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Swim to the next feed

by Steve Henigan


As we hold our breathe every few weeks (or days as it seems now) and wait for the Governments proposed next steps on the easing of the Covid-19 lock-down I cant help but compare the current situation to my English Channel swim last year. Swimming or any endurance event of that duration becomes more of a mental than a physical challenge and I spent a significant amount of time preparing myself to cope with the unknowns. How cold would it be on the day? When (yes when and not if) would I get stung by jellyfish? What would happen if the weather changed? What about the tide?

Unlike many other sports which are played out in largely controlled environments the level of uncertainty that can be caused by the elements in open water swimming is huge and completely out of your control. So rather than try to manage them you learn to accept them and deal with them as and when they arrive. This become what I called my Le Cap mindset (Cap Gris-Nez is a Cape on the coast of France that you aim for as it is the shortest point across as the crow flies). I developed the phrase “Feeling Comfortable out of my depth” which was based on 3 fundamental principles:

  • Not acting on emotion – Steve Peters “Chimp Paradox” has been a huge influence on all aspects of my life and learning to “tame my chimp” was an integral part of this process. Harvard brain scientist Dr Jill Bolte Taylor also believes that ninety seconds is all it takes to identify an emotion and allow it to dissipate while you simply notice it. Learning to pause before acting has not only helped my swimming but also reduced my road rage!

  • 40% Rule - When Jesse Itzler hired a Navy SEAL to come and live with him and his family for a month he learned a lot about mental toughness including the 40% rule. In simple terms when your mind is telling you that you that you are done, that you are exhausted and cannot possibly go any further you are only actually 40% done.

  • Flexibility – Whilst you aim for the Cap, tides are not an exact science and can sometimes work in mysterious ways. The reality is you could land anywhere along the northern French coast and so need to be prepared for this, including the extra hours it may take if you miss the Cap. Nothing is fixed and you must be prepared for all scenarios.

Developing a mindset is only part of the equation and implementation requires a more detailed plan. As you cannot touch the boat or any other person during a Channel Swim your feeds (drink bottles and occasional solid foods) are generally thrown to you on the end of a rope so that you crew can pull them back in when you are finished. Like many swimmers I opted to feed after 2 hours and then every hour beyond that until I reached France (I successfully completed the swim in 11 hours and 58 minutes). One of the most common phrases you will hear in long distance swimming communities is “Swim to the next feed”. When you step off the beach at Dover you are not thinking about France, the shipping lanes or even the next few hours. You are solely focussed on swimming to the next feed. One arm in front of the other for the next hour. You take your feed, reset and go again with little thought to how long it might take and what obstacles you might come up against, hour by hour. Eventually you hear the words this is your last feed and only at that point do you begin to think about the finish, knowing that it will likely be less than 60 minutes away.

So where is the link to the lock-down? Beating Covid-19 is a huge global challenge albeit one that is largely being tackled on a country by country level. The challenge is made harder because we cannot establish the size or length of this challenge or indeed whether there are any further obstacles which we will need to overcome. The Government have broadly been easing the lock-down on a 3-4 week basis, slowly easing restrictions and with the very real threat that at any point we could go 3 steps backwards again. We don’t fully know when and how further restrictions will be lifted and hence it has become incredibly difficult to plan anything beyond the next 3-4 week period. So with this in mind try to focus on only those things in your control, ensure that any future plans have as much flexibility as possible and swim to the next feed. At some point in the hopefully not too distant future we will be told it was our last feed and can then begin to think about the post Covid-19 world.



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