The 3 Lakes Challenge – Part III – Bala

After Debbie landed the swim at Ambleside, the team had no time to lose.  It was already lunchtime, and we still had to drive us and all of the gear to Snowdonia and swim Bala to complete the 3 Lakes Challenge.

I had a lovely snooze (again) in the back of the van, after a makeshift lunch from whatever snacks were left lying around in the minibus from the previous day.

The 3rd Lake - Bala, or Llyn Tegid

The 3rd Lake – Bala, or Llyn Tegid

While the shortest of the 3 Lakes at somewhere around 6 km, Bala was actually logistically the hardest.  Boat hire on Awe and Windermere was straightforward, but motorized boat transport on Bala was harder to organize.  While it would have been possible to get a permit, the boat would have needed to have been brought in from somewhere else, which would have stretched the budget too far.

In the end, we opted to hire a kayak to accompany the swimmer, with the added safety of a towfloat, to be handed over at the takeovers.  As we were swimming down the shore of the lake from one end to the other, each new swimmer would swim out from the bank for the takeover, with the observer staying on the bank.  We also lucked out, Graham Killingbeck, Dad of 16-year old Channel Conqueror Hazel happened to be at Bala for the day, and was press-ganged at short notice to kayak.  Thank you Graham!!!

As a note to future challengers, this was more than a little stressful at times, and warrants some prior planning for multiple eventualities.  We ended up swimming with a stiff wind behind us, meaning we went quite quickly.  At times there was a deal of scrambling along the bank through undergrowth and thickets of trees.  If we did this again, I think we would bite the bullet and hire a boat.

The team before starting Bala - bright and breezy!

The team before starting Bala – bright and breezy!

Helen Liddle started us off with the kayak at the Glan Llyn Outdoor Activity Centre Beach at the south of the Lake.  Please note that permission is required to use this start point, so please call ahead. The swim was windy throughout, with white crests for the whole duration of the swim. As Debbie had been the last swimmer in Windermere, and was in for more than 30 minutes, our pre-posted rules stated that the next swimmer in line would start Bala. Helen reported tough conditions getting round the corner and into the lake proper. All subsequent swimmers surfed down the lake with a tasty wind behind……

Helen L starting us off

Helen L starting us off

Sam and Helen G did their 1/2 hour slots, before in the end it fell to me to bring the swim home.  We completed in 1 h 43 minutes, with a small 13 minute last leg for me!

The finish point was in front of the Bala Adventure Watersports Centre at the north of the Lake, in very shallow water.  All of the others came in off a nearby jetty, and followed me in as I limped over the sharp rocks in to shore.

We had done it!

Challenge Complete!

Challenge Complete!

Under overcast skies, just after 6 PM on the second day, the inaugural 3 Lakes Challenge was completed.  It was LOT of fun, and we can recommend it to anyone who fancies a challenge, either as a team, or for anyone strong enough and daft enough, as a solo.

The benchmarks out there are as follows:

For a 5 person relay:

Total time elapsed from start of Awe to end of Bala – 36 hours 23 minutes

Total swim time – 19 hours 23 minutes

Travel time – 17 hours

I think the most meaningful time for people to shoot for is the total swim time, so long as the whole thing is completed within a given 48 hour period.  It would be a shame to encourage people to better the time simply by racing the drives between lakes.  Safety should always be the most important thing!

Many thanks to the team once again, including Tanja our observer, Roger our tireless driver, and Levi, the bemused, but ever-affable dog.

(Note – An observers report will be filed with WOWSA and MSF)

The 3 Lakes Challenge – Part II – Windermere

On finishing Loch Awe, and getting a good meal on board, the team piled into the 17-seater minibus, and Roger drove us south.  Each swimmer had a row of seats in the back of the minibus, padded out with bags and things, to try and fashion a bed each.

Luckily, I have always been great at sleeping while on the move, so went straight off as we made our way towards Windermere.  I think it took us 5 hours or so, with a couple of comfort breaks for everyone and the dog, during which time the weather closed in.  Heavy rain.

It was still dark when we arrived at Fell foot, the southern starting point of our second swim, so I went back off to sleep for another couple of hours, while thunder and lightning crashed around us.

