Saturday, December 20, 2008

Just Keep Training (and encouraging donations!)

First of all, Merry Christmas! May the Prince of Peace bless, guide and strengthen you.

Second, how about a Christmas gift for the kids in Waku Kungo, Angola? Of course, I am doing this swim to raise money to build a school in Waku Kungo, and your gift would be a great help! Donate here (click the green button on the left side of that page). Of course the economy is bad, and we might think finances are tight right now, but for a little motivation do two things: go visit That helps put things in perspective. Then consider that the average "real purchasing power" of people in Angola is about $3,000 a year. Imagine trying to survive, and house, and feed, and educate yourself and a large family (the average woman in Angola has six kids) on $3,000 a year. Puts our "recession" in an interesting light, no? But you can make a real, long term difference by supporting education in Angola!

So, swimming the Channel: the last few weeks have been mostly about getting in as much training as possible. Swimming 10,000 yards in a 25 yard pool isn't exactly entertaining, but it must be done. I've been trying to mix up long sessions at "forever pace" and faster training. Especially in the early phase of training, the long, relatively slow sessions should be about 30% of total yardage, and swimming faster than Channel pace with a little bit of rest should be about 60% of training. The other 10% is really fast with lots of rest. I probably don't do enough of that, and should fix that. A normal training session at this point lasts from one and half to three hours. I am building up to do a four hour continuous swim on New Year's Day.

The President of the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation (Mike Oram) runs a Google Group for Channel swimmers (successful, experienced people, and newbies like me). It is a great source of information, and the successful Channel swimmers are wonderfully willing to share their experience and advice. They all just want to get the next person across. I've been reading past notes and getting good information through emails. Some of my most important recent learnings:

** I really, really need to get salt water experience as soon as possible. Salt water is hard on you - both skin and digestive system. You naturally swallow some water when you swim and your stomach generally doesn't like it. You have to get used to it. My experience in salt water amounts to playing at the beach in Florida, so I have a lot to learn here.

** There are more open water swimmers in the midwest than I would have thought. I have made contact with some successful Channel swimmers from Chicago who swim in Lake Michigan as soon as it gets warm enough (sounds like they consider 55 warm enough!). That should make for some excellent open, cold water training.

** The best place to train in conditions that are similar the English Channel is San Francisco Bay. There is a great open water swimming group there (the Dolphin Club), some of whom swim year round. I am hoping to get out to SF in June for a "Channel Swimming Camp" they have. Sounds like it would be invaluable experience.

** Here are two interesting photos that Mike Oram sent me, to make the point of how unpredictable the Channel is, thus how thoroughly prepared you have to be. The first picture is of the Dover Harbor on a, shall we say, "challenging" day (yes, the Harbor! And note the sky is even blue in the background.). The second is in the middle of the Channel on a perfect day. (No one would actually attempt a swim on a day like the first picture, but it does make the point.)

Also, at the top of this post is a picture of the Anastasia, the boat that will escort me across.

I also learned recently that my pilot, Eddie Spelling, had 19 Channel crossing scheduled for 2008. Fifteen of those were successful, three were unsuccessful (got tired, then cold), and one was not able to make attempt due to extended bad weather.

Not much is new on the Waku Kungo school front. Donna Dudley, my main contact person in Angola, was here the States recently and I gave her a digital camera to give to someone in Waku Kungo. So hopefully in a month or so, they will be able to send me pictures from Wake Kungo. That would be great!

Remember, donate now to help the kids of Waku Kungo, Angola, get a decent education and grow up to contribute to well-being of others in Angola.

Peace and a Merry Christmas to all!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

More about Waku Kungo

Like many swimmers, I am using my English Channel swim to raise money for charity. "Charity" has gotten something of a bad name because some think it implies that the recipients are not able to take care of themselves. But the root of "charity" is simply "concern" or "love," and charity is the virtue of love directed first toward God but also toward oneself and one's neighbors as objects of God's love. So the word "charity" is just fine with me.

I wrote a few months ago about the project I am working on (see the post from June 20, 2008). In consultation with our church partners in Angola (the Evangelical Congregational Church in Angola - or IECA - pronounced YEAH-kah) , we decided that the best project would be to support the building of a school in Waku Kungo.

