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Cook Strait Success!

Cook Strait

Thanks for all the requests asking for my personal account of my recent Cook Strait swim.

I wrote the following as I waited for my swim window…

Here I am two days out  from my first tide window. Everything you read and hear about the difficulty in waiting for that swim window to open is true. No amount of willing will make the weather and tides conspire so patience is a must.

I remember reading one of NZ  Multi Sport legend Steve Gurneys books talking about his process of resting up and being ready to ‘bounce of walls’ before the big event. This was my plan also. It’s tempting right now to get in the water and swim more miles, but I won’t. 30km last week, only 4.5km so far this week. Have I done enough swimming? Yes. Could I have done more? Certainly. Last year I completed 5x 10km plus competitive  swims, the shortest was 9.7km in 12 C fresh  water, the longest was 14km, my best a 10km sea swim no wetsuit in 14C .  All in varying conditions. In November and December I joined my local swim club and took advice and feedback on stroke and technique , the more one learns about swim performance the more one learns they don’t know ( Beware the swim expert who claims to know it all). I pushed myself with a fun group of competitive swimming youngsters. It broke me down pretty good – I got a good flu before Christmas, but I listened to my body. Rest is an important part of training and recovery. So is listening to ones body. I’ve learnt that advice from all sources is valuable but the true expert on what is happening within me is me. I have learnt to trust myself and make decisions about my swimming. A plan is only as good as when it is written, a plan that is inflexible is no good to anyone. This year I have moved my training more to the open water, judging my pace (which sits at an honest 4km/hr for the long stuff in calm water). I can get in and swim that speed now in a heart beat. I’m comfortable in rough water, we trained a lot in horrendous windy, choppy conditions. I know I can hack 12C for a couple of hours at least, that shouldn’t be required on this Cook Strait swim at the moment.  My biggest swim was last Monday, 6 hours/21.5km. Lots of rest since then, recovery 3km on Wed and a 5.5km open water on Friday.

Why have I decided on Cook Strait? I am a kiwi by birth, the toughest and most iconic NZ swim had the most appeal. Only 85 people that I am aware at the time of writing have succeeded in the challenge.  The chance to work with legendary open water swimmer Philip Rush as my guide. There are many reasons. Much to ponder as I sit and wait (Not at all patiently) for the call …

Cook Strait Post Swim

It was actually another 15 days until I got the ‘Go’ call from Philip Rush at 5pm on Thursday 21 March – be at the Marina in Wellington at 5.20am the next morning ready to swim. A quick flight to Wellington and a pick up from former Olympic swimmer and all round good guy Murray Burdan. Back to his house for a miserly 3 hours sleep, my mind would not rest. Breakfast for me that morning 4 weet bix, a banana, four slices of toast. All food I had eaten and swum on many times before. We headed out to the Marina and got there promptly – after a wrong turn – at around 5.26am. Philip Rush had never specified which way I would swim but there was a general assumption it would be North to South.  How wrong we were. My Cook Strait guide and escort team were Philip Rush – open water swimming legend, Chris (Captain), Byron (tactician) between the three of them they have over 60 years experience of Cook Strait swimming, when they spoke I listened. I also had my own crew of chief cheer leader, nutritionist and budding film maker Anna Marshall (she has swum Lake Taupo 41km)  , Doug who had assisted me with many miles of swim training and took most of the photographs of my swim and Murray Burdan all around great guy and supporter. I knew my entire team would rather beat me with a paddle rather than let me back on the boat should I have doubts during the swim. I couldn’t ask for a better crew.

