Do we judge by fear or reality?

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Bering Strait-Living life at the limit..

"One Cannot Be Prepared For Something, 
While Secretly Believing It Will Not Happen" Nelson Mandela

For me the moment we got the invitation of be part of the Bering Strait Relay, like a monster inside of me-I would walk over the street and start laughing, this random round of applause and often clinch with excitement that we were going to swim in the Bering Strait. I come from a fishing family, my job as a child was to sit on the back window for hours, watch the storm and wait for that moment when my dad’s boat would turn the rocks home. I took that job so seriously as a 7 yr old-I watched that storm and tried to figure out the waves. We have lost 3 boats to the sea, all men saved but I know the power of the water-respect for it beaten into me by generations but also inside is the need to be in the middle of it so taking on a swim in the Bering was as natural as breathing air to me.
Groundhog day off Roundstone... ! 

As swimmers, the sum of our experiences have brought us to this day-so privileged as to live life to the limit again. The Round Ireland Swim tested every fibre in our physical, mental and emotional-it felt brilliant being a member of that amazing team-the wheel was coming full circle and grown from our experiences this was one brilliant opportunity.
The full team had a huge infrastructure of swimmers, speed, endurance, strength, madness and experience-you need it all. Initially there was talk that the number would be too high but whatever it is, without doubt the Bering Strait would test everything.
The months leading up, we treated it as an expedition, Anne Marie and I planned for nutrition, and packed dried foods in case we wouldn’t be able to make meals etc, we brought coffee, tea, nuts, and protein.
always a panic in case no food!! 
Despite being on a hospital ship we packed all medical requirements from BP monitors to HR monitors, dioralytes, re hydration powders, antihistamines, painkillers-we went through every eventuality that we would manage and we catered for it. We packed torches, head torches, reflectors, I cut the whistles off my lifejacket and tied it to my swim togs, swimming lights, multiples of everything, thermals and finally our super immersion suits. I plan for everything-there is no loss in preparation. We were ready to go. Once in Dublin airport we met Padraig Mallon, I realised that I hadn't written a will so I did one there and then, photographed it, witnessed it. Reality... 

The fact that we knew and worked with about 60% of the swimmers in advance was brilliant..You are handing over your safety.  It is so fantastic to know where we sit in such a wonderful group and it was super filled with respect for each other-speed is an asset, so is strength, so is calm and so is endurance.
Never having been there, I started to study everything I could.

To do a risk assessment for any swim you talk about the end game-you discuss and try and manage the greatest risks-NEVER really thinking that they will happen but you plan for them, we would be working with a marine team whom we did not know-The swimming is the rotation of arms there are so many variables that we need to work on. You visualise the swim-you plan. we have seen it all so now we plan. 

  • How would swimmers transfer from rib to ship up the gangplank in big seas-from ship to rib is it a big drop?-how would we get onto the zodiacs in big seas, in trailing waves? 
  • If there are rolling waves knowing that the zodiac needs to be saved first with the crew-who saves the swimmer? is there a plan? 
  • Who would cover the swimmer heading off when the other swimmer was being picked up? 
  • What would happen in low light conditions? Is Fog an issue in the Bering? 
  • Would they use propeller guards on the outboards? 
  • What was the swimmer separation policy? Would the groups work in teams?
  • Did the coxswains know how to manage a swimmer? could the crews identify anxiety? 
  • Did the swimmers all know how to swim with a zodiac? or even in Open Water? 
  • How would the body respond to back to back immersions? 
  • Would the medical crew be enough for a huge volume of freezing swimmers? 
  • Would swimmers who had never seen open water before manage when exposed to the madness that is the Bering Strait? 
  • What was known about the tides you have thousands of miles of oceans trying to squeeze through a small gap? The back lash will be insane for water that can't make it-is that planned for? 
  • How would the team work under the pressure cooker of "nothing is personal"-would they understand it's about the end goal of just swimming to USA?
  • Would be agree on what is safety? 
  • How would the transfers work in freezing temperatures and really how would we work with each other-all experienced in our own areas-but how would we play together when the chips are down. it goes on and on.. Rotating your arms is nothing compared to the plan.. 
I put all of these out there in advance-some of them as far back as March/ April-you manage for end game, you manage for the casualty-you supersize the challenges and mostly you prepare the biggest monster. That's what we did.. 
Jackie, Moi, Melissa, AM

Arriving in Yatutsk was exhilarating. The team seemed absolutely huge in numbers and personality. On the journey to Yatutsk both Anne Marie and I were exhausted. Both coming from a work schedule that was massive so once we landed-our bodies started to drop. I had a fractured tooth which had loosened on a flight-I couldn’t believe I had forgotten dental cement. How was I going to manage a fractured tooth with freezing water? I was tortured. Ireland had been caught in a plankton bloom before we left with high sea temps, Anne Marie had picked up a skin infection made so much worse by 5 flights and airports. Bed rest and antihistimes it was. We had 5 days before any water as such. 

The primary meeting with the organisers was surreal. Their approach was so fantastic. We were a huge group. There will be one voice, one decision but all opinions would be listened to, I have a passion for the military approach-despite adversity there would always be a plan b, c, d and e. No Drama. I needed there not to have fear as a driver so this was so exciting.  I loved the message-we are here to succeed but not at the cost of safety.
However the edge is where we would hover. To physically be on that edge of survival is what life is about..  I love that moment. The most emotional moment at the beginning was the Shaman blessing. The Shaman are a very special group of spiritual leaders-we were invited into this room and the Shaman blessed our journey and brought positive energy to the group.You believe in everything.Our plane to the ship was a military one, supplied by Admiral Sidenko. Until you’re on this, there is no understanding. No air hostesses, no safety briefing, no over head luggage compartments, no attention to “please sit down”… just military pilots, doing a check as doors are closed and we roar up into the sky-no one was sitting down- I'm health and safety freak.. I was saying “will ye just cop on and sit down everyone”
No lights flashing nothing. They sat in the aisles, sharing a drink and a sandwich. It was a 3 hr flight.
Landing in a military airbase was surreal. The protocol-Lifting the luggage out of the hold ourselves in a production line, this was end game expedition-I was excited.

