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.

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Swimming in Video

The swim was documented in video by John Hartley. He shot about 2 hours of footage on  mini DV and HD using a GoPro. Tim also shot some clips on his iPhone.

I’m now in the process of revisiting the swim via this footage, editing the material to try to balance my experience in the water with John and Tim’s view of the swim from the boat. We each have our own set of interests, our own reasons for being there and looking.

John has expressed an interest in the “Outlandish” nature of the swim, the situation of being offshore, following a line, moving in a direction. He is also interested in the different scales of activity taking place, the small repetitive action of swimming, the catch and pull, the movement of waves and changing light, the shipping traffic, fishing, time, space. Its a very open view. His camera work follows me moving into and out of frame. I appear to be criss crossing the screen as I swim toward and away from the boat.

Tim’s video clips were posted to his twitter account during the swim to provide status updates.

John: ” When you’re swimming you see the bubbles. You see your hands. your arms and you’re thinking about this repetition, these very small scales around you. But then they add up. Something that is very tiny is very big and geographical, a cartographic scale; end to end. There is also a scale of activity. You know, the activity is tiny; catch, pull, recover. But its also enormous. “

Tim:

Editing now .

Swimming in video

Get on with it

Yes, after almost two months of taking it easy in the hope of recovering from my groin injury I seem to aggravated it again. 

It’s incredibly frustrating not to be able to sprint or swim hard. I’m hoping that with a bit of rest and more hip flexor + adductor stretches  I can get back up to speed. My anxiety however is that I might not be in the best shape for the channel. Fortunately   I still have a few months ahead of me to recover and get in shape.

My coach, Tim Denyer, seems confident that I can do it, but I may need to make more changes to my stroke if this injury persists. 

So far I have been focusing on my hand entry, high elbow and arm pull, but I may need to reduce my kicking to a two beat kick as opposed to a six or four beat kick. 

Kicking plays a key role in regulating rhythm and timing of the arm stroke and breathing. It’s useful to be able to change kick rate to control my overall speed through the water.

The English Channel is the busiest shipping lane in the world and there are particular areas of it I need to get across very quickly in order to avoid getting run over by ferries, cargo ships and the like. I also need to be able to up tempo to beat the changing tide. 

I am encouraged however by the accomplishments of Paralympic swimmers and think, well, yes I may not be able to kick,  but I’m not going to let that stop me from achieving my goal! 

It’s not uncommon for athletes to train and compete with injury . The challenge for me is to use my training to develop physical and mental flexibility that will enable me to adapt to a wide variety of scenarios, whether it is high waves, cold winds, pain or injury . 

In fact, Tim was telling me  how, after leading the field in a lake swim, he sustained an arm injury and ended up having to complete the swim using one arm only.

So yes, it’s a pain not being able to kick. It really is. But I just have to change my stroke. I can do it . I know I can. I just  have to get on with it. 

Here’s a video of some amazing swimmers getting on with it: