A 15,000 calorie diet. A 45-kg tree trunk. A 100-km shark-infested water swim. And one man’s grit to overcome it all.
From climbing a rope the height of Mount Everest to running a marathon while pulling a MINI, or running 30 marathons in 30 days, Ross Edgley is no stranger to the extreme. But the 32-year-old’s latest challenge is one he himself has billed his toughest yet—swimming over 100 kilometres in waters populated by jellyfish, sharks and large, spirit-assaulting waves between the Caribbean Islands of Martinique and St Lucia... while pulling a 45-kg log. And Edgley, one of the world’s most hardcore athletes and a leading British fitness and nutrition expert, admits to having to raise the bar with each successive adventure.
“About a year ago, I did a triathlon carrying a tree on the island of Nevis to raise awareness of its eco-friendly project to become the first carbon-neutral island by 2020,” he explains. “I called it the world’s first Tree-athlon! People seemed to like it.” So, he set out on a similar venture across the English Channel only for red tape to get in his way. Told he needed to be registered as a vessel to carry a tree, his response was “How do I become one?” to which they put the phone down. The Caribbean red tape was easier to tackle, and the idea was born.
Edgley likes to joke that he is the first Strongman swimmer, but the reality was that a sports scientist told him he could not be less well-suited to the rigours of distance swimming. “I had a body scan and was told I had none of the physical attributes to be a swimmer,” he says. “I’m built like a Hobbit with short arms, I’m carrying 13 kg more muscle so I’m less buoyant and I even have a dense skull.”
He was advised to lose as much muscle as possible but, with his own background in sports science, avoided such advice in order to keep his strength to lug the tree trunk along with him. And he had to develop a training regime that involved being pushed to his physical and mental limits by the Royal Marines. As Edgley puts it: “I wasn’t trying to be a shark or a dolphin but to swim slow and pull something heavy for a long time. I’m more like a whale!”
That also meant he had to reinvent his diet. Twenty-three-time Olympic gold medallist Michael Phelps famously had a 12,000-calorie-a-day diet, but Edgley had to trump that with 15,000 calories on a given day of heavy training. It included eating heavily before and during his marathon swims to keep up his strength. He likened it to “Christmas dinner when you’ve eaten so much you’re on the sofa and can’t move. Now imagine that with a tree across you in the Caribbean Sea.”
For him, the eating day would begin with a bowl of porridge with nut butter and protein mixed in, although he was buying 25-kg bags of oats at a time. And at his local pool, he would line up food such as bananas, fruit, rice pudding, homemade energy bars, coconut water, fruit loaf and chocolate at the end of the pool to eat every kilometre during his endurance training.
“When people asked what was good to eat, I’d say high calorie, some carbs, a little fat and something that you can eat in seven seconds.” That’s the time it takes between waves hitting you in the Caribbean. “That’s weird, but the reality of it.” So, he would set up food-piping bags filled with anything from rice pudding to curry and bite off seven seconds worth of food at a time.
Throughout the training and the actual challenge—which is now literally the Strongman Swimming Project—Edgley learnt more about himself and about what it means to be fit. So, we thought we’d ask him a few questions...
PHOTOGRAPHS: HARVEY GIBSON
Strongman Swimming must have been tricky to train for—what was the background prep?
Based on research from the Journal of Sports Medicine, the drag of the log and lack of swimming efficiency meant this was almost an entirely different sport to swimming. I was burning more calories, moving slower and would sometimes have to use my feet to just check where the log was. All of this meant that the only way to get good at swimming with a tree was to actually swim with a tree!
Obviously, I couldn’t just take a tree to my local pool, so instead I went to Keswick in the Lake District, where I’d swim for hours with my friends rowing alongside me, feeding me chocolate, flapjacks and sweets whenever I needed them. People from Keswick were so supportive, and by the end of the summer, some of the locals didn’t even bat an eyelid when they saw me walking down to Derwent Water with a tree on my shoulder!
It’s also worth noting that I had to eat a lot—Strongman Swimming was really just an eating competition with a little bit of swimming to fuel the insane hours needed to become good at it!
Why did you choose to do it in the Caribbean specifically?
