A few challenges to endure and overcome...
Swimming the English Channel requires a fair amount of training, and I am not talking about just getting in the pool and swimming laps. Yes, that is definitely required, however, there is also a wide range of factors one must take into account with a Channel swim: some are unique to this swim, others relevant to all long distance swims.
1. The Cold Water:
The water temperature for the English Channel is approximately 15 degrees Celsius in July (59 degrees Fahrenheit). The Channel rules stipulate that the swimmer must wear one pair of normal bathers – no wetsuits, no swim aids, just a pair of old fashioned budgy smugglers. Swimming for a long period of time in water of this temperature leads to hypothermia. In fact, apparently 70% of solo Channel swims fail due to hypothermia and all Channel boat pilots are trained in knowing how to spot the signs of hypothermia in their swimmers, and when they do, you’re out. Once I get on that boat to head to the start of my swim, all control for the swim is turned over to my pilot.
In order to prepare myself for the cold water that I will immerse myself in for somewhere in the vicinity of 12-15 hours, I spent a great deal of Winter 2011 acclimatising my body to cold water. This included swimming for 2,3,4 and 6 hours at a time at Balmoral Beach in Sydney Harbour, enduring water temperatures as low as 13.9 degrees Celsius. During winter, the coastal currents did not sweep through Sydney Harbour, so the water temperature would drop well below that of the beaches. This was at times particularly brutal. I remember at one point being so cold, that I actually willed a shark to come and eat me so I could stop the pain. Usually I found that the first 10 minutes hurt the most, then I went numb and then from the third hour I just had this dull sensation that would last for quite some time. I did notice that around 6 hours, when my speed had dropped considerably that I would be at the most painful point, and so I learned that I must keep speed and momentum to keep warm.
As well as long, cold swims in Sydney Harbour, I also stopped having hot showers, and for the last 8 months have endured cold showers a fair amount of the time.
2. Swimming 35kms +
Whilst the English Channel (point to point) is a distance of 34km’s, the extreme tides that sweep through the Channel ensure that you get to swim a lot further than plotted. Most Channel swimmers end up having an “S” line as their course between England and France!
And whilst I am confident that I can swim this distance, I won’t actually swim the distance before the actual event, adopting the marathon theory of ¾’s of the way is enough to train to.
To prepare for this long swim, I train 6 days a week in the water (a mixture of pool and ocean training) and I also go to the gym 4 days a week and do Yoga, play squash, box and do weights. I have done a number of long training swims, the most recent being 2 weekends ago, where I swam 21.1km’s around Balmoral and Chinaman’s Beach, and in the last 6 months I have swum over 750 kilometres. That sounds crazy when I add it all up….
Anyone who swims with me, knows how paranoid I am of sharks. I really am a scaredy cat, and am mocked constantly by my friends and family for this fear. Since there are no shark cages lying around Sydney for my training comfort, I have adopted the technological version, called a Shark Shield. The Shark Shield is an electronic probe that I hang off my paddler into the water, which gives me a 4m radius of protection from sharks. Does it work? Well I have never seen a shark when I have used it, and my parents went as far as to leave me in the water in Rottnest Channel in 2011, while a bronze tip shark swam on the left hand side of the boat, and I swam on the right hand side. I never even knew…. Needless to say, all my offshore training and racing utilises the Shark Shield and it is a piece of equipment I trust completely.
Thankfully in the Channel there is no issues with sharks at all, and my mind will (hopefully) be at ease!
4. Night Swimming
One of the challenges of the Channel is that part of my swim will be required to be completed in the dark, since I’ll be swimming for so long. In order to get used to the disorientation and weird feeling of swimming in the dark, Coach Vlad, Coach Charm and I headed down to Botany Bay in the middle of winter on the night the Wold Cup football began. It was blowing a gale, and the air temperature was 10 degrees Celsius, yet I was met by Vlad saying: “Smile and be happy, this is your leisure time”. Some leisure activity I have adopted!!!!
We ensured the freezing conditions and pitch black surrounding and swam circles in the shark enclosure with glow sticks attached to us. I literally walked on water at one point where Charm didn’t see I had turned and she swam over my feet. I thought I was being eaten by a shark (yes I know I was in a shark net, but I am paranoid!!)
We will have a few more of these sessions this year, as they are hard but a great way to build confidence for those all important opening hours of my Channel swim.
All this training takes its toll on ones body. I have definitely learnt to listen to my body over the last year – usually when I pushed myself too hard, I got sick and was forced to take a break.
Now I am working on being a step ahead. I have a team of people who help my body continue to build strength and stay supple. Weekly massage with Radley from Spring Wellness is a relaxing and restful treat to my muscles, and monthly acupuncture and electrodes (aka torture chamber) at Point Therapy, keeps everything in check and helps with problem spots. I also use a kinesiologist, Wendy Cole, to keep my mental and emotional sanity in check. Yes, all the above is a big investment, but I haven’t come this far to not be able to reach my goal due to injury or ill health.
