Lessons Learned from a Long Swim – and Some ‘Thank You’s’

I learned quite a lot from the 2-Way Catalina experience.

  • 2-Ways are physically hard. Really hard, and harder than I had prepared for. While I was not a ‘spent force’ at the end of the first leg, I had just completed a 20-mile channel swim, so my body was at the very least ‘compromised’. I was actually physically OK till about 24 hours in, once I had got over the massive wobble at 15-16 hours, but then things got very hard indeed. I had never before been in the situation where my body actually refused to do what I wanted it to do. The pain from my left shoulder just ordered my brain to stop. Could I have gone longer and harder ‘if my life had depended on it’? Probably, but that isn’t the answer. If I were ever to contemplate a swim of this magnitude again, I would need to go and get my stroke corrected. Apparently the guys on the boat had some fun looking at my stroke (let’s face it – they had plenty of time to do so), and found it ‘not without opportunity for improvement’. Am I too old a dog to learn new tricks? Let us see…….
  • If you get common injuries and sore bits in training, they might show up when you do a 2-way, or they might not. My common places for trouble are triceps, lats, left ribcage, hip flexors, deltoids, lower back. The ribcage hurt between 20-24 hours then went away. The deltoids (tops of shoulders down the upper arm) were what slowed me in the end. Everything else was fine.  Didn’t even hurt the in the days following. All very surprising.
  • Salt mouth is an absolute pain in the a**e. it got steadily worse as the swim went on, and it took a week for me to be able to spit properly or eat without pain. It was the most troublesome thing by far in my recovery.
Asleep on deck going back to LA

Asleep on deck going back to LA

  • 2-Ways are mentally hard. My mind went way before my body did, possibly tipped over the edge by hitting a wall when my available glycogen ran out. It took me a good hour to get through it, and only with some tough words and messages from the boat. I thought I had the computer programmed properly before I started. I had prepared myself for a swim of 28 hours. That was my ‘par score’ and that was precisely what I ended up with. I think I got downhearted by the slow progress I was making back through the cross currents on the Catalina side. I allowed that to mess with my mind. Inappropriate extrapolations screwed me up. Which leads me neatly on to…..
  • Knowing where I was – probably a bad thing. My decision to be told how far I had gone after every hour was, in retrospect, not a great one. I had focused only on the good part of this knowledge, being able to do mental maths and tick off the swim, kilometre by kilometre, and to revel in the progress. I had not planned enough mentally on how to deal with the effect of ‘bad news’ on swim progression. I had concentrated on the positive effect knowledge about how far I had gone in the 12-hour Dover swim. This was temporal knowledge though, and very defined. 8 Hours was 2/3rds of the way to the finish, whatever changes remained in conditions, swim speed, state of mind etc. In a swim like this, time is elastic, and it was elastic (and unknowable) time that got me into trouble.
  • Catalina is a harder swim in some ways than I had given it credit for. The cross currents rubbed off a lot of my speed, and some of the least helpful currents came right at the end in the last 3-4 miles. It was also an easier swim in some ways than it might have been. The water was warm, conditions were on average much less challenging than my English Channel, and there was nothing too scary or painful.
  • I was not a very pleasant person to be around for large parts of the swim. I would have preferred to have been even-tempered, sunny and a joy to be around for the duration. This was sadly not the case. I was grumpy, sarcastic and moany for most of the second half, which I know wasn’t easy for those on the boat. While I know that this sort of behaviour is by no means uncommon, please accept my apologies.
  • I have a champion stomach. I chugged away on approximately 20 litres of feed, containing somewhere in the region of 1.5 kg of maltodextrin powder. Add in a few milkshakes, a couple of tins of peach slices, some jelly babies, and a couple of bananas, plus painkillers, and that was my diet. I wasn’t sick once, nor was I bloated apart from a little in the first few hours, while my nerves were settling down.
  • Taking myself to the point where I was ready to break, and to keep going, was a valuable life experience. Triumphing over some adversity was a useful affirmation of what I am capable of, physically and mentally. I am proud of finishing.
  • I can only imagine how hard an English Channel 2-Way would be, especially for swimmers who are not especially fast like me. I think it would be even harder than the Catalina 2-way, simply because you are likely to be in the water for even longer. Wendy Trehiou landed a 40 hour English Channel 2-way a couple of years back. Words almost fail me. And remember there are people out there who contemplate and take on 3-ways. Chloe McArdel became only the 4th person in history to achieve the EC 3-way, earlier this summer.
  • This is a reminder that there are always ‘greater and lesser persons than yourself’ – in everything in life. And guess what? It doesn’t matter. Do your best, and revel in your achievements. I am happy that I have learned quite well the limits of what I can do swimming-wise. If that swim had been much further, or colder, or windier – I would have been in deep trouble.
  • One pint plastic milk cartons make great feed containers.

