Earlier this year I met Milko Van Gool for the first time. The 6ft 5 Dutchman was in Cork, Ireland, training for his bid to row the North Channel. A couple of years previously he had swum the English Channel in 10 hours and 22 minutes, raising $6,500 for the Centre for Injury Prevention and Research Bangladesh (CIPRB), a charity that aims to reduce the number of drowning fatalities among Bangladeshi children (currently averaging nearly 50 per day) by providing information and swimming lessons for the children of the poorest families.
Milko, who at the time worked for the European Commission in Malawi, was now preparing to swim from Ireland to Scotland to raise funds for the Chauncy Maples Malawi Trust (of which I am a patron), to refurbish a clinic ship for Lake Malawi. He and I sat and had a coffee (well, actually, he wolfed down two enormous sandwiches while I had a coffee) and compared notes on epic athletic endeavours.
A few weeks later he successfully completed the swim, along the way picking up the record for the fastest crossing by a man (Alison Streeter has swum it faster – go girl!!). I was delighted to welcome him to the Adventure Podcast to catch up on his news and find out more about what goes on in the mind of a long distance swimmer.
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1:55 The accidental record-breaker – swimming from Ireland to Scotland
3:30 Handling the cold
6:00 Battling Lions Mane jellyfish
9:00 Keeping mental focus in a monotonous sport
10:20 Pain management
10:45 Training to develop resilience to fear
13:15 “Once you get into the water, you forget about your family, your friends, the only thing that counts is getting to the other side. You would rather die than give up.”
14:25 “They will have to drag me out unconscious but I will not get out myself”
15:00 Milko’s good causes
21:45 Milko’s job in Malawi, and why he takes on the tough locations
23:30 Milko’s family life, his four children and the benefits to them of a global upbringing
27:50 What next for Milko?
28:35 Diana Nyad’s achievement
30:45 Stephen Redmond’s swim from Ireland to Wales
31:50 How to get started in long distance swimming
33:45 Milko’s secret to avoiding burnout in training
The Fallacy of Future Fears
“Man suffers most because of the suffering that he fears that lies in the future”
(paraphrased from the Dutch by Milko)
I was very struck by Milko’s comment that many channel swimmers are defeated, not by jellyfish, cold or currents, not even by exhaustion or pain, but by their fear of what they MIGHT experience before the end of the swim. “To fear the things that lie in wait for you is the real killer.”
Imagine that you’re swimming a channel, you’ve been going for 6 or 7 hours, well into the swim but the end is not yet in sight. The water is a bit rough, and of course you’re extremely tired, but you’ve trained hard and you’re still able to put one stroke in front of another.
But then an unwelcome thought pops into your head.
“Still another 3 hours of this. I’m tired already, so how will it feel by the end?”
You start to feel weary in anticipation of your own future weariness. Your arms and legs are still swimming but your mind is careening off into the future, worrying about just how tired you might become, wondering if you’ve got what it takes.
I experienced something like this on the Atlantic, my first ocean. (Funny how I always seem to refer back to the Atlantic in these blogs. I’m not saying nothing bad ever happened on the other voyages – just that the most intense psychological education took place during the Atlantic, and once I’d mastered certain mental skills, the problems didn’t arise to the same extent on the other oceans.)
I expended a lot of mental energy in the first half of the voyage wondering if I could do this. “Do I have what it takes to row an ocean?”
Given that I had never tried to row an ocean before, my mind had no evidence to support the theory that I could do it, and so the answer kept coming back – NO. To say that this had a negative impact on my morale would be a serious understatement.
It took me a while to figure out that the question was specious. The only way that I could find out whether I could do this was to continue doing it. Only when I either reached my destination or quit and asked for a pickup would I know whether I could do it. Until then it was all pointless speculation.
So I stopped focusing on the asking, and started instead to focus on the doing. I stopped freaking myself out by pondering imponderables, and forced myself to keep doing what it takes, i.e. slogging my way across the ocean, one oarstroke at a time.
As the great Roman rhetorician Quintillian said, “Fear of the future is worse than one’s present fortune”.
I wonder – have you got any fears that are holding you back from doing something you want to do, or caused you to abandon a goal you had set? What would have happened if you just took one more step (or swimstroke, or oarstroke) towards that goal? And another, and another, not looking any further ahead than that?
Videos of his crossing: