Do we judge by fear or reality?

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Russian 1000m IISA Championships Krasnoyarsk

"Life is filled with certain obligations and responsibilities, 
but none more basic, primal or important than the responsibilities that we have to ourselves"  

International Ice Swimming Association Russian National Championships 1000m 

This was my 9th trip to Russia so each event is filled with friends and faces so familiar and even though I don’t speak the language for me I don’t need to. We know what it takes to swim in the ice and we have travelled this road together- signals and sign language is enough to finish safely.

Waking up in Krasnoyarsk to swim in the Russia IISA 1000m, I started to smile and just couldn’t believe I was out in Central Siberia 8000km from home-about to swim 1km in the Yetisei River, the only non Russian swimmer.
The long Journey from Dingle to Krasnoyarsk 8000km

 Sometimes in planning we remove ourselves from the risks and sometimes the risks are staring us in the face. Until this moment I was blind and now the reality of "what if anything happens me? " creeps in. 

“What the hell am I doing here? “ I started to laugh out loud - least it was laugh and not cry. 
 “This time tomorrow you will be  back in Paris..” that was our usual mantra- “Jump out of bed Nuala Moore and pack your bags you are in the game”

Once I say to myself "you are in the game" my mind changes..

Travelling to Krasnoyarsk a few weeks ago was a trip of 2 halves..

My obsession has long since been the understanding of our bodies and our minds to allow us to engage and strangely embrace the experiences of swimming in the Ice Water.
The body and the mind work together either with us or to conspire against us in our adventures-I’ve lived both moments and for me this journey is all about learning at this point.

The first day was spent at the "Scientific and Acclimatisation of the Body Conference" and it’s reaction to Ice- my dream.

This was my piece de resistance and the reason I came. As Risk Takers, we don't get to see what is happening inside our bodies. It's so easy to mistake emotional responses with reality and the body can over ride reality with the hope that we will be ok.

The medics and the recovery team at this event are as good as what is available in the world. My challenges for today was about staying strong and being able to walk in and out of recovery tent strong. The distance and the speed are not my interest today.

The Yenisei River is a 5,800km River-a colossal volume of water running from Mongolia to the Arctic-a river which is the second longest in the world and is in a constant state of cold-with Ice pieces moving on it all the time. The area of the swim had little or no movement but the open water route would allow us to swim into deep water.

The challenge of swimming 1000m at low to 0 deg temps are something that as a swimmer, I have down to a hymn sheet. I can close my eyes and swim each stroke-knowing when the pain hits, how to manage each of the symptoms and mostly how to stave off that doubt and anxiety.

There are many variables I cannot influence when I travel on 4 flights and without rest
and proper food to another time zone.
What I can influence is my approach to the event. The days before, I do not have coffee, no alcohol, no high sugar foods or any negative foods, my medical is vital but what I can’t impact is the lack of sleep, dehydration, lack of proper nutrition, these and emotional responses all influence the heart and my Blood Pressure-Time to adjust is always my enemy.

Having medics like Dr Irina who know and understand the body’s responses and can interpret my tests is huge benefit. She has my ECG and Cardio file since 2012 and she now knows my responses-knowing us, knowing the swim and mostly the changes to expect, this allows her to make the best possible decision -for a swimmer, learning to respect the medicals is vital.

The route was an open water route in the river. (there was also an opportunity to swim in a pool area as well)
The OW route area was a confined water space in so far as the flow of the river was not impacting. On arrival I threw a stick into the river to determine if there was a flow. It was negligible in this area but 100m outside would this change the values- there was a racing flood. The river drops deep 50m and this with the accompanying wind really changes the mind’s approach to an event. 
The route involved passing outside the initial 3 buoys 50 m from shore and the swimming north in a triangle to repass 2 of the buoys.
The Route

Once at the venue, I went immediately to the rescue cover-there were 4 boats / 9 men. I showed them my swim hat, introduced myself as being Irish and visiting. I wanted to explain that I don’t speak russian and to familiarise myself with any rescue signals that may differ from my own.
Saying hi to the Rescue Unit 
2 members spoke english and they were also members of the River rescue and also swimmers. We talked through the emergency plan and how they would alert me to dangers and signals. 
The swim set was groups of 4 swimmers and the next heat began when all swimmers were exited. Brilliant set up-allowing 20 mins between each end and start.

