By Matt Styles
Over the course of seven days from the 31st of August to the 6th September, Grey student James MacLennan swam the length of all thirteen of the swimmable lakes in the Lake District alongside his dad. The total distance ended up just short of 70km.
He had never swam open water before, with fencing being more his bag at university, which makes this achievement all the more remarkable. While this seems like an impossibly Herculean task, James tells Palatinate that resilience, commitment and belief was the formula behind his achievement.
“I had never done anything like this before and never pushed myself this much before. But doing this challenge made me realise what the human body is capable of, and what it can achieve if you can get past that mental block, set your goals beyond your preconceived boundaries, and commit to them.
“And it is so rewarding when you achieve those goals. I am not a swimmer, yet after a few months of training I was able to go from being unable to swim 1km to swimming almost 70km over the course of a week. I would encourage anyone reading this to push yourself, in whatever that may be.”
Having spent a part of every summer holiday at the Lake District it holds a special place in James’ heart. He considers it one of the most beautiful places in the world, so having the chance to explore areas of the national park that he hadn’t before was an added bonus.
This challenge also provided a great sense of purpose during lockdown and did ‘wonders’ for his mental health, with a goal to work towards motivating him to get out of bed every morning.
The idea came to him when swimming in the Thames with his dad back in April. They deemed Ethiopiaid the deserving charity, with the locust swarms devastating Eastern Africa being eclipsed by topics such as COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter in the media.
And so four months of gruelling training began, in the Thames whilst at home and the Wear when up in Durham, as two or three short swims a week became gradually increased to more daunting distances. It all sank in on a visit to the Lake District in July, where James was able to recce some of the lakes he’d be tackling.
With such a rigorous training programme in place he was always confident of completing the challenge, though concedes that there were points where he questioned whether finishing it in seven days would be achievable.
“Swimming for four to five hours a day, I didn’t know if my body would be able to physically endure it. The closest I got to throwing in the towel during the challenge itself was on day two. We were about 8km into a 13km of Windermere, we had swum the length of Coniston Water the day before, and I had set off pretty quickly in order to combat the cold of the water.
“At this point I was physically and mentally exhausted and I turned to my dad and said “I don’t think I’m going to manage it today”. But after some food and some tea (that my brother had been carrying in the support kayak) I regained some strength and agreed to keep on going. After the first few days my body adapted to what we were doing each day and I was ok from then on.”
He describes climbing out of Wast Water on the final day as a surreal feeling, as he stepped out of the lake imbued with an ‘immeasurable sense of achievement’.
But what was mainly pleasing for James is that he and his dad managed to smash their donations target of £5,000. They ended up exceeding it by £870, with James describing the support they received as nothing short of ‘amazing’.
“The money will go towards Ethiopiaid, a medium-size charity that has a fund dedicated to supporting Ethiopian farmers through this crisis. They are also involved in sustainable development projects, across several areas including poverty alleviation, water provision and the empowerment of women. After getting in contact with them, we decided to give 50% of the funds raised to the locust relief fund and the other half to two sustainable development projects: a water resilience scheme and a project that provides manageable farming start-ups for families with a disabled member.”
Having now got a taste for swimming James is now setting his targets on bigger things, as he begins to brainstorm other potential projects.
“I’d like to swim the Channel at some point in the future, but that’s a long way off right now. It’s a lot colder, a lot longer, and a lot more expensive than the lakes. I was thinking I could stick with the seven days theme and try and run seven marathons in seven days, but I’m not sure how my injury-prone knees would cope with that. Either way, I’m sure I’ll be doing something in the not-too-distant future.”
Image: James MacLennan