7 weeks to go

It’s a miracle! I remembered the fancy dress theme! Emma France is on holiday this week in the Caribbean (sounds rubbish) so the theme was the Caribbean. Around my neck I’ve got the lei flower garland I was presented with at the end of my Zurich marathon swim last August, but on the train down to Dover I remember that lei are actually Hawaiian not Caribbean so I shove it back in my bag, despondently. One of these weeks I’ll get it right.

Thanks to last week’s 5 hour epic, inevitably this week it’s time for The Big 6. The weather is breezy, cloudy and big clumps of fog from out at sea are getting blown across the harbour. The stench of the water is palpable. In previous weeks, I’ve only got a whiff of it from a damp costume or long hair, but today it smells like a cross between a fish mongers, getting stuck in a meeting next to a colleague with bad breath and the Central Line during a heatwave. Imagine the colour of that smell. That’s the colour of the water.

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Mmm. So inviting. I just want to get in. Please, somebody hold me back.

The first four hours pass by with steadily mounting aches in my arms and back, but the real fun and games begin with two hours to go. These waves are nuts! At times, I take my arm out of the water for the recovery stroke and the whole thing remains submerged underwater through a wave. Sighting where I’m going is completely pointless, all there is to see is tall, dark water. Instead, I stop sighting altogether, and decide that if the cliffs are still over one shoulder or the other, I’m probably not going actually out to sea.

It’s particularly bad in the corner of the harbour which has come to be called “The Washing Machine”. Here the waves get funnelled together – fuelled today by the wind – and they bounce back off the flat wall, interfering with those incoming. This makes the conditions for swimming totally chaotic – will it be air or saltwater in my mouth next breath? Toss a coin.

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Look, in my defence, I couldn’t see where I was going.

Weirdly, every now and again I keep feeling small, soft, jelly-like blobs in the water. On Thursday night I learnt from my friend Aimee that the Irish language word for jellyfish literally translates as ‘seal snot’. It is no more but certainly no less comforting to know – particularly during the low times of this swim – that my only friends to be found out here might be baby seal snots. I also learnt from Aimee that the Irish language word for sea anemone is ‘rock boob’. People often ask me what I’m thinking about when I’m swimming for 6 hours on end, and it’s rock boobs.

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Nailed it

The end comes, as it always eventually does. Since the water is below 16 degrees (14.5 to be precise), this swim counts as a solo channel swim qualifier. I’ve actually already done one qualifying swim this year in Mallorca, but I never pass up the chance of a certificate.

I stagger across town to my B&B, shower, and collapse on the bed. I have the head-spinning feeling that the room’s rocking, exactly like being drunk but with none of the benefits of being drunk. The back of my hair is matted from where my neck has rubbed it into little balls of felt. I have ringing in my ears from the banging of the waves onto my head and the bubbles rushing past me from the impact of my hands. My tongue is rough and un-tasting from the salt-water – it feels like I’ve burnt it on hot chocolate but with none of the benefits of hot chocolate. I have tanned eyebrows but a pale forehead, my back aches all down my spine, my arms feel stiff, and I am hot. Oh god I am so hot I feel like I’m radioactive. Having been so cold, and now so hot, my internal thermostat is going haywire.

A sticky night’s sleep becomes Sunday which could not be more different. The water is as flat as an empty swimming pool, there isn’t a whisper of wind and the sun is strong and warming. I am given a 3 hour “recovery” swim. I appreciate that there something very wrong about feeling grateful for a “short” 3 hour swim but this is my life now, apparently.

It is everything that yesterday wasn’t – warm sun on my back, good visibility above and below the water, and not a single seal snot to be found. It is amazing how the same patch of water can have such different personality within the space of 24 hours. I suppose it all adds to the adventure.

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But seriously if someone could arrange for it to be exactly like this on 20th July that’d be great okay thanks.

8 weeks to go

This is the part of the training montage where it fast-forwards through the now-established routine. Alarm clock at 5.45am – sitting on the tube to King’s Cross next to swaying drunk people – on the train eating breakfast – dumping bags on the beach – looking at everyone else wearing super hero fancy dress and realising that I’d forgotten the theme, again – stripping off – having Vaseline rubbed under my costume straps – sliding down the pebbly beach to the shore – getting into the water – still getting into the water – taking a really long time to get into the water – pushing off and starting to swim.

