Swimspire Stories: Kurt Dickson, English Channel Swimmer

Swimspire Stories:
Kurt Dickson, English Channel Swimmer

Kurt Dickson, English Channel swimmer

Kurt Dickson, English Channel swimmer

Kurt Dickson is a United States Masters swimmer hailing from Glendale, Arizona who recently took on – and conquered – one of the most challenging open water swims in the world: the English Channel. Outside of the water, Kurt is an emergency medicine  physician in Arizona. However, despite a demanding career, Kurt has a stellar athletic background and achievements that have bolstered his attempt to take on the Channel swim – from U.S. Masters swimming national champion, to All-American, to Alcatraz finisher, to 5-time Ironman finisher – Kurt has done it all. Below, he tells us why he decided to swim the English Channel and how he trained for this grueling race.

On August 29, 2017, a goal of two decades was fulfilled as I (at the grizzled age of 50) completed a swim crossing of the 21-mile English Channel.  I have swum approximately  40,000 miles in my four and a half decades of competitive swimming.  I have completed around 100 triathlons – including 5 Ironmans – swum around Alcatraz, much of the Tennessee, Willamette, Hudson, East, and Harlem Rivers, and the English Channel was by far the most challenging swim I have done.

I believe one needs at least three out of four of my designated requirements in undertaking this swim:  Money, planning, swimming skills, and an unusual ability to spend long hours in cold water.

Charles Krauthammer relates a story of the poet Yeats, which tells of Icelandic peasants finding a human skull.  Due to its thickness, it was suspected to belong to the poet Egill.  To test the hypothesis, the skull was hit with a hammer multiple times.  When it did not break, the hypothesis was “confirmed” and “they were convinced that it was in truth the skull of the poet and worthy of every honor.”  I think this story perhaps goes to the motivation of an English Channel swimmer.  While not particularly rational, there is a uniquely human propensity to test the value of something by discovering how it handles abuse.

Kurt with his college coach, Tim Powers, in Dover.

My initial desire to do this probably started after reading Lynne Cox’s book, Swimming to Antartica, probably about 15 years ago.  Although I had swum all my life, I had no idea people were doing crazy swims like this one (she and others have actually done much crazier swims).  I put this goal on hold as career and children, as well as finances, seemed to make this out of reach for awhile.  As I approached my 50th year on this earth, a Christmas card from an aging friend reminded me to do the things I dreamed of before it was too late.

After a few false starts, I determined in earnest to undertake this project.  There are essentially two organizations that pilot and ratify attempts to swim the English Channel: the Channel Swimming Association (CSA) and the Channel Swimming and Piloting Federation (CS&PF).  The first is the original and, I suppose, more prestigious organization.  They do not recognize other swims.  The CS&PF keeps a database of all swims and is more of the newcomer.  I initially tried to obtain a spot (a spot includes the week around a neap tide) 2 years in advance with one of seven CSA pilots.  I was told by this particular pilot that he did not take reservations until one year in advance.  I let a few months go by and about 18 months out, I tried to obtain a spot with another CSA pilot and found I was late for the others as I would be a #3 spot on the others (pilots book 3 or so per week during a neap tide, which is every other week and usually offers a more successful attempt than the variable spring tide).  The further down the list one is, however, may mean that you have no opportunity to swim.  I decided to go to one of six of the CS&PF pilots and obtained a 2 spot (which subsequently became a 1 spot).

Kurt during one of his feeds in the Channel.

Kurt during one of his feeds in the Channel.

After an approximately $1900 deposit on a pilot, I found myself thinking often over the intervening months about my swim. I made periodic and seemingly random orders on Amazon and TriSports.com to obtain supplies I would need (TSA always opens my bags because it must appear like I am preparing for an abduction). For me this included:  Swim suit, goggles, cap, ear plugs, lanolin/vaseline mixture for axilla and neck for chafing, water bottles, retractable dog leash to hook on the water bottles, duct tape to attach gels to water bottles, various feedings, gels, sports drinks, a large thermos to put warm water in, a white board and dry erase markers for communication, a flashing head light (Road ID makes a waterproof light) and glow sticks (I obtained a really nice battery-operated scuba glow stick) in case the swim started or ended in dark, and a camera for posterity!  I modified a golf ball retriever to hold a plastic cup on a string, as well as used curtain hangers and a small hole-punch in the gels for feedings if the water was smooth (which it was).

