Sunday, 11 June 2017


It's not been the best week - on Monday, we had to put our lovely old cat, Oscar, to sleep; we discovered that our entire roof needs to come off and all the beams need to be replaced; and then came the messy upheaval of the election and its aftermath towards the end of the week. And throughout, I was trying desperately to remain optimistic about the intractable niggle in my left wrist. It had started a couple of weeks ago, becoming sore and swollen, with the tendons squeaking and rubbing together whenever I moved my wrist or thumb. It felt very sudden, but it probably wasn't; I'd done several long swims in the preceding two weeks which presumably stressed the tendons without me realising it. With the help of my physio, I treated it every way I knew how - rest, ice, taping, denial, optimism - and by the end of last week I had full and pain-free movement and no more squeaky tendons. At the same time, I had managed to postpone my planned Geneva qualification swims for another week; I was hoping that now my wrist was better, I could slowly build back up during the week ready for the swims and then I'd be good to go for the last run up to Geneva II. But sadly, a gentle test swim yesterday morning caused a mild, but unmistakeable, return of the symptoms and I was faced with an unavoidable truth: that if I couldn't do 30 minutes in the pool without triggering it, I was never going to be able to do 10 + 7 hour qualification swims without setting my injury so far back that I wouldn't be able to train between the qualification swim and Geneva. A session with my physio confirmed my suspicions; tendon injuries generally take longer than 2 weeks to heal properly, and although we'd tried really hard, it wasn't looking good. This was particularly true with "old" tendons, he told me. Thanks for that.

The inescapable fact of the matter is that there is simply not enough time for the injury to fully settle and to correct whatever stroke defect is causing it (my persistently wiggly thumb is the prime suspect) before the Geneva swim, never mind actually training for it. And so, in spite of my best efforts and determination for it to be otherwise, I have declared defeat and this summer's qualification swims and the Geneva swim have been cancelled.

In an extreme endurance sport, injury is an occupational hazard, where even the slightest problem is easily magnified to swim-stopping dimensions - whether that's stupidly slipping off a small step, or the imperceptible rubbing of two tiny tendons under the strain of a misplaced micro-movement. I don't know if I have just been unlucky, or perhaps I didn't work hard enough to take care of my body in my training, or maybe I have just over-reached in taking on such an ambitious swim. I feel bad for messing people about (LGSA, Chillswim, Janine and Kate who were coming over to crew) and am embarrassed that once again I've not managed to make it to the start line. At least the injury was swimming-related this time, so perhaps that's some kind of progress.

I'd like to say that I'm down but not out, but right now, I don't feel like that. I love swimming, and especially swimming a long way, but I'm not sure that I have the temperament for such a high-risk game. We'll see. But for now, back to physio and stroke correction I go.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Unfinished business...

My one reservation about going back to Geneva this year was that the lure of "unfinished business" would raise the stakes of the swim to the point where it would cease to be the enjoyable adventure that a swim like that deserves to be. In general, I think I've done a pretty good job of keeping it in proportion and not letting it gather too much import over the winter, but the start of the open water season saw my first major wobble. I spent two weeks in Lanzarote at the end of April, covering just over 90km in total and feeling really good in the water, but my return to the open water in the UK didn't go quite so well. It was COLD, and a combination of having lost a bit of weight and being a bit of a softy in the face of the cold, left me unable to get beyond a couple of hours for my first few outdoors swims before my stroke slowed dramatically and I had to get out. There was a lot of this:

It was very disheartening, and with my 10 hour + 7 hour qualification swims looming and the unfinished business of Geneva waiting in the wings, my confidence took a bit of a battering. Thankfully, several people I know and trust gave me a good talking to, and then right on cue, some long-awaited sunshine arrived and the lakes quickly tipped over the threshold from cold to perfectly swimmable (for me, this comes between 12/13 - 14/15).

And so, with the unfinished business back in its box and an almost unbelievable forecast of 25 degree sunshine for the Lake District, I heading off to the always-stunning Grasmere this weekend to get a bit of confidence-building distance under my belt:

I managed my first 6 hour swim of the season with no problems at all, and I followed that with a couple of hours the next day - I was hoping to do more and definitely would have been able to, but thunder, lightning and torrential rain of the kind that only the Lake District can truly deliver stopped play and I was forced to retreat to the van, where I feasted on beans on toast and read until I fell asleep. If this is what unfinished business is like, then I think I can deal with it! 

So the upshot of all this is that I had a bit of a wobble, but some sunshine and the gorgeous Lakes have set me straight. I've got a touch of niggly tendonitis in my left wrist which I'm getting sorted, but apart from that, I'm fit and well and feeling cautiously optimistic. 

