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In the mad mind of the marathon swimmer

August 8, 2013

I’ve been contemplating what to tell you about the North Channel swim and have been drawing a blank.  Maureen McCoy already wrote such a beautiful account from the boat perspective.  In case you missed it, here it is again    And just this week the Beaverton Leader has this article:

Then I thought of some questions my crew member and friend Erin asked me after the swim.  She asked “How do you get into the water knowing that you are going to be stung by jellyfish?  What keeps you going?”  When she asked me this question, I was stumped for an answer.  It isn’t something that I even really thought about as being a choice.   Now I’ve had the time and I think that is as good a place to start as any to tell you about my perspective of swimming the North Channel known for its extremely cold temperatures and loads of jellies.

Jellyfish are some of the oldest organisms in the world dating to 500 to 700 million years old.  And according to Wikipedia the Lion’s Mane jelly (pictured below – and yes that is me flirting with danger.  This was taken after the swim, so you’d think I know better.) “Although capable of attaining a bell diameter of 2.5 metres (8.2 ft), these jellyfish can vary greatly in size; those found in lower latitudes are much smaller than their far northern counterparts with bell about 50 centimetres (20 in) in diameter. The tentacles of larger specimens may trail as long as 30 metres (98 ft) or more. These extremely sticky tentacles are grouped into eight clusters, each cluster containing over 100 tentacles,[4] arranged in a series of rows.”  ( )

Ok not sure if you digested that information, so it bears repeating – the tentacles can reach up to 98 feet long and are EXTREMELY sticky grouped into EIGHT clusters each containing OVER 100 tentacles.  Just wanted that to be crystal clear. 


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Now on arriving in Northern Ireland, I did do some practice training to get ready for the ultimate swim of the North Channel.  Unfortunately during two of these training swims I was stung by a Lion’s Mane jelly.  Probably not the same one, but cousins I’m sure 😉 I got a lot of first hand knowledge of what the stings felt like and how my body would react.  My friends and I had hoped that this welcoming to the North Sea by the jellies would be my only encounter and that my actual swim would be jelly free. 

July 15th rolled around and it was time to get into the water for the North Channel swim.   As I was working my way to shore to start on the actual land, I managed to beach myself like a whale on a barnacle covered rock.   In the process of trying to remove myself through some amazingly graceful flopping around, I ended up bloodied and bruised.  Not exactly how I wanted to start a swim, but at least I was pretty confident that there weren’t sharks in the North Channel.  Or at least I was pretty sure.  (Side note:  3 weeks later and the leg cuts are almost healed.)

I was also hoping for a good jelly forecast – meaning no jellies or jellies way below water surface level.  It became clear very very early in the swim that this was not going to be the case.    Shortly after starting the swim I ran into a large group of jellyfish, which is called a “bloom, swarm or a smack.”  Smack seemed appropriate at this time.  Here is the sequence of events when encountering a smack of jellies – this sequence occurred multiple times during the swim:

  • Shoot there is a jelly – let’s swim around it.  YAY you!  You missed it!   Be Dori and Nemo – you can do it.  Thread the needle!  Dance and slither around the jellies!  Happy times swimming.  You are so going to make it through this!
  • Dang! Shoot! Plus some other larger non-appropriate expletives as I felt myself swim into threads on my arms.  The best way that I can explain it is that it is like when you walk into a spider web that you didn’t see.  You can feel the threads and they are stuck to you, but you can’t exactly find them to get them off so you do the spider web dance as you flail your arms, wiggle your body side to side all while saying ACCCKKK FLLLLFFFF.   Now a jelly encounter is somewhat similar.  If you are lucky, you catch the bell of the jelly and really only end up with a stung forearm because you grab the bell and push it under you while trying as much as possible to levitate over the rest of the jelly.   Heck if you can manage to levitate out of the water you’d do it.  Unlucky and you get to have the jelly slide all along your body creating havoc as it goes.   Instead of ACCKKK FLLLLFFF you either decide to keep your mouth closed so you don’t swallow any tentacles or lift your head up and bellow.  Most often I go with the mouth closed approach. 
  • I did raise my head up to inform my crew that the jellies were going to be paying a visit and that I had been stung.  I also warned my kayaker to be careful as I didn’t want them to have a jelly slide up their kayak paddle and sting them.
  • Then I get to wait a very brief second before the burning starts.  In addition to burning, you also feel as if you have an extremely bad case of the painful pin pricks that occur when a body part has fallen asleep or more accurately has started to wake up.

