Cardiff coach does 21-mile endless pool swim for charity

With his coaching business on pause due to Covid-19, Gareth Thomas's coach Dave Tonge turned his focus to a 21-mile solo test in his own endless pool to raise funds for NHS charities. 220 Triathlon caught up with him to find out how it went... and what it is like to train the rugby legend

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Dave Tonge is used to supporting others. The 38-year-old spent years coaching hundreds of triathletes and swimmers in his home city of Cardiff and even mentored rugby legend and tri newbie Gareth Thomas to successfully conquer Ironman Wales in September. But with his coaching business on pause due to Covid-19, Dave turned his focus to a 21-mile solo test in his own endless pool to raise funds for NHS charities. 

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Why did you decide on a 21-mile swim in an endless pool?

Part of my swim business is one-to-one coaching in an endless pool, but after the announcement that swimming pools would close, we followed suit and shut down on 20 March.

But I was still swimming in my pool every day, just plodding along, and starting to increase the volume and with all the inspiring stories on the news such as Captain Tom [Moore], [former Welsh rugby star] Shane Williams and [Tour de France winner] Geraint Thomas doing mammoth bike rides, I thought: ‘The pool’s there, I’m capable, let’s have a crack!’

My wife is a front line worker with the NHS, my sister is an A&E nurse, and I’ve got loads of close friends who are key workers, so I decided to see if I could raise a bit of money.

Do you have a background as a long-distance swimmer?

I’ve been swimming all my life and coaching most of it. I was a City of Cardiff swimmer and reached national level, and have been masters swimming since the age of 18. I’ve also done loads of swim trek holidays, but never gone more than 12 miles.

Did the swim play out as planned?

The heating was turned off in the endless pool so it was about 17-18°C and I needed to keep it totally aerobic without getting too cold, which is why I wore a wetsuit. It would then be about muscle pain and head games.

My wife works 12.5hr shifts as a nurse, so I decided to aim for that as my swim time, including comfort breaks and a bit of nutrition. I worked out 1:49min pace per 100m was a good plod for me and would allow me to swim two miles every hour. My wife, Charlotte, and little boy, Bobby, would come and give me drinks after every mile and I completed it in 12:15hrs with the breaks.

Every mile I changed swim caps. I’ve kept them from every race I’ve done and had a rainbow theme line-up along the edge of the pool: pink, orange, blue etc. I also, changed goggles every five miles as another marker.

What was the most difficult part?

I didn’t expect it, but miles 5-10 were the hardest. It was the knowledge that I’d get to mile 10 and still wouldn’t be halfway. At mile 8, my family took the dog for a walk and so I was in a bit of a lonely place, but by mile 15 I knew I was on the home stretch.

I was just staring at myself in the mirror singing songs and trying to keep my mind occupied. The following day was my 38th birthday and my wife said: ‘You’re meant to be celebrating.’ I couldn’t do anything, I was just aching.

How has the fundraising gone?

I initially said I’d try and raise £500, but with so many people donating to so many charities, Charlotte advised that people will get sick of being asked, so I revised it to just £100 to have a goal.

By the time the swim started it was already up to £2,000, so no pressure… I was given updates every 5 miles and by the end of the swim, we’d raised £3,700. Endless Pools from the USA even got in touch, thanking me for the publicity to show the pool could run all day long, and donated $500. The total is now over £5,000 and I’ve had a few messages asking whether I’ll now try and swim back from ‘France’, but do it a bit faster.

Do you have any further challenges planned once lockdown is over?

I’ve an idea for a large scale team relay at the 50m Cardiff International pool in Cardiff Bay that we rent on a Sunday morning. It’s a good atmosphere with swimmers and triathletes of all abilities, so we might set it up with swimmers paying a pound a mile and supporting multiple charities.

What tips do you have for anyone planning their own long-distance swim?

Make sure you’re training in the right heart-rate zones and getting the swim volume in during the week so your body becomes used to it. Do regular work in higher zones as well, threshold and overload zones, so you’re more capable of swimming in your aerobic zone.

Nutrition is also important. I really learnt this during Ironman Wales, with the need to fuel every 20mins-30mins even if you don’t feel hungry. I calculated I was burning 200-300 calories every mile in the swim and unless I refuelled, like a car engine, I’d eventually run out of gas.

Finally, last year you coached former rugby international Gareth Thomas to the memorable accomplishment of completing Ironman Wales. How do you reflect on that experience and has he stuck with triathlon since? 

‘Alfie’ sees me every Monday to swim. He wants to do some sprint and shorter distance tris now, and more open-water swimming, but I don’t think he wants to do any more Ironmans.

He was a total non-swimmer but threw the kitchen sink at it. He was in the pool with me two to three times per week and when capable enough would then go on his own. I went from looking at him as a rugby legend to becoming his mate and his coach. The whole experience was overwhelming.

From starting in February, we got him up to the full 3.8km in September. Alfie was actually scared of the open water and didn’t like putting his face in, but it was a challenge he wanted to overcome. When he did the Long Course Weekend in Tenby (in July) he had some demons. I swam it with him and there were a couple of moments he was pleading with me to pull him out. But he managed it and seven months later completed an Ironman swim in 1:24hr. I don’t think he ever expected to go that quick and it wasn’t too shabby for someone who couldn’t swim seven months earlier. Now he wants to go faster.

His overall time in Ironman Wales was 12:18hrs, and for a guy who’s 6ft 3in and 16 stone of muscle, he runs one hell of a marathon. Because he’s naturally gifted with fitness and has the right mindset, if he did more running, biking and swimming he’s more than capable of going towards the 10 hours, but I don’t think he’s going to do it again. I think it was a “one and that’s it for me!”.

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You can still sponsor Dave and help raise funds for NHS Charities Together here: 21 miles in my Endless pool