“The only bad swim is one from which you learn nothing” Paul Newsome.
“Oh here she comes; watch out boy she’ll chew you up” Hall and Oates.
I’m now nearly a month past my swim: I’m recovering physically . Following 2 days of a sore throat and nose bleeds (from the salt water) and an inability to lift my arms above shoulder height, I feel pretty good. It’s clear that swimming for this long causes pretty significant muscle damage that will take some time to repair. And psychologically? Well, to my surprise and relief I’ve been upbeat about what was essentially a long training swim in the Moloka’i Channel.
My weeks and months leading up to the swim were checkered, as described in my recent blog posts. Physical injury and a few bad swims leading to negative self-talk. However, I flew to Hawaii with Nicky, in a good place, mentally. I had not done the 8 hour final training swim that was in the plan, but had done a solid 5 and a half hours in very big swell, that left me feeling positive.
Within 6 hours of arrival on Monday 27 March, we got quite a surprise: an SMS from my skipper, Mike Twigg-Smith “forecast looking good for Wednesday, let’s meet at 6pm tomorrow”. We spent much of that evening making lists, shopping for feeds and kit and speaking with Tara our dietician on Messenger, to finalise feeding, electrolyte and fluid plans.
Unfortunately I didn’t take my phone with me for a final training swim and last minute shopping on the following morning and we got back in the afternoon to discover the swim would not go ahead: Mike was still on the water with another swimmer and would not be able to fit in my swim.
While I did not feel ready to swim, my team were in no better a position: Nicky was recovering from 24 hour gastro that had made her flight to Oahu a living, shaking, vomiting hell and Andy had only arrived from Byron into a maelstrom of rushed organisation on Tuesday morning. A wild mixture of emotions: relief, disappointment, calm, a sense of anticlimax, even hysteria. I recall spending a lot of that evening laughing at the crescendo-decrescendo we’d been through.
So, we planned to meet with Jeff Kozlovich, from the Ka’iwi Channel Association and Mike on the evening of Friday 31 March. At this briefing, we were told Wednesday 5 April looked favorable so worked toward this date.
As with any swim, the waiting can be a challenge, both psychologically and physically. You need to keep training, but also ensure you get a taper so as not to start the swim fatigued. I am in no position to complain, but I will. Over about 12 days I swam about 48-50 km in 1km laps at Ala Moana Bay in Waikiki. It is beautiful, warm, sunny, with many friendly sea turtles, but endless 2 km loops can get a bit tedious. Very silty though: milky coloured water with visibility of about a metre that left swimwear pretty brown. We made sure we had lots of day trips after the swims to keep us entertained.
A lot went through my head during my time in the water, some things great, some not so. Niggles magnified, aches extrapolated to injury, doubt I could ever swim as long and as far as needed, concern about wind, sealife, the dark. Concerns that swimming in a slightly wind rippled bay was no preparation for the channel, but Nicky, my guardian angel, kept me sane and focused. A lot of the time I was at peace, loving the swim and I knew I could do this.
On Monday 3 April, my swim date was moved once again. Wednesday’s winds were forecast to be greater than 20 knots (40kmh); on Saturday the swell and winds were forecast to drop significantly. So, my taper untapered once again.
On the evening of Friday 7 April we met Mike and Jeff to put all of our kit on Mike’s boat, Stellina Mare. The only things we could take with us to Moloka’i were things that could be swum out from the shore to the boat.
The plan was to meet the boat at Kailua Koi beach on the west coast of Moloka’i at 4pm Saturday. A long day, involving an exciting 20 minute flight in a small 10 seater plane. We had a great lunch at the Kualapu’u Cookhouse (yes, that’s right: koala poo), where the lovely owner Tina donated the cost of our lunch to Alzheimers Australia. Moloka’i is an interesting island. 5000 inhabitants, very little infrastructure and a beautiful and varied landscape. I’d love to return one day (and not to swim to Oahu!)
I think I was pretty calm, during the 2 hour wait for the boat at the beach, Andy and Nicky may disagree. Although nerves heightened as Andy swam to the boat then Nicky helped me with final preparations prior to commencing the swim.
At 5:10pm I entered the water, “glow-in-the-dark” white from zinc (nappy rash cream, for sun protection) and feeling confident, My stroke felt strong and long. Although it was still daylight we had only about 90 minutes before total darkness ensued, one of my key fears about the swim. 11 hours of night is a whole lot of dark. My fears were unfounded; a full moon meant good visibility and the water was a clear grey. In fact the nighttime component of my swim was probably my most enjoyable ever. I felt good in the water, flashy sparkles of bioluminescence accompanied every stroke made by my hands and the kayak’s paddle. I met a dolphin that swam up to meet me face to face then swam alongside me for a few minutes. Pretty frequent jelly stings, but… so what? They act as a distraction from the physical sensations of fatigue!