The medical in advance was Dr. Iryna. My BP was lower than yesterday but at 150/90-it was still high. My cardio and my Ecg were clear and my recovery from yesterday’s swims were visually perfect with the walls of my heart looking strong. The muscle was within the normal range and my pulse Ox was 99%. We agreed that my BP was stress related. I took a 20 min calm moment upstairs and my BP dropped to 140/85 which was evidence that the elevation was emotional-of course my heart was racing-I was a lifetime away from home and any challenges would be costly. I steadied myself and believed I would be in control at all time. Which will always be my goal in these circumstances.

Walking into the river, the bite was severe-the downside of the river is the flow of freezing water that continues to move-it’s fresh freezing all the time and this is biting. The feeling of the cold is exactly what we would expect. The hands and the feet started immediately to freeze. What I hadn't factored into the swim was raising my head forwards to sight and locating the marker buoys. What seemed easy to negotiate from the shore seemed impossible from in water. The fresh water river meant I were lower in the water-I found it so difficult to focus on the cold, focus on my body and then navigate my course.
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It made me so aware of swimming in a cut out ice pool-up and down the lanes-once you get into the lane I only have to count and breathe-the work rate here is so different in the open water. My mind went off on a tangent building my challenges, I was creating a mountain of all the things that were making this swim harder-as the rescue cover redirected me to the course. I had swam right inside, I had to backtrack about 50m to round the buoy on the outside-then I discovered all the ladies were following me.  This was playing on my mind-why are they following me like ducklings?
From the yellow buoy I couldn’t make out the Red buoy 200m ahead and I signalled the boat-got the ok and decided that every 50 strokes I would reconnect with the crew until the buoy came into play. I breathe to the left and the zodiacs were on the right because of the risks. Bilateral is not my thing.

Rounding the red buoy, I had to correct again as the ladies were right beside me then to the pink buoy but by now the waves were high with the wind lifting the river water. Turning the course to return the 500m was into the waves. -sighting forward was constant wallops of water as the wind rose huge lumps in our faces, swallowing 1 deg water took my breath away.  My head was now going under so breathing was another challenge. My heart went out to the ladies breaststroking-I was at least able to breathe to my shoulder-their faces were getting smashed by walls of freezing water. My previous 3 x 1000m were in a pool environment and counting to 40 compared to this was an absolute different challenge.  

Knowing I was going into the challenging period of the swim, physically my fingers and feet were stiffening. I needed to do a body check-My mind felt so strong and each time I felt some stress coming into my head-I would use the freedom of the water to breathe.. feel my freedom to move, I could twist and turn and the depth of the river all are so free. You're free-this is your space-just breathe. My goggles had fogged from the freezing water-in the pool this doesn't matter but trying to navigate it did. 
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At this point I was content that the ladies were all going to follow me. Without a doubt I had swam an extra hundred metres or so. 

Once I saw the final line of 3 yellow buoys I lifted my head to signal to the boat that I was breaking from the group and started to kick. I was so surprised how strong I was-my mind was so busy-I visualised standing up and exiting the water strong. I could have easily have been 3/4 mins faster-what I needed from myself was to be was strong. You can never take your eye of the cold and you can never take your eye of the cost of a swim to your body. 

I kept repeating to myself-“it’s only about staying strong”  I kept repeating to myself how strong I felt- but I was unaware of the time we were swimming so again my brain was switched on. A moment can come and you can lose yourself so today was about being able to leave this country in 12 hrs. I was first out of the water, I was delighted. I knew the ladies were tucked in behind me-this was the first Open Water swim for many of them so they were going to follow me.

