|*Sept 13 2008 Saw launch of the Great Swim...find out more here...www.greatswim.org/|
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Swimmer
seems an appropriate expression to describe an event that sees the cream
of the UK's distance swimmers take the plunge at the annual Lake Windermere
long distance swim.
For those who dare to enter the world of long distance swimming the annual Windermere event is regarded as the "unofficial national long distance race" in the same way Wimbledon has become the ultimate accolade in the world of tennis.
And in the 2004 race, young
21 year old Barrow swimmer Rebecca Lewis again beat many more
powerfully built male rivals. Rebecca won the ten and a half mile
swim in just over four hours and seven minutes.
To try and understand the motivation behind such epic swims I took the oars as one of the support boat rowers in this the 48th race. Such rowers are needed to faithfully shepherd each swimmer from Fell Foot to the finish line at Waterfoot, Ambleside.
My swimmer was popular Liverpudlian Peter Harper who includes in his previous "dips" the annual swim across the murky brown waters of the River Mersey.
He explained that only a limited select few thought capable of safely completing were allowed to enter the Windermere race. Once accepted the 42 entrants have to attend a safety briefing at Ambleside Conservative Club before collecting that crucical extra...your Flag Alpha. Without this blue and white flag strapped to your rowing boat your swimmer will not be allowed to take part.
There was a clammy mist swirling around the boathouse at the National Trust's Fellfoot launch area as teams gathered their rowing boats and swimmer rubbed generous dollops of vaseline over parts of their bodies.
As the start whistle is blown the mass of swimmers gave a roaring chant of Ogi, ogo, ogi " before surging off for the mass start. There then followed a brief jostling as clucking rowing boats try to pick out their own swimmers amongs the sea of bobbing skull caps wending their way through the moored yachts at the southern end of the lake.
Soon the field of swimmers breaks up as those thirsting for front places slowly pull away from those who may only need the satisfaction of actually completing this daunting challenge. For many do fall by the wayside as fatigue or the sheer cold take their toll.
Rowing alongside that steady relentless beat of arms entering the water I asked Peter what goes through the mind of the long distance swimmer. "The way I cope is just to look ahead to each half-hour segment of the swim. And once a few half- hours are under my belt I enter the Zone."
Each swimmer must have his or her acconpanying row boat, ready to provide drinks or glucose rich snacks. But also more importantly these days to give protection from speedboats and high speed Jet Skis. These buzz around like gnats around a cow pat. The consant worry for race officials is that such speeders can fly into the path of a barely visible swimmer with lethal consequences. Such worries should fade in 2005 as the controversial lake speed limit ban comes into force.
I asked another young female competitor, Jennifer Clegg from Halifax how she copes with the stamina testing monotony. She said: "It can be a little bit boring, so I sing to myself..."
Most of the swimmers try to seek out the best and shortest "line" for their swim as they wend their way slowly past Belle Island and the numerous wooded outcrops along the beautiful lakeshore. Much of the Windermere shore is private with the retreats often created in mock Swiss style for wealthy Victorian millowners from lancashire. Also looking down from a wooded hill on the final mile is the turreted Wray Castle.
If the cold, powerboats and clingy underwater weeds have not ended the swimmer's efforts that most welcome sight is the cheering gathering at Waterhead as the swimmers thread their way through the moored yachts to once again stumble back onto terra firma.
Among the competitors in this year's Windermere race was Cockermouth's Paul Chew, who used Windermere for many of training swims before completing his own cross Channel swim. As BLDSA president Gill Stables explains, many of the Windermere swimmers hope to do the Channel challenge. But to swim the Channel they also have to make sure they have over £2,500 in the bank, as this is the typical cost of the insurance cover and safety boat aspects of making the Channel swim.
The sort of fanatism of the long distance swimmer can be seen by visiting the BLDSA's web site where a typical entry records a Three Way relay swim across the English Channel...not content with just swiming to France, they are prpeared to then swim back to England and then back again to France! The web site records the success: "The team of Dee Llewellyn, Pip Spibey, Julie Bradshaw, Liane Llewellyn, Andrea Gellan and Lucy Roper set off from Dover at 3.30 am on Friday 23rd July reaching the coast of France in 9hrs 28 mins, the return journey took them 9hrs 31 mins which broke the female two way record. They then carried on back to France to record a time of 32hrs 31mins. The team are the first ever ladies team to achieve a three way crossing. Well Done Girls." For my part just thinking about such a swim makes me feel breathless.
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