auntie Andrea, you’ve got this. I know you’re tired and you’ve gotta swim a very long way tomorrow, but you’ve just gotta keep going. Think of everyone you’re helping. I believe in you.”

Andrea’s brother, who was supporting her alongside her trusted Big Bay support team, provided some light relief during her Lake Bala swim. Unbeknownst to him, they had forgotten the skeg in his kayak (the retractable blade that drops into the water at the stern, keeping you straight), but they figured he would be ok. “Unfortunately the wind picked up and he was just going around in circles,” said Andrea. “I was in absolute hysterics for the duration of the swim. He genuinely thought he was just really bad at kayaking.”

At the end of her challenge, Andrea stood at the summit of Ben Nevis, trying to take it all in. “I felt relieved, but the overwhelming feeling was pride,” she said. “For one of the first times in my life, I was proud of myself. I had done something that not even I was sure I could do.”

“I knew exactly what I wanted when I finished: a beer and a bath. In that order!”

An important message

Andrea has two core messages she wants people to take away with them from her campaign: “Do not be afraid to talk, and certainly don’t be afraid to go to your doctor, if you suspect that something is wrong. Many of us have been conditioned through inherent learning to believe that we shouldn’t discuss our menstrual health. This is crazy. Periods are the fundamental of life, so why should it be a taboo subject? We must normalise periods; we need future generations to grow up confident talking about their menstrual health.”

“Finally, if you are due a cervical smear test, go have it. It is two minutes out of your life, which can literally save your life! Don’t become a statistic like me.”

Photos: ​​Olly Bowman.

Andrea established Sea to Summit Extreme after she was diagnosed with severe endometriosis and cervical cancer in 2017, resulting in major surgery to save her life. During her recovery she decided to embark on near impossible challenges to help raise awareness about endometriosis and encourage women to attend their regular smear tests. Follow Andrea via her social media @sea_to_summit_extreme and donate to her Sea to Summit Extreme fundraiser. Read about more inspiring swimming challenges on our news page.

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Jo is the Gear Editor for Outdoor Swimmer and also writes news and features for the website. A keen open water swimmer and long-distance walker, she loves seeking out lakes and lidos close to her home in the Mendip Hills, Somerset. She is the author of The Slow Traveller, editor and founder of independent magazine, Ernest, and has previously tested outdoor clothing and kit for BBC Countryfile Magazine, BBC Focus and Ernest Journal.