Welcome to the next stage in my training: cold water acclimatisation.
So, on a beautiful autumn weekend in Sydney (actually ANZAC day long weekend), under the expert support and supervision of Vlad, Charm and Martin, 12 intrepid souls (me , Ben, Rachael, Tori, Lochie, Marty, Justin, Jim, Matt, Peter, John, Irene) headed off to Brighton in Melbourne for a long weekend of swimming in cold water: we whinged, we shivered, we shrivelled but more importantly we laughed (a surprising amount) and I certainly grew. Apart from Lochie and Tori who swam EC last year and Irene (who’s done a relay or two) we are all EC aspirants.
Had we stayed in Sydney we would have experienced 25-30 degree sunny days and 22 degree lake-like oceans. Instead we payed hard-earned dollars to experience colder grey skies, 30-40 knot winds and 15.5 degree, uninviting choppy, lumpy, often brown, sometimes strange tasting Melbourne saline.
Ben and I arrived at 1pm on Thursday; I was carrying a cold that, while not flooring me like it had Jennie, was certainly making it presence felt with sinusitis and hurty lymph nodes in my neck. Ben had his own woes: a foot wound with fragments of urchin hitching a ride and a rather nasty wound on his finger. Both were sustained at the normally benign Balmoral 5 days previously when he decided to ground himself on reef during a swim. His hand had had been stitched but these were removed on Thursday morning, about 3 hours before the wound opened up. Sorry sickly specimens!
We were staying at a large house near the “beach”, that had the look and feel of a community centre or a half way house for recovering addicts. But it was cheap, clean and convenient. A strange thing happens to a house when inhabited by 6 swimmers and 3 coaches as it fills up with and is then emptied of high energy foods (chocolate, fruit, jelly snakes, nutella) and various CHO-rich potions! More like an 8 year old’s dream kitchen than a house of adults!
Thursday was to be (relatively) easy: a 90 minute afternoon swim followed by a one hour dark swim. In retrospect it was easy, but that first tickle from the cold water was a real shock. Disobeying the principles of cold water immersion (slowly walk in, splashing your body a little, face/head when you feel ready) we had to take a healthy dose of “Toughen The F Up” and dive in. Okay, in the great scheme of things 15 is not especially cold and the aforementioned principles are expounded by those hardy souls who swim in sub-10 degree water, but to us thin blooded Sydneysiders this was a shock to the system. With the support of the newly-founded Team Awesome (me, Ben and Rachael) we rocked, we rolled, we ripped, we roared, we rocked’n’rolled, we ripped’n’roared!
The nighttime swim was fun partly because of the novelty of swimming with glowsticks and flashing LEDs, but once the thrill of surprising other swimmers using the cloak of darkness had subsided the cold set in again.
The following morning started with a 3 hour swim at a sociable start time of 8am. For a committed swimmer this is practically lunchtime and is a real treat! I think that was the last of the treats we were favoured with that day. 90 minutes had been tolerable, 180 was really tough. Cold is pervasive; if you allow the sense of cold to occupy you it burrows deeper and deeper until its all that you can think or feel. The trick is to allow the cold to exist (know that your fingers and toes are numb; that your arms and legs feel heavy and doughy; that you’ve got an ice cream headache without the pleasure of ice cream), be mindfully aware of it, but accept it and move on. Keep your mind occupied (focus on your stroke, breathing, the surroundings, the ocean floor, sing songs, put the world to rights, sort out family and work related issues, smile and be happy!) and know that the cold is tolerable. The camp taught me a lot about myself. Although I have swum through winter in Sydney, never so long, so cold.
Friday afternoon’s one hour swim led to a minor rebellion and a lot of dummy spits (mine is still floating off the coast of Melbourne). I think we questioned the sanity of 4 hours’ swimming on the day before an 8 hour swim. But mostly we spat dummies.
The following morning started in the dark, all feeds sorted the evening before, breakfast forced down, nerves barely controlled. We met the wonderful guys from Black Ice who were providing waterside support to Vlad and Charm and moral support to the swimmers and were in the water at 6am, for a lap of Brighton Baths before escaping into the open water for a 2-2.5km lap of the marina before the sun rose. Conditions were rough to the north and west of the marina and got rougher as the wind rose through the morning, but OMG we loved the sun when it rose and shined on us!
Feeds were available each lap by sneaking through a gap in the bars on the baths (Rachael and I are pictured escaping) and feeding from a deck. Totally got my feeds sorted: milo and maltodextrin with warm water, tinned fruit, SIS gels with caffeine and a new treat, Nutella sandwiches quartered, with no crusts! What a discovery: a bite or two to break it up then swallow with warm watery milo, definitely not haute cuisine, but heartening and quick. And the obligatory jelly snakes and ibuprofen. Also, none of the bloating that affected me at Rotto, probably due, in part to taking in less fluid.
With great morale and laughs each time we fed, Team Awesome nailed the full 8 hours (pictured, with Ben stretching his hip flexors, ruining an otherwise great photo). As always, after the swim you are not able to account for what you actually did for that long, but it must have been easy and enjoyable because I didn’t resort to my scene by scene re-run of The Big Lebowski that entertained me in Rotto!
Endless loops of the marina, sometimes with Vlad on his kayak, sometimes bumping into swimmers on their journeys, 1 hour became 2, became 4, etc. At no point did I wish it would end and Vlad’s words of “smile and be happy” stayed with us throughout. Jokes about bodily functions, silly questions to ensure we were not incoherent with hypothermia… We laughed a lot.
I learnt a lot about myself in this swim. I got to Melbourne thinking that as I had not swum for longer than 5 hours since Rotto, I’d be happy with (and lucky to make) 6 hours. It became pretty apparent that getting out at 6 hours was not an option in Charm’s plan, so I figured I’d swim until I got exhausted, get cold and be dragged out. In fact I needed to have some pretty harsh words with myself at 5:30 Saturday morning to get into a winning frame of mind; motivational messages to oneself work wonders! To be able to do this the day after swimming 4 hours compounded my sense of achievement and self-satisfaction.
I now see that while the Channel will be a lot further and a lot longer, I’ve got it in me: I can live with persistent cold and I can swim beyond the point of physical pain, eat the pain and carry on swimming, for 12 hours, 16 hours, however long it takes to hit France.
A big thanks to the coaches for their support and tough love, to the Vladswimmers who were there but mostly to Ben and Rachael for keeping me sane, motivating me (but not for the constant jokes about my meandering course) through that long Saturday morning.
P.S. The less said of the “leisure time” in the water for an hour on Saturday evening the better (pictured): we were exhausted, miserable and looked like dicks throwing a ball taped to a glowsticks around while normal Melbournites were promenading, thinking about dinner and “what the hell are they doing in there?”