CHANNEL SWIMMING 4: The Long Swim – and a bulletin
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on September 18th, 2009

The Long Swim

In 10 days of swimming at the Harbor we’ve met aspiring Channel swimmers and supporters (most of whom have swum the Channel themselves) from NY, Chicago, LA, England, the Channel Islands (part of England), Ireland, Scotland, France, Iceland and Australia. Weekends are busiest as local (plus some from London and elsewhere) marathon enthusiasts convene at the harbor under the eye of Freda Streeter.  Freda is the coach and mum of Allison Streeter, who has completed a seemingly untouchable 43 crossings, including one triple! Ali is now retired from swimming, joining her brother Neil as a Channel pilot.

On the weekend, you report to Freda to tell her how far you’re swimming (or she tells you!) Since beginning to coach Allison 25 years ago, Freda has sat harborside for up to 7 hours each weekend day during swim season, never receiving tuppence in compensation. If you’re being trained by Freda, she’ll advise you, on at least one weekend, to swim for 6 and 7 hours on consecutive days.

Freda has guided countless swimmers to successful crossings so many swimmers seek her help — not just because Freda’s success rate inspires confidence, but because somehow it’s easier to have someone else tell you to swim seven hours straight than to tell yourself. Even so I did hear stories of the occasional trainee walking down the beach to begin a long swim with a tear-streaked face, or sobbing through a feeding, after four hours in the water, at the thought of going back in for several more hours.

Freda logs each swimmer into her notebook, then gives you a numbered CS&PF (Channel Swimmers & Pilots Federation) cap, so they can keep track of who’s in the water — a yellow cap if you’re swimming two hours or less, a red one for longer swims. The red cap signals her assistant Barry to meet you with a feeding as you approach the beach, usually at 2-hour intervals. Barry brings a cup of warm energy drink and sometimes half a banana. Barry also applies Vaseline before you swim and brings your flipflops to the water’s edge as you finish. At low tide, it’s a long, steeply sloped rocky walk from seawall to water’s edge — painful to negotiate barefoot, especially going uphill with tender feet after several hours in the water. Dave, Willie and I applied our own Body Glide on Saturday but accepted Barry’s ministrations on Sunday. The support and the sense that someone onshore is watching out for you is a help during hours in cold water.

On the weekend, we all swam two harbor loops, or about 90 minutes on Saturday (9/12) then longer on Sunday. Dave swam for four hours, completing over 14km. I swam for three hours, completing four channel loops in three hours.

For me, the 3-hour swim strongly suggested what is the most powerful resource in Channel swimming, or any marathon swim – the ability to cultivate a kind of tunnel vision which keeps you “in the moment” and focused on the stroke you’re taking, with as few distractions as possible.

The afternoon prior to the USMS 2-Mile Cable Swim championship in Mirror Lake (Lake Placid NY) I gave a brief clinic for participants. Most of those who attended were first-timers to the race and seemingly had little experience swimming in open water. From where we sat on the lakeshore, they could see the quarter-mile course over which they would swim 8 lengths the next morning. Many found the sight daunting, commenting “That’s a long way; I’m not sure I can swim that far.” To which I answered “Your most helpful strategy will be to never focus on how much swimming is in front of you, but to focus entirely on the stroke you’re taking this moment, to make that stroke as good as it can be. After about three thousand strokes, taken one by one, you’ll swim across the finish line almost before you know it.”

I’ve done lots of “mindful swimming” practice in the last 20  years – countless miles in open water, but even more in the pool. Just as each mile of swimming develops physical endurance, so does every mile of concentrating develop mental endurance. In the Channel with all its potential intimidators – distance, cold, tides, weather, jellyfish – it is utterly essential to develop the ability to exert control over your thoughts.

And in the Channel, there’s also the near-absolute absence of visual reference points. Because 99 percent of our swimming experience occurs in a pool, your brain is processing a nonstop flood of images and impressions coming through your goggles. Without realizing it, we become so conditioned to seeing everything clearly, that visual information becomes an emotional need. To understand how strong that need is just try swimming with your eyes closed. And even in open water, for safety’s sake we nearly always swim close to and parallel to shore, where the passing landmarks give us a sense of steady progress.

But once you turn your back on the English shore and start stroking toward France, for 10 to 15 hours, you’ll see little that provides any sense of progress and visual information of any sort will be almost nil. Even with your pilot boat remaining close by, if the swells get much over 2 to 3 feet, which is a virtual certainty, you’ll probably need to lift your head to see it.

