Beating the Sun

Riccardo Iacono – English Channel swim 2016. Photo by Tim Denyer
I remember, just before the start, standing on the beach at Samphire Hoe and looking out to sea. All my previous sea swims involved swimming along the coast or swimming in circles around a bay, always staying close to shore. This swim was different however. For the first time I had to swim out, away from the shore, from one shore to another.

All I could see was the horizon, the flat line of  sea against sky, and in the foreground, the Viking Princess, my escort boat, waiting for me to enter the water.

It was quite a shock to look out and not have the end  in sight.

The signal for me to start my swim was marked by the sound of a horn. I’d forgotten to do my pre-swim arm swings and stretches. In fact I was quite unprepared. When I heard the horn I just jumped in. As I took my first few strokes, it gradually dawned on me, the immensity of the task at hand. What had I got myself into?

The question stayed with me throughout the swim. Where was I? What was I doing? Why?

The boat

From the outset I had problems swimming alongside the boat.  Whenever I focussed solely on my stroke I risked losing track of my position. My attention would drift back and forth between thinking about my stroke and keeping track of the boat. (Sometimes the boat would change course and I would end up swimming away from it. Other times the waves would carry me into the side of it. )

Feeds

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Feeding time. English channel swim 18 July 2016. Photo credit: Tim Denyer
I started the swim at 10.20 am. Feeds were every 30 minutes and would last about a minute each, during which time  Tim would check how I was doing and give me a quick chat. He’d say things like   “You’re  doing well. No need to keep sighting for France mate!  Just swim to your next feed” . So, I swam the channel in 30 minute chunks.

He told never to ask how far or how long there was to go. So I didn’t. I just thought about swimming and staying close to the boat. Swimming to my next feed. That was it.

There were times when I lost focus, where I had cramp or felt anxious about being stung by jelly fish, but I just had to keep going.

Madness

After countless hours i started to question my sanity.  What the hell was I doing in the middle of the sea?! It was such a far cry from the city; no roads, buildings or trees – nothing like swimming in the lido where I’d done  my training. 

“This”, I thought. “What I am doing . Doing the same thing over and over again. This is madness!”

Relativity

It was hard to get a sense of moving forward. The boat was always beside me and other sea vessels were too far away to get a proper measure of time and space and of moving in any particular direction or speed.  The only movement I was really aware of was of my body  moving through the water. The water passing over me.

Tim and John were observing and timing me and the boat had GPS tracking, so it was much easier for them to monitor my position and speed.

My main concern was with repetition; performing the same set of movements, checks and adjustments, maintaining my form.

In fact, I was so preoccupied with my keeping my stroke and swimming next to the boat that I  completely forgot why or where i was  going.

Forgetting

It was only when Tim told me we were in French inshore waters that I remembered that I was actually travelling, to France.  I thought “Right! What are you doing? You’re swimming the channel! Not in the channel, across it ! Get a move on! ”

So I sped up.

Judging by the sun it must have been at around 7pm. I wanted to get in by nightfall. So for 3 or 4 hours I raced. I raced against the sun.

John said I was swimming like a man possessed.

With every stroke it got darker and darker and darker. It was like a grand awakening. The end was in sight!

Or at least I thought it was.

As the sun began to set I knew I’d left it too late. I had another 3 more hours of swimming to do before reaching France.

Remembering

I don’t know why, but at some point in the middle of this I started thinking about my dad. I last saw him at the beginning of 2015, a couple of days before he died. He’d stopped eating and could barely stand. I remember helping him into bed. He said “I can’t go on. I can’t do it any more”. It was an upsetting thought.  I had to think of something else.

Swimming

Swimming in the Dark 

This was my first time swimming at night. I swam under a spotlight beside the boat. If I swam too far ahead or lost sight of the boat I’d be plunged into darkness and lose my bearings.

I could see the lights on the French coast. They appeared to be close, but I knew that what I could see wasn’t necessarily where I was going. I had to contend with the tide which was taking me along the coast, eastward.

It’s was hard to tell how far I had to swim . Of course, now the sun had set I knew we were reaching the end. But still I couldn’t see it.

The End.

Where is the end?

Is there an end?

When will it come?

Tim would say “Almost there! Almost there! Just a bit more to go!”

At one point he said “Okay, Riccardo . This is your last feed ”

So from that I assumed there was less than a 30 minutes of swimming to go. Several feeds later however, I was still in the water .

I didn’t know what was happening. I was exhausted,  feeling anxious and confused. I was in so much pain. My jaws and teeth were locked  tight.

