Monday, 13 September 2010

Channel swim - some reflections

It’s been 10 days now since I swam the Channel. Physically, I emerged from it better than I thought I would; mostly I just felt really hung over for several days – probably the result of dehydration, plus general metabolic chaos. I wasn’t particularly stiff or sore, but my energy levels were very erratic, and I was quite hyper from adrenalin and sugar for a couple of days post-swim. Consequently, I had trouble sleeping for more than a couple of hours at a time for several days. Still, I felt like the training had really paid off, and that I’d come out it pretty well, with no injuries to speak of. In psychological terms, it took a while for it to all sink in. I’d found the last four hours incredibly hard, distressing…even slightly violent in terms of the pressure that I’d had to put my body under. It was something I was very unaccustomed to and I wasn’t quite sure what to make of a swimming experience that was so far removed from anything I had ever done before. But as the days passed, I became more and more elated by the fact that I’d completed the swim, and started to get quite emotional every time I thought about those final moments of swimming in to the beach. I also learned that on that day, all but three boats had to turn back because of the difficult conditions and I began to realize how lucky I’d been to be able to get through it at all; and how lucky I’d been to have such a great crew and skilled pilot to get me through that. And because of that luck, their skill, plus all the training and preparation, and a bit of good old-fashioned determination towards the end, I was, at last, a Channel swimmer.

Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’ve learned from the experience…and what I think I perhaps got right, and what I would do differently.

In terms of preparations, I chose to train for two years, and did a lot of training camps and a lot of miles. I don’t think everyone needs to do this much (and not everyone has the time or financial resources to do this either, of course), but for someone as profoundly risk-averse as me, this was a huge and necessary confidence-builder. I also found the Round Jersey and Jersey to France swims invaluable in this process. As it turned out, given what happened on the swim, I don’t think I would have made it without the experience of these long swims and some of the more intensive periods of my training. Following manifold snippets of advice from various training sites and experienced individuals, I’d addressed in almost obsessive detail as many sometimes seemingly trivial aspects of the swim beforehand as I possibly could – feeding regimen and delivery system; what foods I can and can’t eat in the water; what make of goggles, caps, costumes, suncream etc I like… and so on. Getting all that stuff sorted out, with nothing new on the day and spares of everything, just in case, took a lot of the stress out of it all. I think I did reasonably well on the self-discipline front on the day too – swimming from feed to feed; not asking where I was (even though I REALLY wanted to); not looking up for France; doing as I was told. These are the things that I think worked well for me that I’d been able to learn through both trial and error, and from more experienced others.

But there are two things that I felt unprepared for…mostly, I should add, through a woeful failure of imagination on my part on both counts.

The first of these was the delay because of the weather. Of course, even though I knew that it was always a possibility, I think that deep down, I had assumed that being first on the tide in mid-August would mean that I would probably get a swim on that tide. It would probably have always been a difficult period, but I don’t think I’d anticipated how disruptive it would be, and how stressful…and also, the practical problems that it would cause in terms of losing support crew, or trying to maintain fitness whilst never quite knowing when I would get the call to go (if at all). A bit more realistic thought on this front beforehand would have been helpful, I think.

The second, and much more serious, mistake I made relates to the sprinting…and my lack of mental and physical preparation for it. I had always framed my swimming in terms of me as a plodder – slow but steady. Of course, I had heard lots of stories about people having to sprint, but I had somehow persuaded myself that that would be for the faster swimmers, and that I would be left to plod on. Consequently, although I’d done sprint training with the masters club over the winter, in the open water, I pretty much stuck to ingraining my habitual pace, cranking out the hours and habituating to temperature and distance, but holding a steady pace and stroke rate. This makes me a bit of an idiot because I had been advised on several occasions to do intervals during the long Dover swims, but somehow I had decided that this didn’t apply to me… probably because I really hate sprinting, and love plodding. Well…didn’t that just come back to bite me! I’m very grateful that I’d done all those gut-busting sprint sessions over the two winters, because at least that gave me something to draw on when the time came, but if I had my time again (or if I ever do another long swim…?), I’d definitely be adding interval training to my open water sessions.

So that’s it – from signing up nearly two years ago, to one amazing, unforgettable (in every sense) day in early September: my English Channel swim.

But the last thing that I have to do is to say some thank-you’s. These are not in any particular order, and I hope I’ve not left anyone out, but I really want to thank:
  • Paul Foreman and his crew for their skill, expertise and determination to get me across, no matter how long it took; Sam for coming on as crew quite late in the day, and for being so amazingly generous and positive throughout; and Jamie and Neil for offering to come on as crew in the earlier weeks and juggling their schedules accordingly.
  • All of the people involved in running the training camps I’ve been lucky enough to attend – everyone at Swimtrek, Sally, Charlie and the JLDSC, Ned Denison and the Sandy Cove mob.
  • All those who work tirelessly down on the beach in Dover – Freda, Barrie, Irene, Louise, Emma…. What can I say.
  • City of Coventry Masters Club….especially for the sprinting, even if I didn’t appreciate it at the time; 1485 Tri Club for putting up with me staying in until the very end of every sessions, even when everyone else had got out; Dan Earthquake and the SLCSC; Coventry Triathletes. Thanks for all the help with training.
  • Penny – my winter swim training partner.
  • The ESRC – for funding the research that has enabled me to travel around so much and meet so many interesting people during my training.
  • And finally…Peter – who has tolerated in good spirit my frequent absences; my appropriation of “our” campervan; the fact that most trips we’ve made together in the last two years have at some point involved him sitting in a kayak or a boat for hours; and my endless Channel talk. Plus, he was a complete hero on the day and I cannot imagine having done it without him there to support me.

2 comments:

  1. What a fantastic write up Karen! We throughly enjoyed reading it. The video is great too. What a brilliant couple of years you've had.
    You must come over for the club dinner at the end of Nov. It would be great to see you again and hear about all your adventures. Hope you are having a fantastic time
    Chantelle & Bradley xx

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  2. brilliant - a great story and a great swim

    ReplyDelete