Friday, 3 October 2014

The Arch to Arc Final

At risk of spoiling the end of the story, I did it.

On Wednesday the 17th September I became the 20th person in history to complete the Arch to Arc and I am also the oldest.  Strange to recount my overall time made me the 6th fastest in the 14 years of participation since the event's inception.  As I expected it was a road (and sea) trip unlike any other.  I will do my best to make this post readable, but the report, like the event, will be long.  It is as much an indulgence for me, as anything.  I need to remember the pain and the misery, because this stupid head of mine has a horrible tendency to romanticise things and before I know it I will be thinking that a 2-way solo crossing of the Channel may not be a totally bad idea. If I write this honestly and re-read it from time to time, I may just think twice about booking that Ultra run across Death Valley.

I received the call on Thursday 11th September to be put on stand by for the beginning of the event.  I was told to prepare for an 8pm departure from Marble Arch on Saturday 13th September with a view to a Midday swim from Dover on the 15th.  Always one to live in denial I hooted with laughter knowing that the continuing changeable weather would see that optimistic timetable blown out of the water very quickly....Anyway, I left at 8pm on Saturday and swam at Midday on the Monday as predicted.

Looking back at the Saturday of the event  amuses me.  I did lots of ironing and made a couple of meals ready for my return; a particularly nice looking Lentil Dahl, in particular. Maybe I should have been doing something more sport related; watching Rocky DVD's or chewing cement as a warm up.

The Run

I managed to be late for my own leaving celebration because of heavy traffic. I had asked people to arrive at 7.00pm and only got myself there at 7.30 pm.  I also had to run half a mile because traffic was so bad, so my Arch to Arc was actually half a mile longer than anyone else's. That's another world record I am claiming, thank you very much. At the Arch was a lesson in humility.  Lots of lovely friends had turned out to wave me off. My wife and youngest son were there together with school friends, old friends, new friends, medium term friends, swimming friends and people who I want be friends with, but who are nervous of my personal space issues My lovely friend, Ali, had handed out t-shirts with my picture on and there were banners and things that pop and a general razzmatazz. The race director Dan Earthquake (once known as Steve, but he changed his name by deed poll.  God, I make that joke every time and it still makes me laugh), read the race rules out for me. Funny,  I had never considered that there were a set of rules for this, but it is ultimately a competition and as human beings we are apt to compare ourselves against one another.

At 8pm I set off to a tirade of abuse and cat calls from supporters who had quickly tired of me and  I began the long run, threading my way carefully through the streets of South East London.  It was fitting that the route took me past the scene of my chaotic years in London. We ran past my first flat in the Camberwell, close to a pub called the Hermit's Cave that I used to frequent because I liked it's uncompromising horribleness.  A woman once ate the entire contents of my ashtray in front of my very eyes whilst I was enjoying a quiet pint and a fag in there.  Even I couldn't match that scale of depravity although she did become a symbol of aspiration in my adopted lifestyle at that time.

Out to Lewisham where my wife and I bought our first flat at the height of the property boom in the late 80's.  We bought it for £67,000 and within three weeks it was worth about 75p and I learnt that property speculation was not for me.  The thing that struck me most about my old haunts, apart from the kebab shops was that all the hairdressers were open so late. Why don't they open like that everywhere?  Barbers are rubbish because they are open when we are at work.  Who is going to take a half day to get their hair cut, especially if  like me you only have about six hairs left to cut?

Then out through Eltham and into suburbia.  The occasional 321 bus, destination New Cross, reminded me that I was still in London, and then finally the houses ended and I saw a farm.  London had ended and Kent had begun.  Over the M25 and out along the A20 to Maidstone.  I felt strong and I felt elated.  I love running at night.  It is a privilege.  Even running through Maidstone was pleasant as I had missed the clubs' chucking out time.  Last time I went through there it had been 2am and a middle aged man running along in a high vis jacket was the target of a lot of abuse and uneaten kebab shavings.

It was mid morning by the time I got to Ashford and I was aware that things were going a lot better than I had expected.  I hadn't had any crises or the nausea that I find goes with long distance running.  I had eaten sensibly and, apart from home made banana cake, had shied away from sweet foods. Note to serious ultra athletes who are hoping to glean anything useful from this; your body begins to reject sugars after about 6 hours. Gels and stuff will make you poorly.

My family and an old university friend, Huw,  turned out to see me at Ashford.  I shared a room with Huw in my first year at Birmimgham in the halls of residence there.,  I asked for a non-smoking room in the hope that it would curb my already high dependency on nicotine, aged 19. As soon as our parents left us in the room Huw turned to me and offered me a Silk Cut.  We didn't have a chance in the 1980's, really.

By now I had got through three separate support teams who had been with me through the night: Alli H, Corin, Karen, Adam, Jess, Katy and finally Ali A and Dave Dawson, my friend and mentor.  These guys just worked tirelessly.  I am Karen, Jess and Katy's boss during the week, but they were to able to put aside the animosity that they felt about my Victorian management style and with only the promise of a huge pay award and 8 weeks holiday were prepared to spend their weekend listening to my whingeing and making me tea. Brilliant! I was also accompanied throughout by my friend Corin who decided that something like this would be an excellent excuse for his own road trip.  He was invaluable for catching me off guard and interviewing me at my most candid.  Mainly because I never managed to work out that his camera was also capable of recording video clips.


Ashford - a town that spares no expense on lampposts

Dave and Ali took me the final miles into Dover. I was joined by Sam Jones, one of the crew of Suva, a Channel boat who had heard I was heading into town.  It was a nice touch. After 21 hours 55 minutes I passed through the famous (if you are a Channel Swimmer) monument to Captain Webb, which marked the end of the run.  Stage one down and much relieved.  I had kept it all very contained and the most important thing was that I had felt cheerful, awake and not in any pain.  I finished off with a quick dip in the Channel which I thought would help alleviate some of the stiffness in my legs. It didn't....



Transition 1

I am not sure why, but I had got the vibe as I had been running that things weren't looking good for my swim the following day.  We had set off with the knowledge that there was only a small window of opportunity and we also knew that conditions can change very rapidly in the Channel.

As we ate our supper Dan Earthquake made lots of calls and came back with the news that the weather was looking poor for the following day and it was unlikely that I would swim.  They would take a look at 8 am the next morning and again at Midday and see if there was a chance of better conditions.  I felt really bad for myself, obviously, but also for Neil, the photographer from Reuters who had been documenting my Arch to Arc preparations for 6 months and was about to go on honeymoon, so wouldn't be able to film the event if it was postponed.  He was already pretty bored by it, so I guess he wouldn't have minded too much.

So sure was I that I wasn't going to swim that instead of rushing to bed straight away after supper I stayed up chatting with Corin and Neil and them went and read the bloody book I'd packed in the event of having to wait for a couple of days.  Eddie Ette, the boss of Enduroman, who organised the Arch to Arc, told me not to set my alarm and to sleep for as long as I could on the off chance that I did manage to swim in the following days.

The Swim

At 7.45am someone was banging on my door telling me that the swim was back on and to get out of bed.  I was in a deep, deep sleep and needed more deep, deep sleeps.  Didn't this person know I had run 87 miles the day before?

I opened the door to find Dan outside breathless with excitement, which was when I remembered  to put a towel on.  Conditions at sea had improved markedly and we were back on for a Midday start. I was really, genuinely going to attempt the English Channel! The most iconic swim in the world (if you are British). Time for a massive breakfast.

We loaded up the gear that was needed to get us over the 22 miles of water and that was also needed to keep us comfortable for the next few hours. There was always a fear that I had forgotten something crucial like goggles or wetsuits.  Zara and Alex, my crew for the swim arrived and introduced themselves.  They were handpicked for their skills.  Zara for her experience as a Channel swimmer and musical tastes and Alex for his experience on small boats and his disregard for any emotional histrionics that I might have.

When we got on the boat I was amazed by how calm I felt.  I would have made a good sniper, apart from my poor eyesight and an aversion to killing things. Maybe it was  disbelief that this was happening and partly confidence in the amount of training that I had put in to this.  I knew I had given everything I could do this phase of the event. I rarely go into any endurance event feeling prepared, but I do believe that I could have done no more and held down any semblance of external life.

