Cat Channon. Photo credit: Luca Sage.
Fun fact: more people have climbed Everest than have successfully swum the strait of Gibraltar. A lot more. Around 4,000 climbers have made it to the summit of the world’s highest mountain, while a mere 500 or so have front-crawled the (roughly) 18km from Spain to Morocco – mainly because of fluctuations in temperature, exhausting currents, unpleasant wildlife and giant life-endangering cargo ships. It’s quite the challenge.
One of the few people attempting it this year is Catherine Channon, who I’ve known for nearly a decade now. We met in the videogames industry, where Cat’s specialty was – and still is – organizing some of the industry’s most insane parties – her finest hour being the launch of Scarface: The World Is Yours, where helicopters dropped off packages of Dom Perignon and motion-activated hidden speakers treated guests to calls of ‘You f***ing cock-a-roach!’ She also once fixed it for me to be chauffeur-driven halfway across the UK to a 50 Cent concert where M.O.P. made a guest appearance, for which I’ll be eternally grateful.
Cat lives hard. She’s combined a successful-but-demanding career in PR with an array of once-in-a-lifetime adventures, and manages to combine 10-hour working days with a training schedule that would crush most people working a standard 9 to 5. All that, and she’s still not averse to seeing off the odd bottle of wine. For her latest project, she decided to do 100 days of swimming without a break to prepare – and when she finished, I thought it was just about time to find out how she fits it all in. So I did.
LH: Hey Cat. Since I find it difficult to keep track of all the insane stuff you do, would you mind giving me a quick rundown of the highlights?
Sure. One thing I’ve been doing for three years is the gamescom bike trip, which involves cycling 352 miles across Europe in three days – this is my fifth year. After I got made redundant from my last company I did went and trained Muay Thai in Chiang Mai, went to Rome for traditional boxing, Rio for jiu-jitsu and good old Blighty for more boxing. I’ve done a couple of marathons, I’m doing the Great Wall marathon next year.
What else? Um, I worked on a fishing boat in the South Pacific for a while. I gutted fish for 48 hours straight, I am very good with a knife. I ended up doing two seasons working at Whistler working on the ski and snowboard festival. I basically wrote to the board and asked if I could go and make coffee for them and they went ‘Wait, we’ve seen your CV, you want to be a lackey again?’ – and I said ‘Yes!’ and stayed for ages. And I was a restaurant pianist in Bath for a while. And I’m trying to buy a lake in France and build a little eco-cabin out there – I’d like to run swimming camps out there and have a little getaway for people to drink wine and eat cheese with all the awesome people I know. I don’t drink in the week any more, but when I do drink it’s go hard or go home – and I never go home, Joel.
That absolutely puts me to shame. Okay: talk me through the Strait of Gibraltar thing – it seems insane.
Yeah, it basically is. It’s where the Atlantic meets the Mediterranean sea, so the current is what makes it really difficult. The last time I attempted it, the guy I was doing it with, the last kilometre took him an hour and a half of going nowhere. If you’re not going quick enough you’ll get swept into the Med. And then there’s the wildlife – there are fish in the English channel, but you can swim through them. In the strait you’ve got man o’ war, sharks, and loads of other quite unpleasant things. And shipping-wise you should be okay, but when you’ve got some crazy guy in charge of a cargo ship who doesn’t want to stop, it’s a little bit worrying.
You’ve already been stung once, right?
Yeah, I got stung by some sort of jellyfish. The thing is, most swimmers get stung on the arm or hand first, because that’s what goes in the water, obviously. But somehow, I managed to just swim face-first into one, so I had loads of massive welts on my head and neck and shoulder-blades.
Good grief. So why are you doing this at all?
I’m doing it for GamesAid, which helps out kids and youth charities in the UK, and they’re mostly small ones – so you know that every ten pounds you donate makes a massive difference to what they do. So that’s awesome.
I’ll certainly donate. Now, tell me about the 100 days of swimming thing. How did that come about, and has it helped?
Well, the first thing was that I really had to focus on it. That sounds crazy given that the training schedule was mental already, and swimming’s a big part of my life anyway – one of the things when I took my current job was that I had to be able to swim in the morning and swim in the evening. But I thought that the 100 days would really focus me, that it would make sure I’d get in the water whatever happened. And the other thing was that I had to do it in the sea, and that’s all well and good as long as you can get in the sea – unless it’s too rough, or too cold, or whatever. You don’t really want to be going in at night, so then it became about finding which pools I could get to, which ones were open at 11 o’clock at night, being able to get from London to Brighton and still getting a swim in. And then it was about how many hours I had to get in the pool – whether it was just a dip, or a rest day, or I needed to put away like five hours for a long swim, which means a weekend swim or holiday, or getting in late and swimming through the night, or getting up early and swimming into the day. And of course it was about raising the profile of what I was doing for getting more sponsorship money.
And you genuinely swam every single day?
Yup. I didn’t miss one. It was touch and go at points.
