May 22, 2011
You'll Never Swim Alone -
Susan McConnell photographed her spaghetti dinner as Lent arrived. She’s a professional photographer, but that fact was only coincidental. The onset of Lent was, too.
She wanted an official record. She was saying goodbye to spaghetti. Her spaghetti. All spaghetti. Her daughter and three sons were there to salute their fallen pasta paisan, too.
Fare thee well, noble carbohydrate. Adios, juicy meatballs. Via con Dios, dear, delicious meat sauce.
Susan’s husband, Doug, and his buddy, Don Macdonald, are swimming the English Channel in August. Both gave up the glories of pasta and all related joys two years ago. Wrong food group to fuel an eight-hour swim in 60-degree open seas or the 35,000 yards they have swum every week since early 2010.
They eat all the time. It’s just that it’s not, well, what you’d think of as food. It’s food-like components. Yummy isn’t the right word.
Susan hung on to pasta for as long as her conscience could stand it. But if Doug had to give up spaghetti, all the McConnells would, too.
Over at the Macdonalds, things are slightly more serene. Don and Jennifer always have arisen before dawn for separate fitness exercise regimes. She is still getting used to him eating seven times a day – “all little meals,” she says – and that he plots to add at least 10 pounds for the swim.
She thinks it must the “blubber protects us” theory of extreme sports. Don has calculated with precise mathematical precision – a little like Queeg chasing the strawberries – that he will burn 7,000 calories for every 10 miles of Channel water he leaves in his wake. About 20,000 calories for the crossing – adding a few extra for the cold water - all of them he has to consume during the plunge. He is no idle day tripper. He has done serious thinking about this excursion into history.
And as organized as life has seemed for Jennifer and 7th grade daughter Rachel, that won’t last as spring ripens into summer.
It’s coming. It’s coming fast.
“I would say I’m probably embarrassed to not appreciate the magnitude of this yet,” Jennifer says. “I hear and I understand about the mileage but I really can’t fathom what’s going through his mind about his hopes and fears as much as we talk. But when I’m in the boat halfway across the Channel while he’s swimming, I will suddenly realize what’s happening.
The Boys From Barrington are doing the actual 23 mile swimming. They'll be in the water on their own mostly. No one may touch them. It’s the rule. But they'll never be alone in the more spiritual human sense.
This endeavor is a family event. A family quest. There is a community of announced sidekicks ranging from masters swimming compatriots to professional coaches to old sea dog pilots who will guide the experience. And of course, the spouses. Most especially, the spouses.
They’re all in the big game. But few have lived through two years of daily training with their Dad, Husband, Friend.
“An obsession,” Susan admits. If Doug is going to do something this crazy, the rest of the family figures they can at least show solidarity by giving up their beloved spaghetti.
Now there is a historical visual record of that commitment.
And as much as the families try not to over-think the possibility of a less-than-glorious outcome, they are remarkably comfortable with what the men are doing and how they are doing it.
“Is this like him?” Jennifer Macdonald says with barely a heartbeat to ponder the answer. “Without a doubt. I admire his focus and his ability to set a goal. He’s wanted to do this all his life. And I think it finally materialized when he found Doug as a swim partner and friend. That really motivated him. But this is really typical for D.J. He loves to have real specific objectives to reach for.”
It’s not only important for supreme challenges, such as swimming the Channel, to be supported by loves ones; it also helps if they really believe it can succeed. And to be historically accurate, not everyone who tries to swim the Channel succeeds.
Are they ready? “They’re on their way to being ready,” says Marcia Cleveland, their advisor of record and one of the world’s exalted doyens of the deep. She set up the complex latticework of swimming intervals, lengths, times, and practice intensities that, when considered as a whole, becomes The Plan. She, above all, knows you can’t swim the Channel without mastering The Plan.
Cleveland, a mother of two who lives in Winnetka, has conquered most of the planet’s long-distance ocean swims. She stroked from Catalina Island to California (23 miles) in the dark. And more to the point for this exercise, she swam the Channel in 1994 as a 30th birthday present to herself.
