Tales Of An Ironman Athlete Training And Racing In Paradise.
Saturday, September 24, 2022
On Channel Swimming
Recently I had the opportunity to act as 'feeder' for one of the athletes I work with as she made her second attempt at swimming the Kaiwi Channel (Molokai to Oahu, ~28 miles). There are probably other blogs/articles written about what channel swimming entails, but I will add my thoughts to the mix. This won't be from the perspective of the swimmer though. It'll be from the perspective of the coach.
Your athlete wants to swim a channel. What all does that entail? A LOT.
Full disclosure- this was the first time I'd coached a swimmer to accomplish something like this. I've been helping athletes finish Ironman races for almost 14 years now though and feel confident in my understanding of endurance physiology and all that entails... Additionally, I live in Hawaii where we have adequate access to the ocean for training so I figured that I could piece it together and help Terri in an appropriate way.
Terri didn't grow up as a competitive swimmer. She's 52yo now and when we first started working together ~3 years ago, swimming a 10k was the big scary goal. I state that partly in admiration - acknowledging that Terri had a really steep hill to climb to get to the point where she could swim 28 miles across an ocean channel - but also as maybe encouraghement that this kind of goal can be accomplished by anyone who has the mindset that Terri has. That might make it seem flippant. I can't estimate the % population of people who possess the kind of determination and persistance and never-say-die attitude required here. There aren't many people in the world who actually have that. From what I saw overnight, through tthe day, and into the next evening in that channel, the mindset is probably more important than the skill/fitness for these things.
So the training for Terri involved a lot of swimming, obviously. Looking at her training data in Training Peaks, in the first 9 months of 2022, she spent just over 400 hours swimming. 750+ miles so far in 2022. Over the last 6 months, she avg 11+ hours of swimming each week. Some weeks in the summer were obviously way bigger than other weeks. Her basic week looked something like:
Tuesday: Mellow ocean swim w friends 60-90min.
Wednesday: Long pool intervals 5-7k.
Friday: AM ocean easy 60-90min; PM Pool intervals 3-5k.
Saturday: Long Ocean 3-6 hours.
Sunday: Variable depending on specific area of focus. Commonly another ocean swim 2-4 hours.
The year built to the point where every 2-3 weeks, she'd do a 3 day block Fri-Sun accumulating 30k+ of swimming. At first that was exhausting but after a few times completing it, she was getting through without issue or need for excess recovery and that's when I had reasonable confidence that she had enough fitness to swim the channel.
Her training went way beyond physical though. We knew that mental state was going to be a HUGE factor in her ability to continue on when things got ugly out there (and they always get ugly, fyi)... Terri took on a lot of this on her own and I just kept encouraging her to practice quieting her mind; listening to her intuition; calming herself so she would not waste energy. I could see her growth in this area from the notes she was writing about her training sessions. Obstacles and road blocks that would stop most other people became oportunities for problem solving for Terri. The ability to stay calm under stress is a superpower that is overlooked by many, but accessible to anyone should they choose to train their minds in this manner. Of all the growth I've seen from Terri over the last few years, this is probably the most important aspect, and the one that's most applicable to every other area of life.
Terri took care of most of the logistics, which was a feat in and of itself. It's not just about finding a boat captain to take you across. What's important to know is that conditions in the channel are extrememly challenging on the best days... So the boat captain needs to be:
~100% on board with your mission;
~Experienced in crossing;
~Able to read tide charts and predict how currents run;
~In possession of an appropriate and reliable boat;
~Available to go with just a few days notice when forecasts indicate an opportunity;
~Obsessed with your safety but willing to allow you to endure;
~Not already booked.
This is not a cheap combination. Finding a good boat captain is harder than it sounds. But if you skimp here and try to wing it, your chances of making it across reduce.
Then you need a first mate of sorts. Terri found Mark Spalding- a Hawaii Swimming Hall-of-Famer who had swum the channel himself, was capable of navigating and driving the boat, and literally understood every aspect of the attempt. Avoiding potential pitfalls is important and having him there as a guide was integral to her success. Based on the tides and other known dangers of the channel, Mike decided on the start time (11pm) and having seen what I saw, that was a good call. Goal was to time Terri's finish to Oahu when the tide was coming in (vs going out) bc fighting a strong current after 18+ hours of swimming has crushed dreams for many who didn't take that detail into account. Then there were two of us on the boat acting as 'feeders'. We also took turns swimming with her at different times. For a swim that long, 2 people are required for this job. It's harder than it sounds.
We packed our backpacks and hopped on a one way flight over to Molokai on Wednesday afternoon for a Wednesday night start.
