The good news is that after an anxious wait Paul did finally get his swim start a week later! So here here we are with Paul Newsome's full report on his crossing. It's pretty long but don't let that put you off, it's an absolutely fascinating read especially from the psychology and emotional angle. So grab yourself a cup of coffee and find out what it really takes to swim the channel!
Well what a roller-coaster ride this last three weeks has been... and the last three years really if you want to take it that far back! This is inevitably going to be a long post (even for me!), so if you'd prefer to just see the video footage from the day then watch:
Or to just take a quick peak at the tough conditions out in them middle of the channel (warning - may make you feel seasick!) :
My English Channel Swim - 12h14m in 28-35 knot S / SW winds and BIG swell (head-on) - Friday 9th September 2011 - a tough day at the office!
A Thousand Thank Yous!
Firstly, a quick thank you to all those of you who posted Twitter comments on the channeldare.com website whilst I was swimming. There were over 400 in total and it was a massive heart-warming feeling knowing that you were all there "with me" as I battled the very trying 28 to 35 knot (50 to 65km/h) winds and massive swell conditions! Interestingly enough, the Rottnest Channel swim was cancelled in 2007 when conditions exceeded 25 knots, so you can get a pretty good picture from this of what the day was like; that and the fact that Adam and Simon on my support boat were sick no fewer than 87 times between the two of them - maybe that's a slight exaggeration, but Simon was left incapacitated with nausea for a good 6 or 7 hours of the swim! He literally turned green, the poor guy. Thanks also to those of you who've sent post-swim emails through...I've tried to reply to all of them, but it is a slow process as there have been so many of them. As the famous British band "The Verve" once sang: I'm a Lucky Man!
Picking Our Slots And The Weather
|Storm force winds whipped up the English Channel|
during the long wait between attempts 1 and 2.
Last Friday (3rd September) we posted out a blog stating that we should all (myself, Paul Downie and Andrew Hunt) get the opportunity to swim on Saturday 4th September. This was a known risk given the fact that it was still a large spring tide but with the prospect of bad weather coming up for our actual tidal window, I was personally really hoping to take it. Suffice to say that despite an afternoon of getting all pumped up listening to some banging tunes on the white cliffs of Dover, we were all called off literally just after we had blogged the post - Murphy's Law they call it I think?!
Dealing With The Cancellation of Attempt #1
I cannot even begin to express in words how deflating this was. We are told that we'll be put through these anxious waiting games but nothing can prepare you for what that actually feels like to be lifted up with the prospect of a swim and then blown just as quickly back down again. Given the fact that the weather was looking very bad for the next week when we were due to swim, I am not ashamed to say that I went through quite a down and depressed few days with the very real possibility that I might not get to swim at all before having to return home to Perth on the 14th September for work and also the close arrival of baby Newsome # 2 in six weeks time. How did I pick myself out of it? Well, initially I tried to calm myself down saying that it's still not even our tide and that we still have at least 10 days to wait it out but then my pilot Andy King of the Louise Jane called me on Monday after spending a beautiful day in Canterbury with my family suggesting that things really weren't looking good for the rest of the week. There would still be the prospect of then swimming on the next Spring Tide if I could extend my flights back before his next set of swimmers arrived, but how long could I realistically wait it out?
At this point panic really set in and I started to feel a weird mix of disappointment, the potential of unfinished business, a kind of disgust in myself for putting on all this weight for the cold conditions and even guilt over having put my family through all this training only to come home without having achieved the end result. It's funny how the mind works - I often tend to drift towards the absolute worst possible scenario long before the process has had chance to play out. This is something that has always plagued me through my athletic years and something that I am acutely aware of needing to change.
Luckily Shelley Taylor-Smith (open water guru, 7-times World Marathon Swimming Champion and our travelling mentor) took me under her wing at this point and posed the possibility that this was maybe all happening for a reason and that there would be some sort of lesson in all this after all. This cheered me up no end - Shelley truly is an inspiration for me personally - I've even tried to model my marathon swimming stroke on hers!! :-)
Being Cheered Up By Britain's Best Comedian
Sport Relief and aims to raise over £1 million for the charity. The guy is a total legend, my personal comedy hero and certainly one of the biggest inspirations for me attempting the English Channel in the first place as David successfully smashed the Channel in 10h 29m in 2006 for the same charity. This is a totally amazing time and so it was a real honour to be invited to swim with him - I was grinning like a cheshire cat all day long and had to keep pinching myself that I was even there!
