Firstly a massive congratulations to all those who competed at the weekend in the 2014 Rottnest Channel Swim - they were some pretty amazing conditions, but as we’ll see from my observations…only for some!
I haven’t got the full list yet of who did what in the teams and duos so please do send me through any of your own reports as I’d love to see them.
I would like to share my observations initially from the support boat deck of swimmer # 83, our very own coach “Super Sal”.
About 9 months ago Sally somewhat surprised me by saying that she was thinking of having a crack at her first ever Solo swim to Rottnest. In the past, Sally and always said “not me - I’ll get too cold!” (being of a lean, mean triathlete disposition) - so this was quite a turn-around, so I said “ok, let’s see what we can do!”
Sally’s program started off by building up some confidence by partaking in the Fiji 10km swim back in August, an event which she ended up placing 2nd overall in a time of 2h30m - not bad at all for your first 10km swim! A pace of 1:30/100m! It was however, 28ºC in the water and as such Sally was able to power on through to a fabulous result!
Our biggest concern leading into this event was “will the water warm up enough to avoid the risk of hypothermia?” Even just 3 months ago, we were still talking between ourselves that Sal’s “threshold temperature” would be ~23-24ºC and anything less would be very marginal indeed. Still, we persevered and did whatever we could to prepare…a bit of weight gain, swimming in cold water etc. At the 5km at City Beach before Christmas Sally got extremely cold and disorientated by the finish in temperatures of ~22-23ºC which obviously raised our concerns about being able to pursue 19.7km in those temperatures or colder. Still, we soldiered on!
Cut to the race on Saturday and following my inaction from recent back surgery I offered to support Sally from her boat. We were both quite excited as I’ve never actually supported anyone on a marathon swim before, not least their first!
All Sal’s training had been going great guns and we had an excellent nutrition strategy in place and all the mental conditioning had been rehearsed over and over. In training, Sally had been coping very well even to the point of suggesting the water felt “warm” at Sorrento Beach just a few weeks back when she knocked out another great 2h36m 10km swim in lumpy(isn) conditions. We were all set. However, as it turned out, the water proved to be 21.2ºC on the morning of Saturday 22nd February 2014 and (whilst we couldn’t change that) it was always going to be a marginal call for Sal even just getting across there…but survive she did and I could not be more proud of her for keeping going and achieving a goal that very few do when the chips were down and conditions conspiring against her.
A successful solo marathon swim requires 3 key things to be in place:
- the ability to adapt (and thrive!) in the conditions
- the ability to hold together a sound nutritional program throughout the course
- the ability to stave-off sore shoulders / niggles
…when just one of those things is amiss you could find yourself in trouble - when all three are lost - watch out!
Not only was the water temperature cooler than we had hoped for (21ºC vs 23-24ºC and thus 2-3ºC below were we had estimated Sal’s “temperature threshold” to lie) but the following easterly (whilst brilliant for some and certainly conducive to fast times on the most part), my retrospective analysis has shown that those with stronger kicking patterns were the ones who really thrived on Saturday by being able to ride the surf a little bit like a kid on a boogie board and/or carried a little more body mass to capitalise on the momentum gained with each wave. That’s by no means a scientific analysis, purely a rough conclusion I’ve come to looking at who did well versus what I know of them and their strokes. Again, horses for courses.
It’s the first time in 12 years since I arrived in Perth that I’ve seen such conditions and whilst it would be prudent to try to train for every possible outcome, I think with the recent shark paranoia etc, far fewer swimmers have been willing to practice in a full range of conditions like they might have in years gone by. The conditions were so polarised in people’s perceptions and feedback to me this week that I’ve personally learnt a lot from it myself - it appears you either loved the pushing swell (strong kickers) or hated the lack of being able to establish a rhythm (everyone else). Still, you can’t change that - it was what it was and on the most part times were quicker than previous years.
Sal’s nutrition plan was very much like my own - simple, tried and tested. Every 30 minutes stop and alternate between carb drink and then carb drink / water and a gel. In the last 9 months it’d worked perfectly and yet on the day Sally felt boated and distended in the gut within the first 80 minutes of the swim. Trouble was brewing. We had to switch over to slightly fizzy coke in the hope to remove some of the “blockage” through belching and whilst this was a short-term success, danger is always going to be just around the corner when the only source of fuel you’re able to take on board is simple sugars like a fizzy drink. Ultimately you start to run low on fuel and your core body temperature will be the first thing to start to drop as you struggle to replenish what you are burning off. In 21ºC of water with a lean build, there’s only one direction that is going to head - dangerously close towards hypothermia. Not a good outcome.
