Marilyn's swim across the English Channel 2011

"For me, marathon swimming is the ultimate mental, physical and emotional challenge".

Diana Nyad, Other Shores, 1978

I've always loved swimming. I've been swimming since age 2, competitively since age 13. I'm now 54 and hoping to become the oldest Canadian female to swim the English channel; 33.2 kilometres from Samphire Hoe Beach, Dover, England to Cap Griz Nez, France. I swam Lake Ontario from Niagara on the Lake to Toronto in 1983 and from Toronto to Port Dalhousie (north to south against the powerful Niagara River current) in 1984. I was only the second person to swim Lake Ontario north to south, Diana Nyad being the first. The above quote is one of my favourites, especially since Diana at 61 was also recently trying to prove that older athletes can still achieve big goals.

Why the English Channel? I was quoted in the Toronto Star in 1984 saying my next big swim would be the English Channel. But then life happened, I got married, had 3 boys, but always kept swimming at least twice a week. Last summer, Debbie Bang challenged me to swim 26 kilometres in Muskoka. When I finished it, I felt I could have swum further. When Colleen Shields at 58 breezed across Lake Ontario last August (but was foiled by weather at the very end), I realized I could still do another big swim at my age. Swimmers in Dover say the Channel is the Everest of swims. I'm not so sure, people have accomplished longer and colder swims in other parts of the world. For me, there is something about ocean swimming that is the ultimate. The English Channel is part of world history and swimming tradition. My grandmother lived in England and took me to the beach on the channel, so it is also nostalgia and familiar. What really cemented the idea in my mind is pacing Kim Middleton across the channel in 1989. I just "woke up" last September and realized time was running out.

So I have been inspired and supported by a great many people. (Thank you!) In doing this swim I would like to inspire others to dream big and go out and achieve their goals. But, in this journey I have learned that reaching smaller training goals along the way has also inspired others. Swimming Lake Simcoe from Barrie to Orillia, 35 kilometres in 18 hours and 44 minutes is the biggest example of this, especially since the water was 13 degrees Celsius for the first 3 hours. Even if the channel weather foils me on August 21, 22, or 23, it was worth doing.

I am also pleased to be able to use this opportunity to raise money for the Good Shepherd Centres in Hamilton. They run a network of shelters and services for troubled youth, abused women and children, the dying, the mentally and physically challenged, the hungry and the homeless. They strive to support people through crisis and help them re-establish healthy and productive lives. They have been very good to my patients over the years and for this I am grateful. Please support my swim by donating to the Good Shepherd centres. Thank you.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Lake Simcoe 2011

