Chris HuntBASE Editor and Bristol-based adventure writer with a penchant for travel by bike, interesting coastlines and adventures that end in the pub.
At 6am on the 25th of July, Andrea Mason waded into the waters of Lake Bala in Wales to begin her latest challenge: to swim the longest lakes in Wales, England and Scotland. Not just that though, she’d be cycling between each of them adding in a summit of each of the country’s highest peaks on route. Thats 66km of swimming, 812km by bike and 42km on foot with 3408m of elevation. For context, that is swimming almost double the English Channel, cycling 20 Olympic distance triathlon legs and running the London Marathon with an added thousand flights of stairs along the way. Just for added spice she set out to do it all in under five days. I caught up with Andrea a few days into her recovery to find out the whys and the hows of this brutal challenge.
So tell us about the project – what inspired this challenge in the first place?
I just love pain and no sleep! [laughs]. No, my Sea To Summit Extreme journey started in 2017. I had just had major surgery and been diagnosed with cervical cancer. I decided there and then that I wanted to do something crazy that would give me a goal to focus on and help me recover. I didn’t want it to be something that had ever been done before. I wanted it to be something that would hopefully help build a platform that I could use to promote awareness and encourage people to talk about menstrual health.
This UK challenge, which consisted of swimming the 3 longest lakes in Wales, England and Scotland, running the 3 peaks and cycling in between, was supposed to be my second challenge in 2020, but unfortunately Covid put a stop to that. I completed it in just 4 days, 7 hours and 58minutes. Yes…the minutes are important!
I had just had major surgery and been diagnosed with cervical cancer. I decided there and then that I wanted to do something crazy
What’s your background in endurance – have you done anything like this before?
I have always been ‘sporty.’ I was a competitive pool swimmer as a child and in my late 20s, I threw myself straight into the deep end of triathlon with an Ironman. Most people would start with a sprint triathlon just to see if they liked it first. Turns out I didn’t like it, not one bit and swore I would never do anything like it again! But here I am, 12 years later doing even more crazy stuff and absolutely loving it. In 2019, I swam across the English Channel, cycled 900km to Chamonix and climbed Mt Blanc, all in just 4 days 20 hours.
Endurance challenges like this are so much more than physical capability – how much did the mental battle come into play on this?
I couldn’t agree more. Of course you have to put a lot of hard work into ensuring your body is ready for the challenge, but when it comes to the actual execution, it all comes down to mental capability! There were so many times that I wanted to quit, but I just kept telling myself that this feeling and the pain was temporary. If I quit that feeling of pain would last for a lifetime!
Did you have a strategy for managing your highs and lows?
Yes, I acknowledge that they are going to happen and make myself acutely aware that neither are good! At least not until the high at the end. During the lows I force myself to concentrate on just 30 minutes at a time, just keep putting one arm or leg in front of the other for the next half an hour. During the highs, I try very hard to snap myself out of it and tell myself that it is going to be short lived and will be followed by a low!
All in all, I try very hard to maintain a steady emotional state. I am a videographers nightmare as there is very rarely any drama!
What was the support like? Tell me about the team that helped you get there.
I might be the one who gets to the top of that mountain, but I sure as heck don’t and couldn’t do it alone. I have an incredible support team, too many to call out by name. But it’s safe to say I actually have the easy job, I just have to keep going! They all have vital roles, they are on my schedule with very little sleep and somehow still remain positive throughout the entire duration. It is their success as much as mine.
I might be the one who gets to the top of that mountain, but I sure as heck don’t and couldn’t do it alone
How much preparation did you do going into this – what did you do and and how did it help?
I’m always training, so have a very good endurance base. Six months out from a challenge I will adapt my training slightly, increasing time in cold water and doing back to back long sessions. I try very hard to balance the training and don’t over train. I think many people assume I do 1000s of miles a week, but reality is I try to train smart. I’m big believer that increasing workload isn’t always the smartest way to train. I also have a full time job and run a charity, so it’s definitely a balancing act!
How did your body cope along the way – any near bail out moments or particular wobbles along the way?
Everyone says I make it look easy, but it most definitely isn’t and there are many wobbles along the way! I think if anyone tried to tell you they did something like this without body issues or wobbles, they would be lying! It definitely sets the pain gate theory into motion, one pain is just replaced by another.
What the hell did you eat to get you through that kind of calorie consumption?
I’m a sports nutritionists nightmare! If you scroll through my social media feeds, you will see that I eat anything. I always start off with a vague plan and good intentions, but it just becomes a matter of getting the calories in – it’s the best rolling buffet ever. I’m well known for feasting on chicken nuggets, although this year something went horribly wrong. I was craving fruit!
How does it feel now – how is the recovery going, what’s the approach?
It took a few days for the tiredness to set in. I think I was running off adrenaline the first couple of days after I finished, but then it hit me pretty hard. My body just wanted food and sleep – so that’s what I gave it. This week I’m slowly starting to exercise again, but nothing hectic, just very steady state and short.
This challenge was definitely the hardest for me. I wasn’t 100% sure I could do it, let alone smash my target of five days. So for the first time I can honestly say I am proud of myself. It really is incredible what the human body can do if we put our minds to it.
What’s next – do you have plans for another epic like this or are you taking some serious time out first?
I always have plans! [laughs] I’d like to do a Sea to Summit challenge on every continent, menstrual health is a taboo subject around the globe and I want to keep doing my bit to change this!
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