“She’s his coach, but so am I,” Susan says.
“I’m comfortable because he’s comfortable,” Jennifer adds. “He’s right on track with where he wants to be. I think it even helped when he tried the first time to qualify (a required six-hour swim in 60-degree water) and he didn’t make it. The water was just a little colder and for every degree colder, it multiplies the cold for the swimmer by 10 times. So he had the experience of being shivering, cramping and totally miserable. I think he now is totally prepared both mentally and physically.”
Once it was clear where the first discussion of this plan was headed, both women gave up trying to change anyone’s mind. As if they could.
“He has greatness in him,” Susan McConnell says of Doug. “He had talked about it, but it took a partner to pull it out of him. It’s been two years of training. Age (he’s 53) is pushing the timing. He’s really been preparing for this his whole life, aiming for this. This is the next thing, the logical step. I always saw it in him. I didn’t know quite how defined swimming was in his life, but this solidified things and made sense to me.”
The McConnells have thrown the entire family of husband, wife, and four children into the coming battle with the cold water trip from Dover to Calais. “Doug leads a very creative life. We have four kids and three are adopted if that gives you an idea,” Susan adds. “So he’s capable of doing almost anything.”
Mack (23), Billy (19), Gordy (17) and Ashley (13) all have their specific roles in the McConnell Swimming Circus. Just making sure everyone is in the right place at the right time is hard enough. “Had no idea this project we’ve undertaken was so big,” Susan says. “It’s a bunch of gigantic projects all wrapped up in little patches. Three of the kids are lifeguards who can go with him on open water swims and be his guides. Billy has hand-built a kayak from scratch, so he could go along in the water.”
It’s well for Susan that her children all are strong swimmers, especially if she falls out of the crew boat. She can’t swim, and shows no motivation to learn at this point.
Rachel Macdonald is a topflight junior swimmer. Jennifer Macdonald can swim, but won’t, “Unless something big is chasing me.”
Has this been fun? Or is that the wrong word? Up at dawn. Trips to open water marathons in lagoons and bays you’ve never heard of. It can be numbingly cold at 4 a.m. Plus, life turned upside down for a cockamamie quest. And clothes that never quite get dry.
They have become water-born, ocean-fixated pollywogs. Surely, it’s not all fun.
“It’s been a blast,” Susan says. “So totally fun for the whole family. At the end of the day it’s the best thing that ever happened to us. All the kids have found that there is nothing you can’t do.”
Sometimes the task seems too large to comprehend comfortably. “I am in awe of what they are doing,” Jennifer adds. “I can’t quite grasp the magnitude of it. It’s gonna be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
That anticipation will ripen into reality on Aug. 24. It’s D-Day for Don and Doug in Dover. The families and Cleveland will all stand aside, and turn Don and Doug over to Michael Oram and his son, Lance.
The Orams operate the Dover Sea School and are the royalty of the Channel’s swimming support infrastructure. Have been for three decades.
They literally are the “Pros from Dover.” The accredited pilots have ultimate authority over each expedition. They operate the support boats, manned by their safety teams and also toting the swimmer’s personal cohorts. Everybody is going.
But the pilots are not a taxi service; they maintain constant vigil over the progress of the swim. They are Mission Control.
Michael, 62, has guided 500 crossings, many of them world record achievements. Lance has more than 300. Dad’s success rate is 75 percent and Lance’s charges have made it 77 percent of the time. Good odds. Both numbers are considerably higher than the average for pilot competitors.
No one has guided more swimmers on their trip to France (some were roundtrip ventures) than Michael Oram, who was honored for his skills with an induction into the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame. But the Orams are not merely hired hands. The candidates for these Channel swims apply for acceptance, present themselves to the pilots for close inspection, and the pilots ultimately decide if they will take the job.
“They pick people who they believe can do it,” Susan says.
