Thursday 15 October 2015

Catalina Channel - Completing the Triple Crown!

Captain Matthew Webb, the first person to swim across the English Channel, said afterwards: “Nothing Great is Easy”. How true his words would continue to be 140 years later in my quest to complete the Triple Crown of marathon swimming.

Preparation for Catalina Channel consisted of nine long months of training, the hardest part definitely being the last three months through the coldest winter Sydney has had in 26 years. Training four mornings a week before work, as well as a long swim Saturday and a recovery swim Sunday meant that the majority of my free time from work was taken up with swimming, eating or sleeping!

Arriving in Los Angeles one week out from the swim with my mum, it was hard to believe that the goal was finally here! We spent the weekend exploring LA before heading down to La Jolla to train and prepare for the big swim.

Two years ago I headed to Arizona for the S.C.A.R swim, a four day stage race covering 70kms, where I met the greatest group of marathon swimmers. My mum, Yvonne, had also joined me on this trip as my support kayaker and we had had the adventure of a lifetime together with a group of people who I now treasure as friends. If it wasn’t for that event, it is very unlikely that I would have really understood the importance of the Triple Crown, and I definitely wouldn’t have been able to assemble the greatest swim crew for my upcoming swim.

Hanging out in La Jolla with my dear friend and the current world record holder for Catalina Channel, Grace van der Byl, I felt relaxed and excited. This quickly gave way to my pre-race nerves where I tend to have a bit of a rollercoaster of confidence giving way to doubts. Gracie was awesome in her support, giving me so much confidence in my preparation and my condition that by Friday 4th September, I felt ready to get out there and smash it. Whilst I knew her 7.5 hour record was not in my reach, I felt strong, I was swimming well and I had done the kilometers in preparation for a solid sub 12 hour swim.

The week in La Jolla was fantastic. The water was a delightful 20 degrees Celcius/ 68F and the sea lions that live in La Jolla Cove were great company for my daily swims. I met some amazing swimmers, including Bob West who was the fourth person to complete the Triple Crown and Dan Simonelli who had swum Catalina just a week earlier. Mum and I enjoyed dinner at the home of another SCAR swim friend, Barbara Held, with Gracie and Neil, and were treated to our first experience of Cardiff crack – a tri-tip marinated beef fillet that was literally the most delicious thing!!

Every day I would swim at La Jolla Cove and enjoy the serenity. It was only marred by the smell from the sea lions! Swimming over the gorgeous orange Garibaldi fish was delightful and the many ribbons of thick seaweed were great practice to swim through, as I knew in Catalina Channel I would face this weed both at the beginning and end of my swim.

They say “third times a charm”, however, for the final swim for my Triple Crown they were far from right!

Mum and I left La Jolla and headed to San Pedro the day before my swim. We were met there by one of my awesome support crew, Dave Barra, who had flown in from New York for the adventure. Dave has done many long distance swims and also is the race director of the 8 Bridges race in New York, an eight day stage race, so he knows a thing or two about this stuff.  We had dinner and caught up on the two years since Dave and his wife Clare had visited us in Sydney. Good times. The next morning after brekkie, I spent a few hours prepping my kit and equipment whilst Dave and Mum got the crew food and supplies ready.  We had FaceTime calls from my sister and her boyfriend, followed by my brother 2 hours later when he woke up in HK. We wandered down to the 22nd Street landing and had some lunch before retreating for a couple of hours to lie down ahead of a long night of swimming and supporting.

At 5:30pm the rest of my support crew assembled. Kent Nicholas had driven across from Arizona and family friends Bill and Amy Morro had flown in from Chicago. I had an all American rock star crew (plus Mum!). My support crew donned the Team T-Shirts with the goal clearly across everyone’s chest. We were there to get the Triple Crown, and every time I looked at any one of them I was reminded of the goal, as were they.

We headed down to the pier and met Greg my boat captain, and my official Catalina Channel observers, Becky Jackman Beeler and Keely Preebil. It was so exciting to have Becky on board as she had also been on our Arizona adventure two years earlier. It was such a thrill getting the team back together!

After a safety briefing by Captain Greg, we left the docks and headed to Catalina Island. This was my last chance to get some sleep before the adventure ahead, however with my nerves and excitement I was far too pumped to be able to get any decent sleep, so I settled for just resting instead.

