The Mental Stuff

Monday 05/31/10

The mystery is solved. Cliff Golding is the Channel swimmer who taught me about the psychological tool for surviving an attack of debilitating doubt in the middle of a long, cold swim. Fortunately for me and the rest of the marathon swimming world, he recently updated his handbook for swimming the English Channel and posted it on the channel swimmers chat site.

According to Swim Trek, "in 1981 Mr. Golding was a twenty-six year old, very contented endurance athlete. Then he took up Channel swimming and ruined his life.” His handbook belongs on the “must read” list for swimmers preparing to attempt a solo English Channel crossing. It covers almost every practical aspect of the swim from boarding to re-boarding the pilot boat. He has graciously permitted republication of this material.

Alison Streeter, MBE, has completed forty-three successful solo crossings of the English Channel, more than any other woman. For this accomplishment, she carries the title, “Queen of the Channel.” Ms. Streeter has famously declared that “Channel swimming is 80% mental, 20% the rest.” In light of this piece of wisdom, I have excerpted the following psychological tips from Mr. Golding’s handbook:

“Now the heavy bit!

There will/might come a stage when you way are out of your comfort zone, having exceeded the longest time previously spent in the water and think the task is now beyond you. Or you might think this early in the swim. Or it might happen when a lot of swimmers hit a rough patch – around the 5-7 hour mark. This is normal. I say again – this is normal!!!!! Oh yes, this is so normal!

I have two hard learnt theories pertaining to Channel swimming. The first is that women are inherently mentally tougher than men! There you go, I’ve said it – and not for the first time! I don’t wish to be too general, but when a man goes to the edge and topples over he can fall into an abyss of despair and stress. If others have witnessed this mental implosion the situation is exacerbated ten fold as far as he is concerned. If a man boos his leg off and calls for his mummy then it can be game over! I never booed or cried for mum in my early days of Channel swimming but I did implode mentally in spectacular fashion and this mental falling apart was, for me, shameful and insurmountable (mad, hey?). Women, on the other hand, are different. Not always, but, in most cases, when a women falls over the edge, she boos her leg off and then gets on with it with a, “So what? Never seen a girl cry before?” defiance.

The shame and insurmountable odds I referred to lead to the second theory which applies to both men and women. I believe we all have secret doors in our heads. When we do long, meaningful swims in training or, ‘on the day’, we can crash headfirst into these secret doors when our task seems beyond us. They are double, triple bolted and have huge mounds of debris in front of them. This debris is not the debris of the swim or the day but of our other, day to day, life. It took me 5 years and 6 Channel attempts in the early nineties (doh!) to realise that I could shift this debris and break down the doors.

The first time I pushed through the ‘secret door’ was one of the most empowering, most enlightening experiences of my life. My whole world, my whole existence, seemed calmer and friendlier. It was then that I realised it was OK to be shit scared, that this gut wrenching paralysis was surmountable. Indeed, instead of fearing fear I saw that it was actually something to acknowledge and embrace and respect. And, guess what? You CAN go beyond your previous limits and succeed - ‘cos, if I did …………!

The reason for this quite revealing section is to tell you that when it hits you (some people deny ever feeling scared or mentally bereft during their Channel swim but I don’t believe a word of it!) let it happen. And don’t be surprised if it hits you early on and more than once. If it does, just move the debris again and open the secret door.

Each swim I do I get hit by the demons again. They don’t announce their arrival, it can be after 1 hour or 6, but once they hit me it’s full on. They burrow and forage and worm their way in, feeding on my fear and trying to get me to quit. And they talk to me!!! 'Go on,' they say. 'The ladder’s just there. Touch it, feel the warmth of a helping hand. We have hot soup and warm clothes and a bed for you to sleep in.' They’re buggers the lot of them. I despise and hate them. Sometimes they gain ground and I have a torrid time but at least I know what to do now.

Be assured, you will be scared - in training, in the lead up and, especially, on the day. Slow or fast, young or old, you will have doubts and wonder what ever inspired you to take this crazy gig. But, crucially, you are not alone. Everyone, to one degree or another, is going through the same angst, I promise. You CAN push through the pain and self doubt. Just unlock the secret door!

