An English Channel Swim: The Everest of swimming
Part 3/4 Mind Over Matter …
By Zara Bullen
Zara’s Twitter: me_and_the_dog
In a bossy fit I’d brought them each battery glow sticks in different colours, put these on lanyards (along with a tiny LED torch and a whistle) and insisted they wear them before we left dry land. Trying to find anything in the dark on an unfamiliar moving boat is tricky and once activated I could see who was who in the dark. Before long it was my first feed, all went to plan – the idea being that these are kept to an absolute minimum as the longer you’re not swimming forward the more you are being pushed sideways by the tide. You’re swimming far enough without swimming any of it twice!! The rules dictate that during the swim you’re not allowed to touch the boat (and the crew aren’t to touch you) so nutrition is passed into the sea. We used a system of warm energy drinks in pouch-like bottles as after many hours in a cold sea there’s a good chance your hands become considerably less agile so normal drinking bottles become too hard to squeeze. These pouches are attached with a carabiner to a masons line and then thrown to you, you drink and swim on whilst the crew wind it back in for the next use. Dad also made me a brilliant extendable pole with a colander attached to the end so solids could also be passed to me from the side of the boat with ease. Following a fellow channel swimmers advice I’d decided to swim without attempting any solid during the early hours to give my body the best chance to use it’s energy for what I needed it to do rather than to digest solid food, but the colander was really useful later on and really easy to take food from. The second hour flew past like lightening – I’d chosen to only stop on a whistle alert from my crew, on the relay I realised that I really liked hearing the people on the boat but that you have a lot of time to think and it’s very easy for your mind to suggest that what you heard wasn’t a laugh or the crew chattering amongst themselves but them wanting you to stop which becomes confusing – using the whistle eliminated this.
The first five or so hours were in the dark. During these hours I could see the beautifully lit boat when I breathed to my left, when I breathed to my right – nothing at all. I’d trained to mentally only think about swimming to the next feed but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t also swimming to the dawn. I was looking forward to the warmth of the sun on my skin but, alas, the dawn didn’t really come. As the sky started to lighten slightly I began to see the difference in colour between it and the sea, this became more distinguishable but still not ‘light’. During the massive amount of time I had to think…I thought I’d accidently got Vaseline on my right goggle when I’d applied the grease before the swim, I was so glad when it got light enough to dare to change my clear goggles for my polarised goggles however this made me realise that Vaseline wasn’t the reason I couldn’t see anything, I was still swimming in thick, thick fog!
We’d agreed before the start of the swim that I would only request things I wanted or needed when I stopped for a feed for these to be ready for my next feed so as to keep the stop time to an absolute minimum…however as I was swimming into the fifth hour that little monkey I’d first met during my 24 mile swim climbed on my back…his cold little monkey claws make you feel so low, make you start to question why on earth you are doing this, make you focus on any little issue or discomfort, make you start to think about how easily you could just stop. You start to think about things people have said to you; some had said how proud they were of me before I even got in, so proud that I dared to dream I could do it and that they’d be forever proud of me for that alone. Your brain chips in with ‘it’s ok – you can stop anytime, they’re already proud of you’. I knew if I got out I’d get wrapped in a blanket, be cuddled, and allowed to sleep. I’d be warm and it would all be over. But, because I also knew from the training that the nasty little monkey-face was likely to loose his handhold on me if I had a huge intake of calories, I broke my own rule and stopped and called to my crew to stop me for a double feed as soon as they could. This didn’t especially surprise them as it was at this time that my stroke rate dropped dramatically from 60 strokes a minute to about 52. The crew regularly keep a check on your stroke rate, as this is a good indication of how you are fairing out there. They reacted with the speed of little gazelles and soon I was topped up, on my way again and as soon as the nutrition hit my system we’d drowned the pesky monkey.
I entered the separation zone in a good time of six hours, at about this time it started to feel like daytime and I started to really enjoy my swim. I felt strong and positive and my stroke rate had returned to normal. That’s not to say it wasn’t hard – you have a lot of time to think about pretty much everything. Obsessing over technique and ensuring every stroke is as powerful and useful as it possibly can be is fairly all encompassing but this level of concentration on something so rhythmic also zones you out for vast chunks of time. Lots of people have asked what did I think about so here goes: during the times when I felt bright and happy I thought about how privileged I was to be right where I was at that very moment, to have my life, to have my health, to have the ability to be able to even attempt such a thing. I thought about how cool it was to be so far out in the sea on my own, how far I was from another creature in the water, and how that creature probably wasn’t another human! I thought about all the sea below me and the things in it and how I (maybe strangely) consider both the sea and its inhabitants my friends and marvelled at how I felt no fear. During the times when I felt less bright and happy and was experiencing both mental and physical discomfort I thought about how I’d chosen to be here and how I could make the pain stop at any point if I decided to, I was only swimming after all. Cliché I realise but ‘the pain is temporary – the glory is forever’. I thought about people in my life that have battled real toughness with such bravery and an entire lack of fuss and told myself to just get on with it – I thought about my brave Mummy who so quietly and selflessly beat her cancer. I thought about my oldest friend in the world Hayley who also beat cancer as well as dealing with some of the worst things life can throw at you at about the same time. I thought about my lovely Jenny, just up there on the boat, being so strong. I thought a lot about Susan (Taylor, the lady who lost her life in the Channel in July). I thought about how having the choice to make the discomfort stop isn’t the case for so many; the children EACH care for as a perfect example. I thought about my friend Shannons little girl Maggie. And Maggies smile. Maggie has cerebral palsy and faces so many challenges yet she smiles so much. So yes, just get on with it Bullen, you came to swim today and you will swim all day if needs be.