I ended up swimming for 7 hours with David but wore a wetsuit to keep warm and stave off any potential infections from the dirty(ish) water of the Thames. The pace was pretty steady but then again David has to swim the length of the English Channel every day for 8 days in a row!! Truly amazing - here's me making a big deal out of the English Channel when Walliams is truly doing it tough. Puts it all into perspective.
I think what I learned from this experience was how cool, calm and collected David was when swimming and taking everything in his stride. He commented on how he used distraction techniques (like thinking about the lyrics for all the James Bond theme tunes) to take his mind off the pain he was suffering along the way. Also, in his very modest way he was the first to say that his amazing Channel swim time was due in part to the very fortunate weather conditions that he had that day. He went on to add that his coach (Greg) was a much stronger swimmer and yet had terrible weather when he tried unsuccessfully two days previous to cross the Channel.
I guess this made me really appreciate the fact that to set a good time you need a lot of factors on your side and given that I was still (at this point) facing the prospect of no swim at all I began to focus on the simple goal of just getting my feet wet. I cannot thank Greg and David enough for offering me that opportunity to swim with them that day... definitely one to tell the grandchildren!
"The Call" And The Emotion Of It All
But then the call came just two days later that there was a possibility of a small opening in the wretched weather but that the prospects were still grim and could easily change. The window would only suit swimmers capable of getting across in around 10 hours due to the likelihood of more forecast bad weather around 4pm that day. We had to call Andy King at 6.15am on Friday 10th September with the view of starting literally just two hours later. This made for some very frantic telephone calling to assemble our much dwindled support team, many of whom had returned back to their normal jobs / lives. Interestingly enough, nearly all the other swimmers who had been waiting it out in Dover for the weather to change had been sent home by their pilots stating that there was zero chance of a start on this tide. This made for a very gloomy atmosphere within the channel swimming fraternity in Dover and was hard to avoid feeling the effects of.
So, after we got the green light to go from Andy, we drove down to the harbour through all the thick fog. I was listening to Eminem's "Not Afraid" on my iPod and all the emotions of what I had gone through with all the hard training, the waiting around, and the upcoming challenge of swimming the Channel suddenly all boiled to the surface. I sat there and thought about my family, about Jackson and Michelle, about all my wonderful Channel Dare training buddies and support crew, the people that I coach and who have supported me all the way, Shelley and Adam's ultimate belief in me and also the burning desire to get the job done. I'm not ashamed to say that tears were flowing freely down my cheeks but it wasn't fear or sadness it was the realisation in one moment that I could do this and that I would get across to France come hell or high water. It was such a strong, powerful emotion that I wish I could have bottled it as I've never experienced so much conviction and belief in myself ever before.
Adjusting The Goal Posts
I immediately thought that with his bulging biceps, strong shoulders and excellent support crew (including legendary pilot Reg Brickell) that if they're making this tough decision to at least give it a go, then we've made the right decision too. Mark (the swimmer) shook my hand - actually, crunched it ;-) - immediately before we set off and Lyndon stated that he believed that in good weather his guy would go sub-10 hours (about where I pitched my own ability). However, Lyndon took one look at the weather, sniffed the breeze and very firmly stated that today he'll do 12 to 13 hours. How right he was (Mark did 12h48m as it transpired).
This brief encounter with Lyndon prior to the start was crucial for how the day played out for me as I immediately let go of any aspirations of knocking out a fast time knowing that one of the world's greatest marathon swimmers had the experience to call it even before we started with "today will be character building if anyone gets across".
I'm assuming this was the second lesson that Shelley suggested I needed to learn before my swim: patience and persistence from David Walliams and letting go of any thoughts of fast times but focusing in on the "simple" goal of finishing.
And so we were off on the support boat, out through Dover harbour and heading down the coast towards Samphire Hoe for our proposed swim start at 8.30am on Friday 9th September 2011. Even as we drove out, Andy (my pilot) kept saying that we'd just see how it goes and test whether or not it was truly possible to attempt the swim given that the breeze and swell were really picking up already. We had a bit of a deal that if we started and got up to a maximum of four hours and the weather looked like it was really going to turn, that Adam would pull me out of the water at this point and we'd look to waiting on for Thursday (15th September) when much better weather was forecast. We reasoned that with only four hours in my arms I'd have a chance of recovering in time for a second attempt six days later.
As we ploughed round towards Samphire Hoe, Andy took the quick decision to change our starting point to Shakespeare Beach instead, which is literally just around the corner of Dover harbour wall. Reg Brickell and Mark (the other swimmer) employed the same tactics and before I knew it I was greased up and jumping into the water which was 16.2 degrees at this point - chilly, but much warmer than we've been training in. I've grown to like the cold actually, despite the weight gain (which helps massively from a thermal perspective), I like how invigorated it makes me feel - a kind of electric charge through the body. Andy and Reg had placed a bet on whether Mark or myself would get across to France first and all I remember Andy saying is "don't let me down son!" as he looked hard into my eyes. The race was on! I'm a sucker for competition... it was exactly the right scenario to get me off to a good start.
Those Critical First Few Strokes
I reckon you can tell within three or four strokes exactly how good you're going to feel on any given swim. As I swam from the boat to the English shore to start I felt absolutely amazing. Again, I knew that I would make it across to France right there and then. I did however have a massive 25 knot wind up my backside and a big swell pushing me into the shore! When I officially got started it was a very stark contrast having to swim in the other direction off the beach and push into the waves with the realisation that this would be a relentless headwind all day without any sort of let-up. If anything it was due to get worse at about seven hours into the swim. From my last big 18km training swim in Perth with Amanda Nitschke and Bae Hooper (my two loyal and keen-as-mustard paddlers) I learnt that whilst I needed my stroke to be strong and purposeful into these types of waves, that I also needed to conserve energy and not fight it as much as I'd be able to do so in say a 5km swim. It sounds obvious of course but just backing off 10% and going with the flow of the swell and chop made all the difference. I was immediately into my rhythm and ploughing towards France.
Motivation, Tactics and Feeding
In Perth I had been training with a Garmin 310XT GPS device which I'd place under my swimming cap and which would record how far I had swam and also how fast. Prior to leaving Perth I was able to comfortably knock out 14 minutes per km for 4+ hour swims and had set the Garmin to buzz at me every 500m. This was a massive motivating device in those long training swims as I'd only ever focus on reaching the next buzz, every 7 minutes or so. I never once thought about the length of the swims as a whole as doing do would just freak me out. No one really likes swimming that long but if you break it down into a series of smaller chunks, it becomes much easier.
During my Channel swim I wasn't allowed to wear anything more than a cap, some goggles, very standardised bathers and grease - the Garmin was banned as a pacing device. Instead I asked Adam to blow a sharp blast on the loud-haler every 7 minutes to signify the same milestones as I'd done with the Garmin in training. The sound of the loud-haler was instantly obscured by the force of the wind, so we had to go with plan B - holding up a red umbrella every 7 minutes instead. Adam, Paul Caunce (who'd travelled 5 hours down from Doncaster on a whim the night before, hoping that I'd get to swim - legendary commitment) and Simon (editor of H2Open Magazine) did brilliantly doing this 105 times (!) through the course of the swim and took great dedication and an understanding of just how important it was for me to keep this going. I would cite this as the biggest single motivation technique that I used out there during the swim - aside from all your Tweats, emails and SMS messages of course! ;-)
To coincide perfectly with the red umbrella waving, every 4th cycle (28 minutes) we'd stop briefly for some fluid and / or food. This is exactly how I'd practiced in Perth and I didn't change a thing from what I know works for me now. This was a stark contrast to the critical error I made in 2004 when attempting my first Ironman and losing confidence in my well-rehearsed fuelling strategy, thinking I'd need to suddenly consume more because this was the "big one". In that case I became massively bloated and dehydrated because none of the carbs were getting into my system, they were just sat there like a useless weight in my stomach from over-consuming. Stupid when I look back at it as it forced me out of the race in the end and to date I have never revisited Ironman.
I alternated between 250ml of Gatorade on stop #1, then 250ml of Gatorade and a GU gel on stop #2. This I repeated over and over again for all 25 of my fuel stops. On a couple of occasions I'd ask for something different (Turkish Delight, Boost Bar, Annette van Hazel's amazing fruit cake...) but I generally stuck to the plan and only ate these things when I felt like I craved the action of eating rather than slurping! I had two Nurofen at 4 hours and 8 hours to help with my shoulders but didn't drink any pure water at all and had one quick sip from a bottle of Coke. Aside from that it was Blue and Red Gatorade e-numbers all the way to the post-swim toilet... I'll leave that thought right there! ;-)
Swinging Both Ways
As you know I am super pedantic about bilateral breathing for endurance swimming. When I started the swim the swell and chop was coming at us from the front and to the right. Andy (my pilot) expertly positioned the boat to shelter me from the main effects of this such that the boat was on my right. Right is my preferred side to breathe naturally, however, this asymmetry in my stroke from years of unchecked unilateral breathing is also the primary reason why my left shoulder is always the one that gives me grief on long swims as I generally don't rotate as well to my left. As I had to try and maintain visual contact with the boat, I started to breathe more and more to the right but as the waves were still hitting me hard from this side I was swallowing a lot of water and not getting a proper breath in. The waves were so strong at this point that I was also being pushed away from the boat and then frustratingly having to readjust my position. I didn't feel totally relaxed and at just two hours into the swim my left shoulder started to let me know it was there.
