After successfully completing a crossing of Cook Strait in 2019, mother fate decided to give me a further push in the same direction, leading me on a collision course with a swim attempt of the length of Lake Taupō.
It was 2016, and I was on the phone with Philip Rush. I had emailed him a few months earlier about my interest in undertaking the famed Cook Strait crossing, and finally we were able to connect to talk through the challenge. At some point during the call, Philip mentioned the idea of swimming the length of Lake Taupō as a pre-cursor to an attempt of the Cook Strait crossing – a preparatory swim of sorts. Although I can’t recall my response verbatim, my reaction at the time was something along the lines of “hell no!”. Lake Taupō, for those who are not aware, is New Zealand’s largest lake a distance of approximately 40 kilometres at its longest point. It wasn’t that I thought the idea to be beneath me; the concept of swimming the equivalent of a marathon was nothing short of madness at the time. Evidently, with time, my mind had room for expansion. In the early months of 2019, weeks after completing a successful crossing of the Cook Strait, I willfully and gleefully committed myself up for an attempt of swimming the length of Lake Taupō during the open water season of 2020.
How does one prepare for a challenge like this? As has been a common theme across all the swims I have undertaken, I searched out those who had completed the swim and annoyed them to no end with my questions of their experiences. In truth, all members of the ultra-marathon swimming community are more than willing to share their stories. I determined that the distance of the Lake Taupō swim, mind-boggling as it was at the time, was the major hurdle to work through. There would be no marine life to contend with. The cold was unlikely to be a factor. And there are certainly no tidal currents as you may experience in the ocean to trouble swimmers making an attempt. The training journey that lay ahead of me was to focus on one aspect primarily: how to adequately condition my body and mind to undertake a swim considerably further than any I had undertaken before.
Nutrition, and an uneventful build
My training journey for the Cook Strait crossing, the first channel swim that I had attempted, was full of twists and turns as I navigated how best to prepare for the challenge. Entering the training journey for a crossing of Lake Taupō, though I was certainly not a veteran by any means, I was now somewhat wiser and leveraged those hard-earned learnings to my advantage. I was fairly confident I could build a suitable training plan, utilizing the methodology of building up to a peak week that was double the distance of the challenge ahead. Having not been a competitive swimmer growing up, it was mind-bending to bring my head around the concept of such volume across a single week.
While I had a rough gauge on the mileage that was required for the build ahead, the nutrition and hydration strategy that I had employed for the Cook Strait crossing, which ended in a case of gross hematuria, certainly left room for improvement. Once again, I spent time talking to those who had walked the path before me to understand what worked for them. I pivoted away from the unique combination of Snickers bites, jellybeans and Powerade to the more tried and tested forms of bananas, carbohydrate and electrolyte fluids, and gels. Finding that my gut did not particularly enjoy the exclusive intake of high-glycemic foods, I continued to search for other options to balance out the more common forms of exogenous carbohydrates. Giving credit where credit is due, it was Paul Feltoe, a swimmer based in New Plymouth, who generously allowed me to study his nutrition plan and gave to me the idea of a unique nutrition source which I continue to use to this day: the maltodextrin and protein blend that is Perpetuem.
The training in the lead-up to the crossing attempt was not overly eventful. In some senses, this is exactly how you want a lead-up to be. From September 2019 through to February 2020, I slowly built the volume that my body was able to comfortably withstand, while simultaneously driving forward a gradual improvement in speed. One training session I remember in particular during this build was a 30-kilometre pool session, which I decided to undertake a few days before Christmas of 2019. While it was a good test of my aerobic system, more-so it was a test of my mental fortitude. 30 kilometres of long-course pool swimming breaks down into plenty of tumble turns and time spent staring at the black line beneath. I’ll let you do the math. By February of 2020, I was fit, fast, and ready for the challenge that lay ahead.
30 kilometres of pool swimming does funny things to your body
An attempt looms
The swim window was due to commence on February 22nd. We traversed down to Tūrangi, a small township south of Lake Taupō, on February 21st, which was a Friday. Sarah, my girlfriend at the time and now wife, had taken an unpaid day of leave from work, which is notoriously difficult to access in her profession as a high-school teacher. My very good friend Sam also happened to be in the country from the UK, and so was gratefully accepted into the support group. We made our way down country mid-afternoon, arriving into Tūrangi late into the evening. In communication with Philip previously, there was no chance that the swim was to take place the following day, and so there was no concern with the time that we arrived. If anything, we arrived well ahead of schedule with time to relax the day following for a possible attempt on Sunday or Monday. Our accommodation in Tūrangi was cozy, and well suited to the 6 or so members of the support group who would be joining over the next day or so.
