Friday, July 23, 2010

Interview with Mark Scanlon - Training for the English Channel



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This week on Feel For The Water we are lucky to be joined by Mark Scanlon from Perth in Western Australia. In just a few weeks time Mark will attempt to conquer the mighty English Channel, a cold water swim of approximately 34km as the crow flies. Swim Smooth Head Coach Paul Newsome takes up the story:

Mark has been tapping into our Swim Smooth squads at Claremont Pool and Challenge Stadium in Perth for the last 3 years, tweaking and refining his stroke as he goes. To see him swim, most people's comments are centred on how strong and powerful he appears to be in the water. You can view some of Mark's training footage here and here.

In 2008 Mark finished 3rd male overall in the hugely popular 20km Rottnest Channel Swim in Perth, and will now look to nearly double that crossing distance in waters much more inhospitable than the relative luxury of the Indian Ocean! Cold, fatigue, nausea and battling with the notorious tides and busy shipping lanes of the English Channel are all sure to take their toll on any swimmer. Arguably these challenges make a successful crossing the pinnacle of the sport of marathon swimming. Tell most laymen that you are an endurance swimmer and chances are the first thing they'll ask is "Have you swum the Channel?". It's the Hawaii Ironman, the Marathon des Sables and the Mount Everest of marathon swimming all rolled into one - in fact, if records are to be believed, twice as many people have successfully sumitted Everest as have swum the Channel!

The English Channel swim is not a race on a given day, instead swimmers go individually throughout the summer season as conditions suit. There are normally 7 or 8 tidal windows each lasting for 5 to 7 days across the summer period, at these times the tidal flow is at its lowest and the chance of a successful crossing is at its highest. These periods are called 'neap tides' and swimmers book a boat and skipper (know as a 'pilot') for a given neap tide up to 3 years in advance!

The month of August is the most sought after, as sea temperatures are up to 16-18 degrees with higher air temperatures than at other times during the summer months. At the last count there are 14 registered pilots who are legally allowed to escort you across one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.

Each pilot will normally book 2 to 4 swimmers into each neap tide window. The weather conditions need to be ideal to make a crossing and since only one swimmer can start per day, if the weather's bad then many miss their window and don't even get to start! This is incredibly frustrating given the huge training and financial commitment of preparing for the event.

Historically only 10% of swimmers have successfully completed this swim, though with better technology and training preparation this figure is slowly increasing. The Channel was first swum on the 25th August 1875 by Captain Matthew Webb. Petar Stoychev (Bulgaria) holds the current world record (set in 2007) for the crossing in 6h 57m 50s which is twice as fast as a good average crossing of 12 to 16 hours. Alison Streeter MBE (UK) holds the world record for having successfully swum the Channel on 43 separate occasions (truly amazing!), and Philip Rush from New Zealand holds the three-way world record of 28h 21m set way back in 1987. For most though, one way and once only is more than enough of a goal, so let's hear a little more from Mark about his preparations for this grueling event.


PN: Hi Mark, thanks for joining us today.

MS: My Pleasure

PN: So, what made you think about taking on the challenge of swimming the English Channel?

MS: I'd thought about doing it as a teenager and it has kind of been at the back of my mind ever since. I got back into swimming in 2007, after travelling for a few years, to keep fit during the week so I could surf on the weekends. I decided to set my goal on a Rottnest solo swim, and things have just rolled from there. A mate of mine who I swam with in Tassie (Ed: Tasmania) back in the day, Anne Steele completed the swim in 2007 and started heckling me to do it. That was enough motivation to get me into shape for my attempt this year.

PN: Many swimmers raise money for charity and aim to raise awareness for certain campaigns when they tackle this swim - do you have any such charities that you'll be helping and if so why did you choose them?

MS: Yes I decided that I would use this swim to raise money and awareness for The National Stroke Foundation (NSF). I wanted to do something positive with the swim, and I figure it will also be a great motivator for me to keep swimming knowing I'll be letting down more than just myself if I don't make it! I chose the NSF because a good mate of mine Rob Goyan was struck down with a stroke at the start of 2009. Luckily Rob has fully recovered but at 35, it showed me that it can happen to anyone.

It got me thinking it might be an idea to use my English Channel swim to raise money for the NSF. As I researched strokes, I discovered that behind heart disease, strokes were the second biggest cause of death in Australia in 2009. That's right, more people die of a stroke each year than from all types of cancer combined!

Then late in 2009 I was on a training run with Rob in Cottesloe when an extremely distressed woman ran out of her front door screaming for help. Inside we found her husband had collapsed on the floor unconscious in a pool of vomit after suffering a severe stroke. Rob and I performed first aid until the ambulance arrived which was pretty full on. The man, Malcolm Tew, is alive today but in a bad way and will live with a permanent disability for the rest of his life as a result of his stroke. These events brought home to me how little is known about strokes and their effects, and I kind of took it as a bit of a message from above that I should use the swim to raise money and awareness for the NSF.

I've set up a website www.stroke4stroke.com.au where people can read a bit more about myself, the swim, the NSF and make a donation to this great cause.


PN: Can you tell us briefly about your background, where you're originally from, how long you've been swimming, who your heroes are in this sport etc?

MS: I grew up in Tasmania in the Hobart area and joined the local surf club as a nipper when I was about 8. I spent my childhood summers in and on the water swimming and surfing. I represented Tassie as a junior in surf lifesaving and got into my swimming pretty seriously in my early teens for a couple of years, training every day. My brothers then gave me a surfboard and that all went out the window. It's only been the last few years being tied to an office job and swimming before work most days that I've gotten back into it.

My heroes growing up were Trevor Hendy and Kieren Perkins. These days my heroes are the last solo swimmers who arrive across the line at Rottnest each year. The guys that aren't technically great swimmers but are mentally tough and never give up. I'll be using them as inspiration for my channel crossing.


PN: So, you're just a few weeks away from the swim itself, can you tell us a bit about your training program over the last 12 months? What has it entailed in terms of volume, intensity and even specific things such as rough water swimming and coping in a range of elements?

MS: Yeah its creeping up on me. I guess in a way it's more than just the last 12 months, I've done the Rotto swim (20km) for the past 3 years so that's built up a solid base. From preparing for those swims it gives you a pretty good idea of what you need to do. Basically I swim with several groups to fit in around work commitments. I train in a 4 week cycle, building up the kilometers / intensity every 4 weeks followed by a recovery week which is important. I've had a lot of guidance from Peter Tanham who smashed a crossing in 2005 in just over 9hrs and taken a lot from Bill (Kirby) and Shelly (Taylor Smith)'s Rotto swim programs as well as swimming with you guys at Swim Smooth!

I guess the main difference for this swim is the elements and preparing for the variety of conditions that can get thrown at you. When I train for Rotto I might only do one or two ocean swims to prepare for them as water temperature isn't an issue and I like training in the pool to measure how I'm going. I know that just won't cut it for the channel so now it's winter here I have been swimming in the ocean and Perth's Swan River 3 times a week to acclimatise to the rough water and the cold.

Coming from Tassie and surfing, I've always been pretty comfortable in colder and rougher water but it's a whole different kettle of fish when you're in your budgie smugglers for 10-12 hours! I've also been playing with feeding myself in these conditions and working out what works good for me.


PN: Have you done a particular session in the last 12 months where you've thought 'Yep, I can really do this!', and if so, what was this session and how do you think it will help you during the bad patches in the Channel when you inevitably start to feel tired?

MS: Definitely my 13-14km Saturday morning swims with my friends Dave, Maryanne and co are giving me confidence. I'm a bit weird, it often takes me 5-6km to really get into my groove so I've been really happy that I'm holding around 1:20/100m pace at the end of these sets and knowing that I can build into those longer swims.

There's been times during those sessions where I've felt absolutely crap in the early parts of the session and mentally worked through that to get back to my target pace. I know I'll face similar times in the channel. Also the cold river swims in 13-14 degree water are really good psychologically. To know that I can handle water that is (hopefully!) colder than I will be swimming in is a real plus.


PN: I'll be tackling the swim myself next September (2011) and one of the things that everyone jokes about when it comes to swimming the Channel is how much weight many leaner swimmers need to put on in the lead-up to the event in order to maintain warmth. Personally I put on 8 kilos for the Rottnest Solo swim last year (18-19 degrees water temperature) and this certainly paid real dividends for me on the day. I likened it at the time to how a Hollywood actor would approach a role for a movie requiring a little weight gain for a certain character.

Having swum with you for an hour last week in the Swan River in just 13 degrees of water, it is clear that not only are you much faster than me at the moment but that you're also much more acclimated to this cold water than I am. Can you share with us the physical and mental preparations that you've put yourself through in the last 6 months to reach this level of apparent "comfort" in water which would freeze most people to the core within minutes?!

MS: I'm not sure about me being much faster but I sure am much fatter! I like to think of myself as trying to get my body shape somewhere in between Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movie Twins - ha!! My body shape is short and stocky anyway so it's usually quite easy for me to put on weight (a real danger post English Channel swim!) but given the volume of training I'm doing it's actually taken some effort.

I'm basically eating double breakfast, lunch and dinners with desert, as well as snacking all the time to pile on the spare tyre for insulation and fuel during the swim. But the analogy of preparing for a role in a movie is a good one. This swim has pretty much ruled my life for the 6 months leading up to it.

Getting used to the cold is definitely a progression thing, I started swimming in the ocean and river consistently from May, and that progression of gradually decreasing water temperature each week makes it easier for the body to adjust. Your body gets used to that feeling when you first get into the water and mentally you know your breathing will settle down after 10 minutes or so of swimming. You get used to that feeling of the cold on your skin and it becomes almost normal. I think also just having a calm relaxed approach about it all and not getting worked up helps. Some swimmers tend to talk themselves out of it before they even get in the water a lot of the time. It's definitely mind over matter.