Like most people in materially poor countries, people in Angola realize that education is absolutely critical to their future. It is IECA's top priority for their social mission programs. They already run dozens of schools throughout the country, some of which provide the only access to education for children of the area. In Waku Kungo, there are functioning public schools but they are vastly overcrowded. Angola has a very young population, with about 50% of people under age 20. There are about 37,000 students enrolled in schools in the Waku Kungo area, but still another 6,000 or so who are currently outside of the school system. What limits school enrollment is the sheer number of available classrooms. So the schools run by the government don't come close to meeting the need, especially in a quickly growing city like Waku Kungo. Even those who are enrolled usually only are able to go to school for two or three hours a day, and of course, face huge challenges in doing even that.

The government only spends 3.8% of its budget on education. That is below average even compared to the other nations of southern Africa. Furthermore, only 18% of that 3.8% goes to elementary level education. Within Angola, relative income level makes a huge difference in access to education. The World Bank says that only 35% of the poorest fifth of children in Angola have access to any education at all, compared to 77% of the top fifth (note that the top fifth still live in terrible poverty).

Wonderful children like these two need to have a chance:

IECA, therefore, works hard to promote education, especially at the elementary level where it matters most of all for giving kids a shot at a self-sufficient future. This allows them to carry out the official mission of their social programs:

To create a more just Angolan society, founded on ethical-moral

and biblical principles, leading to a better world for all.

IECA already has a school in Waku Kungo where they provide the primary education for some kids and supplement the public education system with additional education for others. They are currently about to help about 120 kids. With a new building and a power generator, they could triple the number of kids they can serve and help them all much more effectively.

The kids can go from a building that is made mostly of corregated tin and plastic, with a dirt floor and no electricity, to something like this:

For $50,000 (the amount I want to raise through my English Channel swim) they can build a solid, durable and functional building with four classrooms, one office, one teachers'/prep/supplies room, plus bathrooms.

That's what this is all about. You can donate here (click the green button on the left side of that page).

Friday, October 31, 2008

Ways to Fail

It is probably best to get this out of the way early and then move on to "failure is not an option" mode. Based on what I have learned from other people's experience (oodles of website/blog personal accounts, and three print books) there seem to be several common reasons people fail to make it across the Channel.

But first, donate now! (click on the green button on the lelt side of that page). You can help build a school for smart and eager, but very poor and educationally underserved kids in Waku Kungo, Angola. More about the school in the next few days. Okay, on to ways to fail at this swim.

1. Bad luck - This may seem like a poor excuse, but everyone says that luck, simple random chance, has a significant role in your swim. The biggest variable is the weather. Sometimes, with basically a one week window of opportunity, you just don't get a day that gives you a reasonable shot at success - the wind and waves are just too much. People do occasionally complete all the prep and do everything right, and then not even get a chance to swim. That would be a major bummer! Then there are the marginal weather days, when an attempt is possible, but not promising. If you get one of those, and the weather turns worse instead of better, then the swim can be nearly impossible. Then there are the simply surprising days, when the weather gurus predict a good day, but it doesn't pan out that way. The tides and currents can also be slightly variable depending on the weather and lunar alignment. Your boat pilot knows the basic patterns and timing, but the wind can make things change a little early or late, which can ruin the timing of your swim - and timing is critical (the pilot charts your path based on expected swimming speed and expected tide/current pattern).

Outside of the weather, jellyfish stings are also unpredictable and can keep you from continuing - although most stings do not seem to be very severe and most people tough it out.

Then there is also regular illness or injury. Either can keep you from having a successful swim.

Of course, you can take these situations of "bad luck" and deal with them more or less successfully. A very strong swimmer in good shape will be able to deal with worse weather than those less prepared. You can be mentally prepared to swim through the pain of a jellyfish sting, and carefully control your training to decrease your chances of illness or injury. Still though, sometimes stuff (especially the weather) is just beyond your control. It is one of the things that makes swimming the Channel such a challenge.

