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Friday, October 2, 2009

Channel Swim - Part 3



Two days ago I posted the twitter account of Todd Paul's English Channel swim provided by his wife Jennifer. Now I have the harrowing details of that swim reported by Todd's coach (and mine) Craig Strong:

Hopefully, you received the message that Todd Paul completed the English Channel in 13 hrs 35 min. Here is a wrap up from my end, I’ll try and be brief:


No sleep for anyone but Todd the night before the swim. Arrived at the dock prepared for just about anything at 4:30 am. A short trip on the boat for everyone for the starting point. A total lube job for Todd, no surface area left uncovered from Vaseline. 1 swim cap, 1 suit that’s been with him for the entire year, 2 blinky lights – 1 red, 1 green and he’s off in the water. Something out of close encounters or a submarinesque Christmas tree. Todd jumped in swam to a beach in Dover about 200 mtrs away from the support boat and waited for the horn on the boat to sound to mark the beginning of his journey.



It was pitch black. No way to really see him except for red and green blinky’s. He swam up next to the boat and we were off. The first bit went fairly smoothly. The support crew got to know the boat crew: Captain Andy, First Mate Gary, and observer Steve. Jennifer (his wife) and I got everything set up on the boat food wise and the first few hours seemed to move along. We were getting some early feedback that Todd was doing extremely well. Cruising along at about 2 mph which is what would have been best case scenario.

It was just about the 4 hr mark that we hit the first bump in the trip. His stroke rate fell off rather quickly from 56 strokes per minute to 44 strokes per minute. He was having trouble getting his hands out of the water during the recovery phase of the stroke and his legs weren’t moving very well. We weren’t quite sure what was happening but knew Todd was experiencing some trouble. I jumped in my wetsuit and hopped in hoping to help motivate him from the water. At a break he started to describe a numbness in his legs moving up into his abdomen, feeling hypothermic, and also feeling a bit of euphoria.

The boat captain and the observer weren’t too big on this. It seemed as this was it! I swam with him for about an hour, hoping to keep him focused and keep him talking to me and not to the people on deck. I had to get out of the water at that point and things were grim. The captain and the observer were at a high state of alarm. They were watching for everything. If Todd didn’t answer a question, they were on it (unfortunately, he had one ear plug in due to an ear infection on the ear that was facing the boat). They were looking at his stroke, his kick, his spark, listening to his remarks (or lack of). All signs were not good. We were just over 5 hrs in. Talking to the support crew after the trip, all agreed this was the darkest hour. Todd did not look so good. He wasn’t really going anywhere. He was stopping frequently, his legs were barely moving – if at all, seems he was having some trouble peeing, he was talking but physically he looked spent.

I’m not totally sure why he didn’t get pulled out at this point. I was talking with the captain frequently and the observer just sat shaking his head. Jennifer and I really didn’t talk too much at this point about how he was doing. I think both of us just tried to keep the negative thoughts to ourselves. The problem really wasn’t how he was feeling but what he was doing. The captain started tracking his progress and it was pretty grim.

From that point, looking back, it was more that people just stuck to their jobs. Todd’s job was to swim. His will was to hit land (with no perspective of where that land might be). I didn’t think there was any way that he would voluntarily come out of the sea. Jennifer’s job was the feedings. She did this with precision and we had great teamwork. We had started out with 30 minute feedings and we were keeping them very short. After I came out of the water we switched to 20 minute feedings to get and give more feedback. Our hopes for a quick crossing were all but dashed, now it was more just get him across.

My job was to talk to Todd. I was never sure if he could hear me. The earplug was in. He never quite answered a question (I stopped asking actually) although he would look at me if he could. His parents were incredible! You could see their anxiety and emotion for Todd in their eyes but they never said a word of doubt. I never once felt pressure from them to throw in the towel. They were there to help any way they could, they were incredibly positive in the face of all the goings on. The “doom and gloom” team, Jennifer and I had renamed the Captain and observer, well they weren’t always so helpful.

Jennifer was awesome! Did I mention that before, really, I think if Jennifer would have showed doubt to me or I to her, it would have been a different trip, a short trip. Don (Todd’s dad) had taken over the feedings with her and I would yell at Todd as much as possible in as short as time as possible. Jennifer and I would talk a few minutes prior to the feeding and set up a small smorgasbord for Todd to choke down. This consisted of not all at one time carbo pro, chocolate, soup broth, chicken soup, FRS tablets, Gatorade (I think only once or twice early mixed w/carbo pro), and flat coke (which we started to run out of b/c we started it early so became partly mixed with diet coke then diet pepsi and a bit of water even). Todd got it down as quick as he could doing breaststroke to keep moving.