We dropped off most of our stuff on the boat at the pier near the airport, then drove over to a little resort on the west side of the island where the final mental preparations took place. Terri was calm and ready. We spent a really nice evening eating pizza and looking at the stars and talking about life... At ~10:30, Terri started lubing herself up with layers upon layers of sunscreen and anti-chafing ointments. The boat captain had driven over to the beach where she planned to start and was waiting for us just off shore. The three of us (Andrew, Terri, and I) swam out to it right on time (ok, we were eager beavers and we started a few minutes early!). Andrew acted as the official time keeper. Channel swims have all sorts of rules to follow and if you want your swim to be 'official', there's paperwork to fill out and validate that the swim was a legit success.
Night swimming isn't as scary as it sounds. It's true that its blacker than black if you stare straight down, but water in that channel is as clear as water can possibly be, so you can see your hands entering and pulling, and there was a fair amount of bioluminescence, which was unspeakably cool (it looks like bits of neon green!). I took the opportunity to spend ~30min swimming with Terri (around 1AM), mostly because I figured this would likely be my only opportunity ever to do that and I just wanted to experience it. Honestly, it was magical seeing the stars and the moon with every breath. I think the keys to enjoying night swimming are being extremely comfortable in the ocean during the day time, and then just not letting your mind think about anything other than how beautiful the moon is. Our minds can spin out of control if we let them. But we can choose what we focus on, and when you choose to focus on what an incredibly cool thing that is to do, night swimming in the ocean is amazing.
That said, I was only in it for 30min. Terri spent ~7 hours swimming in the dark. Her eperience may vary. ;) We knew though that if she made it through the night, her chances of finishing the swim would go way up. So when the sun started coming up, we all got a nice burst of energy. The sun def has power in that way. My estimation was that if she made it through the night, chances of finishing were high. If she was still swimming at noon, chances of finishing were VERY high.
By noon, she was still swimming. It wasn't pretty by this point... I'll spare you all the details, but 13 hours into an ocean swim, you can't expect to be happy and comfortable. Your swim suit is chafing. The sun is piercing its way through your layers of sunscreen. Your tongue is swelling from salt exposure. You're puking up most of what you've tried to consume as fuel. You've been stung by multiple floating organisms. You spontaenously shit in your suit (ok maybe I'm not really sparing you all the details). Your forward progress is slow. You're exhausted. And you still have ~7 hours to swim. This is the part where mental skills become all important. Not once did Terri make a single complaint about any of that- she was suffering, but she was suffering well. Sometimes we'd hear her shout out ELECTRIC! She would roll over on ther back, take a few breaths, then roll back over and resume swimming. File that under How To Deal With Man-o-war Stings.
My job at that point really became one of trying to find ways to keep her focused on the task at hand. Every 30ish min when we would stop her to feed, I'd relay a message I'd gotten from a friend on shore who was cheering for her. I got to tell her about how when her husband was flying home from Molokai, he told the pilot that his wife was swimming the channel... and the pilot (ever so cool OMG) flew his small plane a little lower than normal and spotted us in the water and announced to the passengers what was going on and they all cheered! When he landed, Don sent me a few photos and relayed the story. Hearing that made Terri's eyes well up a bit, then without a word, she got back to swimming.
Around 1PM I jumped back in to swim with Terri. The water out there in the middle of the channel is bottomless ... ok not really... it's 2300ft deep... but it appears bottomless. When the sun is shining you swim and just stare stright down at these incredible rays of light that pierce the water. I can't describe them, but its mesmerizing. Anyway, Terri was sort of out of it at this point, just mindlessly trucking along. #QuietMind I still had my wits about me though and when I was staring into the deep blue, I saw a shadow figure of sorts, directly underneath me. It took me a minute to process what I was seeing. While I'd seen sharks in the ocean before, I'd never been the one to spot one- it was always someone else who saw it and pointed it out to me. Immediately upon seeing it, I popped my head up and told the guys on the boat that there was a shark. I remembered what I'd been told about sharks- if you see one, it's fine. If a shark is going to attack, it'll do it so fast that you'll never see it... so ok, I saw this one, it wasn't swimming fast, and my gut said it was actually a super cool opportunity to swim with one of these beautiful creatures in the wild. If I'm honest, when I see/hear that other people swam with a shark, I tend to find myself feeling a little bit jealous. So I decided that this was a cool opportunity. I mean, who gets to say that they swam in the middle of a channel with a shark?? Ok, some of my friends can say that (I have some really cool friends), but now I can tooooo. ;)