My training over the last several years has amounted to about 600 miles per year, and mostly pool racing with occasional open water racing.  About 18 months out, I purchased a kayak and convinced my dear wife, Catherine, that kayaking for me would be fun.  I did much more open water racing and training last year.  I did the Utah triple crown, which is 3 swims over 3 months in Great Salt Lake (7+ miles that year), Bear Lake (6.5 miles), and Deer Creek Reservoir (10 miles).  I won two out of three of the races and broke the triple crown record.  I was swimming about normal mileage last year with a 5-mile open water added in every week or two.

Boat in the distance during the swim

Boat in the distance during the swim

In order to be declared fit for a channel swim, you must pay the approximately $400 fee to the ratifying organization, get a physical, and perform a 6-hour test swim within one year of the swim with similar conditions to the Channel (61 degrees Fahrenheit or colder water).  I did this in my local lake (Lake Pleasant) in December prior to my August date.  I swam 14 miles in some miserably cold water that day.  The sun was shining and other than some wind, it was a nice day.  This gave me some confidence but also some trepidation as I knew I would need to make it several more hours in the Channel.  Most gain 15-20 pounds for insulation; however, I lost 15 pounds (it did not make sense to me to become more unhealthy).

In January, after a back injury which literally required me to crawl in and out of the pool using the ladder, I began to ramp up my mileage.  My long pool workouts were in the 7000 yard range and I would do this 2-3 times per week.  Starting in about late February, I began going out to the lake every week or two for some cold water swims (boaters called out arctic temperatures to my shivering about-to-enter-the-lake body as if I was not already aware, in an attempt to confirm that I really wanted to swim).  My competitive nature wanted to take advantage of my improved fitness and so I entered for the US Masters Spring and Summer pool as well as Open Water Nationals.  I was able to win the mile and 1000 in the spring, the 2.4 mile open water, and 1-mile summer US national titles for my age group (45-49 and 50-54).  

My final test was the the 20 Bridges Swim, a 28.5 mile swim around Manhattan, approximately 2 months prior to my English Channel attempt.  This is an awesomely organized event, and I finished this in 7 hours and 26 minutes (7 hours even if you subtract all of my pee breaks!).  This gave me enough time for some mental and physical rest prior to the big day.  As anybody knows, finding cold water in Arizona is near impossible.  A couple weeks out, a friend volunteered to kayak for a couple of 8-mile swims in about 69 degree Fahrenheit water up north near Pine, Arizona.

Kurt's self-designed English Channel t-shirt

Kurt’s self-designed English Channel t-shirt

I arrived in England after about 16 hours of airports, flights, customs, and $220 taxi ride to Dover 5 days in advance of the anticipated swim date.  I rented a car in Dover (driving in England is the subject of a future report–”How not to die on the roads of England”).  Of course they plopped me in a manual transmission car (I think I last drove one about 25 years ago) and set me on the wrong side of the road to drive.  There are several places to stay in Dover.  I was at a nice bed and breakfast called the Hubert House.  If you are looking for a more American experience, I would go to the Best Western, which is very near the harbor where people practice swimming. 

My pilot called me while I was traveling and told me that I had first claim on a swim on Friday.  I had not swum yet in Dover and was awaiting a friend and some family to arrive, so I declined that particular swim.  My actual tide did not start until Monday anyway so I was a bit perplexed as to why I was offered the swim.  He told me that he would call on Saturday and we would set up a time for Monday.  When no call came, I called him on Sunday and was told that my swim would be Thursday (I think I got bumped or he did not remember our original plan).  I emailed him to see if we could move it up and he obliged. Bottom line: you may need to be a bit pesky.

Kurt prepares to start the English Channel Swim

Most people swim in the Dover Harbor, but with construction going on, I looked for another place.  I went to Sunny Sands Beach in Folkstone which was 7.5 miles up the A20 main road from where we were staying, and had three practice swims of 3-5 miles.  The first one gave me some renewed respect for the ocean.  I swam from Folkstone towards Dover for close to 3 miles and was planning on turning back.  Just prior to turning back, the waves got rough and the current seemed to shift.  As I began swimming back, I realized I was not making any progress.  I picked up my pace, but was only slowly moving in my chosen direction.  I swam towards the shore and found a spot on the sea wall to get out. I was battered a bit and was pretty shaken.  I had to walk about 2 miles back on trails, road, and even a golf course (I received some choice looks and words) in just my speedo to get back to where my wife was waiting (the beach had disappeared).  Super crazy and scary. Bottom line: respect the ocean because it will tear you up and spit you out.