Suddenly we had arrived at Catalina Island. It was dark, and 10.30pm at night. Being so early ahead of our intended midnight start time, Captain Greg said we would start early. My training buddies Justin and Marty who had also completed the swim in the weeks earlier had had the same situation, so I was not too surprised. The earlier start time meant an earlier finish but it also meant a good two hours extra of swimming in the dark before sunrise. I wasn’t too concerned by this – but later I would definitely change my mind! There was one other swimmer, Asha Roth, on the other support boat, the Outrider, who had already started her swim when we arrived. Being the ever-competitive human that I am, I saw this as a great opportunity to try and catch her throughout the night!

I called my Dad who was unwell and unable to join us on the adventure and told him I was about to hit the water. He has always been a rock for me in these swims and it was very hard to know he wasn't going to be cheering next to me on the boat. He gave me his amazing encouragement and the last words of "You can do it!".  He confirmed the Live Tracking was working via my SPOT tracker as they had me on the big screen back in Sydney at my godmothers house. It was time to hit the water! 

We attached lights to the back of my swimmers and goggles so the boat crew could see me in the water and I vaselined under my arms and neck to prevent chafe. Kent was going to do the first kayak shift and then rotate with Dave so Kent got everything ready in the kayak and then boarded and paddled out to the grey marine buoy. And then what felt really sudden, it was time for me to hit the water. As I smiled for the last photos before entering the water, I felt the excitement and anticipation of the moment. It was finally time for me to get my goal done.

I jumped off the back of the boat and swam over to Catalina Island where I climbed ashore to signal the beginning of my swim. It was low tide and the rocks and large ribbons of kelp were exposed so it felt a bit like an adventure course to even get ashore. Once on land I yelled out and then we were away. It was 10:53PM.

Entering the water with very little moonlight was eerie. The water in the lea of the island was calm and as I began to turn my arms over, I felt amazing. It literally felt like I was gliding through the water. There is something magical in feeling weightless and strong in the water. I was excited. This was my perfect swim day.

As my arms continued to turn over and entered the water, phosphoresce danced on my finger tips. It was like I was at a rave underwater. It was absolutely magical. I felt relaxed and calm and savored every moment. Within an hour the conditions had gotten quite rough. The swell was behind us but the current was against us so we had a fair bit of chop to deal with. Then just 1.5 hours in, Kent suddenly was bucked out of the kayak. I got the surprise of my life, and as I turned to swim towards him to help he yelled at me to keep going. I was concerned for him and all the equipment that was probably now floating off in the darkness. That is one reason why you always have two of everything you need for a swim – a backup should always be on the main boat. Thankfully Kent is an experienced kayaker and he had tied everything onto the kayak and he was back in the seat and by my side not long after. I realized he had saved me from disqualifying my swim – if I had touched him or the kayak my swim would have been cancelled due to interference. How lucky I was that he was so switched on!

It was a very dark night, so dark that I couldn’t even make out Kent’s head. Thankfully he was wearing a glowstick necklace and seeing that green circle was the only thing that gave me an idea of where his head was. The kayak had a ring of glowsticks around it which made it easier for the boat to see where we were. During the darkness I had to swim next to the kayak so that the boat knew our location. This was quite challenging for me as I am a left breather typically. With the kayaker on the right and the boat on the left, it was quite difficult for me to take a bearing off the boat. The boat actually sat at a 45 degree angle due to the currents, so I was forced to take my bearing off the kayak and breathe to the right. This would have been ok, as I had been training bi-laterally in case of this situation, but with the added impact of the chop forcing me to turn my head higher to breathe, my shoulders were pretty sore by the time I hit the 4 hour mark. I also realized that there was still another three hours of swimming in darkness to go before the joy of sunrise. This was a low point in the swim.

Many people ask me about sharks with all my swims and I must admit I do think about them a lot. This swim was no different, especially during the seven hours of darkness. I had been assured that I would be fine and there had never been a situation in Catalina Channel (so at least I would make the news if I was the first to get taken!) but growing up in Sydney and with the recent spate of attacks we had been experiencing Down Under, it was a feeling that I just couldn’t shake. The relief when the sun came up and I would at least be able to see a shark coming at me!

