The Swim

An email arrives at Wednesday lunchtime from my pilot – “We can offer you a place on either Saturday, Sunday, Monday or Tuesday which would you prefer? The weather predictions are good…”. I can’t reply now, and that evening I give the speech at my old school about fear. I tell them that the swim will be next week as planned not, as it would turn out, in three days’ time.

I clear my weekend schedule, cancelling a band gig, a stand-up gig and a family party. I am completely gutted to be missing out but there will be more gigs, there will be more parties. But I’m only doing this once.

By Thursday lunchtime the time is set – we leave at 9pm on Saturday night. I was expecting to start in the early hours and do a short stretch of night swimming, but not to swim into the sunset, swim all night, and then swim out the other side into Sunday. This worries me because I am not the all-nighter type. At university I’d never leave assignments til the last minute and I’ve never stayed up all night partying. I’m basically the funnest person you’ve ever met.

Like a true millennial, I google ‘channel swimming at night’ for advice. Come on, internet, don’t fail me now. I get lost down a rabbit hole of FAQs on the Channel Swimming Association’s website, including:

“Q: Are there sharks in the Channel?” Ha! Stupid question, of course there aren’t any sharks in the English Channel.

“A: …sightings are so rare that you won’t need a cage”. Thanks, internet, thanks a lot.

I don’t tell many people about the change of date, just those who need to know – firstly my crew, then my family, work colleagues and a couple of close friends. The weather could still change, right?

Those I do tell send me messages of support and encouragement, which make me teary. My Dad sends me some quotes; “The best view comes after the hardest climb” – I’ll be thinking of that when I can’t see a thing because it’s the middle of the night in the sea.

Because of the change of date Emma can’t make it and neither can Chris, something something doing an Iron Man, I don’t know. Emma and I meet for a double donut breakfast early on Friday and I try to keep a brave face. I can’t concentrate at work.


The day comes. I wake early, and finally send out the message that I’m swimming tonight. I am deluged by messages of support but I try not to let them distract me from the important task of napping. I manage to snooze intermittently until around 1.30pm when I get up and make the final preparations.

My parents come round for tea before the party which I’m missing and we sit in the garden. They bring me a top-notch variety of cakes to add to my already handsome collection. Sally arrives and we’re soon loaded up and on the familiar road to Dover.

We meet Ash at the harbour by Swimmers’ Beach and sit and have some food. I have my usual soaked muesli, and it almost feels like breakfast on a Dover weekend! Almost. Ash says she’s feeling nervous, but whilst I’ve felt like that all week, now I feel utterly calm. Is this what beyond scared feels like?

We go round to the marina, meet the pilot (it’s Mike Oram, not his son Lance who was my original pilot, but conveniently they share a list), load up the boat and we’re off. Co-piloting is Mike Ball, my regular Dover swim buddy, which I’m thrilled about. As support crew go, this has got to be up there with the greatest of all time.

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Weirdo

Everything’s happening so quickly. It’s a short journey round to the start at Shakespeare Beach, and I spend it putting sun cream on while the sun is setting (weirdo) and getting Vaselined up.

Except this isn’t really the start. According to my Garmin, since mid-2014 I’ve swum over 1,400 miles, more than Land’s End to John O’Groats. I’ve already come that far, so whatever happens now is just the next bit of that same journey.

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There are no steps down from the boat, so they expect me to just jump in. Jump in! You know what I’m like about getting in. I sit on the side as close to the water as I can get and stick my feet in. It feels really warm. “Get in!” Mike Oram shouts from the cabin.

I swim to the beach and my colleague Zoe is there with her whole family, taking photos with her drone. Thank you for the photos Zoe!

“How are you feeling?” they ask. “Yep, bit nervous!” I reply, then the boat’s siren suddenly goes. I wade in over the familiarly painful pebbles, aim for the horizon and start putting one arm in front of the other.

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The first half an hour or so is rough. I thought they said it was perfect conditions! This had better not be what it’s bloody like for the whole thing. There are huge blooms of bulbous white moon jellyfish – I don’t get stung (I think they’re not the stinging type?) but I do touch several and they are really firm.

The first feed rolls around quickly – Ash is on energy drink and Sally is on solids, a routine which continues throughout the swim. Sally is feeding me with a long stick with a cup on the end, which accidentally gets dunked. Luckily it’s a chocolate-coated Jaffa Cake bar, so it’s unaffected, #ProTip.

