Sunday, 17 August 2014

Together we made it - the day I became a Channel Swimmer

 I hadn't intended to be writing this blog today - I had planned my next blog to be about my improvements in running. However, rather dramatically late on Friday evening I got the call saying I was swimming The English Channel in the morning. I feel I need to write the account of this while it is fresh in my memory for the benefit of those reading and myself. I am yet to come to terms with what I have just achieved and haven't been able to pinpoint my emotions towards it, so as writing helps me get my feelings out I hope this will show the raw emotion from the day and the aftermath.

 We had been told throughout the week that the likelihood of us swimming in the week of our window was decreasing as the days went on. I was on call from Saturday 9th August like a coiled spring. Hurricane Bertha made her appearance on Saturday morning and took her time to do her worst - leaving force 8 winds and waves 1-3 metres high by Wednesday. Our window was being extended and were told on Thursday evening we were not going until the earliest Monday, most likely Tuesday. I resigned myself to this fact, as did the rest of the team, and got myself covered (or just about) at work. On the Thursday I therefore got my training done early in the day so I could go out with my mum to drop my Dad off for dinner with a colleague and see my nan. Due to time constraints mum and I hadn't planned on eating but realised after leaving my nan's house we could grab something just before picking my Dad up. In hindsight it's lucky we did!
Me and mum out on the town!
We had a 'Wagamama' in Reading and then picked up my Dad and his friend (he said he didn't want me to say he was drunk so I will say he was sufficiently merry). I was looking forward to getting back as had work at 6am. However, at 10.10pm my heart started racing. I read on our channel swim Facebook group that the captain of the boat had considered it safe enough for us to swim in the morning. So it was all systems go - I had to be in Dover at 9.30am. I also realised I had no food to take with me as I hadn't planned to be going so we then had to do a detour to a 24 hour Tesco. My heart was racing and my chest hurt. I was actually having to make myself deep breathe to try and calm myself down. The trip to Tesco was eventful to say the least. Me, my mum and my dad were running around Newbury's Tesco at 11.30pm grabbing all sorts of confectionery. Cakes, chocolate, sweets, biscuits, malt loaf, you name it I had it. I did decide however to not get any savoury goodies, my mum joking I wouldn't want any crisps as I would've had enough salt from the sea. Ironically all I fancied on the boat was crisps and savoury food!

 We got back home at just gone midnight. I had to get to sleep as I had to be up at 4am. I was buzzing. I was worried I had forgotten something and things kept going round and round my head as I lay in bed. I also HAD to paint my nails pink in preparation - call me vain! I didn't get to sleep until gone 1am and then my alarm woke me again at 4am. I showered quickly, more to wake me up than anything else - I was aware I would be swimming in shit in a few hours. I said my goodbyes to my parents and after a quick flap after realising I had no diesel in my car which meant I returned to fill it up at home, I was on my way. I met Ann, a member of the team at her house. It was decided it would be better for me to get a lift rather than travel alone for 3 hours to Dover and then have to do the journey alone afterwards. We picked up Julia, another member, had some obligatory photos and then we really were on our way to Dover. I was feeling ridiculously nervous and didn't have much to add to any conversation.

 We were in Dover at 8.45am. We grabbed coffee and some final provisions and met the rest of the team by the marina. I seemed to be the only one who felt nervous. Phil for example greeted me by skipping towards me. I know I have done some testing challenges in my years, Ironman most notably, however I really was facing so many of my fears during this one. I hate being cold and was blackmailed into doing it non wetsuit, sea creatures creep me out (most notably jellyfish and whales) and I have to shamefully admit I am petrified of the dark. At 23 I still sleep with a light on. I always had one when I was a child and the comfort of having a light has stuck with me. Therefore the night swim I would inevitably have to do was looming over me as my biggest fear. Furthermore, I was starting the pack off so my nerves were to be expected. We had some compulsory pictures including a selfie and then loaded our boat; Gallivant.

