The backstory to what made me do something that had never even been on my radar a year ago!
December 2020 was a real turning point for me – so much happened in that month that changed my entire outlook and plans for 2021.
Back in 2018 I had glandular fever, followed by shingles, followed by tonsillitis – every month pretty much for almost 3 years! I was getting really fed up with this affecting my training and had recently started working with a new coach. The frustration was really getting to me, having 2 or 3 awesome training weeks followed by waking up one day with that scratchy throat feeling knowing I then had a week of illness to follow with no training was messing with my training mojo and I was close to just giving up on racing.
Late in the season last year, I decided to give the whole cold water training thing a go, to see if I could swim through the winter and see if the alleged health benefits to boosting your immune system were true! I tried the Wim-Hoff cold showers program and maintained my swimming at the lakes and the lido (in wetsuit and gloves etc still at that point). It seemed to be working, my tonsillitis stayed away for a while, until for various reasons in December, I went about 10 days without a cold water swim, and BOOM, tonsillitis struck once more.
This time, despite 2 doses of antibiotics, it wouldn’t shift and it pretty much lasted the whole month, so by December 28th I was desperate and I took my GPs advice of trying what I called the ‘NO FUN’ diet. This was cutting out all alcohol, caffeine and processed foods. Yes, I started this just a couple days before New Years Eve, leading to my first sober new years eve since I was about 12 years old (I was an early starter to partying!). This also coincided with the start of the ‘Great winter lock down’ we all went through last year.
So this leads me onto the garden pool craziness! My good friend Saleema had a baby in lockdown and chose Mark, Charlie and I as her social bubble which was allowed as a support network for parents with under 1’s. So every weekend, Saleema, CJ and Baby Kali came over to our house and me and Saleema would ‘swim’ in my 3m x 2m garden pool on a tether whilst the boys looked on in amusement from behind the glass doors! I was still wearing neoprene at this point, until one day when we had just used an ice pick to crack off the 3 inch layer of ice to ‘dip’ in the frozen pool, and as I was getting in suddenly realised I only had a swimming costume on under my dryrobe! Oh well, let’s do this! My first ‘skins dip’ was in an extreme ice pool, what a buzz! That was it – no going back now!
Saleema was booked to do a solo crossing this year having already done a relay herself, but with the year we had just had, and multiple lockdowns, obviously training had not been going well in landlocked Hertfordshire, unable to travel to lakes and pools closed! One day in January, she very kindly invited 3 of us to join her to do the crossing as a relay instead, we all agreed! Leanne, Tamsyn, Saleema and I all knew each other, but other than Saleema and I, we were more club training buddies than close friends. So in early 2021, during a national pandemic lockdown;
‘St Albans Sirens’ swim team was born!
What happened over the coming months really brought us close together and I am very honoured to have become good friends with them all now. What a positive outcome from all the negativity that Covid brought about last year.
Last week I was ill for the first time in almost 9 months – bloody typical, the back to school germs got me, just a horrible head cold but enough for me to be unable to train all week, not what I needed to set me up mentally for the biggest swim challenge of my life….So I focused the week on rest, took every vitamin and supplement ever rumoured to help a common cold and napped like a champ! All was feeling much better by Saturday so I decided to go to Merchant Taylor for a swim with the Sirens, the first time we had all 4 swam together in months as there was always one of us off racing somewhere somewhere when we tried to meet.
We had been scouring shipping forecasts for days and figured Monday or Tuesday was our earliest crossing day as we were #2 on the list for the thats tide. I managed a 1km lap of the lake and didn’t lose a lung or seem to struggle with breathing so I was thinking, great, another day or two and i’ll be right as rain and good to go! Then as I was holding on to that thought – one of the girls screamed, then another started squealing, then someone shouted, ‘we got a text’………. that was it our call had come……
‘Morning all. We are looking VERY good for tomorrow morning start. Let’s put together prep as if we are swimming – meet time would be something like 2.30am. I will check midday forecast and update from that and then final GO will be given by pilot at 6pm
‘My reaction – SHIT!!!! I am not ready for this, I started panicking but tried to my best to look calm to the others……much screaming and shrieking in the car park later and we all set off home with a plan to finish packing and try and get some sleep ready to meet up at midnight to start our adventure!
