Thursday 10 March 2011

Rottnest Channel Swim: a 21.75km marine life odyssey

“You just swam the equivalent of a Half Marathon….” 
Trust my triathlon friends to put it in perspective…

Rottnest Island - somewhere out there...
Well, Rottnest Channel Swim turned out to be longer than a Half Marathon (21.1km), higher endurance than my Half Ironman (6hr 14mins) and the most marine life I have ever seen in a race before!

However, pulling together a successful solo crossing was the result of a lot of preparation, training and an incredible team supporting me, both in the race and from the sidelines. And I am thrilled to be able to say: "I made it! And in my goal time"

Pre-race preparations went reasonably smoothly, and we arrived in Perth at 2am on Wednesday. Not quite ideal, but we were there! Perth was in the middle of a 25 day heat wave, and it was a delightful 30 degrees celcius at 2am in our air conditioned hire car.

Waking up on Wednesday morning we were just a short walk down to Cottesloe Beach where Mum, Dad and I had a morning dip before Dad headed off to work. I got my first taste of the Western Australian stingers as I did a few km’s up and down the beach. OUCH! They hit like a whip, and come out of nowhere… you can’t see these guys before they sting! Thankfully the pain subsides after about half an hour, and I figured I was better off knowing what I was in for.

6 Gormans!
That evening we headed up the river to meet my amazing first cousin once removed, Andrew. Andrew had been so kind to lend me his speed boat for the race which Mum and Dad would be in all day watching and supporting me as I turn my arms over and over. Andrew had never met me or my parentals when he got a call last year from another cousin, Henry, saying: "Andrew, you have mad cousin who wants to swim to Rottnest Island next year, can you lend her your boat?" Family really blows me away with the incredible support always available, and unbeknownst to me Andrew spent the summer refurbishing his ski boat, putting in a new engine and setting up a bimani to provide shade cover for Mum and Dad. I was a very lucky girl. We met Andrew, his wife Angela and new daughter Abby and checked out the boat, which blew away all our expectations, before heading out for dinner where many a family story was traded. It was a great night and we all thoroughly enjoyed meeting more family. There really is nothing stronger than the family bond.

Team united: Joe and I
On Thursday, the final piece of Team Tori was complete with the arrival of my paddler Joe.

Pre race prep still involved swimming everyday, either in the pool or down at the beach getting used to the WA water. To be honest, I far preferred the sea as after 4 months solid pool training, I was pretty over the black line! The rest of the time was a mixture of fine tuning race preparation and trying to stay chilled.
Becci and Louise

Justin, Gorm and Damien
Cam and Coach Vlad

Me and Coach Vlad: challenge ahead
With the ridiculously early race start looming on Saturday, we decided to have a catch up at Perth’s finest pub, the OBH, on Thursday night with everyone from Sydney and surrounds who had been a part of the Rottnest 2011 challenge. It was a great night with local friends, training buddies, support crew and my coach Vlad all in attendance. We watched a magic sunset, still sweltering in the 32 degree heat, and I looked at Rottnest and thought: “2 sleeps”.

Getting pumped at the race briefing
Preparation for a race, especially one of such magnitude as this and with so many people involved who had all put in so much to be here supporting me, is absolutely key. 

To say I was feeling the pressure was an understatement. Would I achieve my goal? The question was never “Would I finish?” I knew I could as I had done the km’s in the pool and ocean for months. I had been building strength in the gym, dragging my body up and down a black line in the pool, I had sacrificed a large portion of my social life for training and sleeping, I had given up alcohol for 2 months, even coffee for 6 weeks! But whether I would finish in a time that would do me and everyone in my support crew both in Perth and back in Sydney proud and would make the sacrifice worth it was definitely weighing on my mind. I have bigger plans, and this race needed to be executed in the way I planned, to keep my momentum going. Knowing I had built up a huge amount of support from my amazing family and friends also was a huge help, yet I knew I had a lot to live up to.