Team selfie
Loading the boat

Excitement - Dave, Rob and I

Me, Gill and Gallivant
 I updated my final thoughts on social media and then we were off. As we left the marina to get to Shakespeare beach where we would start, I began to get ready. I then had 10 minutes to reflect.
In deep reflection
I sat on the front of the boat with the team. By this point I was feeling nervous, apprehensive and excited, these mixture of emotions did make me emotional. I am not going to lie a few tears were shed as I sat thinking of Rose. This challenge always was for me and was a side mission from my Ironman dream to get to Kona in Rosie's memory but I couldn't help pray she was looking over me. I had a feeling if she was she would be pointing down saying that's my crazy Auntie - this thought made me smile. Before I knew it I was being told to get in the water. My Dryrobe came off and I was ready. I jumped in and swam to shore being greeted almost instantly with jellyfish (a few squeals were heard). Once at the beach I had to put my hands in the air to signify I was ready to start. The boats' horn then sounded and that was the beginning of our Channel Swim. A guy on the beach wished me good luck and then I ran back in the water and dived in, adrenaline finally taking hold. I can't remember much of that swim apart from when the water suddenly shifted about 30 minutes in from a clearish blue to a murky brown. This to me signaled I was heading into unknown territory - I said to myself as Dorothy would, "We are not in Kansas anymore".

Starting from Shakespeare beach
During - good bye Dover
First leg over
The changeover was relatively easy, Ann merely jumped in behind me and then I had to climb out via the steps. I did have to spider crawl over the boat however which I can't imagine was a good look when only wearing a swimming costume.
The spider crawl
 The water wasn't as cold as I was expecting and apart from a sea beard (algae that stuck to your face) I was told I looked good. My Garmin also told me I had swum 5km in the hour (for those who don't know swimming that's pretty fast - although these time splits were consistent during each of my swims I think there were some GPS issues). The Dryrobe my mum had recently bought me for the event was a great piece of kit. It warmed me up quickly and meant I avoided flashing the rest of my team anymore than I already had done throughout training. After changing I grabbed a cup of tea and some custard creams and sat on the front deck talking - this wasn't that bad. I had 5 hours until I had to swim again...

 About 3 hours in I began to feel ill, as did some others. I thought I was going to be the first victim to Gallivant however after a lie down I managed to feel a bit better. The first victim however was Dave. He was sick 10 minutes before he was due to swim. He then proceeded to be sick throughout his swim. During his swim Ann was also sick. This was 6 hours in and the calmer seas of Dover were behind us. The sea was pretty damn rough. We were sliding all over the boat and it was a struggle to swim in. We asked the driver when he came round to check on us how we were doing and he said that we were currently looking at a 22 hour crossing. This news came hard. We knew it wasn't going to be an easy crossing and that Dave's condition meant we couldn't make huge gains but that was a blow. Gill assured us that they were just scaremongering to try and push us on. Scaremongering or not I was ready to give the channel some. It was my turn to swim again after Dave's efforts - hats off to him for swimming through his sickness. As I waited to jump in I said to Gill "See you on the other side" and put my hand over the rose tattoo on my thigh to signify I have Rosie with me.

Jumping in for my second swim
My rose tattoo to signify Rosie is always with me
The sea was considerably rougher to swim in than before. At one point I saw the bottom of the boat as a wave pushed it sideways. I even decided to swim a little further away from the boat as I was worried one big wave would whack me into the side of it. I said to myself, "This is the closest I ever want to get to 'The Perfect Storm'!". Regardless of all of this I pushed on hard - I felt in control and comfortable. I got stung a few times by jellyfish and saw many. At one point I looked down and saw 5 candy floss looking creatures bobbing maybe 3 metres below me and then looked to my left and saw 2 transparent orange and pink ones. These were the ones that then stung me on my wrist. My Garmin then began rubbing on my latest war wound making for an unpleasant experience but as Gill said before we started "Whatever happens just keep swimming" so I did. My hour went pretty quick and I actually enjoyed it although was ready to get out. When I did get out I got lots of congratulations about it being a brilliant swim. The driver said I caught us up and Phil said he was assessing our progress by how close we were to the boats in front also doing crossings and I reeled them in. This made me feel good. After changing I chatted a bit, got some food down my neck and then decided to go downstairs to try and get some sleep. Although by then it was still 4 hours until I would swim again the third leg was hanging over me as the most daunting. It would be at 11.30pm meaning it would be in complete darkness.

 I didn't get much sleep down there. My feet were not getting warm again and took a full 3 hours in my sleeping bag for them to have any sort of sensation again. I watched my team mates swim from the window below deck and sent a few messages to my mum when I got signal. I gave up on sleep after a while and went back on deck before the hour countdown began. I was so nervous. I knew this leg would be my worst. I got kitted up and ready and sat on the front of the deck staring at the amass of stars that were above me. I had never seen so many and if you stared hard and long enough more seemed to appear. It was magical. However scared I was I will always remember this special moment. I listened to Coldplay's 'A Sky Full of Stars' and hoped that one of those stars was Rosie. I needed her now more than ever. Here is the status I wrote 5 minutes before my swim,

