Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Swim, The Dolphins and A Dream Come True

My family and friends have supported me through years of training to achieve my dream of swimming the English Channel. I am so deeply moved and appreciative of the support. I could not have realized my dream without it. I encourage everyone to pursue their dreams and passions in life--whatever they may be (i.e. the arts, academics, family, sports). The English Channel is my metaphor for pursuing dreams.

Besides swimming from England to France, my secondary goal is to raise funds for two local charities. Please consider donating to:
1) The YMCA-YWCA Strong Kids Campaign. Funds raised support recreational activities for children of low income families (e.g. swimming lessons).
2) The Kelowna General Hospital Foundation. Your donation will go towards the purchase of medical equipment.
* please pledge your support in the name of the English Channel swimmer

Here is how the experience unfolded......

The Day Before
I went for a light 1500 metre swim (30 minutes) in Dover Harbor; all the while visualizing the end goal--touching the sands of France. I also did some short 100 metre sprint intervals. The purpose of this is to feel strong and fast in the water--a real confidence booster. There is no question that I am in the best shape of my adult life. I am so ready for this swim.

Am I nervous? A little bit; but to be honest, I am looking forward to the experience. I feel like a 6 year old on Christmas eve. When do I get to open the presents? Santa, thanks for the 36" Speedo!

How confident am I? Do I have nagging doubts? The experience of my mates being pulled from the channel yesterday for severe hypothermia reminds me that there are no guarantees in this sport. On the other hand, I am very confident that my 30 years of competitive swimming, extensive cold water acclimitization training, my grit and determination, my support crew, and my passion for the ocean, will see me through to France.

The rest of the day was spent getting into the "zone." After a delicious pub lunch (yes, I had a pint of some good ol' English ale), our family (Joanne, brother-in-law Mark and mother-in-law Barb) went for a walk atop the famed White Cliffs of Dover. I spent this time staring out to sea and to France in the far distance. All this time, I was visualizing a successful swim. There is an excellent book on the subject of visualization: Visions of Excellence by former Canadian Olympic gold medalist, Mark Tewksbury. Mark only envisioned gold in the last 50 metres of his 100 metre backstroke performance in Barcelona. It was one of the greatest backstroke finishes of all time. Mark out-touched his competition by 1/100th of a second. He never thought about coming 2nd.

Later in the evening, I went for a walk, alone, around Dover Harbor. I was accompanied by The Who, Genesis, Yes, Beatles, Police, Moody Blues, and Pat Methany--a great music ensemble to pump me up for the big day. In addition, no trip to Dover Harbor is complete without paying homage at the memorial of Captain Mathew Webb. Mathew Webb was the first swimmer to conquer the channel back in 1875!

That night, I got about 5 hours of solid sleep--not bad for a channel swimmer's "Christmas"" eve. I woke at 5:00 am and was greeted by Will from Eastbourne (a coastal city 2 hours drive west of Dover). Will is also an aspiring Channel swimmer. We met over the internet on the channel swimming listserv. Will is looking for first hand experience in the channel by offering to support fellow swimmers across La Manche. We were more than happy to oblige. Again, this journey is not so much about the swim, than it is about making new friends, that makes this experience so special.

While Will was getting acquanted with Mark and Joanne, I ate my traditional pre-race meal (Power Bar, banana, coffee, toast and peanut butter, and a litre of water with electrolyte supplement). Following that, I did a good 30 minutes of stretching and warm up exercises, and evacuated my lower digestive track. WOW DUDE, that is WAY TOO much information. Perhaps, but it is important. The last thing I want to worry about in the middle of the Channel, is my bowels. Enough said. The plan worked.

Before embarking to the harbour, I "psyched" myself up by reading all the well wishes and support from friends, family and colleagues back home and abroad. That was a real confidence booster. Now I am ready for the swim of my life!

A short while later, we were greeted by my boat crew and an official from the Channel Swimming Association (CSA). I was so relieved that Keith was assigned to be our CSA official. I had been liaising with Keith all week on the beach. We instantly developed a rapport. Keith is very friendly and approachable. Moreover, he conveys a passion for being a part of the swimmer's journey to France. We were also introduced to Andy's first mate, Gary, and Andy's son, James (15). This was James' first channel swimming experience with his dad. The whole group instantly got along. I could tell that this was going to be a special day. It was very important to me that we all had fun and not take this swim or ourselves too seriously. This is not a swim race. This is a journey. We might as well enjoy it!

