Chalkwell Redcaps

Chalkwell Redcaps

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Sea Urchins - Relay Channel Swim

Back in December when it had been confirmed that we were going to be swimming the channel as a relay team Jade asked us all to write a blogpost. It was supposed to say how we felt about taking on the challenge and what our fears were. These are my thoughts - I must admit that I didn’t fancy the idea of being cold, feeling sea sick or being stung by jellyfish, not to mention crossing the shipping lanes and the fear of being eaten by a shark. Cost also came into it as it is an expensive thing to do but was just about manageable. The deciding factor was that I definitely wanted to be part of a team that was attempting such a huge challenge. So a team of six of us – Jade Perry, Tony Mellett, John Willis, Josh Stratford, Craig Johnston and I decided to take on the challenge of swimming across the English Channel to France. 
There were a good many challenges ahead of us, some of them easy such as we had to pay for our boat, get medicals done from willing GP’s and join the CSPF. But a couple of devastating things happened to the team. First of all Craig couldn’t get his medical form signed off by his Dr and so was unable to swim. Then later on at the end of April Tony Mellett was sadly taken away from us by a sudden heart attack. We were all devastated and it left a huge hole in our team, one which Tony Marshall wanted to fill for his friend Tony.
So Tony joined us and we were a team of five. We then needed a name for our team. Jade asked her sister Amber if she could ask her school class to come up with names for our team and design a logo for our hats and hoodies. The winner received a swimming hat from our swim. I then had to overcome my own fears. I combated the cold by just getting in and seeing how long I could stay in for and gradually increased the amount of time I was in for. We had to do a two hour cold water qualifier which I wasn’t looking forward to but on the day in May we just got in and did it in 13.8 degree water. And in all honesty it wasn’t that bad.

Unfortunately I was unable to combat my fear of jellyfish and literally just avoided them! I stayed out of the water during jellyfish season as it was like jellyfish soup and just the thought of them lurking and blobbing about freaked me out.  I just don’t understand what they are about, they’re strange and upsetting and might sting me. I did get stung last year and it really wasn’t that bad, just felt like stinging nettles but I still didn’t fancy going near them!
We then had to start properly training once we had done the cold water swim. We combined this with training in the pool at our indoor club RADS and sea swims when the tide was in at Southend. We also had a fab training weekend down in Dover Harbour practising swimming for an hour and then resting for an hour. It was completely different at Dover, the water was clearer and colder and we got a sample of what it was like to swim with ferries making the water choppy. We also had a particularly awesome session back in Southend too where all five of us were together and swimming during the golden hour before the sun set. We swam out to the big yellow buoy quite a way out and back again through the boats, it was also special as it was the first time we all got to train together as ‘The Southend Sea Urchins’.
So we then had to make sure that we had everything we needed. We had to make sure we had enough swimming cozzies for the possibility of four or five swims as well as swimming hats and goggles, towels, warm clothes, woolly hats, gloves and thermals. We had to think about what food we would want to eat on the day and what energy supplements we might need as well as having plenty of water and hot drinks too. I packed my bag a few days before we went but inevitably I unpacked everything again otherwise I know I would have forgotten something. The most important item was our passports. No passport meant no swim due to new regulations from France. Fortunately everyone remembered theirs. So all we had to do after that was wait for our window to open and hope for some good weather.