"About to do the scariest leg for me - the one in the complete darkness. Had 15 minutes to reflect by listening to 'A Sky Full of Stars' whilst staring at the fullest sky of stars ever. The serenity of this adventure is amazing and hard to capture in words. The only way I can is by saying it is surreal. Hope you're shining down Rose - I need you now xxx"

 The time came around and I could not prolong the inevitable. It was time to jump in. The water felt colder to me (even though everyone else thought the French water was warmer). This was the only leg in which I really felt cold, I believe this was because I wasn't swimming as fast as I could due to not being comfortable which meant my core temperature dropped. I stayed close to the boat as I liked the comfort of seeing the light from it and always tried to keep myself in the illuminated water. I was swimming every second stroke meaning I looked at the boat every time I went to breathe. I normally breathe every three meaning I am a bilateral breather, however I could not face looking out to the left to an empty dark sea of nothingness. I tried it a few times and I actually felt my heart beating faster as if it was going to explode out of my chest. There is definitely a deep rooted phobia there. I did however notice that the rising moon was huge and was a beautiful shade of orange and pink. I was swimming by pink moonlight. 
 That hour dragged, I was desperate for the time alerts on my watch to go off. It was during this swim that I questioned the sanity of the solo swimmers. If it wasn't for being part of a team who relied on me I could've given up. I was bored, cold, tired, scared and way out of my comfort zone. I realised, for the definite near future, I had achieved all I wanted to achieve out of swimming the channel and I was doing so as a relay. Doing a solo you cannot stop at all, can't have that necessary hug from mum that we all need sometimes. I thought I was quite mentally strong but the soloists have to be made of some strong stuff. When I got out after my long hour I literally took my swim hat off to them! I was so relieved for this swim to be over. Whilst getting changed I text my mum saying I missed her, put my head in my towel and began to cry until I stopped myself, saying into the towel "Man the fuck up". I managed to get a hot chocolate down me and then went for a sleep below deck. I then had a very disturbed sleep constantly thinking about when we would make it to France. If everything went to plan that would be the last time I would swim. 

 Gill came in and asked me around 2am if I would like to swim with Julia to the finish (depending on whether she made it before the necessary changeover). Despite feeling rough I said I would like to but didn't want to seem too keen as didn't want to seem like I was taking the glory having started as well. No-one wanted to however, the channel had taken everything from us. However, Gill who wasn't a planned swimmer but came to support us and organised EVERYTHING said she could. Gill wanted to and after all Gill had done for us did not want to take this away from her. Of course I let Gill have the opportunity and she excitedly ran off to get changed. I decided it was time to resurface. The finish ended up being a pretty tense or as Gill would say, exciting moment. Julia was told upon entering her swim she had half a mile to shore (well rocks). She had therefore expected to be finished within 30-40 minutes. However, although the tide was said to get calmer nearer France it wasn't. When we left Dover we were being pushed 1.5 knots, during Julia's final swim she was being pushed 4 knots. As the end of her hour slot approached she was 400m away from Cap Griz Nez. This meant that Gill couldn't swim in with her as we had to do a changeover. Unfortunately for Dave who was still chucking up it meant he had to get in for a few minutes. So Dave and Julia swam to Cap Griz Nez together. This is basically an accumulation of rocks underneath a light house. They had to get there, climb on the rocks and swim back as quickly as possible as the rough tide was making it a matter of safety. The tide was basically trying to wash them and us past this point. If they did not do this it would mean Dave would've had to swim his full hour towards another section of France where we could land - meaning I would be swimming again (a thought I was not looking forward to). It is said that the tides and currents around Cap Griz Nez are the reasons as to why so many crossing attempts fail. Well done to Dave and Julia for battling onto the rocks, making time for a celebratory hug, and then getting back off again. Obviously at 3am it was not clear enough for us to be able to capture the moment we made it to France but we bloody did it! We were channel swimmers in an official time of 16h59m.

Our route to France
 The moments after that were surreal. In fact the best word for the whole trek was surreal. We all took different places to talk, sleep and reflect upon reaching France. Julia, Rob and Ann were below deck sleeping. Gill, Dave, Phil and I were at the back of the boat. We all chatted for a while and then parted again. Phil and I sat looking out the back of the boat towards the French island we had just swum to. There were a few conversations about how we felt and 'what next?' but as poignant a moment it was we were shattered. I had swum the channel on 2 hours sleep. It was also a moment that could be enjoyed in silence - sometimes silence speaks a thousand words. I thought of moving, of Rosie, and my feelings towards Ironman Wales. This time of reflection meant it wasn't long until we drifted off to sleep. After an hour sleeping upright became uncomfortable, Phil and I went downstairs to lie down properly. Not long after that we were woken up and told we had arrived back at Dover Harbour. It was all over. We cleared the boat of our kit, thanked the observer and drivers, and said our goodbye's to each other. 

