From Sunday to Tuesday, deep and dark inner recesses of my mind were discovered and battled with, my body (shoulders, elbows, knees, skin and mouth) was wrecked, and my limits were very seriously tested…
About the Malta posts
My trip to Malta with SwimTrek was an experience unlike any other. It is covered in three posts:
1. Flew to Malta, Started Swimming, in which I arrive, take a walk, and then begin swimming.
2. This post, in which I experience a new level of mental and physical challenge.
3. And Darkness and Light: a 6-hour swim attempt, in which I attempt my first 6-hour swim in cold water with what feels like a broken body.
Trip Itinerary (April 15-22, 2011):
Friday – Left JFK International Airport at 5:30pm for Malta, via Rome
Saturday – Arrived in Xlendi Bay, Gozo. Group met for dinner
Sunday – DAY ONE of swimming and seminars
Monday – DAY TWO of swimming and seminars
Tuesday – DAY THREE of swimming and seminars
Wednesday – Fun day of “recovery” swimming in pristine waters around Camino
Thursday – End of program. Swimmers departed in the morning (I traveled to Malta with Scott, Aileen, and Ian, and spent the day in the capital city of Valetta with Ian.)
Friday – I flew back to JFK, via Paris
No Pain Please
I shy away from pain and discomfort, and have since I was a kid. Although I had a strong athletic build, I stopped competing in team sports around adolescence when things got serious, and participation began to require challenging drills, cross-training, and demanding endurance work. I had other passions that caused no physical discomfort, like drawing, so I generally opted out of competitive sports.
Mind Games for Beginners
As an adult, I have new-found ambition to do those things that I opted out of as a kid. But my distaste for pain and discomfort have not gone. Running is the worst. In the early stages of training for triathlon, during nearly all runs, I was in a constant battle with myself to keep going. When all messages from my body yelled THIS SUCKS, FOR CHRISSAKE STOP! the mental games began. I learned to talk myself into pushing through. And when things got really hard, I borrowed a mantra from Haruki Murakami (who had borrowed it from some other runner) and repeated to myself: “Do what you think you can’t. Do what you think you can’t.” It was a simple yet inspirational idea. It positioned me to conquer anything, which was empowering, to say the least. And for the hour or two that I needed myself to do these painful things, it worked.
The game changed last week when I traveled to the Mediterranean for an intensive open water swimming training program focused on Channel swimming (that’s the very chilly English Channel, for all my American friends). My god did the game change. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, which may be why I was able to accomplish as much as I did. Needless to say I inflicted upon myself, and endured, an unprecedented amount of pain and discomfort, and “Do what you think you can’t,” just didn’t cut it. My mind is still spinning from the sheer enormity of the experience. I have been putting off writing this post for a week now, because I know that I cannot adequately communicate what I experienced in writing. It just isn’t possible. But I have done my best.
Systematic breakdown of body, mind, and limits
From Sunday to Tuesday, deep and dark inner recesses of my mind were discovered and battled with, my body (shoulders, elbows, knees, skin and mouth) was wrecked, and my limits were very seriously tested. The recipe was simple: every moment of every day was orchestrated by our exceptional coaches, who filled our time with long, cold swims, seminars, and meals. There was no time to rest or socialize beyond that structure, and no advanced warning of what was coming next. In retrospect, I see the brilliance of the plan: without time to relax and reflect on what we were doing, we weren’t at risk of thinking better of it all. And without knowledge of what was coming next, we had no time to worry or over-think the impossibility of what we were being asked to do.
DAY ONE at-a-glance:
- 7am Pace assessment swim – We spent barely10 minutes in the water so that the coaches could assess the pace of the members of the group. I fell squarely in the middle group: we got yellow caps.
- Breakfast – From our hotel buffet, I had toast and 2 hard boiled eggs.
- Seminars – Basic safety, hypothermia & fatigue, feeding & hydration, drugs, and “the routine.”