2. Cold water - Given decent weather, the number one reason people fail to make it across the Channel is succumbing to the cold water. When I swim the water will likely be somewhere between 60 - 64 degrees. (It was 63 at the equivalent time this year.) For the Channel, that's not too bad. Getting used to swimming in cold water is absolutely essential to a successful swim. If you don't acclimate, you don't celebrate! Of course, this is completely within your control. People do seem to acclimate to cold water more or less easily, but everyone can do it with enough effort. This summer/fall I found it fairly easy to get used to water down to 64 degrees, but only was up to 2 hours at that temp. Swimming for many hours in cold water will be a top priority next spring and summer.

Oh, I should probably say that body fat is also a key to staying warm enough in the water. This might be the only athletic challenge for which a significant amount of body fat is better (I suppose that's also true for sumo wrestling - but is that really a sport?). Being in shape and lean is a good way to lose to the cold. Being in shape and having quite a few extra pounds on you is good. I am about 20 pounds over my Ironman weight (which honestly was too high for an Ironman who focuses on time - but I don't), so at least I have that one covered!

3. Inadequate training - Of course, you also have to put in the mileage. Sometimes people are not able to complete their crossing because of sheer exhaustion or pain, due to inadequate training. In reality though, even in this case, the thing that stops you is the cold. When you are so tired, or in pain, that you have to slow down, then your body is no longer producing enough heat to keep you warm, no matter how well acclimated you are. The key is to be in good enough shape that you can keep working hard and producing enough body heat for the many hours of your swim.

4. Mental mistakes - You can greatly decrease your chances of a successful swim by poor mental training, and poor planning and poor decision making. Training your brain for the boredom is important, because if you get bored and get discouraged you can pysche yourself out and give up. Training your brain for swimming in the dark is also important, as most swims include at least a few hours in the dark (if your window of good weather starts at 8:00 p.m., you swim anyway), and those can be pretty tough hours mentally.

As for planning, your nutrition plan for the swim is key. Of course, you have to eat and drink during the swim, and that means you have to eat and drink in the same way during your training swims to find out exactly what works to keep you going, and what doesn't. You have to develop a successful plan and then stick with it during the swim, allowing for real time adjustments. If you don't take in calories, you end up with no energy, and you slow down and get cold and get out. If you don't take in water/fluid, you get dehydrated, your muscles can't function, and you slow down and get cold and get out.

The other main mental mistake is probably failing to be honest and accurate about your swimming speed. Your pilot calculates the best path across the Channel based on your predicted speed. If you tell your pilot you expect to swim the Channel in 14 hours, you are going to be in trouble if it really takes you 16. The pilot can make some adjustments mid-swim, but if you are slower than you said, and you "miss the point" at Cap Griz Nez, you make things very difficult for yourself, adding hours of depressing, and sometimes fruitless, effort. (Going faster than you said is not disasterous, although your swim won't be as fast as if you predicted your speed properly.)

So, from what I have learned, that's how you fail! A few years ago, "they" used to say that fewer than one in five people were successful in their attempt to swim the Channel. It seems that the success rate has increased in recent years, due to better boat piloting (thanks to more experience and available information), and better swimmer preparation. If I understand right, the success rate is now about 40-50%.

As I prepare for my swim, I like knowing about all the things that can go wrong. The more you know, the more you can control. The more you can control, the better your chances of success. If I give it my best mentally and physically, I think I have a very good shot at becoming one of the first 1000 people to swim the English Channel!

Remember, donate now! (click on the green button on that page).

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Just Training

Yesterday was a "long" training day: 2 1/2 hours. "Long" is in quotes because 2 1/2 hours will eventually be just a warm-up for the 13 hour Channel swim, but it was long for now. 5000 straight swim, 10x100 on 1:30 (coming in btn 1:20 and 1:25), 4000 straight swim = total 10,000 in 2 hours 30 min 45 seconds (5.68 miles).

2 1/2 hours in a 25 yard pool does present certain boredom issues. To keep track of the distance and speed I have to count lengths (10,000 is 400 lengths), and in order not to lose count, I pretty much don't think about anything else. So that gets old. But so far the challenge of keeping up the pace and focusing on my stroke quality has been adequate to keep me entertained.