The conditions were perfect. The sun was just rising, seas were flat and the ambient air temperature was 18'C and rising. These are very favorable conditions but likely will not be sustained further out to sea. We were now off to Shakespeare Beach (just west of Dover). This will be our starting point. On the way out, Joanne applied swimmers "grease" to my body (note, banjo playing theme to Deliverance not included). This "grease" is a mixture of Vaseline and Anhydrous Lanolin. Together, the two form a barrier that prevents skin chaffing secondary to ocean salinity, insulation from the cold ocean, and a layer of protection from stinging jellyfish. Sun block was also applied. As we approached Shakespeare Beach, we could see 2 other crews heading out to France (one solo swimmer from the US and a relay team from the UK). Other boats were approaching as well. There were 7 in total (4 solo swimmers and 3 relays). I was about 5 minutes from starting so it was here that I took some anti-seasickness medication--the plan being that the medication would take effect in about 45 minutes before reaching the 1st shipping lane and heavier seas. It was at this point that Keith reviewed the rules and regulations with me (i.e. keep moving--even when feeding, don't touch the boat, stand up on your own two feet when you reach the shores of France). We also reviewed safety procedures. His last comments to me will forever be etched in my memory... "This is an incredible journey that you are about to embark is NOT a race...use your mind..." With that, I kissed Joanne and jumped into the water. It was a short 25 metre swim to shore. Once on shore, I turned my back to the crew. When I was ready, I took a deep breath and raised my right arm to signal the start of the swim. The horn of the Louise Jane rang out. I was off for a swim of a lifetime.

I dove in, arms outstretched in a streamlined position and a few dolphins kicks to bring me up to the surface. This is a competitive swimming technique and it is not necessary in a marathon swim like this. However, I did it because a) it is fun b) I can pretend for a moment to be Michael Phelps and c) it reflects the competitive swimmer in me. I am now living my dream! Breathing to my right, I can see the White Cliffs of Dover! Turning to my left, I am taking in a magnificent sunrise! I am in my element. I want this experience to last forever!

Now to strategy.....How am I going to tackle this 35 KM journey? Race it and go for a Canadian record? Hold steady and save my energy for the dreaded final 5 km? or simply enjoy the experience as if it were a dream? I elected to take a "flexible" approach. What I want most is to enjoy this day, and above all, that means making it to France. If I take my pace out recklessly fast, I could end up "dying like a pig" for the portion of the swim that will tax me most--the wicked currents of the French coast. Secondly, I want a challenge. This is, afterall, the famed "Everest" of swimming. I do not want calm, flat conditions for the entire duration. As unlikely as that is to happen, if these conditions were sustained for the duration, I planned to sprint the 2nd half in an attempt at the Canadian record (just over 9 hours). To swim this fast, I would also need a good "push" from the tidal gods. In the end, I chose to maintain a strong, steady pace, and conserve my energy for when I would need it most--on approach to France. At the end of the day, this strategy proved to be the right one for me, and one that allowed me to enjoy the swim--a testament to Keith's parting words of wisdom..."this is not a race..."

I really focussed on stroke technique for the first hour. Reference my February blog entry: Training with the Gooeytubes (literally the lowest form of aquatic life)-- point being to keep my head down and hips high in an effort to move my body through the water in an efficient manner. When swimming huge distances like this, technical efficiency will reap rewards in energy saved and total kilometers swum. At this point, I want to keep my strokes long and strong and see if I can't catch the two teams in front of me at this pace--OK, so I am a little competitive.

