Burn Your Boats

It’s been a busy few weeks as I head into the final stages of preparing for the swim of my life. In a few more days I’ll be able to tell you when, where and why. But as I write this I’m staring down a great big neon sign that says ‘IF’.

For the last two and a half years I’ve been training with world champion kayaker David Mocke. The strength that has given me has been fantastic. But as soon as I knew a big swim was coming up, I got back into swim training with 83-year old legendary swimming coach Brian Button at the Sports Science Institute in Cape Town. Brian got me up to speed, but slowly, building very gently.

I also trained with Steph du Toit, the conditioning coach of Western Province Rugby. The training has been fast and aggressive. I went from 103kgs down to 89kgs and was feeling incredible strong. Everything was going absolutely perfectly.

Until the day I was giving a speech in London and the phone rang. It was my elderly mother’s neighbour calling from Cape Town. She couldn’t get my mother to answer her door.

I imagined the worst. About a year ago my 78-year-old mum had a bad fall and couldn’t get up. She didn’t call for help until 9 o’clock the next morning. (My mum is from the generation that lives by the mantra ‘Keep Calm, Carry on, and Don’t Be a Bother’.)

After two agonizing hours waiting for news, my wife called to say Mum was alive, but in bad shape. I rushed back to Cape Town and it soon became clear that we needed to move her to a care facility. My sister helped me pack up her worldly possessions, dividing what she couldn’t take to her new home between the auctioneer and us. Most of the excess ended up temporarily in my garage.

In the middle of all of this I was organising the biggest expedition of my life, and somehow still finding the space to do the training. I didn’t tell any of the team about what was going on in my personal life – they had enough to get on with. There are at least 40 people involved with the planning and logistics of a trip like this, including sponsors and partners like UNEP, a media team and a long-suffering travel agent.

The travel logistics are incredibly complex because the timing is tight. I’ve got to fly from London to various venues with very little time between swims, and there are busy monarchs and heads of state involved in some of the events

I was juggling these logistics last Sunday, when I went to fetch something from my garage. I had to push past boxes of memorabilia and mum’s spare furniture. I reached over to move a bag and – ping – something went out in my back.

The pain bent me over double. And I walked around for the rest of the day like that.

I don’t believe in negative thinking. But I’m two weeks away from leaving – and the last two weeks are critical in terms of fine-tuning your body. One of the planned swims is 100 kilometres long. I could feel myself beginning to worry about my ability to pull this off.

So Monday morning I straightened myself up as best I could and did three things.

First, I went down to the pharmacy and got the strongest possible anti-inflammatory (as advised by my good friend and swimming mentor Otto Thaning, who also happens to be a heart surgeon) and a potent pain killer.

Second, I phoned up my travel agent Sarah Wannenburg, who had booked all the expeditions flights. I asked her how much the air tickets cost. The total, for a team of four travelling out of London, came to R163 000.

As soon as I put down the phone I transferred the money straight into her account. (I didn’t actually have R163 000 lying around waiting to be transferred, because our funding hasn’t come through yet, so I called in a bank loan.)

And finally, just in case I hadn’t upped the stakes enough, I called Louise Plank who is in charge of our PR in London and asked her to prime the press for an announcement on the 5th of August.

Because sometimes you need to burn your ships.

When William the Conqueror landed on the English coast in 1066 he drilled holes in the bottom of his boats so his men couldn’t turn back – they just had to stand there and fight.

When it comes down to it, it’s my body on the line. And I am OK with that. As Prof Tim Noakes likes to say, the human body is amazing. When it’s got a mission, it can put the pain to one side for a certain amount of time.

For the moment, the painkillers are helping me do that. I can’t train right now, so I’m resting up as much as possible while I carry on with last minute expedition planning.

I like to remember marathon runner Josiah Thugwane’s remarkable feat at the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta. Thungwane was carjacked and shot five months before the event. He recovered only to contract severe influenza about a month before the games. He still went on to win it and became the first black South African athlete to bring home Olympic gold. Afterwards he said he thought the enforced rest before the event had actually helped him win.

So I’m getting plenty of rest in these last two critical ‘training’ weeks. But I’ve also burned all my boats, quite spectacularly. Which leaves me certain of one thing.

There’s no turning back.

Author: Lewis Pugh is an ocean advocate, a pioneer swimmer and an inspirational speaker. In 2010 he was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum and in 2013 he was appointed Patron of the Oceans by the United Nations Environment Programme. http://lewispugh.com