Friday, 23 September 2016

Cold feet and too much thinking time...


I've spent large parts of the last 10 days with my foot in this. It's a cryocuff - a wrap-around 'boot' that inflates with iced water run in through a valve from a cooler, providing compression and cold to aid healing. I take it off before I go to bed, and have to go to sleep with a woolly sock on or it's a bit like sleeping with a dead fish at the bottom of the bed until my foot warms up. The good news is that it's working, but oh....so....slowly. It's exactly a month today since the ridiculous, clumsy slip in Geneva that had such costly and enduring ramifications - the wasted year of hard training, the financial costs, and the ongoing problems of mobility that being on crutches and unable to drive are causing. My physiotherapist estimates that it will be another 2 months before the ligaments are fully repaired (or as repaired as they can be - he reckons about 70% recovery of strength is normal). It constantly amazes me that my body, like all bodies, can be incredibly robust while also being intensely vulnerable and fragile; it seems like a high price to pay for a 2-inch slip, but sometimes that's all it takes. 

Before I go any further I should say that I know that none of this, in the grand scale of things, is important or disastrous. Not being able to do a 42 mile swim - a leisure activity funded by my disposable income and enabled by my (generally) high levels of health and well-being - is the definition of a first world problem. Nothing terrible happened here. But having said that, you need to bear with me while I indulge in just a little self-pity. I had considered not being able to swim because of the weather (although this is unlikely in Geneva), or even having to cancel earlier because of acquired injury during training, but I was utterly unprepared for the possibility of not being able to start the swim because of an acute injury so close to the swim. Consequently, although the couple of weeks immediately after the injury were filled with the more pressing and occupying demands of the injury itself and coping with my work trip to Barcelona, I was really knocked for six when I got home. I wasn't expecting this, and didn't even really register how sad I was feeling for a while, but I slowly realised that I felt embarrassed by what had happened, and very down in the face of the rather exhausting work of the everyday and my newly acquired dependence on others to get around and look after myself. 

As the new teaching term has started to kick into gear, and as my foot (and therefore, my mobility) is slowly showing signs of improvement, I am feeling much better and much more positive, and I have a much better sense of perspective on the whole affair. It's a good learning experience about the vagaries of the swimming, the riskiness of big plans....and the fragility of ankles. 

And so...one consequence of the cryocuff and my immobility is that I've had far too much thinking time and that can only end up one way. On some level, I had hoped that I was sufficiently grown-up to be able to look back on the Geneva venture as a good idea that just didn't work out and then move on; I didn't want to feel compelled to go back and have another try. I think 'unfinished business' is a dangerous game to play, since it massively raises the stakes of the second time around in ways that probably aren't healthy emotionally and which risk leaching the fun out of the whole process of training and swimming. This, after all, is why I do it - because I love the swimming. But then again, I also came to realise that my desire to go back to Geneva was not so much (or at least not only) about redemption from this year's failures, but also about the very real desire to do the swim - to swim here: 


And here:


And here:


And here:


And here:


And so it's done - I'm booked in for August next year for Lake Geneva II. And this time, I will be wearing walking boots and wrapping myself in bubble wrap in the days leading up to the swim!

Friday, 16 September 2016

Are women 'quietly dominating' marathon swimming?

A recent article in New York magazine's "Science of Us" section, entitled "The obscure ultra-endurance sport women are quietly dominating" has recently been doing the rounds on social media and discussion forums. Many swimmers are relieved to see women's participation in the sport recognised (which I also share), and there has been much enthusiastic listing of other notable female swimmers not mentioned in the article but celebrated in the community. The article begins from the premise that unlike other ultra-endurance sports, women are 'dominating' in a way that is unlikely in, say, ultra-running, and this is ultimately attributed to the assumption (a) that women have more body fat than men, and (b) that that body fat provides a critical advantage that explains their success in the sport.

At the risk of being a killjoy in the face of an article that I know many find affirming and positive, I have a number of concerns about its claims. Firstly, what does it mean to 'dominate' a sport? In fields conventionally understood as masculine (e.g. business, politics), even a small number of successful women is quickly read as 'domination' -a marker of alarm at the disruption of business as usual. Although well-represented relative to many other sports, women are still vastly outnumbered by men in marathon swimming, and the fact that even the possibility of female parity in performance / participation warrants research articles and news stories shows how far we are from 'domination'. Although much more subtle than actively excluding women from those fields, the rush to cries of 'domination' is another means of constraining women's participation in public life by marking it as out of place.