On Tuesday, August 29th, we met at the Dover Harbor Marina at 2am.  After some paperwork (remember your passports!) and coughing up another $1900 (1450 pounds) in what appeared to be a drug deal gone terribly wrong (…wait, I pay you to abuse myself?), we set out for a nearby “beach” called Samphire Hoe, made entirely from diggings from the Eurotunnel.  About 200 yards offshore, I was called on to jump in and swim to shore.  I readied myself quickly and did a deck change with some gorgeous Funky Shorts Bulldog with Bowtie swim suit, silicone cap, TYR prescription goggles,  and a mixture of lanolin/vaseline I had prepared in my very own microwave for my axilla areas and neck area (although I should have put some on my right groin as I managed a rather large sore there).  

I jumped into the darkness and 61 degree water and swam to shore.  I waved my arms to signal I had cleared water on the smooth rocky shore, a horn sounded, and at 3:37 am, I commenced my swim.  Clearly, conditions were excellent as there were two other boats with swimmers waiting to pull out right behind me.  As I began to swim, I soon realized that I had forgotten my ear plugs (which help with the cold and prevent cold caloric reflex which causes dizziness).  Every 40 minutes, I fed from an 8-oz cup on an extended modified golf ball extractor warm Infinit or Heed, with duct tape mostly covering the opening to prevent leakage and two CarBooms or GUs.  Every 2 hours, I had a Cliff meal (oatmeal, sweet potato, banana and mango).  At the 80 minute mark, I had my wife stick ear plugs to the side of the cup and was able to put those in. 

The sun rises on the English Channel

The sun rises on the English Channel

Despite ideal conditions, and family and friends 15 yards away in the boat, I have never felt so cold and alone as I did during the first 4 hours of that swim.  If I had not traveled such a great distance at great expense, I believe I would have thrown in the proverbial towel. It was SOOO COLD for this boy from Arizona.  However, there was a beautiful sunrise, and as soon as the sun came up, I began to feel better.  I was swimming on the port side but was asked to switch to starboard side to avoid the boat fumes.  As I was bilateral breathing, it did not seem to matter much.  It was soon after this that I was notified I was in French water.  I went from dejected to very confident that I was going to complete this in short order.  

I started to notice jellyfish around me, but avoided many of them.  I was finally struck with the inevitable jellyfish square over my mouth.  It hurt but I was confident I could take more hits, which fortunately never came.  The last 6 miles or so is a big challenge as you can see mirages in the distance of French soil.  My wife apparently made the cardinal mistake of telling me I had about 4.5 miles to go, but with shifting currents and variable landing places, that turned more into 8 miles or the equivalent time.  I do not feel that I slowed down but I was going pretty slow at the end (down from about 2 knots most of the way to closer to 1) and veered more from the boat.  Perhaps I was getting hypothermic or the currents were worse.  I sped up a few times near the end only to realize I was not as close as I thought.  I had difficulty urinating at the end (one of my biggest problems in open water swimming as some are actually able to go while swimming). 

Kurt was supported by his wife and daughter during the swim.

Kurt was supported by his wife and daughter during the swim.

What do you think about when swimming 21 miles?  I sing hymns.  I sing rock and folk songs.  I think of everything.  I think of nothing. I let the rhythm of my stroke and the sensory deprivation take over.  Often my subconscious takes over, powering me the some 80,000 strokes it will take to cross.

My daughter jumped in and swam the last 300 meters or so behind me.  I did not realize she was there (she swam in her clothes and borrowed one of my extra caps and goggles).  If she got ahead of me, I apparently could get disqualified.  I staggered to the beach in a time of 10 hours and 23 minutes and waved/curtsied to some confused beach goers (fastest CS&PF swim of year so far).  I hugged my daughter, grabbed some rocks to shove in my suit, and swam back to the boat and my family.  I changed quickly out of my suit (rocks hit the floor to a stunned audience–no really, they’re just rocks!) and into some warm clothes.  It was a beautiful 3 hour ride back to Dover knowing that I had accomplished something special.

"Doubt not. Fear not." Kurt Dickson signs the wall of English Channel finishers.

“Doubt not. Fear not.” Kurt Dickson signs the wall of English Channel finishers.

There are approximately 1800 people who have swam the channel since Capt. Matthew Webb first accomplished the feat in 1875.  There have been 10 documented deaths, two of which occurred in the last 2 years. So, it is certainly not an endeavor to be taken lightly. I am grateful to God and family for the protection and support they have given me over the last several months. With recent hurricanes and the devastation seen around the world, I feel somewhat silly spending so much time and treasure on my dream of “conquering the Channel.” I know and am appreciative of the luxury of “conspicuous exertion.”  It is well of all of us to remember the original silly excess – the marathon was, after all, simply a deadly business trip.

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