Team Tori in uniform

But it was not just my own preparations that counted, it was also those of my support team, aka “Team Tori”. Mum and Dad spent days charting my potential courses , studying currents, sourcing local knowledge, reading weather maps, determining my swimming speed vs. current speeds and angles that would position me at Phillip Rock 1.5km off the finish line. Mum also sorted out all the support crew food and learnt how to Facebook the night before the race so she could keep everyone following me up to date. Joe also got himself into peak physical condition in order to paddle for 21km’s. And when I say “paddle” I mean board paddle on a rescue board with his two hands. Rotating between lying down and kneeling up for over 6 hours is not something to take lightly. Joe also spent plenty of time methodically thinking through various aspects of the race and ensuring I had plans for potential obstacles that we could face. Thankfully most of these did not come to fruition, but it was good knowing we had covered most of them in preparation.

Race supplies and nutrition were secured in netting bags attached to the front of the board. My race plan consisted of electrolyte drink every half hour with food (alternating between jelly cups with fruit and Shotz gels) and a carb drink every other 15 minutes. We would be holding the position on the left for a minimum of 6 hours... and the forecast was for 36 degrees on race day. It was going to be hot, and hydration would be key.

And then suddenly it was race day. I hardly slept the night before – standard for me pre big races – and was up and awake at 3.30am. Breakfast time was porridge and banana and then all the last minor preparations. Mum and Dad were out the door at 4am heading down to Port Walter to meet our boat and at 4.40am Joe and I walked out the door and down to Cottesloe Beach. It was dark, and there was a shore break pumping, not quite the flat, idyllic conditions we had been promised!

Alice and I pre race
Arriving at Cottesloe Beach the atmosphere was electric. I could feel the excitement in the air, and I felt sick, nervous and pumped simultaneously. I registered and got my timing chip, got my race number (#76) written on my arms and then headed down to the shore where Joe and I did my last preparations: coating my exposed skin in zinc, covering my armpits and neck in Vaseline, putting on my caps, setting my GPS devices, and psyching up. Vlad came over for a quick pre race chat and then I was off to the starters area. On the way I bumped into my school friend Alice and her boyfriend Richard and had pre race photos and air hugs as I was covered in gunk. Unfortunately I didn’t see my other mates Gilad and Michael who I used to work with in my CeBIT days but they were there and have the photos to prove it! And then it was race time - In the starters pen I stood next to seven times Australian 25km National Championships winner, Shelley Clark, who was just lovely. I felt like a bit of a pretender standing next to her in her Australian team swimsuit! And then the WA Premier lifted his arm with the gun and we were off!
The Swim Channel with 800 boats and
500 paddlers waiting for their swimmers!!
Boat and chopper madness at dawn
at Cottesloe Beach

The first 500m of the race were a disaster. I couldn’t see a thing, turns out some vaso had gotten on my lens and since it was still dark as we took off from the beach, I couldn’t see a thing. I also had stingers hitting me constantly across my face and under my arms. I had to take my goggles off and swim with my head up for a good 300m until I worked out where the buoys where I was meeting Joe was. Thankfully he was exactly where we organized, and I waved him over and we were off. There were boats everywhere… 800 in fact!  It was nuts. I was grateful to have Joe next to me to protect me from vessels in such low light. Joe located Mum and Dad in the boat at the 1.5km mark and the team was complete.

As the sun rose, my vision improved, and I decided I didn’t need an extremely clear view anyway as I had Joe right next to me for the whole race and the boat setting my course. I hit my rhythm and off I went. And so did the stingers… for the first 8kms in fact. It was torture. I think I screamed underwater consistently for a good 2.5hours every time they hit. Poor Joe could see my pain, and finally I called for more vaso as the stings had irritated my skin so much there was some serious pain. And then finally at the 9km mark the stingers vanished! At this point in the race I also realised I had dropped my pace and having done 8km’s (which is what it seems to take for me to warm up these day!) I decided I needed to up the pace. It was game on.

From 9km’s to 20kms I hit a strong rhythm, and nutrition and hydration went perfectly to plan. Conditions were hot. The water was 24 degrees celcius. Air temperature 36-38 degrees and the water was sloppy. Mum was busy re-filling my bottles and feeding Joe ham and cheese sandwiches which tortured me as he ate them next to me, and also posting updates on my Facebook page. Dad was busy keeping me on course and protecting me from sharks… yep – at the 15km mark there was a hammerhead shark reported to the left of the boat… I was on the right of the boat… Thankfully my parents decision to trust the shark shield hanging off the board was a good one.

