You know those days when you feel a bit ‘meh’ and everything feels like a struggle? Bookmark this interview with Beth French for a kick up the bum on those days. Wheelchair-bound with ME at 17, Beth rewrote the rest of her life with incredible feats of endurance in the water. Having previously swum the English Channel, she’s currently half-way through an epic, EPIC challenge of swimming 7 oceans within a year, which will see her swim (sometimes 24 hours at a time, wahhh) in some of the most challenging oceans on the planet.
The perfect tonic to ‘meh’ days.
From the age of 10 you suffered with immune dysfunction and at 17 you were wheelchair-bound with ME. How did being so ill so young affect your outlook on life?
Being ill right through my adolescence, I developed a really skewed relationship with my body. I didn’t trust it, hated it and felt trapped by it. The illness is so unpredictable that I would be captain of every sports team at the start of term, but then couldn’t raise my arms to brush my own hair, without warning. Sometimes for weeks. It was devastating. But at the same time, having had that relationship wiped out, I’ve had the opportunity to build a working relationship with my body consciously. I love it for what it can do, totally unfettered by how it looks. By having my future wiped out at 17, I’ve developed an incredibly strong sense of self that allows me to ‘drive’ my life in ways that others find taxing.
Did you have to take a long break from swimming during this time?
Swimming was the one thing that didn’t hurt – floating as much as swimming. But the cool of open water was incredibly soothing to the nervous system and calming in general.
Did your love of swimming lead you to join a swimming team or compete during your youth?
I’ve never been in a swim club. I was asked to go along at the age of 10, after I won all my races in the only swim meet I ever attended. But we lived on a farm quite a way from the pool and animals had to be done so swim training was never on the cards. I rankled with this for a bit, but now actually think it gives me a different perspective on training that has helped me. I don’t have a coach; I use my unique knowledge of how my body works to carve out my endurance and strength training. It seems to be working OK for me!
At what point did you start swimming longer distances?
I think I was always built for distance – I remember wanting to swim all evening, even when I was unwell. When I turned 20, I spent 3 years living in Hawaii and found myself swimming 3-4hrs at a time, out in the deep water. It seemed right and I didn’t think anything of it. Returning to the UK, I was forced into a pool and missed the length of time I was in the water so fell into 10k swimathons.
You say you were drawn to the ocean as a child. When did you start open water swimming?
I learned to swim in a river. I’ve grown up thinking nothing of stripping off on a walk and dunking in a stream, lake, puddle! Whilst I respect the sea, it’s never held fear for me so I don’t remember a time where I chose an indoor pool over the outdoors.
You’ve swum incredible distances. What kind of training does it take to swim such mileage?
I think the question of training is so personal. My job is very physical and I perform it to a very demanding level – 9hrs of deep tissue massage, back-to-back, 3 days a week. This is perfect upper body endurance work. It takes knowing your body and working on your stroke to swim as efficiently and effortlessly as possible – then you need lots of mental training. I spent almost a year in a Buddhist monastery, in intensive meditation training, which is key to staying sane in the long, dark hours.
You come across as a hugely optimistic person with an ‘anything’s possible’ attitude…
I am fascinated by human potential. It’s amazing what a difference attitude can make. Our comfort zone can be a silent killer because if you don’t stretch it, it suffocates your ability.
You’re a single mum – how do you find the energy and time to make training work?
My daily life is an endurance event that has much joy and requires lots of dedication. My son is an important part of my life and I’ve shared my sporting love with him. Exercise is fun to him – as is being towed in a dinghy in the sea by me as I swim! I’ve embraced the fact that being the best mum is being the best me, which includes lots of swimming. He is the first to send me into the water if I’ve had a bum day!
Tell us about the Oceans 7 swim and how the idea for this incredible challenge came about?
Oceans 7 was compiled by the World Open Water Swimming Association to test every aspect of a swimmer. The varying challenges of the channels, from frigid water to extreme distance, strong currents and wildlife, mean that a swimmer is taken apart. It’s the swimming equivalent of mountaineering seven summits, and only 6 people to date have completed it.
When I took on the English Channel swim, I thought it would be the toughest thing I ever did, and the only time I ever did anything like it…. but in fact, I loved it. I felt alive and powerful. Four months later, I became the first British woman to swim the Molokai channel in Hawaii – only the 28th person ever. It was an epic swim that took me 24hrs 10mins, and during that swim I realised that a) I could do this endurance thing; I have that thing that allows me to push through pain and keep going regardless and b) I wasn’t interested in just ticking things off a list. But I loved channel swimming, so how to make it a different sort of challenge?
I started by trying something no one had ever done before – a swim from Cornwall to the Isles of Scilly, but really I wanted to put all my learning to the test. I wanted a recovery challenge. So I thought about Oceans 7 and how it was deemed nigh on impossible for a body to cope with such varying stresses. And I reckoned I could do it. So here I am!
How do you train for such a brutal challenge?
I haven’t really stopped since I started training for the English Channel – since 2010. My body has totally changed shape – I carry a good extra stone to protect my organs. I swim outside through the winter, without a wetsuit, going down to 5-degrees Celsius which allows my metabolism to run in high gear. Therefore 16-degrees Celsius feels warm by comparison. I use pool swimming for random sporadic torture such as gruelling 2-hour kick-only sets or stroke tweaking sessions.
Do you do any strength training?
