Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Cold Hard Truth

You know why fewer than 1500 people have successful swum the English Channel? Because it's freezing fricking cold. Other obstacles, like exhaustion, changing weather, jellyfish stings and medical emergencies are contributing factors, but I am pretty sure it's the cold that is the root cause of unfinished business.

I've put in some time in the backyard pool and swam in the lake last weekend and on Thursday afternoon. Thursday was gorgeous - sunny and warm with air temp of about 82 degrees, water temp of 60 and although I was shivering when I got out and for about an hour afterward, I felt pretty good. I swam nearly 2 miles in just a little over an hour.

So, I thought I'd give a long training swim a go. I had 2 friends and Paul who generously agreed to provide kayak support. I asked them each to do a 3-hour shift, hoping to get in a 9-hour training day.

What was I thinking? 

It was 45 degrees at the start, some wind, and mostly sunny skies. Water temp right at 60. As usual, it was a bit of a terror getting submersed in the water, but also as usual, I felt good once I got going. I followed Matt around the first point and we headed for the dam. I knew I was going faster than my normal pace, but I wanted to keep the furnace going and I felt like it was a pace I could handle.

At the first feed near the dam, things were going pretty well. I was chilly, but my core felt warm and I was trying to concentrate on things other than the temperature.

We passed the marina and a couple of boaters. I could hear their "that's crazy" comments telepathically. The sun was rising a little higher and I could sort of feel it on my back. I concentrated on my stroke and kept an eye on Matt, hoping the next feed wasn't too much longer.

At the second feed, Matt asked if I was doing OK and I said yes, which was mostly true. The waves were getting to me and I was starting to think that I wasn't going to make this, but maybe I could make it at least 4 hours. That became a new goal - at least make it through the transition with Tammy and get through another hour. These are not good plans to be making just one  hour into the swim.

We carried on, plowing through the rough water and making good time. At each breath, I'd glance up at the sky. It was a perfect blue - the kind of Nebraska skies we get on clear fall days. A few whispy clouds lit up in the sunlight and a flock of white birds gathered overhead. I'm not sure if they were seagulls or snow geese or something else.

I noticed my left hand was losing coordination. I tried to bring my fingers together but they wouldn't stick. I was clawing through the water. My right groin also started to act up. It does this every damn open water swim. I don't know if it's cold or fatigue or waves or what but it's totally annoying. It messes up my kick. Instead of kicking evenly, it turns into kick-drag-kick-drag. I feel like a mummy dragging one leg across the water.

Third feed. I'm trying to be a trooper and slam down the carb drink and get my bearings. We still need to cross the north part of the lake. These feeds go fast. I don't want to take too much time so I don't ask about my smokes or any of the usual chitchat. Head down, back to lopsided kicking and arms digging.

We cross that part of the lake and round another point to the last feed in the bottle. I'm bone chilled and my head is no longer in the game. I slam it down, breaststroke through a comfort stop and try to focus on my swimming without thinking about the temps. The water is rough again and I'm having some trouble getting a good breath every other stroke. I have a belly full of lake water.

After about 10 or 15 minutes, I breaststroke again to see where in the hell we are. Matt asks how I'm doing and I let him know I'm too cold to keep going, I'd like to go straight back to Area 1. I hate doing this. But, I was getting colder and I knew I wasn't going to get any warmer as time went on. I'd rather be able to swim to the beach than have to hang on to Matt's kayak while he paddles to the nearest side of the lake - which would inevitably be some nearly inaccessible place to reach by car.

I followed Matt as he pointed the kayak toward the beach and crossed the lake pretty quickly. Just like biking on country roads, the point you are trying to reach always looks closer than it is. At least the waves were going in our direction so I didn't have to fight them.

When we finally reached the beach, Tammy was there ready to go. She asked if I was OK and I told her I just got too cold. I felt badly to have her load up her kayak and come all the way out there only to turn around and go back home. I felt more badly that I so underestimated how hard this would be. I knew it would be cold but I had hoped my cold water dips would have been enough to get me acclimated. Total swim time, approximately 2:35.

I'm disappointed but not defeated. It was a good learning experience. I definitely need to spend more time in cold water. On the bright side, I was swimming faster and felt fine after the swim. I'm getting stronger, but still a long way from being ready for a 16-hour Channel swim. Gotta keep at it.

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