And in other news, I recently heard that I've been awarded a Leverhulme Trust fellowship for my new research project on the social life of sugar. This is a huge privilege and a great opportunity, but aside from the work implications (research only for the next year, with no teaching or admin commitments) and the chance to focus on some interesting research, it also means that I'll have the time to train. I was going to take a year or two out of long swimming after Geneva II is over - a chance to let my body / finances recover. But this seems like too good an opportunity to waste. So I'm probably going to be on the market for an interesting swim. At the moment, the 40 Bridges, Zurich or Tahoe are on the 'possible' list, but all suggestions are gratefully received. 

But for now, I'm keeping my sights on (a) the qualification swims in a couple of weeks (2-way-Windermere + 1-way Windermere) and (b) Geneva II. And I'm watching my step very carefully. 

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Inclusive swimming

I read today that the UK's Amateur Swimming Association (ASA) has issued a new swimwear guidance that allows for exceptions to the usual rules for competition swimwear on the grounds of religious belief or pre-existing medical condition. These changes are in response to a review requested by the Muslim Women's Sports Foundation (MWSF), who highlighted growing participation by Muslim women and girls in sport and the need to foster this interest by maximising the possibilities for access. The revised rules allow the use of textile full body suits that do not have the potential to enhance performance and which have been approved by officials in advance. This change to the rules will primarily benefit those women and girls whose religious beliefs mean that they would prefer to cover their body.

The ASA guidance includes these images of the kinds of suits that are included by the new guidance:

The guidance also includes examples of suits that the revised rules will continue to exclude: 

There has been some predictable grumbling on social media about the changed rules potentially serving as a back door to performance enhancing body suits, but this is clearly not the purpose or consequence of this ruling. It's also important to note that this is distinct from recent FINA changes to the rules about wetsuits in competitive open water swimming, which have also caused controversy in the open water / marathon swimming / triathlon communities. Instead, this new guidance is simply a way of enabling more women and girls to compete in swimming, and that has to be a good thing. 

BME communities are notoriously poorly represented in swimming (all kinds, all levels). This is due to a combination of factors including lack of access to affordable swimming lessons and facilities and the lack of perceived 'fit' with the sport (i.e. children being pointed towards other sports, or being told that 'black people can't swim' because of outdated and racist assumptions about bone density). This poor representation is particularly true for women and girls. There is also the legacy of the historical exclusion of non-white people from swimming facilities - for example, during segregation in the US (see Wiltse's 2007 book, Contested Waters, for a frank and disturbing account of this) - which has ongoing generational impacts in terms of facilities, expectations and a paucity of role models. 

So this small change in the swimwear guidance isn't going to solve the problem of the whiteness of swimming, but it is an important beginning, and signals the active valuing of participation and inclusion to those outside of the sport who might like to give it a try. 

And this got me thinking about other branches of the swimming world where strict costume rules apply, including marathon swimming. This is a sensitive and hotly contested area, but it seems to me that marathon swimming is in a position to be among the leaders in the field of amateur endurance sport by actively incorporating amendments of this kind to swimwear rules. Changes like this to the regulations by Channel / marathon swimming governing bodies are relatively costless, since they would not confer a performance advantage on swimmers wearing full body costumes, but would demonstrate an openness to the social diversity that is currently lacking. It's a small measure, but one that I think would speak volumes in welcoming new swimmers to the marathon swimming community. 

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Starting from where you are....

One of the hardest lessons of training is that you have to start from where you are, and not from where you think you should be at any given point in the training cycle. 

In my last post, optimistically entitled "Recovery", I was optimistic about having completed my functional recovery from the ankle injury and having been signed off from physiotherapy. But the reality was that this was just the beginning of a much longer, slower phase of recovery where my injured ankle inched with glacial slowness towards fuller, more reliable pain-free function. And inevitably, from time to time, I became impatient, or perhaps over-optimistic, and pushed too hard, causing it to swell and ache. Sometimes, even just wearing regular shoes to work rather than allowing myself the comfort and support of trainers, meant that evenings had to be spent with my foot up, wrapped in ice. Each setback made me feel old and useless and  I kept returning in my mind to the costly moment of inattention when I fell, wanting to take it back and have it all work out differently. 

But they're not kidding when they say that time heals, albeit with frustrating slowness. And since Christmas, I've enjoyed a step-change in my recovery and can swim, cycle and run without pain for the first time in months. I'm still proceeding cautiously, and am diligently nurturing my physio-acquired, ankle-stabilising skills of balancing on wobbly things, but at last, I feel like it's pretty much fixed and ready to really take on the work of training. Over Christmas, we escaped to the Canary Islands, and although a sustained weather pattern of lively winds made swimming difficult, I was able to taste the beginnings of the return of the comforts of being in the water....a necessary foundation for training for me. 

