Loch Tay marathon swim
My original plan, which had been to do a fourteen mile sea swim from Ardrossan to Arran, had to be shelved due to engine problems with the support boat. So with only a couple of days left before the planned swim and the imminent arrival of my Australian helper I decided to opt for Loch Tay which was a very similar distance. The swim would be the full length of the loch from Killin in the west to Kenmore in the east. Since it is an inland loch I thought it would be relatively simple to organise as there are no tides, shipping lanes or coastguards to deal with and the weather would not be such a significant factor. With sea swims you sometimes have to wait for days on end to get the best combination of calm conditions along with the fortnightly neap tides.
As soon as I started looking for a support boat I realised that the logistical side of the swim would not be as straightforward as it looked. Every kayak, rowing boat and canoe was already booked or else would have to be returned by closing time on the Saturday, which was earlier then we could feasibly finish the swim and get back to their shop. After phoning around for a while I finally found an outdoor shop in Killin that would allow us to hire a two person sit-on kayak and return it on the Sunday morning (though at this stage I was not sure about being able to get a second helper or even if the kayak would be suitable). Then the girl on the other end of the phone became curious as to how we would get the kayak back from Kenmore to her shop in Killin when we finished and when I told her that we would just paddle back again she laughed and suggested that I rethink my plans a bit first! This was quite humbling but also sobering as I realised that with the last minute change of plans I hadn’t really thought through these details. On Loch Tay the wind often picks up from the west in the afternoon making it virtually impossible to paddle back the way. It is also considered quite a feat just to paddle one way down the loch let alone do the return journey.
After a fair bit of calling around I finally managed to book a sea kayak from an outdoor centre in Perth. They would also provide an inflatable roof-rack for transportation and allow us to return everything on the Sunday. The next task was to find a taxi that could take me back to the car at the other end of the loch when we finished the swim in Kenmore. This again proved harder than anticipated as either the taxi companies had gone out of business or they were fully booked for the Saturday evening. One did inform me, though, that a new bus service had just started that week and that I could be picked up within a few hundred metres of the side of the loch at various times on the Saturday evening. As for accommodation this also proved a little harder than anticipated as the youth hostel in Killin turned out to have been demolished two years previously! Luckily there was still some space left at Crianlarich which was not too much further away
Most of the logistical factors were now taken care of and although in this account of a swim no toe has yet been dipped in the icy waters of the loch, I think it is important for me to mention this other side of things as for me it is part of the inspiration to take on these challenges. For some reason as soon as people become aware of what you are trying to do, although you come up against numerous dead ends, eventually an elegant solution seems to emerge. Each person you speak to, in making some suggestion, somehow seems to help shape the final result which in turn becomes something you could never have planned out in a purely logical or rational manner wihout first communicating the general idea of the swim to others . At the same time it does not mean you throw fortune to the wind, rather you are as prepared as you can be but at the same time remain open to change as you meet obstructions in your original plan.
We arrived late at the youth hostel and after doing battle with swarms of midges, who were revelling in the cool damp conditions, managed to stash our kayak in the bike shed. In typical youth hostelling style we then quickly made friends with a group of hill walkers, who were so taken aback by the idea of me swimming the length of the loch that they insisted we telephone them on arrival at Kenmore rather than taking the bus. They would then drive what I explained to them would be close to thirty miles to reach us and then the same distance to get back again. Note again the way things slowly start to take shape.
Moving swiftly onwards, Saturday morning found us driving up and down bumpy tracks at the side of the loch in Killin looking for a launching place. A good starting point had been suggested to us by the lady at the hostel, who herself was something of a keen wild water swimmer. This subsequently proved invaluable as although a loch is clearly marked out on a map and has a definite shape when viewed from surrounding hills, the actual start may well only be accessible through woods and marshy fields. This would make parking and carrying a large kayak with all the necessary provisions very problematic and of course the last thing you would be wanting to deal with before a long swim. As it happened we found the perfect spot to launch the kayak with a safe place to park the car for the day about fifty metres away.
