I’ve become accustomed to physical and psychological challenges in the past few years. Managing the ongoing drone of monotony required to complete a slow journey is part experience, part innate stubbornness, part understanding of the worth behind the goal.
My most recent expedition, a 1001 mile swim down the Missouri, has changed me. Unlike many of my other projects fun was sadly lacking throughout chunks of last summer, and despite having a team in close proximity I felt very much alone in my exact experience. The surface of a river is a thick wall, sometimes.
I didn’t write much during the trip, not for public consumption, anyway. My physical strength was removed with each day in the water and there was little space in my mind for creativity. The months following our arrival in St Louis have been darker than any other post-expedition experience I care to remember but finally, recent weeks have allowed my usual self to return and slowly begin to gain perspective on what happened last year.
For now, I thought I’d share a few words about the closing section of the Missouri River swim. The expedition was bloody hard for everyone involved but writing about it has made me realise I didn’t really focus too much on what was going on at the time, the only way I was going to reach the Arch at St Louis was to suck it up and just keep moving. One day, perhaps, this will make an interesting book.
Without further ado…
During those final three weeks spent immersed in the river I vomited countless times each hour, eventually almost once a minute as we moved into the last week. My body had reached its limit. It’s simply impossible to properly digest the calories burned during seven to fourteen hours of swimming and kicking each day, horizontal isn’t an ideal position for digestion at any time, let alone when you’re burning over 6000 calories between sunrise and sundown. At the start of each session I would lower my head into the water - by then so cold that each first plunge would draw a natural gasp - stay beneath the surface, and allow my skin to become used to the temperature until I felt acclimatised enough to swim. What was once a more natural habitat upstream was now uninviting, the slog had begun.
This was a constantly changing, foreign environment in which I became less at home with each fading pull through the water. The visibility was under three inches at all times and like an old man fond of reading small print my sight in the river declined with time. I entrusted my safety to the team, as I crawled downstream they were my eyes, scouring ahead for debris, wing dykes, barges and dead heads. In them I had complete and utter trust. This was a partnership, a relationship. They knew it, I knew it, it couldn’t be broken, not during the journey at least.
More vomit. I’m not sick as we’d normally know illness to show itself. I’m destroyed. Beyond beat. My body is telling me that enough is enough and that continuing isn’t wise. I live to test myself in order to understand my capabilities and I know from experience that as long as the mind is willing the body will go. But my body is now close to collapse.
More vomit; involuntary, instant and up my throat without warning. It burns. Fine, if my head is straight down in the water during the end phase of a stroke as it’s only a mouthful that can be expelled immediately, but when it comes during a breath I have no choice but to stop swimming, cough it up (because I’d breathed it straight back down), tread water, regain my composure and then set about swimming once more.
On the penultimate day we breached the Missouri’s confluence with the Mississippi River and rounded a bend familiar to me from my descent by paddleboard the previous Summer, the lights of northern St Louis guiding us home in the darkness. October had come and with it the trees reddened and the water lost temperature daily. Already once that day we’d all nearly succumbed to hypothermia, leaving St Charles at sunrise on request from the Fox TV chopper that was subsequently foiled by poor weather. The clouds sped in, the rain began to fall and my world transformed into a waterscape of delicate, minute sploshes. In between gusts when the surface had calmed my vision was filled with indentations created by each falling droplet of rain and the following perfection of ripples. With my earplugs in everything was silent and still, sight was my only fully operative sense. Only the top half of my head was out of the water, a unique, blissful eye level that confirmed yet again the falseness of a past assumption that I wouldn’t take on a long swim because, simply, I wouldn’t see anything.
The team were shivering uncontrollably above the surface and I wanted to get them to warmth, yet there were no buildings nearby nor dry firewood to take advantage of. My own body fat had left me weeks earlier and my wetsuit, thinned from hundreds of miles of protection, was offering little resistance to the cold. I chuckled to myself with the realisation that the only way I could stay warm was to ‘think warm’.
Ben Stiff and Emily Bill with photographer Grant Hindsley, halfway through a bitterly cold penultimate day.
One of life’s best tricks is the arrival of a decision that leads to us proving ourselves wrong, keeping us humble, letting us fall in order to stand up taller. After 997 miles the cramps finally kicked in. The Missouri was less than a mile upstream and perhaps it was this new passage in familiar water that allowed the demons in. Utter agony. Imagine, it struck first as I stretched out my right hand to crawl. The vomit came, so frequent now it’s barely worth mentioning, and then a raking pain across the abdomen which doubled me up instantly. I reached for my raft and held position, curled up in a floating ball, shivering recklessly, groaning, totally lost in this new discomfort.