At about 5 in the morning people started moving, getting what breakfast they could on board, before Tors arrived with the electric boat from the pick up point in distant Bowness.  She arrived about 1/2 an hour later motoring down out of the mist and gloom, and mooring up at Fell Foot.

Here is a photo taken of the team at about this time.  Everyone looking a little brown around the edges after a night on the road….

Forced smiles at 5:30 AM

Forced smiles at 5:30 AM

As the swimmer in the water at the finish of the previous lake, I was the one to start the next leg, albeit for only a 12 minute spell, handing over to Debbie.  I got changed into my wet swimmers, and made my way to the stone archway at Fell Foot, preparing myself for a swim I was really NOT feeling the love for in any way.

Love for swimming, wherefore art thou?

Love for swimming, wherefore art thou?

I swam up through the moored boats, and was soon joined by the others on the boat.  The water felt wonderful; it is always amazing how water has the power to restore when you are feeling a little jaded.  The records show that the temperature was up around 18C.

While the rain had stopped, it was still heavily overcast, and sheet lightning was still visible in the west.

It was quickly time for me to get out, and for Debbie to take over. Soon after getting in, the rain came back, light at first, then heavy.  Luckily we had hired a boat with covers, which we pulled over to protect us from the deluge.  If we had had weather like this on Loch Awe, we would have all got soaked.

Debbie was having a whale of a time swimming in the torrential rain, though we did feel a little sorry for her, isolated in the water while we all cowered inside the little boat.

Classic Lakeland Weather

Classic Lakeland Weather

We started to feel more than a little sorry for her when the sheet lightning started up rather closer to the boat.  This was a slightly sketchy moment.  What if the lightning was in danger of hitting the swimmer?  This was a scenario we hadn’t planned for.  Nothing in our stated rules allowed for this.  If Debbie had to be pulled out of the water, that was game over once again.  Fortunately, the lightning didn’t hang around too long, and by the end of Debbie’s hour, the rain had gone away too.  While it was by no means sunny, we were back on track with the swimming and the takeovers, all enjoying mirror conditions as we headed north towards Ambleside.

Helen L replaced Debbie, swimming nicely up the eastern shore, before Sam jumped in to take us past Storr’s Temple.

Sam - heading towards the ferry

Sam – heading towards the ferry

As we neared the ferry, Sam was replaced by Helen, who shot through the ferry line without needing to stop, and up past Belle Isle, shooting the lilies and arrowing north.

Helen on the charge

Helen on the charge

I jumped in with about 3 miles to go, expecting to soon cross the lake.  I got a bit confused when we never did.  It turned out that the lake got really busy at that point, with pleasure craft, kayaks, a waterskier, and various ferries plying the lake.  The team made the decision that we didn’t want to do a takeover in the middle of the lake.  Despite the boat and the flag alpha, it was too much of a risk, so Debbie jumped in for her second swim of the day, with around a mile to go, crossing over from the west side to around Low Wood Marina.

At the beach at Ambleside

At the beach at Ambleside

Debbie in the last mile

Debbie in the last mile

After 5 hours and 53 minutes, Debbie landed it at Ambleside, we had succeeded in completing the 10.5 miles of the second lake.  All swimmers swam a full hour, with Debbie and I topping and tailing at either end.  The temperature went up from 18C to 20C during the swim, conditions were nigh on perfect, other than the lightning of course!  Again, we completed the swim in good time, with strong swimming all round.  Nice work team!

The one thing we had struggled with was getting swimmers out of the water after their stints.  The rope ladder we had taken with us was by no means as good as the solid ladder we had on Loch Awe.  There was a good deal of grunting and swearing, as swimmers were part hauled out of the water!

We waved good bye to Tors, who had met us at the end, and was taking the boat back for us (Thank you Tors for helping us out so generously), while we all piled back into the minibus, for the drive to Wales.  Surely that was the hard bit done right? Little lake Bala at only 4 miles long couldn’t trip us up could it……..?

The 3 Lakes Challenge – Part I – Loch Awe

Thursday July 3rd 2015.

The team met up at Glasgow airport for the drive north to Loch Awe.  Helen (Gibbs) and I had flown up that morning from London, Helen (Liddle) had driven up the previous day, and joined Sam Plum, Debbie Taylor, our observer Tanja, and Roger (Sam’s husband) to pick up the minibus that would be our itinerant home for the next few days.  The team was rounded off by Levi, Sam and Roger’s quite gorgeous black Labrador.

