Addendum

It has been eleven months since my English Channel swim and I’ve only just got around to uploading the Observer’s report. It makes me emotional every time I read it. I think Tony did a great job of capturing how the mood on the boat changed through the day (that said, I wasn’t on the boat…). It’s also an insightful description of my character. I think I should just add it as an addendum to future job applications and dating profiles.

All ashore. OK received.

All ashore. OK received.

On 5 July 2018 I swam from England to France in 12 hours, 24 minutes. I've written about it here.

The TL;DR: 

  • I felt strong the whole way
  • I was attacked by jellyfish
  • Fog shrouded France until we were within 1km of land
  • My crew were amazing
  • I’ve recovered really well
  • There’s still time to donate to my fundraising appeal

We have a date!

My swim is tentatively scheduled to start in the wee hours of Thursday morning (5 July). The current forecast is for very light winds, little to no swell and plenty of sunshine.


Recruiting an expert from the Met

I like to research things thoroughly. After arriving in the UK on Friday I met with Joyce, who previously worked at the Met where she specialised in the forecasts for the English Channel. Her techniques are, however, a little out of date: her last work with them was in 1943, when she transcribed German forecasts (they were very accurate!) into Morse Code for the RAF. Incredible. At the age of 17, she asked a boy “who was very good at art” to alter her birth certificate so that she could join the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. She travelled to Scotland and Egypt with the WAAF, in spite of (or perhaps because of?) her “repeated insubordination”. Such a fascinating lady. Our conversation ranged from foreign exchange restrictions following the war, to Britain’s first female doctor (Dr James Barry – a must read), the Wellcome Collection and her job as cigarette vending machine coin-filler-upper in Seattle in the late 1940s. I want to be like her when I’m 92.


Who’s been sleeping in my bed?

I travel half way around the world, only to find that my compatriots have defiled the walls of the Airbnb I’m staying in!

Lynton is just about to finish the mammoth Molokai Channel swim.

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Wilful optimism

Wilful optimism

The decision to swim the English Channel is not a rational one. 

Over days, weeks and months, every aspect of the training programme is calibrated – hydration and nutrition, endurance, speed, strength, body composition, flexibility (ha!), psychology, you name it. You track the data and refine the plan. 

But all the discipline and data in the world might not be enough. There are countless ways the whole enterprise can come undone. The tides are so extreme they can drag you hundreds of metres backwards in the time it takes to suck back half a drink bottle. There are container ships carving across your path. The fog can descend in minutes, wiping out visibility. It’s a good day when it’s 15 degrees in the water. And even getting into the water assumes you have miraculously come through the weeks and months beforehand in rock-solid mental and physical shape.

This means that taking on the English Channel demands an extravagant delusion - or as I prefer to think of it, wilful optimism.

The fight for malaria elimination requires the same wilful optimism. Its scale – over 1,000 deaths each day, most of them children – surpasses any sort of ordinary understanding. If you take the “charity begins at home” approach, malaria doesn’t really rate: 500 cases a year in Australia. Twice as many Australians fall out of trees each year for Christ’s sake. But’s a global cause. It’s something I spend most of my working life thinking about. It’s my cause.

I believe in the fight against malaria with the same wilful optimism that I’m using to take on the English Channel. 

Recent progress towards the total elimination of malaria has been staggering. The global effort to develop, improve and distribute drugs and long-lasting insecticide-treated nets has halved the number of deaths from malaria since 2000. But there are emerging challenges threatening this progress, as insecticide and drug resistance are developing. It’s as if the elimination effort has done the training, it’s swum through the second shipping lane, it’s approaching Cap Griz-Nez, but the tides have turned and it’s at risk of being pushed to Belgium.  

So I’m asking you to join me in supporting the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF). This charity provides funding for long-lasting insecticide-treated nets that repel and kill mosquitoes. Importantly, they’re providing nets for trials that test new insecticides to combat resistance. Givewell rates AMF as one of its top charities because it supports an evidence-based, effective intervention and the organisation has been thoroughly vetted. And that’s before they have even considered that the Chairman is an English Channel soloist.

If you support AMF, you’ll be in my thoughts as I wade into the inky, frigid shallows of Dover and lay into the long hours of wind-milling towards France.  And even if I don’t make it to France for whatever reason, AMF will be able to do more because of us and our wilful optimism.

 

Want to track my swim?

Be warned: long distance swimming is not a spectator sport. But you can keep the tracker on in the background. Open it up when you get to work. Refresh it at coffee time. Refresh it again at lunch... I'll still be there. Forget about it for the afternoon. Check in when you check out. Fire it up again on your phone when you get home... yep, still swimming. It gets vaguely exciting as swimmers approach the beach at Wissant / Cap Griz-Nez. You can hit refresh repeatedly then.

My support boat is Sea Leopard. You can track us here. For a broader view of the English Channel - and an insight into what a highway it is - go to Marine Traffic. You can then search for Sea Leopard - Dive Vessel [GB]. 

Stuart (the pilot) might post some photos on his Facebook page

I'm scheduled to swim some time between the 3rd and 10th of July, but I won't know until closer to the day. Swimmers often set off in the early hours of the morning (~3am GMT / 12pm AEST). 

If you have more love to give...

