The Marathon Swimming Challenge

It’s been a while since I’ve written an article and in some ways this picks up where the last one left off as it is again related to open water swimming. To recap, after some years out of swimming I had got back in the water and we had started doing some long distance open water challenges again. Despite my inactivity, endurance swimming remained a defining activity. It’s why my primary video channel is named after it… However after the swims in the last article, things were put on hold for longer than I had planned, It would be late 2018 before we could again continue with this series of personal challenges!!!

A couple of things happened that temporarily brought things to a grinding halt. Firstly on a career front circumstances arose that caused me to somewhat change my direction and out of necessity this had to be my main focus for a while. Secondly, and this can unfortunately be a common issue for distance swimmers, I had the first real shoulder problems I have had during any time in my swimming career. It’s still a little unclear what the issue was as it seems to be under control now but I knew it was unwise to push on without some caution. The training I had been doing was not excessive by any means so I had some doubts that it was just caused by swimming. The bigger culprit was probably an inflammatory auto immune condition that I’ve been managing since 2009 and I’ll discuss it in more detail down the track as it probably warrants an article by itself. It also occurred to me that in addition to this, simple things such as my sleeping position could be contributing. I’ve slept on my left side for the last few years and this meant that my body’s weight was on my left shoulder. It seemed like too much of a coincidence that this was where I was having the problems. Anyway, I made a few adjustments to how I was sleeping and what I was doing in my training sessions and over time things seemed to resolve, or at least improve.

Injuries and distractions aside, I need to digress for a moment because the actual catalyst that got us talking about this project again and actually planning some swims, evolved from something totally separate from any aquatic based activity – the need to replace my car! I had a little Hyundai Getz at the time which had been a terrific little vehicle. It had taken me places beyond what it was ideally designed to do but by 2017 it started showing the signs of strain and I had a series of reliability issues that brought the matter to a head.

I weighed up what my options were. I’d always quite liked the economy of small cars and it seemed to me that I had two options that my budget could accommodate. I should either get a brand new small car or instead go for a well kept second hand four wheel drive, the latter being a lifestyle decision. I discussed this in some length with my partner SJ and we both started weighing up the possibilities that might exist if we had a proper off road vehicle at our disposal. It ended up being an easy decision and I traded in the Getz and bought a second hand 2012 Nissan Navara which we affectionately named ‘The Beast’ (as it was a beast of a car compared to the Getz). Over the next few months we did a number of local trips, made some small modifications to ‘The Beast’ and quickly were in a position to consider doing a trip I had long wanted to do – Fraser Island, in Queensland.

I had visited Fraser Island as a teenager with my parents in 1994 and I had loved it. What I remember most is that it had a number of fresh water lakes. One day we did a drive where we visited three of them in a row and given that at the time I was right in the middle of my swimming career, I was very comfortable swimming off into the distance in open water environments by myself. I decided to swim to the other side of each of them, where nobody else was. It was an exhilarating experience, but particularly at the last of the three which was the island’s most stunning lake – Lake McKenzie. I remember clearly swimming through the clear blue water, being able to see the light reflect off the bottom in places and standing alone on the other side on a beach that was inaccessible to tourists. Being on the far side (which I now know to be 1.2 kilometres away) I couldn’t see the people on the side that I had come from except maybe as little dots. It was quiet and peaceful. I spent all of a few minutes standing there by myself before swimming back. I knew that someday I would go back and maybe do a more significant swim there… So in 2018 we started making plans for this trip and it re-ignited the open water swimming project but with a more challenging defined set of guidelines and Lake McKenzie became the initial focus.

Let me preface this with a bit of history. Ever since the 2008 Olympic Games there has been a 10 km open water swimming event . This had some impact on the re-definition of what a ‘marathon’ distance was for swimming. It was decided that any distance of 10 km or more would be classed as a ‘marathon’ (it had previously been 25 km). The new definition actually made some sense because when you compare the time it takes for an elite swimmer to complete 10 km and an elite runner to complete 42 km, there is only a difference of about 15 – 20 minutes. By comparison the former official marathon swimming distance of 25 km takes a number of hours more to complete. On this basis I decided this new marathon distance was achievable for me even with moderate training. Therefore rather than just swimming across Lake McKenzie and back I should aim to do at least 10 km. As a bonus, I was also reasonably sure that nobody had done it there before. If this was the case then it may very well be the first ever marathon swim in Lake McKenzie.

