Anyone who thinks running an ultra is tough should read this awe inspiring first person account of #SarahThomas's 4 x Channel Crossing.I’ve been so overwhelmed over the last few days with the outpouring of well-wishes and media requests. Thank you to everyone who has written- I’m trying to get through my messages, but it’s been a daunting task. Also, I have very little photos to share now, so here is a selfie of my tongue. Gross.
When I left Samphire Hoe in the middle of the night on Saturday night/Sunday morning, I had no idea what was going to happen over the course of the next 54 hours. I usually like to do post-swim report, so here it is. The good, the bad, and the very ugly. It’s long, so I apologize, but so many things happened! Also, this is the story from my perspective and sometimes the swimmer perspective is different from the crew’s. But you’re stuck with me, so here we go!!!
First off, the boat I had booked to take me across the Channel four times was Eddie Spelling on Anastasia. Eddie had taken me across the Channel in 2012 on my first crossing and it never occurred to me to try the 4-way with anyone else. I trusted him, and when you go on crazy adventures, you want to trust the person who basically decides your fate. I also knew that the Anastasia would be comfortable for my crew as it is one of the larger boats.
On Wednesday last week, we met with Eddie for an update. When we met with him, his weather prognosis was grim and he told us to consider extending our time here in the UK. However, just a few hours later, he messaged that things were looking good for a Saturday night swim. Talk about an emotional roller coaster!
We spent the next couple of days preparing- stockpiling food and supplies for myself and my crew, changing my American money to pounds to make sure Eddie was payed, and getting everything organized to be at sea for 2 days.
Eddie had us meet him at 10:45 pm on Saturday night at the Dover Harbor Marina for a midnight start. I wasn’t crazy about the midnight start- I’m not a good napper and I knew getting sleep during the day on Saturday would be crucial to my success. I tried really hard, but maybe slept an hour on Saturday during the day of the swim. But, the tides wait for no one, so I didn’t complain.
We quickly loaded our supplies and then motored over to Samphire Hoe, greased up, and before I knew it, I was jumping off the back of Anastasia, taking the few quick strokes to shore, and heading off into the night. Things started off badly. There were 6 hours to daylight and I felt sick from the get-go. I’d had some spaghetti for dinner and it was not sitting well in my stomach. As my body was fighting the nausea, I was getting cold and shivery. Not exactly how you want to start a four way English Channel crossing. I finally puked up spaghetti at 7 hours in and we all celebrated. I felt immediately better and assumed that would be the last of my nausea.
The first lap continued without any other misadventures. We hit Cap Gris Nes at 11.5 hours, right on schedule. The currents were strong going into the Cap and I had to sprint hard for an hour to break through, but eventually I was able to grab onto a rock as the currents ripped by. Lap 1- Done. The rules for a lap swim like this say that when you hit the shore, you have to exit and clear the water. If it is rocky and climbing out is unsafe, you can simply touch the rock to signify the end of lap one. If you’re on a beach, you must immediately re-enter the water, but as long as your toes are in, you can sit and do whatever you need. No one can touch you or help you, but they can pass you things that you might need. We pre-planned that Elaine would always swim in with me, bringing lanolin and Desitin, plus any requested snacks. I had hoped for a beach landing to stretch out a little more, but the Cap is pretty rocky, so I hung onto a rock as the currents ripped by and re-applied some lanolin and ate some rice. My allotted 10 minutes was up quickly and before I had time to think, we were off onto Lap 2.
There were lots of jelly fish hanging out near shore there and as I swam out for the second lap, despite my best efforts, a jelly fish bounced off my swim cap, grazed my nose, and landed squarely on my chin. There were perhaps some swear words. But, I’m told that cold water is good for stings and I figured I had enough time between that moment and when I’d get out of the water that I’d be fine eventually.
A few hours into lap 2, the nausea started again. I was burping and feeling sick. Finally, I puked up the rice I’d eaten at the turnaround and told myself I would be fine again, like after I’d puked up the spaghetti. Nope.