Secondly, I am deeply uncomfortable with the rush to biological explanations. Women's high performance (in sport and other public domains) is often attributed to their bodies (high pain threshold, favourable fat distribution), but much of this is based on (unfounded) generalisations that can't be brought to bear on the very small numbers of marathon swimmers, about whose specific bodies we know very little. It is striking that the journalist (and the scientists researching this) don't stop to look at training regimes and preparation, for example. And I'm not saying that women necessarily train harder....my point is that there are other conclusions that could have been jumped to but which aren't. Consequently, we should be very wary about citing women's presumed body fat as a performance advantage. Firstly, it obscures the work of training and technique acquisition (a point made by Evan Morrison in the article); and secondly, in a social and cultural context where fat is constantly derided, this is a punch with a velvet glove. Indeed, the article cites a horribly fat-phobic encounter between Lynne Cox and a taxi driver who tells her that she is 'too fat' to be a Channel swimmer. The implied derision and unacceptability of fatness, and the freedom which this man felt to hurl what is undoubtedly intended as a casual and disciplining insult at a young girl, should make us all very wary of these seemingly celebratory explanations of women's biological advantageous body fat. 

The rush to biological explanations for women's relatively high participation in marathon swimming (particularly compared to other ultra-endurance sports) obscures a number of other social explanations. Swimming is conventionally understood as a sport appropriate for women (unlike something like boxing, for example, or rugby, which are far more rigidly masculinised and harder for women to break in to). Consequently, it is much more likely to be experienced by women as a potentially welcoming and safe sporting space already populated by other women. But secondly, the higher average performance of non-elite female swimmers in events such as MIMS may well reflect the fact that it is the stronger female swimmers who are more likely to identify themselves as participants for ambitious or high profile swims. Women are not taught to see their bodies as athletic or adventurous, and they also pay much higher social costs for standing out or pushing themselves forwards, especially if all doesn't go well. Consequently, women are much less likely to enter such an event without being particularly confident about their abilities. I suspect that the women who have traditionally taken part in MIMS (an event where you had to push yourself forwards aggressively to even be accepted) were already among the better swimmers, and it was this high performance that facilitated their self-identification as MIMS competitors and their successful swims....and not the fatness of their thighs. 

I have some sympathy with the journalist of the piece. As one of my favourite swimming journalists and writers, Elaine Howley, noted in a forum post on the article, the demands of publication are for spectacular headlines and short punchy claims within tight word limits, and there is little scope for nuanced analysis. As coverage of women and sport goes, this is an engaging and carefully written piece. But in my view, however inadvertently, articles like this end up reinforcing the egregious inequalities in our expectations of women's bodies rather than challenging them. 

As a feminist and a swimmer, I am first in line to celebrate the accomplishments of female swimmers and to encourage women's participation in the sport. But rather than treating marathon swimming's relatively high rates of female participation as a surprising, newsworthy anomaly that can only be explained through biology, a better question might be: What can we learn from marathon swimming about women's access to sport? How could marathon swimming facilitate even greater female participation? What social and structural barriers might be in place in other sports that are preventing women from participating and excelling?



Friday, 26 August 2016

Cancellation...

It's done. I finally made the decision yesterday to cancel my Lake Geneva swim. My foot and ankle are still very painful, swollen and bruised, and even though a big part of me just wants to just get out there and give it a go no matter what, the rest of me knows that 24+ hours of swimming is unlikely to improve an injury that I can hardly bear weight on even before we've started. It also risks exacerbating the injury with potential long term consequences, and I don't think any swim warrants that, no matter how much time and money has gone into it (and in this case, it's a lot of both). Even though, like most long distance swimmers, I don't really kick much, the habitual work of stabilisation in the water places constant demands on the ankle in ways that I hadn't really appreciated until now. I've tried swimming holding it still, but this puts new and assymetrical demands on different parts of my body to manage rotation etc - fine if that's how you've trained, but it's an invitation to further injury otherwise. 

And so, I decided to put an end to the uncertainty and to move on. There's nothing that I can do about it other than lick my wounds for a while and then turn my attention to ankle rehab and new (or old) goals.