PN: What specific aspects of the Channel swim are you really looking forward to? Equally, what things would you say you're most concerned about?

MS: I'm looking forward to touching the shore in France, and most concerned about leaving the shore in Dover!

No, I'm really looking forward to having a mate of mine who I carried to Rottnest in a Duo in 2005, Dougal Harris, on my support boat. I'm looking forward to him being there as he's in Tassie these days so we don't see each other much. We used to train and surf together a lot when he was in Perth so it gives me a heap of confidence that he'll be looking out for me. I'm looking forward to seeing some big tankers in the shipping lanes, that should be good. My only real concern is bad water quality and bad conditions on the day. But they're out of my control so I'm not wasting energy worrying about it.

I guess a successful crossing will mean reaching the biggest sporting goal I have, which will be nice.



PN: How is your race nutrition for the day looking? What products or old-wives potions and cocktails do you plan to consume? You hear a whole range of wild and wacky things that people use as fuel and hydration sources on this particular swim Mark, so what is it that you'll be using and how often will you be pausing (and for how long) to refuel as you make your crossing?

MS: I keep it really simple. I eat as much pasta as I can and hydrate well the days before a big swim, and load up on weetbix and a sports drink until I'm about to vomit on the morning of the swim!

I usually use a combination of Hi5 gels and Staminade for the Rottnest swim which has worked really well for me. I've just been introduced to another drink that is very similar called E3, which is made by a local Perth Company. I've been using it in training and will probably use it on the day. I also usually chew gum the whole way to give some relief from the salt water taste!

For the channel I'm going to also eat some banana cake and some home made nut/oatmeal bars. I'll stop for 10-15sec max roughly every half hour.


PN: Who will be your pilot for the swim and how did you make contact with them initially?

MS: My Pilot is Chris Osmond, I booked in with him mid 2009. Chris was Peter Tanhams pilot in 2005 and I think it's an advantage to have a skipper that knows exactly what level of swimmer you are so he can plot an appropriate course. From what I know, a skipper that doesn't know a lot about you will typically plot a conservative course to make sure they get you there but if they have a bit more confidence in your estimations of your swimming abilities they should be able to help you get across a little quicker.

PN: Everyone reading will probably want to know what sort of financial cost is involved in swimming the English Channel - can you estimate for us how much you think it might end up costing you and maybe even give us a brief breakdown of those costs?

MS: It's not cheap. I think all said and done I probably will have shelled out around AUS$14K:

Pilot: approx $5500
CS&PF Membership: approx $500
Airfares: approx $3000 (my support crew is already in the UK so I haven't had to pay for that)
Accommodation: approx $1500
Website & Communications: approx $1500

Then there's things like pool entry for the year, coaching, bathers, goggles, sports drink etc on top of that which all adds up (probably $2-3K for last year - ouch). I hate to think of what my food bill has increased by over the last 6 months!


PN: What is your set date and do you have a game plan in mind or a target time that you're aiming for? This is obviously hard to quantify given the changeable conditions on the day, but given good conditions, how do you think you might fare?

MS: I arrive in UK on Friday the 13th August (hopefully not an bad omen) and the official window starts on the 17th with me as the third swimmer. There's a chance I might jump the queue and swim on the 16th if weather permits, otherwise I've got a month off work in case of crappy weather. Given a great day I'd like to think I could get there in a similar time to what Peter did in 2005 which was 9hrs, but I know I'll be happy to just make it so I'm prepared for poor conditions and being in the water for 12-15 hours if needs be!

PN: Is there a way in which we can track your progress online during the swim?

MS: Yes I'll be putting a real time tracking system up on my website www.stroke4stroke.com.au I'll also have updates on a Facebook page I set up.

PN: Lastly, you have a great Blog running at www.stroke4stroke.com.au where people can donate towards your swim and Stroke Foundation charity if they choose to do so - you're about 25% of the way towards your goal of $100,000 aren't you?

MS: Yes I think I'm going to have to readjust my target though, I've only managed to raise just over $27,000 so far, so if I manage to raise $50,000 I'd be very happy. It's for a great cause so if any of your readers are able to make a contribution it would be very much appreciated! Donations can be made by clicking the "Donate Now" link on the website www.stroke4stroke.com.au

PN: OK Mark, thanks so much for your time today. Best of luck with the swim - you've just got another 23,000 supporters behind you here at www.feelforthewater.com all wishing you well!

MS: Thanks Paul, I'll keep you posted, and can't wait for next winter when I'll be the one standing by the river all rugged-up watching you guys swim!

--- Interview Ends ---

Finally, we'd love to hear from you if you are swimming the Channel in 2010, 2011 or indeed 2012. We have a group of 10 individual swimmers from Perth (myself included) who will all attempt the swim in 2011, it'd be nice to touch base and share stories and ideas with you as we go. Hope to hear from you soon!

Paul Newsome

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