- 1 hour swim – Dismissed from the seminars, we were told to be down at the bay in 10 minutes ready to swim. After a quick application of sunscreen and Vaseline, the coaches announced: “Okay everyone, you’re swimming for 1 hour, starting in 45 seconds. Everybody in! Go, go, go.”
- Lunch – Served by the coaches in their apartment, we were instructed to eat, eat, eat. Sandwiches were followed by large Tupperware bins filled to the brim with cookies (biscuits!) and candy bars.
- 2 hour swim – With bellies full of food, we were told to be down at the bay in 20 minutes ready for our second swim. The time of this swim was also announced right as we got in. At the 1 hour mark we practiced feeding on warm Maxim and a “jelly baby.”
- Seminars – Cold water and weight gain, basic channel swimming necessities, and stroke analysis based on videos taken above water.
- 8pm Dinner – We ate as a group down the bay at a local restaurant.
- 11pm Bed – I was exhausted and concerned about getting enough sleep for tomorrow, but I was determined to blog, so I threw together a post: “Flew to Malta, Started swimming.” Little did I know that I would not find another free moment on the trip.
DAY ONE Seminar highlights
The Cold Water Routine: Pack your bag before every swim in reverse order from what you will need after the swim. When you get out: Routine, routine, routine! You may feel great, but your core temperature is dropping. Immediately dry your top and head. Take off your cap and put on a warm hat. Remove your wet swimsuit (costume!) and put on t-shirt, sweater, and jacket. Then put on dry pants. Your bag needs to be packed perfectly in case you are too cold to dress yourself, and someone else needs to dress you.
Feeding: We were taught how to prepare and mix Maxim, a drink that contains just maltodextrin for “fast and continuous energy.” In addition to Maxim, some feeds include an easy to chew-and-swallow high-calorie treat such as a mini Milkyway bar, something like a chocolate Twinkie, and Jelly Babies (I can’t think of an American equivalent).
Channel swimming and weight gain: Body fat is necessary for successful cold water swimming. Channel swimming aspirants who have a low percentage of body fat, and are “to vain to gain,” (i.e. do not put in the effort to put on 10-15 pounds) are generally unable to make a successful crossing. Swimmers without the body fat are simply less able to maintain a high enough core temperature. A little extra padding goes a long way!
DAY ONE Swim reflections:
An hour sounded like a long time to swim continuously right off the bat. I must have been expecting a more gradual introduction. Two hours, then, right after lunch (weren’t we going to get a siesta?) really sounded like a lot. By the end of the day, I was exhausted, as I had had the hardest day of swimming in my life. I did know that it was the easiest day of swimming planned for the trip, so I tried not to think to much about what was coming.
The swims were short enough on Sunday that I didn’t get too cold, but I did go “boy crazy!” The murky and often choppy water made it hard to see buoys (pronounced by everyone else as “boys,” which I found endlessly confusing and amusing), and so I nearly ran into a number of them. I began to swim defensively, sighting constantly to avoid head-on collisions with the buoys, which made my stroke very inefficient and tiring. As these swims circled the bay, we were passing the same buoys again and again, and I found myself giving them names. One buoy I called Andy. I tried to rename it when I realized that one of our coaches was Andy, but my mind was set. Every time I passed it on the return leg of the 10 minute lap, I smiled and thought, “hi Andy, nice to see you again.” There was a particularly mossy buoy on the way out that I called Furry (and sometimes Harry). Towards the end of the two-hour swim, I sighted and thought I saw a giant, hairy spider crawling towards me on top of the water. When I looked again and saw that it was just Furry, I wondered if hallucinations were a sign of hypothermia. It didn’t happen again, so I figured I was okay. Other than the newness of swimming so long without a break, the only discomfort I felt was in my left shoulder. For this, I got my first “drug feed” of ibuprofen washed down with warm Maxim and an extra Milkyway. I wasn’t sure the ibuprofen did much, but the extra Milkyway gave me a huge boost.
DAY TWO at-a-glance
- 7:30am Breakfast – I ate the hotel buffet and some Trader Joe’s instant oatmeal that I brought from home.
