Sunday, July 24, 2016

English Channel Recap - Part 2

Before I continue my recounting of the channel swim, I need to update and memorialize our day yesterday in London.  It was a spectacular day full of luck and surprises.  

Getting to London:  First, we caught the train from Folkstone just in time.  Most in the US would not be aware of much going on locally in the Dover area so let me fill you in.  After some recent terrible events and potential news of more, the French government decided to search each and every car, person, bicycle, or stroller as it came into the country.  Can't say I blame them.  What that did was cause a backup on the highways (motorways they call them here) from Dover almost to London (a 2 hour drive!).  Yes, it was a nasty mess.  Most of the traffic consisted of trucks (aka lorries) carrying cargo to cross into the mainland.  
Traffic backed up miles away from Dover.
Well, that tidbit wouldn't be terribly interesting if it hadn't affected our trip from Dover to Folkstone.  Our train was scheduled to depart at noon and we ran into gridlock after gridlock - even on the back roads.  I was getting a bit anxious thinking that if we missed our prepaid train, we might have to purchase another ticket and wait.  Ah, nothing to fret.  We have time.  Still, I was hot and not in the mood for waiting around.  We caught the train with seconds to spare - literally seconds.  Speaking of caught...I caught myself feeling like the ugly American as I watched the people in front of us purchase tickets for some train trip days in advance.  Many of us on line needed to pick up tickets for the train that was approaching.  No sense of urgency on their part but Kat and I were getting a little anxious.  

The train trip up was unspectacular.  A one hour trip seemed like nothing and next we were in St. Pancras to sort out our next leg.  Once we arrived, the AirBnB contact alerted Kathy that our accommodations would not be ready until 7pm - not 3pm as advertised on the app.  It was 1pm, hot (for some of us), and quite crowded at the train station.  Kat was not happy.  I figured we could just meander through the city along the path to our AirBnB - roughly 4.5 miles (7km) from St. Pancras.  

About 30 minutes into our walk and after a 20 minute stop to grab lunch, Kat's bag stopped rolling.  Patrick took over and just dragged it for a bit until we intervened.  Apparently cheap Amazon luggage doesn't hold up on the cobbles and odd surfaces of London's streets whereas Patrick's and my cheapo Costco roll aboard bags held up just fine.  The luggage fiasco caused a bit of a stir but we solved the problem by taking a cab to our digs.  Away we went!  Four hours too early but hopeful something would work out.  

Saved by luck:  And work out it did!  We rolled up to the AirBnB and a very nice Romanian fellow asked us which flat we rented.  He directed us to the one he and his compatriot were cleaning.  Somehow or another, we met the cleaning staff at the place at the right time.  I guess the stars were aligned for us.  We dropped off our bags and quickly headed out to explore the area - so happy we didn't have to lug around Kat's broken bag in the 80F (27C) heat.  All worked out in the end.  

More luck:  We walked out to a outdoor market.  For those of you who know me well, you know I hate shopping.  I don't shop; I buy.  And, when I buy, I buy online.  Walking down a crowded alley with people who are mindlessly hunting for knick knacks and chachkies drives me nuts (and makes me thirsty).  So, Patrick and I "offered" Kat some freedom to browse while we set off for some cool shade.  What better place to find cool shade than a pub?  
Bugger drank my pint!
While there, I figured I would send a FB message to my friends Sam and Alex to inquire about things to do while in London.  Shortly after the note, I got a reply from Sam.    Many of you know that Sam, Alex and I were climbing together on Everest in 2014 and 2015 when our expeditions were halted by circumstances beyond our control.  Since those trips, we stayed in touch and last year we even attended their wedding after my failed attempt to swim the English Channel.  Sam and Alex are great people and great friends.  I love their company and always like to hear about their adventures - and they have a ton.  Kat got to know Sam and Alex's parents as well during our fateful 2015 trip so we are now all well-acquainted.  Unfortunately, Sam and Alex live in Africa (Kenya and Ghana) now but I know they have many suggestions about what to do in London.  So, I asked.    What a great stroke of luck!  Sam was in London for 24 hours.  Even greater luck was that Kat booked our AirBnB just a 5 minute walk from Sam's parents house.  How cool was that?  I guess this trip is just full of luck.  

After we arranged to meet Sam and his folks at their place for some pre-dinner drinks, we grabbed another pint at a local watering hole (Kensington Park Hotel or KPH).  Apparently the place had changed operators and it was a shell of the pictures we saw online.  Oh well.  A quick pint and then off to our BnB to freshen up before more drinks.
Has my pint again!?!  Enjoying the KPH.