At all times at least two, if not three of my crew were clearly visible to me. Sitting on the side of the boat, smiling at me, generally just being there with me. This gives a feeling of comradery, these people very quickly become even closer to your heart than they were when you all got on the boat. One of my favourite moments however was when JC critiqued my swimming – I was unsurprised when the others commented on my stroke rate or technique, swimming is after all how I met Jenny & Mark in the first instance. And Will and I had watched each others technique for so many hours in training but to hear a “You’re looking really strong and consistent” from Jonathan made me giggle quite a lot during the next hour of swimming. Though not as much as Will moonwalking down the side of the boat…
So another hour, another feed…my super amazing crew had begun to try to offer me solid foods at each feed after about 5/6 hours in along with the energy drink but it was a struggle and I often refused them. Tongues and salt water aren’t the best of bedfellows if I’m honest, resulting in ‘salt mouth’ during marathon length sea swims. Essentially the salt knackers the surface of your tongue and causes it to swell, sometimes your throat too and this can obviously, at it’s most serious, end a swim. It makes eating unpleasant and also means you can taste next to nothing. We tried banana (this was very unglamorously given to the fish), Milkyways (before this – my favourite long distance training treat – not a flippin’ chance and the chocolate then stuck in my teeth annoyed me for what felt like an age), a few Jelly Babies made it down (I usually HATE them but in this instance I loved them), and raspberries were great (mainly because I could taste them through the salt tongue). Other than cursing myself for only packing blackcurrant squash…the energy drinks were sliding down just fine. Well fine other than that they gave me the trumps (as my crew so kindly shared with the world via Facebook!). So onto another hour, swim to the next feed, another feed, another hour, swim to the next feed, another feed…I entered the N/E lane at 09:56hrs. Eddie lent out of the window and said “Welcome to French waters”, obviously I addressed my crew in my best French at the next feed – I was hoping for a breakfast croissant but none was forthcoming…the observer from the CS&PF noted how polite I was at feeds, mainly as I wanted them to continue to be so nice to me of course! And nice they were – lovely in fact. One of my splendiferous crew had even made me surprise strongly flavoured ginger, lemon and honey drink before we’d left home – I cannot begin to tell you how amazing this tasted after so long in the sea.
At no point was I anywhere near stopping or getting out, way back at the start of my training when I started adding to the hours I was spending in the water, Mark had taught me to think in the mindset of ‘if I don’t do this today I have to go through all of this again to get to this point again before I can add to it’ (so if you stop after five hours when you’re attempting a seven hour swim you have to do those five hours again before you can try for seven hours). Because if I hadn’t not made it, there would of been an ‘again’, it gets under your skin, not finishing something I’d spent this much time, effort and money on just wasn’t going to be an option. I also knew that the sea conditions were good – another reason to make the absolute most of this chance. Midway N/E lane the stats were: stroke rate 60 per min, water temp 17 degrees centigrade (positively tropical!), air temperature 20.3 degrees, wind 2.8 N/W, sea state slight (with the odd lump). Oh and lots and lots of fog.
You have a whole lot of time with just your own thoughts, I think I went through every single thing anyone said to me in the run up to this, many of these made me smile, some made me feel powerful, some gave me an extra push. So many people had made reference to me ‘being ready’, that ‘I’d earned this’ and to ‘go and take it’, One friend was very insistent that I go and ‘take what’s mine’, I was really trying to. I thought about how I’d been referred to as ‘the Chuck Norris of Open Water swimming’ and this made me giggle more than once. I marvelled at my body – at how I felt a bit tired but just a bit tired, ‘not silly tired’. My shoulders ached a little but no real hurt, no injury. Time becomes very strange, in one way it flashes past – at others the time between feeds feels like an eternity. It becomes difficult to track, how long have you been swimming for? Is it five hours? Seven hours? You try to work out how long it’s been light, where the sun is in the sky – I guess you could just ask your crew but that doesn’t really occur to you because you don’t really want to know and you have trained and trained to JUST SWIM TO THE NEXT FEED.