Guest Post - The Ullswater Experience

Despite being new to the world of wild swimming, earlier this year photographer Alex Lester set himself the challenge of swimming across the Lake District’s second largest lake, Ullswater. In this blog, Alex discusses how he prepared for the swim, and how it felt crossing the open water of Ullswater for the very first time.

You can learn more about Alex and Studio Lester here.

Inspiration

It all started a few years ago.

Having read an article in my favourite indie mag on the benefits of wild swimming (an article featuring The Wild Swimming brothers, no less), my brain began pondering why I hadn’t heard much about this oft-forgotten pastime before.

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In the months that followed, inspired by the story of Robbie, Jack and Calum’s River Eden adventure, I decided to don my goggles and give it a go for real, beginning my foray into wild swimming with a quick dip in the Irish Sea, followed by a half mile jaunt across Wastwater a few weeks later. Needless to say, in no time at all I was hooked.

What might not surprise you is that no matter how I felt before getting in the water, the feeling upon climbing out always felt the same. I felt calm, present and connected - three issues I’d struggled with over the months that preceded each swim, having faced the saddening reality of three family members lost to cancer over a staggeringly short space of time.

Within a few months and with the wounds of the previous year starting to heal, I decided that I wanted to take action. Not in a bid to fight against the past, more as a way of thanking those that’d played such an integral part in the lives of not just those lost to cancer, but our family as a whole - MacMillan Cancer Support.

For those unfamiliar with Macmillan, the charity can best be described as a lifeline for those affected by cancer. In our family’s case at least, the Macmillan team were a constant source of support during those troubling times - and in order to thank them properly, I required a challenge worthy of donations. 

Not one for traditional challenges (or crowds, for that matter), it was decided that I would swim across Ullswater in October of this year. Aided by my partner Helen - tasked with the not-so-enviable job of managing my feeds - and Colin of ChillSwim, my aim was to swim the full, seven mile length of the lake solo, pushing my newly discovered love of wild swimming to the very limit.

Preparation

As I’ve already mentioned, wild swimming was something that was still relatively new to me at the time, meaning I had to take my preparation seriously if I were to stand any chance of succeeding with the challenge ahead. Knowing this, I contacted The Wild Swimming Brothers to see if they could offer any advice.

Within a matter of days I had my answer, with Robbie kindly suggesting a quick Skype call to discuss the swim and how best to tackle it in a little more detail.

This proved to be hugely beneficial. Not only did I discover a number of training methods I could use in order to prepare myself both physically and mentally for the swim, it put my mind at rest talking to someone that had already completed a swim across Ullswater before.

For anyone thinking of doing a similar challenge in the future, this would probably my top piece of advice: find someone that’s completed the swim before you and learn from their experience. Not only will this give you the belief that what you’re about to do is possible, but it’ll also equip you with the skills needed in order to overcome any issues - such as cold, dehydration, cramp etc. - that you may encounter while in the water.

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As well as describing a number of training techniques to try in the gym, Robbie also explained the importance of swimming outdoors in my wetsuit as much as possible in the weeks preceding the swim, as well as a cool mental trick that the SAS use to drive themselves forward in the face of adversity.

Described as the ‘60% method’, Robbie told me how when SAS soldiers reach the point of exhaustion - something I was likely to face a number of times swimming across Ullswater - they remind themselves that they are only 60% done, resulting in the belief that they can in fact go on, no matter how exhausted they think they are.

It was also during this initial Skype call that Robbie reminded me to break the swim into bite sized chunks rather than seeing it as one long challenge - another psychological trick that helps anyone facing a particularly lengthy task better comprehend the scale of the task at hand without getting overwhelmed.

With Robbie’s advice ringing in my ears, the months before the swim were spent doing lengths in my local pool, interspersed with the occasional trip to the lakes to practice swimming in my suit.

Having completed four miles in the pool the week prior to the swim itself, initial doubts were replaced with a quiet sense of confidence. Sure I was still massively nervous - but I was starting to believe that a seven mile stint across Ullswater was entirely possible.

