Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Longer Version

I guess I'll leave the last post the way it is, and just write anew. Okay, the longer version...the very longer version...no really, it's long!

First, thank you very much to everyone who has taken an interest in my swim and the school building project. In the last few days I have received hundreds of messages from people, and have loved getting each one. Thinking of the interest and support of so many was definitely one of the things that kept me going through the tough hours of my swim. It sort of turned Channel swimming into a "team sport" rather than an individual one, with all the motivational benefits that come with that - like not wanting to let your teammates down! So thank you very much.

Second, before it gets lost at the bottom of this very long entry, if you haven't donated to the school building project yet (although I know most of you have!), have at it! I took on this challenge of my life, so the kids of Waku Kungo can take on the challenges of their lives, through education. Just go to www.SwimMikeSwim.com, and click on "donate" (directions there for donating on-line and through the mail). Off with you now...brilliant!

Okay, the swim. The wait for good weather was long, but I guess I am pretty good at sitting around doing nothing, because I was fine with it. It was nice that there were not really any "close calls" on whether to swim or not - it was clearly too rough until the Saturday window opened up. And Saturday turned out to be a great day for a Channel swim. The sea turned out to be "smooth," or "slight" at the worst (those are actually official levels of sea conditions on the Beaufort Scale). That makes everything much more manageable than it is in rougher water, from rhythm and focus, to feeding, to the steady position of the boat, and more.

I was a little concerned about starting in the daytime and finishing at night. I knew I would get colder at night (more about that later), and I had done some night training but not a whole lot, so it was a concern. But your start time is dictated by the tides and the weather, not the clock, and when the pilot says "go" you "go," especially when you have been waiting for ten days. As with many other things, it was important to remind myself that just over 1000 people had done this before, the vast majority swimming at least some at night, so it was doable. Then I just put it into the mental box of "something I'll deal with when it happens," and didn't worry about it. I'm a big fan of worrying only about actual problems, not possible problems (at least when it comes to athletic endeavors)..."sufficient unto the day are the troubles thereof," somebody once said.

On Friday evening (the 17th) about 7:00 p.m. I called Eddie Spelling, the pilot, for word on my start time (Friday night at 11:00 p.m. was possible at that point), and he said "Not tonight, but tomorrow at 11:00 a.m., or more likely, 11:00 p.m." So as I went to bed on Friday, I knew Saturday was almost surely the day - and I slept just fine anyway! I couldn't believe it. I never slept well before my Ironman triathlons, my 50 mile run, nor even my ("little" - ha!) marathons. But I was glad of it. Saturday morning I called Eddie about 8:30, and he said "It looks good down here on the water, so I'll see you at the dock at 10:30." So the final "yes," ended up being only two hours before leaving the dock. I was ready, so I just had to take care of a few details, and get the word out that it was time to go. Then Henry and I walked down to the dock (about a mile), with him nicely carrying most of the load.

In the parking lot, we met Duncan Philips, who was the second crew member along with Henry. We had emailed and talked on the phone a few times, but this was the first time I met Duncan. He was fabulous the whole time! He is a serious athlete whose next big goal is to do an event called the Enduroman "Arch 2 Arc" triathlon. (In case you skipped over that link, listen to this - that's running 84 miles from London to Dover, swimming 21 1/2 miles across the English Channel, and biking 184 miles from Calais to Paris - one right after the other - and you think I'm crazy!). He put a note on a Channel swimmers' message board volunteering to help with a swim, to see first hand what was involved in swimming the Channel. I took him up on it, and it turned out great. Duncan was responsible for my feedings (i.e. giving me my energy drink), during the whole swim.

We walked onto the boat at 10:34 and within one minute shoved off. It was about a half hour trip to the jump point at Samphire Hoe, and I pretty much used the whole time to get ready, applying sun-screen, a little Bag Balm for chaffing (great stuff for this purpose! - most Channel swimmers don't use old fashioned Channel grease all over anymore - it doesn't help keep you warm and makes a horrible mess!), and otherwise doing the last minute fiddling around that counts as "dotting your i's and crossing your t's."

