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What It's Like to Swim 1,001 Miles in Open Water

One adventurer shares his journey


Dave Cornthwaite was once a “miserable graphic designer,” but these days, he’s broken free of the cubicle. Founding a project called Expedition 1,000, Dave is taking part in 25 journeys of 1,000 miles or more, each one using a different non-motorized transportation. To give you a taste for his projects, the man has skateboarded more than 3,000 miles across Australia, took a 1,400-mile tandem ride from Vancouver to Vegas, and more. His latest endeavor was swimming 1,001 miles down the Lower Missouri River, from Chamberlain, SD, to St. Louis, MO.

Each of his projects done is in the name of raising £1 million (he’s a Brit) for the breast cancer awareness charity CoppaFeel! and, simply, in being happy. Here, Dave’s account of his seventh project.

When I jumped into the Missouri for the first time I hadn't swam more than 300 meters in one go in my life. I most certainly was not a swimmer.

Last year I was adamant that I'd never do a swimming journey—I didn't think I'd see anything. Then, my Mum got me some swimming goggles for Christmas and my mind started to change. Eight months later I was setting off on one of the longest swims in history.

First, I had to learn how to swim. I started off with a healthy doggy paddle and then slowly did 1-minute, then 2-minute sessions of breast stroke, backstroke and front crawl. My breathing was awful at the beginning, as was my fitness. I came up coughing and spluttering after a pathetic 30 seconds. But after 4 days of swimming, I was covering up to 12 miles in a day, with no current, while I pulled my gear on a raft.  

The first 180 miles were in a lake system—and 125 of them were without the help of a current. It took me a full half of the expedition's allotted time to cover those 180 grueling miles. Thankfully, the remaining 820 were below dams and in flowing rivers, where the water helped move me along. But even with its aid, during every day of my 58-day journey, I spent between 9 and 12 hours in the water.

Sometimes submerged logs, or deadheads, would linger beneath the river's surface without showing themselves. I hit seven deadheads as I swam, anywhere from my stomach to my feet. It was a shock each time, knowing that one badly placed, sharp piece of wood could tear me open. I swam with trepidation after each collision but stuck to the deeper river channel and just kept on going.

I loved being immersed day-in, day-out. It wasn't fun pulling on a wetsuit each morning still cold and wet from the night before, mist rising off the river because the temperature was so cold. Towards the end of the journey I was on the brink of hypothermia a couple of times, which really sapped my energy and made it difficult to prepare for the next day. And even when my fitness was at its peak, I struggled to eat enough to replace the 7,000 calories I burned each day, so my weight quickly plummeted.

It was the biggest challenge I've ever faced.  And while I’m used to traveling long distances slowly, being in the water was a different story. 1,001 miles was an enormous obstacle to overcome in my mind—so I broke it down. Hours. Days. Weeks. Eventually, if you keep going, you get there.

Dave will be touring in the States with his tour, Say Yes More, before he takes off around the world. For more information, or to donate to CoppaFeel!, visit his website.  

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Pro kayaker Steve Fisher does some 3-D filming in the rivers of northern Minnesota. Courtesy Red Bull

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