Virtual Channel Swim – Part 5 – To the Cap!

My good friend Sarah sent me an awesome workout plan for a week – just when pool swimming was starting to wear me down.  A virtual channel swim.  She divided the English Channel into parts – Dover to the British Shipping Lane (9.25km), British Shipping Lane (7.4km), Separation Zone (1.85km), French Shipping Lane (6.5km), and French Shipping Lane to Cape Gris-Nez (9.25km). I was positively ecstatic about the idea.  My imagination was already incorporating memories from my trip to Dover and my experience as crew with the boundless possibilities of what might happen with my Channel swim.  I thought it might be fun to blog about the different parts of this adventure.


My stomach was sloshing and… burning.  My shoulder was uncomfortable – I had to pay attention to it and every stroke.  The night was dark and I felt eyes of constant concern watching me from the boat.  They were still smiling, though.  Tight, pressured smiles.  Thin.  But smiles, nonetheless. They know I’m going to make it.  At least… Natalie’s face says I will.


Back at the Keene YMCA, I am not upset or angry or ungrateful.  I just want this feed mix to work.  That’s all.  I don’t want to feel like my stomach is pit of volcanic debris.  I don’t want to dread every flipturn. That’s all.  I’m sorry if that’s uncharitable, or too much to ask.  I don’t mean to be a whiner.


It was probably because I hadn’t eaten anything since lunch 6+ hours ago.  I started to tremble during the first half hour, I was so hungry.  (I just forgot! …sometimes I do that…)  I think all of my feed problems are exacerbated by an empty stomach.  They seem to be worse like that.  And I mixed my feed in the car and got most of the powder all over my pants.  I probably didn’t get the ratio right.  Plus, I’m using the wrong bottles and I think I’m gulping down air, too.  That’s probably a problem.  It will probably work under different circumstances.


Just… not the ones where you’re trying to swim to France. 


How appropriate. An upset stomach and my shoulder just bothering me enough that I don’t want to work it too hard.  Ugh… I was so looking forward to really pushing it the last mile and 1125 yards through the current to Cape Gris Nez!  I really wanted to own it!  I was going to work hard and get out on the ‘wrong side’ of the pool again! Sigh… Live to fight another day, I suppose.  It’s no good pushing too hard now.  It’s not the real Channel.  It’s the YMCA.  The shoulder will be fine after tomorrow. I’ll get a massage to take care of it.  Next week I can go to yoga again!  I can and I will! That will fix everything!


I so wanted to be in the English Channel in my mind, but my stomach was just a wreck.  I wasn’t able to fight it off very well at all.  Sarah had said to think about working hard for the last bit.  I wanted to, but didn’t want to strain myself.  I knew my spirit had all manner of fight in me, but I didn’t want to push my body to any breaking point.  I know, after the Memphre swim, if I’m this close and this is the only thing wrong with me – I am going to make it.


The other thing she had said to think about was how I wanted my crew to articulate the last bit of the swim.  The very last bit.  The swim-hard-and-fast-now-or-you’ll-miss-the-cap-and-be-swimming-for-hours command.  Is there a non-negative way to put that into a quick verbal command?


“We’re coming up on France and you need to pick it up or you’ll miss the Cape and be in the Channel for some more hours with your stomach feeling like death and your shoulder hurting.”


Nah… too wordy.


“Swim faster!”


No. Definitely not.  That just makes me angry.


“Pick up the pace!”


Ugh.  They all sounded like death sentences.  I was so miserable, it was hard for me to feel like I could do any of them.  I knew I could go faster.  I could!  But I didn’t know if I could go fast enough.  The ambiguous commands just seemed unkind and too demanding and somehow suggestive that whatever I had to give wouldn’t be good enough.


What do I want to hear?  What are the words I most need in the sea-tossed, angry Channel, wanting so bad to get through the tide to the other side? Thinking of home.  Thinking of everybody back at home.  How privileged I am to be who I am, knowing the amazing people that I know.  What would they tell me?  They would tell me to have fun.  They would tell me to be well.  They would tell me they love me.  But those aren’t commands… I need a swimming command.


