Just in case I didn’t bore you all enough in the run up to my swim…….I’ve written a report I’ve tried to keep it short(ish) but I did have quite a long time to think about it so you might want to pop the kettle on if you’re intending to read it…here goes…
Contrary to the evil rumour that I was still in arm bands and learning to swim when I started this challenge I don’t actually remember learning to swim. As a child, I swam competitively with the local club until the age that beer and boys became more interesting. About six years ago I returned to the water, to a masters club and almost immediately my open water swimming obsession started following participating in the Great North Swim. Since then any opportunity to get into open water has been dived into.
But how did I find myself attempting to swim to another country? My mouth got me into trouble as it so often does. This time for mocking my friend Will for looking freezing cold as he exiting the lake after his first non-wetsuited swim. By the time I returned home he’d messaged me, said I should put my money where my mouth was and dared me to swim the Channel. Will was already in training so I’d have company in the preparations, I’d always dreamed of this as a child but it had always seemed a dream too far; the distance; the cold; so much training; so much expense…however never one to shirk a dare…I woke up the next day thinking about it. Then spent the whole day thinking about it. Then I decided I was already fairly swim fit – it was now or never.
Some serious introductory investigations into the logistics of channel swimming followed – which pilot, which boat, which dates were available (swims are often booked years and years in advance), was July or October a better bet (water temp versus swimming in the dark)? Within a week I was booked. Swim window at the end of September 2013 with Eddie Spelling and Anastasia. T-minus 17months.
So 17months to train for ‘the everest of swimming’, where to start? How to train? In some ways this was fairly daunting – do I rely on instinct? Read every available book? My club were very sprint/short distance based so did I consider approach a specific endurance coach? I decided against this and instead trained with Will, with my squad to get the pool hours, listened to advice from those who had succeeded, took lessons from those who hadn’t and essentially used my instinct to decide what I needed to do. Looking to make covering 40k worth of swimming per week as standard was no small undertaking…to include three gym workouts a week in there too as well as run a business? There was nothing for it – the social life and partying would have to take a back seat for a while. And so the 15-20hours of training a week began…
As well as the distance, acclimatising to the water temperature is a major training factor. I felt a little prepared for this part as I never swim in a wetsuit – the open water/lakes/rivers/seas passion already existed in me so this element – in part – already carried a big tick. Though I’d need to work a lot more on acclimatising and getting used to being in the cold water for much longer than I’d previously been before. As well as massively increased open water time I ended the season in ‘12 with my first ever 6hour sea swim. It fell almost exactly a year before my Channel window so the temperature was relevant. I was hugely daunted by this the day before, what to feed on (prior to training for this challenge I’d swim for much shorter times on squash with a tiny grind of salt for cramp so even learning about the nutrition required was a huge thing), how would I feel being in the water without touching my feet on the sand for 6hours? Heck – I’d never even swam for that long before. It went well, a fairly sore shoulder that was entirely immobile in the following days and some pretty nasty salt water chaffing to the back of my neck and underarm but all in all a success – tick.
Wills training for his Arch to Arc challenge also involved training for a channel swim which meant we both had someone to train with – at silly o’clock in the morning while watching the black line on the bottom of the pool over the long winter months – this is a big bit of the battle. So, hours and hours (and hours) of technique work ensued; working on stroke rate, gaining strength, learning to breath bilaterally (so as to be able to breath on whichever side the sea state dictates on the day), working on speed endurance, huge pull sets, 3/5/7/9 breathing sets, devising our own ways to burn an hour or three, CSS sets (enforced by Will – I HATED these!). Hours and hours and hours. Luckily I’m a bit addicted to the sound of water bubbling past my ears…
In a moment of comedy I thought the ‘2swim4life’ event (a 24mile swim) might be good for our training – 24 miles over 24hours. In an outdoor pool. Start a mile on the hour every hour and use the other 35mins to get dry/warm/eat/rest then back in the pool on the hour again. All good except the outdoor temperature dropped to 1º during the night – without a wetsuit = interesting! I had a massive low caused by lack of nutrition and the realisation that I’d already swam a fair way but that I had much, much further still to go during mile 5 which served as a valuable lesson for the big swim. Other than this all was fine, no real aches or pains or difficulties. This was also the first time I’d had a ‘support person’, having your socks put on when you’re laughing too much to put them on yourself is novel, being given a hot water bottle at 3am is amazing. I’m a bit too independent for my own good and asking for help isn’t easy but this was a good lesson in asking the right person if they mind helping you. Another tick.
It was a horrendous winter water temperature wise, the temperatures were so slow to increase but as soon as the ice was melted (well kind of) it was back in. Before you’re allowed to attempt the swim you have to have a full medical as well as complete a 6hour swim in waters below 16º, again interesting after such a cold season but more ticks. The sea was, ermm, cool with temperatures hitting the heady heights of 7º/8º, making my skin the oddest of colours as the blood is at the surface – these colder early season sea swims lasted about 45mins/1hour and were ‘bracing’.
