By: Elise Crane
I’ve always considered myself more of a mid-distance athlete than a marathoner. I remember swim coaches pushing me to embrace the 500-, 800-, and 1,600-meter freestyle events, noting my endurance relative to others my age, but I bristled against the pressure and stuck mostly with 100- and 200-meter distances. But as I peer up the hill and see 40 looming, distance no longer feels like something I’m forced into but a decision that’s all mine.
Five miles was the longest continuous swim I’d done until last weekend. Those five miles were a painful, grimy affair in Maryland’s Chester River the summer of 2018, when I was woefully undertrained for the distance. In June of this year, I swam around a pristine Croatian island, clocking about 3.5 miles, and it triggered a long dormant intrigue for marathon swimming. That weekend, Andy got me on video saying I’d decided to attempt to swim the English Channel.
I’ve wanted to swim the Channel since I was an angsty 13-year-old making bucket lists with my best friend.
I once dreamed of being the youngest person to swim the Channel; this was before Google and I was blissfully ignorant that an 11-year-old had checked that box in 1989. A few years later, I pivoted toward aiming to be the oldest person to swim the Channel. Fast forward 20 years and I just want to swim the Channel and survive to tell the tale.
In perhaps an ill-advised accountability strategy, I’ve made no secret of my desire. I’ve been met with a broad array of responses; the less encouraging highlights include “I didn’t even tell anyone I was thinking about swimming the Channel until I’d successfully completed at least a 20-mile swim.” Too late – cat’s out of the bag. In my mind, the benefit of oversharing, in addition to the accountability aspect, is the network and resources it presents.
Aware of my goal, a friend let me know about a 10k ocean swim from the island of Krk to the Croatian mainland. The event was last weekend and I only had a few days notice, but I signed up, confirmed a babysitter, and made it work, thanks to my incredibly supportive partner. In what became the busiest day we’ve had so far in Croatia, Andy and I got up at 4:45 am and were on the coast by 7:30. A boat transported a motley crowd of 12 swimmers from the mainland to the village of Vrbnik, better known for its excellent wine than as a marathon swim start point. Each swimmer was haphazardly paired with a small boat captained by a local. In our case, our Dalmatian captain spoke no English and chain smoked, but Andy survived 3.5 hours on the tiny boat with him and his co-captain.
Despite my general dislike for fitness trackers, I impulsively wore Andy’s Garmin so I’d have at least some sense of my progress. I found that I loved the reassuring buzz every 500 meters and knowing my pace. But my antipathy returned with a vengeance when the distance tracker froze at 4018 meters and didn’t budge for the remainder of my endless swim. But of course the timer still worked so I knew exactly how long I’d been swimming.
About two hours in, Andy told me I was making great time and only had about 2k left. I was feeling fantastic, despite some serious leftward drifting due to the current, and hearing I was almost done elevated my mood even more. I thought I’d probably finish in about 2 hours and 45 minutes, which was well under the 3 hours and 30 minute cut off.
So I swam and swam, and swam, and swam. Spotting had gotten pretty sloppy at this point and I continued to drift leftward; probably once every five minutes I saw Andy beckoning me back to the boat with exaggerated gestures. My drifting probably adding 1-2 k to my total distance. But still I swam. And the destination of Novi Vinodolski looked exactly the same. For an hour.
A combination of fatigue, frustration and hunger set in around 3 hours, when I started to feel like I was treading water and not getting a meter closer to the finish line. My goggles were so salt-crusted and foggy that I could barely see my hand in front of my face, let alone the clock tower that was my spotting focal point. When we were finally maybe 800 meters out, I felt almost delirious, and could no longer decipher Andy’s gestures from the boat. I thought I was swimming straight to the clock tower but in fact, we needed to navigate around the harbor, adding another 500 meters or so to the total distance.
With my neck rubbed raw, my tongue like a bloated animal dead in my mouth, and my left arm twinging with every stroke, I crawled my way under the festive “Finish” sign at 3 hours and 27 minutes – 3 minutes under the cut off. I learned I was the second (of three) women, behind the winner by about six minutes, and the fourth of a total nine swimmers who completed the race. The winning woman took 45 minutes longer than she had the previous year, which the organizers said was testament to the strong current. I was relieved to learn it wasn’t all in my head!
Nine days later, I feel back to normal and just finished a 6k ocean swim in the same location that sparked my renewed desire to swim the Channel. With three years to train and countless unknowables in the meantime, I am ever more in love with distance swimming as an anchor to keep me sane and strong.