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2016 WOWSA Man of the Year – Nejib Belhedi
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Sunday, September 27, 2015
Why Swim? Because I Like It
In September 2009 I completed the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming in one season and, with that, became the first person in the world to have achieved the Triple Crown twice. In November of that year I was honored with the National Sports Award. I was missing only one formal recognition: to enter the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame (IMSHOF).
Steven Munatones and Nora Toledano first made the case for my selection in April 2010, but it had no effect on the members of the selection committee. The same thing happened in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014.
In 2014 I decided to train to run the Chicago Marathon. If I could cover the distance in less than 6 minutes per kilometer, I would announce my intention to swim the Seven Seas. I hoped that with this achievement, I would make it into the Hall of Fame.
I ran Chicago in October and made an agreement with Nora that we would start training in November. The first weeks were full of pain. I had been away from the pool for almost six years and the lack of practice showed in my swims both in the ocean and in Las Estacas. I remember my first training of the season in Las Estacas: I had to use fins and paddles to survive.
After crossing the English Channel in 2009 I took a year of sabbatical, with only one hour of exercise six days a week. The result was that I gained weight, suffered insomnia and generally did not feel good.
In 2011 I started training to climb Mount Everest, but the the project didn’t come together. On the journey I broke my femur: a 25-centimeter stress fracture. Regaining mobility with my leg was complicated, and to start running again even more so. I finally managed to find my balance, and in 2013 I ran the New York Marathon, and the following year, the Chicago Marathon again.
Those were years of constant injuries. While it distracted me to train or go train in Ocotal or Muñeco with Professor Kepka, I couldn’t find a rhythm that made me feel good. Returning to the pool, going to Las Estacas or swimming in The Cove gradually got me back into a routine that I liked. Every day I got up at 4:30 a.m. thinking of making a sea crossing again.
I was in Puebla on December 8th last year when I heard that the list of new members of the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame had been published in the Daily News of Open Water Swimming — and that I was one of them. At first I did not believe it. I thought it was a joke. I waited for Steven Munatones, the site’s editor to confirm the honor before going public with my family and friends.
I never imagined that something I had always wanted was to cause me great distress few months later.
On July 2nd I crossed the Strait of Gibraltar. After two hours of swimming, after a horrible swallow of seawater, I began to doubt the whole enterprise. Was I really going to be able to make the crossings I had ahead me? I had known the Strait of Gibraltar was an easy swim of not more than five hours, yet from very early point I was suffering.
On my return to Mexico, I had several sessions with my mental coach, Jaime Delgado, and found the explanation for the Strait of Gibraltar incident. Among other things, having entered the Hall of Fame had taken away the motivation I needed to achieve the four swims yet to come. It was a critical moment that made me think a lot about the why of my swims.
I understand very well my reasons for wanting to cross the English Channel for the first time, and to and complete the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming in one year. However, that motivation was no longer there — especially now that I had entered the Hall of Fame.
I went in circles around the issue for several weeks. Concentrating on my training helped me deal with it. My workload dropped considerably after I left my position as Secretary of Education in the State of Puebla, so I decided to train very hard over the last two months. I put in two strength sessions a week with Oscar Perez at Sport City, swam eight hours at The Cove and went to Las Estacas every weekend I was in Mexico.
Apart from crisis of confidence, I really hurt my lower back, neck and shoulder in the Strait of Gibraltar. The purpose of strength training was to strengthen those parts of my body. The first session lasted 30 minutes and left me just about dead. There was exercise with a medicine ball that particularly worked me over. With each session I was improving, though. Eventually I built up to 90 minutes and was able to work with the ball without a problem.
Physically I was ready; now I had to see if I had done the same with my mind.
We got to Japan and, as a team, we decided that we would integrate the life and rhythm of the place. All reports I had read indicated that one of the challenges of attempting Tsugaru Channel was being away from Western civilization. Our first dinner — and especially the first breakfast — confirmed what we already knew: fish, soup and rice three times a day.
Another way we experienced “turning Japanese” was at bedtime. When we were asked if we preferred a bed or mat in our rooms, I chose the tatami — I love it. I persuaded Pablo to do the same. I really began to feel as if I belonged there.
The first sign that my mind was on the right path came in my first meditation session. I was able to focus quickly and do what I wanted with my shoulder. The method was working. Then came my first encounter with the water — the strategy worked well there, too. The same thing happened during the seven days that followed.
Tuesday the 15th I got up 10 minutes before my alarm rang. I’d had six hours of deep sleep — my best so far — and, best of all, without the anxiety that normally accompanies nights before my competition.
We went down to the lobby at 2:30 a.m. There were hoping to find our observer with whom we would go to the pier. After 15 minutes, he had not appeared. Finally, he arrived in his car at 2:50 wanting to know what happened happened. There had been confusion about the meeting point. At another point in my life I would had been furious about the mistake, especially because I had asked him where we should be and he specifically told me in the lobby. As it happened — to my surprise — the incident did not make any particular impact on me; I was really making progress.
The boat trip to the starting point took one hour. On previous crossing attempts I had applied lotion and Vaseline on my neck and armpits but still felt chilled, especially in my feet. But before I entered the water Nora told me, "You will feel warm.”
After the observer tells me I have to swim to shore and touch one of the two rocks he’s shining his flashlight on, I stand on the right side of the boat and drop into the sea. The water is at 21°C — almost 70ºF — but it feels like 26ºC and my body relaxes.
