Sunday, 25 September 2011

The Longest Swim...

Today was the awards ceremony at Swan Pool for the Sandwell Lifesaving and Channel Swimming Club...and for the second year running, I won the trophy for "the longest swim". This was for the Catalina Swim - I may not be fast, but I can plod for hours with the best of them! Seriously, though, I love the fact that the club has a prize for this, and that more broadly, that it has found a good balance between recognising the amazing achievements of some of the scarily, impressively fast members alongside those of us who will never break records or win races, but who go for it in our own ways.

Many thanks to Dan Earthquake for running the Swan Pool sessions all summer... a quiet volunteerism that is hugely appreciated. I'm done for the year now, but will be back down there in May, ready for my early-season shivers.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Wetsuit or no wetsuit...?

There's been a bit of chat in the OW swimming world over the last few days following an article by Scott Zornig, President of the Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association, in which he (among other issues) sets out his own strongly held view that wetsuits have no place in marathon swimming (with some exceptions such as swimmers with disabilities). He is very clear in the article that these are his own views (although they are presented under the SBCSA logo) and while I don't fully agree with him, it's an issue around which there is a lot of controversy within the community and one worthy of discussion. So I thought I'd throw in my penny's worth.

I should start by saying that in many ways, I agree with Scott Zornig - I think that to say that you have swum the Catalina Channel or the English Channel is to say that you did it without a wetsuit and in accordance with the fairly standardised rules that the governing bodies of most marathon swim organisations use to regulate their swims. I also agree with him that most people, with sufficient attention to training, acclimatisation and body fat can eventually make themselves able to swim in open water without a wetsuit. Indeed, I often find myself encouraging people to abandon the neoprene, just because of what I think is the enhanced pleasure of non-wetsuit swimming. But I also feel that not everyone wants to do that for all kinds of reasons, and that this too is a legitimate choice - it's supposed to be a leisure activity, after all. Such a person will never swim the Channel (in the conventional, regulated sense), but they might swim it with a wetsuit on. This still is a fabulous achievement and one which only a tiny proportion of people could even contemplate attempting; it will require hard training, and will still probably be a massive and significant event in that person's life. Scott Zornig argues that the title "marathon swimmer" does not apply to this individual because it is not a "swim". Instead, he proposes describing it as a "Water Adventure" or a "Water Exhibition" in the hope that this will stop people "raining on the parade of true marathon swimming accomplishments."

And I think that it is here that I think we start to see the real source of tension between wetsuit swimmers and non-wetsuit swimmers - the problem of self-misrepresentation. It seems to me that the problem is not that people do these marathon swims in wetsuits, but that some people are not entirely straightforward and open about having done so. Without wanting to name any specifics here, we are all aware of high-profile, media hungry swims that have been extremely quiet about their use of wetsuits whilst at the same time presenting them in such a way that people will assume they are done without one. My reading of Scott Zornig's articles is that he feels that the label "marathon swim" facilitates this misrepresentation, and he wants to reclaim it for non-wetsuit swimming to protect the category. But I'm not so sure that this is the way to go. It seems to me that this title could easily be rehabilitated to include a wide range of impressive swimming achievements, if this occurred alongside the standardised inclusion of wetsuit / non-wetsuit status; I think that we should broaden the definition rather than narrow it. And perhaps the only way that this can be done is by being more accepting of wetsuit swimming as one part of our amazing sport; making people feel ashamed of swimming with a wetsuit (by likening it to illegal doping, for example) will only make it harder for people to be straightforward about the kind of swim they have chosen to do, and to celebrate those swims. Even with the wetsuit, a long swim is a long swim, and I am uncomfortable with the notion of a "true" form of marathon swimming to which everything else is subservient.

It's also worth noting that misrepresentation is not confined to the wetsuit issue. I know of plenty of people who list a Channel swim on their sporting CVs without also noting that it was a relay crossing; I also know of someone from this year who has told people that he completed the Channel when in fact he was pulled out 2 miles from the French coast. These are irritating moments, not least because lying is always irritating, but also because, in most cases, the misrepresentation is entirely unnecessary - the vast majority of the non-swimming (and swimming) population consider a Channel relay to be just as outlandishly difficult and impressive as a solo, or quite rightly consider a solo Channel swim that takes you so close to France to be an awesome achievement by any standards.

