A Small Part of the Universe

I pressed my forehead against the plastic, trying to get a glimpse of both coasts and the seemingly narrow strip of water in between. I was staring down at the English Channel from 25,000 feet, squinting to spot Dover on the English side and Calais on the French side.

Just a couple of hours earlier, I had been in a major state of stress, as the bus I had taken for the hour-long journey from Lugano, Switzerland to Milan, Italy had gotten a flat tire. I had arrived at Milan Malpensa airport with exactly 37 minutes to spare before my international flight to London. Thankful that I am a runner and for the technology of online check-in, I had sprinted to the British Airways bag drop counter only to be told by the employee that the flight had closed. Please, I begged her. Please take my bag. I have to get on that plane. I am flying back to the United States tomorrow morning from London. If I don’t get to London tonight, I’ll miss my flight. The look on the woman’s face clearly declared my fate: Sit down, have a cup of coffee… you’ll be here a while. I pleaded with her until finally, following a moment’s hesitation and a rushed phone call in Italian, she printed off a baggage claim tag and attached it to my backpack. She led me to the bag drop and gave me directions on finding my gate. If you hurry, you can make it! I began my sprint towards security and then to gate B1. Grazie mille! I shouted. Prego, the woman called after me. Good luck! It was a scene that I had only ever seen in a film… the type of scene that prompts the viewer roll his eyes and think, Only in the movies….

I raced through the airport, down the escalator… Excusi, entschuldigung, pardon… through security, and, oh my, hold it right there… nature was calling. Yelling, in fact. I decided that I had enough time for a pit stop if I really hurried; I’d never be able to hold it until we were in flight and the seatbelt sign was off. And so I stopped. In my haste, I inadvertently loosened the bandage covering the very tender boil on the back of my leg that had been lanced by my great aunt’s doctor just that morning (thanks to the staph infection that had inexplicably appeared several days before and was unbelievably uncomfortable), which then chafed against my skin as I continued Operation: Get to Gate B1. I arrived at my gate, breathless, as the last passengers were boarding. Everybody’s running today, said the British Airways employee who scanned by boarding pass.

As I stepped onto the jetway, my tears started flowing. I couldn’t help it… I stood in the entrance to the plane, sweaty, emotional… truly a hot mess. Two very kind flight attendants asked me if I was OK. Shortly after I had made my way to my seat, with tears streaming down my cheeks, one of them brought me glass of water and again asked if I was OK. I nodded, embarrassed by my inability to control my emotions in such a public place.

Before long, we soared into the air and my sobbing stopped. I closed my eyes to reflect on the previous eighteen days. I had visited three countries, spent a glorious time with good friends and family, eaten my way through several patisseries, and run up and down the hills of southern Switzerland. But it was as we made our descent into London and I peered out of the tiny window next to me that the stress of the previous several hours really began to melt away. I could see the both the French and English coastlines down below us, and between them, that narrow strip of water that from this high in the air seemed so tiny… so insignificant. A small part of the universe, as my dear friend Katy would say.

Barely two weeks earlier, on a starry night, followed by the purest of sunrises and a cloudless afternoon, I had been on that water, alongside Katy, who on that day added her name to the history books as one of fewer than 1,500 people in the history of the world to complete a successful solo crossing of the English Channel. She completed her crossing in 11 hours, 16 minutes- the fifth-fastest time this year. And I was lucky enough to be there for every minute of it.

***

Katy and I met about eight years ago. We both worked for the same government agency; she in Texas and I in Washington, DC. We had communicated every once in a while through email, and I had heard through the grapevine that Katy could give the impression of being abrupt. Her direct style of communication and no-nonsense disposition stood opposite my reserved personality and tendency toward meekness. Quite frankly, Katy intimidated me.

It was a cloudy day in the middle of March, 2005 that I received a phone call from Katy as I was working in my cubicle. I had returned to the United States- and to the same government agency that I had worked at before- from the Peace Corps only a few months prior. It was no secret that I had come home engaged to a guy I had been dating for several years and who had also worked at the agency, as I was excited about getting married. It was also no secret, then, when the guy broke off the engagement two months before our planned wedding date. I was very, very sad, and my colleagues knew it. I don’t remember how she had learned of my news, but Katy called me that day to offer her support. What I do remember was realizing that it had been silly of me to be afraid of Katy; she was kind and gentle and incredibly encouraging. She listened to me cry and tell her how I felt that my life would never be the same again, and she reminded me that it wouldn’t, but that it would be better. The experience would make me stronger, she said, and my purpose in life was not yet over, because I was still here. I don’t believe we had ever actually talked to one another before that day, but I knew that a true friendship had been born.