Unbelievably our window opened on Sunday 7th September and that was the day we swam. We had all gone down to Dover the night before in the hope that the swim would be confirmed for Sunday. Jade drove down in Bert – her camper van and stayed in Dover – Tony drove down once we had confirmation and slept in his car and the remaining four of us – Josh, John, Pete our fantastic Dr/Support crew and myself stayed in the Best Western Folkestone as it was the closest and cheapest option. Pete took us all out for dinner at a restaurant called Don Giovanni where Josh and I had pasta, John had a calzone and Pete had seabass and veggies. We all flopped in our beds at about 10pm and tried to sleep whilst waiting to hear from Jade as to whether we were going to swim the next morning.
We had our swim confirmed at about 11pm and then were up at 4am to get dressed and packed in the car to drive the twenty minutes or so to Dover harbour.  Once we arrived in the Dover Harbour car park we had to go and fill a form in for each car and pay about £7 to park for 24 hours, which wasn’t bad. We then gathered up,our stuff and went to find our boat – ‘Gallivant'. The crew were amazing all day and started by helping us load all of our belongings and food onto the boat and we then waved goodbye to Jade’s Mum and Dad who had driven all the way over from France in their campervan. We hoped that they would make it round to Shakespeare Beach in time to see us start off.
As we sailed around the corner to the beach we were pleased to see them. Josh was first to start and after he was briefed on what to do – jump in, swim to shore, start on dry land, wave when ready and go go go on claxon! Then we were off. We started at 6.13 and so that meant we would change over on the ’13’ of each hour. Josh did amazingly well and set off at a steady but fast pace. He did get stung by a brown jellyfish but shrugged it off and kept going. The water was unbelievably still and incredibly glassy. We watched the sun rise into a perfect orange circle in the sky as we cheered Josh on. Jade had laminated some signs so we could see how much time had gone by – 30 minutes to go, 15 minutes to go and 5 minutes to go. As well as a motivational photo of Tony Mellett who couldn’t be with us physically but was most definitely on board with us.

Jade was in second and she powered through the water. I was next, and although it was a shock when I jumped into the 18-19 degree water I soon got used to it and swam my hour. Tony was in next swimming close to the boat and even when his hat popped off his head he swam with it in his shorts and completed the hour at a good pace. John was amazing in his eye of the tiger swim trunks and cracked on and completed the five hour cycle with a consistently speedy stroke. The second five hours whizzed by fairly quickly considering what we were doing. There were patches of cold water and stretches of compass jellyfish which had me quite frightened to do my second hour but Pete held a thumbs up signal the entire way so that I knew that I wouldn’t encounter a jellyfish. We all got through the second hour unscathed except Tony who managed to get stung by a jelly but he didn’t tell me in case I got scared again.
We had really gotten into our stride by the time our third swims came round, although we were getting cold and tired but we kept cheering each other on and singing and dancing to music on our little speakers, which was a boost that we really needed. Josh had really suffered with the cold after his second swim with a bad case of the shivers and was really dreading going in again but he literally dived right in (later telling me that he thought it might make the swim shorter!). At this point it became apparent that we were closing in on France even though we still couldn’t see it in all the haze. Jade in her bright green alien costume this time was in for her third swim and she literally smashed it. I later found out that something had bitten Jade while she was swimming. It turned out to be a small crab that had grabbed on while Jade was swimming and made it out of the sea with her attached to her bottom!
I was then told by the pilot that we were 1.2 miles away and that it was possible to land it. Sarah Mellett, Tony Mellett’s wife had asked if someone would like to take Tony’s yellow smiley hat with us on the boat and the team had decided that whoever landed it would wear his hat. I’m honoured to say that I got to be the one who wore it and once I jumped in I tried to do my absolute best for Tony and the Southend Sea Urchins. I kept swimming next to the boat and was told with about half a mile to go that the rest of the team would be allowed to swim to shore with me but that I had to stay in front so that Laura our observer could ratify the swim with me getting to dry land with in my hour.
I kept swimming but it got to a point where the boat had sailed as far as it could and I had to go into shore on my own. The water became unclear and I immediately started to panic that a lurking jellyfish might sting me, especially as I could no longer see the boat or Pete. I kept going a while longer and the white cliffs of France started to get bigger until my hands touched something, which I’m very pleased to say turned out to be sand! I looked up and could see people on the beach not too far away so thought that I would try and stand up. To my immense relief we had made it to France! I ran up on the beach and waved at the boat and was then joined about a minute later by the rest of the Urchins. We all hugged and congratulated each other on the beach. Tony had brought his waterproof camera with him on the swim into shore and so we were able to ask the three people that were on the beach (waiting for a swimmer on another boat to land) to take a photo of the five of us all together after completing our challenging swim from England to France across the English Channel.
 We then had to get back in the sea and swim back to the boat. Pete later told me that he had asked the crew if they would pick us up in the dingy but the crew replied ‘You don’t climb Everest and get a helicopter back down’! Words to live by right there I think! We then had a three hour boat ride back to Dover where we dried off, packed up, looked at photos, tried to contact our friends and family in England to say that we had smashed the Channel in a time of 12 hours and 51 minutes and then watched the moon rise and dozed off. I can’t thank everyone enough for supporting us all year to achieve this monumental task. We have managed to raise £3772 at the last count for cancer research and we still have money coming in, I hope we can break £4000. I especially want to thank Pete for being my hero all day long. He looked after us, cheered us on, made us hot drinks, made us laugh and I really don’t think I could have done it without him. When we arrived in Dover we got our belongings off the boat somehow as there was stuff literally strewn about the boat! We thanked the crew for being so amazing at looking after us and getting us across to France. Then we hugged each other goodbye and Pete and I got in the car and Pete drove us home. We finally got into bed about 1am after a gruelling 21 hour day, absolutely shattered but unbelievably happy.