- Seminar – Cold water acclimation and acclimatization, and stages of feeling cold in long cold water swims
- Drive to Mgarr-Xini Bay
- 3.5 hour swim– Just like yesterday, we suited up, got sunscreened and Vaselined, and then got the announcement: “you’re swimming for 3½ hours with feeds every hour. We start in 60 seconds, everybody in!”
- Lunch – Tortellini, chickpea salad, cookies and candy. As we ate and chatted, we guessed at the length of our next swim. General consensus was 1½ hours, based on something we saw written somewhere.
- 2 hour swim – Announced, again, moments before entering. There was a feed at 1 hour, and a “by invitation only” feed at 1.5 hours. I was not invited.
- Drive back to hotel in Xlendi – we had 20 minutes to shower and get upstairs
- Seminars – Channel swimming ins and outs (looking at giant map), underwater video analysis of each swimmer’s stroke.
- Dinner on our own – 6 of us walked up the road to a restaurant where most ordered pasta. I had a gnocchi appetizer, and a rabbit main course, supposedly a Maltese specialty. It was dry and hard to eat. I was tired, and agreed readily with a fellow swimmer, Ian, when he pointed at a piece of rabbit on my plate and said “I suppose that there is the wing.” I never heard the end of that one.
- 11pm Bed – I got ice in bags from the bar. My roomie Aileen and I iced shoulders and elbows before falling asleep.
DAY TWO Seminar Highlights
Stages of feeling cold: Although each person experiences the cold differently, there is a general projection of how you feel when swimming in cold water for long periods of time. It is something like this:
- Initial shock of the cold (only momentary)
- Honeymoon period, things feel great (about 20 minutes)
- Start to feel gradually colder and colder until
- You hit a plateau and things feel okay (i.e. don’t get any colder).
- But then somewhere at about 3-5 hours into your swim you hit the wall (this is your body switching from burning glycogen to burning fat) and you feel like poo. That lasts for 1-1½ hours.
- Then things start to feel better again.
Video analysis: My video was last, and I received a lovely complement from Andy: “oh, we’re ending on a strong note.” Looking at my stroke for some evidence of why my elbows were hurting so much, Andy thought it could be from my the end of my pull, which goes under my body slightly.
DAY TWO Swim Reflections
Although the announcement, “3½ hours everyone. Let’s go!” sounded preposterous, the swim conditions at Mgarr Xini bay were somewhat amazing, and provided great distraction for the first bit of the swim. The water was crystal clear with SCUBA divers to watch, and a reef to follow below, so there was almost no need to sight, which was a great relief to my neck. Also, no rogue buoys to dodge!
Having overheard a coach tell a swimmer he thought she would cover about 5 laps of the bay in an hour, I was puzzled when I saw people going in for a feed after my fourth lap. “Has it been an hour already?” That was an amazing feeling. It seemed to have gone by so fast. Then, somewhere around the middle of hour two, everything changed. I started to feel really cold for the first time on the trip. It came on suddenly, my mind immediately overwhelmed by a question: wait, why are you doing this?! And a sentiment: this sucks! And a command: GET OUT OF THIS WATER. NOW! In an instant, I completely forgot why I had ever thought anything about this trip was a good idea. I told myself the “plateau” must be coming, and I swam on. I began to despise the occasional little warm spots, as they were a teasing reminder of the imminent and torturous freezing spots. In every extra-cold patch I yelled into the water, “Aaaarrrrrh” and kicked violently to generate more heat, push through faster, and generally dispel some anger at the situation. I waited impatiently as I swam, but as far as I could tell, the promised plateau never came. I just kept feeling cold, and then also in pain. My shoulders were both hurting, and then my elbows started aching. Elbow pain was brand new. It was a real struggle to keep swimming for 3.5 hours feeling so cold and pained, which was probably why it was such an amazing feeling to step out of the water having completed it (see ridiculous picture of me with my eyes closed).
