The first hour of 14...
After approximately 51,000 arm-strokes, 24 miles, and 14 hours 15 minutes of swimming, I climbed out of the sea on to the beach near Wissant, France: a Channel Swimmer. At 3:20am on that Saturday, July 24, I’d got in to the dark water at Abbott’s Cliff near Dover, but the journey had really started many years earlier.
I’d wanted to swim the Channel from an early age, but various constraints kept me from attempting the challenge until now. Once I’d made the decision and the contacts to book a swim for 2004, I took my background as a pool swimmer, and applied what I’d learned from years training for long-distance running events in order to begin training.
Like marathon training, I built a solid aerobic base, added regular interval sessions a few months before the event to focus on speed and technique, and then settled in to building up the miles. The difference with this was that my mileage was dictated by the temperature of the water. For this reason, I’d done no more than 11 hours swimming over two consecutive days by the time I came to swim. To a runner, this probably sounds under-prepared. As a Channel-hopeful, however, I knew that acclimitisation to the cold was key, and almost everything else was predominantly to do with confidence and the right mental approach.
In the week preceding my swim, I concentrated on mental preparation. As with running, I knew there was no more I could do now in terms of training. I had to find peace with the fact that I hadn’t swum for more than six hours non-stop, even though my swim could take three times that. I went to the beach near my home and silently asked the sea to let me across. Suddenly, the swimmer who was booked before me on my tide dropped out, and I was up first. At 5pm on Friday, July 23, I learned that I was to swim the following morning at 2am. I contacted my boat crew – consisting of Runner's World forumites MMmmm Universal Twinkler, Petal, Scooter Boy and (gasp!) a non-forum friend, Kate - to alert them, and went to bed for a couple of hours.
Two o'clock the following morning found me, already tired, standing on a pontoon at Dover Harbour looking at Sea Satin. She looked back at me with a measured gaze; she’d seen this all before scores of times. I wonder how I would fare against the roll call of people who have tried this before me. My crew loaded our supplies on to the boat, I paid the pilot and boat’s owner, and said bye to my family and friends who’d come to see me off.
The crew: (l-r) Kate, Scooter Boy
(David), Nic, MMmmm Universal Twinkler (Mark), Petal
A long, cold, bumpy ride later and Sea Satin was backing up towards a shallow strip of shingle under a sheer cliff face. Moonlight and the boat’s lights lit up a small portion of the beach. I stripped down to my swim suit and. having put Vaseline on any areas that I thought might chafe, jammed my earplugs firmly in to my ears and put my goggles over my face. Shivering in the breeze, I wondered what the hell I was doing. I jumped in to the water and swam the short distance to the beach. My family and friends were high up on the cliffs, unable to come any further. Clearing myself of the water, I shouted “ready!”. Sea Satin’s horn blew.
Swimming in the dark was strange, and not a little unsettling. My arms were hurting already, and I wondered if it was a wise idea to tell my crew this. Deciding against it, I hoped that it would pass, or at least that I would stop noticing it. The first hour passed very quickly. My crew called me in for a feed and I was glad to have reached the first marker of the swim. “I’m swimming the Channel!” I thought, and it hit me that this was it: I was really doing this thing that had been a dream for so long. By this time, I could see the crew fairly clearly and was touched by their dedication to waving, grinning and clapping. I didn’t know then that they were all very sick for the first few hours.
Although I wasn’t scared of the dark, I didn’t relax until the sun started to come up. At first I thought the orange glow in the sky was the streetlights of Dover behind us, but as the colours spread and finally the sun rose as a dark red ball, I knew it was becoming daylight, and with daylight I knew would come warmth on my back.
Hours two to five were, frankly, boring. They tested my patience. I couldn’t help thinking that I’d done this amount countless times in training: why did I have to go through it all again? Dover seemed reluctant to recede in to the distance, yet I couldn’t help giving in to the temptation to tuck my head under my arm and sneak a peek.
I asked if I was actually getting anywhere, and my crew told me I was, but I wasn’t convinced. I swam up to the pilot’s window and said, “Am I doing okay? Am I actually getting anywhere?” and was told that I was doing great. This was from a Channel-faithful who has accompanied countless swims, so I was satisfied. Every so often, the crew would write a text message to me on a white board, which was a godsend. When I saw one of them writing on it, I got very excited waiting for my morsel of information that I knew would liven up my brain.
She's there - in the foreground...
At about five hours, the official observer told me to get a move on “because I was making it look too easy” and indeed I do remember a patch of about two hours when I was very happy, enjoying a nice day out with my friends; and I allowed myself a private thought of “is this it?!”
Around this time, I started to swim through a large, dense patch of small jellyfish. Some stung me, but they were so beautiful and it was so nice to have company from another sea creature that I really didn’t mind. I took a few deeper breaths so that I could keep my head down longer in order to get a good look at them. The water was clear, and I could easily make out their fantastic colours and patterns. One slid over my back and stung me all the way down my right leg.
