Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Interview with Penny Palfrey

Penny Palfrey may not be able to pronounce it, but she’ll swim the Kaieiewaho Channel anyway.

Come April, Penny Palfrey will be watching the weather, the wind in particular. Palfrey is a native of Australia, a 47 year old grandmother who likes chocolate and challenging swims even more. She’ll be in Honolulu in April to attempt a swim many experienced swimmers consider impossible: the 72 mile stretch from Oahu to Kauai. Jeff Kozlovich asked her why this channel, why now and why anyone would want to swim in the ocean for almost 40 hours.

Right now the Kaieiewaho Channel is impossible for me to pronounce, but I would like to try to swim it.(I must get some lessons on that when I arrive in Hawaii). I'd like attempt the Kaieiewaho Channel because I swam the Alenuihaha and Maui Channels last year, not only did I love what I saw of Hawaii during that visit I learned a lot during my two channel swims there.My husband Chris and I wanted to come back to visit Hawaii again this year and attempt another channel, the Kaieiwaho is my pick.I know 72 miles is very far, and I know it will be a difficult swim.I've been gradually building my marathon swims for many years now.

After becoming the first person to swim from San Miguel Island to California mainland in September 2008, I became the second person and first woman to swim the Alenuihaha Channel in March last year, then the first to swim from Santa Barbara Island to Point Vicente, California in September I decided on Hawaii's Kaieiewaho Channel.

It will take a great deal to complete this crossing, I'm building a great support team who will be imperative to the success of the swim, we'll also be hoping for a spell of good weather.

How far do you swim a week? Where? In a pool or in the ocean. Do you do anything else besides swim? Have any particular training philosophy? You just mentioned you build on your previous swims but what do you do in between?

I generally swim 6 times per week, 5 pool swims and one long swim in the ocean per week, (the sea here isn't great for open water swimmers), My distance is usually around 65 - 70k per week when in full training, plus two gym programs per week and land work the other four afternoons, which involves stretches, palates and band work. I have one day off per week.

My training philosophy is to work hard, be consistent but listen to my body.

Can you give some details about your diet? Meat lover, vegan? I'm thinking you eat a lot of fish.

I'm a fairly healthy eater, generally I avoid fats and eat a balanced diet. I do eat meat, I've a history of being iron deficient I also eat lots of vegetables and salads, I love seafood but usually save that for restaurants, my preference is shell fish. I love chocolate, but it's got to be good chocolate.

What are the most difficult swims you have done so far and why? Anything really scary happen on these swims?

All my swims have been different, some are difficult to organize, some are difficult because of busy starts in races and some because of distance or conditions. Cook Strait between the North and South Islands on New Zealand was difficult since the water temperature was 14-15 degrees C ( 56-58 F) and there were strong currents, The English Channel is challenging, my swim from Santa Barbara Island and San Miguel were difficult in that they were firsts with lots of unknowns and my swim from Big Island to Maui is certainly up there as one of the most difficult due to the weather conditions and the distance I swam.

I guess the scariest thing that's happened is that a week after I swam the Alenuihaha Channel our friend Mike Spalding from Maui was attempting the same swim and was bitten by a Cookie Cutter shark. He was removed for the water and spent several days in hospital, but since has made a full recovery, thankfully.

I've been watching a lot of the winter Olympics this past week. Lots of great athletes - most in their teens and twenties. You are a 47 year old mother of three. Can you give your perspective and some of the pluses and minuses of being an elite athlete in what many think is way past your prime. Do you think your age is effecting your speed or endurance

I swim because I love to, it doesn't bother me what other people think.

I think this a much bigger story because you are married, mother of three and a grandmother in your late forties. Much bigger than if you were single and 25. So could you elaborate a bit more about your age and how it effects (or not) your fitness level and how you manage to be an elite endurance swimmer even after you raised a family and became a grandmother.

Hmm I'm having so much trouble answering this question. I'm nowhere near as fast as I was when I was 15, that's for sure......over a short distance in the pool that is. But I'm not sure that when I was 15 I was mentally or physically capable of doing some of the swims I'm doing today. Also big part of success is opportunity. When I was young I didn't have the opportunities that I'm fortunate to have now. It's only over recent years as the children have grown up that Chris and I are able to enjoy a little more travel and during the past few years we've enjoyed 'a bit of a swim' while on our holidays.

I do train hard, though on the days I'd like a sleep in Chris is up and raring to go and vise verse so I guess we motivate one another.

It's often a juggle and tiring to run the family, the business and do all the training, often something has to go...usually it's the house work and gardening. Also we don't have much of a social life since we're up at 4am most days, but we more than make up for that with the wonderful friends we make around the world who share our love for open water.

Your husband is a swimmer, too, so I think he understands, but what do your kids say?

Yes, my husband, Chris, may be attempting to swim the Kaiwi Channel during our visit to Oahu.What do my kids think? Well, they're grown up now and mum's always swum so it's all ho hum to them.

What or who inspired you to get into long distance swimming?

When I was about 12 my mum bought me a book about Captain Mathew Webb who was the first person to swim the English Channel in 1875. Ever since, I’ve wanted to swim the Channel. When I was 13, I was unable to spend the summer in Dover as I had two sisters and both my parents worked. After retiring from swimming at 16, I'd put the idea out of my head. I've always loved swimming in the sea, though, and entered my first 2.7k open water race here in Townsville for fun and fitness after my first child was born more than 20 years ago.