There were a whole heap of weird things that needed mastering/boxes ticking – learning to wee while swimming (reserved for the open water sessions of course!), you’d be amazed how tricky this can be! Learning to use energy drinks, practicing feeding in the water (while treading water – you’re not allowed to touch the boat during the swim). Night swimming, night sea swimming (not sure a beach bbq followed by a swim with the delightful Matt Ellis, Jeremy Storr & Lisa Donovan plus some other lovely people and more glow sticks than the dance field at Glastonbury counts as training but it worked). Swimming in rough sea conditions, overcoming salt water chaffing – discovering armpit waxing helps enormously was one of my best moments (channel swimming is very, very glamorous).
Eventually it came time for Will to take on his Arch to Arc challenge, we’d trained so hard together and so would of course both be support for each others events. Crewing for him across the Channel gave me a real insight into what I was in for…leaving the harbour on the boat, jumping into the sea in the dark, swimming for so long and it made me really think about my crew, the logistics and how I wanted mine to look after me.
Fortunately the season that started so cold soon made up for itself with long summer days that saw the water temperature rise to almost too warm however it was during the summer, with maybe 3-4months to go, that I had a tough patch. This was mostly caused by me having to change my training plan after I’d so finely tuned it to fit with work etc. which threw me into a head spin. The uea pool so very (un)helpfully closing for weeks on end at short notice, the summer timetable with my club meaning I couldn’t make any of the sessions. Fortunately my favourite Fritton Lake remained open and ever-supportive and I hooked up with an old college friend Marcus (along with his friends Marcus & Tom) who allowed me to join them for some beautiful river swims. It was also around this time that Susan Taylor sadly died while undertaking the very same challenge that lay ahead of me, know that she’d given up work to train for this and had unfortunately lost her life to it really hit home. There were plenty of tears but my lovely family and so many friends were as supportive as ever (even though I know they were secretly fed up with hearing my swimming stories!) and helped me turn the difficulties into positives and helped find ways to swim anywhere I could, even getting up at crazy o’clock to provide me with a safety kayak on long morning swim (Tina Potter – you are a star!). It also meant a lot of training alone (other than my new seal friends of course) but this was a good thing – I’d be swimming alone on the big day after all.
Through all of this training the need to sleep is huge, the need to eat well is, erm plentiful (loosing weight while facing a long swim in a cold sea isn’t a good plan – the opposite a better idea in fact)…the need to look after all the main swimming parts of your body, critical. The amazing Becky Schofield kneaded and massaged and loosened (and acupunctured and ultrasounded when required) my overused shoulders and back every two weeks, having your rotator cuffs loosened isn’t fun in any way, shape or form but Becky ensured that I sustained not a single injury during all the many crazy miles and multiple hours of training – a miracle in itself (thank you so much lady!).
With so much sea surrounding my home county (and such terrible roads leaving my home county) I’d decided early on to train locally but eventually the call of Dover and the promise of the training there proved too much for my inquisitive nature…and the promise did not disappoint! To take words of advice from Freda (the channel swimming legend), to hear tales and receive advice from those that have completed the challenge themselves (thank you Emma), to swim with others that share your dream was fantastic. The team of volunteers that give up their weekends to grease you (I think Barry is part of the team anyway…), feed you so you can complete multiple hours in the water and generally look after you are totally and utterly amazing. The world of channel swimming is one of the friendliest and generous worlds I’ve encountered. I would of loved to of gone there every weekend but it’s a long way alas – the times I did go: invaluable. And the tumble turning off Dover Harbour walls: hilarious.
One sweet day I received an email about a channel relay team that had found themselves short of people, I’d only expressed my desire for an opportunity like this a few days earlier to a friend so I jumped at the chance. It meant probably spending my birthday at sea but this felt an apt way to spend it this year. While the boat and pilot were different to those for my solo it was enormously useful when it came to ticking things off my list (yes, it was a long list and ticking things off it had become an obsession…); sea swimming is one thing, sea swimming 10 miles from shore something else, tick. Jumping in from the boat, tick. Swimming far out at sea in the dark, tick. Forcing myself to think about what might lurk beneath/how deep it is/anything else that might freak me out, tick, tick, tick. Sighting the boat, tick. Sighting the boat in the dark, less of a tick as the boat was poorly lit boat (lights mainly on it’s mast meaning you had to over rotate whilst breathing to be able to spot it in the dark, totally throwing any good technique) but a big mental note to pack a million glow sticks for my solo crossing. Trying to swim on both sides of the boat to see which I prefered, tick. Encountering plenty of jellyfish, tick. Why I even got to swim with a swordfish!! And I got to check out beach in France upon arrival so the terrain was a little familiar in case it was a dark landing for my solo. Lovely team of people too – thanks so much for the oportunity. The trip back was a less positive experience – over two hours with nothing to do but look at the massive expanse of water enveloping the boat, to consider the distance, to think ‘gosh, isn’t it a long way’. Then 15mins later ‘my what a long way’. Then 15mins later ‘wow, what a long way it is…’. This made me knuckle down and train my ass off for the last month or two.
The weeks before the swim wizzed by, swimming, finalising plans, swimming, briefing my support crew (the boat crew deal with the navigation and all the boat related jobs but you take your own crew with you for during the swim so having the right crew is vital. These lovely, amazing people give their time to look after you, to help you achieve your dream. They feed you, they encourage you, they are ready to shout at you if they need to, mine were perfect). Packing/unpacking/repacking the kit to ensure nothing is forgotten, swimming, going through the kit boxes with the crew so they know where everything is, swimming. Then comes the constant checking of weather forecasts, driving yourself to distraction trying to work out wind and tide predictions that you don’t actually understand… Thankfully Eddie knew best (thank you Eddie!), the weather looked right and then the call comes. You are to be in Dover on Monday 23rd September ready to swim the following morning. Cripes.
TeamBullen consisted of: Will (Hall), Mark (Clayton), Jonathan (Clark) and Jenny (Mayne). A perfect mix of swimming buddies, training support, endurance experts and comedians – each also a dear friend. Oh and me. TeamBullen was 60% vegetarian & 60% left-handed. How on earth would we manage?! We set off after work on Monday in two cars (don’t believe anyone that tells you you only need a cossi, goggle and a hat to swim – I’ve never seen so much luggage in my life! Mark alone had enough kit for us all to continue on into France after the swim and trek for at least a month…). Jenny & Mark beat myself Will and Jonathan to the B&B I’d booked us into (I was desperate for us all to be under the same roof which proved tricky last minute), the brilliant ‘B&B is great, landlord is “fun”!’ text from Jenny as we approached couldn’t possibly prepare us for Tom and his crazy house. We barely concealed our giggles (possibly as they were more bent over double guffaws than giggles…), books of erotic lesbian poetry laying about in Marks room, Jenny was treated to the delights of the ‘Purple Movie Room’ and Will had the names of the people whose bed he was sleeping in frames above said bed, as well naked pictures we could only assume were Toms wife, made complete with a half drunk can of vimto on a bedside cabinet! A trip to the pub followed then, in a blue pjs in a very blue bed in a very blue room ‘where are you?’ moment JC & I (soberly) giggled ourselves to sleep. While entirely curious and totally weird (and not one of my best accomodation picks!), the laughter was the best tonic.
I woke the next morning feeling strangely calm. Then looked at my phone to see that the swim had been delayed until the early hours of Wednesday morning. Suddenly we had a (sunny) day in Dover to kill…after Tom made us breakfast (in his crocs & waistcoat) we went to check out the marina and to see if we could see Anastasia (the boat that would escort me to France). Said a hello to Eddie (the man that would guide my path) followed by a reccy to Samphire Hoe: my departure gate. Jobs done and it was still just 10am. While Jonathan was, of course, keen to take us on a trip to Dover castle AND around the Roman painted house I insisted that relaxing in the sun would be much better for the task ahead so we drove around the coast a little and found a little pub with a beer garden on the beach and here we made camp for the day. My lovely Mum & Dad and Aunt (AJ) & Uncle had travelled to Dover the night before also to support me so they too came to hang out with us for the day. My parents put brave faces on but I can only begin to imagine how hard that day was for them, at no point did they let me know they were terrified for me but I was later informed that they were. I think it was good for them all to spend time with my crew before we set off – each of them individually both competent and delightful, as a team they could only instill the highest of confidence. The day was spent eating (I ate a whole two lunches!!!) and sitting in the glorious sun then a bimble on the beach, a paddle and some huge ice creams – perfectly relaxing.
Unfortunately and tragically Toms B&B was full the following night (with his next victims…) so we decided to use my folks hotel as base. We travelled there, unpacked and re-packed my kit in the car park yet again, we ran through the brief yet again, unpacked and re-packed my kit yet again (not that I’m obsessive or anything you understand) then turfed my ever patient parents and AJ & Uncle out of their rooms and out for dinner while we stole their beds for some attempted shut eye. What with it being a Tuesday night and The British Bake Off being on the telebox, JC and I instead picnicked and ate cake while plotting awful ways to despatch of the annoying contestant. I had a few moments where my tummy felt a little butterflyish but – other than one larger moth doing a single circuit – really nothing much. I kept waiting for it, waiting for the sickening ‘what am I doing?!’ feeling but it never came. JC’s knowledge of how to ‘keep Zara distracted and calm’ was priceless – he delivered a calm and collected swimmer to the start without doubt. We’d arranged to all meet in reception at 11pm so suddenly it was time to get up and shower, before I knew it I was in my cossi and being covered in suncream.
