With just 5 months to go until I swim between Ireland and Scotland it is time to start acclimatisation work! I loath acclimatisation with a passion. I can swim huge distances forever but hate that initial shock to the system and bone deep cold that comes with Channel swims. Acclimatising to cold water is so important though as most Channel swims that end in failure are because the swimmer is too cold.
Some swimmers choose to have ice baths, cold showers and switch off their heating all winter in preparation however this really is not my style. You may have gathered from previous columns I have written that I vastly prefer to do just enough to reach my goal and no more!
What most swimmers do not realise is that the body is capable of acclimatising very quickly. What feels incredibly uncomfortable and painful one day will feel so much better a few sessions later with regular exposure to that temperature. For my English Channel swim in 2006 the water was 16 degrees. I had acclimatised to 15 degrees so 16 degrees to me felt tropical! I intend to use this exact same approach for my North Channel training which is why I am writing this piece from my hotel in Mallorca where I am currently booked onto swim trek´s extreme long distance swim camp! Mallorca may sound like a tropical paradise and in the summer it is however in March it most certainly is not! The water is 12 – 13 degrees centigrade and so far in training for the North Channel the coldest water I have been exposed to is 29 degrees in an indoor pool! I am now going to talk you through exactly how I have acclimatised to such extreme conditions from scratch in 4 days which ended up with me completing a 6 hour non stop 24km swim on day 4 and officially qualifying to swim the North Channel.
I was in such a bad place mentally that I cried as I swam for a good hour and a half of the 6 hour swim. I was in so much pain and so cold but knew I had the mental strength to push through.
We did a 10 minute acclimatisation swim. It was dreadful. It took me 5 minutes to lower my body into the water and as I did so it felt like a thousand knives hitting me followed by a burning sensation all over my body. Every cell of my body was frozen to the core and screaming with pain. I struggled to breathe and could not put my head in the water. That night I lay awake in my hotel room seriously contemplating giving up and questioning whether I had bitten off more than I could chew.
A 2 hour swim in 12 degree water. The weather was miserable and windy and we were taken to a local beach because the waves at our hotel beech were too big and too dangerous due to stormy conditions. I was absolutely petrified at the idea of having to swim for 2 hours. I once again spent a good 5 minutes lowering myself into the water but then just got on with it and dived in! The familiar sensation of a thousand knives and burning filled my body BUT within 5 minutes it passed and was replaced by complete numbness! I was conscious of being cold but I was swimming well and more importantly maintaining my technique. As the first hour passed though I noticed my technique slipping. My long graceful stroke had been replaced by something resembling a bear fighting with a fish. I couldn’t catch the water effectively, my hands were slipping through a and I was not finishing my strokes. This was very odd for me as my stroke is usually very efficient. I was starting to shiver but by no means frozen so the cold water work the day before really had paid off.
Once the 2 hours were up I managed to carry myself out of the water and find shelter. I was shivering like crazy by now and struggled to get dressed. It took me a good 2 hours to warm up again and get back to myself but I was very pleased that I had managed a 2 hour swim on 1 days cold water prep. Not all of my swimming partners coped quite as well with this however. Several were in early stages of hyperthermia and could not walk or talk. One chap was so traumatised that he broke down in tears. Cold water swimming really does strip away confidence and presence in a way that I have never seen before which is why it should be treated with such respect.
Today I swam 18km in 13 degree water which took me 5 hours. I coped absolutely fine and did not even shiver. I jumped off the boat at the start into the cold deep water rather than lowering myself in and although I felt the familiar sensation of a thousand knives, the fact that I was expecting it and knew it would pass helped me ignore it and simply crack on!
We were called in to feed every half hour but were not allowed to touch the boat to replicate the conditions of a Channel swim. We had to tread water as hot maxim (high carb drink) with honey and jelly babies were passed to us. I was not feeling the cold nearly as much as previous swims which was a massive confidence boost. In fact I was very comfortable and after the 5 hours was up I could have gone one and done more! Tomorrow we have a 6 hour swim and that is my official qualifier for the North Channel. I am very confident about it and know that I can now handle the cold as well as the distance.
Day 4 – The 6 hour qualifier
This day was make or break for being allowed to swim the North Channel. For any solo channel swim you have to do a 6 hour non stop qualifying swim. For the English Channel the swim must be done in water less than 16 degrees but for the North Channel (Ireland to Scotland) the waters are much colder so the qualifying swim must be in water less than 13 degrees! I was confident about the cold and distance but my muscles were very sore from the 5 hour swim from the previous day! I was also not in a good place psychologically at all as I had some terrible personal news the day before. My wife was very ill back home and had gone into hospital. This was not a good start for me at all but I knew I had a job to do so I tried to put it to the back of my mind which I know is what she would have wanted.
Being in a positive state for a long cold swim is absolutely vital. If you let the negative thoughts and demons get the best of you then many a cold water swimmer will fall to pieces and fail. I was feeling very vulnerable but used every positive thinking trick I had to get into the right state before jumping in off the boat into 13 degree water. As always it was awful. I hate those first few minutes of every cold water swim with a passion but I knew that a wave of numbness was close so kept with it and sure enough within 5 minutes I was swimming off into the horizon perfectly comfortably.
As with our 5 hour swim the previous day we would feed every 30 minutes. This involved swimming back to the boat and treading water whilst we were passed our hot maxim and jelly babies! When ever you do a long cold swim it is always best mentally not to think about the total time ahead but simply swim from one feed to the next. That way an extreme chunk of time (in this case 6 hours) can be broken into manageable 30 minute blocks which is much more comfortable to comprehend when you are cold and in pain. This approach served me perfectly across the English Channel in 2006 and sure enough it was working now as well.
After 2 hours however the cold was starting to get to me. I was not expecting this at all as the previous day I was very comfortable. I was starting to ache all over and was in a lot of pain. In my weakened state I started to go down hill fast. Negative thoughts were flooding my mind. I was thinking about my poor wife back home in hospital and for the first time ever I felt like the worst husband in the world. What the hell was I doing on holiday having a swim whilst she was in pain hundreds of miles away. I felt a huge wave of guilt and hopelessness and for the first time ever on a cold swim I started to cry. I cried as I swam and could not work out what was happening. All I knew was that I needed to get out and end the swim.
Now I was at a cross road than many a channel swimmer has faced. Do I get out and for the first time ever except failure on a swim OR do I man up and swim through it. Well it took me a good hour and a half to decide (whilst crying my eyes out and feeling sorry for myself) but in the end I concluded that getting out would serve no purpose and would not help anyone apart from myself in the immediate present. I therefore stayed in. As soon as I consciously decided to carry on I suddenly started to feel warmer and more comfortable. The demons that were plaguing my mind were falling and things were looking up.
With less than an hour to go I was in extreme pain. My muscles were on fire and I was suffering badly from jellyfish stings to the arms and legs. I knew I was close though and before I knew it the support boat was ringing its bell to mark the end of the 6 hours.
I swam to the ladder and pulled myself up onto the boat. I felt extremely dizzy and faint as my blood pressure equalised due to finally being vertical for the first time in 6 hours. I was shivering a little but no where near as much as some of my co swimmers who seemed to be in a bad way. I was delighted that I had managed the entire 6 hours and got over the bad spells. This truly was Channel swim training at its hardest and I now have a whole new level of confidence for my North Channel Swim which I have now officially qualified for.