Race Report: Rottnest Channel Swim

I hate suspense, so let’s begin with the ending:

I MADE IT.

I made it to Rotto!!!

The Rottnest Channel Solo was the hardest and most epic thing I have ever put my body through.

I have never felt more exhilarated and grateful and exhausted and TOTALLY, UTTERLY, STOKED than I did when I planted both my feet on the sand in Thompson’s Bay after nearly ten hours of swimming and waded in to shore, to see the faces of a whole crowd of people I love to pieces. The looks on their faces were variously delighted, relieved, excited and proud. I will never forget that welcoming party – it was just the best.

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Made it! You can stop reading if you like.

I could end it there, but I think some readers would like the blow-by-blow details of the race. So read on if you’d like the rest of the story (but be warned … there is vomit).

I rose at 3:30am. A weather check confirmed the previous day’s forecast – an easterly wind, not due to swing until the mid-afternoon. Tweets started to fly about how good the conditions were, and how today would be a record-breaking day. My tickle of doubt over the oceanographer’s prediction of a strong southward current in the newspaper was quashed; the conditions seemed perfect.

A blood glucose check showed a reasonably flat line overnight and a morning level of 6.7. I felt good. I injected 40% of my normal dose of long-acting insulin, and made a strong bulletproof coffee, high in fats. I had too many butterflies to eat anything, and I wanted to see how far the coffee and nerves pushed my levels up before making a decision about what and when to eat. My plan was to run the day on long-acting insulin only and avoid taking rapid-acting insulin if I could, using fats (from food and body fat) rather than glucose to fuel my swim. It was simple, unnervingly simple – but I was confident that my body was adequately fat-adapted, and I know that rapid-acting insulin and carbohydrate are two hugely unpredictable variables, so I removed them from the picture. Minimal variables = minimal mistakes.

Race numbers and race suit on, a knock on the door confirmed Jeremy and Liam’s arrival. I was unceremoniously slathered in the first layer of thick zinc, the second to go on at the beach, followed by a layer of wool fat to keep the zinc on and stop my race suit from rubbing my skin raw. The epic logistics were set into motion: phone calls to Greg and Amy to confirm the boat was underway from Claremont, to report my morning sugar level and double check the next steps in the diabetes plan, then we secured the kayak to the car and headed off into the dawn.

We hit the beach and despite my off-the-chart nerves, miraculously my sugar level had barely moved. I felt safe to eat a couple of home-made ‘Amazeballs’ (recipe in a previous post) which are high in fats and very low in carbohydrates. They turned out to be my only food for the remainder of the day; I was very glad of those Amazeballs.

People had travelled from all ends of Perth to see me off, which made my heart sing. I felt so lucky and grateful to have such incredible support from my family, my friends, and people from the diabetes community. So many people came – that morning on the cold sand I felt the warmth of their collective, focused energy, willing a good outcome for me.

I was pumped and excited, buzzing, jittery. But when we lined up on the shore for the starting horn, all the noise, all the butterflies, all the chatter fell away into stillness. I looked out at the stretch of grey ocean, the slow small flash of the lighthouse at Rottnest so far away, and took the biggest breath of hope and fear.

The horn blared, and I dived in. The first 1000 metres was a blur: searching for Liam in the kayak, trying to avoid other swimmers, worried they’d knock the sensors off my arms. Finally, I spotted Liam’s giant helium balloon hanging off the back of his kayak. We approached our support boat and I was greeted with hoots and hollers from the crew – Greg and Dave, Amy, Aki and Kyle. I think I cried a little bit with pride when I saw the boat with our giant ‘Telethon Type 1 Diabetes Family Centre’ signs festooned on each side. I yelled to Amy my blood glucose was 8.1, and then recalled the relevant part of our ‘Run Sheet’ for the Rotto Swim plan:

0625: Bec + Liam unite with support boat. Blood glucose check.

0625 onwards:

Liam and Kyle swap hourly.

Paddlers relay Bec’s glucose checks to Amy hourly.

Nutrition and hydration stops on paddler change out.

Bec swims.

Bec swims.

And swims,

and swims,

and swims.

Stories have beginnings, middles and endings. I’ve told you the end, and the beginning. The middle? The middle was alllllllll swimming.

The first ten kilometres went without incident. The easterly pushed me forwards, but it also meant a choppy little wave kept washing over me from the right. Several times, I turned my head, mouth wide for a breath of air, and gulped salt water instead. But I was ok. I swam strong for the first four hours, tested hourly, took sips of rehydration salts and water as per the plan. My sugar sat steadily between 7.5 and 8.1mmol/L. I didn’t need to drink any of the very weak (4 grams/200mL) glucose solution I had prepared in case my levels started to drop from my long-acting insulin, but I did have a few sips of the warm chocolate drink we had prepared with 100 grams of 90% dark chocolate (which is 12% carbohydrate and high in fats) dissolved in 600mL of unsweetened almond milk and hot water.

At the ten kilometre mark, I started to feel queasy. I had taken seasickness tablets the previous night and when I woke up, but they didn’t stand up to swimming for hours in murky green water with no horizon or seabed to focus on, with a belly full of seawater. The first time I puked I felt utterly dismayed, because I knew I still had a long time left in the water to be seasick. After that, things went downhill – I couldn’t keep water down, let alone flavoured hydration salts, or the warm drinks I needed to prevent hypothermia. Feeling nauseous, building up to the next puke, followed by a few minutes of relief before the nausea hit again, became the deal for the next six hours in the water.