I’d measured out all my nutrition powder into dry bottles before leaving home so Jenny, Mark & Will made these up with water before we left the hotel. The measurements allowed for the nutrition to be double strength so they could mix half solution with half hot water and hey-presto, I’d have drinks at the right strength that were warm enough to be pleasant while in the sea but not so hot as to burn what would become a sore salt water mouth. All in the cars, all down to Dover Marina to meet the Eddie, Paul the observer (who’d be watching at all times to ensure rules were adhered to) and the crew then get our gear on board Anastasia (I did none of this – resting my arms you see…….). My folks came to the Marina with us, hugged us all and waved us off on our adventure. I can’t imagine what this must of been like for them. Mum had said that she couldn’t bear to actually see me in the water from the day I signed up but having them in Dover was great.
We then motored out of the harbour, I’d forgotten to tell the guys that the water suddenly turns to chop as you leave the safety of the harbour – this is a temporary sea state but – all of them had ‘jeeeeeeez, how many hours of this?’ written clearly on their faces (I, meanly, giggled). Luckily it soon subsided and we were taken around the corner on a little 20 minute trip to a very dark Samphire Hoe. The plus side of getting slightly delayed meant that I’d hopefully get to land in France in daylight rather than navigate the rocks in the dark. The flip side – I was now starting my swim in the dark. When you start the swim, due to the depth of the water, the boat can only get so close to the beach so they pop you in, you swim to the shore and get out. Once totally out of the water you turn and get back in. The time starts when you leave the beach and doesn’t stop until you clear the water on the other side. The idea of swimming away from the boat into the dark was the only thing I was a little unsettled about in case I swam off course in the dark but as soon as I saw Eddie searching out the beach with a massive spotlight I knew I’d be able to swim to that easily and all was well. During the short trip to the beach my wonderful crew stowed the kit safely, then sprung into superhero style action lighting the side of the boat. There are of course lights on the boat but the lesson learned on the relay meant I’d packed a million glowsticks which Will, JC and Jenny set about activating and dangling to ensure maximum visibility. Mark had also (with the help of his small nephew!) had the brilliant idea of packing some super cool balloons, each with a tiny LED light in that glowed really brightly – these too soon adorned the side I was going to be swimming on and my boat looked fit for a party. Even in the thick fog that had come along to keep us company, the boat was clearly glowing.
While they were decorating I undressed (to just my previously tried and tested cossi – as well as being vile to swim in, wetsuits aren’t allowed as part of the rules for an official swim), gloved and greased. To within an inch of my life! No, no – not duck fat or any of the other delightful things people ask you if you’ll be covered in, just a (very) large quantity of good old vaseline. Applied (very) liberally to anywhere that I’d previously chaffed during training (sexy I know). Salt water is very unforgiving on your skin and can leave you so so sore if you get this wrong. The main trouble areas are armpits, underarms and the area to the back of the neck so these were duly slathered. Gloves off, hat and goggles on. I was told we were in 16ft of water, shown the point I was to swim to on the beach, the gate to the back of the boat was unchained and I was told I could get in when ready. I pulled down my hat, straightened my goggles and dived in. This was (apparently – I don’t know as I was in the water!) met with amusement from the crew, ‘she’s keen, people usually use the steps’. Well start as you mean to go on and all that…!
And so, on Wednesday 25th September 2013, my attempt to swim the English Channel started from Samphire Hoe at 02:23hrs. The sea temperature felt fine at this point and I was glad I’d done so much swimming in cold water previously. I could see the boat pretty clearly, I tried to settle into my first hour of swimming after which time I’d be fed before swimming on for another hour until my next feed and so on (and so on) (and so on). Lost in the moment and surrounded by dark, dark sea, it came as something of a shock to encounter what can only be described as a mahussive jellyfish! As it was pitch black I didn’t get to see the little git so I only have the size of the sting to go on – it got me from the back of my neck, round the side of my neck, across my chest and right down my front stopping below my belly button. I didn’t feel the actual jellyfish, just the sting and it hurt like heck but it certainly woke me up! And it was the only one of the entire swim so guess I got off lightly…
In a bossy fit I’d brought them each battery glow sticks in different colours, put these on lanyards (along with a tiny LED torch and a whistle) and insisted they wear them before we left dry land (trying to find things in the dark on an unfamiliar moving boat isn’t funny), once activated I could see who was who in the dark which was cool. Before long it was my first feed, all went to plan…the idea being that these are kept to an absolute minimum as the longer you’re not swimming forward the more you are being pushed sideways by the tide. You’re swimming far enough without swimming any of it twice!! The rules dictate that during the swim you’re not allowed to touch the boat (and the crew aren’t to touch you) so nutrition is passed into the sea. We used a system of warm energy drinks in pouch-like bottles (sort of like refillable capri-sun pouches) as after many hours in a cold sea there’s a good chance your hands become considerably less agile so normal drinking bottles become too hard to squeeze, these are attached with a carabiner to a masons line and then thrown to you, you drink then swim on and the crew wind it back in for the next use. Dad also made me a brilliant extendable pole with a colander attached to the end so solids could also be passed to me from the side of the boat with ease. Following a fellow channel swimmer advice (thank you Sam), I’d decided to swim without attempting any solid during the early hours however (to give my body the best chance to use it’s energy for what I needed it to do rather than to digest solid food) but this was really useful later on and really easy to take food from. The second hour flew past like lightening – I’d chosen to only stop on a whistle alert from my crew, on the relay I realised that I really liked hearing the people on the boat but that you have a lot of time to think and it’s very easy for your mind to suggest that what you heard wasn’t a laugh or the crew chattering amongst themselves but them wanting you to stop which becomes confusing – using the whistle eliminated this.
