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.


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.