I was expecting Tim to enter the water at any moment. This would have signalled that we approaching the shore. But he didn’t get in!

Why, if we were so close wasn’t he getting in ?!

It was torture.  Swimming in the dark. Not knowing.

My stroke, by the end had really deteriorated. I could barely lift my arms.

I was such a relief  when he finally jumped in.

The boat stopped offshore. Tim swam ahead. I followed the light on the back of his swim cap. He was swimming so fast ! I struggled to keep up. My arms were heavy and no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t turn them any faster. Eventually  the water was too shallow to swim in and I could feel the bottom with my hands. I scrambled to my feet and we walked up onto this deserted moonlit  beach.

We had arrived in France, at place called Wissant.

It was one o’clock in the morning. I’d been swimming for  fourteen and a half hours.

Reg calculated that I’d swam a total of 30 miles

It was strange day and a very strange experience.

Was it difficult?

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Feeding time. English channel swim 18 July 2016. Photo credit: Tim Denyer

The swim itself  was not as difficult  as I’d  anticipated.

The sky was clear and blue. The sea was  calm, silky and otherworldly. I had ideal conditions for getting across.

Though getting across was not my only interest.

I wanted to feel the energy of the sea. I wanted a storm, high waves, thunder and lightning!   I was  also looking for a particular kind of connection  with the water. I wanted to achieve a state of calm,  harmony and efficiency in my stroke and breathing, but, I didn’t get that either.

The whole project was a mixture of successes and failures..

In preparation for the channel I trained in much colder and choppier conditions. A couple of weeks before I successfully completed a 9 mile swim in Dover harbour and on 2nd July I entered the BLDSA 8 mile swim in Torbay, but I got out after 4 miles. The water was 14.5 degrees . I’d been swimming with cramp  and was feeling cold, but my decision to leave the water was largely due to lack of self confidence and anxiety.

The challenge I faced in the channel was to stay focussed and positive.

In the days and minutes before I entered the water at Samphire Hoe I was quite nervous. I didn’t realise how nervous until we arrived in Dover and were on the boat approaching the start. That’s when it really dawned on me what I was doing. I was beyond talking about it, beyond planning. All of a sudden it was just me and the sea, (and the escort boat and crew, and my coach. I must not forget to mention that! We were also joined by artist John Hartley who came along to document and respond to the swim).

I’d seen it so many times, videos of Channel swimmers getting greased up, getting in,  swimming off. When it got to my turn, it seemed almost unreal. It was like swimming into a dream.

It took  a few hours of swimming before I got over the shock. It really was a shock. “Oh my god!” I thought,”I’m actually doing it! I’m swimming the channel!!”

I imagine many  channel swimmers have a similar Oh duck! moment at the start of their swims.

Swimming the Channel is not something one does on a whim. It takes years of training and preparation.  There is a massive entree to get through before doing the swim and you really don’t know what you are going to get in terms of weather conditions so, after all that preparation its still very much up in the air. You really don’t know quite what you are dealing  with until you get in.

The fact that this was my only chance to do the swim was a key motivating factor.  I knew that if I quit I would have to wait at least another year to make another attempt. The whole project was expensive and required a considerable amount of sacrifice and commitment. A second attempt would have been out of the question.

Committing to do the swim was probably the hardest part of the project;   giving my time, energy and attention to seeing it through to the end, doing whatever was necessary to achieve that end goal; which in fact turned out to be many goals.

For me it wasn’t just about swimming to France, but the process of swimming; the act of physical and mental engagement and experience of immersion, depth and  exposure.

To swim fast for example, one doesn’t try to swim fast. One needs to focus on technique.  Good technique increases efficiency and speed. Speed follows form. The same applies to distance. To get to France I had to focus on maintaining good technique,  which is largely governed by ones  physical and emotional connection with the water, ones sense of touch, time and space. (Saying that, the  video documentation of my swim reveals many flaws in technique, which lead me to wonder how I managed to get across at all. )

I was fortunate to have the support of family and friends and that helped a lot.

In many ways it was a collaborative effort with my coach Tim Denyer.

Tim gave me the confidence to swim. He helped me visualise and mentally prepare for different  scenarios I might encounter at sea. He was responsible for planning and managing my swim and was on the escort boat organising my feeds and monitoring my status throughout. Every time I turned my head toward the boat to breathe he was there looking back.

His reassuring presence, knowledge and experience of the channel and his positive and constructive feedback during training and the swim itself was critical to its success. I just had to trust his judgement and direction.