More than the $3,000 pilot fees each for McConnell and Macdonald are at stake. Professional reputation is on the line, too, as well as the lives of the swimmers, for the Channel is a dangerous, hostile environment and the churning, frigid water there can be unforgiving of error. That is why preparing for the swim has taken two years of daily, grinding physical preparation. But success requires intelligent partnerships.
The Orams have done this long enough to judge which candidates are more likely to beseaworthy. And it didn’t hurt that Cleveland was the coach of record. Her name carries a cachet in this realm.
Thus, less than 10 hours after slipping into the waters, they both will stride ashore in France triumphantly. Fingers crossed. Knock-on-wood. No one says “if.” At this point, there is little roomfor “ifs.”
No one in either family has the exact specifications for the post-swim celebration that will mark the pair’s arrival in Calais.
But it’s a good guess that spaghetti and meatballs will be a part of it.
Quintessential Barrington:The year you swam the English Channel, 1994, doesn’t seem like a long time ago. But the years pile up. What most do you remember about the day you swam the Channel? What do you still feel in your mind when the moment comes back to you?
Marcia Cleveland:Remembering that is one reason I wrote the book (the “Bible” of Channel swimming, “Dover Solo”) because I wanted a memoir so that I could remember everything. People always ask about it and this summer it will be 17 years. It’s just that life was so different then being at a world caliber level. What I remember vividly, of course, was the pain in my shoulders and the cold. But I mostly remember what it felt like when my hands touched the rocks (on the French shore). It was this feeling of complete relief.
QB: Why relief?
MC: You say to yourself: This is one of those days when you really feel like you’ve done something in life. When you’re over there, all of these people are involved in the same thing and it seems almost usual. My life had been focused on that for such a long time. It was just my life. But the further you are removed it, the more you realize how big of a deal it was. Not everybody can get it together to do this. So in reflection – and even now – it sort of amazed me that I could get myself to do this. Doing the training, everything, every day. It’s even innovation of the training. I had a fulltime job at the time, I was married, I was tired a lot, and I was just able to have my big girl pants on every day. It took me five years to write the book. But it gave me perspective.
QB: Was the experience of the Channel swim what you thought it would be?
MC: Much better, a thousand times better. Before you swim you think it’s going to be hours of agony and misery, but you get yourself so physically and mentally prepared. First, my first hour in the water was in the dark, and I had not prepared for that; so I was scared out of my mind. But then you realize you are in your element. You are rocking and rolling. So you never whine or cry. My husband and a friend were in the crew boat and they were in their element, too. You begin by thinking it’s going to be 150-foot waves and 10-degree water. But you get so really, really ready. And once you start doing it, you don’t pay any attention to that.
QB: Is this the hardest swim in the world?
MC: Actually not. Lynne Cox swam the Bering Straight and there was her swim to Antarctica. And the Irish Sea is really hard, 55 degree water and huge jelly fish. Most humans can’t do that. So K2 is a harder to climb than Everest. But not nearly as famous. It’s just that the Channel is the most famous swim.
QB: You were a great kid swimmer in high school (her school was undefeated her junior and senior years) and college. So was this long distance swimming the obvious next thing for you? Were you built for this?
MC: I think when I was a kid, I “left a lot of money on the table” as they say. I did OK. I never had much speed; sort of the ball and chain. I never really blossomed. Coaches then just had a high decibel level. But when I swam my last race for Yale, I was more interested in how good the glass of beer was going to taste. I didn’t have the right approach. So when I started swimming Masters level, I did eight lifetime bests in 10 years. That’s a lot.
QB: But you prepared as a kid by swimming in the ocean off Connecticut?
MC: Not really. I saw the movie “Jaws” when I was 11. And I didn’t go into the ocean for 12 years. It had really scared me to death. I didn’t even start this open water swimming until I was 23. I was suddenly around older swimmers who were brave and they just tugged me into the water. And before I knew it, I was doing marathons around New York. It makes me a little more understanding of swimmers’ fears now (as a teacher) and how they can have a thousand fears and phobias in the open water. Like a blade of grass touches you, and you think it’s a jelly fish. Then you gradually start to learn that you are going to get through this.