And now to some thank you’s.

Firstly to my crew.  I have written before about how important it is to ‘feel the love’ from the boat. I certainly did feel that. Helen was there for damn near the whole swim, watching over me. It must have been super hard for her to see me struggling, her pulling out all the stops, turning all the dials, to improve things, but still helpless at the end of the day. A massive ask in retrospect, for which I owe you a huge debt of gratitude. Thank you Helen.

Bojan had never crewed on a Channel Boat before but was, by all reports, an absolute champ.

Dan and Kevin kayaked beautifully, and provided great words of encouragement at all times. They were also there with me throughout training in the last year, whenever I visited La Jolla.

I was incredibly lucky to have such an amazing and empathic crew, each with at least one Channel Crossing to their names, to help me over and back.

The Observers. Don, Bob, Sakina. Thank you for volunteering for the sport, and being there for me. Please accept my apologies for being so slow, especially when the end seemed so close.

The crew, especially John and Scott who piloted so expertly. They were also incredibly patient. It was hard enough in the water being a slowcoach at the end of the swim, without being made to feel like one, by feeling impatience from the boat. I really was doing my best 🙂

To Dylan, Emmeli and the boys who put Helen and I up in their rental apartment overlooking the ocean.  This was great in itself, but their warmth and interest in what we were doing was quite touching. Sitting in the hot tub drinking champagne the evening after the swim was really living the dream!

To everyone else back in the UK who has supported me in training. The beach crew, other swimmers with their words of encouragement and belief that I could do it.

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Jason Betley: Catalina 2-Way – Part III – The Return to LA

The main thought going through my mind as I set off back to LA was some advice given to me by Phil Hodges. ‘Most 2-ways that fail, fail in the first couple of hours after the turn.’ This was ringing in my ears. 2 Hours after the turn would take me out of this perceived danger zone, where the finish is still a long way away, but you are already tired. 2 Hours would also take me past me longest swim to that point, the English Channel the previous year.

Starting the Return Journey

Starting the Return Journey

In truth though, I wasn’t feeling that great. I settled back into the same sort of rythmn as before the turn. The records show a steady 50 spm for the first 2.5 hours. At 14 hours I complained of light headedness, and was given electrolytes at the next feed. At this point we also had a near miss with a sailing boat: normally power gives way to sail, but clearly the sailing boat had not noticed me in the water, or the kayaker, so a loud hailer message from John was required to get them to move over.

Also in the first hour or so, I was accompanied by a friendly sea-lion, who swam behind me and under me for a while (see photo). That was nice, and a welcome distraction.

Playmate (may need to zoom in to see properly!)

Playmate (may need to zoom in to see properly!)

I had been hoping that I might make better progress back towards LA, after having battled the current for a while to get in to Catalina. This wasn’t the case, though, as the current was a cross current. and was slowing me down just as much heading back as heading in. The data show about the same speed either side of the turn, at about 1 km per 30 minutes.

I also had a strange feeling that we weren’t going back the same way as we had come, which didn’t make sense.  I had thought that John always went in a straight line, so why did it feel like we were crabbing across the coast?

