75km Round Lantau Swim: The Pain Cave
Overall, with all what we went through for 3 days, I can reasonably say that we have been extremely lucky and everything has gone surprisingly well. Apart from a few chaffing here and there, we have had nothing dramatic to report. The biggest mishap since Wednesday occured on day 1, when in the dark of the boat I used antifungus cream instead of tootaste to brush my teeth.
That was until this morning…
4:45am, wake-up call for a 6am swim start. We had prepared all our gear and food the night before, so we were ready on time, contrary to Friday. The scenario was the same as the day before: swim as much distance as possible before the tide turns and stops us. We finished our food one hour before jumping into the water so we did not feel sluggish at all this time. The sky boded for an incredible sunrise, as we were swimming into the sun on a gorgeous day.
After 20′ of looking for my rhythm, I started to think that this time, I couldn’t feel my left shoulder that had been bothering since the beginning. Good sign I thought. Then, suddendly, coming from nowhere, I felt as if I had pinched a nerve right there, in my infamous left shoulder. I stopped immediately, taken by surprise by the sharpness of the pain. Immediately, my mind went from first gear to fifth gear, bracing and churning the most alarming and worrying thoughts it can create. All the readings about rotator cuffs pain that affect swimmers for life, the fact that it sometimes never heals, that I willnot be able to finish this awesome challenge… an overwhelming wave of nonsense started to drain my energy out of the actual swimming. After a few minutes, a dull pain had replaced the sharp sting, as I changed my stroke to avoid repeating the same movement. I tried all the techniques I could think about, modifying my stroke in any possible ways, but the pain would not subside.
It took me probably 30′ to stabilize the mind’s whirpool of disastrous thoughts, by then I had fallen rather deep into the pain cave. We endurance junkies have quite an unusual relationship with pain: we look for it, we embrace it, we love it because it makes us feel more alive. Because we know that if we overcome it, we will be stronger, or faster. It boosts our confidence and our ego. It makes awesome stories for Facebook and provide hot topics for diners with friends. We are quite proud to be separated from the common mortals on this. Some people from outside even define us as ‘the pain community’.
It is not that obvious and straight, though. There is ‘good pain’ and ‘bad pain’. The good pain is the one triggered by effort, like the acid lactic in the legs, the heart pounding during a sprint, the smashed leg after a 35k long run. And then, there is bad pain, the one indicating injury in the making, or injury already there.
Then pain does not have to be suffering. If you accept pain and embrace it, make it yours, and you don’t become an agitated and torn toy in its hand, you won’t suffer. You register the pain -“OK, here you are, I was expecting you, and, in a sense, welcome to my world”, you take the time to check if you can handle it, and then you get to the next level of pain, voluntarily, by going faster or harder, or just by going on with what you are doing, in the case of extreme endurance sports where continuing is a pain in itself. Experience shows that pain that is not injury will either disappear, or become more dull, therefore more tolerable, if you persist.
So here I was, one hour into the swim, deeply entrenched into the pain cave, but at least managing, more or less, to avoid suffering. The sun was getting higher into the sky, offering us the most wonderful present, mirroring itself into the flat sea. The swim today was about crossing two bays, and we were finishing the first crossing, swimming further from shore as any other moment. This seemed to be the quietest place on the planet, no noise, no wind, no wave, nobody apart from us.
It didn’t last long though, as the ferries suddendly started to disrupt this perfect world. Ferries to Macau on the right (the hovercraft) and on the left (the Cotai jets), creating big waves and stress for our kayakers. The waves were so big at times that we kindda lost our way and ended up in the corridor of the Cotai jets… Not good, and scary. Each wave was disrupting my delicate balance and was creating strain on my shoulder. I noted that Bruce was not in top shape either, as his stops for nutrition, normally lasting 2′, started to last longer, up to 10′. I was enjoying the rest, I needed it. All this pain and unusual swim stroke was paying its toll, sucking up a lot of energy, more than normally.
The second bay was all of the same, and I was getting stiffer and stiffer. Finally we reached 13k, and that gave me a boost. Still, my watch was indicating that the tide change was coming… And it changed. The Chimawan peninsula messy pass was rolling us all over the place, and we were getting slower and slower. Just like yesterday, we had to stop due to our incapacity to move anymore. 15.3k, in the bag.
Tomorrow is another day and nobody knows what will happen. Everything that has been done so far means nothing to the ocean, we’ll start from scratch so we’d better muster all our remaining reserves of energy for the last push.
I am a reformed banker, proud father of two and professional endurance coach offering tailor-made training plans and specific guidance on all triathlon and endurance sports topics.