Thursday, 11 October 2012

Swimming the Channel of Bones - Part 2 - The Swim

Swimming in the dark doesn't bother me that much. I swam a 2-way Windermere (21miles) all through the night and the first half of my English Channel swim was at night. But it's a little more unnerving when you are swimming in a stretch of water notorious for it's abundant and toothy marine life. The first thing I noticed when I started swimming was the amazing phosphorescence in the water. Every hand stroke lit up with tiny bright bubbles of light and as I breathed to my left Jeff's Kayak stood out with his green, blue and red glow sticks, it felt like my own private disco! I really enjoyed the night swimming and I was relieved to find that as I had hoped, rather than the lethargy of the last few days, I was feeling quite strong and comfortable in the water. I started with energy drinks every 30minutes and a gel hourly, but fairly early on I could feel my stomach was struggling in the salty water and hadn't settled as well as I had hoped from my two days of nausea. I stopped the gels and just kept going with the carb drinks and tried to not think too much about the rising nausea. I had a few bad retches 90 minutes in but no vomiting and otherwise physically I still felt good. The other good thing was the conditions were fantastic at this stage, calm benevolent seas with minimal swells once we were away from Molokai, we even had a nice current in the first hour although it dropped off quickly after that. By 2 hours in the sky started to lighten and I felt a twinge of sadness that the light show was coming to an end.
I still haven't mastered the art of meditative swimming, I don't know what other swimmers think about to make the time pass but I always feel like it drags! Each thirty minute feed seemed to come round slower than I thought it should and I tried to pass the time by knocking off the sets of my July 42km pool session, the first hour was the 4km warm up then 100 x 100m, so every 30 minutes was another 20 hundreds. Then I was into the part of the session I had swum with the local swim club and that eventually took me through to the 5 hour mark. By the 5 and a half hour feed the crew told me I was well ahead of the record pace and over halfway to Oahu. But sadly that was the last of the good news because at about that time the wind turned around. The light southerly cross wind become a stubborn head wind and progress slowed. The waves chopped up too, but all things considered the sea was still behaving relatively kindly and, as Jeff had predicted, the big NW swells weren't proving to be an issue.
Jeff and John swapped kayaking and feeding duties and the minutes and feeds slowly ticked by. I was stung three or four times by jelly fish but nothing worse than I was used to. Little aches started to persist though, the back of my shoulder, my bicep and the knuckle on my right forefinger for some reason! Every feed seemed to take longer to settle in my stomach and I had a growing bloated feeling in my stomach. I kept saying to myself that each stroke, each minute, each feed was getting me closer to the beach on Oahu. I kept telling myself that I had to finish this swim, the conditions were so much better than they could have been and if I quit I would likely never have such an opportunity again. I kept reminding myself that if I didn't finish the swim no matter how long I lasted it would all count for nothing, it would just have been a long meaningless training session!
I had estimated 12-13 hours in total if conditions were good, twelve hours would set a new record and so I broke that into four lots of three hour swims, like 4 quarters of a football game (Aussie rules that is). I gradually worked my way slowly through the protracted third quarter and finally hit 9 hours, this was it - the final quarter! But at about that time I had the most spectacular vomit! All of the feeds that had been sitting in my stomach reappeared in spectacular fashion; this was not an unusual phenomenon for me and I so didn't even break stroke. At least momentarily my stomach felt considerably lighter! But I was really feeling pretty nauseous now and I knew would struggle to keep much more down. At the next feed, I sipped the energy drink without conviction and asked for plain water for the next feed. I had two more feeds of just cold water and then I bonked big style. I had completely run out of juice, my legs stopped kicking and my arms wafted ineffectually through the water, progress seems to grind to a halt. I was eleven hours in, the coast was well within sight but it might as well have been a million miles away. It felt as if the only way I could finish the swim was to float in! I asked for another gel at the next feed and tried to suppress the urge to vomit. I swallowed as much fresh water as I could muster and started off again. Within 5 minutes the kick started to come back and I could feel my energy levels returning along with the pain in the shoulders as I started to pull more effectively through the water. I had another gel with the next feed at 12 hours and knew we were only just over a mile from the shore. That should take about 30minutes so the record was gone but I felt more confident I could make it. We decided to skip any more feeds and push for shore. Jeff got in with three quarters of a mile to swim, and we pounded through a strong cross current that was trying to stubbornly sweep us away from the beach. That last mile took nearly an hour because of the currents but finally deep below me I could start to make out the sea floor, rocks and coral slowly coming into view. I could see the waves breaking on the beach a few hundred metres away. I had been warned by several people that this beach was notorious for its shallow shore break that could dump you on your head on the sand but my only disappointment was that the waves started so close to the shore that I didn't have a nice ride into the beach. I caught a wave and body surfed that last few metres before stumbling onto the sand to be greeted by Jeff's wife, Krista and Linda Kaiser the legend of Hawaiian channel swimming. 13 hours and 4 minutes of tough ocean swimming, done!    
By the end my shoulders were in pieces, my tongue was swollen and raw and the lining of my nostrils felt like they had been washed away by the salt water! My back was painfully sunburnt ('factor 50' only lasts so long) and my stomach was sending a steady stream of complaints that I knew would last for several days!

