Sunday, 7 November 2010

and so it begins again..........

One last big one, is what I have told myself. In the last 2 years I've swum 5 'big' swims. A double Windermere and the English Channel in 2009. The Bloody Big Swim, Rottnest Channel and the Maui Channel this year. The main differences between the last 3 and the first 2 being relatively warm Australian/Hawaiian waters and much more sensible distances - 11km, 20km and 16km respectively. Windermere and the EC were not a lot of fun and I swore I would never do another swim like the English Channel, it was an 11hr struggle, and I spent 10 and 1/2hrs wanting to get out! The thing is though, time softens the unpleasant memories. The swimmers I have met along the way inspire me to consider other swims, the quest to tackle another monster swim starts to sound more appealing and then before you know it, it's 4am on the 1st of November and I am hunched over the computer firing off an entry into a 28mile marathon swim that some say is harder to get into than it is to finish. I thought I was prepared for the involved entry process. I believed I met all the criteria to get selected but over the next few days I keep rechecking the start list to see other swimmers names accepted but not mine. Initial frustration for not get the nod straight away starts to give way to a nagging feeling that maybe it's for the best not getting in, after all do I really want to do this? Then the email and the green tick appear - I'm in, I'm on the very select start list for the 2011 Manhatten Island Marathon Swim. 45km of cold, tidal, fairly unpleasant water! One last big one. This is it, no more after this........Mind you I've just heard my mate Howard is having a crack at the North Channel (what a swim that is) and then if I do Catalina I'd have the triple crown..............

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Maui (Auau) Channel 4/10/2010

I’m not normally a superstitious person, I don’t hold much weight on black cats crossing your path or walking under ladders but this last week I was starting to see things and portents of doom where I really shouldn’t have. It started with the trigger fish – (humuhumunukunukuapua’a – to give it its’ Hawaiian name). There I was doing a bit of relaxing snorkeling when I felt a little pinch on my toe, I turned around to see a brightly coloured little chap with a fetching arrow like stripe on his side watching me closely, I swam towards him thinking ‘hey little fellow, did you just bump into my foot’ and he promptly darted up to me and bit me on the finger. Now it was hardly a mortal wound, but it bled nicely for a few minutes after I had got out of the water and that night as I surfed wikipaedia I learnt I have been ‘got’ by the state fish of Hawaii. Still, I said to myself, just because a little reef fish fancied my finger doesn’t mean the larger sharper toothed varieties will find me tasty, does it?

The day before the swim I went for a last little loosener, just 2km around the ironman swim course. Half way round a felt a searing pain shoot across the back of my right hand, right across my face and down my chest and left arm, it felt like I had just been flailed. This was not the first occasion I had been hit by a bluebottle/portugese man-of-war so I knew what it was but the knowledge doesn’t really ease the discomfort, I made for home with my eyes watering and my skin burning with thoughts of how these little buggers often like to float in great numbers in the ocean, fortunately no more stings on the way back in but I wondered how many might be lined up the next day in the Maui channel. When I got back to the condo I received lots of sympathy from Vickie and an offer of a golden shower (which I declined). That night I spoke to my brother Matt about the swim and he regaled me with the story of an open water swimmer getting killed by a shark in the shallow waters off a Perth beach. Despite my protests that attacks on open water swimmers are extremely rare he did his best to convince me otherwise. It’s not wise to dwell on these things, the mind has a very active way of conceiving the worst case scenarios………..and then embellishing them.

The following morning we got up at 4am for out flight to Maui. We were treated to a 45min inter-island flight on a tiny 9-seater Cessna airplane. I had deliberately not told Vickie about the size of the craft as she has quite strong views about the safety of small airplanes (see previous paragraph about the mind and conceiving worst case scenarios). Still apart from a nagging feeling that a strong wind would tear both the wings off, it was a very scenic little flight and we picked up our hire car and headed around to Lahaina for the start of the swim. We met Jim Dickson our pilot and Mickey his crewman for the day and within about 10minutes of arriving I was in the water and swimming. Part of the haste was the concern about conditions blowing up as the morning progressed, it was already windy when we arrived and the strong currents and winds can make this crossing a notoriously choppy one. The Maui channel race the previous month had been one of the roughest on record with many teams not finishing or stopped because they were outside the 8hr cut off time. As I started I was treated to crystal clear waters, beautiful reefs and a turtle gliding about 5m beneath me. The waves initially were fairly gentle rollers coming from my right side and a little behind me so that every now and again I would get a nice push along although I was doing quite a bit of course correction to stop getting pushed off line. The first hour was easy and pleasant, the water got gradually deeper until I could no longer see the bottom but as is usually the way I don’t find myself dwelling on the deep blue beneath me on these swims, my head is happily too focused on the swim itself. I was in a nice rhythm and my main concern was not to start too enthusiastically, it was after all, going to be a good 4hrs of swimming. It’s usually about the 1.5-2hr mark that some of the negative thoughts start to creep in, not quite half way and the muscles are starting feel like they have already had a good work out. The conditions started to get quite choppy and it was getting harder to maintain the efficient relaxed stroke that is needed for a long swim. At the 2hr feed I was just over half way and I knew it was going to be a 4hr plus swim, not the 3.5hr in optimal conditions version I had secretly hoped for. I always try to break up these swims into little sections, trying not to think about how much further is left as it can weigh on the mind. ‘Swim to the next feed’ got me across the English Channel and it’s a good way to approach even more modest swims. At about the 3hr mark I remember thinking, how on earth did I keep going for 11hrs in the cold English Channel, I was feeling quite tired and the boat was looking like an attractive rest stop. Vickie however wasn’t looking like she was enjoying the boat ride. She had started off looking quite animated and moving around the boat, had progressed to sitting as still as possible to lying flat on her back and I was pretty certain the anti-nausea pill had not achieved the desired outcome. Fortunately I couldn’t hear Mickey yelling ‘follow the trail’ at one point but I had already correctly assumed she was feeding the fish.