QB: So, besides being physically prepared for open water, how did you change your mental approach?
MC:When I got out of college, lots of things started to go wrong and get complicated. I was having to be a grownup. And swimming became my security blanket. When you have a good day or a bad day, you get into the water and let out your joys and sorrows. It was better than the drugs of choice others had. That is very typical of swimmers. You can always say to yourself: I swam today and everything is OK. So I moved to New York, got a job in six days and decided to go swimming at a YMCA on the Upper West Side. I just happened to walk into a Masters Class. I started to realize I was on my own. My own boss. I was in charge and it was all on my own terms. I was both the prisoner and the warden.
QB: Is long distance swimming a human athletic talent, or is a question of mostly consuming will power?
MC:It’s the first option. You have to be good swimmer to do this.
QB: In your book, you describe the level of repetitive work required to be fit enough for these open water events as if you were describing a recipe for lemon meringue pie. But I would guess not a lot of people can do that work – 40,000 yards of swimming in a week for two years – or would even want to do it.
MC: When it comes to preparing to swim the Channel, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. In this society, everybody wants to be the red race car. Some weekend warriors may do really well against the cold once, but then the next day they don’t want to get out of bed. When I started working with Don Macdonald and Doug McConnell (in Barrington), I sent them the workouts for every day, and they are expected to do it. I’m not forcing anyone. But they both know what’s at stake. The fact they have many other things going on in their lives is OK. These workouts are designed for real people.
QB: Doug McConnell and Don Macdonald seem serious about this. I would guess there’s no other way to make this swim than to be serious about preparing for it.
MC: Yes, as teacher and coach I have to know what your real story is. But I can smoke out people quickly. Don and Doug have yet to give me any excuse. Like, “Ooo, I broke my toenail.” But they are in it for the real reasons. I’ve had people who are not committed. Some want the dream and the ideal, like a knight on a white horse. But real life doesn’t go that smoothly. If I decide you’re not able to do this, I’ll say you need to think about it and then call me when you decide what to do.
QB Do your children know what swimming the English Channel means? Do they want to “beat mom?”
MC: I think my daughter has read “Dover Solo” but I don’t know if Sam has. My husband hasn’t read it because he lived through it. It’s not exactly required reading in the house. (Chuckling). Sam swims for the Michigan Shore team. Julia swims for the New Trier club, and she’s doing very well. We did a swim together last summer off Long Island Sound. She is in the middle of this group of my friends who are like her extra moms. She has a lot of people in swimming who care about her. I’ve told them that if they ever want to stop, it’s fine with me. It was not to be mean. They aren’t swimming for me. But there isn’t much pressure to “show up mom.” She’s already beaten 11 of my lifetime bests.
QB: How does that make you feel?
MC: She takes delight in that, and so do I. It’s fun to see her kick my butt. Of course, if she wants to inherit Aunt Mildred’s couch pillow, that’s OK with me, too.
QB: What’s your best estimate of how ready McConnell and Macdonald are for the swim?
MC: Good as long as they do the training. But there are no guarantees, and I would be a fool to give any. They know that totally.
QB: What happens when swimmers don’t succeed?
MC: It’s a lack of preparation obviously. Or the weather deteriorates. Or the swimmer gets sick from what they eat when they swim. You get tired. You get cold. Or some just give up. That’s a bad omen in life. Sometimes the pilot does call off the swim because he has the final say. Obviously when this happens, everyone is tremendously disappointed. Not so much the swimmer right away. Because when you get out of the water because of hypothermia, the boat has been looking really good to you for a long time.
QB: Do they fit the training experience model of your other students who have made it?
MC: They are doing what they need to do to be successful, to give them a chance to be successful.
QB: How many have you tutored for the Channel?
MC: It’s more like advised. About 25. Maybe 10 have made it. Some have started the training but dropped out because they couldn’t do it.