6. Diet and Nutrition
Food is an interesting topic, and one that could be discussed all day. Key facts are: I need to gain weight for this swim. It is every girl’s dream being able to eat doughnuts and pizza and have to get fat! Unfortunately, basing a diet on these doesn’t help me fuel my body for training or racing, so I try to keep these at a minimum and stock up on carbs.
I have a tricky situation where I have a very sensitive stomach. Diagnosed in 2010 with fructose mal-absorption, and also suffering from insulin resistance, I try to live on a low FODMAP diet. This can be quite tricky with needing highly concentrated fuel fast when racing. Thankfully I found sports dietician, Sarah Dacres Manning, who specialises in this, randomly in a surf club change room! Sarah has brought the science to my fuel preparation and the next 6 months will be quite involved with fluid studies, trying different brands of gels to work out what upsets my tummy and what doesn’t, and determining how much fuel my body actually needs to last the distance.
In the last 12 months I have completed 4 marathon swims totalling 68kms between them (Rottnest Channel, Bondi to Watson’s Bay, Fiji and Hong Kong). I have also done a number of the 1 and 2km summer ocean series swims at Sydney beaches. Racing has been invaluable to my Channel preparation. I love competition and every race I learn something new about my body and how it reacts under different conditions. Most importantly, every race I learn there is a wall and I will hit it and then I have to barge my way through it. In the next 5 months there are a few others on the list: The Dee Why to Manly Cole Classic this weekend, Rottnest Channel 3 weeks later, Lake Argyle 20km race for something new and the Bondi to Watson’s Bay swim a month before I leave.
None of the above would be possible without my amazing support team. I have been lucky enough to have some fantastic coaches who have been guiding me through the last 18 months of Channel specific training. My Coach, Vlad Mravec, does an amazing job in keeping me smiling and keeping me swimming. His catch cry is “Smile and be happy, this is your leisure time”. It always makes me smile, even underwater. He is tough but fair and he is very supportive. He has designed my program extremely well with Coach Charm Frend to have a good balance of pool swimming, cold swimming and ocean swimming. Charm has been an absolute godsend on our long swim weekends. She religiously feeds us every hour, tells us to keep swimming, and makes sure we don’t get out earlier than we are meant to. Knowing she is on the beach is very reassuring, and has even built an incredible deep water feeding station! I also mix up my training and include some surf swimming sessions with the legendary Spot Anderson, which is my break from the hours of arm over arm, and which is a great fun hit out/ wave catching/ race technique learning session weekly. Not to mention a great crew of people who I have been swimming with for the past 3 years.
I am fortunate enough to have amazing support from my Vlad squad members and new ocean swimming friends as well, especially during the long swims. A couple of the guys I did some of these training swims with were scheduled to and completed their own Channel swims in 2011. Stuart Johnson conquered a double crossing and Iain McGregor a solo. At the time, it was fantastic being in the midst of these guys who were so close to achieving their goal, and I was so thrilled for them both that their attempts ended in success. I am also lucky enough to share the same goal as a couple of guys who joined our squad in January 2011, Wayne Arthur and Alistair Newmarch, and since we began our long training swims we have gained new swimming friends and somehow managed to convert one of our biggest training supporters, Marty Fillipowski, into a Channel aspirant as well.. Not only this but we have had some great mentors in the form of Cameron Spittle and Duncan Adams who both also successfully crossed the Channel in 2010 under the same coaches as us (Vlad Mravec and Charm Frend). So now we have created a little Channel circle of support. Considering only 79 Australians EVER have successfully crossed the Channel, I have a really awesome support from these guys. There are many other swimmers who have religiously come down and supported us on our long swims, training at the pool and racing. There have also been an amazing amount of my friends who have come down and watched me swim or race at various points over the last 6 months. Many thanks to them all.
Somehow, because of my massive shark phobia, I have managed to recruit a ridiculous amount of people to paddle for me at various points over the summer. Firstly, Joe, my left hand man in racing (because he sits on the LHS of me every race and paddles his board, feeds me, keeps my course and my kilometre splits to measure my pace). Then all my amazing friends who I have gotten to sit on a ski and act as my shark protection unit: Mark, Pip, Gordon, Digger, Lachie, Camilla, Macarette, SGR, Bear, Hutch, Smailes, Kitty, Jenn, Vlad, Bel, Becci, Amelia and Huw.
But my biggest support would have to come from my family. Wow. I am truly one lucky girl. In the last 12 months my family have been by my side for every race. My brother and sister have both paddled over 5 hours at a time for me and my parents have navigated my courses and managed the support boats. They are amazing, and probably the only reason I ended up with a goal this big, was because I knew I could achieve it with their support.
Time to sign off and head to bed, it is an early start again tomorrow in the pool!