Just as a recap, the ‘3 Lakes Challenge’ popped into my head as an idea almost 2 years ago, as the swimming equivalent of the ‘National Three Peaks Challenge’, a very well known UK institution: The National Three Peaks Challenge (Source – Wikipedia) is an event in which participants attempt to climb the highest mountains of Scotland, England and Wales within 24 hours. It is frequently used to raise money for charitable organisations. Walkers climb each peak in turn, and are driven from the foot of one mountain to the next. The three peaks are:

  • Ben Nevis / Beinn Nibheis (1,344 m or 4,409 ft), the highest mountain in Scotland
  • Scafell Pike (978 m or 3,209 ft), the highest mountain in England
  • Snowdon / Yr Wyddfa (1,085 m or 3,560 ft), the highest mountain in Wales

Our swimmy equivalent was (logically) to swim, as a relay, the length of the the longest lake in each country.  The 24 hour goal was a little on the ambitious side, so we decided to stage the inaugural attempt over two days. All I did pretty much was have the idea, before handing over the organisation to Helen Liddle, who assembled the dream team, and coordinated the transport and support for the event.  Thank you Helen!

A few hours later we arrived at one end of Loch Awe, where we were to start the swim the following morning. Inauspiciously, a steady drizzle, and clouds of Scotland’s trademark summer midges greeted us at the Torran Bay Hostel, at the extreme western end of the Loch.

Cliff our friendly boat-rental man also met us, dropping off our transport. Despite the limited visibility, it was clear that the Loch was very beautiful place, and we were in for a treat the next day. Torran Bay Hostel After dinner and an early night, we rose early, getting ourselves and our gear organised.  The great thing about the Torran Bay was that it was right by our start point, so loading the boat was straightforward. Loch_Awe_Route Helen Gibbs, as the fastest of the team and lead-off swimmer, started the swim a matter of yards away from where she had slept the night before!

Helen at the Start of Loch Awe

Helen at the Start of Loch Awe

The surface of the Loch for much of the first half was mirror flat.  As Helen and then I swam the first couple of hours, the weather was moody and atmospheric, with fog hanging over the hills and mountains, but a promise of sun glimmering further up the Loch.

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Third in was Debbie.  We were approaching a small island on the left shore of the Loch, and decided to shoot between the island and the bank.  It soon became apparent that while Debbie was going to make it through, the boat was not!  We waved Debbie on, telling her we would meet her on the other side, after doubling back round the island.  Off she swam into the misty gloom.

Debbie's Island

Debbie’s Island

While attempting to turn the boat around, the outboard engine on the boat died.  This felt like a massive crisis, as our swimmer was by that time out of shouting range heading off up the Loch, and we had no power.  It felt like the swim was massively at risk only 3 hours in; if Debbie got to the end of her hour and the next swimmer wasn’t ready by her side, that was game over, our self-declared rules broken – end of challenge.  All hinged, therefore, on the spare outboard, which Cliff had told us we wouldn’t need, sparking up, and getting caught up with Debbie in time.

Thankfully it did work, and after 10 minutes or so we finally caught up with Debbie, who was still swimming like a trooper, and had assumed we had got stuck turning round.  We called Cliff on the ‘phone, and a few hours later he came out and repaired the main engine.  You can see on the Spot Tracker image that it looks like we crossed the island on the boat.  We actually doubled back and went round it!

After Debbie came Helen L.  After Helen L came Sam.  And we made steady progress up the Loch, with the whole team swimming strongly.  The sun came out, and the day developed into a very lovely mixture of sunshine and scattered clouds, warm air and light winds.  The scenery was beautiful:

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What wind there was was behind us, which was a piece of luck.  We had all done enough swimming to know that even after an hour, swimming into head-on chop is no fun!  After 8 hours or so, Cliff and his wife joined us again on the lake, bringing bacon sandwiches with him for the mid afternoon munchies.  Top bloke!