The captain of the boat, Gallivant,  was the famous Mike Oram  who on greeting me asked me if I had an ice axe and crampons because the waves were going to be so high.  Ah, that knockabout salty sea dog humour that always relaxes a first time Channel swimmer. He drove/sailed/skated Gallivant round to Shakepeare Beach, one of the traditional starting points for a Channel attempt. There is something so noble about starting from Shakespeare. Think of the rousing, clarion call of Henry V.  I'd have liked the words to match a speech of such stature but the best I could think of was "oh, shit". The swimmer will jump off the back of the boat, swim to shore, haul him/herself clear of the waves and then on a given signal will re-enter the water to start the swim.

At Midday the fog horn on Gallivant sounded and I threw myself into the water for the biggest physical challenge of my life.  I won't attempt to describe an hour by hour account of what happened. Time and sensation segues into one long sense of an enormous experience. Very little changed for me until the swim's end,  It was an endless attack on the water.  One arm over another again and again.  They say it takes about 40,000 strokes to get across the Channel.  I have no idea.  To me it is just a series of impressions of water, sky, boat, water, sky, boat and the constant noise of water roaring in my ears.  For seven hours it was light and sunny and for ten hours I just looked into darkness.


This really is it!

Alex and Zara looked after me so well, as did the ever present Dan.   Both remained very calm, encouraging and almost professional throughout. This was to be crucial for what was to ensue.  I had told them in no uncerain terms that there were two things that I did not want to know:

1) Nothing about time - how long I had been swimming, how much longer to go etc..

2) Where I was geographically in relation to anything.

Right from the moment we set off, I then completely undermined these very strict requests all by myself.  I asked to be fed every hour which therefore meant I could count time easily.  I also had an idea of what time I thought I could swim the Channel in (possibly the most stupid thing I could have done, but also impossible not to do).  Finally and dangerously, I had in my mind's eye a map of the Northern Coast of France between Calais and the Cap Gris Nez- the closest point to Britain.   Landing at the Cap is the aim of every Channel swimmer, as it can save hours of swimming.

I felt strong in the water.  I was always tense as I had no idea what the run had taken out of me and also I had no idea what swimming the Channel would take out of me. Put the two together and anything might happen.  Indeed, within the second hour I had a patch of feeling devoid of energy which was worrying, but soon passed. Around 5 to 6 hours in to the swim I began to feel queasy.  I was a bit surprised by this and my hyper vigilance to anything untoward made me concerned.  Like so many things in endurance exercise this feeling soon passed on and left me.  It was only after the swim that I discovered that I had been in really rough waters and that Mike Oram had told the guys that this was likely to add about 5 hours to the journey and would most likely mean that I would be taken down the coast towards Calais. This was one of my worst case scenarios and was to be played out in my mind in a big way later.



The sun went down to my right (West - all as it should be) and I ploughed on into the twilight.  It  may be hard to appreciate but as a swimmer, even in daylight, you are so low in the water that you can see nothing at all. We passed close to the famous Varne Lightship, through the busiest shipping lanes in the world and I was oblivious to it all - not a single ship did I see. I spotted two jellyfish and a couple of things that were either silver foil or weird fish creatures.  That was it. Once it was dark all visual sense was limited. All I saw was the faces of the crew in the lights of Gallivant.  Very beautiful they were, too.  I kept counting the hours/feeds and this insistence on counting made me begin to wonder what was happening.  At 12 hours in I had expected to see the distant coastal lights when I stopped to feed.  Except that I wasn't 12 hours in! The crew had cut my feeds from hourly to every 45 minutes.  There was no need to tell me, quite rightly, because I had said that I wasn't interested in time.  But I was now counting 45 minutes as hours and beginning to think that something had gone seriously amiss.

From my perceived twelve hours of swimming, it all becomes a jumble of disjointed thought and misplaced fear.  I did begin to see lights on the coast, but they looked such a long way away.  When I stopped for my feeds I would look ahead (fatal) and think that the lights had got further away.  I began to believe that I had been dragged by the tide further and further down the coast and that I was near Calais.  So strong was this belief that at one point whilst feeding I believed that I could hear the industrial machinery of a large port.  Even writing this and re-imagining the scene I see a large bay, many miles away with the lights of commerce and the sounds of heavy industry.  In reality I was staring at the coastline of rural France.

I began to become disillusioned.  As I stopped to feed I kept telling the crew that I knew what had happened and that I had been swept down the Channel by the tide and that I was in danger of never landing.  The crew, sticking to my strict instructions, just kept telling me that I had no idea what was happening and to keep swimming.  How I hated their know-it-all stance. That smug expression people have when they have the knowledge and you don't.  I was beginning to become quite irrational. With irrationality comes panic, and with panic the chaos that will destroy any endurance event.




Gradually becoming irrational - photos of my swim possibly taken from The Hubble Telescope.

Instead of panic I was fortunate enough to accept my lot. I became resigned to the fact that I was a long way off target, that the swim was going to take twenty plus hours and that I may even be taken out of the water because I was never going to make landfall.  This was a hard, lonely place to be in, but I did something that I now consider to be quite brave.  I decided that I wouldn't stop and that I would only concede defeat when Mike Oram or Dan told me that the swim was now futile and that I would never make it.  This was a very intense time.  I can only describe my mind as being white hot.  It was molten in its intensity, radiating a mad heat.  I visualised white heat within.

I stopped to feed and there was a significant change in the established feed order.  Mike Oram came out of his cabin, told me to hurry up, and then said "You've missed the Point by 1000 metres, I'm going to try and get you in on the bay".  I took "the Point" to be a bright light that appeared to me to be on a buoy in the water.  The bay I assumed to be Calais bay, although I was never sure that there was a bay around Calais.  More swimming.  Endless swimming.  Would it never end?  I seemed to have gone past the bright light - this Point that Mike had mentioned.  Maybe the tide would sweep me into the bay and I might actually finish.  But there still seemed to be no sign of land close by. In reality "the Point" was the lighthouse on top of the Cap.  It is about 200 feet up on a cliff.  Even today I cannot believe the difference between my viewpoint and the reality of these physical objects. Whether it was optical illusion caused by the night and being low in the water or whether it was strength of imagination I will never know, but it was so real to me.

Suddenly, without warning, I was joined in the water by Dan. We had agreed that I would only have a support swimmer if I needed to speed up to get through a tide.  My heart sank.  Did I have to race another tide?  How much longer did that mean that I would have to swim for?  I put my head down ready to carry on when suddenly the most magical thing happened.  The boat stopped moving.  It didn't come with us.  We were alone.  This meant one thing only: the waters were too shallow for Gallivant and therefore I must have reached the coast of France.  I began to sob in the water.  This was the culmination of so much work and hard training and it had paid off.  My fingers began to scrape against sand.  Dan asked me to try and stand up, but I couldn't.  My legs had stiffened up while I had been swimming and I just rolled around in the surf like a piece of flotsam.  In the end I crawled out of the sea on my hands and knees and finally stood clear of the waves at 5.24am on the 16th September 2014.  I had become a Channel swimmer.


The most fitting song of this blog - back to the beginning


My favourite image of the swim.  Alongside Gallivant at the very end .


Beach selfie.  Not looking my best. How I imagine I might look after 
an evening of indulging myself in trepanning.

Back on the boat with Alex, Zara, Dan and Neil I talked for England.  Although I was exhausted I knew I had transcended anything I had ever believed myself capable of.  It was just over a year since I had stood with Dan discussing Channel swimming and coping with the stark reality that I was not up to it. All documented in my diaries.  Yet, 15 months later I had achieved the second and hardest stage of the hardest of all triathlons.  There was so much to say, and I loved everyone around me, especially my crew.  I loved them like I had loved my first train set and my Action Man Land Rover when I was seven.  That is how great my affection was.  Alex, Zara and Dan have always been more cautious around me ever since, but, god, I loved those guys for what they had done for me.

Transition 2

The boat headed to Calais and we were greeted by a gorgeous Channel sunrise.  The world was a good place to be.


I said good bye to Mike Oram, Zara and Alex and we unloaded our stuff on the quayside at Calais (hint to smugglers - no passport checks or customs).  We also unloaded Alex's stuff including his passport and wallet even though he was going back to Britain.  He was, needless to say, delighted with the extra hassle that caused after spending 21 hours at sea. Because of the love thing exuding from every pore of me I think everyone was keen to dump me in Calais.  Even Mike Oram, the salty sea dog captain had begun to look nervous as I thanked him for the 50th time and repeatedly invited him round to watch a film at my house.

