Dr. Stephen Autry Reveals Personal Letters Describing Various Open Water Swims

CINCINNATI, Ohio, November 4. DR. Stephen Autry, an accomplished open water swimmer who is an orthopedic surgeon by trade, has completed several different open water swims over his swimming career – including the Holy Grail that is the English Channel.

After each of these swims, he has taken the time to capture his thoughts in personal letters sent out to his family and friends. Swimming World was made aware of these intelligent and insightful documents, and received Autry's permission to reprint them for our readers.

We will roll them out over the next week. We hope you enjoy them.

Here is Autry's recollection of his English Channel swim in 2007:

On Those Days I am not Trail Riding

Our Kentucky farm has always been a special place. It is both a "home" and a "get away" retreat. I will never tire of seeing the rolling pastures, steep wooded hills and the Rocky Mountain Horses that populate those hill sides.

Sometimes seeing the world go by through a pair of upfront ears just isn't enough. I have always been one of those folks that like to work hard and play hard. The concept of a vacation being a chair on a sandy beach gripping some umbrella-adorned concoction is not my cup of tea. I like my vacations without "artificial flavorings." Give me a life aboard a dive boat in the middle of nowhere over Las Vegas anytime.

I love a challenge and I love adventure. Sometimes it finds me and sometimes I have to go looking. A few years ago I went back to school. I didn't need to, just wanted to. In 2000 I bit into one of the hardest challenges I have ever experienced, being President of the Rocky Mountain Horse Association. Boy was that a Mr. Toad's wild ride! My hat is tipped to the past, present and future holders of this office.

Last year my announcement I was going to swim the English Channel was met with a few smirks and disbelieving comments. Some even suggested it was a mid life crisis. But that's not possible. I am far too long in the tooth for a midlife issue. I used Forrest Gump's line that I was doing it "for no particular reason."

I had been a competitive swimmer in high school doing mostly short to mid distance specialty strokes like butterfly. I had zero interest in long distance events. Still swimming seemed to be my best exercise option.

So I drug my sleepy eyed self to the pool before work and after 10 minutes in the pool I was bushed. After a while 20 minutes became 30 minutes. Before long a daily hour workout was routine. The pounds melted away and I found myself with more energy even though I was working harder than ever.

I needed a goal. Masters swimming was one option. But the concept of geezers in Speedos bent over the starting blocks was not appealing.

Marathon swimming seemed a natural fit. The "Holy Grail" of marathon swimming is the English Channel. This was simple enough, plan a vacation in England and drop by Dover and string 22 one mile swims together. I can do this! I made my announcement to family and friends. Now it was too late to turn back.

After doing a bit of homework I soon discovered this was one of those 40 oz porterhouse steak challenges. Had I bitten off a bit more than I could either chew or swallow? More people have climbed Mount Everest than swam the English Channel. Approximately 900 people have made a solo swim across the Channel. There have been more than 7000 attempts.

The devil is in the details. And there were lots of details. Accelerated training schedules, cross training, familiarity with tide tables, and feedings, etc. Feedings? The very word conjured up the image of a mother bird with a craw full of chopped up worms. In truth, some of the required preparations are equally mouth watering. Slugs of syrupy liquid sugar much like hummingbird nectar with out the red dye.

Soon I was conversing with past Channel swimmers and I secured a boat and pilot for the second neap (low) tide in September 2007. I had given myself a year to train. Most aspirants take two to prepare. All suggested extensive ocean swimming. Oceans seem to be in short supply here in Kentucky.

Water temperatures in the Channel are in the low 60s. A mandatory six hour swim in 61 degree or less water is required by the governing bodies. A standard swim suit without any type of neoprene or warmth retention, a silicone cap and a pair of goggles are the only acceptable items. The two associations that regulate Channel swims keep the rules for crossing in line with the conditions encountered when Captain Matthew Webb was the first to swim the Channel in 1875.

I kept swimming in our farm ponds well into November. Showers were now cold water only. Had I lost my mind?

I had to find a way to cross train. Even my wife was commenting on my skinny looking chicken legs and I needed to increase my cardiopulmonary conditioning. I never liked running. Have you ever seen a jogger with a smile on his face? Spinning (cycling) was suggested as an option. I always pictured spinning classes to be a nest of desperate housewives clad in pink and baby blue tights. But what would one class hurt? I made a pact with myself to leave the moment they started playing Barry Manilow tunes. My fears were unfounded. There were guys in the classes and the workouts pushed me to the limit.

Soon it was spring and then summer. My swims were now three hours in length. In July I went to Dover, England to do back-to-back six-hour swims in Channel waters. The cold water still took me by surprise.

An August trip to Maine had been planned for cold water swimming (and a few lobsters.) Shortly after my arrival I found out the dock we planned to use had been blown away in a recent storm. The shore was steep and covered with granite boulders. If I was going to swim, I had to use a local lobster fisherman's pier. The looks I got when I walked up in a Speedo and a red swim cap were really choice. No one whistled but their expressions went beyond amusement. The water was 57 degrees, making the Channel seem like bath water. There was plenty of kelp and debris in the water, perfect conditions for Channel preparation.

