Channel Training 2014
After the 6-day race in April I only had a short time to build up for the swim. Each day I seemed to get some interesting ideas about training so I decided to make some notes. It seemed a bit premature to write anything until after the swim in case it all turned out to be wishful thinking, but here is a rough background to the training I did. This kind of thing is probably more of an exercise in clarifying things to oneself, but perhaps there is something here of interest for others too.
In the morning
Meditate on the waves and surges of the ocean.
You will find dynamic life-energy.
In the evening
Meditate on the deep vastness
Of the ocean
You will feel infinity’s peace
– Sri Chinmoy
Presumably any physical exercise will improve general fitness and contribute towards some future athletic goal, but there seems to be a definite moment when the training you are doing becomes linked in some way to the goal you have set. Whilst swimming up and down the pool as you may have done on many other days, suddenly you are seeing it as the first few strokes across the channel or the first stages of building up to a longer distance in the sea. Or perhaps your Sunday run in your mind becomes the first half of a future marathon, for example, and you even start visualising the finishing time, the people around you and the course. Sri Chinmoy has talked of how the goal has its own consciousness or some kind of individual personality, rather than just being a fixed material object or distance. Thus the goal can have ‘pride’ or it can yield or even move towards us depending on how we engage with it. I think these are more than mere metaphors and show us that it really has its own kind of energy or existence.
You can easily challenge
The pride of frightening distance.
– Sri Chinmoy
So at some stage we start identifying with this goal and the training takes on a whole new dimension becoming linked to it. Instead of it being for general fitness or amusement, it becomes the first steps towards the goal. I’ve often felt that the Channel swim is more like a multi-day race with the actual swim day just being the final day of the race. Somehow the wisdom of the goal seems to guide you through all the stages and experiences that are necessary to reach it. The training is a chance to take the big jigsaw apart and solve all the little pieces before putting the whole thing together on the day. It’s just too immense a conundrum to solve in one day. The physical improvement that follows from each training session is important but I don’t think it is the only reason we train, rather it follows on as an inevitable by-product of the inner discipline. It’s as if with enough will power you could solve it all in the mind and go straight into the event but nobody can do this so we have to work out the mental elements through the medium of the physical plane.
Frustratingly this inner work sometimes seems to have a kind of momentum of its own that pays scant regard to the physical situation. With only a short time remaining before your event and at the high point of your training, often an injury or illness suddenly crops up which drives a cart and horses through everything and forces a complete change in the mental approach. Meanwhile the physical side seems to fall apart completely as you find you can no longer even put your foot down or move your shoulder, let alone try and run or swim. Often looking back we can see why we had reached an amber light or even a temporary red stop light on our training journey. It’s harder to take it with equanimity at the time but if we do then we can usually accelerate out of the situation. One of the factors that seems to highlight this is that when the training is going well and we are pushing our mileage and efforts there is a strength and adrenalin that makes it easy to miss crucial steps or smaller pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that will be important later on. We seem to end up having a bit of a pumped-up, false sense of our own abilities. Then it only takes a sore toe or swollen knee to bring us crashing back down to earth again where we are in a far better place to attend to these other matters that will be crucial components of our eventual success. The wise part of our body and mind seems to have no problem in stage managing these little dramas just when we are most ready for them inwardly and probably blissfully unready for them outwardly.
I think the key thing here is not to panic. This is a normal part of the build up to a big challenge and looking back you almost always see that what you perceived of as ‘lost’ training at the time was in fact very beneficial. Something of this nature will almost always be part of the experience. In fact it’s a sign that you are really doing well and pushing yourself in a healthy way. We are only going to encounter the traffic lights once we have revved up the engine and started on our journey.
Three weeks into my 6 week build up for the Channel and just a week before planning a two-way lake Windermere swim I got flu for a week, which is something I would rarely get and especially if I am fit and swimming outdoors in the sea every day. What it did do was force me back into meditating for longer and more punctually in the mornings. With the strength coming from the training I had got relaxed about that and was not paying nearly enough attention to what was going to be the key to doing the Channel. A huge part of the swim is the inner dimension and without that it really doesn’t matter how fit you are. Presumably this was the only way the body could get the message through to me with enough force. I noticed the same thing a few times in the build up to the 6 day race; once athlete’s foot meant I could hardly walk for a week, shin splints forced me to stop walking and start running, and a bad cough in the three weeks before meant I couldn’t run at all but rediscovered the benefits of meditation, which was the only thing that was going to get me through 6 days of running regardless of fitness.
Sri Chinmoy says ‘physical energy has only one source and that source is spiritual energy. As long as we remain conscious only of the body, we are not aware of this. But when we go deep within through meditation, we see that spiritual energy is the source of physical, vital and mental energy’.
Sri Chinmoy, The Outer Running and the Inner Running, Agni Press 1974.
Why another Channel?
The decision to do the channel seemed to come from exactly the same place as the decision to do the 6-day race. Given the state of my running at the time it seemed patently absurd but the joy and thrill that came from the idea far outweighed any doubts. I hadn’t done the Channel for 5 years so felt my swimming was on a similar level. I’m convinced now that the best thing to do is just to set some kind of goal and then worry about how you are going to achieve it afterwards. Also make it sufficiently grandiose and unlikely that your mind gets a kind of secret thrill from it. If you get a surge of joy just from signing up for the event then give yourself the chance to allow the other elements to slot in naturally. If you wait until you think you are fit enough then it will never happen, rather like the person learning a foreign language who decides to wait until they think they know the language perfectly before uttering their first sentences. Once the goal has been set everything takes on a new intensity. The training may not be easy but you find yourself inspired and waking up early to prepare yourself. The goal is looming after all so you really have no choice. From time to time I try and lose a few kilos that have built up doing the Channel training and it’s always so difficult. In the month prior to the 6 day I needed to lose some weight but it seemed effortless and actually a pleasant experience as was necessary for the goal that I had set.
This was my first time back in the Channel for 5 years. The last few swims had been so difficult that I had vowed not to do it again, not to be taken in by the enthusiasm that comes when you are not actually in there – swimming along beside a rocking boat in cold water and feeling sea sick with hours and hours of swimming ahead of you. When I tried to imagine what it would be like I could only conjure up this image along with it being the night before the swim and desperately trying to get some rest. For some reason I also feared the trip out to the start of the swim on the boat. This year it was as if all that had been laid to rest and with all the winter swimming that I had been doing over the last few years I felt strong and a little more inspired again. Helping Adriano on his swim last year had reminded me just how much joy and positive energy there is not just in swimming but also being a helper.
The English Channel frightens the human body
The English Channel challenges the human vital
The English Channel puzzles the human mind
The English Channel invites the human heart
The English Channel treasures the human soul
– Sri Chinmoy.
Brief training diary.
Return from 6-day race.
Salil told me that it took him until October to recover from the race the previous year. That would have been great but with the Channel looming I decided to give myself a week and actually I think was lucky enough to be fairly much back to normal within about 10 days.
May 12th to 22nd
So for about a week to 10 days I swam each day in the sea (still very cold in May in Cornwall) but I don’t think I did more than an hour. I also kept doing the arm exercises that I do mainly in the winter. This is done by standing in the sea with the water up to about chest level, arms out to the sides and then pulling as hard as you can to bring the arms in front of you (the same motion as the ‘pec deck’ that you find in most gyms). I built up to doing 1,500 of these. I’d started to notice just how much core strength and resilience these exercises give you. You are also training in the sea with the waves and all the challenges that this environment throws at you. Since you work so hard you find the body warms up and once you are in can actually stay in 10 degree water for 45 minutes or so without too much difficulty.
22nd May to 3rd of June
I was away for work in Abu Dhabi so it was going to be a challenge to find a pool. I did some long sessions on the treadmill and exercise bike (up to about 2 hours) and did find a pool where managed two 2 hour swims. I bumped into Rohan from India by chance who was also training to do the Channel and subsequently succeeded a few days before me. That was quite a boost to the training as seemed to give the feeling that there was more going on out there than I had realised.
