Monday, 7 July 2014

Tour de France, Yorkshire style...




If we weren't sure about our decision to move to Yorkshire before this weekend, then we are certainly sure now. This weekend, the Grand Depart of the Tour de France came to Yorkshire, with the riders sweeping within easy striking distance of our new house on both days. I've always had a soft spot for the Tour, and we always follow it on TV every year, in spite of the twin stains on the event of the continued absence of a women's Tour, and the sport's well-established history of cheating. But to say that Yorkshire was excited about the Tour would be something of an understatement and I have never seen an event so widely and wholeheartedly embraced by an entire region, which by race-weekend was festooned with yellow bikes, bunting and chalked messages. 



Already impossibly excited at the prospect of seeing the Tour go by, the weekend was made even more special by the arrival of our lovely Californian friends, Scott, Debbie and Quinn, and by Friday evening, we had our plan of action drawn up and ready to go.



On Saturday, the Tour passed along the A65, just a five minute walk from the house, so we installed ourselves on the roadside with a clear view down the hill, as well as of a couple of approaching bends in the further distance. The caravan came through first, followed by dribbles of team cars, sponsor vehicles and UK and French police. Excitement mounted as helicopters began to pass overhead, and then the red lead cars arrived, closely followed by a breakaway group of three - an advanced party to whet our appetites:


Then just a couple of minutes behind, in the distance came the media helicopter hovering over the approaching peleton - a lithe snake of tightly packed cyclists.


And then, in a flash of colours, the mass of riders flew through:


It is hard to describe what it is like to be so close to such a tightly packed group of nearly 200 speeding cyclists - there is a deep buzz of tyres on tarmac, the whistling of the air moving around them, and the stunning sight of the bright colours and rapid movements across your field of vision. And then there's the atmosphere - wildly electric, with the air full of whoops, cheers and delighted laughter. It's over almost as soon as it starts, but we were buzzing for ages afterwards with the excitement. 

After a quick lunch at home, we walked the three miles into Skipton to watch the finish of the stage on the big screens they'd set up there, joining thousands of people in a collective groan of disappointment as Cavendish hit the tarmac, shoulder first, just hundreds of metres before the finish. We ate ice-cream in the sunshine, bought some Tour de France swag and then walked back in the sunshine to the house, our lust for the Tour temporarily sated. 

On Day 2, we walked the 2 miles to Bolton Bridge and managed to find the perfect spot on the inside of a sharp left hand bend, where we hoped to catch the riders moving slightly more slowly. The crowds were much bigger than our previous day's spot, but the atmosphere was superb as everyone waited in the intermittent sunshine. 

It was the same long build-up as the previous day - the caravan, then the sponsor and team cars, then passing helicopters, police motorcycles....and then the red cars followed by a small breakaway of 7 riders, with the peleton following 3 minutes behind. And the second time was easily just as exciting as the first...I even managed to snap a shot of the yellow jersey worn by the previous day's winner, Kittel.


Our hope that they might be slower on a sharp bend proved to be foolish, but it was all the more amazing for that - such speed, so close together. 

We had a post-race picnic in a nearby park and then walked back home across the fields between Bolton Bridge and our house in Draughton before all flopping down in front of the TV to watch the Tour finish and then the men's Wimbledon final. I don't watch a huge amount of sport, either live or on TV, but this was a hugely fun day very well spent with some of my very favourite people. A great weekend. 










Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Olympic swimming...

I've been having a couple of days in London. Unhappily, I travelled to Essex at the beginning of the week to join family members to say a very sad farewell to the wonderful Brenda, who lived a very long and happy life, and was both loving and loved. And after some family time, I decided to stay in London rather than go back up to Leeds since I had a work meeting at the LSE later in the week. And so I found myself in Stratford - site of the 2012 London Olympics (and a former stomping ground of Peter and I from our East London days). And so what could I do but go for a swim at the Aquatic Centre?

I have always had a lot of reservations about the London Olympics - the militarisation of the whole area, restriction of the freedoms of speech and movement, the bewildering amount of money the project went over budget, the crass commercialisation and the flag-waving nationalism all turned my stomach, even at the same time as I knew that I would enjoy the spectacle of sport on display. My concerns weren't allayed when I arrived in Stratford (my first visit since before the Olympics) and while looking for my hotel, I got accidentally channelled into the Westfield Centre - a massive shopping mall that you have to pass through in order to get to the Olympic park and which is also directly connected to the Tube station. Once in, I couldn't find my way out. It was as if they had made the whole of Stratford indoors and then filled it with a fiendish whirlwind of commerce, noise and bright lights. I ended up begging a man selling fruit smoothies from a walkway stand to tell me where "outside" was. I know that Westfield has brought a lot of jobs to an area greatly in need of them, but it's hard to believe that this grizzly monstrosity is the answer.