My swims became longer and longer. Five, six, and a ten hour swim were part of the regimen. I was eating like crazy trying to put on a couple pounds of insulation before the September swim. I would go to the gym for 2 hours before work and swim and then go back for 3 more hours after work. Still it seemed like I needed more work. I don't know how you know when you are truly ready for something like this.

At any rate, that distant date with the English Channel was nigh upon me. August had been difficult. My wife, Mary Beth, had been ill and would not be able to make the trip. She was going to be my attendant on the boat. I would have to find someone else in Dover.

I arrived in Dover, England on Friday, September 14. Dover is a small and friendly town. The Channel swimming community is a large part of their proud heritage. In Dover, the Channel swimmers are part of an extended family with international offshoots. This year the local bed and breakfasts have had swimmers from Australia, Iceland, Bulgaria, Serbia, Europe, Mexico, the United States and a host of other countries.

I had hoped for an early swim and flight home but the weather wouldn't cooperate. Channel weather had been terrible this year. Cold, wet, and windy. Water temperatures stayed in the low 60s. Some swimmers spent up to three weeks waiting and went home without getting their toes wet. I had 10 days before my flight home.

Now I know what those horses in the starting gate at the Derby feel like when their race is delayed. I felt like a caged cat, pacing floor of my room in a local bed and breakfast. My laptop had five or six weather sites which had more "hits" from me than Hank Aaron had in a lifetime.

The sharp point of peak preparation is easily dulled by the anxiety of waiting and wondering. Training is a controlled process. Waiting for a tide and weather window is just plain luck. I continued to do daily two hours swims in Dover harbor. I visited the local castle and museum. I had a delicate mental balancing act going on. I was trying to stay focused and not be preoccupied to the point where I was consumed by something beyond my control.

By week's end Saturday was looking pretty good. Sunday and beyond were back to high winds. The low tide period would be ending soon. Saturday would have to be the day.

Saturday's only bad news was my attendant, an experienced Channel swimmer, was unavailable for that day. So I asked my pilot to help find someone else. I received a call late Friday informing me my attendant was going to be a 16-year-old school girl.

So I was going to trust my feedings and boat management to a kid. Gulp! I soon learned she was a tough cookie, having swum the Channel this year. She had wisdom beyond her years.

Friday night I had my "last supper." Pasta our course! I was so sick of pasta having it for nearly every lunch and dinner in an attempt to "carb load." I was definitely loaded, if not overloaded. I left my last bowl half eaten. My mind was already in the water.

Just before going to bed I mixed the feeding preparations. Most of the stuff is made of the simple sugars glucose and fructose. There was also an electrolyte mixture. It was lots of fun trying to stuff scoops of the powder into the narrow mouth of a container. I crammed myself into a shower stall trying to contain the sticky powder in a manageable area. I felt like a dime store chemist.

Sleep did not come easy Friday. I did not need to set my alarm. I was up well before I left for the boat at 4:30 a.m. The high point of the tide was at 8 a.m. My pilot wanted me to start the swim two hours before. The boat ride to my starting beach took half an hour. Finally the moment of truth was at hand. The night was still pitch black. The air temperature was in the 40s and the water 63. What had I gotten myself into?

I applied light sticks to the back of my swim suit and goggles, jumped off the boat and swam to shore. I climbed out and then dove back into an approaching wave. At first the water was bone chilling. After a few minutes I was burning enough energy to feel relatively warm. The journey had begun. Only 38,000 strokes before I reached France.

It was dark for several hours. The winds were calm but the sea remained unsettled and rough from a week of bad weather where waves had been 10 feet high. Swimming into a sunrise in not particularly fun. The rays are blinding when you turn to take a breath. I had trained myself to breath on both sides to compensate for both sun and wave conditions.

It was time to take off the light sticks. Things were getting into a routine. The sun was now high and wave conditions good. My mind would drift from thought to thought. Then something would happen to get my attention back on the swim. Maybe it was a jelly fish sting, a mouthful of salt water from a rogue wave, or a piece of seaweed caught between my fingers.

My first feed was at the one-hour point. Feedings continued every 30 minutes from there on. I did not wear a watch and did not want to have a firm idea of my progress. I had planned to break the swim up into intervals from feed to feed.

Rules stipulate a swimmer can not touch the pilot boat or anyone on the boat. The syrupy feed mixture was delivered to me in a bottle on a rope. This was thrown out to me and quickly retrieved. I could glug down the stuff in a few seconds and be on my way.