Ash is feeding me Maxim carbohydrate drink from a milk bottle on the end of a dog lead for quick retraction, it’s not what you think. I’m feeding every hour which is quite infrequent for many swimmers, but for me the less you break it up, the quicker it goes, and as we’ve established my capacity for taking in calories is unrivalled. Also, the less time you spend stopping, the sooner you get there. The sky is rapidly losing light and by the third feed it’s almost pitch-black. I look behind but I can’t see any white cliffs, just some orange town lights – looking on the tracker later, this was probably Folkestone.

PHOTO-2018-07-16-17-43-24.jpgMy mood darkens with the sky. All of a sudden, it’s totally black and the stars are out. I feel a sense of relief that this is as dark as it’s going to get. The boat is blasting huge floodlights onto most of the water I’m swimming in, so it’s not as scary as I expected. I say most of the water, because I must be swimming too slowly for the boat’s engines to be in throttle constantly, so the pilots give it a blast and then cruise, wait for me to get to the front, and then blast, and repeat. It’s nice because I get to see my crew at the back and then the pilots in their cabin at the front. They don’t take their eyes off me for a second, it’s just like one of my stand-up performances, because nobody’s laughing at my jokes then either.

I get stung by a few more invisible jellies. At midnight the crew decorate their bit of the boat with glowsticks which makes me really happy. I’m keeping track of time by counting the feeds.

By hour 6 the black sky is turning dark grey over my left shoulder. We’re now swapping to 45 minute feeds, and although this might slow us down in the long run, it’s important to keep swimmers fuelled, though I don’t feel cold at all. I know you’re going to miss this feeding chat when it’s all over, so enjoy it while you still can.

More and more light is creeping into the sky and I switch to counting groups of 4x 45 minutes to make up 3 hour chunks. After one of these 45 minute feeds, I set off but suddenly the sea is moving. It’s gushing past me and I feel like it’s pushing me backwards, further away from the back of the boat. This continues for some time, but eventually I’ve had enough.

At the next feed I shout “Guys, what’s going on? Why the fuck am I swimming on a treadmill?” This Sense Of Humour Failure ™ is just met with words of encouragement from the crew and pilots. “You’re doing really well Anna!”.

Mike Ball says nothing, just points past me. I turn round to see a red hot ball of sun on the horizon. It is heart-wrenchingly beautiful. I was so busy being stuck in my own head that I forgot to look up and enjoy the journey. The best view comes after the hardest climb.

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It turns out that swimming on a treadmill is what it feels like when a huge Spring tide is turning. And just like that, as soon as it came, it went again, and we proceed. With increasing light, spirits are raising all round, particularly mine after a feed of hot porridge and sweet tea.

Lights up means I can see more ships out and about, although they don’t cause too many FBCs. At one point I see everybody rush over to the other side of the boat, which I later find out is an inquisitive seal who is checking out what the mad humans are up to. Now that it’s light, I can see quite how spectacularly calm it is out here – no salty slappers, no FBCs. We’re doing it!

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The feeds keep coming round one after the other, and waiting for them is agonising. Speaking of agony, my left shoulder is getting increasingly painful, and I ask for painkillers at my next feed. I know roughly how far through I am because of which way the boats are going – if they’re one way you’re nearer to England than you are to France, and if they’re going the other you’re nearer to France than you are to England. If there’s no big boats you’re out of the shipping lanes and into the final stretch!

Feed after feed I look around me and there are still shipping boats in front. By now I’ve counted down 12 hours – surely we must be getting close?

At the next feed Ash shouts “Anna look behind you – that’s Cap Gris Nez. You’re going to miss it if you don’t sprint for the next 10 minutes”.

I look – I see it. It’s hazy but I can make out the lighthouse on the hill. She hands me a coffee-flavoured potion of pure energy.

Then Ash gives me a message from the outside world – “Cliff says smash down those doors”. This is what I’ve been missing. I wish I’d known that people had stayed up all night to watch my tracker, and about the family toasting to me in London. I wish I’d been able to see the scale at which people were sending encouragement.

But without those micro-updates, this message from Cliff is all the more powerful. I stick my head down, and I start to sprint.

But as soon as I start swimming, I feel the grip of the treadmill again. I am giving it my all, screaming into the water. It keeps pushing me back but I don’t let it sweep me away – we are in a stand-off. I am smashing down those doors in my head. Find one – SMASH. Next door – SMASH. How many doors are there left? I hope I don’t have to find out.

I see Sally at the front of the boat with the observer – sunbathing and waving at passing sailboats. I am raging. Here I am giving it my all after more than 13 hours in the water and now I’m being ignored! But Sally knows me. She knows this will anger me and she knows that rage can motivate me to swim faster than ever – well played, Sally, well-played.

