After a few minutes to enjoy the run finish we got into the car to the Folkestone Grand Burstin to get stuck into preparing for the swim. Despite being far earlier than check in, we were allowed two rooms to put our stuff in and also to get breakfast. I started feeling really horrendous at this point. The run clearly took a lot more out of me than the football run back in February. The hills, lack of decent run track, probably slight under cooking of endurance run training in May-July and the extra 15 miles all contributing.
I went to sleep while my support team were busy at work preparing me for my swim. One of these jobs was to frantically search for a physio to work on my battered legs and back that evening. The other was to refill my giant water jugs with protein and maltodextrin for the swim. Dan suggested mixing double concentrated so that you can mix half with hot water. I hadn’t trained on this and wasn’t actually informed until I woke up. Safe to say i trusted Dan on these matters.
After a meal which consisted of 3 main courses I got all my swim gear together and we headed to Dover to find a fantastic leaving reception from friends family and faversham rugby club (did you lads get anything done that weekend?).
After meeting the pilots and waving off Dan, Hamish and I set off out Dover marina to the start line which was somewhere in between Folkestone and Dover. The journey took about 20 mins and it was odd looking at all the lights out on the sea. I tried not to look at the lights from Calais. I was told to get into the water and swim to shore which was pretty much the only pitch black area of the shore. Actually standing up on the stones was quite difficult as I couldn’t stand or see. Also my feet were in an absolute state from the run and I felt the whole skin on my right little toe come off on the stones. Good start. I put my hand in the air and the horn went to signal the start of the swim.
The horn sounded and I waded in and swam back alongside the boat, which I’d swim to the left of at all times. I’d told Hamish and Dan that the important thing was to get me to the light as I knew how much better if feel swimming in daylight. I’d done a couple of night swims which I hadn’t really enjoyed but actually this felt a lot better. I found the spotlight from the boat shone quite annoying and I kept getting told off by Dan for swimming too far away from the boat. Other than that I felt incredibly comfortable as it was warm, conditions were fairly calm and my shoulders felt good. I was enjoying myself.
The first little surprise was close to dawn when I spotted my first jellyfish through the light shining on the boat. Throughout the day I spotted a couple of hundred jellyfish (I counted 6 different species) and this became something that helped keep my mind busy. The sun coming up on the channel will be one of the most iconic moments of my life. Apart from the odd lowly supertanker in the background it was pure open water swimming – just a calm sea of nothingness on the left and the support boat on the right. The feeds were every 45 minutes and the warm water was pleasant to drink. I had got the concentration right as didn’t piss too much and didn’t get dehydration.
After 8 hours of swimming it dawned on me that I was still remarkably fresh and happy despite it being my longest swim. I also realised I’d gone through the first shipping lane as the tankers were moving towards Calais. After around 10hours I was still feeling good and for the first time looked up to see where France was. I reckoned I was only about 2 hours away so started pushing on. I started to wonder why people found the channel so difficult! Grave mistake.
From training I knew I could push my speed above “cruise control swimming” for about 4-6 hours when I was fresh. I felt fresh and given I spotted the French coast I reckoned I’d be there in 2 so thought it was a safe bet. Another 2 hours of swimming later and France looked no closer. In fact it actually looked a bit further away. I knew that this could happen so it didn’t phase me too much as I put it down as an optical illusion. It wasn’t.
After ~1 hour I was told by Dan to do a 30 minute burst which was what I was waiting for. This was it! 45 mins passed and I went for my next feed and I asked whether I should be swimming faster. Dan told me to just keep going. I’d spent a bit of time working out how long id been swimming for and worked out that the tide had just changed which meant I was going in the same direction as the current off cap Gris Nez. I also released that I must have missed the cap and was drifting up the coast towards Calais. To cap things off I felt my left tricep/rotator cuff go which stopped my left arm catching the water properly. I tried to work on using my right as much as possible but seeds of doubt started to really hit me. What if my arms weren’t strong enough to get me through the current? Do I need to swim quickly? You start to think the worlds against you and get frustrated with your support. I was getting annoyed that they weren’t telling me how fast I needed to be swimming or where I was. A few little shouts underwater helped this a lot and I kept reminding myself that all I needed to do was keep swimming.
I also drew upon unpleasant experiences to remind myself that I’d rather be here then tied and bagged up in “the hole” (wait for October) and I was still thankful that I didn’t have to be on my feet in the dark like the run. Dan gave me the word to do another 30 minute push but told me to keep some back which didn’t bode particularly well given the last push came to nothing but I was grateful for some direction. I was in considerable pain by this point but every stroke was one less stroke until the finish. After about half an hour the pilots told me to relax and that they were going to park the boat in the shallow water. I had lost all faith so I ignored this – I still had the mindset that the world was against me. When James parked the boat up and told me to swim to the beach I asked how hard I needed to swim which got a quizzical look and a reply of “as fast as you like”. I still didn’t think I was there so I continued to push but I saw people on the beach looking out at me. I thought this could be the channels final trick but then my hand hit a slimy rock slab. I knew I had made it.
I think I spent a few seconds face down in the water holding the rock but decided that it probably looked as though I’d died so thought it best to get out of the water. All of my training over the past 16 months had come to this point. Main problem was that I couldn’t stand up because of the slimy rock. I had to climb up it until I got to sand and as I walked out there were a few people clapping so I stuck my hand up in the air to indicate I’d finished and had a little chat with them. After a minute or two I climbed back into the sea and hopped along the sea floor all the way back to the boat (well I wasn’t going to swim). The next 90 minutes was spent on the top of the boat smashing down a lot of solid food (crisps/flapjacks) and looking at my phone to see all the comments of support and frustration at people who’s Sunday’s were occupied by my tracker. That made me chuckle somewhat.
Once we arrived in Calais I said farewell to my boat butler and joined my road support team with the plan of having a quick shower and change in the hostel then get cracking straight away on the bike.
I can tell you now that the swim was the toughest part of the challenge. It’s the one part of the event that’s not just about being able to push yourself through in pain, the Channel really messes with your head and throws in all sorts of doubts. The trick is to ignore everything as much as possible and just take yourself into a little place where you feel comfortable. It’s a long old haul, but have faith that you will get there.