On Monday, 9th September 2019, I set out to achieve what most people thought to be impossible, swim 34km across the English Channel, cycle 900km across France to the foot of Mt Blanc and then climb to the top of the tallest Mountain Peak in Western Europe – all in just 5 days.
If I’m honest, it still sounds completely crazy, even to me – but I thrive on crazy!
I’m not one for feeling sorry for myself, but it’s safe to say that I didn’t have the easiest of paths to get to the start line. I was involved in a pretty severe road cycling accident earlier in 2019 that resulted in a very broken arm and surgery to plate and pin it back together. Then just because that wasn’t hard enough, I was blown off my bike the very first time back on it and shattered the same arm again. At this point, everyone, including myself could be forgiven for thinking that there was no way I could now complete my challenge in 2019. But somehow, it made me more determined than ever. I knew I had already done the training and if I could just maintain my fitness, I’d be okay.
It certainly wasn’t easy, there were a lot of tears shed and a lot of pain endured; just 8 weeks out from the start I couldn’t swim more than 25 metres in the pool, let alone in the open water! How the heck was I going to swim 34km across the turbulent English Channel? I still don’t actually know how I managed to get to the start line, but I knew I was never going to give up. It is truly amazing what the human body can achieve when we remain positive and believe in ourselves.
The days before the start were probably the most stressful.
I always knew that the challenge itself was going to be extremely physical and I would need to be in the best shape of my life; but that was ‘mostly’ within my control. What I hadn’t accounted for, was the stress of things that were outside of my control – mainly the weather! Both the swim and the climb are reliant on having good weather windows, having both align was going to require some extremely good fortune, but by now I was pretty hopeful I was due some good luck (or I had done something extremely bad in a past life!). My swim window was supposed to start on the 11th September, which would mean I would start the climb somewhere on the 14th or 15th September, but the forecast for the mountain was not looking good for these days. Ideally I needed to be climbing 2 or 3 days earlier. I never knew I could become so addicted to weather applications, watching, waiting, refreshing every half an hour, hoping it would change.
It wasn’t changing, if I stuck to my original swim window It was looking more and more likely that I wouldn’t be able to complete the climb – my nerves were shot. It is extremely difficult and very rare for the boat pilot to be able to bring you forward into another swim window, but this is what I needed. I called my pilot (Simon Ellis from Ellis Marine Services). He was very aware of my situation and fortunately he had a gap in his schedule on the 9th Sep. Two days earlier doesn’t sound like much, but it would give me a much greater chance of being able to complete the challenge.
Was the weather in the Channel going to play ball?
There was a huge storm off America that was affecting Western Europe. We watched and waited, eventually it looked like there was a small window of opportunity to start the swim at 6pm on the 9th Sep. It meant I would have to swim 90% of the swim in the dark, through the middle of the night. Eek, I had never considered starting at night, so had never really practiced swimming in the dark, but I knew I had to take my opportunity – how difficult could it be!?
Turns out, it’s pretty flipping hard! I had completed lots of long swims in preparation for my channel crossing and had never really experienced sea sickness. When you are swimming in daylight, no matter how choppy the water gets, you always have land as a fixed point of reference – in the dark however, you don’t see the land, all you see is a little green light on the side of the boat moving up and down at different speeds to me going up and down in the water. Suffice to say I spent about 6 hours of my 10-hour 56minute swim feeling pretty sick (although not as sick as some of my boat crew). On the plus side, not being able to see land meant I didn’t spend the entire swim thinking I was never getting away from Dover or any closer to Calais.
My support crew Debbie and Derrick Frazer from Big Bay events were amazing and ensured I was being given everything I needed to fuel me along the way. I would feed every 30 minutes, this basically consists of being thrown a bottle on a rope, you grab it and down the liquids as quickly as possible. None of my feeds were longer than 20 seconds. If you hang around for too long and have a banquet you can almost certainly add an hour or 2 onto your overall swim time because you get pushed off course by the currents. I had carefully calculated my nutritional needs and would take 300ml of warm tea mixed with honey and High5 carb powder every 30mins. Every 3rd or 4th feed depending on how I was feeling I would have 300 mls of High5 Protein Shake.