After six hours, I was in uncharted territory in terms of time, and that felt good. I felt as if we had finally got started. Six hours for me was also roughly the time that I knew my fellow swimmers would be starting to train in Dover, so I imagined that Freda, our coach, had given me a six-hour swim, knowing that this would take me through to 12 hours. Despite the fact that my arms had been turning over for six hours, the physical challenge was eclipsed by the mental toughness of the swim: it was a case of enduring the slow passing of time and the inability to know how long I had to swim for.
We entered the shipping lane, and I could see all sorts of vessels, from passenger ferries to tankers. Far from being scared, I was interested in my new Channel companions and scrutinised them for details that would give me something to think about. I wondered if the people on the ferries could see me. A passing SeaCat caused some swell and I body-surfed a couple of huge waves, earning a round of applause from my crew. At some point I was joined by two little gulls, who flew and paddled after me for about half an hour with a mixture of indignation and interest on their faces. I was quite sad when a boat frightened them off and I was alone again.
It seemed that 10 hours would be a landmark, and after that I would do what I had to do. At about seven hours, it seemed like a huge amount of time to go. I hoped that by then I was about halfway, and I asked my crew whether England or France looked nearer.
“France! No question about it,” came back the enthusiastic response, which cheered me no end.
I started to pick a person I knew, and think about them for half an hour at a time. I imagined (worryingly vividly!) that my friends Annette and Lucy were swimming with me; I could see the colours or their hats and their goggles turning towards me. I made characters and stories out of the cloud shapes above me. In that manner, I soon reached 10 hours.
I had a cracking headache from dehydration, and felt quite sick from constant sports drinks and too much sea water. I thought I saw a big black cat on board the ship, and a man who I didn’t recognise (probably because he wasn’t actually there!). I was never bored, once we’d passed about five hours. Unbelievable as it might sound, there was plenty to think about, and when my mind was blank it was a welcome chance to savour the very peaceful, very pure experience that I was having alone with this vast expanse of water.
Fun in the shipping lane
By now my crew were telling me that France was really visible. I don’t think they realised that from where I was, I could see nothing. Not only were my eyes half in the water, but the chop on the waves meant I could only see a wall of water ahead.
I fluctuated from feeling a desperate need to be very close to Sea Satin and have eye contact with my crew, to wanting a bit of privacy and feeling as though this wasn’t personal enough. Someone shut the pilot’s window and I felt a sharp sense of affront, as if they were shutting me out - yet a few minutes later I felt the need to swim ahead of the boat to get her out of my sight and do this by myself.
At points I felt very tired, and napped for half an hour or so by closing my eyes for every part of the stroke except the moment that I turned towards the boat, when I opened one eye. My arms kept turning and my legs carried on kicking, but my mind was asleep and I lost track of time.
At around 11 and a half hours, I had a feeling that we were going very well. The official observers kept giving me big thumbs up, which I took as a great sign. Mark told me that the pilot was very impressed. Kate held the white board against the side, and I could see that part of it read “skipper says..”. I felt sure it would say “…hurry up, you’re really slow” or “can we get there this side of Christmas,” but when she finally held it up it said “…you’re doing GREAT!” For a delicious moment, I let myself believe that I might make it in under 13 hours – an unbelievably fast time for me. I jumped high in the water to look ahead, and could see France. A lump came to my throat. I got a new lease of life and powered forwards.
“Nic, I want you to sprint for half an hour”, Lance said. “It’ll save you a lot of time overall.” I didn’t need any more encouragement, and set off feeling as if I was doing sets of 100m in the pool. My stroke rate rose by six per minute and I really made some progress. I couldn’t believe that I kept it up for 30 minutes.
At 12 hours I refused a feed, convinced that I had less than half an hour to go and not wanting to waste precious seconds. Twenty minutes later, I realised that I was kidding myself. I also started to feel as if I was going to pass out in the water, my eyes rolling back in my head and my legs tingling. I motioned to Mark urgently for the missed feed and pulled myself back. At 12 and a half hours it was clear that looks were deceptive and we were not nearly there at all. France was getting no bigger as far as I could see, and I began to get very frustrated. “How much more of this nonsense?” I asked my crew, but no-one would tell me.
I began to entertain fantasies of what I would do when I landed. Through a combination of what I expected, and what I felt I wanted, my plan became: stand up, say “J’ai nagé la Manche!” to a French person, sit down, put my head in my hands and cry, and just sit alone for a while. I honestly could not wait for that moment. I’d heard that swimmers sometimes collect stones from the beach where they land, and I intended to pick up some for me, as well as one each for my crew members.
A small sailing boat passed by with a French flag on it, my most tangible sign yet that I was really swimming to France. I saw a light aircraft in the sky and for some reason took this to be a sign that we were near land.
By now the sea had turned a little more choppy. Pilot Lance nodded to my far side and, turning my head, I saw that Clare had donned her wetsuit to pace me for a while. Unfortunately she was on my left side, so I couldn’t turn to look at her much due to my sore neck, but it was a great boost to have her there.
