Relays are made up of six members who rotate every hour, with only one person in the water at a time, meaning everyone will take two or three turns at swimming for an hour before we get to the other side. My sister, who was in a bit of a snotty mood at the time I mentioned this, sneered, "Well, that doesn't sound very challenging." Let me clear this up for anyone who may still be in doubt: training for an English Channel swim - relay or solo - is hard. Here's the breakdown.
A soloist has the hardest job. First, he or she needs to swim approximately 40,000 yards a week - some do more, others less - doing mostly distance sets. That's the equivalent of 1600 lengths in a standard pool, or 23 miles. Most people can't even walk 23 miles. Then, he or she has to prepare for the cold water, since s/he will probably be in it for 12 to 14 hours. The Channel is around 60 degrees - 20 degrees colder than the average pool. The O'Connell Center pool, in which many rec swimmers shiver, is 76 degrees. Ichetucknee Springs, which most people shriek upon entering, is 72. Get it? The Channel is cold. Then there's the whole matter of eating. You have to experiment with different food combinations to figure out what sits well in your stomach, what tastes good after swimming through all that salt water, what you can eat or drink quickly, and what fuels your muscles the best. This is much harder than it sounds, because foods that taste good on land won't taste good in the water after hours of swimming. Then you've got to work out a way to get the food to the swimmer. A basket on a long handle? A string tied to a bottle? Then there's communication. If you keep stopping, you're going to lose body heat and go into hypothermia. Hand signals need to be worked out, and feedings have to be fast - under 30 seconds if possible. And then there are all the miscellaneous problems. For instance, if, like me, you get seasick while swimming, you have to find a way to cure your queasy stomach. If you have a shoulder or knee or back that acts up, you have to find a medication or a way to adjust your stroke which will help the pain. You need to be accustomed to swimming in the dark, since most swims either begin in the very early morning or extend into the night. You have to be able to swim through heavy waves constantly breaking over you. And, perhaps most importantly of all, you have to find ways to entertain yourself or 'turn off' your mind while swimming. Sensory deprivation is very important. You can't see or hear anything while swimming and that can become insanely boring and lead to an over-focusing on your pain and fatigue.
Relay swimmers have to deal with all of these same issues. We don't have to swim for quite as long as the soloists, but we can't slack off, either; we need at least half their distance. 20,000 yards a week (800 laps, about 12 miles). That's at least eight hours in the pool every week. Then, there's the cold-water acclimatization. Some would argue that this is even more important for relay swimmers than for soloists, because our body temperature will be in constant flux: we have to be able to get into that cold water, adjust to it, swim, get out of the water, warm up, and then jump back in again to swim our next leg. We have to deal with exactly the same issues when it comes to food, swimming in the dark, swimming through waves, and dealing with seasickness, fatigue, or pain. And then there's the all-important element of teamwork and trust. A soloist is only accountable for him- or herself. A six-man relay has to think about all six participants when making decisions such as whether or not to abort the swim. Relay members have to not only encourage each other, but trust each other, and believe that every team member will be able to push through hardships and not give up at the first sign of difficulty.
It's not an easy task, no matter how you choose to go about it.
I need five more teammates, and preferably an alternate or two as well. I don't know yet who they'll all be. I'm trying to get in touch with some UNC swimmers and see if we can't swing the first "Chapel Hill Channel Relay"; if that doesn't pan out, I'll move on to other options (messageboards, etc.). But if any of you people inside the computer know of anyone who might be interested, please send them my way, okay?