Wednesday, 12 December 2012

One thing leads to another...

The thing about swimming is that one thing leads to another, and before you know it, all kinds of new and exciting adventures are in the diary.

So this was the thought process:

I need somewhere to do some distance training in the sea in April if I'm going to be ready for MIMS.
I see Swimtrek are doing their long-distance training in Mallorca now, so it must be suitable there.
I mention it to P, whose eyes light up at the prospect of a Spring trip.
We start to plan; we can both spend some time writing our books (sunshine helps), and he can cycle and I can swim. Perfect.
I start to do a bit of research online about good swimming spots.
I re-stumble across Xtrm Ballearic Open Water Swim Services, and flirt briefly with the Mallorca-Menorca crossing (40km) before deciding that that would be crazy and that I should just concentrate on training.
And then I find the Cabrera Channel...and I'm sold. As I said, one thing leads to another.

There are three crossing options, and I'm now provisionally booked in to do the 25km crossing somewhere during 8-14 April. The water temps should be around 14 / 15, and I'm told that conditions are usually quite calm at that time of year. My only real reservation was that I would have to go over on a boat, and after Catalina, I know that this is not a good start for me. At first, I had proposed that we rest on Cabrera for an hour before starting the swim to let any sickness pass, but the wonderful Toni Conesti Coll has come up with a much simpler solution - we'll just do it the other way, starting in Mallorca, and finishing on Cabrera. Problem solved.

That makes a tremendous roster of three big swims next summer: the Cabrera Channel, MIMS and the English Channel. It's a lot to take on, but such an exciting challenge that I can't resist. And as an additional incentive, as things currently stand and unless someone beats me to it, I would be the first woman to swim the Cabrera Channel. I've never been a record-chaser, mostly because I'm hardly record-breaking material, and by nature I'm more of a cautious follower than a pioneer. But this just makes a really fun thing even more fun. And I love the fact that rather sedate, middle-of-the-pack swimmer like me could ever hold a record, however briefly.

Training's going well at the moment, and in a couple of days we're off to Lanzarote for Christmas, where I'm going to be dividing my time between swim training and reading my way through a mountain of novels, eating ice-cream and generally recovering from a long, tough term. Bliss.

Merry Christmas to all the visitors to my blog, and best wishes for a happy and peaceful 2013.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

More toys....

My penchant for small gadgets is well documented, but I've recently added two new toys - one new, one old - to my kit bag. The first is the new agility paddles from Finis:

These function both as a regular paddle and as a technique tool; most noticeably, they lack the usual straps across the back of the hand, and instead, have a single hole for the thumb. They feel incredibly weird when you first put them on, but their genius is that if your hand is in the right position, with a good catch, they stay on just fine; if not, they drop off the hand and sink to the bottom, and you are forced to endure the humiliation of pausing mid-swim to recover your paddle. I just got a pair of these last week, and my first session with them was not very encouraging - stroke, stroke...and dive to recover the paddle. And again. And again. But what I learned was that my right hand - and it was always my right hand - does a little rotation just before the catch starts, turning my thumb slightly upwards before sweeping out a little and then down. And every time the hand rotates out of its proper position at the front of the stroke, the paddle comes off. It's the tiniest movement, but it's also probably no coincidence that that's the same thumb that I've had injury problems with in past years. So, something to work on. When I concentrate hard, I can keep the paddles on, which in turn massively improves my catch and pull. So these are definite keepers. 

My second gadget is one that I've had for a while, but have felt very ambivalent about - the Finis Tempo Trainer Pro:

Like all the best gadgets, the basic concept is a simple one: it's a metronome (and in fact, it's key competitor is rather pleasingly called the Wetronome). As such, it provides regular bleeps in three different modes: stroke rate (setting a designated time between bleeps, where each bleep equates to one stroke); pace (getting a triple beep after a certain time period, during which time you should aim to have covered a pre-determined distance); and strokes per minute (so very similar in function to the first mode, but approached from a different perspective). 

Total Immersion coach, Terry Laughlin, has provided a very detailed set of instructions for how to make the best use of the TT, especially when combined with stroke counting. The goal here is to use the TT to increase the distance covered per stroke. It makes perfect sense on paper, and I tried really hard to make this work for me. But unfortunately, my wandering brain refused to cooperate and I soon found my mind drifting hopelessly: 

1, 2, 3, 4... I forgot to do my travel expenses ...7, 8, 9 ... I really want to get a dog.... erm...10, 11...or perhaps a kitten would be better ...Damn....[turn].... bleep, bleep, bleep....damn, forgot to count....[turn]....1, 2, 3, 4, 5... that cracked tile looks like a map of Australia....erm....8 maybe, 9 10, 11... 

And so it went on. And then if I really concentrated, I just got really annoyed about all that bleeping. This probably says more about my own limitations than those of the Tempo Trainer, but the end result was that I left it to fester at the bottom of my kit bag. 

But recently, I rediscovered the TT, this time, as a pacer. So, for example, if you wanted to do a time trial of 1km, aiming to hit 100m at, say, 1.40, then you set the TT to give a discrete triple bleep every 1.40. As you approach the wall for the 100m split, if it bleeps before you hit it, you're slow; if you make the turn before the bleeps, you're up on your target. This also gives you a very good sense of whether you're dropping pace over the course of a time trial, or whether you could afford to sneak your interval down by a second or two next time you repeat the trial. Using it in this way has a number of advantages: there is no infernal bleeping the whole time; it keeps you focused on a the task during a longer time trial and stops you from drifting off the pace; and it gives you very precise feedback without having to look at a clock or watch. 

I've got a pretty good track record at knocking out long slow swims when the need arises, and have become increasingly good at building in tough sprint to increase the registers of pace that I have to draw on. But historically, I've been less good at doing those long hard pace swims, especially since I stopped training with the Masters club. But this has enabled me to reintroduce those into my workouts, which can only be a good thing for my preparations for Manhattan. 

You see....gadgets are our friends. 

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

And the captain wasn't pleased....

I have just been sent the link to the updated historical record for 2011, kept by Penny Lee Dean, of Catalina Channel swims. Just as everyone does when reading such a document, I went straight to the bit about my swim (me, me, me...). Like most of the entries, the narrative is taken directly from the swim report, and two things really struck me about it.

Firstly, the report repeatedly states what good spirits I was in. In many ways, this is true, and it would be churlish not to be in good spirits while doing something so exciting as a marathon swim in a (to me) relatively exotic location. But I also recall that swim as being extremely miserable, especially for the first half, when I threw up, suffered from burning acid reflux and burped up virtually every feed. I remember being worried that they would pull me out if they knew how much I was struggling with the sickness and digestive problems so deliberately kept it hidden, which may or may not have been a mistake; but I also remember trying not to dwell on it by 'performing' being okay. Basically, by faking it, I was able to not focus on the problems I was having and try to seek out the positive. As a swim strategy, I guess this worked, since I was able to keep going....and things did improve physically in the second half of the swim, especially in terms of my ability to keep the drink down, which in turn gave me the energy that I needed to pick up my stroke rate / pace. But it does mean that there is quite a gulf between how I remember particularly the first half of that swim, and what it looks like on paper - a curious artefact of perspective.

And secondly, I was very struck, and really quite annoyed, by the statement that at the halfway point "...the captain felt the swim would take 17 to 18 hours and he wasn't pleased". I don't blame him for the pessimistic prediction, since I really was crawling along at that point, such was my level of depletion. I don't even mind that he was displeased, since I'm sure that however supportive, all pilots prefer the faster to the slower swims. But I do resent that he expressed it, and I hate the thought of that conversation going on on board while I was struggling away.

It leaves a nasty taste in my mouth.

But the important thing is that I gave it my best shot, had an amazing experience, and crawled onto the shore at the other end. That's a moment that I would never trade, even to pacify a displeased captain.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Live, learn, forget, re-learn...

I can't believe it's December already, but training is going well. I'm not doing a huge distance at this stage (c. 20 km / week), but am using the sessions to work much more intensively on different registers of pace, and in particular, in holding a decent (for me) race pace. I'm very aware of the cut-off for Manhattan, so am trying to focus on that side of things on the assumption that I know that I can manage the endurance aspects of the swim. So, less plodding for me, and more pace work. On top of that, I'm running on the treadmill a couple of times a week (just 3 miles each time) plus some strength training in the gym and daily stretching and working on the shoulders using bands. I've even been cycling to work, although now that the weather's taken a turn for the worse I doubt I'll be willing / able to keep that up.

