English Channel

A personal revolution (one stroke at a time) by Crispin Thorold

“It will change your life” is a phrase that I have heard several times from English Channel soloists.  The argument goes that by the moment you clamber onto the rocks at Cap Gris Nez, or stumble onto the sands of Wissant Beach, your life will have been fundamentally altered.

Given the reaction of several of my friends to my plan to attempt to swim the Channel, perhaps the shift comes when you make the decision to make an attempt - a sure fire sign of a malfunction in your mental state.  After all why would anyone in full control of their faculties decide that swimming the Channel is a good idea?  Or in the light-hearted words of a medic who recently checked my fitness to train, 'you don’t need a doctor, but if you want to swim the Channel you really should consider a psychologist'. (at least I think he was joking..)

Cap Gris Nez south of Calais - a 'life-changing' target. Photo:  Jean-Pol GRANDMONT

Cap Gris Nez south of Calais - a 'life-changing' target. Photo: Jean-Pol GRANDMONT

That consultation had followed a few weeks of medical issues, which were casting doubt on the wisdom of my still relatively light training schedule (15K per week).  After two weeks of tests and an enforced abstinence from swimming I was given the all clear with a hearty pat on the back by a still mystified doctor.  The time away from swimming was incredibly frustrating but this ‘time off’ also allowed me to reflect on the ways that training for an English Channel solo attempt is already changing my life.

A process not an event

Marcel van der Togt, a Channel soloist and long-time open water coach who is helping to structure my training, always talks about a Channel solo swim as a process not an event.  He says that the satisfaction and achievement of a successful solo comes as much through the training, as the swim itself.  

The further into this process I get the more I agree with this. Three years ago I could barely swim a lap of freestyle but through systematic, steady training at first 3/4 times a week and now 5+ times a week, my swimming has been transformed.  The changes have not just been physical – they have also required self-discipline, as well as organisation.

Consistency is king

As a child and later at university I was a crammer who forced as much information into my head, in as short a time as possible.  This ingrained habit was compounded by my journalism training. After all the day-to-day life of a reporter is unpredictable and you can spend long periods of time waiting.  Waiting for a story or waiting for an interview before suddenly, generally without warning, there is a desperate scramble to deliver your report as soon as possible.  Whilst this develops many positive and useful skills, it does not encourage that key to Channel success: consistency.

Now three years in, as I start to intensify my training, consistency is king, and I am finding that this enforced steadiness from swimming is permeating into many other parts of my life, particularly at work.

A marathon not a sprint

Photo: www.therunhome.com

Photo: www.therunhome.com

Of course cramming is all about achieving a lot in a short space of time – it’s about sprinting.  And that instinct to rush has characterised my swimming and much of my training.  All I want to do is to launch myself off the blocks full pelt throwing every ounce of energy I have into getting to the other end as quickly as possible.  This is of course fine if you’re swimming 50s, or 100s or 200s but for a wannabe marathon swimmer it’s a disaster in the making.  After a few hundred metres you are wiped out and a relatively modest set can suddenly seem an impossibility. 

In recent weeks I have made two major changes to my training to try to wean myself off this habit.  Firstly, I have replaced the heavy sprinting training (short, intense sets with long rest periods) with longer, paced endurance and threshold training.  And secondly, I have started using a tempo-timer to introduce some pacing into my swimming.  The changes have been rapid and rewarding – and are well learned for other aspects of life.

Getting back on the horse

And last of all, the most obvious of the lot. If at first you don't succeed then try, try again. 

After my enforced swimming hiatus I am now back into a solid routine of training most days.  This requires me to acknowledge and then reject those negative internal voices that say it would be so much easier to go home instead. 

