[Warning: you might want to grab a cup of tea and a biscuit before reading this!]
Finished it. Nailed it. Smashed it. Felt it.
And now we miss it.
It is a truly wonderful and humbling thing to see a group of people so focussed on achieving exactly the same goal, and going to extraordinary lengths to accomplish it.
Where to start trying to explain it all? Wow. Maybe if we break this down into sections, like a sort of post match report, if you like:
The leaving party in London was great fun. Sophie’s Steakhouse put on a great breakie for everyone the day before we left and England rugby legend Nick Easter, who’s father has Parkinson’s, came down to add his support and share a few words of wisdom with the team. The next morning we all met at Roger’s boat along with a raft of supporters (what a turn out for 8am on a Sunday!) and Steve Ford, Chief Exec of Parkinson’s UK, gave a moving speech to start us off. Thanks to everyone for coming down to see us off. The first day, a 145km cycle to Dover across some pretty undulating landscape was hard going with over 1050m climbed, but our special guests for the day Dave Semen and Tom Kelly took a lot of the grunt work up front and we were in Dover by late afternoon.
Team (minus Dan who was running late) and the waiting crew at Sophie’s with Nick Easter (centre) for the leaving breakfast. Then the next morning on Roger’s boat, or “My House” as it was known.
Fresh legs: Roger leads the team cycling through London and then the English countryside on day one
A frustrating day of waiting in Dover followed. The wind in the channel was blowing with gusts up to gale force seven with little change forecast for the next three days, and one of our two chartered pilot boats was only insured up to gale force five so it looked bad for our chances of getting out. We broke up the time by jumping into the water in Dover harbour for a practice mile swim, which at least gave us a taste for the local water. Yep, it was salty. And cold. In fact it was a lot colder then we had expected. Usually the swim season starts in late June with water temperatures of around 15 degrees Celsius, but the cold and long winter meant it had only struggled its way up to 12.5 degrees for us. It might not sound like a big difference, but believe me, it’s massive, particularly as we had decided to do the swim without wetsuits.
Anyway, around 6pm that evening we got bored of constantly checking my phone for updates so we decided to talk to one of the boat pilots (Neil Streeter) in person down at the docks. As we looked at weather charts and forecasts with Neil on his boat “Suva”, it became clear that a narrow window was opening up. The only problem was that the window involved us leaving around midnight to start swimming at 1am. We checked with the other boat pilot who was not as convinced, saying that with gale force five scheduled for the morning it would be a very bumpy ride and he wasn’t comfortable with it. So we had a tough call to make. Unanimously, the group decided to continue with everyone on one boat and to tough out the choppy sea. By the time we got back to the hotel we had a couple of hours to prepare. It was surreal trying to get ready for a massive endurance event at 10pm, even more so when none of us had trained in the dark. A farcical attempt to grab 90mins sleep before we left failed entirely and one by one everyone returned to the bar in the hotel, sat down and waited for the unknown.
Home for 17 hours (not a comfortable place) and James “The Swim Machine” Harrison gets ready
for the first plunge. Brave man.
I can’t work out if I have fond memories of the channel swim or gruesome ones… is it possible for a memory to be both? It is difficult to convey how lonely and hard it is to swim at night in painfully cold water with no sleep. You can’t tell which way the boat is going, you can’t see anything and every sense is telling you to get out. But then you hear the encouraging shouts of your team and somehow you carry on. 45 mins later, you see the greatest sight in the channel; your mate jumping in to take over. You climb out and are immediately grabbed by your friends. Then the cold takes over. You can’t control your movements, your legs cramp up because of the cycle the day before, your jaw locks and your whole body starts shaking violently. Others dry you, dress you, feed you and hug you to try and restore warmth. All whilst the boat continues to rock sickeningly from side to side in the rough water. After another 30 agonising minutes or so you feel the shakes starting to subside. You might even try a cup of tea, although you risk shaking it all over your face so best for someone else to hold the cup. You haven’t slept in 2 days, all you want to do is curl up and shut your eyes, so you try and find a comfortable spot in an impossibly uncomfortable place. Seemingly no sooner have you done it and the next person is out of the water, shivering uncontrollably next to you and the whole process starts again. Then an annoyingly persistent thought hits you and won’t leave you alone: I must go upstairs and support the others; I am just being lazy lying here. And so you find yourself dragging your achingly cold and tired body up the metal steps to the upper part of the boat and shouting the same words to the guy in the water that were shouted to you an hour before… and so life on the boat goes on. For almost 17 hours. I take my hat off to Jabs, our first swimmer in the water. He made the first leap of faith and set a tone and pace that inspired us all.