I had been booked into a hostel in Calais with the aim of getting some sleep before continuing.  I dozed off for a little while but my back was killing me and I was so damned excited that I just couldn't sleep.  After a couple of hours I was up and had decided to resume the challenge.  I gave myself a noticeably short break before rallying Alli, Andrew, Corin, Neil and the ever present Dan for the final part of the challenge.

The Bike

It was a beautiful day and at 2pm I set off from a car park in Calais on my bike.  Apart from commuting into work I had done virtually no cycle training and this section of the Arch to Arc was going to be painful and slow.

The first section takes you along the coast to Boulogne. Being a coastal road there is a lot of up and downs and, quite frankly, the ups were a real ball ache .  The initial 25 miles to Boulogne were, guess what, slow and painful, but the scenery made up for it.  We Brits hit Calais and disappear into the French interior whereas I will definitely spend some time on that coastline.  It is lovely, and is probably a lot quicker to reach than Devon or Cornwall from the South East. But you're not reading this blog for travel tips.  I cycled past Wissant beach, where I had landed the previous night,( he writes, already wistful at the memory.)


 Wistful at Wissant

At Boulogne I had a real athlete's meal of Big Mac, large frites, two litres of Coke, a milkshake and a large coffee.  That was the last hot food until Paris, although I did develop an obsession with Emmental baguettes for the duration of the ride.  From then on we wound our way through beautiful landscapes and a huge number of wind farms along the back roads to Paris.  Another day finished and just as I'd run and swum through the night, so I cycled for this final night.  The sky was cloudless and the display of stars in the countryside, untarnished by light pollution was breathtaking. Small towns and villages came and went, every one of them quiet and closed once the sun had gone down.  My only observation about the difference between the cultures in our two countries is that the French don't have pubs to go to until 11pm and their teenagers don't hang around in their village squares sniffing glue or whatever teenagers sniff these days. At one point during the evening I spoke to my daughter who had been desperate to see me finish.  She told me that the school, draconian in its attitude to unofficial absence, would not allow her to come and see me finish and that as I was finishing she would be in double maths.  Give me the pain of the Arch to Arc any day over the pain of double maths... 

By 5am traffic was beginning to build up as we hit the commuter towns outside of Paris. With 50 miles to go I could see the planes taking off from Charles de Gaulle and I knew this task was nearly done.  Around about 7 am we had our final stop in a petrol station.  Stopping was never a great idea as I would become comatose as soon as I stopped moving.  This time I crashed out against the wall of the petrol station looking like a man who's had a Diamond White or two too many.

The service station marked the final stage into Paris.  From that point on Dan made sure I never strayed from the vehicle as we negotiated the Paris rush hour.  My timing was terrible and unbeknownst to me my arrival at the Arc was being put back again and again by heavy traffic for all the people who were kindly following my progress.

We hit Place de la Concorde and the bottom of the Champs Elysses where Dan stopped me and asked  me to wait.  At the top of this most famous of French boulevards was the Arc de Triomphe and the team wanted time to get in position to cheer me in at the end.  After counting to a thousand on Dan's instructions - something I dutifully did, but found ridiculously difficult in the fog of fatigue and emotion, I slowly pedalled my way up the road.  I felt quite sad.  It had been a great adventure and it was drawing to a close.  I guess I knew it was only one moment in a life and that trying to hold that moment, important as it was, would not be possible and normal life would soon replace this. After the ecstasy, the laundry.

As I got closer to the Arc I could hear people cheering and saw banners and t-shirts.  There in front of me was the unexpected and lovely sight of friends, family and colleagues all in Paris and all there to celebrate the end of this odyssey. It was a bit too much for me to compute.  With ten yards to go and lots of familiar, happy faces in front of me, the pedestrian crossing changed to a red light and programmed to obey, I stopped, which confused the welcoming committee and makes for very odd video footage of what should be a decisive moment.

The light changed to green, the pedals revolved five more times and I was done.  It was finished.  My wife and two of my children were there, a total surprise to me.  I had fallen for the double maths lie! Dave Dawson had driven them over and put them up in a hotel the previous night.  Totally selfless as ever, Dave. My colleagues Karen and Jess had driven over, Corin was there, his road trip complete and a friend and Channel swimmer called Tracy had come over from Holland. The celebrations were all orchestrated by Alli H who had supplied banners and t-shirts to everyone and despite trying to run me over during the night had looked after me throughout the ride and given me the much needed baguettes. The only person unable to take part was Andrew who had to keep driving the car around Paris because there was nowhere to park. And I was too overawed to take any of this in. I just felt unable to adequately say thanks or express the love and gratitude I feel so strongly now.



That is it.  I could go on and talk about the car breakdown which stranded Alli, Neil and Andrew in France for another night. I should have been with them but had been whisked into another car and taken to a hotel to be cleaned up. Yep, feel guilty about that. As I was handed my phone I got my first glimpse of how many people had been supporting me and the incredible amount of money that had been pledged by so many people - almost £20,000. My greatest adventure left me humbled by the love, support and generosity of so many people.

Postscript

Lots of people have lots of opinions about the Arch to Arc and I have had plenty of offers of analysis and plenty of judgement, both good and bad; Selfish, selfless, destructive, addictive, inspiring, exemplary,  deflecting, pointless.  There is merit to all these opinions.  Whatever, you make of it it is done and I have become the oldest person to date to complete the event.  I was the 6th fastest Arch to Arc as well, which causes me some amusement, as that was never in the plan.

Yes, I accept it is probably an extension of all the addictive qualities that any therapist would tell you helps me fill the voids.  We all do something to pour cement into our emptier spaces.  I do this as a better alternative to what I once did. Being naturally deferential to negative opinion I could ride with the psychoanalysis and say that the whole thing is a reflection of my obsessive / addictive qualities.

There is another way of looking at this.  Why shouldn't a person celebrate some sense of personal awe when running huge distances?   How many of us ever really celebrate what our bodies are capable of - not at this level, but any level?  We have the most astonishing shells to propel us and so rarely do we appreciate them.  For most of the 87 mile run I felt astonished at the force beyond me that allowed me this privilege to use this body of mine in such a way. I don't recognise the Paul Parrish who can do these things. I also ask you when does anyone make their mind glow white hot?  I will never forget the swim for the way it made me enter deeper into my recesses of survival instinct.  Ultimately, the events at the end of that swim allowed me to make one of the bravest decision I have ever made.  I consciously decided to swim until I was stopped by the crew when I believed the game was up and that I would never land in France. I have a new sense of self respect based on that. Up until now I have felt a bit of a charlatan - a chancer when I "go long".  The Channel has made me see there is a rich seam of bravery running through me.  So no more running away from the big lads.  Finally, and this clinches it for me: what a privilege to have run and swam so far and then to pedal through the night under a sky so full of stars that to look up made you breathless with the infinite.  I think only when my body is so stripped down to its very basics can I really appreciate the real miracles that surround me. The whole adventure was worth it just for those few precious hours of perspective of self and surroundings.

Thank you for all of your support.




Friday, 12 September 2014

Tick Tock

So this will be my last post prior to departing for the Arch to Arc. The clock is now counting down and I have one sleep to go.  I am sitting at work and juggling last minute plans, trying not to get too stressed.  I was told at 10 am by my Race Director, Dan Earthquake that there is a swim window on Monday that appears to be taking shape.  This means I will need to start the run at 8pm, but possibly at Midday, tomorrow, the 13th September.  So it's finally here.  Even now, so firmly in denial am I that I am hoping we can go for 8pm and not Midday, because that gives me an extra 8 hours.....work out that logic!

But before I get all excitable pre event, it's time for the last sea song.  There are so many that I could choose from.  Putting together my playlist of 190 nautical songs was great fun and an education. There are some fantastic bits of music that I have grown to love about the sea and swimming. It is as much a muse as the Sirens themselves.  I still think "Song of the Siren" and  Corbin Murdoch's "Channel Swimmer" from my last post are some of my favourite songs.  They have become part of my lexicon and will always remind me of this strange, frightening and chaotic period of my life.  One more for you which has lots of minor chords and a lovely poignancy to it is this number by Frank Black and the Catholics - "The Swimmer"




I don't have much to say at the moment. Obviously, I am nervous.  I guess I fear failure but I fear lots of things.  I do know it will be incredibly hard.  I just hope that my experience of being in dire straits and not stopping will prove enough to sustain me.  Yes, it's the Channel that intimidates and it is the one element of the event that I don't have control over it.