Katy and I got to know each other better over the years. I learned about her interest in endurance sports, and we swapped stories from our experiences. I visited her in February 2006 to run the Austin Marathon. During that visit, she showed me photos of her first half-Ironman and inspired me to train for my first triathlon. When I did get married, she traveled halfway across the country to come to my wedding. And when I got divorced, she again lent me her shoulder to cry on. Never a word of judgment; always words of support and encouragement.

Katy completed her first Ironman in 2008, and her second in 2009. That was the same year I did my Ironman, so again, we shared our training ups and downs. Katy’s strength had always been in swimming, while mine had always been in running. We supported each other in our weaker areas, offering suggestions on gaining strength and speed. I knew that Katy had been a standout on the University of Texas swim team and had even qualified for the 1988 Olympic trials. She was one of the first women out of the water in both of her Ironman events. And I will never forget the day I dared to go swimming with Katy. She swam at least two and a half lengths of the pool to my one.

It was a warm July afternoon in 2010 when I was painting my house that the phone rang again. Katy called to tell me that she had decided to swim the English Channel. It was her ultimate dream, she said, and it would take a huge commitment- physically, emotionally, mentally, and financially- but she wanted to do it, and I knew she was serious. My immediate response was, “Let me know when and I’ll be there.”

For some reason, I had it in my head that Katy was planning to swim in 2013. When I asked her about it earlier this year, she said that the swim was to take place in September 2012. Throughout her training, Katy had been raising money for Colin’s Hope, a nonprofit organization that raises awareness about water safety for children. Inspired by her efforts, many donors had contributed to Katy’s cause and sent her words of support throughout her training. She had been assigned a tide between September 7th and 14th, which meant that if the weather on the Channel cooperated, she would attempt to make her crossing during that week. I had been thinking about other travel plans for the year, but recalled the conversation I had had with Katy nearly two years before, with my paintbrush in hand. I reviewed my budget, moved some things around, and bought a round-trip ticket to London for the first two weeks of September.

It seemed so far away at that time. I followed Katy’s training over the months, gaining motivation and courage from it as I trained for my own ultramarathon. Katy’s weekly swimming mileage was not much lower than my weekly running mileage. My usual 10K loop had become my “nice and easy” morning run, but I certainly couldn’t imagine swimming it. Outside. In the winter. Without a wetsuit. Texas or no Texas, Katy was swimming some wild distances in some cold water. All in the good name of training. She did several hours-long trial swims, including a competitive swim across the Catalina Channel in California, and a six-hour swim near her home in Austin. She prepared for the Channel in other ways, by experimenting with different types of nutrition, swimming at all hours of the day and night, learning from the experiences of friends and acquaintances who had swum the Channel, and, as if all of the above were not indicative enough of her commitment to her goal, Katy intentionally gained 25 pounds to help insulate her body during the swim. Wetsuits are against Channel rules, and Katy had no intention of letting cold water stand in the way of a successful crossing.

In April, just five months before she was set to swim, Katy broke her foot. She had jumped in the pool just a bit too hard and hit her foot at the bottom. The injury put her in a boot for more than a month, but she continued to train, gently yet steadily, as her foot healed. By September, she was ready.

I was admittedly very anxious about being on Katy’s crew. I had never crewed for anything other than a running event before, and I had never been on a boat for more than an hour or two. I had so many questions. Will it be cold? Is there a bathroom on the boat? How will we feed you? Am I going to throw up? If someone had told me at the outset that yes, it will be downright freezing, and yes, there is a bathroom on the boat but it’s so tiny that you, who never has an issue with confined spaces, will get claustrophobic if you try to use it, and don’t worry about feeding Katy, because your aim is way too poor to throw her bottles to her, and besides, you’ll be way too sick to feed her, since yes, you will throw up… four times, to be exact, I just may have chickened out. Instead, Katy told me, You’ll be great. I trust you. All the more reason to be anxious! The thought of screwing up so badly that it might negatively influence Katy’s swim worried me for weeks. I sure hope there’s someone on that crew who knows what they’re doing, I thought.

