Specificity is key to training so when ‘2swim4life’ came on the radar – a 24hr endurance swim, swimming one mile every hour on the hour at Guildford Lido – we had to enter. I don’t think any of us knew how tough it would be, even as a relay.
Some people tackled the 24-miles solo, others in relay teams of two or more. As a relay, it ticked all the boxes for us: a chance to swim through the night, practice buddying for each other between swims and to understand what we personally might need for our Channel relay in terms of kit, nutrition and support.
In our team of four, each person had to swim six miles, one mile every four hours. We also had to buddy for each other, i.e. watching our swimmer for signs of cramp, cold, etc, counting their laps, looking after them afterwards, filling their hotwater bottle and getting them a hot drink and food. For me that meant a swim at 10am, buddying for Gill at 12noon, then swimming again at 2pm and so on until my last swim at 6am and a final buddying session.
Doesn’t sound all that tough, does it? It’s not hard to swim a mile (1,600m) if you’re swim fit. Two miles isn’t that bad, either and, at a push I’d tackle 6 miles/10k non-stop tomorrow. So why was one mile every four hours so tricky?
Was it because we swam each mile hard? Or because we didn’t really get much recovery because we devoted time to buddying? It definitely takes it out of you physically and mentally to get cold, then have to warm up only to get cold again while counting laps at night while the frost forms around you. There’s the lack of sleep, too. And of course, stripping down to a swimsuit when there’s frost on the ground takes gritted teeth – literally and figuratively.
But we relay swimmers had to keep going because of what the soloists and two-man relay swimmers were achieving. They were stupendous. I’d put what they did at being harder than an iron-distance tri (they certainly faced many of the same issues re nutrition and GI trouble). Many of the Channel veterans there said it was harder than doing the Channel.
The soloists had 20 – 35 minutes each hour to eat, warm up and recover, depending on how long it took them to swim a mile. They were cold after their swims, so to get back in the water, still cold from the previous swim was tough. And they did it 24 times! Many pulled out through hypothermia, nausea or exhaustion. But somehow, others including two Seabrook Seals kept going. And another couple of Seals did a two-man. Truly epic efforts.
So what have I learned? I learned that I crave cheese at 5 o’clock in the morning, a good mature, mouth-puckering cheddar. A friend’s offer of Mini Cheddars just didn’t cut it. I learned that chlorine makes your skin fall off for days afterwards.
I also learned that you can’t take enough warm clothes. Despite wearing two hats, a hoodie, two thermal base layers and Goretex salopettes and jacket, I couldn’t get warm after my 2am swim. My team mate Lucy’s Dryrobe saved the day – or the saved the night, rather – when I had to do 4am buddying duty. Her Dryrobe – a sort of cross between a fleeced-lined nun’s habit and a sleeping bag – went on top of all my clothes and got me toasty warm at last. I looked ridiculous but it was like putting on a big, comforting bear hug and I want one.
But most of all I learned to stay in the moment and appreciate the good things, and that you can make a big difference to a team mate’s state of mind by staying positive. After his 1am swim, Gary completely removed my dread of my 2am shift by talking about how special it was to swim at night in clear water that’s lit from beneath.
I arrived poolside to find a thick mist hanging over the water and a full moon adding to the magical atmosphere created by the slap, slap of tired hands on the water. Thanks to Gary, one of the hardest swims became the most memorable.
Lou is training for a Channel relay attempt in September 2013, raising money for three charities. You can donate via her fundraising site http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/LouWalker and follow her on Twitter: @LouArtfulHen or at www.louwalker.com/blog.
Find out more about 2swim4life at http://2swim4life.com