I measured the distance of the lake along it’s longest stretch on a mapping application on my smartphone and confirmed that it was 1.2 km. 8 laps wouldn’t quite cut it so I decided on 10 (which was nice round figure). This made this swim a 12 km challenge. In the process the defined goal of the marathon swimming challenges became established – “to swim a marathon distance or greater in as many different bodies of water as possible during our travels”. It is an ongoing challenge, a lifestyle of sorts. Like everything else it’s a journey in progress and I see no reason why health permitting, that I couldn’t continue to do this during my entire active life even if they become less frequent down the track, and I do them more slowly. So long as I am enjoying doing them I’ll continue.

Whilst we were planning our trip to Fraser Island and working out the logistics of the proposed swim in Lake McKenzie it became apparent that it would be in our own best interests to do a marathon swim prior to this closer to home to practice dealing with a few of the logistics. With this in mind our first official ‘Marathon Swimming Challenge’ took place about a month prior to our trip to Queensland. I picked Encounter Lakes which is located near Victor Harbour in South Australia. This lake snakes around a residential area and measures 1.68 km from end to end so 6 laps is over the required 10 km. As mentioned in the earlier article I decided wetsuits would be worn where possible in all of the challenges, mainly for sun protection but also so we could test different wetsuits down the track and open up the possibility of doing it in much more frigid locations. This first swim was between 12 – 14 degrees so it was a pretty good first test of that. Notwithstanding the fact that I also wore a neoprene cap under my silicone one for this swim, it still took a few minutes for my face to get used to the temperature. After a few laps my fingers were pretty useless but as far as my core body temperature went I can’t say that I really felt cold.

Another important goal was to test the new kayak we had acquired to accompany me. One of the challenges with the proposed Fraser Island trip was that we worked out quickly that we were not going to have enough room on the roof to fit our much larger Tarpon 120 kayak. We needed something that would pack into a much smaller space. This ultimately led us in the direction of Advanced Elements and their Advanced Frame inflatable hybrid kayak. If you’d asked me a few months before I would have been a bit skeptical about such a design. My prior experiences with inflatable kayaks led me to believing that they were all like paddling a floating marshmallow and the Advanced Frame was not going to be cheap. But after a lot of research I decided to bite the bullet and get it. We quickly found that for an inflatable craft that is light and packs up in a small space, it’s absolutely phenomenal and solved the space issue overnight. Encounter Lakes was probably the 4th test we did with it but the first with me swimming and putting a camera on the kayak so we could get footage during the swim for a video. It worked perfectly. The swim went without incident and gave us plenty of confidence for Lake McKenzie a month down the track.

A couple of weeks before leaving we did one final trip during the Easter long weekend. We needed to give our camping gear a final check out. We didn’t know it at the time but this short trip also ended up being important in the planning of the marathon swim we would do after Lake McKenzie. We went up to Barmera which is located next to Lake Bonney in the riverland, a place we have visited a number of times in the last few years. During one of the days we were driving around the lake taking pictures we noted that despite being Easter, which one would assume is a busy holiday period, there was ample space to camp at a number of the number of free camping sites around the lake. We took a mental note of this and decided that it was likely any further trips to Barmera would not involve staying at overcrowded, over priced tourist parks if we didn’t have to. This would be where we would end up spending our Christmas for 2018 but I’ll come back to this later.

Mid way through October and with ‘The Beast’ packed to the limit, off we went across Australia. Three days later we boarded the ferry for the forty minute journey to the Kingfisher Bay Resort landing on Fraser Island. There are actually a few places you can get onto the island and for most seasoned four wheel drivers the southern most point is the favourite. I was aware however that there was soft sand there and sometimes you had to also put your wheels through the salt water getting onto and off the ferry depending on the tide. You also have to consider the tide when driving around the bottom of the island. None of these were deal breakers but as it was our first trip to the island and I only had limited sand driving experience before, we decided to remove a few of the potential early issues by taking the Kingfisher Bay Ferry. As it turned out during the 7 days on the island ‘The Beast’ proved itself to be a impressive sand driving machine and I think there would be little doubt that we would use the Ferry at the southern most point in the future.