I exited the water and though the Danil and Albert came to meet me-I wanted to exit myself.

There were stones on the exit so the balance with my cold feet was difficult.
"You gotta figure this out-stand strong " My focus was deep-I wanted to see how the 2 ladies behind me were.
Nazhdu was strong she would be great but one lady was in a battling space long before she went into the water and I wanted to wait for her.

Breathing and standing, holding onto the pontoon, my coat around me-I had this wry smile when I heard it was 25 mins.. "wow and look at you" I said inside. I focused on my breathing and wanted to just take a moment.

Many would say-"geez you were 3 mins slower" for me I was 10 times stronger on exit despite being in the water 3 mins longer. This was a journey of recovery for me. There is no value in getting faster and getting out quicker to me.. the challenge is staying in and learning how to get out stronger. I didn't do the speed work so I was so happy.
Speed will never be my thing. Learning is my thing. Being in physical and emotional control is my thing.
Once all the ladies were near shore-I walked to the recovery tent, cool calm and collected.

Over the years post swim is one of the most vital of area of learning. Having worked so much myself in the recovery area on the towels since 2012- this has all allowed me to be on both sides of the swimmer.

We can often not be aware of the process. I believe we have to witness it as an independent to genuinely understand the battle we go through. With the experience I have gained over the years, this has allowed me to be as tough on myself as I would be with anyone else. We often believe we are 10 times stronger than we are-as we need to believe it-when as a swimmer, you see the weakness, you appreciate it and your weaknesses all the more.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Fear is your friend -learn to love it.

“Fear is nothing more than an Obstacle that stands in the way of Progress….” -

So many times in our lives we cite fear as a reason to stop-but fear is your best friend. True Fear is the moment that every sense in our body is heightened to survival and survival is the side of life that so many people are failing to engage with their adventures. 

The moment you are afraid-this is the moment you should wait for, this is the moment that you can become greater than your emotions-this is the moment that you can become your own hero. This is when you work the hardest. Fear is not anxiety. 

To take on any risky sport, It's important to understand  that you may fail and it may be a terrible experience, in failing we may devastate our emotions and set ourselves back, or else we may release ourselves to a phenomenal journey. It's forward or back.

0 degree was a new journey for me in 2012.  I traveled to Siberia, to Tyumen to take part in the Russian Cup to swim in Ice Water. It was the first time I was exposed to understanding if I could trust myself. It was also the first time that I could not train for the challenge, because I did not know what the challenge was. 

“1000m is nothing-40 lengths of a pool, I only have to stay alive” was my mantra. Such a brave statement and sort of cocky.My only training was sitting in a bucket of Ice in a fish factory to try and understand the feeling. So unprepared.
The only training I could do

When we arrived pool side at - 33deg air, breathing was near impossible- the air was so dry I was coughing. The men were starting up the chainsaw to cut the pool open. The sound alone brought the reality home. The medical check was pending while the rev of the chainsaw elevated the Blood Pressure. The anxiety of taking off my gloves was proving challenging to take photos. I had no idea how this was going how to swim at 0 degree, the pain of standing around was overwhelming

Chatting to  Anne Marie Ward, both long distance swimmers we discussed that we try to swim the 1000m  event- so blasse, it’s such a short distance, we’re swimmers.  We could get out at 500m, and still get graded as 500m swim, then as time passed we discussed getting out at 300m-I remember thinking who swims only 300m?   We only have to be able to stay in there. Why did we give ourselves opt out of each distance? We had both been through so many extreme swimming challenges in our swimming career so why were we afraid?