 I was back home at 9.30am and in bed by 10am. I actually remember nothing of arriving back home. I felt numb, almost empty. I couldn't believe what I had just done. I slept from 10am-4.30pm. I then thought it was a good idea to have a shower. The day felt very weird. I shared a bottle of wine with my mum and carb loaded (eating real food again was lovely as opposed to haribo and malt loaf). I then went to bed again ready for work the day after. Even as I lay in bed that night it had still not sunk in what we achieved. 

 So here comes the reflective and soppy bit. So it has been over 24 hours since we arrived back in Dover - has it sunk in yet? No - I am still feeling very empty. Phil and I spoke briefly about it and he agreed on the feeling of emptiness. I questioned whether it was me being tired, overwhelmed, cold (I was still cold Saturday evening), having picked up a cold so not feeling 100% or just general appreciation or sadness that it was all over. Much like an Ironman you gear up for this epic day and then it is all over. All those months of training, hype, build up and then it's over as quickly as it began. Phil believed that it was due to there being no 'sprint finish' for most of us - no adrenaline or endorphin hit to ride the elation of completing something. Hopefully in the next few days when I awake from the euphoria/relief I can appreciate what we did. 
 So, would I do it again? No. I have achieved all I wanted to out of crossing the channel as a team.
 Did I find it hard? Honestly, it was not the hardest thing I have ever done but it tested me in different ways. I found the mental side of getting out, being bashed about the boat whilst changing and recovering horrible. Then there was the horrible countdown until your next swim which drained me mentally and we had a seemingly big 5 hour gap between each person. I personally think I would rather do it solo than have any lesser time than 3 hours to recover and recuperate energy. I will admit now that I arrogantly thought I would find it a piece of cake and I definitely didn't. Apart from my horrible third swim the hard bit actually wasn't the swimming it was everything that came with it. We trained well for the swimming so were prepared for that however some things, like being thrown around on a boat and getting sea sick, you just can't prepare for.
 Big question - would I do it solo? Doing a solo crossing was another thing on my ever growing bucket list and there was a point on my first and second swims I thought I could continue. However, after my horrific final swim it is not something I would even consider for a considerable amount of time. I have achieved all I need to right now and have nothing to prove. IF I ever did decide to however I would have to solely focus on it and train hard in order to get good time splits. I would also have to find something to occupy my mind whilst swimming. I have said on numerous occasions I love swimming and the pure reflective enjoyment and feeling of being free however swimming for 15-20 hours alone is another level. Ironman is a lonely sport, swimming is a solitary sport and as much as I can bear my own company I think I would drive myself insane! It's time to focus on triathlon and Ironman for now. 

 Finally I want to say thank you to everyone who supported me through this adventure. The amount of Facebook and Twitter notifications was astounding and if I could have I would've replied to every single one. I can assure you the words that were said really pushed me on when times got tough. I also want to thank all those who sponsored me recently - it means more than I can express in words.
 I of course owe a big thank you to The Salty Seals team; Ann, Dave, Julia, Phil and Rob - without you guys it obviously would not have been possible. Together we achieved our dreams and ticked another thing off our bucket lists. I may be going away to Lanzarote and starting afresh but I think this sort of challenge bonds you in a different way. Regardless of what happens or where we all end up we will all remember with who and when we became channel swimmers. It really is a once in a lifetime memory.
 I also want to say a HUGE thank you to Gill who's selfless desire to see us become channel swimmers shone through even though she was not swimming and when she must have inevitably been struggling with her own emotions as well as tiredness. Gill was our mascot and organiser and was always the face you longed to see when feeling rough. Your support and knowledge throughout the whole process including training made it that much better. I challenge anyone to not brighten up upon talking to Gill and seeing her smile. You truly are one of a kind and I will never forget the kindness you have shown me in regards to making this challenge seem possible. Aside from this you have shown me emotionally that life carries on and as Dory would say, "Just keep swimming". This is a quote that can be put towards swimming against the tide and to life in general . If I ever do do a solo you're my lady!

 With the channel ticked off it's now full steam ahead to Ironman Wales. In four weeks time I will be putting my mind and body through what I believe really will be the hardest event of my life.

So....did I mention? I AM A CHANNEL SWIMMER.
Smiles at the start

Smiles at the end

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