Lanai, like all the other Hawaiian Islands is an old volcanic protrusion out of the ocean so it has a pretty high mountainous look about it This means you can see it easily a long way off (from the start) and it doesn’t appear to be getting closer until you are pretty much almost there. The last hour I manage to pick up the pace a little, I figured about 4km to go, only 80 laps of a 50m pool or one slightly long circuit of the ironman course. My shoulders were fatiguing and my neck was aching from sighting forwards so much. I could see something white on the shoreline that was getting slowly closer, I thought it was part of the beach initially but it turned out to be a boat moored just off shore (ironically it was a chartered boat that had been requested to take the occupants to a beach that was utterly deserted; where they would have no chance of bumping into other people – I mean what were the chances of someone swimming 16km just to land on their isolated beach?). The bottom suddenly came into view and like at the start beautiful coral and fish became visible. The water became shallower and Mickey informed me the boat was as close to shore as they could come (about 300m), I swam in grateful that the end was now imminent and hauled myself up onto the ‘near’ deserted beach. Maui Channel, done. I swam backstroke back to the boat and bumped into Vickie who had jumped in to meet me, she looked much happier in the water, she only vomited once on the bumpy trip back to Maui.

So another stretch of water crossed, no sharks, bluebottles or trigger fish seen. A nice, warm, tropical day out. Nearly 16km covered on the GPS in 4hours and 9min. I guess no swim of that distance is going to be easy, the heat and warmth which I had been looking forward to meant I was actually quite dehydrated by the end. Physically quite a challenge but apart from wondering how I had managed to complete more than twice the distance in the English channel I was also plotting how to improve the endurance for the next swim.
Many thanks to my pilot Jim Dickson and Mickey. Thanks to the Kona masters who let me swim with them for the weeks leading up to the swim, especially coach Steve Borowski and of course thanks to the ever present and inspiring Vickie, who gave up her day less than a week before her ironman and suffered more than I did in the name of open water swimming.
(pilot Jim, me and Mickey)

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Rottnest Channel Swim 20th Feb 2010

