If You Don’t Put Your Toes In The Water You’ll Never Know The Temperature. English Channel Attempt
I don’t know exactly why that expression popped into my head when I stated to write. Can’t remember if I had heard or read it before, it describes why I steered myself towards attempting to swim the English Channel solo. So I’m going to divide this swim report into the Infancy, the Pre-swim, Swim and Debrief.
Where did I get this idea that I could attempt a solo crossing of the Channel? I think the seed was planted back in 2010 with the South End Rowing Club’s Annual Alcatraz swim. I remember it was cold water, my first exposure to cold water (I live in south central Texas) and I was wearing a wetsuit. It was a successful and beautiful swim but, shockingly cold. The following year I was in Hawaii with my wife, Nancy, accompanying her on her consulting job at that time (I know tough job but, someone had to do it). I heard about the Annual Waikiki Roughwater Swim that was taking place while I was there. I knew that this was the original official Ironman Swim and decided I had to do it. I had been training in the ocean in Waikiki when I was going out to Hawaii on every third trip and was comfortable in the ocean. I trained at the Ala Moana Beach Park swim area that gave me a continuous1000 meter swim. The first thing I found was that swimming in open water is totally different than the pool. No walls, lane lines to rest on. It reminded me of when we converted from short course to long course and those first couple of pool practices, where it seemed the other end of the pool would neve get there. I found this long non-stop swimming really built strength and endurance. I’d sometimes swim the 1000 straight and other times, I would alternate my swim tempo from 1.0 to .95 for 500. I had decided that I’d swim the race at .95. The Roughwater swim went extremely well and was a great second step. I had started swimming out at Boerne City Lake that same summer as well for local warm open water training where water temperatures were in the high 80’s. In 2012 I saw that the 2nd year of the annual 8 Bridges Swim was scheduled for May. I looked it up and the distances were long except for stage 3 and 4, with 3 being the shortest at 13.2 miles. I felt 2012 was too early for me to be in shape but decided that for 2013 I’d do Stage 3. I had done the 2012 USMS Postal 10K in 3 hours. I researched the first two years times or he 8 Bridges and saw that the finish times were between 4:30 to just over 5 hours, and thought, I’ve done 3 hours in a pool, I can do that! So that year I dedicated to swimming 4-5 days/week and occasionally at the lake on Saturday mornings. Spring of 2013 rolled around and I completed the 10k and 5K postal events in 3 and 1:30 hours respectively. I felt I was ready. Oh, but then I realized that the 8 Bridges is a non-wetsuit swim. I started looking at the Hudson River water temps in March and WOW were they cold, high 50 degrees! Was it going to warm-up to the 70’s by end of May? Dave Barra, whom I knew from Total Immersion Open Water Camps, was the co-founder and co-race director of the 8 Bridges, assured me the water would be fine, mid 70’s by end of May. Little did he know of the hurricane that was about to hit the east coast and delay spring weather by a month. As May approached the water temp was at 60 degrees and I knew the 80-degree water I had been swimming in was not going to cut it. I started going to Barton Springs in Austin where the water temp is a constant 67-69 degrees. I felt three weekends of swimming two hours each time would acclimatize me. When we got to NY the water temp was 62 degrees and they were telling us to switch our feeds from cold to hot. What had I gotten myself into? It was finally show time for the start and it ‘got real’ very quickly as we jumped from the boat. I have to admit that at first it was cold but then I settled into the swim and only thought about the cold water when the lead pilot boat up in front of me moved out of my path, churning up the REALLY cold water for about a minute. I finished the swim in 4:24 but the last 2 miles were a struggle and I could tell that I had not done enough long swim training. While finishing up a biking tour in France in June that same summer, a Total Immersion Coach colleague of mine, Dave Cameron, called and said that he had an English Channel Relay slot open for August (yes that same summer) and was I interested. Well, heck yes I was interested! In a relay of six swimmers I knew that I only had to swim one hour at a time just like the one hour USMS postal, how hard could that be? Dave had already done two solo crossings and about four+ relays. So he put together our relay team made up of six Total Immersion Coaches. Not all were fulltime swimmers, but we knew our TI technique would get us through. I prepped for the cold water the same as the previous cold water swim before and headed to Barton Springs the week before leaving for England. While waiting for our slot to be called to swim, we did 2 swims every day lasting from 60-90 minutes in 62 degrees water in the Dover Harbor. The first couple of days were brutal. Dave decided the order for the relay, and I was assigned the first position, which meant I got to start the relay by walking in off of Shakespeare Beach. That was really cool! My second swim was in the transition zone and as it turned out, I was the only one to swim three times, starting my last swim at 10:45 pm, first time night swimming! I was not looking forward to this, but said to myself you swim with your eyes closed all the time, what’s the difference? I was able to finish the relay by climbing out on the rocks just to the west of Cape Gris Nez in total darkness at 11:40 pm. I got to see the channel up close and personal and the seed was beginning to sprout that I could do this as a solo.