Ross Edgley, who has just become the first man to swim around Great Britain, is trying to describe what it feels like to have your tongue disintegrate. “I realised something was bad when I woke up with chunks of it on my pillow,” he recalls. The flesh was translucent, but otherwise a lot like beef stroganoff or slow-cooked pork. “It’s that tender, you’re just pulling strips off,” says Edgley energetically. “You could see the tastebuds on it, it was that thick.”
Endurance swimmers call it salt mouth – the effect of seawater buildup in your mouth and throat. Edgley’s was at its worst as he passed Dungeness in early June, about 85 hours of swimming after setting out from Margate harbour. “Even a week in, it went from being a swim as most people consider it, as a sport, to being a survival exercise,” he says.
That “exercise” lasted 157 days, during each of which Edgley slept no more than six hours, and often less, and swam for six hours, and sometimes more.
Alongside him was his support crew, husband and wife Matt and Suzanne Knight, on board their 16m (52ft) catamaran Hecate. The instant Edgley boarded the boat every day, its location was recorded, and it would return to that exact point when the time came for Edgley to return to the water, thereby ensuring a continuous circumnavigation of 1,792 miles – about the same distance as London to Moscow by road.
In the course of his five-month-long Great British Swim, Edgley raced ferries, stopped boats, braved storms, swam with countless dolphins, suffered hundreds of jellyfish stings, saw “every single seal”, and became a connoisseur of the nation’s waters. “Scotland tasted really nice,” he tells me. The Irish Sea, he says after consideration, was “organic”. The Humber Estuary: “straight-up fertiliser”.
Edgley – just turned 33, from Grantham, Lincolnshire – takes a perverse pleasure in pushing his body to its limits. A fitness expert and athlete, he played water polo for Great Britain as a teenager, before going on to study sports science at Loughborough University. He amassed a large social media following for his superhuman stunts, such as running a marathon while towing a Mini Cooper and rope-climbing the height of Mount Everest, devised to both fundraise for charity and test his own theories about physical performance. He has no superpowers, he said in an early instalment of his weekly video diary – just the right combination of enough naivety to start, and enough stubbornness to finish. (He has since added a few caveats to that slogan, lest his followers – many of whom have already told him his feat has inspired them to sign up for ultramarathons and Strongman competitions – endanger themselves in their enthusiasm.)
Looking back, he had an overabundance of naivety, Edgley cheerily admits now, on the penultimate day of his journey. It is Saturday morning and we are drinking coffee in the cockpit of Hecate, moored off Margate pier ahead of his final leg. He shows me a 5kg bucket of petroleum jelly, nearly hollowed out. “At the start, I was like, there’s no way we’re going to get through that. We’ve done almost a kilo a month.”
Edgley himself is barely recognisable from the sleek bodybuilder of his first vlog. Then he had resembled a superhero who shared DNA with one of those giant river otters, or a pedigree bull terrier. The bearded man sitting opposite me, wearing a bobble hat and a fleece-lined hooded cloak, is more reminiscent of Bilbo Baggins towards the end of his unexpected journey.
In five months, Edgley has put on 8kg to weigh 100kg, gaining muscle in his shoulders, losing it in his legs, and developing a “seal-like bulk” all over. “My body’s completely changed. I’ve got hairier, I’ve got fatter.” Fitness is a slippery concept, although he tried to pin it down in his “eccentric and comprehensive” bestseller, The World’s Fittest Book. “There is no definition. Right now, I’m really fit if you want me to swim around Great Britain, but awful if you want me to run a marathon.”
After swimming 12 hours a day for five months, he has adapted “to the point where I’m really going to be bad on land”. He has been doing balance and leg-strengthening exercises in readiness. His feet have entirely lost their arches, he tells me, though their purply-yellow colour is apparently no cause for concern. His trench foot (“pretty bad, at one point. Yeah, you can lose them”) has cleared up, as has a “sea ulcer” on his heel. “It’s not as bad as it sounds!” he says, seeing my expression. “If you got a tiny cut, it would never heal, it would just get deeper and deeper. It would start going through to the bone, essentially.”
Edgley’s achievement, it quickly becomes apparent, is compelling not just as an unprecedented feat of mental and physical endurance, but in a similar way to those lurid quasi-documentaries about medical anomalies. At the same time as his tongue was disintegrating, chafing from his wetsuit created a raw wound, inspiring the viewers of his weekly vlogs to give him the nickname Rhino Neck. Efforts to protect it with layers of Sudocrem, plasters, Vaseline, bin bags and duct tape were time-consuming and only partially successful.
“Imagine having an open wound and rubbing it with sandpaper for 12 hours a day – that’s what it was like,” says Edgley. “I woke up the next morning and my bedsheets were stuck to it. I was like, ‘Oh, for God’s sake’, ripped it off, then got in and swam.” His girlfriend, Hester Sabery, was fortunate enough to be visiting him onboard Hecate at the time. “Oh yeah, that was horrific,” she says later, wincing at the memory. “He just had blisters all over his shoulders, his neck, his chest. And when he moved, they were all just there on the pillow.”