We motored over to the South Island. Philip greased me up, I only put grease on my neck, arm pits and crotch. I actually grow a beard to stop chaffing. For me it works. I took a look at the temperature gauge, 15.8.C water temperature.  Some last minute words from Philip – breathe to the boat, DON’T look up at where we are headed (looking at land 2o plus km away can be psychologically devastating!) and a mention of a rock a couple of km’s out, evidently swims that pass one side are often successful, swims to the other side are not. Swim smooth and relaxed but make sure I get out past the rock.  I dived in, the water was brisk and chilling. I had a slight ice cream headache. I am certain the fabulous NZ summer temperatures had weakened my cold water abilities slightly. Standing on the beach facing the North Island was a big moment. No mucking around. I had visualised this moment intently and had a very strong sense of determination to get across. Some may chuckle but I did regularly imagine myself successfully making this swim and how I would feel when I completed the crossing. I used that feeling often throughout the swim to provide drive and motivation.

Water conditions on the day were much better than all my training swims. Very lucky. We can control fitness and cold water abilities but not the weather. I felt great from the get-go. Philip and I had talked about taking the first hour to get into a groove. I can honestly say I felt great within the first 300M of the swim. The first few feeds came by very quickly. Philip and Anna in my immediate support boat gave me plenty of thumbs up to let me know I was on pace. Sharks, Jellyfish and deep sea monsters – I had considered them during training swims but today was all business. At around 1.45 into the swim I got a horrendous cramp in my left leg, seriously cramped. I had to reach down in the water and massage it out. I was well hydrated (I had a pee while swimming between each feed – its an essential skill) but I believe the lower blood flow to my legs and the cold water cause me to cramp. It has happened in my training swims and as per my training swims is happens early and then goes away. I fed every 30 minutes. I have used maxim in the UK but wanted to use easily sourced products here in NZ. I drank the neck of a bottle of powerade for the first couple of feeds and then had these diluted with warm water. I had an electrotyle tablet diluted with warm water and a very small amount of powerade at the 2 hour mark. After 2 hours I started with some solid food, bananas to start. I also used a carb protein mix called Sustagen, some bread and honey! And some lollies as the swim went on. I won’t tell you what I yelled out in the later stages of the swim when I spotted the crew eating meat pies 😉

At the 2 hour mark I asked Philip if I was getting close to the rock , he laughed and told me I was way past it. Good news. At the 2.5 hour mark Philip turned serious and asked me how much I had in the tank? He said I was just over half way, conditions were great and I was on track for a good time. I told him I was 37 not 27, I wasn’t sure of my endurance but could guarantee him a good 2 hours of 4km plus pace.  He encouraged me to lift me tempo for the next 30 minutes to see how I felt. I brought my stroke rate up from around 45 strokes to 55 strokes per min. For the next 2 hours I worked hard and with the encouragement of the crew and good conditions made great headway. Approaching the 5 hour mark I thought another big boat had gone past but then the wake stayed messy and didn’t subside. I was in one of the infamous Cook Strait tidal rips with an opposing wind. Washing machine time. Even with my pace we spent a good 30 minutes going sideways rather than forward. I had spent a great deal of energy in the previous two hours so found this period psychologically and physiologically very tough. My team kept encouraging me and I made of point of responding at times with crazy comments and signals when I breathed in order to keep my spirit up. I know this works for me, some would no doubt find it distracting and a waste of energy.

In the Tidal Rip

Philip made a suggestion at about 5 hours 30 min that I change my stroke. Again for some who are not comfortable this would be a no-no but I am comfortable with using slight alterations in technique to reduce pressure on back and shoulders while maintaining pace.

I’d broken through the rough stuff by now and was on the straight run for shore, Philip and Anna were cheering relentlessly, I hit the shore, my legs definitely would not work so I crawled up the beach knowing the clock doesn’t stop until I clear the water. Adrenaline helped me stand and I raised my arms, a personal victory. You can watch the closing stages of the swim here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WCACOgQmRNc

Something that makes you hurt, sweat and endure that you face up to and beat provides one of the greatest senses of accomplishments on earth.

Some facts for the factoids out there …starting weight 101.7 kg , finishing weight taken two meals after the swim 98.5kg. Body fat 22% pre swim, Visceral fat 12% . Swim time 6 hours 15 min 15 seconds. 4th fastest crossing. 80th person to swim the crossing, 88th swim of the Strait.

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Cook Strait
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