Last weekend I marked the summer solstice by taking part in Nick Adams’ ‘Grown-up Swim’. Nick did the organizing, but was invaluably helped by Sakura Adams, and a small crew of helpers/kayakers, including Helen who was there for me.
Grown-up maybe in that it extended the swimmer’s normal 6-7 daytime hours in Dover Harbour to 12, overnight. Not so grown-up in that most adults would think it an act of folly – just not very sensible at all……
Anyway – the format was as follows:
- You get in to the harbor at Swimmers’ beach at 9 PM on Saturday 20th English Channel rules apply – one single non-insulating swimming costume, one latex or silicone hat and goggles. Lights on head and tail, and to aid in safety/spotting, a towfloat adorned with glowsticks and a whistle, to be tied to each swimmer.
- You swim for an hour, before feeding at the beach, thereafter feeds at half-hourly intervals until 9 AM. Liquid feed was to be Nick’s own particular brand of Maxi containing fruit sugar, occasionally interspersed with different solids on the hour (more of that later).
Simple enough in theory. What’s so hard about that?
The main worry for me ahead of the event was the 14C water temperature, and the lack of any sun to warm the shoulders. On my day in the English Channel last summer, the water was 18-19C, and most of the swim was in sunshine. Cold was never in the equation.
Off we went, Stu Bowman, Philip Hodges, Becky Lewis, Dani Lobo, Vicki Miller, Deirdre Ward and me. At 9 PM, there was still an hour or so of daylight left, so we all elected to go to the East Harbour wall just the once; after the first hour, we would all be limited to the western side of the harbor, no further east than the ‘slopey groyne’. I had agreed to buddy up with Deirdre, as I had swum with her a few weeks previously, on a four hour in Dover, my longest swim since my April 6-hour in La Jolla with Kevin Smith. I had warned her that I was a bit of a slow starter. ‘So am I’, she replied. A good luck kiss from Helen and off we went – all was well…..
The first hour was very pleasant, watching the daylight slowly disappear, and the lights of Dover come on. Thinking things through, making plans for what I might occupy myself with during the coming night. The water was fresh – but not bone chilling. I had chugged a litre of my own Maxi prior to getting in, so felt well nourished. The arms and shoulders also felt good: I had given myself 2 days complete swimming rest before the swim to give myself a fighting chance.
In a pre-swim discussion with Helen, we had agreed that any moaning or attempts to get out of the swim early would be viewed dimly. Complaints of pain would be greeted with ‘Are you completely unable to get in there and turn your shoulders over? If the answer is “Yes I suppose so”, then get on and do it’. Cold would be sympathized with, but not accepted as an excuse for getting out unless it was clearly becoming dangerous. Erratic behavior, slurring of words, dramatic fall off in speed would be the clues, and Helen would be the one to pull me out.
At one hour in, the first feed was good. 300 mL Of toasty warm Maxi, a quick ‘Hello’ to the beach crew, and we were off again. At the beginning of the second hour I started to work out some numbers…..
I like numbers. I have always liked maths, and I found splitting long swims up into chunks a very helpful and motivating tool. This swim was also a very easy one to chunk up, unlike the English Channel, which lasts as long as it takes to complete the journey to France. 12 Hours between 9 PM and 9 AM. Each hour represents roughly 8 per cent of the swim. Get to 3 hours and you are 25% of the way there, 6 hours and you are half way done. So after only 1 hour, I was nearly 10% of the way through! I also thought of the swim as ‘just a 10 hour swim’. In my mind I felt that so long as I got to 10 hours, there was no way I was going to not do the last couple. So each hour actually represented a whole 10%. In this way I continued through the night.
In the second hour I actually started to get sore. This was not welcome news at all. My right shoulder was giving me some cause for concern and I wasn’t expecting it. At the 2 hour feed I asked for ibuprofen at the 2 ½ hour feed. I wanted to try and get on top of this if I could. I remembered the last couple of hours of my April 6 hour, and how sore I felt, and didn’t want that for 8 hours!
It didn’t get fully dark until the 3rd hour really. By this time we were confined to the western half of the harbor. I was still in lock step with Deirdre. After every feed we would set off towards the western wall, turn, then head back across the harbour, sighting off the white cliff over the end of the slopey groyne. We would swim towards the slopey groyne, before turning back again towards the beach at about the right time to land there at the right time for the ½ hourly feeds. This worked very well on the whole, mainly because I left most of the timekeeping to Deirdre. We went a bit far a couple of times around the 3 hour mark but soon got the hang of timing our return leg to the beach.