After a couple of minutes I stretched my legs straight down, breathing deeply, willing the pain away. It pretended to go but the mere suggestion of a breast stroke would bring it back. The last miles of any journey are the most crucial. Concentration is paramount, but this was the first time in my career that physical injury or pain was threatening the slow magnetism towards a completed journey. The remaining ten miles seemed hopelessly out of reach.
So often I’ve been feeling this way, wondering how the past few months have passed in a blitz, struggling to glue together the thousands of digital, photographic and written reminders of what just happened with the feeling of being swiftly removed from a proverbial time warp. How do you go in one person and come out another, then understand the cause of change without a period of readjustment?
Who was I back then? How have I changed? Is this the time, finally, when I reach the end of an expedition and don’t plummet into a hole of loss, grumpiness and soul searching?
Maybe this is not possible, but I hope it is. In the past six years I’ve wondered whether the key to immediate happiness post-expedition is having a combination of stable base, a home, a long-term partner and/or a new focus to sink teeth into, but with all of those things tried I’m still without an answer.
How bizarre, that in the immediate aftermath of a stark confirmation that ordinary people can achieve the most extraordinary things there comes doubt, fear and mild, dare I say it, depression?
It takes some time to sink in, that the life you’ve become accustomed to has ended all of a sudden. It’s like a break-up, I’m now without my nights with sandbars, my days with a wetsuit and a raft. Heck, my team have all gone home. Friends, companions, people I’ve intimately shared this most recent, life-changing experience with. Gone, now.
Which ironically leads to my latest attempt at a solution, not going home.
Such a shift from 3/4s of a decade ago, my lifestyle and values now rely on an avoidance of unnecessary stuff, financial outgoings and anything that can impinge on my freedom. All of the things that I need to function in this current version of my life - my laptop, a phone, a couple of t-shirts, a tent, roll mat, sleeping bag, passport etc - can fit in one bag (a drybag, in case you were wondering) and with that simplicity I’m able to avoid the obstacles posed by the Vicious Circle of Badness when a new opportunity comes along.
Financially, I earn a 10th of what I used to when I was 25 and make ends meet just fine, and because of that I’m 10 times more secure than I once was. On occasion I find that I rely on the kindness of strangers but when this isn’t possible I always get by. Things always work out.
This time round I decided not to go back to London, the magnet that has tugged at me following every one of my previous adventures. On return, I’d seen a familiar city uncomfortably through new eyes, become surrounded by stern, unwelcome faces, caught up with friends who had no comprehension or true interest in what I’ve just been through. How can you sum up months of adventure and struggle by answering the question, ‘How was it?’ How frustrating to get through that particular challenge and without a chance to understand it be faced with the now typical, ‘What’s next?!’ It’ almost as though the last expedition didn’t happen.
It’s always depressed and suffocated me, surrounded by sameness. So I decided to stay away this time and instantly begin a new adventure. I’m not fooling myself, there will be readjustment. I miss my team, I miss the river and I miss the daily challenge. But I need to rest. I need to get my pen out.
There are things to sort out, feelings to understand and process. I need time. In the last year and a bit I’ve completed 5 enormous adventures and I’m tired. Really tired. I haven’t afforded myself one of my passions, to write, so now I’m taking six months off to polish off some books. I can’t wait. I’m going to sleep, get fat, and write. And after that I’m going to go on another adventure. A sleepless, weight-shedding journey worthy of a new story. I don’t know what it will be yet, but there will be one. In fact, there will be 18!
For now I need to deal with my new identity. I’ve been recognised as ‘The Swimmer’ since August 10th. My wetsuit and goggles have defined me. Now, with the same body and the same overly hairy head and face I’m being regarded with suspicion on city streets and in cafes. I look vaguely like a tramp. The lack of a wetsuit means I’m no longer instantly unique, I’m just a regular, shabby-looking guy desperately in need of scissors.
And you know what, I’ve done what I set out to do, so I’m happy with that. One journey has ended, another begins right now. This one, I suspect, will be just as exciting. I just might need some time to let my time on the latest river beginning with M to sink in.