Again…I recognize it has taken me a REALLY long time to post this. Matt has had some health issues over the last few months. In any event, I hope you enjoy the post!
So, we had our own Groundhog Day. We got up again on Friday at 2:00 a.m. and headed to Dover. Only, this time, I was able to get out of my clothes, slather on some zinc oxide to protect my skin and Vaseline for the chaffing. I jumped in a little after 4:00 a.m., swam to Shakespeare Beach and headed off on my journey to France.
The first few hours were pretty uneventful. I’ve been asked many times what it is like to swim in the dark. It is a little scary. But, primarily, it is a little disorienting. It is dark in the water and dark outside – like swimming in a big cocoon. I could see the lights on the boat – but that was about it. I actually found it peaceful. And, I was so happy to be in the English Channel swimming towards France that I really didn’t notice too much. I was a bit chilly…without the sun. But, it wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle. And, when the sun finally started coming up after a few hours I was most grateful to have the warmth on my back – not necessarily the light.
Many swimmers struggle with stomach issues during long swims like this – and I am no exception. It is the bobbing of the ocean, the feeds, the intake of salt water, the smell of the boat fumes, and, of course, the adrenaline. About two hours into the swim, I was feeling very ill. I tend to vomit about 3 hours into any long swim. But, this time it was a little over 2 hours into the swim. Thankfully, I didn’t know how long I had been swimming because I wasn’t wearing a watch…I really didn’t want to know how long I had been swimming.
Usually, after I “Feed the Fish” I feel instantly better – but, I didn’t this time. The salt water was REALLY bothering my mouth and my feeds didn’t seem to be digesting. The salt water does a number on your mouth. My lips and tongue usually swell and, a few days after a swim in really salty water, the sides of my tongue usually peel off. YUM!
The way I feed is pretty typical – every thirty minutes I take in a mixture of Perpetuem which has carbs and protein plus a little powdered Gatorade for flavor. Once an hour I usually take in a gel or something else. My goal is to get 250 calories in per hour. This helps with energy and with body warmth. When your calories drop – your body temp drops. So it is extremely important to keep those calories coming (and staying) on board. I also have Vaseline available to slather onto my lips and mouth to help with the salt. The one thing I had not used before was canned peaches in syrup. I had heard that the syrup helped a lot with the salt effects on the tongue. About 3 ½ hours in – I stopped and said that my tongue was killing me. Eric asked if we had any canned peaches and I said – OH YEAH – let’s try those. So, at my next feed they sent out a cup with some canned peaches. They were the best thing I have ever tasted. They slid right down – the syrup did its job and coated my tongue and I asked to have those at every feed.
But, unfortunately, I continued to feel a bit sick. Otherwise, everything was going “swimmingly.” I was alternating singing songs to myself and lapsing into what is called a “flow state” – like when you drive for a few miles and you don’t remember having driven them. Your mind just kind of goes quiet. Then, a little over 7 hours in – all of the sickness that I had been holding onto came up. I vomited, and I vomited… and I vomited. I would start to swim and the feeding of the fish would start again. Thankfully, canned peaches aren’t too bad when they come back up! But, vomiting in the water is really pretty disgusting – it lands right in front of your face and you just have to push it away. I also try to be somewhat polite and turn away from the boat!
After that, I felt as good as I had felt all day and I thought – this is the beginning of the swim. Head down, one arm and then the other. The next few hours were excellent. I felt good and I seemed to be making good progress. Then, about 10 hours in, the current and the wind picked up off of the coast of France. I could see what is called the Cap – Cap Gris Nez… but it seemed like we were going to pass it. The conditions off the coast of France can be pretty rough. The wind had picked up to what they call Force 5 and it was coming off of the coast. So, I passed the Cap and we waited for the tide to turn heading back up the coast. This is the only part of the swim where my head wanted to give out on me. I could see the Cap and every time I looked up – it didn’t seem as if we were getting any closer.
At 13 hours in – all of the stress of seeing France and not making any progress caught up to me. I stopped and asked Matt how much longer and he told me to just put my head down and swim. Well…even though that’s what I had told him to say – I didn’t like that answer very much. So, I asked again – very vigorously. And, he yelled back and said put your head down and swim. I really didn’t like that…so, I splashed the water about and said, effectively… “Just tell me how much farther” and he yelled back and I started to swim again. Then, I started to cry…in my goggles. I thought why didn’t he just lie to me and say 2 more hours – or anything. I wouldn’t have known anyway since I didn’t have a watch. Then, I made myself stop crying because it was silly and I didn’t want my goggles to fill up with tears…there was enough salt out there. I think Eric sensed that I needed a little pick me up. After about 5 minutes, he came out of the cockpit and stopped me and he said in his perfect south England accent – you’re doin’ great love – no more messin’ about – just get on with the swimming – your next feed is likely to be your last feed – now get on with the swimming. That was all I needed. I put my head down and thought, I’m going to make it. I’m really going to make it.
I never doubted during the swim…but, I never really let myself believe I was going to make it either. I just tried to live in the moment as best I could. But, at that point, I let myself believe and it was awesome.
The next hour was unevently. I did my last feed and as we got close to shore, Eric came out and explained to me that he was going to stop about 500 meters away from shore, that I was to swim to shore, clear the water, get my rock and swim back to the boat. If I didn’t think I could make it back to the boat, I was to raise my hands in an x over my head and they would bring the dinghy to shore to get me.
I swam away from the boat and after a few minutes, my hand hit the sand. I tried to stand up and fell over a bit. The water was VERY shallow – but, I still had quite a ways to go to clear it. So, I decided it would be easier to just try to keep swimming than walk. I stood up a few more times and then walked to shore. There was a couple down the beach getting married and I didn’t want to disturb their wedding – so I walked the other way to find my rock. It is an English Channel tradition that the swimmer gets a rock as a memento of their swim. Some swimmers have to hunt for a rock, but when I hit the shore there were literally hundreds of rocks. I was so overwhelmed – I looked down and waited for one to speak to me. One did and I picked it up and turned back towards the boat.
I expected to feel this great sense of relief or accomplishment…but I really didn’t. I was happy and relieved – but I didn’t really have a huge WOW moment on the beach. The cruel trick in an English Channel swim is that, after you finish – you have to swim BACK to the boat. And, by the time I got my toes back in the water, I had started to shake…I expect because my body was starting to warm-up in the sun. I frantically tried to figure out what to do with the massive rock that I had picked up while I was swimming back to the boat. I shoved it in the back of my suit and headed back to the boat. Not only do you have to swim back but you have to get yourself onto the boat, then get yourself dried and covered up quickly before the shakes come and the channel cramp hits you’re your hands.
When I hit the boat – the first thing I asked was “how long did it take me.” For some reason I expected to hear 18 hours – which wouldn’t have made any sense given that the sun was still up. If I had swum 18 hours it would have been 10:00 p.m. Matt told me 14 hours, four minutes and 44 seconds…and I was thrilled!
It is a 2 ½ hour ride back to England. I don’t really remember much of the ride back except that I laid down and shook for a bit. But Matt did get me up as we were getting close to England so I could see the most amazing sunset over the White Cliffs of Dover. It was the perfect end to the perfect day.
When we got back to the dock we headed back to the house and it took me several more hours before I really warmed up and stopped shaking. And, when I laid down in bed that night – when Matt was still downstairs with the crew and several friends who had joined us in England – that is the first time it really hit me. And, I said out loud, sitting by myself – I am a Channel Swimmer. I will never get tired of saying it.
It was an amazing journey and, thankfully, it isn’t over yet. I have the Catalina Channel swim scheduled for September 2013.