One way to address that problem is to go find an Olympic distance pool. Unfortunately, the closest one set up to allow long course (50 meter) swimming in the winter is at a YMCA just north of Milwaukee. I went there on Sunday and it is just beautiful. It is one of the best pools in the country (and may have been the best 30 years ago when it was built). I hope to get up there a couple of times per month in the winter. As soon as it is warm enough in the Spring, I'll do long swims in open water.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Blog is Active Again!

Well, I got the basic information up here early, and now it is time to make use of the blog on a regular basis.

First, one bit of great news: my church received a grant from the Lilly Endowment National Clergy Renewal Program to finance the activities of my sabbatical, including the English Channel swim. I was committed to the swim anyway, but this grant will make it easier to cover the costs of swimming the Channel. (Just to be clear - 100% of your donations go directly to the school in Waku Kungo, Angola.)

Second, good news on the Waku Kungo front. The school project is now fully approved by our church partners from IECA (the Congregational Church of Angola), and I have learned some more details about what we will be doing. As I mentioned before the church already has a school functioning in Waku Kungo, but it is very rudimentary. Our project will enable them to build a permanant school structure, and triple the number of kids they can help educate - from 120 to 360 or so. It is amazing to think that with only $50,000 they can do so much. IECA knows that education is the key to the economic and social well-being of their people, and it is their top "social mission" priority. You can donate here (click on the green button on the left side of that page), and help transform the lives of hundreds of wonderful kids in Waku Kungo.

Third, my training: I have begun to train in earnest for the swim, and am now slowly increasing my yardage. I am trying to do this intelligently, taking advantage of my knowledge of endurance training from running/tri-ing, of my experience in swimming, and of modern research about swimming. I know from experience that I want to do more at this point than I probably should do. The basic danger is that I will pull a muscle and lose two or three weeks of good training, so I am holding back some. Swimming (consistent with running) research says, perhaps surprisingly, that I need to include a good deal of harder, shorter training at this early point. That builds more muscle mass, which means you have more draw from a little later when you focus on endurance more.

But I am doing some longer stuff too. Without too much difficulty I worked up to a four hour, eight and a half mile swim in Lake Michigan: photo above (yes, the little splash is me - thanks to Frank and Diane Bunker for the escort!). The water was 67 degrees. I would have preferred colder, for the experience, but that's when the timing worked. I did two hours in 64 degrees in the back yard pool (yes, swimming in place, tethered to the side with a fancy rubber cord - yes, it gets boring). The Channel should be around 63 when I swim, so I know have a little better idea of what is involved in getting used to the cold, and am confident I can do it. That will be one of two top goals beginning about April of 2009 (the other being endurance of course).

For the record and anybody actually interested in the swimming: A good set for me right now is 10x100 (yards) on 1:30. Yesterday I was coming in at 1:20 for all of them, with the last one on 1:14. I did a 1000 yesterday on 13:50. I do lots of 1000's on 15:00 intervals, and am keeping a consistent pace of 4000 yards per hour, no matter the set. That is in a 25 yard pool, with turns obviously, so I am not sure how that translates to swimming speed in the Channel. But it is pretty consistent with my eight and a half mile four hour open water swim.

Well, that's enough for now. Remember donate here! I'll be writing regularly now, so come to often!


Friday, June 20, 2008

Swimming for Waku Kungo

Swimming the English Channel is a difficult challenge. But it is nothing compared to the challenges that the vast majority of people in Angola face on a daily basis. I will be swimming not only for myself, but for the church and the children in Waku Kungo. (This post gets a little long, so before I lose you, I invite you to donate here - through the green button on the left side of that page.)

It is, admittedly, something of an indulgence to attempt a Channel swim. It will take hundreds of hours of training and thousands of dollars. That is time, energy and treasure that could well be directed toward something that is a little (or a lot) less about me. When I swim the Channel, however, it will be part of a three month time of personal and professional renewal. As scheduled when I was called six years ago, I will be taking a sabbatical from my ministry at Second Congregational United Church of Christ. During this extended time away, I will engage in worship, service and play - all key elements of deep personal and spiritual renewal. The time of renewal will allow me to begin a new chapter in my service to my church, and remain vital for long term ministry at Second Con. The experience of pastors and churches through the years has shown that this kind of renewal is tremendously valuable for both the pastor and the church. So, while I don't discount the "indulgence" aspect of this, I see my Channel swim more as a "gift" that am receiving from God and my congregation: a gift for which I am tremendously grateful.