So much of this is familiar to me, and even though the focus on pace work is playing a much greater role than previously, I basically know how to train and feel confident that the programme that I've put together will get me where I need to be next summer. But somewhere along the line, I lost track of some of the other important aspects of training - most notably, nutrition. By the middle of term, I was feeling absolutely exhausted, but in spite of that, was having trouble sleeping - a classic sign of over-training, even though I didn't really feel that the amount of training I was doing warranted that.

But then I also started to notice that I was losing weight. As a matter of principle, I rarely weigh myself - scales have a compulsive aspect to them, and I hate the thought of the quality of my day being determined by pounds lost or gained. Ultimately, I don't really care whether I'm fatter or thinner and don't accept that my body size says anything meaningful either about either me as a person, or about my health. But I was unhappy with this unplanned and quite noticeable weight loss, dropping a clothes size in just a couple of months. Combined with my tiredness, this suggested that I didn't have my nutrition right. I went back through my fieldnotes from the Channel training, and realised that I was making much more use of energy drinks and recovery shakes then than I have been this year. On top of that, I've been eye-wateringly busy at work, and especially mid-week, was either skipping the occasional meal, or grabbing a quick pot of soup at my desk, rather than preparing proper meals to support my body-in-training.

So, I've given myself a talking to, and forced myself to re-learn all that I had learned, and apparently forgotten, about nutrition and training. As a result, I'm now using energy drinks (SiS Go - what used to be PSP22) rather than water for pool sessions, and am having either a protein shake or bar afterwards by way of aiding recovery. In addition, I'm being much more meticulous about packing pasta or rice salads for lunch, rather than just buying soups, and have a ready supply of cereal bars, nuts and fruit in my bag and desk. The result has been a complete transformation in how I feel - I have much more energy, my swim times have improved, and I'm sleeping like a log.

Lesson (re) learned.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Back at it...

Well, after my short, work-induced break from the blog, I'm back. To be honest, I'm not sure that things are any better on that front than they were two months ago, but at least all of the house-moving and beginning-of-term madness has now given way to the steadier rhythms of the teaching term.

In the short time I've been away, there's been some exciting bits and bobs happening around the swimming research - not least a fun day at the Wellcome Collection Human Limits event, followed by a surprise appearance in the Guardian. I've had a very positive response to the magazine I published in September, and I also stepped some distance outside of my usual comfort zone earlier this week by going to a local primary school to talk to the children about Channel swimming. I was absolutely terrified, since I really don't have any experience with children, and especially not en masse; but of course, they were charming, delightful and splendidly enthusiastic. I think we could all learn a lot from their willingness to just venture an answer and not worry about getting things wrong.

But what has finally prompted my re-ignition of the blog is the fabulously exciting news that I've been accepted for the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim (MIMS) next June. Within the swimming community, it's a landmark event that is notoriously hard to get into - both because of the high demand, and its byzantine application system. However, with a huge amount of luck on my side, and in a piece of splendid San Francisco / New York / Coventry synchronised enrolling on the part of my top crew of Patti Bauernfeind and Julie Galloway, we made the swim list. I am unspeakably excited about it - a circumnavigation of Manhattan, viewed from water level! How fabulous is that. Unlike other swims that I've done, it's a race (although clearly, I won't be 'racing' as such), and there are some intimidatingly good swimmers on the list who will be warm, dry and fed before I get anywhere near the finish. But my goal is to finish within the 9.30 cut-off and have a great day out. I'm pretty confident about the first of these, and simply don't see how it can be anything other than the latter, not just because it's Manhattan, but also because there are so many people taking part who I know, either in person or online friends who I'm looking forward to meeting.

And as an additional treat, two weeks ago, I dispatched my cheque to Channel pilot Paul Foreman for my next English Channel swim, which will hopefully be in mid-July, 2013 (weather permitting).

Fun, fun, fun.

But I do now have to get my head around the quite pressing problem of how to train, especially for Manhattan. The race is on 8 June, 2013, which means that I'm going to need to be putting some serious distance in during May, when the water's really still quite chilly in the UK. Plus, now that the fieldwork for the research is over and I'm back to a full teaching and administrative load, I don't have anything like the flexibility in terms of travelling to training sites that I had for my English Channel swim.

I have some ideas, mostly involving training quality over quantity, a little bit of long-weekending in slightly warmer swim spots, creative use of a wetsuit to get the hours in, and probably quite a bit of just sucking it up and getting a bit cold. I'll be interested to hear how any of the other UK / Ireland swimmers are dealing with this challenge. All suggestions gratefully received.

Time to get back at it.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Taking a break.

After much thought, I've decided to retire The Long Swim, although hopefully only temporarily. It's not been the easiest decision as I'm quite attached to my little blog, but life has got a little bit crazy of late and something has to go - at least for a few months. I didn't want to just not post, so I'm officially stepping away for a bit to concentrate on work; with a bit of luck, I'll be back in the new year to start blogging in the run-up to what promises to be an exciting summer of swimming.

Thanks to everyone who's been reading and commenting on the blog. I'm looking forward to reconnecting in a little while.

And in the mean time, happy swimming.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Magazine published

So the end of the grant is approaching, and I've been working on putting together an end-of-project magazine showcasing the key findings of the research. This has been something of an adventure for me. Firstly, I had to learn how to use desktop publishing, which in itself isn't so hard, but took a while to get the hang of. And then secondly, I had to come to terms with my own complete lack of skills in the design department. This is a much harder problem to deal with, but fortunately, I was able to run various drafts by smart individuals who know a thing or two about this stuff, and they gave me a crash course in consistency and simplicity. Then thirdly, I had to reign in my inner windbag, and try to get the text down to short,  to-the-point chunks of text where the important points didn't get buried in my tendency to 'sociologise'.

As a result, the process of making the magazine turned in to a bit of a performance, since I had completely underestimated just how compulsive it is. The possibilities for fiddling with margins, borders, fonts and pictures are endless; I think I have found the perfect displacement activity.'s finally ready on online, and to be honest, I think it's rather attractive and am quite chuffed with it. You can download a copy from the publications pages of my research website - just click on the picture below to get to the site:

Now that the grant is almost over, I'm trying to focus my attentions on writing the book from the research. I am using the working title of "Immersion", and it's still embryonic, but hopefully I'll be able to keep chipping away at it as the year progresses. And, of course, I'm back to training now - it just wouldn't be right to write a book about Channel swimming without it. 

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Endurance Sport seminar

It's hard to believe that my ESRC grant for the Channel swimming project has only two weeks left to run. For two and a half years, I swum, travelled, supported, chatted and generally ambled about the swimming world learning about what it means, and what it involves, to become a Channel swimmer - socially, culturally, bodily. It really has been an enormous amount of fun, plus I'm hoping to see some publications and other outputs coming out over the next year. I've even made a tentative start on the book - at the moment, I'm toying with calling it "The Long Swim" after the blog, but I'm not sure. All ideas welcome.

Anyway...the final flurry of the project was an end-of-project one-day seminar on Endurance Sport. There are more details about the programme for the day on the project website, and much more will be going up there over the next week - videos of the presentations, and some great drawings from the day, courtesy of 'drawnalist' Matt Buck, who was there documenting the talks in real time in drawings...including leading everyone in through the maze of construction around Warwick Library with these fabulous signs.

But in the mean time, suffice to say that we had some tremendous papers, and lively discussion about the nature of endurance sport, its relationship to identity, the role of charity / mass participation in endurance sport, the representation of experiences of endurance sport, the role of gender, race and class in the experiences of  endurance sports, and lots more besides.

I gave a paper on the sensory pleasures of marathon swimming - this is my attempt to try to move the focus away from narratives of toughness, suffering and overcoming that tend to dominate, and to think about the other reasons why people engage with the sport; I wanted to think about the pleasures of swimming that make people want to do it for its own sake, rather than only for the pleasures of completing a swim. The video of the talk will go up on the website, but for now, here's the drawing that Matt did of talk, showing the key themes...

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Happy Anniversary

Exactly two years ago today, I completed my English Channel swim - and here's my scrawl on the wall of the White Horse pub to prove it. I'm not a big one for anniversaries, but this one sticks in my mind - the culmination of an amazing couple of years of training, researching, travelling and swimming...and swimming...and swimming.