When you land it is amazing. Your life will change from that moment – guaranteed. Whatever journey you have taken to get there, and whatever trials and tribulations you encountered on the way, to achieving your dream, you now have the right to call yourself a Channel swimmer. WOW! How cool is that?


Five Hour Bay Swim

Monday 05/17/10

The forecast calls for rain. Dark streaks of charcoal smear the western end of an already grey and gloomy sky giving credence to the forecast. We can actually see the sky because it’s 9am and well past daylight. In a departure from routine, we’re not planning to start swimming until 10am. Oddly, a winter that was warmer than usual has been followed by a spring that’s colder than usual. Lately, the water’s been pretty danged chilly in the early morning. We hope to encounter slightly warmer conditions in the middle of the day. Regardless, it promises to be a cold five hour swim in the Bay.

The plan is to use the end of the Dolphin Club dock as a base of operations. Ralph Wenzel and I will swim “mostly coves” and return periodically to the dock for feedings. This way, we avoid the logistics associated with a motorized pilot craft. We also gain the advantage of being able to easily warm the water in the club kitchen for the feedings. Perhaps as important, we’ll be able to involve the entire crew scheduled to assist on the boat in the English Channel.

Lindsay C, Darcy W, and Jackie M will take turns providing kayak pilot coverage for us. That will afford everyone the opportunity to become familiar with the progression of my swim stroke over time. Each crew member will also get a chance to prepare the feedings. Popular conception portrays crossing the English Channel as a long and lonely venture--the isolated swimmer struggling against the dynamic sea. It may be true for some. It’s not true for me. I am fortunate to have a committed and supportive team.

As Ralph and I are undressing in the locker room, we get a report that the water temperature this morning was 51.5 degrees Fahrenheit. The report does nothing to calm our nerves. This swim is the longest either of us has ever attempted. All of us, swimmers and crew, are plagued with various levels of performance anxiety. Forefront in my mind is my failure to complete five “coves of death” a week and a half earlier. I’m tucking the sting of that defeat into my psychological tool bag. Having it there doesn’t relieve the anxiety, however.

Jackie M launches the Sweet Lorraine, the kayak we’ll be using for pilot coverage. She paddles toward the Opening. Ralph and I shake hands, wish one another luck, and wade into the water to follow Ms. M. Our first leg is a trip to Fort Mason and back. The water has warmed slightly from the early morning. Still, the temperature varies between 52 and 54 degrees, depending on current flows and upwellings.

By the time we reach the Opening, we’ve settled into a steady rhythm. When we reach the second pier at Fort Mason, we take a wide turn and head back with the building flood current. With almost six feet of visibility, the water is quite clear. The wind is negligible and the surface is reasonably calm. We’re feeling good. We’ve been swimming for forty-five minutes when we stop at the dock for our first feeding.

Using warm water to mix with the maltodextrin powder is a definite improvement. It doesn’t exactly warm me, but it also doesn’t send an inner chill coursing through my body. In another modification, Lindsay has added a small dose of apple juice to the mix. It cuts the gumminess of the plain mixture and offers a small fructose boost. I try to keep the feeding time to twenty seconds or less and chug down 300 ml with some leaking out the sides of my mouth.

For the second leg, we swim a large, clockwise cove. Stopping again at the dock, we refuel and head back for a counter-clockwise tour of Aquatic Park. As we stroke for the Oprah, Ralph shouts a suggestion that we swim on the east side of Hyde Street Pier. I agree and we thread our way through the piers. Lindsay C is taking her turn in the kayak and sees us disappear behind the Thayer. She didn’t hear our agreement to alter course and spends a few frantic minutes searching for us until she realizes where we went. She meets us at the Alma and escorts us the rest of the way around the cove.

At the next feeding, I’m feeling cold and uncomfortable. With the extra curlicues, we’ve been in the water for almost two hours—longer than my abbreviated swim the fifth of May. I was worried that coming back to the dock regularly would exacerbate the desire to cut the swim short. I was right to be worried about that. For the first time today, I trot out the “la muerta pequeña” tool. It works. I glug down another feeding and we set off for an “outside-inside.”

