Marathon swimming

A personal revolution (one stroke at a time) by Crispin Thorold

“It will change your life” is a phrase that I have heard several times from English Channel soloists.  The argument goes that by the moment you clamber onto the rocks at Cap Gris Nez, or stumble onto the sands of Wissant Beach, your life will have been fundamentally altered.

Given the reaction of several of my friends to my plan to attempt to swim the Channel, perhaps the shift comes when you make the decision to make an attempt - a sure fire sign of a malfunction in your mental state.  After all why would anyone in full control of their faculties decide that swimming the Channel is a good idea?  Or in the light-hearted words of a medic who recently checked my fitness to train, 'you don’t need a doctor, but if you want to swim the Channel you really should consider a psychologist'. (at least I think he was joking..)

Cap Gris Nez south of Calais - a 'life-changing' target. Photo:  Jean-Pol GRANDMONT

Cap Gris Nez south of Calais - a 'life-changing' target. Photo: Jean-Pol GRANDMONT

That consultation had followed a few weeks of medical issues, which were casting doubt on the wisdom of my still relatively light training schedule (15K per week).  After two weeks of tests and an enforced abstinence from swimming I was given the all clear with a hearty pat on the back by a still mystified doctor.  The time away from swimming was incredibly frustrating but this ‘time off’ also allowed me to reflect on the ways that training for an English Channel solo attempt is already changing my life.

A process not an event

Marcel van der Togt, a Channel soloist and long-time open water coach who is helping to structure my training, always talks about a Channel solo swim as a process not an event.  He says that the satisfaction and achievement of a successful solo comes as much through the training, as the swim itself.  

The further into this process I get the more I agree with this. Three years ago I could barely swim a lap of freestyle but through systematic, steady training at first 3/4 times a week and now 5+ times a week, my swimming has been transformed.  The changes have not just been physical – they have also required self-discipline, as well as organisation.

Consistency is king

As a child and later at university I was a crammer who forced as much information into my head, in as short a time as possible.  This ingrained habit was compounded by my journalism training. After all the day-to-day life of a reporter is unpredictable and you can spend long periods of time waiting.  Waiting for a story or waiting for an interview before suddenly, generally without warning, there is a desperate scramble to deliver your report as soon as possible.  Whilst this develops many positive and useful skills, it does not encourage that key to Channel success: consistency.

Now three years in, as I start to intensify my training, consistency is king, and I am finding that this enforced steadiness from swimming is permeating into many other parts of my life, particularly at work.

A marathon not a sprint



Of course cramming is all about achieving a lot in a short space of time – it’s about sprinting.  And that instinct to rush has characterised my swimming and much of my training.  All I want to do is to launch myself off the blocks full pelt throwing every ounce of energy I have into getting to the other end as quickly as possible.  This is of course fine if you’re swimming 50s, or 100s or 200s but for a wannabe marathon swimmer it’s a disaster in the making.  After a few hundred metres you are wiped out and a relatively modest set can suddenly seem an impossibility. 

In recent weeks I have made two major changes to my training to try to wean myself off this habit.  Firstly, I have replaced the heavy sprinting training (short, intense sets with long rest periods) with longer, paced endurance and threshold training.  And secondly, I have started using a tempo-timer to introduce some pacing into my swimming.  The changes have been rapid and rewarding – and are well learned for other aspects of life.

Getting back on the horse

And last of all, the most obvious of the lot. If at first you don't succeed then try, try again. 

After my enforced swimming hiatus I am now back into a solid routine of training most days.  This requires me to acknowledge and then reject those negative internal voices that say it would be so much easier to go home instead. 

I am also taking this attitude into individual training sessions.  During a recent ‘red mist’ session I was finished halfway through a relentless 10x400 set and ready to leave on the spot, but rather than give up I allowed myself an extra 30s break, ate a banana and pushed on with the grueling training session.  It lived up to its red mist billing, but I got there in the end and was particularly pleased by overcoming my demons in training - something I will certainly need on the day.  Here’s hoping I have the same spirit in the 80x100 workout tomorrow.

So there you have it a ramble through some of the ways that the lessons that I am learning during my process of training for an English Channel solo are changing other aspects of my life.

Let me know what you have learned through your training and just keep swimming!

Lake Geneva – an epic swim with literary credentials by Crispin Thorold

One of the most notable marathon swims of this year’s season, was also one of the most evocative. It took accomplished American swimmer, Jaimie Monahan, close to 33 hours to swim Lake Geneva from tip-to-tip.  

Jaimie Monahan after an epic 69km, 32hr 52min swim (Photo:LGSA)

Jaimie Monahan after an epic 69km, 32hr 52min swim (Photo:LGSA)

Starting from the historic Château de Chillon in the East, Monahan swam more than 69kms (43 miles) to the city of Geneva where she landed in the shadow of the world-famous Jet d'Eau fountain.  En route she passed through some of the most beautiful scenery in Europe, swimming in freshwater that is crystal clear, indeed it is so clean that Monahan says “you can drink it”.