The boat got us as close as possible to the beach (which was pretty close given it was high tide), and it was time to jump, so I thanked the crew (both boat crew, see picture previous post, and swim crew, Henry and Duncan), received their good wishes, and jumped. I swam to shore, cleared the water - on the painful rocks (see video in previous post), and was ready to go.

So what was I thinking standing there ready to begin this adventure? Well, I reminded myself that this swim was "just" the next part of a long journey. I had done a lot to get this point and this was simply the next step in the whole process. It wasn't some great, "impossible" thing, just the next step. I had done good training (although you always wish you had done more!), and I was as well prepared as I could be. I had arrived at the "starting line" healthy and feeling good, so now all I had to do was take the next step. I wasn't nervous - I was too focused for that. I guess the way I thought about it was that I had a lot of preparation built up inside me, and all I had to do was let it out slowly over the next 13 hours or so. Then I said to myself, "Okay, I can do this." And off I went.

To my great relief the water did not feel cold. The way you react to the water temperature varies a little bit day to day, depending on who knows what? Amount of sleep, what you ate, the wind, the Tokyo stock market? I've never figured that one out. But on Saturday as I began the water felt fine. Now mind you, not once in all my training or my actual crossing did I like the cold water. I am always vaguely aware that it is there, and don't really like it. For me, the cold water is like an ice monster locked in a closet (like in a kid's bedroom closet in the dark). I can put it "out of sight, out of mind," as it were, but the ice monster never goes away. It is always threatening to come out and get inside me and make me miserable and freeze to death, and I have to mentally make sure that door stays locked (I think a big part of dealing with the cold water is mental). For some people who train in cold water more frequently than I, there is no monster. Sixty-three, even sixty, degree water is no problem for them at all. But, as I said, for me the ice monster never goes away completely. The "funny" thing is that not once in all my training or this Channel swim did I ever get "core cold." I never got to the point of shivering, turning grey/pale, losing focus, or having slurred speech (some of the classic signs of hypothermia). And, thankfully, Saturday was a good day for how the water felt, so it wasn't too terribly difficult to keep the ice monster in the closet.

I came up to the boat and headed toward France, sort of. Those of you who followed the GPS tracker know that you don't swim straight across the English Channel, no one ever has. The accepted best route is to leave shore just before or just after high tide in Dover. Then you are pushed by the ebb tide (moving from high to low) almost directly east for six hours, toward the North Sea. You are not actually swimming toward France, so much as the Netherlands. But while the tide is pushing you east, you are swimming forward, across the tidal current, and you and the boat are always aimed at France. After six hours, when the tide changes (i.e. when the flood tide begins, moving from low to high), you are pushed south, or a little southwest, toward France.

For almost this whole first six hour period I felt good in the water. For about the first two hours (between 3-4 miles) I could see the white cliffs of the Dover area behind me, and that was a good reminder that just because you can see something doesn't mean you are anywhere near it, as far as swimming is concerned. It can take forever to get to something that looks just ahead of you, especially at night. I don't remember much about the first five hours, other than feeling good. I just focused on swimming smoothly. I was glad the feedings were going well and glad I wasn't cold, and that's about all I remember. Except my goggle trouble. I realized about two or three hours in that my goggles were too tight and were hurting my eye sockets. So, I had to stop swimming (something much to be avoided - due to the ice monster), and I had the crew throw me a back-up pair, and asked them to loosen the strap on the first one. But the back-up pair got foggy right away because I neglected to tell the crew to use the absolutely fabulous miracle product known as goggle anti-fog spray before they gave me the back-up pair. I hate it when my goggles fog up, as they always do in cold water - I refuse to swim for two minutes with foggy goggles - and the anti-fog stuff works wonders. So then I had to stop again, to switch back to the first pair, now loosened. I started swimming with the first pair again, but then they were foggy too, so I had to stop for a third time - yikes, the ice monster might get out! - to have the crew spray the first pair. Then as I was sending in the first pair via a water bottle, I didn't stick them in the bottle far enough and they went bye-bye, lost at sea - with my required safety beacon still attached. So, back to the back-up pair. I had the crew send me the anti-fog bottle (via a pole they have on the ship with a big cup at the end) and I sprayed the back-up pair myself. The back-up pair was fog free and very comfortable for the rest of the swim, and I managed not to get cold, even through all that stopping - maybe five minutes total. That goggle problem was the only minor technical glitch in the whole swim, thank goodness.

