Swimming: The Lonliness of the Long Distance Swimmer

What do you do if the Channel's cutting up rough? Get your togs on for the Windermere Two-Way, says Richard Slater ? 21 miles of icy water and numb limbs
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Captain Matthew Webb declined the invitation. He felt the lack of salt-water, nature's own buoyancy aid, made a crossing of Windermere too precarious. (This, it should be noted, was a man who, having swum the English Channel bolstered by a fluid intake of beef tea and beer, later accepted the fatal challenge to swim through the Whirlpool Rapids at Niagara.)

There are no whirlpools or rapids on England's largest lake – just ten-and-a-half miles of gloomy, chill water. In the fading daylight, the competitors in the overnight Windermere Two-Way are contemplating their 21-mile trip. Only one, Dee Llewellyn, a 23-year-old teacher from Bradford, has attempted the course before. Llewellyn holds the all-comers record for the Two-Way, organised by the British Long Distance Swimming Association's (BLDSA). She is attempting to better her time of 9hr 15min in what are favourable conditions – a reasonable water temperature – 17C (64F) at the warmest point – little wind and no sign of rain. For the others, all experienced competitors at shorter distances, the challenge is personal rather than against the clock.

This antiquated approach to sport – the admission that it's about participation rather than plaudits – rankles with the Amateur Swimming Association (ASA), the body primarily responsible for swimming in the UK. Brian Metcalfe, president of the BLDSA, said: "They just don't understand that times aren't so important with events like the Two-Way – it's about defying the elements. There's a school of thought which says the person who comes in last has shown the greater endurance..." Among the fundamental points of disagreement is the fact the ASA allows wet-suits to be worn and sets limits on the conditions. Not so the BLDSA, an organisation founded in 1950s Yorkshire. "Wetsuits add buoyancy which changes the odds, and we won't call off a race if it's too cold or windy," says Brian. This is pure sport with more in common with the enthusiastic adventurer than the professional athlete.

The swimmers line up for the race (held earlier this month); day-trippers look on in cornet-licking bemusement as the race officials issue their safety briefings. Rowing boats are loaded with navigational charts, blankets, first-aid kits, flasks, chocolate, energy drinks and bananas. Two oarsmen and a navigator, with wardrobes fit for a polar trek, squeeze into the gaps and affix light-sticks and Flag Alphas, to warn other lake users of the presence of swimmers.

The starter gives the command and the swimmers, greased more to prevent chaffing than retain heat, slope behind the headland with their measured, rhythmic strokes. The flotilla is joined by a pair of canoeists at the turning point, the BLDSA's high-speed emergency boat and two motorised safety craft, one of which is carrying me.

Within a couple of hours the fleet has fragmented. The favourable conditions are expected to ensure a high finish rate; yet after eight miles Gary Lancashire, a 41-year-old dental technician from Royton, retires. He has been competing in the sport for 12 years, but has never swum further than the Windermere One-Way (this year's race is held next Saturday). "It was just too cold for me," he said. "By the time I got out, I couldn't keep my fingers together, which isn't much use when you've got 13 miles left to swim."

Once the engines have dimmed on the pleasure cruisers, speedboats and jet-skis, Windermere is a sombre and austere venue. In the depths of night, the melancholy quiet is punctuated only by the gentle, padding splashes of weary arms.

With the break of dawn, the sun begins to crack the icicles in the mist left by a moonlit night – overnight swims are always planned to coincide with a full moon. There are five swimmers still on the water. As expected, Dee is first to finish, just nine minutes outside the record. Before the start, she was confident of beating the nine-hour mark, if she got her feeding right. But, just after the half-way point, bloated by glucose, she was ill and took two hours to recover. Not that there's any question of taking an extended breather – to touch your support boat is considered a disqualifiable offence.

Back at Ambleside, the welcoming party back has been churning out bacon sandwiches on portable barbecues since 6am. The sighting of Dee and her sister Liane, who started an hour earlier and finished a few minutes later, is greeted with the kind of relieved joy reserved for the return of a storm-tossed ship.

After gingerly negotiating the stones and rusted drink cans of the shallows – most injuries in the sport are cut feet at the starts and finishes – Dee, whitened by the cold, says breathlessly: "I really do need to go to bed." But there's BLDSA etiquette to observe. After thawing out she and Liane, a 19-year-old Salford University student, join in the applause for the other finishers. Andy Wright, 44, and Dave Feakes, 39, training partners from Warrington, claim the first two places in the men's event, more than two hours behind Dee.

Three miles away is an exhausted Mark Blewitt, 33, a veteran of the round Manhattan Island race and the epitome of the BLDSA spirit. He had planned to make a channel attempt in the weekend of the Two-Way, but a recent and problematic sea-race persuaded him otherwise. A diabetic, his feeding regime is a vital component of race preparation and an emergency plan was issued to organisers. In the closing stages it is unclear if he has managed his intake correctly.

Blewitt emerges from the lake with skin the translucence of a jellyfish. Disoriented and shaking, he is unable to put weight on his feet and is carried from the water's edge. He is patted dry – to rub on numbed flesh would risk skin injury – and an ambulance is called. Released from Kendal Hospital later in the day, Blewitt is unperturbed. "With three miles to go I wanted out, but my crew got me to change stroke and keep going. I put my health in their hands and swam on. I learned a lot about my body, endurance and the effects of insulin – and that information will be put to good use next time..." Blewitt's time? Fourteen hours and then some.