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........