While I did not try to keep track of my progress, it was hard to avoid knowing where I was. The track of the sun across the sky was hard to avoid. Then there are those little things like major international shipping channels. The one on the English side goes south and on the French side heads north. Those behemoths really get your attention. They seem to book across the horizon, their wake adding a bit of extra salt water to a breath or two. The center section of the channel is like a demilitarized zone, only flotsam and jetsam and the ever present jellies. Crossing this section seemed like an eternity. I looked back to Dover once or twice. The white cliffs seemed ever present for hours. I thought I was swimming in place.

I had hoped to make the crossing in 14 hours. My pace had been on target until mid afternoon. After that point, I found myself tiring. The waves and swells in the center of the channel were taking their toll. My stroke count dropped below sixty per minute and I started to feel the chill. Leg cramps began to occur. I no longer had the luxury of letting my mind wander. France was now in sight but it would be hours before I was even close.

The sun was starting to go down. I could easily see my prospective landing site. But those golden rays of setting sun told me I was in trouble. I knew the tide was starting to change. As the sun went down, I watched the coastline move as I was being driven north. For the first time, I felt down. The pilot signaled me to again place light sticks on my goggles and trunks. It became clear my swim would go into overtime as darkness fell.

Tides are an important consideration in a Channel swim. Most swims look like an "s" shaped curve. The first part of the tide drives you north for just more than six hours and then the tide reverses for a similar period. The entire course is usually 30 to 40 miles long. The trick is to get to France before the tide again turns north. The shape of France is such that the coastline starts to recede the further north you go from the ideal point of landing at Cap Gris Nez. Some swimmers who failed have been only a few hundred yards off shore when the tide changed and their goal started slipping further and further away.

Several hours later I was beyond tired. The mental demons were starting to play with my mind. Sometimes the tide shift can add six hours or more to a swim and I did not know if I had that sort of reserve. My arms felt like they were being pinched off at the shoulders. Every time I stopped for a feed I got a cramp in my right hamstring. I was no longer chilled, I was cold. I was now into damage control. For the first time I had the feeling the swim was starting slip away from me. Failure was now a possibility.

When I expressed my concerns to my attendant, Megan Forbes, I got what I deserved, zero sympathy. In essence she told me to shut up and keep swimming. To that I answered somewhat meekly, OK. Never thought I would take orders from a teenager. The pilot, Chris Osmond, came down and yelled I had an hour to go. Just an hour? Heck, I knew I could do that. Yeah, I thought he was probably telling a white lie. Maybe it was one or maybe it was three hours. It didn't matter. A successful swim is more than 50 percent mental attitude and I had just undergone a big league mental tune up.

The team shortened the interval between feedings to keep me focused. It had become cloudy and the sky was pitch black. I could not see my goal. I had to trust them. Somehow I found enough fumes in my otherwise empty tank to get my stroke count up. I was warm again and knew the swim would end successfully.

I did not see the shadow of the coast until I was within a few hundred yards. My companions, pain and exhaustion left me as I made the final strokes to shore. Other swimmers told me you could smell the garlic when you were close to the French coast. I kept sniffing to no avail. I just found a bunch of big boulders. A zodiac had been dispatched. As I reached my goal I heard the words, "Congratulations, you are now a Channel swimmer." My time was 16 hours and 5 minutes.

The boat ride back to Dover took three hours. I was too exhausted to move. I just sat there with a thin smile a feeling of exhilaration. I had just completed the hardest and one of the most rewarding days of my life.

Maybe I slept an hour. Maybe I didn't. At any rate I couldn't wait to go to a local 300-year-old pub, The White Horse Inn. Successful English Channel swimmers from all over the world have signed the Inn's walls. I took great joy in scribbling my name in the midst of such company.

If there ever was a crucible designed to explore your true mettle it would likely be a Channel swim. I have never experienced a day with so many emotional ups and downs testing the limits of my physical and mental durability. My favorite motivational mantra during training was…"Define your limits…and then exceed them". That is what a Channel swim is all about.

My swim reinforced my understanding of what it takes to be a success. It is one part ability and determination. (Probably the least important factor.) Second luck always hangs out with success. For me after an agonal wait to the very end of my stay I got lucky and had a "good" weather day. It was also a neap (low tide). Finally, and most important element is the dedication and contributions of others who share your goal. The attendant on my boat, the pilot, the observer, and crew were incredibly supportive. I would not have made it without them.

There are a host of folks who helped in my training and preparation. They gave me the prerequisite foundation of fitness and knowledge in ultra-marathon sports. My wife, Mary Beth, patiently endured and whole heartedly supported my quest over the past year. An amazing number of folks expressed their support in the past months. Their contribution to my "success" will never go unnoted.

The other "lesson" of this experience is one of those disclaimers often heard just before a lottery ticket is plucked out of the goldfish bowl…."You have to be present to win." Success required me to be "in the moment" If my mind wandered and I started looking back at England or forward to France my stroke count went down and I got cold or a ran into a jellyfish. Each stroke was built on the one before it. There were no wishful shortcuts.

On Monday I flew home. It was back to usual…except after swimming the Channel "usual" will never be the quite the same.


Dr. Stephen Autry

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