The first five or so hours were in the dark, during these hours I could see the beautifully lit boat when I breathed to my left, when I breathed to my right – nothing at all. I’d trained to mentally only think about swimming to the next feed but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t also swimming to the dawn. I was looking forward to the warmth of the sun on my skin but, alas, the dawn didn’t really come. As the sky started to lighten slightly I began to see the difference in colour between it and the sea, this became more distinguishable but still not ‘light’. During the massive amount of time I had to think…I thought I’d accidently got vaseline on my right goggle when I’d applied the grease before the swim, I was so glad when it got light enough to dare to change my clear goggles for my polarised goggles however this made me realise that vaseline wasn’t the reason I couldn’t see anything, I was still swimming in thick, thick fog!
We’d agreed before the start of the swim that I would only request things I wanted or needed when I stopped for a feed for these to be ready for my next feed so as to keep the stop time to an absolute minimum…however as I was swimming into the fifth hour that little monkey I’d first met during my 24mile swim climbed on my back…his cold little monkey claws make you feel so low, make you start to question why on earth you are doing this, make you focus on any little issue or discomfort, make you start to think about how easily you could just stop. You start to think about things people have said to you; some had said how proud they were of me before I even got in, so proud that I dared to dream I could do it and that they’d be forever proud of me for that alone…your brain chips in with ‘it’s ok – you can stop anytime, they’re already proud of you’. I knew if I got out I’d get wrapped in a blanket, be cuddled, allowed to sleep (I’d missed a whole night worth of zzzz’d after all…), I’d be warm and it would all be over. But, because I also knew from the training that the nasty little monkey-face was likely to loose his handhold on me if I had a huge intake of calories, I broke my own rule and stopped and called to my crew to stop me for a double feed as soon as they could. They weren’t especially surprised by this as it was at this time that my stroke rate dropped dramatically from 60strokes a minute to about 52 (the crew regularly keep a check on your stroke rate as this is a good indication of how you are fairing out there)…they reacted with the speed of little gazelles and soon I was topped up, on my way again and as soon as the nutrition hit my system we’d drowned the pesky monkey.
I entered the separation zone in a good time of 6hrs, at about this time it started to feel like day time and I started to really enjoy my swim. I felt strong and positive and my stroke rate had returned to normal. That’s not to say it wasn’t hard – you have a lot of time to think about pretty much everything. Obsessing over technique and ensuring every stroke is as powerful and useful as it possibly can be is fairly all encompassing but this level of concentration on something so rhythmic also zones you out for vast chunks of time. Lots of people have asked what did I think about however so here goes…during the times when I felt bright and happy I thought about how privileged I was to be right where I was at that very moment, to have my life, to have my health, to have the ability to be able to even attempt such a thing. I thought about how cool it was to be so far out in the sea on my own, how far I was from another creature in the water, and how that creature probably wasn’t another human! I thought about all the sea below me and the things in it and how I (maybe strangely) consider both the sea and it’s inhabitants my friends and marvelled at how I felt no fear. During the times when I felt less bright and happy and was experiencing both mental and physical discomfort I thought about how I’d chosen to be here and how I could make the pain stop at any point if I decided to, I was only swimming after all. Cliche I realise but ‘the pain is temporary – the glory is forever’. I thought about people in my life that have battled real toughness with such bravery and an entire lack of fuss and told myself to just get on with it – I thought about my brave Mummy who so quietly and selflessly beat her cancer. I thought about my oldest friend in the world Hayley who also beat cancer as well as dealing with some of the worst things life can throw at you at about the same time. I thought about my lovely Jenny, just up there on the boat, being so strong. I thought a lot about Susan (Taylor, the lady who lost her life in the Channel in July). I thought about how having the choice to make the discomfort stop isn’t the case for so many, the children EACH care for as a perfect example. I thought about my friend Shannons little girl Maggie. And Maggies smile. Maggie has cerebral palsy and faces so many challenges yet she smiles so much. So yea, just get on with it Bullen, you came to swim today and you will swim all day if needs be.