After a few festivities we went to the supermarket for last minute supplies and boarded the ship. All we could think about was water and purchased 10 litres, wine, fruit, some chocolate, washing powder and toilet paper-we were expedition ready.  We boarded the ship. The ship was huge and seeing everyone on the helipad, the realisation that this was a colossal expedition- we felt so proud to be flying our flag. 

It was one of the most surreal moments as they cast off the huge ropes.. a tug boat guided us from port and the reality that the next land we would see would be the USA-wWe stood on the helipad of a Russian Military Hospital Ship-with a team and crew of over 130 people.. from 17 countries, 15 Russian Federations. We had a team of medicals in a functional hospital-a crew who may have seen war- and would cater for every eventuality.. the highest level of Russian Military on board and the most committed fruitcake swimmers that you could put on one ship.. it was one flew over the cuckoo's nest in the best possible way... Laughing was all we could do-if we stopped for one second it sounded so strange.. we are preparing to swim from Russia to the USA for real.. wow..

Monday, June 3, 2013

The Monsters are in our Minds and not in the Ocean..

"If you think something will stop you-You may as well let it"
White tip Shark.. Galapagos Isl. 
South Africa 2003
I was part of the International Shark Research Team-working with Professor Vic Peddemors and his team from the Natal Sharks Board and Durban University-studying the "Behavioural aspects of Sharks" for a period of weeks-We studied Shark Behaviour, Advanced Shark Behaviour, Jaws and Teeth, Great White Shark etc and qualifed under PADI, 16 hrs a day. 
Our main objective was to offer ourselves as an "experiment" so the doctors and professors could have a clinical result, their aim was to learn the Shark's Responses to our presence, to document their reactions to our movements and learn, when we moved how they reacted, our breathing, our cameras. 
Dive operators are putting big groups in and sometimes not having a positive shark experience. We dived the whole coast from Natal to Protea Banks to Cape Town, Mossel Bay and Seal Island. We interacted with the "Big 5".. 
We were the guinea pigs and along the journey we faced some of our greatest fears, raw in an open ocean, where achieving became the focus not the fear.  I love Sharks, I respect them and mostly I feel there are misunderstood.. The monsters are in our minds not in the ocean.. ! 
I have never seen a shark waiting behind a rock with the intention to jump out and scare us, or have I witnessed a shark camouflaged with a "hoodie" on... !!! their intentions are well documented and Marine.. !!!! 
Great White Cruising at Mossel Bay

My First Encounter with 2.2 metre  female.. 

I was lying on the sand, controlling my breathing as sharks came and went into our space, out of my peripheral vision this female, 2.2 m shark plus cruised along and studied us. She stopped completely still in front of my face, probably 24 inches away, her eyes white and grey darted to observe. Sharks monitor their prey by sounding their circadian  rhythms, so I focused on bringing my breathing down and calm. Try as I might I could not hold her stare in the insistent way she was staring at me.
Sharks rub their bellies on the sand to massage their organs
My fingers squeezed the fellow diver beside me. some emotional reassurance, The other sharks were in the area but this stand off was taking all my energy and focus. We were 6 divers lying on the ground, with the professors monitoring the sharks behaviour to our presence. Prof Vic's eyes smiled at me, I was afraid to giggle in case the change in breathing rhythm would cause our friend to jolt.
In a split second she snapped her jaws towards my face and picked up a small fish on her tooth and off she swam.
The next few breathes were really deep as I tried to relax and bring myself down again. The rest of the hour I  tried to process my encounter. The safety stop at 3m where we sit it out for 5 mins, I pulled my fins up under me (anxious not to have dangling limbs!!) I was very unsettled as I looked down at several sharks cruising underneath.
Busy Girl with my gear.. 
Once out of the water, I was excited to discuss it with the Professors.
"Did you see the way the shark stopped in front of me a few times?  was she trying to pass? "
I started the chat as Professor Vic smiled in great response for their observations.
"She was very aggressive wasn't she?" I jolted ..
" Based on what?" Professor Vic replied-
 That shark was staring at me, she snapped at a fish, she stopped in front of us, she was intimidating and she did this a few times, what did he mean 'based on what'? I kept eye contact but I couldn't put any answers into words
"There was nothing in her behaviour that was agressive Nuala, she was responding normally with curiosity, She was quite relaxed. Aggressive is a different behaviour." His voice seemed disappointed.. I was talking about his sharks..
"Maybe you were afraid?" he continued..

hmmmm I actually was.. I had to think about things.. Professor Vic Peddemors was very respectful of us. We tend to mix up fears and reality.. just because I was afraid, Obviously the shark had to be aggressive... What are fears?
Hammerheads travel in hundreds-
if you don't lie on your back
and look-it takes them 10 mins
to pass and you get a pain in
your neck!-Taken Galapagos 2007

"Maybe she was picking out the Alpha female in the group-Nuala" He replied, with a smile still respecting our fears but pointing out that I was afraid based on my fears not reality.
We had tagged the shark and recorded her spot markings, labelled her as semi resident so they decided to call her 'Nuala ..' there is a 2.2m Nurse Shark off Natal called Nuala-my namesake-something about the approach she took me thinks..
That about summed it up for me.. !!

So strange.. as the weeks went on I was so determined NOT to disappoint Professor Vic but mainly myself.  When we were diving off Protea Banks in fast fast water, I could see the tags flashing on the fin of the shark beneath me, I could see the other divers watching and trying to determine the number to record. The stripes showed me it was a "Tiger", I really wanted to bring the number back to Prof so I ambled down, squinting at the yellow tag, beyond my limits to get the answer..I got it and I was the only one to have secured the right number.
One time I was swimming at speed on a parallel line with a shark, fining gently trying to record the spot patterns when the shark turned suddenly and I realised we were going to head butt!!! Trying to go backwards is not the easiest.. Hilarious, it became hilarious. The Great White was surreal, an absolute machine, but not at any point did I feel intimated by their actions.
Great White off Cape Town SA

I was not going to be involved in another question about my fears.. the more I went about my business the more I realised I was basing my fears on the impression I had of the sharks.. as the time passed, they were beautiful and I learned more about me as well.. What they do is what they do.. !!!!

Aggressive shark behaviour is erratic movement, arched back, dropped pec fins and speed.. pretty similar to other animals.. There are perimeters we all need to respect both with man and animal..
On our night dives, it was slightly unnerving to begin, as the torch slides back a silver belly-you know the face is coming.. from what you can see at night.. multiply by 10-and don't shine the torch in their eyes.. !