The good news was that as when it got light the whole thing got a little bit more bearable and as we neared France even the sea calmed down for us. How people do this as a solo swim is beyond me – I guess body fat helps, which didn’t really work for us with the run and cycling training we’d all done. I’ve never been so happy to see France, as was Dan Castro, our cameraman who’d volunteered to record the whole trip but who had to dig deep to overcome his sea sickness on the boat.
Swimming in the dark is bleak. Then it gets light… and is still bleak.
That’s me in the water (and a ferry for good measure). A few minutes after this was taken I found myself looking at a wall of jelly fish. I wasn’t happy. Later, France appears (right).
Four of us leapt in the water to join Dan Frith (who’d just put in an almost hour long slog) for the final push to the beach on Cape Gris. We stood on French terra firma and jumped around like school children at playtime. Tommy G’s mum Lizzie and David somehow even managed to be on the beach on which we landed and welcomed us with waving flags (Union Jacks… vive la France!). By then it was raining but no one cared. We swam back to the boat and headed to Calais harbour. Steak et frites were ordered all round and devoured in moments before ten weary heads hit pillows and finally got some well deserved rest.
Paul helps Tommy G out after a big session, and then keeps
spirits high whilst Dan tries to find some warmth and rest.
A straight line would have been quicker! Our route across the Channel, thanks to our TNT tracker
(we lost signal in the middle).
Somehow our master of admin Stefania, who has been the driving force behind all of our planning and route organisation, had managed to shuffle all of our accommodation and plans to align with our revised schedule after our slightly odd channel swim timing, which was an absolutely blessing as I’m not sure how the team would have coped with another night of no sleep!
The next day we were back on the bikes. Overall, the cycling was probably the easiest discipline mentally but turned out to be the most dangerous physically. Day three saw a long and arduous cycle from Calais in France to Breskens in the Netherlands; about 170km in total which was longer than planned as we had landed on the swim further west than intended. It started raining in France and this led to a particularly nasty crash which buckled one wheel, put Tommy G over his handlebars and Paul in to a heap with a bit less ankle than he was used to. After hours on the bikes tiredness eventually took its toll and Phil momentarily lost his concentration whilst looking at his phone and smashed into the low barrier that separated the cycle lane and the road, barely 10kms from the end of the day. He removed a fair portion of the skin on his rump in doing so. Ouch. It was a long and hard day, and a welcome quick beer stop in Brugges led to lifted spirits and some terrible group singing. It shames me to admit it, but we butchered Eternal Flame by the Bangles. By the time we limped into Breskens we were all pleased to get off the saddle and were greeted like heroes by the faithful crew of wives, girlfriends, children and friends – what a bunch of legends.
Brugges town square (where we stopped for liquid refreshments). Coops talks technical on the route.
