Two and a half years ago I’d just done long course weekend, Ironman Wales, Snowdonia Mara back to backed with a hundred mile bike and was starting to prepare for the hardest iron tri, the Norseman. My body said enough. There was a good six months of searching for solutions…and soul searching. All that time swimming was the constant. At first I tried to replace biking and running with swimming, which just started to take its toll on the shoulders. I built it a bit more sensibly and started to realise 3800m wasn’t the biggest swim you could do, you could go super long, you could swim two or three times a day. Unknown to me, the evolution from Ironman to swimmer had begun.
Fast forward to this time last week and me and my crew were on standby to swim the English Channel; the 21 mile straight between England and France. Historically only about 2000 people have ever swum it to channel swim rules, standard swimmers, a hat and goggles. No extra warmth, no extra buoyancy. A decent gap in the weather had shown in the forecast for a few days so it was looking promising, for a midnight start on Friday 2nd August. Its a bit of a weird build up as you never know quite when you will go and so the taper is an odd one to gauge. I felt like Id been tapering for ever and just wanted to go!
Midnight start is a weird one too, never done that! Ended up trying just to get as much rest as I could…although quite difficult to sleep during the day when your bouncing off the walls! Also the nutrition; I ended up just eating a couple of good meals, and trying not to be too full for midnight!
At about 10 we left the house to head for the marina. Car was absolutely rammed with stuff. Oops. On the dock, the first guy we met was Kevin Murphy, King of the channel; more swims than any one else. Ok, right. Then I found out he was my observer!! The pilot brought the boat round and we loaded all the stuff and went through the last paperwork and safety briefs. I wasn’t really nervous at any point in the final build up, I just wanted to get going!
As we left the harbour, the boat was rocking quite a bit. There’s nothing you can do about it so it doesn’t really matter but I was trying to squint through the darkness to see what the sea was doing as we motored round and I got sun creamed up; but weird at midnight in the pitch black! Five minute warning came and I stripped down and covered the hotspots with vasaline. This is it!
The air and the wind felt cold as I climbed down the ladder…but the water, the water was so warm! Water temp was one of my biggest fears when I started this road as a skinny weedy ironman. Luckily, the last two years I have bulked up quite heavily and done a lot of cold training…so hopefully it would be all good! I could see a light spot on the beach where the crew were shining a spotlight, I swam to it and cleared the water up onto the beach. At midnight exactly, the boat blasted its horn and I walked back down into the water, careful not to dislodge my hat or goggles in the chop, swam back to meet the boat and carried on out to sea!
Swimming in the dark!
I’d told the crew I needed to be yelled at if I went off like a rocket. For the first ten/fifteen minutes, I was waiting to be shouted at! When its choppy I tend to increase my cadence and I thought I was a little bit high…but they all seemed happy so I just ploughed on! The sea state was rolling swell. I quite like swimming when its like that as you are up one side, down the other…but its not the horrible chop that spoils your rhythm and makes you swallow water. Every time I turned to breathe I could see the stars. Great! I was fairly confident the crew were not having as much fun as me! First clue; I hadnt seen my dad for quite a while. Hadnt seen him on my side of the boat anyway, everytime it rolled, I could see him leaning over the other side…feeding the fish!
There really wasnt much to see in the first stint, high hopes had a light shining down in the water so it was just a case of trying to stay where the water was a bit lighter, other than that, the stars on one side and the boat on the other, there really wasnt much to see, just keep swimming and try and keep the cadence slow and steady!
I had no idea of the time as I had given my watch to one of the crew but in what seemed like a really really short amount of time; they flashed the lights and threw me my feed bottle. Now my plan was first feed at 1hour 30, then every 45 minutes after that. In my head there was no way that was an hour and a half, they must have messed up and gone 45 mins. Hey ho, doesn’t matter, smash the bottle down and get swimming. Really really quick feed and back to it, that’s how I was planning on playing it.
Seemed like a similar length of time to the next feed; they deffo messed it up! Smashed the second bottle, carried on swimming. Cool, all good. This continued for what must have been the next few hours, the only thing to entertain me was trying to ascertain if the dawn was starting to break or not; not I decided as I think it was just the glow from Dover!
As the dawn did begin to break, there was still no rest up from the swell…but I did see my Dad emerge on my side of the boat, I asked him if he had been sick, he seemed not to know whether to tell me or not; don’t think he realised I could see them hiding on the other side of the boat! I was trying to figure out the time from the lightness, must be around six I thought…or perhaps maybe five as there was no light pollution where we were. Knowing things is a double edged sword. If you are ahead of the targets in your head, its great to know! If you are behind, not so much (hence me not having my watch)! I tried to stop thinking about what time it was and where we were and just carry on swimming.