So here are the things that I know:

1) It will be hard
2) It will not follow my plan
3) Time will slip away
4) I will worry about my crew
5) I will want to stop
6) I will finish

I put number (6) in because you need to be a bit bullish about stuff.  I have done a few sales courses in my time, you know.

I think that is enough.  I will let you know how it goes.  I can't believe that all this training and all these years will eventually be condensed into a few short days.

One more song, seeing as this is so short, but don't forget to donate to my charity Aspire.  An amazing place, and whilst I have been typing Paula Craig has been in to see me.  When I got into triathlons back in 2005, my triathlon club did all its fundraising for this charity called Aspire.  It was a charity that helped people who had sustained a spinal cord injury gain independence after injury and didn't mean that much to me back then.  Well, until I heard about Paula;  She was a top quality athlete (sub 3 hours for London marathon) and was returning from a training ride along a road near where I live when she was hit by an ex-copper who had forgotten his glasses and was using the kerb to find his way along the road.  Paralysed in the accident, she didn't seem to let a broken spine phase her and will tell you , and I now she is being truthful, that she just didn't feel sorry for herself or bitter about what happened.  She came second in the London Marathon wheelchair event and made history by being the only person to both run and "push" the event.  She represented GB as Paralympian triathlete and also continued her career as a senior police officer in the murder squad. Understandably she was awarded the MBE.   I wish she would blog, because she is truly inspirational and will be someone I shall seek strength from as I trudge along. Anyway, Aspire helped her at the time with adapted accommodation and she has always been a great advocate for our work.  So you could donate if you have some spare loose change at :

www.justgiving.com/PaulParrishArch2Arc

You will feel good once you have done it. I promise

Final Song:


Thanks for reading.

For Louise, Jane, Daryl and Doug. Thinking of you and all the myriad reasons unfathomable to so many.



Monday, 18 August 2014

Channel Relay 2 - Decisions are made

Before we get to the meat of the post it is, of course, time for this week's swimming song.  I occasionally get feedback that people are confused by a hardcore triathlon blog that begins with me weeping openly about the symbolism in some poncey song. I mean what's that got to do with sweat, slinky tri-suits and Shimano gears?  Well it's merely a way of educating you readers into the rich canon of songs about swimming there are out there and how swimming is used in so many pieces of music. The sea and water move us, man......  I have taught myself to swim so I can cross the Channel and so I'd like to celebrate that fact by delving into the aforementioned library of swimming songs available to the world. For those of you who are ever considering trying the Arch to Arc, forget how well you run, forget  how well you cycle, just work on how well you swim.  You, too, will need to listen to songs about swimming....

This one isn't available on You Tube but click on the link and listen whilst you read my blog.  I don't know much about Corbin Murdoch, or why he so badly mis-spelt his name, but I love this song.  Give it a few listens.  Lyrically, incredibly rich and the music really grows on you.  For me, one of the essential Channel swimming songs. "There are creatures in the ocean that no one has ever seen".  Yeah. Arrow key and click and enjoy:

Corbin Murdoch Channel Swimmer


Last week I took part in my second Channel Relay with Aspire, the charity for which I work (just in case you haven't got with the programme).  I was part of the Seahorse (or is it Seahorses) team, a group of 6 swimmers forged together in the swimming furnace of Dover Harbour. Andre, Kate, Peter, Richard, myself and Colin were the team members, set to swim in the order just written.

I was really looking forward to the swim and was extremely excited.  Having successfully crossed last year with the Aspire Pelicans I had done that thing which I do after every endurance event - I had erased any memory of the bad times and the discomfort that is part of any big challenge. I lulled myself into a position of security thinking only in linear terms about how well an event would go were I to be in control of it.

Which is why the event started inauspiciously for me.  Feeling confident and ebullient I went around to see my mentor, Dave Dawson, to chat about his piddly 22 mile swim scheduled for the following week in Loch Lomond. (more of which later) As I was leaving he handed me a large quantity of chocolate covered pineapple chunks that his sister had sent over from New Zealand and told me that they might be good for the boat and give me a bit of a lift.  "Too right" I thought and put the chocolate on the car seat next to me as I set off for Dover.  I'm not an addict for nothing and by the time I was at Maidstone I had eaten every single one of them.  Well, you know, they were a bit "moreish".  By the time I got to Ashford I was feeling very uncomfortable and by the time I got to Dover I was so queasy it was as if I had already  been on a stormy sea for a few days.

The start of any relay is always very exciting.  You motor round to Samphire Ho or Shakespeare Beach and swimmer no 1 jumps off and swims to the beach, hauls themselves clear of the water and then on the whistle begins the swim. Okay, that doesn't sound too exciting, but when you are on the boat your sense of anticipation makes you feel as excited as if you are at the O2 waiting for One Direction to take to the stage Sadly, on this occasion I was feeling so queasy because of the chocolate that I just couldn't muster my normal bubble gum pop enthusiasm.  I probably broke all sea sickness records by then depositing a kilo of chocolate pineapple lumps into the Channel within 15 minutes of leaving port.  Brilliant, Paul - great planning. Well done.  If that was a solo it could have finished me there and then.

The relay itself had many dramatic moments. Nothing in endurance anything ever goes to plan.  Remember that, folks.  We swam in rotation in fairly benign conditions to begin with. There was a hint of trouble when one of the swimmers set out too fast and seemed totally exhausted by the end of his hour.  I then remember I was sitting next to the highly amusing Colin Palmer, a man who has previously annoyed the sea gods so much that when he turned to me and said "these conditions couldn't be much more perfect" I actually felt the wind bristle with anger.  Within a minute of him making that comment the wind was blowing, the waves were up and for the next seven hours we battled against choppy seas and some big waves. Cheers Colin! The situation deteriorated completely as our "gone out too fast" swimmer struggled so much on his second swim that it was all we as a team could do to keep him in the water.  He was incredibly brave but he really struggled with the Channel and to keep any semblance of a stroke as his confidence broke down.  We made no forward motion and the boat began to drift in the tide down towards Calais.  France was tantalisingly close but we were not making any headway.


France doing what it does best on a Channel crossing. Tantalising with its closeness. There's probably 3 more hours swimming to get to the coast - yeah, really!

 If we drifted past Calais we would have been on our way to Belgium and it would have been "goodnight Vienna" or Brussels or Antwerp or somewhere.... Finally, finally inch by inch, our fourth swimmer, flanked by unlucky Colin, provoker of the gods and Kate Barker, in need of a wash after I was slightly sick over her, got closer to the shore and was able to haul himself clear.  Once he'd fought off adoring French beach beauties who thought he had made a solo crossing, Swimmer no 4, or Peter, as he likes to call himself, returned to the boat and we all hot footed it back to Dover, The White Horse pub and a wall signing ceremony.


So that was my second relay across. It was a really important day out because it helped me make a decision that needed making.  Although I was stupid to eat all that chocolate-covered pineapple it actually helped in my mental preparation.  I didn't feel great all day on the boat, and that meant that when I was swimming I was slightly more aware of the cold than normal.  Also, for my second swim when the waves began to threaten I was much more in tune with the immensity of the sea and how fickle and uncaring it is for us mortals.  I realise that I need every bit of help I can get for the Arch to Arc.  The rules of the event permit the use of a wetsuit so why wouldn't I wear one?  Why make something that is incredibly difficult even more difficult for the sake of my pride and how I am perceived by a very small number of purist swimmers?  I am not showing the event enough respect and I have lost humility if I don't take the aids I am allowed. To be 8 hours into the swim and to find I am losing forward motion because of cold and fatigue caused by the run without a wetsuit would be a tragedy.  Can you imagine how cross I would be that I hadn't protected myself. I would also be scared to know that I had sacrificed success for ego and arrogance. So wetsuit it is!


Swimmer no 4 flanked by scourge of the gods, Colin and sickie Kate

I was also given another reality check as a result of crewing for my mate Dave Dawson (those of you who read my blog will be aware of the unwavering support Dave has given to me in the years leading up to the Arch to Arc).  Last week Dave attempted to become the first Kiwi to swim the length of Loch Lomond - all 21.6 miles of it.  He is a great swimmer and pushes himself hard all the way.  He set off into a force 3 for the first quarter of the challenge and maintained an astonishing pace almost throughout the event.  As with all endurance events the pain became evident in the last quarter.  Dave struggled to feed and with an hour to go he was demanding that we get him out.  We are all his friends, we care for him and we love him dearly, so as friends do, we ignored him and made him finish the swim.  After 12 hours 23 minutes he joined the likes of Edmund Hillary as another Kiwi "first" and hauled himself clear of the water.  It still confounds me as to how he kept going ; myself and Zara, the other support swimmer on the boat and a Channel soloist, threw ourselves into the water for the last half an hour and came out almost hypothermic.  How Dave had sustained himself in the cold for 12 hours I do not know.  