Most of the time a murky, chalky field of green will be all you see, obscuring even your outstretched hand. As you breathe, you’ll catch a glimpse of sky, but if you keep your head in the most relaxing neutral position, you’ll mostly see the nearest wave, inches from your goggles. Further, most Channel swims involve three or more hours of night swimming – disorienting blackness with intermittent glimpses of the lights on your boat. With your environment so forbidding, it’s essential to be able to control what and how you think about it.

The followers of spiritual guru Sri Chinmoy have made feats of physical endurance — principally ultramarathon running and marathon swimming — into a devotional practice, with English Channel crossings given particular stature as a way to attain enlightenment. The Sri Chinmoy marathon team – largely composed of people who had little swimming experience prior to setting their sights on the Channel – own the record for the greatest number of crossings by a team, some 35 crossings by 25 swimmers at the beginning of the current season, with more added in the last three months.

While I don’t swim as a spiritual practice as they do, I have found mindful swimming a reliable way to experience flow states, regularly completing a practice feeling energized, relaxed and stress free. The key to achieving flow states has been to swim with a precise stroke thought, often alternating several during the course of a practice. While swimming for 3 hours in Dover Harbor that became essential to replacing what, for the unmindful, is likely to be a sense of being at the mercy of the elements with a sense of control.

The most challenging element of technique was being able to get a good breath, and execute an effective left-arm stroke, while breathing to the right. While I’ve breathed bilaterally for nearly 20 years, I’m a natural left-side breather. In calm water, I’m not aware of any difference between right and left side breaths. But the rougher the water gets, the more the differences become apparent. During my 3-hour swim, the wind increased steadily and the water became progressively rougher. As it did, I would often roll to the right only to find my face covered by water. Even when I did get air, I could sense my left hand slipping back without much grip.

So I gave my complete focus to sensing what I did on a left-side breath, that allowed me to always find air, and keep a firm grip with my extended right hand. With some experimentation I found that if I turned my head slightly back toward my right shoulder and kept my extended left hand wider, with lighter pressure and a high elbow, I could get air and an more-effective stroke nearly every time. I also realized that when I was most keenly focused on perfecting my breath, I closed my eyes for long stretches, or simply wasn’t registering whatever images happened to flow from eyes to brain. By the end of my second loop, with 90 minutes elapsed, I began to feel my solution becoming more locked in. Finding the solution was helpful, but the focus I devoted to pursuing and imprinting it brought something far more significant.

Wind and waves increased on the last two loops, as did my sense of fatigue; at home I seldom swim for more than an hour. As I entered my 4th loop and third hour of swimming something remarkable happened, I was still aware that the water (at 63 degrees) was cold, that waves buffeted me on every stroke, and that my muscles were fatigued. But the intensity of my stroke-and-breath-focus pushed them all to the periphery of my awareness — hazy and insignificant aspects of my experience.

At the center of my awareness was a sense of my focus and action merging into perfect unity, and a meditative state so profound that I flowed through the 4th loop with little sense of passing time or distance. What had been effortful – as much mentally as physically – was transformed into rhythmic and relaxed. If I have any hope of completing a Channel crossing at age 60 in two years, and of transforming a potential ordeal into an almost, well, “ecstatic” experience, it will come from being able to enter and remain in a similarly focused-but-meditative state throughout. The Sri Chinmoy team is clearly onto something.

Bulletin: On Wednesday evening our pilot Mike Oram said the forecast suggested a window to leave on the high tide at midnight Friday or the one at noon on Saturday. On Thursday night he still wouldn’t commit to either. We hope we go at midnight because (1) We’d prefer swimming from night into day, rather than the reverse; and (2) Reaching France around noon on Saturday will give us a chance to board the 4pm ferry to Calais, on which local swimmers will celebrate Freda Streeter’s 70th birthday. What a treat it will be to ride the ferry to France and back (about  hrs total in the company of several dozen people who are passionate and experienced at Channel swimming.

The good news is that this morning dawned with what seems like near-ideal weather — sunny, mild and with the lightest breeze since we’ve been here. We’ll need it since the spring tide over the next 24 hrs will be the largest of the year – 7 meters difference between low and high water. This means that the outgoing tide will carry us a long way to thee east – toward the Atlantic, rather than France – and the incoming tide will carry us back in the other direction. If Mike Oram navigates with skill, the combination of the tides and our strokes should land us at Cap Gris Nez.

We should know shortly if we go tonight.

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