This is a first-person account from Julian Crabtree on one of the most amazing feats in a local open water swim that we have ever heard of. Anywhere. He calls his feat, conducted during the Great Swim series in Great Britain, The Great Swim Challenge.
We call it remarkable.
"You've got 30 seconds, so dig deep," screams Colin Hill as I stumble up the ramp at the Great North Swim in Windermere.
The blood is pumping in my ears and my shoulders are aching as I try and sprint back to the start for the next wave of swimmers. The support I am getting is incredible, but I cannot stop to thank them - the count down has started...five, four, three, two...
The hooter goes just as I reach the start and I am back in the water for my ninth mile swim of the day - only four more to go...
Four months ago when David Hart, Communications Director for Nova International, asked me if I was interested in swimming all the waves of the Great North Swim, I jumped at the chance.
Despite this being only the second year of holding the event, the Great North Swim has grabbed the public's attention and is already seen as a must-do event.
Against the backdrop of the stunning Lake Windermere, it offers swimmers of all abilities the chance to swim in one of the most beautiful places in Britain.
This iconic event is supported by some of the best swimmers in the world with the likes of Keri-Anne Payne, Cassie Patten and Larisa Ilchenko all taking part.
The success of the first Great North Swim in 2008 was, in fact, so massive that in 2009 Nova added a further three swims to the list - the Great London Swim, the Great Scotland Swim and the Great East Swim. All have been major successes and are expected to grow even bigger in the coming years. With that in mind I upped the stakes of David’s challenge - how about I try for all the waves of all the Great Swims?
With London and Scotland under my belt, I headed up to Windermere knowing that things were about to get a lot tougher and I would have to push my limits to complete all 24 waves.
The two other Great Swims were organised so that the waves went off every hour, averaging each wave out at around 25 minutes meant I had plenty of time to recover and fuel up. However the Great North Swim was different. With over 6,000 swimmers taking part, there were 12 waves a day, but this time they were going off every 30 minutes.
There is something special about facing the unknown. There is, of course, the fear and, in my case, always plenty of self-doubt that I have to constantly battle with - that feeling that once you do start to dig deep there is nothing there and you are found wanting and way below the standards you have set for yourself. But it is a powerful and liberating feeling too – one way or the other you are going to know a little bit more about yourself at the end of it all.
The first swim kicks off at 9 am and I plunge into the clear and bracing lake for my first mile. I try not to think how many I still have to do (23!) or get caught up in any races. I concentrate on my stroke, my breathing and try to soak up the incredible venue. I get around it just over 25 minutes – a bit too quickly than I wanted, but all okay.
The support I receive is incredible as the Nova staff make sure I have everything I need and are always on hand to guide and help me with a smile.
Then there are the rest of the swimmers. From the lady who had only learnt to swim after she sent her entry form in to the first disabled man to have swum the English Channel, they are incredible and give me plenty of inspiration to keep on going.
Apart from an unlucky kick in the fifth wave that hurts my shoulder, I get through Saturday by the skin of my teeth. I cannot really think about how I am going to do it all again on Sunday, but tomorrow is another day. Once again, Nova looked after me in the evening and sent me off to bed properly hydrated and well fed.
Sunday feels like Ground Hog day. I have plenty of well wishes and am humbled by the amount of support I am getting. Each wave greets me with cheers and slaps on the back. The first six, I am well on target and start to believe that I may just do this. Then the wheels fall off. I can’t seem to feel the water at all, my shoulder is killing me and I feel like I am going backwards.
At the best of times, I am not a pretty swimmer. I don’t effortlessly glide or cut through the water. I bludgeon my way through, relying on brute force to drag myself forward. It’s not pretty, but it has worked well for me in the past. However, after 18 waves, I have no power left and desperately try to slip stream off the faster swimmers around me.
I have five more to do, then four, then three. At the end of my 21st wave, I am down to just 30 seconds and know that I am only going to get slower. If I can just hang on though, just find a bit more grip in the water, I may just be able to keep to the 30-second buffer. As I am pulled out for my 22nd mile, I am told to jump on the back of the buggy.
Seeing my exhausted state, Nova have got a golf cart sorted to race me from the finish to the start. It is seconds really, but enough time for me to grin and get some more fluids down. Afterwards I am told it was exciting stuff: will he make it back in time? Can he keep on going?
I am hurting badly now, but have to keep on going. I know am swimming badly, but cannot seem to anything about it – totally exhausted and feeling pain everywhere I can only keep going on stroke at a time. I know if I get back for the 24th wave, I have done it – I can relax then, take it easy. Stop and enjoy the setting sun, say thank you to the rescue kayakers who have been out all day and just reflect on an incredible two days of swimming. But I have one more lap to go before that and I am putting everything I have into it. I am not embarrassed to say that I am sobbing into the lake, shouting in anger and frustration to desperately try and find some more speed. Hands are reaching for me and pull me out. Go, go, go they scream – back on the buggy.
I can hear them counting down for the final wave - I’ve just made it and as the hooter goes for the 24th and final wave, I plunge in for the final time. I do stop and thank the kayakers and for a moment roll onto my back, lift my goggles up and take it all in. But then all thoughts of taking it slow evaporate. I’ve had enough I want to get out as soon as possible – as I am helped out for the final time, I keep my goggles in and try to hold back the tears – not from the pain, but from the overwhelming support from everyone. To complete the The Great Nova Swim Challenge, I still have the all the waves in the Great East Swim to do. It won’t be easy, but I have the spirit of Windermere to take with me and with that anything is possible.
Copyright © 2009 by World Open Water Swimming Association