Before too long, it was definitely ‘day’. There was a bit of broken sun and the sea started to smooth out a bit. I figured the tide must be turning. It must be six hours! Stop it! stop thinking about it! Another feed or two and I got my confirmation, I saw a big navigation bouy. I was 99% certain we were right at the top of the shipping lane. This was good. The sea was flattening and I could plough on, [fairly sure] we were now racing down the French lane toward the 3 mile marker; the sea was great, we’d be there for lunch! Deffo need to stop that kind of thinking!
When the sea flattened, the jellies came out. Big compasses (stingy ones) and the biggest blue jellies I’d ever seen! Not massive amounts of them but a couple every few minutes. Something had stung me in the face in the night but these, touch wood, were all down far enough to be out of reach. All but one big compass anyway, as I put my hand into the water, he was just there below my hand. I didn’t pull through, just glided….then rolled left without breaking stroke out of his way. As I lifted my head to breathe I could see the observer looking at me; he must have seen my little roll and wondered what the hell I was doing!
The mood on the boat seemed to have improved massively. In the flatter water the boat wasn’t rolling half as much and everyone seemed more lively. Everyone except Katrina anyway. I stopped for a feed and everyone gave me the positives…except her; she gave me a massive mouthful for being way too far away from the boat and adding loads of miles on by zig zagging in and out. Ok fair point but you didn’t need to be mean! I spent the next 45 mins, trying to stay right next to the boat…and was rewarded with an apology at the next feed. Fair point, she said I wouldn’t have listened if she had been nice about it…and I wouldn’t have!
They had been throwing out the solid food container at every feed nearly, but I hadn’t taken anything; the drink was working well and I didn’t fell like changing anything, or taking more time, so I didn’t. I did feel like one armpit was starting to rub tho, so I got them to put a big lump of vasaline in the food tub for a top up. Other than that, the body was feeling good. Forearms seemed to be taking the brunt of it so I was playing around trying to make it hurt less…to not much success! I figured Id swum a long way already and things should be a little bit sore!
As the sea flattened, I started to hit bits of seaweed. Nothing bad but it certainly makes you jump. A few times it wrapped around my goggles and my arm and I needed to flick it off as I swam. I didn’t really see too much tho which was a relief, just a big plastic crate I swam straight into which stopped me in my tracks, much to the amusement on the boat.
The crew were having a bit of a party, Lewis playing music through the megaphone (which I couldn’t make out the tune while I was swimming!) and lewis and maz piloting the boat, dancing away too! Sun was out, shirts were off, everyone was having fun!
I had been keeping an eye on the tankers as we swam down the lane. Initially they were all quite far in front, i,e, we still had a lot of the lane to get through (its five miles wide). After a good while, I realised I hadnt seen one for a while; this must be good, they must be behind me, we must be starting to get towards the French side of the lane! France was starting to loom, I could see it through the murk. Try not too look, try not to work it out, just keep swimming…!
I hadnt seen that much of the observer, he had popped his head up on quite a few of the feeds and Id seen him keeping an eye at various points, but he had just let my crew get on with it. At the next feed he was there, he asked me if I knew what ZC2 was and when I replied yes, he pointed and said it is just there. I turned and saw it, not too far away. Nothing else needed to be said, I knew what that meant. Finished my feed and swam on.
ZC2 is the bouy marking the edge of the shipping lane, exactly three miles from the cap, the shortest point. The swim is often described as an 18 mile warm up and a three mile swim…cos this is the bit that makes or breaks. Particularly on a spring tide, the water rushes so fast around the cap, you can easily get washed right back out to sea and swimming the hardest and longest miles, right when your at your most tired. I was fully aware swimmers are often asked for an hour of power to break the tide. I had told my crew I only want that call if its absolutely necessary as that could break me. I tried to swim as efficiently and as strongly as I could, saving energy but ticking off the distance. This was where it mattered. I hoped I’d done enough down the lane to put us in the right place…we were about to find out.
Before the next feed, the sea got angry. I could see the flags on the boat blowing and starting to change direction, we were turning; the tide was turning. We were starting to head into the wind. With wind over tide, the sea was getting nasty; horrible spikey chop, nasty to swim in, nasty to be on a boat, just nasty. Really not what you want after 12 hours (ish – two tides, must be about 12!).
The happy dancing was replaced with Lewis just sitting on the front of the boat, smiling and nodding at me and just pointing onward. The waves were battering me around so I was just trying to stay tight to the front of the boat where the was a little bit of protection. The downside is occasionally a wave bounces off the hull and hits you straight in the face as you try to breathe! It was now key to try not to swallow the water or breathe it in.
