Channel swim training the wrong way – 16 km benchmark swim

Channel swim training the wrong way – 16 km benchmark swim

In the past 10 months, my training went completely wrong. I could not do my desired training from February to September. I could only get back since October. Despite that, I didn’t believe my situation to be bad enough to give it up outright, so I tried to adjust my second training block (November to April) to compensate for my missing training previously.

In my original plan, I would do a 30 km rehearsal swim in February, or alternatively my other dream swim. Due to budget reason I would not do my other dream swim (round Hong Kong) because I didn’t have enough budget to do a Channel swim, a round Hong Kong swim, and to emigrate to the UK all in the same year. Moreover as I had already missed a whole training block and a 21 km race, it might not be viable for me to get to the level to do a 45 km swim in February given that my last long swim was only the 14 km Cold Half in January. Even 30 km might be too demanding for me. Therefore my newest idea was to reduce the length of my rehearsal swim to 25 km, and before that, do a benchmark swim as early in the season as possible to determine my sustainable speed for a long swim, as a replacement to my postponed race in August. The benchmark swim would preferably be done early December when the sea temperature dropped below 24°C, in a sheltered bay without wind, current and tide, about 16 km in length. It would be long enough to give a speed sustainable for a decent distance, but still within my ability after training for a month or two. The swim would be conducted in the same way like Isaac’s swim in August, i.e. kayak-supported near the shore the whole way.

The crew

I invited Alfair Lee to be my pilot and crew, and Simon Holliday to be my observer.

Alfair is a very experienced ultra-runner and paddler living in Sha Tin District. He is very familiar with the local waters (Tolo Harbour) where I would swim in. He was also the pilot on Isaac’s swim in August as well and I had total confidence on him guiding me to have a safe swim.

Simon is the most experienced marathon swimmer living in Hong Kong now. He swam the English Channel in 2011, from Hong Kong (Lantau) to Macau (Coloane) in 2015, and round Hong Kong in 2017. He is the co-founder and director of Splash Foundation, a charity which teaches basic swimming skills to domestic helpers and underprivileged people who did not have the chance to learn it through the education system. However, as he also did not have previous observing experience, I needed to brief him beforehand, including the tools that I used in Isaac’s swim in August.

The place

I chose Tolo Harbour near Ma On Shan as the place for my benchmark swim because it is the calmest bay I can find. It is sheltered from wind from most directions except an opening from North-East. It has minimal tidal currents, less than 0.1 knots. On a lot of days, it is completely flat and as calm as a lake. It is not part of any shipping channels and has very little boat traffic especially on a weekday, with only a few ferries from Ma Liu Shui to outlying islands in a day, and not many recreational boats as well. There are also a few islands inside the bay for me to set up waypoints such that I can design a course of whatever length I want. Therefore, it is the perfect place for me to do a benchmark swim.

I would like the course to be as close to 16 km as possible. We decided the course would be Wu Kai Sha Pier → Tang Chau → Centre Island (1.5 loops) → Tang Chau → Wu Kai Sha Pier, measured as 16.03 km from Google Maps satellite image. We would rent a two-person sit-on-top at the nearby To Tau Village as a support kayak.

The preparation

I restarted swimming mid-September, gradually increasing the amount and intensity. By November I started to get back in shape, however I still hadn’t got back to the level I was preparing for Cold Half early this year.

On 29 November, I hurt my head while diving and ended up in the hospital. I planned the week after that to be my peak training week, then taper afterwards. As a result of my injury, I got 3 stitches in my head and had to stay dry while waiting for my head to recover. I could only get back on 8 December. I missed my whole peak training week and by the time I got back, it was only 1 week from my scheduled date.

I was really concerned because my training was less than what I did before my previous two marathon swims (Lake Geneva Classic and Cold Half). I swam about 25% less than the month before I did Cold Half this year. Therefore I believed that I was only ready for 10 – 12 km. And my injury forced me out of the peak training week. I asked Stephen Maloney if I should continue to do the full course or cut it short, and he told me to do the full 16 km. So we went on to do the full course.

According to my race results throughout 2019 and 2020, including shorter races from 3 to 5 km, and my previous marathon swims including Lake Geneva Classic and Cold Half, I believed that my speed would be about 2.5 km/h. If I could keep this speed, I would complete my swim in 6:24. I planned to feed every 48 minutes with 50 g of maltodextrin mixed with 500 mL of water, which, at 2.5 km/h, means 2 km of swimming, i.e. 7 feeds in total with also 48 minutes between my final feed and finish, diving my swim into 8 portions of 2 km. I prepared 8 feeds in case if my swim was longer than expected. My crew then suggested me to bring some other feeds as spare as well, so I brought 2 500 mL bottles of coke in addition.

The kayak rental starts at 08:00 and ends at 17:00, so I planned to start the swim at 09:00 and end it at 15:24. I and Alfair would rent the kayak at 08:00, paddle to the start, and meet Simon at about 08:30. We would have a final briefing and checking, make sure that all the tracking (including a live tracking) was in order, and start at 09:00.

sketch by Alfair
sketch prepare by Alfair for my 16 km swim

The swim

The weather was very good. A monsoon brought the air temperature down to 13 – 15°C that day while the sea temperature remained at about 21°C. The wind was mild with at most BF 2 only. It made a perfect condition for me to do the benchmark swim.

