Kevin Murphy, Experiences From Dryland To The Water

Kevin Murphy, Experiences From Dryland To The Water

Courtesy of ASPIRE (Association for Spinal Injury Research, Rehabilitation and Reintegration), Ireland.

Kevin Murphy has not only swum across the English Channel 34 times, but he has also swum around the world in many open bodies of water.

His longest swim has lasted over 52 hours, and he has done several dozens of swims of at least 10 hours. He was asked about if he ever experienced hallucinations while swimming? “Not really,” he explained. “When I was swimming across the Catalina Channel, I was a bit disoriented and sick to my stomach. I thought I was hallucinating, but then I realized the lights I was seeing was bioluminescence I had read about while I was training.

I did once have a protein crash on one of my swims and my mind began to race about food. I started thinking, ‘They have food on the boat. I know they have food on the boat and they are eating all of it.’

Sometimes it feels like I could go insane by the sound of my stroke through the water – but then other times – hours will go by as if time sped up. Things like that where I think I am in a dream rather than hallucinating, happens

During the latter part of my 52-hour three-way English Channel attempt, I thought I could see a factory with tall chimneys belching out smoke – but it was only clouds. During my 43-hour Lake Balaton swim, I was washed into several bays during the night. There were towns on the shore or on the headlands and I hallucinated about swimming through canals or sewers in the towns to escape back out into the main body of the lake.”

Without a doubt, Murphy has led a dream life. ASPIRE asked him about his career as one of the most celebrated marathon swimmers in history while working as a professional British journalist.

ASPIRE: How hard does it get as a journalist covering some of the darkest events on the globe?

Kevin Murphy: A journalist tends to adopt a working persona complete with a thick skin, protective armor – call it what you will. I was the ordinary guy affected by what went on around me or I was the dispassionate reporter out to get a story. Two different people in the same body.

The job did harden me from an early age. As a 17-year-old cub reporter, I cycled to cover a fire. I said to the firemen that I understood somebody had been trapped. They directed me up some stairs where I found the badly burned body of a woman. It was the firemen’s black humor and their way of coping, but it also toughened and changed me.

There are some things, however, that I will never forget – things that I have seen and experienced first-hand. They include the burning remains of the Pan Am plane at Lockerbie before much of it had been found by emergency services; the abandoned belongings of people killed in a dance hall bombing in Northern Ireland; the cloakroom full of coats of the murdered children at Dunblane; the scene in the immediate aftermath of a bar sprayed with bullets in Northern Ireland; the family sitting under a corrugated iron shelter after their home had been swept away by Hurricane Mitch in Honduras; the air raid siren sounding a warning of incoming missiles as I was broadcasting from a tower block in Kuwait; on patrol with soldiers in Iraq when they all dropped to the floor because a shepherd reached for a mobile phone.

There were of course many happier stories, but news does tend to focus on controversy or the bad things of life. That said, I would not have missed it for the world. I had 50 years of a ringside seat on history. For the last 30 years of my working life, I was a radio reporter. I lived on a constant rush of adrenaline. I miss it now.

ASPIRE: What affect did swimming have on your ability to process this? Do you think you swam such challenging swims so frequently because of how challenging your job could be?

Kevin Murphy: There had to be a release from what I was doing as a job.

For many of my colleagues that was alcohol. My release was the swimming – something else where I could focus all my thoughts and energies for a while. To some extent, I was replacing the stress of my job with the stress of completing long swims. It was tough because of my working hours and often I was tired. To raise enough money to pay for the swimming, I also worked on the news desk of a national Sunday newspaper on Friday and Saturday nights – so I was working a regular 70 hours a week.

ASPIRE: What were the best moments / high points of your outdoor swimming career?

Kevin Murphy: There are three:

1. My first two-way English Channel swim in 1970 – third swimmer, first Brit and first amateur to do it.

2. My first North Channel swim, also in 1970. I was only the second swimmer to do it following a gap of 23 years after the first, Tom Blower. My time of 11 hours 21 minutes stood as a record for 18 years before being beaten by Alison Streeter and it was the male record for more than 40 years.

3. My first three-way English Channel attempt in 1975. Although ultimately unsuccessful, I swam for 52.5 hours non-stop and was ordered out halfway back on the third leg because of deteriorating weather.

ASPIRE: Do you still swim often, and does it still benefit your mental well-being?

Kevin Murphy: I do still swim, but I am constrained by injuries to my shoulders as a result of 50 years of too much swimming and by heart by-pass surgery because of all that work induced adrenalin. If my heart had not been so strong because of the swimming, I may not have survived when two arteries ruptured.

It is still a release from the stresses of everyday life, but I am someone who always wants to go one better so I find it frustrating that my speed through the water is 50% slower.

I haven’t given up on it. I never will. I need a focus and I want to prove to myself that I can still swim the [English] Channel. As I write, I have just come out of swimming another timed mile in the pool, next time I’ll aim to do it faster.

I also now have a new focus which is deeply satisfying – guiding and mentoring aspiring open water swimmers at swim camps with The King’s Swimmers. I want to give something back. I want to help others achieve the dreams and adventures which a lifetime of open water swimming has given me.

ASPIRE: Would you recommend outdoor swimming to promote mental well-being?

Kevin Murphy: I am not an expert on mental well-being, but I do know the satisfaction of being able to shrug off criticism. Whatever people say about me, I know what I can achieve. I know I am good at doing what I set out to do. It has given me huge self-confidence and self-belief that I would never, otherwise, have had.

ASPIRE: Do you have any advice for the swimmers taking on the Aspire Relay Channel Swim this summer?

Kevin Murphy: Physically and psychologically, a Channel relay is tough, but if that were not the case, there would be no satisfaction in doing it. Know that you will come away from it with a lasting sense of achievement.

Train hard. Acclimatize to the water temperature. It is not as cold as you think.

If you feel ill on the boat or tired in the water, know that you can overcome temporary frailties and temporary doubts. Beat the demons in your head which tell you that you can’t do it.

Keep putting one arm in front of the other. Remember that it is for a good cause and swim the dream. If you like the idea of sea swimming, but the Channel is too much, have a look at our 3-mile Solent Swims to the Isle of Wight

For more information, visit @AspireCharity.

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Steven Munatones