She was only the third recorded person to swim the lake and the first American woman to do so.  This was also the inaugural solo swim for the newly formed Lake Geneva Swimming Association (LGSA), a governing body which intends to put Lake Geneva on the wish-list of all ultramarathon swimmers.  This may prove an easy sell. 


There are few swims that combine the magic and majesty of the setting, with the sheer physical and mental toughness that is required to complete a crossing of Lake Geneva.

In part it is the history of the landmarks along the way that make this swim so special.  Take the starting point – Château de Chillon – a medieval fortress that was the summer home of the Counts of Savoy and a one-time prison. It also has a unique place in French and English literature.  

The start of the Lake Geneva swim at Château de Chillon (Photo: LGSA)

The start of the Lake Geneva swim at Château de Chillon (Photo: LGSA)

In the inclement summer of 1816 Lord Byron, the poet and grandfather of open water swimming, as well as the writer Mary Shelley, and several others, visited the château.  During their time by the lake Shelley started writing Frankenstein and Byron completed The Prisoner of Chillon. The château also inspired the writing of Alexandre Dumas, Gustave Flaubert and Victor Hugo.

In the shadow of Chillon is a small beach from which the swim begins. “We tried to split the swim up mentally into three parts”, said Jaimie Monahan.  “During the first part, the early days, […] the water was really blue and we kept passing these little towns and gorgeous houses.” 

Lake Geneva (Map: Institut F.A. Forel)

Lake Geneva (Map: Institut F.A. Forel)

On the Swiss side of the lake, to the right of the swimmer, are the 11th century UNESCO listed Lavaux Vineyard Terraces, which stretch for about 30 km. On either side the peaks of the Alps “rise up in varying inconsistencies”, said Ben Barham, the founder of the LGSA. “When the sun sets in the mountains it causes any cloud cover to light up in different shades, casting lights on the mountain as if there is a search for Frankenstein.”

For Jaimie Monahan’s swim most of the second chapter was overnight and was lit by “an enormous beautiful full moon”.  “The water was pretty comfortable all the way, about 22 degrees [Celsius]", said Jaimie Monahan, "but just being in the water for that length of time did feel pretty cold, especially in the night.”  In the final hours of the night, after the moon had set and before the sun started to rise, the sky filled with “zillions of stars and no light pollution”.  

By morning Jaimie Monahan was approaching the final part of the swim – along the pointed finger of the lake that stretches south west all the way to the city of Geneva.  However this final stretch is a cruel one with the mighty Jet d’Eau visible for miles on the horizon.

“It’s like the smoke from the chimney stacks of Ithaca on Odysseus’ journey teasing you”, said Ben Barham continuing the literary theme.  “It doesn’t get any closer for another 10 hours.  It’s quite a remarkable thing to see.” Jaimie Monahan also had to battle through a headwind.  “It made the water a bit wavier”, she said.  “Not crazy waves compared to what I usually swim in but after thirty hours out it just felt like being in a washing machine.” 

The Jet D'Eau rises like "the smoke from the chimney stacks of Ithaca" (Photo: LGSA)

The Jet D'Eau rises like "the smoke from the chimney stacks of Ithaca" (Photo: LGSA)

After close to 70km the swim comes to an end at the Bains des Pâquis, a communal beach where hundreds gather in the summer months.  For Monahan the boat crew called ahead to prompt an announcement on the PA system, which ensured that she was given a rousing reception when she reached land.


Before the establishment of the Lake Geneva Swimming Association only two swimmers had successfully swum the length of the lake – Alain Charmey in 1986 (in just 22 hrs 43 mins) and Vedika Bolliger (42 hrs 45 mins).  So when a friend said he wanted to swim the lake Ben Barham thought, “why not set-up the regulatory, official governing body of swimming it.”

Barham was only 21 at the time but he had been interested in channel swimming for several years, having completed an English Channel relay when he was at school and then through mentoring/overseeing other relay teams from his old school.

The LGSA - a new arrival in marathon swimming

The LGSA - a new arrival in marathon swimming

Over the past three years Barham has built the LGSA from scratch, modeling it on the hugely successful Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation (CS&PF).  The LGSA requires swimmers to complete the standard long-distance swim paperwork including an application form, a medical and certified qualifying swims.  The association also introduces swimmers to the two pilots who are currently operating on the lake.

In the 2015 season the fees for a solo swim were £3,300 ($5,000), but this will increase to £3,600 ($5,500) in 2016 to ensure that overheads are met – this year Ben Barham lived in a tent for weeks and had to ask his Mum to buy him a flight home.  Although the cost is high Barham argues that the fees represent value for money: “It is a huge amount of money but if you think about the resources that go into it and the time it takes - it’s actually a bit of a bargain if you compare it to other swims.”

