Paul was driving my mom to church and me to the beach when I got the call from Stuart saying I could swim at 3 o'clock. I assumed he meant in the morning and it took me a couple of minutes to understand he meant that afternoon. This was always a possibility, but not one I had envisioned - to swim across the English Channel through the night. I hesitated briefly, but I knew Stuart had recommended this because of the time window for calm seas. I agreed to meet him at the marina and we all were very excited to get ready for the big swim.
I met Gregg at Dover beach and shared the good news. He seemed as shocked as I had been. It's a surreal experience to know that your Channel swim is just hours away when you've put in nearly 2 years training and focusing on the event.
We had a short swim to the west wall and back, then met up with our families at the coffee shop. It felt nice to have this normal routine before the big swim. I enjoyed chatting with Gregg's wife, Kindra, and, of course, Gregg and my mom were glad to see each other again. And to have Audrey and Paul there made everything feel like it was falling into place.
I thought about a night swim. I had hoped to have some sunshine to warm my back while I swam. The night would be an entirely different sort of beast. I've heard from other swimmers who loved swimming at night - felt it was a peaceful way to do the crossing. I wasn't so sure I would be as comfortable, but was satisfied with my decision to do the swim. Calm water trumps everything else.
It took us a couple of hours to get feeds ready and everything packed. It takes a lot more "stuff" than you'd think for a major marathon swim. I had my feed schedule written out with exactly what type of feed I wanted and when. I planned to take feeds on the hour the first 2 hours, then every 45 minutes after that. I had fed every half hour in training, but wanted to have more swim time between feeds in the channel. Paul did lots of complicated calculations to figure out how to make the feeds double strength so I'd have the calories I needed each hour - about 250.
We loaded the car, said goodbye to my mom and Audrey and drove down to the marina. As we were unloading, Paul discovered he forgot his yellow storm jacket. He was thinking of doing without it, but I knew he'd want it if the weather got rainy, plus, I like being able to easily see him, so he returned to the house to pick it up.
I met Stuart at the marina gate and we walked to his boat, the Sea Leopard. I met his first mate and shortly after, the CSA observer and the observer's 14-year old son, Liam. I gave Stuart his payment, which was in a zebra-striped zippered bag. I joked that I couldn't find one in leopard print. A minute later, Stuart came back and asked about the payment. I said, "It's right there, in the bag." He kept looking at me like I was seriously confused. I noticed then that I'd given him the wrong bag. It was MY zebra money bag, which contained considerably less money than his payment. How mortifying. I dug into my backpack for the right bag and we switched. Jeeeez. How embarrassing.
I walked back to the marina gate to open it when Paul arrived. I was surprised to see Paul walking toward the gate with Gregg. Gregg and Kindra came to see us off, which was very kind.
With everything loaded and introductions and safety instructions all around, we were off. Stuart said we had a slack tide, so I'd be starting from the beach on the other side of the pier instead of Samphire Hoe. It didn't take too long to get there. I took off my warm sweats and Paul applied Desitin to my armpits and Bag Balm everywhere else. I put on my cap and goggles, with a spare noseclip attached to the goggle strap and my green night light. I had an orange nightlight attached to the back of my suit. I turned them on so they'd be ready when the sun set.
Stuart pulled in very close to the beach and said I was good to go. I gave Paul a kiss and he said, "You can do this." I appreciated his confidence. I sat on top of the ladder at the back of the boat and took the plunge. Although I've been swimming in this water for the past 2 weeks, it's still a shock to take that first plunge into cold water.
I took a few breaststrokes to make it to the beach. There was a smattering of people on the beach and I wondered if they knew what I was about to do or if it's so common here, they don't think it's that big of a deal. I thought of all the training I'd done to get to this point. I thought of all the family and friends who have supported me along the way. I thought of swimming through the night and felt a little daunted by that, but also determined. This was MY day. It was just going to take place during the night.
Stuart sounded the boat horn and I waded into the water and started swimming. It felt surprisingly normal. I was excited, but it was just swimming. Something I've done more days than not for the past few years. As we passed the pier, the water got choppy in that unsettled, washing machine sort of way. I figured it was just a choppy section and would smooth out in a while and I kept plowing through it.
I could clearly see Paul and the other crew on the boat when I’d turn to that side to breathe, which was reassuring. As much as I tried to keep my mouth tightly shut, I ended up taking in occasional gulps of water when I turned to breathe and was hit by a wave at the same time.
The water was surprisingly clear and I could see jellyfish here and there. Some were brown (sea nettles) and some were orange (lions mane). I was nailed by one on my right thigh and another on my left wrist. Like other stings I've had while here in Dover, it's more a startling surprise than painful. Although yeah, they do sting!
It seemed to take forever to get to the first feed. I was feeling a little anxious, I guess, and was eager to get that first hour behind me. Paul tossed me the bottle and I was pleased it was a comfortable, warm temp. Just right. I took the feed quickly and resumed swimming.
The water settled considerably in the second hour, just as Stuart said it would. The waves were more undulating and not so spastic. I could time my breaths better to avoid taking in sea water.
My swim stroke rate felt good. I’d gone out more quickly to get through the chop and had settled into a rate I felt comfortable with. The cold was there – it’s always there – but I could think about other things. I ran a few songs through my head, thought of the feel of the water and kept an eye out for Paul on the boat.
Getting into the second hour, my tummy started feeling queasy. I was hoping it was just a passing thing, but it was getting more bothersome as time was going by.
Again, it seemed to take forever to get to the next feed. Usually, I'm surprised when it’s time to feed, but since these were on the hour and I was excited, it was like watching a pot of water come to boil. Come on already!