We had come out to South Africa, to work with Professor Vic Pedemors and Durban University to study the Behavioural Aspects of Sharks to offer ourselves as the experiement and it was one of the most exhausting, most exhlerating, most searching trips of my life in diving.
I have dived with sharks in the Indian Ocean, the Galapagos, West Africa, the Caribbean, the Seal Island off Cape Town I have dived for over 24 yrs and I have had MORE privileged experiences than fearful. Human interaction is probably the greatest factor to a negative experience so I really do defend sharks. Unlike Humans their attacks are more random than specific, more based on survival than fun.
Not always visible-for what you see then multiply

So as time goes on I am fascinated on how so many people gauge the adventures we undertake mostly based on their fears..It stresses me when we use photos to "up" our challenges.. the fact that the shark looks something to fear is certainly not the reason that our challenge is greater.. manage the risks and accept that Sharks live there, they can't leave home just to facilitate our stress free immersion. Of course there are possibilities, BUT if you were to walk though city centres at night.. things can happen.. Educate yourself and learn to love.. of course they can attack... but...

Some random facts on Sharks.. .

  • 33% of their body weight is their Liver.. they have a requirement to eat fat..leads me to believe that those with Subcutaneous fat levels should shiver a little more in their presence as he licks his lips.. (their main diet would be whales, dolphins, seals-mainly for their fat levels).
  • Sharks are on predatory status at night time and dusk.. They often spend their early mornings.. rubbing their bellies on the sand..If there are cleaner fish travelling under neath their bellies and their mouths.. They have eaten. 
  • Sharks feed every 4-7 days... try and swim days 1-3 (hee hee.. )
  • After a shark attack, the shark rarely goes back to finish off the casualty and very rarely the rescuer is ever attacked. (shows potentially the shark attack was not intentional. )
  • The sharks have several sets of teeth that are replaced every few weeks.. usually rotating 6 at a time.. The Upper jaws of the Great White are NOT embedded in the cranium-so as the Great White is feeding the jaws jumps out to feed. 
    Great White Jaws-we studied Jaws and
    and teeth-feeding mechanisms
  • The teeth of the Tiger Shark have a phenomenal structure-one half pointed one way with the other half of the mouth pointed in the opposite direction, which allows him to thrash his head and saw through the shells of turtles.. 
  • The Shark does not have eye lids and the GW while he is in aggressive predatory mode will drop a sheath of white over his eye and approach his final assault blind, in case his eyes get damaged. It is the white eye.. so if the GW approaches with his black eyes solid he is not as phased by his predator. His eyes are soooo black, completely soul less-the other sharks are mostly grey..
  • The Sharks have sensory organs called the Ampullae of Lorenzini around their snouts.. these are filled with gelatinous substance filled their pores.. so Yup if you hit them in the snout it can and will stun them.. 
  • Don't flash your cameras/torches at their eyes.. startles them!! 
I could go on and on... Please be more gentle with these amazing machines. They are beautiful.. Love and respect them but please do NOT use them to make your challenge greater than it is..sometimes we climb hills but don't use our sharks to make mountains out of it.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

A Force of Nature-The North Channel 4th time lucky..

"The Strength of the Waves are in their Perseverance"
I remember hearing those words.. "You have to respect the North Channel.. "
2008-Anne Marie spent 17.5hrs at 12 deg but tides drove her back... 
2009- her night start, rogue weather lifted and she was separated from her pilot-she was lifted from the water in the darkness when she drifted inside the islands. 
2010- 5 hrs swimming through jellyfish, kicking basketballs-she continued in the hope of breaking free-she finally accepted that she couldn't move her joints, it was over and was transferred to hospital.
2010 - 4 weeks later after 18 hrs 59mins she went back and became the 1st Irish Woman and the 11th swimmer in History to cross this body of water.. 

It's 8.36pm in the evening Anne Marie has been rotating her arms for over 8 hours, ploughing her way across the 20 mile stretch of the North Channel, she has been here before this time it is different. The water is calm and the jellyfish are a lot more friendly. The water is 12/13 c (56-58 f)degrees but starting early in the day seems to have allowed her body to maintain some level of body heat. Hypothermia is not an issue at the moment. Pushing her fingers into the dark water-it's late afternoon but the water in the North Channel is dark. The bottle of feed drops in front of her, she gulps some sugar and warm liquid into her system, it is the sentence that she is waiting for. "The tide is turning" for the next six hours she will be swimming against the flow. "You will need to really push hard for the next few hours, so we don't go backwards" a calm and concerned voice came from the rib.
After 8 hours of rotating her arms now she needs to push hard. Smiling to the boat she digs re enters her liquid world. Anne Marie has not stood up, breathed freely, wiped her eye, taken off her goggles, blown her nose, scratched her leg or stopped for more than a minute in the last eight hours. She has maintained a 62/63 spm and now she had to push hard for 4 hours so they would not go backwards. This time she has covered just under 12 nm which is super progress.

There is no other sport where you have to fight hard so as you don't go backwards. How does a swimmer be so mentally strong as to want to go forward? How can Anne Marie come back here 4 times just to push her body through this? To know the pain and take it anyway. How can a team focus on something and want this as much for themselves as for her? This has become personal for all of them and this time the full team are throwing the kitchen sink at it.

 They had originally planned to take the swim on the 3rd of Sept, this was the 1st Sept, would the strength of the 2 extra days change the plan? could she hold her own? would her body be turned back to Ireland? Looking up at the crew she regained focus and pushed hard as the waves beat against the tide. The next 4 hours she covered 3 nmiles.

Dive Ciara- Gus and Ivan Team Delta Int.

The Dive Ciara and the Zebedee who carried her rescue crews rotated crew every hour allowing the guys to stay fresh and alert for her. The crew would swop over to the Lucky Lizzie owned by Gus O Driscoll, have a break and transfer back. This activity allowed Annemarie to count the hours and it was fantastic to check out the new faces each turnover. Who's here now? the different methods of crewing? what are they chatting about?
It is so strange so low in the water, you can still seek out the pupils of the eyes that follow you. To have a body bearing down on you is the most exerhilating moment in the world, it takes away all the fears. Like a child screaming " are we there yet?" the signals would come for the next feed.