And so it came to the business end.  We had mentally planned for about 14 hours for this leg of the challenge, but favourable conditions and some strong, confident swimming all round was making it look like we might actually go under 12. Helen got in for her 3rd hour at hour 11, taking us up through the islands at the north-eastern end of the lake, and putting me, as second swimmer, within shooting distance of the finish.

The incredibly atmospheric ruined Kilchurn Castle loomed into view at the far end of the Loch as I jumped in.  Despite being less than 3 km from the finish, we could not yet see the finish point, which we already knew to be the railway bridge over the River Orchy which the Loch turns into at its finish. As I jumped in, it was striking how much warmer the water was.  It had been getting steadily warmer all day, from a starting point around 13C, up to 18C at the end, with some sun-warmed shallow patches feeling even warmer.

The water got very shallow at the top end of the lake, forcing me and the support boat over to the northern bank.  Kilchurn Castle was over to my right now, and still I couldn’t see the finish, until suddenly there was lot of excited pointing from the boat.  We had come round the corner, and there was the bridge, about 500 m distant.



Kilchurn Castle

Kilchurn Castle

I was immediately spurred into some faster swimming.  Up went the stroke rate and the effort. There is nothing like seeing the end to inject a bit of energy into a swim.  It soon became clear as I got closer to the end, that progress wasn’t quite as fast as I felt the effort deserved!  It dawned on me that we were on a shallow river, and I was swimming against a small current.  I was really keen to nail the swim there and then, especially as I had lost sight of the boat by that point, and thought there might be a possibility that again, the team might be marooned, on the hour, away from the swimmer in the water, just like we thought we were at risk of earlier in the day when we lost the engine.

As it turned out, we were OK, and I made it under the bridge with 12 minutes to spare.  Furthermore, the boat finished under the next arch over from me at about the same time, having moved over from my left to my right, the side to which, in my haste to finish, I was no longer breathing to. At last, after 11 hours and 48 minutes, with a handful of butterfly strokes under the bridge, the first leg was over.

Loch Awe had far surpassed expectations.  Everyone had swum hard, and enjoyed some remarkably ‘unScottish’ weather.  Landing a 25 mile swim sub-12 hours was a great achievement for the team, and a great start to the 3 Lakes Challenge. Less than an hour later, we were all sitting down to some dinner and a well-earned pint in the garden of a local hotel, in balmy summer sunshine.  In a couple of hours we would all be back aboard the minibus, for Roger to drive us overnight down to the English Lake District, ready for Leg 2 of the challenge, Windermere…….

3 Lakes Challenge – Tracker Link and Rules

The 3 Lakes Challenge is nearly upon us.  Most of the stuff is packed, flights, B&Bs, transport booked.

Our Observer for the swims will be Tanja Slater,  former professional triathlete and cyclist, now a coach:

Link to Tanja’s Homepage

Here are the details of the Spot Tracker:

Link to Spot Tracker

We will be swimming under a modification of the rules set out on the website of the Marathon Swimmers’ Federation:

MSF Rules

This set of rules was developed by consensus over at the MSF website, driven largely by Evan Morrison and Donal Buckley. Special provision is found in the rules for multi-leg swims and relays.  This swim is both relay and multileg, and has the following special rules, which we deem to be within the ‘Spirit’ of Marathon Swimming.

(1) Each swimmer will swim for 1 hour, with standard rules for taking over.  Where 1 swimmer finishes a Lake with time remaining on their 1 hour shift, they will be the first to enter the next Lake to complete their hour.

(2) Bala is very short compared to the other 2 Lakes.  As such, in order that most or all of the swimmers get the opportunity to swim in that Lake, shifts will be only 30 minutes.  If the swimmer completing the previous Lake had already swum in excess of 30 minutes, then the next swimmer in order will be the one to start Bala.  If the swimmer completing the previous Lake had already swum less than 30 minutes, they will complete that 30 minute shift before the next swimmer takes their turn in the usual order.

(3) The swimmer who ‘brings the swim home’ at Bala may be joined for the last short distance (~ 100 m) by the other team members, so long as they do not touch, or swim in front of, the final swimmer.


The timing clock will start as soon as the first swimmer enters the water at either end of Loch Awe.  The clock will continue uninterrupted until the final swimmer clears the water at Bala.  The total swim time will therefore include all traveling time between Lakes, as well as the time required to complete the 40 miles or so of swimming!