By Karen Billing
Carmel Valley open water swimmer Barbara Held completed the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming this summer. The Triple Crown includes 21 miles across the English Channel between England and France, 21 miles across the Catalina Channel, and 28.5 miles around Manhattan Island in New York.
Last summer she swam the Manhattan Island Marathon and two years ago, at age 56, the retired firefighter/paramedic broke the record for the oldest woman to swim the Catalina Channel in nine hours, 36 minutes and 53 seconds.
Held crossed the English Channel on Aug. 24, slipping into the water at 2:30 a.m. coated in sunscreen with a light affixed to her American flag swim cap and a glow stick on her back.
“I was the only swimmer that day because the conditions were not ideal,” Held said. “I finished just before a storm came through so I was really lucky.”
She finished in 12 hours and 10 minutes, walking up onto the shore in Cape Gris Net, France, to applause from a handful of strangers.
Completing the solo swim of the English Channel came after a two-year wait to book a boat pilot and get a tide. Tides and weather play a critical role in the crossing and swimmers must wait until the conditions are safe — some swimmers may never even get permitted to cross.
“The channel is 21 miles across but no one ever swims 21 miles because on the English side the river goes north and on the France side the river goes south; two currents that are very strong,” Held said. “I had to go way north out of my way to break the current.”
Held’s crossing boat was “no luxury at all,” just a small shell-fishing boat. There was only one covered area for the captain and his son, and a toilet was given a small amount of privacy by three plywood walls. Her observer and official recorder were on board while she swam.
“It wasn’t a pleasant swim and there’s so much waiting it’s mentally tough,” Held said. “The conditions weren’t terrible but it felt like something was pushing against me the whole way.”
Despite the push, Held kept a 68 strokes per minute count the entire way.
The water temperature was about 60 degrees, slightly choppy and the channel was full of giant ferry boats, so lit up that Held said they looked like Christmas trees on their side as she swam. Sometimes boats can hold a channel swimmer up, but Held was lucky that none crossed her path.
Held completed feedings along the way while treading water, drinking Cytocarb and Cytomax sports performance drinks every three hours, once mixing with a little oatmeal for some “sloppy porridge.”
About six hours in she had some Jelly Babies, an English candy.
“I also had some M&Ms, just to give me a little break from the liquids at 10 hours because I just got so tired of drinking, I needed something to chew,” said Held, noting the saltwater made her mouth a “mess,” coating her teeth and throat.
At one point, Held swam right into the boat because she was dreaming of drinking a chocolate malt.
“I felt great after my swim,” Held said. “I wasn’t tired, I wasn’t cold, I had full range of motion and no muscle soreness.”
She immediately had a Dr. Pepper and some potato chips once she got on board the boat.
Once she landed in France, Held put on a wonder woman bathing suit. The humble Held considered the suit flashy, but it was a promise she had made to her nieces and their husbands who gave it to her for her 58th birthday. After the big accomplishment, she was happy to oblige and wear it.
Held does most of her training in the La Jolla Cove but this year got an extra boost from the Cork Distance Week swim camp in Cork, Ireland, in June. The camp has swimmers completing two swims a day in the morning and night in varied conditions and times to prepare for the unpredictable English Channel.
They swam in the ocean, rivers, streams, locks and reservoirs and, on the eighth day of camp, they complete what is called the Body Brain Confusion Swim where every possible obstacle is thrown at the swimmers.
“It was an absolute blast,” Held said.
The marathon swimming community is a close one and Held has made many friends along the way. This year she will observe a friend from Ireland and one from South Africa as they attempt to cross Catalina.
“That’s what it’s all about, helping someone who helped you or teaching a new person what worked for you,” Held said.
This summer she was part of a support team for Penny Palfrey, whom Held considers the world’s greatest marathon swimmer, as she attempted to swim from Cuba to the Florida Keys. Palfrey completed 91 miles in 41 hours before she had to abandon the swim due to a strong current about 26 miles from her destination.
To attempt the crossing costs about $100,000 and it is a hot water swim with water nearing 85 degrees. Additionally, Held said, the water is “loaded with jellyfish” and shark infested.
“No thank you,” Held says to the Cuba to Florida challenge but she strongly believes her friend will be able to complete that quest one day.
Held spent about a month in England for her swim, returning home on Sept. 10.
“I came home and found myself at a loss because I’d been preparing for this for two years,” Held admitted.
She doesn’t know what she will attempt to conquer next but is hoping to get entrance to next summer’s Alaska’s Pennock Island Swim and the oldest open water swim marathon in the country, the Boston Light Swim. Both are “just eight miles.” She also hopes to be accepted into the Ederle Swim in New York, following the first woman to swim the English Channel, Gertrude Ederle’s 17-mile swim from Battery Park, New York, to New Jersey.
If accepted, it will be just another standard marathon swimming summer for Held.