From Non-Swimmer To Apolima Straight Finisher In Samoa! By Claire Sykes

25 April 2018

I have enjoyed the past 2 years following the progress of a friend of mine, from non-swimmer to Apolima Straight finisher in Samoa!…

Being an endurance athlete of sorts it stuns me to think of myself being in the water for 12 hours let alone trying to actually swim for that time!

Starting a new sport in your 40’s, we have a different set of experiences and knowledge we have gathered up over the years which we can call on…Sue armed herself with many tools to help her along her journey. Let me explain a few of these challenges which she faced.

There are a small group of distance swimmers who swim without a wetsuit …that is, even in winter. Su decided this was the way she wanted to go. This of course came with its own challenges…being colder (even before you get in the water!), sunburn, chafing from togs, less buoyancy, stings and bites from the various sea creatures like jellyfish and sea lice. These are things which you can nicely learn from experience…I note she did not include the photo of her red blistered body covered with chicken pox like sores….What I will say is when we have hurdled over these minor irritations I can see the feeling of absolute freedom of being without a wetsuit.

So, sunblock first, slathered over exposed parts, copious amounts of Vaseline in the armpits and anywhere seams of clothing sit…Vaseline or duck fat if you were old seasoned swimmer! Over time clothing goes brittle with the salt and chemicals from sunblock and can cause different areas of chafing.  Interestingly enough if you put the Vaseline on groin and neck and chest areas this helps to maintain heat in the core and to ward off the lice, if it is spread thick enough …oh so much easier if a fellow swimmer does this (make your choice carefully...)

As her swim coach increased the training and gently suggested that the next step was to start doing some longer swims outside the pool…This presented its own set off challenges… open water confidence, rough water, fluctuating water temps with seasons, motivation, visibility on the water, food and water intake let alone hours in the day to swim for 4 to 5 hours sometimes 6!

As a kayaker I can understand sea sickness with the gently rolling swells...Su would text me and say she’d had a rotten swim and couldn’t go beyond 4hrs as she was retching, nauseas, cold and exhausted…this in hindsight in all its harshness was a conditioning of which needed to happen so she knew what to expect in the race and how her mind and body dealt with these situation and others.

So how do we deal with these difficulties, which question our sanity and dull our will to achieve what we strive for? It is a fine line for our mind and body to decipher and act in a rational way…when our head, heart and body are a state of real stress.  It may give some comfort to know there are many tools out there in the wide world of media. Su came across one such tool from Wim Hof (The Iceman) The Dutch athlete can demonstrate a breathing technique for which he is known  to have withstood extreme cold temperatures for a long time. His technique is useful for a lot of health conditions, stress and anxiety. Armed with the little app on her phone Su practices his technique to help her with the anxiety of the long swims and the anticipation of feeling sick, raised heartrate and other unwanted symptoms of stress.

What to eat and drink?? This involved having food passed to her on a kayak paddle while she is treading water…for these long swims it was necessary to have some support in a boat or kayak, or both if you have the luxury. Food is such an individual thing it involves a bit of trial and error for any distance event. Small amounts of food which slides down easily, not too dry or too wet, tasty and full of nutrition, and…exactly what you feel like at the time! This is a fun challenge to if you do not eat any processed food or sugary stuff, and involves a bit of preparation (and another conversation…) .

The right balance of electrolytes is important to, I imagine trying to drink when I am surrounded by water… and it’s a rough day, and you have swallowed your fair share of salt water already...eek!! Can we take in too many electrolytes…I think salt water must be of a different constitution and may not count to our personal balance of minerals in our body, especially for racing?  Su also uses the muscle performance supplement from Vitality® New Zealand Blackcurrant-based supplements, which is great for muscle recovery and important to keep immune system in top order so she can make the most out of her long training.  

So now we are ready on the start line at 6am with a hint beautiful sunrise, I can picture Su slightly shivering with excitement, in the cool tropical breeze… preparation is over. I have seen her working with determination in the gym, hours upon hours swimming in the Tasman Sea.

Breakfast was carefully prepared and she has enough food and drink on the support kayak to last the journey which ended up to be longer than she wanted it to be! She has taken seasick meds and has a shaven patch behind the ear with a seasick patch in anticipation for the rough sea today…she is all lubed up with vaseline (by her female support kayaker) who will paddle the whole the whole way beside her.

Calmness surrounds her and her breathing is steady and relaxed…actually I don’t think she really was very calm, as there was a steady wind blowing at this stage already and that did not bode well for the rest of the day…that is another story for us couch based swimmers!

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