I woke on the hour with monotonous regularity the night before Rotto. During one of my fitful sleeps I dreamt I had over slept and awoken past the start time. In my dream I rang one of the paddlers in a panic to be told they had changed their minds and didn't want to accompany me after all. When I did wake I was haunted by memories of the English Channel and how unpleasant I had found it. I was starting to dread the idea of plunging into the Indian Ocean in the early hours of the morning to swim the 20km across to Rottnest Island. It was however the post English Channel restlessness that had motivated me to sign up for Rotto. After the channel whenever I was asked 'what next' I would quip 'something shorter and warmer'. In my head I was thinking 50m in a swimming pool but I had had aspirations of doing Rotto for some time and as it ticked both of those boxes (being 13km shorter and 4-5degrees warmer) I found myself signing up almost on a whim when the entries opened some 2 months after the channel.They say the hardest part of Rotto is getting a support boat and so Ifound out over the next 2 months as my various swimming and Perth contacts all amounted to nothing. I was starting to think that my entry fee was probably lost when a work colleague's, partner's, father (Don Johnson!) came good on the vague offer of a boat. The connection was as tenuous as it sounds but the same colleague also put me in contact with two paddlers (Paul and Richard) and with about 3 weeks to go I finally had a boat, paddlers and no excuse not to do another long open water swim.When my alarm finally ended my restless night at 3am I found myself in an uncomfortable mix of nerves, anxiety and doubt. The fact that I had previously swum further, longer and in much colder water was of little consolation as the combination of pre-race jitters and all the unknowns of such a novel event were weighing heavily on my mind.The Rotto swim is famous as the largest participation long distance swim of its’ kind and with 250 soloists, about 800 teams and something like 1400 boats on the water (never mind all the paddlers/kayakers) it is a massive event. It was the logistics of swimmer, finding paddler, finding boat in the dawning light amongst the mass of water activity that had me most concerned. When I spoke to past competitors my fears were not calmed as one swimmer told me how he had to tread water for 30min one year calling out in desperation for his paddler. The safety rules at Rotto are understandably rigid with swimmers without accompanying boat stopped and disqualified at the 1500m mark.At 5.30am I was giving my paddler, Paul, final instructions and desperately hoping I would be able to find him in the melĂ©e at the start. At 5.45am, with the sun threatening to creep above the horizon, the siren sounded and I plunged into the Indian ocean. The start was as frenetic and crowded as a typical ocean race with the first 100 swimmers including the fastest swimmers off en masse. Although I knew I had hours of swimming ahead of me I pushed to the front to hopefully give me a clear line of sight to the paddlers who had to wait several 100metres off shore before they could meet up with their swimmers. As I clung to the left hand side of the swimming channel I could see dozens of paddlers lined up trying to identify their competitor. Some swimmers had coloured their arms with bright zinc paint to make them more recogniseable and many of the paddlers had likewise gone with the colourful tops, hats and even flags to stand out from the crowd, all good ideas that I noted ruefully for next time. My only plan had involved being near the front of the pack and hoping by some miracle that Paul and I would spot each other. As it happened as I swam past the lines of paddlers I suddenly recognized Paul's black and red flotation vest and as I gave him a quick wave of recognition he quickly came along side of me. So that was part one - paddler found, now all we had to do was find the boat before the 1.5km mark. Paul and I were making good progress, there was only a handful of swimmers around us but the boats that were supposed to be staying back until their swimmer's waves started seemed all over the place. I could see Paul looking around and thought he might have waved once but from the water I couldn't make out our boat. Our boat was certainly not unique, a white 6m boat with a blue canopy probably fitted the description of about 800 of the boats on the water that morning, the only defining feature was the name - "Waving Looney" written in big letters on the side! The 1500m point however was obvious for the very large sailing boat anchored at this point and I could see it looming. The prospect of treading water or even a DSQ seemed quite possible, I briefly contemplated whether we could somehow sneak passed the checkpoint but the chance of Don and his boat finding us as we ploughed on out to sea would rapidly recede. But then just as I pulled level with the 1500m point I looked up to see Waving Looney churning up along side us and aboard my cheering support crew. So 20min into the race I had my boat and paddler, the sun had risen above the Perth shoreline and we were heading rapidly out to sea, I actually started to feel quite cheerful. Apart from a couple of very sharp blue bottle stings (I still have welts 48hrs later) it was very pleasant. This was a very different start to the English Channel, the sun was shining, the water was crystal clear and most importantly my teeth weren't chattering. I settled into a steady rhythm and tried not to think too much about how far I had to swim. I hear lots of long distance swimmers describe how they can zone out and slip into some sort of meditative state. I am yet to master this art. As much as I have grown to enjoy long distance swimming my mind invariably starts to contemplate how long I will be swimming for, how my body will start to tire long before I finish and how much more pleasant it would be to simply get out. I overheard one swimmer at the end remarking how he had secretly wished he had seen a shark so he could legitimately get out of the water. Strangely sharks were not something I worried about. Although Australian waters are infamous overseas for sharks and attacks do very occasionally happen, to my knowledge in the history of Rottnest swims it's never been an issue and I suspect (and hope) that the mass of water activity that occurs with Rotto is a good shark deterrent.For the first hour and a half of the swim I was able to enjoy myself, I felt good in the water, we had managed to break away from most of the pack with only a few boats ahead and several more level with us but some distance away. I didn't feel nauseous or cold. Paul and Richard rotated paddling duties. Over the next hour I started to feel a bit of fatigue but still quite strong and just before the 2 and 1/2 hour mark we reached the 10km buoy. Pace wise I was hoping to maintain 4km an hour so it was pleasing to be on track at the half way point. The chop and waves were steadily building as the swim progressed. Every 2km point from then on was marked by a buoy which enabled me to keep an eye of my pace. I could start to feel myself flagging though and the time between buoys was getting steadily longer. I couldn't help but start to imagine how much nicer a ride in the boat would be. I could also start to feel my body getting slightly cooler, I wasn't cold like I had been in English waters but it was no longer entirely pleasant. I had been hanging out for the 16km buoy as I knew this would signal the last hour but as I passed it I could see over my shoulder a couple of boats slowly closing in on me. I had no real idea of what position I was in, I had believed I was capable of a top 10 finish and hoped for a top 5. The thought of being edged out in the closing stages was frustrating but I didn't think I had much ability to speed up at that stage, I was tired and aching. I had a quick drink and Paul informed me that the nearest boat behind was a female swimmer and if I didn't want to get 'chicked' I better pick up the pace! I dug in for a final effort and started to kick harder, my arm strength was coming and going in waves. I passed the 18km mark and knew I had only 30 min left. Another boat was catching me suprisingly quickly and I wondered, correctly if it might be a relay team. As they came alongside I tried to use them to spur me on. There were buoys every 250m then and the Rottnest shore was getting rapidly closer. I felt I had enough to push on and I was determined not to leave myself wondering if I could have gone any quicker at the end ("never save anything for the swim back"). I gave my all in the last 500m and ran across the line in 5 hrs 5 min (1.5min ahead of the first female!). I was 6th overall. I felt I had given it my all and was very pleased with the swim. Above all I really felt that I had mostly enjoyed it! Sure it was long and hard work but it had all worked out at the start, the water was lovely and clear and warm, and unlike the English Channel I am already contemplating doing it again.