4th June -8th of June
I’m in Montenegro with the Ananda singing tour and manage a few 2 hour swims in the sea and some 1 hour runs. There’s not that much time with the schedule of a concert every night but try to do as much as is possible.
9th June – 14th of June
The sea in Cornwall feels cold compared to Montenegro but I manage to get up to 2 hours in sea.
Tues 17th June Felt flu symptoms coming on a bit at the Cambridge concert and by the time I get back home again am feeling knocked out. This is not good at all as next weekend plan to do long 21 mile swim in lake Windermere. There’s also not much more than a month left now and it will take a while to pick up from this. So why is this happening now? What do you need to learn from this? The same thing happened just before the 6 day race and everything worked out fine. Looking back at this week I can hardly remember it even being an issue in terms of the physical training but do remember it really threw me back into doing more meditation which had lapsed a bit with the feeling of well-being coming from the harder training.
Saturday 28th June Windermere 2-way swim planned. Manage 17 miles of it but would have been another 3 hours or so to finish. It’s an 11 hour swim under the belt so is good for the mind.
Sunday 29th of June A planned short stroll around Ambleside with Vilas and Prachar becomes a 6 and a half hour hike. Tough after the swim but good to know that there is still energy left in there if you really need it!
Wed 2nd July Two and a half hours. Split between morning and evening swims. Great way to train. Go in the morning planning 1 mile and then it becomes 2 somehow. Towards the end something inside says just to go for one more mile. This seems to happen each morning. I suppose the mind is happy as never really needs to commit to more than a mile but seem to end up doing quite a bit more. Then with a mile in the evening brings it up to around 4 miles.
Thurs 3rd of July Another two and a half hours like yesterday.
Fri 4th July 3 mile run. Great to feel that can also get out and run. When did good times in the Channel in the past I was able to do that. Not done it for ages.
Sat 5th of July Long 6 and a half hour swim. Wanted to complete at least one of these down in Cornwall. If can do that here then Channel water temperature should be no problem as is 3 to 4 degrees warmer.
Sun 6th of July Two and a half hours. Good to do on the back of yesterday’s long one.
Mon 7th of July. 45 mins. Keeping it ticking over.
Tues 8th of July 5 mile run.
Wed 9th of July – 4 hours (split between two swims, morning and evening)
Thurs 10th of July -3 hours (2 swims)
Fri 11th of July Gentle 8 mile run along cliff paths.
Sat 12th 3 hours (again split between morning and evening swims).
Sun 13th 3 hours (split). Starting to feel as if good mileage is building up and sea here a fair bit colder than the Channel. Feeling quite confident about the whole project.
Mon 14th Day off training.
Tues 15th Easing off on the training. Starting to get tough now going in every day and doing a minimum of 2 hours. Also the first possible swim date has always been pencilled in as Saturday the 20th of July so I don’t want to get too tired in case it is then. If that is the case then I would really need to head over to Dover tomorrow.
Also calling Chris, the pilot, to see if there is any clearer picture. One never likes to bother these people too much as they can’t control the weather but I need to start engaging helpers and at least tell them if it’s definitely not happening. Aryavan has very selflessly made himself available for the whole ten day period and is ready to come down at very short notice. This is where you wish the pilot could inform you just a bit better, even if they have no idea because of the weather conditions, at least so that you know a bit more clearly your options. Perhaps some customer service training? Actually Mike Oram, who in the end is my pilot, turns out be excellent at this and gets me to phone him every evening at 7.30pm for an update and if he’s busy with other swimmers still returns my calls.