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Jane Bell - WARNING: Subject has ingested an MRI incompatible device (BLDSA Champion of Champions 2015)

Champions this year went off pretty much the same as my '14 debut:  Leg cramps dominated the five-miler. Disorientation saw me collapsed on the beach eight miles in.  Entering the sea for the final mile I was frozen to the core and chaffing would be a 'going home present' despite the precautions taken.
To top things off I finished the 9 mile series in the same time as in 2014.  TO THE MINUTE.   Rather than reprimand me for 'null progress',  Residing BLDSA President Jean Wilkin-Oxley (English Channel Conqueress of 1972), suggested that I hold the gift of 'Consistency'.  I'll take that as a compliment from one of such pedigree.  Six hours 11 minutes and 39 seconds versus my record of six hours 11 minutes and 41.  It would hardly make for an interesting blog to brag about a 'back of the pack' two second PB so I’m going to spend my word-count wisely, exploring the statement ‘Entering the sea for the final mile I was frozen to the core’
Sure a warm mug was appreciated between swims.  Yes me and my dry robe were the best of friends.  I freely admit to having had the shivers, blue tinged extremities and lack of dexterity that come with prolonged exposure to cold water.  But ‘frozen to the core’?  Nope.  And that's scientifically proven.....

A couple of hours before the five-miler I'd swallowed a magic bean.  Not one received in exchange for a post-partum cow.  Alas not even one that would keep me warm or indeed help me swim faster.  This magic bean operated on a pre-set radio frequency through which it would relay information about deep body temperature whenever it's transmitter and sensor came into proximity. Interesting to its ‘ingestees’ and of great value in the broader context of open water swimming health & safety and emergency search & rescue. SWIG.  Down went the pill to begin it’s journey along my gastro-intestinal tract......
Readings were taken before and immediately after each leg of the swim series, with a final check after the nine mile ordeal was done and dusted.  The researcher was Jane Hall, a PhD student from the University of Portsmouth Department of Sport and Exercise Science (Extreme Environmental Medicine and Science). In line with all properly conducted research subjects took part voluntarily and with informed consent.  The greatest risk from participation came from our sport itself.  Drowning, hypothermia.  Shut up and swim...... Harking back to my own Master of Osteopathy research, which all those moons ago also involved human subjects, I applaud Jane for the work which must have gone before reaching this 'data collection' phase.  Funding applications.  The general hoo-har of ethics committee approval [breaks out into a cold sweat before promptly burying memories of pedantic arguments, rejections, grovelling resubmissions etc]...
The temperature pill itself was inert and perfectly safe to ingest.  Coming into contact with strong magnets would, however, cause serious problems (guts ripped out etc…..), so we were all given a medical bracelet to wear until we’d caught sight of it.  Erm, you know ‘in the bowl’……  We could also set off the alarms at airport security.  I’m not sure if the same applies to anti-theft scanners in shops.  I guess the ethics committee didn't much care whether we were given that information.  Perhaps a trip 'up town’ later on to see how much of a nuisance I can make (note to self: no shoplifting for the next couple of days......)
As well as scanning our abdomens for the temperature readings, Jane and University of Portsmouth Lecturer Heather Massey needed to collect additional data from us to control for individual variables.  Height, weight and skin fold thickness would establish our body fat percentage (if you can pinch more than an inch,,,,,,,).  Swimming experience would give an insight into acclimatisation, a relevant factor in our ability to cope with prolonged cold exposure.
