Yesterday I did my 6 hour qualifier! I tagged a day on to the front of a business trip to San Diego, to take advantage of the near perfect conditions to do a qualifier.
Just to recap, the qualifier requires that you swim for 6 hours in water of less than 16C (61F), under normal channel rules (the usual single swimsuit, goggles and cap, no touching the boat etc).
I had been keeping an eagle eye on the water temperatures, which had been hovering just below the cut-off for a week or so. As I was soon to learn, this wasn’t going to be an issue…….
Getting ready, sun coming up
Dan had arranged for ‘paddler extraordinaire’ Kevin Eslinger to accompany us on a trip up the coast. I pulled into the La Jolla Shores carpark at 5.50, and Kevin was already there unloading his board from his VW campervan. I had had an indifferent night’s sleep. I finally got in from the airport at 8.45, and went straight out for a bite to eat. Ribs, fries, and Chardonnay – the perfect preparatory meal. I was in bed by ten, and got maybe 5 hours sleep before the 8 hour time difference overcame my tiredness from the journey. I used the time usefully, eating a couple of Eat Natural bars for some carbs, and mixing my feeds.
Dan showed up at 6, and we both busied ourselves with preparing for the day. Applying vaseline and sunblock (the forecast was sunny), packing feeds, analgesics, spare cap and goggles in the box strapped to the front of Kevin’s board, general nervous milling around!
Finally, after some faffing some of my river swimming colleagues would have been proud of, we set off, shuffling out into the water to avoid stepping on dozy stingrays, and off into the ocean.
The water was cool, slightly cooler than I had imagined even, but warmer definitely than any of the three rivers I had swum in 2 days before back in the UK!
We had arranged to feed every 30 minutes, taking up positions either side of the board as we swam out to the B-Buoy. Once we got to the buoy we turned right and headed up the coast to the North. I was conscious of not wanting to take it out too fast as I probably had done in Windermere last year, so dropped into a steady, pretty conservative rythmn and pace. I could not see Dan on the other side of the board, so speculated that he had gone on ahead. I only really saw him once we got to the turn, and there he was on the other side of the board. What I hadn’t realised, actually until after the swim finished, was that for the first part of the swim, Dan had been feeling the cold and had been throwing in some extra yardage at a faster pace to warm up. This is what we had agreed to do should either of us need to go faster; Kevin would maintain position with the slower swimmer.
The first couple of hours went very smoothly. The swimming felt effortless (maybe it was effortless, I don’t think I was going that fast!). The conditions were what Dan described later as ‘not flat’. The swell and the wind were at roughly 45 degrees according to Kevin, which created a rolling sloppy sort of chop to swim through. Nothing like as unpleasant as Windermere had been for the last couple of hours, but not flat. The photo is taken looking back to where we started in the distance by the buildings of La Jolla Cove.
The feeding had been going OK, though I had cursed my choice of feed bottle which had a pretty large opening at the top. A fair bit ended up in the Pacific rather than in me!
The 5th 1/2 hour slot was weird. I suddenly felt decidedly ‘not OK’. I could not quite put my finger on why this was, but I was all of a sudden not feeling too great. I never quite got to the bottom of why, but just plugged on. The 6th slot was fantastic though, I got into a lovely rythmn, and it was back to the effortless swimming again.
After 3 hours we turned back towards home. At this point I pschologically knew I had done it. Essentially there was nowhere particularly to bail to from here that would have been satisfactory. I knew that I was going to haul it back to La Jolla Shores by hook or by crook.
As we retraced our stroked south, the prevailing chop was now coming over our right shoulders, and the effortless swimming of the previous 1/2 hour was gone. It took a while to get used to the new conditions and breathing requirements. Still, my spirits were high, as I was past the mental barrier of 1/2 way.
I thought of a lot of things on that swim. Loved ones back home, lots of stroke counting, countries beginning with A-Z (is there one starting with J people?), wines starting with A-Z. All good distractions.
I also got pinged with a few demons: What is that tight feeling in my chest? Is that a shoulder twinge? I hope that jellyfish hasn’t got a lot of mates. Am I getting cold?
I managed to put them all aside.
The swim continued on uneventfully until the 10th 1/2 hour slot, when again I felt a bit queer. I managed to work it out this time, I was getting cold, and so it transpired was Dan. At this point I remembered Helen’s advice and started throwing in some fast stuff, swimming ahead of Kevin and Dan, and looping round and back behind again. I did a fair bit of this in the last hour especially. I knew Dan was having a tough day at the office with the cold, but just had to plug on at my own swim, and efforts to get warm again. It worked though, and I was really pleased that I had enough in the tank to throw in the fast stuff. I was feeling great in the 6th hour. After the last feed, we knew we were nearly done, and the buildings on La Jolla Shores were visible clearly. For the last bit I went round and joined Dan, as we swam gently in to the Shores. According to Kevin we stood up on the sand at 6 hours 1 minute. An immaculate piece of navigation and paddling from Kevin, who I had heard described by others as the ‘Best of the Best’. He certainly was. I felt totally under his control the whole time, and had complete faith in his abilities.
We had done it, and we were happy.
There was a bit of rewarming to be done. I ‘phoned Helen while still shivering so I must have sounded in a bit of a state.
Kevin had to run pretty quickly, so it was just Dan and I went for Mexican and ice cream, and a de-brief on the day. It turned out that it was a little colder than Dan had been expecting. He had done swims of 4 and 5 hour duration recently in his SCAR build-up and not had any issues. Might have been my slow pace at the beginning maybe that didn’t help. We also ruminated on the different types of cold. The cold I felt out there was totally different to that felt after 10 minutes in an English River at 5C. Nothing hurt like it would in the colder water, it just needed a push to get through.
So what was the temperature? Well there were various buoys all reading somewhere in the high 50’s. Barbara Held had been out that morning and messaged me that it was about 57, which tallied what was on the lifeguard’s board at the Cove. Either way, that is the qualifier done. Many thanks again to Dan and Kevin. You were awesome!