He was put to bed and hasn't been right since.  He was very poorly for the first three days after finishing.  When I saw him yesterday, 5 days on he was still unable to eat properly and needed to lie down frequently.  Dave achieved one of the most amazing things I have ever witnessed.  I had those prickly, teary eyes again seeing him finish this.  Being part of the crew for 12 hours brought home  to me just how gargantuan these swims are and how they deplete the human body.  If ever we thought this stuff was all smoke and mirrors Dave is testament to the reality and dangers of super endurance.  It has left me a little shaken.  But Dave, you are a hero and thank you for the ride. 

 
All smiles to start and knockabout fun with a rubber glove. Dave also pictured at the finish staring blankly at the camera.  Totally spent.

Once again I am left remembering that I have to approach these events with real humility.  They are much bigger than me and the dance I have with them is only to be brief and on their terms.


Friday, 1 August 2014

The Lakeland 50 - I am Alpha Male

I am trying to get You Tube to download this pesky piece of video, and it just won't play ball. The link from You Tube takes you to some weird 3 year old laughing his head off when I try and embed it into this blog.  I really want this to be seen and so I am going to persevere.  Will you please click on the link or, if that doesn't work, copy and paste and put it into your search engine and watch this sublime song performed by my friends Steve and Michelle?


Lovely, isn't it? And it's a song about the sea.  Perfect, because it fits in with my insistence on starting each post with a nautically themed song which confuses people when they get to the blog and read the first post.  Isn't Michelle's voice incredible?  Compare it with the Tim Buckley or This Mortal Coil version and, in my humble opinion, it beats them hands down.

Anyway the reason for all this is is that I was heading up to Coniston for the Lakeland 50.  Steve and Michelle live in Windermere   Steve is an old school friend and played guitar in a band at the school which was a really cool thing to do and 32 years later I still think it's really cool and I am delighted that the cool kid from school gave me two cups of tea and, when I wouldn't leave the house, had to let me stay for an evening meal.  He hasn't stopped playing guitar since school, so you can imagine how talented he is.  After the meal (that I demanded) and in between demanding other things I also demanded that Steve play the guitar to entertain me.  So he started plucking away at the strings and then from my left Michelle began to sing in that amazingly haunting voice she has. It was truly beautiful. A voice that would carry beautifully across the waves. I hadn't expected this and a duet sung at a table is a very powerful thing. Let's get this straight, I do macho sport stuff and I want to be Alpha Male and hunt fish and shoot things and carry a briefcase and scare people in business meetings whilst sitting with my legs wide open and scratching my arse; but as they performed this beautiful duet I could feel this prickling sensation at the backs of my eyes and the start of a sniffle in my nose.  Some people might say these were tears, but I reckon it was pollen in their garden.  Damn you sensitive, creative, musical types.  Stop undermining me!


Crap view from Steve and Michelle's house




My own private gig. Song to the Siren

The following day I was back to being a hunter-gatherer ready to man-up to the Lakeland 50.  I did this last year and really enjoyed it.  I finished comfortably in the top half- 192nd out of 583 but in a time that seems slow - 13 hours 26 minutes.  But it's a tough, tough course - literally up, up, up and a bit of down.  Paths can be indistinct and they are rock strewn so you have to be incredibly careful.  I was very aware this weekend that one turn of my ankle could finish my Arch to Arc attempt.  That is some pressure when competing.


"Selfie" before the Lakeland 50.  The last time I was to look happy for the next 14 hours.

We were bussed out to a place called The Delmain Estate from which to start the run back to Coniston.  It took over an hour and a half to get there which should have had my alarm bells ringing.  By the time we set out the temperatures were well into the high 70's and there was no breeze at all.  Even higher up in the fells there was no air-flow and the temperatures remained high.  Once we'd dropped into the valleys the heat became unbearable.  I got to the 20 mile stage and Checkpoint 2 and I just wanted to stop - jack the whole stupid thing in.  I wanted to tear my disgusting, sweat and dirt stained running gear off and walk away.  The smell of electrolyte drink seemed to permeate everything and drinking it just made me retch. Whenever the route passed a tarn I wanted to throw myself into the coolness of the water and  escape this pain and debilitating heat.

I think I spent about 6 hours in a state of excruciating discomfort.  Between 20 and 35 miles I couldn't keep any food down, but kept trying to eat.  To stop eating is the quickest way to exit any endurance event, but so often nausea makes food the lowest priority on the list.  Even liquids stop working.  No drink made me feel right.  I even threw up after cups of tea, and I love tea during an event.  It is a taste-neutral drink and normally has uplifting properties. 6 hours is a very long time to spend in the "jumping off zone".  Would I have given up?  I doubt it, but all the way my head was telling me that this was horrible- awful - it had to stop. I have learnt to ignore my head's stupid self-centred whining and I guess I intuitively knew that it was just throwing its toys out of the pram once again.

As gradually as the pain and discomfort had started, it just as gradually left me.  Departing from Ambleside at the 35 mile mark, the sun had gone down, it was much cooler and my body made one of those incomprehensible re-adjustments. It went back to felling "okay". My fastest section was out of that checkpoint and on to the next, when I fell into step with two guys called William and Andy.  We ran the remainder of the route together, encouraging each other, supporting each other but without actually having any meaningful conversation with one another.  5 hours together and I couldn't tell you a single piece of information about either of them.  Maybe that's because I was too busy telling them about ME!

At about 1.30 we hit the road into Coniston and back to Race HQ and the glorious finish.(Just in case you are a normal, well balanced individual who wonders why anyone would do this to themselves, run 50 miles in searing heat and experience that moment of crossing the finish line.  It is sublime). This year I was 30 minutes slower but still comfortably in the top half of the field.  Okay, "comfortably" is most definitely not the right word, but you know what I mean; 232nd out of 603.  The winner did it in something stupid like seven and a half hours but he must have been an alien visitor dressed as a human who had ingested some serious, heavy duty amphetamines .

I had my wash bag and clean clothes waiting for me and hobbled back to the port-a-showers.  They were disgusting, but it still ranks as one of my all time Top 10 showers.  Trust me I have had some great showers in my time and I know a bit about Triton and Mira showers to tell you that this was a sublime cascade of beautiful warm, cleansing water.

So that's it.  My last really big and serious run before the Arch to Arc.  I couldn't have picked anything more torturous or testing.  I didn't pull out despite 6 hours of my befuddled brain demanding I desist immediately from this stupidity. It is a confidence builder, but I forget just how tough this stuff is at times.  The race organiser gave some great advice to us before the Lakeland 50.  He basically said that he reads a lot of motivational stuff on our Facebook pages: all these comments about how we like a challenge and like to face adversity.  All well and good he said, but he then pointed out that most of us turn up to an event with some target time we want to beat (me!) and an expectation that things will run smoothly to allow us to do this.  When that doesn't happen, that is when most people pull out of an event. We have signed up to a challenging event and are surprised when it meets that expectation and many of us can't handle it.  I thought this was really well put and he finished by describing his definition of conquering real adversity; Real adversity is when you arrive at an aid station two hours behind your expected time.  You are beaten up, nauseous and you can't stand up.  You have to sit for an hour at that aid station hoping that with enough food and liquid your body will begin to function again.  If, after all that, you can get up out of a chair and stagger on with only the thought of getting to the next checkpoint, not the finish, in your head, then you have really conquered adversity.  A well made point.  Reflecting on that, I didn't have a bad day after all........




Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Sources of Inspiration

I think we will keep the sea song fairly straightforward this week.  Seven Seas of Rye by Queen.  When it was released and I was little, the song and the band used to scare me.  They all seemed a bit high energy and in your face to me. Don't forget I was raised in Lincoln, so skiffle bands were seen as the devil's work.  Age and experience have taught me that the band and Freddie Mercury, in particular, were quiet, understated musicians who rarely went to a party.


I'm not quite finished with my training yet, but I am beginning to count the weekends left to me to put any meaningful distance work into my challenge.  This is how it now looks:

26th July - The Lakeland 50.  A really tough 50 mile run, mainly uphill as far as I remember, but it ends where it started, so that must be an illusion - right?

