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.

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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.

The English Channel – Part 2

As I swam out from Shakespeare Beach towards Sea Satin, I was by parts apprehensive of the challenge to come, joyful to be there and even contemplate it, and thoughtful of ‘The Plan’.

The Plan was to have a day to remember, to take it our relaxed and easy, to conserve my energy for the rigours that I kinda knew were going to come later in the day.

I certainly did that.  I was super relaxed and easy, trailing the boat for a while, before coming alongside the port side of the boat and looking up at what was to become quite a familiar craft and set of faces!

My feed plan was to to stop every 30 minutes, Maxi only on the 1/2 hours, Maxi plus a solid treat on the hour.  Soon enough the first feed came around.

I was enjoying the swim as the first few hours went on.  It wasn’t flat by any means, but certainly not challenging.  My one concern was peeing.  After an hour and a half, and a three maxi feeds, I was struggling to pee.  Normally I do not have an issue when in Dover Harbour.  My legs will typically kick even less than they usually do due to my inability to multitask, but the activity normally happens after a short while.  I think the combination of adrenaline caused by this being ‘no ordinary swim’, and an attentive audience on the boat were killing the moment.  It did happen eventually, but the second one took another hour and a half, and I was starting to feel bloated and rather sick.  I asked to stop electrolytes in the feeds, and kill the solids, and after another hour or two, began to feel a lot more easy.  Lesson learned for the future.

One thing I had been told by wise folks like Freda, Ned and Helen, was to never look forward, and to never look back.  Infact, one of the swims on Ned’s distance camp has a perfect example.  Swimming from Speckled Door round the headland to see Sandycove in the distance, you can see the Red House as small square on a remote hill.  You can sight off it which is useful, but don’t expect it to loom into view quickly.

It’s the same deal in the English Channel.  As I pulled away from the shore past the harbour wall, I could see the White Cliffs as I breathed to the left.  I said to myself ‘You are going to be my friends for many hours to come’, and so it would prove to be.   On occasion I would be knocking back my 1/2 hourly carb drink and see the White Cliffs staring back at me, seemingly unchanged from an hour before.  You can’t dwell on it though; it’ll do your head in.

After 4 hours I started farting.  This was excellent news!  I proudly announced it to my crew at the 4 1/2 hour feed, who dutifully noted it down.  It’s a sign that your digestive system is doing what it should be doing and, well, digesting.  That, coupled with a reduction in the feeling of bloating that I had before made me feel really great, and super-confident that everything was going to plan.  Even the peeing was going better now.  As the swim wore on I was even able to do a couple on the fly, rather than having to wait until feed time, and extending the time not making progress towards France.

Feeding Time

Feeding Time

Conditions

The conditions for the first 5 hours or so were variable.  None of it was flat, but certainly not so testing that I was having any doubts about spending a long time in there.  At about 5 hours though, things changed abruptly, with white horse-topped waves smacking into me from the left hand side.  I thought at first that this might just be some swell from a passing ship, but it continued!  I wasn’t especially happy at the thought of swimming in these conditions for too many hours!   As it turned out, the waves eased after 10 minutes; apparently I had been swimming over the north end of the Varne Bank, a 5 mile long sandbank running roughly North – South in the Channel.  Basically the waves were being created by the very shallow water, like waves breaking on a beach.

The Shipping Lanes

As the swimmer creeps from England to France across the Channel, they have to cross 5 distinct zones:

English inshore waters – approx 5 nautical miles (9.5 km)

South West Shipping Lane – ships heading south – approx 4 nautical miles (7.6 km)

Separation zone – no shipping – approx 1 nautical mile (1.9 km)

North East Shipping Lane – ships heading north – approx 5 nautical miles (9.5 km)

French inshore waters – approx 3 nautical miles (5.7 km)

Total Distance – approximately 18 nautical miles, 21 statute miles, 34.2 km

 

As I got to about 4 hours in, I was in the first shipping lane, with ships passing from my left in front of to the right.  There were some good ones!

