I have the honor of being a member of an online ope water discussion group. The members are mostly people who have swum The English Channel, are considering it, are booked to swim it, or have tried and not yet succeeded. Some of the names of people on the discussion board are a who's who in the marathon swimming community; Ned Denison, Sally Minty-Gravett, Laura Collette, Anne Cleveland, Ahlee Sue Osborn, and a host of others. Some of these people have swum the Channel several times, a couple have not only swum from England to France but then rested for 30 minutes and swam back from France to England!!! Others have swum around Manhattan Island, and done the legendary 18k Rottnest swim race in Australia. Quite an impressive bunch to say the least.
So I was rather surprised when one person offered up a question about speed and the Channel. Now there are many in the open water community who say that being fast is a good thing and one should work on it. Others claim that solid technique is the key to overcoming this stretch of water, and still others think if you just plod along, 'you'll eventually get there.' But then one member brought up something that was more important that anything else; the mental aspect of the swim.
I have heard from a number of folks who have swum the Channel, The Cook Strait, Strait of Gibraltar, The Beagle Channel and a number of others who all said that at one time during a marathon swim they encountered a dark moment where they felt they weren't making any progress, nausea was setting in, every muscle ached when they tried to move, and the realization that they might night make it began to settle in. Almost universally they all said this feeling happened after they had passed their longest swim to date leading up to the point that they found themselves in at that moment. For instance if one had swum no more than 8hrs prior to an attempt then at 8.5 hr mark things began to get dark etc. When this moment arrived that is where the true mental state was tested.
Swimmers talked about not thinking about how much further they had to go but about just getting to their next feeding, which would be in 30 minute intervals. They spoke of how they instructed their support crew to not let them know how far they had gone or how far they had to go, as this could be psychologically damaging to the swimmer. They spoke of having a good crew on hand, one that would be comprised of folks who knew what they were going through at that point and could help them push on, rather than close friends and relatives who - though supportive and loving - would have no idea of what they were going through at the time.
As I read these replies I began to think about some of the doubts that I had. Everyone is faster than me, everyone has more experience than me and so on. Then, one voice in the crowd came through, it was a pilot who escorted numerous people across the Channel named Michael Oram.
Michael's wrote the following,
"How do you convey the enormity of standing on a beach at 3 am in the pitch
black darkness with wind and waves and the lights of your little pilot boat
all you can see in front of you and nothing but cold choppy water for around
20 nautical miles to your destination?
"You know that it's you against the elements in one of the toughest swims in
the world. You are apprehensive - you are excited - you are scared - your adrenalin is
running. Have you trained enough? - can you bi-latterly breath properly as it looks
like you are going to have to swim on the "wrong side" of the boat to get
some protection and stay out of the wind. How can you keep up the pace and the stroke you have been doing for such a
long time in the pool and sheltered water? How can you swim in these conditions : it's rough : look the swell is 18
inches (half a metre high) and there are waves.
The mental part of this swim is by far the biggest deciding factor."
Michael was right. The mental aspect of this an any other marathon swim is the deciding factor.
How bad do you want this? What are you willing to do to make it happen? Are you going to keep on going when everything in your body
tells you to stop or just give up now and wonder for the rest of your life; 'Why did I do that?'
A friend asked me what I do to prepare myself for any swim I do. My answer;
"I've come here to win or be carried out on my shield. I'm either gonna knock it out
or I'm gonna get knocked out."
And so it goes. I'll be in the water tomorrow at 6:30AM swimming against the current on no food
for an hour or more to see what my body can take. I know I can do it, 80% of this swim is mental remember?