Day four was a mixture of rowing and cycling. Until a few weeks before we started the row wasn’t even on the radar, but Phil realised that we might have a problem with cycling through the big tunnels in SW Holland and called ahead to check. His concerns were justified but thankfully the port authority guys at Het Loodswezen teamed up with the Vlissingen Zeevaart School (rowing club) and sorted out everything for us out of the kindness of their hearts. What a fantastic effort. The row itself was short (at just under an hour it barely registered as exercise compared to what we were used to!), but it was quite technical and great fun. Roger tried to record the rowing for our followers on Punkt but was berated by everyone for messing up the rhythm and almost had his phone thrown overboard as punishment. The sun came out and it was exciting to row waters that to all local knowledge had not been rowed before, and to greatly exceed the expectations of the rowing club (we beat the local TV film crew to the other side and had to go back out to sea for the benefit of the camera). Thank you for support and instruction from Marijke and her team for organising the whole thing, as well as everyone at Het Loodswezen who allowed this odd rowing request across the busy shipping lane. By the time it finished we felt like we were just getting going!
Learning to row in the safety of the harbour in Breskens before attempting to cross the estuary.
Later Toby went foraging for hedgehogs in a ditch.
A couple of media interviews later and we were off on a cheeky 135km cycle to round off day four with special guests Shakes and Robby Mol in tow. This cycle was more fluid than before and the route across the dams and sluices of SW Holland was stunning. Only one crash (a rather lethal tyre blow on a corner saw Toby ousted into a ditch) and some road closures marred and otherwise smooth day on the bikes. Our peloton efforts got increasingly more slick and as a team we were able to munch up kilometres, although a slightly bizarre moment in Rotterdam led to us carrying out bikes down and through a tunnel on somewhat wobbly legs (we couldn’t take the escalator, that would’ve been cheating). After three individual days on the bike it was weird to see Dave pack them into the back of the TNT van in Rotterdam – we wouldn’t be needing them anymore.
Cruising across the sluices and dams of SW Holland in peloton. Then the odd moment in Rotterdam which was tough on the legs after the long day on the bikes.
That night we put in the largest pizza take out order I’ve ever seen. By now our support crew had swollen, with regulars Tabs, Oscar, Poppy, Karen, Mia, Stefania, Simone, Dan and Dave now complimented by Robby, my wife Georgia, my son Alfie, Georgina, Ottie, Joline, Oliver, my father Phil, Robbie, Jenny, Jo and Elsie. We were a formidable group, and moral was high. Dinner involved more stories, some moving speeches and then planning for the final day.
That left the run. Over ten hours of jogging after four days of extreme exertion. Running at your own pace for that long would be very hard. Running at a new pace is just bizarre. We were joined by three guests including my 62 year old father Phil Lemanski who surprised us by rocking out of the blue in Rotterdam and asked if we fancied a run, Robby Mol who’d cycled us the day before and Robbie Britton, Team GB ultra-athlete who was our running coach, nutritionist and mentor all rolled into one! It was Robbie who had given the moving speeches the night before, using his own experience of outrageous endurance races to help us get our heads around breaking down the daunting task into sections and explaining how we should focus on just one thing; getting to Amsterdam as one group whatever happened. And so 13 people set out to run for the first time together and to try to keep it going for over 67km. At least experimenting with new running styles took up an hour or so! The distance seemed infinite and the road stretched out relentlessly in front of us, seemingly without corners. The marathon mark came and went with a brief cheer from everyone, only for tired eyes to then return to the road in realisation that there was still around 25km to go and it was 30 degrees with little shade. Phil Mott and Nick Tobin were in their element and were able to help encourage the group and provide some needed motivation and discipline.
Ice creams became the food of choice (thank you to the TNT crew who appeared on the side of the road to hand out some!), but our running guru Robbie was insistent that we all eat ham and cheese sandwiches to take on slow burning sugars. Ever tried to eat a ham and cheese sandwich after six hours of running? It’s not nice. Our overall plan was to split the day into periods of 55 mins running then five minutes walking/refuelling and as the hours went by we became almost delirious in anticipation of when we would next see the orange colours of our TNT support van which came to symbolise all the glorious water, food, salt tabs and painkillers it held. Our crew were incredible, and Dave, Stefania and Simone – if you are reading this then please do not underestimate just how reliant on you we were and how fantastically you responded! Thank you.
