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Before we get started

I started swimming in the mid 1990’s just to keep fit. I joined Howe Bridge Marlins Long Distance Swimming Club and swam my first outdoor race at the Humberside Festival of Swimming, a two-mile race in Grimsby docks.

I tackled longer and longer swims and in 1998 I swam Lake Windermere, England’s longest lake, finishing 4th in the BLDSA championship.

In 1999 I completed the Round Manhattan Island Race – the longest annual swimming race in the world.

In 2001 I swam two lengths of Lake Windermere in the BLDSA Championships.

In 2002 I successfully swam the English Channel with the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation.

About – swimming the Channel

I tackled longer and tougher swims. In 1998 I swam in the premier championship 10.5miles lake Windermere. I finished 4th. In 1999 I faced up to the longest swimming race in the world. 28.5 miles around Manhattan Island. Entry is restricted to the best 30 that apply. This swim stared at 6am and finished 8 hours later. I felt on top of the world and felt able to do the swim again there and then. My coach couldn’t wait to tell people back in England “Mark swam steadily throughout, his stroke never droped, Mark never complained about the cold, he never asked how far to go”.

In 1999 was taking Actrapid and Ultratard then and on the day just took a reduced Actrapid dose. After my success in New York I thought it time to start training for the Channel. In 2001 I entered but a problematic sea swim and redundancy persuaded me otherwise. Fortunately I was offered a job two days after my redundancy but it started at 8am and so prevented me from training each morning. Suddenly, having pulled out of the channel I had a big void to fill, I had trained hard all winter and spring and now nothing to aim for. At that time I was invited to swim 21 mile two lengths of Lake Windermere race. Two lengths of the longest lake in England.

Before a race I would cut down on my insulin dose and take glucose drinks and bananas. It seamed to work and I did not give it much thought other than to advise the race safety officials of my condition and make sure I fed during my swims and keep a waterproof packet of glucose tablets in my swimming trunks. The feeding during a swim means drink and chocolate bars passed from the mandatory escort boats. Back then I used to take a feed each hour. No matter what I ate or what insulin I had taken my blood sugars were always rock bottom at the end of a swim. Testing during a swim was impossible as touching another person would mean disqualification, and I was submerged up to my neck in water and wet so testing was not possible.

For my Two Way Windermere Swim I set off at 7pm on a gorgeous late evening August sun after a tea time meal of soup and baked potato and I had cut down my Novorapid dose. My support boat took my 1ltr flask of tea, one of coffee and one of Ribena, plus chocolate and bananas. I had thought about my evening dose of Ultratard, but thought I’ll be doing so much exercise I won’t need it! For me it was simple see saw
Food = Insulin plus Exercise. 10 hours later I was in a bad way – I had started to be sick and everything I tried to eat made me more sick. I could not swallow, I was very bloated. I had started slowed down considerably. I realised that I had not been able to eat properly since just after midnight. With 17 miles completed and 4 to go I told my boat crew I was struggling. My pilot said he was watching out for me. I stayed in and I finished in 14hours 20minutes after starting. I had finished the race in third place in the men’s race. One of the other male swimmers had retired through cold (only six swimmers took part).

I was carried from the water and patted dry – The Independent on Sunday which covered the race described my condition “bloated with skin as translucent as a jellyfish”. I got dressed and I tested my sugar which read 1 point something. An ambulance was called. After a cheese sandwich, a visit from the president of the BLDSA to present me with my certificate and to see that I was ok and my lunchtime dose of Novorapid insulin I was released. I was delighted, with my time. Spectators there only remember the state I was in and the ambulance. Believe you me my finishing time was excellent. My swim was short listed for the BLDSA swim of the year.

At this time I was training with and swimming for Haslingden Swimming Club. In recognition of my swim my club invited me to present the annual awards. Each year they get a celebrity swimmer to come along. I was delighted when they told me that this year they did not have to look beyond their own club. This is the highlights of my swimming achievements. If I could bottle that feeling…

At this time my training partner Peter Mulderigg put me in touch with diabetes specialist nurse Judith Campbell. I though if I ever do a swim like that again I’ll get much more medical input.