2nd - 9th August Option 1: Channel Relay crossing:  I am booked on to a Channel relay boat for Aspire, the charity at which I work.  This will give me some chance to reacquaint myself with the English Channel outside of Dover Harbour and admire the immensity of the task I have ahead of me.  If this is postponed until later in the week I can move to :

2nd August Option 2: a 70 mile Sportive in the Cotswolds on my bike (I will have to blow the dust off my posh, competition bike).

9th/10th  August: Swim Dover/ Run 20 miles

16th/17th August Swim Dover / Run 20 miles

23rd/24th August Swim Dover / Run 13 miles

August Bank Holiday Light exercise, the beginning of my taper. Take some holiday

During all these weeks I will swim up to 5k a day on 3 days each week, something I have been doing for some time now, and also cycle about 90 - 120 miles a week as part of my daily commute.

So that's it. The end is well and truly in sight and I have a plan mapped out.  So much of my training has been without a clear map.  It has been constructed to fit around life, and wherever possible I have stolen time to try a monster endurance opportunity to strengthen my psychology - good examples were the 100 miler and  other ultra runs and the 10, 7 and 6  hour sea swims. I am also hoping that the past four years of longer and longer challenges has put me in the right place to succeed in this.

The training is all good and I have been dutiful. I have taken it seriously.  People are on the whole encouraging about the task.  Some people think it inspiring, some obsessive, some impressive and on Sunday the most honest comment I heard was that it's selfish.  It certainly is all of those things and selfish is as accurate as anything.  I take that on board.  I do this for charity ( https://www.justgiving.com/PaulParrishArch2Arc/ if you're interested) but I do it for myself.  I do it to take myself away from where I once was, and I do it to give myself pride and self esteem and I do it because I am privileged and can do.  It's been a long road and I want to prove that you can think yourself washed up, but with the right mindset you can change and move on a different plane.

I have been chatting to an old friend from many years ago, and she sent me this quote from an ultra runner David Blaikie.  It is an erudite synopsis of why this stuff works for some of us.

"Perhaps the genius of ultra running is it's supreme lack of utility. It makes no sense in the world of spaceships and supercomputers to run vast distances on foot. There is no money in it and no fame, frequently not even the approval of peers. But as poets, apostles and philosophers have insisted since the dawn of time, there is more to life than logic and common sense. The ultra runner knows this instinctively. And they know something that is lost on the sedentary. They understand, perhaps better than anyone, that the doors to the spirit will swing open with physical effort. In running such long and taxing distances they answer a call from the deepest realms of their being ~ a call that asks who they are……."

And on that note I will go to Jane's funeral........

Monday, 7 July 2014

Remembering Jane

Forgive me for some self indulgence, but it's my blog, so bear with.  The song I have chosen this week was going to be the final song I was going to choose before signing off for the Arch to Arc.  But sometimes a song is just right for the time and at the moment this song reverberates with me in many different ways. I like the lyrical sentiment. If you have some big life stuff ahead of you then this could be the song for you.  Give it a go... "Swim" by Jack's Mannequin.


I was looking at my friend Jane's Facebook page last week.   I wanted to look back - probably in the vain hope that I could glean some meaning from it. On her timeline I found the following quote, which she attributed to Hugh Laurie:

“It's a terrible thing, I think, in life to wait until you're ready. I have this feeling now that actually no one is ever ready to do anything. There's almost no such thing as ready. There's only now. And you may as well do it now. I mean, I say that confidently as if I'm about to go bungee jumping or something - I'm not. I'm not a crazed risk taker. But I do think that, generally speaking, now is as good a time as any.”

I really like this. I have been getting stressed wondering how can I ever be ready for the Arch to Arc?  It is too much and too far.  When I look back there hasn't been a single endurance event that I have ever undertaken that I have felt ready for. The weeks before each event I becoming increasingly stressed as I realise that I can't be sure I will go the distance.  With a full time job and a family and a keen interest in procrastination there is never a chance that I can have fully prepared for these big events.  I think the thing I have learnt to do is get to the start line.  If I get that far and start to run/walk/cycle/swim/skip then there is a chance that I will finish.  I don't always succeed, (see previous post "Failure"), but more often than not I seem to muddle through. So Hugh Laurie is right; "You may as well do it now...."

I am going to remember that, Janey.  I have put so much into this Arch To Arc. I am as ready as I can ever be.  Sure, I haven't done much cycling this year, but if I get to Calais, I'll make a good stab at the 180 mile cycle.  I have run 100 miles in one go, as well as a number of 30, 40 and 50 milers.  I have swum upwards of 12 hours a week for a year and have managed a 10 hour swim, several sixes and I have some seven hour swims to come. I can't do any more.  Eddie Ette, coaching me, has told me to rein it back in now.  No need to leave my best swimming in Dover Harbour.  So, yes,  I am not ready, but as ready as I can be, and I will be able to set off on the Arch to Arc knowing I have given it my all.  Thank you Jane for that Facebook post.

Jane died last week aged 50.  She leaves two young children. 5 weeks ago she decided to take the top off a bottle and drink again. There can be no greater tragedy than seeing someone claw their way back to life, only to watch the power of their addiction drag them back down. I am sorry to use her death as a reason to blog. I don't want to be crass. But you should know how powerful and incomprehensible this stuff is.  You should know that in recovery we can walk a very fine line.

Friday, 27 June 2014

It's Not About the Bike

Today's song is a children's classic.  Everyone knows it and everyone has some way of interpreting it.  Puff the Magic Dragon has been sung by us all I suspect and like lots of my songs has no place on a blog about the Arch to Arc (not that this blog has that much to do with the Arch to Arc).  Basically, it's here because Puff the Magic Dragon lives by the sea.  So taking that into account as his residence he probably knows a fair bit about things of a nautical nature, and may have seen a few swimmers, although I have always believed him to be a solitary character.  When Little Jackie paper fails to show, I get the impression that Puff has few other friends to share his time and his life with.  When I was little I felt so bad for Puff, and today, at this moment in time I feel very much the same. We all need some friends.

Much has been written about this song being about drugs; Puff = marijuana, Jackie Paper being rolling papers.  Listen to it and you realise that is a nonsense interpretation.  Puff the Magic Dragon is a piece of imagination.  Jackie Paper is a boy who grows up and, as we do, loses his imagination and we see a reversal of reality as the fantasy (Puff) watches the reality (Jackie) disappear.  Even today the line, "A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys" makes me nod my head in sad recognition.  If only that didn't happen.  Being grown up is bloody difficult if you ask me.  

And if you still think there is a hint of drug use, check out this video from 1965.  Are you telling me that Peter, Paul and Mary were really rolling up backstage?



Having got that off my chest, I am struggling to make a link with that and the Arch to Arc. Maybe the Arch to Arc is my little fantasy and it offsets real life.  Yes,  there is a lot of  truth in that.  When you read this blog the natural end is the moment of the event itself.  But for me the hardest part of all this is having a long lead time to the start of the event and trying to negotiate the life that one leads whilst trying to get to the start point.  Every time life hits me with another brick I have to take the knock and carry on.  Since I signed up for the Arch to Arc, so many things have happened in my life and when I look back and look to the future I cannot comprehend how I can carry this project through without at some point being knocked off balance. My fear mounts and I am scared that the voice inside me will cry "enough's enough" and make me stop.

But it's very close now and with two and a half months to go, I just need to hold my nerve and keep going.  The Arch to Arc has become a place of escape and meditation.  The endless hours in the sea or running have been my place to chew over life's problems.  Not  that I think very deeply.  I can spend 50 minutes thinking about someone who pissed me off at work in 1989 but at some level it is ridding me of some of my more recent stresses.  And I need that at the moment. Yes, I really need that.

You will notice that I refer only to running and swimming.  I rarely, if ever, mention the bike leg of this event.  I think we should get this into context.  The bike from Calais to Paris is 180 miles.  Even by Tour de France standards that is longer than any one day stage that they will cycle.  But set against the depleting effect of an 87 mile run and the technical, physical and mental stamina needed to complete the swim the cycle ride is a the least frightening of the stages I need to tackle.

The cycle is a such a crucial part of any triathlon, but definitely plays third fiddle on this event.  I am used to some monstrous cycle rides - I have done a couple of 200 mile + cycle rides and on one, never to be forgotten event, managed 336 miles.  Just to pause for a moment, I cannot describe how glorious it felt to get my arse off my bike saddle after a 336 mile ride. I have always liked cycling.  Travelling long distances under your own steam is immensely satisfying.  But training on the bike is really time consuming.  When you are looking at the training needed to go above 200 miles it takes a lot of time out of your day, especially if you are a "so-so" cyclist like me.  I used to be off at 5.30 am and not back until Midday and still feel I hadn't achieved much.