QB: Are there other successful Channel swimmers in the area?
MC: Maybe two dozen or so total in the Chicago region, although no one who is super young because that doesn’t help. Older swimmers are more patient. Maybe two or three in the Chicago area.
QB: Does the event change you?
MC: I think what it did was showed me the value of real hard work, and it was totally up to me to succeed. I could decide when to end it at any time. Nobody was holding me to this. But being able to put together a big project – there are lots of people who cared and helped – was something special. It helps on those horrible days when you can get it together. It’s helped me be a better parent.
QB: Can a person really know what it took to swim the Channel without having done it? Is this one of those human events with a closed enrollment?
MC:That’s part of mystique, and it’s true. This thing is not a dime a dozen. Sometimes someone will say they want to swim the Channel and even when they take baby steps, they say “Oh my God. I didn’t know what was involved.” That’s what brings the fraternity closer together of those who have done it. The mutual respect. When they come back, they don’t need medals or attention. You can just see it in their faces.
QB: I have never read an account of your exploits that goes long without noting how important a person you are in the sport worldwide as a teacher and leader. Are you comfortable being called one of the half dozen most significant persons in your sport?
MC: I never expected to be important. But there are several of us women at the top. Every year, we go back to England for a party. It’s great to see everyone and see what they’ve done in the last year.
QB: How much time do you spend in water each week in warm months and cold?
MC: Right now about 25,000 yards a week, about 14 to 16 miles. That’s seven or eight hours. When I did the Channel, it was 45,000 yards in 20 hours a week, and then up to 25 hours a week. In the summer it’s about 50-50between the pool and open water (usually Lake Michigan). I often use the pool to work on speed. But you don’t waste time, like with polar bear activities or goofing off like that.
QB: Tell me something about you that almost no one knows.
MC: I like to knit. I’m totally mediocre at it. But I just love it. I’ve knitted my husband lots of sweaters. Right now, I’m working on a washcloth. It helps keep my expectations low.
QB: What will you do next? Do you fear the Alexander the Great Syndrome: crying because there are no worlds left to conquer?
MC: Nah, that’s not me at all. Maybe (swimming the Straits of) Gibraltar. My husband loves Spain.
Marcia Cleveland, 47, has lived with her husband of 20 years, Mark Green, in Winnetka for the past eight years. Their two children are Julia, 13, and Sam, 11.
She is a professional long-distance swimming coach, coach for Vision Quest Triathlon Group on the North Shore, Master Swimming organizer, a Girl Scout Troop leader and member of The Women’s Exchange. She grew up in Greenwich, Conn., and graduated from Yale.
She is serving a four-year term as the national chair of the United States Masters Swimming Open Water and Long Distance Committee.
In 1994, she swam the 23.69-mile English Channel in nine hours, 44 minutes. She was the 445th to swim the Channel.
In 1996, she established the American women’s record for the 28.5 mile Manhattan Island Marathon Swim in five hours, 57 minutes. It was her fifth Manhattan Marathon.
In 2003, she swam the roundtrip English Channel route as part of a relay team.
In 2005, she swam the 23-mile Catalina Island Channel in the Pacific Ocean and reached California’s coast in eight hours, 56 minutes, virtually all of it at night.
As a 30-year-old, she averaged 45,000 yards a week swimming for a year before her English Channel swim.
As a 40-year-old mother of two, she averaged 25,000 yards a week before the Catalina swim.
As she swam the Channel, her head filled with the B-52's version of the Flintstones theme song, a singing rendition of the ABC's stroke by stroke, and the British pop song, “I Saw the Sign.” Cleveland was also fueled by feedings which consisted of 30-60 second stops where liquid would be handed over the side of her support boat. She would tread water while gulping either chicken broth, watery oatmeal or Nutrament – and then begin swimming again.
In 1994, Marcia Cleveland is joined by her husband, Mark Green, to savor the ultimate finish for a swimmer – completing the English Channel swim.