Either Side of 'The Turn'

Either Side of ‘The Turn’

As it turned out, John had headed us off slightly to the east, better to set us up to take advantage of  the wind behind us later on in the day. Helen informed me of this, and that John was soon going to be turning me back towards home, but it was during this 16th hour that the wheels started to fall off my wagon. I started feeling wretched. Very tired, the onset of a headache, feeling shivery and cold. And with 13.3 nm to go to the finish, and 16 hours down, moving at only 1.2 knots, the finish seemed impossibly far away.

At about 15 h 45 mins, I threw my toys out of the pram. I stopped swimming, and shouted to Helen that I was calling the swim. I told her that I wasn’t asking for permission, but just wanted to get out. I stated that I didn’t feel like I had even 5 hours left in me, let alone the 10 or more that might be required. I was pretty strong about it. I don’t know what I was expecting to hear from Helen, but what I didn’t get was any form of agreement. Instead I was told to just swim to the next feed, and that we would talk then. This is what I had written in the swim plan: ‘If Jason asks to get out, tell him to get his finger out and get on with it….’

Soldiering On

Soldiering On

I grudgingly carried on, while Helen looked busy on board. I could see her fiddling around a lot, writing stuff down on the lids of the storage boxes. And then the lids got put up for me to read. A message each from my boys Tom and Finn, wiling me on to finish. And then, for the second time in 4 hours, I cried. Different tears this time, tears of frustrated rage, as I knew Helen had me. I knew that I couldn’t throw in the towel then. I knew I had to get over this bad patch and continue.

Photo 19-09-2015 17 13 04

In retrospect, I think I had just ‘hit the wall’ at around 15 hours. I had previously thought that through good training I was able to go through the conversion point between burning mostly carbs to mostly fat with ease. In retrospect, I am not sure I had ever been there before. This was the first time, and I was experiencing it 16 hours in to the longest swim of my life.

Another symptom of hitting the wall is typically a loss of mental ability. This rings true with what happened. I pretty much lost the plot. Certainly asking to get out was not my plan at all. I felt like a toddler, a petulant, horrid version of me. At the 16 hour feed, Helen threw Dan in to support swim for an hour. Another master stroke from Helen. This almost immediately perked me up. My mind was taken off feeling miserable and sorry for myself, to having a swimmer with me. I didn’t want Dan to have to swim extra slow just to match my pace, so I perceptibly upped my pace again (it had been down at 47 for the previous hour), and stroked at 50 spm once more.

Having the support swimmer in with me was enough to snap me out of my low. I was still being quiet, unsmiling and uncommunicative at feeds, but much better. At this point, I also got out of the worst of the cross current, and started making better forward progress again. At 17 hours, my pace, while maintaining a constant 48-50 spm, was back up at around 2.8 kph, with a freshening wind at my feet. And that is how it stayed for the next 5 hours, throughout the afternoon.

I started to feel much better, physically and mentally, as we headed towards sunset, and my second night in the water.

20.5 Hour Feed

There were still weird things going on in the water though. It was a complicated story, and my brain was a bit bemused by it all. I knew there was a wind coming over my left shoulder, some swell going in a slightly different direction, and current in yet another. It still felt like the boat was ‘pointing in the wrong direction’ due to some crabbing across current, and against the wind.

At around 23 hours, there was another wonderful display from the sun, this time as it set into the ocean.

Nearly 24 Hours In - Helen Holds Vigil

Nearly 24 Hours In – Helen Holds Vigil

Between 22 and 24 hours, I entered another phase of the swim. My stroke rate remained steady at 48-50 spm, and I was feeling fine, but my forward progress fell away markedly. The wind which had been helping me started to subside, and the current which had been in my favour during the first few hours of the swim now came back to slow me down. I was down to 2 kph once again, and because I was getting updates from the crew, I knew it. At 23.5 hours my disappointment showed, as I had only managed 0.4 of a nautical mile in the previous 30 minutes, and still had several nm to go.

