98km, jellyfish stings, shoulders all but falling off. What do Percy Pigs, sore shoulders, and jellyfish stings have in common? They were all part of Damien Wildes mad-cap challenge to paddleboard across the Irish Sea. Not content with the difficulty rating of this adventure, on the 8th of August, the 34-year-old husband and Dad of two decided to do it on his belly, or prone. The feat of endurance lasted 14 hours and 59 minutes. We caught top with Damien to find out more.

“The appeal of putting yourself in dark places, in both a physical and mental sense, and working to get yourself out [of those dark places] is a great way to see what you can achieve.”

Damien Wildes After Paddle

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about this challenge and how hard it really was?

A: “Yes, I started my prone paddleboard from Holyhead at exactly 6.31 and after about 30km things already took a turn for the worse. I started to get stomach pains (possibly from my diet of Percy Pigs) and at the same time my watch failed and with that so did my rhythm. To fix this I had to get my dad, who was on the escort boat sorting my food all day, to call out my splits every few kilometres to keep me on track.

Would you believe that wasn’t the worst thing to have happened? I was destroyed with sunburn, had jellyfish stings on my hands, chafing, and severe discomfort for the majority of the paddle. I knew I would feel okay to about 70km because of the Achill paddle I previously completed, but at about 72km my shoulders felt like they were about to pop right out of their sockets. That is when the painkillers had to come out to push me through the last hurdle of this paddle.

However, regardless of all the physical pain and discomfort, my biggest challenge came in the form of the flooding tide. I had to turn and paddle against it for about two hours. It’s a real mental battle fighting against the tide and making very little ground. It was the longest two hours of the entire paddle, but it was necessary to make it to Greystones. We arrived in Greystones at 21:30 after a total of 14 hours and 59 minutes on the Irish sea. What an experience!”

Q: What inspired you to start paddleboarding?

A: “I just love being on the water. I’ve been surfing since I was a kid and obviously being on the East Coast we aren’t blessed with a consistent swell. I’m also a keen open-water swimmer and for me, prone paddle boarding was the missing link to training, unwinding, or going exploring. Having the board opened up a lot more opportunities to be on the water in a variety of conditions. There is also the allure of races in California and Hawaii that I’ll hopefully be able to get over to in the coming years.”

Prone paddleboarding

Q: Where did your love of water come from?

A: “I’ve been on the water since I was a child. We even have photos at home of me on a rib with my parents off the west coast when I was 4 or 5 months old. Our summer holidays consisted of 6 – 8 weeks camping out west, body boarding, surfing, snorkelling, and fishing. We would be in the water every day.

As I got older I was lucky to surf all around the world, Australia, Hawaii, France, Sri Lanka, the Canaries, and even the wave pool in Dubai. I would also frequently leave my home in Greystones at 3 or 4 in the morning to drive west and spend my day surfing in Sligo.

Open-water swimming was my first endurance experience. I competed in distances up to 10km and I spent some time competing in Ironman races, with swimming always being my favourite discipline. However, regardless of what I have done, I have always found myself returning to surfing as much as I can, and fortunately, this led to prone paddle boarding.”

Q: What made you choose the Irish Sea for your prone paddleboard challenge?

A: “The challenge was based on the idea of Crossing the Irish Sea so it was just a part of the whole concept. As it turns out, no one had paddled prone across the Irish Sea before so to be able to say that I was going to be the first person to do it was pretty cool. I’ve spent most of my time surfing and swimming on the East Coast so to be able to take on a challenge in a stretch of water that I’ve spent so much time in was brilliant.

I like testing myself physically and mentally to see what I’m capable of, particularly with something like this where there are so many unknowns. The appeal of putting yourself in dark places, in both a physical and mental sense and working to get yourself out [of those dark places] is a great way to see what you can achieve… this paddle offered all of that and more. Once I got the idea in my head it started rolling from there.”

Damien Wildes

Q: How did you prepare for your prone paddleboard?

A: “Originally the plan was to take on the challenge in 2021, but unfortunately Covid put a halt to that. I had been training pretty heavily so, as a warm-up, I took on and completed the first prone circumnavigation of Achill Island on 22 July 2021. This turned out to be a huge learning curve. It gave me a great baseline to work from and after a bit of downtime, I began my base training in September.