So, not a good start. But the next morning, I headed out for the Olympic park. It was a beautiful, blue-skied morning, and the aquatic centre is the first structure you come to; it's absolutely stunning - all sweeping scoops, dips, curves and waves.



And you get the same effect in the light and airy inside:



The competition pool is 3m deep and 10 lanes wide, giving a luxurious feeling of space; this was greatly enhanced by the fact that there was hardly anyone there and for half an hour, I had a lane to myself! It's nice and cool, and isn't heavily chlorinated, so is a delight to swim in. While most pools only have viewing galleries on one side, the rows of seating on both sides gives the pool a stadium feel that is compounded by its recent Olympic origins. In the momentary absence of other swimmers to join my clockwise lane circuit, I treated myself to a sprint down the black line to the roar of the crowds as I raced to victory - one of Olympic history's big upsets as the middle aged woman with the duff shoulder snatches gold. 

Unfortunately, after half an hour and several golds, I was tapped on the head by a uniformed staff member and told that they were closing all but lanes 1-4 because they were going to be doing some filming. I moved over and 5 of us swam up and down the lane perfectly amicably, but it was still slightly annoying because the filming didn't actually start until over 45 minutes later. I felt like we could all have been left to enjoy our luxuriously solitary swimming a bit longer. 

But that aside, it was a fantastic experience. The pool and changing areas are roomy and spotlessly clean, and the facility is priced equivalently to the other pools in the London boroughs; my off-peak ticket cost £3.50. The training pools were packed with children having swimming lessons, and divers were being coached while doing improbable things off high boards. It had a sense of legacy that much of the remainder of the Olympics infrastructure doesn't at the moment, which was nice to see. I hope that it continues to be a success and to be accessible to as many local people as possible, if only to demonstrate the palpable demand for more public pools at a time when public leisure services are being brutalised. 

Sunday, 29 June 2014

The pool project...

We finally moved into our new house after an intense couple of months of decorating (by us) and building work (by people with skills..ie. not us). It's lovely, and we're very happy with our new life at the foot of the Yorkshire Dales - hills, sheep, tweeting birds. All the good stuff, with none of the wildly partying students we've been living alongside for the last 10 months. Plus, we're only 65 miles away from the Lake District, with all the swimming possibilities you could ever ask for.

But one consequence of moving out here is that we've added almost 2 hours a day of commuting to our days at the office, which makes it much more difficult to make lane-swimming pool sessions either at the university pool or at the local sports centre. But....the new house has a summerhouse in the garden that used to be an office space for the previous owners, and we are hoping that this will provide the answer.



Originally, I'd hoped to put in a regular Endless Pool, but the costs were prohibitive for us. However, the space is just big enough to house a Fastlane Pool, which has a slightly larger footprint but is less expensive, since it is basically a big bag of water in a frame with a Fastlane propulsion unit at one end. So this is what we've decided to go for. 


I can't quite believe that we're doing this, and it seems like an impossible luxury to have a training pool at home. But we managed to get hold of a pool second hand, complete with all the propulsion and heating units, and this now in storage, waiting until we're ready for installation. So far so good.

After knocking out the internal walls to the office space, our plan was to cut out the footprint of the pool so that it could stand on the concrete pad underneath, leaving the surrounding wood floor intact. Simple. But things didn't quite go to plan, and when we cut away the floor, we discovered large pools of standing water and a considerable amount of rot in the wooden floor beams. In short, the structure has been quite shoddily laid and has inadequate protection against rain water, which has been seeping underneath. Plus, the concrete pad underneath is far from level, so probably couldn't do the job anyway. 



Back to the drawing board. Plan B...that probably should have been Plan A in the first place... is now to take up the entire wooden floor, line it and lay a new concrete pad on top to bring it up to the original floor level. And then our clever builder has come up with a remedial action plan to mitigate the seepage problem involving sills and channels around the outside of the structure. There's still lots of other work to do - it involves quite a lot of electrical work to make the building safe and with a sufficient supply, and we need to marine varnish the entire inside to protect the wood from the moisture from the pool. But I feel like we're making progress.

So in spite of the set-back, we're still hopeful that our Endless Pool project won't become an endless pool project.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Progress by degrees....