I don't know what the answer to all this is. To those who are misrepresenting their swims - either because of wetsuits, or whatever else - I would say, get a grip and be a grown-up. And to those who see wetsuit swims as a threat to non-wetsuit swims, I would ask what is at stake in maintaining that distinction so thoroughly, and what might the consequences of that be in terms of alienating potential new members from taking up the sport? I want more people in the water, not fewer, whatever they're wearing.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Back to basics

My return from my fantastic trip to California marked the end of this year's serious swimming challenges. It's been a splendid summer all round, but now it's time for a change of pace. I am taking the next year off from big swims in order to both recoup my dwindling finances and have a chance to do some other fun things - Peter and I are going on a surfing course in Lanzarote over Christmas (did I say recouping my finances...?), and have plans to do some walking, and maybe even some cycling. Plus, we've just bought a cottage in Bath (where Peter now works), and we want to spend some time getting to know the area and generally not having our leisure time governed so thoroughly by the demands of training.

I'm very excited about all these plans, but at the same time, feel quite flat and demotivated - the inevitable consequence of the end of an exciting season, but also the loss of focus that having a swim booked for the next year provides. I've also been struggling with a niggly back injury - the result of that fall at the beginning of my Catalina swim - which has been a bit demoralising....although things are definitely improving on that front, slowly but surely.

So....what to do? I've decided that it's time to go back to basics.

Firstly, I've started a programme of Strength and Conditioning to try and improve my strength, stability and flexibility throughout my body. My shoulders, upper body are pretty good, and my core strength isn't bad, but particularly my lower body is not terribly stable, which can't be good in the long term. I'm steadily building a programme of exercises, starting slowly with foundational ones, and then, eventually, moving on to swimming specific ones. It feels like a long job and I'm frustrated with how hard (and unrewarding) I'm finding some of it, but I need to give it time....and if you'd seen me trying to do some of even the most basic exercises, you'd appreciate the need for some of this basic bodily work and general maintenance.

The second element of the back to basics is a cautious return to some running. I've been running on and off for years, but also have a touch of arthritis in my knees and am far from gazelle-like. However, I love running, and find it quite therapeutic and physically satisfying, even at my very modest level. But, in the interests of building up gently after a long period of not running (plus being wary about my back), I have returned to the very beginning and am following Hal Higdon's introductory 30/30 programme - 30 days of 30 minute sessions involving 1o mins of walking, 15 mins of walk / run, then 5 mins of walking. Then I'll move on to a 5km programme, with a hope of completing some kind of event by Christmas. As I said, back to basics, but the most important thing is that it has to be sustainable and I don't get injured. This, combined with the Strength and Conditioning, is pretty much all that I've been doing for the last week or so since I came back from the States.

And very shortly, I'll move on to the next step - back to swimming basics. I know that with a decent amount of training, I can do the long swims, but I am also locked in to a plod-pace and I think that I can be a better, faster swimmer if I spend some time now working on my technique - especially my weedy left arm catch, and whatever weird thing I'm doing with my right hand to cause the recurrent tendon problem in my right wrist. All my bad habits are thoroughly ingrained, so I'm about to start a programme of careful drilling to try and relearn that muscle memory. I'm going to have some video analysis to guide the process, and plan to work on the drills five times a week, for 30 mins each sessions through to Christmas. Then I'll re-evaluate, but hopefully, I'll be ready to start building in more sustained swimming by then to consolidate what I hope will be an improved technique. This is not simply about enabling me, for example, to do a faster Channel swim; it's more about that extra pace opening up new, and even more challenging, possibilities in terms of swims that I could attempt but which I wouldn't necessarily want to try at my current pace.

All of this, however modest and unspectacular, takes me some distance out of my comfort zone. I'm a very inattentive swimmer who simply loves swimming - this makes me very good at being in the water for a long time, but not great when it comes to developing my skills and increasing my speed and efficiency. I don't particularly enjoy the detailed work of breaking down a stroke and building it back up. But I'm hoping that, in the long term, this will be time well spent. Indeed, one of the most common practices shared by many of the most accomplished and enduring swimmers that I have met in the course of the research is their insistence on regular drilling, as well as strength and conditioning work.

So, those are my three key areas of focus for now: (1) foundational, and then, swimming specific strength and conditioning; (2) modest but regular running, building up to the 5km, and maybe 10km, mark for cross training and a change of pace; and (3) to work concentratedly on my technique in order to improve speed and efficiency in the water.

I'm still working on what comes next in terms of marathon swimming goals. I'm stewing on a few possible ideas but prefer to keep those to myself until I've got a firm plan of action in place. So for now, it's back to basics for me - a new challenge.