As luck would have it, I was only a third of Katy’s crew, joined by her partner, Calvin, and her friend, David, who had successfully crossed the Channel several years before. I met Calvin and David for the first time when I arrived in Dover on Tuesday, September 4th. I had just landed in London the day before, where I had planned to stay for a couple of days with a good friend from graduate school. However, Katy had called me to let me know that the weather was looking good and that meant a chance for swimming earlier than planned. I was en route to Dover when Katy called again to tell me that she had been cleared to swim that night. When that plan was later canceled because of a sudden change in the weather, I was not-so-secretly grateful, as I knew that having some extra time to rest and recover from my transatlantic journey would put me in a much better position to at least pretend to be more than a cheerleader for Katy.

When she received word the following day from Neil, her boat pilot, that the weather was looking really great for that night, we began to prepare. Our hosts at the quaint Victoria Guest House, Bill and Audrey, opened their home to us and helped us get ready. They were so warm and friendly, and, having hosted many Channel swimmers in the past, had grown accustomed to the long “to do” list that is invariably attached to an event like this. I knew the drill insofar as preparing for a running ultramarathon, and I was curious to see how this would be similar and different.

We had already prepped the nutrition bottles the day before, and Katy had debriefed us on her feeding schedule, communication signals, and instructions. She was using a fuel called Carbo-Pro, which was a calorie-rich powder, mixed with water. To that, she added electrolyte tablets and a packet of Crystal Lite for flavoring. We were to throw her a bottle one hour into her swim and then every half hour thereafter. We also prepared a mouthwash mix of one part Scope and one part water. As if seeing a huge question mark on my forehead, Katy said, to rinse my mouth of the salt water. She described to me what some swimmers’ tongues look like after completing the swim, to which I responded by diligently mixing the mouthwash. Finally, Katy went over her array of medications and when we were to give her which ones. She had Pepto-Bismol for potential stomach ailments, children’s Tylenol for muscle aches, Benadryl for jellyfish stings… needless to say, she had come prepared.

Once we had everything ready, Calvin and I walked down the road in search of fish and chips. A little voice in my head warned, You may want to reconsider that meal choice… you’re about to be on a boat for a looong time… but I ignored it. I have an iron stomach, after all. Two years in the Peace Corps and an inability to say no to street food in foreign countries (but it’s so authentic!) builds up the old tolerance quite well, I might say. Little did I know that the English Channel would give me a run for my money and that that fish would end up right back where it came from.

Calvin and I returned to the Guest House and learned from Katy that Neil had called to confirm that the swim was on for that night. We were to meet him at the Dover Marina at 1:30 am. We lay down for a few hours to rest before it was time to go. I don’t know how Katy made it through those hours. I didn’t sleep a wink.

We arrived at the marina right on time. To my surprise, we were not the only ones there. Another group of swimmers was loading up their boat. They were a relay team of three women. I hadn’t even considered that people might swim the Channel as a relay. The team members rotate, swimming in two or three hour increments each, until the swim is complete. I was fascinated by this, and was learning so much. A few minutes later, we saw a smallish boat pull up to the dock. Suva, it was called. Isn’t that the capital of Fiji? I pondered out loud. But I don’t think anyone heard me. Or wanted to play geography bee at that moment.

Neil jumped off the boat and introduced himself. He was joined by his co-pilot, Brian, and the official Observer, Irene, whose job it was to make sure that Katy, and we as her crew members, followed all of the rules (no touching the swimmer, no hanging on to the boat, no pulling the swimmer along, etc.) and officially swam from coast to coast. There was no medical personnel on the boat. I suppressed the thought that was forming in my mind upon realizing this.

We loaded the boat with our supplies and food (Why did it seem like I had brought more along than anyone else?) and soon were on our way. With the Scopolamine patch behind my ear and ginger candies in my pocket, I was ready for a day at sea. It only took about fifteen minutes for me to change my tune on that subject. We were traveling at a relatively high speed to get to the starting point on the beach of the White Cliffs of Dover. It took us about 45 minutes to get there, and I tried to distract myself with Katy’s Blackberry by posting a cheery status update on Facebook. After all, I told Katy and David, if it’s not on Facebook, it didn’t happen. It was my attempt to add some levity to the atmosphere and also keep my dinner down at least until after Katy got in the water.

