Open Water Swimming - Whatta Pain!

Open Water Swimming – Whatta Pain!

This Northern Hemisphere spring, Penny Palfrey will attempt one of the most audacious solo marathon swims in the world – a 72.4-mile crossing of the Kaieiewaho Channel from Oahu to Kauai in Hawaii this coming April.

Penny will swim between 30-40 hours through gigantic ocean swells, tremendously powerful currents and strong winds that can whip up a sea of whitecaps.

The Kaieiewaho Channel is a massive amount of water to cross. Penny described about the pain, discomfort and obstacles that she may encounter on this courageous attempt.

I think there’s a lot behind how tolerant to pain people are and what makes them who they are. There are some who will take the smallest problem and use it as an excuse to sit back and do very little with the rest of their lives. There are others who are determined to overcome life’s obstacles whatever they are.”

I think pain’s easier to tolerate or, at least, we notice pain less when we’re doing something we want to do. When we’re striving to achieve something or we’re enjoying what we’re doing, pain and discomfort become secondary. If we’re feeling pain, with no apparent gain, then the pain becomes the center of our focus and therefore is less tolerable.”

It is certainly true that open water swimmers are probably the most introspective of any endurance athletes on the planet. With limited vision and limited ability to communicate with others, open water swimmers certainly have time to think.

Penny discussed how she became the athlete and person she is. “I do agree that people can become more tolerant to pain. Just as we become more used to our training workouts. From my personal perspective, I was born in the north of England and remember splashing around in the North Sea. Later we moved south and I did my first swimming lessons in the River Thames at Southend. My coach, Mick Higgs was known for being tough and followed me with three Olympians. I would cycle to school in the fog and snow and was able to snap my frozen hair when I arrived.”

As can be expected from marathon swimmers, Penny described her swim last year in the treacherous, shark-infested Alenuihaha Channel from the Big Island of Hawaii to Maui with a humble, soft tone – nothing boostful or exaggerated – just a gentle explanation of how open water swimmers can expect the unexpected and deal with it. The gutsy 70K (43-mile) swim took Penny 14 hours and 51 minutes.
Penny

We had just arrive in Hawaii [from Australia] when we phone the pilot who said the weather was looking good and to pack our swim gear. We were to fly to the Big Island the next day to start the swim in the early hours of the next day. So 30+ hours of air travel, jet-lagged, a disturbed night’s sleep, a flight to Big Island, then a few hours rest on the boat in the harbor, up at 1 am, motor to start at 3 am. I was already exhausted. And the conditions didn’t look too good. By 6 am the forecast had changed to a small ship advisory, the paddler was on the escort boat and it was rough.”

The seas were huge, 4-6 meters coming from my right side. I’d decided not to wear earplugs because the water wasn’t that cold and it meant I’d be able to hear my crew more easily. The waves pounded my head from the right. After my swim I was deaf in my right ear for a week and my left ear for several days. The waves would catch my right shoulder when I breathed and spin me over 360 degrees. Some broke over the top of me and I didn’t know which way was up. So I just held my breath thinking that I’d pop to the surface eventually.”

White water was breaking around me and, with my fatigued brain, it looked like the English Channel ferries. The escort boat was unable to escort from beside me, so it was about 50 meters ahead. I had to lift my head to see which direction to swim and most of the time all I could see was the fishing pole that was bent back over the cabin roof [because of the rough water conditions]. Later in the swim, I was getting mad because I thought they were trawling for fish. I could swear I could see the lure beneath me.”

After I completed the swim and I was back on the boat, I felt my eyes involuntarily kept flicking and twitching to the right for about an hour since I’d been doing that to prepare for the oncoming waves for so long.”

For most of my swim, I didn’t have time to worry about pain. I was very focused on what I needed to do at each moment. But it was quite exhilarating being out there in those conditions. I knew if I got out it would be far more uncomfortable on the boat. I consider myself very fortunate to have the opportunity to be doing these swims. Which may have bought me full circle that pain has a lot to do with attitude and our perception of it.”

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