Kent’s encouragement at my 30 minute drink intervals was fantastic, he managed to pack in one great sentence of positivity for the 10-12 secs it would take me to swallow 250ml of liquid carbohydrates before continuing to swim. I purposely kept my feeds to sub 30 seconds throughout as I was keen to minimize the time added to the swim from floating around.

Just before the four hour mark, the rough conditions had begun to their toll on me. My shoulders had begun the ache that normally only kicks in after 8 hours. I could tell this was going to be tougher than I expected. From this point on, I could see that I was overtaking the other boat out on the seas. It was a nice feeling knowing someone else was out there battling the same conditions as me!

At 2:53am, after 4 hours, Kent and Dave had their first change over. I couldn’t believe Kent had continued paddling after falling in the water, what a trooper!

According to Mum’s log of the swim, the seas continued to get lumpier and the breeze started increasing, having already changed direction once. I could definitely feel the current pushing against me and swell pushing with me which made for a push me-pull you like experience. I had to turn my body much further than normal to get air to breathe, so it was no wonder that my shoulders had already begun to hurt so early on.

I hit a dark patch mentally at this point – 4 hours swimming in darkness, already in pain, and the realisation that there was still 3 hours to go before sunrise… and the constant thought of sharks – it really was a tough period inside my head.

I was shocked back to reality twenty minutes later by an intense whiplash like sensation across my chest as a jellyfish hit me. The searing pain that consumed me was intense. It felt just like the jimbles that we had endured through winter training in Sydney. Catalina Channel was definitely doing its best to give me a memorable swim!

I pushed through holding a stroke rate of 60/61 until just before dawn. My wrists had begun to ache at this point as well from hitting the rough water as they entered rather than a nice easy glide entrance into the water. The log shows that for the last three hours there had been a very strong current against me, so much so that the “Bottom Scratcher” was almost on a sideways path because of it. Mum noted “it must have been a very hard swim”.

Swimming for long periods gives you plenty of time with only your thoughts.
Sometimes this is great, but when your mind goes to what I call the “hurt locker” it can be a tough wall to break through. I was not enjoying this swim. Even after all the great preparation I had done, the one thing you can never control is the weather. It is usually what makes this sport so interesting – no swim is ever the same and you really cant compare your swim to anyone else’s unless they were in the same water at the same time. However, after a tough English Channel swim due to the spring tide and cold water (14.8 degrees C) and a tough Manhattan Island swim (where the tide had turned against us and only 11 out of 42 swimmers finished the swim), I really had thought Catalina would be a delightful experience. The realisation that it wasn’t awesome was tough. I actually wanted to get out and go home for about 20 minutes, but I knew I couldn’t and I had to keep swimming. My crew were oblivious to this hell inside my head. Knowing that every single person on the boat supporting me had travelled a long way to be there for me to achieve that goal, meant that I just had to push through and keep going. I had never failed to achieve my swim goals, and I certainly wasn’t going to start now. Finally at 6am, I got some reprieve when the light began to filter in and the dawn slowly began.

One of the things I had looked forward to most about this swim was swimming into sunrise. I had this determined feeling that I would get an amazing photo of me swimming with the sunrise behind me that would capture this moment in time forever. One of the things I see often is amazing sunrise photos of other distance swimmers in social media and I have always wanted that one “money-shot” during a swim. Sadly today was not going to be that day – the morning was very overcast and the seas were still very lumpy.

By 6:20am, I was tried. My body was confused having swum through the entire night, and everything ached. I was 7.5 hours into the swim at this point, still short of my standard 8 hour training swim I did every month, yet feeling much worse than normal. My stroke rate had dropped to 56 strokes per minute.

Finally at 7:10am, Captain Greg appeared on deck and played the bagpipes to signal sunrise. It was a cool moment. I stopped swimming and trod water for the two or so minutes his rendition went for, it was awesome to finally be able to see all my support crew on deck and I used the time to cheer with them and wave at them and clear my head. I was back in business. My stroke rate picked back up to 61 after that and held through to the end. My kayakers changed over and Kent re-joined me on the water. The winds dropped a bit at this point and my crew started undressing all their layers from the night. I felt renewed being able to see my crew and watch them on deck whilst I swam.