 

Attack of the Jellies

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I did the BLDSA Torbay swim last Saturday . Just one width of the bay – 4miles
Then I got out . ūüė≠

There were about 20 swimmers in the race. We each had our own kayaker to accompany us across.

It was quite sunny at the start but as soon as we entered the water the clouds moved in and we ended up having to swim in very difficult conditions,  with strong cross currents, rain, wind and chop. Even the kayakers struggled to maintain course.

For the most part of my swim I was having great fun, I even shouted to my kayaker, "This is great ! More chop ! "

But as I was approaching the other side of the bay I had my first jellyfish encounter. There were several . They just seemed to come out of nowhere! I panicked and sprinted out of the way.

I'm allergic to insect bites and didn't know quite how a jellyfish sting would affect me. I think I may have been stung on my back. Im not sure, it felt as though I'd brushed across some nettles. It wasn't painful really, just a prickly sensation on my skin, but  it completely ruined my concentration.

Thereafter I felt quite uneasy in the water. My stroke rate dropped. I was cramping up in my legs and I had excruciating pain in my hip flexors. The cold had got to me. I was shivering and I started to feel anxious and miserable.

Then I became disorientated and lost sight of my kayaker and, fearing that perhaps I was experiencing the onset of hypothermia , I decided to get out.

What happened to Never Get Out of The Water, Riccardo?!

I've never given up on a swim before. I felt bloody awful afterwards, really down and depressed.

If I were honest I think I was depressed even before I entered the water. Perhaps more anxious than depressed , but the symptoms are similar. Basically fear and insecurity, self-doubt and and despair infect my thoughts.

On my return to London I had a long talk with Tim. He didn't seem worried at all about my swim. He said it was fine. It was a useful experience, that if I had the right support and focussed on my swim I would have completed the two way, easy.  I'd just let fear and  negativity get the better of me.

The battle I face is with maintaining a positive mental attitude.

Most inportantly I need to stay calm, whatever situation I find myself in.

Tim has asked me to write a list of negative thoughts that might come into play during my channel swim and beside them write counter arguments to keep me focussed on the positive.

So that's what I have to do this eve.

Here's a picture of me with fellow swimmers Juliette Bigley, Nils Young, Rohan Byles and  Guy Moar, taken before the swim when we were in more positive spirits

BLDSA Torbay Swim 2016

And also a vine video I shot  :

// ]]>

More pain please!

I had a deep tissue massage with Mel Denyer on Monday.

I told her which parts of my body hurt and she got stuck in with her elbows, pressing down on the sites of pain to loosen tight muscles .

Thighs, hips, shoulders, elbows and lats. 

It was the most excruciating pain I have had to endure. 

It is a bit like having the dentist press down on cavity without using an anaesthetic.

At the end of the session she told me that it would hurt the next day. 

I said. “Never mind that, it hurts now!”

To which she laughed. 

I have a sneaking suspicion she likes her job.

But she is bloody good at it!

5hr 22mins

(Strange photo that )

I’m pleased to have completed ¬†the BLDSA Champion of Champions swim in Dover harbour today .

9 miles (5, 3 and 1 mile races) in overall time of 5 hrs 22 mins. Not the fastest time, I came 17th, but then my main objective was simply to complete the course.

After months of going slow to accomodate various injuries and not being not in the best form, I found it a difficult swim. I’m told however that even the hardiest and most accomplished of swimmers find it difficult.

My hip flexors were really tight and painful, so I didn’t really use my kick and for the first time ever I had a sharp pain in my elbows.

The water was 15 degrees and it was raining and overcast, so not much comfort from the sun .

It might have been easier as one long continuous swim rather than three swims with breaks in between as this made the whole event some 8 hours in total . The problem though  is with feeds.

During my channel swim my coach will manage and give me feeds . In this event however, ¬†i had to carry my nutrition with me. I had loads of energy gels stuffed ¬†down the back of my trunks. There’s is only so much space for gels in there , so this wouldn’t work on a long continuous swim.

It was a useful training exercise however. It gave me an idea what kind of condition I am in and the areas  I need to focus on to improve my performance for the channel.

Nutrition, flexibility and shoulder stability need attention.

I have two weeks to prepare for my next swim in Torbay. That will be a continuous 8 miles swim in the sea. I will be accompanied by a kayaker who will carry my feeds for me.

I am about to go to sleep. I’m feeling quite sore. Tomorrow I imagine it will feel even worse.

Fortunately seeing Mel Denyer for a massage on Monday. More pain

Then, release

(hopefully)

Here is a video clip of the 1 mile race made by one of the kayakers . I’m ¬†not too keen on the soundtrack he has added but the video gives some indication of what it was like