Conquering The Deep

Courtney Paulk claims the Triple Crown of open water marathon swimming, taking on the English Channel, Catalina Channel and Manhattan Island. But it’s not glory she’s after.

There are easier ways to get to France. But if you like things easy, you aren’t Courtney Paulk.

Last summer Paulk, a 44-year-old Richmond attorney, waded into the water in Dover, England, and started swimming. She didn’t stop until her feet touched bottom at Cap Gris Nez, France, 14 hours and four minutes later. With a few steps up the beach to dry land, she turned and raised her weary arms in triumph. She had successfully completed the famed English Channel swim.

That accomplishment might be enough; in fact, more than even comprehensible for most people. The distance alone is more than 21 miles. The swim crosses one of the world’s busiest shipping channels. Water temperatures average below 65 F during the “warm” months.

For Paulk, though, swimming from England to France was only part of her journey, the second in a three-stage quest that began in 2011 with a 28.5-mile swim around the island of Manhattan. It concluded this past fall when a tired but jubilant Paulk clambered up the rock-strewn shoreline of Rancho Palos Verdes, California, 11 hours and 50 minutes after setting out from Catalina Island, to claim her place as only the 79th swimmer (and 29th woman) ever to complete the “Triple Crown” of open-water marathon swimming: the English Channel, the Catalina Channel and the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim.

A swimmer as a child, Paulk took up open water distance swimming barely a decade ago when, in 2003, she signed up with a coworker for the 4.4-mile Great Chesapeake Bay Swim, which crosses the Bay between the spans of the Bay Bridge outside Annapolis, Maryland. That first year, the water temperature was an unusually cold 64 F. “I thought I would die from the cold,” says Paulk. But she made it, and she returned again the following year (“the water temperature was fine, but the current was horrific”), and the year after that (“huge rolling swells with chop”).

“I remember thinking ‘Wow, it’s never the same,’” she says.

Paulk soon enough found herself wondering what greater goals she could set out to achieve. In 2010, she completed the eight-mile Boston Light Swim in water that hovered between 56 and 57 F. “Can I even do eight miles?” she’d asked herself beforehand. She could, and she did, and with that event accomplished, officially could call herself a marathon swimmer (the Fédération Internationale de Natation Amateur, or FINA, defines a “marathon swim” as a minimum distance of 10 kilometers). And once you’ve swum eight miles, well, then what’s another 10, 12, 20? Nothing but more swimming, really.

A lot more swimming. Training for the Triple Crown, Paulk put in more than a million meters of swimming annually, for three years, in pools and rivers, lakes and bays, and in the open ocean. At the same time, she was managing her full-time career as a partner in the firm Hirschler Fleischer. (Her area of specialty is construction law.) “It was sheer will and stubbornness,” she says, which is also a good description of what it takes to complete a marathon swim, where the true challenge is as much mental as physical.

Marathon swimmers hew to an uncompromisingly minimalist aesthetic, sometimes informally referred to as “English Channel rules.” For each of her Triple Crown swims, Paulk wore only a conventional swimsuit (think Speedo), standard swim cap, and goggles (wetsuits are anathema to marathon swimmers) and trained herself to count on her own “bioprene” (subcutaneous tissue that stores fat) to endure long, cold swims: 63 F in the English Channel, 64 in Manhattan and a balmy 67 in Catalina. (Paulk says she attributes her success partially to French fries.) For each swim, she entered and left the water unassisted. In between those two points, she never got out of the water and never so much as touched or was touched by another swimmer, any member of her support team or the support boat that accompanied her. “Feeds” of warm sports drinks or whatever solid food she could gulp down in a few seconds (bananas, peanut butter sandwiches), were tossed in bottles attached to a string or proffered in a cup on the end of a stick.

To swim for monotonous hour after hour, when she was cold, when she was tired, when there was no sound but her own exhaled breath bubbling through the water, when the boat—with its promise of warmth and food and rest—floated tantalizingly only a few feet away, demanded an unsparing determination simply to keep putting one arm in front of the other, no matter what.

And each of the Triple Crown swims presented its own mental obstacles. Manhattan (known as MIMS) takes place in the narrow rivers that encircle the island; waterways churned up by the constant passage of ferries, harbor tugs, pleasure boats, even enormous cargo ships and cruise liners. The English Channel is famously not over until it’s over—the last mile or so, with the French shoreline in sight, is swept by strong currents that can prevent a swimmer from ever making land. In the last two hours, swimming hard to make land, Paulk says she “covered maybe a mile? I could see the huge Cap Gris Nez right there, clear as day, but I felt like I was just swimming in place.”

In California, because fierce daytime Santa Ana winds can make wave conditions too treacherous for the Catalina crossing, that swim begins at midnight; Paulk spent nearly seven hours swimming in darkness, following a few glow sticks attached to her support kayaker’s boat. Every time Paulk plunged a hand into the water for a stroke—or every time a fish swam beneath her—miniature fireworks of bioluminescence would explode in front of her eyes. “After a while, it’s incredibly disorienting,” she says.

As she approached the California shoreline, with the sun bright overhead, two friends and fellow swimmers joined her for the final distance. “It was amazing to be a part of that, of someone accomplishing something that most people cannot even comprehend,” says Allison Czapracki, a former Richmonder now living in San Diego, who met Paulk through swimming.

The friends and family who accompanied Paulk through the many stages of her journey to the Triple Crown were the other ingredients essential to her success, Paulk will tell you. Most important has been her husband Matt, also an attorney with a full-time practice. It is not every spouse who would devote huge swaths of his free time to the role of team support, but it has been Matt that Paulk has counted on to know her swimming almost better than she knows it herself, to make her feeds, track her strokes, crack jokes to keep her spirits up. And it is Matt you can hear cheering the loudest on the videos of each of Paulk’s finishes.

With the Triple Crown behind her, is Paulk ready now to retire from marathon swimming? Hardly. Not when there are many waterways wide and long yet to be swum. “It is the only thing that feels challenging after a while,” says Paulk. “They are the only events where I really feel like I can push myself to my limit and learn something about myself.”

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