It’s an undertaking many would find daunting, to say the least – with the shortest route clocking in at 21 miles, the swim across the English Channel is not your average Varsity challenge. OUSC (Oxford University Swimming Club) captain on the women’s side Lauren Burton is one of a team of five who participated in the channel relay, a biennial Varsity match between Oxford and Cambridge, last summer.
When asked how the decision to participate came about, Burton explained, “I like a challenge, and thought this would be an incredibly memorable Varsity to compete in!” But the decision did not come without its reservations – the currents in the channel are notoriously difficult to traverse; Burton said, “My main concern was the conditions, given how unpredictable they are and how few I’d experienced before. But I knew that I could swim strongly and, at the end of the day, all I had to do was swim for a couple of hours. Interestingly, I think my family had more concerns than I did (sharks, boats, jellyfish etc), but I think this was a case of me not wanting to think about the ‘what-if’s!”
The team set out for Dover on a chilly late September night, having received the go-ahead from the sporting authority around noon the same day: “We soon left the harbour in sight of our starting point, Samphire Hoe. Lara, our first swimmer, set off at 01:00 in the pitch black, and had to swim to shore and climb onto the beach so that the assessors on the boat could make sure our crossing was legitimate. It was at that point that the reality of what we were about to do hit, we were swimming across the English Channel!”
“It was still pitch black during my first swim…I had no idea what was in front of or beneath me.”
She continues, describing the rest of the swim, “I swam third in our rota, so I jumped in at 03:00 on 27th September. I couldn’t think too much about what I was about to do or I would’ve started to panic, so I made sure to keep myself to myself whilst on the boat and didn’t talk to the two who had swum before me until after my first stint. The water was very cold, around 17°C (as a reference, most public swimming pools, which most people find cold, are around 28°C), and immediately took my breath away, I had to force myself to breathe deeply and slowly just so that I could get swimming, as I knew this was the only way I was going to keep remotely warm.
“It was still pitch black during my first swim, which was very daunting. I had no idea what was in front of or beneath me, I just kept focusing on the spotlight on the boat and the cheers of my teammates. Apparently at one point there was a big fish that jumped out of the water just behind me, I was oblivious! After we’d all done one swim, the rotation began again so I was back in the water at 08:00. The second swim was much nicer than the first, and I actually began to enjoy it and feel a sense of pride whilst in the water. It’s amazing what a bit of sunlight can do: the water was a very bright blue and it felt much warmer. We eventually reached French shore at 10:56, and the sense of achievement was immense. We landed on a pebble beach so we were all able to swim in together for the last 400 m or so, and that is one of my fondest memories of the swim.”
The team finished with a stellar time of nine hours and 56 minutes; apparently the fourth fastest of the summer, they later discovered. Burton describes the whole experience as “surreal”, partially also because of the relay’s nocturnal nature: “we all forfeited a night’s sleep for the swim, making it more challenging because you were so tired. This was part of the reason why the swim itself felt like such a blur!”
She continued to explain the hardest aspect of the swim was not the physical, but rather the mental aspect of it, decidedly much harder to prepare for: “it was definitely a case of mind-over-matter. The hardest part was definitely building the courage to jump into the water for the first time, the feeling of diving into the utter unknown was overwhelming. The less you thought about the ‘what if’s the better at that point!” It was in this mental aspect of the relay that Burton especially credits her teammates’ support: “Having my teammates cheering me on from the boat really helped. I always felt like someone was with me in what could feel like an incredibly isolated situation.”
“…more people have climbed Mount Everest than have swum the English Channel. It’s a pretty cool thing to say you’ve done!”
According to a recent article in the Telegraph, the median age of those who swim solo across the channel is 35, and 63% of swimmers are male. Burton comments, “It’s interesting because most channel swims will have a reason behind them, so the sense of achievement will be different for everyone regardless of age and gender.” Indeed an incredible feat any way you look at it; she remarks, however, that “more people have climbed Mount Everest than have swum the English Channel. It’s a pretty cool thing to say you’ve done!”
When asked if she’d do it again, Burton responded in the affirmative without hesitation, but explains, “I’m in no rush to do so. I feel like I’ve ticked it off my bucket list as such now and, if a similar opportunity comes up again then great, but if not then I know that I’ll always have that achievement under my belt.”
Her focus for now is on the upcoming Varsity swimming matches this year, no doubt savouring her final months as captain of OUSC. I ask her the inevitable questions about how she balances her workload alongside such intensive extra-curriculars, to which she touts the positive impact that partaking in competitive sport has had on her university experience, “Swimming means that I assign time every day to relaxing, destressing and socializing”.
Her advice to others looking to take part in such endurance activities?: “Go for it! Fully commit yourself to it, train hard and remind yourself why you are doing it when things get tough.”