I’m systemically hypermobile and use the gym to stabilise and protect my joints. Lots of back strength work. I also pre-fatigue in the gym then head downstairs to the pool to work on my stroke in a fatigued state. It’s hard to replicate 15hrs of swimming without taking 15hrs to do it…
How have you built up your endurance to be able to spend so many hours swimming?
I think a large part of being able to swim for a long time comes from relaxing your body. Too often, particularly when people start to learn front crawl, there is a lot of effort, a lot of splash. Streamlining your stroke allows you to take your foot off the gas. Also, it’s a very different mindset. Not trying with each stroke, but making each stroke as perfect as possible. Not forcing it, but letting water come to you. And then, I love it. So peaceful and meditative.
What does a typical week’s training look like for you at the moment?
Half-way through my challenge, it’s fairly relaxed: recovery from jetlag and a Channel swim; making sure I keep my weight up with lots of eating; stretching; being sociable to stay sane; remembering to enjoy swimming! Avoiding injury just as important. I’m really happy with my stroke at the mo, so its 2-3 swims a week and 1-2 gym sessions.
Tell us about your ocean swims – what does swimming an ocean involve?
Swimming an oceanic channel is very involved. You have a pilot boat that’s your lifeline as you’re only 3-inches high. I love the fact that I literally hand my life over to someone else. They tell me what direction, whether I need to speed up, when to eat, even if I’m OK or not. I am a little outboard motor with a mind. There is a lot of silence – I’m virtually deaf, face-down in the water, so also pretty blind. It’s so internal… a weird combination of sensory deprivation and overload. I feed every hour for the first 3 hours then every 30 minutes after that, with a simple mix of coconut water for electrolytes and maltodextrin powder. Longer swims involve night swimming, which is so serene. Lovely. I am never really afraid, as other people have to do the worrying. The pilot boat is in communication with other vessels so I just swim where i am guided.
Which oceans have you swum so far?
So far, I’ve swum the Catalina channel from Catalina Island to mainland California; 21 miles. Then the Molokai Channel in Hawaii again – the first woman to swim it twice; 28miles. And recently the Cook Strait from south to north islands of New Zealand; 16 miles. They’ve all been eventful – I swam with a tummy bug in California which was as hideous as it sounds: 19hrs of feeling awful and sickness and diarrhoea. In Hawaii I had a 7ft tiger shark come to visit at 1am, which slowed us up for quite a while, and the Cook Strait took two attempts.
What have you found to be the biggest challenge of Oceans 7 so far?
The logistics and travel are the hardest aspects of attempting all seven swims in a year. Seven international associations, all with different time frames, requirements and personnel. Plus jetlag! Keeping the mind fresh and looking forward can be tough when you’re dragging your feet with fatigue. But so far I’ve taken longer to get over the plane journeys than the swims.
Have you ever come too close to sealife for your liking?
Having a 7ft tiger shark sit a metre away from you is a surreal experience. You’re never sure how you’re going to handle it, but I’m really proud of myself for managing to stay calm and keep a clear head throughout the encounter. I was aware that it wasn’t aggressive, but it swam underneath me and I could see it was bigger than the kayak that was my only protection at the time!
Mentally, how do you weather the storm?
Being a sunny-side-up kinda girl helps. And also having been to some majorly dark places, being trapped in my body – to be unable to stand, unable to sit up by myself – I know what that feels like. So, whilst in the water, I’m gifted with knowing that I’m moving forwards by choice, manoeuvring myself through the water under my own stems. Nothing is worse than not being able to do that.
How do you fuel such a brutal physical challenge?
On a channel swim, you can use up to 1500 calories AN HOUR and your body can’t process that amount, so you have to have it on board already to some degree. Developing glycogen stores before my first ever channel was tough and took a year. 5 meals a day might sound nice, but I dreamt of Greek salads… I try and find something that is easy to slide down and doesn’t react with salt water. I keep it simple. Coconut water and carb powder. Ovaltine for a treat.
What kit can’t you live without?
My goggles are pretty basic, £8.99 a pair – Speedo Pacific Storm. They just fit my face really well, are comfy, don’t leak and don’t need adjusting through the swims. You have to wear a pretty tired, old cozzie, right on the cusp of not sagging. The fabric needs to be relaxed to avoid chafing, so they tend not to be too high-tech either. I wear TYR one at the moment.
I use basic Vaseline as lubricant around the edges of my cozzie and in the pits and parts; natural factor 50 sunscreen to try not to pollute the water. I’m in love with my Eskeez thermals for winter swimming before and after – highly technical thermals that aren’t afraid to get wet. Brilliant things. And my Dryrobe is a great changing room!
Do you have sponsors to help support you and cover your expedition costs?
I’ve managed to crowdfund £15k but monetary sponsorship has been tough. I’m grateful to Agil8 and Dr Salts who have helped out, but the vast majority has been all my own funds. This project has been a labour of love, and would love to have financial sponsors on board.
(Beth is hosting a gala, meal and presentation at Somerset County Cricket Club on June 3 to raise funds – check it out at www.bethfrench.co.uk/events)
Are you supporting any charities with your swim?
Due to my past, I chose Action for ME as my main charity. The plight of those suffering ME is underrated and overlooked. It’s devastating to the families and friends of those that have it, and is grossly misunderstood. You never really lose ME and it is a life-changing condition. I’m fortunate to have found my way to live symptom-free, but it has shaped my life and continues to define me.