An Ultra-marathon Swimming Story from the Pacific

An Ultra-marathon Swimming Story from the Pacific

Floating an idea… 

In anticipation of our 5 year wedding anniversary, my wife and I looked to book a treat for just ourselves (without our two young children!) and decided that Bora Bora had been on our bucket list for too long.  

After researching some adventurous activities that would act as a way to break up the relaxation, I stumbled upon information about swimming around the island itself. The distance around the island is around 26 km which is the equivalent of doing 2 and a half back to back marathons (100 km of running) Only one documented swim, following Marathon Swimming Federation Rules, had been put into the history books by a woman called Tracey Messinger. It took her 9 hours 52 minutes and 50 seconds at an average pace of 2.7km per hour (around 2.20 per hundred). Whilst this seemed a very good time to do such a long distance in, I felt that I could beat that time and simultaneously become the first ever male and first ever British swimmer to swim around Bora Bora. 

Swimming in circles… 

Over the next 4 months, I slowly built up the distance in the pool, starting at 20 km a week and peaking at 50 km per week whilst trying to keep my pace as fast and consistent as possible. ZONE3 helped me so much in my training and I really made great use of their goggles, shorts and hand paddles throughout the pool and open water sessions. Towards the end of my training I was doing at least 15 hours a week in the pool and adding in 3-4 gym sessions to ensure muscular strength and avoid injury. ZONE3 swim products were invaluable in the training to ensure that I was as prepared as I could be and that I was able to give everything I could in training and make the event itself feasible. During the world record attempt, I used ZONE3 tinted lens goggles and I really don’t know what I would have done without them as the right equipment is so important in these kinds of events. 

Time to seas the day… 

The day of the swim itself is quite a blur given the eventual sun and heat stroke I sustained towards the end of the swim but this is my reflection from a truly remarkable experience: 

My breakfast consisted of coffee, bananas, and a chocolate crepe. Whilst not my usual carb-loading extra large bowl of oatmeal, this would have to suffice! 

I entered the water just after 6am and the 28 degree water was a warm welcome into a tropical subterranean world full of wonder. Originally named ‘Pora pora mai te pora’ meaning "created by the gods", you can see why Bora Bora is seen as an otherworldly place which evokes such strong connections to reverence and awe. 

To follow Marathon Swimming Federation Rules, I was only allowed swim shorts, goggles and a swim cap. From when I stepped into the water, I wasn’t able to get out to rest, hold on to the boat for help, or have any floatation support at all.  

Jaw ready for this? 

After leaving the shallow, crystal clear water and entering the deep, I was quite nervous to be able to see only dark blue and endless black surround me. After reaching the first reef marker on our journey, around 10 meters away from me to my right, a very large shark slowly came into view as the light reached down into the depths. Its grey skin and hulking body moved seamlessly through the water. I have never swum with sharks and, to be honest, out of my ‘flight, fight or freeze responses’, freeze would be the most apt reaction I had. I simply carried on, not wanting to panic myself or it but kept my eyes on it until it passed out of sight but not out of mind.  

Water you doing? 

My cadence and stroke rate remained consistent at 48 strokes per minute for around 20 km but especially when we rounded Matira Point where the water is maybe only 1 meter deep and becomes even warmer, I began to tire and slow down. Mentally and physically I felt exhausted in the last 5 km as my head began to pound with the sun stroke and heat stroke as the day approached its hottest point. I had to take my swim cap off to help me cool down but it did little to help. The cramp and lactic acid began to worsen in my forearms, triceps and legs and this added to the mental and physical uphill battle. I hit a wall and my arms began to feel like lead with no power at all. My stroke rate and pace dropped dramatically in that last hour. I just wanted the swim to end and even began thinking, ‘Why do I do this to myself?! I’m never going to do anything like this again…’  

A lot like life in general, seeing photos or videos doesn’t tell the whole story and reality of the pain, fatigue, cramp, dehydration, headaches, heat and sun stroke, sunburn, lactic acid buildup and desperation for the pain to be gone. 

As we rounded the final stretch of overwater villas and I saw the jetty and the stretch of sand I left all those hours ago, I found a reserve of energy to finish strong. I almost felt annoyed with myself that I seemed to have so much left in the tank. This just goes to show you how much of ultra-marathon distance swimming is a mental as well as physical game. 7 hours 14 minutes and 50 seconds had passed since I began which means I had set a new world record for the circumnavigation of Bora Bora by more than 2 and a half hours. My average pace was 1.40 per hundred (including my feed stops) which was faster than I thought I was capable of for that distance and duration. I’d like to think that record will last quite some time but I would also love to see people tackle and ratify a swim in an even faster time.  

It’s a waterful life… 

After the swim I was filled with such gratitude for everyone that had contributed to this achievement. Ultra-marathon swimming often leads people to believe that the accolades and achievements are the accomplishments of one person but there is always a team of people with them that share the burden, carry the load and deserve just as much credit. 

Of course I have to give a special shout out to my awesome sponsor ZONE3 for their quality range of pool and open-water products. I really appreciate the endorsement by them and genuinely recommend the products I used throughout training and the event itself. 

Keep dreaming big, my friends! When you’re ready, set yourselves some goals and get after them!