The sun rose about 13 hours into my swim. Once the sun rose, the ocean beneath me was the most indescribable, breathtaking deep, pure blue. The colour enchanted me and even now, when I close my eyes I can remember its purity; I long to be bathed in it again.
In fact, I was feeling as great as could be expected. Some fatigue and aching in my upper body, but my shoulder injury was not manifesting itself at all. My stroke was still strong and feeds were going well.
I’d known my first 10km was pretty quick (afterwards I learnt I did it in just just under 3 hours) and, despite swimming into a current, my next few hours were good and around midnight there was some excitement among the crew about the chance of a fast swim and a finish soon after dawn. But, that’s more or less where my success ended. I spent the next 10 hours making effectively little or no progress. In fact after the first 10km I covered a total of 23 km in 14 hours and a lot of that was in the wrong direction! Nicky had told me I was swimming into a current and was making progress and I was, but not a lot and constantly pushing diagonally, first to fight a current from the north then the south as it swung.
My head was in a great place. I was present for a lot of the swim and set myself the task of singing medleys from feed to feed: Paul Simon, Nick Cave, Queen, George Harrison… it’s funny how well I know these songs, but how few words I could remember in the water. This fuddlement is actually a good distractor, although looping through the same 4 lines can drive you nuts!
You have very little sensory data to process when swimming in big ocean. Occasional glimpses of land, which can feel deceptively near or far, the kayak, and occasionally the boat. I fed every 40 minutes and at about 30-35 minutes I would see the boat somewhere ahead, waiting for my arrival to feed me. For a while I had thought I must be making ground because over that 5-10 minutes I would “catch up” with the boat. Only after did I realise that the distance was covered by the boat drifting toward me on the current.
At about 16 hours I commented to the paddler that Oahu looked like it was no closer. The response of “its getting further away, we’re being pushed backwards and have been pushed back past the halfway mark” crushed me psychologically. Effectively I had swum only 20 km in 16 hours. 1.25 kmh!! Hahaha! Afterwards I learnt that Mike documented this new “head on” current from the west at 4.5kmh, so it was little surprise I was unable to make progress.
Things went south quickly (metaphorically. physically I was definitely going east!). I had what could be best described as a tanty (tantrum). Crying, shouting, demanding I would swim no further until I spoke with Nicky.
I begged Nicky to let me stop. I argued I was physically broken (I was not, we knew it). I argued I was spiritually broken (which I consider rather a melodramatic and rather pathetic argument). I sobbed, cried, filled my goggled with tears, slapped the water with frustration.
Nicky is undoubtedly one in a million and I will never forget what she did and will forever be grateful for her quick thinking and the decisive action she took. She knew I had “hit the wall”, so fabled among endurance athletes. But mine was not physical. It was one made by my psyche. The overwhelming rush of futility and disappointment shifted the balance of power between my brain and its meat puppet; my mind had started to lose the battle. I was like a drowning man, who will clutch at anyone or anything around him to avoid going down.
Nicky got in the kayak, grabbed enough feeds for 2 hours and told Mike to leave us until she radioed him.
“We’re not going to finish; we were hoping the change of tide would change the current but it hasn’t”. Importantly she knew that if I allowed myself to lose the battle and got out I would not forgive myself. We had agreed the swim would take 18 hours, so I was going to give her 18 hours. I was going to swim myself happy. Needless to say I thought this was BS, but Nicky was firm and scared me, so I obeyed. Honestly I thought she was so mad with me she’d never talk with me again!
As Nicky says my “job is to swim, not to talk or think”. So I did just that. And I did swim myself happy. With the pressure of completing the swim relieved I began to enjoy the solitude, the colours, the sun. Just me and Nicky in the big ocean, as we had been so many times before. My happy place. Sometime after 17 hours when I stopped to feed, we discussed my positive headspace. Nicky asked “Shall we quit?” I agreed and got out smiling 5 minutes later. The smile didn’t leave my face.
So, to return to the opening line: what did I learn?
I learnt I am stronger than the little voices tell me I am. 17 hours is a heroic amount of time to swim. Even though I didn’t reach my destination, I gave it everything I had and still had more. Who knows how much I had left in the tank? Had the current subsided could I have finished? Who knows?
I learnt that my psychological limits lie somewhere beyond the wall I hit. Nicky gave me a leg up over this wall. Next time I’ll have to bring my own ladder (a ladder and a lunchbox… how much room is there in my Budgy Smugglers?).
I learnt that fear is not always realised. Swimming through 11 hours of night was a beautiful experience.
I learnt I am resilient. I have turned this experience into a “deferred success”, through analysis and growth.
In the inspirational documentary “The Barkley Marathons”, Gary “Laz” Cantrell says “you can’t tell how much you can do until you try to do something that’s more”.
I’m not sure I have got to this point yet. Unfinished business? I think so…
Written by Cae Tolman April 2017