Head this way...

Rotto report

Rotto report

It was a fast Rottnest Channel swim this year, but certainly not an easy one. The day before the race, word spread that it was going to be a quick swim, with the wind forecast to push us towards the island. But after the high expectations of last year, I didn’t put too much faith in the rumours.

I was in Wave 5 – the final solo wave – which left the beach at 6.15. Des (my paddler extraordinaire) and I had a meet-plan which, upon reflection, wasn’t exactly water-tight. I told him I’d swim fast… and so he should just find me near the front of the wave. A dumb plan, but it worked. I caught his eye after a couple of hundred metres and he shadowed me on the other side of the buoys until he was allowed into the swim channel. We met with the boat – skippered by Brett and crewed by Dad – without a problem

I had set myself the challenge of learning the NATO phonetic alphabet during the swim – a task I had initially set myself three years ago and never got around to – so I had three letters taped to each of my feeds. I didn’t think about anything other than the alphabet, Miley Cyrus’ “Malibu” and Kesha’s “Woman” for the whole swim (you can’t choose your earworm…). And now I know the alphabet. Backwards and forwards.

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It was a bumpy ride all the way to Rotto. The wind was blowing from the south east, pushing me in the right direction, but also whipping up the ocean. It was tough swimming. All too often, my left arm would get caught in a wave coming over the top of me, so it was difficult to find a smooth stroke. But I kept reminding myself that the wind was helping me, and I shouldn’t resent it.

I was hoping to finish the race in six hours, but when I stopped for my five hour feed, I was right at the 18km buoy. I did some quick maths and realised that if I could do 1.7km in half an hour, I’d break five and a half hours. I was still feeling good and managed to hold a strong pace through to the sand, finishing in 5 hours, 25 minutes, 12.99 seconds. That’s one hour forty-four minutes less than 2017 (7 hrs 9 mins), and one hour four minutes less than 2016 (6 hours 29 mins). Happy with that!

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There’s a great podcast / review of the race here, featuring the female and male winners (Heidi Gan and Solomon Wright), who, I was surprised to hear, eat every 20 minutes. I think that part of the reason that my brain didn’t wander was that my feeds are working out. Tara is working her magic and the balance seems to be there.

I did not, however, look after myself well enough after the swim. I enjoyed being able to have a couple of glasses of wine and I didn’t eat as well as I should have. As a result, I felt pretty awful for the two weeks after the race. I came good in the third week, and I’m back in form now.

 

The count-down to the English Channel is now in double-digits, which is just a little bit terrifying. 98 days to go (give or take). At this point, I think I’m more scared by the training load in May and June (45-55km/week), than the swim.

I’m off to Cold Camp at the end of the month to do my qualifying swim (six hours under 16c) so I’ve started visiting a plunge pool which rests at just under 12c. None of the words in that sentence are good words. “Cold Camp” is as bad as it sounds. A six hour, <16c qualifying swim – also unfun. And the plunge pool? Well, actually not as awful as I expected it to be.

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Thank you and condolences

My Rotto crew this year featured Brett, Des, Mum and Dad, with special guest appearances by Claire and Stephen – old friends who came to say hello on Rottnest Island. Thank you all. And, of course, thanks to my Vladswim coaches, Rich, my swimming family, and the generous friends who paddled for me in training swims.

A number of swimmers were pulled out of the water, thanks to a large shark that joined the race alongside some soloists in Wave 5 and some of the faster duos and teams. Similarly, swimmers in the Port to Pub – a race that takes a similar course but a few weeks later – had to abandon their swim due to poor weather conditions. It’s heartbreaking to put in so much training only to have your big day ruined by something outside of your control. Such a rough trot. Congratulations on making it through the training – a feat in itself.

Peak Rotto training

Peak Rotto training

Investigations into my high dependency relationship with food continued after the last post, yielding the most surprising and pleasing outcome. Tara, upon reviewing my food diary, said I had a really healthy diet… for a normal person. Not so much for an aspiring Channel swimmer. For that, she said, I’d need more calories. She prescribed rice pudding and custard on a regular basis. And I, a model patient, have complied. This is the best sport ever.

We swam at Balmoral the week after Coogee. Ben Freeman, an incredibly accomplished Triple Crown swimmer, was kind enough to paddle for us. What a pro. Like clockwork, he paddled up next to me every 30 minutes and delivered my bottle, urging me to drink quickly and get back to swimming. I had two men on my heels – Mike from Austria and Francesco – both unknown to me at the time. Perhaps for his own amusement, Ben wanted me to lose them. He could see that they would be taking some time at the feeding station, which I could bypass. He instructed me, in no uncertain terms, that I was to sprint when they stopped and I wasn’t allowed to let them catch me until the next feed. This was just a training swim, not a race, but I followed his orders and kept them at bay for 30 minutes. They stayed with me for the rest of the swim, until Francesco decided to sprint the last 400 metres. I let him win. I was warming down… obviously. We finished 14km in 4 hours. I was really pleased with the pace. Having the guys on my heels really kept me, well, on my toes, and I could sustain the pace quite comfortably.