We awoke the following morning to a grey and rainy day in Tūrangi. The rain was welcomed, given the drought-like conditions which had been experienced both here and around the North Island. It made for a very relaxing lie in, and fortunately I enjoyed a fantastic sleep. While cooking pancakes after waking, I received a call from Philip. Unfortunately, it was not the news that I wanted to hear. The forecast had worsened as the week had progressed, and the wind was now not suitable for an attempt. I questioned with Philip the advantages and disadvantages of a swim in higher than ideal wind (assuming, of-course, that the wind would be a tailwind of some form). I ultimately rested on Philip’s experience with that body of water, deferring to his expertise and resigning myself to the fact that the swim would not be taking place in the coming days as hoped.
It's a really, really long lake
It was disappointing given that the taper in the final weeks had been incredibly effective. But, I knew from previous experience with the Cook Strait that you could not control the weather; you could only be as prepared as possible for when the weather was suitable. A message from Rick Wells when I shared the news framed it up well: “That is a good thing, it gives you more time to prepare and focus.” A strong lesson in the power of re-framing and a growth mindset. Other members of the crew arrived not too long following the call with Philip. In lieu of the swim attempt, we enjoyed plenty of extremely competitive board games over the day ahead, eventually leaving the next day to return to Auckland. It was Sarah’s 30th birthday on Sunday, and while we enjoyed brunch and Spa Park in Taupō, it was a shade of what I would have liked to have given her for her special day. As always, she was incredibly gracious and supportive.
And so, I returned to Auckland extending the taper that I had constructed, swimming short distances of high intensity with the knowledge that a re-attempt the following weekend may be possible. By the middle of the week, it was clear through discussions with Philip that a possible attempt for the weekend was now likely, with Saturday the favoured day based on weather conditions. The following day and another call later, it was made final – Saturday was to be the day. Given my previous experience with similar date changes in the lead-up to Cook Strait, I was much better mentally prepared this time around to handle the changes. The false start may not have been the perfect lead in, but I had done the training and I was ready.
A battle with insomnia
And so, on the morning of Friday the 28th of February, the rejigged support crew began our second descent to Tūrangi, collecting swimmer friend and support crew member Mark Lenaarts enroute. An unbelievable ice-cream scoop in Tirau and a few hundred kilometres later, we were in Tūrangi. During the drive down, I frantically searched to lock in accommodation. We ended up staying at the Tongariro Lodge on the outskirts of Tūrangi – a small collection of chalets and lodges next to a river feeding into the Lake. It was quiet, serene, and a perfect scene for the calm before the storm. My Dad, Gordon, arrived a few hours later after we had enjoyed a well-rounded meal. At 8pm I signed off for the night for six hours of unperturbed sleep before the scheduled 2am awakening.
Or so I thought.
It turns out that sleeping was much more difficult than initially anticipated. I tossed and turned in the bed. Unfortunately, my mind was already thinking forward to what was needed when I woke the next day, which is a surefire way to guarantee a poor night’s rest. I tried to sleep on the couch in the living room. I returned again to the bedroom. I had a shower. I read a book. I meditated. I tried breathing exercises. Nothing would work. Eventually, at about 12:30am the following morning, my body finally shut down enough to enter into sleep. I slept for only 90 minutes, one full sleep cycle or thereabouts, before waking. It was not the start to the day that I had hoped for. Nonetheless, it was the start that I had and there was no value in dwelling on what could have been.
I woke from bed at 2am, somewhat dazed and certainly not entirely rested. After a quick shower to force my senses alive, I proceeded to change into my togs and prepare as best as possible for the day ahead. There was a strong learning in the sleeplessness of this night – what you can prepare for the night before, do, and whatever time you think you may need in the morning, give yourself more just in case. There was somewhat of a mad rush to get through all the pre-requisite tasks, which included cooking breakfast, eating breakfast, preparing all the food for the day ahead, being lathered with sunscreen, and finishing with a final coat of zinc-oxide nappy rash cream over all parts of my exposed body for good measure. At 3am, we were out of the door and hurriedly on our way.
A bout of night swimming
We eventually found the start line to the swim at the southern end of Lake Taupō: a jetty which was tucked away behind a resort on the water. A member of the wedding party for the wedding that was held at the resort the day prior was concerned with the commotion and came out to interrogate Philip, leaving some parts of her body overly exposed in her inebriated state. She was surprised to say the least when Philip told her we were preparing to swim the length of the lake.
Sarah was escorted to the larger boat which lay 100 metres or so offshore, and Mark remained with Philip in the inflatable rescue boat (IRB) for the first leg as planned. I stood and tried to retain as much warmth as possible, with a towel wrapped around my shoulders but not so tight as to rub the sunscreen. Philip applied one light to the back of my goggles and one to the back of my togs. With that, I made my way to the ramp to approximately knee-deep. A catfish or a creature of a similar slimy nature poked around my toes. I said my farewells to Dad, who we were to eventually meet at the finish line. With a signal from Philip, the swim was underway.
The final preparation
It was my first experience swimming in the dark for an extended period of time, and to say that it was a completely unfamiliar experience would be entirely accurate. I could have been swimming in circles for all that I knew, were it not for the Christmas tree which was Philip’s IRB, its side decorated brightly with red and green LED lights, guiding me forward. The first hour went quickly, marked complete by a plop of a bottle in the water for the first feed.
