Here, he recounts the remarkable story of his attempt to cross the English Channel, widely considered the Everest of open-water swimming.
I had been in the water for 12 hours when I looked up and saw ‘The Cap’, the jutting piece of French soil about 1km distant, my planned destination.
By then, my support crew had their hands on me, attempting to pull me from the water. Under the strict rules laid down by the Channel Swimming Association, they don’t touch you unless something is going badly wrong. I had apparently stopped swimming for just a second, maybe two, and my stroke rate was dropping.
To an experienced eye, these were clues to my distress. But what was also causing alarm was the blood I was coughing up.
I was in pulmonary oedema — or, more formally, swimming-induced pulmonary oedema — a somewhat interesting experience for a cardiologist. Once I was in the boat, I was rushed back, not to France, despite its obvious proximity — but the other way, back across the 32km of ocean I had traversed from Dover.
And then once on dry land, I was transferred into the back of an ambulance and then spent a day recovering in ICU, before ending up in one of the wards.
Preparations to tide me over
On the morning of my attempt, it had all been so different. My alarm had gone off and I was up eating breakfast — homemade sushi rolls, an energy drink of Staminade and coffee, as directed by my dietitian. The sleep had been a bit restless, ruffled by nervous anticipation, but that is what I expected.
Two hours later, the swim began. I was standing on Samphire Hoe beach at 4am, the sound of the ocean in my ears, the pebbles under my feet.
There are no wetsuits for Channel attempts. They are banned because they are considered artificial aids.
So I was wearing funky trunks, with my body plastered in grease, a mixture of Vaseline and Lanolin. And no, this wasn’t to keep warm, as people tend to think, but to prevent chafing from the countless strokes I was going to be making.
The timing here is important. The calculations on when to start are done by the Channel pilots, the experienced boat skippers who guide you across the water. To swim against the Channel’s tides is almost impossible. You must conform to its nature, which means, given its shifts and changes, no one swims in a straight line.
So I adjusted my goggles, taking a brief moment to reflect on what was about to happen and then plunged into the chilly, dark waters. It was 16°C — not too cold.
Channelling historical heroism
The first successful Channel attempt was achieved by Captain Matthew Webb in 1875.
It took him 22 hours, employing a mutated breast stroke. When asked about the difficulty, he uttered a simple but long-lasting, and dare I say very British, statement: “Nothing great is easy.”
These simple words are what drive many Channel swimmers.
Fifty years later, Getrude Erdele became the sixth swimmer and the first woman to swim the Channel. She swam a new style to become known as the Australian Crawl, itself a major swimming revolution.
Gertrude was talented, a world-ranked swimmer in her day, and made light work of Webb’s time. It took her less than 15 hours. It was a record that stood unbroken for decades.
Power of the mind
My own preparation had been large scale. It was physical in nature, of course, but as with any elite sporting endeavour, it was just as much mental.
The physical consisted laying down the laps in the pool. I would swim six days a week. In the months leading up to my attempt, I was averaging about 35km a week.
I would also take to the ocean with a group of hardened open-water and Channel swimmers from the baths in Brighton, Melbourne. This was important, not least because to qualify for a Channel swim you have to show you have endured six hours or more in the ocean at 16°C or less.
As for the mental, it was mainly about developing the ability to cope with swimming in the dark in open water, staying in the moment or, perhaps a better description, staying in the flow while swimming for hours on end.
I had a psychologist whose treatments included self-hypnosis. I attended a number of sessions to learn this technique, which helped me ‘time shift’, with the idea of transforming the hours into minutes. I also learnt to shut out the waves of fatigue, to shut out the cold and significantly to rid my mind of self-doubt.
My fight against self-doubt consisted of doing simple things. You don’t wear a watch on a Channel swim, for instance. You don’t want to know the time. You also never look back to the White Cliffs of Dover. They loom over you, giant sized, and give a poor impression of the distance you’ve made. You also don’t want to look forward for the distance you have to go. Instead, you allow yourself to flow in the moment, Zen like.
As a result of this, even though I went through my epic journey over a period of 12 hours, I have very little recollection of time passing. I do remember being asked a question about an AFL football game that was in progress. It came from the pilot boat. They weren’t interested in the answer. It was a test of my mental alertness. I passed.
And I do remember the huge container ships passing me by. The Channel remains one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. The traffic doesn’t stop for us.
But I only knew of the ships’ shadowy presence through the rise and fall in the swell.
I also remember receiving messages of encouragement sent via social media. My friends were up in Australia ‘watching’ me swim on social media via the boat’s tracker.
‘Because it is there’
Why did I do all this? Why swim the Channel?
It is said the Channel is the open-water swimmer’s Everest. It may be a good analogy, may be bad. The boast is often that fewer people have swum the Channel than summitted Everest.
But swimming has been part of my life for many, many years. It’s my mindfulness, in essence. It’s fun. It keeps me fit, and it engages me with others. Besides, I have those memories of childhood: Des Renford, the Aussie long-distance swimmer encased in grease back in the days when TV was black and white.
Des crossed the Channel 19 times.
In deep water
It was only when I was finally pulled from the water at about 4.30 in the afternoon by my support crew that I realised how ill I was. The power of the mind had shut all of it out until the final minutes. The following hour or so was ugly.
To be honest, some of my struggles are best left on the boat rather than being repeated here. But I was in swimming-induced pulmonary oedema, a condition not well understood but believed to be triggered by cold water immersion.
Dr Geoff Toogood (centre) with support crew Tim Denyer (right) and Michael Gregory (left).
And if you want to see a geographical interpretation of what happened to me, there is an image on the Channel Swimming Association website. It depicts a Google map bearing a red line that bends quite dramatically as it traces my course. It is not that I didn’t know where I was going. It was the tide’s doing, of course.
But it shows I swam a good deal further than 33km from point to point — in fact, it was more like 48km. Then the red line stops, little more than 1000m from French soil.
I was told shortly after that it was not considered a failed swim. Channel attempts are either “complete” or “incomplete”. It’s a nice play on words, even if it fails to affect the reality of what happened. On the Channel association’s web page, my swim is described as “incomplete”, almost as though it’s suggesting I could still go back and finish it off if I wanted.
I am still not sure about another attempt. But my passion for ocean swimming remains. I have swum Rottnest Channel (20km). I survived the sharks. And I’m planning the Gibraltar Strait swim (16km).
And what do I think now after my endeavours a year ago? Standing on the English side at Samphire Hoe beach to start the swim was 90% of the victory.
As all adventurers will tell you, it’s far better to have tried than not.
Dr. Toogood is a cardiologist working at Peninsula Private Hospital in Frankston, Victoria. He would like to thank his coaches, Sharon Newstead and Trent Grimsey — Trent holds the world record for Channel crossing at six hours and 55 minutes — as well as his support crew, Michael Gregory and Tim Denyer, who made the “tough but correct decision” to pull him out. And he would like to thank his pilot, Eric Hartley, as well as his observer, Keith Ollier.
Article originally posted on www.ausdoc.com.au