When I first decided to train for a Channel swim, I imagined it as a one-off, goal-oriented challenge - I would train, swim, and hopefully make it to France. And that would be that. From the perspective of the research, I had imagined the process of "becoming a Channel swimmer" very much in this light, at the beginning at least - a linear narrative of transformation from someone who couldn't swim the Channel into someone who (maybe) could. Recently, I've been writing the first drafts of a book proposal on the Channel swimming research, and have decided that it's going to be about the different kinds of 'becoming' that happen during the training / swimming process - bodily, sensory, social, cultural etc. But in the drafting process, I've realised more and more that the linear narrative doesn't really work. In strictly documentary terms, I became a Channel swimming on September 2, 2010, and from that perspective, I will always be a Channel swimmer. It's there on the wall of the White Horse for all to see. But over the last year in particular while I've not been swimming so much, in terms of my swimming capacity, I have become less and less of a Channel swimmer as time has gone on. I could not swim the Channel today. So I both am, and am not, a Channel swimmer right now.

From a research perspective, this helps me to think about the different processes involved in becoming a Channel swimmer - some of which are things that we make happen through training (stronger muscles, better technique, learning to take the right foods); some are things that our bodies do, sometimes in spite of our training, that can facilitate or inhibit that process (needing more sleep, illness, ageing); and some are things that 'society' does, such as awarding status to certain displays of physical endurance. More about this as I develop the book proposal.

And speaking of non-linear's the day that I have committed to my swimming venture: a second solo swim in July 2013. Perhaps a circular metaphor would be more apt; I feel like I'm going back to the beginning again after my lazy year. But of course, you never go right back to the beginning, not least because this time I have the advantage of having acquired lots of techniques of training and swimming that I didn't have before. Hopefully, I will make fewer mistakes, and have far greater resources to draw on in my training than before (although that's not to say that there's not much more I still can learn). Why do another one? It's partly curiousity; I just want to see what it's like on a different day. But it's also the desire for the structure and drive of training; without a goal, I tend to dribble along a bit too vaguely. And I love the swimming; and especially, I love the LONG swimming. And I'm lucky enough to have the resources and (hopefully) the physical capacity to do something that I love. So why not!

Happy anniversary to me (and my crew, Peter and Sam). Fingers crossed for a happy second time around.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Much Ado About Nothing?

You'd have to be living in a cave not to have heard about Diana Nyad's "Xtreme Dream" swim attempt from Cuba to Florida this week. For those who haven't followed the story, or aren't familiar with the context, Nyad is a very controversial figure in the open water swimming world, with a reputation for audacious challenges, a very robust sense of self, and a vigorous (self-)publicity machine. This was her fourth attempt at the 103 mile swim - a challenge which involves highly unpredictable conditions and assorted aggressive / dangerous wildlife. And even in perfect conditions, it's hell of a long way, and I give her credit both for her ambition and her swimming abilities - I can only hope that I have as much energy and drive at 62. 

However, while the swim ended in a failure that is widely trumpeted as a gutsy, can-do success (not least by Nyad herself), within the wider open water swimming community, there is considerable disquiet and frustration, particularly with regard (a) to some of the unconventional practices during the swim; and (b) the very problematic representation of the swim both during and after. In the case of swimming practices, Nyad chose to adopt a number of practices that are widely viewed within the wider community as not in the spirit of the sport. For example, there is clear video footage of her holding on to the boat during feeds (an absolute no-no in Channel swimming). But perhaps the most egregious breach of customary practice is that she got out of the water during a particularly nasty squall, and then after a number of hours (details unclear), she got back in and resumed swimming (I understand that this was after returning to the GPS point where she exited the water). 

Now....I don't think that anyone would argue with the correctness of the decision to leave the water during the storm - this is a regular occurrence in open water swimming. This was demonstrated earlier this year in the English Channel when several swims were stopped after a bank of thick fog rolled in, with some swimmers just a few hundred metres from France. Safety first, however gutting. But...and this is a big conventional Channel swimming practice (and as applies to other big swims such as Catalina, the North Channel etc), this marks the end of the swim. There are some exceptions. The Manhattan Island Marathon Swim allows a brief suspension of swimming during a lightening storm before allowing the race to resume; swimmers of the Cook Straits are allowed to take a 10 minute 'shark break' following a close sighting to let it pass. (As an aside, I fully understand getting out under those conditions, but can't understand getting back in!). But Nyad's break was for multiple hours. By any standard measure, this marks the end of a solo, unassisted swim. 

In her position, and having invested a huge amount of time and money into the project, I would probably have done what she did; she turned it into a 'stage swim' - that is where a distance is covered in stages, returning each time to the point of stopping (for example, the next day). However, I would also have told people very clearly that that's what I'd done. No-one - and I mean, absolutely no-one - would have thought any less of her for this. It's still an impressively long swim under difficult conditions. But instead (and this is where we get to the issue of problematic representations), her blog has utterly obfuscated this point, including significant post-hoc revisions to the blog which make it even harder to see that there was a significant boat break in the middle. Instead, there is constant elision between the time taken for the whole venture, the time spent in the water, and the total swim time including the boat break; and yesterday, the total swim time was suddenly revised upwardly from just under 42 hours to just over 51 hours, without any explanation of such a massive miscount. 

So, it's all a bit of a rum do, and leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. I congratulate Nyad on her ambition, and on the long swim that she did before getting out of the water (30+ hours, I think). But there is absolutely no need to obfuscate, exaggerate or mislead, and it does nobody any favours in the long run. With more clarity and openness, I think that the swimming community could have got behind this swim, even if it didn't meet the stricter swim-rules that apply to English Channel swims (and similar). As it is, I think that Diana Nyad has discredited her attempt and achievements through a PR strategy of self-aggrandisement at the expense of transparency, and I would welcome her public clarification on the details of the swim. 

Ultimately, it's probably all much ado about nothing, and it will all fade quietly away; if the swim had succeeded, I think that there would have been much more glorifying press coverage and a much stronger need to challenge some of the claims about the swim, and some of its practices. I also think that it's important not to take Diana Nyad as seriously as she takes herself. There was something faintly ridiculous about the whole venture: the excited announcements of weird, warm-water dripping devices to fight off hypothermia, the flotilla of boats surrounding the swim, the magical post-hoc discovery of an additional 9+ hours of swimming. And I can't be the only one to enjoy the irony of Nyad literally blowing her own trumpet (well...bugle) to start her swim.

As a final aside in what has turned out to be a bit of a long post, I do think that at some point the wider swimming community should also discuss the ethics of this kind of swim (regardless of the rules under which it is conducted). I'm not entirely comfortable with the erasure of the terrible history of this stretch of water - the loss of thousands of lives of people trying to flee the Castro regime - that occurs when it is turned effectively into a leisure space for self-fulfillment. Is there a broader discussion to have about our political / social responsibilities in terms of where we swim? And secondly, I couldn't help but wonder about the use of shark spotters. As far as I could see, they were in the water alongside Nyad, and their job was to look out for wildlife (sharks and jellyfish primarily). Given that the diver in this film seems to be armed with a little stick, what is the risk to him? Elsewhere in the blog it also notes that one of the divers was stung by the very same jellyfish that Nyad describes as potentially lethal. So again, in terms of the bigger picture, rather than just about Nyad, is there a discussion to be had about the risks we might be willing to take on for ourselves versus the risks to which others are exposed?

I think that's enough from me for now. For those interested in reading more about the issues raised by Diana Nyad's swim, I suggest you visit, where there is a robust exchange of views that really gets you thinking. I particularly recommend this thread which opened with a debate about the underwater directional streamer that Nyad was using, and then was expanded to cover a range of issues around assistance, transparency and the definition of 'marathon swimming'. Another good one is the discussion around the anti-hypothermia device, which also expands into wider discussions about what 'unassisted' might mean in the context of long distance open water swimming. 

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

A wet weekend....and a medal

P and I headed off to the Lake District this weekend for the BLDSA Derwentwater swim, plus a bit of much-needed rest and relaxation. Well...that was the plan, but then the campervan overheated and ground to a halt (again), and we had to sit and wait anxiously while our local garage went to work. But £300 later, Bob the campervan was up and running again, having had various important innards replaced, and only a day later, we headed north.

