|At 5.15 am the alarm dragged me from a fitful sleep to face the reality of what I had taken on. As always on these occasions, whether they are big mountaineering days, race days, or big events of any kind, all the bravado and optimism which brought me to this point had evaporated into the thin morning air, leaving my jangling nerves uncomforted by any feeling of confidence. I felt sick to the pit of my stomach.
Experience has taught me though, that there’s really only one way to deal with this pre-start tension and that’s just to get on with it.
For this reason I had deliberately allowed only the minimum time between alarm call and the start time of 6.00 am and this time was comfortably filled with the few tasks of preparation – sipping some hot tea, forcing down a couple of breakfast bars, wriggling into my wetsuit, adjusting goggles, cap and nose-clip – and before I knew it I was out of the tent and shuffling on hands and knees down to the water’s edge.
Alongside me the others made their preparations too – tents were packed, boats made ready, lifejackets donned – but deep in my zone I was more or less unaware of anyone else and I looked out across the water to survey the task ahead of me.
In my mental preparations for this swim I had pictured a flat calm loch – inky black, but still. This morning’s reality was somewhat different. The loch was certainly black, but last night’s stormy weather had disturbed the water and its choppy surface looked distinctly uninviting. In the distance, at the head of the loch, I could make out Kenmore, its church tower and white buildings far too far away to imagine swimming to.
But I knew that I didn’t need to imagine the swim now. Nor did I have to imagine the mammoth cycle and walk which were to follow it. My preparations were all done. Now all I had to do was to take the plunge and do it.
So with a nod from the boys to confirm that the time had come, I cast aside all my doubts, crawled a little distance out into the water, and dived in.
Chilly water rushed in through the neck of my wetsuit and trickled down my body and legs. But the shock wasn’t so great and the cold water instantly swept away any feelings of sleepiness which might have slowed me down.
And in that moment, all of the nervous tension which had been bearing down on me so heavily simply vanished, and I was instantly liberated – free to get on with the challenge ahead.
I rolled onto my back and started to swim. I had come to realise as I trained for this event that back-crawl is my strongest stroke. In fact I have found swimming without hands and feet really quite hard to master. To begin with it felt rather like trying to row with round oars. My stumps gave absolutely no purchase on the water and my centre of balance was so changed that I struggled to even keep my head up. In time though, I found my balance in the water once more, and I started to find ways of using my arms and shoulders to propel me forward. But even now, eight years since I began swimming without hands and feet, I am still to find a way of using my legs which actually propels me in the right direction. All that happens is a lot of splashing and not a lot of movement.
I could have tried a pair of swimming fins, but as such aids are banned from all disabled swimming competitions I felt it would not be appropriate for me to use them. For this event then, I decided to give up on using my legs for swimming altogether and save my leg muscles for later in the day.
So I swam on my back, gazing up at the sky, paddling arms in a slow, regular motion and towing legs uselessly behind.
Beyond a short training session a week earlier, this was my first experience of open water swimming. I had swum the distance, 2.4 miles, in the swimming pool, but this was a very different experience. The sensory deprivation was quite unnerving. Although I could clearly see Nicky, Judith and Dave, who paddled behind me in the two support boats, I couldn’t hear them or speak to them and depended on constant hand signals to keep me swimming in a straight line. Nor could I see where I was going or how far I had come and could only gauge my progress by estimating how much time had elapsed.
So I just ignored the world around me and concentrated on my swimming, focussing on the techniques that my coach Scott had taught me. I tried not to think about the cold which gradually chilled my bones and thought instead of the hot tea and porridge which awaited me at Kenmore.
It was a hard two hours. Unknown to me the wind was picking up – the boats struggled to stay on their course – and the water was becoming more and more choppy. Waves constantly broke over my face, making me choke and swallow more than a few mouthfuls of the loch, but eventually I became aware of the masts of sailing boats swaying around about me and I knew I was entering the harbour.
I rolled over and swam the last few strokes on my front and then crawled out onto the concrete slipway.
From that moment I was buzzing with excitement and adrenaline. Support team, spectators, photographers, clothes change in the back of my dad’s camper van, warm towels, food, drink, putting on my legs – all passed in a blur of nervous energy and before I knew it I was mounting my bike and setting off on the next leg of my odyssey.
I had long anticipated that the cycle would be the toughest part of the challenge. 112 miles is a long way to cycle by anyone’s book and the most I had done in my training was around 60 miles. In fact it was only a year since I had first adapted a bicycle that I could operate and various teething problems were still not all ironed out.
Adapting the bike had been a fun challenge though. As always I knew that simple solutions were bound to be the best and so had opted for a standard bicycle frame and almost entirely standard off-the-shelf bicycle components, although sometimes used in non-standard ways.