At all times at least two, if not three of my crew were clearly visible to me. Sitting on the side of the boat, smiling at me, generally just being there with me. This gives a feeling of comradery, these people very quickly become even closer to your heart than they were when you all got on the boat. One of my favourite moments however was when JC critiqued my swimming – I was unsurprised when the others commented on my stroke rate or technique, swimming is after all how I met Jenny & Mark in the first instance. And Will and I had watched each others technique for so many hours in training but to hear a ‘you’re looking really strong and consistent’ from Jonathan made me giggle quite a lot during the next hour of swimming. Though not as much as Will moonwalking down the side of the boat…
So another hour, another feed…my super amazing crew had begun to try to offer me solid foods at each feed after about 5/6 hours in along with the energy drink but it was a struggle and I often refused them. Tongues and salt water aren’t the best of bedfellows if I’m honest, resulting in ‘salt mouth’ during marathon length sea swims. Essentially the salt knackers the surface of your tongue and causes it to swell, sometimes your throat too and this can obviously, at it’s most serious, end a swim. It makes eating unpleasant and also means you can taste next to nothing. We tried banana (this was very unglamorously given to the fish), milkyways (before this – my favourite long distance training treat – not a flippin’ chance and the chocolate then stuck in my teeth annoyed me for what felt like an age), a few JellyBabies made it down (I usually HATE them but in this instance I loved them), and raspberries were great (mainly because I could taste them through the salt tongue). Other than cursing myself for only packing blackcurrant squash…the energy drinks were sliding down just fine. Well fine other than that they gave me the trumps (as my crew so kindly shared with the world via facebook!). So onto another hour, swim to the next feed, another feed, another hour, swim to the next feed, another feed…I entered the N/E lane at 09:56hrs. Eddie lent out of the window and said ‘welcome to French waters’, obviously I addressed my crew in my best French at the next feed – I was hoping for a breakfast croissant but none was forthcoming…the observer from the CS&PF noted how polite I was at feeds, mainly as I wanted them to continue to be so nice to me of course! And nice they were – lovely in fact. One of my splendiferous crew had even made me surprise strongly flavoured ginger, lemon and honey drink before we’d left home – I cannot begin to tell you how amazing this tasted after so long in the sea.
At no point was I anywhere near stopping or getting out, way back at the start of my training when I started adding to the hours I was spending in the water, Mark had taught me to think in the mindset of ‘if I don’t do this today I have to go through all of this again to get to this point again before I can add to it’ (so if you stop after 5hours when you’re attempting a 7hour swim you have to do those 5hours again before you can try for 7hours). Because if I’d not made it there would of been an ‘again’, it gets under your skin, not finishing something I’d spent this much time, effort and money on just wasn’t going to be an option. I also knew that the sea conditions were good – another reason to make the absolute most of this chance. Midway N/E lane the stats were: stroke rate 60 per min, water temp 17ºc (positively tropical!), air temperature 20.3º, wind 2.8 N/W, sea state slight (with the odd lump). Oh and lots and lots of fog.
You have a whole lot of time with just your own thoughts, I think I went through every single thing all and any of you might of said to me in the run up to this, many of these made me smile, some made me feel powerful, some gave me an extra push. So many of you had made reference to me ‘being ready’, that ‘I’d earned this’ and to ‘go and take it’, Lee Bennet was very insistant that I go and ‘take what’s mine’, I was really trying to. I thought about how I’d been referred to (by Gavin Barron I believe) as ‘the Chuck Norris of Open Water swimming’ and this made me giggle more than once. I marvelled at my body – at how I felt a bit tired but just a bit tired, ‘not silly tired’. My shoulders ached a little but no real hurt, no injury. Time becomes very strange, in one way is flashes past – at others the time between feeds feels like an eternity. It becomes difficult to track, how long have you been swimming for? Is it 5hours? 7hours? You try to work out how long it’s been light, where the sun is in the sky – I guess you could just ask your crew but that doesn’t really occur to you because you don’t really want to know and you have trained and trained to JUST SWIM TO THE NEXT FEED.
After I’d been swimming approximately 10hours (approximately…see previous paragraph!), at a feed the observer made a comment about how I was ‘doing phenomenally well’. An innocent, flippant and kind comment of course but as I said – you have a whole lot of time with just your own thoughts…while this is one swim where time doesn’t really matter as you are dealing with tides and weather, I was hoping for a 13-14hour swim, maybe 12 with the wind in the right direction (literally) so I started to think about how the end was possibly in sight, ‘how much longer’, ‘how much further’, mind games, a silly schoolboy error on my part. I knew better but this didn’t deter me. This was compacted by the fog, I’d seen very little for most of my swim due to it, the odd ferry but nothing much – but I could now see land. I could see shapes, trees, glints of light on windows of buildings. But in fact it was just fog and boats, there was no land there. This made the last few hours fairly confusing for me, I wasn’t at the end of the swim at all. In hindsight I made it much harder for myself by allowing the thoughts about how far I had left into my concious – I broke the first rule of endurance sport! At the next feed I asked the forbidden question ‘how much further?? Are we nearly there yet?’ *imagine that annoying child in the back of the car*. Will broke the news that I was looking at another two hours. My face fell, I finished that drink and heard myself say in a very (very) sulky voice ‘but I don’t want to swim for another two hours’ as I swam off. The comedy of my sulk wasn’t lost on me, I giggled almost immediately, had word with myself, told myself to ‘stop being a big girls blouse’ and dug a bit deeper. Of course this was unbeknown to my dear, dear crew. So, at the next feed, there they all were – lined up along the side of the boat, all ready with smiles, all with hugely positive words, each of them with a different drink or food type that I might fancy – anything that might lift my mood but also ready to shout at me if needs be…thankfully no shouting was needed but the fact that I’d caused them unnecessary concern did make me feel a bit mean. Jenny had a brilliant list of positive things she was yelling to me at this point while I drunk my drink, each and every one of those things helped, the time until the next feed passes much faster when you have happy thoughts running through your mind.