At 30 minutes it was time to feed. The feeding plan that we rehearsed during my Bowen Island swim was: a) wave the Canadian flag at 29 minutes--this signals 1 minute to snack; b) at 30 minutes, throw the bottle of liquid nutrition ahead of me so that I swim to it, rather than me swimming to the boat. I then swim to the bottle, roll onto my back, ingest my sustenance and keep moving. My goal was to limit my total feeding time to 15-20 seconds. The last thing I wanted was to stop and eat for a minute or two at a time. 1-2 minutes x (2 sessions/hour) x 10-14 hours = more time in cold water than is necessary. Consequently, the time lag could result in missing the tide that will assist me into France. Any time lag will also contribute to hypothermia. There has been many an English Channel swimmer who missed their tidal assist into France because of this. Consequently, they swim for an extra 4-5 hours waiting for the tide to turn in their favour or their swim is aborted--channel aspirants take note! Keep it simple and keep moving. This strategy worked like a charm. However, I did find that I had to prompt my crew. Thankfully, I was wearing a stopwatch to track this vital component of the journey. Without fail, my crew heard the siren cry......"FOOD, ONE MINUTE....." at 30 minute intervals.. My crew then went into action. One bottle contained warmed liquid "goo" (Hammergel product of protein and carbohydrate mixed with hot water and electrolyte supplement). The other bottle contained hot water, straight up. Fresh water was a last minute addition to my repertoire. Good thing too. The channel is very salty--much more so than the ocean around Vancouver. Reason? BC's vast snow melt dilutes the Pacific Ocean with fresh water. As such, I predicted that I would be swallowing "hypertonic" channel water (i.e. highly concentrated salt water). As where salt goes, water follows.....this would in effect draw fluid out of my gut, leading to diarrhea; and consequently, fluid and electrolyte loss. This is an ominous sign for channel swimmers. The cure: Fresh "hypotonic" water. This worked like a charm. Never once did I experience lower gastrointestinal fluid losses. Keep in mind that my feed was also "hypertonic" in consistency. A bottle of fresh water to chase the "goop" did the trick.

At the 1st 30 minute break, I also gave my crew some feedback:
1) The boat's exhaust fumes were bothering me. Solution: position the boat so I am parallel with the bow.
2) I wanted Joanne to give every crew member a Canadian pin to wear and keep as a souvenir. After all, I am representing my country. There aren't a lot of Canucks who are lining up do this swim...yet!
3) I wanted to make sure that Andy had his GPS navigational system turned on. I knew that friends and family back home were going to be monitoring our progress over the AISshipping website (this site tracks marine vessel traffic in the channel).

Wow....that is a pretty big ship! It is hour 3 and I am in the English shipping lane. There are over 700 ships plying the French and English shipping lanes every day. Thankfully, the English and French Coast Guards advise these ships to steer clear. With millions of dollars of trade on the line, one has to wonder if these ships are motivated to avoid a few crazy swimmers.

I find the 1st 4 hours of these marathon swims to be the most challenging. The challenge at this point is not physical, it is psycbological--specifically the boredom and monotony involved in putting one arm in front of the other for hours on end. After hour 4, these swims seem to go much faster. Today, however, this was not a problem. I just kept reminding myself that I am in the bloody English Channel! How surreal is this?! Pinch me! Enjoy every moment....I have only been dreaming about this day for 25 years! As such, I had no problem occupying my mind for the duration. This was cornerstone to my success. Without focus, there is no point in swimming. Those who lose their focus question their motivation and call it a day. For me, I kept focussing on the sands of France and what I had to do to get there. One thought remained a constant theme throughout...DO NOT TAKE THE CHANNEL FOR GRANTED...RESPECT IT AT ALL TIMES...CONDITIONS MAY BE GOOD NOW BUT SHE IS CAPABLE OF KICKING YOU OUT... RESPECT THE EXPERIENCE OF FELLOW CHANNEL ATHLETES. THE EXPERIENCE OF MIKE AND CHRISTIAN BEING PULLED OUT YESTERDAY, JUST SHY OF FRANCE, SERVED AS A SALIENT REMINDER OF THIS FACT. THIS IS SERIOUS BUSINESS AND SWIMING THE CHANNEL IS NOT TO BE TAKEN LIGHTLY. In addition to focussing on the task, I meditated throughout. I have learned over time to open my mind to random thoughts. Here is a sample of what I though about:
  • swim technique--head down, hips high, efficient catch, and work the 1st phase of the pull
  • the 1st day I floated unassisted at Gordon Head Pool, Victoria (age 6)
  • my competitive swimming career--those 100 x 100 m freestyle sets every Christmas eve; that 8 x 200 m fly set I swam with former olympians Wayne and Jon Kelly; the 1st time I broke 17:00 min. for 1500 m free; my first swim meet in Nanaimo at the age of 9 and the ride up to the meet in dad's Chrysler New Yorker--complete with ABBA blaring on 8 track
  • my wedding day in Williams Lake...easily the best day of my life
  • my two boys Connor and Cameron and our cycling trip to the Myra Canyon Trestles
  • fishing at Arbutus Cove as a kid...staring out to Haro Strait and San Juan Island in the distance--I often thought about swimming to San Juan Island (20 KM)..maybe one day
  • work priorities and how to balance that with family and everything else I like to do....I will need to let something go.
  • how is my sister making out with Connor and Cameron back in Calgary? That was a real concern to us
  • I wonder what was going through the minds of the D-Day soldiers as they were making their way across the Channel?
  • How is the crew getting along? Are they getting seasick? Are they having a good time?
  • Pat Methany, The Who, The Beatles, Genesis, Sting, Miles Davis keeping me company throughout
I am now looking over at my crew to assess the situation. They are all hovered over what looks to be a BBQ. What the ____?! it looks like they are having a party while I am in here swimming. What are they eating?

