On 4th November 2018, the man who will go down in history as the first to swim the entire coastline of mainland Britain, pulled his exhausted body onto dry land after covering 2,883km (1760 miles) and setting a new world record for the longest ever staged sea swim. He had spent 157 days living at sea, swimming an average of 12 hours per day, burning an estimated 505,219 calories and eating exactly 649 bananas. RSNG spoke to him a couple of days after this feat to hear how the rigours of ocean swimming rotted his tongue, earned him the nickname ‘Rhino Neck’ and adapted his body into something more seal than man…
RSNG How did it actually feel to achieve your goal and swim all the way around the UK?
ROSS EDGLEY, RED BULL ATHLETE ‘It’s still not quite sunk in. Even last night, the beds in the hotel were just a little bit too comfy and a bit too stable. It wasn't rocking from side to side. I woke up at 2am, because it’s what I’ve done for the last five months and I was just ready to swim. I thought the tide might be changing. My girlfriend was just: “Will you seriously just go back to bed?” I'm still in swim mode, still looking for my goggles and wetsuit. It's weird.’
‘In your complete exhaustion you find the most honest version of yourself’
RSNG How long did it take you to get into that that mindset of accepting that every few hours is going to be more swimming, day in, day out?
RE ‘Surprisingly quickly. I was speaking to a good friend of mine, Charlie Pitcher, who held the solo Atlantic rowing record (you row for eight hours and then you sleep for two hours and then you just repeat). I said: “Do you practice bi-phasic sleep and disturbed sleep?” He replied: “No. It's like if you're going to become pregnant, you don't practice sleep deprivation. You just do it when it starts to happen.” After the first three days, I was exhausted and sleeping like a baby. Your body just goes, oh, OK this is what life is like now. I now live at sea. It was surprising how the body adapts; very quickly.’
RSNG You look bigger and hairier by the end of the challenge – are you having to get your land legs back now you’re not living on a boat?
RE ‘My change in body composition meant more muscle in the upper body, so my shoulders are just big, but not nice big; bulk, like whale bulk. Then, because I basically skipped leg day for 157 days, my legs are a lot smaller. Right now I look odd on land. People are watching me walk around and it's like “that doesn't look natural”.’
‘It's certainly looking at a lot of rehab – I’m working with Vivo Barefoot now to fix the arches in my feet that have collapsed and looking at my Achilles tendon, because if I just went and tried to run even ten kilometres, there's a real risk that my tendons and Achilles would just snap. When I say I've got to learn to walk again, it’s quite a serious process where you have to look at how you integrate back onto land’.’
‘After 12 hours in salt water every day you can actually peel off strips of your tongue’
RSNG You suffered from salt tongue, where chunks of it were falling off – what causes that?
RE ‘Yes, basically, after 12 hours in salt water every day it just pulls all the moisture out of your tongue and also erodes away your taste buds. You shed skin almost like a snake. You can actually peel off strips of your tongue. I can report that I still have my tongue! Coconut oil proved to be really good to form a layer against the salt water, but also to moisturise the tongue. Coconut oil basically saved my tongue.’
RSNG What was the most awesome animal encounter that you had?
RE ‘Without doubt the minke whale going from North Devon to Wales. It was circling me and breaching right next to me. I asked the captain: “What's going on Matt? It's circling me. It's coming underneath me.” He said: “I think it's a female and I think she thinks you're an injured seal. So she's basically guiding you all the way to Wales.” And when we got to Wales and the water got a bit shallower, the minke whale just breached one more time and then was just like: “You’re safe now, on you go.”
RSNG That's not just bumping into something is it? That’s an interaction where there's another intelligence involved. It’s quite spooky?
RE ‘You're right, and it was such a privilege. I have no doubt that minke whale, as I was crossing the Bristol Channel, was probably watching me for hours if not days, just to see if I was a threat. The minke whale knew exactly where I was, but I didn't know where she was. It was only when she was ready that she revealed herself to me and then made her intentions clear by just circling me. It was kind of like, look I'm protecting you, because if she wanted to she could have just breached out of the water directly underneath me and launched me into the air. So there was that interaction and you start to understand how intelligent they are. Something was going on there and I was so grateful, and I think the whale saw that I was grateful. Whatever happened, it was amazing.’
RSNG What was the hardest moment in terms of discomfort?
RE ‘The worst part was going to bed with open wounds from chafing [Ross earned the nickname ‘Rhino Neck’ from his wetsuit sores] and then going to sleep for maybe four hours before the next tide, but waking up to find that the bed sheet had fused to the open wound. I had to basically rip it off like a Band Aid and then you're just starting the swim with an open wound that's just been ripped off. That was just me in my 2m x 2m cabin thinking: “What am I doing? This was a bad idea.”’
RSNG In terms of the fuelling the swim, how many calories were you eating?