After a big swim like Windermere or Manhattan the last thing you think about is ever swimming again even if your mind is willing your body is not. I put Judith’s details to one side and forgot about them. But as night follows day by the start of the next season I was back. But I was planning on an easy year.

The opening swim of the racing calendar is the Budworth 1 mile handicap. You predict your finishing time, swim and the winner is the one closest to their predicted time. At 1 second inside my predicted time I won the race easily. Once again I felt on top of the world. I remembered that I had paid my deposit to swim the Channel last year and the good people at the CS&PF had held it over for me as they did not want me to miss out! I decided that I would train up and have a shot at the channel later that summer.

May and June were filled with training, lots of outdoor swimming, lots of discussions with Judith, my specialist Dr O’Connel at Wigan and Leigh Infirmary and Dr Brown. Dr O’Connel had always supported my swimming and I have a special respect for him after all it was he who signed my medical release to say I was fit to swim in cold water for hours on end. After years of going to clinic I turned up one day and Dr O’Connel was standing in for my regular doctor – it was like a light had been turned on. Dr Brown – is a retired Anaesthetist but to me she might be my passport to France if Judith was unavailable on the day when I was to make the attempt. I had to take medical cover with me on my escort boat. OK I was foolish pressuring her to come out of retirement renew her medical insurance just so I could tick the box and say with honesty to my pilot. Here’s my medical cover lets swim. But Dr Brown took it very seriously and spent lots of time researching the task ahead.

Judith recommended Glargine insulin as did a colleague of the late Dr Peter Adams the CS&PF doctor. Peter Adams put me in touch with a specialist who recommended strongly that I use Glargine, but I’d have to train on it and use it under the punishing conditions that I would experience in the channel. But Glargine was not yet available on prescription from my local NHS region and therefore not an option. This was July 2002.

After a discussion with my pilot Mike Oram – the most successful channel pilot ever her told me that I was eating the wrong things and nowhere near enough calories. I needed to drink a hot high energy drinks – he swore by Maxim, Maxim and more Maxim. I would be taking this drink hot, as hot as I could, 600ml every 30 minutes to be exact. (Through experience I now use a more concentrated, smaller volume dose). It would be absorbed straight into my blood stream, with minimal digestion thereby I would not be loosing energy digesting and being hot I would be retaining all my body heat internally.

My swim started on the 18th July at around 7am. I felt great until my first feed, then awful, eventually I started being sick, I started to complain. My pilot said give me another hour. I did and did not bother to complain again. I was enjoying my swim. My crew were giving me all the encouragement I needed especially Andie my girlfriend who was shouting on every stroke. My other two crew members Peter who had put me in touch with Judith and Dr Brown were feeling a little seasick. Perhaps it had been going too well, I had that invincible feeling you get when a little drunk (with hindsight low blood sugar) and felt on top of the world. After 9 hours in the water disorientated and confused I asked for some insulin. Dr Brown asked me whether I needed insulin or more carbohydrate? I said give me more carbs then in an aggressive manner. I had enough emergency gel to stop the worst hypo (low blood sugar). I took a slug started swimming again then when I was not responding to the instructions shouted from the boat I was retired on medical grounds. On the boat it became obvious to my crew that I was not hypothermic – just hypoglycaemic. My attempt was over and with France in sight the boat was turned around back to Dover. On checking my kit later I had barely touched any of the glucose gel.

Before we got back to port I had decided to try again. Learning from what I had done wrong I trained in earnest feeding properly on a hot hi energy drink, solo swims with my coach Matt Simpson on Lake Windermere, races every weekend. A visit to see Dr Oconnel lots of discussion with Dr Brown and of course Judith. I had managed to get a slot on the August tide 16th August a month after my first attempt. As a rule the weekend slots get booked up well in advance and if you are prepared and able to swim in the week you stand a better chance of getting a slot I had been given the choice of Friday or Monday. I wanted to do it as soon as I could there was no guarantee that the weather would hold.