Either that or they’ve all given up on me. But I won’t give up on me.

What must be about an hour later, I see Ash holding out another magic potion. I am sobbing through exhaustion and frustration.

“You’ve got about a mile to go! Just 1 Dover Harbour to go!” shouts Ash.

“Imagine you’re swimming round the harbour with me, touching all the buoys” says Mike Ball. This sets me off into sobs. Oh to be back in the Harbour with all my friends, toasting to the afternoon and swimming round together, finding buried treasure without a care in the world.

“Anna – tell me why you are swimming” says Mike Oram.

I sob and shake my head.

“Anna – why are you swimming?”

I can’t answer him. Why am I doing this? I don’t have the words, my head is chaos and even if I did have a succinct answer, it would have been too much to carry on.

So I don’t answer, just put my face back in the water and swim. To the pole, along the yellow duckies, to the red buoy, to the green bouy, yellow, yellow, yellow, yellow, yellow, to the harbour wall, along past the white cliffs, past the Premier Inn, by the end of the Slopey Groyne, along the row of flats…

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I can see France now in high-definition. The cliffs are red and I can see a strip of pale beach. The temptation to sight ahead is too high, but I try to resist because every time I do it never seems to be getting any closer.

As we draw in, I see that Ash has her costume on, ready to swim with me for the final section. There are moon jellies now, like my friends at the start. Bonjour, boys. I keep thinking I see the seabed, but it’s actually just silt moving underneath me from the lateral force of the tide.

Finally, the boat slides behind me, and I approach the shore alone. With the reference point of the rocks up ahead, I’m suddenly able to gain perspective of how strong the tide is. I am being pushed sideways much faster than I’m swimming forwards but eventually I see big boulders raising up underneath me.

I reach for one and half stand-up, but it’s fully submerged so I swim on to the next one. It’s gently sloping and soft with seaweed so I stagger up it. The second the waves clear my feet the boat’s siren goes off. I’ve done it.

I sit on the rock with my head in my hands and cry into my goggles. The others are whooping and cheering on the boat, and I raise a half-hearted fist with my good arm. I try to look triumphant for their sake but I don’t feel it at all, I just feel broken.

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I breaststroke back to the boat, teeth chattering, up the secret steps at the back with help from Mike Ball and into a double DryRobe hug from Ash and Sally. The floodgates are open. The treadmill of tears has begun.

Every synapse, every tendon, every inch of me is pain. As the Mikes push full throttle back to England, I hear that Célestine from my first SwimTrek camp has driven from Belgium to greet us in France, but I was pushed so far sideways she wasn’t able to scramble over the rocks in time. 

Célestine and Ashleigh were on the trip where this all began. I never wanted to swim the Channel, but I had Lake Zurich booked and I needed to find out how to avoid hallucinating penguins again. Sally had mentioned Channel swimming a few times to me before that but I always brushed it off, it sounded rubbish.

But on SwimTrek I met ordinary human beings doing extraordinary things. And I thought if they can do it, why can’t I?

I get dressed with a lot of help and check out my new cauliflower tongue. I curl up in the sunny, comfy spot I have been dreaming about for the past 15 hours and 37 minutes.

When I wake up we’re nearly back, and I start to read through all the messages on my phone. There are literally hundreds and only now do I see that people have stayed awake all night to watch the tracker and the crew’s social media updates. It is a reminder that we might be the only ones in the water but we never truly swim alone.

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When we land back at the Marina I am welcomed by Emma, Mikey, Fiona and Charlie from the Dover group, and have big hugs, fighting back the tears. I know I’ve moaned about the expense and the early mornings over the weeks, but I never would have trained this hard or had this much fun doing it without this bunch of legends. I never would have been a Channel swimmer without them.

I say thanks to the double Mike dream team for keeping me safe and keeping me going. Mike Ball was a guide on that first SwimTrek trip where this seed got planted, so he’s been there start to finish too.

I shower – painstakingly as I can’t raise my left arm at all now – and say a sad goodbye to Ash. I feel like I’ve barely seen her though I imagine she feels she’s seen rather too much of me this weekend. Weekend? What day is it? I don’t even know any more.

Sally drives us back to London, and I hear more about what the swim was like for her on the dry side. So much goes on behind the scenes which I was totally oblivious to in the water – feeding strategies, accurate predictions of swimmer meltdowns, quick power naps. Apparently as we were setting off on Saturday night the whole of the French coastline was lit up with fireworks for Bastille Day. We like to think it was also for our little nautical adventure.