Meanwhile Purna-Samarpan from Hamburg is thinking of coming but it depends when the swim takes place, which of course I don’t know. He could get a flight but if the weather turns bad I may not even go to Dover. Alternatively there is a bus from Heidelberg but then the return leg is not until Friday the 26th at the very end of the tidal window. During the 6-day race we had discussed the idea of him coming over to help and it has been a good inspiration during the build up for me. This is another of the eternal battles with the Channel – trying to find people who are free to come and help but preferably who can continue with what they are doing in the meantime. They need to be ready to drop everything at a moment’s notice and appear in Dover, often in the middle of the night and not knowing when they might be back again. On top of that everyone needs a place to stay and to eat! Having paid several thousand pounds for the pilot boat you realise that this really is a rich person’s sport!
Thurs 17th July The motivation and inspiration is dropping. The feeling of fitness and well-being you get after doing two or three hours in the sea is ebbing away since I’ve taken two days off. This is always a hard part (see thoughts on meta-training) as you really can’t do too much in case the swim is coming up very soon but on the other hand you can’t afford to lose touch with it all which can very quickly happen once you stop training. Although the training is undoubtedly tough at times it does leave you feeling confident and in a good space mentally.
So I needed to get back in and swim enough to get back into the right frame of mind regardless of when the swim might be. Mentally I said to myself I would just do 1 mile but that soon became 2 miles and by the time I’d done that something in me was pushing me to make it 3 miles. I’d experienced that on many mornings and was glad that there was an incentive in me to do a bit more and that it was not getting blocked by the tricky monkey mind.
For years this 3 mile swim has been a kind of staple, more than just a distance, rather a space I can get into if I make enough effort. It’s also a good distance as it definitely takes some will power but is not a really long distance training swim. It’s the kind of swim that you could do every day if you were focused enough. I think it’s good to build up to the stage where you have some kind of a run or swim like this that becomes almost automatic. It allows you to push beyond muscle stiffness and lack of motivation that you might have, leaving you refreshed and confident. Once you’ve got this solid rocklike foundation then you can build on it and start doing longer swims of two, three and four hours, eventually building up to your six hour swim.
Fri 18th July A run and very easy float about. Feel now is the time to relax the shoulders a bit more. Getting the idea that it might not happen at all so have to dive in to the meta-training principles and refocus life again. Everything is centering on this at the moment but I need to be able to take the lessons learnt and apply them to mundane things without the adrenaline from all the training. This is the hardest part as you have to start addressing what it is really all about and being surrendered enough to let things take their course.
Chris on the boat says the weekend is out of the question and he doesn’t seem that hopeful about Monday or Tuesday either. Rather presumptuously at this stage I am also thinking I can control the date. In previous years I would have to wait around for weather conditions and each time the call came through that it was cancelled for the following day I would breathe a sigh of relief. Then on those days it would turn out that other swimmers were going out and being successful. I started to realise that if I was determined enough and ready to go then somehow the day would turn out to be good enough and if I was half-hearted about it, then it would never happen. This year I felt quite determined about the whole thing and strong enough not to want it to be postponed. I thought that since I was not doing quite a good job at stopping too many doubts entering then somehow I’d be able to swim on the day that suited me. The weather just wasn’t looking good at all at the weekend but I was confident it would be the Tuesday or the Wednesday. How wrong I was to be! It’s probably good to be confident and it may help in getting a window but with the Channel you have to be ready for all your ideas and best laid plans to fall apart.
Purna-Samarpan is now coming but it looks unsure if the swim will happen until Wednesday at the earliest so perhaps I should tell him to cancel after all. Well his return flight is not until Thursday so I think we should just go for it. This is always an element of the swim – having to surrender and not worry how things will turn out. In the end he comes all the way and even changes his flight by 6 days as the swim is delayed. Even then it doesn’t happen until after he has returned to Germany!
