One of the swimmers tells his own tale:, “I’d done my single warm water lake marathon, followed my dream, signed up for the English Channel in 2018, put in a hard winter of pool training and shivered through some spring cold water dips. The trip to Ireland was from home to a larger airport, then over the Atlantic to London then on the Cork. I arrived late the night before the start of the Cork Distance Week and met my roommates, one veteran from three previous years and two other newbies.
Kicked awake early in the morning as the veteran wanted to arrive early to get parking. We drove through Kinsale with water on harbor to the left, over the Bandon River bridge, down some small roads, along the creek, up the hill, spotted Sandycove Island with swell crashing on the rocks and down to a small parking place. We were the second car – I assumed the help arrived early: a man cleaning the porta-toilets and a woman putting out empty crates and safety dry bags. They turned out to be our hosts and organizers: Ned Denison and his partner Catherine Fravalo. Another 60 swimmers quickly appeared and it was like the new day back at school: the locals and veterans were all smiles and hugs. The newbies were welcomed, but I felt like the new kid at a new school in a new country.
Then into our speedos (a few wetsuiters) and a safety briefing (by the toilet cleaner): Look up, sharp rocks, 3 to 4 meters of tide, every lap different, first session, swim safe and an update on the sea temperature (10-14°C or 50-57°F – all on a single lap). We were to follow the locals and veterans wearing the white Cork Distance Week caps.
The final warning, “Keep turning left – do you understand Peter?” Peter was a big man standing near the top of the slipway – the kind of guy you could hit with a baseball bat and he’d probably laugh. I was in the middle of white-capped swimmers and the one to my left said, “23 hour channel swimmer”; to my right said, “Got lost last year”; behind me said, “Lifeboat”; and in front said, “chunk of flesh torn off his thigh – looked like a motorcycle accident.” I decided to stick close to these white capped swimmers.
Off we went – SO COLD. A few minutes later I thought I was getting used to it when we rounded corner one – and EVEN COLDER and now choppy. I looked up every 25 strokes, but couldn’t see the end of the island – so kept close to the nearest white cap. On my second lap, always turning left, I started to take in the sights: rocks, weeds (many kinds), crabs, fish, birds and the small flock of island goats. No jellies or seals – yet. Two laps was safe and I completed half of the expected two-hour session. After drying and dressing in arctic wear (including mittens) I shivered over to the food. Three generations of the Mullally Family served up hot soup – at that point it was the greatest food I’d ever tasted.
The last swimmers came in at the two hour mark: happy, chatting and not a shiver between them. Peter got a round of applause and a few shouts of welcome back. Then the introductions.
I recognised some of the famous names in the sport and heard about successes for most of the swims on my dream list. I met five times more English Channel swimmers than I’d ever met before. Some swimmers laid out their goals, others were silent and some used code: “2 laps of a big pool” meant a double English Channel I learned later. Some yelled out offers to host or crew in the future – and I felt relief as I arrived with no idea of who might crew for me in 2018.
The crazy man and woman in their speedos introduced themselves (the rest of us were in layers of warm clothes). He said something about mostly climbing and going back to Everest in a few weeks. As the thought of “you are in the wrong place buddy” crossed my mind – a swimmer behind me whispered “world record shortest Triple Crown 34 days.” The woman, Jenny, announced her planned English Channel in a month, noted that they were staying in the nearby cottage and that Patrick had told her to ignore the cold as part of her training. I was feeling small and weak at that point.
Donna helped my confidence when she announced her goal was to swim her first ever marathon – good I wasn’t the least experienced. When the slim lady who wore the wetsuit introduced herself – I started to think that I wasn’t the weakest having completed two speedo laps. She said she needed a few days to acclimatize as she had just completed 6 Ironmans on 6 continents in 56 days and the whispering swimmer behind me added “and summited Everest.” I returned to feeling small and weak.
Then Carol introduced herself: “Carol, local swimmer, Zurich, Manhattan, I’ll miss you all as I fly off for Catalina later today.” It wasn’t just training – this was all of a suddenly very real. A reality slap – and 60+ swimmers swallow hard. Then like a bookend – it was announced that Torgie would arrive later in the week as she completed Catalina a few days ago and and was flying in. I imagined Carol and Torgie doing a tag slap somewhere over Greenland in a few hours.
The swimmers were great. I found same speed training partners and got used (ish) to the cold. Torgie arrive to huge congratulations, Wes and Carol completed completed marathons during the week and I completed my six-hour qualifier.
Over the next 100 days, we stayed in touch by Facebook/WhatsApp and cheered the successes and commiserated with those weathered out or denied a finish. On August 13th and 14th we joked that all of us were lucky not to be fired from our jobs. Five of the gang complete their English Channel solos over a 22-hour period: yelling ‘go on’, flipping between trackers, sending messages of encouragement and screaming ‘YES’ as the each landed.
Our bossed were not impressed.
Jenny was one of the five having trained hard with the fastest swimming group in Cork (shown below). Towards the end of the 100 days – we had Courtney following up on a double Manhattan with a double Catalina and Jenny completing the second leg of the Triple Crown in Catalina. I’m back next year looking forward to leading the line the first morning with a white veteran cap and appropriately confident for the English Channel afterwards.”
Photo by Siobhan Russell.
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