On the 23rd of January Lewis Pugh is attempting a 1km swim in an East Antarctic supra-glacial lake to raise awareness of climate change. This is not the first time Lewis has swum in the Antarctic – he previously completed a swim of the Bay of Whales, in Antarctica. Dr Max Holloway was chosen as his training buddy – here we ask him what it takes to be a polar pioneer.
A week before Christmas, extreme swimmer and UN Patron of the Oceans, Lewis Pugh posted a job advert in the Sunday Times: ‘Young guns to train with polar swimmer. Must be willing to swim and run hard. No tea breaks. No Hogmanay. Outer Hebrides.’
Dr Max Holloway was selected for the job. As an Oban-based marine physicist working at the Scottish Association of Marine Science and swim/run guide for WayOutside Ltd, Max had a pretty good idea of what he was getting himself into. On the ferry trip home from the 10-day long training camp on the Isle of Lewis we caught up with Max to find out how it went – and whether he thinks Lewis is ready.
I work as a climate and ocean scientist so Lewis’ work in protecting our oceans is one that I feel strongly about. Luckily for me I am also a keen open water swimmer and runner so I jumped at the opportunity to swim with Lewis and contribute to his campaign. I grew up on the water but only seriously took to swimming when I was training for triathlon four years ago, and soon ditched the pool for open water. I now swim most days off the Scottish west coast and race distances from 1km-10km. My other sporting passion is running in the mountains so Lewis’ call for a training partner to swim and run hard sounded right up my street!
Yes! He is a man mountain with a prolific reputation – he has swum in both polar regions, on Everest and along the English Channel just to mention a few of his achievements. I was terrified that I would not be up to the job and fall short on the first swim! Saying this, although his build is intimidating, he has the ability to put you at ease as soon as you meet him – he is a genuine, down to earth gentle giant with an amazing aptitude for storytelling.
We were lucky to have Colin Macleod on the team, a local swim guide and open water lifeguard, to show us the best swim spots. There are so many amazing beaches and lochs on the Isle of Lewis to choose from that whatever the weather we could always pick somewhere that would work for the session we had planned and the water temperatures we wanted. We were totally spoilt with the quality of swim locations and I definitely plan to go back to island to explore more (maybe in summer when the waters are warmer)! If anyone is looking to swim here, Colin is their man – check the Hebridean Sea Swimmers OSS group on Facebook.
My plan was to always be half a stroke ahead of Lewis to push him on. But Lewis got stronger and stronger throughout the camp and by the time we were in the 5-degree lochs I was finishing sessions on the limit and just trying to stay with him until the end!
This is the first winter that I have swum through without a wetsuit and our local waters around Oban had already dropped to 7 degrees before I left for the camp, so I was pretty well acclimatised for those temperatures. It was a different story once we got to 5 degrees!
My personal strategy was to make sure I never entered the water already feeling the cold. I would do a good 5-10min warm up of beach running before getting into the water and I would often start running again as soon as I left the water. Some days I would do an extra session of 30min running to make sure I fully re-warmed before a swim.
Lewis plans his swims by the science that suggests that it takes five swims at each temperature to get acclimatised (this isn’t long when you are swimming twice a day). Lewis had been swimming in 12 degrees in South Africa prior to the camp so I had a clear advantage for the first few days. During the first week I was finishing the sessions with more in the tank and knowing that I could have gone longer. My plan was to always be half a stroke ahead of Lewis to push him on. But Lewis got stronger and stronger throughout the camp and by the time we were in the 5-degree lochs I was finishing sessions on the limit and just trying to stay with him until the end!
One thing I learnt from swimming so much during the camp is where my limits are – I know exactly how long and far I can swim in a given water temperature and be OK. I know when I exceed this I am going to suffer with a nasty afterdrop. This is when I will try and do a longer run once I exit the water to get my body temperature back up.
Eating enough was a challenge. I made a big effort to put on weight over Christmas to help combat the cold but I found that this extra insulation disappeared almost instantly as soon as the camp started. I resorted to eating nearly 2 kg of peanut butter straight out the tub during the 10 days.
Surprisingly, it was a big challenge to find water cold enough for Lewis. We started in the sea off the west coast of Lewis in water temperatures between 7 and 8 degrees and progressed to the lochs. However, the weather was unseasonable mild leading into the camp so the first lochs we tried were still not much below 7 degrees. After a lot of rain, we found a local river that had dropped to 6 degrees on day 3 and then to 5 degrees on day 4. Towards the end of the camp, once we had moved to the colder east coast, we did all our sessions in 5 degrees in a loch south of Stornoway. Although we didn’t find anything colder than 5 degrees the conditions were still tough! We were doing sprints up and down this loch in brutal weather and 70 mph winds during the final two days of the camp which was a true exercise in mental toughness!
Yes, I have undertaken fieldwork in both the Arctic and Antarctic while with the British Antarctic Survey. I spent two months on a fieldwork campaign in the Weddell Sea in West Antarctica during the winter of 2017/2018 so I have a small insight into the challenge Lewis has set himself to swim in these extreme environments.
A supra-glacial lake is a lake on the surface of the ice sheet, formed by its own meltwater. They have a habit of being quite temperamental and can drain their contents very quickly to the bottom of the ice sheet. There can be more than 65,000 of these lakes present on the surface of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet during the peak melt season in January. So, a key decision for Lewis will be which lake to choose for the swim. Ideally the bigger the lake the better as you require fewer laps, less turning and less getting cold. From that point of view an ideal lake would be 1km in length. However, bigger lakes also tend to be at higher risk of draining so it will be a tricky compromise.
I think it is essential to safeguard these environments now before it is too late – we are very efficient at damaging our environment and it is likely that we will eventually reach a tipping point where the damage done will be irreversible on human timescales. For example, some science has suggested that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has begun an irreversible retreat, possibly committing us to meters of sea level rise, and we already observe altered ecosystem structure and functioning in some oceans as species migrate poleward in response to ocean warming. The science has warned of the damage we are doing to our planet for decades, but now the message is immediate – we need take responsibility for our actions and wake up to the big picture of global scale change that has been ignored by governments for too long.
It was hard, especially by day seven, when your arms ache and you think about taking a day off. But I enjoy tough sessions, I am quite mentally strong and can push my limits – sometimes this is a bad combination when you are training with someone as focussed and strong as Lewis because you can easily overdo it. But I always looked forward to getting into the water. We got to swim with some amazing people on the island and the important cause that Lewis is working towards kept us motivated each session to get the job done.