Paul tossed me my feed bottle and another bottle with mouthwash. He was telling me to pull the rope to make it taut so he could send it down on a carabiner, but I wasn't getting it. Took me a second to figure out that’s what he wanted me to do. I took a big swig of the mouthwash and spit it out. The fresh mint felt refreshing.
In the third hour, my stomach was getting seriously nauseous. I stopped up and asked Paul to give me a Gaviscon at my next feed. It started to rain, which didn’t really bother me, but it was grey and gloomy. Not the sunny day I had hoped for, but again, a swimmer needs to take the best window for calm water and sometimes that’s a night swim.
The cold was getting to me. I had no desire to pee, even though I drank a huge glass of water before we set off and I’d had two feeds. I focused on my core feeling warm and how much I wanted to have a successful swim. I envisioned myself getting through each section of the channel and how great it would feel as I ticked those off. My stroke rate felt fine. I was at a pace I could comfortably keep for a long while.
The queasiness got worse. I pulled up a couple of times, thinking I’d throw up, but I couldn't get anything out. It’s a miserable feeling to be nauseous. It’s hard to think of anything else.
Finally the third feed rolled around and Paul tossed me a feed bottle and another bottle with a Gaviscon tab in it. It was difficult to chew the Gaviscon, so I just swallowed it in large chunks and washed it down with the feed. It was hard to get all the feed down because my stomach felt so gross.
The rain stopped and the ocean was quite settled except for soft swells. I could catch the occasional glimpse of a tanker and lights on other boats. As much as I tried to focus on the task at hand and just swim, the nausea was overwhelming. Again, I sat upright in the water to try to puke, but nothing would come. The CSA observer (whose name I can’t remember, but he was a remarkable guy), kept yelling that it was OK to puke. I KNOW it’s OK – I just couldn't make it happen! I desperately WANTED to puke.
I went head down to resume swimming. I thought about all of my family and friends, pulling me to France on an invisible rope. That’s one of my favorite visualizations. I thought about the people I know and admire who have overcome tremendous adversities. I swam faster, hoping that might help.
By the next feed, I was feeling desperate for relief. I couldn't take much of it in. My stomach was roiling, but wouldn't release it. I tried gagging myself but that didn't work. The CSA Observer was saying, “Just 15 more minutes, Molly. I know you can do this. All swimmers go through it. Just 15 minutes and you’ll get past it.”
As much as I hoped that would be the case, I’d been feeling worse as time was going by. The cold was getting into my bones, too. My chin was shivering. I was beside myself in frustration. I’d swum in the damn harbor every day for 2 weeks! I’d taken cold baths, cold showers, cold lake swims. I swam 6 hours the day after we arrived, in the rain and wind. I swam 11 hours in Branched Oak Lake. I had the power to do this!
It’s the death of a swim when you start thinking about the whole task ahead. I knew better, but still, the thought of swimming in the dark while feeling so sick for the next dozen hours was daunting. I tried to just focus on each stroke, one arm after the next.
I pulled up again, hoping I’d finally be able to throw-up. I was squeezing my stomach but that nasty stuff still wouldn't come up.
I felt defeated, exasperated, lonely and cold. This was NOT the strong, confident swim I had planned. I felt like a big baby – not being able to take the nausea. I told Paul and the observer I wouldn't be able to make it. Again, this insanely driven, super supportive observer said “You CAN make it and you WILL. Keep swimming, Molly. Go 15 more minutes.”
OK. Head down, keep swimming. I plowed through to the next feed, but couldn’t take it in. My stomach was full. Again, I told them I wasn't going to make it and wanted to call it. Again, the CSA observer said to give it 10 more minutes.
I can’t imagine a more depressing scenario. It was the death of my dream. I had trained for this, envisioning the finish as I stumbled onto a beach or onto rocks on the French coast. It was a goal I would do anything to achieve. Except, as it turns out, swim with unrelenting nausea.
Finally, I swam over to the back of the boat. Over the exuberant protestations of my zealous CSA Observer, I told him I was done. I looked at Paul for support. It was a terrible decision to make. I knew grabbing that ladder was the end. But, I chose it.
Once on the boat, I felt washed with remorse, grief and relief. They wrapped me up in my towel and blankets. I wasn't that exhausted – only swam 4 hours and 15 minutes, so I was able to help get myself situated. I was shivering and crying. Pathetic all the way around. Stuart asked if I’d been able to pee and I told him I hadn't. Whether it was the cold or the nausea, my whole GI system had shut down. Nothing was coming out either direction.
Both Stuart and the CSA observer said I’d had a great effort and that I was swimming strong. I was averaging 62-63 strokes per minute at the beginning and had maintained a 60-stroke per minute rate since the second hour. It would have been a good finish time. So it goes.
Finally, about 10 minutes after being on the boat, I was able to puke into a bucket. It was a relief, though the nausea returned a few minutes afterward. Paul was there offering lots of support.
It was a forlorn return trip. I won’t belabor it. But, obviously, after putting so much into this, a ride back after four hours was demoralizing and just sad. I left my dream in the water.
When we returned to the house, I may have said a quick hello on my way to the bathroom where I puked to dry heaves. I couldn't have digested much of my feeds. It was all there.
I made short facebook update to let everyone know I was OK, but the swim was over and I was going to bed. I fell asleep pretty quickly and didn't throw-up again.
Today was the first day of my regular life after the Channel. It was a little weird. This isn't what any of us wanted or expected. We will enjoy the rest of the week sight-seeing with Mom and Audrey and have a few days in Paris. I can’t possibly complain.
As they say, it’s not the destination but the journey. Someone who didn't make their goal invented that. It sucks not to achieve the dream. But, life goes on. Honestly, I don’t feel any desire to try the EC again. I love swimming and will set a new marathon swimming goal, but I think I’m done with cold water.
I have had an amazing, incredible experience and have made friends from around the world. For that, I thank the English Channel.