It has come to my attention that my Lake Simcoe swim has not been recognized internationally. I swam it June 25-27, 2011 as a training swim for the English Channel. I swam from Centennial Beach Barrie, to the Huronia Regional Centre in Orillia, a distance of 35.1 km. It was a Solo Swims of Ontario ratified swim. The Swim Master report is available on request. Below is my first hand account of the swim. Pictures are below the English Channel ones.
People ask me what I think about when I do a marathon swim. The short answer is everything and a lot of nothing. Here’s the long answer…
July 26, 2011 5 a.m. I’m standing here on Centennial Beach looking down this huge and very long bay; you can’t even see the main part of the lake. I’m aiming for Kitchener beach in Orillia, 35 kilometers away. I’m a bit scared but mostly excited. In marathon swimmers, there’s this deep desire to swim every body of water we see, sort of like the open road to a motorcyclist. I have this now. I want to make this lake mine. We have worked hard to assemble this team and the equipment and this is my opportunity. I’m also relieved that I’m finally getting in the water after 5 days of enforced rest. My body is craving this, too. 
I walk in up to my ankles and say “this water is cold”.  I step out again until we are fully ready for the plunge. When everyone is ready, I wade in quickly. I can tell right away that it is around 56 degrees Fahrenheit, but I’m here now, this is my big chance, so I just do it. No point in wading in slowly, I plunge in. It takes my breath away, a bad sign that confirms my water temperature estimate.
I look for the exact orientation of the boats and I swim with them as fast as I dare without totally tiring myself out. I’m in survival mode. I have to save some energy for the rest of the lake but I have to stay warm here to get out of this bay. I know this water is cold because the wind has turned over this end of the bay. The question is how far this cold patch extends and whether I will get through it.
First feeding. Seems like less than an hour, which is what we agreed on. They must be worried about the water temperature. I ask the crew if they can navigate me to some warmer water if they know of any.  Food is nice and hot. I down it quick and get back to work.
In the second 45 minutes, I’m feeling my fingers start to cramp up into the claw hand posture in my right hand. First my pinkie won’t stay with the rest, and then my thumb starts to feel weak. Soon I start to feel that maybe the water is getting a little bit warmer and I get some hope. I try to focus on the end of Kempenfelt Bay as a goal. I can’t quit until I at least get that far. Deb and I have the swim divided into thirds in my mind. The end of Kempenfelt Bay and Eight Mile Point demarcate the thirds which are roughly 13.5, 12.5 and 9 km in length.
I notice that my swim suit is flapping around my chest and shoulders. The cold water is coming in my suit and all the way down my front on every stroke. The lanolin/Vaseline mixture must have made the fabric disintegrate. It is really annoying and probably causing drag and probably making me colder.  I’m still too cold to do anything about it. The water feels like ice water. It feels like ice water in my veins.
Second feeding. Food is nice and warm with a milky flavour. Good. Lots of calories. Back to work.  I have to pick up my pace a bit. Am I imagining feeling warmer or is it because I picked up my pace? Trying to zone out and not think about how cold it is. Trying to ignore the shivering. The air must still be cold. Good thing its daylight. This would be so much worse at night.
Third feeding. I ask the temperature because I think it has improved a bit and I’m ready to hear the facts. I can see its going to take at least 3 more hours to get out of Kempenfelt Bay and I’d like to get my brain around how to tackle this. I’m also wondering if my internal thermometer is accurate. My coach, Thie, tells me it is “closing in on 60”. I know she’s trying to sugar coat it but this is good news for me because it confirms that it is warming up. I decide it is time to pin the extra flap of swim suit on my chest. They put a second swim cap on me. My fingers are too cramped up to do it myself. This is a good idea. I think the Solo Swims rules allow it but the English Channel rules don’t. I wonder if they had a big pow-wow about this and whose idea it was and smile to myself.
I notice my fingers are starting to thaw. On one of my training swims, I remember my fingers thawed when the water went from 60 to 61 deg F. This means I was on the verge of hypothermia and am now warming up from there. Maybe I can do this after all.
Fourth feeding. I ask for Gaviscon for my stomach. Whatever they gave me last time didn’t sit too well and I want to get on top of this before I throw up. My suit is still loose. I ask Thie to tie a string around the straps at the back. That helps a bit more but there is still too much drag.  I estimate it’s been about 3 hours and the water temp is finally feeling “doable”. Too bad it’s cloudy. Time to try to zone out.
Fifth feeding.  Another tasty Thie concoction. She’s a master in the Zodiac kitchen. The thermometer is clearly visible swinging under the boat in the clear water. I can’t resist and take a peek. 62 deg Fahrenheit, 16.5 deg C. Confirms all my observations. I know the buoy in the main body of the lake is currently 18 deg C or 64 deg F, and the day will be warm and sunny, so warmer water is coming. I can do this.