Sunday 20th of July I decide to take the bull by the horns and just go to Dover (in keeping with my theory that if you are totally ready rather than waiting for the call then it will work out). It would be so much easier just to stay put in the comfort zone and slowly wait for the moment to appear but I think I’ll end up losing fitness and the chance of a good day. On the way to Dover Chris calls and says his doctor has declared him medically unfit to go to sea and my swim will be taken over by Mike Oram (the head of the CS&PF swimming association). I felt safe with Chris and had got to know him last year when helping Adriano so initially this sounds like bad news but after a while I get the feeling that it may be for the better and somehow things are falling into place as they should (I’m not sure if the eventual 19 hour swim would have worked out with Chris and he may well have tried to stop it earlier whereas Mike is very relaxed and seems just to want to do everything to make it a positive experience).
Monday 21st of July. In the end we stay in Folkestone the whole week and each day the swim might start early the following morning. Travelling and looking for accommodation has been quite tiring so I’m hoping it doesn’t turn out to be a Tuesday early morning start but I realise the pilot might call at any moment. In fact each day is like this and all I can do is have a short 30 minute swim and try and stay ready. By about Wednesday with the weather deteriorating it dawns on me that it’s probably not going to happen this week. Purna-Samarpan and I sit in cafes and get some work done, eat veggie burgers and chips at a cheapTurkish kebab shop we have found and discover some very pleasant parts of Folkestone that are very much hidden from view (there is a lovely walk down to the beach through a botanic garden for example). I’m calling or texting Aryavan each day to tell him there is no mad rush to get to Dover and actually it is a great week in Folkestone. Purna-Samarpan is a great person to have as a helper whilst you are waiting. He has attempted the 3100 mile race three times and reached 2,700 miles, teaches Chi running and courses in healing, amongst many other thing. He is also a bit of a Fawlty towers fan and thinking it might be fun to watch a few old episodes, in the end it doesn’t matter that we don’t have any dvds, as the small hotel we are staying in is even better entertainment. It has obviously been a very elegant sea-front building in the past but is now falling apart. As you walk down one of the many staircases to the ground floor you see huge cracks in the walls and under the stairs making you decide to take another one each time. Lamps don’t work in the rooms, fittings fall off the walls at the slightest touch and dusty old windows get jammed with the cold sea air blowing in. At the reception when we arrive there is a sheet of paper (left out by mistake) with a list of the room numbers and large red writing against some of them saying ‘unusable’. On the second day I ask the man at the reception (which is just the extension of a long bar with all the beer taps on it) if we can stay another night. He says ‘I could shoot you’ as it turns out he has just finished some accounting process and will have to redo it if we stay on. As the swim gets delayed by yet another night I tell him we will be staying the following night as well to which he replies ‘no you won’t’! The full English breakfast turns out to be tepid tea so strong it has already dyed the cup brown, cold rubbery toast, a lump of old scrambled egg, fried bread dripping with oil and a pile of warm tinned plum tomato. Having said that the staff exuded a natural local charm and it didn’t matter that they hadn’t done the customer service course!
Friday 25th of July It gets to Friday and there is a very narrow window of opportunity opening up in the weather but it would mean swimming through the night on Saturday. I am feeling burnt out after waiting for almost a week now and without training am really losing the focus so decide it is best to go away and think it over. Mike Oram also feels this is the best course of action as there are plenty of other possible times he can take me if I can be patient and wait a few more days. We shoot off to London in the evening and then on to Ipswich the following day for the anniversary of the statue in Chantery park. Sunday is a long drive all the back down to Cornwall to return the car but it goes effortlessly with little traffic. I’m thinking that I may need to head back to Dover very soon as the weather is meant to get better on Wednesday.
I’m feeling in good spirits and as if the Folkestone week was really significant in the preparation for the swim. I’d gone thinking I could more or less dictate when the swim was going to happen (thinking this was an improvement on previous years when would be thankful each time it got postponed by a day or two) but even this attitude was not going to work. There were lessons in patience and surrender to be learnt (more of the meta-training which am starting to see is so key). If I’m going to succeed in this swim then I really need to address the inner dimension and the ‘mind over matter’ part, not plan so much and stop being fixated on what I want to happen, when I want it to happen in my own way! In these situations you are also always catapulted back into working out how to be happy in life. Everything you have been focussed on and working towards is falling apart but you have to keep upbeat as you are still getting ready for this big event. You are not getting the adrenalin buzz or the happiness feeling from the swimming training anymore so have to be inventive and dig down deep reminding yourself of what gives you joy in life. Again this is the ‘meta-training’ element where the days that are ‘off’ or ‘relaxation and recovery’ days in fact need to be addressed with the same degree of intensity as the hard training days. Crucially the ‘relaxation’ has to be a maintaining or improvement of your mood rather than a descent or letting to.
