Part Two of my English Channel swim. You can read the first part here.
“If your determination is fixed, I do not counsel you to despair. Few things are impossible to diligence and skill. Great works are performed not by strength, but by perseverance.”
– Samuel Johnson –
As night began to fall on my English Channel swim, I steeled my mind for it. I thought about my brothers, especially Nathan and Seth. I pictured them by my sides, the way they have always been there throughout my life. I thought about their families. I felt them carrying me into the night. I began to sing Stephanie’s songs. I sang Oceans. I could hear Tara’s voice in my ears…
For I am yours and you are mine.
I watched the sunset from the water and just could not believe the colors and the beauty. The sky danced with the water in all her shades of lavender and primrose and soft pink. An orange sun, disappearing from sight, kissed the sea with fire before fading through every shade of blue to black. It was a gradual thing… like most things. Like me being here. Nothing happens suddenly and every moment is new.
“Capture every moment,” Stephanie had said to me on the phone on the way to the airport.
I belong here. I thought to myself with a calm realization. I really do. I was born for this.
Somewhere, as the night descended and the stars and the moon came out and the wind calmed and the sea went quiet and the boat lit up like a magical stage for my own personal show… I began to feel that something wasn’t quite right.
I regurgitated some of my feed and when I stopped at my next feeding I asked for solid food the next time to help settle my stomach down. I was peeing pretty regularly, so I knew that my kidneys were functioning okay. My toes and fingers felt chilled, but I didn’t feel any of the warning signs of hypothermia. I was still very comfortable despite the darkness.
“There won’t be any wind at night pulling your body heat away,” David had said. “You will be fine.”
The stars were exquisite. The murky water had cleared some and now and then little particles floated by me, all lit up by the boat’s lights. I laughed to myself. Stars in the sky. Stars in the sea.
I never was afraid of that darkness. I loved it, every precious second. I caught sight of a shadow moving under the water between me and the boat. It drifted forcefully enough that I knew that there was something out there.
… I’m just not going to worry about that, I told myself. So I didn’t.
It was so hard to stay close to the boat at night. I got so confused more than once about what the boat was doing and where I was in relationship to it. Mike got on his bull horn and yelled at me.
“Hey now, Beth-y!” He barked in a harsh tone. “Wake up, girlie! Keep yourself from falling asleep!”
I HATE it when people get my name wrong and white hot brilliant stars of anger boiled in my brain. I squared myself and yelled back, “I am NOT falling asleep!”
I wanted everyone to know I was still coherent. I wasn’t tired. I wasn’t sleepy. There was nothing wrong with me at all, I knew that. It kind of surprised me. Of course I wasn’t entirely comfortable with my toes and fingers and skin feeling the background beat of a constant chill, but I wasn’t cold. My stomach was battling with something, but I was only mildly uncomfortable. My tongue was swollen, calloused, and sloughing off from the salt water and if it inadvertently entered my nose or mouth, it burned down the back of my throat. But it was all easy discomfort. Nothing was wrong.
Natalie threw me some feed and I tried to make sure she understood that I was fine. I felt bad that I had been so confused and determined to try to pay better attention to the boat, as best as I could. My feeds were so short, it was hard to convey to my crew that I really felt okay and that everything was fine.
Then, somewhere about the 11th hour of the swim, I stopped for a regular feed of Perpetuem. I tipped it back and downed half of it quickly – mindful of needing to keep moving. I was in the middle of my second gulp when my stomach clenched. My brain had no say in the matter as my body suddenly folded up and I projectile vomited everything I had just taken in violently back into the sea.
A mix of emotions, odd memories and tributes to a distant humanity I felt so far away from in that moment wisped around the edge of my heart. I was so surprised as my body heaved three times, expelling whatever offended it without so much as a warning tickle of nausea. I didn’t have time to be embarrassed that my entire crew was watching. I didn’t have time to feel bad. I didn’t have time to really allow for any negative anything.
Hey now, I thought to myself. You need this feed.
I needed the warmth in my core. I needed the energy. I needed to keep going.
“You’re all right,” Natalie said in her strong, soft, comforting mom voice. And her recognition that I was okay meant the world to me. Those were exactly the words I needed to hear from her.
As soon as I stopped vomiting, I picked up the half empty bottle of feed and drank down the rest of it. I told my crew that I felt okay and that we should try water and peaches on the next feed. I put my face back in the water and kept swimming.
I searched back through the movie of my training – drawing on the scenes of other swimmers advice about feeds and vomit and stomach problems. I thought about Pat Charette. I thought about Jennifer Dutton. I knew I could keep swimming. I just had to figure out how to keep swimming using whatever was on that boat. I thought about the 10 mile, 6 hour-ish swim I did with Coach Bill and Helen in Nantasket and how Bill had tried to find things to feed me when I ran out of all of my regular feed. It was no different. This was no different. I just had to keep my crew apprised of the situation and what I could tolerate and what I couldn’t.
