On 23rd June 2016, the Open Water Ladies Relay Team completed a 2 way crossing of the North Channel – a stretch of water famed for its cold temperatures and challenging currents in 28 hours and 25 minutes.
The swim is a story of 5 ordinary women Caroline, Louise, Vicki, Sarah & Clare who decided to do something extraordinary setting a number of records in the process: Fastest 2 way crossing of the North Channel, Earliest crossing of the North Channel, First 5 person 2 way relay crossing of NC, First all female 2 way crossing of the North Channel and First all British 2 way crossing of the North Channel.
Prior to signing up for the swim Vicki Watson had swum only in a wetsuit in open water.
“I had previously completed two long distance triathlons (The Outlaw), however, I did not learn to swim until 2011, and I had never got my head down and only swum front crawl for an hour, without resorting to a bit of breaststroke!”
Postponed in August because of bad weather, we had to wait until 5th October to complete our Solent Swim Challenge in aid of the Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust.
Magically, we caught the last day of summer and were greeted with calm seas and blue skies – The next day, Autumn officially arrived.
As I wrote back in June, I love how swimming adventures pop up as if from nowhere; yet somehow reveal a hidden logic that joins once disparate dots from across your life, together. The Solent Swim Challenge connected: childhood adventures to the Isle of Wight; my favourite jumper lost in the Solent; a university student inspired and kept on the straight and narrow by the achievements and determination of Ellen MacArthur; family and friends who have battled cancer; and an aspiring open water swimmer with a lot of dreams and whose perception of what is possible was transformed by Anna Wardley’s Five Island Swim Challenge …
You never know where a swimming journey is going to take you; but to be honest I thought this one would be fairly straightforward: build up swim strength; get sea swimming experience; and then the biggest adjustment for me – getting used to swimming in UK water temperatures without a wetsuit. I did all that, but injuries and health complications created unexpected hurdles and made participation in the swim highly unlikely at one point.
When the swim was cancelled back in August, to be honest, I was relieved. And, standing on the beach in October looking out across the sea, I knew that beyond the shores of the Isle of Wight, there were a lot of unknowns for me. I was frightened, but on the upside, I love swimming, so spending the best part of the next two hours in water seemed like a good idea!
The Solent swim team were put into pods according to pace and each swimmer was partnered with a kayaker. I was in super swim kayaker hands; swimming alongside Matthew who had been Anna’s support crew when she swam around Jersey – he even had a whistle to alert me when I was swimming off course – exactly.
I’ve not swum with kayak support before, so this was a learning experience. Matthew was my eyes for the swim. I didn’t have to sight very much at all, just look to my side in rhythm with each breath and be guided along by the kayak. He inspired my confidence from the outset, which was wicked because it meant I could relax, listen to my body and enjoy the swim – particularly welcome as my cervical spine isn’t a big fan of looking up and sighting all the time.
Matthew also kept me updated with my stroke rate (I must confess I am cr*p at maths, so I didn’t fully appreciate the significance of this, but ascertained that it was consistent, which I was confident was a good thing), and last, but by no means least, as we started off on the final stretch, my bikini top had a wardrobe malfunction. Thankfully fixing bikinis in the middle of the Solent is clearly covered in module 1 of swim kayak training …
This swim was wonderful. The camaraderie amongst the swimmers and support crew was lovely – we’d supported and inspired each other whilst training over the summer and there was something really special about us all making the crossing together.
The water felt beautiful and there were big ships making the whole thing feel that extra bit intrepid. We were all on our individual swimming journeys and treading water on our rest stops with my pod I looked between the land points and remembered journeys across the Solent for childhood holidays on the Isle of Wight and in adult life, taking to the helm of a yacht to sail through a gale on the Solent – I couldn’t quite believe where I was!
Concerns about speed and time just disappeared, this was all about the water and the joy of swimming. Suddenly our pod was nearing Rye Sands, the water became shallow, and I found my feet – We did it!
Together the 21 swimmers raised enough funds to send more than 50 young people on sailing courses with the Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust; helping re-build their confidence on their journey of recovery from cancer.
For the last three years I have entered the Mont Blanc Cross or Mont Blanc Marathon, and each year, because of injury or other commitments, I have been unable to make it to the start line. This year I decided: no matter what, I would be there.
The MB Cross is part of a weekend of trail running events in the Chamonix valley: from 10k to a Marathon, to 80km and a vertical km. It’s a truly inspiring weekend. This short clip gives a good feel to the extraordinary atmosphere and exciting terrain involved.
People congregate in Chamonix town centre to cheer runners off on their challenges and welcome them home, as, many hours later, they run back through Chamonix’s streets, exhausted, elated, and, in the case of this years marathon runners, covered in mud and soaked through from a day spent running in torrential rain, hail and snow!
The atmosphere is pretty extraordinary. I marvelled at the elite runners skipping across the finish line and my heart swelled with emotion as the realisation of the magnitude of their achievement passed across the faces of those later on in the pack.
The CTS Flete run at the end of May reassured me I could cover the half marathon distance. But the thing about the MB Cross is that it has some added tricks up it’s sleeve: 1500m of climb up mountain trails, or 1700m as it turned out. “We’re running up there!” said my friend Lizzy excitedly at the start line, whilst pointing up to the finish at Planpraz sitting roughly a 1000m above us.
When you live in Chamonix your benchmarks of distance, altitude etc change a bit. Climbs like that can quite quickly become a normal part of your training schedule. Back in South East London, that is not the case. I glanced up at Planpraz and quickly decided the best option was to ignore its existence until absolutely necessary and concentrate on the relatively kind and undulating first 10km of the course!
Life had been hectic the last few months, training time has been limited and swimming has taken priority. I’m not sure if this was the best plan, but as my legs aren’t comfortable on tarmac I decided to avoid runs of more than about 40mins and stuck to hill reps and intervals in the local park. It wasn’t the final months of preparation I had intended, but life rarely follows the pattern you think it will, and I hedged my bets that it would be enough to get me around the course…
I loved it!
Swimming got my lungs through the uphill, and yes my calves were cramping in the final stages, but the views were stunning and to be back in the mountains, running along the trails, dancing over rocks and picking the quickest downhill path was as smile inducing as it’s always been!
The finish was particularly entertaining with a new route for 2014, up a steep grassy hill. For me, best approached by switching my brain off and smiling at the cheeky-ness of the race organisers for adding in this final hurdle…
A fantastic course that takes you through breathtaking landscape and surrounded by utterly inspiring people. After three years of trying to get to the start line, it was pretty special to get to the finish!
The last three years I have spent a lot of time walking along the Chamonix valley with my head turned upwards staring at the paragliders dancing in the sky. Inspired by their grace I always dreamt of joining them to jump off mountain tops.
So, on the morning of 22 April, after days of stormy, grey weather, Sean at FlyChamonx spotted a brief weather window. And, with the help of his colleague Patrick, I took my first flight: A stunning journey from the top of the Aiguille Du Midi (3842m) amongst the mountain tops of the Mont Blanc Massif.
I was brought to tears by the beauty of the landscape and the grace of flying.
For me, proof if it were needed, that dreams do come true.