When we get back we darkly joke how much of an anti-climax it would have been if we’d crashed the car through sleep-depravation. I still think that would have hurt less than I hurt right now. Even changing from being upright to being horizontal in bed makes me out of breath and wheezy. I still feel like I’m on a boat but I close my eyes and dream of nothing. It’s over. I’m a Channel swimmer.

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Thank you for joining me on this crazy journey. Without a doubt it’s been the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and it would not have been possible without Ash, Sally, Mike Ball and Mike Oram, Emma France and the whole of the Dover Harbour Beach Crew and all the crazy and wonderful swimmers I have met on the beach, Cliffy, Fiona and Mark from SwimTrek, all of the swimmers on the 2018 and 2017 Mallorca camps, Mark, André and the BLDSA, my parents, my family and friends, my colleagues, the wider swimming community and you, dear readers, who have stuck this out until the end. I don’t know what it is about taking all your clothes off and jumping in to cold water for extended periods of time that makes swimmers so great, but I’m proud as hell to be a part of this bonkers sport. Although I won’t be in a hurry to get back in the water any time soon, I will eventually. This is not the end.

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“Nothing great is ever easy” was said by Captain Matthew Webb, the first man to swim the Channel, and has become somewhat of a Channel swimming mantra. But I can’t give a man the last word on this blog. So instead I’ll leave you with this from Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to swim the Channel:

“I knew it could be done, it had to be done, and I did it”.

0 weeks to go

lol surprise!

My pilot has offered me the chance to swim early, since weather conditions are looking good for this weekend.

I’ll be setting off around 9pm tonight and hopefully getting to France before you’ve even had a chance to crack open the croissants tomorrow. This means I’ll be starting at dusk, swimming through the night into the dawn, and then a bit more. I was anticipating some night swimming, but not an actual whole night. But I suppose it all adds to the adventure.

You can track my progress here (tick my boat, Gallivant):

http://cspf.co.uk/tracking/235023353

Thanks for following me on this crazy journey so far.

See you on the other side!

2 weeks to go

Stop the epic Final Countdown music, I didn’t go swimming this weekend. I have actually only swum for a grand total of 1 hour this entire week. No need to panic, I’m fine. I’ve just been going very hard on the tapering and donuts aspects of the training plan. Today was my first lie-in since April.

On Saturday I was needed at my work’s open day in London, and I played an orchestra gig in the evening. I did try to get down to Dover today but couldn’t find a lift and okay I didn’t try extremely hard but I did ask around on Facebook. It took me a few days to recover from last weekend’s 6/7 epic, and the long queues to London’s lidos means I’ve been doing a different sort of swim preparation this week – chadmin.

You’d think that all you’d need to swim the channel is a pair of goggles and your Speedo’s but you should see the size of my spreadsheet. Everything from Vaseline and Extra Vaseline (because what if one Vaseline slips out of your greasy grip into the sea just as you go to apply it to The Crucial Areas? See you in Chafesville, my unfortunate friend) to a 12+ course tasting menu of treats.

I’d been looking forward to the channel snack shopping trip but in all honesty I found it intensely stressful. These are the items which will be responsible for picking me up when I’m down and keeping me going when I’m tired, but nothing was jumping out at me in the Sainsbury’s small cake section today. What if I can’t keep down solids? What will I feel like eating after over 10 hours of swimming? These are unchartered snack territories, so all I can do is guess and buy 5 mini Battenberg cakes. If anyone wants to donate a surprise treat accompanied by a motivational message, that would be very gratefully received.

I’m accumulating my channel kit in a box in my garage like some sort of nuclear apocalypse conspiracy theorist. If someone were to break in to find a crate full of cable ties, tubs of vaseline, a variety of tiny cakes, a dog lead and a head torch, I daresay they might go off the idea of seeing what’s in the rest of the house.

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I’ve also been preparing a set of notes and instructions for my crew. Everything from what to bring to how the feeds will work. I have a wonderful crew made up of channel swimmer Sally, aspiring channel swimmers Chris and Ashleigh, and Emma, who successfully kayaked and cajoled me across Lake Zurich and Lake Windermere, FBCs and all. I can tell them the easy things – please don’t look like you’re having too much fun on the boat without me! – but then there’s the other stuff which remains unwritten. These are the people who I trust to see me at my best and at my worst and to know what to say and do no matter what hits us. But most importantly they’ve told me they don’t get seasick.

Next week I’ve been asked to give an inspirational talk at my old school for their prize giving evening. This is somewhat embarrassing, because as somebody who has had ice cream for dinner at least once this week, I’m really not the person to be taking life advice from. Regular blog readers will know me well enough to know that I haven’t finished writing the talk yet, but the working theme I’m going with is fear.