By now, the flood current is really piping down the side of the breakwater. It’s noticeably rougher water and we shoot east. At the “creakers,” we spin around to face the flood and creep back along the inside of the concrete wall. When we reach the dock again, we’ve been swimming two hours and forty-five minutes. Ralph shouts out loudly, “Over the hill, Larry! We’re over the hill!” The crew members on the pier laugh at the unintentional double entendre as it relates to our progress in this swim and our ages. The best response that I can muster is a bland nod of the head and a widening of the mouth that looks more like a grimace than a smile. I concentrate on feeding as fast as possible and striking out again.

We set out on another clockwise loop around the cove. Just past the Flag, I pull out the “tunnel tool.” The cold has permeated my body and the achy, odious physical sensation is flooding my consciousness. I again imagine looking for the trap door in a dark, icy tunnel. I sling the pile of debris that’s blocking the door out of the way until I break through to a second wind. This is not the first time I’ve used that tool today, but it comes at a fortuitous time.

Darcy W is taking her turn in the kayak. Just past the Goal Posts, she begins screaming. Ralph is also screaming. I don’t realize that the shrieks are coming from my friends. I see what I think are children on the Muni Pier and I think they are warning me away from their fishing lines. It’s not until I see a massive white turbulence three feet in front of me that I realize the alarm signals a swarm of sea lions. They are stealing bait from the fishers on the pier and at one point they have me boxed in a thicket of swarming pinniped flesh. I have just geared down into “tunnel mode” and ignore them. The part of my mind that can still think rational thoughts decides, “What can be done anyway? They’re ten times faster than you. Just keep swimming.”

The sea lions are only interested in the bait, not me. Ralph saw them early enough that he veered into the middle of the cove to avoid them. We rejoin at the Repair and continue stroking. Back at the dock, we feed quickly. In honor of our marine mammal friends, we decide to abandon the counter-clockwise cove in favor of another outside-inside.

After two more loops around the breakwater, we’ve been in the water for slightly more than four and a half hours. Ralph exclaims, “This is it, Larry! Just one more!” I don’t need a tunnel tool. I don’t need a “la muerta pequeña” tool. I can smell the barn and it smells good. We finish with a Flag, Bad Becky, Flag and back to the beach. We shuffle onto the sand after five hours and five minutes.

We spend a long time in the shower. We’re so cold that we’re not really shivering. In the sauna, we compare notes and agree that we’re both hurting. My skin quickly feels seared even though I’m not warm on the inside. I move to a lower bench and that helps some. After dressing, we congratulate one another and make plans to swim again the next Monday.

The rest of the day, I feel out of touch with my body. Lindsay insists that I eat some dinner and I find that I’m hungry and didn’t know it. I nurse part of a single, small martini and look at the Giants on the television. The game barely registers and I go to bed early.

It takes me a little over a week to fully recover. For the six hour swim, we’re absolutely going to find warmer water. That will make a six hour swim seem much easier than what we’ve just endured. The Central Bay is four or five degrees warmer. We’ll probably start at the San Mateo Bridge, swim past AT&T Park, around Treasure Island and back to the Dolphin Club. This will mark the completion of prerequisites for attempting a solo English Channel crossing with the CSA. Given the outcome of this most recent milestone, I’m as confident as I’ve ever been that I’ll be prepared.

La Muerta Pequeña

Wednesday 05/05/10

On May 5, 1862, a seriously out-manned and out-gunned Mexican army soundly defeated the French army at the Battle of Puebla.  While not much celebrated in Mexico, the fifth of May is a big deal in the United States. Accentuating this irony in 2005, the U.S. Congress ordered the President of the United States to observe Cinco de Mayo with appropriate ceremonies and activities. Decades before Congress got into the act, Bill Horgos, a member of some notoriety of first the Dolphin and then the South End clubs, suggested a swimming tribute to the fifth of May. He designed and promoted the aptly named “Five Coves of Death” swim.

The swim begins at the clubs’ beach in Aquatic Park. The clockwise option will take the swimmer to the Flag and then to the Goal Posts. Nothing much death-defying about that. From here, though, the course threads under the length of the Muni Pier, a thin, barnacle and starfish-encrusted pathway between concrete and creosote posts. It continues under the Roundhouse and past the jagged pilings out to the Opening. The swimmer then navigates the surging current squishing in and out through the thin gap at the Jacuzzi. From here, the course takes the swimmer behind the Balclutha, swimming over and under scratchy, barely submerged lines and hoses draped from boat to shore. Swimming behind the Thayer presents a similar and slightly more confining challenge. Emerging from behind the Thayer, the swimmer has a short distance to reach the South End pier. Downing a shot of tequila at the pier completes one “Cove of Death.”