As we wandered down the track, bright sunlight was filtering through the canopy of trees creating a beautiful dappled effect on the water and we could see the loch glistening in the distance against a backdrop of blue sky and mountains. This was a most auspicious start as we had been all ready for the usual heavy rain and overcast skies. At this stage we really had no idea as to how we were going to load up the kayak. We had planned to check out the starting point and other matters the night before but it was just too late when we drove past the loch on the way to the hostel. The kayak had a number of small storage compartments but these would be inaccessible whilst paddling out on the water and would be difficult for me to open and close from the water. Quite a number of things would have to come with us, including food and drink for both of us for the whole day, maps, clothing and a number of items such as money and car keys. As it turned out I didn’t need to open the compartments up during the swim which was good as it kept the swim within the bounds of the accepted rules. In order to ensure consistency and the validity of swims, the authorities that oversee Channel Swimming have laid down a set of rules. These basically state that you can only use trunks or swimming costume, goggles and a swimming cap (so no wet suits). It is also not permitted to touch your support boat. This makes a swim official and means that it is then open to someone to try and break the record by doing it faster or in some other special way. As far as I have been able to ascertain the only person to have swum Loch Tay is Colleen Blair, who in fact went on to swim Loch Tummel and Loch Rannoch all in the same weekend.
By nine o’clock we were finally able to move out from the woods and launch the kayak into the bright sunshine for the start of our adventure. The edges of lochs often shelve slowly so you have to wade quite far out before it is deep enough to start swimming. The ground underfoot is often soft and muddy which is quite a pleasant sensation on the feet but there can also be little sharp stones scattered around making it hard to walk. I was taking my time to get in as the water was cold but at one point I tripped over a rock and found myself fully immersed rather sooner than expected. It was actually quite funny and I took it as an indication to get moving. Aryavan had already taken off and was fast disappearing into the middle distance. In fact the whole swim had this quality to it, more like wrestling a beast as opposed to having time to dawdle and look around. Initially I had thought we would have to pull in occasionally to sort out the food or would have to struggle a bit with opening the containers but as it turned out it really was a question of relentlessly pushing on. Sometimes the kayak would be pushed on by the wind and waves and it would be hard even to catch up to grab a hot drink. This made it much more like a channel swim, which also tends to be more of a fight than a pleasant refreshing swim out in the ocean.
At the start of these long distance swims there is usually a burst of enthusiasm and this was especially so with the sunlight, blue skies and the peaceful atmosphere on the loch. However, along with it there is often a daunting fear of the distance as you realise that you have barely even started and have a long way to swim. Feelings of vulnerability, anxiety and loneliness appear and the whole endeavour will often seem futile. All the training, preparation and initial enthusiasm evaporate and you are left just wishing you were somewhere else. The best one can do is to observe this and know it for something that always appears only to disappear after an hour or two. I try to remember all the training swims I have done, in this case up to six hours in the sea, and to convince myself that I should at least try to repeat that length of time since it is obviously within my capacity. This is where the training is most important, as it is not just a slow overall physiological strengthening, but also the creation of a kind of chunk of material energy that guarantees you a certain result on the day. It is like having some currency whan you arrive in a foreign country that will at least see you through the first few days until you get settled. It is as if the training allows you to put yourself on autopilot regarding the swimming whilst you try and weather the onslaught of tricky thoughts. Once you get to the six hour point or whatever you have trained for, then the thoughts have usually disappeared and a whole new energy comes from having reached the point you are at and not given in to the thoughts. For me this is part of the process that links in with meditation and is related to the concentration aspect of meditation.
It wasn’t too long before we reached a headland, which I recognised from our mapping out of the swim the night before to be at approximately the two mile point. It had only taken an hour and if anything it seemed like there was a surge of waves coming from behind pushing us east. This seemed to stay with us for the whole day and although it was probably a help overall often it was often quite hard to swim and build up a rhythm whilst being battered by these small waves from behind.