And the rain came down. And then more rain. By the time we arrived at the lovely Dalebottom Farm campsite (relaxed, friendly, stunning location - I definitely recommend it), the rain had reached biblical proportions. We put the awning tent up, getting soaked in the process, then hunkered down in the van for the night, breaking cover only to run to the toilet block or wash the dishes. That night, we slept to the sound of yet more rain drumming on the van roof, and woke to cloud so thick that we couldn't see the hills. And the rain came down in sheets.

Not to be daunted, we breakfasted, packed up the kayak and swimming stuff and headed down to Keswick for the swim. We registered, caught up with a few old and new friends, inflated the kayak and generally got ready, buoyed by the slight lifting of the clouds. A 10 minute warning, then 5, and I slipped into the water, passing my shoes up to P in the kayak. It had stopped raining, the water was warm, and I was feeling very happy. I had a plan, of sorts, for the swim. This was my third time for this event, and I've never got under 2.30 - the closest I've been is 2.35. So part of me really wanted to go for it and break 2.30, but at the same time, I'm not particular swim-fit right now; plus, I don't enjoy hard swimming, and Derwentwater is just too beautiful to rush. So, P and I decided to wait and see. We agreed that if I was at 1.30 at the second buoy (with just over two miles or so to go), then I would go for it. Otherwise, we would just pootle back enjoying the scenery.

The first hour flew by, and the swim across the top of the lake was livened up by being REALLY cold - I think it must be fed from that end. At the buoy, P told me I was under 1.30, so it was time to bite the bullet and go for it. I swam as hard as I could, trying to hold on to the changes in stroke that I've been working on over the winter. I really felt my lack of fitness, especially with the new stroke, but with just a few hundred metres to go, I knew I must be close to making it because P had stopped gazing enchantedly at the mountains and was cheering and clapping me on. And finally, I passed the finish jetty, and was delighted to hear that I'd made it in 2.29.16. Only just, but who cares. And I'm pretty sure that if I'd pushed hard from the start, I could have made 2.25-ish, so a good day out for me.

And then, surprise of all surprises, it turned out that I'd come second in the senior women's race, and was awarded a silver medal for my efforts.

Now, I'm very aware that quite a few of the usual speedier swimmers weren't there this year, and that this is more a case of 'right place right time' than a great leap forward on my part, but still, with nearly 6 minutes off my previous time, I was chuffed. After all, I'm a 44 year old sociologist - there aren't many opportunities in my everyday life for medal-winning, and I'll take what I can get! Many thanks to the BLDSA and all the volunteers who make their events so fantastic.

We were also rewarded with several hours of sunshine - yes, actual sunshine - that afternoon, and after a few hours of hanging about with some friends, we went back to the campsite to dry out our sodden possessions, then sat in the sun with books, wine and olives. Life is good.

After another night of rain, we took advantage of a promised break in the weather to test out our newest toy. Our single solid-framed inflatable is fantastic for swim-supporting, but we wanted to be able to go out paddling together sometimes too and we can't afford a second high quality single like that. So we picked this up for £100, and although it's got a bit more of the 'airbed' about it than the other one, it did the job just perfectly and we paddled most of the way up the lake and back with no trouble.

Before the clouds closed in completely again, P decided to go for a swim, and I paddled alongside, attracting the usual stares from leisure boaters. P looked so happy in the water, and it was lovely being able to bob alongside looking at the mountains. Unfortunately, about 45 mins into the swim, it started to hurl it down again, and I was only wearing shorts and a windbreaker over my swimming costume, so got completely soaked and freezing and we eventually had to turn back. But it was a fabulous 1.30 swim for P, and the new kayak gets top 'cheap and cheerful' points. We dried off and got changed, then headed off to the glorious Lakeland Pedlar for a vegetarian feast. If you're ever in Keswick, go there....and make sure you have an empty stomach and enough room for pudding. You won't regret it.

By now, it was slewing with rain again, and we went back to the campsite and tried our best to hang our wet clothes to dry in the awning tent, but by now, both the van and the tent smelled faintly of wet dog, and with no promise of another decent break in the weather, we decided that we would quit while we were ahead, cut our trip short by a day and head home.

So...a good trip, a splendid swim, an unexpected medal, a great deal of rain, and a welcome break.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Somebody's not concentrating...

I'm very happy with my Finis Hydro Tracker, and I've now managed to iron out the kinks that I encountered early on with it. It gives basic pace info, post-swim, which is pretty useful for learning to match pace to the feeling of a particular pace. This is handy for a determined one-pace swimmer like myself who is trying to reform. 

But what is also becoming clear is that my attention does tend to wander, causing me to drift off in the wrong direction every so often, requiring a significant correction. The top pic is from this morning, at Lake 32 at the Cotswold Water Park - a momentary lapse on a beautiful day. The bottom one was Bosworth Water Park a month or so ago - I really wasn't firing on all cylinders on that day (but is it just me, or did I draw an owl's face?). 

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Who are you swimming for?

When I was training for my Channel swim, one of the most common questions I was asked (once we'd got all the goose fat questions out of the way) was: "Who are you swimming for?". While I recognise that most people asked out of a generous impulse to contribute to whatever charity I had chosen, what I find intriguing about this is the assumption that I must (should?) be doing it for charity. The idea of swimming / running / cycling / walking for something is so deeply entrenched in contemporary society that it becomes hard for people to imagine not 'swimming for' something; it also becomes difficult, then, to say, as I did, that I was doing it 'for myself', and not for charity, and I often found people actively trying to persuade me to take sponsorship from them, or looking at me rather disappointedly.

One of the roles of sociology is to ask questions about things that seem obvious and straightforward, but which are actually a quite complicated mix, and this is a good example of that. Why is it that charitable fund-raising has become so inextricably linked with endurance sport? How can we understand the moral pressure and expectation to swim for charity? And even more intriguing, perhaps: why should other people's charitable giving be dependent on me doing something as random as swimming the Channel? Why does charitable giving have to be earned through forms of suffering, rather than just given? Of course, many people do give routinely to charities; others donate as much to support a friend doing a challenge as to support a particular charity; for some, the endurance sport is a useful prod to prompt the act of giving. But the tying together of endurance sport and fund-raising in the social imagination is so strong that it raises questions nevertheless.

I've been wanting to write about this for a while, but have been very wary of doing so...not least because any kind of critical engagement with the concept of 'swimming for' something can easily look like I'm doubting the positive motives of those doing so. So, to be clear, that's not what I'm saying - I think that there is a lot of heartfelt, generous, altruistic work being done in this regard. However, the pressure to 'swim for' still troubles me, and the fact that it is tricky to say that you are not 'swimming for' something tells us that there is more going on here than just a free choice of whether or not to swim for charity.

There was some discussion of this on the marathon swimmers' forum last May, covering fund-raising in general, but predominantly whether it is acceptable to fund-raise to cover the costs of swims themselves. The general view on this latter question was that transparency was the key. But I want to return to what I see as the bigger question of the relationship between charitable fund-raising and marathon swimming. By way of contribution to the debate, and as part of the research project, I gave a paper at the Third International Conference on Sport and Society  at Cambridge University on 23-25 July, 2012. My paper was (rather wordily) called: "Who are you swimming for?: English Channel swimming, charitable fund-raising and the construction of alliances of suffering", and this is my first attempt at writing on this topic. This is part of a more extensive writing plan for an academic journal article, but the conference gave me a chance to test out a few ideas. I wasn't entirely happy with the result - too many loose ends, mostly as a result of the 15 minute time limit for the presentation, but also because I'm still a bit tangled up about what the data says and what I want to say about the data. The time limit, for example, meant that I didn't really get chance to talk about the many different kinds of charitable fund-raising that go on under the umbrella of 'swimming for', and hopefully the article will enable me to explore this in more detail. So instead, I focused on the idea that charitable swimming can act as a sort of counter-balance to the very self-directed (self-absorbed) nature of Channel swimming. I also start to develop a concept of 'alliances of suffering' that I think will help to show how the different actors in charitable projects become connected. If you'd like to read the written text of the talk, you can download it by clicking on the paper's title on this page of my research website. It's a work in progress, so all comments welcome.