I’d always considered this swim well beyond my meager means and more than a little wacky. Upon deciding to train for the English Chanel, though, I made a mental list of previously unimaginable swims that I wanted to tackle and this one ranked in the top (ahem) five. This year, the South End is hosting two swims—one at 5am and one at 5pm. Ralph Wenzel and I choose 5am.

From home, I zip across the sleeping city a little after 4am and find the coveted four hour parking places across the street from the clubs completely empty. A few South End members are filtering down the street, flickering into and out of the light cast by the streetlamps. Inside the South End clubhouse, I pick my way quietly past a person sleeping on a cot and grope up a flight of well-worn stairs and through the dark passage connecting the two clubs. The electronic doors of the Dolphin Club don’t open until 5am, but Lou Marcelli has left the connecting doorway unlocked for us. Once inside the Dolphin Club, I can turn on a few lights without disturbing anyone and gain access to my locker. I pad to the sauna to hang up my towel and look out the window to see Ralph’s truck parked next to my Mini Cooper.

A few minutes later, Ralph and I meet on the beach. The sun has yet to hint at its existence and the few city lights cast sparkles on the inky stretch of water before us. A couple of South End swimmers, yipping from the cold, splash into the dark cove and turn left at the Dolphin pier. Ralph and I decide to leave the deathly coves to the likes of Mr. Horgos and agree to swim our normal large loops sans tequila. At 53 degrees, the water temperature is challenging enough.

We immediately lose track of one another in the pitch black. Fearing a collision with a buoy, I take a wide track to the left. Our paths rejoin at the Flag and we turn toward the Goal Posts in tandem. Breathing on the right side, I can see the ebony sky resting on a band of persian blue that is starting to lift above the horizon of the Oakland hills. By the time we reach the Repair, the persian blue has risen and is seamlessly blending with a band of indigo below. In the completely cloudless sky, the shades of blue continue to push back the black and shed imperceptibly lighter layers beneath until the yellow ball of the sun first peeks above the hills and pierces a band of cornflower blue. By this time, we’re at the Flag again.

When we reach the Opening the second time, the first doubts begin to creep into my mind. I’m cold and uncomfortable. My lower back is starting to ache. These thoughts are insidious. They seep into the crevices of my psyche leaving a corrosive trail of negativism. I forget to search for that tunnel door. Instead, I start rationalizing. “You swam a fairly long distance this weekend.” “You were completely knackered after that sprintathon from Fort Mason on Monday.” “Yesterday was a long, tough, interval workout in the pool and you were fagged out all day.” “Tomorrow will be another tough interval workout in the pool.” “You always intended this five coves thing as a lark.” “Keep your eye on the prize—the real swim is the English Channel.”

When we reach the Opening for the third time, I tell Ralph this is my last loop. He cheerfully accepts my decision and says that he’s going to keep going for a bit. At the South End pier, I have a final, short debate with myself about continuing. My lower back has ceased squeaking and has launched into a full-throated squawk. I know I’m going to regret it, but I turn toward the beach.

When I get to the Dolphin showers, some people notice that the yellow light on my goggle strap is still flashing. By now, it’s been sunlight for over an hour and they are incredulous that I’ve been in the water since well before dawn. I tell them about my abbreviated five coves and that Ralph is still out there. They shake their heads in disbelief and make note of the remarkably chilly water.

After I warm up and dress, I go down to meet Ralph at the beach. He wades out of the water with a hypothermic hunch and a “thrill of victory” grin. He has completed five coves. Later in the day, he will come back to swim five more coves at 5pm. I think there may be an English Channel in this man’s future.

I don’t remember ever failing to complete a swim to which I’d committed. Even in the most difficult times of my champion Polar Bear year, I could gut out a three mile swim in 47 degree water if that was my goal. This defeat deals a sting that I don’t want to experience again. In honor of the Five Coves of Death, I’ll call it “la muerta pequeña.” On the other hand, it may just be another tool I can put in my bag for that day I’m desperately trying to clear a path to the trap door in my mind that opens to yet another second wind.