A great surprise indeed:  We sat around with Sam's family talking about all the goings on - some recounting of the swims but mostly talking about the current state of our respective countries.  It was a blast.  We loved hanging out and visiting with friends.  Talk about the stroke of luck.  During our chat, we found a ton of things to do while in London.  Mostly, I think Kat and I wanted to explore the areas while Patrick seemed quite keen on touring the museums (and catching up on his lost hours of sleep).  We departed after a few hours for a quick bite and then retired to our room for the evening.  What a great time!
From L to R:  Patrick, Sam, me, and Kat
Makes me smile just looking at that picture above.  Thanks Chappatte family for hosting us McKnights.  We look forward to returning the favor soon.


I left off my recap about halfway across the channel.  By this point in the swim, I was feeling pretty solid.  Nothing ached and I knew the swim was well at hand.  The funny thing was that nothing went wrong.  Nothing.  Adventures start when things go wrong.  I guess this wasn't much of an adventure; well, read on.

Focus:  During this period, I focused on two things - drag and propulsion.  The drag comes from lifting my head, dropping my feet too deep, or any other odd things that most swimmers do when tired.  Swimmers don't want drag.  I focused on minimizing drag as much as possible.  On the opposite end is propulsion.  Propulsion gains and losses come from a variety of things including rolling my hips, entering into the water without creating bubbles, initiating the "early vertical forearm" catch, pulling with my lats as opposed to my triceps, and finishing my stroke by pulling through.  Many of these things are natural to most swimmers and they tend to be fairly natural for me.  When all swimmers tire though, some of them go away for many reasons.  I focused on these two aspects of swimming - constantly checking my technique to be as efficient as possible.  If I could shave off a few minutes here and there, I might be able to catch a favorable tide into the shore and gain valuable hours (yes hours).  

Time counts:  I mentioned in my recap of the Catalina Channel that time was not terribly critical.  The water was relatively warm in the Pacific Ocean (68-72F or 20-21C), currents minimal (neap tide), and my energy levels were high due to low exertion and the high frequency of feeding (20 minute feeding schedule).  Things were different for this swim.  For the English Channel, every minute counts.  I was swimming during a spring tide where the currents can be as strong as 4-5 knots (4.5 mph or 7.5-8 km/hr).  Yep, fast.  Those currents push the swimmer sideways.  I was focused on swimming efficiently and kicking steadily throughout my swim.  Doing so allowed me to keep a rhythm and keep a relatively strong pace.  Ever minute counted if I was to escape the channel without an adverse tide pushing me to Nova Scotia or Norway.
(Above):  TYR Socket Rocket 2.0 clear/blue

Darkness sets in:  The crew alerted me that night was coming and I needed to shift to my clear goggles and get myself lit up so they could see me.  I had a pair of clear TYR socket rocket goggles with a light threaded through the straps.  The combination proved perfect for Catalina so I opted to continue using what worked already.  Unfortunately, I lost my setup during the finish of the swim and ordered replacements without trying them out before jumping into the EC.  Not a huge problem since I use these goggles all the time BUT...still a bad idea.  Thankfully that didn't come back to haunt me.  What did haunt me was the strap of my daytime goggles - the same TYR goggles but dark tinted ones.  One strap drooped around my neck and kept rubbing.  It was annoying for a few seconds but I paid it no mind.  That kind of equipment problem can really cause people to concentrate on the wrong aspects of the swim.  I controlled what I could and kept pace.  

Oh, almost forgot.  The light I used was this one to the right.  That little light is bright, water proof, and easy to see - at least according to my crew.  I also stuffed a light stick into the fanny of my suit to light up my lower body.  Kat said she could see me well from her vantage point so I would recommend this combination to all.  I never felt either light during the swim.  

The Dark Hours:  Yes, the sun went down but as the sun departed, so did my optimism.  I had no clue how I was doing and I kept thinking that I was going strong - at least initially.  My kick felt strong, my stroke intact and efficient, my body position perfect, and my muscles felt almost no fatigue.  All was great and I figured this swim felt like a solid 10 or 11 hour swim.  As 10pm approached, I couldn't help feel discouraged that I wasn't within reach of the French coast.  I tried my best.  There were times when I started questioning the timing and trajectory of my course.  Was I going to miss "the cap" and add a huge amount of time to my swim?  I even inquired if the lighthouse was Cap Gris Nez (aka the point many swimmers finish).  Neil was honest and answered my questions with positive optimism; Kat and Sam Jones had similar responses.  I wish I were positive during that hour or so.  I just felt discouraged.  We all experience points in these swims (or other endurance activities) where we wonder when it will end.  In mountaineering and other high risk activities, the saying "Be Here Now" is an important one to remember.  Thinking about the future and forgetting about what you are doing at the moment is not a good recipe for success.  I didn't care about the time per se but I did care about being out there for 18+ hours.  Again, future thinking.  My fear was that I would run out of fuel and really start burning out.  More future thinking.  Just as a hit a peak in my worry and questioning, I said to myself..."forget about it"..."swim and control what you can control."  Controlling the controllables - that is what all of these endurance events call for before, during and after.  I let myself slip but righted the ship soon enough and got back on track.  Soon, I was back to being in the moment.  I was back.