I’m scared to swim in the dark, I’m scared of the jellyfish, I’m scared of getting seasick. But my biggest fear is of failure. I’ve chosen to make this swim public and the support has been immense, but the other side of that is that there will be a lot of people watching the outcome. I’ve spent most of my measly millennial savings on the swim fees and the training camps/weekends, so I can’t afford a second attempt in more ways than one.

But being scared isn’t a good enough reason not to do something. All you can do is choose your crew carefully, train as hard as you can, hoard enough treats to feed a world cup football team, and dive in making the noises of a cow giving birth.

3 weeks to go

For 9 weeks I’ve been coming down here without fail. But this (hopefully hopefully hopefully!) is my last full swim weekend. I actually feel quite sad about it, but also relieved. I think my bank balance can relate.

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NOPE

As expected, it’s finally time for another big 7/6 back-to-backer and I’ve been watching the weather forecast like a hawk. As UK readers will know, we been enjoying a heatwave, so I’ve had lots of comments about how nice swimming this weekend is going to be. NO IT’S NOT I think silently, whilst nodding politely in assent LOOK AT THE WIND! YOU HAVE ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA HOW BAD THE FORECAST IS FOR SWIMMING.

The theme this week is Party (happy birthday Mandi), and so the beach crew have got us party bags! I blow my party horn and it sadly and silently unravels, halfheartedly sagging forwards with a gentle hiss. My friend Fiona says this is indicative of her general mood. I’m inclined to agree. Glibly, I observe that we’ll be getting out at 4pm and now it’s not even 9am. That’s a whole working day of swimming. People can fly to New York in the same time as we’re going to be going round and round and round in Dover.

The first two hours pass and I’m feeling great. At the 3 hour feed I turn to Fiona; “at least it’s the afternoon now”. At least it’s the same half of the day in which we will eventually stop swimming. That’s where we’ve got to, people. Not 4 hour relief, not 5 hour relief, but am/pm relief.

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My face the morning after that bugger got me

On the next circuit I collide with another swimmer. I could blame this on the waves but actually I’m just not looking where I’m going, that’s why that happened. Nobody is harmed, and as soon as I swim on I get stung in the face by a jellyfish (right). Talk about swift karma! It’s a bigun too. I know this because I kick it with my foot on the way past and it feels about the size of a large grapefruit.

As the hours tick down, my arms get gradually more tired and sluggish. I’m feeling somewhat unwell and really quite sad. At the 6.5 hour mark, I have a little goggle cry. I can’t imagine ever being able to swim any more than 7 hours right now. Which is of course what I must do in just 3 weeks (unless I accidentally break the world record #unlikely).

One record which I think I could probably take a good crack at is the number of cupcakes consumed whilst getting dressed and fighting off seven seagulls. Will somebody please call the guys at Guinness and check if this is one?

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Btw this is what happens after you soak your costume in the sink post-swim

Because my life is a joke right now, I have 20 minutes of stand-up comedy material which I need to write for Wednesday but also, because I’m a sucker for peer pressure and also chips, I go for dinner with some swimmers at The White Horse. We have a lovely time swapping feeding regimes, and I realise we’ve become Those Sports People.

But I don’t care. I share my struggles of today’s swim with them all and Anita immediately says how different it actually is on the day. She tells me it goes so quickly and that it’s nothing like the slog of Dover training. God I love swimmers.

On Sunday morning down at the beach, my pilot (the one driving the boat that’ll be next to me on the day) Lance pops by and we have a brief chat. I am incredibly awkward and don’t really know what to say, though it’s nice to put a sense of humour to a name.

I’m apprehensive, because getting in today means picking up from the bad place where I left off yesterday. But actually, today is a new day, and this is a new swim. That’s very profound isn’t it, I should probably get that printed on a t-shirt. My arms feel strong and the sea is calm.

I fly round the first lap but on the second, I realise that I’ve forgotten to sign in to the swim with the beach crew. This is required so that they know how many swimmers are in the water for safety reasons. I’m bricking it all the way round – they’re going to be well cross. Might they be already on the phone to the coastguard? I keep an eye out above for rescue helicopters. Back at the beach, I explain the situation. “Okay, no worries” says Emma “that’s fine”. I wonder whether brain tissue is soluble in sea water.

At the first feed I take one look at the CNP energy drink and intuition tells me that this isn’t what my body needs, so I ask for a big water instead. I look at the mini chocolate roll and my intuition tells me that this is exactly what my body definitely needs. Isn’t it amazing how bodies can bypass your brain like that?

