Tuesday, July 29, 2008

C-O-D-E-I-N-E Spells Relief (by Clara)

I spent basically the entire second half of my second sophomore semester worrying about coming over here to swim the English Channel. I worried that I wouldn't be able to train properly, since I definitely didn't train as much as I needed to during the semester (largely due to a particularly grueling academic schedule). Also, once I moved in with Mallory to begin training, I think the sudden large amounts of dryland (as opposed to in-pool) training was really taxing on my shoulder, and began to limit my pool workouts. However, I seemed to have gotten all my worrying out of the way, as I didn't once feel nervous after getting to England (although I worried that all the people asking me if I was nervous would cause me to become so).

So, on Saturday, July 26th, I boarded the Samallan at 3 in the morning to watch Mallory swim to France. I'm embarrassed to say that I slept for large chunks of her swim, but in my defense, I was to be swimming in two days and needed to conserve my strength. I watched her enter a period of extreme pain about 8 hours in, struggling to keep going and crying with the pain. I wanted very badly to enter the water to be her pace swimmer, but I wasn't allowed to do this unless she asked, so I just ended up swimming with her to the finish. Even though I could obviously tell she was in unbelievable pain, and she shouted it at me at the finish (in case I had missed it before), none of this made me want to swim it any less. Her shoulder pain made me a little more worried about my own shoulder, especially since hers had never been injured before, but there wasn't much I could do about it at that point, so I just took my medicine and tried not to think about it.

At 5:15 on the morning of July 28th, we met in the lobby of the hotel again and headed headed over to the Folkestone Harbour to board Eric Hartley's Pathfinder. We met a one-armed Frenchman with a penchant for kissing who was also going to be attempting to cross that day. When we were heading back, we heard over the radio that he was about 6 miles out, but making little progress, and a thunderstorm rolled out that night. I'm not sure if he eventually made it, but I'm pretty sure making it 15 miles with one arm is pretty damn impressive.

We boated over to Samphire Hoe, a beach and sea-wall constructed of dirt from the Chunnel diggings, just off of Dover. They gave me the option to climb down the ladder, but I decided to jump over the side: no chance to try to turn back that way. I exited the water, waved, and then re-entered at 5:57 to begin my swim. 11 hours and 12 minutes later, exhausted and sore, I hauled myself out on the barnacle-covered rocks on the south side of Cap Gris Nez. To be honest, I was surprised to have swum as fast as I did, seeing as how much my shoulder hurt through the whole swim. Also, I didn't think I would be so close to Mallory's time, but she wasn't quite as accustomed to dealing with shoulder pain, having never had a serious shoulder issue before.

I would like to thank my parents, the Cooks (who, at this point, I might as well start calling Mom and Dad No. 2), Calley, Mallory, and my Aunt Cindy and Uncle Ralph for being such a smashing support crew (Janece wasn't on the boat, but I know she was pulling for me from England... and probably chewing off her fingernails with worry, as she is wont to do). Eric Hartley was a fantastic captain: I was the first person to reach shore on my day, even though I'm quite sure another swimmer with whom we were playing cat-and-mouse for a while was actually swimming faster, and that's all thanks to Eric's skillful piloting. We ended up getting swept past the cape, but not nearly as far as the other boats. Also crewman Lee and my observer Ann (who overlooked my incidental boat contact! I pushed away quickly...). I definitely wouldn't have been able to hoist myself into the dinghy without Lee's help with the condition my arms and shoulders were in. And last, but not least, I would like to thank Boots Pharmacy in Folkestone and the nation of Great Britain for providing acetaminophen (Tylenol) with codeine without a prescription. Hallelujah!

So on to the bit where I describe details of the swim:

I was able to commission the infamous MIT Weather Machine for my swim. (For those of you who don't know, the MIT Weather Machine is used during the admitted students' weekend in April to fool the prefrosh into thinking Boston has good weather.) There were some issues with getting it to work in England, but I managed to find a loophole in that in only functions in Cambridge. Since we're reasonable kinda close-ish to Cambridge in England, we were able to get it to operate from there, and then just increased the range to get it to the English Channel. It was a stretch, and there was only enough power to run for about 12 hours, but it worked! Smooth sailing for basically the entire swim, and the water was a balmy 62-63 degrees Fahrenheit.