They are eating Makerel! and apparently it is the finest tasting fish they have ever had! No garnish, just cooked fresh from the sea. And to think that back home, we disdain this fish as a nuissance to our precious salmon.

It is now hour 4-5. I must be through the shipping lane as I do not see any big freighters bearing down on us. It is just me and Louise Jane. I have passed the other teams. The Louise Jane made for a great swimming partner. Andy named the boat after his sister who lost her life a few years ago. She took good care of us. Andy also let his son (James) pilot the boat for the first time with a channel swimmer. James did a superb job. He maintained eye contact with me throughout...we were in sync. It was also his job to lead me, not the other way around. Good thing too as there was nothing for me to navigate off in the middle of the channel. I could not see France and I dared not look back to the White Cliffs of Dover. To a great extent, the ocean carries me, but it is up to Andy and his crew to find the most efficient pathway through to Cap Griz Nez. To my reckoning, I felt I was swimming straight. Most swimmers veer north east for the 1st 6 hrs and then the ebb tide runs them south west to France. As it turned out, I was swimming in "slack" waters (i.e. there was little tidal push) for the 1st half. In effect, I was swimming straight. The winds were also starting to pick up in concert with the land warming up. As a result, it was getting rougher--force 3 waves just below "white cap" height. I also knew that the ambient air temperature was on my side. Reference the crew taking off their jackets and donning T-shirts. This is a very good thing. I never did feel cold. In contrast to Mike and Christian, they swam the 1st 4-5 hours in darkness without the benefit of a warm sun...just one of the many faces of the channel. Consider myself fortunate. The conditions on the day have a lot to do with successful swims.

Hour 6. I sense birds overhead. Sure enough, there are dozens of seagulls dive-bombing me. The crew had a good laugh at this. What am I, dead carrion? Suregly Jonathan Livingston Seagull isn't among this wayward flock. He must be training for a speed record between Dover and Calais. I am feeling pretty good at this point. One arm in front of the other, pace is holding need to put on the "jets" for another couple of hours. My right shoulder is holding strong too! Thank you Kevin and Sun City Physiotherapy! Those strengthening exercises did the trick! Now I can see freighters moving in the other direction (towards Belgium). Ok, I am in the French shipping lane. I still can't see France through the mist but it must be there--another 10-15 km or so.

Hour 7. A small plane is flying right toward me...what is he up to? He dips his wing in salute and flies right past. Wow! The Channel Swimming Association pulls out all the stops. I have read about this in books. When Lynne Cox (most famour marathon swimmer in history) swam the Cook strait in New Zealand, commercial jets and military air craft made fly bys as the country watched her swim this feat on national television. As it turned out, this plane specialized in aereal photography.

Hour 8. The winds have picked up to 20 is very rough and I am being tossed around like I am in a washing machine. I felt a wave of nausea coming on.....


Celebrating the finish with the dolphins!

Finish at Cap Griz Nez, France
(10 hours, 43 minutes)

Flipper joins in the celebration!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Experience

Joanne applies the "grease"
Starting Point: Shakespeare Beach

Dodging big ships

Feeding time
Freshly caught Mackerel for lunch

Heavier seas in south-east shipping lane
Sands of France within reach

Cheers to my crew!