Why do I do these things? Why put myself through days of anxiety for a physical test so brutal and unpleasant that I suffer the after effects for weeks? And the question I ask myself the most - how many times can you go to that dark place of despair, pull yourself up and come out the other side only to do it all again?
I am the 26th person to swim the Molokai Channel. It may be the longest of the 'Oceans Seven' big channel swims but it isn't in my view the hardest, that honour lies with the brutally cold and unpleasant North Channel. Also, as long as the Molokai Channel is, there are plenty of other swims out there that are much, much longer. Two swimmers this year attempted to swim from Cuba to Florida a distance of some 166km! While neither made it, Penny Palfrey swam for 41hours and nearly 150km before the currents swept her away from Florida. I remind myself as well that plenty of swimmers have done the 'Double English Channel' (there and back) and three have done triples! If you think what you are doing is incredible there is likely someone out there doing something vastly more amazing!
Before I swam the channel I told myself that records, accolades or medals weren't the reason to do these things. That sometimes it is just about taking an opportunity when it is presented and rising to a challenge that you fear may be insurmountable. Maybe it also helps to remember that at the end of the day, it's just a swim.    
(me, Jeff Kozlovich and Linda Kaiser)
Lastly a big thanks to my support crew on this one. All people I met for the first time on the day of the swim! Matt Buckman the pilot was easy going, professional and got me safely from Molokai right to Sandy Beach in Oahu. John my 'stand-in' support crew rose to the challenge and allowed me to complete my swim when it could have fallen apart at the last minute and Jeff Kozlovich who was really fantastic; great support in the days ahead of the swim, knew the conditions and what to expect in the channel and really helped me to fulfil this crazy ambition. Lovely also to be greeted on dry land by Linda Kaiser and Krista Kozlovich at the end. Thanks guys, it might have been a solo swim but it certainly wasn't a solo event!


Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Swimming the Channel of Bones! Part 1 - the build up