I touch the rock and, at 4:30 a.m., I start my crossing.
The first hour is very slow; my watch says I’ve gone 2.5 km. At this rate I will not meet the time limit established by the Tsugaru Channel Swimming Association. But it doesn’t worry me. I concentrate on my rhythm and let myself go. I think about how lucky I am: at 56 years old I am in the middle of the ocean, doing what I love and enjoying it. The feeling is enhanced by the strip of cloth that runs under me, parallel to the boat, guiding me like a lane line in the pool.
I do not know whether on purpose or by coincidence, but I'm challenging the sheet to races. Every time I start to catch up with the ship, Captain Mizushima pushes the throttle. That makes my rhythm change and I start swimming faster, chasing after the white line beneath me.
For previous discussions with the captain, the observer and the two swimmers who preceded me, I knew the swim would be divided into swimming in 3 sections. The first is at 8 kilometers, the second at 27 and final stretch at 32. The level of difficulty will change at each stage.
Little by little, it begins to dawn. The change is slow, but then, suddenly, I have the sun in my eyes. My feedings start as soon as I begin the swim, and thereafter I will take a few seconds every 30 minutes to eat a packet of Accel Gel and take between 350 and 400 milliliters of water. At 2 hours 30 minutes, during my fifth feeding, I ask my team to pass me my dark goggles. The sun has risen, and from certain angles it prevents me from seeing the boat.
I'm concentrating on my breathing and rhythm, watching the sheet as well as my surroundings to see if there’s any marine life. The first encounters are with sea snakes — fortunately far away from me — then jellyfish and later an occasional fish, but nothing spectacular.
I swim the first 8 km in 2 hours 45 minutes, 5 minutes over the time I had set to make my goal. It doesn’t really register that I've finished the first block — I’m too busy crunching numbers. My time is between 16:00 and 18:30 per km — a 17:45 seconds average.
While it’s not valid to compare swimming speed in rivers, lakes or seas with your speed in the pool, it does gives me a useful idea of the pace I’ve reached, and helps me gauge my state of fatigue and pain.
In my mind I always carry important references for swimming. The first is to reaching the 6-hour mark. After passing that point, the hours become shorter. On the Tsugaru Channel crossing this happens around kilometer 19.
The second checkpoint is at 8 hours of swimming, the duration of my longer training sessions. I'll have to check several things at that time. First, my left shoulder. Since April, I’ve had an injury there that did not allow me to swim fast in the pool and has caused me pain every day. I know I'm probably doing something wrong in my motion, but I'm not clear what it is. In June, we had a video session but failed to locate the error in my mechanics. It hurts now, but not so much need to worry.
The second status I need to check is my fatigue level. I wonder if I can take five or six hours, for I’m bearing on 27 km and, for all practical purposes, I’ve finished the second of the three sections of the swim. Captain Mizushima’s statistics tell us that the third leg takes 3 to 4 hours. I inflate those numbers based on what little I can see from the water — it’s clear I'm still far from shore.
The third most important point to assess is, how is my mind working? How am I feeling? Am I relaxed? Angry? Bored? To my surprise, I find I’m actually very relaxed, happy to be in the water, not having any dialogue with the boat and, most important, holding a clear strategy of how to complete the swim.
For the time and distance I’ve reached so far, it is clear that I going to swim more than the 32 km I had been told. It’s not clear how much longer at this point, but I estimate that about 4 hours are realistic. In addition, the difficulties I've faced so far are minor, and have nothing in common with my worst days in the water. I have a benchmark with which I can compare my efforts; I am reassured to know that I have the reserve to withstand any stand pain and frustration.
This is when I leave off crossing Tsugaru. I imagine that I'm in a long workout and that my objective is to swim 45 km - the distance of the Molokai Channel. I ask Nora to give me my splits every kilometer so that I know my speed, because for the last 7 km I’ve been swimming 15 minutes per km. When I change my speed, I will know I am entering the most difficult stage of the crossing.
Three hours pass in which I’m swimming fast, but not going anywhere. The currents of the Sea of Japan are pulling me into the Pacific Ocean; I’m literally traveling parallel to the shore. At 40 km,, they tell me that soon the currents will shift and then we will try to approach the coast.
In the following two kilometers, I go from swimming 15 minutes per kilometer to 28 minutes per kilometer. Rohans More had told me to prepare myself for a tough final stretch, but I did not imagine that the change of pace would be so abrupt.
My arms get tired and I generally feel like I'm losing power. I'm tempted to ask for a Accel Gel in the between my regular supplies, but I decide against it. I access my innermost strength and imagine injecting reserves of it into my arms. The strategy works almost instantly and I progress very rapidly over the next two kilometers. The coast is near. Just give me a point of reference; in that moment, I’ll know it's only a matter of time. Now I'm just crossing my own room — the sea.
I arrive on shore. I can hardly stand up, not only because I have just spent 12 hours 38 minutes in a horizontal position, but because the beach is studded with shells and stones. Finally I succeed, and salute the ship with four fingers raised.
The easy part is over.
On returning to the boat I feel a great peace. There has been more than 12 hours of communion with the sea. During my swim I managed finally stop worrying about what’s motivating me to reach my goal. I’ve solved my problem of the Hall of Fame.
I swim because I like it.
Copyright © 2015 by World Open Water Swimming Association
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