On Sunday I went back to see Active Blu's Emma Brunning for a follow-up coaching session. I last saw her in January (which you can read about here), and have been diligently practicing my drills on every pool visit. I am a firm believer in the value of expertise and taking advice; there is no point in paying someone for coaching and then not doing what they say. But then again, you can take things too far.

On a positive note, I have managed to make significant progress in several key areas. In January, we highlighted my dancing hands, sinking elbows and late catch, alongside some breath-holding and finger-splaying, as the key obstacles to progress. In particular, I wanted to focus on anything that has been putting unnecessary strain on my shoulder, with injury rehab and prevention at the top of the priority list; an increase in pace would be a bonus, but always a secondary one. Consequently, the first three in this list have been the focus of most of my pool work since January - lots of kicking on one side, lead arm out front; scull; dog paddle. And though I say it myself, I think the results speak for themselves in these before and after (January / May) shots, especially the first two of which literally measure my progress by degrees:




There's still plenty to work on, but as you can see, I've now managed to engage the body's useful "bending at the elbow" function to form a catch that happens at the front of the stroke and gives me a much better purchase on the water to move myself forwards. Similarly, in the bottom photo, you can see that my elbow isn't dropping quite so much, with shoulder, elbow and wrist in descending order, ready to start the catch phase of the stroke and removing the little dance my hands used to do as they swept upwards towards the surface before scooping back down again. 

But...and this is a significant but....every action has a reaction, and in the process of fixing these flaws, I developed a whole new one that I've never experienced before - a completely dead spot at the front of each stroke. This isn't really overgliding, so much as, well....just stopping. Emma had her eye on it even when I was warming up before my lesson had started, and the numbers set out the stark reality - my usual stroke rate of around 62 had fallen to 50! I can see exactly how this had happened - the upward drift of my hands had been so ingrained that particularly in January and February, I was having to be constantly vigilantly, glaring at my hands and actively willing them not to move from their carefully landed position in front of me. This, in turn, caused my legs to drop, and then my head to rotate to breathe slightly out of sync with the rest of the body's rotation. For a tiny fraction of a second in each stroke cycle, everything came slightly undone, then was snapped back into place by the next stroke. This is what I mean by having overdone it - I think I had become so focused on the 'problem' that I had lost touch with the bigger picture and then with the confidence to swim without overthinking. 

Thankfully, Emma had the cure in the form of a Finis Tempo Trainer.


  I have a precarious relationship with these things - I like the lap pace function (a discrete triple bleep at a set interval), but I find the bleeping on every stroke infuriating. But sometimes needs must, and a stroke rate ramp test soon revealed the unavoidable truth that at 50 stroke per min (spm), I was struggling and uncomfortable, and then at 64 spm, I felt more like my old swimming self than I had for months. At 66 spm it all started to collapse a bit, and I may or may not end up inching it up slightly once I've really swum all this in, but the upping of my stroke rate eliminated the pause and my pace shot up markedly as a result. Sometimes you just need the experienced eye of another to point out a retrospectively obvious but somehow inaccessible truth. 

There are other things to work on still - especially my habitual breath-holding and the splayed fingers, as well as the tendency to fall back into the S-shaped pull I learned as a child. But the priority now is to get my confidence back in my stroke and really settle in to my new technique for the summer; in short, my priority is to swim. 


Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Why Speedo Sculpture suits do women no favours....

Swimwear company, Speedo, have launched a women's swimsuit line called "Sculpture". It's a product which, we are told, uses "exclusive body shaping fabrics and visual design tricks to smooth, shape and enhance your curves, so you feel confident and comfortable in your swimwear from the moment you're wearing it", not only in the water, but also in the changing room and poolside. The suits apparently use "optical illusions" to slim, lengthen and balance the body, as well as cleverly "distracting" from "the bits you're not so keen on".

These magical"camouflage" suits, we are told, will disguise lumps and bumps, minimise your hips, slim your body, narrow your waist and enhance a small bust.

My problem with these is, firstly, that they preach a message of body confidence for women while telling women that they can only feel confident when their 'flaws' are covered up; Speedo offer unambiguous confirmation that, yes, small boobs / thickened waist / lumps and bumps etc are flaws, and yes, disguising them will make everyone feel more comfortable. Encouraging women to cover up their bodies before they can be acceptable betrays a contempt for women and their bodies.