Pictures of the finish and dolphin show to follow

Monday, July 28, 2008

We did it!

We swam across the English Channel today in 10 hours and 43 minutes--witnessed by the dolphins that escorted us part of the way back to Dover. It was magical for all of us. I say "we" crossed the channel because it was the support of friends, family, colleagues, boat crew, the Channel Swimming Association, and good weather conditions that enabled me to achieve my dream of swimming the channel. I will never forget this experience!

I am very tired now. I will post a log of today's experience in the days to come. Thank you for your love and support. I shall have a heavenly slumber tonight.


Thursday, July 24, 2008

Not to be taken lightly

I have the green light to swim tomorrow morning, weather permitting. The water temperature is 17'C, ambient air temperature between 21-26'C on the coast, wave height is 3-5 feet in the middle of the channel; beaufort (i.e. wind speed rating) of 2-3 along the coast and 4-5 in the middle. A beaufort reading of 5-6 is indicative of a "small craft warning;" greater than 7 is a full gale!

I have been training in Dover for 5 days now. This is hallowed ground. Swimmers from all over the world converge here in an attempt to swim the channel. In other words, I am not the only "freak" swimming in the ocean without a wetsuit! There is a team of sponsored athletes from India. Two of these swimmers are teenagers with disabilities. One of them has left me with an unforgetable image of determination. This particular athlete is a paraplegic. His coach wheels him to the upper beach. From here, the swimmer makes his own way to the ocean--using only his arms to make his way over coarse rocks to water's edge. There is no stopping this swimmer once he is in the water. He swims unencumbered for upwards of 4-5 hours/day. He will be attempting his swim towards the end of August. Other swimmers I have met include a Japanese woman who successfully crossed the channel this week on a spring tide! Spring tides are associated with very strong currents. Most swims are planned around neap tides (i.e. when there is less current). This was her 5th channel crossing and she did it in a very respectable time of 14 hours. She was on the beach swimming the very next day! Other countries that are represented here include Iceland, Germany, Egypt, Brazil, Venezuala, USA, Ireland, Australia, South Africa, and the UK., just to name a few.

I have also met my pilot, Andy King. He took me and an American swimmer (Rendy from La Jolla, California) for a test swim in force 5 waters (severe small craft warning). Rendy is a very ambitious swimmer. She is set to complete the "triple crown" of open water swimming. This includes the Catalina Channel in California, English Channel and Manhattan Island swim in less than 6 weeks! She won the prestigious Manhattan Island Marathon swim last year. Rendey and I are very evenly matched.....going head to head in a training session between the walls of Dover Harbour. It is an honor to swim with her. She is swimming in the tide before mine (today) and I would expect her to make the crossing in less than 10 hrs (9 hrs if conditions are favorable). Rendey and I are very impressed with Andy. Andy is very adept at manoevering his boat a safe distance from us, and just ahead so that he guides us to France, not the other way around. He also makes it a point to maintain eye contact with us every time we turn our heads toward the ship's bridge for a breath. He will also position the boat to ensure that we are swimming on the leeward (less windy) side of the boat. Andy is also a character who makes us laugh. For example, his second mate is a Shrek doll mounted to the boat's mast! He is also known for using colorful language to spur his swimmers. We have been forewarned to expect words of encouragement such as...."swim you crazy BAST@$^!" Furthermore, if we see him donning cap and goggles, then we are in real trouble. For you see, Andy is a "salty sea fisherman," and he does not exactly have the physique of a swimmer. Seriously though, for Andy to take the time to escort us for a sea trial, speaks volumes for his professionalism. He also makes us laugh which puts us at ease; and in so doing, also reminds us to have fun and not take ourselves too seriously!
The photo up top, from left to right (Christian and Jonathan from New York, Mike from Seattle and yours truly; Nuala from London stands in the front row). Nuala had a successful crossing yesterday in 12 hours. Unfortunately, Mike and Christian did not make it. Both were pulled 10 hours into their swims due to severe hypothermia. Both of them were within a few kilometers for France. I am relieved that Mike and Christian have made a full recovery. I cannot help but feel for them as this was their 2nd attempt at the channel. By no means is this a failure....both trained hard and gave it 110%. This serves as a reminder that this swim is NOT to be taken lightly. Consequently, I am having some fleeting moments of self-doubt......Do I have what it takes? The answer of course is yes, but this experience serves as a reminder to:
1) Respect the ocean
2) Stay determined and focussed on the goal--those sands of France.
3) There is no looking back to the White Cliffs of Dover.
4) Visualize success and put one arm in front of the other until I reach Cap Griz Nez.