Through some serious work I did for my Doctor of Ministry degree, I discovered that the Bible has a vision of how God's people best experience true renewal: worship, service, and play. The Sabbath is a weekly day of renewal, and those three things are what the Sabbath is really all about. As sort of a "super-Sabbath," worship, service, and play also are key to what a sabbatical is all about.

As a way to experience a deep and faithful type of renewal I wanted to make service to others a key part of my sabbatical. So with my Channel swim I will be raising money to build a school in Waku Kungo, Angola.

I first visited Angola in 2005 as part of a "relationship building" trip with the Illinois Conference of the United Church of Christ (our regional grouping of UCC churches). We have an ongoing partnership with the Evangelical Congregational Church of Angola (or IECA, pronounced YAY-ka). During that trip I saw first hand what amazing faith and joy the people of IECA have in the midst of economic and social challenges that most of us cannot imagine.

Angola suffered through a horrific civil war (what other kind of civil war is there?) from 1975-2002. It was based in an internal fight for power as colonial Portuguese rule came to end, and inflamed by the involvement of the Soviet Union and the United States. It was a hot-spot in the euphemistically named "Cold War." It may have been "cold" for us. But millions of people died because of it.

In 2002 the civil war ended. Ironically, the "wrong side" won (the side supported by the Soviets early on - although in the 27 years of the conflict the politics of the whole thing changed several times), but Angola came out of it with a free market economy and a (marginally) democratic government. Since 2002, the country has begun to make economic progress, but the vast majority of people live in what we would call "poverty." For them, it is just everyday life, and nearly everyone around them faces the same situation. The average family income (which is skewed because of a wide gap between rich and poor and a very small middle class) is about $3000 U.S. dollars (that's actual purchasing power). And that is with no government social support. Just try to imagine meeting every need of a family on $3000.

Because of my 2005 trip and our ongoing relationship I knew I wanted to devote the service part of my sabbatical to the social ministry that IECA is doing. They do so much with so little. In conversation with IECA leaders, and following their lead, we decided that the funds I raise would go to build a school in Waku Kungo. In their social ministry IECA places a huge emphasis on education, realizing that education is critically important in both personal and economic development. Waku Kungo is one of the most under served areas in which IECA is active. Children in Waku Kungo now learn in a "building" of mud blocks and a grass roof. They have no educational materials: no books, desks, paper, pencils. And the kids who face these conditions are the lucky ones. Many, many children get no schooling at all. By building a new building, of better materials and larger size, the church will be able to accommodate many more children and provide a much more positive environment for learning for these children who eagerly long to learn.

You can help make their dream of a new school building a reality by contributing now (through the green button on the left side of that page).

Come back soon for more information about the challenge of swimming the English Channel.


Thursday, May 22, 2008

Swim Mike Swim

"And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters." (Genesis 1:2)

"It's kind of fun to do the impossible." (Walt Disney)

Sometime near the end of July, 2009, I am going to swim across the English Channel. It's hard to explain why I am going to do this, but it has something to do with those two quotes. In water I feel peace, as if the Spirit of God is still moving upon the face of the waters. Life was created in water, and water still gives life.

That may account for the water, but what about the swimming? And what about the 23 miles of 62 degree water and powerful tides between Dover and Cape Gris-Nez? Well, that's where Walt Disney comes in. It is kind of fun to do the impossible - or at least the ridiculously challenging. I'm not into danger, but without a challenge before me, I feel a dull torpor. Most of the really important stuff in life (like discipleship, marriage, parenthood) doesn't come with much of a finish line. So it's nice to take on a clear challenge, and in the end be able to say to yourself, "That'll do, pig. That'll do." I think that is what real fun is all about - what people used to call "pride," before that word got confused with "arrogance."

I want to swim the English Channel for another reason as well: to raise money to build a school in Waku Kungo, Angola. I'll have to explain that part of this challenge in an upcoming post, but I'll just say now that doing something for the children of Waku Kungo is not a burden, but a gift. "From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required." (Luke 12:48)

You can contribute now. Donate here. (Through the green button on the left side of that page.)

Until next time, it's "Swim, Mike, swim."