I am also taking this attitude into individual training sessions.  During a recent ‘red mist’ session I was finished halfway through a relentless 10x400 set and ready to leave on the spot, but rather than give up I allowed myself an extra 30s break, ate a banana and pushed on with the grueling training session.  It lived up to its red mist billing, but I got there in the end and was particularly pleased by overcoming my demons in training - something I will certainly need on the day.  Here’s hoping I have the same spirit in the 80x100 workout tomorrow.

So there you have it a ramble through some of the ways that the lessons that I am learning during my process of training for an English Channel solo are changing other aspects of my life.

Let me know what you have learned through your training and just keep swimming!

"Swim to swim. Don't swim to shine" by Crispin Thorold

Nick Adams is a great of English Channel swimming - he has completed some ten successful solo crossings (including the youngest double), he is the President of the CS&PF, one of the two governing bodies of English Channel swimming, and he is incredibly generous with his experience, acting as a mentor to hundreds of swimmers.

So his criticism of the "emergence of the ego swimmer" is one that deserves careful examination. Reading these remarks about swimmers (of mixed abilities) who seek the limelight on social media in the run-up to starting my own blog, has certainly made me stop and think about my motivations for publishing my experiences in such a public way. 

In part I absolutely agree with Nick's argument.  There is clearly a disconnect between the publicity surrounding the achievements of many leading channel swimmers - think of the King of the Channel, Kevin Murphy, or the world-record holder for the longest unassisted marathon swim, Chloe McCardel - and their public profile.  In many sports they would be household names, yet in marathon swimming it seems that only those who promote themselves through smart social media campaigns or slick PR agencies become darlings of the press (to name no names).

The fastest and slowest English Channel soloists (Photo: CS&PF)

The fastest and slowest English Channel soloists (Photo: CS&PF)

However, a good part of the mystique of the English Channel stems from the fact that it is swum by people with a huge range of abilities, from almost every age (11-73 at the time of writing).  Where else would you find a community that celebrates the record holder for fastest swim, as much as the record holder for slowest swim?  

I for one am equally inspired by the story of "Kent mother-of-two", Jackie Cobell, who took 28 hours to get across, as I am by Trent Grimsey's sub-7 hours miracle swim (however great his athletic feat).

It is the stories of the ordinary Joes who for whatever reason decide one day that the time has come to swim the English Channel that engage me most. And over the past few years I have read scores of blogs, which have helped me to understand different aspects of the physical and mental training that is required to even earn the right to stand on Shakespeare Beach in Dover, shove a stone down your speedos, and start an attempt to swim to France.

Shakespeare Beach: "the loneliest place in endurance sport" (Quote:  Cliff Golding ) (Photo: Gareth Fuller/PA)

Shakespeare Beach: "the loneliest place in endurance sport" (Quote: Cliff Golding) (Photo: Gareth Fuller/PA)

When I started this journey towards an English Channel attempt I was a chain-smoking, unfit, 38-year old who could barely swim a length of freestyle.  Three years down the line I can swim a bit and I am still not smoking.  I dream one day of writing about completing a solo crossing of the English Channel, but whatever the outcome I hope that documenting some of my experiences along the way will be of use to other foolhardy souls who embark on this adventure.  

There are a couple of other reasons to "go public".


People who are interested in marathon and channel swimming can turn to the definitive Marathon Swimmers Federation site or to blogs or social media channels for technical information and opinions, yet there are few if any places where they can find high-quality features and interviews about the sport.  Donal Buckley's Lone Swimmer is a standout exception but I believe there's still room for good quality journalism about the heroic feats that marathon swimmers embark upon (mostly away from the public eye). 

So I plan to use this blog to tell the stories of some of the swimmers and their swims, as well new developments and the history of this sport.

Raising money for a wonderful cause  

Finally my English Channel attempt will be in aid of breast cancer research.  You can read more about this elsewhere on this site, but suffice to say that if you are reading this website I hope that you will be able to spare some pennies for this great cause.  In the internet-era free content is the norm, but should you enjoy a piece you read here please consider making a donation to charity - however small.  I will include details of how to contribute in due course.

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