The following week was our longest training swim – 16km. We swam lengths from Shelly beach to Queenscliff / Freshwater - about 4km return. The wonderful Mischee provided kayak support. Mischee will be on my boat in the English Channel, so although we swim together most days, we are trying to find a few opportunities for her to see me from above the water. Like Ben, she’s a total pro. Conditions got pretty hairy out the back of Queenscliff, with some kayakers struggling to keep up with their swimmers in strong wind and big swell (sounds familiar) but she battled on. Francesco was back, so he and I paired up for the whole swim. He is super strong in rough water, with a very different style to my own, and I fell behind a bit. I was relieved when we got back into the shelter of Shelly Head. I even had the advantage of a brand new race suit. These things cost hundreds of dollars, last only a few wears, and take 45 minutes to put on. It seemed to work though: we finished 16km in 4 hours 24 minutes – a pace of 16:30/km. We were SO CLOSE to being able to get a bacon and egg roll at the café before they closed the breakfast menu at 11:30. I was devastated when my friend reported that we were a minute too late. 

That brings us to taper time. The best of times. I was really tired after Shelly. I had an extra massage on Sunday. My head was not in the right place at Tuesday squad, and my arms wouldn’t work on Wednesday. On Thursday, Rich indulged me with 45 minutes of foam roller which was pure heaven. I have done three hours of stretching over the weekend, including two hours of a “hip opening” workshop yesterday at Flow. So I think I’ve been doing the right things.

My Rottnest Channel Swim race number is 1. I do not take this lightly. Although it is a reflection of my enthusiasm and the ability to click “Enter” quickly (rather than talent), it has been held by some champions of Vladswim in years gone by, including Dean and Rachelle. I hope I can do it justice.

My high dependency relationship

Rottnest training is in full swing, with the big day one month away. I’ve been through this training regime twice before so I spent the holidays preparing freezer meals and sorting out things around the house so I’d be ready for it all. But even the first couple of weeks back at training have managed to throw a few surprises my way…

The plan for this week was 4 x 6km in the pool + 12km in the ocean. I was really pleased with the swims for the first three days – I felt strong and fast – but then everything came crumbling down. I had my first pre-Channel meltdown on Wednesday. I could not stop crying. Loads of doubts: if I couldn’t make it through a 36km week how was I ever going to manage a 55km week? How was I going to manage my job if I couldn’t have a conversation without sobbing? I went home early. I took a nap. I ate something. And then everything was better. Back to 100%. Turns out I was just really tired and hungry. Tara told me later, “It’s very unusual for a person to go through Channel training and not have regular breakdowns. The only people who don’t either don’t work, or have a wife or mum looking after them at home”. I expect this will be the first meltdown of many. If you see me in a state of despair, please feed me. In the case of remoteness, posted cookies will be gladly accepted.

Energy levels were once again challenged yesterday. We went to Coogee for our 12km swim. The conditions were perfect – calm and sunny. Nic was conducting fluid testing for a few of us to figure out how much we sweat (and therefore how much we need to drink). As part of the testing we had to start the day on an empty stomach – no coffee, breakfast, drinks or gels before the swim. Then we had to swim for an hour, still with no food or drink. You can imagine how well this went for me… I got a cracking headache by 40 minutes, felt lousy and everything hurt far more than it usually would have. We were allowed to eat after we had finished the test – I had 9km to go, so returned to my 30 minute feeding schedule, but I just couldn’t come back. Every feed made my stomach turn, and the headache wouldn’t go away. I started to see flames on the water – an illusion caused by my orange tinted goggles that I don’t notice unless I’m really struggling. I pulled the pin at 10km rather than 12km and made a hasty retreat for home - I needed a dark room, lots of water and some solid food.

It’s striking how quickly my mood and mind change in response to food, and the couple of times that I’ve tried to carry on without my regular feeds have not ended well. So… lesson for the week: there will be more meltdowns, but if I eat and sleep, things will get better. And I have a really solid set of friends and a very understanding boss who say and do all the right things when I’m dissolving into a puddle of tears. 


Day 4: Roosevelt Lake

The final challenge was Roosevelt, a 10km night swim. This was a great introduction to swimming in the dark, as we had some daylight, a beautiful sunset and an hour or so in the blackness.

After three days covered in lanolin and zinc, I was relieved to only need a light cover of sunscreen. I'm drafting this 2 days after the end of SCAR and I've still got white stuff all over my back, despite numerous showers and baths.

Essential to this swim was lighting - LED dog lights and glow sticks. Patty decked herself out like Cleopatra at a rave, and the kayak was similarly decorated.

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The course ran from a boat ramp, round an island then direct to Roosevelt bridge, which was illuminated by the lights on the dam behind it, and a red flashing light on top.

Wave 2 lined up at the start, and shared a unique bonding experience: as soon as we were standing in the water, somebody asked "Is everybody else peeing?"  Affirmative x15. Wave 3 may be faster swimmers than us, but they have to dive into our pee.

I had switched my goggles from tinted ones to clear for this swim, but they caused me all sorts of grief from the get go. After 40 minutes of not being able to see clearly, I had to stop to find my trusty orange ones. Although covered in sunscreen and zinc, they were still clearer than the untinted ones.

Most people seemed set on finishing this race quickly. I, on the other hand, was interested in getting a few good photos and enjoying the sunset and night sky, so didn't go very hard.