At some point – I can’t remember when (I know this blog makes it sound like the swims are a laugh every minute but in reality, hours roll into hours uneventfully) – I swim over a jellyfish and get stung all the way down the arm and then all the way down the front of my leg. Why is my life like this?

At the 3 hour feed, Fiona and I recognise our new tradition by celebrating the start of the afternoon. Since I know you’re wondering, this new feeding regime on just warm water and snacks has made me feel great – the CNP is quite bloating for me so swimming six hours without stomach cramps is novel and nice. Actually I feel better than great, the hours fly by and I feel strong right up until the end, despite the chop.

When I get out, I do some more training for my cupcake world record and observe another tradition of sitting in the sun with Mike, watching the ferries in the harbour come and go. Today marks the start of the “taper”, where you ease off the training a couple of weeks before so that you’re fresh for the big day. As such, I’m only coming down to Dover on one day for the final two weekends before my swim. As smelly, sleep-depriving and draining as it is to be doing this every week, I’m going to really miss it. But it can’t last forever, and the best is yet to come.

Now I have to think up 20 minutes of stand-up comedy because obviously I spent 13 hours this weekend thinking about how cool it would be if someone wrote a gender-bending version of The Phantom of the Opera, instead of thinking about the imminent 20 minutes of stand-up comedy with a microphone in front of my face. But to start your week off with a good slice of schadenfreude, here’s my face right now:

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4 weeks to go

As the 0637 from St Pancras wends its way through the lush green countryside lit by hazy early-morning summer sun, I am steeling myself for a 7-hour swim today. Imagine my delight, then, when I arrive on the beach and Mandi instructs me to do just 5 hours. Remember last week when I was grateful for 4 hours? That madness now extends to 5.

This week is Pirate themed. Although I forgot my eye patch, cutlass and novelty stuffed shoulder parrot, everyone is allowed to join in with the TREASURE HUNT! The beach crew have hidden various items around the course, and it’s our job to collect them. At feeding time, we get the chance to trade in the items for a prize of either an extra treat or time subtracted from our swim. BUT, we are warned, some of the items bring punishments such as extra swim time or no feeds.

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Oo-arrrrr

This presents me with an intense dilemma. On the one hand, extra treats are extremely tempting. You know there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for a Battenberg. But do I risk everything, given the very real threat of no feeds at all? This is unchartered emotional territory.

I find a treasure (yellow microfibre cloth) on the green buoy and stuff it down my costume. But by the next buoy it’s scratching my tummy too much and what if it’s a no treats treasure? So I leave it there for the next swashbuckler and arrive at the beach empty-handed. Probably for the best, don’t want to risk no fig rolls.

 

But temptation eventually gets the better of me. Just before the second feed at hour 3 I loot the buoy bounty, clipping the washcloth to my costume, as well as a single flipper (which is sadly too small for my foot, I obviously checked). On returning to the beach, Mandi stuffs half a banana into my mouth and Emma shouts to me that together they’re worth 1.5 hours subtracted off my swim total.

This feels weird. I know I should be grateful, but if I’ve got in for a 5 hour swim, 3.5 hours feels like a cop out, especially as I was expecting to be doing 7 today. So I swim the allotted 5, thankful that my luck has changed from last week’s ExtraLapgate. With 10 minutes to go until the end, a jellyfish sting on the wrist reminds me not to be so smug about my luck changing.

I’m staying at the same lovely AirBnB as last week, and have grand plans of going to the cinema to watch Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom this evening. But as soon as I shower and sit on my bed I concede that I’m now stuck here in Comfy Town until tomorrow.

Sunday dawns and it’s another beautiful sunny day. I’m expecting to be given 6 hours, and again I’m surprised by 4. What have I done to deserve this?

The first lap is calm and smooth. I’ve picked up a slight twinge in my wrist from last week, and I realise it’s because I’ve been pulling with my left hand at a funny angle. If I concentrate really hard I can pull with my hand straight and make it stop, what did you do with your Sunday? Was it as exhilarating as this? I bet it wasn’t.

At the three-hour feed I come in with the treasure of a blue flag, and Emma says this is worth minus 10 minutes of swimming. Firstly: inflation, am I right? Secondly: as we have established, minus minutes are worth nothing to me, so instead I enquire as to the treat-minutes conversion rate. Turns out 10 minutes = 1 extra treat at this time. My friend Nichola calls me a Treat Tart for this exchange, I call it being Business Minded.