An hour or so later, I'd lost sight of the shark so I started looking around more. I looked sort of behind us to the left and saw that the shark now had a friend. That was a little concerning, but I wasn't super alarmed. I popped my head up again and yelled to the guys on the boat that now there were two sharks. I'm not sure why I didn't point them out to Terri- I think I just didn't want to freak her out. Anyway, not too long after that I looked around again... this time behind me and to the right I saw a third shark- this one was way bigger and it was swimming fast and my gut was screaming at me to get back on the boat. I think I yelped out loud THREE SHARKS!!! then swam as fast as I could (the whole 10 feet) to the boat and beached myself onto the sled thing that was there for that purpose. (stock photo- but those rays of light- that's exactly what it looked like)
At that point we had a decision to make. Terri still didn't really know what was going on... Mike instructed Andrew to get in the water and "keep an eye on the sharks". (Raise your hand if you're jealous of Andrew's job in that moment.) We didn't want to pull Terri unnecessarily, but at the same time, if one of those sharks decided it wanted to know what this thing in his channel tasted like, how could we live with ourselves?? I told Mike and Keith (boat captain) that I was not going to make that decision. This decision making was in their wheelhouse. A deciding factor was me telling them that I had my period... Given that, maybe I was the one attracting the sharks and if I got out they'd lose interest? Turns out, 'sharkbait' isn't just a nickname for women who are bleeding. It's really a thing. After I got out, one shark hung around for a little while longer (Terri finally saw it!) but then they all left her alone. So ladies, if you have plans to swim an ocean channel, maybe add that to your list of things to consider... Time it so its a night/day when the winds are light *and* you don't have your period. #YoureWelcome
We were getting close, but close is a relative term. Terri was exhausted. Sometimes she would ask how much further and I'd smile at her and enthusiastically point to Oahu and say "You're close! It's right there!! SEE!?!" But the reality was, she still had like 10k to go. I really didn't want to give her numbers like that, but at one point she said to me very directly, MICHELLE I NEED TO KNOW HOW MUCH FURTHER. So I told her "About 4 more hours". She swore out loud for the first time then quietly resumed swimming. It was slow going at that point but progress was being made and she trucked along. She'd been reduced to coke and sprite as pretty much her only fueling options, feeling that she was incapable of chewing. Any other fuel source we tried to give her induced more vomiting. We were glad for how much coke and sprite they'd bought as the 'just in case' option. I mean I think she went through something like a 12 pack of each...
Anyway, I'd been texting friends and updating them with our estimated arrival time and location. We live on a small island with a close knit community and word spread pretty fast. I was getting word that people were gathering there... that a news channel had been contacted and was waiting for the story as well... I relayed all of this to Terri and I think that was a HUGE inspiration to her. Knowing that so many people care about you and what you're doing somehow makes it all more meaningful.
I got in again to swim with Terri when we were about a mile off shore. It was getting dark again. We couldn't really see what we were aiming for but we were told to 'swim to the light'. Apparently a few folks associated with the news had a camera there with a bright light so we used that as our guide. I'll never know why they decided that that rocky spot was the best one for our exit- hands down the most dangerous part of the swim was that part getting pummeled by crashing waves in very shallow water over reef. Part of the deal to make the channel swim official was that we were not allowed to touch Terri or assist her physically in any way. I was worried about how exhausted she was bc navigating that part required being astute and aware and I wasn't sure of her capacities by that point. Andrew had joined us by then too so he was verbally giving Terri instructions how to manage herself through. Eventually we all made it to sand. After 20 hours being horizontal in the ocean, she crawled up onto the beach. It took Terri a minute to get her legs to work on land. Once she was above the water line, I grabbed her to help a bit and then... the elation arrived!
SHE HAD DONE IT.
Friends on the beach adorned her with so many leis she could barely see. I tear up a little thinking about how awesome our community is. She was interviewed by the news team, we all stood around and shared stories for probablty an hour, then went home to finally get some sleep. That was the first time in my 48 years that I'd ever stayed awake for almost 40 hours straight. It wrecked me for several days.
I've been asked if I am glad that I went with her overnight. 100% without question I am glad I did. I'm not sure I'd want to do it again (!) but truly, the respect level I have for those who cross that channel is just so much higher having witnessed how challenging it actually is. Ironmans are hard, but Ironman has nothing on a 20 hour ocean channel swim.
While I was watching Terri swim out there, I wondered (deeply) about her 'why'... Why would someone put themselves through that? It looked like voluntary physical torture at times. Now that its done, I think that we put ourselves through physical challenges like that because when we do things we aren't sure we can do, we come out the other side with a sense of confidence that is not possible to have otherwise. 3 years ago she was afraid of swimming a 10k. Last week she swam the Kaiwi Channel. What's she going to do next? Whatever she wants. That's the answer. She can (and will) do whatever she decides she wants to do. How cool is that?