Despite a stunning sunset, as the evening turned into the night, I found myself getting more and more demoralized. As I was fighting nausea, I was getting cold and chilled. I’d told Elaine on the turn that I knew the night was going to be rough and asked her to help make a good plan to get me through. As evening progressed, I could see my boat team making preparations for the night. Craig let me know they made a schedule for pace swimmers, so I would never have to be alone for too long in the water. I found myself repeating, over and over to myself, “I can swim through this night.” My only goal as the sun was setting was to make it through the next 10 hours until daylight. I knew it was going to be hard, but even I underestimated the misery of the next 10 hours.
As we swam back toward Dover and the lights of town steadily grew closer, I started to plan for the 2nd turn. I wasn’t feeling well, so I built myself up as I realized we were headed toward Samphire Hoe again and I was looking forward to sitting on the beach for a minute, stretching my back, and taking a moment of zen. Since I hadn’t had that opportunity on turn 1, I was really looking forward to the rocky pebbles of Samphire Hoe.
Unfortunately, there were other swimmers starting their swims from Samphire Hoe and if we had waited our turn to land, it would have caused us to delay. We let the currents pushed us down the sea wall at Samphire Hoe and instead of a beach, I had to tag the wall there to signify the end of lap 2. Two turns and no beach. I was devastated. I’m not exactly sure why I was so devastated- I didn’t have walls and beaches in Lake Powell or Lake Champlain, but in my visualizations of the swims I had always pictured turning at a beach.
As I tagged the wall, fighting back tears, Elaine was a ray of sunshine. I told her I didn’t think I had what it takes to make it the rest of the way. I also let her know I was pretty sure the apple juice I was drinking with my feeds (like I always do) was what was causing the nausea. She took in the info, ignored my complaining and handed me some banana baby food. It tasted delicious. Then I puked it right back up.
And kept puking. A few moments later, mid puke, we were told told me my 10 minutes were up and we needed to start swimming again. So I somehow started swimming again, toward who knows what. At my next 30 minute feed stop, they tossed me my feed and I immediately puked again. And again at the next stop. My memory is fuzzy about the timing during all of this, but it seemed like hours of taking a feed and puking. Taking a feed and saying I couldn’t do it anymore. I know at one point Karl was in the water to pace swim with me, so probably around 3 am. I was puking and dry heaving. I have no idea what I said to him to complain, but he just calmly and rationally told me to keep swimming. As I was whining, a voice from the boat told me to get moving. So I did. I learned later that around this time the boat captain and one of the observers told my crew they needed to either figure out how to get me to stop puking or they were going to pull me. Honestly, if that had happened in that time, I would have gladly gotten on the boat and thanked every single person for saving me and letting me off the hook. I was daydreaming about being dry and warm and asleep.
However, my crew had a different plan. At my next feed, Ryan tossed me down a Zofran pill, left over from my cancer treatments and something they give to pregnant ladies to help with morning sickness. I know people who use it on swims, so I had tossed it in my luggage last minute, thinking maybe my mom might need it if things were rough on the boat. I was relieved to see it, praying it would solve my issues. I swallowed it down, then immediate puked it right up. Demoralized again, I rolled over and kept swimming without any comment. Five minutes later, they stopped me and passed down a pill slightly dissolved in less than an ounce of water. I swallowed it down, determined not to puke, and prayed it would work.
Thirty minutes went by. No puking. At my next feed, they just gave me straight water. They tried some of my regular feed at the next 30 minute stop, but it was still too much, so we went back to water. Finally, after about another hour, I was feeling settled enough to try a real feed. It had been a solid 4 hours (I think) since I’d had any calories stay down.
When we did the turn, way back at midnight, several other boats were just starting out with other swimmers. I was puking and feeling sick, but apparently still swimming along well at the same pace as the others. In the midst of my whining, my crew informed me that I was swimming fine and still holding a solid pace. I was stunned. How on earth could I feel so sick and still be swimming my same speed? Knowing that, I was determined to get my stomach settled and calories replenished so I could continue on. As time marched on toward the sunrise, I did start to feel better. It was around that time that I requested M&Ms as a way to get some extra calories into my system quickly. And they were crunchy. And delicious.
Slowly but surely, we worked our way back to France. And somewhere in there, I resolved to at least make the turn at France to see what would happen from there.