IMG_0045 (1).jpgThe rest of the swim passes uneventfully, and I spend over an hour afterwards in the sun chatting to swimmers on the beach, eating a slice of Sue’s incredible cake (left, thank you Sue!), as well as chips kindly donated by the beach crew. I say au revoir and bon voyage to Jac whose swim window starts next weekend. It’s rather exciting that the actual channel swims are starting now, and my own is looming ever closer.

Although I feel like I’ve gotten away with much less swimming than I deserve this weekend, I think am still recovering from last week. I frantically wrote my talk on the plane to Sweden on Monday morning, and the hour time difference, together with the midnight sun over there, means that I’ve been playing catch up with sleep all week and didn’t do any swimming.

This training has been affecting my life in more ways than I expected. I’ve become clumsier and more forgetful, and I’ve opened my mouth several times this week for just pure nonsense to come out. But 5 days without swimming has done me good because when I arrived at the beach yesterday I was yearning to get into the water, a feeling which has deserted me of late.

On the train on the way back to London, France was the most visible I’ve ever seen it, which feels like a good omen and a nice confidence boost with 4 weeks to go. Tonight I’m meeting Captain Sally who will be First Shipmate on my boat for the swim. On the agenda is logistics, timings and, most important of all, treats.

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Bonjour

 

5 weeks to go

This Saturday brings a change in format, if not a change in scenery. It’s the British Long Distance Swimming Association (BLDSA)’s Champion of Champions event in Dover harbour. The format is 5 miles – break – 3 miles – break – 1 mile.

Because the BLDSA are encroaching on the Dover group’s turf (surf?) today, the latter have moved their training to Margate. But many of the usual suspects from the Dover group have entered the BLDSA event so it feels like a bit of a jolly, and there are some familiar faces from my SwimTrek training camps too. Some of us soloists are joking about how this is going to be somewhat of a rest day compared to last week. I even decide to treat it as sprint practice. How foolish we are. How very, very foolish.

The course is shorter than the usual harbour circuit, so 10 laps of it = 5 miles. When we start the sea is calm, and I whizz along, feeling strong.

But the wind soon whips up. By 5 laps in, I’m feeling very thankful to be halfway, and by 8 I’m counting down the passing buoys. Due to the strong wind, at one point the safety team move a buoy and attach it to one of the permanent buoys in the harbour. Of course this coincides with me reaching that end of the course, so there I am chasing down a moving buoy on a boat. I actually can’t think of anything less funny and I’ve written some terrible jokes before now.

We have to give our race number to another safety team every lap and they count us down (and encourage us with blessed Jelly Babies). Upon coming round for lap 10, I victoriously signal “One more lap to go!” and they shake their heads. “No, you’ve got two more”.

“Nope, I’ve been counting, it’s definitely one”. How far I’ve got to go in a swim is something I do not get wrong. Like not falling down the gap between the train and the platform, and what time lunch is.

So I swim round once more, thinking they will have had time to confer and will surely realise their mistake. I shout my number again, “53 – are you sure I haven’t done 10?”

“Yep, one more lap for you”.

So off I slog for what I believe is an eleventh time, cursing the injustice of it all. Eventually it ends, and when I get out I compare GPS distance measurements with the others. They’d all done 8.something km and I’d done 10.5 km. Definitely 11 laps.

We have about an hour before the next swim but all too soon we’re Getting Back In ™ and setting off for 6 laps, or probably 7 or maybe 11 again if you’re me, or who even knows any more I’ll probably just be in here for the rest of my life.

I’ve never got out early on a swim, but I come the closest I have ever come to getting out during this 3 miler. The waves are hitting me with such force, I can’t actually believe I’m moving forwards at all. I nearly lose an earplug on more than one occasion from the impact of the waves on my head. They are so strong I almost get rolled over when I’m swimming parallel to them. But I’ve still never got out early on a swim.

The 1 miler hurts. Thanks to my earlier sprinting, my lungs are aching, and my shoulders are bashed up by the relentless waves. I stop sighting for the buoys because they are impossible to see over the towers of water, which helps ease the soreness in my neck if not the straightness of my swimming line. I swim to the beat of Queen’s We Are the Campions in my head, an irony which is not lost on me, as the song gets interrupted every few strokes to wretch out inhaled seawater. Probably not how Freddy originally intended it, to be honest. I never regret a swim, but there is absolutely nothing I enjoy about this one.

IMG_0019.jpgIn total, I swam over 11 miles, a bit more than the advertised 9! In the presentations, I came 4th out of the women, including the extra lap. Even so, looking at the stats on my watch, that won’t have made a difference to the rankings, thanks to the snail’s pace I went on the 3 miler. However, given that only 56% of swimmers finished the swim, I’m just happy to be the proud owner of a Champion of Champions hat at all!

