In April 2018, Paula ‘Must Try Harder’ McGuire will embark on a six-month-long journey that no women or man before her has yet been brave enough to take on. The plan? Swim around the entire coast of Great Britain. All 1800 cold, jellyfish-infested miles of it.
“I know, it’s a ridiculous challenge.” Says Paula, who dubbed herself ‘Paula Must Try Harder’ on her blog in a bid to become ‘the girl who tried everything’. And try she is. “Once I realised that no-one has ever attempted it, I just had to give it a go, right?”
Paula’s swimming challenge will involve six months of swimming for six hours every day (except bad weather ‘rest’ days) submerged in single figure temperatures and battling through all weather. It’s enough to give you pruney fingers just by thinking about it – so you’d be forgiven for thinking Paula’s some sort of champion aqua-star, brought up on fly, goggles and trophies. In fact – she’s in the midst of conquering a serious case of aquaphobia.
30 Years Of Fear
“When I was a toddler I scalded myself with a mug of boiling water which started a lifelong phobia,” Paula explains. “Even just walking over a bridge could cause me to go into panic – there have been times that I’ve felt completely unable to move and had to be carried off.
Paula spent three decades living with the phobia that went far beyond water. “For as long as I can remember, I was scared,” she calmly tells 600 people while stood in front of an image of her naked bottom at TEDx Glasgow. “[I was] A nervous kid, a bullied teenager – and I turned into a complete wreck of an adult,” “Then I realised, anxiety could become my biggest adventure.”
“Then I realised, anxiety could become my biggest adventure.”
After concluding that she’d tried everything to abate her fears except for actually seeing what she was actually capable of, Paula gave herself “the most lacklustre superhero name ever,” and her adventures began.
A New Beginning
“Constantly avoiding being frightened made for a very boring existence and it also made the fear worse,” she says. “I had tried pretty much every avenue to get over anxiety; the only thing I hadn’t tried was trusting myself to be able to cope in scary situations. As soon as I began to prove to myself that I could cope, and that I was bigger than my anxiety, I took control over it. I stopped trying to make life easier and started to make myself stronger instead – that’s what really made the difference.
“Constantly avoiding being frightened made for a very boring existence and it also made the fear worse.”
Paula set herself huge challenges including trying all 17 commonwealth sports, jumping out of a plane, wrestling an Olympian, training like an astronaut and competing in a triathlon when she couldn’t swim – in fact, swimming was the one big thing that Paula still hadn’t faced up to.
“Swimming was my last big fear to overcome,” she says. So I decided to take lessons. During those first few attempts in the water, my mind was too full of anxiety to take in any information. I’d cry and panic, the terror would just take over and I couldn’t breathe or think. But I kept going, and I’m incredibly thankful to the people who stuck with me through it. It took me a long time to become comfortable enough in the water to begin to learn anything, but eventually, with perseverance – and very patient teachers – I put the stroke into place.
To prepare for her challenge, Paula swims up to six sessions a week. “Four or five times a week indoors, and once a week outdoors. Once a week I have a swim session simply to relax, which is important for me mentally – I’m still learning to cope with long periods spent in the pool and still have little panics in the water.
A State Of Mind
“Practising mindfulness outside the water has really helped me when I’m in the water. I use grounding techniques, such as counting the things I can see, hear and smell. I encourage myself to slow down – in and out of the water – which in turn, helps to slow down my thoughts. I also talk to myself positively, in order to push back against the negative thoughts that my brain is trying to convince me are real.
“It would be stupid for me to ignore the mental side of my training, as that’s what will get me through the toughest parts of my challenge – I know it will be mind over matter. It’s not possible for me to train for 1800 miles of sea swimming, but I can train my brain to know that I can do it, to fight through the pain barrier – and to just keep going.
“I know it’s going to be bloody hard and incredibly risky. But I also know that I’ll do it, as long as I have the right attitude and right support, and train to the best of my ability.
Open Water Freedom
“I truly believe that being outdoors should be prescribed for mental health. While I would never advise anyone to jump into the sea to ‘cure’ anxiety, there’s a lot to be said for being outdoors and reminding yourself that the world exists outside of your own head. When I have a panic attack, I have to deliberately reconnect with myself outside my head, which is much easier to accomplish when I’m outside.
“I’m still not a great pool swimmer, but I find swimming outside easier. Being in open water and in touch with nature – even in the freezing cold – is such a freedom for me. There’s always something to distract me from the fact that I’m actually swimming; I love it when a fish brushes against my toes or I see duck a few metres away – these things keep me connected with the wider world around me and out of my own head.
“Being in open water and in touch with nature is such a freedom for me.”
Of course, there will be plenty of distractions on Paula’s challenge, not least jellyfish which, while harmless, invoke an uncomfortable nettle-like sting. “Eek!” Paula says. “Sean Conway grew a beard to protect him from jellyfish on his swim from Lands End to John O Groats, but I don’t have that ability, so I’ll have to just suffer the stings… at least it’ll break up the day a bit!
Terrified But Determined
“I’m genuinely looking forward to the entire challenge.” says Paula. “Some days, I’ll admit, the planning and training overwhelm me and I start to feel the anxiety creeping back in. But I’ve dealt with these feelings so many times before, in over 30 years of coping with anxiety, and I know that they’re only temporary.
“I’ve dealt with these feelings before – I know that they’re only temporary.”
“There are plenty of sections of the coast that I’ve been warned about, but I think the hardest part will be in the middle of the challenge, when I’m exhausted yet still have the same distance again to go.
“I’m hoping to finish around the end of October – but that’s being optimistic about the weather and distance I can swim each day. The aim is to swim for six hours every day, but that might be broken up across two tides. It sounds easy if you say it quickly!
“I know it’s going to be the toughest thing I’ve ever done, and that there will be days when I hate myself – and the whole team hates me! – for dragging us all into this, but so few people ever get the opportunity to just leave their life for six months and start an incredible adventure; I’d be an absolute fool not to think myself so very, very lucky for every minute of it.
“Water is my happy place now.”
“Water is my happy place now – especially because of the battle I had to get there. When I’m having a difficult day, I close my eyes and think about being in a loch. It relaxes me, which I truly never thought would be the case – the only word I can use to describe it is ‘free’.”
Paula is on the lookout for a skipper and a support boat, so if any seafarers want to join the adventure,
please get in touch. Speedo and YHA are supporting her, but she’s still on the lookout for a financial sponsor and a food sponsor too (she likes chocolate fudge cake).
A word from Paula: “My advice for anyone suffering anxiety would always, always be to talk about it. Anxiety convinces you that you should be ashamed of it, but you shouldn’t be. Talk about it, share it with a friend over a walk in the outdoors. It won’t cure anxiety but it’s a great first step in fighting back. I always say that I’m not an expert in mental health – I’m only an expert in my own mental health, and pushing myself to the limit, scaring myself to prove that I can cope, has made the biggest difference to my anxiety.”
Find out more at paulamusttryharder.co.uk