On the other hand learning to be a Channel swimmer has certainly taken a lot of time up but it is only recently that the mammoth swims have really begun to happen. 6 hours in the water is a mammoth swim whereas it's not such a long time on a bike. Well, obviously it is, and it could be time better spent learning Spanish or how to bake cakes, but relatively speaking is what I'm talking about.

I can't project. I would love to tell you my dreams of how it might feel to cycle into Paris with the rest of the event successfully completed.  But I don't want to do that.  Sadly, I am now an adult and my fantasies have made way for realism and self doubt.  Where are you Jackie Paper?  Come back!

Monday, 9 June 2014

Humility

Okay this week's swim song is a total shocker, but it's title couldn't be more apt. It's 10cc's Channel Swimmer, which I think was a B-Side to one of their hits.  You have to hand it to Godley and the other fella in the band, they went to great lengths to fit a single conceit into a song - the idea of "crawling back to you" - front crawl - geddit? As a potential Channel swimmer I can't help getting cross with the lack of swimming knowledge displayed by members of a 70's soft rock band who were touring the world, taking drugs, earning vast amounts of money and driving fast cars.  You think that they would have had some time to do a little research into Channel swimming.  Honestly, like anyone would try and swim the Channel putting backstroke above crawl. (Maybe I'm missing the point in my small minded way...) Where they do get it right is the line "Who's be a Channel swimmer? Only a fool like me.".  Now that I do relate to.




Last weekend I was at the Enduroman long distance triathlon championships, helping out with a bit of marshalling and lap counting.  You have do to a serious amount of lap counting because at the championships you have a 200 mile run, a 100 mile run, a double iron distance and for those who really suffer from a  chasms in the soul;  a triple iron.  It was here in the New Forest that I have cut my teeth over the past three years taking part in both a double and triple distance triathlons.

As I was driving up I was telling my mate Rob about what a great bunch of people he would meet (Rob, you may remember is my running friend.  18 months ago he had never run more than a couple of miles and I went out running with him and briefly patronised him, by saying things like "You can do this Rob",  "Dig deep" and "not far now" as we built up his mileage.  He now leaves me trailing miles behind him, and although he is a lovely, lovely bloke I secretly harbour intense jealousy and a bit of resentment at how hard he has worked.). I really meant that.  This festival of ultra running is not what one might expect. The people who rock up for a weekend of extraordinary feats of endurance are very normal, very self effacing and so supportive of one another.

If I go to a traditional triathlon it is a different atmosphere altogether.  At the start line you are confronted with a wall of chiselled featured middle aged men, eyeing the water with a steely determination. (There are women and other age groups, but look at the demographic breakdown of any established triathlon and it is predominately male 35 - 49.  Together we can change this, folks).  There is very little banter and humour and the atmosphere is charged with testosterone.  At the start of the swim people will swim over one another to get a better position and the ensuing melee has sometimes given me panic attacks.  These very "nice", polite middle aged men turn feral once they hear the starting gun fired.  God knows what they are like in the boardrooms up and down the country.

Avon Tyrrel is a different atmosphere altogether; the swim start to the ultra triathlons is the utmost in politeness with competitors shaking hands, hugging and letting other competitors get in the water before them.  During the cycle sections and the run, we happily chatter, share food and drink and give lots of encouragement to one another.  I am still in touch with the guys from the year of my Triple Iron and many others from this strange clique.

Why the difference?  All of us came through the alpha male supercharged triathlon route, yet none of those aggressive attributes can be found when we race at endurance level.  My theory is that it is all about humility.  No one can approach any endurance triathlon or a 100 mile run with anything but humility. (By the way, Rob gets this.  He came second in his 100 mile run in the New Forest.  I have managed to avoid speaking to him ever since.)  When you know you are going to swim 7 miles, cycle 336 and run 78 miles you give those distances the utmost respect.  You know that you are attempting something that may allow you to compete, but could spit you out at any time.  For a short period of your life you find your hold on finishing an event to be very precarious.  You don't know if your amazing body (we all have an amazing body - please treasure it) will allow you to do this.  You don't know if distance will grind you to a halt.  You don't know if your mind will just stop supporting you and will suddenly, and it is very sudden, make you stop.  This stuff is way bigger than me and I just trust that today may be my day.

I have a magnificently huge ego.  I am now persuaded that I don't make the sun come up or go down at the beginning and end of the day.  I know that there are some things that are bigger than me.  One February I had picked my way across Striding Edge on Helvellyn and I stood at the base of the final steep climb up to the summit plateau.  Nothing hard or technical.  But at that moment in time as I stood on my own looking up at the track ahead, I felt so infinitesimally small, so insignificant - a fleeting visitor who was briefly allowed safe passage on a mountain. And so it is with ultra events.  I am like a guest at a party way out of my social comfort zone.  I won't be able to stay for long but if things go well, I may have a glass of orange,  a quick dance and make a few friends.  I hope the Arch to Arc allows me to briefly join with it. I hope it smiles on me in September.  I am only asking it to look out for me once.  I will give it the utmost respect.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

The Arch to Arc (2)

First off is the swimming song:  I've really gone obscure here and rifled the archives for a song I used to really like.  If you were into Indie music at the turn of the millennium a band called JJ72 briefly dented the charts with this little song "October Swimmer".  I add it to the collection because open water swimming in October is one of my favourite pleasures.  The lakes are cooling and with the drop in temperature comes a drop in the number of swimmers.  The triathlon season is out of the way and so those lakes that remain open get a small hard core of people who swim for pleasure.  October is special because it can still be warm both in and out of the lake and sometimes the lake water can be warmer than the air above it.  This creates a light mist which is fascinating to swim in.  Quite eerie, but also very calming.  Last time I wrote about the sensory experience that motivates me and I omitted to mention one of the most beautiful phenomenon that I have ever seen.  It was the last weekend of swimming for the year and I was in a lake near Hitchin.  I was swimming with a small group in this ethereal mist and as we swam the sun came up and got warmer and warmer. Instead of the mist gradually disappearing it receded into the middle of the lake and for a brief moment was like a mysterious cloud hanging there.  And then it was gone.  Beautiful.  Where was I?  Oh yes, JJ72.  I bet no one remembers this song or has even heard it:


So it's been a big few weeks; the 100 mile run is done; I have begun to go down to Dover for sea swimming; I successfully completed a 6 hour sea swim off Weymouth. On Monday this week I took part in a 10k swim and knocked 35 minutes off last year's time, and on Sunday this week I will be taking part in a 35 mile run. Interspersed with this is 90 to 120 miles of cycle commuting and very early morning swim sessions three times a week and also run sessions where possible.  It is a lot of training, and it dominates my thinking now with three and a half months left before the attempt.  I want to get this right.....

Eddie Ette was the first person to succeed at the Arch to Arc in 2000.  He made it on his third attempt and made two of these attempts in one month.  He is passionate about people achieving their goals and has helped me in many ways including taking me out for my 6 hour Weymouth swim whilst he fished for mackerel.  When he succeeded in 2000, Eddie had already soloed the Channel in 13 hours and yet took 17 hours in a wetsuit for his Arch to Arc. Such is the cruelty of the Channel. He held the course record until 2012 when a guy called Mark Baylis smashed the swim without a wetsuit and romped to Paris in a faster time.

I won't have more than one shot at the Arch to Arc.  This road has been very long and I have put a huge amount into it, but despite what I say about having lots of willpower, I couldn't train like this for another year.  Anyway, it costs too much and I want to live on fresh lobster and other posh stuff like cranberry juice and food that doesn't come with gravy.

It's been a blast; I have continually found myself staring down long roads that stretch out ahead of me, believing that getting to the end would be impossible.  It started with that marathon in April 2001. I was so physically and mentally fucked when I entered it on November 22nd 2000, that it seemed a sheer impossibility, but the journey from that point onwards has been astounding.  That marathon led to a sprint triathlon, and that led to an Olympic distance triathlon at Windsor.  I ate gallons of pasta for weeks beforehand, unsure as to whether my body would be able to complete a 10k run after a 27 mile bike ride. Having completed that and subsequently many other Olympic tri's there came the moment when someone said I should attempt an Ironman.  Surely that was the pinnacle of all athletic achievement and the preserve of the tri gods?  No, it isn't anyone's preserve;  Mildly overweight middle aged men like me could complete them, and I romped in to the grounds of Sherborne Castle as high as a kite in August 2007 having completed a full Iron distance.  More Ironmen followed and then came the double Ironman.  The double was crucial because it gave me the confidence to look at the Arch to Arc and so in the Autumn of 2011 I signed up for an attempt scheduled for September 2014. That would give me such a long time to train and be in a position to succeed. So, that's all good then.......