Closing in and closing the deal:  Neil said to me during my frustrated inquiries that we missed "the cap" but he would find me a nice beach to land.  I knew I was in good hands and far be it for me to question an awesome skipper like him.  Kat yelled bits of encouragement and I pressed on.  He then instructed me that we would land either on a real beach or some bit of rocks for a touch finish.  I was good with either but wondered how treacherous the touch finish might be after my experience with the Catalina Channel finish.  Donating more blood to the sea didn't sound too appealing as I neared the finish.  Still, I kept my focus and pressed on.  

I peeked ahead and could see the lights on shore.  The end was near and I felt just as fresh as I felt when I started the swim with no muscle aches, no fatigue, and no worries.  Now I knew I would complete the crossing - not that I had much doubt to begin with but the closing bit is just a strong confirmation that I will accomplish this feat.  So I swam on until I got a flashing light from the boat.  Neil said that he lead me as far as he could given the depth and terrain.  The rest was up to me.  I had to swim the next 4 tenths of a mile by myself into shore, touch the rocks, and wave my light stick when I touch.  So, 4 tenths of a mile.  Was that a nautical mile, a true mile, a country mile perhaps?  I had these strange thoughts going through my head.  Then I figured out how many meters and how many strokes I had left.  My math was a little rusty at that point.  400 meters?  Nah, perhaps 800 meters.  Before too long, I was upon the shore.

Each stroke felt easy but I felt apprehensive about pushing too hard.  With the end in sight, I didn't want to plow into a rock and break a finger, hand, arm, or my head.  I proceeding cautiously - so cautiously toward the end that I swam breast stroke.  Yes Cheryl, I swam a bit of the channel breast stroke.  I even took my goggles off or rather put them on my forehead because I could barely see.  The rocks or break wall Neil mentioned was a giant stack of black rocks (probably granite) that sloped out of the depths of the water and up about 15-20 feet (5-6m).  I could barely make out the rocks at first and then they were crystal clear.  It was eery.  A small, gentle swell - perhaps 2-3 feet or 1m - lifted me up and carefully (almost as if the sea remembered its poor treatment of me last week) placed me on the second tier of the rocks.  Instantaneously, I was done.  No touch finish for me I guess.  I was completely out of the water.  The water then receded and I was left atop those rocks.  Then, I grabbed the light stick that remained steadfast in my fanny crack and waved it to the boat.  The boat crew immediately sounded the horn and I was done!  My channel swim finished in 12 hours and 54 minutes (I am not sure about the minutes but will correct it if necessary).

I felt relieved.  Still a bit spooked about sitting on top of some odd rock break wall in an unknown area of France, I waited for the next swell to carry me off and soon enough, one came.  I rode it off and settled into the deeper waters.  Once I was clear, I put my goggles back on and slowly swam out to the boat.  I wasn't terribly tired nor was I cold; I just had a huge sense of relief come over me that the fears and doubts I had before and during the swim were now over.  Nothing to worry about now.  

Final Thoughts:  I was in good hands all along.  My family and friends helped get me through the tough times.  The expert pilot and crew guided me toward success.  All along, I should have recognized it but that brief hour or so of going dark lead me to appreciate what I had.  These marathon swims require a team effort.  My friends told me about the importance of the team repeatedly and I generally nodded in agreement but didn't really appreciate the depth of that truism until after both channel swims.  These marathon swims require a team effort.  I could not and would not have accomplished what I did without my team.   The success is ours and ours to share.  So, in accord with that motto, we shared the victory with our signature on the wall of the White Horse pub in Dover:

If you visit the pub, you'll see my post just as you walk in the front door.  Look above the picture to the top left.  My handwriting is the sloppy stuff that is barely readable, Kat's contribution is a happy Snoopy, and Patrick added a line from "Talladega Nights".  

So, what is next?  Apparently, I might be able to swim around Manhattan Island in a few weeks making my triple crown (if successful) one of the fastest but not quite the record fastest.  One person did it in 35 days.  If I can squeeze into the August 15th start, I will tie the record of 35 days but if I cannot then I would be happy just completing the three swims within 40 days.  Not a bad summer, eh?

OK, more to follow.  Time to figure out what our plans are for this fine London Sunday.  Thanks for following.

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