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The sunset was lovely, and slowly the glow sticks became more visible. By 7.30, it was properly dark. Swimming in the dark is a strange sensation. I was already in a fairly meditative zone - regular breathing, not thinking about anything - but once it got dark I felt like I was getting confused between sleep and swimming. I imagine this is not uncommon. I was a bit worried that maybe I was really hypothermic and losing my mind, but I didn't even feel cold (not a great indicator if you're truly hypothermic, but in this case it just wasn't very cold). To keep my mind at ease, I watched my watch - the back of the Apple Watch has a little green light that shines towards your wrist. It was just enough to keep my focus. I breathe bilaterally, so I only look at the kayak every 6 strokes, which is about 10 metres. Enough that you can end up needing to correct your path if you set off on the wrong trajectory. So I also relied on the faint light of Patty's head torch which shone through the water when she looked at me.


My eyesight is pretty terrible at night, so even though I knew we were headed in the right direction, I couldn't judge the distance. I've been trying to wean myself off my watch, but in this case I knew that the 10km course shouldn't take me more than 3.5 hrs (allowing for photo shoots and wardrobe changes), so I refused my last feed to just coast in to the finish. There was a fair bit of junk under the bridge, which is disconcerting when you can't see anything. Surprisingly, I didn't panic when I ran into a long hose like thing - didn't give one thought to the rattlesnake of Canyon Lake.

I'm terribly sad it's all over. I hope that these past 4 swim reports give you an idea of the actual swims, but there's so much more that happens on the periphery that defines the whole experience.

I'm drafting this from near the bottom of the Grand Canyon. I've tested my shoulders over the past few days. Now it's time for my legs to show me what they're made of.

Update:  legs not as tough as shoulders. Still limping 3 days later

 

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SCAR Day 3: Apache Lake

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This lake was to be the test. The longest, toughest swim of the 4 day tour. It's what I've trained for, and the swim I was most looking forward to. At 27km, in fresh water, it was to provide a great midpoint between Rotto and the English Channel.  

Apache Lake is in the middle of nowhere. It took a good hour to drive from Canyon, which is also remote. We're talking dirt track, one lane, precipice off the side of the road. Forget petrol stations, mobile reception, convenience stores, or good hotels. 

The travelling circus descended upon the motel (henceforth known as the Rat Motel). Any hotel that has an FAQ section on their website that includes questions such as "What are these stains on my carpet?" needs to take a good, hard look at their business operations. And advising customers to "tell the front desk you want a room that is nicer than the rest" isn't really cutting it. Experienced people brought their own linen. Those in the know may also have brought their own light bulbs.

With a long swim on the schedule, I was really worried. I don't need luxury, but I do need good food, a good sleep and with some luck, a hot shower. But there are no other options (literally nothing within 1.5 hrs drive), so Rat Motel it was. 

Braced for the worst, I was actually relieved upon check-in. At least 50% of my light bulbs worked, I had hot water, and the sheets didn't have any fresh bodily fluids on them. Win.  The towels were dirty, but you win some, you lose some. And to be honest, the food was really good. And the wait staff in the restaurant were super friendly. Mum ordered a pinot noir. Ha. Rookie. It didn't come, and eventually the guy came back and explained that the reason it hadn't arrived was because they didn't have any pinot noir. In fact, they didn't have any wine at all. But they were lovely, and you can imagine that it's difficult to attract and retain staff in the middle of freaking nowhere. 

Hiccups like this paled in comparison to neglecting to book 10 rooms for the organiser of SCAR and the support volunteers. What a nightmare for Kent to deal with. He's a trooper. 

Briefing was at 6.30am, with a short ceremony to recognise the incredible contributions made by the paddlers. I had a make-shift breakfast (no utensils, crockery or fridge), at 5.30 but then found out that the restaurant would serve food at 6.45. Or 7. Or whenever they were ready. We left the Motel after 8, and the trip up the lake took about an hour (slow boat, long way, long time to think about the challenge ahead).  

My shoulders were sore and I was sure I'd need painkillers and "surprises" (hey, any treat is a surprise when you're swim-stupid). I was loaded up with 18 feeds plus 3-4 pre-swim feeds. I was running low on sports-drink powder, having used more than I expected in carbo-loading before the swims (I know, I know, what about the spreadsheet? Well, a model is only as good as its assumptions, and my assumptions were wrong. I'm ashamed of myself. Let's not talk about it anymore, OK?). But I was prepared and ready for the swim. 

As a result of the late breakfast and slow boats, we didn't get into the water until around 10. There was a time cut-off of ~3pm at the marina, 17km from the start, which is a pretty mean feat. I usually assume 3km/hr in fresh water, so I'd have to put in some real effort to make the cut-off. But there was 10km after the marina, and the sun starts to set at 6.30, so it was necessary, without doubt. 

The person who made these maps deserves a knighthood

The person who made these maps deserves a knighthood

Even though the marina was 17/27ths of the way to the finish, I told myself that it was my half way mark. It was a recognisable landmark - the view from the marina was one of my favourites from the whole event - and if I could reach that by 3pm, I knew I'd be ok for the rest. 

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Ha. No. Not to be.  