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This photo is not representative of the roughness of the water and the levels of grump

I stagger through town to my AirBnB and collapse on my bed to write a presentation which I’m giving in Sweden on Tuesday. Why is my life like this.

My amazing host makes me vegan bircher muesli for breakfast and lets me keep the front door key to have a shower after today’s swim. I am so drained and emotional that these small acts of kindness make me teary.

This sentiment is repeated on the beach, when I tell Mandi I am knackered and could I please have a shorter swim if I promise to do 13 hours next week and she offers me 4 hours. Yes! 4 hours I can do! My friend Sally warned me that the day would come when 4 hours would seem like a short swim, and that day is today.

The water is still and calm. I feel as if I am making peace with it, after the violence of yesterday. Swimming today is like slicing through butter, compared to yesterday which was like slicing through concrete which was trying to kill you. Although my arms are tired, they feel surprisingly strong.

Alas, the peace and quiet doesn’t last, and by two hours in, the wind has picked up again. I am feeling low, a mood which is dispelled very briefly by being given a tiny pink donut at the 2 hour feed. This becomes a swim of survival. I make my laps smaller and smaller, to avoid the treacherous Washing Machine at the far end of the course. By the end I’m doing 10 minute laps right by the beach until I can eventually crawl out, very much like Gollum, but in search of more tiny pink donuts instead of a ring.

This was the toughest weekend yet, tougher than the 13 hours and 4am start of last week. It’s taught me that I need to rest during the week, which I now vow to start doing. Right after I finish writing that presentation tonight and fly to Sweden first thing tomorrow… Something’s surely got to give, but it sure as hell won’t be this swim.

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My face after Saturday

6 weeks to go

“They wouldn’t be so mean as to give us 6 hours today would they?” asks Fiona, at 3:15am, as she kindly drives us to Dover harbour from our hotel in Folkestone.

Today we start at 4am, because of a regatta going on in the harbour during the day. This excuse would later prove to be not a compelling enough reason to do what we are about to do. We arrive on the beach and it is pitch black (below). We put sun cream on just to make the whole situation even weirder. As we gather for the start, one by one, little green flashing lights illuminate the scene – they are clipped to the back of our goggles for safety.

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The view from the beach. Seriously.

We had been mistaken in the car – a 6 hour swim is indeed the order of the day/night. As I wade into the black water, the line of green lights bobbing away look cheerful in a Christmassy kind of way, and gives me some comfort. Although the distant buoys marking the route can’t be spotted easily, the line of green lights light the way like a landing strip. It seems quiet, which is weird since it’s all the same sounds that there are when it’s bright sunshine – just the hypnotic rhythm of bubbles, arms and feet.

The sky becomes light about half an hour into the swim and the water follows its lead, both grey and pale.

As is now customary, we come in after 2 hours for our first feed. I relish in the ridiculousness of chowing down on a chocolate Mini Roll at 6am, and sit and savour the moment. A forlorn chocolate Mini Roll floats past me, and I consider this a good omen – or at least good practice for the separation zone.

A couple of hours later – I honestly couldn’t tell you how many – I see a flash of purple on the surface of the water and feel a scratch down my nose. It’s not a scratch though because it stings for ages. That was a jellyfish. But to be honest it provides something to think about other than annoying songs and how sluggish I feel going round and round and round.

I plod round and FINALLY the swim comes to an end. It is the time that normal people are waking up on a Saturday morning and already I have swum for 6 hours! I feel amazing. Also amazingly tired, but happy.

IMG_1716.jpgThe Folkestone hotel was probably quite swanky 40 years ago but the 80s were far from kind to it. I head back there for a shower and a snooze. The hotel is producing a symphony of weird and wonderful sound effects to my nap, one of which is a group of baby sea gulls and their menacing parent outside my window! An early night follows.

Sunday’s 7.30am start feels like a luxury lie-in. Today my friends from this year’s SwimTrek training camp David and Scott are here (below)! This hugely boosts my morale, a bubble which is promptly burst with the words “Seven hours?” from Mandi.

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Legends

This swim can be described as an emotional rollercoaster, if that’s a rollercoaster for snails where something only happens about every 45 minutes. To illustrate the emotions, I have drawn this graph.

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I hope I’m not tempting fate when I say that the 6 hour + 7 hour back-to-back weekend training swims are the longest I’ll have to do before the channel swim itself. Who knows how long the actual swim will take, but as I sit here admiring my hat tan line (below), Sudocreming the chafing on the back of my neck and attempting intravenous protein consumption, I feel encouraged to have managed this training milestone. Bring it on!

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