At about half past midnight we were joined by Vicky Miller. This was a bit of a shocker, as Vicki is normally in the super-speedy category like Helen. Clearly she was in a spot of bother. Here is her account of what happened to her:
“Although I set off at a fairly speedy rate, as the night set in, I really began to lose motivation and all I could think about was the long night ahead and how I would rather be in a warm cosy bed! The negative thoughts really took over and I slowed down a lot, focussing on the bad bits much more than I ever have before. Thankfully I realised I was near Jason and Deirdre so I started swimming with them which helped immeasurably. I was aware I was swimming slower than normal, but immensely grateful for the company and their encouragement. I felt bad as I was particularly poor company and did not contribute positivity like I usually try to, but swimming with them helped me focus on going from one feed to the next, and as the sun rose, and we reached two thirds of the way through, I finally started to believe I could make it! My girlfriend & support swimmer Amy got in at 6.30am which gave me a great boost and I was able to pick up my pace a bit and drive through to the end. Big thanks to Jason & Deirdre!!”
It only really started to get tough around hour 5. I was starting to feel cold, still rather sore, and more than a little sorry for myself. The maxi and hourly solids were starting to weigh heavily in my tummy. So much that I requested warm water only at the 5 ½ hour feed, which helped a bit.
Soon enough halfway rolled around. Luckily the air temperature hadn’t dropped much overnight which was a blessing as I was still really struggling with the cold. The beach crew recorded at 6 ½ hours ‘Jason hurting but pushing through’, and that was how it felt. This was my lowest point. I remember vividly thinking to myself ‘Why did bloody Adams have to make this a 12 hour swim? 9PM – 6AM Would have been fine surely for an overnight swim?’
Despite all of this, however, and in a moment of absolute clarity, I knew that if I got to 7 hours OK, I was going to make it. I am sure there was some number-related logic around that, and also the knowledge that the light of dawn would be coming up over the ferry terminal. At the 7 hour feed – I knew I had it cracked. Crazy when you think that 5 long hours remained till Sunday’s Dover training contingent entered the water at 9, and we would be done and getting out. The power of the mind is an amazing thing.
After about 8 hours, the pain in my right shoulder started to subside, only to be replaced by other pains. Firstly my hip flexors were acting up. According to Nick this is a common thing on long, cold swims, and rarely ends a swim, you just have to swim through it, which is what I did. The second thing was pain in my left elbow – probably some dodgy technique element – I have plenty to choose from. The third was a pain in my left ribcage, which I think is a hangover from an old set of rugby broken ribs. I have been a little plagued ever since, but not really on swims. Again, I think a long, cold swim was the issue.
At 6 AM, the clouds broke, and the sun shone through, a massive psychological boost. By 7 AM, the sun had gone again. Nick sarcastically said at the 10 hour feed ‘I bet you are all glad that sun has gone away, especially as none of you have suncream on?’ That was funny, but bittersweet. However, we were all then at 10 hours in, and only 2 hours to go. They weren’t an easy 2 hours by any means, but relatively chilled-out (no pun intended). During the last ½ an hour, Deirdre and I even did some head-up breastroke, and went Helen hunting. We knew she was in the harbour somewhere, but she took some tracking down. When we finally found her, it turned out she had already swum past us twice in the previous 1/2 hour and we hadn’t noticed!
As we made our final return journey in to the beach, we could see lots of people coming down the beach to get in for their Sunday training session, most of whom didn’t know quite what we had been up to all night. It was lovely to see the happy faces, and get a well-deserved hug from Helen, fresh out of the water herself:
We all got quickly dressed, hot drinks on board, and there was shivering. Well there was from me anyway! Phil finished fresh as a daisy it seemed, good news ahead of his upcoming EC, but we all knew he could cope with the cold….
The post-swim picture tells a slightly different story to the one before the start. The look of relief and delight on everyone’s faces is plain to see. Many congratulations to everyone!!
This was the hardest swim I have ever done in some ways. The only easy thing I think was the certainty that at 12 hours it would all be over, and there was no open-endedness. The cold, the dark, and the complaining body were less easy. I am very glad to have done it. On my Catalina double I will have to swim through (at least) one complete night, and it will stand me in good stead for that challenge.
I learned a fair bit about feeding on the swim. I took in a LOT of calories in the form mainly of Nick’s mix of maxi with added fruit sugar. I also had a good load of snacks. I rarely if ever refused solids when offered. While I felt a little uncomfortable, burpy and bloated with all of this, what I certainly never felt was low on energy. I had aches, pains, cold-induced misery, but lifting the arms was not an issue. I also (to my surprise and pleasure) never felt even the slightest bit sleepy, which again makes me feel better about the upcoming Catalina challenge.
Many thanks go to everyone who supported: Helen as always there for me, Mike Barron, Ange Johnson, Boris Mavra, Mummy and Daddy Lewis, and Amy. Special thanks to Nick and Sakura for organising the event though. Very much in the spirit of ‘giving back’ to the sport that they love. I would not have done a training swim like this off my own bat.
And finally a special thank you to Deirdre my swim buddy. A hard swim would have been a lot harder for me I think if I had been alone. The dark place around 6 hours would have been even darker. Good luck with your second Channel Swim later this year!