The Crew

My crew were awesome  Let’s just get that out there.  Helen Gibbs was crew chief.  Highly capable, a Channel Swimmer herself in 2012, super-organised. She’s also my girlfriend, so it was lovely to have her smiling down at me.  And that’s an important thing.  It is SO important to have people looking at you the whole time.  You never want to feel forgotten.  You also want them to be happy and smiling, as that reassures you that you are actually still doing well, and that there is nothing to worry about.  On no account should the crew, EVER, let on that there is anything wrong.  There could be a massive hole in the hull on the other side of the boat that they are working hard to fix, and you should not know about it.  One or more crew members could be half dead with seasickness, but you should not know about it.  This actually happened to me.  Both Helen Gibbs and Jeff were sick, Jeff majorly so, but I never knew about it.  The swimmer doesn’t need to be set thinking: ‘They’ve been sick, that means it must be quite rough, that means I have a tough swim, what if that means I can’t finish???’  The swimmer never needs to know!  Jeff wasn’t sick all of the crossing.  Luckily he was able to take many of the great photos I have of the day, some of which are in this blog.

The third crew member was Helen Liddle, almost ever present watching over me, while the others were busy preparing feeds or taking photos.  Thank you to all three of you for being there for me.

As I carried on through the first shipping lane, i started to be aware of the ships passing south, but BEHIND me now.  ‘Great’, I thought, ‘I must be nearly out of this lane! Wow I’m doing well!’  And then I saw another whip pass south in front of me, a great big one.  Damn!!  That taught me to make assumptions and get all ahead of myself.  The best thing to do about these sorts of things is to just not think them through.  The Channel is a very confusing place to be when you are at water level.  You are almost certainly going to get it wrong, so you might as well not bother.  Just put your faith in the pilot and crew, and keep swimming.

The crew also wrote messages of support that had been coming in from family and friends.  Though it probably slowed me down a little to read them, it was worth it for the laugh, or sometimes the cry, that I got out of them…..

Jellyfish

I had seen lots of jellyfish in Ireland, and had been stung on quite a few occasions before, so I wasn’t scared of them.  Just as well, as I got zapped quite a lot in the channel, especially in hour 8, ‘the hour of the jellyfish’.  There was a nice variety of kinds: Compass, Purples, Lions Manes mainly.  There were some fine specimens of Lions Manes that day, and a few of them got me pretty good.  I can liken it to someone whipping you with a bunch of stinging nettles.  It gives you a real shock, and the pain isn’t fun, but it wasn’t debilitating. It was enough for me to swear loudly while breathing, but I carried on.  In some ways it was a welcome distraction.  It got me thinking about the Gate Theory of Pain that I had learned about 25 years ago at college, where in my case the jelly stings swamped out the more minor niggles that were starting to appear elsewhere on my body, after 8 hours in the Channel.

I just managed to miss these two.  One appears to be a UFO.

I just managed to miss these two. One appears to be a UFO.

The Business End

As I swam on to 9 and 10 hours, the swim started to change.  The sun set lower in the sky, and behind the boat from where I was swimming.  I could feel the change in the temperature with sunlight absent, and was also conscious that I was going to miss the only sunset I was going to see on my Channel Swim.  After 9.5 hours, I asked to switch sides for the first time that day to watch the sun set.  It was lovely out there.  It was also rather windy so I could feel windchill, and choppier than on the other side, so after only 30 minutes, I went back to hide behind the boat.  There were one or two photos of me on that side though:

IMG_7651

It soon began to get dark.  All I could see around me were ferries.  Infact, it seemed like I was in amongst the ferries for hours and hours and hours.  In truth I actually was.  The tides meant that I spent a long time opposite Calais and its approaches.  I knew that this is not where I wanted to be landing, and it was starting to play tricks with my mind.  I even asked at my 12 hour feed ‘Are we ever going to turn south?’  I didn’t get a reply, but was just told I was doing well and to keep swimming.  And that is what I did, swimming into the gathering darkness, mentally preparing myself for a 16-18 hour swim.

