Well its now less than 1 year until the big swim. Having spent the last week in bed with the flu, my training has taken a bit of a hit. In the space of 2 weeks, water temperature in the Bay has dropped from 13-14 degrees down to just over 10 degrees so the swim later on today at Brighton Baths will be interesting. Will be definitely getting the flu shot next year!
With the swim now less than 365 days away, I started to imagine what it will be like over there. What will the water feel like, are there really that many boats going up and down the channel, how strong really is this current that everyone talks about. Its been encouraging to see at least 3 individual and 2 teams successfully cross the channel in the past 2 weeks (start of the 2014 season) meaning that my decision to go early in the season with slightly cooler water but warmer aim may have been a good one.
I also had another read of Matt Harry’s account of his swim in 2013 which always gives me goose bumps – he doesn’t leave out many details and it highlights the importance of mental toughness.
Matt Harry Swims The English Channel (August 2013)
After a fairly uneventful two weeks of tapering, supplies and equipment had been purchased, organised, measured and labelled when the call came through from our pilot Eddie Spelling that we would be meeting at Dover Marina at 03.30 on Thursday 29th Aug for an approximate 04.30 start from Shakespeare beach – that was tomorrow morning! I looked at my partner Jess and just said “Sh*t, this is it”, she calmly said “We’d better call your Dad and Ollie”, as they were the other two crew members who would be assisting Jess to keep me fuelled, positive and focused from on-board the escort boat. Given my history of anxiety I had been concerned that when this time came things might start to get a bit sideways in terms of not being able to get any sleep, feeling nauseas and generally creating unneeded mischief for myself so I had done a fair amount of work meditating, receiving hypnosis and visiting a sports psych in order to remain calm from this point until the time I landed in France – and I am pleased to say that the work paid off – I slept for a solid 4 hours and awoke at 2.50am to a bowl of banana porridge prepared by my magnificent girlfriend. I felt calm and fully dialled in focused as we headed down to meet the boat.
After hugs and kisses with family we were on-board and motoring out around the harbour walls toward Shakespeare beach and the moment I was desperate for. I sat below deck with some motivational tunes blazing away on my ipod, stretching in the dark with only Eddie and the glow of the boat’s instruments as company. The hum and rock of the boat served to further relax me as the crew busied themselves on deck preparing for the start. With about 5minutes to go, my Observer, Loretta popped her head down and said “5 minutes”. I climbed the stairs and watched as the shore approached. Unknown to my crew at this time I actually started to feel really cold and was shivering so I didn’t want to strip down to my speedos until the very last minute as I thought I might completely destroy their confidence that I could get this done – none of them were shivering and I was supposed to be the one prepared to swim in cold water for up to 15hours. With about 2minutes to go I finally striped down to my speedos and the strangest thing happened – all of a sudden I was warm – the cold was gone – it was as though my body went “right, I know what’s about to happen here and I’m going to make it easier for you”. I cannot remember a moment in my life when I have been as focused as I was at this point, as Jess smeared wool fat and vasoline all over my most chafe-prone areas . I knew exactly how I wanted to swim this; my “rules” were locked and loaded and the regular visualisation I had undertaken seemed to kick me into autopilot. There was a moment of “this is all a bit surreal” then I was down the ladder and swimming toward shore for the start of the swim.
When I approached the shore I experienced a moment of nausea so I stopped and knelt on one knee in the shallows while I washed my goggles out and steadied my nerves. My legs were shaky as I stood and took three steps forward to clear the water but I had resolved to leave all doubt and nerves on the beach, as suggested to me a week earlier by Wendy Trehiou after she completed a double crossing in 39hrs (monumental swim). I raised my arms to signal to the boat that I was ready to begin and off I went. I plunged into the water with the sounds of encouragement being yelled from the boat fresh in my ears. The sea was flat, there was no wind and I felt fresh, strong and 100% focused – the water temperature at 17degrees felt even warmer than Dover Harbour which made me pretty happy as I pulled into the light being shone from the boat’s spotlight onto the water and found my rhythm. I had been so used to feeling fatigued from the very first lap in training but the taper had worked a treat and I just felt like a well-oiled machine with energy to burn. Within 45minutes we were treated to the most vivid red sunrise I have ever seen and I can tell you at that point I had a moment of supreme satisfaction with my decision, made 3years earlier to swim the channel – I had doubted this decision so many times over those 3 years during the cold lonely kilometres of training. But at that moment I knew that it had been a good decision – that is not to say that I was counting any chickens before they hatched; I knew that I had a long way to go and I had decided long before this moment that one of the most important mind-sets I would carry on this day would be to not celebrate or count anything as complete until I felt the sand beneath my feet. From the first stroke I took I never looked back nor did I allow myself to look up toward France I just focused on swimming feed to feed until I reached sand.