On the shore, we looked ridiculous. 15 swimmers dressed for winter storm conditions, shivering and sipping cocoa on a warm, sunny day in the Mediterranean. A couple of friends were experiencing extreme cold after this long swim. Peter from Cambridge (a lovely man with nearly no body fat) was having an intensely unpleasant experience as his body tried to get warm again. I sat down next to him and gave him a squeeze for warmth as he rocked and moaned in anguish. His face was white, his expression one of horrible pain. It was difficult to watch him suffer. I kept squeezing. He later reported that the true benefit of being hugged at that moment was not the body heat at all, but the reminder, inspired by human contact, that he was no longer all, all alone, as he had been for three and a half very cold hours. Intense stuff, right?
The announcement of a two hour swim immediately following our lunch on shore seemed extra preposterous to me. I felt so totally broken from the last swim. My body hurt and I was skeptical that it would feel well enough to swim again. I took some Advil before the swim, but the only way I got through it was to do a sort of wind-mill stroke in which I bent my arms as little as possible. It looked ridiculous, and wasn’t very efficient, but it reduced the pain caused by bending at the elbow. I was about to invite myself to the “by invitation only” feed at 1.5 hours, but realized that if I went in for food, I wouldn’t go back out. When it was over, I was convinced that my body was completely destroyed. But then came the best announcement of the tour: a massage therapist would be joining us at our evening seminar session. I jumped in for the first slot while Nick explained the tides and currents of the Channel. The massage felt good (well worth the 35 Euros), but it was no miracle cure. I still really felt like shit. I went to bed with bags of ice under my elbows and on my shoulders.
DAY THREE (Preview)
Tuesday was the only day for which the plan was not a secret. We all knew going in that Tuesday was the planned 6-hour swim. For some swimmers, this swim was a necessary “qualifying swim” to do an English Channel crossing: 6 hours in 15 degree C water or below. Before arriving in Malta, before experiencing the punishing cold, and before wrecking my body by swimming 5 ½ hours the day before, I thought 6 hours sounded like challenging fun. That is, completely doable. There was no question in my mind that I would be successful in completing it. When I woke up Tuesday morning on the other hand, unable to move my arms, unable to lift my arms over my head, I realized that I would not even be able to try it. I lay in bed disappointed: arms, shoulders, and elbows all in extreme pain. It seemed like a long way to travel for just two days of swimming. But I cheered myself up with the thought of spending the day resting on shore, working on “evening out” my cap and goggle tan. At breakfast with friends, everyone hypothesized what they would be able to do. Alexia, and Peter, both very thin and extremely susceptible to cold, were sure that they would not do all six hours. Ian’s wrists were oddly swollen, and as he struggled to pour himself a glass of juice (it was a big pitcher), he voiced his uncertainty about going for all 6. My roommate Aileen, having woken up next to me with similarly debilitating and depressing shoulder pain was also unsure. Only Scott, both fit and sufficiently plumped-up for the occasion (he’d already put in some effort getting “channel ready” over the past 4 months) seemed confident going in.
We had a brief seminar before the swim on Nick’s 4Ps: Pee, Poo, Period, Puke. It was lovely. Then they announced the plan for the day: We would swim out front of the hotel in Xlendi bay. To break things up, we would swim the first two hours looping around the bay. During the second two hours, we would extend our loops out into slightly rougher water, around a pole that marked a giant reef. The last two hours would be back around the normal loop. Also, the feed at the 5 hour mark would take place from a boat, instead of right at shore, as it would during an actual channel swim. It all sounded great, but not applicable to me, as I would not be swimming. As everyone left the seminar to prepare for the swim, I checked in with coach Andy. I told him how I felt and asked him if yesterday’s 3½ hour swim would satisfy the 6 mile swim I needed to qualify for my upcoming Kingdom 10 mile swim. He said that it would. I told him that I didn’t think I could swim at all today. He said that I should just get in and see what I could do. The cold water could loosen things up. I could always get out. The coaches would encourage me to stay in, but would understand if I had to get out. I was skeptical, to say the least.
NOTE: With the exception of the 1st photo in this post (which I took), all photos were taken by coach and self-proclaimed “Bad Cop,” Nick Adams