The rest of the day was a blur of texting, packing, panicking, attempting to nap, more panicking….Midnight came and the 4 of us were heading to Dover in the ‘party bus’ as Tim our coach called it. We met Tim and the crew of the Viking Princess II at 2am and then we were on our way.
The sea was really bumpy, Tim assured us, ‘don’t worry this is just the sea breaking of the harbour walls, it will calm down’…… 5 minutes later Tamsyn is getting ready to start the swim and puking overboard, 5 mins later, there are two of us puking overboard! Tamsyn was an absolute champ and got into the little dinghy to be whisked off to the start point. I don’t even remember clearly what happened at this point, there was a horn I think, and Tamsyn got in and swam alongside the dinghy to rejoin the main boat, she swam like a fish as she always does despite the fact she was really ill with seasickness.
So this is how it went for the day, the CSA official tells the next swimmer that have to jump overboard, swim around the back of the current swimmer, then pause briefly whilst the boat slows a little to let the swimmer climb out onto the platform lift, and the off you go, swim as hard as you can for an hour until the next swimmers jumps in behind you.
The swimming bit was quite simple, we had all done some marathon swims this year so the swim fitness was not a challenge for us, but the mental challenge and battling seasickness made this the hardest thing I’ve ever done……and that ranks above some of the most difficult Ironman race courses out there (Wales is brutal), 12 & 24 hr mountain bike endurance events (including Straff-Puffer which is in the Highlands in January in the snow).
Tamsyn and I basically spent the entire day trying not to fall over on the boat or projectile on anyone! Tamsyn was on a deckchair with her head almost in her lap, whilst I found that just lying down as still as possible helped stop me being sick for short spells. Leanne and Saleema on the other hand were laughing, joking and having a whale of a time…… (or so it seemed, Saleema was also sick at one point too).
I doubled (or even trebled, I lost count and was desperate) up on the seasickness meds (shipped from the USA as they were stronger) which then caused hallucinations, which I didn’t tell anyone about until after we were finished as I was so paranoid we would get stopped on medical grounds. In a team event that impact is massive, I couldn’t let them all down after so much hard work and money had gone into this.
Eventually, France seemed to feel like it was getting a bit closer, and we were all so happy that Tamsyn got to land us on a final 20 min sprint into Wissant beach where she was met by some locals and quickly grabbed a handful of pebbles before jumping onto to the dinghy and re-joining us to much celebrations and tears. By this point my nausea had almost gone but I was tripping my mind out as if I was on mushrooms or those weird Psychedelic drugs that you see on the whacky alternative health documentaries these days (yeah, the same ones that do cold water swim camps with Win Hoff haha). The hour or so back home, we all (apart from Saleema the duracell bunny) fell asleep and I can’t even begin to tell you how weird and freaky the dreams were I was having at that point. Setting foot on dry land was a relief but very strange in itself and you feel drunk and very weird. We went for a walk and some food before the drive home on the ‘party bus’.
So 2 days on, my thoughts;
WE SWAM THE CHANNEL – WE BLOODY DID IT!
12 hours and 20 mins of living hell, feeling sicker than I ever have in my life but equally one of the most epic experiences and one I will never forget!
Imagine having Norovirus, but then having to jump off a boat into the pitch darkness in the early hours of Sunday morning to swim in the channel, whilst throwing up overboard 1 minute beforehand. That was pretty much the feeling of the day.
There were epic highs (in more ways than one haha), and (very) low points. There were jellyfish stings in places you don’t want to be stung (boobs and bum!) and we saw seals and porpoises which was amazing. Reflecting now after 48hrs on dry land, this is the most epic thing I’ve done in my life.
The sponsorship and support we have received for this event has been very gratefully received. We were keen to raise funds for an appropriate charity to SAS (Surfers against Sewage) seemed very apt. Our team kit was kindly provided by Stomp the Pedal and our logo work by Rachel Partis design Studios, we are truly grateful for this support.
Thank you so much, firstly to Saleema for offering us this opportunity. Secondly to all of the Sirens – you were all epic, Team work, really does the dream work and I will treasure our friendships grown this year for decades to come.
Finally, I have to thank Mark and Charlie, for putting up with all weekend absences where I was off camping with the girls to race, for accompanying me to the lake for a lot of my longer training sessions, for taking me and Leanne to Dover for our 2hr cold qualifying swim and just being my rock of support as always for my crazy adventures and ideas.
Finally – where is my bike? I can’t wait to get back to triathlon training!