I asked the guys on the boat if I could swim on the other side (allowing me to breathe more to my left and alleviate the pain in my shoulder), but their initial response was that I was crazy as the conditions were even worse on that side. After suffering like this for the first three hours I firmly stated that I would have a go on the other side and that I could always come back if necessary, potentially even swapping every few hours between sides. We tried it and the effect was instant... my shoulder pain eased up, I was able to sit closer to the boat, my rhythm improved and whilst the conditions were arguably harder to swim in, at least I was guaranteed a breath on my left hand side and at the same time stay in contact with the boat. I stayed on this side for the remainder of the swim.
As there are no land marks when you're halfway across the Channel, it is very hard to judge how well you're moving in terms of pace. I felt like I was totally flying along for the entire swim and this was evidenced by a super consistent 75 to 80 strokes per minute for the whole swim. The video clips in the link above were filmed at 8 hours into the swim and you can see that I'm still moving really well. I do not think for a minute that I could have swum this Channel crossing any better or faster than what I did given the conditions I was presented with...my pacing was perfect, stroke was consistent and I felt strong the whole way. I am entirely happy with my efforts and the end result. Geoff Wilson said of his epic 15h15m swim back in July that if he had have been forced to swim further he could have done given how physically well prepared he was. I'll admit that initially I even found this hard to truly believe but when out there I also felt this amazing energy that would just seemingly go and go. I've never experienced anything like it and it just felt amazing.
You all know how pedantic I am about pacing in training sessions and the reason for this is because I know how bad I naturally am at it and is something I've worked incredibly hard on the last three years. On this swim all that effort paid off - it went totally according to plan and when the weather really picked up at 7 hours into the swim, I lifted my game even further - I wasn't going to let Mother Nature beat me now!
Shelley tried to explain it to me as needing to feel like I was on a leash for the first two-thirds of the swim, holding back for when I really needed it. For those of you following the tracker, some of you have commented how it appears like I slowed to a snail's pace at about 4 hours into the swim, but this couldn't be further from the truth. At this point the tide was changing directions (becoming slack) and this affects your forward progress significantly. Many swimmers at this point actually struggle to make any ground at all and some even get pushed backwards, so it's very important to push on here and not take too long over your drink and food stops.
I would say that I remained in a happy place 98% of the entire swim and for me this is the single biggest achievement of the swim. It's amazing what can be achieved when you can keep yourself in this flow-state of positivity. I was doing all that I could do to get across to France and I vividly recall thinking at about 7 hours in that if the predicted storm does really kick in now (and that they have to drag me from the water for safety reasons), I'd be very happy and satisfied with my efforts even if I wasn't able to finish. Whenever an ounce of doubt crept into my mind, I'd start singing "Not Afraid" by Eminem and think about my son Jackson and doing it for him. I know that all sounds a bit cliche but having this anchor to go back to in the tougher moments was so useful.
I read Des Renford's book in the days before the swim (19 x Channel Swimmer and Australian swimming icon) prior to my attempt and in it he stated a couple of quotes which had helped him:
"Even the darkest hour still only has 60 minutes!"
...this was also brilliant to refer back to, as was another:
"A man who wants something will find a way; a man who doesn't will find an excuse!"
Getting On With It
I had been keeping a mental note of how many food stops we'd had and so how far into the swim we were, but after about 4 hours I started to lose track of this and actually let the counting float away. This was a good period for me and I quite enjoyed the freedom from anything other than thinking about the next stroke, the next umbrella, the next feed. I had told Adam that I would not ask how close to France we were at any point during the swim, but at 8h50m I slipped and just had to ask exactly how long we'd been going for as I still couldn't see France or smell the croissants. Adam asked if I really wanted to know and then eventually told me. I asked my pilot Andy where was France and he just pointed forwards and said it was "over there". Fair point, I took that as my cue to get going and stop worrying and just got on with the task at hand.