After one solo and one 2-person relay in 2015, next season promises to be busy – it is already close to fully booked and the Association hopes to put out one swimmer a week.  This should allow for the sometimes unpredictable weather, and also give the pilots and observers recovery time.   If the swim’s popularity continues to grow the LGSA plans to add more pilots and observers in 2017.

A swim of beauty and glamour (Photo: LGSA)

A swim of beauty and glamour (Photo: LGSA)

For anyone who is lured by the romance, or sheer physicality of this challenge, then it’s well worth listening to the advice of this year’s successful soloist.  “I think you can always do twice as long as you have previously done”, said Jaimie Monahan.  “So I think having something around 20 miles under your belt in freshwater like a Windermere double would be perfect preparation for this swim.” Also critical, according to Monahan, is mastering your feeds which must include electrolytes, as well as cold water acclimatisation to cope with the water temperatures over such an extended period.

You can register your interest to swim Lake Geneva on the Lake Geneva Swimming Association website.

Lake Geneva key facts (courtesy of the LGSA):

Length (Swim Route) – 69 km (shortest possible distance)

Water Temperature – 19 - 25 °C

Air Temperature – 26 - 35 °C

Jurisdiction – 60% Swiss 40% French

"Swim to swim. Don't swim to shine" by Crispin Thorold

Nick Adams is a great of English Channel swimming - he has completed some ten successful solo crossings (including the youngest double), he is the President of the CS&PF, one of the two governing bodies of English Channel swimming, and he is incredibly generous with his experience, acting as a mentor to hundreds of swimmers.

So his criticism of the "emergence of the ego swimmer" is one that deserves careful examination. Reading these remarks about swimmers (of mixed abilities) who seek the limelight on social media in the run-up to starting my own blog, has certainly made me stop and think about my motivations for publishing my experiences in such a public way. 

In part I absolutely agree with Nick's argument.  There is clearly a disconnect between the publicity surrounding the achievements of many leading channel swimmers - think of the King of the Channel, Kevin Murphy, or the world-record holder for the longest unassisted marathon swim, Chloe McCardel - and their public profile.  In many sports they would be household names, yet in marathon swimming it seems that only those who promote themselves through smart social media campaigns or slick PR agencies become darlings of the press (to name no names).

The fastest and slowest English Channel soloists (Photo: CS&PF)

The fastest and slowest English Channel soloists (Photo: CS&PF)

However, a good part of the mystique of the English Channel stems from the fact that it is swum by people with a huge range of abilities, from almost every age (11-73 at the time of writing).  Where else would you find a community that celebrates the record holder for fastest swim, as much as the record holder for slowest swim?  

I for one am equally inspired by the story of "Kent mother-of-two", Jackie Cobell, who took 28 hours to get across, as I am by Trent Grimsey's sub-7 hours miracle swim (however great his athletic feat).

It is the stories of the ordinary Joes who for whatever reason decide one day that the time has come to swim the English Channel that engage me most. And over the past few years I have read scores of blogs, which have helped me to understand different aspects of the physical and mental training that is required to even earn the right to stand on Shakespeare Beach in Dover, shove a stone down your speedos, and start an attempt to swim to France.

Shakespeare Beach: "the loneliest place in endurance sport" (Quote:  Cliff Golding ) (Photo: Gareth Fuller/PA)

Shakespeare Beach: "the loneliest place in endurance sport" (Quote: Cliff Golding) (Photo: Gareth Fuller/PA)

When I started this journey towards an English Channel attempt I was a chain-smoking, unfit, 38-year old who could barely swim a length of freestyle.  Three years down the line I can swim a bit and I am still not smoking.  I dream one day of writing about completing a solo crossing of the English Channel, but whatever the outcome I hope that documenting some of my experiences along the way will be of use to other foolhardy souls who embark on this adventure.  

There are a couple of other reasons to "go public".


People who are interested in marathon and channel swimming can turn to the definitive Marathon Swimmers Federation site or to blogs or social media channels for technical information and opinions, yet there are few if any places where they can find high-quality features and interviews about the sport.  Donal Buckley's Lone Swimmer is a standout exception but I believe there's still room for good quality journalism about the heroic feats that marathon swimmers embark upon (mostly away from the public eye). 

So I plan to use this blog to tell the stories of some of the swimmers and their swims, as well new developments and the history of this sport.

Raising money for a wonderful cause  

Finally my English Channel attempt will be in aid of breast cancer research.  You can read more about this elsewhere on this site, but suffice to say that if you are reading this website I hope that you will be able to spare some pennies for this great cause.  In the internet-era free content is the norm, but should you enjoy a piece you read here please consider making a donation to charity - however small.  I will include details of how to contribute in due course.

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