As we approached France, I could feel the crazy currents picking up again. The water near France is brown and turbid, a perfect hiding ground for jelly fish. As I swam closer and closer to the Cap, fighting currents and fearing jelly fish, my crew gave me the word that I needed to sprint in order to hit the Cap again. We had been aiming just south, but the currents were merciless and didn’t want to let me drop in like a civilized person. Instead, after 36 hours of swimming and puking, my crew was asking the impossible- SPRINT! So, I picked up my pace, kicked my legs and just in the nick of time grabbed a rock on the cap. Luckily, there was a perfect rock formation that I could climb out on, with my feet still in the water, and have a proper sit on a rock chair. Elaine was with me again, feeding me treasures and boosting me up. I was shaking and exhausted. I think I uttered some swear words about having to have made that sprint. And before I knew it, my 10 minutes was up and we were headed back to sea. Again.
I noticed right away that we were being swooped down the shore in exactly the same path as the day before. Before the swim, I told Eddie I could hold 2 mph for 3 laps and then who knows what would happen after that. He assured me that if I made the turn on lap 3, he’d “float me back to England like a log.” So, heading into Lap 4, I thought the dirty work had been done and it was just a matter of passing the time. I’d held a consistent pace in the previous laps- all between 11.5-13.5 hours per crossing, so my guesses had me landing in England around 3 am. 4 am at the latest. I looked forward to sunset because I only had half a night of swimming ahead of me and then I could land.
Welp, wrong again. I didn’t know this until after the swim, though I did have a sense of something going wrong when I was in the water. Apparently, at some point, the tides changed early and instead of following the same route we had the previous day, we were pushed into a funnel in the Channel. If I had gotten stuck in it, we would have been pushed out to sea. Swim over. So, my pilot was forced to have me crab across the current with hopes I could break free to the other side and continue on. We made it, but it cost a lot of time. Also, during this time, a cold front blew through. The day had been overcast and dreary as it was and the cold front totally blocked the sun and took away any sense of time I had been able to hold onto.
However, impossibly, at this point, I was finally feeling fine. I was peeing on a nice, regular schedule and marveling that my arms, while tired, weren’t in pain. I wasn’t battling any ailments or discomforts, other than some chafing, which we fixed with an extra glob of lanolin. My lower back was aching some, but nothing impossible to manage. And we kept swimming. I was happy and unaware of the tide difficulties, so I was still thinking we’d finish by 4 am.
Then, at hour 47, Craig jumped in the water with me. He let me know that there was a current pushing us the wrong way and we needed to sprint for an hour to break through and get into the British inshore waters. He told me that if we did that, we’d be home free. So, my crew screamed and cheered, and I sprinted. Again. And after our Hour of Power, they reported to me that we had done it and made it past. Hooray! At this point, I really sensed this was going to take longer than planned, but when Elaine jumped in to pace swim two hours later, she said we had less than a 10k to shore. That was farther than I had been hoping, but if it was just a 10k, I told myself it was fine- I can do that!
And then things started to go wrong again. The currents were pushing us in all types of weird directions. My pilot aimed us toward one point, only to be pushed toward another. And then pushed to another. The team kept telling me to push, and I was pushing as hard as I could, but I’d been swimming for 50 hours! How much more could they ask of me at this point? At some point I did the math and realized this lap was already taking longer than 15 hours and I realized, with surprise, that I could see some pre-dawn light breaking through the darkness. The light was disorienting and I started to lose track of where we were. There is a red spire next to Samphire Hoe that I had used as a beacon the night before and most of this night. At first, the spire was far off to my right. Then, suddenly it was directly in front of me and I thought we were headed toward Samphire Hoe. And then I could tell we were somewhere else. A swimmers view of shore in the dark isn’t always accurate, so at some point I told myself to stop looking and keep swimming.
Then, at hour 53, Karl jumped in with me one last time. He told me we had to sprint if we were going to make it. I could feel the water pushing against me, some of it icy cold. Apparently, I’d been swimming in place for a bit and they needed me to get moving one last time.