The wind was insane. It's difficult to give stats because conditions change with each turn of the canyon. But we're talking up to 40km/hr wind gusts, and a consistently strong headwind. After the first couple of kilometres, I was head butting waves, scared that I'd burst an eardrum or break my wrist. 

But I was having a ball. I changed my mantra of "1-2-3, 1-2-3" (which TBH really needs some creative work), to "so-much-fun, so-much-fun". I had read about the tough winds that can affect Apache and had been terrified of them, but it turns out I quite like chop. For anyone who did Coogee to Bondi in December '16, it was kind of like that. But for >5x the distance.

So I was doing great guns, but the kayakers were essentially acting as sails in the wind and were being blown backwards. Actually backwards. And getting spun around. I'd take a feed from Patty, do a few strokes, look back and see that she was 100 metres behind me. So for the next 6 hours we played catch up, where I swam, Patty battled against the wind, and then got towed up to me by a support boat. For a good while I was swimming by myself, which was a lovely feeling, but pretty irresponsible and dangerous. I met a guy called Joe in the water, in the same position, and we swam together for an hour or so. A support boat gave us a feed, in the absence of our usual supplies. 

I passed the marina before 3, getting quite a shock to see the great big rock landmark while I was still feeling fresh. I felt strong, I had no pain, my nutrition was great, everything was going well. But I was out there on my own, with a couple of speed boats and sailing boats hooning around, and at 5pm, with about 4km to go, I was pulled out of the water by a support boat because they couldn't keep swimmers in the water without kayak support (or food). Hugely disappointing, but without doubt, the sensible thing to do. 

Once on the support boat, we picked up marooned kayakers and mildly hypothermic swimmers, wrapped them up in emergency blankets, and made our way back to the dock. 

From a field of 36 swimmers, four made it to the end. Kudos to them, and massive congratulations to their kayakers. I don't know how they did it. An incredible feat. 

Arriving at the dock was a little bit sad. I had lost Patty miles back, and didn't know where Mum was. But I found her, and got back to my room to find this: 

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What you can do with toilet paper and a bit of lippy.. 

The swim was a great experience. An accomplished Channel swimmer at SCAR said that I'd be unlikely to encounter anything like that on my channel swim. The organiser said it was "hands down the toughest swim" he's seen in his years of organising SCAR. 

You learn something new from every swim. This was the first time I haven't finished a swim, and I'm entirely comfortable with that. I swam strongly, I was well prepared, but the conditions were horrid. I'm content with where my training and ability is at.  I didn't need reminding that this palaver is a team effort, but if there was ever any doubt, this put that to rest. It would have been totally irresponsible and selfish of me to swim the last 4-5km of a 27km swim in those conditions with no food, no kayak support, no navigational assistance. I would have been reliant on the motor boats, which were being used to pick up kayakers and swimmers that were tired and cold. No need for that. 

There are very few photos of this swim. No surprises there. It was a slog. Patty was, once again, amazing. She loved it, laughed the whole way, and says it's a real SCaR experience. She's right. 

I guess I'll just have to come back to earn my scAr.  

SCAR Day 2: Canyon Lake

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The Canyon Lake swim route was far more convoluted than Saguaro. Imagine a squiggly snake. Just like that. In fact, kind of the same shape as the rattlesnake that crossed the finish line a minute before I did. 

Photo cedit goes to somebody else. I was in the water, about 3 metres away.&nbsp;

Photo cedit goes to somebody else. I was in the water, about 3 metres away. 

Honestly, I was too tired at the end of this swim to react to the snake. The crew asked me to give the snake a wide berth, and swim around the boat. After a 3 hr 53 minute swim, I thought the last 10 metres would finish me off. 

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We took a very fancy speedboat from a marina through the canyon to our staging area. Great trip, but unlike other long swims I've done (eg Rottnest), it means that you see the whole course before swimming it. And it's a bloody long way. It's really quite intimidating.  

At the staging area we spent a couple of hours setting up the kayaks, applying sunscreen, avoiding bitey insects. It's quite a long wait in the sun, but ferrying 100 people 10km takes time, and everyone knows that it's a matter of "hurry up and wait". By day 2, I learnt to adjust my feed preparation to make sure that I kept up my fluids and energy levels in the 3-4 hrs between breakfast and swimming.  

Bad hair day. Who am I kidding.... bad everything day. This is not a glamorous sport. Unless you're Patty, who always manages to look amazing

Bad hair day. Who am I kidding.... bad everything day. This is not a glamorous sport. Unless you're Patty, who always manages to look amazing

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Although it was around the same distance as Saguaro (around 12.5km), I found day 2 a lot harder. There was quite a lot of wash from boats bouncing off the canyon walls, my shoulders were tired and I struggled by half way, but a warm Milo and stroopwafel provided a bit of a boost.

The water was quite cold. I'm not sure it would have been above 16c at the start, but warmed up to 19c shortly afterwards. 

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After the swim we headed up to Apache Lake - a tough drive on dirt roads, only to arrive at a motel that has an awful reputation amongst SCAR alumni, and the worst TripAdvisor reviews I've ever seen. My rock bottom expectations set me in good stead. 

SCAR Day 1: Saguaro Lake

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Today's swim went brilliantly. The conditions were perfect: a chilly start, but as soon as the sun was up, it got really warm.

