Spread the love

Andrew Swims The English Channel

 

As I write this post I am sipping on a freshly brewed machiatto and eating a Sfogliatella, overlooking the idyllic waters of Cinqo Terre, Italy. Exactly this time last week there was no trendy Italian coffees or pastries. Last Thursday Tash, Tim, Megs and I were swimming our lives out, making our way across the English Channel from Dover in the UK to Wissant in the French countryside. I’ve had multiple people ask me to explain the ‘experience’ – so here it is. Starting way, way back with the original phone call.

The Phone Call (Oct 2017)

“Hey Maysie, it’s Tash”.

“What’s going on, Tash?”

“Just entering you in a swim across the English Channel next year”.

“Ha, ha. What are you really doing?”

“Entering you in an English Channel swim mate”.

Silence. “Ummm, think I missed the bit where we had ‘that’ conversation”.

“Come on Maysie. When was the last time you stretched yourself physically and mentally, way outside your comfort zone? When was the last time you did something that really scares you?” (Natasha was parodying me and even using ‘my voice’ and intonation, as she heard me say a similar phrase when running one of my high performance programs for her team at KPMG and a number of Defence clients in Canberra).

More silence. “That’s unfair Tash. You can’t take me off in an attempt to make me feel guilty about not joining you. And you know I’m not a strong swimmer”.

“Well, it’s time to become one. And this will be a great experience for you, too”.

“Nope, you still haven’t convinced me Tash. So, what are you going to tell people now that I’m not joining you?’

 “I’ll just tell them you’re f*cking soft”.

And there it began. Tash played me like a master conductor controlling a symphonic orchestra. But in this case the music being played wasn’t Vivaldi or Beethoven or Bach. It was me. Tash appealed to my ego, sense of adventure and desire to stretch myself physically and mentally.

“Ok, ok. I’m in” I nervously stuttered. Then Tash hung up. Phone call over.

Driving home that night I rang Tash to confirm she wasn’t joking and that ‘this’ was real. It was. 

The Daffy Duck Moment (Dec 2017)

Just before Christmas Archie, Miki and I were watching a Daffy Duck cartoon and they began laughing loudly. Their laughter took me back to my childhood when I too loved watching cartoons. My nostalgia was suddenly jolted when Daffy Duck looked at the camera and in a panicked tone said “Mooooother”.

This is the exact feeling I had after hanging up the phone with Tash a few months earlier. “Oh moooooother”. “Am I really doing this?”

I have an athletic background and won a number of state championship titles as a ‘junior’ runner, but swimming wasn’t an activity that I did very often, let alone felt comfortable enough to embark upon tackling one of the world’s most challenging ocean swims.

Milo and Progressive Overload

With my running and sports coaching background I had a good understanding of what I needed to do to gradually increase training load up until early August, ensuring I had a sound swimming fitness base, but also that I didn’t injure my shoulders (one of the main injuries from a sudden increase in swimming volume is rotator cuff and shoulder impingement). I also had a bike race that I was training for in early December so my plan was to finish that, enjoy Christmas, then begin. My plan was to approach training for swimming the Channel like Milo.

Around 2,500 years ago there was a well-known Greek wrestler named ‘Milo of Croton’ who was a six-time wrestling champion at the Ancient Olympic Games. Milo was awarded the title of Periodonikes (Olympic champion and grand slam winner) on 5 separate occasions. Milo is also credited with leading the military triumph over neighbouring Sybaris in 510 BC.

You get the story. Milo was a rock star of his time. But what made him so strong and powerful?

Apparently at the same time Milo started to get serious about wrestling, a calf was born near his home and he decided to put the animal on his shoulders and carry it around to build strength. The following day Milo again hoisted the small animal up onto his shoulders. The following day, he returned and did the same. Legend implies Milo continued this strategy for the next four years, lifting the animal onto his shoulders each day until he was no longer lifting a calf, he was lifting a four-year-old bull.