Can You Give Me 30 Minutes of Fast Swimming?

Only half an hour later, at my 12 1/2 hour feed, I was asked to sprint.  It seems totally bonkers, but after 12.5 hours of swimming, 5.5 hours longer than I had ever swum before, I was asked to turn on the afterburners!!  I didn’t question, but just got on with it.  My stroke rate went up from 56 to 66 for the 30 minutes, I started breathing mostly to the left, which speeds my swimming up, and I dug deep.  It felt awesome.  I amazed myself that I could do it.  I was glad now that I had taken it so easy earlier on in the swim.  I was also glad of all of the sessions I had done mainly in the pool, where I had gone for sustained pace over 3, 4 or 5 km.  It felt very much like ‘blind swimming’ though.  It was now completely dark.  Lance had a spotlight pointing into the water by the side of the boat.  I was trying, almost by instinct it felt, to stay close to that, but there were a few times when I veered off course.

At the 13 hour feed, the crew asked me for ‘another 30 minutes like that please’.  ‘Why?’, I asked naughtily.  All they told me was that it might save me a lot of time.  I pretty much knew what that meant.  They were trying to get me through the current and onto land.  Failure meant (probably) whizzing past Cap Gris Nez, and a substantially longer swim to get in on the back side.  I dug deep again, stroke rate still up at 66, still grunting and pulling hard.  At 13.5 hours, Lance opened his window, and pointed forward.  ‘You see that green light there? That’s the Cap.  It’s 0.7 nautical miles away.  Give me 30 more minutes like that, and you’ll land it!’

I needed no further invitation, but bolted my maxi down and set off for what was to be my final leg of the day.  As I got close, I heard screaming from the deck and stopped.  ‘Swim, Swim!!!’ with lots of vigorous pointing.  The Cap was just there, and the boat’s spotlight was trained on the rocks.  I swam in, sighting the spotlight, with Helen popping up just behind me and to my left, with camera hoping to get the magic shot of the finish.  As we hit the rocks, I set about trying to climb on a rock and ‘clear the water’.  Eventually, after many wave-induced pratfalls, I finally got that done, and got some ‘Griz-Nez tattoos’ for my trouble, painful scratches mainly down my legs, and no pebble.

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This photo is the only documentary evidence I have of landing on the Cap.  Taken by Helen from the water, with spray from the waves in the foreground, you can sense the feeling of victory!

13 Hours, 59 Minutes, 40 Seconds – England to France.

After swimming back to the boat, we finally set off back to Calais.  I felt OK all things considered.  We all set about recounting the adventure that we had had that day.  It was brilliant.  As the 3 hour return leg continued, things got less brilliant as we bounced our way over a sea that got steadily cheekier.  I was sick, Helen Liddle was sick, having managed to avoid that all day, and by the end we were pretty much all passed out on the deck.  Only Rory the observer slept serenely for a while.  The man has an awesome stomach!

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The Consequences of Failure

The swim went very well on the whole, due in no small part to the hard work of my awesome crew, the observer, and the boat crew under Lance.  There were times during the swim when the demons started to creep in, but not a lot.  I had been trained to accept ambiguity and uncertainty.  Just soldier on, and swim from feed to feed.  A well-worn marathon swimming cliche but true nonetheless.  When doubts did start to rear their heads, I had plenty of coping mechanisms, including the mantra that had been in my head all year through training ‘I was born to do this’.  I have no idea why this kept on popping into my head, in Dover, In La Jolla, In Ireland, often at the toughest times.  I had never mentioned to anyone until after this swim, as it sounds so corny and conceited, but there you are.