She got out, and Lance asked me how much more I had left in me. I said, truthfully, that I didn’t know. He asked me to push as much as I could without using everything I had. I tried to sprint again but was exhausted and was surging forwards, only to drop back behind Sea Satan time and time again. I asked Lance how far we had to go, assuming it to be about 400m. “Oh, about a mile” he said. “A mile?!” I repeated, utterly crushed. That seemed further than I could possibly swim. “Come on!”, he laughed, “that’s once across Dover Harbour!” I cursed myself for ever having had this ambition, and wished I was someone who didn’t want to swim the Channel. I wished I could just be happy with not giving it a go or, better still, never having wanted to do it at all. But no-one had made me be here except myself, and I knew that.
Suddenly everything became very confusing. Lance told me that the wind had picked up and he was being blown on top of me, so I had to move to the other side of the boat. I couldn’t turn my head easily to the other side, so found it very painful to keep an eye on the Sea Satan. It seemed to me like he was sailing away from me; I didn’t take on board that he was being blown away. Mark was cupping his hands to his mouth and shouting, but a combination of earplugs and waves hitting my head meant that I just couldn’t hear, and I was so frustrated. I eventually pulled level with the boat and he told me to turn around. Turn round! Back to England? No chance! “Trust me”, he said, “We’ve missed the point and need to go round in a circle”. I got really angry, didn’t understand what was going on, and didn’t know what he expected me to do. I swam over the rope tying the dinghy to the boat and kicked it out of the way in a rage. The crew were all pointing at the land, saying that they could see people on the beach, but I couldn’t see a thing, and was getting very disorientated and hugely frustrated by the whole experience.
I had already given 100 per cent, but had to give more and more, yet the beach which I was told so many times was in sight wouldn’t show itself to me. The tide took, and took from me, and didn’t give an inch in return. I still couldn’t see anything, and didn’t understand where my crew were asking me to head for. The tide was very strong and I was finding it hugely difficult to proceed at all. “500m to go!” proclaimed the white board, and I couldn’t believe it. Raising myself from the water again, I could just about make out a strip of beach under the green cliffs, and my heart lurched with the reality that I was almost there. I tried to power forwards but was so tired and was sick of battling. Inch by inch I seemed to get there, the longest 500m of my entire life. I had given up trying to understand where they wanted me to land and just moved forwards.
Suddenly the water got very warm, like I was in a bathtub. A quick look at my watch told me that the water had leapt from 63šF to 69šF. The waves breaking on the shore picked me up and hurled me forwards, breaking over my head and making me choke. I could see that I was there but wasn’t sure when I was allowed to stand. My hands suddenly scraped sand, and I put my feet down and stood. I was aware of Lance behind me in the dinghy, and he was telling me to run. I remembered that I wouldn’t officially finish until I was clear of the water, so I lumbered forwards on leaden legs, and waved my arm in the air to the boat, which I could dimly see. Lance hugged me and said “welcome to the club”, and a French person said “felicitations!”.
Back into the boat at the end
Great, I thought, I really am in France, and replied “merci”. I wanted to collect some stones for myself and the crew, but it was a sandy beach. I was a bit taken aback, and scoured the sand for pebbles, but could only come up with some very odd-looking big lumps of stone. This wasn’t what I’d expected. Then Lance was telling me to get back in the water and swim back. “I can’t!” I sobbed, suddenly aware of how acutely tired I was. He picked me up and slid me in to the dinghy, where I lay, shivering, and looking wistfully at my hard-won beach which I had not had time to sit and reflect upon. My time was 14:15, under the sub-15 hours that I had set myself.
The aftermath of the swim was very different to that which I’ve experienced after a big running achievement. Think about it: at a marathon, you can hear crowds cheering you every step of the way, you can see your surroundings, and you know the course. You can judge how long the race will take you if you stick to your usual pace. When you finish, you go through a sign proclaiming “Finish Line” and have a medal put around your neck. Then you can sit and savour your success for as long as you want. What’s more, there are thousands of people around you who know what you’ve just been through and can swap yarns with you about that hill at mile 11, or the quiet stretch of road at the beginning. With the Channel swim, there was none of that. My battle with the water had been very silent and private. Suddenly I reached my goal and, with no time to sit and reflect, I was being taken back to Dover, without any tangible proof of where I’d swum to or how far I’d gone. It was a very strange ending, and a rather joyless victory.
In the days after the swim, it began to sink in, of course, and with a bit of quiet time to myself to reflect and remember, I felt very proud and happy with my achievement. The transition back to running will be a strange one: not only physically challenging (my body doesn’t know how to cope with being too warm!), but I wonder what lessons I will take from my swim? I think the most obvious one will be immense mental strength and self-belief. I know now that I can get through hours of boredom and physical discomfort, drawing on a single-minded determination to reach an invisible goal. I look forward to applying this to my next challenge…