From a training point of view some days I’d have been better off staying at home and getting another hour in bed. There were two people who were a massive help, though. The first one was Fiona Southwell, who trained me for my first attempt, and was the first person to take me out in the sea here in Brighton. And then also was the coach for the channel relay last year. But then there was an awesome guy called Yves Watt. For me, I needed something really structured, because my life is quite busy, so working out when my meetings could happen, when my conference calls would happen, how many hours a day I’d need to do – my one-hour sessions, my speed sessions, my long sessions, my core sessions, my stretching sessions – running to try and get my cardio up in the early days, then some yoga to try and improve my flexibility and not get injured. On top of that I needed to work in flexibility and massage. On top of a ten-hour day and a four-hour commute. But Yves, worked with a my friend Hannah, a fellow swimmer and psychologist to put together a structured training schedule that was brilliant.
The last thing was that I did a week-long swim-trek holiday, which was brilliant – but it was a minimum of 5-6k a day. And then on the last day Yves flew out and I did a solid five hour day. I butterflied the last bit into the harbour – so I feel good and strong, and ready to go the full distance. I’m hoping to do it in six hours.
Wait, rewind a bit – you’re doing this alongside ten-hour working days?
Yep. My job was my life for probably 15 years, and it absolutely took over everything. But it turned out that made me quite tired and miserable. There was work and pub and…it was typical PR, basically. So I had quite a bad breakup, and I got really sad, and then I got into exercise to cheer me up a bit and started running to work. And I was like – you know what, I need an hour of exercise a day, running or swimming or whatever. And in a 24 hour period, reclaiming an hour every day seemed like nothing. But it’s been pivotal for me – wherever I am in the world, whatever I’m doing, I’ll research a Facebook group to swim with, or a personal trainer to train with, or it might be fight clubs, or something. So I can have that one hour of doing something I really enjoy. So that’s the one immovable in my life. And you know what? That’s one hour. It’s really not a lot. And being rigid about that impacts a lot of other things. And it means I have to be really organised. But it also means I get to do something I really like.
You seem to have a fulfilling life in other respects, though. You’re not just a swimming machine.
That’s probably the hardest thing. I should have given up booze before…er, this morning. I’m looking at a bottle of red wine right now. It’s open already, you know.
From what I’m reading in the latest research, an entire bottle of red once in a while isn’t the end of the world.
Good. Actually the tail end of the training’s been the easiest bit in that respect, because when you’ve swum for three, four, five hours, it’s like…okay, I can have a pint. And you know you don’t have to train hard the next day, so that’s fine. I had a month off booze two or three months ago, which was the point when I really needed to work hard and get my core strength up. Life’s too short not to have fun, and I do like a drink.
Sensible lady. So how do you manage to square all this activity with the people in your office?
Well, when I arrived, I was like ‘Okay, swimming is a large part of my life.’ I made that clear from the outset. And as long as I’m delivering, or overdelivering, then they’re happy. I’m responsible, a lot of people at work rely on me doing a good job in order for them to do a good job, so I can’t compromise that, that would be hugely disrespectful. The major proviso I make is that I need my Wednesday night – that’s my serious training, so I can’t put in a conference call then or whatever. That’s my one immovable, apart from during things like [videogames conference] E3. Otherwise I’m happy to do conference calls at 10,11pm at night. I’ll do calls on Friday night, so I don’t really get a Friday in the pub. But I get to swim in the early mornings, so that’s fine.
The other thing that’s been hugely helpful is that I’ve got a personal assistant, which has cost me…about the cost of a night at the pub, which I don’t really do any more. So that might be doing my bills, picking up my dry cleaning or whatever – it gives me my Saturday mornings back. It’s a graduate student, I just pay for a few hours a week. It sounds like a really dickish thing, ‘Oh, I’ve got a personal assistant,’ but it means that I can send thank-you notes to people, my mum gets flowers on her birthday, I can get nice meat from the butchers rather than the nasty stuff from the only shops that are open at 10 o’clock at night. I’m lucky that I’ve got that spare £30-£40 – but also, it’s really just cutting out one night at the pub a week. I basically pay £30 to get an extra three hours on the bike or in the park every week.
That is awesome advice, and now I want an assistant. Cat, you are an inspiration. Last thing I’ll ask you: if you could give every reader of this site one bit of advice, what would it be?
Make time for the thing that makes you happy and don’t compromise on that. For me that’s sport, for someone else it might be a person, or a hobby or whatever. I’ve been pretty rigid about that. And cut out the stuff that doesn’t matter. Cut out the people that don’t matter. Think about how you want your life to feel and look, and remove things that don’t help make that a reality.
HOMEWORK: If you’ve got a spare fiver (or whatever), go and sponsor Cat – it’s for an excellent cause, and the money really does go to good places. And then: think of one small thing – the smaller the better – that you can commit to doing every day, for 100 days. Drink a glass of water when you get up. Make someone laugh when you don’t have to. Do some goddamn pressups. Just commit, and get it done.