Lewis Pugh is the type of man I used to dream about when I was a teenager – you know, the one I was going to marry. He is an ‘explorer, athlete, polar protector’ and to me, thoroughly good-looking as well. And he sounds like a good guy. (Someone I know sat next to him at a dinner and said he was very likeable – and also mentioned how good-looking he was.) Got to say, he didn’t have much money for a long time as he spent anything he had getting to remote, freezing cold parts of the world to do icy swims, sometimes just because he could.
I started reading this book in a desultory sort of way, thinking I might skim through it, but it kept me gripped throughout and I was fascinated by the man. Not only did he test his body to the ultimate limits through swimming, he also joined the British Army’s toughest regiment, the SAS, which had the most gruelling admission tests. He failed once, and that didn’t even stop him. It seems that nothing is impossible for this man. Once he has set his mind on doing something, he makes sure he achieves it, however much it might test his body.
He is best know for his Arctic swim, which took place in July 2007, in water that was minus 1.7 degrees. I couldn’t even put a finger in that without crying. He wore only a speedo and swimming goggles (and a layer of fat – he had to put on 10kgs to do the swim). He had trained his body for these icy temperatures by sitting in an inflatable pool at the I&J factory in Cape Town, where workers constantly shovelled ice around his body. Can you imagine even standing on the ice with nothing on but your swimming costume?
He was not ignorant of that fact that what he was doing could kill him and, in fact, wrote a letter to two members of his back-up team (one of whom was Tim Noakes) saying that he was doing the swim totally of his own free will, and that they must show the letter to the media should he die doing it.
The incredible thing about Lewis Pugh is that he is able to raise his body’s core temperature at will and this is what enables him to survive waters of these freezing temperatures. Reading about how he psyches himself up before diving into the waters is fascinating and it is during those moments that he raises his body temperature. Reading about his recovery after the swim is also fascinating, in a scary sort of way.
As fascinating as the North Pole swim is, his other swims are just as interesting. Two of them were city swims – one down the Thames and the other in the Sydney Harbout (illegally). Others take him to remote places in the world, and his descriptions of the beauty of Norway made me want to go there.
It is during all his swims that Lewis’ eyes are opened to the damage that humans are doing to nature – there is one particularly eerie description of him swimming over a huge graveyard of whale bones – and that motivates him to become an ardent environmentalist. Thank heavens this is how he starts making money; I was starting to worry (along with him) that he would still be living at home aged 40.
Sadly for me, but very happily for him, he met a gorgeous woman and married her.
I haven’t done the book justice in this review, as I would write for too long and you would get bored. It is a fascinating book about a man who has achieved incredible things but seems to have stayed modest, who has so much attention focused on him, but who acknowledges he could never have done any of his swims without his fantastic back-up teams.
It is well worth reading, whether you like biographies or not, as it is so incredible that it could almost be fiction.