Having ‘double dipped’ for a total of eight miles, with five and a half hours swim time on the clock and just a mile to go, I was feeling pretty nippy when my turn for measurement came around.  I'd and layered up to conserve body heat for the final push but they needed access to my biceps, triceps, hip and calf. So off came the clothes and up went the shivering.  The job was done rapidly and efficiently (thanks girls) and it was back on with the layers just in time to be asked 'Can you take your top off again please?  We need to repeat the measurements’.  I actually thought they were having me on.  Yeah ha ha funny.  But no!!!  The measurements were to be repeated because using the calipers first time around squeezes water out of the tissues so a second reading is more accurate.  Quick grimace, off with the layers, on with the pinchey contraption, ouch, ouch, yikes and back on with the clothes again.  Just in time to have to take them off and venture back into the waters for the final mile......
Oh what a teasing merry-go-round Champion of Champions is.  And how I longed for that finishing line, dreamed of sipping a hot beena and looked forward to donning every item of clothing in my kit bag…….. The water temperature was 14 point something.  A couple of degrees cooler than in 2014 and about one degree warmer than the previous two weekends in Dover Harbour when I’d slogged out four, five and six hour sessions with Freda Streeter’s Channel Swimming Posse.  With ‘normal’ body temperature in the region of 37 degrees, and taking the physical laws of heat transfer into account, there was certainly scope for observing a drop.
BUT (drum roll)…….
Throughout the whole series of swims Jane & Heather never ONCE recorded a reduction in my temperature!!!!!  I stayed a consistent 37 point something degrees throughout.
Perhaps the cold was prevented from sinking too deeply through a combination of my ‘bioprene layer’, cold water acclimatisation, warm feeds and shivering thermogenesis between swims.  Maybe peripheral  vasoconstriction and the body heat generated by keeping those legs kicking and arms turning over for my six plus hour extravaganza in the water off-set thermic losses.  Whatever the answer, my thermoregulatory systems served me well.  Thank you love handles, thank you winter swimming, hot beena, maxim, stroke rate, silicon cap…….
If anyone is interested in taking part in this fascinating study then Jane and Heather will be at the Henley Mile swim on July 12th and are looking for more volunteers.  It’s not just skins swimmers they are after.  Information from suited participants is also needed for comparison.  If you are up for it then please do contact Jane at
Well done to the BLDSA and to Swim Secretary Mark Sheridan for a seamless execution of the Championships.  Huge thank you to land and sea-based support: kayakers, safety rib-crew, timekeepers, lap counters, jelly baby throwers, kettle boilers, first aiders.  The list goes on. We just could not go ahead without you.  And congratulations to everyone completing or attempting the event.  It’s a toughie but worth it.  Everyone comes out a Champion :)

I wait with much excitement for the temperature study research to be published.  But for now I’ve got a Gillian McKeith job on my hands: To wait with even greater anticipation to catch sight of that little capsule.  Plopping through a sieve, poking at my number two’s with a sharp object or taking a magnet to the lavvy.  By hook or by crook and sooner rather than later that ‘No MRI’ bracelet will be snipped off.  I'll keep you posted.....