The story of Milo illustrates how he built incredible strength through a simple, yet (in more recent times) scientifically-validated strategy called progressive overload. The core principles of strength training and how to build muscle are encapsulated in this legendary tale of Milo and the bull.

Training Begins (Jan 2018)

My first swim after Christmas was 1km in a swimming pool on the Gold Coast and I felt terrible. I could ride a bike for 100km+ and keep going, but swimming for 23 minutes completely drained me. I felt like I was towing ‘that calf’. My plan was to swim 2km a week during January and book a swimming technique lesson when I was back in Sydney.

Swimming with Sharks (mid Jan 2018)

The week after my 1km Gold Coast swim I met a good mate, Dave, in Byron Bay. Dave was getting married in February and rather than having a boozy bucks celebration, he instead chose a weekend of fitness in Byron Bay. We cycled to Wategos Beach for an early morning swim and as we were walking into the water I said “you know this place is (in)famous for sharks. What will you do if you see a shark?” Dave just laughed at me and said “we’ll just swim faster”.

 

 

Less than 3 minutes into the swim I was thinking how lucky I was swimming over a rock platform in crystal clear aqua water with beautiful, tropical fish. I breathed to the right and saw a large fish and thought ‘wow, that’s a big fish’. Twenty strokes later the ‘big fish’ had taken an interest in me and circled back, swimming literally right underneath me. When its tail was not yet past my head and its pointy nose was level with my feet I realised this wasn’t one of those tropical fish like Nemo, it was a juvenile white pointer, over 2 metres long. I’ve always wondered what I would do if a shark swam under me in the ocean and this was my day to find out. Rather than panicking, I slowed down and kept calm (subconsciously I must have known if I splashed around and carried on there was more chance I’d move from a point of interest to breakfast). The shark, after letting me know who truly was boss, swam off. I yelled at Dave, who was 4 or 5 metres to my left, to try and gain his attention. “What’s up, Maysie?” he said after hearing his name. “I’ve just swum over the top of a 2-metre white pointer”. “No, seriously, what’s up?” Dave saw the fear in my eyes, or perhaps how milky-white my face was, and we both heeded his original advice and ‘just swam faster’ back into shore.

After processing what had just happened, we jumped on our bikes and rode back to Main Beach (where most people in Byron choose to swim) as I knew if I didn’t get back in the water immediately, I probably never would. We finished a 2km swim and then over breaky were telling the locals about our brush with Jaws and two of the local surf club members said “ha, 2 metres, that’s nothin. That’s only a baby”. Sure didn’t look like a cute little baby to me. 

The Reality Check: I swim like a drunk snake (Feb 2018)

I had a few swimming friends coached by Brian Sutton, former Swimming Australia Head Coach. I got in contact with Brian and he watched me swim two laps of a 50m pool, leaned over the edge and in his endearing Aussie tone said “Maysie, as a swimmer you make a bloody good runner”. Apparently my technique was “super f*cked. You stick your head up out of the water and your breathing is out of synch. Your arms cross over the mid line of your body which causes your shoulders to rotate. You swim like a drunk snake”.

“What do you recommend I do Brian?”

“Start again mate. Throw everything out the window and start again”.

Brian didn’t have his own squad so my plan was to put the tips he gave me into practice for a month or two, then join a squad. February I built up to 3 to 4 km a week. At the end of February I tracked down Vlad Mravec and got him to look at my technique. Thinking I had made huge steps forward after Brian’s tutelage, I dove in and Vlad watched me swim two laps. “What is this?” Vlad said in his endearing Russian accent, hunching his shoulders. “You are super-stiff. Your body is burning so much energy. You are not ready to join my squad. Go and swim relaxed for 3 or 4 weeks, then come back”.

At least I’d migrated from a drunk snake to a super-stiff. Milo would be proud.

March I wound back to swimming 2 to 3 km a week, practicing Vlad’s drills and learning (trying) to swim relaxed. In essence I had to unlearn my old technique and rewire my brain to start all over again. This was one fo the hardest parts of getting ready to swim the Channel as I felt like I was going backwards with an entirely new technique, but I new I needed to make changes so I persevered. April I built up to between 5 and 6km a week. I joined Vlad’s swim squad once a week in May (with the fantastic coach Jaye) and increased to 8km a week, building through to 10 to 12km a week in June. I also followed a specific strength and conditioning program to strengthen and stabilise my shoulders and upper body.

