Sunday, 14 April 2013

When the wheels come off...

Sooner or later in a sport like marathon swimming, something will go wrong and you won't be able to finish a swim. It's an occupational hazard. Even with the hardest and most meticulous training, this can happen; but with an early season swim in unseasonably low temperatures, the risks are increased. And so it was that my attempt to swim the Cabrera Channel on 10 April ended with me being hauled out mid-Channel, too cold to continue.

We set off from the port of Sa Rapita at 7am and motored over to the beautiful island of Cabrera - a closely protected nature reserve to the south of Mallorca. The journey was thankfully quick (bearing in mind my uselessness on boats), and after a few moments to settle my stomach, we started getting ready for the swim. I felt great - full of energy and optimism. The water in the sheltered bay was glassy and clear, and even though a thick mist hung low on the water, I was looking forward to some warming sunshine later on. Jumping in, I felt the usual rush of adrenalin - the mild shock of the water, plus the excitement of the swim to come. And off I paddled, feeling good, with the team from XTRM of Toni, Rafael and Laura on board the boat, along with Peter.

It's difficult for me to pin down exactly what happened in the hours that followed, but although the boat's thermometer was showing 15 degrees, it felt SO much colder - perhaps as a result of my lack of acclimatisation beforehand, or the weight I have lost over the winter, or windchill, or the sapping effects of the cool mist that hung low over the water for the first few hours of the swim. Or perhaps it was just cold. By hour two, I was heart-sinkingly cold; chilled right through to the core. And I just couldn't stop thinking about it. It was like being eaten by cold from the inside and my positive mood was being eroded with it.

Out of the shelter of the island, I started to have trouble staying with the boat. The winds were making it difficult for the boat (or me?) to keep a steady course, and even after a cycle of just 6 strokes, I would look up to sight the boat to find a large gap had opened up between us. As a result, I ended up making some eccentric loops in my efforts to get back to the boat, probably adding considerable distance. This explains in part my shockingly slow progress on the swim, averaging just a couple of km per hour (as the crow flies, but probably not as I swam), as well as my rather erratic pace - sometimes under 2km / hour, and at others, closer to the 3km/hour I was anticipating (and which I certainly do consistently in pool training).

The crew were fantastic - working hard to keep me and the boat together and on course, and offering relentless positivity on feeds. But in the water, by hour 5, the wheels were well and truly coming off. I knew I had to try and stop dwelling on the cold, and at each feed, tried to convince myself that I was just having a bad patch and that a feed would sort me out. But I think it was just too late - the cold had well and truly got me, and at the feeds, my hands were shaking with cold, and it was hard to swallow the liquid down. Even the big green jelly baby couldn't save me. I hacked on as best I could, but the crew were looking worried now too. Peter asked a couple of questions to check my mental state, and I was fine the first couple of times, but at 6.5 hours, he asked the name of our cat and I just stared back at him as I was being pulled further and further away from the boat (or the boat from me....I don't know which). It was such an odd moment - I knew exactly what he was asking, but couldn't quite formulate an answer. I wanted to tell him that I was busy and would answer in a minute. And then Peter made the hard, but utterly right, decision to pull the swim. If I'd been close to finishing, I think I would have fought to stay in (and perhaps they would have let me push on a bit more), but with probably another 5 hours to go, sea conditions worsening considerably, and with me succumbing progressively to the cold, there was no way I was going to make it.

I paddled round to the back of the boat, struggling to negotiate the rungs of the ladder in the bouncing sea. Then suddenly, hands grabbed hold and I was hauled swiftly out. Too cold and confused to participate actively, I was wrapped in layer upon layer of blankets and clothes; my cap and goggles were slipped off and replaced with my woollen hat; unable to find my socks quickly enough, Laura sacrificed her own and flurry of hands wrestled my numb feet into them. So there I was, bundled up in an eccentric heap of blankets and clothes, being tightly hugged by Peter and Toni as I began to shiver my way slowly back to warmth and the boat bounded its way back over the increasingly agitated waves back to Sa Rapita. 

One of life's odder moments, and certainly not what I'd been hoping for when I jumped in to the water that morning.   


The next day, I felt sore and a bit drained, but okay and none the worse for wear apart from a slight niggle from the back injury I picked up a few weeks ago, but which eased off with a few days of stretching. But I did find myself, rather self-indulgently, churning over and over what had happened, second-guessing everything I had done, and speculating about what I could / should have done differently. I felt a little embarrassed by how badly and quickly it had all gone wrong after so many people had put in so much effort to make it happen, and I was also quite shocked at having suffered so badly from the cold, since this has really never been a problem for me before. 

But after a few days of pottering around in the sunshine, I was able to get a better perspective on the whole thing. The core problem was the timing of it - I didn't go to Mallorca specifically to do the swim so early in the season, but did the swim because I was going to be on holiday in Mallorca that week. I think that it would have been a very different experience later in the season....or even if the spring weather hadn't been so poor. As it happens, the air temps in Mallorca shot up 5-6 degrees by the end of the week, and the forecast for next week is hot, sunny and calm. Such is life and this was the gamble I chose to take. The second aspect of the timing is that it limited my own preparations, not only because it meant that I wasn't able to get any substantial open water training before the swim, but also because of the unanticipated difficulties I've had this year balancing work obligations and training. Consequently, while training should really be about preparing for when things go wrong, my preparation was such that I was only really sufficiently prepared if things went right. Again, this was the risk I chose to take and I gave it my very best shot but it wasn't enough.

So to think about it more positively: It was a great training swim for what's coming next (thanks to Kevin Murphy for reminding me of that). I also got to meet some fantastic people (Toni, Rafael and Laura) - the failure of the swim is all on me; they were superb, both when it was all going well, but perhaps more importantly, when it all went wrong. I also think that there is some value in having had that experience with the cold. Bodily, it is a quite extraordinary thing to experience and adds another dimension to some of the things I've been writing about in the book about my own experience of swimming. And it's also a good learning point - a chance to think about developing new strategies for intervening early in situations like that to try and stop the cold getting such a tight grip. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, Mallorca is beautiful, and even an unsuccessful swim is an amazing adventure. 

Many thanks to Peter, Toni, Rafael and Laura - I'm sorry that it didn't work out as we'd hoped, but hopefully I'll be able to come back and have another crack at it...preferably when it's warmer!

Onwards now to Manhattan in June. 


  1. Hi Karen,

    Really enjoy reading your blog... I am taking part in a 2 man relay swim of the English Channel for charity in September so training hard at the moment...! I am very much a novice open water swimmer but enjoying it :-) Reading about your training and experiences really help!

    Keep up the good work! My Twitter is @charityswimmer if you want to get in touch!

    Jon Livemore

  2. Great write-up and useful lessons for us all. Keep up the good work Karen!

  3. Experiences like that make you stronger. It is gives swimmers like you the motivation and perspective.


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