Secondly, the website assumes that women should consider themselves objects of surveillance by others; that they should need to worry about how they appear on the poolside (or in the changing rooms!!!) takes for granted that women should be aware at all times that they are objects of the gaze and should discipline their bodies accordingly.

Thirdly, the entire logic of the suits is to make women's bodies disappear. With the predictable exception of breasts, the suits are oriented towards making the body smaller, flatter and smoother. Women's bodies should be allowed to take up space, both in and out of the pool, and that should never be conditional on their size and shape.

And finally, who are they kidding? Unless these suits are hand-stitched by fairies, the body is the body and no amount of clever strips of fabric or neck-lines are going to change what it is. And why the hell should we?

I am not so naive that I don't know that for many women, the semi-nakedness of the pool is a very stressful environment, and I know that body confidence (whatever that is) cannot be brought into being simply by wishing. There are very real social costs to having a body that doesn't 'fit' and to seek to minimise that stigma is a rational choice. But for a company to play on these insecurities instead of shouting from the rooftops that swimming is amazing and there's room for any body makes me very sad.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Driven

(spoiler alert - this review includes comments in paragraph 3 that reveal the outcomes of the swims. Please feel free to click away and come back later if you prefer not to know in advance). 



I finally had the chance to watch the recently released documentary, Driven - a film by Ben Pitterle and Brian Hall from Element 8 Productions about marathon swimming, focusing on swims by teenager Fiona Goh, novice swimmer, mother and insurance company worker, Cherie Edborg, and experienced marathon swimmer, blogger and co-founder of the Marathon Swimmers Forum, Evan Morrison. All of the swims are under the auspices of the Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association; both Goh and Edberg are taking on the 12.5 mile swim from Anacapa to Oxnard, and Morrison is attempting the 19 miles from Santa Cruz to Oxnard. The story of the three protagonists is told through a mix of documentary footage of training and the swims themselves, first person narration to camera by the swimmers and unseen narrator commentary, all punctuated by lengthy and engaging extracts of interviews with marathon swimming veterans Ned Denison, Scott Zornig, Steve Munatones and David Yudovin. The film is visually stunning, and I defy anyone not to want to pack up their stuff and move to southern California immediately to spend the rest of their lives swimming in the beautiful waters there. I spent most of the film plotting such an escape; every cell in my body wanted to go swimming while I was watching it (but then I am currently in a very advanced state of swim OW swim deprivation and am therefore easily provoked).

I have to confess that I have been putting off watching it. The trailer for the film tends to focus on the risk, isolation, challenge and hardship of swimming; it makes perfect sense in terms of attracting the attention of potential audiences, but it's not a representation of swimming that I necessarily enjoy. But the film itself is a different kettle of fish, capturing splendidly the swirling mix of pleasures, excitement, nervousness, discomfort and occasional outright misery of a long swim. Indeed, the reality of marathon swims is that they are usually long enough to experience many emotions and sensations, the fluctuating melange of which constitutes the experience of the sport rather than any single element. Capturing this is the film's greatest accomplishment in my view.

There were many striking moments for me: the sight of Morrison floundering confusedly in the churning darkness, and the palpable despair that he was projecting through the swimming body, is painful to watch, especially in such a supremely elegant and powerful swimmer; the delight of Edberg in her accomplishments and her radiating, somewhat surprised, love of the water; Goh's bravely accepting resignation after being pulled from the water having given everything that she had to give; the attentive concern of the crews and observers tasked with taking care of the swimmers and keeping them safe; the beautiful water, its wildlife and the stunning coastline and islands. I am sure that I'm not the only swimmer who saw her own experiences - good and bad - reflected in those of the swimmers in the film, and watching was an act of constant snaps of visceral recognition and bodily memories of the triumphs of finishing, the frustrations of a goal not achieved, the torture of knowing that you could just get out, and the unparalleled lusciousness of the water.

There are also some very situationally specific touches that make this less a film about marathon swimming per se, and more about marathon swimming in southern California (and I don't mean this as a criticism - I liked the specificity and focus). To northern European eyes, for example, or anyone whose marathon swimming experience comes primarily from the English Channel, they will have been drooling at the bright blue skies, glistening water and luxuriously sandy beaches; the use of accompanying kayaks is also a practice that is alien to English Channel swimming and which (from my experience at least) fundamentally changes the dynamics of a swim. I think it's a useful reminder that even where rules are standardised across marathon swims, the experience of each swim is always gloriously particular, influenced by locally accepted practices, environments and the manifold vagaries of what happens on the day.