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Redcaps HQ, 2S4L 2015 (the posh division, we were slumming it over the back.......)
Many endurance athletes know a happy pace where they feel they can 'keep on going forever'. But we all know that is a figure of speech. Nobody has ever run around the world without stopping, or swum the Atlantic. So 'forever' must end somewhere, at a time and place limited perhaps by exhaustion or a breakdown in mental resolve.  I've never been afraid of failure, in fact I've pushed myself further and further to try and find that tipping point where I just can't go on anymore. And in a twisted kind of way I've looked forward to the day that I have to raise that white flag and declare 'enough'. Success demonstrates that we are capable of more whereas surrender delineates the very edge of our capabilities.  In the pre-dawn hours of 3rd May 2015, after swimming 19 of the 24 mile 2Swim4Life event at Guildford Lido, I admitted defeat for the very first time. And in doing so learned many things about my ‘theory of forever', about myself and about the qualities to look for in a support crew.
Myself and John Willis about to start sporting our Mellett Smileys exactly one year on from Tony's passing.
Back in 2013 myself and Lesley Cook successfully completed the 24 miles of this event as a 2-man relay.  It was bloody hard work, freezing cold overnight and I’d gone into it in a shit and sleep-deprived state.  But we made it through.  On Saturday 2nd May 2015, the 'Runaway Train' departed once more, this time for a solo attempt. Although it was forecast to be wet, the overnight air temperature was significantly warmer than before and, while I had the tail-end of a cold, it hadn’t gone to my chest and I was well rested.  I was back in lane 6, sharing with another five soloists.  We had each other sussed fairly quickly and knew our order and procedures for overtakes.  It was all very friendly and from 09:30 was essentially free-fall, cracking out one mile every hour until 24 rotations were completed or we de-railed. Simples.  Having ‘been there before’ we nailed down-time fairly early on too, with a seamless drying, dressing, resting, feeding, preparing routine executed by our buddies.  It wasn’t necessarily dignified but what happened in the tent stays in the tent OK?
That'd be Mrs. Tyrant on the left. Taking things dead seriously......
My first wobble came very early on.  During just the second mile my legs locked up with cramp, the same as had happened early on in both Champion of Champions and Windermere.  Bloody hell woman what’s all that about??  I had hydrated well in the run-up and ensured a good mineral intake.  But I’m getting the gist that early cramping is just how it is for me and something that I’ve got to work through.  Lorraine Rate (AKA Mrs Tyrant), offered me electrolyte.  The jury is still out for me over electrolyte but action was needed and it seemed to do the trick.  No more crampy crampy after that, crisis #1 diverted…..  My buggered left wrist began to smart at around 7 miles and the old nerve pain began to flare up.  Swapping my watch to my right hand went some way to resolve that and I paid more attention to my hand positioning to avoid aggravating it any more, crisis #2 held in check.
After mile 10. Smiling on the outside, screaming on the inside......
The hardest miles were, without doubt, miles 9 to 14 when I felt thoroughly depressed!  By then I was averaging 35 minute miles so had 25 minutes of down-time.  Just enough to do what needed doing and nothing else.  We all felt like shooting the guy who shouted out ‘Five minutes’ and ran things to the wire, leaving the tent with just two minutes to go.  Although it wasn’t as cold as last time it was still toe-curling to let go of my dry robe and cringeworthy to get back in the water and kick straight off for another mile.  But again once I got going it was fine.  The whole experience was positively schizoid.  When I was swimming I couldn’t wait for each mile to be over so I could get out.  When I was out I wanted to be back in getting on with it, but without having to do the whole getting in thing.  If that makes any sense?  Sort your head out and make your blooming mind up girl!!!!!
After 12 miles my swimming and tent bud John Willis threw in the towel.  He had slowed down to such a point that he just wasn’t getting enough rest.  Having swum further than ever before he was satisfied and called ‘time’ with no regrets.  Also he would be on-hand to help out as a buddy.  I spoke with him and made a resolve that 16 miles would mark a tipping point.  16 was well clear of halfway and, with ‘two sets of four’ to go until the end, I could handle that no problem.
Sometime during mile 14...... The beginning of the end......
During mile 14, however, crisis #3 struck.  I was quite sleepy during that mile, my eyes rolling like they do when you doze off in front of the telly.  I’d not long kicked off the far wall and was heading back for length 12 when my left shoulder slipped from its socket, a recurrent problem in several of my joints due to having a generalised hypermobility disorder.  There was no pain and it reduced spontaneously as I pulled through, but I knew immediately that it would hurt sooner or later and could be a show-stopper.  That brought me briefly back from the land of nod and I clearly remember thinking ‘Oh shit’ before drifting off again into my world of hallucination and daydream……
