On 16 June, endurance athlete Damien Wildes embarked on an extraordinary swimming challenge – to swim 1km in each of Ireland’s 32 counties. He shares his story with us.
My name is Damien Wildes and I am a self funded, endurance athlete from Ireland.
I’m very fortunate to have spent much of my youth in and around the water. From holidays camping on the West Coast of Ireland to sailing courses, pier and cliff jumping with friends as well as being lucky to have surfed all over Ireland, Maui, Australia, Canaries, France, Sri Lanka and more. The sea and water has always played a big role in my life. Regardless of whatever else I was doing, the water has always been a constant. I look to spend as much time in and around it as possible.
A change in focus
Having spent a few years pursuing Ironman races and open water swims up to 10km, with my first child on the way, my focus moved towards spending my free time in the water, swimming, surfing and paddling. While my intention had been to pursue some international events, Covid was about to ruin all my plans.
With this, I began rethinking my approach.
Despite being an island nation, Ireland does not have the same relationship with the sea as many other island countries. Surfing is a relatively new sport, only emerging here during the 60s or so. SUP has only taken a hold in the last few years and the concept of prone paddling, downwinding or ocean exploration outside of a boat was relatively unheard of.
Swimming and dipping has become incredibly popular over the last few years, as it has in many countries, but there are few looking to push the boundaries of these sports. Instead, many fear the water and don’t understand it.
Island of possibilities
While these might sound like a deterrent, my mind has swung to the possibilities of what can be achieved living in a country surrounded by water. Since this realisation, I have undertaken a number of challenges with a list of others I’m hoping to achieve.
In 2021 I became the first person to complete a circumnavigation of Ireland’s largest island, Achill Island, by prone paddleboard. This area is subject of some of the fastest flowing tides in the country (and Europe), isolated sections with no phone signal and exposed to the North Atlantic, katabatic winds and the very fickle weather systems. The 65km route took 9hrs and 40mins, but with a good tide window and high pressure weather system it was a joy to be on the water. Except for the last 16km when a headwind blew up!
In 2022 I became the first person to attempt and complete a crossing of the Irish Sea from Wales to Ireland. This was a logistical nightmare taking two years to get over the line and left me in a bad way for a number of weeks after finishing it. This journey was 100km in 14hrs 58mins.
A swim in each county
This year, on the weekend of 16 June, I became the first person to attempt and complete swimming 1km in each of Ireland’s 32 counties over a single weekend. The event began at 4.30am on the morning of the 16th at Balbriggan Beach in Dublin and took me all over the country. I swam in lakes, rivers, bogs, the Irish Sea and the Atlantic, finishing in my hometown of Greystones, Co Wicklow at 5pm.
I loved getting to travel the entire country and getting to experience and swim in some of the best spots Ireland has to offer.
We had some problems with blue green algae up on Lough Neagh, which meant we had to create a Plan B. This forced us up into the Tyrone Hills for one of the kilometres to the Gortin Lakes. A hidden gem. We were led there by a local guide, and for a long time we were wondering where we were off to but it was absolutely worth the drive.
It was that good that by the time I finished my 1km, the three guys that were crewing for me were in the water too! But the entire route was fantastic, to think that there is a swim spot in every county means that no one has an excuse, everyone can get out and enjoy swimming regardless of where they are living.
Aside from the scenery, getting to finish the challenge and see my wife SarahJane and two kids, Dylan and Easkey in my home town was an amazing way to wrap up. It was a big mental and physical slog, so to see them at the end was fantastic and made it all worthwhile.
The most difficult aspect of the challenge was the logistics.
I have taken on a number of events like this and each time the planning is what dominates a lot of your head space. I’m self funded and plan these missions from start to finish myself so when you’re the decision maker as well as route planner and swimmer, there’s a lot going on in your head. But I had a whopper crew that made everything much more achievable.
During the event I felt quite good. We covered 13 counties on the first day ticking off 13km with a further 14km and 14 counties the next day. The Sunday only required 5km of swimming but a lot of driving. At this stage I was very fatigued and for two of the final three counties I had a bad slump. Everything just caught up on me and I felt a bit delirious in the water at times and just wanted to close my eyes.
Fortunately after some good management and liaising with my crew we got a good feed in and some sleep along the drive which helped bring me back around to get the final kilometre done.
Training for the challenge
In terms of preparation for this challenge – last year I become the first person to ever Prone Paddleboard across the Irish Sea. This covered 100km and took 14hrs and 58 minutes. The sheer volume of this had me well set up so that when it came time for me to start thinking about my next challenge I had a great base.
Training officially started last October, commencing with a lot of strength and mobility work as well as swim training. Overuse injuries on something like this are a big concern so the weight training helped with that.
Over time, the volume of swimming required just took over moving between high intensity pool sessions to long open water sessions and multi-swim days.
In the later part of my training, I looked to load as much work into my body as possible across a 4-6 day period and fortunately, it worked out very well. This coupled with nutrition and hydration work helped make the mission a success!
Recovery after the challenge
Recovery wise, I’m almost there. I finished on a Sunday and was back in work on Monday morning and coaching swimming on Monday night but I paid for that in a big way over the following few days.
The lack of impact in these events means that if your body is fine-tuned, you end up suffering from pure fatigue and exhaustion. It hit me on the Tuesday badly and I didn’t come around properly for another five days. Thankfully I’m almost there now and back in the water, getting moving again.
I’m always scheming and looking to see what I can come up with. Coming from a country where these types of activities are not actively undertaken but being surrounded by water, there’s endless possibilities.
For me, when you consider that there are children born who can’t go out and kick a ball with their friends or people who lose the ability to move in later life due to illness or disease, I feel it’s a shame not to get out and use what we have for as long as we can.
For me, these endurance challenges are a way for me to test myself and see how far I can push my mind and body, living under the idea that the desire to achieve has to be greater than the temptation to quit.
At the moment I am considering a few events, possibly something along the Shannon, the longest river in Ireland and the UK. But I do like my coastal and sea swimming, so I’m looking at some of the big landmarks out there like Kish Lighthouse or the Fastnet Rock to see if there’s something interesting that can be worked around these. I’m surrounded by water so realistically I’m spoiled for choice.