Nothing Great Is Easy

It is only now, nearly  a week after I became a Channel swimmer that I can begin to think about structuring my thoughts to describe the experience. Sure I have discussed the swim a lot since getting out of the water on French soil: firstly with my crew, then Frosties at base camp (the wonderful Reach Court Farm at St Margaret’s which I would recommend to any channel swimmers http://www.reachcourtfarmcottages.co.uk/), but the enormity keeps on hitting me… only a couple of days ago, while reading through Facebook posts made by Jennie and Nic during the swim, I came across an entry made in the last hour (“We just asked him to kick it up a notch…. Go Go Go looking like about a mile of hard work In front”). On reading this I was overcome with emotion, it brought back the intense feelings in that moment and I cried for a minute: recollecting the mixture of joy and intense emotion.

 

The pilot’s choice of when you swim is based upon several factors, predominantly the weather conditions (esp wind) and tide (size and timing): I ended up swimming on a beautiful sunny day (with intermittent, mild to moderate winds), but with rather a large tide of 6.1m, which would have the effect of carrying my up and down the coast as the tide flooded and ebbed. Waiting for your swim window is a strange experience: after a few discussions and about three potential dates and times, Stuart Gleeson confirmed a 1 am Wednesday meeting for a 2 am start from Samphire Hoe. Then things started moving quickly: cancelling my plans for a short Tuesday swim in Dover Harbour I returned to base camp and paced until Jennie and Nic returned: to distract myself, every time I started to panic I ate something, all in the name of carb loading! I was very happy that my close friend Paul Cowland had also agreed to crew and was hot-hoofing it from Brighton to join us.

I did not sleep at all the evening before the swim: my team spent the afternoon checking and rechecking our kit and after dinner and a walk to the white cliffs I went to bed at 8 while Jen, Nic and Paul held a final crew briefing… to which I was not invited! Jen came to bed at 9:30pm and while I started to drift a couple of times a thought would cause my adrenalin glands to twitch and sleep eluded me.

Excitement in the car to Dover Marina; fittingly we were listening to Radio 4 and its daily 00:30 ritual of “Sailing Away” followed by the shipping forecast (“Dogger, Fisher, German Bight… 4 sometimes 5, rising slowly”; we did not wait to hear the fate of “Dover”). Nerves? Yes, of course! Excitement? Most definitely! Fear? Hell no!

 

While the ride to Samphire Hoe, final preparation and swimming to shore was a bit of a blur, standing on the shore in complete darkness, hearing the boat’s horn (0210) telling me I could start will stay with me forever… a deep breath, a fist to my heart and I was off.

Hour 1: I knew this was about finding my happy place, getting my stroke right, relaxing and NOT THINKING ABOUT HOW LONG I’D BE SWIMMING! Singing, thinking happy thoughts and looking for hints of dawn on the horizon. I started walking (swimming) through the screenplay of The Big Lebowski in this hour and got as far as “that rug really held the room together… am I wrong?” before losing the Dude, Walter and Donny somewhere near the Dover shore! After this it was song time for the rest of the swim, in particular “Don’t stop me now” by Queen (don’t know where it came from as it was not one I’d anticipated, but very uplifting), “Daniel” (the Sarah Humphreys version, converted to an ode to my dog by replacing Daniel with Stanley) and some random psychedelic bluegrass/folk from Perch Creek Family Jug Band and Miss Eileen and King Lear.

I’ve got to say that early on during this hour I decided I was going to get to France, no matter what and when I welcomed this resolve, I tried not to think about the swim.

Apart from my first feed (a leisurely 30-40 seconds) and my last (5 seconds to pour some coke over my face mid-final push) all of my feeds were disciplined 10-20 second affairs: drink, exchange some critical information and as Stuart observed, start swimming before he’d even thought to look down for me! Milo/maxim and I have decided on conscious uncoupling… after it being my go to nutrition for countless hours of swimming, I can resolutely say I am sick of that evil, dilute shitty-brown brew! I came to this realisation after 4.5 hours (documented in the log), switching to maxim/vimto and maxim/coke.

By my second feed at 90 minutes, dawn was making itself known: a welcomed  red glow on the horizon, pushing darkness to the west; by 3 hours the sun had risen… not enough to provide warmth but the feel of sun on my arms in the recovery phase of the stroke was amazing. I have sympathy for those who experience this in reverse, swimming through the setting sun and dusk.

 

Rather than a blow by blow account of my swim a few highlights:

Firstly, I learnt to urinate while swimming! To non-marathon swimmers this may not seem like “a thing” but I know I will have incurred the envy of many male swimmers. I was so excited it was the critical information I communicated at my feed at 2.5 hours, telling Jennie “there’s something to document in your swim log!” Suffice to say I applied this newfound skill many times during the remainder of my swim!

At 4.5 hours I was stung by a jelly that washed across my face, left arm, trunk and left leg… nothing worse that any other jelly sting I’ve ever had but an interesting distraction.

