On the 2nd of September 2017, British ocean swimmer Deborah Herridge successfully completed a solo swim across the English Channel. During her three years of swimming training, she contracted severe pneumonia, putting her long time ambition at risk. She spent three months in bed, could hardly walk up a flight of stairs and her health was precarious. Her dream of swimming the Channel was fading and in turn this dream became a long nightmare. A few weeks before her big day she lost a close friend through an illness, challenging her fragile mental state even more.
This is her story.
When did you become a swimmer and what inspired you to start swimming?
I have swum all my life, but only pool swimming with no real focus, and no more than 20 lengths of a 25m pool, or 30 lengths on a good day. Then I had the honour of seeing the London 2012 Paralympic Games and everything changed. They inspired me to become fitter and stronger and dream of something big, to get fit. My husband and I then devised a 44 mile (my age in miles at that time), gym-based triathlon for the following year, which was – 4 miles on the rower, 36 mile bike, and a 4 mile pool swim and raised £3,300 for two charities. That’s when my love for longer distance swimming started in 2013.
What is your main motivation for being a swimmer?
I have fallen in love with the sea and the pleasure it gives. I love the wildness of the waves, the rare calm millpond seas, the ever-changing British weather and amazing light you witness from the sea. You can view the land from a different perspective, and sometimes see life from a different perspective too. I also like to raise funds for charity, which is my main motivation.
Do you participate in any other sport, recreation or fitness activities?
I would like to say yes, but swimming is my life, I am a little obsessed with it and it has kind of taken over! I used to play other sports. I have cycled a bit and been to gym classes, and prior to my first big sea swim I did the triathlon so enjoyed the rowing machine. Once I started training for the Channel swim, I focused only swimming with some core exercises and strengthening band exercises received from my physiotherapist. I do these regularly to keep my shoulders in good working order. Like any athlete, I do lapse from time to time!
What other swimming challenges have you completed?
My first big ocean swim was in 2014. I swam across The Solent, which is the body of water between the Isle of Wight and England. I took a 7-mile course diagonally from Ryde (IOW) to Hill Head Sailing Club, Hampshire, England. The following year I did it again, but swam both ways, and it was recognised as an Inaugural crossing by the British Long Distance Swimming Association.
When did you decide to swim the Channel, and what inspired you to do so?
After the first Solent crossing and seeing that I could raise over £3,000 for charities, I pondered over the Channel and my capability. I wondered if I could swim it successfully and raise a lot a more for the charities close to my heart. My longest swim to date was just over 4 hours at that junction, and I wondered if I could train to swim longer distances and how far I could actually push my body. I knew that I was not particularly young, being 46 years old at this point. I mulled it over for a few months before I took the decision. In the autumn of 2014, I booked my boat “Suva”, and respected and reputable pilot Mr Neil Streeter. I planned a 14 mile two-way swim (across the Solent and back) for the following year as a test to see if I could swim it. The theory was that if I could swim 14 miles, then perhaps I could swim 21…
How long was your training programme for the Channel swim?
I trained for just under three years. My husband Robert has coached me throughout all of it. We use Periodisation Training and worked in three weekly macro/micro cycles. It is incredible what he has turned me into really! I was just a woman who swam a bit! I really recommend this type of training, it builds you up gently, but gives you time to rest and recover before stepping it up another notch. I was doing regular 4/5/6/7 hour training swims this year and felt great.
What was your total distance, once you completed the Channel Swim?
The swim distance is 21 miles, but the boat’s track was 32 miles. Basically, that means the A to B swim is 21 miles, from Dover to Cap Gris Nez, but because of the tides and currents, my swim track was a bit longer. I landed at Wissant beach, a little further north of the Cap. I started at 0632, and finished five minutes before midnight. Making it a 17 hour and 23 minute Channel swim. I was about 1.5 miles away from France for a few hours, battling the currents and tides. Apparently if I hadn’t pushed through when I did, I was looking at another 6 hours before the tides turned and pushed me into France.
What were your biggest challenges during your training period?
Unfortunately or fortunately, depending how you look at it, I learned a great lesson the year before my Channel swim which was not to over train or train when you have a cold. In March last year I was on my second cold of the winter, and had booked myself into a pool Swimathon, which was 3 x 5 kilometre swims over a long weekend. I was determined to get a PB in at least one of the 5 kilometres. Looking back I should have pulled out, I was coughing and didn’t feel good at all. However, my determination got the better of me and I went along and swam my heart out. I knocked off 3 minutes from the previous year and got a PB of 1:38:19 and I was overjoyed! The next day I felt awful and pulled out of the swim that day, but went to the next one and got another good time. By the following week my cough had gone into my chest, and a week later I was diagnosed with pneumonia. The following three months were a bit of a blur, needless to say that I was very poorly, and had no strength at all. My husband had to help me up the stairs and it took me a long time to regain my fitness. It was a massive blow to everything that I had worked and hoped for, and I was concerned about being able to attempt the Channel the following year. I was also worried if I would ever get my strength back.
