Former Scotland centre Alex Grove taking on Channel swim

WORCESTER, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 10: Alex Grove of Worcester during the LV= Cup match between Worcester Warriors and Scarlets at the Sixways Stadium on November 10, 2012 in Worcester, England. (Photo by Paul Thomas/Getty Images)

Former Scotland and Worcester Warriors centre Alex Grove is preparing to swim the channel this weekend to raise money for charity.

Grove, who called time on his career after year-long spells with Moseley and Coventry after leaving Sixways, will take on the challenge to raise money for Acorns Children’s Hospice.

The 32-year-old spoke to Last Word on Rugby about the challenge.

Taking on a new challenge

“I wanted a physical challenge away from work or family life when I retired, to give my training a bit of purpose and focus, because I’ve always liked the processes and the preparation going into the game when I was playing rugby so I wanted to replace that a bit, whereas I didn’t have that in my life.

“It doesn’t really explain why I decided to swim the channel, but it certainly would take me out of my comfort zone big time, it’s certainly doing that with training, it’s a little bit more unusual to climbing Everest, there’s certainly fewer people who have done it, but in swimming terms it’s the pinnacle of open water and endurance swimming.”

The former centre, who won three caps for Scotland in 2009, including a memorable win over Australia at BT Murrayfield, has been in training for the Channel swim for about 18 months, but COVID-19 has impacted upon that, too.

“I was doing a number of open water swim events last year,” Grove continued.

“Anything above 10k in swimming terms is considered a marathon, so a number of 10k, a bit of 14k, Thames marathon and at the end of the summer did Lake Windermere, which is 18 km in length, which is about the half the Channel distance.

“A lot of people will do a two-way Lake Windermere as Channel prep. Again, this year, I had a number of things pencilled into the diary in terms of my prep in the lead up to the swim but that was blown out of the water by COVID, which obviously brings us to the last three months.

“I didn’t swim at all for 10-11 weeks. A few weeks ago I thought I may have to postpone this because at the moment the race is still on for August 1, because I haven’t been able to get in the water, but then I was able to get back down to the sea when the restrictions eased a bit.

“I need to be in the sea really, because even the lakes that are around us up in the Midlands, they’re just too warm, they’re 17-18-19 degrees at the moment, whereas the English Channel is currently 13.5-14 degrees and those four degrees make a massive difference.

“I think for me, long periods of time in cold water is probably not a main concern because I don’t have a lot of body fat on me. A lot of long distance swimmers they don’t look like the swimmers you see at the Olympics, they have big bellies on them.

“These people are athletes, but the extra body fat helps with keeping you warm, helps you float and is an extra energy source as well because you burn a huge amount of calories when you’re in the water for between 12 and 16 hours.

“If you’ve got extra fat reserves that’s only going to benefit you, so I’ve been trying to fatten up in lockdown, but I’m obviously doing a load training as I’ve got gym equipment at home and a bit of biking, keeping fit, but I’ve gotten back into the water in the last couple of weeks.

Impressive fundraising total

Grove set his fundraising target at £20,000 and is close to breaking that amount, and he’s been pleased with the response of the rugby community.

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“I was asked at the beginning what’s your target and I said I don’t really know, so, anything is better than nothing isn’t it.

“I’ve been helped from a publicity point of view – the rugby club have
gotten behind it, there have been the odd article. I think having the rugby interest as well is good for dipping into a whole community of people.

“There’s been a number of people who have attempted the Channel, but how many former rugby players, certainly a lot fewer, but I can’t think of any off the top of my head, so it’s certainly niche in that respect, so the charity will probably benefit off the back of that.”

The former Sixways favourite also explained why he’s chosen to raise money for Acorns Children’s Hospice.

“It is a hospice for critically ill children and they are reliant on donations, people with large sums of money and people doing all sorts of challenges to raise funds for them.

“They have hospices based in Worcester, they have other hospices in the Midlands as, but we’ve worked but when I played for Worcester, we worked quite closely with the hospice there.

“I know the club still works closely with them and as a player at the time we would go down to the hospice and spend time with the children and try and make them smile and laugh. So I have a bit of an affiliation with the club from my rugby days and because I still live in Worcester, it was right on the doorstep and whilst our children are, fortunately, healthy and we don’t require their services, it’s right there in background. It was an opportunity to do something for a charity I cared about.

Waiting Game

While Grove is pencilled in to take on the mammoth swim on Saturday, he knows that the weather forecast means that is subject to change.

“We’re at the mercy of the weather on the day,” he explained.

“We could go at any time on that tide, so it’s probably anytime from July 30 to August 3-4, so a six-day window. So if it’s crap weather say day one of that tide then I’ll say hold fire, go another day.”

The importance of nutrition

With Alex Grove to be in the water for anything up to 18 hours, he knows he’ll need to take on vital nutrition while he’s swimming, and that brings more challenges.

“That’s why it’s so crucial that you’ve got support – the people on the boat will throw you food and drinks.

“It’s worth finding out [what you like] before you do the swim, you don’t want to leave anything to chance.

“There’s always something beyond your control, like the weather you can’t really prepare for, so all the controllable things, small and insignificant as you might think they are, you may as well practice, like feeding, what you like and what you don’t, what’s easy to consume quickly, because being able to drink a drink quickly while bobbing up and down in the water is a crucial skill.

“I could have up to 30 feeds while I’m growing across, if I take a minute for every feed, that’s an extra half an hour in the cold.

“The other thing that people don’t often consider is seasickness. The idea that people, your support crew on the boat, could likely be spewing overboard.

“I will probably be sick as well, probably several times because of the bobbing motion over a long period and taking on a lot of fluid when you don’t really feel like it, but you have to, you’ll start cramping up your muscles will pack up and you won’t have the energy to keep going.

“But providing I get my nutrition right and I can keep it down, I should be able to keep going almost indefinitely.

“It’s like a pit stop.”

‘You’ve just got to keep going.’

As well as the physical preparation Alex Grove has taken on over the last 18 months to ensure he’s ready to take on the Channel swim this weekend, he’s been making sure he’s mentally prepared.

“I’m doing a lot of mental prep around what am I going to be thinking about in various stages of the challenge.

“I think the mental side of it is a huge factor.

“I’ve no doubt crossing the Channel will get really ugly at points, there will be points when I’m f****** miserable, I don’t want to continue.

“If you’ve got a plan, at least you have something to come back to, ideally, this is what I want to think about in the first five minutes.

“We used to do this in rugby, we had a game plan of what you wanted the game to look like over the 80 minutes and the 15 blokes on the other side of the field who are trying to stop you doing that.

“If you’ve got something if you go off script you have something you planned for to come back to.

“There are going to be long periods of time when it’s quite lonely out there and you’ve just got to keep going.”

Main image credit: Embed from Getty Images

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