The Mr. T

Monday 05/03/10

Ralph Wenzel and I roll into the Dolphin Club at our usual time on Monday. Because of business travel, we haven’t seen one another for a week and we both look forward to swimming together again. I retire to the weight room to lift for a few minutes and warm up my core. I will need a warm core. With the spring snow-melt and runoff, the water temperature has dipped again and it’s hovering around 53 degrees on the ebbs. This morning is an ebb tide and it’s definitely cold.

The last quarter moon is only two days away, so I expect a relatively smaller neap tide swing. Perhaps I should have checked the tide book. It predicted an ebb current at the Golden Gate Bridge of 3.9 knots at 8:08a. 3.9 knots is about 4.5 miles per hour. With the extra water streaming out from the Delta, this was probably a conservative estimate.

It’s 6:45a when we wade into the water. Between the beach and the plunge, we have a quick route consultation and decide on an “inside-outside.” This will take us to the Bad Becky and then on to the east end of the breakwater. The South Enders call this endpoint “the creakers” because it used to be marked with large creosote posts that waved in the current and made a creaking noise. The posts are gone, but the name remains. From the creakers, we planned to swim north of the breakwater and back to the opening.

Just past the Bad Becky, we meet a few South End members swimming west. They are coming back from a Pier 39 Sunriser swim. After a brief exchange of “hellos,” Ralph and I continue our slow trudge east. Near the end of the breakwater, the shelter from the ebb begins to dissipate and our progress slows further. The swirling current brings even colder water swilling up from the bottom. Oddly, I find this invigorating rather than intimidating. We are both having a great time!

Rounding the creakers, we meet another group from the South End. The flat water and clear sky have us all in a good mood. Sausalito sparkles distinctly across the Bay. The San Francisco city front gleams in the brilliant, golden sunrise. Once again, we savor the wilderness experience in an urban setting.

The whirling current whizzes us west in fits and starts. The churning but flat water alternates between cold and colder. When we reach the Aquatic Park opening, I suggest that we keep going to Fort Mason and Ralph replies, “That’s just what I was thinking!”

The ebb doesn’t seem to be providing much of an assist. We stroke past Muni Pier like two horses in harness with a slight tailwind. Reaching the easternmost pier of Fort Mason, we discover that the truck tire which serves as a fender is too high out of the water to receive its ritual slap. During the brief pause, we can see that the ebb is slight. Going back against the current should be no step for two steppers like us. Grinning at one another, we start stroking again.

We make our way steadily east past the greywacke sandstone of Black Point. As we approach the curve of Muni Pier, our progress slows to a crawl. A man with a hat leans on crossed arms against the side of the pier and watches us struggle against the current. He watches for a long time only moving his head. At the northernmost edge of the curve of the pier, the ebb increases. It is buffeting us cruelly.

Seemingly telepathically, we both start sprinting. I begin thinking of the moment in the English Channel when my pilot might ask that I pick up the pace to achieve a certain milestone. I’m swimming almost as fast as I possibly can. I’m also concentrating on maintaining the smooth glide that Coach Val has taught me. Even so, we measure our progress in inches per minute. Our progress is not exactly glacial. It only seems so.

After about fifteen minutes of sprinting, we reach the corner of the Roundhouse. Here, we are able to reduce our speed somewhat, but still have to be careful not to get swept into the jagged posts at the periphery of the pier. A couple of dozen more strokes and we are safely inside Aquatic Park and heading for home.

In observance of the Dolphin Club rules regarding out-of-cove swims, we warm up in the South End sauna. The Pier 39 Sunrisers have long since cleared out and we have the place to ourselves. After discussion, we decide that this swim route needs a name. We christen it, “Mr. T.”

Wednesday is the South End’s annual “Cinco de Mayo--Five Coves of Death” swim. This swim will probably take me about two and a half hours to complete. Given that I’m going to have a fairly strenuous workout in the pool on Tuesday, digging so deep today was probably not such a good training stratagem. On the other hand, I derived a great deal of mental comfort discovering that I could indeed make an extra effort when required. Hopefully, all these experiences will contribute to a successful Channel crossing.