The swim

The swim took place on October 15th. The weather was calm but cool, with a light mist hovering above the lake as we set out to our starting point at 09:00.

By 09:30 I was in the water, turning 180 degrees from Glenridding at the southern tip of the lake before heading north toward Norfolk Island. While those first few strokes were easily the coldest of the entire swim, I couldn’t help but notice a big grin taking over my face.

In just over an hour we reached the first turning point. Here I enjoyed a feed - warm lucozade with jelly beans - before turning north east, bringing the middle section of the lake into full view.

On the horizon I spotted a small boat house and remembered what Robbie had told me about breaking the swim into bite sized chunks. In my mind I determined the next challenge was to reach that boat house, trying to forget that even in the event of me reaching it, I’d still have a third of the swim left to do.

In hindsight, setting the boat house as my next marker had been an error. Duped by the steady progress I’d made since setting off, it soon became apparent that despite looking only a few hundred meters away, the boat house was in fact roughly 2 miles away, situated at the furthermost point of the middle section of lake.

For those unfamiliar with the geography of Ullswater, try to imagine a zig-zag shaped body of water broken into three sizeable sections. When swimming away from the southern tip of the lake, the first stretch runs for approximately 1.5 miles in a northerly direction. From here, the middle section runs for 3 miles from west to east, before a third and final section heads northbound for a further 2.5 miles.

At this point, roughly halfway across the middle section, the enormity of the challenge I was undertaking sank in. With my hands crippled by the cold, progress felt slow, with even the slightest under current throwing me off my rhythm. My ankles were swollen and my legs ached. And I still had 3.5 miles to go.

With Helen and Colin cheering me on from the support boat, I tried to remember what Robbie had told me. I focused on my breathing and set myself small milestones - each no further than 200 meters from the last. Slowly but surely the boat house grew bigger and the final section of the lake opened up. Colin told me to aim for a white house on the horizon, roughly 2.5 miles away. At last, the end was in sight.

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By this point my body was screaming. My hands were now swollen to twice their normal size, while my legs had pretty much stopped working altogether. Needless to say progress was painfully slow, and I can only apologise to both Helen and Colin in the support boat for what must have been a frustrating experience to endure.

 As the hours limped by, so did my progress. I soon passed the hotel where Helen and I were staying and hovered by the boat for one last feed. With less than a mile to go, the sun set and the cold really started to bite. What was once a big grin was now replaced by a face of steely determination. Giving up was simply not an option.

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 With only a few hundred meters to go I switched from breaststroke to front crawl in a bid to power over the line. On a nearby boat house, a kind couple called me over to congratulate me - gifting me £20 towards my JustGiving campaign moments after I’d been dragged into the support boat by Colin.

Slumped on the deck of the boat, my hands and ankles bigger than ever, I sat for moment and tried to take stock of what I’d achieved. Congratulated by both Helen and Colin, I felt lost in my emotions.

My mind racing and my body worn, I sat in silence listening to each breath. I had done it. And it felt good.

In retrospect

Looking back at my big Ullswater swim it’s difficult not to feel an immediate sense of pride. Not only did I accomplish my goal of swimming seven miles in open water, I also managed to raise £2,357.90 for Macmillan Cancer Support - a feat that makes all the pain and suffering endured throughout the swim worth its weight in gold.

 Separate to this feeling of pride is a feeling of gratitude. Not only am I thankful for every single person that donated to my JustGiving page, I’m equally thankful for those that helped me out along the way. While Robbie played the role of master while I gladly played the apprentice, special thanks must also go to Colin and Helen for their amazing work in the support boat. Nine hours on a small boat in the middle of October can’t have been easy. 

 Lastly, I’d like to thank the lake itself. Not only did its waters provide me with one of the most spiritual experiences of my 28 years on earth, it allowed me to find peace within myself following the loss of those lost to cancer. For those yet to experience its healing properties, I implore you to give it a try.

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