Thanks to everyone who's sent encouraging messages over the last few days, and especially to the Lake Geneva Swimming Association, who've been very supportive in the face of my inability to make it even to the start line. I'm down but not out, and in this spirit, last night, we took an evening cruise from Lausanne to Geneva, saw the lake in all its glory and toasted the spectacular gap between my aspiration (to swim 42 miles) and my accomplishment (to fall 2 inches). If you're going to be injured and disappointed, there are worst places to do it. 


Wednesday, 24 August 2016

An unexpected turn of events....



Well...this wasn't how I expected things to go.

The story begins with the fact that Peter and I were walking out of a lakeside bar yesterday evening.... It was the end of a disappointing day. We were scheduled to start our Lake Geneva swim today (Weds), with perfect conditions forecast, but sadly, a mechanical problem with the boat put paid to that and on Tuesday afternoon, we heard that the swim would have to be postponed to either Thursday or Friday. It was frustrating, but it's just one of those things - an occupational hazard in a sport that has a lot of variables in play and lots of moving parts. It is also a million times better to identify a mechanical problem in advance rather than mid-swim. So, knowing that everyone was working hard to fix the problem, we brushed off our disappointment, headed off for a swim in a deliciously lovely 50m lakeside outdoor pool, and then sauntered along the shore, stopping at a bar for a beer and to watch the sun set behind the mountains. It was a lovely end to a disappointing day, and we decided to head back to our Airbmb flat to eat and prepare ourselves for the possibility of a Thursday swim. To be honest, I was feeling quite proud of myself for keeping my focus after the change of plan - I hate the lead-up to a swim, and am not good with spontaneity, so I felt pleased that I had been able to keep my positive focus (although it turns out that a bit more focus on my surroundings instead of the swim would have been more productive).

And then it happened...  I slipped off a small step at the edge of the decking - just a matter of a couple of inches in height - and wrenched my left ankle over. I knew immediately that I'd done something more than just tweak it and my heart sank. I was able to hobble home, but it was sore and swollen, and by morning, it was still no better, with bruising starting to come through and limited mobility. I decided to go for a morning swim in the hope that it would be fine in the water without my weight on it, but the stabilising work of the legs made my foot ache on every kick, however gentle. The pain rose over the 20 minute swim, and I soon came to the reluctant conclusion that I needed to face the possibility of having to cancel the swim. A 24+ hour swim is unlikely to be forgiving of such an injury.

So I currently find myself in the tense position of waiting to see if my ankle can recover sufficiently for me to swim on Saturday (the last possible day open to me). I'm sitting in the flat with my foot wrapped in a compression bandage and up on a cushion, dosing myself with ibuprofen and willing it with every ounce of my being to get better.

This is really not how I had expected this to go, and I am utterly mortified by my own spectacular oafishness.

Time will tell about what happens next. In the mean time, I'm just concentrating on trying to keep the rest of me in one piece.


Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Elbowed in...

As per my last post, I headed off to the Lakes this weekend for a couple of  'test out my elbow' swims, after which I was determined to make the decision about whether to postpone my Geneva swim or commit to it. I picked the beautiful Crummock Water as the setting for the swims - a long, thin lake, surrounded by monumental, relentless hills. It's stunningly beautiful, even when, as with this weekend, the weather is a bit grim. It was a grey couple of days, punctuated by high winds and apocalyptic bouts of rain, with air temps listed on the Met Office site as "12 degrees, feels like 10" (because of the cold winds). A bunch of wet-suited swimmers hanging around the beach told me that they'd measured the water temp at 15, which seems about right, although the wind made it cold across the shoulders, turning it into a bit of a slog at times.

But whatever the weather, this was my last chance to test the elbow before deciding about Geneva, so I set myself the target of 2 x 10km swims (one each day) - basically a full circumferential lap of Crummock Water plus a bit extra to make up the distance. Like every Crummock Water swim, it was beautiful (if a little menacing at times with the clouds sinking low down the hillsides), and the poor weather meant I seemed to have the whole lake to myself. Such luxury. I used a tow-float with energy drink in it, and one big bottle got me round each time (although for a 6 hour swim, I find I need more regular feeds, so carry gels as well). (As an aside, the Chillswim bottle-holder float has an advantage over the dry-bag tow-floats in that it doesn't flip over in rough conditions, meaning that the strap never gets twisted. This makes it much more comfortable to swim with, although you lose the security of being able to carry a robe and shoes with you).

And the good news is that my elbow held up just fine, and so I have now committed fully to the task ahead. To be honest, I don't think the joint is quite 100%, but with more physio to come, and no noticeable problems during either swim, I'm feeling fairly confident. And realistically, even if I wait until next year, there's always going to be something niggling away, so now is the time.

