“Speed is irrelevant if you are going in the wrong direction.” – Mahatma Ghandi
A couple of weeks have passed with no internet connection, fortunately providing me with ample time to reflect on my first attempt on an English Channel distance, open-water swim. The day, now a curious mix of both treasured and unpleasant memories, was nothing if not a day of constant teaching moments.
As perhaps with all Misogi attempts, it was a blend of both failure and success – of profound highs and all-consuming lows. The unavoidable yin and yang of endurance pursuits, I suppose.
In a purely literal, but perhaps disingenuous, interpretation of the word, the swim attempt was a failure.
I didn’t swim the full distance of the English Channel. Eventually, the current became far too strong, the wind far too insistent, my muscles far too fatigued and my struggling metabolism wholly unable to keep my core temperature in a healthy range. After an entire day of sincere and stubborn battling, I threw in the towel and head for the shore, an hour or so before the sun set on the river. I gave almost all that I had to give, and that day, it wasn’t enough to carry my body thirty-two kilometres down stream.
I didn’t do what I set out to do.
This all being said, when I stepped out of the longest and murkiest river my country has to offer, there were absolutely no feelings of failure or defeat. Instead, I was wrapped in feelings of deep satisfaction. I was immensely proud of my efforts throughout the course of the day. I had faced real fear, uncertainty and true adversity for ten hours. Despite my incomparably generous and ever-present support team on kayaks, I was very much alone in my self-imposed, watery predicament – no one could do the work for me, and the wind and river weren’t going anywhere.
I had been caught off guard by deceptively icy waters, a strong wind and current that had no concerns for my bold plans, and muscular contractions that were failing me with increasing regularity. Eventually, my leg muscles were violently and painfully cramping nearly every hundred metres. If I ever stopped moving to eat or tend to a screaming muscle, my core temperature would drop into hypothermia. These mounting problems arose far earlier in the day than I am proud to admit. Eventually, all the Vaseline and Gatorade in the world couldn’t help me.
But crucially, I kept going, until I simply couldn’t anymore. Things were unbelievably tough for almost the entirety of the ordeal – as was genuinely expected. I had set the bar characteristically high for myself, and in the act of trying to clear it and falling short, had improved my capacity for endurance, my personal growth, and my understanding and confidence in my own ability to put my head down and work against a mounting desire to stop. I put fear of likely failure aside, arguably some kind of reputation on the line, and front-crawled down the river until I was no longer able to.
I had done what I set out to do.
Just three months ago, an Ironman Triathlon distance swim of three and a half kilometres was the definition of a marathon swim for me. How could I possibly finish swimming twenty-five open-water kilometres, my head buried in murky water for an entire day, and feel like a failure?
This is a far-cry from how I might have felt in the past about such an attempt. Shifting away from an unhealthy, perfectionist vantage point is a daily practice for me – I’ve certainly conditioned myself to judge my own endeavours from a completely unrealistic space. The Lewy Horwood of two years ago would absolutely have deemed this effort as a failure on all counts, and would have been suitably heart-broken by it. It continues to take constant, applied work to become less obsessive, less self-deprecating and develop a realistic sense of self. Therefore, being able to very publicly fall short of my intended goal – the entire day being streamed live on social media and GPS tracking – and walk away feeling nothing but a profound sense of pride and gratitude was a huge victory for me.
I stated constantly before the swim that I completely accepted the very real possibility of failure looming ahead of me. The English Channel is a heck of a long way to swim, after all. The day offered a rare opportunity to put my proverbial money where my mouth is, and demonstrate just how willing I am to work against the odds, and to grow and learn when things don’t ‘go to plan’.
We should all do these things more often, I think. Not everyone’s things are swimming down rivers all day, or climbing rock walls, or choking strangers in sanctioned competitions, or running ultra-marathons. But the lessons and their applications are exactly the same. We should be less ruled by the prospect of failure – in fact, we should re-brand and reclaim the word. We should truly extend ourselves. We should bite off more than we can chew, fall short of the ridiculous mark, but find ourselves further than we ever thought we might. I don’t think we really learn a thing when everything just goes to plan – failure is our greatest teacher, by far.
It struck me that the two capacities I am most grateful for are my body’s ability to recover physically (I was able to hit the gym and pool after a day’s rest), and my mind’s capacity for moving forward, win, lose or draw. No part of my psyche was disheartened or driven away from pursuits like this – in the car trip home from the river, I was already deep in thought about the next challenge, and what I would do differently.
I was fortunately taught from a young age not to rest on my laurels or be broken by my failures, and to return to the work.
It seems only fitting to close with one of my favourite Stoic philosophy lines –
“No man steps into the same river twice: for it’s not the same river, and he’s not the same man.” – Heraclitus
Thank you, to all, for your support, and for reading! I am eternally grateful. Here’s to returning to the work.