I came to almost enjoy my brief stops for puking because I could talk to somebody. Ten hours with next to no communication left me alone with some dark thoughts. Liam and Kyle both helped stop me focusing on the discomfort, and nudged me forward with encouragement, and kind firmness of the ‘this sucks, but you signed up knowing it would suck, so go forth and conquer it’ variety. Added to that, each time I stopped Amy or Aki would hoot and holler and wave at me from the boat. Their ‘Wooooooo! Gooooooooo Beeeeeec!’ buoyed my spirit up every time.

15 kilometres in, the oceanographer’s ominous prediction began to take shape and the southward current started to tug. As the current built in strength, race officials came out to tell the boats to point north – point high, they said, way higher than you think you need to, and do it fast or you won’t make the cut off times. We pointed up, facing the current head on, literally swimming against the tide. I stalled. The regular social media updates from Amy and Aki on the support boat went silent, while I swam for two long hours and gained hardly any ground. Later, back on shore, people told me that they noticed the social media silence, and wondered if something was going wrong.

When you live with type 1, you get used to feeling challenged physically, and you learn to rise above it. A rough few days with type 1 makes me tired in my very bones, but life doesn’t stop just because I had a trainwreck hypo or a night running high. People with type 1 juggle work, sport, family, friends, study and travel on top of our other fulltime job: managing a staggeringly complex disease behind the scenes each day. There is a particular brand of tough possessed by people who have learned to thrive with type 1. It’s powerful, awesome, and it blows my mind; it’s what inspires me about working with kids who have diabetes. So many people I know with type 1, kids and adults, hurl themselves at life despite how challenging it is for them. They’re totally, utterly, type 1 tough.

When we hit that current I was able to call on every ounce of tough I had, everything diabetes has taught me about feeling fatigued and uncomfortable but grinding through anyway, and I just kept on swimming. I feel very grateful to be type 1 tough, and to have had that reserve of mental strength to face that current down and swim through it.

The 18 kilometre mark took an age to reach, but it was the point at which I started to feel hopeful. I knew was going to make it. The support boat requested a final blood glucose check – 4.7mmol/L – and satisfied, peeled away to meet us on the shore. Nine hours after we’d started, it was just me and Liam again. I started to see the bottom, the seaweed slanted sideways in the current, stingrays like small spaceships hovering over the sand. At the 19 kilometre mark Liam left me to swim slowly into shore, the sandy bottom tantalisingly close.

I started to hear the race announcer through the bubbles and water. I looked up and could just make out the words on the finish chute. Tentatively, I reached my foot down towards the bottom, and my toes swept the sand. I could stand up! I felt a huge surge of emotion and burst into tears in the water. I had made it … I had really made it! Taking my goggles off I could barely see, my face was so puffy and swollen from the salt, but I heard my name announced as I crossed the finish line, and then yelled from a dozen different directions by my welcoming party.

I crossed the finish line and after being swept into the medical tent to be checked over (blood glucose 5.2mmol/L, ketones ok, body temp a little low at 33 degrees) I was bundled into towels and into the arms of some of my favourite people who had been waiting for me all afternoon: my amazing friends Peta and Tori, Jeremy, Mum and Dad, the boat and kayak support crew, and my friends Edel and Alice, two and a half hours later than they expected me. I was so glad to see them and I have NEVER been hugged so hard!

I wrote an earlier blog post about numbers, about how sometimes the need to feel in control of my diabetes takes over my mind and life. This race blew all of that away. We simply couldn’t plan for every single scenario. I had to step off the edge of my experience, get comfortable with uncertainty, come up with a strategy based on theory, test it as best I could, dive in and see if it worked. It did – better than I could have hoped. And that has built my confidence with diabetes management so much.

If I had have been fueling my swim with carbohydrate I know I would not have made it. Fueling a marathon swim with a ketogenic approach helped me maintain energy and stable glucose levels, despite the fact that I was sick and unable to take on hydration or nutrition for the final six hours. I firmly believe that we can tackle a lot of type 1 through food choices, and that’s what got me to Rotto – that, six long months of training, a group of awesome people who helped me every step of the way, and a whole lot of type 1 tough.

Completing a 19.7 kilometre swim race has taken four weeks to sink in. It’s still not quite real. I am not very good at pausing and reflecting on achievements, but this time I’m not saying ‘cool, done that, let’s move the goal posts over there now!’ – I’m allowing myself to really feel this one. And I feel really, really proud of myself. I walk past my gold soloist medal each day, hung on the back of the bathroom door, and I smile. I didn’t know I had grit and determination quite like what it took to finish that race. And now I know how tough I can be, I feel like anything is possible.

And that is an awesome feeling to have.

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A huge thank you to my support crews (boat, kayak and shore), my welcoming party, to Nipro TrueCare Diabetes and The Naked Sack for helping to support me with glucose and protein products, registration fees and fuel costs, and to the Family Centre community and the greater type 1 tribe for your support.

Finally, I am only two hundred bucks shy of reaching my goal of raising $10,000 for the Telethon Type 1 Diabetes Family Centre! You can help me get over the line by donating – click here to help.

That’s it for Swimsulin – over and out!

Until the next challenge at least.

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3 thoughts on “Race Report: Rottnest Channel Swim

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