RE ‘I was putting away between 10,000 to 15,000 calories a day. As well as meeting your calorie requirements, you need to also meet your nutrient requirements – it was strange how I was having a pizza, but then washing it down with a super-green shake full of spirulina and broccoli. It was weird. Then also porridge oats with nut butters – carb and fat dense, with syrup or honey so it would make, like, a cookie dough. And 649 bananas for the whole swim!’
‘There are going to be moments where you need to switch up your personality – you’re going to have to get really feral’
RSNG Swimming itself is fairly monotonous and your face is in the water at lot, so were there any points where you had to dig into a certain mindset to get through it?
RE ‘Yes – it's so easy to swim 12 hours a day when you're swimming with dolphins. That’s not a hardship at all. That's amazing. The best advice I got was from Ant Middleton (obviously celebrated military personnel) and he said: “Look Ross, I know you're a really positive guy and it's nice swimming with dolphins, but there are going to be moments where you need to switch up your personality to this split personality. You're just going to have to get really feral.”
‘I said: “What do you mean get feral?” He goes: “You just need to be: swim, eat, sleep and just repeat. Just caveman, just primitive.” I didn't quite understand it until you get those dark moments where you're stung by the tenth jellyfish of that swim and you're just like: “Oh my God.” That’s when, certainly, Ant taught me to tap into that powerful, primitive mindset, or as he called it: “Get feral.” Having been prepped by Ant for that, it wasn't such a surprise when it arrived.’
RSNG Were there any other psychological lessons, or things you learned about yourself?
RE ‘Yes. I posted this on social media: “In your complete exhaustion you find your most honest version of yourself.” For some people that's a good thing but for others, not so much. I think this revealed why a lot of people will succeed when they go and do marathons or their first 10K, or their first 25K. When those dark clouds inevitably come over your head – as with my tongue falling off, my neck chafing, snot coming out of my nose, really just not the best version of yourself.’
‘If you're OK with that, then you can continue. If it's not OK with you and I’m like, not prepared to get stung by jellyfish so much that my face changes shape because my eyes were so swollen; my goggles would no longer fit to my face. If you're not going to do that and be prepared to take it to complete exhaustion, then you probably won't make it. You're probably doing it for, not necessarily the wrong reasons, but for something like that you need to be prepared to go to those sorts of depths. Does that make sense?’
RSNG Yes, so you have to, not only confront whatever version of you is revealed, but also be prepared to leave your ego behind?
RE ‘Yes, that's it. It's almost like it's really easy to swim when it's calm water and high elbows and your leg kick is perfect and you’re bilaterally breathing. It looks beautiful. It's easy to do that, but what are you going to do when you're in the Inner Hebrides in Scotland, you've got to avoid a giant whirlpool while getting smashed in the face by jellyfish and in 40 knots of wind? That's not going to be aesthetically as pleasing.’
‘It's asking yourself, are you going to continue? All of the principles, like this idea of healthy hardship that people saw me going through, I think people just then went, “yes, I experienced that on my first 10k” or anything like that and they can apply it to their own lives. I think that's probably why the Great British Swim was so popular on one end and created this community, because it actually didn't become about the swim in the end.’
RSNG It’s an amazing achievement but what inspired you to do it?
RE ‘One of the motivating factors for this was looking at the history and heritage of British explorers. Not just British explorers, but the eccentric British explorer from Shackleton to my favourite, Captain Webb, the first guy to swim the English Channel. In 1875 they said: “You cannot swim across the English Channel. The water is too cold. The tides are too strong.” But he looked to cross the English Channel in woollen wetsuits and on a diet of brandy and beef broth! And this is the bit I love: swum breaststroke all the way across because, and I quote: “Front crawl was ungentlemanly.” I was like, “Yes!” He did it in less than 22 hours – nothing captured the attention like Captain Webb back in 1875, the way that he did it, the first to do it.’
RSNG Were people saying you it was impossible to complete the Great British Swim, before you left?
RE ‘People that had sailed around, rowed around, kayaked around the whole of Britain, I consulted with them and they said: “I just don't think can be done. I think you can row around. I think you can run around. But I don't think you can swim around. You can't get boats around the top of Scotland if Artic winds from Iceland come in.” I think when they said, “It can't be done,” I was just, well that just feels like Captain Webb. So that was part of the appeal for me.’
RSNG Did it give you a healthier respect for the oceans and an awareness of how our actions affect their health?
RE ‘Yes, and if you gave me a map of Great Britain right now, I could plot you everywhere on there the densest population of jellyfish, seals, fish, and levels of pollution and what was amazing is where you see the areas of Great Britain where we let nature, not just survive, but actually thrive. Lundy is a great example – it’s an island off North Devon and an area of marine conservation. They've got fish, seals, birds. It was like something out of Avatar with the Jurassic Coast. It was just so vibrant. It was a place where I said on the vlog, “nature rules here and rightly so,” and it was amazing.’
WHAT NEXT? Watch the full series of Ross Edgely’s vlog tracking his progress through the world record breaking Great British Swim.
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