Jess, Dad and Ollie did a great job of being punctual with 30minute feeds and firing just the right amount of positivity toward me during the short feed stops and the first few hours went by without incident. At around 4hours both wrists started to ache and I wondered briefly if this was the start of the rot. It was at this time that I remembered the words of a good mate of mine Don Riddington (the oldest Australian to ever swim the Channel) who said “when your body starts to play up it is just reminding you that it’s still there with you” and it may sound corny but I actually started to talk to the different parts of my body as they flared….a bit of “yeah I know you’re there, you’re doing a good job but there’s no point complaining coz you’re staying with me until we get to France” seemed to do the trick (weirdly) as the shoulders, hips and wrists all went through their moments of complaint. Somewhere around 5hours and well into the separation zone I spewed – brrrrrrrggghhhg goddamn it……..brrrrrrrrgggghhhhh…..sh*t I hope that’s all there isbbrrrrrrggghhhhhhhh kaaghh kagh kagggghh ehhh that wasn’t great whatever keep swimming mate…..10 seconds passes….bbrrrrrrrgggghh brrrrrrggghhhh eehh that hurt bbbrrrrrrrggggghhhhhh kahh kkah kaaa….think that’s it ohbbbrrrrrrrggggghhhh yeah think that’s it now….just relax…do some breaststroke, let your stomach settle…ok all good – swim on. Thankfully that was my only encounter with illness for the day as when a swimmer cannot settle their stomach their swim is often doomed. Not long after this my crew yelled out to me that Kevin Murphy, the King of the Channel was sending me his best wishes. The Kelly Slater of Channel swimming was sending ME his best wishes!! – far out, that one boosted my spirits after a big chunder.
I’d like to say that I had some kind of epiphany in the deep waters of the Channel but I didn’t. I had prepared so many things to keep my mind entertained during the swim such as motivational quotes, songs, anecdotes and memories from my life that I felt would re-stoke the fires that would surely start to diminish but the fire burned brightly and at no point did I have any desire or need to remove myself mentally from what was happening. Instead I sat, almost detached at the helm of the control panel of my body. I was an observer of sorts, continually monitoring the feedback my body was providing and making adjustments accordingly. I monitored my stroke rating, my form, my aches, my pains, my energy levels, my mental state, how the feeds were sitting, where I was positioned relevant to the boat, my kick and any stiffness in my muscles and just quietly went about the business of making the continual adjustments required to get myself to the other side in the best possible shape. The water got cold through the middle of the swim; we had numerous 15 degree readings and one 13degree reading but I didn’t really feel it….at least I don’t think I did – I may very well have colourised the swim in my mind due to the relentless positivity that success provides but I don’t remember being cold and certainly the footage that I have seen would suggest that I wasn’t at all cold – not a shiver!
Due to the fact that I had been extremely disciplined in not looking up or asking how far I had to go it was around the 7.5 hour mark that I started to feel the only bit of negativity that I experienced during the swim. I knew how long I had been swimming but really had no idea how long I had to go. I may have had another 7.5hours for all I knew and my mind wondered for around 15minutes until it snapped back into the robotic repetition and inertia that I had trained into it. Not long after (the 8.5hr mark) came the call “You’re in French inshore waters”…”yeeeeehooooowoww yeah baby woohooo we’re gonna do this….hang on no you’re not there yet…have your feed and keep swimming”…some rough calculations were carried out at this point and I decided that even if everything went to the dogs I should still only have 4hours max to swim – but I in no way held any attachment to that figure, it was purely for interest and to give myself a mental boost – the swim wasn’t over until there was no water left. As it turned out we did get thrown a curve-ball in the form of a rare tide which turned 2hours early and completely skipped slack water. Where I was to be delivered beautifully onto Cap Gris Nez whilst swimming with the tide I was left to swim against and across a tide that was now heading north and away from the coast. Unbeknownst to me, prior to this bizarre tide my pilot had me pegged for a 10hour time and a landing on the holy grail (Cap Gris Nez). We had been really fortunate with the wind; the first half of the swim didn’t really get over 10knots(force 3) but through the middle and back end of the swim the wind peaked up a bit and got up to force 5(16-18knots) but it didn’t trouble me too much as I had trained in winds as high as 35knots in Melbourne.