I will be departing at 0600. You can track my progress at Look for the boat called Louise Jane. We will be dodging all the other ships you see on the map.

Powered by the Orcas of Haro Strait and Ogopogo,

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Tea and a swim in Hyde Park

July 22nd
Since our arrival, Joanne and I have been treated like royalty in London. It helps when a true Londoner (apparently that is someone who dines regularly at Sea Shell's Fish and Chips in the Maryleborne District) takes the time to showcase his city to complete strangers from another country. On this note, we had the good fortune of being introduced to Nick through a colleague of mine. Special thanks to Colin for introducing us to cousin Nick! Imagine trying to find your way in a city of 10 million people when you are from a community with a population of 100,000...a daunting experience to say the least. However, thanks to Nick, we were made to feel right at home. Nick gave us a thorough orientation to London's public transportation system--including two multi-transit passes to get around town. He also provided us with a general overview of London's communities, points of interest, and he made himself available to answer any of our questions, such as..."Can I swim in the Thames?"

Day 1
  • take in the street markets of Notting Hill
  • enjoy the best fish and chips London has to offer (Sea Shells Fish and Chips)--reference the cabs queued up down the street
  • enjoy a splendid evening with Nick, his partner Tony, and his nephew's young family

Day 2

  • see London by bicycle. Nick took us for a bicycle ride through Hyde Park, Buckingham Palace, Westminster and Trafalgar Square. People may think that I am crazy for swimming the "dangerous" Channel...not in comparison to riding a bicycle on the "wrong side of the road" between the buses and taxis weaving in and out of traffic through this busy thoroughfare! Seriously though, cycling is a great way to see London up close and personal. It is also affordable, healthy and you look cool doing it.
  • kudos to the City of London for creating a thriving commuter cycling network, for opening up select streets to pedestrians on weekends, and for enticing the public to leave their cars at home...something that North American cities should aspire to
  • later, we enjoyed live jazz at world famous Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club.

Day 3

  • we ate breakfast in Hyde Princess Dianna's Memorial to be precise. We could have spent all day there. The park is a wonderful sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of London city life. A little later, Joanne went for a run while I swam 6 KM in the Hyde Park Lido--an outdoor 100m swim lane in the middle of the park. My shoulder is feeling very good after that workout.
  • a tour of the Tower of London and a musical in London's West End followed

Friday, July 18, 2008

Bon Voyage

For many years I have dreamed of swimming across the English Channel. I am so close now that I can taste it. Not surprisingly, I am being swept up in waves of emotion. All the hours I have spent training in the pool, lake and ocean; all of the research I have read on marathon swimming; the personal sacrifices I have made to get to this point; and all of the visualizing I have done in reaching out and touching the "sands of France"...all of this activity reflects who I am and the passion I have for the life aquatic. It is an emotional time. To add to this, the emails, cards and words of encouragement I am receiving from friends, family and colleagues is overwhelming! I have reconnected with friends I grew up with in this sport over 20 years ago and I have connected with some of the incredible athletes who inspired me on this journey. What is so reassuring about the messages I am receiving is that my friends' only expectation is that I try my best. No one will think less of me if I do not reach France. There are no guarantees ...Neptune will factor a big role in the outcome. Success is ultimately achieved by trying. To top things off, friends from the Okanagan Masters Swim Club threw a going away party for me (see picture above). Thanks to Coach Rob and Carmelle Swan for organizing a great party on a glorious Okanagan summer's day. I felt so supported!! To send me on my way, they presented me with a Canadian towel, a book on How to Swim Through a Mid-Life Crisis, and Channel training food in the form of chocolate to fatten me up and a six-pack of French Bier (Kronenberg circa 1875--the year Mathew Webb accomplished the first Channel crossing).

London calling..........