At this point I decided that I needed to add another mantra to my repetorie.   Prior to the start of the swim they were:

  • We are going to have a safe, relaxed and successful swim.
  • You are made for cold water and excel there.
  • You have prepared for this swim and are focused.
  • Control what you can control and let go of everything else.

I quickly added:  The jellies should not kill you. 

I didn’t go so far as say won’t because at this point I wasn’t really sure and I knew plenty of swimmers that had ended up in the hospital due to jelly stings.  Then I started to think about counting how many jelly stings I got as this is often a question.   Then I began a debate with myself – does it count as one if a jelly rolls down your body stinging as it goes or does each separate point that it hits count as one?  Does being stung in the face count as more than the forearm?  What constitutes a lot of jellyfish?  Because to me this seems like a lot of jellies, but I don’t have a lot of reference points so maybe this is just a little and a lot is way more.  If this is a little, then I should be thankful that it isn’t a lot!  This thinking killed quite a bit of time during the swim.  I never settled on what counted as one sting so I don’t have a count of stings.  I know that I ran through many groups of jellies and was stung from tip to toes.  One even managed to sting through my swimsuit.  At this point counting seemed futile.

I also spent time thinking about the seal.  Why was it following me?  What did it want?  I wan’t super concerned as it was maintaining its distance and I only really saw it during the feedings.  (Side note:  Yes they are called feedings when my crew gives me food.  They occur every 30 minutes.)  Then there was the Nike futbol (or soccer) ball.  After the ball was pulled from the water, the seal disappeared.  We later joked that because we took the seal’s ball it decided there was no reason to hang around with the crazy swimmer.

Most of my time is spent trying to be meditative.  I count my strokes in a pattern – “One, two, three, breathe.  One, two, three, breathe.”  Yes after many hours this can get boring. 

During the feedings, my crew would cheer me on and keep me entertained.  They also asked questions to ensure that I was still functioning and not hypothermic.   One of the rules that I have with my crew is please don’t tell me how far I’ve gone, how many hours, or what I have left.    I have the crew tell me one bit of information – when I’ve reached OVER halfway.  Now it is up to my crew if they tell me this close to the actual halfway point or wait until much later into the swim.  Up until I hear this I try my best to keep track of exactly how many feedings I’ve had which in turn tells me how long I’ve been swimming.

As we reached what I calculated as the 6 hour mark, I realized that either I was getting cold or the stings were causing me to feel cold.  I couldn’t exactly determine which.  This led to a bit of time debating that fact.  Ultimately I decided it was an effect from all the jelly stings.  Then I also started to calculate that I was in for potentially another 6-8 hours of swimming.  Could I do that?  Would my body hold up?  Just how much more jelly venom could I withstand before I had problems?  At the 6.5 hour feeding, my crew announced that I was more than halfway.  For the next 30 minutes, I did some bargaining with my body.    “Ok body,  if you keep pushing forward, doing your job, and handling the jelly stings… I will never make you swim this body of water solo again.”  Some of you may have caught the key word in that sentence “SOLO.”  Yep, I was already talking with some of my crew about how fun it would be to do a relay 2-3 days after this swim was over. 

At the 7 hour feeding, the crew told me that if I pushed harder they thought the swim would be over in 2 hours.  I asked “and if I don’t?”  They replied that the swim would be maybe 3-4 hours more.    I decided I’d try to push.   One of my crew members also suited up to swim with me for an hour which was a nice distraction.  At 9 hours, my crew asked me to keep pushing.  I told them that I could push for 1 more hour and then I’d have to scale back to something more manageable.  It was around this time that I just decided to put my head down and swim forgetting that looking for jellies may still be a good idea.  Shortly after this I ran directly into a large Lion’s Mane and ended up wearing it as a shawl wrapped around my neck and upper body.   Needless to say this caused some bellowing and slapping of the water as I pealed the jelly off my body.  Thankfully that was the last major jelly encounter for the swim.   I ended up finishing 34 minutes and 39 seconds after that last feeding. 

That’s a bit of what I was thinking during the North Channel swim.

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