The sea was quite rough so France was in and out of view as the waves went up and down but I saw the lighthouse flying past; we were swinging round to the north…and still quite a long way out. The coast was dropping away and the tide was pushing us farther from the beach. Head down, keep swimming.
The waves and the chop were a little bit disheartening, but Id prepared mentally for the battle around the cap; this wasn’t the fight Id expected…but it definitely was a fight! A statement Lewis Pugh made kept running through my head, its going to be a lot easier to swim through it now than to do the last two years again and get another shot, on another day, when the weather might turn even worse. Head down, keep going.
Each feed kept coming and going, we wernt making progress. France was no closer than the last feed, and the one before that. I broke my own rules and started to question the crew. I didn’t mean to ask how far out, how much further…but I couldn’t articulate what I wanted…and they didn’t seem to know what to say, other than you are doing great, keep going. That didn’t help. Thinking about it now, the question I needed answering was are we making progress? I didn’t need to know, and I didnt really mean to ask how far to go, how long left… and I know (better than anyone) they couldn’t answer it. Eventually I settled for just carrying on. No one was telling me to push, no one looked overly concerned, Lewis was Just smiling and pointing me on, Maz driving the boat and Kevin the observer were just poker faced and my dad and Kat were just having a chat, seemingly not watching the battle. meh, Ill do this by myself then.
The only gauge I had on how close we were was the water temperature. I kept feeling small increases in temperature. It wasn’t cold at any point but it was now starting to feel quite warm. The cliffs were starting to get closer. Cliffs. Right, Petit Blanc Nez, just down the coast from Calais. You cant get too close to Calais or they will pull the swim to stop you getting in the way of the ferries. My badly articulated questions were now trying to find out if we were nearing Calais. Kevin just told me to fight my demons. Fight my demons. Fight my Demons?? I was quite indignant at the statement! I was a bit tired, a bit annoyed at the weather…but absolutely no-where near at the point of stopping or giving up. Body was tired but felt fine, nothing was hurting hurting, I wasn’t fighting my demons..cos I wasn’t anywhere near that point. I figured I must be giving off the wrong signals and I should shut up and just swim!
At the next feed Maz smiled at me from the cabin and said although I couldn’t see where we were going, the tide was turning. This was a huge relief, I knew we were ok from Calais…and I knew we were going to land, just a case of when. The chop seemed to ease a little bit and we ploughed on. My mind was starting to analyse my condition and started to think my ‘bad’ shoulder was beginning to hurt, my forearms were knocked…and was I running out of energy? All of a sudden 45 mins between feeds seemed an aweful long time. Yes I was definitely running out of energy. The last feed, I saw them preparing the bottle and not throwing it. FFS guys, Im dying here, throw it! In the end I stopped and shouted something sarky at them and they launched the bottle to me. Looking back, I didn’t need the energy, I just wanted a 30 second break. Sorry guys!
The cliffs were now really close. Really close, but not close enough! I could see Lewis getting speedo’d up so I knew we were close. Simon made some kind of comment to swim in, which I took to mean he was stopping. The boat dropped behind me, this was it! The boat pulled back level with me, on the other side. What?! Ok, cant be much further, he will stop anytime now. Seemed like an age….trundling on…but he just didn’t stop. Surely they must be nearly beached?! I realised I don’t have a clue what the tide was doing, the cliffs were there, there should have been a beach…but we were just getting closer and closer. Through the chop, I couldn’t see anything but the cliff. Finally he did stop and I was on my own. Lewis was supposed to be swimming with me…but I couldn’t see him? No matter, I tried to maintain my pace, not swallow the water…and not look!
As we edged ever closer, I realised the waves were braking at the foot of the cliff; the tide must be fully in. I went over a few barrell jellyfish, then something more solid; a rock! In the surf were a few big rocks, and no beach. I touched the rock and stopped as I had nowhere to go. A few seconds later, I heard the boat horn, Id done it! No way, not happy with this! I turned round and saw lewis ten feet behind me, he pointed to a small beach and me picked our way through the rocks and the breaking waves and I hauled myself out; now Id done it! Lewis threw me his dry bag which had the flag in, I hoisted it and hoped they had a camera pointed that way!
All that remained was to grab a handful of pebbles, throw the bag back to Lewis and try and scramble my way back through the rocks into the sea…and potter back to the boat! The rocks felt pretty smooth…but the very last one tagged me on the stomach! Ok that’s why you aren’t supposed to climb over the rocks!
The crew back on the boat sorted me out and got me dressed and we began the motor back to Dover. Challenge complete.
Such a long build up and such a lot of blood sweat and tears gone into this I think I need some time to analyse and digest the day, for now it was just smiles all round and a bit of a sleep on the deck on the way back! 3-8-19 England to France, 15hrs 35mins.