The feeding schedule I followed was very similar to Mallory's, except that I got mouthwash more often. On the half-hours, I got a more sugary juice drink and mouthwash, and on the hours I got less sugary juice and a Maxim gel pack. I was a pretty big fan of the Maxim gel packs for a number of reasons. 1) There were three servings per pack, so I could get more gel if I wanted than with the Power Gel, etc. 2) The opening was a rigid tube (rather than a flat slit), and the consistency was fairly runny, so it could be sucked down quickly. 3) The flavor was quite nice, both while I was eating it and while I was spitting part of it back up... I didn't know until after the swim, but my dad was dissolving regular Tylenol (acetaminophen/paracetamol) into my drinks the whole time. What I did know was that I took a Tylenol with codeine before I swam, and starting at 3 hours, I got a Tylenol with codeine every 2 hours in my gel pack (another advantage of the Maxim pack was that the pill could be easily inserted, since they were non-dissolvable tablets). There was really no change to my feeding schedule, except that I didn't get my 11 hour feed, since they figured I'd be landing in a few minutes anyway.

My mental difficulties were totally backwards from normal. Most people (or so I've been led to believe) do all right for the first large chunk of the swim, and then encounter a "bad patch" some 8 or 9 hours in (often corresponding to the time when the swimmer uses up the glycogen in the muscles and turns to fat for the primary energy source, I think, though neither Mallory nor I ran into that particular difficulty). For me, however, I was having extreme mental blocks at the beginning of the swim. It seemed like forever to my first feeds, and I ended up facing backwards on my first gel feed (at one hour) and ended up seeing how close we still were to the Dover Cliffs. Somewhere around 1.5 to 2 hours, I began to get a serious twinge in my injured left shoulder. By 2.5 hours, I was sobbing, and the combined effect of boat fumes/pain/thoughts of not finishing were causing me to retch and dry heave. I stopped and floated for probably a minute or two, while everyone from the boat was yelling to ask if I was okay (at this point I was on the non-pilot side of the boat, so I had to be far away so that Eric could see me). I yelled that my shoulder was hurting, and Eric came out of the forward cabin to basically ask if I needed to get out (I think his words were "It's your decision Clara, either way"). Anyway, I obviously decided to keep going.

After about 3 hours, I had a complete mental shift, and from that point forward, it never occurred to me that I might not make it. The question was when and how (because it seemed pretty clear that my shoulder wasn't going to hold up in normal fashion the entire way... sidestroke maybe? elementary backstroke?). I knew the crew must be pretty worried about me after my mental break, so I did my best to show them that, while my shoulder still hurt, I was doing much much better in my head. I grinned, squirted water through my teeth, and made faces at my support crew as they watched me swimming over the side of the boat. While I was feeding, I made jokes about whether I'd be allowed to use my arm as a paddle if it fell off, and told Kip Cook that if he didn't stop looking so grim, I was going to give him a big greasy hug when I was done. (At 7 or 8 hours or so, he performed a rap for me during a feed with Mallory doing the beatboxing. Lyrics to come in a later post, and perhaps a video, if I can get him to do it again. This may involve shelling out more than a few pounds for beer, but it would be worth it.) I think it worked. After I was done, Calley (Mallory's little sister) told me that they were really worried after my breakdown, but after witnessing my antics, confusedly commented to each other: " I... think she's happy!...?" The comedian Lewis Black says that sense of humor is the only way to survive and stay sane in this world, and I don't think I could have come up with better advice while I was swimming.