Aryavan handed me down my first drink, which not through any fault of his turned out to be rather a foul concoction of tea mixed with an energy gel. I think there was an old sachet mixed in with the newer ones I had bought the day before but it was enough not to want one again! I generally struggle with the commercial energy drinks and end up with bananas and bits of chocolate to keep the energies up. Anyway we pressed on for what seemed to be another hour and were already somewhere around the four mile point. I generally prefer not to be told the times and distances by my helpers until the end. For me this is an essential part of trying to move out of the rigid negative thinking that I was describing earlier on. It is so much more comforting to be able to say to yourself that it may have been, for example, two and a half hours that you have been swimming, rather than two hours, or to think that you have covered four and a half miles rather than a cold clinical four or perhaps less. You can then further embellish this by considering that you may be swimming faster than normal meaning that the swim might be completed in closer to seven hours rather than the predicted nine hours. Very quickly and credibly you can convince yourself that there is a chance you are already half way through the swim. This can be very comforting and really give you the energy to keep going, but could be ruined by being given a more clinical and ‘correct’ distance.
So despite some inner complaining the progress was good and the swell built up by the westerly wind seemed to be pushing us in the right direction, although it was also making it harder for Aryavan to hold a course and keep to my pace. In fact it was at this point that he had to pull in to one of the natural beaches at the edge of the loch to sort out clothing and food. I was left to swim ahead on my own and assumed it would only be a matter of minutes before he reappeared. Suddenly the loch seemed a lonely and frightening place and I became aware that whenever I looked down it was all dark. It may seem absurd reading this in the light of day but you really do start thinking about the existence of a monster in the loch and that you would probably be a good target for it given the lack of other large creatures floating about! Part of the experience of swimming in open water is that as you move your head from side to side to breathe you are continually seeing dim shapes and images but from a perceptual point of view the brain does not quite have quite long enough or sufficient information to interpret them. You get a rough impression of the object but by the time you come up to breathe again on the same side you will tend to be in a different place and at a different height due to the waves. Something that has caught your attention may often just be the way the light is reflecting off the waves and not be there anymore when you come round to breathe the second time. All the things that come in to your field of vision as you swim down a loch, such as the houses, fields, fallen down trees, forests and rocky outcrops, can take on strange forms in your mind. This is exacerbated by the fact that swimming also tends to be quite a silent and introspective activity as compared to say running or cycling. Much of the time you are just alone with your own thoughts and really only have contact with your helpers when you stop for a drink. Having said that I usually find that any fears tend to evaporate quite quickly along with the other other feelings of isolation and futility that one tends to experience at the start. A little fear is of course healthy to protect you from danger but the irrational fears seem to be part of the limited state of mind that you somehow encounter and pass through after the first few hours.
Anyway still in one piece, and with the monster perhaps still in another part of the loch, the familiar yellow kayak appeared behind me. In fairness Aryavan generally tried to stay as close to me as possible but it was often hard for him due to the wind and the fact that a swimmer moves along too slowly for him to build up any speed or rhythm. Also quite a lot of the time there were waves behind us that would throw the kayak about sometimes even breaking over it and drenching him. He had to paddle hard to keep warm which meant he would sometimes be a little in front or behind and sometimes I would see him doing a slightly curious backward paddling. He explained later that this helped him keep up the momentum and stop him from getting too cold. The first time he did it, though, I was convinced he had seen something ahead of him in the water and was quickly backtracking leaving me to swim directly into it. Although I knew what he was doing, every time this happened I couldn’t help feeling there was something up ahead in the water!
Over the course of the next hour things started to really ache which was worrying as this was only around the three hour point. This is a fairly normal experience and in some ways is a little easier as you are less bothered by the mental demons and can focus a bit more on whatis happening physically. The only problem is that there is a tendency at this stage to start calculating that you are only say a third of the way through and already tired. At this stage it is just a question of persuading yourself to carry on a little longer and to see how things turn out. Often the aches and pains will ease off a little and an hour or two may pass quite quickly leaving you all of a sudden past the half-way stage and seeing the end.
We stopped for a banana which really seemed to give me a boost and then Aryavan produced some ginger nut biscuits, which far from being something rather dull that I would normally avoid on dry land, became delicious! I thought that no matter how much things were hurting, as long as I had the odd banana and ginger nut then I would be happy and keep going to the end.
So despite some aches and pains I was still swimming strongly and soon we reached what looked like the half way point under Ben Lawyers, which is the Munroe that dominates the loch. Things started to ease off a bit here and we were distracted by a sea plane that was coming in to land on the other side of the loch. I had another hot drink and banana and we started heading across to the other side, which was part of the route that we had planned in order to take the shortest line. From my vantage point in the water there appeared to be a clear headland over on the other side, about fifteen minutes or so away, so to give myself a goal I decided to wait for the ginger nut treat until we were over there.
The sun was coming out and having passed the half way point I was starting to feel much more confident about being able to finish. Again this seems to be the next stage in this series of phases that you pass through when taking on a long distance event. Having passed through the initial fears and boredom, then the physical aches for an hour or so, things start to open up and relax. Everything seems more expansive and less intense after the more intense concentration stage at the beginning. There will be moments of exhaustion but generally a strong underlying feeling that you will just keep going to the end.
As I started heading over to the other side, Aryavan had to go back in to the shore again to rearrange the supplies and put on warmer clothing. The plane was still flying around and on top of everything else I started to worry that it might be coming in to land and not have seen me! After this quite welcome distraction and the reappearance of the trusty yellow kayak I noticed that the loch started to get a little rougher and colder as we got out into the middle. The headland that I had assumed to be about fifteen minutes swimming away and earmarked for the ginger nut treat never seemed to get any nearer. After about two hours relentlessly pushing on I realised that it was really just one long slow curve in the land and just looked like a headland from all angles until the loch straightened out again. I was starting to get quite cold and tired by now so was very glad when Aryavan arrived alongside with a big handful of chocolate. I’ve never actually experienced even mild hypothermia but have read up on it and make sure that my helpers are well informed. If there were any danger of it then I would just stop immediately and get warmed up. This is why it is essential to have a support boat that you can jump into or if you are with a kayak then to make sure that you are always within a few minutes of the shore.
About half an hour later we stopped for another drink and I said to Aryavan that at this rate I may not be able to finish. He was very understanding but pointed out that we were now at the eleven mile point. We seemed to have rounded the long headland and I could see houses in the distance that I could only assume was the end of the loch. I thought I would try to swim hard to warm up and see if could keep going for another hour. This is where you get into what other swimmers have dubbed the ‘eternal hour’. You are really within touching distance and there is little doubt that you will finish but no matter how hard you swim the end just does not seem to get any nearer. Your helpers tell you that it is just one more hour but no matter how long you swim for it is still another hour to go. This is particularly common in the English Channel where the strong tides on the French coast do add considerable time on to a swim even when you are very close to the shore.
The waves were building up more and more behind us and I was getting buffeted every time I tried to do my stroke rather like swimming in to a beach through the surf. However, eventually we came to some small sailing dinghies moored at the foot of the loch and managed to land on a small jetty in front of the hotel at Kenmore. As I emerged from the water Aryavan told me that the water temperature had in fact been only twelve degrees the whole way. I didn’t feel quite so bad about having felt rather cold during the swim but of course was elated to have reached the end in what to be honest had been rather an unknown adventure. We dried off and a man on his way to the hotel swimming pool commented that it must be rather cold for a dip in the loch. I didn’t get round to explaining that we had been out there for eight and a half hours! Aryavan was quickly installed in the nearby cafe with a large cappuccino and three orders of chips whilst I went to find the bus back to Killin to pick up the car. When we arrived in Killin the lady driving the bus decided that since I had swum the whole length of the loch she would drive me all the way down the bumpy track to the car, at least two miles off her official route!
It had certainly been exhilarating swimming surrounded by mountains and spectacular scenery, such a change from the heat and crowds of a public swimming pool. Fresh water is much less buoyant than salt water making it more arduous to swim through but the water in the lochs is so clean you can just drink it if you want to, which means when you get the odd inevitable mouthfuls of water it is much easier on the system. I still prefer the sea but am certainly happy to a loch swim every now and again. To be honest I don’t think I really enjoyed it much at the time but did feel an immense satisfaction on finishing and found it very energising and strengthening. That’s perhaps part of the answer to the question as to why one would do this kind of thing.