Lots of people have asked me how I dealt with the cold, particularly because I swam through the night. The honest answer is it wasn’t really a problem because I swam in a wetsuit (Zone3 Victory D) and I had trained in much colder water. Technically this meant that I wouldn’t be in the record books for completing the swim, but for me, my challenge was very different. I simply couldn’t afford to be stopped by hyperthermia or allergic reactions to Jellyfish stings which I’m quite prone to.
Mentally, the swim was very tough, but I was encouraged along the way with messages being read out to me from my swimming partner in crime Ryan Stramrood. I had agreed with Derrick before hand that he wouldn’t give me any indication of how far I have swam or how far I had left to go and I chose not to wear a watch. I would simply just concentrate on getting to the next feed. This was a great plan and worked perfectly until I thought I was swimming into a head current and nobody would tell me how far I had left to go – the only response I kept getting was ‘Concentrate on getting to your next feed!’
Finally, I lost my patience and threw my toys out of the pram yelling to be told how long I had left. Unbeknownst to me, I was literally 10 minutes away from the shore at this point. Flipping cruel or what? Until they sat me down after the challenge and showed me how close I was getting to the tide change and If I had missed it, that 10mins could have easily turned into another 2 hours.
Eventually, after what felt like an eternity, the boat shone its lights and I could see land. It was such an incredible feeling but I knew I still had a long way to go to the finish. I kept thinking to myself, ‘to get through this, you can’t have any high high’s or low low’s, consistency in strength, speed and mind is going to get you there.’ This is a mantra that I repeated to myself many times throughout the 5 days. I swam to the point, it wasn’t quite the beach exit I was anticipating, more just a cliff face. I touched the land and swam back to the boat. Derrick joined me for the last few hundred meters, it was amazing! Except for the fact that I had swam the whole way without being stung by a jellyfish, then on the swim back to the boat I got stung three times!
I got back on the boat and we headed for port control. Unfortunately, there is no way of showing your passport in the middle of the Channel when you get Into French waters! I put on my warm clothing (RAB ascent jacket, nexus pull on and power stretch pro pants, best combination ever, proving it’s not just built for mountains!) had some food and promptly fell asleep.
Little did I know, this would be my last few quality hours of proper sleep for the rest of the challenge. Despite extremely diligent planning, which included sleep time, it turned out sleeping on demand after consuming thousands of calories really wasn’t as easy as it sounded. In the end, I had to convince myself that resting was as good as actual sleep. I don’t know if it was psychosomatic, but it seemed to work.
The bike leg was much harder than I had expected.
It sounds slightly mental, but in my head the ride was always going to be my recovery. I wasn’t pushing super-fast speeds, but it certainly didn’t feel like the recovery I had hoped for. Due to the time I started the swim, a lot of the ride was done at night, so I didn’t really get to take in the beauty of the ride we had so carefully planned!
It’s pretty scary the places your mind can take you to when you’re seriously fatigued, cold and cycling in the dark. I’m still pretty convinced those Aliens were out to get me though! I definitely had a few breakdowns during the 900km of riding and there were moments where I wasn’t sure if my body could carry on, but somehow, as if by magic, something would happen that would help me push through. Some of the highlights being:
- The appearance of hot chips in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night.
- My mum and dad turning up in the middle of the night, driving as an escort behind me in the dark and feeding me chocolate.
- Good friends joining on stage 5 and 6 of the ride keeping me chatting.
- Kristy Shelley joined for the entire bike leg to magically get rid of any niggling aches and pains.
Fortunately, I didn’t suffer any major injuries along the way. I think I had my share of those before the challenge! My bike set up on my Specilaized Roubaix, combined with my clothing from Kandesent meant I didn’t get any chafing. If that’s not a testament to a cycling brand I don’t know what is – I rode 900km over 3 days and honestly didn’t chaff once!