Today we are up to 3 hours, and I’d be damned if I was going to miss the hourly feeds this time. It makes me really sad now, just thinking about what could have been last week. It’s a beautiful sunny day but the sea is rough – the sort of waves that when you look forward to sight for the next buoy all you can see is a massive wave coming towards your face at speed. You’re not so much lifting your arms up and over the water like normal swimming but instead punching your way through those salty slappers.

The first feed is the most delicious blackcurrant potion I have ever drank in my life. Warm and sugary, it’s basically rocket fuel. I’m so keen for the second feed that I come in to the beach too early. We’re told to circle round and come back. So there we are, twenty or so swimmers circling the beach closer and closer, like little colourful sharks. I wonder how many miles away a swimmer can smell a single drop of blackcurrant potion in the ocean?

The end of the swim is tough – a few FBCs to contend with from the ferries – but the hard part is mostly chop from the wind. When I eventually get out, I unamusedly notice white caps on the waves. I also notice a swimmer, Amy, getting changed. Nothing unusual there, except that I’d seen Amy at the second feed saying she was too cold and she seemed to be struggling. But here she is, a whole nother hour of miserable swimming later! Not all heroes wear capes.

I treated myself to a little room in a BnB this week and I while away the afternoon writing an article about 3D printing in biomedicine because I know how to have a good time, apparently.

The forecast for Sunday was for thunderstorms and I walk down to the beach in a t-shirt – it’s the sort of hot and sticky weather that makes a good storm. I’m expecting us to be given 4 hours but it’s ‘just’ 3.5. Like yesterday, we are promised a feed every hour.

This is a Happy Swim ™. The heavy air sits still on the water, making it warm and calm and I’m able to really put my foot on the gas. Feeling strong, after 3.5 hours I come in, as told.

“Hang on”, says swimmer Nick, just as I am putting my shoes on to get out “Anna looks like she could do another half an hour.”

“I do? Yeah, okay,” I reply, throwing my shoes back onto the beach “but I’ll need another of those choccy brownie bites first”. Ever since I was little, I could be convinced to do pretty much anything if there were snack incentives involved. Climb this massive mountain in exchange for Fruit Pastilles? Sure thing. Traipse around this shopping centre all day for a drink and a biscuit? I’m there. Just 30 more minutes for a choccie brownie bite? Sign me up.

Looking back to Windermeregate, I’ll admit that one element of the breakdown was dehydration and mild hypothermia, but I’m certain the rest was purely psychological, given the distinct lack of choccie brownie bites on offer.

I come back in after 4 hours, alongside another swimmer. “He’s doing another hour”, says Mandi, passing me two choccie brownie bites “do you want to do another hour too?” Ever since I was little, I could be convinced to do pretty much anything if there were other people to be matched and/or beaten, particularly if those people happened to be male. Pursue a career in engineering? Sure thing. Take up the trumpet and lead the brass section in the orchestra? I’m there. One more hour of swimming? I guess this is happening then isn’t it.

As I’m going around, I think I bet they’re going to make me do 6. Six hours in water below 16 degrees is the required qualifying swim everyone has to do before they’re allowed to swim a solo channel crossing, so it’s a popular benchmark swim for people to do. It feels inevitable.

Eventually I float back to the beach, running aground on the pebbles. Well done! They all say, out you get.

Today was a good lesson learnt. Even though I’ve done longer and colder swims this year, I still would have felt intimidated by the idea of 5 hours if it was presented as such beforehand. But, given the right incentives, you can always do just one more hour. I’ll remember that in 8 weeks’ time.

9 weeks to go

WARNING: This post contains some bad swears which may not be suitable for all audiences.

We meet again, 5.45am.

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Also, how great is my alarm emoji game??

Saturday morning, and a largely uneventful train to Dover is followed by some excellent news – today we’re only swimming for 2 hours, non-stop. I am delighted, since these means no more of the dreaded Getting Back In Again™. I am also happy because the sun is shining and I’m going to have my face in the sea all morning with ear plugs in, removed from the rest of the country obsessing over the Royal Wedding.