8.35pm Annemarie has done great against the odds. The next feed she asks "Am I back in Larne?" The smiles told her that she had made progress, you never tell a swimmer the truth that in mind she dug in again. It's 5 miles to Scotland. How far is that? Is it 6 more hours? How do you take that on board? when you're broken and chaffed from movement what does 6 more hours mean? no doubt she is cold but that is no longer an option.
Noel B and Annemarie

The darkness falls and there is a super level of calm in the crews, "all I have to do is swim" she mantra'd.
The crews had been awake for 30 hours, travelling through the night, we're a team. Sitting on a rib, watching, counting the stroke to see if there are any changes, feeling the pain, crewing is the toughest job. The swimmer sees all activity on the boats, tries to figure out conversations through movements, senses anquish so the crew need to be strong for the swimmer. She thought about the sacrifices that they had made. The years that they had plotted and planned, the miles they had travelled, their families, her family, her work all for her to reach a rock in Scotland.

"I'm not coming back here. This is it, give it everything, please don't let the bar be too high, I can't ask anymore from these guys" a voice screamed.
Absorbing the smiles, the sun set over the North Channel. The faces became shadows as the large Jenny spotlights lit up her way, they searched out jellyfish as she took stings but nothing like before. Progress far outweighed any pain.
Annemarie and Derek
At 11pm, 14.5hrs swimming, Annemarie had covered 2 miles in the last 2 hours but she was still facing Scotland. Her stroke jumps to 66 spm. There is power coming through. Her throat was starting to hurt and her tongue was swollen from the salt, so with the next feed she takes in mouth wash. The worst of the tide had been beaten and the outgoing tide was now weakening. The chaffing was becoming a greater pain, friction burns from skin folds crossing over.

It is a very bizarre feeling but the adjustment to darkness allows the swimmers to relax a bit. The arms rotate like regular but the mind needs to slow down. The lights of the boats became too bright though it was important for them to light the way it was more important for her to relax and try and 'sleep' for a while. She asked the crews to turn off the lights. It's like being in a very bright room at night, the phosference of your hands cutting through the water,as your fingers reach into the darkness can be quite hypnotic and often times relaxes the mind. The darkness anisthisises the pain or allows the mind to numb it. Darkness can be comforting to a swimmer.
She accepted that this was it, there will be no other journey here and whatever she had she was going to leave it in the North Channel.

The faces were bearing down on her. The boats so close that there was nothing that could come between them. You want the boat right on top of you, like an umbilical cord you can draw oxygen from the faces. Being able to look into their eyes so close is something that a swimmer learns over years, finding a focus and as the time passed, the energy of the crew was transferred.
The next two hours covered 1.7nmiles- Anne Marie was making excellent progress.
How can you actually stop? it's easy on the road to ease to a jog, or slow down on a bike.
A scream came"can you see Port Patrick?" The sense of hope huge.

Temptation to touch her goggles was there but she knew she had a seal and she could not risk looking and breaking that seal.
2.16am Anne Marie was swimming 18 hours non-stop in 12/13 degree water. The veil of darkness that had dropped was no longer an obstacle, taking her last feed, the word came that Scotland was .75miles away, Land was 1km from her. Some athletes would shake that off as being 15 minutes of their time, but the sea allows you through if and when it wants.
The North Channel today was different, it was allowing passage. Closing her eyes she screamed "the boys will get me home, the boys will get me home". trying to prevent the welling of tears, her breathing elevated. This was her mantra for the next hour.

As Derek guided her into a bay, there was a sense of closure, a sense that she was gliding somewhere. Ryan her brother joined her in the water. For one person to touch a rock it takes a full team to get us there. All our responsibilities have to be carried while we pursue our dreams and as swimmers the friends & family who allow us to fly are the true heros. Annemarie began to list the people who made this happen and that last 1km took Annemarie 1hr 30 minutes.

At 18 hrs and 59mins Annemarie became the first Irish Woman to swim across the North Channel and the 11th person in History to complete it.
It is the longest immersion by a swimmer in the channel as well. Overall Annemarie has spent 43 hours swimming in the North Channel. Though it's crossing is 35km/20m it is without doubt the average of 60 km that a swimmer rotates.

Her Crew
Surrounding her was Brendan Proctor who has been at her side in swimming for many years. He captained the Command boat with the beautiful Sea Breeze during the Round Ireland Relay Swim and his wisdom, humour and caring nature was the saviour of our sanity over 56 days. I always remember a comment he made
"it's never worth having a bad swim today, because you could jeproadise a really good swim tomorrow"

Annemarie and Brendan
Team Delta International as they are now called and members of the Sheephaven Sub Aqua Unit, guys who's knowledge of the North Coast & waters and it's heartbeat, is worth it's weight in gold. Ivan, Gus, Joe and Eoin are rogues to the highest level but there is nothing they would not do to drive you forward. I often during our swims thought they were like the Steven Segal of the movies, without the long hair of course. Mad but had your back. They manage those ribs on the edge of safety with the precision of a chef slicing the thinist cut. Her brother Ryan who is so selfless and as solid as a rock, together with Noel Brennan who morning after morning at 6am winter pushed her distances in 5 & 6 degree water. Sillyness that Noel put a big heater into his van so Annemarie could heat up faster.
Ivan, Joe and Gus-3/4 of Team Delta
Derek Flanagan, the marine co-ordinator, whose knowledge of the sea and understanding of tides is something to behold. He has a very special knowledge. They had one common goal and it became as important to all that they would finish what they came to do in 2008. I think the North Channel respected that as well.

What makes the North Channel so different?
When the thousands of miles of water try to squeeze between the Ireland and Scotland, the space being so small and ragged, it forces that water to act very erratically. Like an excited child it runs through islands and in and out of headlands and bays, it goes every direction, even sometimes backwards. Therefore, to a swimmer, there is no definite system of movement. Add to this the fact that the water temperature is only 12 degrees C (late 50′s in F), To take it on requires a swimmer who is willing to take defeat as objectively as success. There is nothing personal in there.
The North Channel is scary in a strange sort of way, it is dark in it's beat and movement. Kinda like a pychopathic nature, difficult to understand yet easy. a variable that you can't take your eyes off.
I remember my dad telling that if a fish box fell over board that it would fly away from the boat at speed, this always stays in mind when in troubled waters.

