7 lessons from an adventure swim

Kate Brooksy on what she's learned training for a 200km river swim

On May 1st, I’ll be going for a swim.

I’ve been planning this swim for quite some time now. It’s a long one. The Shannon is the longest river in the British Isles, stretching approximately 360 km (224 miles) from its source in the Shannon Pot in County Cavan, through 11 counties, and eventually emptying into the Atlantic Ocean at the Shannon Estuary. I won’t be swimming all of it though! I’ll be taking on a large segment of the navigable length. It’s difficult to predict the distance of a swim this long because it’s hard to account for how straight my course will be and it’s difficult to predict how many days it will take me because of the ever changing weather conditions here in Ireland.

I’m sure many of you have had the experience of finishing a swim and wondering why your pace was off then seeing the course you thought was straight as an arrow look more like a meandering old river than a man-made canal. Now multiply that by the distance of my swim and you’ll see my predicament! The course I’ve plotted is just over 200km. I’ll start on the upper shores of Lough Allen in Co Leitrim and make my way down river to the town of Ballina in Co. Tipperary. I have taken a month off work, and I’ll be living aboard my cousin’s boat and taking on segments of the river one day at a time. I imagine I’ll average about ten km a day but that’s really a debate for the weather gods and my shoulders.

I’m a few days out from the start as I write this. The boxes are starting to amass at our door, ready to be packed into the car and brought up the country this weekend. There are no more big training sessions to complete (and my out of office is almost on) so now feels like the perfect opportunity to share with you some of the things that I have learned in preparing for this great big swim. 

Kate on a training swim

The greatest journey begins with a single step.

This idea has been flickering away quietly in the back of my mind for years. I was at my cousin’s house on the banks of the River Shannon last summer having a cup of tea with her and her mum. I was looking out at the river passing the bottom of the garden and I asked if I could see her navigational charts. She popped down to the boat to grab it and asked on her return if I was still thinking of swimming it. From there this idea burst into flame. I wasn’t ready. At the time of that conversation, I was probably the least swim fit I’d been in over a decade and had no idea whether I could secure the time off work but before I had time to panic, she’d offered me her boat, her support and we’d committed to the month of May – quiet on the boat traffic but not too cold. If you have an idea, don’t wait till you feel ready to start.

Discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishment.

I work as an Occupational Therapist, and I set goals with people for a living. Goal setting is the easy part. Breaking this goal down into smaller goals and an actionable plan, well this is harder. Following through on the plan that you’d made on the days that you don’t feel like it, that’s the worst part. Remind yourself of why you started but don’t wait to feel motivated. Motivation is fleeting, it will waiver. I used to wrap my swimming togs around my phone going to bed so that when I woke in the morning I’d be so embarrassed by the lengths my former self had gone to, I had no choice but to get up and go!

Comparison is the thief of joy.

I have made my own training plan. This swim has been done a handful of times before but there is no training plan to be googled. I spoke to a few coaches in the endurance field about training plans, but they were all reluctant to give advice on this. I reviewed the training of a couple of people that have ran consecutive marathons and adapted these plans to their watery equivalent. Consistent medium volume training. No big weekly mileage swims to put myself at risk of injury. Prehab and gym work. Good nutrition and better sleep. I’m confident in my plan but simultaneously when I see other people’s weekly mileage on Strava or their session plans it scares me and I feel ill prepared. There’ll always be others training more than you but you have to put the blinkers on and have confidence in your own plans. 

The line between disorder and order lies in logistics.

The training is the easy part. I’ve spent a lot of time with my head buried in maps, planning the kit I’ll use, planning my nutrition on and off the water, and contacting people for support on the water. It’s taken more time than I ever could have anticipated. It was pure naivety on my part not to expect this, but it’d be rude of me to leave it out here. If I knew then what I know now I would have schedule myself an hour or two of logistics into my weekly training plan! 

It takes a village.

This swim would not be possible without the support of many wonderful people. I am incredibly lucky to have a cousin with a boat and a love of adventure who’s willing to accompany me for the whole trip and there are many others behind the scenes playing massive roles. But I rallied the village. I put out the call for help. If you have a big scary thing that you’d like to do don’t be afraid to ask for help. You’ll be surprised by how many people will rally behind you to help you achieve your goal!

Swim your own swim.

I’ve been taken aback by the shape that other people have tried to put on my swim. I met a man in a sauna who suggested I should do 15km a day minimum to have it ratified. But I want to swim town to town, and they weren’t plotted so conveniently. I want to clamber aboard the boat for a banana and hug my support crew, I want to walk round the Locks because locks scare me. I want to wear lots of neoprene while the water is hovering in the early teens and shed my layers gradually over the month of May. I’m all for a ratified swim and I have lofty goals of Fastnet Swims and other crossings but not every swim needs to fit in the same category. This one is an Adventure with a capital A. 

I repeat, swim your own swim.

People have swum the Shannon before. They’ve started at the top of Lough Allen or in the village of Dowra and they’ve all finished in Limerick City. I have no intention of swimming into Limerick. Shortly after the town of Ballina the waters of the Shannon are diverted to feed a hydroelectric plant further downstream, and you have a choice to either swim in a steep banked canal with very fast flow or wade through the shallow waters of the old course of the river. But did you know there’s also a third option? Swim your own swim. I’ll see you in Ballina for celebratory cake.