The progressive overload plan I mapped out was designed for two main events. Obviously the Channel Swim, but before that we had to pass a 2 hour open water swim in 15 degrees Celsius water at Huskisson on the NSW South Coast.

(Note: I built in a recovery week on average every 5 to 6 weeks, where I reduced the training load to allow my body to recover and reduce risk of overtraining. Not sure whether Milo did this too?)

The Anxiety Attack (July 2018)

The first weekend in July we met on the South Coast for a cold-water training camp with Chloe McCardle. At 4:45am on Saturday morning Chloe asked the swimmers attending the camp to introduce themselves. As the group of approx. 20 swimming enthusiasts said hello we were instructed to grab a water-proof bag with a lamp inside and tie around our waist so we could be seen in the dark water. Chloe then said “when we start the first swim at 5am, sometimes we go alphabetical order and other times we start in reverse. But today, leeeet’s staaaart iiiiin… alphabetical order. So that means, Aaaaandrew. Andrew, you’re going to lead us out”. 

As I fumbled to tie the water-proof bag around my waist, Daffy Duck came to visit again. ‘Oh, mother’. In fact it wasn’t ‘Oh Mother’ it was ‘f*ck, oh f*ck. I really don’t want to do this. Why am I doing this?’

I was whipping myself into a panicked state thinking about swimming in the freezing cold dark water, trying to navigate 700m across the other side of Vincenzia Bay to a tiny flashing red light. But I couldn’t tell Chloe and the rest of the crew I was scared, or that I was going to quit, so I took a deep breath, walked into the icy cold water, put my head down and started swimming. But what was working a lot harder than my swimming technique, was my inner voice.

300m into the swim I felt a wave of anxiety sweep over my body. Anybody who has had an anxiety attack knows the feeling. Short sharp breaths, a feeling of tension throughout the body and a total loss of clarity and rational control of the brain. Anxiety had kicked in. I stopped swimming and trod water. Two swimmers went past “are you ok?” “Yep, just trying to adjust my safety device”, I lied. Then my brain went into overdrive. ‘This is stupid. Why are you doing this? What are you trying to prove? You’re not a swimmer – you cycle, and run, and lift weights. And sharks live in the ocean. Brian said you swim like a drunk snake. Vlad said you’re a super-stiff. And it would be much safer to go and start lifting a calf’. Thoughts raced through my monkey-brain like a convoy of train carriages, each one with a different self-limiting belief about why I shouldn’t be doing this stupid challenge. And the last carriage, the last carriage was dedicated to Tash. This carriage had bold emblazoned letters all over it saying “F*CK YOU TASH”.

 

This was my sliding door moment. I had two options. Turn back and admit defeat (and accept the ridicule and banter and deflation of giving up). Or, calm down, relax, get my shit together. In a snap decision I chose the latter and decided to adopt a mantra to help get me through. I put my head back into the cold, dark water and muttered ‘be calm, stay relaxed, you’ve got this’. I repeated this mantra ‘be calm, stay relaxed, you’ve got this’ for 10 minutes and by then I was in a rhythm and had switched from panic to a feeling of being alive, challenged, stretched. Tash was right, it was time to get out of my comfort zone. And that is exactly where I was.

18km of Swimming in 2 days

After the final swim on Sunday, I downloaded my Garmin watch and uploaded to Strava (if it’s not on Strava, it didn’t happen, right?)

I had swum over 18km for the weekend and my average speed was over 3.0km an hour (remember back in January I swam 1km in 23 minutes). This included a 2-hour swim in 15 degrees water which is a pre-Channel swim assessment. Back in January there was absolutely no way I thought I’d be capable of swimming anywhere near that much in 2-days.  This shows the power of setting a stretch goal, making yourself accountable, being disciplined and staying committed, and a friendly bit of pushing from Tash too (I would have never tackled this goal by myself). 

