An English Channel Swim: The Everest of swimming
Part 1/4 Preparation …
By Zara Bullen
Zara’s Twitter: me_and_the_dog
Contrary to the evil rumour that I was still in armbands and learning to swim when I started this challenge I don’t actually remember learning to swim. As a child, I swam competitively with the local club until the age that beer and boys became more interesting. About six years ago I returned to the water, to a masters club and almost immediately my open water-swimming obsession started following participating in the Great North Swim. Since then any opportunity to get into open water has been dived into.
But how did I find myself attempting to swim to another country? My mouth got me into trouble as it so often does. This time for mocking my friend Will for looking freezing cold as he exiting the lake after his first non-wetsuited swim. By the time I returned home he’d messaged me, said I should put my money where my mouth was and dared me to swim the Channel. Will was already in training so I’d have company in the preparations, I’d always dreamed of this as a child but it had always seemed a dream too far; the distance; the cold; so much training; so much expense, however as one who never shirks a dare I woke up the next day thinking about it. I then spent the whole day thinking about it. Then I decided I was already fairly swim fit – it was now or never.
Some serious introductory investigations into the logistics of channel swimming followed – which pilot, which boat, which dates were available (swims are often booked years and years in advance), was July or October a better bet (water temperature versus swimming in the dark)? Within a week I was booked. Swim window at the end of September 2013. T-minus 17 months.
Zara’s Support Boat: Anastasia
So, I had 17 months to train for ‘the Everest of swimming’. Where to start? How to train? In some ways this was fairly daunting – do I rely on instinct? Read every available book? My club were very sprint/short distance based so did I consider approach a specific endurance coach? I decided against this and instead trained with Will, with my squad to get the pool hours, listened to advice from those who had succeeded, took lessons from those who hadn’t and essentially used my instinct to decide what I needed to do. Looking to make covering 40 kilometres worth of swimming per week as standard was no small undertaking…to include three gym workouts a week in there as well as run a business? There was nothing for it – the social life and partying would have to take a back seat for a while. And so the 15-20hours of training a week began…
As well as the distance, acclimatising to the water temperature is a major training factor. I felt a little prepared for this part as I never swim in a wetsuit – the open water/lakes/rivers/seas passion already existed in me so this element – in part – already carried a big tick. Though I’d need to work a lot more on acclimatising and getting used to being in the cold water for much longer than I’d previously been before. As well as massively increased open water time I ended the season in 2012 with my first ever six-hour ocean swim. It fell almost exactly a year before my Channel window so the temperature was relevant. I was hugely daunted by this the day before, what to feed on (prior to training for this challenge I’d swim for much shorter times on squash with a tiny grind of salt for cramp so even learning about the nutrition required was a huge thing), how would I feel being in the water without touching my feet on the sand for six-hours? Heck – I’d never even swam for that long before. It went well, a fairly sore shoulder that was entirely immobile in the following days and some pretty nasty salt water chaffing to the back of my neck and underarm but all in all a success – tick.
Wills training for his Arch to Arc challenge also involved training for a channel swim, which meant we both had someone to train with, especially at silly o’clock in the morning while watching the black line on the bottom of the pool over the long winter months – this is a big bit of the battle. So, hours and hours (and hours) of technique work ensued; working on stroke rate, gaining strength, learning to breath bilaterally (so as to be able to breath on whichever side the sea state dictates on the day), working on speed endurance, huge pull sets, 3/5/7/9 breathing sets, devising our own ways to burn an hour or three, CSS sets (enforced by Will – I HATED these!). Hours and hours and hours. Luckily I’m a bit addicted to the sound of water bubbling past my ears…
In a moment of comedy I thought the ‘2swim4life’ event (a 24mile swim) might be good for our training – 24 miles over 24 hours in an outdoor pool. Start a mile on the hour every hour and use the other 35mins to get dry/warm/eat/rest then back in the pool on the hour again. All good except the outdoor temperature dropped to one degree during the night this meant that without a wetsuit it became very interesting! I had a massive low caused by lack of nutrition and the realisation that I’d already swam a fair way but that I had much, much further still to go during mile five which served as a valuable lesson for the big swim. Other than this all was fine, no real aches or pains or difficulties. This was also the first time I’d had a ‘support person’, having your socks put on when you’re laughing too much to put them on yourself is novel, being given a hot water bottle at three in the morning is amazing. I’m a bit too independent for my own good and asking for help isn’t easy but this was a good lesson in asking the right person if they mind helping you. Another tick.
It was a horrendous winter water temperature wise, the temperatures were so slow to increase but as soon as most of the ice was melted it was back in. Before you’re allowed to attempt the swim you have to have a full medical as well as complete a six-hour swim in waters below 16 degrees, interesting after such a cold season but more ticks. The sea was, for want of a better word, cool with temperatures hitting the heady heights of seven or eight degrees, making my skin the oddest of colours as the blood rose to the surface of my body – these colder early season sea swims lasted about 45 minutes/1hour and were ‘bracing’.
There were a whole heap of weird things that needed mastering/boxes ticking such as learning to wee while swimming (reserved for the open water sessions of course!): you’d be amazed how tricky this can be! Learning to use energy drinks, practicing feeding in the water while treading water – you’re not allowed to touch the boat during the swim. Night swimming and night sea swimming were practiced – I’m not sure a beach BBQ followed by a swim with delightful friends and more glow sticks than the dance field at Glastonbury counts as training but it worked. Swimming in rough sea conditions, overcoming salt-water chaffing – discovering armpit waxing helps enormously was one of my best moments (channel swimming is very, very glamorous).
Eventually it came time for Will to take on his Arch to Arc challenge, we’d trained so hard together and so would of course both be support for each other’s events. Crewing for him across the Channel gave me a real insight into what I was in for … leaving the harbour on the boat, jumping into the sea in the dark, swimming for such a long time. It made me really think about my crew, the logistics and exactly how I wanted mine to look after me.
Fortunately the season that started so cold soon made up for itself with long summer days that saw the water temperature rise to almost too warm. However it was during the summer, with maybe three or four months to go, that I had a tough patch. This was mostly caused by me having to change my training plan after I’d so finely tuned it to fit with work etc. that threw me into a head spin. The UEA pool so very (un)helpfully closing for weeks on end at short notice, the summer timetable with my club meant I couldn’t make any of the sessions. Fortunately my favourite Fritton Lake remained open and ever supportive and I hooked up with an old college friend Marcus and some of his friends who allowed me to join them for some beautiful river swims. It was also around this time that Susan Taylor sadly died while undertaking the very same challenge that lay ahead of me. Knowing that she’d given up work to train for this and had unfortunately lost her life to it really hit home. There were plenty of tears but my lovely family and so many friends were as supportive as ever and helped me turn the difficulties into positives finding ways to swim anywhere I could, even getting up at crazy o’clock to provide me with a safety kayak on long morning swim. It also meant a lot of training alone (other than my new seal friends of course) but this was a good thing – I’d be swimming alone on the big day after all.