I could feel my hopes of getting home around 26 hours being dashed by the adverse current, and I got angry. I thought that with only a few nm to go, this was where I was going to ‘own’ the swim. I cast my mind back to the last 90 minutes in the English Channel. After 12.5 hours I was asked to swim hard and fast to try and hit the Cap. That was what I did. I upped my stroke rate and landed it right on the nose. It had felt awesome.

But this situation was different. Instead of being swept along to the Cap on a 3 knot spring tide after only 12.5 hours, I was heading against a coastal current off Los Angeles, with 23.5 hours in the shoulders. I went for it though. Up went the stroke rate from 48 to 58. I pushed hard for 30 minutes, and really felt like I was making a difference. I was gutted then, when at the 24 hour feed, I was told I I had only covered only a further 0.4 of a nautical mile (about 750 m) in 30 minutes!

Helen was worried I was going to burn myself out, so encouraged me to ‘see if you can enjoy the rest of the swim’. ‘Easy for you to say’, I replied sardonically, and swam on, at a more sensible rate this time.

It was clear that I was battling a good current at this point though, and the effects of foolishly throwing in a ‘half hour of power’ after 23.5 hours in the water were starting to show themselves. Over the course of the next hour battling the current, I only swam 1.2 km. And my shoulders started to really hurt, especially the left one.

At 25 hours I was in so much pain with the left shoulder that I resorted to breaststroke (I have a very poor breaststroke), and one-armed front crawl. It was fully dark, and I could see the destination of Terranea Cove clearly, but I could sense how slowly we were going, and how the nose of the boat was pointing way up the coast, into the current.

Dan was in the kayak next to me, and encouraged me on. ‘You are making progress Jason. It’s not fast but if you can stay in the water long enough, you will get in’. But the guys on the boat knew just how slow it actually was, and continually encouraged me (much to my annoyance – I was doing my best!) to try front crawl again, as my breaststroke really wasn’t cutting it.

So at that point I tried to swim front crawl again, starting with 10 strokes, gritting my teeth against the horrible pain from my left shoulder. Then breaststroke. Then 15 of front crawl. Then breaststroke. And so on I laddered all the way up to 100 strokes.  Every time I swam front crawl, the crew shouted encouragement. Every time I stopped, they urged me to start again. I knew why they wanted me to carry on, because it was so much faster, but just couldn’t keep going endlessly through the pain.

Bojan got in and swam with me for a while, which was both nice, and frustrating, as it was a reminder, seeing him coast alongside me, of how slowly I was moving now.

At about 26 hours, the current lessened, and I could see the nose of  the boat turn in towards Terranea.  But at this point I still had more than 2 km to go.  It took me more than 2 further hours to get in from there. Towards the end, even the very little proper front front crawl I had been doing was finished. I made it in to the shore with a mixture of breaststroke, and one-armed Old-English backstroke.

Outrider - from the Water - Taken by Bojan

Outrider – from the Water – Taken by Bojan

In the end, after 28 hours 12 minutes 10 seconds, I crawled up the rocks where on the evening of the day before yesterday I had started the swim, and made it hesitantly to my feet. My shoulders were in agony, especially the left one.  It was all I could do to try to raise the lest arm past shoulder level and salute my wonderful crew who had all come in to the beach with me.  I could barely speak my mouth and tongue were so swollen.

One-Armed Salute. Elation and Exhaustion.

One-Armed Salute. Elation and Exhaustion.

Helen joined me briefly for a photo. Thank you Helen. I know how hard it was for you to watch me struggle for so long, and how powerless you felt to help me. But help me you did, every stroke of the way. Thank you.

Me and Helen

Me and Helen

I collapsed back into the water at the shoreline, before Dan towed me off the back of his kayak back to Outrider. I was done. Now I could sleep. I never had to do that sort of swim again. In truth I probably never will……

There will be one more part to this blog, in which I will thank everyone on my team properly, for getting me across, and back again. I will also reflect on what we did well, and things we might do differently if we had the time again, with the benefit of retrospect. But for now I will stop, and continue to rest, and enjoy a glass of wine.  Cheers!

