While our supporters go to great lengths to help the West End Food Bank, Mark Brown has gone the extra mile – 21 miles to be precise.
That’s the distance the 31 year-old has just swam to join an elite group who’ve made the crossing from Catalina island off the Californian coast to Los Angeles. In the process, he has high hopes of raising several thousand pounds – £2,500 so far – on top of £4,000 he raised last year after swimming the English channel, a similar distance.
Next year, he plans to go one better by swimming the North Channel, between northern Ireland and Galloway in Scotland. With strong currents, unpredictable weather, and extreme cold, it’s regarded as the most perilous of the so-called “Ocean’s Seven Challenges”, selected by open water swimming enthusiasts as the aquatic equivalent of tackling the great Himalayan and Andean peaks.
As one of a key group of big-hearted Newcastle United fans, who regularly collect donations for the food bank outside St James’ Park, software consultant Mark, from Low Fell in Gateshead, is both passionate about the need for the food bank – and extremely concerned that they have become part of Britain’s social landscape. “It’s shocking they are needed,” he laments. “But people in Newcastle and Tyneside are very supportive and recognise the need … that people, through no fault of their own, depend a food bank to get by. It’s a great cause.”
Hours after arriving back in the UK – “jet-lagged, but otherwise fully recovered” – Mark turned up at the food bank centre, in Benwell Lane (on Wednesday, August 21) to be presented with a “well done” cake. He was greeted by scores of volunteers and supporters. “I’m blown away by the scale of this challenge,” beamed John McCorry, chief executive of the food bank.
That challenge is certainly daunting. Aside from the danger from ever-present sharks, the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation, which provides advice for open water swimmers, cautions against over-optimism. “We’ve watched strong and experienced swimmers…simply crumble physically as well as mentally as the temperature tumbles (by as much as 10 degrees)” it warns.
Mark, a graduate in modern languages from Northumbria University, recalls the recent experience of an American, Steve Robles, who spoke of “complete exhaustion and hypothermia” after he staggered up a beach after 21 miles. He was hospitalised with a mild heart attack.
Mark trained for his epic swim off the Long Sands in Tynemouth for hours on end at weekends. His sessions often covered 13 miles.
But conditions out in the Pacific could not be replicated off Britain. With a kayak and larger support boat trailing him – girlfriend, Gloria, always close at hand – he at first found high waves hard to manage. “I thought I wouldn’t make it at one point,” he said. “It was really scary at first but after 4-5 hours it became rather nice – although cold an hour from the end.”
Best of all, he completed his epic swim in just over eight hours – well towards the top of the league table of swimmers whose exploits are recorded by the Catalina Federation.