Digging deep during those last hours wasn’t ever make or break but by questioning rather than just swimming to the next feed I did make it incredibly difficult for myself mentally – the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Lesson learned the hard way. It was about this point that the tide turned and, instead of swimming in to shore as I hoped I got pulled around the corner with the current. I now know that this happened when I was just a few hundred metres from Gap Gris Nez, after the swim Eddie told me that my previous falter and accompanying slightly increased feeds/stops at that time had cost me The Cap. It had added a couple of hours to my swim time and turned what would of been a swim in into the hardest swim of my life. The sea turned into a force to be reckoned with as we rounded The Cap, the water moves at an alarming rate, in a flurried state. It’s hard to swim as the water is pretty turbulent – the crew have since told me about how it rushed past lobster pots with terrifying speed, fortunately I couldn’t see this. I’d heard tales of people getting stuck here for 4-6hours, going nowhere – just fighting the tide. And of people that simply don’t get through – this is the game over point. By now I could finally see the coast, again I needed to dig deep, every single stroke had to count. It’s tricky to consider technique at this point but it is entirely necessary, my crew were all out on side of the boat, shouting ‘SWIM’ ‘JUST SWIM’ ‘JUST BLOODY SWIM’ at me. I know I asked a couple of times whether I was actually making progress as it didn’t feel like I was – the coast was looking no closer! They screamed ‘YES! SWIM’ so swim I did.
Swimming pretty much flat out while trying to be mindful that your swimming style is best when you are attempting ‘strong’ and terrible you are attempting when ‘fast’ even though they are in fact the same thing other than in the mind. Swimming flat out when you’ve already swam for 12hours is interesting and not exactly comfortable but my body felt fine considering what it had just been through. I was tired and I desperately wanted to be on the other side of the current. I tried to push tiredness aside and dig deep – so so deep and I swam as hard and strongly as I could – bilateral breathing went out of the window at this point and I reverted back to my faithful left side. I suspect my technique became pretty messy at this point as well. I even asked my friend the sea to ‘stop now, please let me through’ – silly I know. Then, after probably about an hour the water suddenly felt warm – I looked to Mark & Jenny, ‘am I through??’ they were smiling and confirmed I was. Woop! I swam on. Then the mind games kicked in almost immediately, was I through the current? Was that what they meant? Did they say that? Was it now simply a cruise in or was I still at risk of the tide? So I stopped and asked again… As with the start, at the end the boat can only come within a certain distance of the shore due to the depth of water but this time a safety swimmer is required to swim in with you (in case something suddenly happens to you/you suddenly get cramp/exhaustion) and when I saw Will in his swimming gear on the side of the boat, ready to accompany me to shore (a fitting close to the dare – and I thank you forever for daring me!), I knew I was so close. The final 400m are a bit of a blur, I recall sobbing in disbelief – I’d done it! Except I hadn’t quite and I had to stop myself sobbing as I feared a mistimed uncontrolled, sobbing intake of breath could go horrible wrong and it would be such a shame to drown myself crying with joy. My promises to finish with a butterfly sprint were forgotten. Suddenly there were rocks below – after all those hours of just seeing deep sea underneath me I COULD SEE THE BOTTOM! The water became more shallow – I JUST TOUCHED A ROCK! Then another, then I was clambering over them in an attempt to get clear of the water so the clock would stop. 13hours, 57minutes (and 20seconds) and I was on France without a passport!! I fear this was hilarious to watch and am thankful that no-one on the boat had a very powerful zoom lens. To suddenly try to be upright after so many hours of being horizontal in cold water is disorientating enough as it is – to try to be upright on slippery rocks just adds another comedy dimension. Will had my waterproof camera with him so I may share a photo from this time with you – me at my finest! It is tradition to collect a pebble from the beach as a token of your swim. I picked up one for me and I picked up one for Susan. Who knew I’d end up treasuring a pebble so much?
Following this it’s – wait for it – a swim back to the boat! I tried to do this old English backstroke (especially for you Mr Milk) but it made me cry out in pain – after 50,000 forward strokes there was no way on earth that my arms were going the other way so sorry about that. Following the swim back to the boat it’s – wait for it – a climb up a ladder to get back on board! And people! Not just people – my people! Friendly faces, human contact, what an amazing sensation. Dear Jenny helped me dress (shoulders and bras/vests aren’t the best of friends at this point), I was wrapped in blankets and given a sea sickness pill for the return boat trip. By this point the back of my throat was very swollen and it felt like I had a blocked nose but it was in fact the airways at the base of my nose closing from the salt. We chattered and huddled for warmth a little and started to talk about the weirdness of what had just happened. I’d just swam to bloody France and suddenly we were on our way back to the UK, all those months of training were over.
