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Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Training for the EC: Some insights I gained from the experts

I'm not new to swimming nor am I a novice open-water swimmer.  The English Channel, however, is novel territory for me for several reasons.  Here they are in no particular order:

The EC is a long, cold swim.  Most of my open-water swimming came in triathlons years ago and my yearly pilgrimage to La Jolla Cove to swim among the seals.  I love being in the open water unconstrained by pool walls and lane lines.  Sure, I enjoy a pool swim but the open-water is where I really enjoy swimming.  What makes the EC different than most of my previous swims is that it is colder or at least somewhat colder than what I have experienced.  My brother and I went diving and swimming in 56 degree Maine water (an all-day outing one day) and experienced real hypothermia.  We turned on the heater in 104F weather afterwards and still shivered.  Combine the temperature in the Channel (65F expected in early September for my swim) along with the length of the swim (approximately 19 Nm, 21 miles, or 32 Km as the crow flies) and we have a nice recipe for hypothermia.  That direct distance is never the distance most people swim.  Instead, we must swim where the water allows.  The really fast swimmers (not me) swim an almost direct path between Dover, England and Cap Gris Nez, France.  Thus, the temperature and time in that cold water creates a novel experience.

The swim takes place alongside a boat.  Never before have I swum next to a boat - not even a kayak.  I can envision a nice position alongside the boat where my navigation skills may not be as important as my skills to avoid hitting the boat.  Those two are different.  In navigation, the swimmer must periodically look up to sight something either on land or on the water - a point that serves the swimmer as a goal.  When a swimmer looks up, that action leads to the hips sinking and a general slowdown.  Thus, looking up slows down the swimmer.  Avoiding the boat, on the other hand, merely requires the swimmer to pay attention to the boat and avoid it.   Most pool swimmers get familiar with this side-to-side action because lane lines restrict our motion.  The boat may merely serve as a single lane line but one that would be bad to hit; lane lines give a little but the boat does not move simply because we brush up against it.  So, not only is this a long, cold swim but it is one that takes place alongside a boat.  There is more....

The EC swim requires us to eat while swimming.  We all eat and most of us are pretty accomplished at eating.  When we were kids, we were warned never to go into the water right after eating.  So what do we do when we swim the EC?  We eat while we swim.  No waiting, no breaks, no mercy.  We simply need to eat while swimming and deal with the adversity that comes with eating while swimming.  Imagine grabbing some food while you are in mid-stroke, throwing it in your mouth, chewing (if necessary) and swallowing the mouthful all the while you keep your stroke going.  Now, imagine a little salt water creeping into that mouthful and you get a pretty good idea about eating while swimming in the EC.  Things don't go as smoothly as a typical picnic nor are they even remotely as smooth as poolside dining.  We simply need to eat to keep our bodies nourished.  Remember I said that the EC is a cold swim?  Well, that cold burns up a ton of calories - more so than even swimming.  Temperature regulation is the more calorically expensive activity our bodies engage in on a daily basis.  The greater the difference between the external and internal temperatures, the more the body must heat itself.  Heating comes from burning fuel (and exercising muscles) and that fuel needs replacement throughout the swim.  We eat to replace and ward off the potential for "bonking" (the rated G type of bonking) while out in the open water.  Eat to swim and swim to eat.  

The speed-distance tradeoff is critical to success.  As I mentioned above, the EC is a long, cold swim.  The length, however, is dictated by the speed of the swimmer.  Faster swimmers swim a shorter overall distance compared to slower swimmers.  Here is the route between Dover and Cap Gris Nez:


From point-to-point, the swim is roughly 20 miles (32km).  Faster swimmers swim close to that 20 mile route while slower swimmers can swim anywhere from 1 to even 10 miles (!!!!) more than the actual point-to-point route.  Amazing, eh?  I hope to swim the EC in about 11 hours or so and would be overjoyed if I only added one extra mile.  The current, waves, and wind dictate the extra distance and the track the swimmer swims between the points.  A nasty combination of those three could make for a long outing.  Not sure I could envision myself in those waters for 18 hours so I am training my rear off now to have a comfortable margin or error.

Enough for now.  I gotta get back to work and training.  Expect another update soon that provides some detail about my training regime.  Thanks for following.....