I also had the immensely powerful weapon in my arsenal of ‘I cannot possibly fail – how will I ever look people in the eye – family, friends, colleagues (somehow the latter seemed the worst)’.  That, coupled with the fact that I always felt physically comfortable, meant that we won the day in the end.

Thank you to everyone who has supported me in achieving this dream.  Family, friends, colleagues, fellow aspirants, beach crew, Ned and the Ireland gang, Dan in San Diego, pilots, and most of all my awesome, awesome crew.

Gris Nez Kisses

Gris Nez Kisses

Dart 10K 2013 Finished

The Dart 10K was on Saturday, and it went pretty well on the whole.  As I explained last year, it’s not a ‘real’ 10K, as the swimmers are set off around slack tide, and get a considerable assist from the outgoing tide, and from the flow of the river.

This year I opted to do the event non-wetsuit, setting off in the same wave as last year, the ‘fast’ wave.  I am not sure I am ever going to fit in the Elite group, which contained some awesomely fast swimmers.

Here are me and my buddy Mike prior to the swim:

Is that a Go-Pro down your Speedos, or are you just pleased to see me?

Is that a Go-Pro down your Speedos, or are you just pleased to see me?

Compared to last year, the water at the start was like a bath, a good four degrees Celsius warmer at 16C, which seemed to hold fairly steady throughout the course to the finish at Dittisham.  There was a bit if argy-bargy over the first couple of hundred metres, but everything held up well, including the same pair of excellent Predator reactolite goggles I had worn in Windermere a few weeks earlier.  No fogging, and excellent visibility throughout.  It was a shame I didn’t make more solid use of that visibility as we will soon discover!

There are a couple of feeding stations on the course, at approximately 3.5 and 7 km.  This year the plan was to ignore both of them, and steam on through.  Lucozade goes really badly with salt water anyway so I was in no mood to stop for it.  The race flew by.  The stroke felt even, and powerful throughout.  Here is the GPS track of the event from my watch:

My Swim Route - some room for improvement

My Swim Route – some room for improvement

I had a bit of a navigation malfunction just before the second feeding station where I ended up heading up towards the creek.  This resulted in a 90 degree turn being required before the long haul down the wide, and an extra bit of swimming.

In the end I finished in 2 hours 20 minutes on the chip timer, and the Garmin suggests that I was averaging 21.5 minute miles.  I would normally expect to average 26.5 minute miles in salt water over this distance, so my true time is closer to 3 hours.

In the end I finished 62nd out of the 607 finishers, and was second fastest non-wetsuit swimmer, behind the very speedy Andrew Allum who finished in a shade under 2 hours – awesome swimming !  I knocked over 10 minutes off last year’s time, despite not having a wetsuit this time, so that feels like progress.

I am not sure I will have the time/money to do this event next year, but it was fun to do it this year for sure.  I have not swum 2 hours 20 minutes uninterrupted before, and on the whole it felt fine.

Well done on the organisers again on putting together a slick operation, and an enjoyable day!

Here are the Saffron Walden 4 apres-swim. (Jason Betley 2:20, Greg Lawson 2:54, Pete Wagstaff 2:48, Mike Ratcliffe 2:17 – 49th)

The Saffron 4

The Saffron 4

Dart 10K 2013

Tomorrow is the Dart 10K again.  A week or two earlier than last year, in the hope that the water might be a little warmer than last, when a lot of people were pulled in the first, coldest, third of the swim.  It will be interesting to see just how warm it is this year, as I am non-wetsuit this time.  I spent 45 minutes in the River Cam last night which has gone down to 14C from 17C only 10 days or so ago, and that was great.  I am hoping that the Dart is not at the 11C it was reputed to be last year, but if it is, then I will just have to get on with it!