Just 4 days after I stepped foot into the English Channel I arrived in Chamonix at the foot of Mt Blanc.
It became harder this time to contain my elation, particularly because my family and friends were there. My sister had even flown in for the day to surprise me! But once again I knew the job still wasn’t done. I still had what was for me the hardest part of the challenge – summiting Mt Blanc.
Swimming and cycling come naturally to me, mountaineering on the other hand is definitely not natural. Let’s just say I am bit like bambi on ice. I never knew I had fear until I started training for the climb. We (being me and my amazing climb partner Chris Warner) set out for the summit from the valley floor around 2am. I started from exactly where I dismounted my bike just a few hours earlier. We wanted to ensure that we crossed the Grand Couloir nice and early.
The weather was absolutely perfect, the stars had definitely aligned!
I had my family at the bottom to see me set off and a group of friends joined me for the first few hours giving me a much needed energy boost. Surprisingly I felt really strong, but again I repeated my mantra, ‘no high high’s, no low low’s.’ I still had a very long day ahead and needed to be careful not to get ahead of myself. Half way up, I was met at the Tete Rouse by a good friend Morgan, giving me a much needed boost.
We crossed the Grand Couloir safely without any issues. At this point I knew no matter how tired I got, I was definitely going to make it. In the weeks leading up to the challenge, I was really fretting about the Couloir, not because it is technically difficult, but I just didn’t know how alert I would be at this point. The Grand Couloir also sometimes referred to as the ‘gulley of death,’ is a short section that is well known for rock fall. You have to be extremely alert and watch out for rocks that might fall above you as you are crossing. We gradually made our way up to the Gouter Hut where I was re-joined by Olly. Olly was part of the journey from day 1, when we first decided on Sea To Summit and he joined for the duration of the challenge, taking the most incredible photos. So it was very fitting that he would be coming with me to the summit.
The next 6 hours were long and slow, I just had to concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other. I was encouraged along the way by climbers who were coming back down the mountain and had somehow heard about my challenge. I kept thinking to myself, this is what I love about sport, it unites people. I also couldn’t help but wish it was me that was already on the way back down!
I appeared to be coping with the altitude pretty well, I had spent a lot of time in the mountains acclimatising and I was sleeping in a hypoxic altitude tent. As we passed 4000m my nose started to bleed, but I think that was probably a combination of sheer tiredness and altitude. It pleased my amazing camera crew though, as they kept telling me I was making it look far too easy! These guys were incredible, donating their time and efforts to follow and document the journey. It wasn’t an easy job, they were on my schedule so also very sleep deprived. We started as strangers and ended as friends.
I reached the summit at 2pm, exactly 4 days and 20 hours after I set out from Dover. The feeling was incredible, I couldn’t quite believe that I was there, but I was, I had done it, I had really done it!
I rang Karl straight away once I got to the top, my achievement was his achievement too, we rode this journey together and he was the most incredible support anyone could wish for. Of course, ideally he would have been at the top with me, but unfortunately he couldn’t keep up ;-)
Very quickly my mind had to switch back to focus mode – my challenge was complete – but I still had the slight problem of getting back down the mountain. I think I probably set another world record, being the slowest person to ever descend Mt Blanc!
I stayed overnight in the Gouter hut before crossing the Grand Couloir again. I didn’t really get any sleep, but by that point lying in a horizontal position was much needed. I was so excited when the sun came up and it was time to head back down to the valley to celebrate with everybody. I was surprised by friends and family who had hiked to various points on the mountain to join my descent and by the time we got to the train we could fill a carriage! It was truly very special.
My accomplishment was a team effort. I had and still have the most amazing support from all over the world. The number of people that have contacted me sharing their personal stories of endometriosis or telling me that they booked their smear makes the whole journey worth while.
I can’t wait to continue this incredible journey with you all! Remember we really can do anything we put our minds to!
Take care of yourselves and each other!