I had been told to swim from one feed to another and never to look forward or back: swimming feed to feed is great advice. The enormity of the swim is so overwhelming that you need to avoid trying to calculate what proportion of the swim you have done for fear of coming up with a small % numbers! You can always swim for 30 minutes until the next feed, then another, and another etc.  I avoided looking back until about 6 hours when I let my guard down because I was told we were in the separation zone (the middle of the channel between the 2 shipping lanes); by this time Dover was far enough away that it was reassuring. At the 8.5 hour feed, it was suggested I swim hard for a while and not only did I look forward but I also made the mistake of thinking that France looked close. One hour of harder swimming later and France looked… no closer! 10 hours, no closer, 11 hours… no closer!  As a swimmer your world is water, waves, the boat and your crew. With no point of reference you have no idea which way the tides is flowing and your predominant trajectory. Looking at my tracker I now realise I was swimming more or less parallel to the French Coast, being taken west by the ebb tide.

Despite France getting no closer the hours 6 to 12 flew by in a mix of high spirits and periods of what my team referred to as “sense of humour failure”. I was truly in flow: my stroke felt good at a metronomic 60/min (unless I was told to go harder when it would rise to 64), my head was (generally) in a good place, only mild aches (mostly my hip flexors), no chafing, no rotator cuff problems. Unbeknown to me, Jennie had bought and brought a bag full of toys to buoy the spirits: bubble makers, masks, fluffy bracelets, tiaras. In particular I recall swimming through a flurry of bubbles blowing over me several times and getting a pep talk from Jennie and Nic while Paul stood behind with a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle mask on playing “Afternoon Delight” through a bluetooth speaker… one of the more bizarre moments of my swimming career!

Despite concerns about the cold and the quest for heroic fatness (maybe because of heroic fatness) I did not actually feel really cold at all throughout the swim although the log documents me complaining a little of cold patches around the 8 hour mark. In places, where the tankers were churning up colder water the temperature dropped to 14 degrees and my brief period of cold may have been related to one of these.

No one can prepare you for how hard the last few kms are. Everyone tells you how hard it can be to get through the tidal current into French shores; I’ve since warned others but I’m pretty sure they will not believe me until they are close enough to smell the brie. The one hour (or so) when I was told to “go up a notch” was the hardest hour of my life: like doing an endurance main set in squad on a Wednesday after 12 hours of swimming when you feel you’ve nothing else to give. I was fully aware (from a few snatched discussions during earlier feeds) that we were on course to hit land at Cap Gris Nez on a flood tide (exactly where Stuart had said we’d hit three days previous) and that I was swimming well. However, I was also aware from brief glimpses to the port side of the boat that I was pretty damned close to being washed past the Cap and that I really did have to “dig deep” (Do they not realise how deep I am already digging?). I swam until I hurt then I swam harder still: I think it is almost as hard for the crew to see your suffering as it is to be in it… but at the time it is a solitary pain.

As it transpired I landed on rocks so no opportunity to put pebbles in my budgies. After a brief victorious fist pump in the air I sat down on the rock and sobbed for a couple of minutes.

 

The role of the crew is so critical: support when you need it, tough talk, honesty and lies as needed, laughs, cheering. Seeing their whooping and cheering during those last, hard 10 minutes got me to the shore… really!! Jennie shouted herself hoarse and could not speak for 48 hours afterwards. I cannot thank them enough for their support and devotion before and during the swim.

Words of encouragement on the whiteboard, from them and from friends (Rob Taylor, Helen Conway and Leah’s coming at particularly critical moments and having noticeable effects on my progress). It is possible to make completely inaccurate inferences from comments when you have a 5 second sound grab followed by a half hour to analyse it: at one point I took a particularly excitable period on the boat with bubbles and spinning bumblebees to mean I was on my way to a 10 hour crossing (ha! yeah!). I still don’t know who I blame for that misunderstanding: me or… me.

So how do I feel now, 6 days later? Physically, on day 1 and I felt like a John Deere tractor had driven over me; on day 2 I felt like I’d been beaten with lead pipes. Now I feel pretty much 100% physically. Emotionally I’m still a little wobbly, climbing down from the 21 month crescendo of preparation and focus followed by such an emotional 24 hour experience. I’ve cried a few times since when certain parts of the swim (predominantly the suffering of the last 60 minutes) have come back to me. But I am massively proud of meeting and besting the challenge I set for myself and look forward to the next. The joy of sharing the experience with my Frosty swim buddies (and my crew) has made an unforgettable experience even more memorable! I hope it will stay with me for ever… it is still a little unreal to believe I am the 1470th person to swim the channel, the first CSA swimmer of 2014, the 109th Australian, the second person from my home town (Pontypridd… the last, if you’re interested was Jenny James in 1951). 21 miles… wow!

 

I would like to dedicate my successful swim to my grandmother, Annie Tolman. Once a powerful matriarch she is now a frail 88 year old who has lost her memories, intellect and her mobility. It is because of her and people we all know blighted by dementia that I was proud to swim for Alzheimer’s Australia. Please donate at www.give.everydayhero.com/au/aquacae/