The boat was anything but steady as we finished up last-minute preparations. I slathered Katy with layers of sunscreen, zinc, and lanolin, all in an effort to protect her skin from the harsh elements of the sea. David and Calvin listened to final instructions from the boat pilots as we approached the beach. I took a couple of photos of Katy and within seconds, she was in the water. She first had to swim to the shore, get out of the water, and wave her hands, so that the observer could mark her official start time. It was 2:32 am when Katy dove in.

We watched Katy’s green headlamp bob up and down through the pitch black water for that first hour. I couldn’t believe she was actually there, swimming. I tried to hold on to that thought as my stomach became increasingly more upset. The first hour passed quickly, and Katy took in her nutrition. Just a few seconds later, with David right behind me, I had no choice but to lean over the side of the boat, opposite Katy, thankfully, and let go of my dinner. It was a violent sickness that I had only experienced a couple of times in my life before- the kind that gave me no doubt that my chest and abdomen would be sore the next day. David gently rubbed my back as I tried to recover, realizing with regret that in spite of all of the stuff I had lugged onto the boat, I had failed to bring a toothbrush.

David recommended that I sit on the top deck, where I could somewhat lie down and at least breathe in fresh air. I rinsed my mouth with some water and dug out the electric wristband that my boss had loaned me to help with motion sickness. Clad in four layers of clothing, including a T-shirt, a sweatshirt, my own coat, and Katy’s swimming parka, I leaned back against the railing, feeling the electric pulse of the wristband throughout my hand and watching Katy swim below me. I chewed on a piece of ginger candy, which had the duel effect of improving the taste in my mouth and calming my stomach. I felt remarkably better. That feeling lasted for about an hour, and then I repeated the same cycle. And then a third time, and again a fourth time. One of my biggest fears in being on the crew had come true: I was completely useless to Katy.

As the hours went by and Katy stuck to her half hourly feeding schedule, we cheered for her as she stopped to take in her nutrition and checked in to make sure she was OK. David had been insistent upon heating her nutrition, and we soon learned that the warmth was well received on Katy’s end.

Before long, the sun began to rise on the horizon, and the White Cliffs of Dover, still clearly visible behind us, seemed like they should have been smaller than they were. If we really squinted, we could make out the outline of the French coast before us, but it still looked so far away. Katy had been swimming for more than five hours. David warned her against looking back when she stopped for a feeding at around 7:00 am and admitted that she, too, had been throwing up for a while now, and was not in a good place. Katy shared with me later that that was her darkest moment, and that she had seriously considered ending her swim right then and there. She was cold, sick, and miserable, and wasn’t keeping much of her nutrition down. She had reached a point that I think comes in every endurance event, and while every person experiences it differently, it’s the point at which the slightest knock to one’s concentration and tenacity can end the day. It’s the point at which the athlete asks herself what she is doing, why she is doing it, what she has to prove. It’s the point of wanting to quit. I know that point very well and a couple of times in my life, I have let that point beat me. But I knew that Katy was capable of overcoming it on this day. She had worked too hard for this. But thank God she didn’t look back.

We cheered words of encouragement and Katy was off again. By her next feeding, her outlook had improved a bit. I’m getting it together, she told us. Four words of assurance, probably for us just as much as for herself, and I, for one, was glad to hear them. Katy didn’t have anything to prove… and certainly not to us. But I wanted so badly for my friend to succeed. I knew she had it in her, and hearing her words confirmed that she also knew it.

With the passing hours, the sun rose higher and grew warmer. I gradually started removing the many layers of clothing, until I was down to my T-shirt. The boat did not stop rocking, however, and at times threatened to dump all of us into the sea. Calvin, Katy’s partner and a wonderfully talented photographer, took photos of Katy, the crew, and our surroundings. With every tilt of the boat, as our belongings slid from one side to the other, I watched Calvin dive to protect his camera bag while I held on to the boat railing for dear life with one hand and clutched the Blackberry in my other until my knuckles were white.

Irene came up to the top deck at one point to visit with me and we talked for while. She had been an observer for English Channel crossings for many years. I asked her, Do you not get seasick? How is that possible on this water? She admitted that she realizes how lucky she is not to be afflicted by motion sickness, and told me that this particular day was actually quite calm.

By about 10:00 am, we had entered French waters. We spent the next couple of hours resting, talking occasionally, cheering for Katy, and making plans for her final feedings and her touch on French land. I enjoyed the banter between Brian, Neil, and Irene (Make us some tea, you lousy old woman! Make it yourself, you miserable old good-for-nothing!) and finally regained an appetite and started eating. I tried to encourage the others to eat something as well. Though I was the only one who “tossed my cookies” (but eventually replaced them with McVittie’s digestives- one of England’s finest assets, if you ask Katy and me), the sea had gotten to David and Calvin as well. It was Irene who had insisted that as counterintuitive as it seemed, eating something would really help. She was right.

