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 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.........

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Fear : Running 100 miles

A cop out this week on the song.  I have said that I would always post something with a nautical theme, but having just run a hundred miles for the first time I thought something running related would be more "on message" this week. Compared to songs about swimming there are so few songs about running.  Strange, as both words/actions are great metaphors for our life - well, they are for me, maybe not for you with your big houses, fancy gadgets, manicured lawns and general well being.  There's Springsteen's "Born to Run": my colleague, Alex has reminded me of Velvet Underground's "Run, Run, Run" - not the most accessible of their tracks and there is of course the safe, middle of the road choice of Snow Patrol's "Run" which I like for lots of reasons, one of which is that I can make a passable attempt at it on the guitar. Sadly, it has no link to the kind of running that I am about to talk about. Here it is:

In this blog I don't want to pontificate too much on cod psychology, or move into clich├ęs about stuff I know very little about, but I fancy having a stab at "fear".

I am dominated by fear.  Always have been.  I sometimes wonder if I'd get up in the morning were I not motivated by fear of bed sores.  That weak joke has an underlying seriousness to it.  That kind of fear makes me do something, but for too long fear made me inert.  It stopped me from doing stuff.  The usual nonsense of "what will people think if I do this...", "It might make me uncomfortable" etc., etc.. Of course the crippling fear that created a prison was fear of addressing addiction.  The concept of life without booze was so far off the scale of consciousness that it it didn't matter where it took me, or how low I felt, I was too terrified to address it.  Then on November 22nd 2000, a door briefly opened and terrified as I was I crept through it into another room.  In the new room there was a bit more light (I'll be honest - it wasn't blinding) and I had a lot less restrictions, and the fear I had felt about giving up what I genuinely believed was the essence that defined me, left me.  A master of understatement would describe it as a good move..

But don't get me wrong.  Fear has never left me and it remains my constant partner.  We seem to be on a road trip together with Fear sitting right up front with me in the truck fiddling with the radio stations, constantly distracting me and trying to stop me going to the destinations I might enjoy.

The good thing is I have sometimes learnt to ignore Fear.  I can now stop listening and give something a bash despite Fear's constant internal chatter.

Every stage of the journey to endurance events has been a confrontation with something that scares me.  That first marathon in 2001, my first triathlon, my first Olympic Distance tri, my first Ironman and so on and so on have all caused me sleepless nights.  I have had stress dreams and psychosomatic pains in my legs prior to events.  The dreams are always to do with me being late to the start, or forgetting my swimming kit, or my trainers.  All of it adds to my fear.   I become distant and appear preoccupied before a "biggie".  But I now press ahead with the journey. That bloke Webb, who was first to swim the Channel said "Nothing great is ever easy." He was right about that.

That first triathlon I mentioned is a case in point.  I was rigid with fear before it.  But I suspected this "triathlon" thing might have some benefit.  I was/am so incompetent that my bike fell off the back of the car on the way to the triathlon.  My wheel was buckled, and I could so easily have turned around and come home.  I really wanted to.  But I went up to Bedford, completed the tri, was heavily patronised and was out of my depth.  But I still did it and was so proud of myself.

So that has subsequently become my modus operandi.  Are you scared to try something that you suspect may have some benefit? See if the door is slightly ajar and tip toe through it.  You never know what may happen, but it may well  be better than what you had before. I am lucky enough to know a guy called Dan Earthquake ("Dan" is obviously not his real name).  He made one of the epic Channel crossings of 2013.  22 hours in the sea.  I was with him  a few weeks before he set off.  His philosophy was so spot on.  "Well, Paul, " he said, "I don't mind what happens, but I do know that it will be adventure."

Dan is right.  That attitude of "just give it a try" will lead to all sorts of adventures and challenges.  It can broaden your horizon of experience. You learn a little bit more about yourself, too.  This weekend I ran 100 miles in an event called the Thames Path 100. (NB This event sells out.  Why, oh why, oh why?)  I have never done that before.  I was terrified about the concept.  I'm slow and I knew it would be torturous.  But I do now have a new mantra of "well, give it a try, no one's going to die" and then I can see where it leads, so I went for it.  I really wanted to test my mental capacity for continuing when I was shot to pieces.  I think that this will stand me in good stead for the Channel, when so often I am told that it is people's minds, not bodies, that give up.  So, on Saturday I started off from Richmond Town Hall at 10am and trotted along the banks of the Thames for 26 hours until I reached Oxford.  100 miles in one go...

The day that I spent running was a constant mental battle.  On one hand was the fear in my mind telling me again and again "it's too far, it's too far" and on the other hand there was the logical regulation system saying, "it's okay.  You're in good shape.  Nothing bad is happening.  Keep going." (This is sounding like a Thomas the Tank Engine story.) Fortunately, my regulation system won, and at Midday on Saturday I arrived at the finish.  Bloody amazing feeling.

                                                          Quite possibly happy to finish?

When I do an event I subsequently blank out the pain and give myself images that make me think it wasn't too bad.  This bastard joke my brain plays then makes me book some other stupid event. But on Saturday/Sunday I was privileged to run through the night, which was other worldly and quite spiritual and I was then witness to the most beautiful sunrise.  I have got to know a new happiness.

                                           5.30am Sunday 4th May 2014 Thames Path 100