I don't know why, other than "these things happen," but sometime between hours five and six I started feeling worse. At some point I must have been feeling bad enough to want an honest estimate of how far I had to go, and I asked the boat crew something about the time or distance. Dave (the first mate) said "About half-way there, mate, just keep swimming." I realized that I had gotten a little overly-confident during those first five good hours, thinking I was cruising right along, and would have a sweet, short (i.e. fast) swim. That "about half-way" point was 6 hours 45 minutes into the swim, which put me at a 13:30 crossing. That was a little depressing, given what I had been thinking, but then I told myself that 13 hours was what I had been telling myself and everyone else for a long time, and that was just fine. (Of course, as it turned out, Dave was spot on, as I finished in 13:31).

I continued to feel pretty bad for about three hours. Before the end of that time, I thought about stopping and being done with it. I felt tired and unmotivated and just sick of swimming. It wasn't fun. I remember one time in particular I happened to get a good view of the back of the boat where the ladder was. Oh, that ladder looked good! It was the first step toward a hot shower and sleep.

I guess three things kept me going. First, I just couldn't think of a good enough reason to quit - a reason that I could rest comfortably with. I thought about it, and my arms/shoulders didn't really hurt that much, the sea conditions were not bad, I wasn't cold, I hadn't been stung by a jelly-fish, nothing. There was no good reason to quit. It was just plain old fatigue, and DUH!, you're swimming the English Channel, mate!

Second, there was certainly a bit of good, old fear of shame involved. I didn't want to have raised all that money for the school in Angola, and then not make it. I didn't want to appear like a fool, someone who would set off on a cool sounding challenge, but then not accomplish it for no good reason. I didn't want to have to eat my words for all the times I said to people "Don't worry, I'll make it." And probably lots of other thoughts that had to do with what other people would think of me if I quit. "What other people will think of me if I quit," is not a healthy motivator for endurance events, but it does usually have an effect. Ultimately, though, it's really not that strong of a motivator, and if you are not internally motivated in what you are doing, you're toast.

Third, I kept thinking about something I read in Dean Karnazes great book "Ultramarathon Man." During one unbelievable run he did (I think it was like 150 miles), somebody asked him how he felt, and he said during his long runs "There are good times and there are bad times...this is not one of the good times" (** see note at end **). I just kept telling myself that this was not one of the good times, but that it would pass. And eventually it did.

At sometime during that hard time, Henry told me that he had received about 50 emails wishing me good luck, etc. It was a nice bright spot in that tough time. It was great to know that so many people were following the GPS tracker and the Twitter messages, and gave me that "team sport" feeling I mentioned back at the beginning of this post. Thanks everyone!

Sometime around hour nine I started feeling good again. Around hour eight night had fallen, the air temperature dropped, and I started to feel colder. That was probably the worst moment really. I was scared I was going just going to start getting colder and colder, and I knew I was still at least five hours away. But a little time passed and although I was a bit colder, it was just a bit, and the decline did not continue. There was no downward spiral of cold. I realized I could deal with the cold still, even at night, and maybe the relief of that thought is what led me to feeling better around nine hours. I remember looking at my watch at 8:15 p.m. (almost exactly nine hours in) and that is the turning point in my mind.

