As I struggle to get my swimming up to scratch for the Zurich Half Ironman triathlon in June, I am in absolute awe of a lady who will be swimming the Channel this Autumn. Lisa Williams will be tackling the 25 mile swim through one of the busiest ferry crossings in honour of a friend she lost recently. Here is her story on preparation and the endeavour to come.
Hi Lisa, can you summarise what the Channel swim challenge consists of?
The English Channel is a 21 mile swim from Dover to Cap Gris-Nez (the shortest point across the EC). That’s 33.5km or 1,340 lengths of a 25m swimming pool or the running equivalent of just over 3 marathons back to back.
The Channel in the summer on average is 16 degrees which when compared to your local swimming pool usually heated to about 28 degrees is reasonably chilly. As you leave from Shakespeare’s beach in Dover the pilot’s role is to safely guide you across the Channel – many people think you cross in a straight line but due to the tides you feel that you are swimming in a straight line but the tide changes every 6 hours move you from one way to another as you make yourway across in an S or bell shape – you hope you have swam hard enough to hit Cap Gris Nez, if you don’t it could mean a much longer swim or a possibility that you won’t make it.
What’s your swimming background?
I grew up in the UAE and learnt to swim from a young age in the sea and pools but when I got to University I concentrated on hockey and didn’t really get back in a pool again until my early thirties when I saw a masters swimming club advertised at the local pool. I joined to meet some new friends and to get back into sport. I really enjoyed swimming with the club but was not enjoying travelling to meets for the day when you only really swim for a few minutes so I bought a wetsuit and started swimming longer distances in the summers – I started by doing some triathlons and then worked my way into open water swims growing from 3km to 14km. It was at this point I started thinking about the possibility of swimming the English Channel – 21 miles!
What are the main challenges you face?
The main issues for swimmers when crossing are hypothermia, jelly fish stings, not being able to get enough energy in you through the swim (we feed on a carb powder in warm water and a jelly baby here and there) and probably most importantly mental strength.
Another challenge that Channel swimmers have is that it all depends on the weather – you never know your start day and time till about 12 hours beforehand and this can be delayed weeks if the weather isn’t great. Last year we were delayed 6 weeks for our two way relay – it makes tapering and carb loading difficult to get right as well as ensuring your crew are available. You also don’t know how long your swim will take… it is all dependant on the tides on the day. The average time taken is 14 hours (with the quickest being 6 hours 55 minutes and the slowest 28 hours and 44 minutes, both incredible swim’s in their own right).
What does an average week of training look like?
Unlike most sports there are no pre-made training plans available, you spend time speaking to those that have done it before and drawing on their experience. Generally the winter is spent sprint training and then from May we head to the outdoors and start acclimatising to cold water – many channel swimmers train down in Dover every weekend building their hours each week as the water warms up until you are at a point where you are swimming 7 hours on a Saturday and 6 hours on a Sunday. During the week from May I will head to either Shepperton Lake or Tooting Bec Lido and get a few swims a week done in the evenings after work ranging from an hour to three hours (work sometimes gets in the way).
When did you start training for this?
My training for the Channel started back in 2013 (slots for the Channel are usually only available 2 years from the point you book) and as part of my training I have previously swam a 6 person one way relay and a four man two way crossing relay. I have also just returned from two long distance/Channel training camps. One of which, consisted of 21km over two days in a pool (including the dreaded 100 x 100m) and the other, a trip to Mallorca where I swam 16 hours in the sea over 4 days in 14 degree water including a continuous 6 hour swim. I also have planned in July as part of my training a two way Windermere swim (21 miles) and a two person relay ofLake Zurich (26km).
Is it true you only wear a swim suit? Will this provide enough protection?
Yes the rules state: The swimmer may wear only one swimsuit in one or two pieces which shall not extend past the shoulder or below the knee. The swimmer is permitted to grease the body before a swim, use goggles and one hat. There will be an observer from the federation on board the boat to ensure that I adhere to the rules which also include ensuring that at no point I touch anyone or the boat.
What are your main apprehensions for the day?
My biggest apprehension is swimming at night, for some it is a delight that they love, for me it is something that I dread and having done it on both relay’s and still not enjoy it it is something I really am going to have work on and train in to ensure if I have to start in the middle of the night or swim into the night that it is going to hinder me psychologically. The start of the swim is dependent on the timings of the tide so is likely I will have to swim at some point during the night. More people have climbed to the top of Everest than have swam the Channel – it is a tough challenge. Captain Matthew Webb the first person to swim the Channel famously said ‘Nothing Great is Easy’ and it something that Channel swimmers still recite to this day.
What are you most excited about for the day?
I am really looking forward to touching the beach in France, my slot is the week of my 38th birthday so looking forward to a big celebration afterwards. I have two great friends currently signed up to support me on the boat whilst I swim who will be feeding me and updating everyone through social media and keeping an eye on my wellbeing – I am so excited that they are going to be part of my journey and be one of the reasons that I will succeed! Channel swimming although at sight seems like an individual sport is so dependent on the team you have supporting you.
What is your main motivation for wanting to swim the Channel?
In June of 2013 a wonderful friend of mine lost her fight to breast cancer and this swim is in her memory. Her parents had asked us to donate to the Royal Marsden and I decided that rather than just donate that I would raise money by swimming the Channel on her behalf as a thank you to all the work they did for her, she was the most positive person throughout and was so inspiring… this is me giving back on her behalf, it is the least I can do to say thank you to them for looking after her so well over the 7 years.
You can help me reach my target here