Fell Running and Ice Swimming in the Lakes - Jacob Tonkin
Nestled under the summit of Helvellyn in the Lake District, Red Tarn is a truly breathtaking body of water. One of the highest lakes in England, in the depths of winter the temperature regularly drops below zero and its crystal clear waters become trapped under a sheet of inch-thick ice. Which makes it the perfect location to test the new Black Camo dryrobe® Advance.
Fell runner, outdoor swimmer and proud Cumbrian, Jacob Tonkin was ready to take on the challenge - hiking through snow and breaking the ice to go swimming in this stunning lake, along with fellow adventurer Sarah Gerrish.
We caught up with Jacob to chat about swimming in Red Tarn, life in the Lakes, living with Crohn’s disease and taking on the legendary Frog Graham Round...
Red Tarn looks like an incredible place to go swimming. What was it like hiking up there in the snow and smashing through the ice?
Red Tarn is a magical place whatever the weather. You're surrounded by two spectacular ridge lines, which lead up to one of the highest fells in the country. The views are simply stunning. The tarn itself is only 3 miles from my front door. Which means I go up that way a lot. In all weathers. From the heights of summer, in my budgy smugglers. To the depths of winter with every bit of thermal kit I own. Swimming or running, there's always an adventure to be had at places like Red Tarn.
The day we went up for this shoot it was the perfect winters day. We were truly blessed with a fantastic bluebird day. Wall to wall sunshine without a lick of wind. It was lovely to share that day and experience with Sarah.
Where did your passion for the outdoors come from?
I am a born and bred Keswickian (someone from Keswick) who grew up in a family full of outdoor enthusiasts. As we'd often get invited up to my grandparent’s house for a slideshow evening to see pictures of their adventures and holidays. I never thought much of it at the time. I would also have to spend weekends on the fells with my dad. I would begrudgingly go with him, though I'd rather have been playing football in the park. Subconsciously I was taking in all this sense of adventure and all these classic Lakeland walking routes.
I really didn't realise what I had till I left the Lake District to go to university. I swapped the mountains for Stoke-on-Trent. "Oh dear" I thought. I came back, tail between my legs, and just wanted to be outside. I took up fell running and haven't looked back since.
Strangely I knew where I was going on the fells. I'd come home and tell my dad the routes I'd done, and he'd proceed to tell me "that was the route we did when your rucksack strap broke and I had to lash it to my pack". I still find myself running routes which I haven't been on for many years and think ‘what would young Jacob would think if he saw me now’.
Now that I do class myself as a fell runner I've started to idolise my Grandparents and Parents more and more. I want to have adventures and create stories for myself. Ultimately to try and be like them. Last year, before covid was a thing, we got together as a family for a slideshow with my Nana and Grandad. It was fantastic!
How did you get into outdoor swimming?
In 2013 I cycled Lands End to John O'Groats to raise money for the Great North Air Ambulance. But that's another story. Once back I decided to enter the Keswick Mountain Festival triathlon. My mum had also entered. I was cycling and running fit, but I'd not done much swimming since school.
My parents live 5 minutes walk from the shore of Derwentwater. My mam and her best mate Jude go in virtually every day of the year. They've been doing it for years. They have introduced lots of relativity well known 'open water swimmers' to the sport before it became fashionable. There are no GPS watches, Strava, bells or whistles. They don't take water temperature, they don't need any recognition on Instagram, they don't even wear a dryrobe!
Instead, they go down, with the dogs, to swim. Every morning before work. Purely for the sheer enjoyment and exercise. They must have clocked in thousands of miles over the years. The dogs, with their life jackets, usually swim alongside them.
Before I was going in with them I was often woken up by the squelch of my mams Crocs echoing down the street as she walked back.
Once I knew I had something to train for I decided to go in with them. I hated it at first. It was cold and choppy. I did learn to toughen up. I got a decent wet suit and set myself targets. Before I knew it I started to love swimming.
I picked up a knee injury last year, during the first lockdown, which meant I was swimming a lot more. It was lovely to be able to make memories and share adventures with my mam like that. We even trained my dog George to run along the shoreline whilst we swam.
You're a proud resident of the Lake District - what is it about the area that is most special to you?
I am a very proud Cumbrian. These fells and lakes are my home. They provide me with endless possibilities, adventures and challenges. I love knowing my territory well. Knowing the secret sneaky lines during a fell race. Knowing the best places to go for a swim. Knowing the quietest place for a picnic.
I love that here I can surround myself with others who love the fells as much as I do. In normal (none Covid) times I have a long list of folk I can "go out and play" with. They range from British fell running champions, to world-record breaking Stand Up Paddle Boarders. Surrounding myself with like-minded people helps keep my enjoyment and motivation levels high.
Last year you took on the legendary Frog Graham Round, what inspired you to undertake such an epic challenge and what was that like?