Annemarie Ward;
How can a swimmer, know the pain, feel the pain, know the challenges and still feel the need to go back in.
Why did crossing this body of water mean so much? No reason except it is here.

The final march of the penquins.. 830 miles later 56 days..nothing was possible without team..
The entire community feels good for Anne Marie, including Kevin Murphy, the King of the Channel.
Kevin knows well how tough the North Channel is, "I've done 56-mile swims. I've done 52-hour swims. I've done a high-altitude lake swim. I've done Loch Ness where the temperature falls to 7°C (44.6°F). I've swum in air temperature of -34°C. I've done a Norwegian fjord passing the inflow from glaciers. I've swum in South Africa with the Great White Sharks. I've done the Catalina and Santa Barbara Channels. When I'm asked what's the toughest of all, my answer is the North Channel. I've done it three times and it still frightens me.."

Chatting to her tonight her first statement was "can you believe that I haven't been out to celebrate yet?"

Monday, April 29, 2013

Who are the winners? or What is winning.... ?

"You lose 100% of the races you don't start".... 

The dedication of so many athletes to drive their bodies to get faster, to win races, to the lure of the gold has always fascinated me and once for a brief moment in time I did join their ranks. But more and more as life takes over I am forced to ask myself what is winning?

Many years ago at the Chicago Triathlon, I noticed a group of athletes not the slimmest, walking about post race with trophies. Team Clydesdales, athletes who compete in a weight athletic association, athletes who from 140 lbs upward would only compete against their own, it made sense as I could never beat a runner 3 stone lighter than me.

It would mean that I would race the Olympic Distance triathlon against athletes over 180 lbs.
Excited and delighted, well in excess of 180 lbs, The Clydesdale World Record for Olympic Distance triathlon was well within my time at 3 hrs 30mins. It was the first time in my life I wanted to win. The lure of the gold, I trained and I genuinely wanted to have the first spot. I had no idea who my competition was but when I returned to Chicago to compete in the world games I was focused.

In the forum, many had stories that really brought us into their journey as to why they were athletes.. I felt so shallow when I said those words to a group.. “I just want to be a winner, I want to count"...   

I didn’t have a sad story, well I did but it wasn’t what defined me or my reasons for seeking my moment.

At 4 am in the transition area a lady who was in my category came up to me as I racked my bike and whispered.. “I’m going to whip your ass” My HR went through the roof. 
I immediately wanted to move my bike. Standing at the jump section of the swim, she walked up to me and gave me a hug. I lost my breathing and the swimmers were gone. I had to take my time. Once gathered I powered off, feeling the power of my strokes, so blessed to have my face in the water, allowing the liquid to calm me. 

I was well ahead in the swim; There were only 3 bikes gone from my rack when I jumped on my bike.  I watched her jog out of transition as I racked my bike after the 40km. Never having run a 10km I somehow convinced myself that I was stronger than her. How the mind works. How could I possibly know? But I know that I was stronger than I felt.  I jogged slowly behind her like a great white-watching, calculating, never actually feeling my own pain just living hers. She really wanted to beat me but she didn't know I was right behind her-she would be using energy in the thoughts. At the 4 mile mark still not aware of how I was feeling I jogged alongside. I spoke with her for a few moments, somehow decided I was stronger and ran like I never ran before. I was a machine, when I crossed the line; winning the world championship in my weight category in Olympic Distance Triathlon. it was the most excitement that I had ever experience in the sport. Despite the fact that my friends would have finished 40 minutes faster than me my medal said winner and not finisher.
Finishing 2nd to Anna Carin Nordin

I have been on the podium since and each time I really wanted the trophies, finishing 2nd at Lake Zurich, leaving 4 ladies behind me over 26km was fantastic in tough conditions, I don’t think I would have come 2nd in good conditions but once home their significance pales. 
Then I think of the times when my goggles were filled with tears, when I had to turn from the boat and confront my exhaustion, my nothingness, my insignificance. "Do you want to get out?" words fell from the boat... "That's not going to solve anything.. " so I had to reconcile myself.. Moments when I had to go to a place that some will ever see... Life has brought me there.. 

To me the moments that bring complete utter and total rapture are the moments when I decide that I can finish. Moments when I decide that I am bigger than the challenge-and there have been many moments like that in my life.. not all in swimming or sport but life.. Life imitates sport and adventure and sometime Life prepares you for the moments where winning is all you got.. but not trophies or medals-they are a few euros and you can train your body for the race but your mind… that mind.. the moment you decide that race is yours… even if you’re all alone in the race-is that moment.. when you know you’re a winner.. No one can take that from you.. 
Nothing will ever take away this moment.. 830 miles-56 days... winning was surviving.. 

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

1000m @ 0 Deg inside the Arctic Circle..

"There is absolutely nothing that separates the elite from the paupers except their expectations. If you wish to rise above the masses, then let the fire burn fiercely within you. Do this, and it shall be done!." - J. Arthur Holcombe

Turning for the last 2 lengths, my mind started to release so much emotion. There were no feelings of elation, not a sense of achievement, or recognition. All I could think about was that I had held it together and I did good. Now I need to do better... We get to the 1000m on our own but we don't get back on our own.. 

Day before the event.. 
It was hilarious on so many levels, Anne Marie and I were in Murmansk 100 miles inside the Arctic Circle, to take part in the International Winter Swimming Championships. What an invitation and what an experience. Today would be one of my biggest challenges, or would it? I was taking on 1000m at 0 Deg water.
I was careful to drink a lot of fluids.The heat in the hotel and the buildings was intense and the 28 hrs of travel and tiredness had definitely contributed to dehydration. I was going to give myself the best possible chance. The atmosphere in the breakfast was filled with smiles as faces reunited after a few months, last time was in Tyumen Siberia in Dec.

My mind was already in the pool, I was up and down the lanes, trying to organise my thoughts when in walked the South Africans, Ram, Kieron and Ryan. 5 hours earlier they arrived in Murmansk, only 5 hours ago after a 30 hour journey. Cristian and Melissa landed from the US and Henri from Estonia, Jackie from the UK yesterday so we had met. Today we were joined with Alexander Brylin who in Tyumen had completed 2,200m at 0 Deg with an Air temp of -30 deg. What a stacked room.
Great group.. 