Within minutes of reaching the island we were on our way to Lake McKenzie to check it out. We were staying a further short drive away at Central Station Campground and the swim was planned for the following morning so the plan was to have our first look at the lake and finalize our plans for it. I should say that the first thing we noticed was the terrible state of the inland roads. The recent bad weather had washed away a lot of the sand and it made them incredibly bumpy and slow to traverse. We would find in the days ahead that the roads that were used less were in much better condition and the beach on the easter side (which acts as the main highway of the island) was as i remembered it. As luck would have it, a visit by some of the British Royal Family was planned during our stay there and we noticed the quality of the worst inland roads improve dramatically as they were graded and fresh sand dumped on them. The Royal backsides were to benefit for the efforts of the locals but as it turned out so did ours!

Seeing the lake again brought back a lot of memories. Notwithstanding the fact that it does attract quite a lot of tourists, it is still a stunning lake. We realized that we had a bit more of a walk than we thought. We would have to carry the kayak down a long path and then to our starting point was at the far end of the beach. We also decided we would need to put up a temporary shelter there. After a look around, a few pictures and a bit of videoing, we drove off to our camp, set up and settled in for the night. The next day was going to be a long one.

Being aware of the state of the roads we got up extra early and arrived at Lake McKenzie at about 7 am. We were the first ones there and set about inflating the kayak, I put on my wetsuit and we then carried everything down to our starting point where we set up our temporary shelter to store some things. When we were ready we got started and I quickly found out that this swim was going to be harder than the Encounter Lakes one. Most of the first lap felt like a proper open water swim due to the wind and choppy water on the lake. This however was to change continually during the swim. It went from windy, to calm, to overcast with heavy rain, to clear with searing sun and this was all within a few hours. While most of your body is protected from the sun in a wetsuit the bottom parts of your legs are not and I ended up getting quite notable sunburn down there. Liberal amounts of sunscreen are discouraged when swimming in lakes on Fraser Island but I had been perhaps a bit too sparing down there. After 4 laps I was not finding this one easy at all and realized it was going to be a bit of a slog. When the lake was flat however I made better progress. I tried to tune out of the discomfort and take in where I was. This was perhaps the most stunning lake in the country and it had long been a goal of mine to do a swim like this here. During such moments I noticed small turtles on the bottom of the lake. This came as a bit of a surprise as although I know they live in some of the lakes, I hadn’t heard of them being in Lake McKenzie. Certain the acidity levels mean that very little aquatic life is able to live there which in turn ensures the pristine water quality. The turtles seemed to be quite happy there though. When the last lap finally came about it was somewhat of a relief to get out of the water. Encounter Lakes had been a bit of a doddle by comparison. This was a bit longer at 12 km but it felt harder than that. SJ commented on more than one occasion that the path I was swimming was less than straight. I put it more down to the changing water state. Either way I slept well that night. There had been tentative discussion prior to the trip about possibly doing a second marathon in one of the other lakes there but given that this one had consumed a whole day with the setting up and slow progress travelling to and from the lake, we decided against it in the end. We were on holiday after all. The other lakes would have to wait for another trip.

A few weeks after returning home we started discussing what we would do for the Christmas period. We discussed a few options but in the end decided that we should go back to Lake Bonney and camp in the free camping zone at the far end of the lake. This time we would go with our four wheel driving friends Chris and Marketta. We’ve had a number of good trips with them and have a few stories to tell which are best told with a few drinks! As soon as we started discussing this trip I raised the possibility of swimming another marathon. Like McKenzie, Lake Bonney was another location I had long wanted to do a significant swim. I knew this location well as I used to race here in my youth. They used to run a 1,500 meter swim along the foreshore infront of Barmera. It was a handicap event but usually most of the faster swimmers were handicapped out of contention for line honours so we were racing for the trophy for the fastest swimmer. I did this event twice and both times missed out on getting that trophy, getting second fastest on both occasions for which you got nothing!