I started at 09:00:00 and swam towards Whitehead, and then to Tang Chau. I did my first and second feed mostly on schedule. However, starting from the third feed I started to lag behind, as the crew told me the distance covered. By 7 km I started feeling my back tired and sore, and then my quads as well, where I only expected fatigue to set in about 2/3 to 3/4 into my swim.

1st feed in 16 km swim
My 1st feed, after Whitehead towards Tang Chau

I continued the swim and rounded Centre Island. My fourth feed was supposed to be done while I was about 3/4 loops rounding it, however it was due not long I started to follow the coastline. I had planned that, if I was behind schedule for more than half an hour by the time I left Centre Island, i.e. taking the fifth feed before I left Centre Island, I might cut the swim short because I might run out of time. At the moment I left Centre Island, my fifth feed was due. I was nearly doomed at that moment. I was so demoralised that I was already half an hour behind schedule, while knowing that with my tired back and quads, my speed would only gone down in the remaining 7 km to go, and the next waypoint was Tang Chau, a few km away.

Judging from the video I might look good, but at that moment my mind was flooded with negative thoughts. I didn’t enjoy anything at that moment and I was blaming myself what the heck I was doing. WHY the heck was I attempting a 16 km swim while I KNEW that I was not prepared enough?! I felt so bad even in a calm sheltered bay with the perfect weather with just 10 km done, how could I even swim across the Channel where there would be strong current, waves and swells?!

My back was sore to the point that my strokes were powerless, and I couldn’t kick at all, dragging my straight legs behind (I normally do 2-beat kick). My seventh feed was done at the place when I expected my sixth feed, which means I was already lagged behind for a full 48 minutes. I asked the distance I covered every feed. In my eighth feed (I planned for 7 only and brought 8 on board) the crew told me that I still had 2.5 km to go. My mood went down immediately at that point as it would mean more than an hour of struggle to get home.

I couldn’t recover much speed despite seeing hope. According to the tracking I did only about 1.9 km/h from the segment from Centre Island back to Tang Chau, and 2.1 km/h afterwards. Everything seemed to be forever at that moment despite I could see my finish point. I was clearly out of my comfort zone at that moment.

The conclusion

I finally landed at 16:45:53, after 7 hours, 45 minutes and 53 seconds of swimming. I got back into the rental kayak and made it just in time to return at 17:00.

My crew and observer were in hurry and left immediately and the prohibition of dining in would be effective soon at 18:00, therefore we didn’t have a post-swim dinner. I was in the most depressed mood since I started swimming at the moment I reached the finish of my 16 km swim. All my positive mindset when I started had been flushed away completely by the time I reached the finish, and I was in serious self-doubt since then because I couldn’t even keep my target pace in a calm sheltered bay, how the heck would it be possible in the open Channel? In a calm sheltered bay, if I keep swimming, no matter how slow I am, I will eventually reach the finish, which was what I did. However, in the Channel, I would be washed away by the tide if I couldn’t reach a certain waypoint by a certain time, like the fate of “the Novice Triathlete” Stuart Handley this September on the same tide when the Law Society relay team completed their Channel swim. He missed the waypoint for 20 minutes, then he was washed away by the tide right into the Calais ferry lane making the swim aborted.

Now, I really question my ability to swim the Channel in 2021, or even to do a 25 km “rehearsal swim” in February, especially considering that pools are now closed again since 2 December due to COVID restrictions making me unable to speed-train. I’ll need to discuss with Simon about this after I have received the observer report. I am now thinking of different options, from changing my training focus to do endurance instead of speed (as I dropped from 2.5 km/h to 1.9 km/h), cutting my “rehearsal swim” short to 17 km, to changing my channel swim to a relay or even giving up completely.

I was doing everything wrong in this year. My training was wrong, and my benchmark swim went wrong. There were probably multiple wrong factors making my swim went wrong:

  • My training was wrong in the whole year, and I didn’t have enough time to correct it.
  • I got an injury half a month before, adding insult to the wrong training above.
  • My feeding might also be wrong. I didn’t have a systematic way to test my feeding before and it might not be enough.
  • My pacing might also be wrong. I might have started off too slow. If I pretended this was a 5 km swim I might have started off at 2.7 km/h. Even if I let my speed deteriorate afterwards the whole result might be better. It might be a fantasy for me to sustain any speed, no matter how slow I started.
  • My estimation might be wrong. Despite I could swim at 2.7 – 2.8 km/h for a race of about 1 – 1.5 hours, and 5:14:24 for my Cold Half this year, I didn’t have many calm water marathon swimming results (the only one was Lake Geneva Classic which I was totally inexperienced and didn’t sight well, returning 5:43 for 12.5 km) to make a better estimation.

Everything was seriously wrong, blatantly wrong, mainly because of the pandemic. I’m now stuck with a slot September next year which can’t be postponed. I’m so stressed now thinking what should I do next, to carry on, to give it up, or something else. I no longer have any motivations to do it. My original two motivations, one internal (working holiday) and one external (the first Hongkonger), are both gone within just a few months. If I decide to emigrate to the UK permanently, I can decide to do it any time in my later life as long as I live there. I can build up myself and do the qualification first, and only swim last-minute slots as soon as a chance comes up. If I decide to give up completely, I may rearrange my plan and aim for emigration to another European country. It’s so difficult for me now knowing that I’m still nearly a year behind my expected progress (i.e. I got no progress in the whole of 2020), if I continue to work towards something which I no longer have motivation to do, but if I don’t do it the next chance maybe years or even decades later if I get back my motivation.

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