We were like special forces, landing in and out of each others lives with intense speed and precision, long enough to share, encourage and facilitate dreams,  but 48 hours from now, it will be over, gone mostly without saying Goodbye... It's hard to describe the feeling of being in a room with such surreal achievements. It's a feeding frenzy for possibility.

What would today bring? what did it offer? What would 0 Deg water do to me over the distance?  I had only ever spent over 3 minutes at 0 Deg in Tyumen so how would that change when I'm going to do 8 times that? Were my dreams bigger than my reality? I didn't think so. I had no real idea what I was afraid of, what "fear" I held. I was nervous.but of what? My greatest monster is Disappointment. Me, myself and I would be my biggest challenge, on the flip side I am my biggest fan. It's a tough one to reconcile.

In Tyumen I got into the Ice, the air temp was -30 deg plus, I remember thinking that I would go as far as I could go, the moment overwhelmed me and I got out at 150m. Once out, my recovery was minimal. I was disappointed, I was totally able to accept that on that day I went to a limit, maybe not my limit but I respected where the conditions I was in and what I was dealing with.
My ice swim in January was an emotional challenge and when the pain kicked in, and not physical pain my responses were as I had hoped for. Going to empty was one of the best experiences. 

The opening cermony was stunning and the flags, the sense of pride was brilliant. The Tri Colour raised high, the music blared it was such a positive atmosphere. The International Winter Swimming Championship in Murmansk inside the Arctic Circle was opened. After a few moments we all retired to the holding pen for a few hours to wait and stay warm out of the freezing temperatures.

The 30 minutes before the swim was surreal, my heart was beating at an intense pace.

Anne Marie was out of her swim, hurried along to the sauna by Maria, wrapped in her dressing gown. Her face was a bit stressed, her eyes darted me a look..
"Oops I thought, AM doesn't walk that fast in general.."..The swim was fine, the jog up 2 flights of steps and 300 m was a challenge..
The support we get is stunning.. 

Big smiles 1 from 2 for us. Silently we gathered for our walk to the pool. Despite all the festivities I saw no one and nothing, I remember nothing of the walk to the lane, I was so focused. The immediate immersion takes your breath away and within a minute the horn goes and pushing off from the wall is a release. It takes quite a few strokes to loosen the chest, to be able to breath without a gasp, to exhale fully without gulping.

A few lengths in, my breathing had regulated, not breathing too deeply, just pushing along. water had started to leak into my goggles. my right lens was filled. I was angry. I stopped at one end and pulled the strap. I couldn't believe that it was a reason to stop me. 1000m with water in my goggles-s**t.
hmmmm just before the 1000m..

Maria was at the end so I stopped and asked for my other pair of goggles from the tent, I turned and pushed off to decide my plan. I decided that the eye that was filled was not my seeing eye. I only breath to one side that it would be under water the whole time . Maria stooped down to offer me my spare pair, I gave her a thumbs up I was ok.
The burn was building into my hands and I found that I was clenching them as I pulled a lot under neath my body. My teeth started to feel a little Ice Cream freeze. I used my tongue to block the water. I tried to focus on the positive. The snow was flickering, the scenery was stunning, the crowd amazing as I watched Cristian midway clicking the camera.  I found the lanes count, hard to see finally I spotted the card 23 lengths.

I pushed off the wall and thought 23 means that 22 once I get back to the start. That 11 doubles so that 50 and 500. By the time I had that much sorted I was back up and it was 21. I started again to try and figure out what to count. You really do need a degree in maths to figure out pool swimming. 21 was too high so I decided to do 2 x 4 doubles and then a countdown of 4 so that was exciting. so it was all 4's.

How I wanted to see a pink house, pass an island or see a rib. I imagined the pier and then counted my way back the beach. Suddenly my mind went into a heightened sense of awareness, instantly I panicked in case I was drifting-I started to check everything, start at the head and ask a question and once I was on a final 10 lengths my mind was racing. Check Check Check... My mind became a little elevated, I think it was the first time that I understood that I was on my way.
My mind was very strong. I was cold but I was more excited about the way I felt rather than the way I actually did feel. I touched and saw Anne Marie looking down. I was never so relieved. No matter how confident I was or not. Anne Marie what to do with me, in case I was delusional!!!

I increased my leg kick in an effort to get to the end quickly but after a few increased breaths I slowed up. My feet were solid and there was no flex in my ankles, kicking was not an option. There was no place for increased anything now. "pull it back" I screamed. I cruised up to the final length, my only focus was my breathing.
The final few lengths of my 1000m

I don't remember thinking or feeling that I achieved anything, there was not one moment of "high five to myself"  my mind was consumed with focus and staying strong to get out.Peddlers Lake was forefront in my mind. Now was the work.
My hands were at an end stage burn and my fingers were so sore, as I tried to reach to the ladder but I  had the strength to lift myself up.Hands grabbed me. Once out I was 100% tunnel vision. The crowds, the music, the sounds that brought me through the first 20 lengths were now filled with a complete eerie silence. There was no sounds, no people. I saw Anne Marie and Maria. My feet were moved so quickly that a sea of people opened to the tent. Once in the biggest challenge I faced was a huge burp. I needed to burp. I had swallowed so much water and air. My belly hurt. My togs were ripped off as I faced the heater. Anne Marie and Maria climbed the ramps with me to the sauna, 300m to the centre through the snow, Each step a mini mountain to lift my feet over the timber lips of the ramp, don't trip I repeated.
The heated timber of the sauna, as the towels arrived to wrap around my core, Vikki and Irina working so hard. I closed my mind and for a few minutes I focused on the heat filling my core.
Melissa and Jackie arrived, it was great to see their faces. Melissa in her Stars and Stripes bikini can only ever bring a feeling of heat and smiles, Jackie in her zebra dressing gown.
The fab four.. 
We chatted about swims, I tried to engage but I was concentrating so much on my reheating. It still didn't matter that I had completed 1000m at 0 degrees inside the Arctic Circle. The mutual respect was surreal. For me the moment was about how I managed to break through another barrier, I worked my way to a new level, baby steps and Tyumen really allowed me today, my training wheels have gone.

After what seemed like a few minutes Irina said that the men would be coming. Ram, Kieron, Ryan and Henri would need the space and our help. Taking the mile and 2km then Sasha and Cristian taking on the 1000m. There was huge recovery to come.. I stood up and walk out of the sauna, the doctor took my BP and HR. My BP was 140/100 which was fine with a HR of 103. This was fine considering I had just put my body under the pressure I had. Putting on my teddy bear dressing gown.. Ryan was in in a flash, I wished for a brief second that I had a fashion advisor, but you know what, with recovery, dignity out the window. The next hour was one of the most surreal learning experiences of recovery in my life. Being on both sides-seeing my reflection in their faces, finally getting a view of what we look like. So many dreams released inside the Arctic Polar Circle, so many personal moments of achievement and so much pride in each other and so much love and respect. 
I know I could not achieve this in open water, the confined sections of the Ice allows the mind security to keep going. the counting of lengths, the security of safety cover are a few metres away. The touching at each end. The challenge is compartmental and broken to possibility this confined space. 
My 450 m was 10 minutes-my 1000m was 23 mins so my first 500m and my second 500m was pretty much equal. There is NO way I have a mile in me now.. that would take a lot of work. I know what has to be done, I can see the path but It's not within my reach now. 

The weekend inside the Arctic Circle in Murmansk allowed me to go somewhere that I knew was possible and to enjoy the experience. Big thanks to all who made it happen, who treated us with the utmost of love and welcomes. Russia really has a lot to be proud of, allowing us to drop in and out of our heroes lives. To be part of Ice Swimming History and have so many stories to tell.
To complete my 1000m with the swimmers I did is what made it one of the most special experiences of my life. Thanks to all who helped to make it happen and allow me to believe. 

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Challenge of the transfer from Swimmer to Casualty

“Our limitations and success will be based, most often, on your own expectations for ourselves. What the mind dwells upon, the body acts upon.” - Denis Waitley

I know there is a lot of judgement on this but the challenges of life and swimming have taught me humility & to be honest with myself and those around me. 
"The last hero died in 1944" a woman once told me. The situations we find ourselves in, by our making or otherwise, if we can't change we need to keep moving..Decisions were made mainly as continuing would have caused more difficulty. You never risk the team. I took my time on this blog. I have debriefed to minutia with at least 7 member of the rescue who were present and my crew and this is as much their information as it is mine. We can focus on moments as being a "bad experience" or we can focus on the amazing way we internally step up to the bar. In swimming & life there are experiences that force us to be much greater than we were at that moment. Not an any point in the hour lying down did I feel I was in trouble-and again as like a few times before in my life being where I was and seeing who I am and seeing the people around me is a privilege not a negative. I have learned loads about me and not that I made the wrong decision but that I have a fight in me that was like a "light bulb" coming on. 

The wind was ripping, it has lifted so much since I went into the lake.  I was cold but the cold really wasn't important. My insides were fine, my hands and feet were freezing but my belly was warm. Siberia was -30 deg air a few weeks ago so this was acceptable. I had so many clothes on me and even though it was the right decision to sit down and not walk any further, the ramifications of saying "I can't" was creating a huge internal struggle. For anyone who struggles with internal conflict and chats, will know the fights and battles are of Sparta Levels. All else pales. Frances said that I was quite aggressive at one point. 

If I struggle down will it compromise my core?  Siberia was a huge learning curve. Seeing what was necessary to finish, the recovery and not just the distance. The weather was changing my plan, time was not with me today. My team needed urgency but it is difficult to rush an Ice swimmer.

I knew that it was 110 times more important to focus on my recovery. I knew about the after drop and I could feel my team were worried. I knew not to push too hard, not to ask too much of myself. I wanted to help them but I couldn't. My thermals were on, my survival immersion suit was on, my Ice Swim was completed and the team were ok and I would be OK I needed a moment.
Just like in life when a moment of trauma happens, the only way you can regain a perspective is for everything to stop, to get off the bus.  
A part of me felt that I could control my descent. I remember glancing at Frances and thinking Frances can't fall. She has work tomorrow. I knew what I wanted, I wanted to move but there was a blip in my thinking, it was 90% certain and 10% nervous. There was so much activity, so much movement around me. 
I wondered if I slid down on my bottom, but every avenue I went to in my mind all I could think of was " I can't".. I can't.. That 10% of uncertainty was enough to say no.

At this moment I was 100 feet from the road. My team were brilliant, that's why I asked them to support me. They have crewed and been part of my adventures for going on 10 years and they knew me inside and out. They knew what I can handle emotionally and today was not my day. 

I tucked my face into myself and closed my eyes.. if i'm not 100% then I'm out of the game. 
One of the greatest challenges for me as a person is that I am very independent in my thinking, in my organisation, in my swims. I have a huge expectation of myself and sometimes others. I am very particular to detail, I genuinely am not great at saying" I need help". It's a fault (& I don't have that many!!!) 

An image from Tyumen landed into my brain-a moment in the airport (those there will know)-where we was grappling with a trauma situation, a prestigious Ice Swimmer trying to help me with my bags was getting advice from another Ice Guru -"she's an Alpha female.. " is all I heard as I walked away with my bags... I giggled out loud hmmmmm Ram!! 

Back to my rock, this Alpha female needs to suck it up today. "I'm sorry" kept falling from my lips,I must have said it 10 times,  Carol leaned in and said "I'm going to put my face next to yours.." OK I thought. I was sorry that people had to be displaced. One by one faces appeared, all faces I knew. John leaned in and said "I'm just going to find your pulse"
pressing his hand on my neck. 
"You won't find it" I said quietly. 

The HR is so slight and difficult to find when I am in this state of hypothermia. My body is not moving too much blood and it's work rate is low in the cold. There were a lot of people around me and even though I would have liked a bit of space, they had to do their job. Inside I was very busy, very busy. I had a full rolling list flashing before my eyes, of stuff that I had to sort, sometimes the list would not work so I had to go back to the start again. My HR, my BP, My details, my night before how do I explain that. 

I knew I looked like crap, I have been a spectator to at least 10 extreme swims, where swimmers exited in an rough condition, my eyes would be distant, my face slightly stressed, I would inhale deeply at times when I wanted to organise my thoughts.  BUT no worse looking that a swimmer after 10-12 hours in the sea. I knew that I would be uncooperative mainly as my mind is operating at a slow speed. When there are so many voices, I can only process one at a time, their questions meant very little to me, every now and then something did matter and I  answered but mainly there was no need. They would do what they needed and for me I concentrated on my myself. 
"Where am I?" I asked. 

