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Diabetes proves no barrier for long distance swimmer

When Mark Holmes was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 2021, he thought his open water
swimming days were over, but he couldn’t have been more wrong. Two years on, and with several
long-distance swims under his belt, he’s as passionate now as ever and attributes his swimming to
helping maintain his health and mental wellbeing.

It was in 2021, that technology firm owner Mark Holmes, 44, from Buckinghamshire, found himself
in intensive care for six days.

A keen open water swimmer – including being part of a Channel relay team in 2008 – he couldn’t
understand why he was so ill. He’d been feeling fatigued, constantly thirsty, and over just two weeks
had lost 2.5 stone.

The diagnosis took everyone by surprise. Doctors believed the stress of running a business through
Covid had switched on the gene that triggers type 1 diabetes. Unlike type 2, which is more dictated
by personal and environmental factors, this is a solely genetic condition and it can’t be reversed.

“I had started getting really thirsty, going to the bathroom a lot more and experienced rapid weight
loss. This happens because the body is unable to utilise the sugar in the bloodstream, and therefore
goes into starvation mode, converting fat and muscle into energy.

“I was still trying to exercise and swim but with the loss of muscle mass, and not being able to utilise
the glucose, I was fatiguing really quickly and not swimming with the same power. This led to a lot of
frustration, as I was unable to complete my swims and had no idea what was going on.”

Mark had been a keen swimmer as a child, competing in breaststroke for his school and his then
county, Middlesex. But around A’levels he drifted away from swimming, and gravitated to rugby
instead.

“It wasn’t until 2005/06, when I was working in London that I decided to return to swimming. I
wanted to do something different so relearnt freestyle, using the total immersion method, which
focuses on efficiency of stroke. I was keen to get into long-distance swimming, and to try open
water, which is the only place you can really do long-distance.”

Mark’s first event was the Bosphorus Cross-Continental Swim, of 6.5km (4miles). Coming eighth
spurred him on. Next came the Channel relay swim, and he then developed an interest in prison
swims, swimming from an island-based prison to shore. Among those he’s completed are the three
UK/Ireland prison swims – Drakes Island, Spitbank Fort and Spike Island.

But father-of-two Mark feared his 2021 diagnosis was going to put an end to all of this. It was a
shock to know he now had to inject with insulin for the rest of his life. He was also pretty frail, due to
the weight loss. It was a lifechanging moment. He was, by his own admission, in a complete mental
funk.

“I thought, how can I swim now? What if I am miles from the coast and I have an episode? Does this
mean my open water swimming days are over? How can I compete if I don’t have the same energy
levels? I had just found something that I loved and felt it was about to be taken away from me.”
But a solution was at hand, and one that should give hope to all type 1 diabetics, who have the same
concerns that Mark faced.

Essential to ensuring his blood sugar level is correct is to measure via regular finger prick tests –
something he clearly can’t do mid-swim. Mark’s diabetes specialist nurse helped him apply for
funding for a continuous glucose monitor. At the time, Mark had to put a special case to the NHS but
now, this technology is available to all type 1 diabetics.

A small monitor sits beneath the skin on Mark’s arm, which measures his glucose levels, sending
readings to an app on his phone. Whenever his levels are too low, he can take action, by taking a
prescribed glucose liquid. If too high, he opts where possible to having a short burst of exercise
which will bring it down. He can also inject with insulin.

So, how does he manage all this while swimming? Mark has a tow float, which carries his phone in a
waterproof bag. The phone connects to his watch, which will beep if Mark’s sugar levels are
beginning to drop. He can then stop, take a glucose drink while treading water, and carry on. If he’s
swimming at an event with kayakers and support crew, he can ask one of them to carry his
equipment.

The first swim Mark took part in, following his diagnosis, was the Jubilee 10km. He felt quite
nervous. “But I had a lot of support with me. I was very diligent with what I ate and drank and
checked myself at food stops. Having done that, I knew, with the right equipment and the right food
strategy, and level of fitness, I would be OK.”

Not only does he swim in the open water, Mark has now also returned to pool swimming and has
competed for his local team.

He’s passionate about educating people about diabetes and is an ambassador for Diabetes UK. He
wants to encourage others to follow his lead; if they are keen on open water swimming, their
condition needn’t be a barrier, as long as they are careful and follow medical advice.
And would he recommend a Channel relay swim?

“I’d recommend it 100 per cent. It’s a gateway to doing it as a solo, but for me I loved the team
element, being with a group of people and doing a unique event, is amazing. It is a great event and a
great accomplishment. It definitely comes into the top three of all the events I have done.”

Interested in Channel relay swimming? SwimTayka can help. We’re now building our teams for the
relay events. More information here https://swimtayka.org/english-channel-relay/.