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). http://www.ymcastrongkids.ca/
2) The Kelowna General Hospital Foundation. Your donation will go towards the purchase of medical equipment. http://www.kghfoundation.com/
* 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 on...it 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
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 strong....ne 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 knots....it is very rough and I am being tossed around like I am in a washing machine. I felt a wave of nausea coming on.....
TO BE CONTINUED