Eventually the light started to fade and we paused briefly to pin on a Glow Stick to make me more visible in the water (like my Hot Pink Funky Trunks weren't loud enough?!). I knew at this point that I was getting very close and decided to stop for an extra feed just 6 minutes after the last which was to be my final surge of energy for the push to the finish. I could see the boys readying the dinghy to escort me to shore and at this point I knew I had made it, bar disaster. Little Andy (Big Andy's first mate on the boat) escorted me in and witnessed me finishing on the rocky beach in complete darkness and a little fog. I didn't get chance to savour the moment unfortunately (not even a photograph) as I was being beckoned back onto the boat so we could get back to Dover as the temperature was dropping.
Will I Ever Do It Again?
In a word, no. Job done, next chapter, move on. The training and preparation was excellent. I couldn't have asked for a better training crew to train up with for this mammoth undertaking. Wayne, Ceinwen, Paul D, Andrew, Lisa and Geoff were all amazing and we always kept each other on track and the vibe was fun, enjoyable and supportive. I've had the privilege to train with some of the world's best athletes in a former life living in the UK as part of the Triathlon World Class Program, but can honestly say that I've never trained with more dedicated and committed athletes than these guys.
Adam's (Young) support through this whole thing has been legendary, especially given the monster work tasks we set ourselves with Swim Smooth. Surviving the sea sickness on the boat was a big thing all in itself. Shelley's (Taylor-Smith) encouragement in these last few weeks in particular has been outstanding. Not all elite athletes make great coaches and mentors but I can categorically state that Shelley does. She's been brilliant and both Adam and Shelley were right there when I needed them to help me turn around what was becoming a period of despair after our first swim attempt was cancelled.
My boat support crew of Big Andy (King or "Grumpy" as he is known), Little Andy, the CSA observer (Mick) and of course Adam (Young), Paul (Caunce) and Simon (Griffiths) were legendary. All pilots have their own ways of getting swimmers across the Channel but what really stood out for me with Andy King on the Louise Jane was how quietly confident he was in his own judgement, methods and experience. Andy always got back to me within a few hours on email even going back two years ago when I registered with him for the swim. He'd answer any questions that I had and dealt with me in a professional and courteous way at all times. He calls a spade a spade and for a challenge like this, I personally believe that this is what is needed in a pilot. He was determined to get me across the Channel in a fast time but when the conditions looked as though they wouldn't give me an opportunity to do that we switched to Plan B and focused on making the best of a very small window between two strong weather fronts.
For me, getting across was always my number one goal, irrespective of time. On the day, everything was all perfectly timed and whilst there might not have been millions of gadgets and computers to dazzle us with technology, there was just the right amount. This to me is the sign of a true craftsman, someone who knows his stuff and gets the job done. It's a little like the bookworm or "swot" at school who might get the grades but has no practical application of what they have learnt versus someone like Andy who has practicality pouring out of his ears. You can see that Andy positively loves doing what he does and to get me through those conditions like he did was nothing short of extraordinary. He must have been watching me 110% of the time through his little port window as there were a few times when I came close to the boat in the rough seas and he'd always manage to manoeuvre the big boat out of my way accordingly. I cannot recommend him highly enough for anyone considering a crack at the English Channel.
Varne Ridge Holiday Park is where we stayed for our entire trip and I have always been intrigued as to how good this site would be given the tremendous amount of positive feedback I have heard about the site itself and owners David and Evelyn. I knew from the instant we arrived that we'd be well looked after as Evelyn came bustling in offering us loads of free food and supplies to get us started before the grand trek to Tescos supermarket. David and Evelyn are truly wonderful genuine people who were the perfect hosts for our time in Dover. They know so much about the Channel and always have a calming effect on you when you're worried about whether or not you're going to get to swim. We all thoroughly enjoyed our time there.
Finally, to my parents Linda & Steve, Shaun & Catherine, my sister Sheryl and close friends and of course especially Michelle and Jackson without whom I wouldn't have been able to do any of this and accomplish a boyhood dream. I am totally in awe of how Michelle does what she does, looks after me and copes with me when I'm tired and grumpy and manages to look after our beautiful little boy Jackson whilst all the while carrying around a massive lump in her belly. I haven't seen either of them for nearly six weeks now and can't wait to get back to Perth for the big reunion. Mish, you're a legend and Jackson, maybe we can do a Duo to Rottnest one day soon?
Thanks again for the opportunity to undertake this challenge - it is without a doubt the very biggest and best athletic achievement I have ever completed.