........last night I read my diary from May 2013.  It's not pretty reading.  I had just completed the Windsor 10k and had been one of the stragglers.  I had also been speaking to Channel swimmers and discovering the truth about the enormity of attempting a Channel swim.  I kept hearing the same phrase; "so-and-so had a swim background".  I didn't have any background in anything.  I couldn't even swim in 2004, let alone have swimming badges from the 1970's to sew on to my big swimming shorts. So, at this time last year I was facing the fact that I was not really a contender and hadn't fully understood what I was signing up for.
I don't feel like that now.  Two crucial things happened.  I met a guy called Nick from Eton school who had soloed 7 times.  He told me that to swim the Channel you needed, yes, you guessed it, a "swim background".  I told him I hadn't got one and he told me that in that case I should speak to a man called Uncle Ray who had a swim school in Canary Wharf. Ray has worked with me these past 12 months and firstly deconstructed and then reconstructed my stroke. He has changed everything and the swim times I am posting are testament to what a good coach and a bit of practice can do.

Secondly, I am blessed enough to know a Kiwi by the name of Dave Dawson.  Dave is a great swimmer, but he has always generously supported my endeavours.  Whenever I have done an endurance triathlon, Dave has sponsored me generously and always come along to offer assistance.  Dave knew I didn't have a snowflake in hell's chance of swimming the Channel, but he knew I could probably manage the other parts of the event. So, last year, unprompted, he paid for me to join his sports club where he swims with a tremendously talented and committed group of swimmers three times a week.  Suddenly, I was swimming with people who were pushing me hard all the time and survival meant that I had to adapt.  As a real swimmer, Dave knew that this would be my salvation.

The result of all this is speed, technique and the beginnings of self belief.  Don't think for a minute I think this is a done deal.  I am still an outsider and I may have a 50:50 chance of getting across.  Combine that with my mental endurance and there is a possibility that I could reach the French coast (I wonder what Dave really thinks...).  If I do it will be because of these people.  

So, one more long road to look down.  I can't see the end yet, and I can't imagine finishing, but perhaps the horizon is looking more distinct.



Thursday, 15 May 2014

Into the Mystic

I

I love that title.  If you don't know, it's the name of a song on a Van Morrison album.  It was one of those songs that I knew but had put back into my mental file of music, probably never to be played again. I was never really a fan and Brown Eyed Girl has been played so much I didn't want to hear Van Morrison's voice in any hurry.  Then the daughters of a great friend of mine bought it back to my attention when I put a shout out for nautical songs. They suggested it as a great song about the sea (and lots more) and as I listened to it once again and the lyrics took on new meaning for me.  There is probably no other song that resonates so much with me in terms of what I am trying to do and this whole endurance trip.  I just love the lyrics - it want them in my head when I swim the Channel.  So whilst you listen I may as well talk about the mystic....



Yesterday I was bringing my daughter back from swimming.  She pretends that I am really old and uncool (ha, as if!) , but when there is just the two of us she will drop the veneer of teenage disinterest and ask questions.  Yesterday, quite unprompted, she asked me "dad, why did you decide to do long distant stuff?"  It's a good question and I went down my usual route of explaining how,  as a drunk, I didn't want to speak to anyone other than other drinkers.  Nobody else interested me apart from one other special group:  That group was people who had done the marathon.   I was fascinated by them.  It astonished me that anyone could physically push their body to run 26 miles.  26 miles! How?  A friend we had who was training for the marathon back then in the 90's asked me to imagine running as far as I could see and then running back to give me an idea of the training distances a marathon runner needs to achieve. I got the image and it staggered me in its immensity. It was also that immensity that closed the marathon off from me. I may as well have been on Mars and the London marathon, well, in London.  I continued to live in my prison and I can distinctly remember swaying about outside the house, pissed up, smoking a fag, and feeling so sorry for myself (as I frequently did, back then) bemoaning the fact that I would never ever know what it was like to run a full marathon.

So I was explaining all this to Lucy when the car headed out into the open countryside on the way to the village where I lived and there in front of us were miles of  fields under a deep blue evening sky. You now what:  I bloody love the countryside.  I love it with a passion.  I could stare at green fields for hours, watching clouds scud across the sky.  So I said to Lucy, "See all those fields, well, the reason that I love long distance is because I could park this car now and just run and run and run through those fields and I need never stop. That is why I continue to do endurance events!" (It probably wasn't said with such precision, but you get the idea.)  And sometimes I do just take off and run like I told Lucy. The other week I just went out early morning across the fields without any plan.  I just knew I wanted to get lost in the Spring countryside.  I stuck to small footpaths that threaded through the fields around us of bright yellow rape and took in any Bluebell wood I could find. I ended up running about 18 miles without ever feeling tired. If you follow me on Twitter, there was a barrage of images from that run. 




It is on those days that it's possible to slip "into the mystic"; it's a world where miles per hour, heart rate, laps, stroke count, cadence, become meaningless.  I think, and this is my opinion only, that if you want to really go long you need to move into a different way of thinking to get the most out of it.  Distance and time are irrelevant and all that matters is your own existence in the environment.  Every thing needs to be of the moment, and by appreciating that the moment will pass, you can begin to appreciate that the pain or fatigue that your event is causing will pass too.  From that, you can begin to understand that the tough times will fade and you will regain some comfort, which in turn will be replaced by pain.  And so on. Now, it may sound a bit new age and Guardian to a lot of you post industrial Westerners out there but bear with me. People tell me it's not logical to be able to swim, run and cycle these huge distances.  It obviously is, though - I am no athlete, but by rethinking this stuff and living in the moment I know that each moment leading to the next, leading to the next and so on, will eventually see me to the finish line. The countryside is one place I can really feel inspired to put this into practice.  I would probably struggle a bit more if the Grimsby marathon was staged around their industrial areas. I find inspiration in pleasant surroundings. A long distance challenge is merely a metaphor for life: it starts out pretty jolly, seems quite easy and after a while you brimming with confidence.  But then reality hits.  You have the first challenges and the distance doesn't seem quite so easy, but you come through it.  And those highs and lows tend to characterise the journey all the way to the finale.  But I hope that when you reach the finish line you look back on it all: the highs and the lows, the views with all their contrasts and think that overall it was worthwhile.  That's my ambition.

Over the 14 years I have run, cycled and swam long distance here are some of the moments that I can still touch in my mind's eye.  None will really translate onto a page, but every one was a privilege to be in the moment with.  I treasure them:

The sun coming up over Hertswood on one side of the trail I ran whilst on the other side a bright full  moon was setting and I ran between the two spheres.

Cycling through a parade of horse chestnut trees heavily laden with blossom on the way out to St Neots. Spring 2012.

The white frost-blasted hedges on the tiny road behind where I live.  The icy wind of the night had frozen everything in one small area a brittle white, whilst everywhere else was dull and brown.

The "ghost ship" rising out of the mist on my relay Channel Swim with the sun rising behind it.

Staring down at fields shrouded with low white mist whilst on my bike. Cycling down into the mist, whooping with joy.

Being caught in storms so heavy that you can only laugh at the sheer intensity of the rain.  Laughing out loud.

2am, cycling through the Lincolnshire fens.  No sounds apart from the whir of the cycle chain.  Totally isolated, totally quiet. As in the moment as it is possible to be.

Toiling up Bison Hill on my bike and being passed by a beautiful red Ferrari . I said to myself that if someone offered to give me that car but I would be prevented from ever cycling again, I would turn down the offer of the car.

This morning; cycling into work.  Blue skies above, summer warmth beginning to break through, feeling fit as I have ever felt.

So that's it. If you want to go long, get spiritual.

PS Have I mentioned the flip side of the mystic?  So dog tired you want to lie down in any ditch and sleep.  You stink, your breath stinks.  You started throwing up at mile 30 and you have another 40 miles to go.  You can't eat anything but you will stop if you don't.  Your head aches.  You're scared about your body packing up. 

I'll leave that for another day.........