In every channel swim there are life lessons to be gleaned- often wrenched forcibly from your weary carcass in the depths of the night, in your weakest moments and in your frailest state. This is where you find new depths, new reserves and greater strength than you could erstwhile have imagined.
The learning began before the swim this time, although i was unable to fathom it out till afterwards. I had picked up a tummy upset- i thought just a gripey tummy from the different unfiltered tap water, maybe. Not life threatening, just exhausting and dehydrating. So i switched to sports drink with electrolytes 2 days before the swim to get the essentials in me. And rested as much as i could. I admit, i felt inappetent and like a limp lettuce leaf. I kept this largely to myself. My bad.
The learning is that i must share my vulnerability with my team earlier, let them share the burden of decisions and allow my weakness to show. I’m not good at that at the best of times, but it is a useful thing to do- real team work. I’m so used to soldiering on, taking care of my emotional, psychological and physical glitches in solitude.
So, the swim was upon me.
Having old friends from my past here was amazing- well wishing and faith in me meant not getting in the water never entered my head.
So it was a shock to start out in the pitch dark with Martin at my side in the kayak, a simple ‘so, here we are again’ from him marked the start of this next adventure. The first hour always feels a little thrashy, settling in and finding your rhythm, but as the 3rd hour approached I was aware that I was far more tired than I should have been. I felt flat and more psychologically exposed than usual.
The phosphorescence was incredible- impossible to describe the fireworks that spiral off your fingertips as they move through pitch black water, even the rim of your goggles creating a mesmerising display that was dazzling and overwhelming, cascades of luminous effervescence.
At hour 6 it was like a plug being pulled- my arms switched off. The power literally disappeared. I could swing them around but there was no pull at all. Nothing. And when I fed, I got a flush of chill as the fuel hit my stomach. I knew I was ill. And it was still dark.
But I could see the city lights. I felt sure they were more distinct, I had to be getting there…
After 8hrs of darkness, the dawn crept over the obsidian like glassy conditions. The little eddies I found myself in occasionally were so localised I was held in place for a few minutes then allowed to pass, without the surface of the water being bothered at all. But with the dawn came the crushing realisation that those lights that I could see so clearly all through the night were still so very far away. Lesson 2. Don’t trust your perception at night. I’ve coached people in this, and yet the hope that comes with seeing lights is cruel when dawn comes and they recede in the cold light of day for what they are- on a hill in the distance, a smudge on the horizon.
I could also see tankers- the shipping lane5-3miles off shore. Those ships are vast- unimaginable when you are 3inches tall in the water. And they ghosted by, perilously out of reach for so long.
10 hours into the swim, things went sideways in a new way. One of the 3 skippers on the boat decided he was going to pull the swim at an arbitrary time of 3pm as he didnt feel I was moving fast enough- despite my stroke rate being consistent and sense of humour bizarrely intact. I knew I wasn’t making my usual 2mph- I knew I was suffering and struggling. It was not a pretty swim, but I was devastated. I had given myself a 15hr estimate, and here was someone going to pull me at 14hrs…. my mind was addled, I was so frail, my resolve felt tenuous for the first swim ever. I had been doubting my determination to stay in the water- I am a mother first. What damage was I doing? But shoulda, woulda, coulda doesn’t cut it. The day you get to swim is the day you get to pour yourself into it.
Much to many who know me’s surprise, I am not comfortable with going against other people. And to feel I had to defy the absolute authority on the swim- the one person who could end my swim regardless- was such an obstacle that there were times when I fell into despair and thought about letting him end it. The true value of a support crew is their steadfast emotional holding in times like that. Unvoiced, constant. Eye contact when I breathe that way, steady and unwavering gave me a focal point outside my own varied hells. So I continued.
Inch by inch, ineffectual stroke by ineffectual stroke. I’m sure most of my profusion came from my kick.
Early afternoon, on a feed of less than a minute, whales at the stern of the boat and dolphins at the bow…. martin said even mother nature is willing you on now. So I continued.
I could see shadows on the cliffs, houses. I was not going to give up. I could joke, I could swing my arms. I was getting there. Painfully slowly- and by now, genuinely painfully too. My stomach felt sore and solid and I began to vomit in the 15th hour- and for the last 4 hours I was dealing with stomach cramps, vomiting and diarrhoea as I swam. And yet I continued.
Seeing the cave at the edge of the beach where I was to land was heaven and torture as I was so very aware of the slow progress I was making…. and then I saw figures on the beach. I knew who they were. I was elated and devastated at the same instant. I didnt feel triumphant, I wanted to crawl onto the beach and sob, lay down all the hurt and pain. I didn’t want to smile and be congratulated.
But I am so glad they were there. If I had lain down, I may have given in to the despair and fatigue. The swim is never over till you are back safe on the boat. And so, staggeringly, I made it. Staggering and weak, with new levels of low reached- new levels of strength found.
Oddly, there were many times I enjoyed and felt privileged to be out there in the Catalina channel. Even with the cramps and doubts, the blissful quiet of the water gives you space to contemplate. To hash out your inner sense of self, to test your mettle to the limit. Then smash that and find new boundaries.