Personally, I hit a wall somewhere between 50 and 60km. Not so much a physical wall but a mental one I think; I really struggled to deal with anything, to stay focused and above all to stay social. I think it was triggered by seeing my wife and son at one food stop. For some reason the elation of seeing them just got a bit too much for me and I found my concentration cracking… I turned and carried on running which I found very painful. I felt very angry at myself and I didn’t know why. I eventually resorted to staring at my feet at watching them plod on one after the other and listened to the conversations between better faring friends around me. As was the case throughout “My House to Your House”, it was my friends who gave me the energy to continue.
After what seemed like a lifetime, slowly but surely Amsterdam started to appear on the horizon. To start with it was a plane in the distance which we decided must be on its way to land at Schiphol airport. Then as the planes got nearer we started to recognise villages and towns… we were nearly there.
It’s a long and straight road from Rotterdam to Amsterdam… then a beacon of hope as the
first sign to Amsterdam appears.
Coming around that final corner in Amsterdam was an incredible moment. The team were singing, friends, family, wives and children were cheering, confetti guns exploded, flags waved and suddenly we were there; over the line. Knees buckled and emotions surged. Beers were passed around, although most people lay on the floor or draped in the arms of loved ones. Then the realisation: we’d made it from London to Amsterdam under our own steam in five days (plus one waiting in Dover) and we’d done it as a group. And in doing so we’d raised over 66k GBP (76k EUR) for Parkinson’s UK. How fitting, therefore, that the Cooper Mitchell family, who were the reason we choose Parkinson’s UK as a charity, were there in force at the end. Fantastic stuff, and a moment I will not forget for the rest of my days.
The moment we finished in Amsterdam. What a moment.
Perhaps everyone did it for different reasons. For some, it might have been getting fit, for others maybe it was the adventure, for one it was because he wanted to do something to help his dad. I can’t speak for the others, but for me I did it to be a part of something extraordinary with friends, for the journey, which started almost a year before we crossed the finishing line in Amsterdam.
What was achieved between 9am on Sunday 30th June and 7pm on Friday 5th July 2013 will not go down in the Guinness Book of Records. It won’t register in any sporting almanac or be mentioned in any history book. However, for the people that were a part of it, the achievement was priceless.
From the bottom of my heart I thank each and every person who was involved in this. The list is too long for this blog, so perhaps we will do a “credits” section or something separately. But for what it is worth; to everyone who donated, to the corporate sponsors, to the people who organised events / fundraising / PR / websites, to the people who helped us along the way, to everyone who supported us in person and those that followed online, to those who planned routes, to Oscar and the other family members who helped us to smile in the evenings, to the guests that joined us for part of the journey, to those who organised events at (and before) the start and finish, and to those who put in the gruelling months of training to make it all possible… thank you. Thank you thank you thank you.
I’m spent, tired and in many ways utterly empty. But above all I am immensely proud of what we’ve done and I hope that others pick up the gauntlet and make this their own. We will leave the Facebook page and this website up so if anyone would like to get involved for future events or if you have any great ideas please let us know.
It breaks my heart that the team is no longer together and we are all living our own lives again. Tobin is back in Singapore, Dan is moving to Vancouver, Tommy G is back in Somerset and the rest are split between London and the Netherlands. Arranging nights in the pub for the four of us that live in Amsterdam seems like a feeble substitute for what we could be doing and what I now know we are capable of.
But then I remind myself that all of this came around from friends talking in a pub and inspiring one another. Just imagine what is possible… just imagine if…
OLL. July 2013.
These are the people that made it all possible, and every one of them should be
very proud of what we achieved together.
“When you have a group who all individually but voluntarily say ‘yes’ to something big, the positive and supportive atmosphere means that nothing is unattainable.” Phil Mott.