I gave Judith the dates and she moved everything to support me and be there, but Pete could not be and Andie had work commitments. So this time it was Judith and my mate Clive Burbage.

Jude and I drove down to Dover on the Thursday, just the day before my swim. But on the morning disaster stuck. I had turned over in bed during the night and fallen out, honestly this is something I’ve never done before or since! I landed sorely on my left shoulder. I was in agony and felt such a prat. There was an ache in my shoulder previous to my fall exacerbated by the months of hard training. The fall made things worse but I was determined to start the swim…I’d look such a prat if I pulled out now… but would it hold out?

Jude and I left with a car full of CDs and chatting about everything and anything. In no time at all we were in Canterbury where we were staying overnight.

The Friday came with an early start. I started in the dark at around 5am I Swam, and swan. At one feed I felt myself drifting round so I would be facing back to Dover. I knew to see the white cliffs would not be good psychologically. I resisted. The day turned into a milky day, as if I was swimming in a giant Tupperware box. I was sick, stung by jellyfish. Unlike my first swim a different Mark Blewitt had turned up I was not going to complain I was not going to look around to England, I was going to stay on the same side of the boat, swimming just off the Port side all the way across.

Before my swim I had received encouragement from Alison Streeter MBE who has swum the channel an amazing 42 record breaking times including a two and three way crossings. In the weeks before she had said, “I’ll see you in Dover.” I had though how nice she’ll come to see me off. Wrong she was on the boat as the official CS&PF Observer!

The day went on, Judith gave me lots of encouragement, knowing she was looking out for me let me think about swimming. As a rule you do not ask how far to go how long have I been in. But I new exactly how long I d been in, feeding every half hour taking X feeds. As the day drew on I started to tire, then I caught a glimpse of the lighthouse at Cap Griz Nez the closes point in France to England. Then it was gone. Then nightfall I did not have clue how far away I was. I saw a blue light, I could see window illuminated in houses, curtains being drawn, car lights. Alison got in the water to swim along side me and guide me in to the last little bit. Then it I was told stand up stand up I could not I could only swim. I staggered up the beach. I could not receive assistance or I’d be disqualified. I cleared the water. I had made it. Some French lads came to congratulate me. Judith was terrified what if I got into difficulty now? She’d have to jump off the boat and wade in and get wet.
Back on the boat I was sat down by Mike wrapped up and offered a cup of sweet tea. Judith protested I want to check his blood first. But Mike insisted in a watch and learn kind of way. I was violently sick bringing up lots of awful stuff that I don’t remember eating. I’ve since been told that the black stuff I brought up was the remains of the copious amounts of energy drink – I don’t know how true this is?

What’s Next?
Don’t forget what is important.
Look after the things that matter.
But maybe again, or attempt it breaststroke. Or try the Cook Strait, there are lots of nice swims out there …
As long as I can hope and dream dreams

 

 

 

 

Epilogue
To round off my marathon swimming challenges an opportunity arose to have a go at the Cook Strait. To best prepare my training was skewed toward the end of our summer with a late as possible in the year swim from Spain to to Morocco across the Strait of Gibraltar. That went swimmingly. The boat crew spoke no English and me no Spanish. Purposely I don’t wear a watch whilst swimming as there would be the temptation to check the time, but I was keen to check I was was feeding when I should. Knowing ‘surely it must be feed time’ I looked at my watch which said 59:59! I looked up and there was my feed being handed over. Needles to say I did not check again. Alas my New Zealand swim ended prematurely when my pilot was certain my attempt could not succeed, my speed had dropped, the tide had changed. It was over, but I can say I gave it a go.

 

 

 

 

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Selected Swimography:

2007 Gibraltar Strait
2005 BLDSA Two way Windermere 21 miles
2004 BLDSA Loch Lomond 22 miles – breaststroke record
2003 BLDSA Two way Windermere 21 miles – breaststroke record
2002 English Channel (CS&PF)
2001 BLDSA Two way Windermere 21 miles
1999 Round Manhattan Island