But this time it wouldn’t be a short 1,500 meter swim along the foreshore. This time it would be 2 laps of the entire lake at it’s widest point. In all it would be a 13 km swim. This one definitely depended on good conditions. McKenzie could get a bit choppy in strong wind but Bonney was nearly 6 times the length and as such the water in the middle is massively exposed. It’s no coincidence that sailing regattas can be popular at this location. Another snag that had arisen was that SJ would not be in a position to sit in the kayak for a swim of that duration owing to a back complaint but Chris kindly volunteered to take her place and so he paddled with me on this occasion. This left SJ free to take some footage at either end of the lake for the start, turn around and finish of the swim. All that remained was a suitable weather window and it turned out that it looked like it would be calm early in the morning of Christmas Eve so that’s when we did it.

As we started I couldn’t believe our luck. It was absolutely flat as glass. I doubted conditions would remain as favorable for the entire swim but for the first lap it was like that throughout. We had decided that our turn around point would be a little pillar at the other end dedicated to Donald Campbell’s 1964 attempt on the World Water Speed Record here. This was next to a cafe named after his boat ‘Bluebird’ (the cafe is in a shed that was used to house the boat during the record attempt).

Just digressing again for a moment, Campbell who set numerous world speed records reached the pinnacle of his career in 1964. He broke both the land and water speed record in the same calender year and remains the only person to ever do so. The land speed record was achieved on Lake Eyre in South Australia and the water speed record was achieved on Lake Dumbleyung in Western Australia. However what is not as well known is that prior to Lake Dumbleyung he first tried to set the record at Lake Bonney. While this was ultimately unsuccessful, the speed he achieved was still well over 200 mph and as I understand it remains the fastest a boat has ever traveled in South Australian. As a result it is still of historical significance. I actually factored the record attempt into the backstory of this swim. I’ve long been interested in the achievements of record breakers such as Campbell and as I wanted to swim at the broadest point in the lake, it turns out that this was also the same course that he drove the Bluebird up and down on his high speed runs. One of the local residents who had been working on a community project promoting the historical significance of the record attempt was kind enough to supply me with some stock footage to use for our video. I was particularly grateful for this as it brings the our video to life more and further illustrates the size of the lake.

When we got to the far end for half way point I could see SJ standing on the bank when we got there. Up I scrambled, walked up to the post turned round it and headed back to the water.  The trip back was also reasonably uneventful. I picked up the pace as we approached the three quarter mark in the swim. Then the wind started to pick up. To be honest, I wasn’t surprised. I was greatful that it had held off this long. As it turned out we only had about 30 minutes of choppy water to get through and it wasn’t too bad. Then the wind dropped again and it was flat water for the finish. By starting early we also finished early. We had benefitted from the best weather window and also had been able to avoid other recreational boats on the lake which can present a bit of a hazard to a swimmer if they don’t see you. We had the rest of the day to relax and many an alcoholic drink was consumed in the hours that followed. It was Christmas Eve after all. That night it was nice to sit at our camp next to the lake and reflected on one of my more memorable ones.

So that brings us to now. It’s mid 2019 and with 3 marathon swimming challenges down, and more in the works there is much to look forward to. With time I’d like to increase the challenge by adding some further distance and possibly swimming in some more hostile locations. I have some intriguing ideas as to just how to do that so stay tuned. This swimming chapter in my life is very much a ‘Journey in Progress’…

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About Darrell Staight

First and foremost, as you may have guessed I'm a cave diving addict who also dabbles in a bit of freediving and other adventure sports as they present. My interest in videography and writing has led to me being able to share my experiences with others and I'm hoping to continue with this extensively in the future with many more ambitious projects in the pipeline. As the website name may suggest, I had a background in open water distance swimming and that's led me to embrace most things of an aquatic nature. Recently I've returned to this in order to do some solo challenges so stay tuned for that as it will feature on this website too. Whether it's cave diving, freediving, endurance swimming or something other activity who knows what the future has in store. My life is very much a 'Journey in Progress...'
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