The trickiest problem was operating the brakes. In the end standard brake levers were mounted upside down and out in front of the handlebars so that I could push down on them with my stumps. The final touch was a plastic spoon, the handle cut off, attached to the brake lever so I had something more secure to push against.
Another stumbling block was my legs – my prosthetic ones that is. Designed as they are for walking and running, they proved to have limitations when it came to cycling. In training, the much greater knee-bend of the cycling action made the prosthetic sockets rub against the back of my knees and cause painful blisters and sores. This was bad news. Even a small blister or sore on my stumps would spell disaster if it happened on the big day.
Fortunately my prosthetist Francine came to the rescue. She was able to take my spare pair of legs and make various adjustments to them to try and avoid the problem. When I tried out my new cycling legs they seemed to work perfectly, but still I wouldn’t know if I could avoid sores and blisters for a full 112 miles until the day of the event.
The first two stages of the cycle – Kenmore to Killin and Killin to Crianlarich, proved to be straight into the wind. My cycle team did their job though and set a perfect, steady pace while I tucked in behind and tried to conserve as much energy as possible.
We made good progress, through stunning highland scenery, and when we arrived at Crianlarich I was pleased how fresh I still felt.
It’s a short steep climb up out of Crianlarich but then you arrive at the head of Glen Falloch and from there it’s a glorious long swoop down to the banks of Loch Lomond.
At Tarbet we had a partial shift change of the cycle team then we continued down the very busy Loch Lomonside road. Here we were to experience a little of the less pleasant side of cycling: Impatient drivers beeped their horns. Cars, trucks and even buses cut us up in displays of the most outrageously poor driving. One car load of youths even lobbed bread rolls at us as they sped past.
It was a relief to leave behind the road rage of Loch Lomond and enter the much more party like atmosphere of Balloch where the Live at Loch Lomond event was in full swing and the roadside was thronged with brightly dressed young people strolling along in sandals and flowery wellies.
The wind was at our backs now and suddenly, for the first time, I really felt that the cycle was cracked. Buchlyvie, Stirling and Airth seemed to pass by in a flash and before I knew it we were climbing through Falkirk, turning on to the Union Canal, and getting off the bikes, just as the rain set in.
What a relief it was to reach this point! Throughout all the training, and planning, and stressing, and worrying, my main focus had been to reach the end of the cycle. With three kids under three, a hectic work schedule and a new charity to set up, I had chosen quite a year for this challenge, and I made the decision early on that I simply didn’t have time to train for all three legs of the triathlon. I would have to make some compromise. So I decided to concentrate on the swim and cycle, and just let the marathon take care of itself. After all, I had done a marathon before…
So I was massively pleased to complete the cycle, 15 hours after setting out on my swim, itself a distant memory, and now all I had to do was run or walk 26.2 miles along the canal back home to Edinburgh! The prospect seemed quite improbable.
But I had a couple of aces up my sleeve, in the form of Lindsey and John.
Because of the rain, Lindsey set up her massage table underneath the canal bridge, and to save time John fed me his smoked haddock and leek risotto while Lindsey was working on my tired muscles.
So if any of the mystified dog walkers and evening strollers who passed us by are reading this, hopefully this explains why you were confronted with the surreal sight of a man with no hands and feet receiving a professional sports massage under a canal bridge at 9 o’clock in the evening, whilst being spoon-fed risotto through the face hole in the massage bench!
After changing into my walking legs John and I set off for our nightshift along the canal. John is a consultant cardiologist and occasionally chats about his work. The next day when John was telling his wife about the walk he mentioned that he had done most of the talking. Horrified, Katherine exclaimed, “What! Eight hours of angioplasty chat?”
Actually we only talked about angioplasty for about four hours, because half way through that long, gruelling, drizzly night, we had a bit of a surprise. Out of the darkness ahead of us, two lights appeared and up wobbled Geoff and Ant on bicycles. Having spent the evening drinking in Edinburgh they had then decided to round the night off by joining us for the second half of the marathon. There are some friends you can always rely on!
So with two jovial drunks wheeling bicycles on the team, we had a very entertaining few hours on the home stretch. The aches and pains in my increasingly sore legs and the extreme fatigue which I now felt didn’t seem to matter as I knew I was going to make it now.
There’s nothing like a beautiful sunrise to welcome in the morning after a long, hard night. And there was certainly nothing like a beautiful sunrise this morning. It was a grey, wet dawn which greeted us as we came into the outskirts of the city.
Hobbling now, my mind was entirely focused on reaching that finish line, and I barely noticed the last few miles as they ebbed away, and suddenly there I was, standing at the foot of Middle Meadow Walk – the finish.