Patty and me

Patty and me

Mum has titled herself Chief Worrier. She makes a mean Vegemite sandwich (crusts cut off, in quarters), is being incredibly patient, and is getting the low down on the other participants by chatting to their support crews. Good work, Jen. 

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Water seemed to be around 20c, with occasional cooler patches. At times, one arm seemed to be pulling through 20c water, and the other through 16c water.  

The scenery was staggering. At times I was within metres of the canyon walls, cacti towering above me.  

Credit: Patty Hermann

Credit: Patty Hermann

Credit: Patty Hermann  I think I'm waving at the camera - not my normal stroke.&nbsp;

Credit: Patty Hermann

I think I'm waving at the camera - not my normal stroke. 

Patty stuck a Texan and Australian flag to the front of the kayak. Every time I saw it I started singing what was meant to be Waltzing Matilda to myself, but it ended up being a Les Miserables song. How unpatriotic of me. 

Credit: Patty Hermann

Credit: Patty Hermann

Patty is such a pro at this. Navigation, motivation, feeds - everything was a breeze. Couldn't ask for anything more. 

The course was shorter than I expected. I'm guessing somewhere between 12 and 13km, done in 3hrs 40. 

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At the end of the swim there were delicious sandwiches and snacks, but also an hour's drive home. We got home at 4, and got straight onto washing the drink bottles, prepping feeds, laundry, packing etc, all ready for Canyon Lake tomorrow. Approx the same distance. I'll try to update again tomorrow, but I'm moving to the Rat Motel, so I'm not holding high hopes for connectivity. 

AZ arrival

I've safely arrived in Arizona. I met Mum at Phoenix airport, picked up our enormous 4WD and managed to drive to our Airbnb on the correct side of the road. All the way. And we only had to take right turns, which made things a little easier. 

I spent last weekend sorting out my feeding plans for the swims, with expert guidance from Tara Diversi. The result: extraordinary spreadsheets, laminated plans for Patty (thanks RS), and a suitcase stuffed full of calories. All up, I'll consume 21,000 kj - just over 1kg of carbs. I fear for my love of Milo - this experience might exhaust it. 

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You should be able to track my swims at the following page: Bit.ly/Doubs-swims.  I swim Wednesday and Thursday mornings, most of Friday, and Saturday night.  Thanks to Tori for the tracker.

Rottnest Channel swim

Rottnest Channel swim

I touched down in Perth on the Thursday morning before the Rottnest Channel swim at almost exactly the same time as Helen, who was travelling from Melbourne. We congratulated ourselves on our “exemplary synchronization”, arranged to meet at baggage carousel 2, only to find that we were at separate terminals, 14km apart. Not an insurmountable problem, but not exactly the plan, either.

Perhaps I should have considered this an omen. 

The race was, without doubt, a mental, more than a physical challenge for me. I swam the first 7km in 2 hours, which was right on track for our target of a sub-6 hour race (3.5km/hr). I was feeling great, swimming strongly, and was pumped. But I didn’t pass the 10km buoy until about 3.5 hrs. My speed had dropped to 2km/hr.

The maths just didn’t make sense to me. I tried to think of possible explanations. Convinced we were going in the wrong direction, I checked to see if I could see the sun when I breathed to the left… No sun. To the right… No sun. So the sun was behind me and I was swimming west. Captain Dave and Paddy the Paddler were doing their jobs perfectly.

So the only logical explanation I could think of was that I was a terrible swimmer. I had been over confident. I was rubbish. It did not occur to me, even momentarily, that everyone was having a tough swim.

In fact, strong currents were slowing everyone down. Paul Newsome has given a good overview of what happened here. The average time for soloists increased from 6 hrs 55 mins in 2016 to 7 hrs 50 mins in 2017 – almost a full hour slower. 286 soloists started, only 230 finished, with withdrawals due to hypothermia, sea-sickness, and not making the cut-off points within the allowed time. Almost a third of the female field pulled out.

Coming in at 7 hours 9 minutes, I was 40 minutes slower than last year, and an hour slower than I had hoped. When I arrived on the island, I could only find a few friends – all fast swimmers. My messed up mind concluded that everyone else had already taken the ferry back. It took another couple of hours for me to realize that it had been a slow race.

Now that I can look at the cold, hard data, I’m delighted with my swim. I kept my brain busy with songs, my feeding went exactly to plan, and I didn’t stop swimming until I could stand up. My shoulders got sore, so I’ll have to work on strengthening and stretching them, and I got a pretty bad headache, so I’ll have to make sure I’m getting enough liquid and my technique isn’t messing up my neck. But most importantly, I’ve now learnt not to trust my water-addled brain. Next long swim, I’ll just concentrate on turning my arms over until I’m on dry land, and won’t worry about other swimmers or the time.

Rachelle framed her experience so admirably, demonstrating a real turn-around: last year it was heartbreaking to see her drag herself to the after-party angry, disappointed, and barely wanting to acknowledge the swim (even though she had just completed her longest swim ever). She came out of the water this year beaming, absolutely beaming. It didn’t matter that the time was slower. She was over-joyed that her feeding went well, that she didn’t go to any dark places, that she (mostly) didn’t lose her temper at her amazing mum or husband, and most importantly, it gave her even more time in the water. It was brilliant to see her so happy, and to recognise that how you frame your swim is all-important.