Can you give some explanation of your stroke and breathing technique?

I have small hands and feet, so I have a high stroke rate to compensate, 86 per min when racing, I think it was steady at 76 at the end of 18 hours in the SB channel. I breathe every three strokes during training, but that often drops to two when I do a long swim and I will adjust my breathing easily depending on the direction of the swell or side the boat is escorting me from, though I have a preference to the right.

You are going to stand on shore and jump in the water somewhere near Ka'ena Point on Oahu and start swimming toward Kauai. What do you eat and drink on the way? (Some good chocolate perhaps?) How often and how long do you stop to refuel?

I "feed" every half hour, this is usually Endura carbohydrate replacement drink and gels. It's passed to me by my crew in a drink bottle on a rope. I drink the contents, drop the bottle and continue to swim while the crew pulls the bottle back in by the rope. A good feed should take less than 10 seconds, though some will be a little longer. I'll be giving my crew a 'menu' which will also consist of cappuccino, chocolate and warm, sloppy porridge (oats).

What do you think about during those long hours of swimming?

I try to answer this by saying it's a bit like driving a car, my mind is always on what I'm doing but also wanders to all sorts of things. It does take quite a bit of concentration to stay in the correct position beside the boat. I like to watch the crew and see them watching me. I think about my stroke, the people who have helped to get me to where I am, the people who have supported me and sent me messages. I like to know how I'm doing. (Always the truth) I think about the weather, the swell, the sea life that I see, the night swimming is amazing with stars above and phosphorescence below, it's like being in the middle of space. I look at anything that's happening around me, other boats, land, my feeds.....swim, swim, swim...

You mention just how important your crew is. While at the airport before they swam from Molokai to Oahu, Bill Goding and Forrest Nelson had some words for me, when I was part of their crew. Forrest gave me a mini lecture on how I had to believe in this swim as much as he did and Bill said I could only pull him out of the water if he became unconscious. Bill, Forrest, Neil and I will be there to help you in any way we can. Anything you want us to know?

Forrest is a wise man, a strong swimmer and a dear friend. I hope he will repeat his lecture before my swim. Before my first Channel crossing I was told there's two ways out of Cook Strait, you swim to the other side or you wake up in a hospital. I swam to the other side and will do my best to do that again this time. We'll hold a team briefing when my crew has arrived in Oahu to go though the many aspects of the swim. I'm extremely happy to have Forrest, Bill, Neil, you, Jeff and possibly my husband, Chris, with me for this swim, it will take a huge effort from us all and I think each of us is aware of what's involved.

Editors note: Sometime in late April, the exact date depending on the weather, Penny will attempt to swim from Oahu’s North Shore to somewhere on Kauai with the “A-Team” support crew of her open water swimmer husband Chris, watermen Bill Goding and Forrest Nelson both with many channel crossings to their credit, friend Neil Vaughan who has crewed and paddled for Penny and Chris many times in the past - plus me and my paddleboard.

As long as there is cell phone reception, I’ll be giving regular updates during the swim that will be posted on this blog (kozhawaii.blogspot.com) and twitter.

-Jeff Kozlovich


Anonymous said...

I would be so scared to swim in the darkness! Don't you worry about sharks?

Anonymous said...

You didn't discuss the time it would take to complete this swim. Is that the 40 hours you mentioned at first?
How can you stay awake that long?
Good Luck

Anonymous said...

Hey Koz, How the hell did you get talked into this one? No, wait, you volunteered didn't you? You are one crazy bastard but Miss Penny will be well looked after. I wish the whole bunch of you the best of luck. You're going to need it.

Koz said...

I got more than a few comments on the article I linked at the start of the interview, "The Healing Power of Patience" by Serge King. Most people wanted to know what it had to do with the Kaieiewaho Channel and some just thought it was a mistake. It wasn't. For those who read to paragraph 11,
"The old name of the Kauai Channel, "Kaieiewaho," simply means "The Outer Sea," but it could also refer to the need to go outside of one's normal boundaries"
I thought that was appropriate.

Steven Munatones said...

Great article on one of the world's greatest living adventurers. Who is Penny's escort boat pilot? Where does he live? Why was Ka'ena Point chosen? Is that the closest point to Kauai? What time is Penny planning to start? Good luck to everyone.

Gloria Ives said...

Hi Jeff, just found your website after reading the lovely comment you posted on Katie Spotz' site for her Rowing Adventure. I'm now hooked on her adventure, and the mind of an endurance athlete. I'm glad it led me here, as it seems you are too. So much to learn from them, but truly what you learn from a solo endurance adventurer is how much there is to learn from yourself. I guess that's what the Buddha meant by, Be a light unto yourself. Maybe they do it for humanity, to show us all that by what ever means you choose to get there, all roads lead home: to our hearts, where all of the answers lie .

Koz said...

Looks like Katie is doing well.
There are lots of different layers to these endurance adventures. On one level I am aware that I'm doing this to learn some lessons for my daily life. A marriage, a family, a job and a business can be complicated and so confusing. I learn from others and my own adventures. One step at a time, one stroke at a time. Enjoy the beauty and wonder of the whole experience.

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