My plan at three hours was that I definitely had to make it to four hours at least, because I swam for four hours into the wind in 5 foot waves in Boston, so it would be embarrassing to stop after that. Then, once I got to 4 hours, I had to get to 6, since that's the amount of time you have to swim in 60 degree water to qualify to attempt the English Channel. Once that was done, I had to at least get to 8 hours, since the 70-year-old who tried to break the age record the day Mallory swam made it 8 hours before quitting, and he's freaking 70! I figured after that I would throw in a few hours for good measure, and then I'd be able to see France, and I wouldn't be able to quit then. My plan broke down a little there, because it was too hazy to see France until we were really close. I managed to get around this by setting myself times to ask whether we had exited a certain shipping channel or whatever, or a time at which I would allow myself to look for France. I thought I was a lot further back than I was though, because my plan was to not look for France until 11 hours... I got a few incidental glimpses before then, but I didn't get a really good look until just a few minutes before landing. I definitely didn't want to do what Mallory did and look up for France every 10 strokes for 3 hours, so I kind of took the other extreme. It worked out okay for me though: I was completely content to ask how many miles from shore, or whether I was at least making progress. Any more information would have been enough for me to overthink things a little too much, instead of just getting my butt in gear and finishing.

At 8 hours, I asked if we had left the Northeast Shipping Lane (the second shipping lane we pass... exiting at about 3/4 of the way). My dad said "almost there," and at 8.5 hours told me that we'd be out before the next feed. At 9 hours, however, he said nothing, and I worried it was because I wasn't making progress and they just didn't want to let me know that. It didn't seem implausible, given how little water I was pulling at this point: having overloaded my right arm the whole way to save my injured left shoulder, my right shoulder had become very painful as well. Also, at 9 hours, I was supposed to have a Tylenol with codeine pill in my gel feed, but I guess it had slid to the bottom of the pack, and I didn't get it. My right shoulder was really suffering from carrying the larger part of the load the whole way, so I was a little snappy about the fact that I wasn't getting the painkillers I had so been looking forward to. My dad managed to locate the pill, and sometime between 9 and 9.5 hours, I picked my head up and asked for it. That was definitely the worst I felt mentally since the first two hours: I don't think the pain got significantly better, though the codeine was definitely helping me cope. However, knowing I was close really helped me ignore the pain, and soon the muscular pain was getting to be on-par with the joint pain, so it was easier to ignore (for a while I was convinced that I had torn my right bicep).

At 9.5 hours, it was very obvious that the people on the boat could see France, but I told them I wasn't going to look until 11 hours. My dad said, "Well, make sure you're looking down then, because you might see rocks first!" That cheered me up a good bit, as I was thinking I wouldn't be finishing until the 12 hour realm. I asked how far I was, and, after a little hesitation, my dad told me I was 3 miles from shore, but that I would probably have to swim further than that. Since I had never been informed when we left the Northeast shipping lane, I had been thinking I was 5 or 6 miles from shore, so 3 miles was joyous news indeed. From that point forward, I really ignored the pain and just pushed as hard as I could, kicking like a madwoman (or at least, a very tired madwoman). I got a view incidental glances of the shore while breathing, but I didn't look straight up until Lee and Mallory got in the dinghy to lead me into shore. Since the ground dropped off so much faster where I landed than where Mallory did, I only had to swim 50 meters or so into land, rather than half a mile. I kept climbing (stumbling more like) over barnacle-covered boulders until people from the boat shouted for me to come back twice (I didn't want to get disqualified for not reach a point beyond all water). Then, I grabbed three rocks and stuffed them in my suit: one for me, one for Mallory (who forgot to grab one), and one for good measure.

I tiredly swim-limped back to the dinghy, and Lee tried to haul me in, but the rocks in my suit made me get stuck. I told him to let go, plopped back in, pulled the rocks out, and he hauled me out again. I flopped headfirst into the dinghy like a large greasy fish (see photos), boated back to the Pathfinder. Once I got on the boat, my Uncle Ralf exploded a bottle of champagne (real champagne) on me, and then I curled on up the air mattress for a while, trading jokes with Calley and nursing my swollen eye.