Easing myself into the Ice at 0 degrees, my chest was so tight, the pain was all encompassing. I managed 150m, of the first 100m I just couldn’t figure out how to stay alive, being a swimmer seemed so lost, swimming had nothing to do with success todayI just could not sort out my breathing, I couldn’t compartmentalise the pain, I could not even acknowledge what I was experiencing-my body was being hit with so much physical change that I panicked and got out. I was terrified I was going to die. It was fear, fear of not knowing what was happening. I could not will my arms forward, turning my face into the Ice was searing pain.  How do I keep moving? How can you trust yourself to  the next step into the unknown beyond the comfort zone of letting myself go. This was terror-all these emotions, all these changes and pain, all for the first time.  This was not about swimming.

I would love to think that we can embrace our fears. Such a “coined phrase” embrace your fears..but there is no tutorial. so the most important issue is to understand what it is, that is scaring you? 
What are we afraid of when we step up and say those words?
is it fear of judgement? fear of failure? as an athlete it is better to succeed a little-to stay in the comfort zone than to expose yourself to your own standards or to other people's eyes and that “look” when you think you disappoint.

When you excel at something, to be brought back to juvenile humility is incredibly tough? 

The first time I met Ram Barkai (extreme ice swimmer) of the IISA in New York in 2011, I was quite stunned how human and normal he looked. His stories were off the Richter Scale of extreme but his “talk” was normal. I had him on a super human pedestal. For us when we get to a point of competitive comfort is it just fear of exposure?

So what is it that makes us stop and give up -if it is not a physiological issue then why do we need 'out' of that situation? While some prefer to continue the same path, many choose the path less walked. 

As athletes failure is such a challenge.  That moment of breaking, that moment when our spirit is questioned, it can be devastating-it’s not pretty to see or to be part of, that vulnerability but it can also  be the moment of phenomenal progress. If we can risk it-if we take that step to bare ourselves.. 

Failure is often  judged as not succeeding-when in fact you could have surpassed yourself a 1000 times just if you tried.  

Without doubt the moment you make that call to get out of 'dangerous' situation, it is real emotion.  The feelings are overwhelming and the anxiety attached to that moment when we have to exit is real.

You can perceive Fear as Danger and it can be. The body responds in a way that overwhelms you, breathing becomes difficult, you gulp oxygen, your vision becomes tunnel and your ability to process your environment and your safety is compromised, you most likely are a danger to yourself. There is absolute physiology of stress and real emotion and at that moment you are experiencing it. It is real but this is manageable anxiety. 

I’ve been there and I’ve got out in panic. I was so proud that I had taken on the swim-I gave myself a high five for a small achievement but I was disappointed that I let myself down. I was determined to understand how some swimmers like Ram Barkai, Kieron Palframan, Ryan Stramrood and Henri Kaarma were all able to stay in the water that day and still survive.

Why do some walk away from their fears when others walk into them? We are all equipped to deal with fear so why do some hide behind emotions? 

In the back of my mind, the fears that Kieron and Ryan spoke about, were real-. I saw their eyes before their swim, they were terrified so how did they stay in the water? I saw the way they walked the 1000m with Ram swimming, never taking their eyes off him, then dived into 0 deg and they swam through their fears.Was-the difference that they had an understanding of the challenge?We had no idea.

I saw Henri Kaarma, stay silent, calm and then get into the water and trust the water for 1,650m, exit the water and trust the team. I was determined to understand how one person could be different to another when acutely we have the same skills.

The last few years of my sporting life have thought me so much about myself, about my journey. About what life had taught me and mostly about who I am. The ice has given me the real me. I love the edge and I love that moment when it is only me and I needed to step up and silence those voices.

Fear as an emotion-we can start afraid of failure, then fear of judgement, fear of self disappointment, fear of just not being good enough and I really do believe being exposed to our own weakness is the greatest fear that allows athletes an opt out..

I have spent much of my life in risky sporting adventures, all controlled, all with an exit strategy, all planned safety measures-Dive your Plan, Plan your Dive scenario. When I decided to take on the Round Ireland Swim Relay in 2006 I was truly exposed to the concept that I can’t swim and also worry about if one of the rescue crew were doing their job-from that relay swim of 56 days, 830miles, I learned trust in other people but learning to trust myself has been the toughest lesson that the Ice has taught me.

Over 2012 winter to 2013 March, I broke down all the challenges. I wrote down all the fears, everything that I could expect from my reactions to the challenge and mostly I decided that this was my journey. Fear is a fabulous thing. It allows us to put in action a plan to save ourselves mostly from ourselves and our limits.

Don't ever fear Judgement-Don't ever fear disappointment-it is only when fear is not an issue that you can commit 100%/. All those in my group that day in Tyumen 2012, in those conditions, Anne Marie Ward, Cristain Vergera Padraig Mallon, all of us have gone on to achieve stunning success in the Ice.  Fear was placed to one side- Limits were smashed and dreams were experienced. 

“Fears we don’t face.. become our limits. “

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

IISA World Championships 1000m at 0 degree inside the Arctic Circle

Remember that Great Love and Great Achievements involve Great Risk

It is still hard to believe that I competed at a Swimming World Championships. The Inaugural International Ice Swimming Association World Championships 1000m-Wow- Some of us in the Ice swimming community were so focused on the outcome of the event, the safety of the event, the positive perception of the event that it is easy to forget that I actually stood, represented Ireland, swam for 22 mins in 0 degree water and won a Silver at 1000m. My second time in this exact pool completing this distance. Monumental for me but all I could think about was Please let us all get out safely..  Please let it be successful-mainly as I knew too much. ! 

The swimming world is and was watching, not necessarily to applaud but to see how the Ice would present 47 swimmers to swim 1000m at 0 deg.What an ask. 50% of the swimmers, we had spent 2 yrs together, if togetherness could keep it safe I knew it would.
On paper it’s insane but the work and the learning from the last two years had brought us here. It's hard to understand where and when the structure took place but we are here-yet we always have questions- The organisers had taken on such a huge challenge and they looked to us to bring our A Game.
The volume of swimmers was huge-The Media was colossal-The expectations were ginormous. Behind the smiles-
Would the swimmers accept responsibility for the challenge at 0 degree-so many first timers.My first time was like a teenager being asked to dance for the very first time-very awkward. Not knowing what the next experience would be-now we are so advanced BUT would the world come with us.
Would the safety cover at the event suffice for so much extreme immersion?
Would the pressure on the Recovery and the Sauna be too much?
Would we all come out alive and mostly if we, as an Ice swimming community could manage to present an event which could carry enough integrity as to be accepted and worthy on a world stage, worthy of the sponsors and the event organisers who had poured their hearts into this. It had to work.

There was so much emotion riding on this event that it was difficult for me to just be an athlete representing my country. But I was.
None of the politics or the international perception is my challenge -either way we owe it to the sport.

Training for 0 degree has its challenges mainly as Irish water do not go near 0 degrees. So I trained for the challenge and not the distance. I had completed 450m at 0 deg in Tyumen Siberia in December 2014 and traveled to Estonia and completed 750m in Feb 2015 so I knew that the distance was well within me. 
The only thing that could stop me was the mental challenges I had in the previous months for personal reasons. 

Where huge self doubt became my normal-despite all the bravado-I crumbled so many times.So many people would say-"it is no bother to you." but it was.  

My body, I knew would go through a brick wall.. I just needed my mind now to come back. My Nephew Christopher had helped me so much with a program as I'm not the easiest to train. I guess family can touch nerves. 

The days before the swim are as important, travel, tiredness, caffeine, bad food and alcohol are all negatives and absolutely impact your body, being able to focus and being able to block out all the clutter is a huge challenge. I kept myself clean, despite craving coffee in airports, it was green tea all the way, wanting my Medical to be perfect. 
I had 18 ECG's in the previous 2 yrs and each was text book-we always worry. 
There were a lot of challenges traveling with a big group so I tried to stay as calm as I could and apart from other's journeys. 
Weakness can creep in and self doubt, feelings like what if I have to stop? Reality that if I have to then so be it.                                                           
As we line up thoughts come and go.
What if the pain is too much? 
What if I can’t breathe? 