A few voices started to ask me my name, I knew my name, I knew what I was doing but once in the tent I didn't know where I was?
I started to think what I would say to people so I dug deep back into my thoughts.
Fu*k it.. I said so many times as I wondered what Ram Barkai would say, what the SA's would say? We work so hard to be safe, I needed people to not judge this. It was consuming my mind. It was the recovery I misjudged, the walk. If I was put into a car directly I would have been just like the others. They weren't able to walk either. 

Maryann reached in to try to get a pulse again, then I heard her say.
"Don't tell her about the Helicopter" I jolted upwards.
Not the helicopter-Carol saw the stare in my eyes and whispered into my ear "Helicopter is 8 mins out" 
I ranted and raved inside, this is a whole new ball game-lights were flashing, what info do I need for the Helicopter. 
I heard voices discussing to elevate my legs and Maryann said no..It was hard for me to determine if they were elevated or not, I was on uneven rocks. BUT the cold blood would run back to my core and reduce the body temp again, dilute the hard work of the last hour. I didnt need my legs and they are all wrapped up, please don't elevate them. So I relaxed again knowing that Maryann had deflected that. As Carol was trying to warm my hands I was calculating that I don't need the blood there either so I tried to pull them back.
"Just my organs I tried to say" If the freezing cold blood goes back up my arm to my upper body then that will cool my heart. I was aware that I was starting to fight them so I wanted to relax a little. I was trying to take control. 
Me heading up.. 

"Where's LJ?" worried about the dog. 
"Does Maryann have the keys of my jeep?" 
"Maryann has everything" Carol confirmed, "She's gone down with your dog. 
Closed my eyes again to focus on the next hurdle. 

At one stage I became very aware that my right arm was pink fleece, my left arm was black, I had a red sock on my left hand, and my red glove on my right. 
Where exactly did I get to? Where did I sit down? What has to be done now? do I need to be lifted up or down? 
"Where am I physically in my plan?"  
Frances reached in with a cup of hot choc, I sipped it. "What were you doing with bloody lemon and ginger tea" stuffing jellyies into my mouth, Frances said. 
Afterwards she told me that she hurled the Lemon and Ginger tea across the rocks in the search for chocolate. That will tell you my mental state approaching the swim.. NO chocolate-now I did have bakewell tarts!! 

Mike Shea stuck his face into the tent. Mike had loaned me the big expedition suit for Siberia for recovery.Not to get it wet was the thing. On the way up this morning, Maryann discussed me putting it on. We decided against. As I stared at Mike,& thought "I'd have knocked myself on the head with a rock if I was wearing your suit, I was covered in peat bog.. "
If this suit was lying in the peat bog I'd
have hit myself with a rock when Mike
appeared in front of me.!!! Mike is
presently walking across Lake Baikal. 
I could hear the helicopter hovering. Into my vision the helmet and suit of a winchman. He leaned in and said his name. "I just want to check a few things" a calm smiling voice. 
I took the lead. 
"My name is Nuala, I am swimming an Ice Mile, water 3.9deg, can't remember time in the water, My dog died, I had little sleep, little food, a pint of warm water with some maple syrup. I am probably dehydrated, not on any medication, I have marked my veins & my BP & HR are normal. I had 2 difene tablets last night. I have communicated with your fellow winchman Adrian O Hara on hypothermia so you can tell him you lifted me.. " exactly as I practiced in my mind. 
The underside of the helicopter 
"She's lucid" is all I heard as I tucked back into my world. This was very difficult for me. 
To be an official casualty is tough, I felt that I did well. 

"I'm going to take off your blankets and transfer you to our stretcher to lift you" Philip said. 
"I'm fully dressed" I replied, thinking why would he tell me that-
There were some funny comments followed-I closed my eyes again.. 
I had to be lifted higher on the rocks so the airlift could happen. 

The lift was great, I was airlifted before in training with the Rescue services many years back so the approach to the underside of the helicopter can be daunting but I was grand. I focused on Philip and once underside we spun around a few times. The cliffs were amazing. 
Once inside I wanted into the communications. I got my head phones and my mouth piece. 
"What are my stats?" I asked. 
150/100 BP, HR 75 and Body temp 34 deg. 
That was perfect. Over the radio I heard the comms to the hospital, just the sentence that "her core was protected by a survival suit" brought a smile to my face. 
My team did good, I was recovered in those adverse conditions. We don't intend to cause any displacement of people, rescue services or friends. Things happen and my plan was perfect to the rescue. The team were brilliant and each event we plan to the rescue. 

Once transferred to the hospital. The medical staff striped the damp clothes from me. I was chatting to the nurse when I pointed that my veins were marked. She was trying to raise a vein on the right, my veins are on the left. They gave me saline solution. The winchman asked me for my next of kin number.. !!!!!!!!
OMG thanks be that my sister had not changed her number in years, as I had it on the top of my head. another to add to the to do list.. 
The Doctor approached and said "So you fell into the lake? " as she wrote my stats-BP was now down to 130/90, I suddenly became aware of the cold for the first time. 

"I just completed my Ice Mile, swimming a mile in water under 5 deg, I'm the 9th woman in the world to have taken on the challenge" I replied, somehow not being able to make eye contact. 

A few faces stared at me-I couldn't make eye contact as she said "Why?" I knew the answer would be lost so I just smiled. 

They only held me 30 minutes-I was transferred to the open section and an hour later once my clothes arrived from Dingle with Maryann, I chatted with Frances, mainly debriefing. 
My family members landed in to see me en route to college in Galway. 
" Mom said could you get some psychiatric help".. my niece said-I could only smile. 

I suppose who I am as a person is not someone who views anything as trouble, just experience-good or bad we got through and I am incredibly grateful.  
It was a fantastic learning experience. The transfer from swimmer to casualty required a lot of adjustment and work from me. I have been involved in 2 serious rescues of casualties at random moments, one in the water, one on the mountains from the rescue side, both were acutely severe so I used that experience to be the casualty myself. Life teaches us more than we can know. 

But that's another blog..