We saw another boat off on the distance… a relay team, as it turned out, and one that had started swimming more than three hours before Katy. Within two hours, Katy caught and surpassed the boat, swiftly cutting through the waves at what appeared to be the same pace that she had started with more than eight hours earlier. I waved Katy’s Hello Kitty shirt (her favorite) and towel at her for encouragement, and we prepared the final bottle. We gradually approached the coast, first spotting the five-kilometer buoy and then the outlines of individual houses and buildings that made up the town of Calais. We were almost there.

As a runner, I often measure things in life by distance. I’ve got a mile’s wait for the bus. My workday is about an Ironman bike ride. I could have run 10 miles in the time I’ve been sitting on this conference call…. David shouted to Katy at one of her final feedings that she had a “Whitney UT (University of Texas) swim practice to go”… obviously a manageable measure of time for Katy, and to us laypeople, about 90 minutes. She’d have to push, though, he told her, if she was to make it to shore before the tide changed.

Smooth and steady, Katy pressed on, inching ever closer. She was within about half a mile from the coast when the tide began to pull her sideways. The strength of the water pulled our boat as well, and houses that we had been heading straight towards were now off to the right. It was like being on a treadmill… working so hard but not going anywhere. But Katy was not out here for a workout today. I was frustrated for her, and though I knew she was exhausted, she seemed to have expected this and did not let it break her determination. She stopped for her final feeding and asked Brian, Am I going to land on the rocks? ‘Cause I don’t want to have to climb out onto the rocks. Brian assured her that they’d do the best they could, and I was grateful that Katy’s biggest concern at this point was not the tide, but landing on the rocks. It was time to get excited!

About twenty minutes later, Neil stopped our boat in the water and we watched as Katy swam ahead of us. French officials do not allow the boats that accompany English Channel swimmers to dock on French land; thus, we had to hang back, wait for Katy to touch land, and then wait for her to swim back to the boat.

It was a sight I will never forget: Katy emerging from the water in her royal blue swimsuit, right at the feet of a man who stood on the beach, seemingly in just as much a state of awe as I was. Bonjour! Katy said to him. The man greeted her as well, and kindly offered her some water. He asked her if she swam a long way, and she told him, From England! He didn’t speak much English, and Katy didn’t speak much French, but it was clear to the man what had just happened. He congratulated her with an enthusiasm that requires no language. We, too, shouted and cheered and took photos as Katy danced in victory for a few seconds. She then bent down to pick up some pebbles from the beach- a finisher’s medal far more unique than anything I had ever received after finishing a marathon- and hopped back in the water to swim the 200 or so yards back to the boat. As she made her way towards us, Irene informed me of Katy’s official crossing time that would go down in the books: 11 hours and 16 minutes. I was beaming with pride and joy for my friend.

Katy reached the boat, and we pulled her up onto the deck, wrapping her with towels and showering her with words of congratulations. Through chattered teeth, Katy informed us: I am NEVER doing that shit again! I had grown used to hearing those words over the years, and at times even saying them myself after a particularly tough race, and the sentiment always seemed to fade within a week… sometimes even sooner. But somehow, this time, I believed Katy. This was a once-in-a-lifetime deal.

We ushered Katy into the cabin of the boat, cleaning the lanolin off of her skin and helping her into warm, dry clothes. She collapsed with exhaustion on the cabin bench. She was cold and tired and her primary goal was to stop shivering. I made some hot tea for her and covered her in as much fleece as could be found on the boat. It was about a bumpy two-hour journey back to Dover, and as Katy warmed up, she was able to share some of her thoughts and feelings- beyond cold and fatigue- at the moment.

Over the next few days, these thoughts would become more detailed reflections and short stories. I listened to them eagerly, fascinated by Katy’s experience, and so humbled and honored to have been a small part of it. A small part of the universe… Katy’s words, not mine, and rarely more meaningful than now. Thank you, Katy, for believing that anything is possible and for inspiring us to do the same. Yours is a story I have told my friends with such pride and admiration. It is a story I will tell my children and grandchildren. You have touched so many lives through this adventure, and especially mine. Congratulations, my dear friend. I love you.

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