When Vickie qualified for this year's Hawaiian Ironman World Championships I started to contemplate another Hawaiian channel swim of my own. It seemed a shame to be coming all the way out to Hawaii without taking the opportunity to do another long distance swim. Two years ago we were out here for the Ironman and I organised a Maui Channel swim, it was a pleasant 9 mile swim in beautiful, warm clear waters and I knew I would have to top that. At first I wondered about a double Maui channel swim - only completed once before, but I kept getting drawn to the monstrous Kai'wi Channel (The Channel of Bones) between Molokai and Oahu. One of the 'Ocean's Seven' big channel swims and the longest of all seven. While cold temperatures are not an issue, monstrous swells, rough conditions, abundant sea life - jelly fish and sharks and swimming a massive 26miles/42km across this wild stretch of Pacific Ocean provide a host of logistical and physical challenges.
I got some contact details from Darren Miller who had swum the channel last year and made some tentative bookings early this year with an experienced boat pilot (Matt Buckman) and kayaker (Jeff Kozlovich). My swim season this year was filled with swims and races starting with the Gibraltar Straits in May and then a series of UK based swims; the BLDSA's 'Champion of Champions', Torbay, Windermere and a few other races including the fun Brownsea Island swim. It was a full and successful season while all the time at the back of my mind was the looming Molokai Channel. In July this year I swam a 42km fund-raising swim in my local swimming pool, it was a training swim to practice feeding over the distance and get some longer miles in the body, the feeding regime didn't quite work as well as I had hoped but I covered the distance relatively comfortably and it was a good confidence booster ahead of the real event. Swimming long distance is such a mental game that doing a long practice swim of similar distance really helps me to prepare for a swim and gives me the confidence to know I can complete it. The 2-way Windermere did this for me in the English Channel and the 42km pool swim did the same for Molokai.
As September approached I fitted in as many longer sessions as I could while trying to avoid any last minute injuries or niggles. Finally on the 29th we flew out to Hawaii. Hawaii feels very familiar to us now, we have been three times before - always because of triathlon races but it's a great excuse to come to this beautiful little corner of the world. We arrived to the baking heat and set about acclimatising to conditions very foreign to us in the UK! The first few days I swam in the Kailua harbour daily, doing laps of the Ironman course - a nearly 4km circuit with more and more triathletes for company as the days went by. We caught up with old friends and the second Saturday competed in the annual Kukio Bay swim. A fun little 1.2mile race that we discovered last time we were here. I managed to win it last time and repeated the feat again this year, it was in theory a good pre-swim loosener. However, that afternoon I started to feel seriously unwell. I was overcome with a pounding headache and nausea and a feeling of such intense lethargy that I could barely drag myself out of bed. I barely slept that night and nagging feelings of impending stress about my swim were magnified by my physical symptoms. The following day I struggled to eat much at all. I knew I was feeling nervous about the swim but this seemed extreme. I confessed to Vickie that I didn't think I could do the swim, even a little 10 minute loosener in the sea left me feeling wiped out. My only hope was that the component of my symptoms caused by anxiety would settle when I was swimming and I would feel much better once I got the swim under way. I spoke to Jeff to confirm everything was still looking good for the swim, a part of me was hoping he would say the big NW swell that was now being predicted would scupper any attempt but he sounded enthusiastic about the conditions and so I packed my gear in anticipation of travelling to Molokai the following day. That night I took some sleeping tablets and tried to put my growing fears to one side. In the morning I was greeted to two emails, one from my local support crew to say he had been injured in an outrigger race and couldn't come and another from local swim guru and coach Steve Borowski who voiced his worries about the large predicted swells. Not the sort of details I wanted to deal with 12 hours before my biggest ever swim. I spoke to Jeff one last time and he said he would find a back up crew member and reiterated to me that the swell was not going to be an issue, with those reassurances I grabbed my bags and headed to the airport. I finally arrived at my Hotel in Molokai, the only hotel on Molokai, by late afternoon (after a long wait at the airport for my bags that took a different route!). The hotel was basic but adequate and I finally managed to stomach a decent pasta meal that afternoon - my most substantial meal in 2 days. I took a few more sleeping tablets and went to bed at 6pm ready for the early start. Harley the local taxi driver, from the only taxi company in Molokai, arrived at 2am to take me to the harbour and we arrived just before 3am to wake up the crew that had boated across the previous afternoon. It was the first time I had actually met Jeff and Matt and I was introduced to 'back up' crewman John who had never been involved in any sort of long distance swim before, to be honest I was just glad they had found someone. We loaded up the boat and motored up the coast towards La'ua point - the closest point to Oahu. Jeff sat me down and said "Quick question, what do you want us to do if we see a shark?", "Well" I replied, "If you see one that looks even a little bit interested I'd rather get out before it decides if I'm edible", "Good answer" said Jeff, "I just like to check because Penny Palfry told us we could only pull her out after the first bite!" As we approached the point even in the dark we could see waves pounding the rocks and we had to come further South away from the point (and Oahu) to find a sheltered cove where I could start the swim without the risk of getting smashed on the rocks. I had brought some water-proof shoes to climb onto the rocks at the start and at 3.40am in the clouded moonlight I jumped into the black Pacific Ocean and started my Molokai Channel swim.  

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Molokai - time to accept the challenge.

The date is tentatively set at next Tuesday the 9th of October. Weather conditions look reasonable, with a light easterly forecast but forecasts seem to change daily so I'll just have to keep my fingers crossed. Two weeks ago they had an outrigger race between Molokai and Oahu and I saw a short video of the 25 foot waves at the start of the race - not exactly the sort of conditions I want for my crossing.

With only a few days now until my swim I am finding myself flipping between excitement and nervousness. It's not an unusual scenario - so much of long distance swimming is mental. To help I try to prepare myself by thinking about the swim - breaking it down into different sections. I visualise the start (1am in the morning), swimming steadily in the first few dark hours, just getting into a easy rhythm. I visualise the sunrise after about 5 hours of swimming and the distant volcanoes of Oahu coming into view. I think about the finish of the swim, hopefully at Sandy Beach - navigating the dangerous shore break and feeling sand beneath my feet. Doubts are a normal part of most peoples psyche; have I done enough training? Will I be able to stomach my feeds? What will it be like swimming in such a deep dark ocean? What is beneath me??? The worst part of a swim in many ways is the build up. I think I was lucky in my first few big swims I didn't know what I was getting myself in for, but now I know that nausea, fatigue, serious physical discomfort lie ahead of me. Most of these things are easier to deal with when you are swimming than in the few days before.

The Molokai channel will be an incredible test of my physical and mental endurance. I have a great support crew lined up and I have a rare chance to complete one of the world's famous ocean channel swims, completed by only a few of the hardiest open water swimmers. This is a rare opportunity to add my name to a select list and in a way create my own piece of history. Life offers up only a handful of these chances to amateurs like myself. I don't think success is always measured by gold medals, records and accolades but sometimes simply by whether we are willing to stand up and take one of these rare chances when they are offered up.