At 10hrs 30 I stopped for a feed and my crew yelled down to me “If you sprint you’ll be on the beach in an hour”…at this point I looked up toward France for the first time and replied “I’ll believe that when I see it” as it still looked a way off. And it was – the pilot had told the crew that I still had about an hour and a half ahead of me swimming across the tide before I would reach the beach. This is where you have to be careful what you wish for – I had told Jess many times that I was really looking forward to getting to a point where I felt that I just could not swim another stroke and then experience what it was like to push past that point. Jess could see that I clearly hadn’t reached that point so she decided to throw me a little challenge after 10 and a half hours in the water….”SPRINT!”….and that’s what I did – my stroke rating went from 67 to 76 for the next hour as I pushed across the tide toward Blanc Nez. Jess, Dad and Ollie pumped a bit of fruit sugar and flat coke into my feeds to give me a bit of extra vavoom to get me across the tide and at around the 11hr 15minute mark I breathed toward the boat and saw Ollie standing port side, speedos, cap and goggles in place doing a “lightning bolt” (Usain style) and I knew we were close. I kinda laughed and cried at the same time, having a bit of a chuckle into the water while my goggles welled with tears. I could hear the love of my life, my dad and a good mate all yelling encouragement and willing me to shore from the boat and before I knew it Ollie was swimming right beside me filming the last meters of the swim with a big poo-eating grin on his dial. Ollie had prepared my training program and in many ways delivered me to this point so it was magnificent to share the moment with him in the water. Before I knew it I heard him yelling “stand up mate, stand up” and I reached down to feel SAND….French sand – the substance of what drove me to get out of bed, to throw myself into ice cold water in the middle of winter, to go to the pool on a Friday night after a week of work and swim 20K – this thing that I had wanted for so long and so desperately I now had. I stood up and yelled my satisfaction toward the boat and the universe in general and then the competitor in me kicked in – I started to run, I ran toward the beach – maybe it was all the open water races I have done, maybe I am programmed to run when I hit the sand after an all-out effort or maybe it was me wanting to beat myself, to out-do myself – to finish stronger than I ever imagined. Whatever it was it got me onto the beach where I fell to the sand and gave it a well-deserved kiss before flopping onto my back in front of a confused French family. Within a minute, Jess joined us on the beach looking as happy as me as she ran up and threw her arms around me for a sandy kiss. We had done it! I had swum the English Channel but it was a victory that belonged to us all. As my good mate and Channel Swimmer Mike Gregory likes to say “Nobody does it alone” and never a truer word was spoken. Jess made almost as many sacrifices as I did to get us to this point from the early mornings, the long swims, the motivational speeches, putting up with grumpy Matt and sleepless nights while I tossed and turned beside her all full of sugar and adrenaline after long evening training sessions and that is something that I will be forever in her debt for. Ollie’s support and guidance around training and then making the trip down to be on my support crew again is something that I could not quantify and will be forever grateful for. And Dad who supported and encouraged me at every step of the process despite having his concerns also shares a big part of this success – It was truly a great team I had and I am convinced that they were the reason the day went as well as it did! There are too many others to mention here from the rest of my family (Mum, Sammy, Beks, Ems and Benny – bloody great tribe of beautiful, caring people) to my swim mates and many, many others but this is not the forum for thanks – this is the story of the swim and the swim was over. In 11 hours and 34minutes, 1 hour and 4 minutes after I had been told to “sprint for an hour” – I had swum the English Channel! I had finally swum the Channel…..