So in Folkestone with the swim not happening on one level things fall apart and it seems chaotic but the meaning is still somehow nearby. That part of me that had been pushing to do a little more each day and pushed me on just to drive to Dover was getting something very positive from it all and, although it was difficult waiting around, I was keen for the experience to continue. I think it made me move away from the idea that there is some kind of deeper meaning to it underneath or a plan that is waiting to be uncovered by you if you could only be in the right consciousness. It seemed more a question of being as inventive as possible and creating ‘fate’ rather than blindly following some predetermined timetable. I think I would have found people frustrating if they told me that say the Thursday was not ‘meant to be’ or else they got the inner feeling that Sunday would be the day.
Monday 28th of July I speak to Mike at 8pm and it looks like Wednesday or later on in the week might be possible. I’m too tired to make a plan so decide to wait until the morning by which time it may be time to jump on a train back to Dover. This is physically and mentally tough but it’s got to be done! As usual I’m not sure if it is Wednesday but it looks hopeful at least for Thursday or Friday. After Friday they can’t take me for a week or so and also it’s Aryavan’s last day in the UK. I’m not sure if I could survive more than another week of this but let’s see.
Tuesday 29th of July I’m trying to figure out a way to get to Dover not too late in case it’s a Wednesday swim. If it is Wednesday the saving grace is that is not until 10am or later, but I don’t want to arrive there tired in the evening and still have to go shopping for all the food. There doesn’t seem to be anywhere reasonable to stay in Dover but then hit upon the idea of staying at Devashishu’s in London, which he had suggested it at the weekend. That would be perfect as can get there quicker, have somewhere to stay and if it is Wednesaday it is the one and only day he can help so we could drive down together. It’s also the only day that Prachar can make and he has been making noises about coming if we can find strong enough sea sickness pills! So I jump on the train to London and the rest is history (well it’s in my other post here!).
After the swim
Undoubtedly joy and satisfaction come from the achievement and there’s the urge to hold on to the feeling of elation. In the weeks following it you feel the mood descending a bit and want to be back savouring those moments when you came back on the boat, sat at breakfast afterwards or perhaps want to relive first night afterward when you lay contentedly down on your bed. At the time though you were probably tired and aching and didn’t really appreciate it enough.
This time whoever I spoke to seemed to be on the verge of some kind of challenge in their lives; moving house, changing jobs, expecting a new baby any minute (my niece), problems with staff at work, daughter about to leave home for a year to go to Africa (my sister), and so on. When I started the swim I had three great helpers with me who very quickly found a seat up at the front of the boat where they could see me better and I could see them. It really was like a team of four people going to try and do something positive somewhere – I was just one of the team and happened to be the one in the water. It was very much a group feeling rather than me being out there achieving something individual. So the swim seems to bring into focus the challenges that we are all continuously facing by virtue of being alive and moving through life gaining experiences. Sometimes it feels as if normal life is a wheel of activities and on the day of the swim you are detached from the wheel momentarily. From this vantage point you get a perspective on life and get a chance to prepare yourself for returning to it. It’s very much a standing back and taking stock of the situation. Whether or not anything changes I don’t really know (if anything more challenging situations seem to crop up – either because you are somehow more ready for them now or perhaps you have ‘swum’ into them) but perhaps you return with renewed vigour and determination to face them. You certainly see just how long it takes to change parts of your nature.
Spirituality is not like coasting
But exactly like climbing –
Climbing ten thousand Himalayas.
– Sri Chinmoy