I gave some thought to the temperature of the lake during the first hour. It was a non-event at a warm 21 degrees Celsius, and I quickly dispelled whatever fear these thoughts may have attempted to conjure forward. The green hue from the right side of the boat allowed a small fragment of sight ahead and I chanced several glances of my stroke, in what would otherwise be an all-consuming darkness. It was one further surreal experience to add to the many that I have had during my tenure in open-water swimming.
I was keeping up a relatively decent clip during the first phase, swimming in the neighbourhood of 1:35m per 100 metres. There were some waves at this stage, blowing south-westerly to westerly, rushing off the hills on the western side of the lake. They were not disruptive in any way, and if I were to experience wind at any point it was favourable to have this at the beginning stages when I felt strongest. The sunrise came about four hours after the start point, bringing with it an amazing combination of reds and oranges, and I welcomed the light that it gave. This point also marked a feed, the digestion of an anti-inflammatory pill, and a change in the support crew with Philip and Mark retreating to the larger boat to be replaced by Mike Cochrane and Sarah.
The pain and mental battles begin
I cannot clearly remember the events of each hour as they passed during what I will call the second phase of the swim, but some moments in particular stood out. I recognized during this second phase that my forearms were beginning to cramp, which was not ideal. I noticed that there seemed to be particles floating in the water, which was a source of some welcomed distraction in what was an otherwise placid lake. I also felt the positive impact of caffeine, taken on in the form of a lemon and lime gel somewhere around the six-hour mark, giving life to an otherwise slowing stroke rate. As the sun rose further, the conditions on the lake calmed with it, bringing fantastically flat and smooth water. I cannot find any fault in the day that I was gifted.
Soon enough, we were at the 20-kilometre mark, and no sooner following this had we passed the famed island in the Lake. A number of people had warned me in the lead up of how the island “followed you” through the first half of the swim. Fortunately, I was breathing left into the side of the IRB for the duration of the swim, and so did not have the island as a reference point.
The island looms in the background
With this in mind, we were now entering the portion of the swim when many faltered, from what I had been told in discussions with Philip and other swimmers during the lead-up. This was what I had trained for. I was physically and mentally strong, and I was ready. I focused on ensuring my technique remained strong, in spite of the pain that I was experiencing in my arms and upper body. I counted the strokes and the breath, and the breath and the strokes, forcing my mind into a flow state and away from distractions, such as how long until the end or when the next feed may be.
We soon made it to around the 30-kilometre mark, and so saw a change in the guard back to Philip and Mark. Philip had signaled to me earlier that as soon as we made it to Rangatira Point he would be pushing me hard. I was dreading the coming onslaught but knew that, in the grand scheme of life, it was only short-term pain and that I could deal with it. The pine trees off the point taunted me, seemingly moving further away with each stroke that I took. After what seemed an age, we made it to Rangatira Point. True to his word, Philip pushed me hard. I increased my stroke rate and pulled as hard as I could. My triceps, chest, and forearms were all cramping and giving me terrible pain. But the end was in sight. The finish line was drawing closer.
A glorious finish
I pushed as hard as I could during the final phase of the swim while attempting to maintain some form of energy efficiency. While I wanted to achieve the best possible time, I also did not want to push early and fade before the end. There were only a few feeds left, and the flat Coca-Cola was flowing for that final push. Soon enough, the bottom of the lake was in sight. There is nothing quite like seeing ground after staring into the blue abyss for hours on end. It was a welcomed sight. I realised that my dream of swimming Lake Taupō was soon to become a reality. All the hard work in the lead up and during the day was coming together to culminate in the imminent, glorious finish. I swam hard. There was no need for conservation of energy any longer.
I swam until my hands came into contact with the ground. I pushed onto my legs, dolphin-dived twice, and ran out of the lake for a race finish to the cheers of the 20 or so people who had gathered at the finish line. No sooner had I exited the water that the blood rebalanced in my body and my footing stumbled. I was held upright only by the steadying arms of Philip. My left eye burned with agony. I had unfortunately developed an eye infection of some form prior to the swim, and by the end of the swim my eye was incredibly inflamed. But I didn’t care. I had done it. In 12 hours and 22 minutes, the fastest time of the season, I had swum the length of Lake Taupō. What seemed madness to me only three years ago – swimming the distance of what is considered a marathon distance in running – was now a reality.
Minutes after exiting the water, I topped it off by dropping a knee on the lakefront and proposing to my girlfriend Sarah, still in my togs and with my dry-robe around my shoulders. There are not many days that can beat this one.
No ultra-marathon swim is a solo journey
Support crew, to whom I owe a debt of gratitude: Mike Cochrane (Pilot), Mark Lenaarts (Support), Philip Rush (Pilot, Coordinator), Sarah Pigou (Support), Gordon Ridler (Land Support)