Thie is swimming with me. I don’t know why they think I need a pacer. I don’t ask, I know they have the big picture. Thie is so enthusiastic about this swim. I think she’d swim it for me if she had trained and it was allowed. Geez this bay is long. I can’t even see the end of it. I remember it taking forever when Bob Weir swam from Washago to Barrie, but he was tired and not moving too fast at this point. There are some beautiful estates over there but I can’t really focus on them or I’ll get out of line. My head is really starting to ache and this nausea won’t go away. I wonder if I’m getting a migraine. It kind of hurts behind my left eye, too. Maybe the goggles or the 2 swim caps are too tight. I think of a swimmer who asked me to pull her out of Lake Ontario after 5 hours with a migraine. I better ask for Ibuprofen and Gaviscon next feeding.
Seventh feeding. My swim suit is really driving me nuts. It’s a good time to put on my spare because it’s finally warm and there are no pacers in the water to see me totally naked.  I rip my extra swim cap off, go with the dark goggles and my head immediately feels better. My body feels better, too, snug in the new suit.
I see David is here to pace me. He’s wearing a wetsuit. Good for him. I wouldn’t want him to get too cold this early in the game. I’m kind of surprised they put him in this cold water, I guess he’s eager. He did tell me he swims 2 km workouts in Kempenfelt Bay all summer.  Maybe I’m slowing down because I’m not in survival mode any more. The water is probably up to 64 and the air is getting warmer but it’s still cloudy.
 I can finally start to see the main part of the lake but I know that the way Big Bay Point is oriented, it will seem like forever before we pass it. I have to buckle down, push out the end of my stroke, try to roll, just keep swimming, and stop looking at Big Bay Point. Two feedings later, I think I can safely say the point is behind us. I tell them “I think we are finally out of this wretched bay.” 
That last feeding didn’t sit very well with me. I’m feeling nauseated again.  There’s a lot of boat traffic in this bay and some of them are going really fast. There’s a marina up ahead about ½ mile. The water tastes full of gas and oil. I have to really work to keep up a good pace because I feel lousy.
Oh no, we’re stopping for a feeding right in front of the marina. I hope we don’t get run over. I’m becoming aware of having trouble taking a deep breath and ask for tea next feed to loosen my lungs. I’m trying to focus on my stroke but I really have to slow down. I can’t keep this pace up with my trouble breathing.  Now I’m getting chilly and start shivering when I slow down.  This is not good. I’m so glad my husband is here. I trust he will take good care of me.
Thie is pacing me and going way too fast for me. Sorry, I have to be able to breathe. One stroke at a time. I can see the bottom, the water is warm here near shore.  I count strokes per property. Between 30 and 40. That is my usual count per property so that means I am moving at an OK clip. The bottom is going by so slowly, however. I ask Shaun how far to Eight Mile Point and he says 9 km. I do the math, 9km to Orillia beyond the point, makes 18 km. We’re only about halfway. This is devastating news. I would really like to quit. But I put my head down, keep swimming, and think about this. Do I really want to do the English Channel? If I don’t finish this training swim I know I will arrive in England in a very negative state of mind and probably quit part way across.  Yes, I really, really want to do the channel. So I have to finish this challenge in front of me. I have to put thoughts of quitting out of my mind and reach for Eight Mile Point. I know I can make it that far.
I see that we finally have rounded the small point and are in a new bay. The water is cleaner here. I can finally breathe again. Maybe I will make Eight Mile Point after all. I think about how hard this is at 54. Then I wonder if I’m the oldest SSO sanctioned person to swim this lake. Shaun looks it up for me.  Bryan Finlay was 56 when he swam from this same route from Barrie to Orillia breaststroke. Drat!
Lorne's 24 foot sailboat, the Trial n Error Too, swings by to drop off David to swim with me. I wave to Lorne and Elizabeth. It’s good to see their encouraging faces. David is only in his swim trunks. That’s encouraging. I fondly reminisce about all the 5 km races at St. Mary’s quarry where one year Dave would beat me by 10 seconds and the next year I would touch him out. I notice the wind is behind us and we are surfing. The sun is out. We’re in such a comfortable pace; I tell Dave he’s my best buddy.  I know I’m going faster than what I was doing before. I’m almost enjoying this. I’m really a “sun on my back kind of gal”. I tell the crew it’s too nice out to quit, maybe after dark. I zone out into a pleasant place.
Shaun is swimming with me now. He definitely wins the most beautiful stroke award. His swimming is so smooth it inspires me to stretch out my stroke and try to keep up. Unfortunately, this is too much effort for my distended stomach after the last feed and I throw up half of it. So I slow down for a bit and I try to pick it up a few minutes later. I think about how I trained him to be a Swim Master and this is his first official swim. I am proud of how well he is doing. I am also happy to see my friend Debbie in the Zodiac. Her husband, brother and son are crew on this swim. They brought their large power boat through several locks into Lake Simcoe in order to accompany me.