I wish I could say that I thought of something.  I didn’t.  I struggled and struggled to find some words, but nothing worked.  It was only later, when I wasn’t feeling sick – that I concocted a mental strategy.  I live in my head.  I dream in technicolor.  And I see things – I see words – so much better than I hear them.  Whereas a command would feel impossible to me – probably picturing something would not.  So I packed away a mental image for that part of the swim… and a very special song that always speaks to me.  And then – whatever I hear – however they say it… it won’t matter, I don’t think.  Because I will know what I have to do.  I will know I can do it.  I will be prepared.

Anyway – all of those thoughts came later.

In the Channel, it was night.  My stomach was so unhappy.  My shoulder was content to move along steadily and to do nothing above and beyond just that.

I guess it really doesn’t matter when I get to the finish – I am apparently convinced I will finish at night.  It could be that I am just imagining the most miserable situation, but being in the dark doesn’t seem to be contributing to my misery at the moment.  I know, I’ll just start AND finish the swim at night- all 15 -18 hours.  It’d be fine!  Totally possible.

And then… at long last… the 5 miles dripped away with the time to a collected puddle in the past.  I was approaching the end of the swim.

It seemed impossible. The cliff looming before me.  Impossible.  But, I just have to touch above the waterline, right?  That’s all.  I pulled up just before the cliffs and peered into the darkness.  

Would a spotlight light the cliff?  What if the waves bash me into the cliff?  Even gently, that could be kind of painful.  How would I know I touched high enough? How would I know when I’m done?  How far back would the boat have to stop?  Donal had an hour long swim back to his boat.  David had 2 minutes.  I can’t remember what Sarah said as I grab onto the wall of the pool – feeling sick.  Maybe the cliff is too confusing a place to land.

I stared up at the pile of rocks.  Not a beach – just a pile of rocks.  I dragged myself up to crawl atop them and get clear of the water.  That’s the rule if you land on rocks or a beach – you have to get clear of the water.  I have to get clear.  I slipped and fell back into the water.  There wasn’t anything to place my feet on.  I tried to clamber up, again…

I hoisted myself up, out of the pool.

And then I was there.  Standing on the French soil.  And I lifted my hand in the air for the observer to again note the time.  I turned around to take in the scene before me…

It looked oddly like a pool deck.

I didn’t let myself imagine the feelings I would feel.  I didn’t want to place a definition on them or paint them ahead of time.  I didn’t want to think about the words I would say or plot a course for my actions.  I didn’t want to plan it.

When the time comes, I want to live that moment right then.

Well… except for one thing…

I looked down, trying to find a pebble to stick down my swimsuit…!

Then I walked around to the ‘right side’ of the pool, very slowly, holding my stomach, and I picked up my water bottles.

“When you stopped swimming,” The lifeguard declared, “I just wanted to cheer for you!  You’ve been swimming for hours!”

“Oh, thank you,” I said.  I looked around – the pool was mostly empty at 8:30pm on a Friday night.  I had been her only entertainment – me and my private struggle to France.  She had no idea where I had been in my mind and still celebrated my simple victory.  I felt so honored by her appreciation, it seemed to wash away the twinges of regret I felt at not swimming the last bit as fast as I should have.

“That really means a lot to me,” I said to her.

I drove the hour and a half home, waiting and hoping for my stomach to settle… musing through the lessons I learned:

1. I’m pretty uncomfortable with the night+sea+cold swimming concept.

2. I still need to figure out my feed.

3. I need(ed) a mental strategy for the last bit of the swim.

4. I still need to work on exhaling through my nose and not my mouth.

5. I still need to be mindful and attentive of my shoulders.


But I know I can make it during a work week, with a three hour daily commute, when I work overtime.  I know I can swim with an upset stomach.  I know I can swim with a hurt shoulder.  There are a lot of things I know I can do.  I think I’m pretty close to being well prepared for this adventure.  I have been very diligent to keep myself well ordered for this swim… and I can’t wait for the day that will be ordered for it!

It’s 2014, guys.

I am going to swim the ENGLISH CHANNEL!!!

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