The Geneva swim season is about to start shortly, and I heard today that the water is a glorious 21 degrees. Let the fun begin.


Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Elbowed out?

Things were going so well...It's been a struggle since January to get the hours in the pool that I need, but I've managed to keep going, finally hitting the open water in May and building to several 6 hours swims, including a couple of back-to-back sessions. Each time, I was tired, but left the water feeling good and without any aches or pains. I was feeling optimistic, and began my taper for my planned Windermere weekend (2-way, followed by a 1-way) when out of nowhere, three days before the Windermere swims, and during a very gentle hour in the pool, I got a slight niggle in my left elbow. It was nothing major, but it was new. The joint felt a bit stiff afterwards, but the next day it seemed okay, so in I went again, just for a gentle paddle, but back it came, more insistently this time. Damn.

I booked an emergency sports massage appointment, and later that day, the wonderful, relentless Christine massaged my left arm to within an inch of its life. Already, I could feel that a lot of the tightness that had caused the problem had gone, but sadly, it was too late to risk doing the Windermere swims and reluctantly decided to cancel. I felt terrible, especially since Mark Robson and Amanda Bell had generously set aside the time to crew for me, but given the residual post-massage soreness that lasted several days, I'm convinced that this was the right decision and that this will give me the best chance of getting to Geneva in one piece. But one of the undesirable consequences of inserting a long swim into the training cycle as a confidence-builder is that when that swim can't happen because of injury, it's a bit of a confidence-crusher and I am feeling full of self-doubt.

So now, I'm awash with indecision. The elbow is heaps better, but not quite 100% (yet?), but unfortunately time is not on my side and I can't wait around indefinitely to decide for all kinds of logistical and financial reasons. So I have to choose very soon whether to just commit, give it a bit more recovery time and then go for it, or to err on the side of caution and postpone until next year. There are many reasons why I don't want to pick the latter option - I've really had to work hard to get the training in this year, and I'm not sure I'm going to be able to repeat this next year, particularly since I have an even heavier workload in front of me; but also, after putting in all that work, I don't want to waste it. But then again....after all this time and money, I don't want to go into the swim without having done everything possible to succeed. With 7 weeks to go, and having already had time out to taper for the Windermere swims and then recover from the injury, there's not a lot of slack left in the training schedule. AAARGH. I just don't know.

Ultimately, I'm hoping that my elbow will make the choice for me, so I'm off to the Lakes this weekend to do a couple of long swims. If it feels okay, then I'll commit to going for it; if it doesn't, then I'll have to pull the plug for now and try to come back next year.

It's not how I hoped all this would go, but it's an occupational hazard for a sport like this, so I can only hope that the right decision becomes clear over the next few days.

And in the mean time, make sure you're following the 2016 8 Bridges swim, this year with the added ability to track the swimmers  (courtesy of Evan Morrison's new tracker app) as they progress down the river each day. You might as well give up on doing any work now and settle down to watch - it's easier that way.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Immersion

It's finally here...the real life, hold-it-in-your-hand book. After all these years of work, and over a year since completing the manuscript, it scarcely seems true. But it is....there's a happy heap of copies on my office floor (although I haven't dared open any of them up yet in case I find typos!). It is 14 years since my last monograph, so this is probably slightly overdue, but still...I couldn't be more pleased. Plus at 48, who ever thought I would find myself on the cover of a book in a swimming costume, with my back smeared all over with a US nappy rash cream called "Butt Paste". Life is strange and wonderful.


I'm not going to be flogging the book mercilessly either on or offline, not least because it's a relatively expensive hardback which is aimed primarily at libraries at this stage (with a paperback to follow next year). But, please allow me this brief promotional post.... 

If you wish to buy a copy, you can purchase it from Manchester University Press. They are currently having a summer sale with 50% off all books, so the usual purchase price for my book of £70 is currently reduced to £35. (Still expensive I know, but better). To get the discount, click the "buy now" button and enter the discount code Summer16 in the 'promotion code' box. Unfortunately, the code only applies to UK / EU purchases at the current time (the US sales are being handled by Oxford University Press).

I'm very excited for the book to finally be making its way into the world, and of course, I am very grateful to everyone who helped with the research. Books, like marathon swims, are a team effort, even though only one name ends up on the cover. So big thanks all round.