But looks can be deceiving. It’s choppy and there are plenty of salty slappers coming my way. On more than one occasion I turn my head to breathe and a wave goes all the way over the top of it and into my mouth. Lovely.

There’s extra waves on top of the slappers coming from boats. Me and these sorts of waves go way back.

FLASHBACK: It’s September 2016, I am swimming the length of Lake Windermere with my friend Emma kayaking next to me. I am drastically underprepared. At this time of my swimming career, I knew nothing about how much I should be eating or drinking during long-distance swims. As a result, during the 6 hour swim all I ate was one digestive biscuit (officially the driest food known to man), half a banana (officially the most nauseating food known to man) and a couple of sips of water. To give you an idea of how dangerously little that is, by 5 hours in I was hallucinating penguins.

When you’re tired and delirious in the water, everything feels like it’s working against you. Your goggles fill up with tears and every time there’s a wave in the face it’s an excuse to break out into breaststroke and have a little cry. So, when an enormous pleasure boat of holidaying pensioners clutching champagne drives up to peer down at the crazy swimming lady, you are going to have a Sense of Humour Failure™.

Now look, I’m not proud of what I said. It wasn’t big and it wasn’t clever, but it did feel appropriate at the time.

“F**K OFF YOU F***ING BOAT C**TS!” I shouted.

The next few dizzying breaths I pretended I couldn’t see my kayaker awkwardly laughing, and all of the boat c**ts laughing too at my inexplicable over-reaction to this situation.

I mention this because now “f***ing boat c**ts” (FBCs) has become a running joke to denote waves which are formed by passing boats. Or, you know, enormous ferries.

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Well, well, well. Look who it is.

It was, therefore, a rough swim, but over soon enough. This week I was staying in an Air Bnb kindly booked by fellow London swimmer Mikey. We are early to arrive, so have to head straight back out without showering. I don’t really mind being covered in channel, though every now and again you do get a waft of your own stench and wonder how much passers-by can smell you.

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#seethesights

We go for a pint I mean a soft drink in The White Horse. This is the pub renowned for having the walls covered in the signatures of successful channel swimmers and it’s difficult not to imagine yourself after the swim drinking a cold gin and tonic I mean signing your name on the wall, victorious.

We cook pasta, watch Ru Paul’s Drag Race, read our books and have an early night. Mikey is the dream swim weekend companion!

The next morning is grey and still. We’re given 2.5 hours and promised a hot drink after 1 hour. I swim the loop once, dreaming of that plastic cup of steaming hot Ribena. The first lap takes 31.5 minutes, so I do another lap, which would make it perfect timing.

But this lap is slower than the first since the salty slappers are back, and this, compounded by the fact that I took 10 minutes to wade in screaming means that the beach is empty when I eventually come in for my feed.

“I’m afraid the feed’s gone back up to the top”, Mandi from the beach crew shouts, running down the pebbles towards me, “Are you really cold?”

“Nope” I reply, which came out slightly more high-pitched than I intended, “I’ll be fine”.

On the next lap I compose this haiku about my feelings, called “The Overly British Swimmer”:

Don’t worry if it’s

Too much trouble. I’ll just float

Here and wait to die.

– Ploszajski, 2018

Thank you, thank you, I’ll expect the call from the Nobel committee.

One and a bit more uneventful laps and I’m back on dry pebbly land. Turns out I didn’t need the warming boost after all. I’ve booked a later train back, so spend a happy hour thawing out in the tepid sunlight with strong tea and Victoria sponge. A royally perfect weekend.

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10 weeks to go

IMG_1622This week’s fancy dress theme is “pink”. Obviously, I forgot this so all day I look like a goth at a 6-year-old’s birthday party (right).

Although it’s not as hot as last week, it’s still sunny when we start our first 50-minute swim. The time passes quickly enough, and to my delight my watch reads exactly 50 minutes when I get out – no more bad books for me!

While I’m getting changed, a man comes over and asks if we’re training to swim to France. I say yes. He says what’s the temperature, 17? I wish, I tell him, it’s 12.1. Open water swimmers dig decimal places.