Second Swim Master Colleen is pacing me. I’ve been looking at the sun to estimate the time. It’s still pretty high in the sky, that’s good, lots of time. My neck is a bit sore from focusing on Eight Mile Point. I know Colleen will keep me going straight so I just look at her and try to zone out. I notice she’s breathing on her left. I thought she only breathed on her right. Maybe she learned it during the winter. Surfing is not so much fun anymore. My left shoulder is feeling the strain of catching the odd wave the wrong way. I also have to pivot on the left arm to stay on course in the waves. I can see the main part of Carthew Bay. I will complete the second third of this swim.
As we approach Eight Mile Point, the water gets warmer near shore. I want to stop and bask in it. As I defrost a bit, the aches and pain and fatigue start to hit me. I want to just rest. Then I remember that when I return to my office, I want to be able to tell my suicidal patients that I didn’t quit when the going got tough. What skills would I ask them to use? My Emotion Mind is saying “I’m tired and soooooo sick of being cold”. Reasonable mind says, “My shoulders are in surprisingly good shape, my legs are OK, my breathing is good and I still have some energy left”. Emotion Mind pipes in again and says, “If I keep going I will really, really hurt tomorrow.” Reasonable mind says, “So what excuse will I give for quitting? There is no good excuse.” Wise Mind (an integration of Emotion and Reasonable Minds) finally says, “I can finish this swim.” OK, I’ve made my Wise Mind decision. Eventually I get tired of this crap in my head; it’s time for my SwimP3 music.
Once we round the point, the water gets a bit cooler and I shiver. Thie is making funny faces at me swimming under me. Shaun tells me the next point is halfway to the finish, so 4.5 km to the point and 4.5 km to the finish. Looking at the sun, I see that maybe I can make this point before sunset. I am now on a mission to get into the final bay by sunset, before the air cools because I know it will be warmer in there. They put my best buddy in and he takes me through until almost sunset. There is this annoying chop hitting me in the face. I tell the crew. They laugh, but later I see they’ve ignored the power of the wind and forgotten flotilla physics. The Zodiac has drifted downwind and taken me a bit off course and they’re asking me to swim back towards shore. I am annoyed.
We’re almost at the 4.5 km left to go point when the sun sets and we have to fart with clear goggles and glow sticks. This chills me a bit and I restart with gusto. Colleen is putting on her swim cap, but I tell her I’m fine for now. She looks relieved. I think she remembers I love swimming in the dark beside a Zodiac. I reminisce about how I enjoyed my 1¼ hour leg in the 50th anniversary of Marilyn Bell’s swim SSO relay across Lake Ontario. I drew straws for second position, taking over from Vicki Keith in the pitch black, one Zodiac on either side, still in the warm Niagara current.
It is a bit warmer around the point; just enough to counterbalance the cooling air. I’m not a “cool breeze on my back kind of gal”. My son says to me, “It’s yours Mom”. At first this is encouraging. Then it stuns me that he’s said something so profound. I’m so proud of him and happy he could be here to share this moment. Then I keep repeating this to myself, “It’s mine”. The water is really shallow but I trust my son to keep me on course and not drift. He did a masterful job in high winds last year on the Gloucester Pool swim.
They ask me if I want to swim 1 km less, landing at the former Huronia Regional Centre for developmentally delayed children, which is still within the town limits of Orillia. Evidently I’ve done the distance of the channel.  So I would achieve all my goals with an alternate place and people will get home sooner tonight. They all have to work tomorrow and I worry about how they’ll get home so late. Not a tough decision for me. Although I know I could go the extra kilometer if I had to.
I think about Kim Middleton’s swim from Barrie to the town docks of Orillia that I Swim Mastered. She still had 8 or 9 km left at this point. I’m glad I opted against that plan. I wish I swam as fast as she did, in 17 or 18 hours and probably 5 km further.
Colleen is shining the flashlight in the water in front of me. I think of the two dozen swimmers I’ve done this for as Swim Master. Then I remember that Colleen is one of my inspirations for deciding to swim the channel. She swam so amazingly fast and strong last year almost all the way across Lake Ontario and could have completed the swim if she hadn’t have been foiled by high wind. At her age! I have to tell her this now before I forget again. I hope I get invited on her record breaking swim next year.
I’m focusing on the 2 glow sticks and navigational light on my side of the Zodiac. I try to make sure I’m perfectly aligned at all times so they don’t start to think I’m losing it and get worried. I round the corner into the final bay. There is some small annoying chop in my face but it doesn’t matter because “it’s mine”. My left shoulder is hurting but it still works. When I hear there are only 600m left, I turn off my MP3 and count strokes. I can’t really see where I’m going but I’m not stopping to look. It looks like beach.
Finally I can see the bottom. I could try to walk but I think I’ll be dizzy, so I swim until my fingers touch the sand. What a sweet feeling! Everyone is cheering. I remember to practice channel rules, walk out “until there is no seawater beyond”. I raise my arms in victory. Doug sets off flare fireworks! Total time is 18 hours 45 minutes. As per the channel, they make me swim to the boat. I am ecstatic and relieved. I am not looking forward to the shivering I know is coming. I am so grateful to our whole team on the swim, on the ground and in training. Thank you!