It was now a race to France against my body. If I couldn’t keep down feed, I would start to get cold. It was only a matter of time and I knew that. I can’t be that far away from France.
It was a long, constant mindful battle from there. I listed the food on the boat. I gauged my body’s responses to them. I kept down water. I kept down peaches. I kept swimming and swimming and swimming.
When I felt a chill, I thought about being back home and guessed what time it was. I imagined it was a sunny evening. Sunny. Hot. Kadance and Everett were playing in the backyard, splashing in the kiddie pool. The thought warmed me.
When I would turn to breathe to the left, I could see the stars shining. I saw a couple shooting stars and marveled at the beauty of which I was a part. It was so breathtaking. There was very little difference between above the water and below with the subsurface ‘stars’ passing by me.
This is so beautiful. I just love this. A whole day… a whole day just to swim…
I tried to keep my crew apprised of my condition, but I thought of more things to say that I actually said during my feeds. My tongue was swollen and sandpapering and it made talking difficult – it almost sounded like I was slurring my words. I hoped that that didn’t bother them and I meant to explain myself but I’m not sure that I ever did. I was mindful of my stroke rate and kept it high. I had to be as strong as I felt, I had to show them I could keep going. I spun my arms around at 58 spm most of the time, sometimes up to 60, sometimes as low as 56. I had told them that if it dropped below 55, that that might be a problem.
I lost all sense of time. I could stomach less and less of the perpetuem. Water and peaches worked for a long while. I tried bananas, too. But whenever I took in solid food, I could feel the blood pulling from my extremities to my stomach to digest and I just felt the chill that much more acutely. I wasn’t cold, it was only uncomfortable. My tongue was so swollen and rough that once, during a peaches and water feeding, one of the pieces got stuck to my salt mouth tongue and I spent a long time laughing at my incapacity to dislodge it.
Then came a feed and David said to me, “Hey Bethany, why don’t you try to pick up the pace. Don’t sprint or kill yourself, just go a little faster.”
Whatever feed I intook hit my stomach and it violently heaved it back up, again. One. Two. Three times. Until there was nothing left.
Tide-breaking speed, Bethany! It’s the tide along the French Coast. It’s trying to sweep you away from the Cap. Just go a bit faster now. You’re not that far away.
The good news is – since I had just thrown up – I felt awesome! I swam hard. My stroke rate went up to 62 spm. I thought about swimming with Bob and Deb and all those intervals and going fast. I thought about that last swim in Lake George with Bob and I ‘racing’ back to the boat.
Just a little faster, not too hard. Just a little faster. Ten perfect strokes at a time, then faster. Ten perfect strokes at a time, then faster.
I could see a light in front of me when I zig-zagged my way nearer to the boat. It seemed so close. Could it be the Cap?
The tide along the coast of France is particularly strong and hard to cut through. The intent is to successfully swing the swimmer past the point so that all of that fast moving water along the coast at the pinch point carries you back to Cape Gris Nez where the cliff rises out of the water.
Don’t worry about it, Bethany. Just swim.
I felt great from throwing up, but I didn’t get the warmth from the feed that I needed. I began to sense the slight separation of my pinky finger from my hand in a mild indication of hypothermia. Picking up my stroke rate helped, but I knew I needed to keep something warm down.
There was more than one time that I wanted to escape the cold and I knew there was a warm coat and a dry seat on that boat just beside me. My crew had bought me a dry robe, complete with my name and Intrepid Athletics stitched on it. It was on the boat, just waiting.
You have to earn that coat, I told myself.
The lights of France swirled around me. Now near, now far. I kept swimming. I didn’t have much of a good sense of what was exactly happening. That was okay with me. I loved the shelter of the night, protecting my mind from the sight of the French shoreline and the exact understanding of where I was.
I was all business, trying to swim hard and strong. Trying not to succumb to my stomach’s weakness. Nobody would fault me if I did, the thought was there. Nobody would fault me for not making it under these conditions.
But the truth was… I loved it. I loved the stars. I loved the sea. I loved the hard. I loved my crew and the way they looked after me. It was beautiful. Swimming in the English Channel was a beautiful, treacherous thing.
I think I will keep swimming right now because I want to.
And what… you swam the hardest 14 hours of the swim and not the final two? I don’t think so.
On I went. I was focusing on what I could do to keep myself going. What can I take in? Can I keep it down?
I was losing the battle against my body. It became harder and harder to keep things down. It seemed that everything that hit my stomach came back up almost immediately.
I can’t be that far from France…
And then. Somewhere. In the midst of the vomit and the stars. I looked up toward the boat and saw a light way far to the right of us. I couldn’t tell you how long it had been or how many feeds I’d had or how many times I threw up since David told me to pick up the pace… but I knew without a shadow of a doubt that the light I now saw far, far to my right was the one I had been swimming toward, before.
I knew it was the Cap.
I knew I missed it.