All too soon and it’s time for the second swim. I am cold. Really cold. My body is shivering even before I’ve taken my jogging bottoms and coat(s) off. I wade in, and it feels warmer in than out in a ‘maybe this is this what death feels like?’ kind of way. I start swimming and within a few strokes, my teeth have stopped chattering and I’m away.

I turn at the first buoy and bump into my friend Mike.

“Where shall we go then Anna?”, Mike says in his jolly East End accent, “Somewhere nice?” as if the answer was going to be anything other than I think we should go to the red buoy over there.

“I think we should go to the red buoy over there”, I say.

And we swim together. Usually I like the aloneness of swimming, but it’s nice having a buddy for this one. The wind is whipping the water up rough, making the success rate of spotting the next buoy about 1 in 3. Our strokes sync, so we catch every other breath facing one another – a split second of eye contact which makes you feel less alone.

This week I’m staying at the Dover Adventure Backpackers for three times less money and three times more sexism than the next cheapest option – within minutes of my arrival, the man in charge has slapped the arse of a female employee. It’s only about a 10 minute walk away from the beach, and out beyond the harbour wall I can see France!

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Bonjour (you have to squint)

At least the showers are warm and have a lockable door. I quickly change and head to M&S to pick up some lunch – when not in Rome, buy lunch as if you are still in Rome and not actually in Dover.

I sit in the park and watch the local youth on BMX bikes, but my enjoyment is curtailed by some menacing seagulls. I would look away and when I looked back they’d be a foot or so closer. You know the ones.

I walk back and again, I get some more funny looks.

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Yup still got it, I think to myself.

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Upon returning to the hostel, I gingerly approach the guardian of the wifi password (right), watch Eurovision long enough to get loops of europop beats in my head, and drift off humming ‘storms don’t last forever…’.

I wake before my alarm to hear the rain thrashing against the paint-chipped windows. SuRie has lied to me.

Down at the beach I’m told 75 minutes. It’s cold, it’s rough and there’s loads of salty face-slappers. For the first time since swimming here I’m ready to get out before the end.

The break is shivery and short. Because of the falling air and water temps, we are told that for the next swim we only have to do 10 minutes, just one short circuit by the beach, but we can do more if we want to. We are beyond delighted by this news.

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Nothing to see here, just some swimmers having a normal time on the beach.

But despite the promise of proximate tea, this is by far the worst re-entry yet. Instead of the usual sounds of bovine birthing, this time it’s “No! No! No! NO! AAAARGH”

But it actually feels warmer than the first swim. I get back round and ask to go again. I get back round and ask to go again. It’s on this third lap that I begrudgingly realise I’ve been played. Telling us we’re welcome to get out any time is a great way of making sure we don’t, under any circumstances, get out.

Back on dry land I’m asked whether I swim for a club because I’m “built like a swimmer”. Translated, this means “you have big shoulders”. This fact hasn’t escaped me – two weeks ago I bought a sports bra, only to find that I’ve gone up not one but two bra sizes in the back since the last data point two years ago. That’s 4 extra inches of pulling power. Not like that.

Clearly, swimming changes you in more ways than one.

 

11 weeks to go

Reader, I married him I’m swimming it.

In just short 11 weeks, I am going to attempt to swim from England to France, and if you choose to read on, you can join me on this crazy adventure.

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Me and my friend Jack after our first open water swimming event

This isn’t the start of the adventure, though, I’ve been open water swimming for years. Mostly because it’s a coping mechanism – the waltzing rhythm of stroke, stroke, breathe, stroke, stroke, brea- WAVE IN MY FACE *RETCHES DUE TO SEA WATER INGESTION* *QUICKLY BREATHES ON THE OTHER SIDE TO AVOID DROWNING*, stroke, stroke… is hypnotic. It’s calming, and as of yet scientists haven’t invented a decent enough waterproof phone case, which means that all of life’s stresses get left on the poolside. I will personally fight any scientists trying to invent a decent waterproof phone case to keep it that way, that is a sincere promise.

This sport isn’t without its own stresses though, for example an alarm that goes off at 5.45am on a Saturday is also, I have found, moderately stressful.

