LIFESTYLE

Despite Swarms Of Jellyfish, Former ME Sufferer Beth French Becomes First Person To Swim From Cornwall To The Isle of Scilly

30/07/2014 16:51 BST | Updated 30/07/2014 17:59 BST

Most of us, if faced with a life-changing illness, would be inclined to crawl under a duvet and hide from the world - but that was not an option for go-getter Beth French.

When she was diagnosed with ME and confined to a wheelchair at the age of 17, Beth was determined to remain positive and wrote a list of things she was wanted to do when she recovered.

Her list included swimming the English Channel and completing a 24-hour swim in the Molokai Channel in Hawaii – both of which she did in 2012.

“I did the English Channel to prove to myself that I didn’t have ME anymore – I saw the Channel as this kind of test to see if I could succeed against it and survive the training," Beth tells HuffPost UK Lifestyle.

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Now at the age of 36 with a six-year-old son, Beth has fully recovered from ME and has just become the first person to swim the gruelling 26 miles from Cornwall to the Isle of Scilly.

Beth, who is a masseuse by day, says she was dubious about whether the swim across the infamous choppy waters was physically possible for anyone to complete.

“It’s a sea kayakers rite of passage, but they all do it the other way because that’s the way the prevailing current comes.

“It’s been swum twice from the Scilly Isle to the main land, but no one had succeeded the other way.

“Before the swim I thought ‘is this possible’? But if I don’t know whether something’s possible, then that also means I don’t know that it’s impossible. I thought I might as well try,” she says.

To Beth’s surprise, she completed the swim in 17hrs 28mins – nearly eight hours faster than her coaches had predicted.

But don’t be fooled by Beth’s speedy time - completing the distance was no mean feat.

“As the sun went down there were jellyfish everywhere and there was not an inch of my body that wasn’t stung - even through my swimming costume.

“I stopped responding, I stopped telling the crew – you just get on with it,” Beth says.

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Things got even worse when Beth suffered from carbon dioxide poisoning due to the change of wind direction and fumes from the safety boat engulfing her path.

She describes the poisoning as “ the thing that nearly broke me.”

“I was ingesting carbon dioxide in really quite dangerous amounts. After about an hour I could taste diesel in my mouth.

“My stomach started to cramp and I started to get disorientated and extremely fatigued.

“The stomach cramps caused me to spasm, meaning my knees kept hitting my chest.

“It was really scary. I started to not really care if I drowned, just face down, in the water, struggling to remember where surface was.”

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Feeling desperate for reassurance, Beth asked a member of her safety team how far they were from the shore.

“It got to the stage when I said ‘I’m scared, I’m getting cold, I actually need to know how far away I am now.’ And my kayaker said ‘you’re only 8 miles away.’

“I couldn’t believe I’d done two thirds of it! I decided to plow through and swim through the cramps. I was being sick while I was face down in the water but I was determined to do it.”

To most people to swim will sound horrific, but Beth said after having ME, she feels she can face anything.

“ME is this relentless fatiguing, mind-numbing perpetual existence so swimming seems lovely because it is tiring but it for a purpose - you’re moving and you’re getting somewhere.

“ME was awful because it was fatiguing but it didn’t have a purpose. All the stiffness and pain I get with swimming isn’t nearly as bad as ME was.”

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In an unexpected way, Beth says having ME as a teen has actually helped her to become the swimming superstar she is today.

“Because of my experience with ME I know my body really well, I know if I swim twice a day five days a week my body won’t recover – so I torture myself in different ways!

“I’ll do things like not eat all day then do some hard training in the evening just to get my body used to basically eating itself.

“I’ll not sleep for a night on purpose so my body gets used to swimming without sleep. It’s about mental training as much as physical.”

According to Beth, swimming vast distances in open water has “revolutionised” her life.

“When I got up on that sand after my first swim in France when I made it to the other side of the channel, something shifted and I became my own hero.

“Becoming your own hero to me means you are responsible for your own happiness.

“The world has much less fear for me now because I know I am capable of doing things that are so far out of my comfort zone.

“If you want something in life it’s in your hands to get it.”