Sure as eggs is eggs two things happened after that: my mood flipped for the better on hitting the allocated magic mile 16 and my damned shoulder started to hurt.  A massive lift countered with a huge slap in the face.  But I was totally focused on finishing.  It was now down hill and completely do-able.  Excellent buddy work had me with a dry cozzie and towel for every remaining swim.  We were in it to win it and nothing was going to get in our way.  I’d been dosing on Ibuprofen since the morning, mostly to help with the symptoms of my cold.  The drugs now had a new purpose and for a while, (well maybe half an hour ha ha) seemed to be doing the trick.  Mile 17 came and every single stroke hurt, 2 Paracetamol before mile 18 and things were a bit better.  Two more miles and we would would replace the 1 with a 2 as we moved towards 20 miles.  Cripes we were so close now and the sun would be coming up soon too.  Happy days, slam dunk, thank you very much, 24 miles in 24 hours. OH YEAH!!!!!  Then came the fateful mile 19………
Sometimes not even these bad boys work.....
Like #17 every single stroke I took yanked on my shoulder.  Halfway through that mile the pain changed from a relatively diffuse ache to a pin-point crush.  And that to me meant only one thing.  Imminent significant damage.  I flipped onto my back but that was just as bad.  Breaststroke, yikes, no good either.  A length or two of single arm then another go at front crawl.  Nope.  I managed to get through the rest of the mile on a mix of single arm and some spazzy technique that I made up where my left arm dragged through the water without catching it and I hurled it round for recovery with an exaggerated body roll.  'Yeah I can do it like this', I thought to myself.  But 5 miles like that? Really? How long is that going to take? 45mins? 50? Do you really want to limp home like that? You'll wreck yourself for sure.....  It was all pretty desperate. At the end of the mile I stood up, lifted my goggles and gazed back down the length before turning to my folks on poolside.  With tears streaming down my cheeks I uttered the words ‘I’m finished’.
Climbing out the fighter within me kicked back in.  ‘No way am I giving up, I’m getting back in for 20’.  Buddies Sarah Mellett and Penny Allard gave me the space that I needed to thrash out my decision as I stood there blubbing and clutching my arm.  But it was Lesley Cook’s bluntness that brought things home.  ‘Jane, look at you.  You’re fucked.  I’m sorry but you are.’  And she was right.  I dragged my sorry ass back to the tent, crying the whole way.  There was one last flail at the whole ‘No, I’m in this until the end’ thing, that even saw me get changed into a dry cozzie ready for round 20.  Then John Willis, who had kept relatively quiet, spoke up ‘Jane, you don’t have to do this.  Save yourself.’  And with those words it was over.
Tony Marshall & Danny Bunn - very well done guys :)
The rest of the Redcaps crew went on to complete the distances they set out to do.  Rory, Justin & Tongie touching in to claim 12 miles each, Danny & Tony claiming the full 24.  Our buddies were second to none.  Mandy Byrnes, Clare Calder, Sarah Mellett, Penny Allard, Helli Tong, Lorraine Rate, Matthew Skidmore, what a team we were!!  Lesley wasn’t even meant to be there, just turned up to surprise us all and stayed all night long, waiting on us hand and foot, and even jumping in to swim a few lengths for Tongie as his team mate had to pull out.  Ben Jaques, Helen Wildin & Gail Alexander dropped by for moral support which was really kind and appreciated enormously.  None of us could have done even half of what we did without any of them so thank you guys, another whole list of people who are owed big time xx

As disappointing as it was, pulling out was absolutely the right call.  That swim wasn’t my main goal for this season.  A certain lake is calling.  We have a date in August and there are ‘warm-up’s’ in the diary along the way.  I could so easily have lost it all by chasing the full house at Guildford.  And my buddies for that certain swim, John Willis & Lesley Cook, demonstrated that they are without doubt the right crew for me.  As much as they will support and encourage me, they both have it within them to look me in the eye and call it a day if things go irretrievably wrong.
As for my ‘theory of forever’ I no longer think of it as a fixed entity.  If success demonstrates that we are capable of more, then surrender must highlight areas where we ‘could do better’.  If we learn the lessons and implement the remedial measures then perhaps forever can never actually be found.
For me, I can safely say that I’m not so wreckless as I thought.  I applied reason, listened to my buddies when their words contradicted what I felt in my heart, and walked away from something that I wanted 100%.  It was a massively tough call.  But I was right at the point of sacrificing a whole season of swimming, if not more.  Go for broke or live to fight another day?  I take the latter.
Will I go back and try again?  Dunno.  But once I’m all fixed again I’m going to keep on looking for forever………..