Two main reasons. The first is because that was the birthplace of Strongman Swimming, when I completed an Olympic Distance triathlon carrying a 45-kg tree on the island of Nevis in November 2016, to raise awareness for their eco-friendly projects and mission to become the world’s first completely carbon-neutral island by 2020. So, it only felt right to take the sport back to where it all began. But it was also logistics, since I did originally speak to the Coastguards about crossing the English Channel, but was told that, because I was carrying a tree, I was neither a swimmer nor a “registered vessel.” But thanks to the heroes at The Body Holiday, a lot of the paperwork and red tape was sorted, so I swum the Caribbean Channel instead—as a registered vessel!
How did the attempt go compared to how you’d envisaged it beforehand?
I knew it would be tough, but even the captain of the boat who’d been sailing those waters for 20 years said he hadn’t seen five- or six-ft waves like that for a while—possibly because we were just feeling the effects of the insane hurricanes that hit the Caribbean a few months earlier. But also the currents were so unpredictable.
That said, there were so many things I never envisioned that I was so grateful and privileged to witness, from the dolphins swimming with me to the flying fish jumping over the log, to the shooting stars flying overhead during the night shift of the swim. Just incredible.
How tough was the challenge, both mentally and physically?
Obviously swimming over 100 km with a 45-kg tree is hard, and just being in the saltwater for 32 hours gave me “salt mouth,” meaning my throat began to close up. My face also took a battering, since during the attempt we were swimming into the waves, meaning I got punched in the face by a wave, repeatedly, for 19 hours and over 61 km!
At first it didn’t hurt, but after a while it took away the first layer of skin on my face just below the goggles through this constant, mild abrasion—it was like salty sandpaper! But I was so well trained, having prepped all year for this; the body felt great and I didn’t actually mind the sensory deprivation either when swimming at night and not being able to see or hear anything. I just let my mind wander and would start to daydream, often swimming a kilometre and not even realising it. I think if you can keep the mind occupied through this type of “moving meditation,” it’s amazing how far you can go without realising it!
How did you fuel yourself before and during the attempt?
On an inhuman amount of food! I honestly think many unofficial records were set across the Caribbean that day. We had a plan going into each swim, from foods, eating times, to hydration strategies. But all of that goes out the window when your tongue is swollen from saltwater, you’re sleep deprived and you’re swimming so hard into the current to battle your way out.
All I could do was eat intuitively, asking myself what I could eat to move another kilometre. The support boat were amazing and would get equally as creative; at one point, I fuelled 10 km on jelly baby pancakes alone because my tastebuds were just so confused from all the salt. We even made giant-sized energels from food bags, since normal energels weren’t enough.
How long did it take you to recover?
As soon as my face healed, and my tastebuds and I were cooperating again, I was ready to go. I had trained so hard for this, my body felt fine and I’ve since returned home only to find 200 km swim weeks are easy without waves, tides, currents and a tree!
Where would you rank this in terms of the crazy challenges you’ve attempted?
At the time I created this concept, I thought it was pretty crazy. I always want to challenge conventional sports science and see what the human body is truly capable of, and so swimming 40 km with a 45-kg tree seemed like a monumental challenge. But the weird thing was, I ended up swimming over 100 km with that tree—which means the original 40 km was probably not crazy enough! Now, looking ahead, I’ve had to rethink just what my body is truly capable of and, as a result, I’m going to set out to not only break some long-standing swimming world records—but smash them!
Of course, it was a challenge for the books. In all, Edgley swam a total of 102 kilometres in the challenge in 31 hours and 24 minutes over two separate swims, one of 61 km and a second of 41 km. At one point, he swam solidly for three hours without getting anywhere—so strong was the current he was facing. When he was told about it, “my reply was some pretty colourful language.”
There were magical moments of being accompanied by one dolphin for five km to flying fish soaring above the log he carried, to a time when he feared he was being chased by a shark or being stung in the face by jellyfish.
And with such rigours to face on a marathon swim, it’s understandable he
calls it his hardest undertaking. “I think this was the toughest because when I finally broke the height of Everest. I knew if I kept awake and the body kept moving, I’d finish that,” he says. “The same with the marathons. But even with the best intentions in the world, Mother Nature might have other ideas.”