At the 6 hour mark things started to look better. It looked like he was finding a rhythm and a report came from the captain that he was up to a mile in 35 minutes – I yelled that’s GREAT! and gave the Captain a good slap on the back. From that point on Jen nor I didn’t want to hear anything negative from doom and gloom. It wasn’t going to be a fast trip. Jennifer and I talked and looked at all we had and prepared for what might be over 16 hours.

Todd kept swimming. He wasn’t looking great but he was swimming. He was getting a decent push from the waves behind, not a lot of leg movement till after he finally peed but mainly he just kept moving his arms. At the 7 hr mark Jennifer remembered we had a radio and then we were jamming. Todd perked up, the captain despised Jay-Z and Kanye West and even Pearl Jam, but more important we were all noticeably more upbeat!!

He was in the shipping lanes for what seemed like forever. These are huge huge vessels going by. Seemingly very close. Todd kept swimming, Jennifer kept feeding him, and I kept yelling at him. I may have given him some small white lies at several points to help encourage him, he might not have been as far along as I might have told him but he needed feedback and I thought this would help keep him moving.

The second shipping lane was brutal. I think this was most of the swim. I did my best to not feel sorry for him or allow myself to worry about him. I did keep a close eye to make sure that nothing was truly going wrong. There were some things that didn’t look good – the growing abrasions on his left side from friction and salt water, the crumpled shaking hand trying to get food out of the basket, his shoulders were turning dark (my guess the strain on the blood vessels), the lack of kick. He basically seemed coherent, his legs you could say were moving a bit, his recovery hands were mostly clearing the water. For the most part he just kept moving forward.

We started to get some more good news on his progress. The trip trimmed down from a 16 hr plus day back down to 12-13. It all depended on the current and the wind. Things had been in his favor up to this point but that all could change quickly.

During the trip, on the boat, we saw dolphins playing, we played cards at one point (till we started to feel seasick), we did some fishing for mackerel, we learned the history of channel swimming, we took pictures of the oncoming freighters and Todd kept swimming.

The final stretch was the worse. The captain was really getting on me to push him. There was a real sense of urgency!! The longer Todd spent in the water the longer the trip was going to get due to the currents pushing him down the coast. This is not like a foot race where you have a determined distance to go. You have the point to point that is the shortest distance that you are going for but due to the wind and currents some swimmers have taken up to 28 miles to get across. For example, we got to a mile from the coastline and could clearly see everything on the French shore but that may have been 2 hrs still that we had to go. A hard thing was keeping Todd with the boat. The boat was traveling in a straight line, however, for the swimmer as I found out while I was in, it is extremely hard to navigate with just the boat as perspective. Todd often was trying to do some sighting as it was clear he could see the finishing point as well. We had to keep him next to the boat, this was the shortest path.

The last hours, I don’t know how he did it. Sheer will. We shouted at him continuously for the last 2-3 hours. We wrote signs, jumped up and down, clapped, cheered, anything. I don’t think his mom left the railing from about 3 hrs in. We had to keep him moving. The final current he had to push through was about 3 knots and he needed to be faster than it as it was pushing him down the coast line (making the total distance higher).




The final stage of the swim was excruciating as far as wanting it to be over for him. It was actually some of his best swimming though. Finally the finish came. The support boat parked itself about a .25 mile from the projected landing point. I hopped in a dingy with assist crew member Gary who manned the craft. Todd followed us to the beach. This was extremely tough. He was as they called it shattered (exhausted). He was pushing to get to the beach. The current unfortunately was pushing hard as well and that made things extremely frustrating, seemingly going nowhere. 200 meters from shore was almost unbearable in the dingy. It was getting dark and the crew could no longer see us. Todd kept swimming and finally got to where he could stand (after being stung by a jelly fish). After a kind of crawl and fall method he stumbled up onto the beach and I was there to finally catch him and wrap him up in a towel. It was euphoria at that point and delirium on both our parts. It was dark now and the air temp had completely dropped so the beach celebration lasted about 2 minutes. I got him out to and in the dingy and we were off to what seemed like forever back to the boat. He was freezing! I wrapped him up in more towels and a jacket in the dingy. Once at the boat his dad and the captain hauled him in and Jennifer and Mary did their best to get him dry and warmed up as quick as possible. The trip home couldn't have been fun. I think he slept for most of it about 2 hrs and that was it.

A bum shoulder some serious chafing and probably not totally realizing everything that happened but for the most part Tues morning he was fine. Bravo to Jen and the parents each carried out a role and delivered Todd to France. Ironman is brutal on family and friends as spectators but in most races you don't see all that much of the competitor. In this, there was no time where you didn't see what he was going through. Strong will, strong faith in each other, a well conditioned athlete. Awesome, job well done!

                               Todd                        Craig




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