But he never thought of giving up, he says. He took to heart the advice of Alexei Janssen, a performance coach to the royal marines, to focus on the process – then the outcome would become inevitable. “Never did I think about arriving at Margate, or quitting. I stopped counting up or down.” There was no time to feel sorry for himself, anyway, with his precious few hours out of the water needing to be spent sleeping or eating. With a daily target of 15,000 calories, Edgley has described his endeavour as a “giant eating competition, with a bit of swimming in between”.
“ROSS EDGLEY’S BANANA TALLY”, crudely scrawled on the cockpit roof in permanent marker, stands at 649. While in the water he ate one every 20 minutes, with the occasional break for fortified porridge or noodles. Between swims he ate breakfast – a proper fry-up, with four slices of toast, two or three eggs, baked beans, the lot – lunch and dinner: a full day’s meals every 12 hours. “It was like double time,” says Suzanne Knight, who took charge of Edgley’s nutrition. “The thing is, when he started the swim, he carried no fat at all, he was all muscle. That’s why we went crazy and bulked him up so much.”
For Edgley, who co-founded a fitness supplements company, food needed to be dense not only in calories but also in nutrients; digestible in the mix of what else he had eaten that day; and palatable, given his current state of physical degradation. (“Can you imagine your salt tongue hanging off, then trying to eat granola?”) He took an intuitive approach to his diet, which allowed for emerging from the ocean to wolf down two Dominos pizzas, back to back.
But the challenge was as much mental as physical. “When you add it all up, I’ve probably spent a month on my own, staring at the bottom of the seabed,” he says. “There were times when I wasn’t thinking about surviving, when I could coast – that’s when you can go into this moving meditation and mull over everything. But people ask if I’ve come to any amazing epiphanies, whereas I get out and go: ‘Have we got any cheese left? Can I get a cheese toastie?’”
In his cabin he was reading Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations on stoic philosophy (“It’s been brilliant, this psychology in the face of adversity”), which he says dovetailed with sports science. Edgley knew that revving himself up, or swimming angry, could stress his immune system and jeopardise his endurance for the rest of the journey. His MO, as he explained in a vlog, was to “swim with a smile”, even through clouds of jellyfish. (Part of the reason he grew a beard was to serve as protection.) “That was easier said than done, and sometimes I was putting on a brave face – for the crew as well.”
His lowest moment, he says – worse than the salt tongue or his “neck hanging off” – was when he was kept awake for six hours by a sting to the face while crossing the Irish Sea. He mimes feverish scratching of his arms: “I looked possessed. I was walking around naked on deck because the wind was the only thing that soothed my skin.” It sounds like King Lear on the moor, I say, by now in my own heavy-weather robe. “Yeah, it was! Eventually, I went to bed and from my cabin, saw day turn to night and night turn to day. The tide changed, and Matt knew I hadn’t slept. He said: ‘Mate, I’m so sorry – you have to go in.’ It had literally just stopped itching.”
It seems paradoxical that someone so dedicated to fine-tuning the body “as an instrument, not an ornament” – a phrase by which he repeatedly condemns the aesthetics-led approach of the wider fitness industry – would cause himself so much physical damage. “I think sports science – and medical science – quite rightly errs on the side of caution and would be like: ‘You need rest, you need to take antibiotics, or something,’” Edgley agrees. But he sees his own body as not just an instrument but an experiment – a willing subject on which to test his theories of athletic performance “in the lab that is the Great British coastline”.
He was inspired by the Hungarian-Canadian endocrinologist Hans Selye’s work on general adaptation in 1936. By gradually increasing lab rats’ tolerance to poison, Selye was able to prove that stress and stimuli were the key to adaptation, says Edgley. “What I’m saying is, yes, I absolutely am worried about long-term damage. But what if I am becoming one of Hans Selye’s indestructible rats? You don’t know.
“In the fitness community, we’re all told ‘Lose a stone in the week’, ‘Get fit in five easy steps’ – no one wants to say, ‘Get fit through stress and stimuli according to Hans Selye’s work in 1936.’ That’s not going to sell anything. No one wants to say: ‘If you want to get fit or lose weight, it’s going to be hard – you’re going to suffer.’”
Is he a masochist? “That’s a good question.” Five months ago, he would have said no; now, he is not so sure. “In this small bubble, with Matt and I both so driven towards the same goal, I’m like: ‘Why wouldn’t you swim with your tongue hanging off?’ I would say I’m not a masochist, but maybe a month from now, when I’m looking back objectively, from outside the bubble, I’ll go: ‘What was I doing?’”
So what will he be doing a month from now? “Well, genuinely learning to walk again” – and then a marathon by Christmas. “I think that might be quite a good litmus test.”