Last year I wasn’t that impressed with the feed (small cups of Lucozade and a few jelly babies),  so this year I will just steam on through without stopping.  I am sure I can manage 2.5 hours without food so long as I am adequately carbed and hydrated……

Update after the event – J

Dart 10K – September 22nd 2012

The Dart 10K has been and gone, and excellent fun it was too.  My decision to break the back of the journey the night before, and not to do the 4 hour journey on the same day of the swim was, in retrospect, probably a good one.  I had a comfortable night in a B&B in Taunton, and a leisurely 1 hour drive down to Totnes in the morning.

Parking in Totnes was not especially easy, nor were the traffic wardens especially able to use common sense.  There we go – won’t say any more.

Registration was busy, with a great atmosphere amongst the 800 or so excited swimmers.  The day was cool and fine: distinctly autumnal.

The organisation around the start was excellent.  Infact, the organisation of the whole event was very good, and the OSS are to be congratulated on this.  The four waves were set off at approximately 15 minute intervals, starting with the ‘leisurely’ group, then the mediums, the fasts, and the elites, all based on information provided before the event about pool times for a mile.  I set off with the 200 or so red hats in the fast group.  Lots of neoprene with only the occasional hardy skin swimmer (respect!).

They got even more respect once we had got in.  The Dart was not especially warm at the start.  I was glad to be in a wetsuit!  The brain-freeze only lasted a minute though, and I soon settled into a leisurely stroke.  Conditions in the first half of the race were excellent, and the views spectacular.  I concentrated on keeping the stroke long, and not going out too hard.  The bilateral breathing was working beautifully, as it did all day, apart from times when I turned it off when the going got choppy later on.

A couple of times during the race I nodded off in my own little zone and found myself separated from the other swimmers by 20 or 30 metres, particularly when tributaries came in from the right and I veered into them.  The boarder safety crew soon set me straight though, and with only a little swearing I headed back to the proper route.  More surprising was the amount of time spent swimming in shallow water so that I was actually touching the bottom with my hands.  At one point I was even beached on a corner.  Note to self:  improve navigation skills!

Feeding stations were found at 3.5 and 6.5 k approximately, where Lucozade and Jelly Babies were dispensed.  I was playing with the idea of steaming on through in pursuit of a good time, but in the ended elected to stop, take off the goggles, and soak in the atmosphere for a couple of minutes at each of the stations.  I learned that Lucozade leaves an unpleasant acid feel at the back of my throat, and that Jelly Babies taste odd mixed with salty water.

The last 3 k or so were the toughest, as the wind was blowing against the tide going out.  While the tide was conveniently assisting the swimmers, it got very choppy with the opposing wind.  I battled through though, and it was this part of the race when I felt that the training paid off.  I just kept going.  Eventually I wobbled out of the water in Dittisham, and unsteadily made my way up the beach to the timing mat, and to the reception area, where I proudly claimed my commemorative mug, filled with non-commemorative hot chocolate.

Once I freed myself from the constraints of the wetsuit, I realised that I felt fantastic!  Not particularly weary at all.  Could I have gone a bit faster?  Not stopped at the feeding stations?  Who knows?  Either way, I was very contented with my time of 2.32 which put me 78th.  What I didn’t realise at the time was that so many people were struggling, primarily with the cold, but also with the choppiness in the last couple of k.  651 finished.  I was lucky to not feel the cold at all after the first minute or so, but then I am blessed with a generous layer of ‘bioprene’.  Many people I saw at the start were not so blessed, and it is understandable that they might have struggled.

Will I go back next year without a wetsuit?  I hope so.  I seem to burn pretty warm when swimming hard.

All in all, a great day out in South Devon.  Lots and lots of people really challenging themselves with a long and hard swim.  It was much easier than I would have predicted when I first registered.  I am really happy that I pushed myself hard enough in training to be able to say that.

Next year, Windermere, Bridge to Bridge, Dart 10K again – no wetsuits allowed!

I also managed to raise £650 or so for Gt Ormond St – bonus!!  If anyone who sponsored me is reading – thank you very, very much.