I have so much respect for the new Rottnest soloists. The race is seen as the gateway drug to longer swims, but it was a bloody hard swim. I hope they’re not discouraged. (One a similar topic, apparently cold water is the gateway drug to crack).

Helen, Dave, Paddy, me, post-swim

Helen, Dave, Paddy, me, post-swim

My support crew could not have been any better. Captain Dave from Leisurecat chose exactly the right route to get me straight to the island, despite the currents. My track could just about be used as a spirit level. Once again, he was easy to communicate with, committed and the reliable, steadfast captain that I needed.

Paddy kept me fed, on track and smiling for the full 7 hours. But that’s only part of the story. He also got up early on Saturday mornings through January and February to practice with me and did extra training sessions during the week to make sure he was fully prepared. After each training session he considered everything that had happened, and asked how he could improve. He made sure that he understood which words of encouragement would be effective, and which would have the opposite effect. I’ve known Paddy for about 15 years, and have always loved him. But I'm so glad that we have  shared this experience. 

Credit: Aussies in Action

Credit: Aussies in Action

And Helen, well it’s difficult to describe how much Helen contributed. Yes, she took photos, placated my mother, took care of social media and everything on the boat. But she also provided me with the confidence that if anything at all went wrong, it would be sorted. She’s so incredibly sensible, competent and thoughtful. 

Thank you to Carly for coming down to the start line and your indefatigable enthusiasm, to Michael for lending me your kayak, to Tracey for lending me your car, to my wonderful coaches and to my Vladswim family for making the last few months so much fun.

If your'e really keen, here's the geeky stuff

Nutrition

Food plan

Actual food consumed 

Disclaimer: I think this is vaguely right. I'm still learning about all the different sugars etc, but this is what my rough maths gives me.

I took a bit of a risk and introduced a new food (Staminade) into the mix, basically on race day. I found it quite difficult to drink all the liquid, particularly towards the end, but my energy levels were good throughout, and I didn't feel as bloated as I usually do. Using a squeegee bottle thing that takes 5 gels was great - those feeds were super quick.

Last minute preparations

There's a pile of vital provisions on the floor of my study, ready to be packed: gels, drink powder, drink bottles, ropes, sunscreen, barrier cream, bulldog clips, rubber gloves, Listerine, permanent marker, leccie tape, drugs, camera, watch, battery packs. The lists have been written (oh the lists!), the crew have been briefed. We're ready for this. 

Last night I made a playlist of songs I can sing to myself during the swim. I'll write the first line of the song on a piece of tape on my drink bottle, so that I think of a different song every 30 minutes. Maybe I should ask Paddy to sing to me... It's non-stop hit after hit: Queen, Lady Gaga, Pink, Bon Jovi, Elton John. Ah, it's so bad, but so good. 

You can track my swim at Mapswim, swimmer number 235. My wave goes at 6.05am AWST on Saturday 25 February.

 

Taper

I am 100% embracing the taper. I'm pleased with how I'm swimming. I've made my lists for Rotto. I'm feeling ready.

I'm going to Belgium for 4 days this week, which is not ideal preparation, but it's going to be an amazing work trip.  I looked for pools in Brussels, but had no luck. There are a couple of 25m pools, but they're both closed for renovation. We're so lucky in Sydney - there are at least five 50m pools within 3km of the CBD. Given the circumstances, I'll just have to focus on not getting sick, and managing my jetlag.

Last week's swim at Bondi was perfect.  I don't think I've ever seen it so crystal clear - all the way to the bottom, for the full distance between the boat ramp and Icebergs. It was incredible. There were no stingers, I was on fire, and everything was amazing. I hopped onto the draft of some fast swimmers and easily kept pace. It was like being on a conveyor belt. Paddy was paddling for me, noticed my manoeuvring, and said that the difference in pace was incredible. And to top it off, my avocado toast and Bloody Mary afterwards were perfect too. It was a very good day.

Shades of Bondi

Shades of Bondi

The week before Bondi we did our longest training swim - 16km from Balmoral.  My friend and I took the scenic route from Balmoral to Chinaman's, over to Clontarf, popped into a tiny beach between Clontarf Point and Grotto Point, then crossed over to the naval base, and back along Balmoral. We took a fairly leisurely approach to the swim, stopping to chat and snack frequently. It was lovely, but it added about half an hour to the swim, and nobody needs that. I also crashed near the end, so I've brought back my feeds from 35 minutes to 30 minutes.

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This morning I didn't swim. I did 50 minutes of hills and stairs instead. It has been a horribly hot day, and even at 8am it was as humid as Singapore. But it felt great to do something different. Two days after I finish SCAR I'm going to hike in the Grand Canyon for a couple of nights, and I'm a little bit worried that I have no muscles other than swimming muscles. So I've been doing Pilates three times a week, and doing hills when I can. So far, so good. It seems that at least some of the fitness transfers.

We had a very funny conversation earlier this week about sunfish. There was a Facebook post about the species, which you've got to concede, is pretty daft. BUT THEY EAT JELLYFISH! Particularly in the North Channel. So a few friends are BIG fans of the sunfish: "Angles of the North Channel", "Like a giant flat dolphin", "The dolphins uncoordinated, less sporty brother". All hail the sunfish!