As for me, I chose not to swim for a charity. Just as there are multiple, simultaneous reasons for swimming for charity, there are several reasons for choosing not to: I didn't want the extra stress and pressure; I didn't feel like I could spare the time on top of the training; I was always planning to do more swims in subsequent years, so it felt like doing the Channel swim for charity was setting an unsustainable precedent; I was frankly uncomfortable with the idea that people's charitable giving would be dependent on such a random activity as me swimming; I felt that there was some tension around fund-raising through the swimming whilst also conducting research on that process (and receiving public money to do so); and finally, and perhaps with my research hat on, I wanted to see what kind of responses I had to not swimming for charity when there was such a strong expectation that I would from others.

What do other people think on this subject? What were your experiences of 'swimming for'? Feel free to e-mail me, or leave comments below.

And in the mean time, happy swimming, whoever you're swimming for.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Pet peeve of the day...

I try to keep this blog relatively light and keep the grumpiness to a minimum, but every so often, I feel like it's reasonable to give vent to the occasional grump. You don't get to be in your mid-40's without accumulating a good raft of pet peeves, and mine include, for example: people who talk in the Quiet Carriage on trains; wet tea bags (weird, creepy texture); the monarchy; describing women as 'girls'. Given the upcoming Olympics, I think we can expect another very grumpy blog on this latter peeve at some point in the next few weeks, given the habitual use of 'girls' to describe women in sports commentary.

But I digress - back to pet peeve of the day...

I received a tweet from cold water swimmer, Lewis Pugh, who I don't follow on Twitter, but which was re-tweeted by someone who I do. The tweet read: "The only way your body physically can't do it - is when your mind tells it to give up". Now...I've never been a particular fan of Lewis Pugh. Without a doubt, the swimming in cold water thing is pretty impressive, but his style of writing - mostly through short, aphoristic proclamations - and a rather macho intensity aren't really to my taste (although I know a lot of people find his ideas and style helpful in preparing for physical challenges). Lewis Pugh is not the pet peeve of the day and this is not an attempt to attack Pugh himself, but rather I want to take issue with the sentiment that he expressed - that bodies are subject to the mind, and that the body only fails because the mind wasn't up to the job. And I'm focusing on this because within the open water swimming world, you hear this kind of statement quite a lot ("20% physical and 80% mental"; "You can do anything you want to do" etc.), and I've never been comfortable with it.

I've written a bit about this before, but with a more conceptual focus on the relationship between mind and body, but this time, I want to raise this as an ethical problem for the swimming community. Firstly, the statement itself is simply, and self-evidently, not true, and I have several disabled students, for example, for whom this is a quite laughable and offensive premise. It is quite likely true that our bodies are capable of more than we think they are (although not always without cost to longer term health and well-being), and perhaps I am taking the saying too literally, but the undeniable reality is that all bodies have physical limitations that cannot be overcome simply by believing more or trying harder. And, for some people, those physical limitations are much more pronounced than for others. Secondly, then, the idea that physical limitation is the product of a weak mind individualises success and failure without any regard for circumstances or context and the very real barriers that many people face to even function effectively in the world. (But then, I am a sociologist, so I would say this...).

I think that this matters because it confuses the feeling that you can do anything you set your mind to with reality. I think all swimmers (and presumably other athletes) have had those moments of 'flow' where they feel incredibly powerful and capable; and most have experienced moments of achieving a much higher / longer / colder performance than they thought possible, and have gained pleasure from that sense of control from having pushed through something difficult. And sometimes, when you see someone push through something that really seems impossible to endure, it can feel like mind over matter is the only possible explanation. Indeed, I agree that being able to push the body into the background at difficult moments is one aspect of endurance sport. But when the values of the swimming community are articulated  through statements that portray bodily failure as a property of mental weakness, I fear that we end up looking like we are disregarding the realities of other people's lives. There is a long history of this in other aspects of social life - for example, enduring notions that blame cancer on individual personality traits, or which argue that the disease can be 'fought' through positive thinking. (To be clear, I'm not saying that Pugh makes these arguments...just that they follow the same kind of logic and that the concept has a long and problematic history). I worry, then, that as a swimming community, there is a tendency to celebrate endurance, triumph and overcoming, but without proper recognition of the privileges and plain old good fortune that enable us to engage in the sport - being fit and healthy enough to take on a marathon swimming challenge in the first place; having access to sufficient time, money and suitable locations to be able to train and enter swims. This is an ethical question, I think, in terms of how the sport represents itself.

There's been a lot of discussion online recently about what constitutes 'real' marathon swimming, and what distinguishes long distance open water swimmers from others, and I want to engage more with these debates in later blogs. But I do think that it's important to keep in mind that success in a particular activity - such as English Channel swimming - is not simply because the swimmer had a stronger mind than those who were not successful, or who could never even consider taking on such a challenge. As a community, I would like to see us acknowledge collectively and publicly not only the hard work that we put in to swimming and attributes that it demands and fosters etc, but also the good fortune (in health, resources etc) and relative privilege that enables us to engage with the sport in the first place (and prevents some others from doing so).

So there it is - my peeve of the day. And breathe....

(NB - this post was edited after publication to clarify some statements, but without changing the overall message).

Friday, 20 July 2012

The return of the big green jelly baby....

Well, it's all excitement in the Channel, as the miserable weather finally seems to have abated and we have been rewarded with the promise of a few lovely, calm, swimmable days. Good luck to everyone out there, or who's heading out there in the next few day. Enjoy it.

Landlocked in Coventry, I am sending my positive thoughts in the form of the big green jelly baby. I wrote about this before my English Channel swim in 2010, but recently reprised it for a drinks reception talk to a conference delegation of food sociologists at the British Library. I had been asked to talk about food and Channel swimming, so opened my talk with a short performance narrative about the big green jelly baby. I've posted this below. There are plenty of people out there with far more experience and expertise than me who are much better placed to offer advice to those swimming this year. But this is my offering of encouragement to the swimmers heading out this season: never under-estimate the comfort of small things while doing a big thing; and never under-estimate the power of a big, green jelly baby.

"Stroke, stroke, breathe. Stroke, stroke, breathe – these rhythmic triplets, the soundtrack of swimming. I had lost track of how many hours I’d been going. I had started at 2 that morning, jumping into the inky-black night-time water, and swimming into a beautiful dawn and through the day; the light was now starting to soften, and I guessed it was about 4pm. France was in sight every time I breathed to the left, and had been for hours, but a stubborn tide was blocking my progress, and a stiff wind was whipping up white-crested waves head on. My day of swimming was broken down in my mind into manageable half hour chunks…the time period between each feed, lowered down to me on a rope by my crew. Three feeds ago, my boat pilot had come out of the cabin to tell me that it was time for some hard effort now to push through the difficult tide. I had picked up my stroke rate in an attempt to muster something approximating a sprint, and my crew had stood on the deck, clapping and cheering me on; at every feed, they told me I looked fantastic, that I was flying – a generous and welcome fiction. Stroke, stroke, breathe; stroke, stroke, breathe. But I was getting tired now, and sore – not injury-sore, but all-over fatigued; every part of me felt nauseated and grey with tiredness. On every 6th stroke, I breathed towards the boat, snatching a visual snapshot of the scene on board and scouring it for clues; in unguarded moments, my crew looked worried. They knew what I didn’t – that the tide was supposed to have turned an hour ago, sweeping me up to the French shore; but it hadn’t (and bizarrely, anomalously, didn’t that day). I could see their huddled conversations with the boat pilot and felt a rising panic that after all these hours, after all of those months of training, perhaps this wasn’t going to be my day after all. Stroke, stroke, breathe; stroke, stroke, breathe – trying to keep up the faster pace. Needing to halt a rising, energy-sapping panic, it was time for my swimming strategy of last resort, saved and rehearsed for just such a moment, to get me through to the next feed…I emptied my head as much as I could, half-closed my eyes, and imagined an enormous, green jelly baby.
I scrutinised it carefully in slow, meticulous detail: little block feet, pudgy knees, rounded pot belly, button-nosed face, a jellied curl of hair on the crown, arms by its sides, round, fingerless hands. I turned it over in my mind to look at the bottom of its feet, then its flat back, its head and rounded shoulders from above. Then I imagined biting into it– just the left foot. I imagined the tooth-marked bright green jelly exposed inside, and the thin line of starchy white crust left behind. I imagined the handful of calories running into my own left foot. Next, the left leg, from ankle to knee; from knee to hip; then the right leg…slowly, incrementally, deliberately, until it was all gone, the cute jelly head forming the final bite. My crew signalled the next feed time by holding up the feeding bottle and rope spool; another half hour done."