I had a couple of small reservations. I would have liked to have seen some female swimmers among the veteran commentators - it is great to see female swimmers play such a major role in the film, but it would also have been nice to have a woman's voice among the experts to illustrate the depth and breadth of female expertise and experience that exists within the sport, especially since both of the women featured were relative novices. I would also have liked to have heard more from the crews, who have a unique perspective on swims that is easily overlooked; indeed, the responsibility that they take on, as well as their own sleep deprivation, seasickness, cold and other discomforts are as much a part of the sport as the aching shoulders and nauseated stomach of the swimmer.

But it is a really great watch that does a fantastic job of capturing the compelling pleasures and hardships that constitute marathon swimming. You can buy it here for just under $13; swimmers will eat it up, and non-swimmers might find in it clues to what draws their intoxicated, addicted friends and loved ones to the open water. And if that doesn't pique your interest, the beautiful shots of strings of salps, passing mola mola or scores of bat rays sailing gracefully below will.

Enjoy.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Why I don't like Sport Relief...

In this morning's Guardian, there's a long feature on Davina McCall, her recent Sport Relief antics and her troubled personal history. I've written before about the now infamous scenes of her being dragged, limp and cold from Windermere and the rather tasteless spectacle of people looking on and applauding and cheering as she is hauled ashore, but once she'd finished the 'challenge', everything went relatively quiet and that was that. But then, of course, along comes the inevitable BBC documentary - "Davina - Beyond Breaking Point for Sport Relief" - scheduled for 20 March, 2014, prompting a PR drive, including the article in the Guardian.

The article talks about how hard the challenge was, how she was persuaded to do it in the first place, and then dwells lengthily on her own troubled history and her difficulties in coping emotionally after the 'challenge'. There are a couple of things that really bother me about this in relation to Sport Relief. Firstly, I dislike the lack of care directed towards the 'celebrities' who are drawn into these ventures, and for whom withdrawing from a challenge becomes increasingly impossible as the PR intensifies and the money rolls in. In McCall's case, this includes lack of attention to her obvious emotional fragility as well her physical well-being - to undertake a swim like that without the appropriate training or capacity is just an unnecessary risk, and someone should have taken responsibility for this and put a stop to it before it even started. Sport Relief is no better than some of the worst reality TV shows in this regard, exploiting the fragilities of others for the sake of some good TV.

But the second thing that I dislike about Sport Relief is that idea that these celebrities have to see the suffering of others first hand to inspire personal suffering through voluntary physical activity which will in turn inspire donations. McCall tells us in the interview that to persuade her to undertake the challenge, they took her out to a project in "Africa"to see the suffering of women and children directly; talk about moral blackmail...and a rather offensively strategic use of the suffering of others. And in a photo on her Sport Relief pages, we see her empathetically observing a black mother and child "first-hand". The filename for the photo when you right click on it includes the word "motivation", but it's not clear whether this motivation is for McCall or the viewers. Whichever it is, it still seems spectacularly tasteless to use the individuals who are being 'visited' by McCall for motivation to undertake a voluntary physical challenge. The paralleling of the two very different kinds of suffering is crass and discomforting; it's an uncomfortably colonial image whereby the suffering of disadvantaged others is legitimised by the witnessing of a white women they have no reason to know or care about.


I am sure that McCall is a woman of compassion and that this was a terribly moving experience, but why do these celebrities need to go out there? Do they really lack the ability to imagine such suffering unless they can actually see it for themselves? How much money was spent achieving this act of compassionate spectatorship? So this is why I dislike Sport Relief - because it repeatedly insists on the suffering of others being narrated and witnessed by 'celebrities' who see it "first-hand" and then gain motivation from it to undertake some entirely voluntary (and status-building) suffering which is then exchanged for donations. What does it say about us that we need that middle step at all?  

The Guardian adds one final, disconcerting twist to its representation of the whole affair - these photos:




Both of these presumably are intended to evoke the Windermere incident. In the first, she looks beautiful but bedraggled, but in the second, she is depicted as drowning, or possibly even drowned, since she is staring ahead even while her face is largely submerged. Especially this latter is a horrible image which is not only extremely tasteless, but also exaggerates symbolically the suffering of the Windermere event. Horrible.

I don't think all charity is bad; nor do I think that McCall is a bad person to have been involved in this; and I'm sure that some good is done with the money that is raised from these ventures. But I think that this whole affair should give us pause for thought about Sport Relief's use of both the involuntary and voluntary suffering of others and the relationships between them that are produced and marketed to us as "motivation".