I always try to focus on the thoughts like -
what if I’m phenomenal? 
What if this is my moment? 
You have to believe in greatness and personal journeys. I am a fan of believing that Life prepares us for everything. 

I go quiet which is hard to believe. I go deep. I go there and visualise every length for the hour before. I swim that swim before I get in the water.
We have a team member each end of the 25m and a friend and top Ice swimmer Henri Kaarma came to me before the start and explained that the touch board (board inserted into the Ice to turn was high) which meant I had to lift my legs high on the turn or I would miss the wall. If I miss the wall, my race would be chasing the understanding of what happened.
That was huge info for me as my turns are weak, so I knew to lift my legs high. We mind each other. Once you walk down the step of the ladder into the Ice every moment freezes, every fibre freezes.
I stick my face in the Ice straight away and take that moment as we are given about 10 seconds. I breathe out hard to get the hot air out of my lungs so when I take my first breath I don’t get a shock. Everything physical that is going to happen in the first 4/6 lengths so the next 34 lengths are only about keeping the show together. I was determined to keep my show on the road today. 

Frances Lynch from Tralee has been with me for 15 years, travelling to Lake Zurich, my Ice mile and all my training-she knows me, she has also seen me at my weekest but also she knows how to drive me forward.   
I don’t want worry unless there is something to worry about-
At length 18 of 40 she played a request and started dancing to La Bamba.. I laughed as I ploughed all I could repeat was the tune- La Bamba. I swam only the water in front of me-I don’t swim fears. 
I am grateful to have gotten over most of the learning in the Ice. I remember at length 34 thinking to myself-"you're so amazing". Back in 2011 in Donegal Ram Barkai asked me as we completed a mile in Donegal what was going through my head.. Each stretch I always thought "You're on the cusp of your own greatness"  and I believe it.Medals cannot ever give you that moment-they can represent it but they cannot compare with feeling that moment of greatness. Of being your own hero. 
Only we and those around us know our journey and our sacrifices.

Jacqueline kept saying "Come on Nuala Moore" with her face within touching distance from mine.. that is the oyxgen-The last 6 lengths I remember being so proud of myself. I wanted to kick my legs and increase my pace-but I guess I don't yet have the mindset that worries about speed. I smiled and knew this was mine-not first, second or world champion but this is mine. The Monkey is off my back-I can breathe for the first time in 18 months. 
After 22 mins at 0 degrees, climbing the ladder is not easy, with hands, feet frozen. Your team picks you up. We walked the route before the race, so this was sequence. Straight to the Sauna/recovery where a team work on your body wrapping us in hot towels. The towels poultice out the cold and are replaced every few minutes. Swimmers need to stay focused and fight hard here.
Our swim is over when the recovery is complete. Takes about 30 minutes to regain control, there are challenging moments  but the pain when the blood enters the hands and feet has to be experienced to believe. But it is what it is. In our sauna were faces whom I love very much, Irina, Vicki and for the 1st time scantily clad men!! I smiled to myself. They have me.

You take the glory you take the journey. I had a Personal Best-very few can say that-I swam minute faster than my previous 1000m @ 0 deg in 2013. My dream is always to be better than myself.. I only hope others have the same journey.. either way  I am proud to share mine with so many.

One of a small group in the world who have 2 x 1000m completed at 0 deg. For me it’s all personal but I am very very proud of my Silver medal and mostly my ability to do what I can do. Privileged to be who I am and very grateful to those who have helped me to be this strong. Midst all the carnage there is a pot of Gold.

NĂ­ Neart Go Chur Le Cheile.. "There cannot be strength without Unity" 

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?"