My training began with a lot of swimming coupled with weights to combat any sort of overuse injury. Endurance efforts require a lot of physical strength so the weights programme assisted with this. As we moved out of the winter into spring, I got on the board from about February for short stints carrying out speed and tempo sessions. Cold air and cold water make this difficult so it’s trying to find the right balance. By March/April, as the days got longer, I was getting on the water about five times a week. At this stage, I was doing two sessions a day involving either weights or mobility work coupled with a swim or paddle session.

The paddle work really started in May. I was paddling about six days a week steadily building the distance with a peak of 100km across six days at the beginning of July. During these paddles, I was constantly testing nutrition and hydration to make sure my stomach could handle what I was consuming. In addition, I never wanted training to eat into precious family time. This resulted in many 4am starts for long paddles or training in the evening after my children went to bed, a worthwhile sacrifice to get the best of both worlds.

I’m very lucky that my wife, Sarah Jane, is a sports physiologist and was always helping me with structuring sessions and figuring out any gaps or holes in the training. Without her, this would never have been possible.”

Q: How did you manage your nutrition during your prone paddleboard journey?

A: “Over this amount of time and distance your nutrition and hydration are vital. My plan was to try and consume somewhere between 80 and 90 grams of carbs per hour. This is pretty difficult to do but even if I got close to this, it would keep my energy sources relatively high.

I was drinking a carbohydrate drink mixed with water, and every hour on the hour I was eating some brioche with Nutella and a chunk of banana. In between this, I was chewing on Percy Pigs…diet of a king.

About 30km into my prone paddleboard, my stomach took a turn and I had to slightly rethink this nutrition plan. I decided to not eat or drink for an hour and a half which is pretty dangerous, but my stomach came good again and I just adjusted my plan slightly. In the latter stages, when I began getting really depleted, I took on some Red Bulls and energy gels. I wouldn’t drink tea or coffee so these types of fluids gave me a huge lift! Despite not being in my original plan, I stopped for about eight or nine minutes at 50km to have lunch and eat some normal food, but all while remaining on the board. This paid off big time and gave me a new lease of life after the misery of the 30-50km slump!”

Prone paddleboard feature

Q: Can you describe how you felt at the end of your paddle?

A: “I don’t think I realised the pressure I had put on myself to get this prone paddleboard over the line so I was pure stoked to finish it. There were so many people involved both directly and indirectly. It could never have happened without Lee (my Dad) and John, who were on the boat, Charlie, my training buddy, and my wife Sarah Jane for allowing me to pursue this challenge. I couldn’t have done it without her backing, patience, and encouragement. I think it’s easy for people to overlook the sacrifice she made in facilitating my training, and my ups and downs while we both have Dylan and Easkey to look after too. It was an emotional time. A huge combination of excitement, gratitude, and relief…a really special day out and I’m incredibly lucky to have experienced it.”

Q: What advice would you give to someone looking to follow in your footsteps?

A: “While hugely rewarding, challenges like this prone paddleboard are incredibly demanding both physically and mentally. Regardless of the size of the event or challenge you are taking on, I would have the same approach. Understand what you are trying to achieve, control the controllables, for example, the training, nutrition, hydration, game plan, and focus on the goal. You have to enjoy what you’re doing. There’s little point in suffering to achieve something you don’t like doing. You need the motivation to get up and out on those cold, wet, miserable mornings. Otherwise, it’s too easy to find a way out. The excitement of achieving a goal must outweigh the temptation to quit at any point.

If you can help a charity along the way, do it. This was always a personal challenge but we were delighted to raise some funds for three locally-based charities, Purple House Cancer Support, Wicklow RNLI, and Sharpeshill WSPCA which made the experience all the more worthwhile. I would like to acknowledge everyone who contributed to this and thank them all for their very generous donations.

If people want to stay in touch with what we are doing please follow us on Instagram @TheCrossing_2022 and @flowstateswimming. I’m more than happy to offer some advice or thoughts if people wanted to ask questions. And hopefully, we will have another challenge to pursue next summer!”

By Killian Andersen

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