At 16km’s we heard my training buddy Louise Stevenson was currently sitting in third overall. It was a pretty exciting moment and made me really pick up my pace. I could feel the finish getting closer. At this point the current also really picked up and I could feel myself being swept left. I yelled this out to the crew to work into the course. Marine life was in abundance: fish, 6 manta rays, stingers... it was definitely an underwater paradise. I was also surprised how I could see the bottom for most of the way, and it was pretty clear how quickly I was being swept left.

Finally at 20km’s I started to mentally flag… I realized that I was still a minimum of 1.5km from the finish line as we hadn’t yet rounded Phillip Rock, and I felt like I must have dropped right off as I was battling current. Interestingly the data shows I was actually still doing ok, you can definitely see where I hit the worst of the current. Finally 300m later I was past the rock, and back in my groove.

I really started to pick up the pace here and just wanted to finish. I upped my nutrition to caffeine gels only and was smashing down my feeds in sub 15 secs. It got a little hectic! I started overtaking teams, duos and solos. It was a pretty satisfying feeling winding them in and each time I reached one, I would focus on the next and then the next. And before I knew it, I was at the finish chute. The boat and Joe peeled off and I was in the chute. 800m on my own. A few last stingers hit me across the face and under the arms. I overtook the last solo ahead of me, and the team and then the duo, and finally I was on the beach standing up under a massive blue sign. 

I was handed my finishers pack and headed out the chute to meet Mum, Dad and Joe. I was elated, and exhausted, and very quickly I crashed with a massive blood sugar level crash. I should have eaten as soon as I finished, but unfortunately I didn’t think about that as we had to move the boat and the board, get unloaded off the boat etc. All the logistics took 2 hours before we stopped and I ate. To say I was a mess is an understatement. I learnt a lesson that day – post race food is required immediately!!!. Thankfully I refueled and finally was back to normal soon after. After showers we hit the bar to catch up with everyone else. Hugo and Kate had come over from Sydney and were there for the celebrations. It was a great afternoon. Everyone was on a high! Presentation at 5pm where all solo finishers received our commemorative statue and had a team photo and then we were back to the bar! Hit the dance floor (adrenaline is an incredible drug) and finally crashed out at 10pm that night. What a day!!!!

Dad, me and Mum on the finish

The best support crew decked out in our red logo t-shirts! Team Tori: me, Dad, Mum and Joe
The Stinger remnants - RHS

The sunburn
The Stinger remnants - LHS
Overall results:
Successful Solo Swimmers 2011
21.75km swum (splits below)
6 hours 23 mins
14th female out of 34 female solos
45th solo out of 198 starters. 
Turns out 50 solos didn’t finish, and speaking to some of them afterwards they were pretty gutted. I really felt for them.

My current excitement is being able to say:

“I have now swum further than I have ever run!”

Post race ‘Team Tori’ stayed on Rottnest Island for a few days R&R. I was spoilt by my tri buddies Laura and Tilly who organised me a massage on the island post race. We hung out with quokkas and cycled round the island and hung out with locals. All in all it was a magic experience.

Thanks must go to everyone who helped me achieve this goal. Coach Vlad, my family: Bear, Gorm, Bel and Magoo, Joe, everyone at training, Louise for keeping me company doing the hours up and down Andrew Boy Charlton pool, the entire BondiFit crew: esp Tilly and Laura’s supportive quotes which I drew upon during the race, all Dad’s work colleagues and Tatts mates who showed us hospitality and helped us out, The Muppetts: Justin, Damien, Luke and Ben for coming over as a team and joining the fun, my cousin Andrew and his family and their boat, Henry for introducing me to Andrew, my start line supporters from 5.30am: Alice, Richard, Michael and Gilad, Hugo and Kate for coming to the finish on Rottnest Island, the Bondi surf training crew, everyone at work - past and present, all my Facebook friends… and before this turns into a logie speech, finally, thanks to the shark that decided not to eat me!

Race Splits per kilometer:

1km. 16.32
2km. 16.54
3km. 17.52
4km. 17.38
5km. 18.42
6km. 17.38
7km. 19.10
8km. 17.54
9km. 17.08
10km. 17.22
11km. 18.27
12km. 17.20
13km. 17.46
14km. 17.07
15km. 17.48
16km. 16.44
17km. 17.27
18km. 18.30
19km. 17.35
20km. 19.03
21km. 17.08
21.75km. 11.19
TOTAL: 6hr 23 mins

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