I was very grateful at this point for our family friends Amy and Bill Morro, who were on board. Throughout the night mum had never left the side of the boat, watching me swim the whole time. She really is quite incredible and I know Dad would have been right there beside her if he could. I had watched Amy and Bill take turns sitting with mum and keeping her company, and now with daylight, it was a relief to see mum smiling and chatting with Amy whilst they drank coffee and watched me swim. Amy and Bill had spent a lot of time with Mum and Dad in Australia in my first few years of life, so it must have been quite surreal that this baby they had known so long ago was now grown up and swimming through the night “for fun”. Ha!

I started to enjoy the swim more at this point, joking around with my support crew, and whilst I was hurting all over quite intensely, I knew I was only hours from the finish.

Looming ahead of me, that finish seemed so close! Little did I know I had four hours to go! One of the benefits of daylight was that I could finally see land and where I was going. However being able to see land and actually getting to land were a different story. After dawn I thought I was only two or so hours from finishing and I said to Kent – “Not much longer right? Its about an hour to go?” Thankfully he kept it together and said it was “a little more” but backed it straight up with “you’re swimming great, your stroke rate is so consistent, you are just doing awesome”. Feed after feed, it felt like land was never getting closer.

At 10:20am, we had a whale breach off the starboard bow of the boat. I was oblivious, yet I was glad to hear after the swim that my crew got to see that. The sun had finally come out. The intensity surprised me and the glare was so strong that for the last hour I could only breathe to the left as I was blinded if I tried breathing to the right.

By this point my body was in agony. Kent asked if I wanted Dave to join me in the water. Having a distraction and someone to pace beside was exactly what I needed to get through this last stretch. After the next feed, the boys went to change over kayaking and next thing Kent was in the water swimming with me and Dave was paddling beside us. 30 minutes later Dave and Kent switched in the water and Dave joined me to swim into shore.

I was so excited at this point. I could see the beach and I could see the blue of what I thought was my friends Andrew and Louise Hutchinson and Mikey and Jill Dunstan waving an Australian flag.

I gave it everything I had for the final twenty minutes and when I hit the very rocky beach, I was elated. I stood up to signal the end of the swim, and promptly fell over, knocked by a wave and completely disorientated after being horizontal for over 12 hours. I climbed above the high water mark and the horn sounded signaling the end of my swim.

It was over after 12 hours and 41 minutes, and I could now join the ranks of having achieved the Triple Crown of Marathon Swimming!

Statistically, I became the 10th Australian (4th female) and 117th person in the world to have achieved this (English Channel 2012, Manhattan Island 2013 and Catalina Channel 2015) and I was stoked. Dave and I chose some rocks from the shore line before swimming back out to the boat.

That was a long swim! In fact it’s usually the hardest part of the whole thing to swim back out to the boat after finishing a big race!

The boat headed back to San Pedro to refuel and unload us and we headed around the corner to our hotel where upon we all collapsed asleep and Amy and Bill headed to the airport.

That night, Dave, Kent, Bear and I celebrated over dinner. I looked around the table and felt so lucky to have met these amazing guys who gave up their Memorial Day weekends with their families to be there for me, and so lucky to have the very best mumma Bear a girl could ask for. The gratitude I felt was overwhelming.

The next day we had a farewell breakfast together before the boys headed to the airport and Bear and I drove to Cronoa del Mar to have a celebratory lunch with my land support crew of the Hutchinsons  and Dunstans before we headed to the airport for our flight back to Sydney later that day.

Sitting at the airport, Bear and I were exhausted. The reality of what had happened the day before hadn’t quite sunk in. In fact, five weeks later it is still hard to believe that it really happened! Thank goodness for log books, cameras and social media posts that made it all reality.

Arriving home and heading to work that day was awesome. My colleagues really amaze me with their support and love; they had sent a pile of messages in the lead up to the swim wishing me luck as well as messages for the whiteboard whilst I was swimming, and I was blown away by the amazing poster they had made me and the afternoon celebrations they had organized.

I was also overwhelmed (and still am) reading the posts on Facebook and the love that poured in. So many amazing people have supported me on this journey over the last five years, but particularly this year, I was so grateful for all the friends that rallied to support me to paddle for my long training swims every Saturday and offer encouragement, home cooked meals, and accept my 9pm curfews for sleep. This year had a lot of other distractions and challenges going on and I definitely found it a lot tougher than previous years to keep going to ensure I had done the right preparation to achieve the goal. To every one of you that made the journey possible, thank you.