This is probably the right time to talk about my feedings. For the first few, good, hours I was feeding every 25-30 minutes, taking 15-20 seconds per feed. I kept track of the time myself, which I like to do because it keeps me focused and in control. "Feeding" basically means swimming near the side of the boat for a drink of Maxim, lowered in a water bottle on a rope. Maxim is an energy drink that is legendary among long distance swimmers. It is nothing but water and maltodextrin, a type of sugar that is absorbed quickly by the stomach (it has better calorie uptake rates than fructose or sucrose, for example). It also has no electrolytes, because when swimming in cold water you are not really sweating much, if at all, and you are swallowing some salt water naturally, which apparently gives you the sodium you need. It is important to feed quickly and feed often. Quickly because of the cold, and because those are just "wasted" seconds in your swim. You might feed forty or fifty times during your swim, and at just thirty seconds a feeding, that could be at least twenty extra minutes in the water - and every extra minute is a minute that might end your swim. And you have to feed often because you have to get a relatively constant flow of calories in your body. Calories are energy, and the more energy you get in (and keep in!), the more glycogen you can make and burn, and the more glycogen you burn (instead of fat), the less fatigued you feel. (This summer a guy made a world record attempt for a Channel swim and he was feeding every eight minutes, at about three seconds each! He missed the world record by about twenty minutes, by the way. The record stands at six hours fifty-seven minutes.) The science of feeding for endurance performance is a lot more complicated than that, and fascinating to me, but that's for another time! Anyway, sometime during the difficult middle hours I started feeding every twenty minutes, which might have helped me get down more calories, which might have eventually led to me feeling better.

Hours 9 to 11 1/2 were great. I felt good and confident, and I was able to pick up the pace. I was working hard and really enjoying it again. I actually don't remember much about this time either, just cruising along, thinking about my stroke, thinking about how amazing it was that I was out here in the middle of the English Channel on a pitch black night, just me and the water and the boat and the dark, and I felt good! Henry, the fabulous crew member, had the job of shining a spot-light on me in the dark - actually just in front of me, and it was great. I could just focus on that one little spot, not think about France, and get on with it. At some point, Eddie, the pilot, spoke up and said, "You have to work hard here now, mate." I responded: "Like I wasn't working hard before?" "Work harder," he said. So I did, picking up the pace even more. I think that doubly increased pace lasted about an hour.

The goal with that "work harder" was to get me in position to come ashore at "the Cape," Cap Griz Nez. That's the goal of every Channel swimmer because it is the shortest possible route across the Channel. Hitting Cap Gris Nez can make a two or three hour difference in your time. (Not that time matters, but like I said earlier, every extra minute you are in the water is a minute that might end your swim). The problem with hitting Cap Griz Nez is that the approach is surrounded by an unbelievably strong current - four knots, actually (five MPH) - moving generally west to east. Not even Michael Phelps can make progress against that current. You have to get in a position way to the west of the point of the Cape, and then make the approach, hoping you are strong enough to get to shore before you are swept past the point - adding a minimum of an hour to your swim. (I just watched a woman make the point by about five yards - she was five yards away from adding 1-2 hours to her swim, but she made it!)

At about 11 1/2 hours that time of feeling great, alas, came to end. The last two hours were just a long, hard slog. But this tough time period wasn't like the tough time in the middle. It was hard physically, but not too bad mentally. I increased my feeds to every 15 minutes, not so much for the calories, but because the way I was getting through it was by counting my strokes between feeds - swimming feed to feed, rather than swimming to France. "Four hundred strokes to the next feed. I can do four hundred strokes." (VERY, VERY, VERY important for long distance swimming - just swim feed to feed!) I pretty much knew I was going to make it and just had to gut it out. I ended up not really getting anywhere near far west enough to make a go at the Cape, and when the tide changed and started pushing me east again, I just came around the Cape into the adjacent bay. On the GPS tracker you could see that very clearly. It must have been about the time I was missing the Cape that I asked for a time estimate to finish, and Dave, the first mate, said "You've got about two hours to go, mate, okay?" (Yes, they always say "mate!") And I said, "No, that's not okay." But I just got right back to slogging it out.

Because it was night, I had been able to see lights on the French shore for hours, but couldn't really make sense of them, and had no real sense of how far away anything was. I knew I was making progress, but didn't know how long it would take, even with Dave's estimate. I just kept looking for the little dingy to be lowered off the back of the boat, because that little dingy would follow me into the shallow water where the boat couldn't go. Swim feed to feed. Four hundred strokes. "Are they moving to the dingy yet?" The lights of the little town of Wissant, France where right ahead of me, but I still couldn't tell how far away it was, or how long it would take to get there.