Driving home that evening was the first time I really believed I could do this. Sure on the outside I was showing a brave face and getting on with the training, but underneath I was nervous and apprehensive whether I’d really be able to pull through.

I now believed. The training and coaching and discipline had paid off. And while I continued to remind Tash about the last carriage in that train every time I saw her (#FUT), I felt a shift in my entire approach. 

The Curveball – Megan has Pneumonia (mid-July 2018)

4 days after swim camp Megs messaged us from hospital saying she had been diagnosed with pneumonia and was instructed to not do any exercise and to heal properly. Immediate thoughts went to the calendar and whether Megs would recover in time. Megs had done all of the hard work and it would have been devastating if she wasn’t able to complete the swim. This also meant there was a reality that Tash, Tim and I might have to tackle the swim without Megs. “Moooother”.

The English Channel Swim (August 2nd, 2018)

At 2:30am on Wednesday 2nd August Tash, Tim, Megs (who had bounced back beautifully and wasn’t going to let pneumonia get in her way) and I met Andy our skipper and his two side-kicks (James Andy #2), the amazing Sylvia (our dedicated Channel Swimming Association official) on the dark and quiet ports of Dover. Our order had been decided – Tash, Tim, Megs, then me. Tash dove into the cold, dark water (see the continuing theme here?) and proceeded to swim for an hour. Timmy took off and ploughed away for his first shift then followed Megs. My first swim I jumped into the fresh liquid stuff at 6:13am. I started finding my rhythm and 5 minutes in I could feel a little wave building. But this time I knew what to do “be calm, stay relaxed, you’ve got this”. Around 6:23 am I felt an immediate smile on my face and a wave of calmness ripple across my body, I was here, in the English Channel, swimming my little arse off. We proceeded to rotate every 4 hours and swim for 1 hour each. Back on the boat we would hydrate, Andy #2 (the hilarious deck-hand from Dover whose nickname was The Minion) would make us a hot chocolate or coffee to help warm us up. 

Swimming Against the Tide

Getting ready to dive in for my third swim Andy (the captain) said “if you get your f*cking shit together princess and swim your balls off, we might miss the strong change in tide and get across to land before the lighthouse”. Sylvia blew her whistle and Megs and I swapped over (following strict CSA protocol where you are not allowed to high five each other in the water. Bummer). For the following 60 minutes I swam harder than ever. Sylvia and Tim gave me the call at the half way point and I remember feeling challenged, yet invigorated. I had missed getting across before the tide changed but for the first time in my life I had that euphoric feeling in the water, like I had experienced many times running along a bush track or cycling in the hills. I was in flow. Completely in the moment. Sylvia gave me a countdown at 15 minutes. At the 10-minute countdown I could feel my shoulders, lats and lungs screaming. I knew I was tipping over that point called Anaerobic Threshold, where there is more and more lactic acid building up in your body, but I was in the home straight. At the 5-minute call I picked up my kick until the whistle blew once more and Tash jumped into the water to power through her 4thleg of the day and get us to the shores of France.

Watching a bunch of French strangers run across the beach at Wissant to cheer and clap Tash was a fantastic scene. This was Tash’s idea and it was great to see her officially end our journey. #FUT

Having time in Italy has been great to freshen up, explore a beautiful country, but also to allow important time to reflect upon what I learned from this challenge (one of the challenges in our hyped-up, turbo-charged world is giving yourself time and permission to reflect, learn and grow).

7 Lessons from Swimming the English Channel

1.     Fear can make you feel fully alive 

Full engagement is a blend between doing what works for you (habit and routine) and periodically scaring the living daylights out of yourself. While I wouldn’t advocate a massive challenge like this every year (maybe every 3 to 5 years) this process has stretched me out of my comfort zone and I felt totally alive, and a little bit scared, preparing for this challenge. 