So how did I feel after I got out? Well, my hands, knees, and feet were all quite cut up from scrambling over barnacle-encrusted boulders. My shoulders were obviously in extreme pain, and my ankles and calves were pretty stiff and sore. Mallory didn't kick during her swim to try to stay warm, but as I wasn't so worried about that, I kicked a solid 2-beat (2 kicks per arm-cycle) through the entire swim (except when I had to pee... that requires still legs), and switched to a 6-beat/4-beat broken rhythm at 9.5 hours. In fact, I wasn't entirely sure I'd be able to stand on those rocks given how wobbly my ankles felt. I had had some small particle under my right contact for basically the entire swim, and as a result, rather than blinking, I just allowed the small amount of salt water in my goggles to swish over my eyes every time I turned my head to breathe. I'm pretty sure that eventually that salt water became nearly isotonic from all the tears that streamed out when the salty salty ocean water hit my eyes, but I definitely had a serious eye puffiness problem, especially in my right eye. I definitely looked like I had come off worst in a fight. (If you think about it... I fought with the ocean for 11 hours and change and came out pretty banged up, and the ocean never had a scratch! I guess it stormed later, so I had some indirect revenge...) My mouth and throat weren't nearly as swollen as Mallory's had been: probably a result of my having the diluted mouthwash every hour, rather than every 2.5 or so. Obviously my arm muscles (and hand muscles!) were very tired, but the next day I was able to raise them over my head without too much difficulty (only rather slowly, and not for a very long time).

When we got back to the hotel, I showered quickly, and we rushed into the dining room about 5 minutes before it closed. I ate whatever soft and bland foods wouldn't offend my poor, salt-swollen tongue, wrote some of this blog, and then went up to bed. My pain and the heat in the room kept me up for a little while, but after sitting by the window with some music, watching the storm, I was able to conk out like a sack of potatoes for some 10 hours or so.

Through all of our training, I've never really had a problem with the cold. True to form, I never really got cold on the boat ride back, except perhaps a little from the wind and splash after about 30 minutes. When I asked Mallory what she thought my "power animal" would be, she replied, after short consideration, "polar bear." I figure that's probably about right, although I'm not sure polar bears are as goofy as I am. Maybe some kind of polar bear/dolphin hybrid, what do you think?

Forrest Gump's mom said, "Life is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you're going to get." I've decided that the chocolate that is swimming the English Channel would be a large candy-coated dog turd with a 10-carat diamond in the center. It's pretty icky the whole way through, but the result is totally worth it. Also, you can practice eating dog poop all you want, but it's still going to be tough to get down.

**Note to anyone who made it to the end of this post: Thanks for putting up with such a ridiculously long summary! I didn't mean to make it so long, but writing in chunks for a day and a half can do that. Also, pictures will be posted soon in another post.


Anonymous said...

Grandpa and I are happy and proud, and we have been bragging any chance we get. I was worried about your shoulder and I'm glad it survived.

The champagne was appropriate!

Love, Grandma

Anonymous said...


Well written post, and reading to the end was enhanced by you revealing that your power animal is a polar bear/dolphin hybrid (polar bearphin? dolphpolbear?). And also, that you devoured the candy coated dog turd with the 10 carat diamond in the center that is the English Channel.

Well done. You are braver and tougher than I am.

Uncle Steve

Aunt Katherine said...

Good job, Clara!

Emily said...


Congratulaitons! What a feat!

Bennett Cousin, Emily Bennett

greg said...

Clara - Fantastic summary, thanks for writing it. And congratulations!

Murielle said...

You and Mallory are amazing! I enjoyed reading both posts and didn't think they were too long. Looking forward to seeing the photos.
Congratulations on your achievement.
Murielle Bennett

Anonymous said...

After all that, you certainly deserve your own rap video: "I am the polar bearfin, don't even need fins..."


Carol W.

Christine Bennett LeFever said...

Congratulations again! I found it so interesting to read your and Mallory's entries. Fascinating and amazing. Thanks so much for sharing this experience with us.

Anonymous said...

Clara, your story is truly inspiring. Thanks for sharing it!

Lindsay Schmidt