Since November, I've been doing short, 30 minute swims (with the occasional hour thrown in), mostly with a pull-buoy at first, then more recently on full stroke. I've also been walking on a treadmill and riding a stationary bike, although both at low intensity. So I still have some basic fitness, but nothing like what I am going to need this summer for Geneva 2, and the gap between my current swim fitness and where I'd like to be now in order to get where I want to be is quite daunting. have to start from where you are. So I have a training plan, running in the first instance through to mid-April, when I'll be going to the Canary Islands for two weeks of hard open water training (with the goal of 100+km during the trip). The next goal after that is to complete the qualifying swims of 10 hours, followed by 7 hours the next day....probably sometime around mid-June. My weeks are mapped out to incorporate gradually increasing volume, and even though I'm starting from only 4 hours per week at the moment, I have to trust that by starting from where I am rather than where I feel like I should be, I will be able to stay injury free and rediscover my long swim fitness. Happily, too, I'm on research leave now until September, which should mean that I can train with a consistency that usually escapes me during the teaching term. I've also been working over the past few months on improving the quality and quantity of my sleep, and I've tweaked my vegan diet slightly to focus even more on whole foods and to eliminate (almost) all processed food. Both of these efforts have been effective, although I'm also aware that these interventions were as much about making me feel purposeful in the face of my ankle frustrations as they were about improving my well-being (although both have). 

So that's where things stand....with 30 weeks to go, I'm starting from where I am and determined to do everything I can to get where I want to be. Money is being put down for the swim, and there's no going back now. 

Tuesday, 11 October 2016


It is 7 weeks to the day since my accident in Geneva, and I am finally able to walk around pain-free with a relatively strong and stable ankle. The abrupt failure to even start the swim and the frustrations of debility have left me feeling sad and demotivated at times, but the last two weeks have seen a rapid acceleration in the healing process in ways that have completely transformed my ability to get around and enabled me to begin rebuilding my lost fitness....including, at last, a return to the pool. 

I had always thought of physio as something you did after an injury had pretty much healed rather than to facilitate healing, and so when I first contacted Mark Wilkinson of Skipton’s Paragon Physiotherapy, I asked whether it was even worth coming in while the injury was still relatively new and angry or whether I should hold off for a bit. He was emphatic that I should start immediately and offered me an appointment for the next day. This, as it turns out, was one of the best decisions I have made and Mark has been pivotal to my recovery. He put me on an intensive regime of cold therapy, and kept me off the foot for longer than I would have if left to my own devices, but then two weeks ago, the pace of treatment changed and we went from resting, to simple strengthening exercises with a stretch band, to a wobbly cushion for proprioception, to today – a session of strength and proprioception tests that had me balancing on wobble boards, doing squats on a bosu ball, bouncing on an unstable trampoline whilst boxing or throwing and catching a ball, doing walking lunges carrying a 10kg weight and jumping two-footed over low hurdles whilst trying not to thud to a landing with the finesse of a sack of potatoes (apparently, we were aiming for balletic, but let’s face facts…).

It’s such a fascinating process to go through. Weaknesses I couldn’t even feel sprang to the surface as I tried to do various exercises….or more accurately, they ran through my body as it tried to respond to the demands I was placing on it. Occasionally, my right hand would start to shake violently mid-exercise; with all my focus and energy on my left foot, it was as if the embodied effort and tension of completing the task was pouring into my unattended opposite hand. And then there was the step – a stable platform, barely a foot high, which I had to jump up onto, two-footed, from standing. The first time Mark asked me to do it, I couldn’t even get my feet off the floor – it was as if my brain wouldn’t even let me consider jumping. Apparently this is a defence mechanism – the brain knows that all is not well and that the proprioception is damaged and stops you putting yourself at risk. But this isn’t a “mind over matter” affair – you can’t ‘think’ your way out of it. Instead, you have to take the time to restore the neural pathways before the jump even becomes thinkable. The body is never simply a matter of mechanics. 

And so….after all the balancing, hopping and jumping, I have finally been discharged from treatment with my foot strong and stable enough to move safely through everyday life without the immediate risk of going over on it again. I still need to be careful with it and to keep up with exercises to build on the progress already made, and it’s still a bit sore at the end of a busy day and needs to be iced, but it is a world apart from the day I hobbled home from Barcelona. I have started swim training again, and have Geneva II firmly in my (long-range) sights. 

And so, my advice to anyone who finds themselves in a similar position in the future is: find yourself an experienced, well-qualified sports physiotherapist as soon as possible and do whatever they tell you to do. I am hugely indebted to Mark for his expertise and care and learned a lot in the process.

But most of all, try not to fall down steps in the first place. It saves a lot of trouble later.

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 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 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 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?