When you ask people ‘what are their greatest achievement/s in life?’ it is not things they were given or tasks that were easy to accomplish. It is striving to overcome challenges and fears and the euphoria you feel knowing you have worked hard.The greatest pleasures in life come from hard work 

Tim Ferriss advocates what he calls ‘Fear Setting’ and you can read about it here https://tim.blog/2017/05/15/fear-setting/

2.     Positive peer pressure stretches you way beyond your limits 

There is NO WAY I would have even contemplated ding a swim like this if Tash hadn’t bullied, correction, encouraged me to do it. Thanks Tash, seriously! This shows the power of peer pressure and making yourself accountable to other people to stretch way beyond the comfort zone. 

3.     Cold water is good for you

Two things I did to get my body (and brain) ready to not freeze in the English Channel. Firstly, over the past 3 months every day I finished my shower with 90 seconds of cold water. The first few times you want to scream out loud. But you do get used to it (at least that’s what I kept telling myself). 

Secondly, swimming every week in the ocean as the temperature gradually dropped from over 20 degrees in Summer to 15 degrees (on the NSW South Coast) acclimatised me to the cold. And while I’d definitely prefer to swim in warmer water, with regular exposure your body does adapt. 

I’ll write a future post about the physiological benefits of regular cold water (including boosting your immune system, improving circulation and decreasing inflammation). Interesting that around the world you see fit and healthy ‘older people’ jumping into icy-cold water every morning. Think they’re all onto something.

4.     You are never too old to learn (or unlearn)

I’ve been ‘gonna improve my swimming’ every year for the past 10 years. As each Summer ticked over I would think about getting some lessons, or joining a squad, as I knew proper technique makes a huge difference in the water. But until Tash filled out my form, I had no reason to do this.

Learning a new technique to start was challenging but I must admit, not only did I feel much better swimming, overcoming some of my fears and knowing I was learning and embedding a new skill made other parts of my brain feel alive too. 

5.     Having a tribe is very powerful

My TM2 team mates Tash, Tim and Megs are legends and I really enjoyed tacking this challenge with them. We bonded as a team and held each other accountable and we will always have this achievement together.

Swimming has introduced me to an entirely new tribe of human amphibians. And on future business travels I can meet up with Sam on the Sunshine Coast; Sylvia in London (although Sylvia you still haven’t convinced me to achieve an Ice Mile – swimming 1 mile in water temperature 5 degrees or less, no wet suit); in Sydney I will continue to meet up with Fisky and Heathy at Manly; with Gatsby at Whale Beach; and of course in Canberra Tash and Tim. (But I’m thinking they can return the effort and start joining me on the bike when I next visit the Nation’s Capital)

6.     It’s important to connect to a higher purpose 

When the alarm went off some (correction: many) mornings and I didn’t feel like diving into the cold and often dark water, it would have been easy to go back to bed. ‘Mind over mattress’ helps when you have a cause greater than just getting fit, or just doing something by yourself.

Two factors that helped me connect to a higher purpose than ‘just doing a swim’ were:

a)    Providing a positive example to my children of setting and sticking to a goal (When I spoke to Miki and Archie after the swim I felt fantastic when Miki said “I’m so proud of you daddy”

b)    Supporting Tash to create a legacy for Soldier On

As a team we want to create a legacy for Soldier On with an ongoing swimming challenge that will provide an opportunity for veterans to find peace and opportunity following their courageous service to our country. Soldier On’s mission is to work side by side with those who serve and protect Australia, and their families, helping them to secure their future. 

Throughout this process we raised over $60,000 for Soldier On https://soldieron.giveeasy.org/campaigns/tm2-soldieron-2018-english-channel-challenge/

7.     I (now) really like swimming

After my terrible first swim on the Gold Coast, and the shark, and the feedback that I swim like a drunk snake, or a super stiff, and the anxiety attack, and the moments dreading diving into the cold English Channel filled with large container ships and stingers – after all of this and finishing the swim with my team mates – I really do like swimming now and I will continue to include it in my Better Week. 

Leave a Reply

Sign Up for Andrew's Monthly E-News
Website by Built by Blank