The Full Swim. Mapping Courtesy of Evan Morrison at Marathon Swimmers' Federation.

The Full Swim. Mapping Courtesy of Evan Morrison at Marathon Swimmers’ Federation.

Jason Betley: Catalina 2-Way – Part II

I stroked off into the night, sighting off Outrider, with Dan in the kayak at my side.  I spent maybe 5-10 minutes trying to regain my composure after the rougher than expected start to my swim.

The San Pedro Channel is 20.2 miles between the 2 closest points on Catalina and the mainland.  I had double that distance ahead of me.  40.4 Statute miles.  35.1 Nautical miles. 65.0 km.  Lots of numbers to conjure with there.

By now it was completely dark, and the thin sliver of a moon was setting fast into the ocean.  An excellent night for stargazing, especially for those on the boat!  I felt completely safe and ‘looked after’ though; Outrider is a big boat, well decorated with coloured glow sticks by the crew, and Dan in the kayak was well lit up too.

Swimming didn’t feel easy going at first.  There was some fairly persistent head-on swelly chop that I felt like I was continually having to climb over.  It seemed I was making fairly heavy weather of it too.  I continually told myself just to relax, not fight the water, just slip through it, preserve the shoulders for even tougher times that might lay ahead.

I had an hour before my first feed, which passed surprisingly quickly.  I saw the flashing glow-in-the-dark Viking helmet go on one of the crew (it was difficult to tell who from the water), which signaled 5 minutes till feed.  I knew that it would be switched off with 1 minute to go, which would be my signal to come in to the boat, to have my plastic milk carton of feed thrown to me on a long line.  Problem was I lost track of the horns at the back of the boat, where there were quite a few other lights.  I think also my goggles must have misted up a bit.  At the feed I didn’t say much, just chugged down my 350 mL of Summer Fruits-flavoured Maltodextrin, and asked for the horns to go up front in future.  Helen reassured me I was doing fine, with a stroke rate of 52 spm, and on I went.

10 Hours of Darkness to Start the Swim

10 Hours of Darkness to Start the Swim

Feeds from then until the end of the swim were to be every 1/2 an hour, mostly just the same liquid feed, with occasional solids thrown in as the choice of the crew, or requested by me if I had a particular yearning.  The second feed went better.  I could see the horns, and again I was told I was doing fine, with the stroke rate settled down to an even 50 spm.

Two hours promised something to look forward to. I had agreed with Helen that she would be telling me how far I had gone, on the hour, so I could mentally map my progress through the swim.  This was a marked departure from any previous swim I had done, where the approach was just to ‘swim from feed to feed, trust your crew, turn your arms over until you get there’.  While I knew this approach was slightly risky to be attempting on such a major swim, I was confident it would help me mentally, give me something to think about, do lots of mental maths, tick off the distance mile by mile, percentage point by percentage point.  This is how my mind works.  This is how I got through the Solstice overnighter in Dover, when I was chilled to the bone and miserable, by chunking the swim up into milestones.

While chugging on my drink and enjoying some banana at the 2 hour feed, Helen informed me that I had gone 1.75 nautical miles.  I think I asked her to repeat it as I was sure I had misheard.  ‘Oh that’s slow’ was all I said, before swimming on.  Seriously?  1.75 Nautical miles in 2 hours?  This was awful news.  I had felt that I had been making heavy weather of the swim with the conditions still annoyingly choppy, but I had still been hoping for something around 3 nautical miles.  At this rate my first crossing was going to take way longer than I had hoped.

At the 2.5 hour feed, Helen tried to clarify that she was using nautical miles, that the whole first leg was only 17.5 nautical miles, and that 1.75 nautical miles was not slow.  I was still confused as I swam towards the 3 hour feed.  I was frustrated wits the thought that maybe Helen was ‘just being nice’ and dressing a pace of less than 1 knot up as good to keep my spirits up, when I knew it was rubbish.  I was seriously unhappy.