With their endless support, and as they have been throughout the whole of this challenge, my amazing parents were there as we arrived back at the port in Dover. Waiting for us to return along with my lovely AJ & Uncle. My uncle declared us all heros which was pretty cool. More lovely friendly faces. They’d been on a little day trip over to France in the hope of seeing me land but the beach I swam into wasn’t accessible unfortunately. I think they’d had a nice time at the hypermarket and they seemed to have a fair amount of champagne with them so I figured they’d at least maxed out the duty-free. The boat was unloaded (I did none of this!) and we shared some fizz in the car park. Then we went to the pub.
It is tradition to sign your name on the walls of The White Horse in Dover, I’d been lucky enough to get to do this after the relay swim in August so it felt pretty special to be chalking up my solo swim as well. Jonathan illustrated me a little sea dragon in the corner of the room and I added my name and time to the historic walls, already adorned with the names of other channel swimmers. I’d done it. I was in ‘The Club’. An unreal and crazy feeling.
The following day I woke as normal but didn’t actually do an awful lot if I’m honest, I read the hundreds of facebook posts with wonder – thank you all so much for all the love – I felt it. I read all the comments of my justgiving page – thank you all so much for all this (and to Jeremy and others for being so ‘on it’ during the swim to ensure I reached my target for EACH – superstars! To know we’d raised so much money as well was an epic feeling), I snoozed and ate lots of biscuits – hey – I used 14,000 calories yesterday – I’m allowed biscuits!! My shoulders felt a bit stiff but they’d been worse in some of the earlier long training sessions, I had hardly a scuff on my skin, not a chafe in sight, even the jellyfish sting was almost gone – I vowed to never again have negative thoughts about my amazing and fully functioning body. My tongue was the most painful bit of the next few days, the entire surface eventually comes away (helped by champagne bubbles I was delighted to discover!) but the shedding process is very uncomfortable and it doesn’t encourage eating.
In the shorter term, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done – mentally far more than physically. I am fairly sure physically I could of swam back – mentally I’d need to prepare much more. They aren’t lying when they say the challenge is 20% physical, 80% mental. The training overtakes your life, the challenge hijacks your bank balance but it is entirely worth it. Standing on the beach in Dover, knowing I’d not shirked any of my training, feeling so calm and like the kid at school who’d done all their revision and everything they possibly could was a gift. Standing on the other side, well like landing on my very own moon (quote pinched from Nicola James – that sums it up perfectly). Apparently I said ‘well I don’t recommend it’ as I got back on the boat (shortly followed by my favourite ‘wetsuits are for boys!!’ statement of course). I think maybe something similar happens with your memory of hardship and pain to that as is rumoured to happen with childbirth – already I recall almost nothing about the discomfort, it was a powerful experience, entirely worth every last stroke of training.
In the medium term, I’ve met some amazing people on this journey; my crew are people I was fond of before of course, now I realise that without them giving their time and care to me so unconditionally I couldn’t possible of achieved this – it really is team work and I will love each of them forever for what they gave me that day; the triathlon boys (Tom, Oli, Matt & Mike) who have taken me under their wings, allowed me to share the ‘boys lane’ and kept me company on so many of my swims; other open water swimmers – it’s one of the friendliest communities I’ve experienced – people so willing to share their experiences and tales, and their swims of course. Meeting others that do this kind of thing/train for such long hours does make it all feel very much more ‘normal’ so I guess you feel a little complacent about the enormity of it at times so I’ve been pleasantly surprised just how much it has captured other peoples imaginations and how interested and supportive people have been (thank you – times a million).
In the longer term, people who have achieved their Channel dream tell you it’s ‘life changing’, I still don’t think it’s properly sunk in to be honest but I have flashes of ‘I did it’ now and then, usually when I’m doing something mundane and am with other people doing their own mundane things too – I think ‘I just swam the bloody English Channel’ and smile to myself. I was expecting to feel a slump after the challenge but the fact that I was so desperately looking forward to reclaiming my life for at least two months before the swim means that I’ve actually been really enjoying Autumn and just blissfully hanging out with my near and dears (and drinking quite a lot of celebratory fizz). It’s given me a strange sense of my own mortality – you’d maybe imagine it to be the other way but I am strangely fearful of others, in cars etc., too long in my own company over the last 18months I suspect! And, probably most importantly, it has changed my life – I get what they meant now – no one can ever take this away from me, I decided I was going to do something and, via a shit cart load of effort, I did it. Mum & Dad brought my brother & I up to believe we could have and do anything we wanted with our lives but that we would need to work for it. This is case and point. This is full circle. From here on in I feel that no challenge is too great providing I’m prepared to put the work in. This is a powerful feeling. Now I just need to decide what I fancy next………….is now the time to get my parents to Google ‘Oceans Seven’ I wonder…?