You can find the text of the entire talk here (as well as other podcasts and talk transcripts).

Thursday, 12 July 2012

London 2012...

I've got very mixed feelings about the London 2012 Olympics.

In many ways, I find elite sport captivating - I admire absolute commitment in any field, and think that the work that goes into producing an elite sporting body is astonishing. I like watching those bodies in action...much more than I actually like the competition element, to be honest. But I also love a good race from time to time, although I rarely support anyone, and certainly don't feel any particular national or team allegiance; I just like watching the performance and experiencing some of the tension and excitement. The Olympics is, or at least could be, an intense festival of such moments, and when London was first awarded the Olympics in 2005, I remember being concerned about what it would mean for East London (where I was living at the time) but excited about it too.

But now, two weeks away from the start of the Olympics, I feel very different about it all. I am appalled by the raging hypocrisy of selling the Olympics to the UK as a health-promoting event then conceding universal catering rights to two of the most rapacious purveyors of low quality food in the world; the crass commercialisation is nauseating. And then we have the attempts, verging on the lunatic, to eliminate the names of any non-sponsors - for example, the Ricoh stadium in Coventry, is being renamed the "City of Coventry stadium" during the Olympics....including all the road signs!! There's also the superbly ridiculous stories of attempts to stop caterers serving chips to workers on the Olympic site because McDonalds have absolute rights to chips, and the relentless attempts to hunt down small businesses - even those East London businesses supposed to benefit from the Games - to prevent unauthorised uses of "Olympic" and other associated terms.

And then there's the budget. In June of this year, it was proudly announced that the Olympics would be coming in at £476 million under the £9.3 billion budget, but it is hard to think of any other circumstance where making an original bid of £2.4 billion, then later quadrupling it, would ever count as coming in under budget. One of the costs overlooked by the original budget was VAT! Unbelievable. The lack of clear legacy planning for the facilities, post-Olympics, is equally worrying; the recently issued photos of the Beijing facilities, left to rot, should give us pause for thought.

And then there's what I consider to be the really serious stuff - the compulsory purchase of homes and businesses; the repression of free speech and the right to protest; the unwarranted and unacceptable militarisation of East London (missiles on roofs, soldiers on the gates); and the rise of stop and search in Newham (and the associated criminalisation of (some) young people). I would also add to this the raging nationalism and the rhetoric of winning at all costs.

So, I am ambivalent. I know that I will end up watching some of it on TV - the swimming (indoor and out), some of the athletics, the cycling, probably. Those elite sporting bodies in action are always a sight to behold. But I think that the way in which the Olympics have been marketed to, and inflicted upon, the UK is dishonest, and the willingness to erode rights and freedoms, especially of those living in East London, is shameful. It didn't have to be like this, and a more honourable government (both the preceding Labour government, and the current coalition) would not have allowed it to happen in this way.

To the athletes, I wish them every success, and to those who have invested in tickets, or who are volunteering, I hope you have a wonderful few weeks. I know that many people will not agree with my point of view on this, and I perfectly respect that. But for me, however wonderful the sport, it will always leave a nasty taste in my mouth, and I heartily wish that this had been done differently.

Sunday, 8 July 2012


This weekend was the BLDSA 8 mile Torbay swim - my first go at this particular event, but one that I was really looking forward to. That I was underprepared would be an understatement; the end of term marking binge got totally out of hand, and training ended up being set aside more often than it should have been in order to get everything finished on time. Consequently, the 8 miles was going to be a hard swim for me on the best of days, but with luck, a manageable one. However, things didn't quite work out as I had planned, and I notched up my first DNF (Did Not Finish) ever for an event.

The first problem was this:

The weather forecast was miserable (and as it turned out, accurately so), with rain, high winds, falling temperatures and a general absence of anything much like summer. On Friday, the South West received about a month's worth of rain in one day, and on Friday night, as I lay in the campervan trying to get to sleep, all I could here was the sound of rain drumming relentlessly on the roof. On Saturday, I drove down to Meadfoot Beach in Torquay with some trepidation, and when I saw (and heard) the angry water of the bay, I was pretty certain (and a little hopeful) that the event would be cancelled. This was very unadventurous of me, but given that this was my first venture into the sea this year, on top of a very modest amount of training, I really wasn't sure how I'd hold up under those conditions. 

After much discussion, it was eventually decided by the organisers that since people had travelled some distance to swim, and since they'd already had the trophies made with 2012 on them, they would run a 4 mile swim comprised of 8 half-mile laps around buoys in the bay. I have to admit that my heart sank a little, and I wasn't in a great frame of mind when I got in, but even then I wasn't really prepared for what it was like in the water. Looking back through the blog, each year when I've got into the sea for the first time, I've had problems with balance and orientation that seem to diminish as I become more acclimatised to the movement; so this was something of a baptism of fire given that it was my first sea swim since last September, and I simply didn't have the skills, the strength or the sense of balance to cope with such nasty conditions. Struggling to make headway through the waves, I then became seasick. This has never happened to me before IN the sea (rather than on it) - except for Catalina, but that only happened because I was still sick from the boat. It was becoming harder and harder to focus my eyes and keep my balance; my head was spinning and my stomach kept heaving, eyes watering into my goggles. And so, after 4 laps, cold, depleted and miserable, I decided to call it a day. DNF. 

So, what did I learn from the day? 

Firstly, skimping on the training is risky - you train for what goes wrong, not what goes right. If I had been able to train harder, and in different conditions and bodies of water, it would have been easier to adapt and rise to the occasion. 

Secondly, sometimes, it's just not your day, for whatever reason, and it's okay to get out. Nothing bad happens. It's only swimming. 

Thirdly, there are some amazing swimmers out there and it was fantastic to watch everybody completing the swim. Well done to everyone.

Fourthly, the BLDSA is a wonderful organisation. The swim was made possible by an enormous number of volunteers (kayakers, St John's Ambulance, the event organisers) who got cold and wet without complaint. I love the tone of BLDSA events - the safety cover is always excellent, but low key; the prizes are never awarded until everyone has finished (or retired), and while the winners are always celebrated, so are the slower swimmers too. And I love the fact that no-one is snotty or derisive about those who DNF. Their events, whilst incorporating some seriously impressive racing, are ultimately about swimming, not winning, which is just great for the sport. I'm also particularly grateful to the poor kayaker who accompanied me round the course to the soundtrack of me heaving and puking, and to the first aiders who looked after me when I got out. 

And finally, even though the day didn't quite work out as I had planned (both in terms of the weather, and my own rather poor performance), it was actually a fantastic day of hanging out with swimmers, meeting new friends, and finally putting online names to faces. Even bad days can be good days. 

Saturday, 30 June 2012

Exuberant leaping...

Last year, I watched a documentary called The Big Celebrity Swim  (no longer available) about a relay swim across the Irish Channel organised by Richard Branson. The team involved a group of celebrities of varying degrees of starriness, and with varying degrees of swimming ability and experience, and a back-up team of top-notch marathon swimmers. Perhaps understandably, the documentary focused on the fears and struggles of the celebrities, showing only the occasional glimpse of the marathon swimmers. But one of the marked differences between the two groups was the (non)exuberance of their entry into the water. The celebrities lowered themselves nervously down over the sides of the rib, but the experienced swimmers could be seen hurling themselves exuberantly into the air before splashing, arms and legs splayed playfully, into the water. Of course, this is a product of experience and comfort with the surroundings, but I have often thought since then that rather than the endless (and for me, deeply tedious) debates about wetsuits and non-wetsuits, and who the 'real' swimmers are, this should be the test - given the opportunity to jump into deep water from a platform, with how much vigorous abandon is this performed?

I was reminded of this recently as I've been following the 8 Bridges Swim in New York, organised by Dave Barra - 120 miles down the Hudson River in 7 day-long stages. I've been compulsively following their Facebook posts, videos and pics (vicarious swimming is my second favourite sport), and all of the swimmers, by the 'vigorous abandon' jumping in test, score extremely highly. Take, for example, this excellent example of Dave Barra in 2011 during the inaugural 8 Bridges Swim:

Or this very exuberant leap during this year's event by (I think) Rondi Davies:

 But from the pics that have been posted so far, the queen of exuberant launches has to be Gracie van der Byl, who I was also lucky enough to meet in La Jolla last year, and who can leap and plunge with the best of well as being an amazing swimmer who is attempting to complete ALL of the stages.

Special marks for this dive bomb from the judges...

Well done to everyone swimming the 8 Bridges and to all those organising the swims - it looks fabulous. Now, if you could just organise it out of UK university term times...  

And as for me, well...I like to think that there's a certain amount of exuberance to be seen here in my leap into the water for the beginning of the Bridge to Bridge swim in San Francisco last year.

Happy leaping!

Sunday, 24 June 2012

And they're off...kind of...

Well, the Channel swimming season is going to kick off hopefully in the next couple of days, so good luck to everyone planning to get wet this summer. As a little pre-Channel season taster, we were treated this weekend to the excitement that is the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, which included a number of swimming friends, plus a host of 'names' who I've never had the privilege to meet, but whose reputation precedes them. It was, by all accounts, one hell of a day out on the water, with lots of lumps and bumps to deal with. Special congratulations go to the overall winner, 22 year old Abby Nunn, but massive plaudits all round. There was some fantastic swimming, resulting in a 100% completion rate. You can see the final results here.

Elsewhere, this was also the weekend for the Great North Swim, one of the biggest (the biggest?) mass participation swimming events in the world, involving thousands of people completing 1 or 2 miles swims in Lake Windermere. The Great Swims have been absolutely central to the rise of open water swimming in this country, offering an exciting, safe and well-run challenge in a beautiful location. But sadly, the weather had other ideas. As those in the UK don't need to be told, the weather here has been appalling for weeks, with howling gales, driving rain and plummeting temperatures. And so, as the GNS weekend arrived, so did some of the worst conditions the region has seen, with a month's worth of rain falling in a single day in some places, causing flooding and general misery. In response, the GNS team eventually had to concede and the races for Friday and Saturday both had to be cancelled, although today's events (Sunday) are going ahead as I type. I read a few fairly snotty responses online to the cancellations, but most took it on the chin for what it was - bad luck. While those conditions may have been okay for some of the more experienced swimmers, for many GNS swimmers, the mile swim takes them to the edge of their capabilities; the difficult conditions, then, constituted a significant safety risk...not least because of the problems of providing effective safety kayak cover in high winds. So, while it is deeply disappointing for everyone who trained for it (and worked to prepare delivering the event itself), safety always has to come first. Bad luck everyone...but it'll be there another day.

So, the season is up and running, albeit in a somewhat disrupted and stormy way. I know several relay teams and a couple of solos who are hoping to get across the Channel next week, and am thinking calm thoughts for the weather for all of them. Happy swimming everyone.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Some days are better than others...

Sometimes, it's just not your day. Unfortunately, I had to abandon my plans to go down to Dover this weekend for the Champion of Champions - when it's really windy, the van can only go at 45-50mph, making it a ridiculously long drive. Plus, I was stuck beneath a pile of marking that never shrank, so I decided to stay home instead and keep working. So...I went to Swan Pool this morning, hoping for a nice solid swim after a pretty intense and stress-filled week at work....En route, something in the van started flashing that shouldn't be flashing, and the temperature gauge was through the roof, but I made it there in one piece and decided to swim before sorting it out. So in I went, and felt fine at first, but then by the second 700m lap, I started to get REALLY cold. I tried swimming harder, but kept getting colder and colder - not in my hands and feet so much as in my core. By lap 4, I was getting the shivers in my torso, and I noticed on lap 5 that my stroke was really slowing down and decided to err on the side of caution and call it a day. After all the rain we've had, and the greyness of the day, it was definitely a bit on the chilly side, but I've swum much further in colder water than that, and it really did go straight to my core, rather than nibbling in from the peripheries, like it normally does. So, I don't know what was going on there....lack of acclimatisation resulting from my more inconsistent training this year? Sleep deficit? Stress? Hormones? Too distracted?

Then I had to sort out the van - Jeremy (who works with the safety team down at SP) had a look at it, thought at first that it just needed some water adding, but then reached in and pulled out this shredded belt from the engine innards. Now, I don't know much about cars, but even I knew that this probably wasn't good. But happily, this is why we pay all that money to the nice people at Direct Line, and they sent someone with a tow-truck to take me and my poor, debilitated van home.

So, both Bob the Campervan and I are clearly getting past our best.

Oh well...some days are just better than others. But to take a glass-half-full perspective on the morning, had I driven the 200+ miles to Dover this weekend, this would probably have happened on the motorway on the way home, which would have been an altogether different degree of not fun. Here's hoping for better next week.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Research update

Following on from my previous post - a swimming update - I thought I should also offer an update on my research project, which is sadly inching towards a close but which I know many people who visit this website have participated in. I completed the fieldwork in September 2011, and since then, have been analysing all of the data and starting the writing process. So far, I've had one article (on swimming and pleasure) accepted for publication by the academic journal Feminist Review, and a second paper, this time on swimming and body fat, is currently under review by the journal Body & Society. The Feminist Review paper should be out later this year, although copyright restrictions will mean that I can't make it publicly available here or on the research blog immediately; I will do my best to get copies to people who request them however until they can be made openly accessible (welcome to the world of academic publishing and the problems of open access materials!). On top of this, I'm writing a further paper on marathon swimming and identity, and then after that, I'm going to get started on the book. At the moment, I'm struggling to think of a decent title, so all suggestions welcome; at the moment, I keep referring to it as 'my swimming book', which I don't think will quite do the job.

I've also started giving some presentations of the research - again mostly in academic contexts for now, but I'm hoping to expand this to non-academic audiences over the next year. This includes 3 conference papers in the next month - one on swimming and food, on on swimming and body fat, and a third on swimming for charity. Podcasts of all of these will be posted on the research website (as well as being announced here). Most recently, I gave a paper at an event organised by the Centre for the Study of Women and Gender  on the topic of 'Gender and Sport'. The event included papers on 'walking out' programmes, parkour, sport in development programmes, and, of course, marathon swimming. If you would like to watch the talks, video podcasts are available on the event website, and I've also added the link to my talk to my research website. Scroll down the page to the section on 'presentations' and click on the title 'Man up!: marathon swimming and the gendered body'. When the page opens, select 'default lite' and open the player - this should take you to the video, including insets of the slides. I hope you find it interesting. It's all still a work in progress, but talks like this are a great chance to try out ideas and get feedback and questions.

The aspect of the research where I've made the least progress so far is in the presentation of the findings to people outside of academia. This is primarily because the publication demands of academic life, and of research funding, mean that it's necessary to prioritise academic publication in the first instance. However, I am also very keen to find as many different ways as possible to share the results of the research more widely and in a variety of ways outside of the conventional academic language and formats of my working environment. In the first instance, this will be done on the website via an electronic magazine-style publication, and through a series of 'Channel stories' - carefully edited start to finish accounts of training to swim the Channel that bring out key aspects of the research. I'm also going to be preparing policy papers to circulate to key policy-makers in the fields of swimming, sport more generally, and health, and am hoping to identify further speaking opportunities to interested non-academic audiences - I would welcome any suggestions you might have for this.

And last but not least, I'm organising an end-of-project one-day seminar on 11 September, 2012, provisionally titled 'Extreme / Endurance Sport' until I can think of something better - it will include research on running (fell, marathon, ultra), climbing and swimming....including two artists working on representing marathon swimming visually, and a fantastic film about marathon running. It would be great to have a wide range of people attending, so please get in touch if you would like to come.

I think that's everything for now. The project has been an enormous amount of fun to do - and not just because it meant that I got to go swimming A LOT in some amazing locations. If you're interested in the research, please take some time to browse through the research website  - if you have any suggestions for what you would like to see up there, or what's been most interesting / helpful, I'd love to hear from you.

And to all those who are gearing up for big swims this season, very best of luck. Writing up the research is fun, but I don't think anything will ever match the excitement of my Channel swim. Good luck - I'm looking forward to spending hours and hours watching trackers inching their way to France.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Training update - the pleasures of taking it easy

I think it would be fair to say that The Long Swim has been taking things fairly easy. The crew down in Dover knocked out their first brace of 6 hour swim this weekend, but I settled for two 6km swims instead - both at Lake 32 at the Cotswolds Water Park. This is a new venue for me this year (following our move to Bath, where we live for part of the time), and it's working out really well. The water's pretty shallow, so I imagine it'll become soupy-warm as soon as the sun comes out (remember the sun?), but for now, and especially following all the rain, it's a perfect temp and I've been enjoying my laps.