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Saturday, 16 June 2012

June 16, 2012
I conquered Key West!
I swam the 12.5 miles (20.1 km) around the island as part of a US Masters race in a time of 8h 15min.
I'm the oldest female in the last 5 years of online records, not sure about the 12 years before that. I will definitely get the medal for my age group.
They promised it would be a tide assisted race, but the tides were opposite from predicted. It was a tide and wind in your face race. Only the 10th mile was tide assisted and the last 2 were with the wind. The water was 87-88 deg F and the air 80-90. The cloud cover gave us a break from the sun, which kept this northern girl from getting seriously sun burnt. My body held up well despite the large amount of sprinting to keep from going backwards when the tidal current was strong. My hot water nutrition plan also worked out well.
Next swim? I will think about it for a few months. Definitely not a hot water swim.

Friday, 8 June 2012

I am pleasantly surprised to discover that my 2011 English Channel swim was features in the Daily News of Open Water Swimming on June 4, 2012 
The article was then picked up by open water pedia.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Van Audenaerde Endurance Cup

The Channel Swimming Association finally met and ratified all the swims for the year, including mine. It seems they also awarded me the Endurance award of the year. What a pleasant surprise! Here is what the president of CSA, Mike Read, said about why I got the award.
"The greatest feat of endurance encompasses everything, age, length of swim, weather conditions..........the person who battled on against all odds in spite of what was thrown at them.  The time taken is clearly one aspect, but 20 hours on a flat calm day would not in our view beat 16 hours in a Force 4.  And you had 12 hours in F4 and occasionally F5 and you had 13 hours of a head wind. In our view you had the hardest swim of the year."

Friday, 23 September 2011

Post EC swim Update

A month later and sometimes I still can't believe I did it.
People have been asking me to compare Lake Ontario to the English channel. The short answer is that Lake Ontario was harder physically but the channel was harder mentally.
I forgot to mention in the last blog that I saw about a half dozen purple jellyfish about 2 metres down. "Fortunately" because of the high winds, they went deep. There were also about a dozen brown ones on the surface but they were easier to spot and dodge, although sometimes they hid out in the seaweed of the same colour.
I've added a video clip from the afternoon when the winds were starting to settle down but they're probably still over 20 knots. Hope you don't get sea sick watching it.
I just got my chart of the English channel with my route highlighted from my pilot, Kevin Sherman. I photographed it for the blog. The pilot drew in arrows representing the tide. The tide makes everyone's swim route into a series of curves. The wind from the SSW to SW (blowing from the bottom left corner) added some extra curvature to my route! The straight line distance from Samphire Hoe Beach to where I finished in Calais is over 41 kilometers. Official time was 16 hours and 40 minutes.
Kevin enclosed a note, "Well done on your crossing. What a route! Not a short swim but a good one. Your support team done you proud."
Yes, I have been back to swimming in Lake Ontario. The weather the first 3 weeks of September has been too beautiful for me to resist!
Thanks again to all my cheerleaders and supporters.
Its not too late to donate!