The Countdown to the North Channel

It is now just 2 weeks before my swim window opens on August 18th and I am getting a little nervous to say the least. As the weather is so unpredictable for any channel swim, a swimmer always books a 5 or 6 day window of opportunity in relation to the tides so that they have the best possible chances of success by going on the first good weather day. If each of the days in the window passes with no suitable weather then the swimmer loses the opportunity to swim and has to rebook! That is one of the many frustrations of Channel Swimming and I know many a swimmer who has trained hard for years only to lose their window due to bad weather and have to wait another year to swim. This nearly happened to me in 2006 for my English Channel Solo but luckily we got away on the last day and I completed that swim in 14 hours.

With two weeks to go until my North Channel window starts I am starting to get several niggling doubts in my mind usually along the lines of not training enough or biting off too much. This is very normal for any big swim and the important thing is to let those doubts go buy reminding yourself that you have worked very hard to get here. I am worried but I know I have done all that I can and with just 2 weeks to go there is not much more I can do now anyway in terms of upping training. We are now in the phase of tapering where the workload and intensity decreases for the remaining time leading up to the big day.

Until very recently I have been doing a lot of intense interval training mixed in with a lot of slow cold water plods in the sea. Just a couple of weeks ago I did something called a “back to back swim” which in Channel Swimming circles involves a 6 hour swim one day followed by a 7 hour swim the very next day with little to no time to recover. The good news is that I managed to survive it and so I know my training has paid off. It was pretty tough and on day one within the first 30 minutes I swam face first into a jelly fish. The pain was excruciating and felt like a net of acid expanding over my face and down my body. I didn’t stop though and just kept on swimming knowing in my mind that this jelly fish was a pussy cat compared to the ones in the North Channel, the dreaded Lions Main jellyfish which regularly reach 10 ft in diameter and are highly toxic.

This is the least of the wild life I can expect in the North Channel though. Last week a friend of mine had a hump back whale pop up 10 metres away from her in there. Seals and basking sharks are regular occurrences as well and I really hope I get to have a similar close up experience. It is one of the many things that makes these swims so magical.

The back to back swim a couple of weeks ago marked the peak of my training. The idea is to cover the distance of a Channel swim split over 2 days and I covered about 20 miles which is about right as the crow flies although on my actual crossing it is likely to be considerably more. Having the strength and technique to keep a constant pace up for these extreme lengths of time is very important and that is where my interval training has really paid off as it has made me super fit! I usually cover 4 – 5k in an interval training swim 3 or 5 times a week and then anything up to 10 – 12km on a slow distance swim. This approach has served me well and I know I am physically ready to take on the North Channel.
A Channel swim is not all physical though, quite the opposite in fact. It is well known in endurance sports that success is 80% mental and 20% physical which is why mindset training is also of vital importance. This is basically having the mental power to push through pain and boredom and work through short term pain for long term glory. I always think to myself in the height of physical discomfort on these events that this is just 1 day out of my life and if I swim through it I will be able to look back and reap the rewards but if I get out early and call the event off I will have just wasted a year of hard training and have to start again. This motivates me to succeed mainly because I don’t want to do another year of hard training towards the same challenge; I want to train for the next big one!

I fly to Ireland in a week and a half and will be staying in a little fishing town called Donaghadee where my swim will start from. I will play the waiting game until we have the perfect weather window and then my swim will start. I will have a boat next to me all the way across helping to guide me in the right direction. On board will be 3 boat crew, an official observer from the Irish Long Distance Swimming Association to make sure everything is legit and to record every move I make, and my mother and wife to manage my feeds. I will feed every 30 minutes on high carbohydrate powder and hot chocolate with the occasional coffee but there will be no touching of the boat or the swim will be called off!

This is the biggest swim of my life which only a handful of people in the world can say they have done. Next month I will tell you exactly how it goes once I am back on dry land.