Big weeks

We're one month out from Rotto, at the peak of our training. Last week I swam about 35km, including 14km at Manly. It was a bit of a slog. My shoulders hurt, and I didn't swim as fast as I'd like. But sometimes that happens. The forecast didn't look good (2.8m swell, jellyfish), but it turned out to be perfect conditions; a bit of chop to make it fun (and give the shoulders a workout, evidently), very few stingers, and a nice rolling swell. Paddy did a sterling job paddling.

Yesterday's squad was full on. 3.3km main set, mostly hundreds, descending from 1:35 to 1:25. Felt great to make it. I crashed by 8.30 last night and am grateful for the public holiday today.

This weekend we're scheduled to do 16km - our longest swim. It'll be a good chance to fine tune feeding and paddling. But I'm not too worried. 

All I'm thinking about is food and sleep. I'm pretty well stocked up on food that is healthy and easy to prepare, and I'm making 3 days' of breakfasts, lunches and snacks each Sunday to give me a good start to the week. Cottage cheese and mung beans are a fav, as is hummus, flatbread, fruit salad and yoghurt.

 

 

Stick with Plan A

Last week, for about 24 hours, I considered moving my English Channel swim to August 2017, rather than July 2018. A swimmer had cancelled, leaving a slot open on a very good tide. I would have been able to travel to the UK at the same time as a friend, and the prospect of getting it over and done with was appealing. But I had to consider my ability to train enough in the next eight months, family commitments, holidays, work etc. Before I knew it, the decision was taken out of my hands, and the slot had been filled. It's for the best. I don't need to rush this. It was a good exercise in taking stock of where I'm at, and where I want to be. 


I've read and listened to some interesting stuff recently.

  • A piece on why open water swimming is good for your health.
  • A fabulous man has done some stats on English Channel swims. I've been looking (not very hard) for combined CSA and CS&PF stats. Also of note: the water temp in early July has been about 16c for the past three years.
  • This week's TED Radio Hour features Dame Ellen MacArthur, a long-distance yachtswoman. Hoo boy, her stories of sailing are terrifying! There's a discussion about bravery which stuck with me: she doesn't consider herself to be brave, because she chooses to take on these crazy adventures. She says that brave people are those that have challenges thrown at them. I agree. You can prepare for adventures / endurance events etc, and that makes them a lot less scary.
  • Freakonomics re-ran How to Become Great at Just About Anything, with a good discussion of deliberate practice, which made me a bit more enthusiastic about doing drills.

Getting back to squad last week was hard. I swam slowly, and I got tired. That's what two weeks off will do. Mental note: never stop swimming again. Ever. But, three sessions on, and I'm starting to feel OK again. Vlad took a nice video of squad this morning.

We swam at Bondi on Saturday. There was a bit too much aquatic life for my liking. Loads of seals, dolphins and quite a few bluebottles. We've got some long long swims coming up in the next month, and I know I'm going to get stung, but I'd really like to minimise my exposure. After a little tickle, I was pretty keen to jump out, but I knew that I had to do the distance. Bondi offers a convenient alternative RIGHT THERE, free from nasties, so after 1.5km in the ocean, we did another 6.5km at Icebergs. It was a great swim. I felt reasonably energetic, but having analysed my food (are gels food? not really) intake during the session, I think I should increase my consumption a bit. I'll give it a go this week.

 

Fairweather pool

I'm spending the holiday period in Melbourne. I'm house-sitting in Coburg, close to the new nephew. When planning my holiday (always one for a plan), I sought out pools in the area and was delighted to come across an Olympic pool in Coburg, a mere ten minutes' walk. Upon further investigation, however, I found that this pool was usually only open after 3pm (?!), and only on days when the forecast temperature was between 24c and 32c. On warmer days it would open earlier. And on holidays. It was all very confusing, and a bit disappointing. How do you manage staff? I don't understand. 

Anyway, today is hot. Really hot. Then I remembered! Coburg Olympic, here I come. 

I wandered down, passing Merri Creek, to find a relic of Australian summers. It was quite charming. Gum leaves and bark littered the pool floor. The water was cool enough that kids squealed and parents tentatively submerged. Kids climbed on the shoulders of their dads. It was so windy my towel and t-shirt blew away. There were only two lanes roped off, and both of them were empty, so for a good hour, I had a lane to myself. 

18 months to go

In early July 2018, I'll dip my toes in Dover Harbour, and with a good dose of luck and hours of training, my next steps will be one the shores of France. That's 18 months from now. 

This week is Christmas week. I'm doing more eating than swimming. I'm away from home, away from my routine, and that doesn't work out well for me. I've been for two swims - one a good effort, the other left me as sunburnt as a glazed ham. 

But... it's a good chance to get organised and plan, right? I've nailed down plans for my trip to the US in April for SCAR. I'm going to do a few hikes after the swims. Given that 7 minutes of land-based exercise left me unable to walk last week, I'm a little terrified. There will also be hot air balloon rides over the desert, a night in Vegas and a few nights on a buffalo ranch. Can. Not. Wait.