To my grim surprise, the sun was already up at this ungodly hour. Minutes later I’m on the tube to Kings Cross. My enormous waterproof rucksack (thank you, waterproof rucksack scientists, shante you stay) looks somewhat conspicuous, contrasted with the sequinned clutch purses nestled safely into the armpits of the dregs of the night tube.

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Totes emosh

I catch the 6.37am train and it takes just an hour for me to be transported from the glass skyscrapers to the white cliffs. On the train I am sat behind a group at a table. They are clearly swimmers too, as they are on a train to Dover at bloody 6.37am on a weekend. Also they are talking about pilots, water temperatures and feeding on jellybabies. I turn the volume up on my podcast. I don’t think I am ready for this jelly, baby.

As the train draws near to the coast, the land gives way to the sea, and there it is! My nemesis, looking calm, blue, inviting, huge. This moment felt very profound and I took a picture (left) but it’s shit and I really don’t feel it captures the gravitas of the situation.

I disembark the train in Dover and walk down to the sea front, drinking in the sights of this historic town.

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#seethesights

Over the next hour, more and more swimmers assemble on the beach. We are welcomed by the organiser of the Dover Channel Training group, Emma France. That’s not even a joke, Emma France is genuinely her real name.

Emma gives a brief briefing, in which we are warned about staying in for too long and making the beach crew worried we’d gotten lost or worse. We slide down the steep, stony beach to the shore, wincing as the pebbles sneak between our shoes and feet, like stepping on Lego again and again and again. The water temperature is 11 degrees, which on the scale from “I’m so cold I think I’m dead RIP me” to “I’m in a swimming pool and I’m actually enjoying this” is about a 3. We are instructed to swim for just 20 minutes.

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Can’t work out if the danger is to the swimmers or actually is the swimmers?

Not one to wait around, I wade in and start swimming. I’m doing it! I’m swimming in the Channel! This is how it’s going to be on the big day! Oh god I’m at the front of the group.

We swim in a mile loop, anti-clockwise around the designated swimming area. I deliberately swim wide so that I am overtaken by some people who look like they know where they’re going. I follow them all the way down to the far end of the harbour and look at my watch – it says 17 and a half minutes. Shit.

I sprint back to the home beach, and get there with 30 minutes on my watch. Oops.

I get out, fingers stiff and skin tingling from the cold and quickly dress. I meet with swimming friends old and new and we exchange plans, fears and lemon drizzle cake.

All too soon it’s time to get back in for a second swim. Slide down the beach, ouch, bugger, bloody pebbles. I wade in, and although it’s a blisteringly hot day, my body is shaking with the cold. It’s screaming at me to turn around and drink tea on the warm stones back at base camp with the nice new friends and the lemon drizzle cake. But a big part of this sport is, through experience, learning to over-ride such extremely strong impulses.

I push off, making the sound of a cow giving birth and grinning/grimacing at my fellow nutters. Face in, start swimming and within seconds my body has stopped complaining and settled into its usual groove. I knew this would happen, and yet every time I have to battle with myself to take the plunge. Every. Time.

This time I’m supposed to swim for 30 minutes. I know the route by now so I stretch out and enjoy it. I look up each stroke and see the water glistening on my arm against the perfect blue sky. I look down and see nothing but my hands disappearing into murky, opaque water. On the way back to shore I look past my right shoulder and see the white cliffs looming high, but over my left is something much more ominous; the gap in the harbour wall and the unknown beyond.

On my walk back to the station people were looking at me weirdly, I’m not sure why.

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It was like 25 degrees

Sunday was the same schedule. Eat, Swim, Eat, Swim, Eat, Repeat. Another swimmer kindly gave me a lift today because trains don’t think anybody would be nuts enough to want to get to Dover so early on a Sunday. Clever trains.

We build up the swims, adding minutes each time we go in the water. The morning passed quickly in a blur of splashing, chatting, shivering, hysterically laughing because of how cold you are and how hard it is to get pants on when your hands don’t work, swimming, grinning.

So that’s it, one week down, 10 to go. Thanks for reading to the end – get in touch if you have questions about this crazy endeavour. I’m happy to answer any apart from “do you cover yourself in goose fat?” (the answer’s no) and apart from “why are you doing this?”, because I think the answer will become clear.