At the third hour, Helen told me that I had covered 1.8 nautical miles.  What?!  ‘You mean I have only covered 0.05 of a nautical mile in the last hour?’ I pleaded. And that was when the penny dropped.  We had been talking at completely crossed purposes.  Helen had been giving me the distance covered in the previous hour, while I had been expecting information on total distance covered.  I can’t believe in retrospect that we didn’t nail this one.  I consulted my swim plan afterwards which stated simply, ‘I will be receiving information on my progress during the swim, at hourly intervals.’  I am supposed to be a scientist, yet had written something so gloriously open to interpretation.  I had probably even confused myself, as Helen was only doing what she had been told to by me.

I cursed myself, while at the same time internally whooped with joy.  I was making good pace after all!  This was confirmed at the 3.5 hour feed when Bojan told me I had done 6 nm (11 km).  This just got better and better.  At this rate I was heading for a first crossing time of somewhere around 11 hours, way faster than the ‘par score’ of 13 hours I had planned on.  At this time, somewhere around midnight, the ocean started to flatten out, and I started enjoying my swimming more and more.  The miles kept on tumbling, as I swam, super-relaxed, settling in to a consistent 48 spm between hours 4 and 8.  I was marveling at the very many small pairs of eyes that appeared out of the gloomy depths, before disappearing as quickly as they came.  I also started to get stung around this time, lots and lots, by small little ‘no-see-um’ jellyfish, that just sprinkled a little mildly-painful poison, which only hurt for a few minutes each time.  I congratulated myself that they were so mild, unlike the mauve stingers in Menorca, which packed a real punch.

At around 10 hours in to the swim, the sky started to lighten in the west, and dawn was on its way.

Dawn, near Catalina Island - Leg 1

Dawn, near Catalina Island – Leg 1

In the 10th hour, as well as getting light, my progress started to slow.  After 9 hours I only had 3.2 nm to go, but each 1/2 an hour only chipped off 0.5-0.6 miles off that.  At 10 hours I shouted ‘Is there a current or something?’  Indeed there was; the first leg which had been going so unexpectedly quickly had a sting in the tail.  A strong cross current was scrubbing chunks off my forward speed, and it took me nearly 3 hours to complete the final 3.2 nm.  But what swimming it was!  The approaches to Doctor’s Cove on the Island were incredibly beautiful, as some of the crew’s pictures show:

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At 11.5 hours, Helen asked me if there was anything else I wanted at the turnaround.  “A new pair of shoulders!’, I replied.  I was starting to feel the effects of a single channel swim.

Finally, after 11 hours and 53 minutes, I made it in to the beach.  Dan had already kayaked in with ‘supplies’ for the turnaround.  Helen jumped in off the boat and swam in after me.  I clambered up the beach, cleared the water, and raised my arms into the air, the first leg complete.

Ist Leg Complete!

Ist Leg Complete!

After raising my arms in the air, I promptly fell over.  Sitting down seemed like a reasonable place to be, so I stayed there, sat on the beach and looked around.  What a beautiful spot!

We then set about getting me ready for the second leg.  Dan had brought in a towel, a large tub of runny zinc cream, and an improvised back-scratcher / lotion-applyer that Helen had rigged up.  Under the rules, neither Dan nor Helen were allowed to touch me at the turnaround, so I dried my back and shoulders down, and daubed them with zinc, ready for a full day in the Californian sun. All this activity took a total of 7 minutes, at which point I stood up, raised my arms once again, and stepped back towards the water.

I could hear the cries of encouragement from Helen and Dan on the beach, and everyone on the boat, and set off once again, diving back into the crystal clear waters of Doctor’s Cove.  In mid dive, I was completely overcome emotionally with what was about to happen, the enormity of the task ahead, and the wonderful belief and support from the people who were supporting me.  For a dozen or so strokes I basically blubbed, crying into my goggles as I began the journey back to LA.