Swimming my mountain

Two years ago, ALPKIT competition winner David Sutcliffe broke his neck and back. This summer, he undertook an overnight swim in the cold waters of a Scottish loch

I was several hours in to the 24-hour swim before I finally accepted that my neck would not break. An operation to fuse two vertebrae has left me with a plate, screws, staples and cage holding it together. The event, moved to Loch Venachar after an algae bloom at Bardowie, required that entrants swim one mile each and every hour. Since I signed up, it had been a fear of mine that something would give out while I was in the water, either during the daylight swims or by night.

Within the first few strokes of the swim, I felt like my wetsuit was trying to strangle me. The neck seal zipped up to exactly the site of the operation. One of the safety kayakers instantly knew I was panicking and paddled up alongside, talking to me and offering help. I asked him to unzip the top of my suit which took some pressure off and let cold water in. I managed to scramble my way around the first lap of what should have been five to complete the first mile.

John Wilby

I saw the event when I was looking for an adventure as part of my recovery. I do long-distance triathlons to raise money for charity and the only thing I said to my surgeon on the morning of the operation is that I wanted to be able to swim again in the “big seas” – my first love when it comes to exercise. Two years on, I may well ‘stack’ too high and be totally one-sided in my breathing but having two vertebrae in your neck fused is like learning to walk again. Then, to swim again.

John Wilby

My neck broke at 4:35am on 14th July 2016. I was cycling to work along a canal towpath when I went from 20 mph to zero within a couple of feet and somersaulted over my handlebars twice. I don’t remember much other than noise and a kaleidoscope of colours. The pain in my head, chest and back was incredible.

I was discharged from A&E that day after my lungs and chest were examined. Nine days later, I was still in so much pain I returned to A&E where I told them that my neck and back were not initially checked. After 10 hours, at 1.30am, a neurosurgeon found me and told me not to move before a neck brace was put on: I had broken my neck. Fifteen minutes earlier, an orthopaedic surgeon had told me I had also fractured my back. By October, it was not healing, and I was offered an anterior cervical fusion as my only course of treatment. I accepted.

I knew the effect of a drop in endorphins from times that I’d had to drop out of triathlons due to injury, but after the accident and operation I wasn’t prepared for the ‘double’ drop that brought me mentally crashing down. I had extreme fatigue, headaches, forgetfulness (I would stop talking because I would forget what I was talking about!), mood swings and balance problems. Fortunately, my physiotherapist recommended that I call Headway, the head injuries charity, and I realised that I wasn’t alone.

I trained for the 24-hour swim by doing laps of my local pool – and I wasn’t alone there either. My swimming friend Alex agreed to watch me one day so I could try ducking down, pushing off the wall and gliding to the surface. This was to test if the metalwork would hold together. A chance encounter led me to find a total immersion method swimming coach, Pam Hardy, who helped me develop a different style in my stroke to account for neck fusion. Eventually, two years later, I swam free in my beloved North Bay at Scarborough, with a lone seal and the keen eyes of the lifeguards on me.

When I arrived at Loch Venachar on the morning of the swim, I looked at the loch that was to be my friend for the next 24 hours not realising it would be my friend forever. I hadn’t expected the scenery to be as spectacular during the drive through the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park. By the time we arrived at 7.30am, the wind had increased and a healthy chop was coming in sideways. There was a hush as we all got ready with our food, tents and all manner of practical things for the 24 hours ahead. Hypothermia would be a factor. Hunger. Sleep deprivation. I had brought nuts, honey, raisins, instant noodles and porridge, all whittled scientifically down to a tee. I opened my coke and let it go flat. Reality would prove to be somewhat different.

John Wilby

After the first, panicked swim at 9am, I only swam as much as I could. As my friend John said, “it’s an event, not a race.” As the hours passed by, the first signs of hypothermia started to show, with uncontrollable shaking making drinking out of a cup difficult. John and I settled into a routine each time I exited the water: boots off, suit rolled down, warm clothes held out as I pulled the suit off. It was like a Formula One pit stop. I managed to eat a small amount of lukewarm porridge and drink cool, black tea.

As 10pm approached, we attached floats and lights for night swimming. I was looking forward to swimming from dusk to night, even though sighting is hard enough with my restricted neck movement. I slept through my alarm at 01:30am and didn’t wake until 04:17. The organiser asked if I was ready for the 5am swim, but I knew then that I would only swim the last hour, at 8am. Then, I would swim my first full mile. I had already passed a huge psychological barrier, with the constant companion and help of my swim ‘buddy’ John..

Sunday’s dawn was stunning. Mists moved amongst the hills and trees and an osprey flew over the loch, which had a surface like glass. Perfect conditions. As we were all packing up to leave, I watched two guys park up, get into their wetsuits and head off for a morning dip. It was a great reminder that what I love about outdoor swimming is the shared experience with someone and simply doing it freely in nature with no pomp and ceremony.



David was one of the three winners of the 2018 OSS-Alpkit stories competition. Look out for more winners’ stories in the coming months.

David Sutcliffe, edited by Beth Pearson