There is something extremely civilised about swimming for just a couple of hours a day, 5-6 times a week. It's enough to give me an appetite, ensure a sound night's sleep and generally leave me feeling fit and strong, but without wiping me out. And I have to say that although the Dover trips were always fun, and great training, I really don't miss the 5 hours each way on the motorway. So, the upshot is that although in distance swimming terms, I am a shadow of my former self, in every other way, this works really well for me and certainly gives me pause for thought about whether or not to do another big swim. (Although, having said that, I know that once I'm in training for a big swim, I really get into it, so I'm not writing that off yet).

But apart from the reduction in training time / distance this year, the biggest change has been that I have been working on swimming at a higher effort level. I know that I can plod away, but while I'll never be the speediest of swimmers, I"m trying to put some steady effort in (whilst holding on to my slightly improved stroke technique and efficiency). This is a work in progress, and I still don't have as much fitness as I would like, but there are signs of improvement; I've signed up for a couple of 10km swims later this summer to put this to the test. The Finis Hydro Tracker is a perfect, if slightly tyrannical, tool for this project - while I'm swimming, I'm not clock watching, but rather, concentrating on perceived effort and stroke rate / rhythm; then I can evaluate later based on the stats. It's hard not to let the Hydro Tracker become a bit of a slave-master - my heart always sinks if I've clocked a slower pace than I was aiming for. But it's an engaging project that stops me from slipping into two-hour plods that aren't really contributing anything...other than the simple pleasure of being in the water, which is also nothing to be sneezed at.

And next weekend, it's off to Dover for the BLDSA Champion of Champions - 5 mile, 3 mile and then 1 mile races in one day. I think it would be fair to say that I'm approaching this with some trepidation - my first sea swim of the year, a lower temp than I've become accustomed to in the lakes, and a distance far in excess of anything I've managed this year. But given that I've signed up to do the BLDSA Torbay event (8 miles) on July 7th, it's probably about time I ventured into the sea to get a bit of distance in. With luck, I'll get through the day in one piece....

Monday, 4 June 2012

Essential swim kit - new addition

A while back, I wrote a post detailing my cold water kit, and I continue to remain pretty loyal to this collection of kit and clothing. But recently I've made a new and useful addition - a key safe.

For some reason, it's taken me ages to come round to this, even though I know a lot of swimmers (and surfers etc) have been using them for ages. It just felt wrong to attach the key visibly to the outside of the van, but eventually logic prevailed, and I had to accept that either hiding the keys under the flap covering the petrol cap, or wrapping them in my socks in my kit bag (which was then left on the beach or lake side) was not exactly a theft-proof strategy either. It has a solid D-ring which hooks over the tow ring on the back of the van, and then a small space to store a key / credit card, which is locked / opened via a 4-digit combination lock. It's pretty solid, and although I'm sure that it wouldn't deter the most determined and well-equipped car thief, it certainly offers more resistance than the petrol cap.

When it was very cold, I had some trouble operating the combination lock with numb hands, but all in all, a complete success.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Finis Hydro Tracker - Review

After much umming and aahing about which measuring device to get, I finally settled on the Finis Hydro Tracker. I chose it over the Garmin 910xt, on the basis of cost (c. £100 for the Finis, against £350 for the Garmin), my concerns about the size of the Garmin and the impact that might have on my wrist, and finally, following very mixed reviews from swimmers I know and trust about the Garmin. So, the Finis Hydro Tracker it was.

The Hydro Tracker isn't yet available through European retailers (although I understand that this is going to happen soon), and so I had to order it directly from Finis in the US. They were impressively prompt and efficient in handling this, which was very reassuring. It's worth remembering, of course, that you have to pay import duty to bring it into the country (c. £30) which adds to the cost; there are, however, a few discount codes floating about which I didn't know about before I ordered but which would probably counterbalance the import duty if you can't wait for the European retail outlets to open up. But the important thing was that it arrived safe, sound and very speedily - so quickly in fact that the lakes where I swim still hadn't opened by the time I had it in my excited little hand.

Setting it up and getting going proved to be both straightfoward and complicated. You have to plug it in to your computer to charge, then download the software. Unfortunately, I had an outdated instruction leaflet in the box, which had a different name for the software, which I then spent quite a while looking for online. I eventually settled on the right software, but had a lot of trouble getting the Hydro Tracker to connect to it. A change of cable seemed to help, but I still find that it does not always hold the connection well and I get angry messages from my laptop chastising me for not disconnecting properly when I haven't even touched it. I should say that some direct and very supportive contact with Finis rectified the problem of the outdated insert very quickly. A second problem I encountered from the outset was that on my Mac, the battery level never rose above three out of the five boxes, so I was left wondering whether something was wrong with my Tracker and it was unable to take a full charge. However, when I loaded the software onto my PC laptop, it immediately showed a full five boxes for the battery level, so this is obviously a Mac / PC glitch. There are other differences between the two - on the Mac, the software prompts you to set the sampling level at every 6 seconds for swimming, but on the PC, it suggests setting it to every 4 secs. It also says 4 secs in the insert (new and old).

And one more word of warning (which is also in the Finis material) - after charging, make sure that you switch it off. It turns on when it's charging, so if you leave it like that after charging, when you come to use it, it will be flat or will run out of beans very quickly and not record anything. Some lessons, even when you've been warned, you have to learn the hard way. The documentation does, however, promise a 13+ hour battery life from fully charged when sampling every 6 secs, which I haven't tested, but is a very good length of time to be able to work with.

So now onto the good stuff.

Firstly, it's very easy to use as there are only two buttons and it has a limited range of functions. The button on the top powers it on or off. Once on, it will locate itself via GPS, signalling readiness with a green flashing light. Then, when you're ready to start, you hold the bottom button down for a couple of seconds, and it begins timing you and recording your movements. At first, it's hard to have confidence in it, and you tend to start it and then spend ages checking that the recording light is flashing; this is a little difficult in bright sunlight and involved lots of cupping of hands and cowering in corners. But once you've got confidence in it, you just push the button and you're away. I've finally got comfortable enough with it now to do this while it's clipped onto my goggle straps, just reaching up to the back of my head and holding the button down, then off I go. This saves the very frustrrating recording of the first 100m of your swim as having taken 5 minutes!

I was worried that it would be uncomfortable on the back of my head, especially since, like many women, I have a knot of hair that sits between goggle straps. But it sits there unnoticeably - so much so that on my first swim, I kept stopping to check that it was still in place.

When you finish, you just hold the bottom button down again for a couple of seconds, and then power it down. Back home, you plug it into your computer, open up the software, and upload the swim. You get overall time / distance, plus a breakdown of your swim in 100m bites, and then km chunks, organised into graphs so that you can see trends and patterns in your pace:

On the software page, If you hover the cursor over each bar, you get the specific time, plus the bars give you a sense of how steady (or in this case, slowly declining) your pace is. (Note the long first 100 metres while I faffed about with the Tracker). 

You can also get nice satellite maps of your swims. This first is from the swim at Swan Pool that was documented in the graphs above:

And this second is from today's 5km swim at Market Bosworth:

From these, we can conclude that I spend a lot of time going around in circles, and at Bosworth in particular, my sense of direction is sometimes a little eccentric. I would imagine that this mapping function is far more aesthetically pleasing for linear coastal swims or larger circuits than my local 700m round swim spots. But I like the look of these loosely wound wool.

At the moment, because I'm not really training in a focused way for anything, the Hydro Tracker is more novelty and fun than serious training tool. But it definitely has the potential to be useful in training - especially in terms of keeping track of pace and consistency over longer swims, or building in harder efforts. Obviously, it doesn't give you any feedback in the water, so you need to use other more conventional markers to structure sessions - for example, today, I worked on hard effort up the lake, and easy going back down, and this is then reflected in the graphs (where I could see afterwards that my hard efforts slowed as the swim progressed - a reflection of my poor swim fitness, I suspect). Alternatively, you could wear a regular watch and do X mins of harder effort, followed by recovery, which would then be easily visible on the graphs, especially when combined with your knowledge of the timed intervals.

So, my conclusion is that although there seem to be some Mac / PC glitches and inconsistencies, and occasional problems is establishing and maintaining a connection, this is good little bit of kit that is reasonably priced. It is also very simple, and I like the fact that the relatively small number of functions that it performs are well chosen and useful. I'd definitely recommend it.