I went through all of this pain and illness for the sake of beating a PB in a couple of pool swims, which in the longer scheme of things was not going to help me get to France. All of my plans for long swims during the summer of 2016 went out of the window. My primary focus then was to regain my health. After three months of mainly bed rest we started the programme, it was a ten minute walk one day, and then a 10 minutes swim a few days later, gradually adding on time, with lots of rest in between. That was in late June, by September I was feeling a lot stronger but still had some fatigue. I kept getting bouts of Post Viral Fatigue Syndro (PVFS), which was a cause for concern but slowly and surely after gradual training and therapy I felt ready to tackle the 6 hour English qualifying swim by mid-October.
The qualifying swim had to be in water less than 16 degrees centigrade. On the morning of the swim it was fortunately flat calm waters, the skies were grey, but the sun was quite forgiving and gave momentary bursts of warmth on my back. What a pleasure. The sea was 15 degrees centigrade at the start and 15.4 by the end. I felt cold throughout, but I never seemed to get any colder. Thankfully, with the help of my husband Robert and friends on the beach willing me on and passing me warm drinks, and my swimming pals swimming an hour at a time with me, I completed the distance 6 hours later. During the first hour I was apparently joined by a seal, which was a wonderful reminder of why I love this sport so much.
Looking at the positive side, this setback of being ill was an excellent mental challenge. I had heard people say that swimming the channel is 80% mental, the rest physical and luck, so all of this horrible experience may actually work in my favour, making me mentally stronger. If the “Wild Mistress”, as the Channel is sometimes known, misbehaved on my swim I would be mentally prepared. I now had the qualifying swim as a huge positive to take into the winter season, and prepared to work more on the mental aspect, which was going to be huge deal for me.
Did you ever worry, during the course of your training, that you would not finish the swim? How did you mentally prepare for that?
Yes I did. Especially when I was ill and had the subsequent bouts of fatigue which kept cropping up even a couple of months before the big swim. Incidentally, I still get these now. I had heard it could take over a year to get over pneumonia and I am still finding that is true for me today. The weather worried me too, like many places across the world, we had a very windy summer in the UK, so many swimmers were either getting blown out and not even getting to the start line, or not completing their swims due to fatigue or the weather and waves. I would always go back to my PMA (Positive Mental Attitude) that my Channel mentor and friend Laurie had taught me.
They taught me how to stay focused, how to keep positive, how to never think of the negatives and always believe I would get to France. It worked, and over time I did start to believe that I could do it, as long as I was well enough, and the weather or an injury did not stop me during the swim. Worse still, would have been if I had functioned but the boat had not! I could only try my best and swim swim swim.
When we arrived at Dover at 4am there was a chill in the air and there was a moment of “Oh my! This is cold!” but as soon as the sun rose and it started to get warmer as I started the swim, all was fine, my mind was calm and I was doing what I loved to so, swim in the sea, and hopefully raise lots for charity. My mentor and friend Laurie sadly passed away a few weeks before my swim, but I know he was with me on the day, as was my late mum, willing me on, and when the mental demons came and told me to give up, for hours and hours at the end in the dark, I remembered why I was doing it, and carried on swimming. I will not say it was not tough. It was the toughest mental thing I have ever done, tougher mentally than physically, although physically it was very hard too. When I swam from the boat to shore at Dover I glanced across the sea towards France and thought “gosh, that’s a long way.” But it didn’t deter me, I remembered all the training, and knew I had a good chance as any of completing the swim.
What is your greatest strength and how do you think this helped you to complete the swim?
Determination, focus, and loving the act of swimming. For me swimming is like meditation. Before a big swim I am always nervous, but as soon as I get in the sea, all the nerves wash away and I enjoy it and get on with the task in hand, to swim “over there”. I always remember how lucky I am to be able to swim, walk, see, unlike some of the people who are supported by the charities I was swimming for.
Do you have any more challenges planned?
Nothing definite as yet but I would like to do another long swim. Maybe somewhere warmer this time.
What advice would you give to other budding Channel swimmers, or to those already in training for long distance swimming events?
Set your goal, ask yourself why you are doing it, and if you’re happy with the answer, then go for it and “NEVER GIVE UP!” That’s what I wrote on the walls of the White Horse in Dover, the Channel Swimmer’s pub where swimmers write their names.
If you are going for it, then I wish you the very best of luck, but you won’t need luck if you train sensibly, REST lots, take it easy (unlike me with the cold). Never ever train with a bad cold. It is possible to get back to fitness after being unwell, but it’s really not worth that Personal Best.
*End of Interview*
Deborah has raised £10,653 (AED 51,000 or USD 14,000) for the English Channel swim for five charities, and through swimming these past few years she has raised more than £20,000 for various life changing charities. If you would too help her raise even more, please donate below.
Congratulations Deborah, you are one inspirational lady.