I was training for a stupidly long race in Scotland in May, which was called off due to Covid-19. With that cancelled my focus turned to a Bob Graham. Those plans were scuppered when I picked up a knee injury. I hardly ran for the second half of May and the whole of June. I replaced running with swimming. In the ridiculously warm weather, I was swimming 2 or 3 times a day. Clocking in some serious mileage. On my birthday I swam the whole way around Derwentwater (6 miles) in 3 hours. Then I swam the length of Wast Water with my mam and Jude. I was even getting my mates keen to come for a swim.
My knee was getting better and I started to scheme. Would a Frog Graham be too optimistic for this year? I thought whilst struggling going up my local fell Walla Crag. I managed to get some good training done in July, but still wasn't 100% fit.
Once covid lockdown rules were relaxed I set a date and did it. It's a tough route. Much tougher than I expected. I had a terrible patch after the first swim. I'd fallen over on Skiddaw and then swam across a very choppy Bassenthwaite. Going up the next fell, called Barf, I was truly ready to Barf! I was with my friend Tom and his friend Simon, who I didn't know. Tom had been telling Simon about how strong a runner I was and how it might be a quick round. When I met Simon I was green. I was struggling to run in a straight line and this was only 12 miles in!
At Whinlatter my girlfriend gave me a stern talking to "All these people have come out to help and see you today. And you can't even run 15 miles!? Pull yourself together" she said to me. So I set off not knowing whether to laugh or cry. I did start to perk up midway through that second leg. I was petrified at what Rachael would say if I got to the next swim, where she was waiting for me, if I was still in a downer. I put on my best smile, hardly stopped and swam off.
On the last leg I was joined by one of my best mates, my sister and my dog George. The three folk I needed on that last leg. Martin, a very good fell runner, couldn't understand why I was going so slow. I had been on the go for 12 hours at this point I should add. My sister was thrilled to be part of my big day. Whereas George just wanted me to throw him a stick the whole time. 14 hours and 2 minutes after I'd set off, I ran up to the moot hall. Still with my dog George in tow. Touched the moot hall and tried not to cry. It was a beautiful moment to share with my family and friends. I drank a beer on the steps of the moot hall and cuddled my dog.
Two weeks later, George had a fatal accident in the woods by my parents. It has made the memory of my Frog Graham even more special. Without him I'd not have been doing it in the first place.
You were diagnosed with Crohn’s disease two years ago, how has the diagnosis changed your approach to training and competing?
I was diagnosed with Crohn's disease in January 2019, after 18 months of suffering. It flipped my whole world upside down. Beforehand I was in pretty good shape and was competing in fell races weekly. Taking my training seriously and was Strava obsessed. I wanted to run well and would be upset if I felt I hadn't given it my all on every run. This all had to stop when I become ill. I felt like I lost my identity as a runner. I couldn't run more than half a mile without needing the toilet. I was worried I'd never get back to where I was.
Once I had my diagnosis and was receiving treatment, I decided to get a dog. I named him George. He quickly became a huge part of the family. He helped me get me my life back, and to rediscover my identity as a runner. As George grew we started to get out on the fells. He learnt to run, whilst I was starting from scratch again. I realised that though I was running again, my focus had changed. I didn't care about pace, miles or looking fast on Strava. I just wanted to enjoy spending time on the fells that I call home, with my best mate. We become a very dynamic duo, who loved what we did. Whilst we were out I'd seldom look at my watch. I felt alive and present! I have realised I'll never be winning races, but not many people will enjoy the fells as much as I do.
Sadly, we lost George in a tragic accident before his second birthday. It was the worst day of my life. To lose my best friend is something I don't think I'll ever fully recover from. I owe him everything. Whilst I still focus on the enjoyment of being out rather than the stats. I do miss him every time I lace my shoes up. As without him, I might not be about to set off on a run.
How has the pandemic and lockdown affected your adventures and what are your plans for the year ahead?
The initial national lockdown cancelled all of my planned events and adventures. I was a little upset, but my friends and family were staying safe and well. What more could I ask for in these troubling times?!
With no events for the year, we started to really ramp up completing the Wainwrights with George. After each outing, we'd scratch those fells off our map and wrote a little bit about the walk/run/adventure we'd had. When he died he’d summited 104 out of 214. Not bad for a 19-month-old!
Since we lost him we, as a family, have been visiting all the tops he didn't get to. Carrying small stones with the letter G painted on them. It helps us keep him alive in our memories and helps us heal. We've summited 51 of the remaining fells without him, and laid out G stones down. We hope to have the remaining fells completed this year. We're still writing in his adventure book!
My main aim for this year is to complete the Bob Graham Round. Hopefully in as similar time to my Grandads 21 hours 24 minutes. However, I don't want to even consider this until both grandparents have been vaccinated and can see me finish.
What advice would you give to anyone who’s looking to get started trail/fell running?
Start slow. Don't worry about your pace or stats. Take in the views, take some photos. If it gets hard, which it will, try to remember what it was that inspired you to get out your front door. Remember, the steepest climbs bring the best rewards.
But above all...get a dog!
Photos and film by James Appleton