So, with everything I had, I picked up my feet and hurled myself toward shore. I had no idea where we were, thinking I was seeing boats, but it was a wall. Picking up my pace made water start pouring in my nose and down my throat, which I’d been trying to prevent the entire swim. The way the wind was blowing, nearly every breath resulted in a mouthful of water. I was too tired to care anymore. I just wanted to finish. I knew the shore was close, but had given up believing it was that close. I knew all I could do was to push as hard as I could until we either got pushed back out to sea or made it through. I was starting to wonder what would happen if we couldn’t make it in, but pushed the thought aside. SWIM.
And then suddenly, I saw ground. Solid, real, hard, ground. I was familiar enough with the beaches in the area to know I wouldn’t be able to stand, so I took off my goggles and crawled gingerly to shore. Spent. Disoriented. DONE. There was a crowd of amazing people there to greet me. Somehow, they knew I’d been munching M&Ms and someone draped me in a towel and then a dry robe. They handed me candies and champagne.
I had carried my rock from Chatfield with me the entire swim, so I told the story of the rock and dropped it onto the beach and swapped it for something bigger and newer. I remember cameras being there and my friends and people, but no idea what was said, except for a few videos I’ve seen of it. I’ve never been quite so disoriented at the end of a swim. Karl told me later that I seemed more out of it than he’d ever seen me. Then, my crew hauled me into the rib, back on the boat, changed me out of my suit, drove back to the marina and stuffed me into a car. We drove back to our Airbnb, Ryan and my mom gave me a bath, and then I went to sleep. At that point, my throat was so raw I could only speak in a whisper and wasn’t even able to swallow my saliva. Ryan watched over me as I slept, worried I’d choke in my sleep.
I’m still recovering- I’m thinking my throat and tongue will take a while to recover. I didn’t chafe too much and I’m only sore in the regular ways. No worse for the wear, just tired. Still, it might be a while before I get wet again.
I know this is getting long, but I want to say thanks to my amazing crew. Eddie and his co-pilots on Anastasia were outstanding. It’s incredible that he landed me right on the Cap twice. He dealt with the crazy currents on lap 4 and got me home safely. I firmly believe Eddie and his team are what made this swim possible. He is an amazing captain with loads of experience. He knows what he’s doing and it showed in this swim. We also had two observers from the CS&PF to ratify the swim, Suzanne Martin and THE Kevin Murphy. They became part of the crew- willing me forward just like my own crew.
And that brings me to my own people: Ryan, my mom, Craig, Elaine and Karl. They were the perfect combination of experienced swimmers and crew members. Everyone on my boat had crewed either Champlain or Powell (and my mom and Ryan had done both). They knew what it took to crew a swim like this, have amazing problem solving skills (how many crews can say they brought a swimmer back from calorie deprivation to let them swim another 24 hours?) Elaine, Craig and Karl are all strong swimmers (they’ve each swum the Channel- and more). Each one of them brought something different to the team and I needed every single one of them to get me through. They each played a key and critical role to my success and I know I needed them.
I provided the arms and flotation, but the other 10 people on the boat did everything else to make this swim possible. Pretty sure my job was the easiest. I just had to swim- they had to do everything else. I’m not sure I even know how to thank them enough for helping me to achieve a dream.
People are asking if this is the hardest swim I’ve ever done. Yes and no. Physically, Lake Champlain was definitely harder. 104 miles over 67 hours was grueling. Fresh water doesn’t ruin your mouth the way salt water does, but you don’t float as well, so every stroke takes a harder toll. However, mentally, this swim will probably be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Every lap had something wrong happen- something that could have easily ended my swim. I wanted to quit- and had good reason to do so. Yet, somehow, my crew gave me the strength to keep going.
A year ago, I didn’t know if this swim would still be possible for me. But, I didn’t let go of my dream and gave it everything I had. I had a lot of mental challenges to overcome and a post like this would be remiss if I didn’t mention the people at home who trained with me, let me vent, and encouraged me. I couldn’t bring them all on the boat, but I’m a lucky person to have so many people in my corner, helping me along the way. It definitely takes a village. A special shout out to Jim, D’Arcy, Blaik, Ken, Florencia, Charity, the lifeguards at Carmody Rec Center, and new Karl. There are more, but this post is already insufferably long, so I’ll leave it at this for now. ...
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