Literally at the first drink stop just 30 minutes in, Sally was asking for hot tea to counteract this issue and I had a good idea then that we might be in a tad of bother later on.
Swimming 19.7km is always going to be hard on the body - I’ve never done this particular swim without feeling some degree of discomfort and unease in my shoulders, but when your body has been working overly hard because it’s a) cold and b) lacking energy, things are just going to get compounded and with 5km to go, that’s precisely what happened to Sally. Once the ability to maintain a consistent stroke and rhythm is gone, you’re not talking about dropping off your pace by 3-5” per 100m, but most likely in the region of 20+” per 100m. Even at 12-13km we were still on target for ~6h10m into Rottnest (despite the first 12km not being stellar anyway), but once that shoulder pain kicks in, it’s all about survival.
It was a very uncomfortable position to be in: friend, coach and avid fan to someone whom you love and cherish and work with on a daily basis only to have to shout them on and encourage them to try to make it to the island, often against their protestations. I was taking ages to make a decision on simple things like what to do for the next feed stop, should we attempt to lift the pace etc - all because I knew how close to that fine-line of potential catastrophe we were treading. I admire those who do this supporting role on a regular basis (especially on the colder marathon swims around the world) and it’s given me a whole new perspective on the sport without a doubt. How do you know when to say “enough is enough - this is getting a little worrisome!” - I’m not sure I fully know the answer to that, even after Saturday. I was just using my gut instinct I guess and luckily, despite the fact that when Sally made it to the island in a still very commendable 6h38m and was taken away by the medical staff and treated for actual hypothermia with a core body temperature of 31.4ºC, we made it.
All’s you can do, is all’s you can do
There were two people in the squad who we openly discussed the concern of hypothermia prior to the swim and that was Sally and also Kirk. Both did everything they could to be in the best possible shape for this event, but sadly both feel like they have under-performed with times around the 6h30m marker, compared to those they’ve been racing with all season who finished on Saturday around the 6h00m marker. That’s not to belittle the efforts of those who did race well at the weekend (far from it - I’m super proud of you all, as you know and as we discussed over 1 or 3 beers on Saturday afternoon / evening!!), nor to make excuses for Sally and Kirk, merely to lay out the bare facts, some people cope well in cold water, others don’t. We can all improve this aspect of our preparation and when I think back 3 months to a rather concerned conversation with Sally were we both agreed that we’d need the water to be warmer than 23ºC to have a proper crack at this event (or even just finish!), for it to be 2ºC colder and still to make it across there speaks massive volumes about both swimmers and way more than a simple time against their name will ever do.
At the end of the day, they made it to Rottnest, pure and simple. Yes, there will be disappointment (of course, we’re all competitive people after all and we feel we deserve a good result for the hard work that we incessantly put in), but when the weeks turn into months and the months, years, the biggest disappointment for all concerned will be that on Saturday 22nd February whilst many raved about how conducive the conditions were to fast times, there will be a few who didn’t have the greatest experience and yet they triumphed none-the-less.
People always ask me “how long did it take you to swim the English Channel - it must have been pretty quick given that you won Manhattan…?” and I always answer “12h14m” and have to resist the urge to say “yeah, but…” knowing in my heart of hearts that if the conditions had been in my favour and the stars had aligned and Mercury was romancing with Venus etc etc I would have swum in excess of 3 hours quicker than that…but I didn’t, and I can’t change that, just like I couldn’t change the conditions on the day to suit myself better. It was what it was and my time is what it is. End of story. But that’s the real beauty about these challenges isn’t it? Like Forrest Gump once said:
“Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get!”
So, whether you had a good race or a bad race at the weekend, or if you did or didn’t finish the event, you know what, it’s the training and preparation and what you’ve learnt about yourself along the way that really counts, as cliché as that sounds. I for one, could not be more proud and thrilled for one of my best mates to have completed the swim against all the adversity that she experienced herself that day despite the frustration of being unable to understand in the short-term why it hadn’t panned out as we hoped. I am so, so proud of you Sal and want you to know that everyone else is too - you succeeded by making it across there, the time is totally irrelevant given the circumstances.