Finally, finally, I noticed they started fiddling with the dingy! I remembered to remind Henry to give Dave the camera so Dave could take pictures of me on the beach. Most people don't get pictures when they land at night! I just kept swimming ahead, and the dingy must have followed me in for about 400 yards. Even when we were 10 yards off the shore I couldn't tell how far it was - it was really dark! Only when Dave said I could probably touch bottom (I couldn't) did I realize how close it was. I ended up landing on the giant rocks that must serve as erosion control for Wissant. Because of the rocks, I didn't really have to clear the water completely, but I did anyway, carefully climbing up. I got Dave to take a picture and then went to find a rock to take home. It was hard finding one, because of the giant boulders. I ended up climbing all the way over the rocks and found myself along a little street in Wissant, looking for a little stone in the middle of the night. I don't think anybody saw me, as it was 12:45 a.m., but I must have looked pretty funny. I finally found the stone and headed back to the dingy, which took me back to the boat, which took me back to England.

Thus I swam the English Channel.

** I slightly "misremembered" the quote. The exact line is "There have been high points and there have been low points. This is not a high point." (Ultramarathon Man, p. 236)


Kevin Thorn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kevin Thorn said...

Mike - Wonderful job! I've enjoyed your updates leading up the event, tracking your progress the day of, and this entertaining narrative!

I found myself learning a great deal and wrote my own comment in the form a a blog post on my site.

Thanks for the opportunity to learn something new!

Anonymous said...

Truely outstanding and congratulations again from a friend of a friend (Doug McConnell) here in Barrington, IL.

Clearly in your darkest moment you did find yourself, mate!

Hope to meet you some time when back in the States with Doug and learn more of your story.

Don Macdonald

Debbie said...

What an incredible narrative! It answered all the questions I had about how you felt and what your thoughts were during the swim. You are a very good writer.

WOW! That's all I can say!

I am so glad I could be part of this.
Once again... great job Mike!

Karen said...

Mike, only 1,000 people have swum the English Channel? How cool is that! Is it possible that you could make a slide show of your journey? What a wonderful school presentation this would make to children about setting goals and breaking them down into achievable steps. This was an incredibly exciting and fun narrative. Again, even your narrative makes what you did sound easy and we know it's soooo not! The sign of a professional.

Graeme said...

Great narrative! We all enjoyed it!!

(You know that if your left elbow had been a little higher you likely could have hit the Cape... ;-))

Anonymous said...

wonderful, wonderful, wonderful!

I found your comments about the "ice monster" interesting - something that's at bay, perhaps being monitored, but not entirely unthreatening. I know that feeling from hiking, especially in sketchy conditions or cold weather.

thanks for the very thorough account, it's great to have a glimpse into the experience of a real channel swimmer!

Congratulations on your exciting accomplishment and all that went into it.

daniel m (a/k/a Rant) said...

Brilliant! (Both the account and the swim.)

Anonymous said...

Mike-I've really enjoyed following your journey and the photos and updates have been great. Thanks for sharing with everyone. I'm so glad God blessed you with good weather, a great crew, and the strength to carry on. Good luck with "our" school:) May God bless you and your family.

Terry Laughlin said...

What an incredible wealth of information and interesting detail, both about the technical and geographic stuff that enters into your swim, and into your experience, reflections, and efforts doing so. Your "diary" will prove invaluable to me as I prepare physically, but far more important mentally, for my 2011 solo attempt.
Cogratulations and thanks,

bill hue said...

You are an inspiration! God bless you and everyone who helped you along the way!

Anonymous said...


I have just read your narrative following a particular low day for me; I am also swimming the channel in 12 weeks time and still strugle with the 'ice monster', early cold morning swims and cold showers get you down sometimes so I fully appreciate what you managed to achieve to not only achieve it but to have the resolve to get to the start line prepared in the first place.

Well done again and a great cause; 'Your achievements in life are only restricted by your imagination!'

Tom Sawyer