Sunday, 5 February 2012

Ten things I wish I'd known when I started this swimming lark....Part II carrying on where I left off....

6. Jelly babies and wiggly worms - the comfort of small things.
One of the most disconcerting effects of long training swims in the sea is the weird thing that happens to the inside of your mouth - the swollen tongue, diminished sense of taste, sore spots that hurt A LOT if you eat a tomato. And then there's the lovely sloughing off of a layer of your tongue a couple of days later... This is all part and parcel of marathon sea swimming. But there is nothing better than a black jelly baby, or a black or red wiggly worm to get the taste of salt out of your mouth at the end of a swim. Sometimes, it's the small comforts that make the difference.

7. Get some proper sunscreen.
Writing about swim nutrition, Evan Morrison advises that you should never use anything you can buy at the garage (excuse me....gas station) as your core nutrition. To extend this to sunscreen, I would say that you shouldn't use anything you can buy at Boots, especially if, like me, you're fair skinned and go pink and burst into freckles as soon as you see the sun. The stuff that people use on the beach on a summer afternoon, including that blue stuff you spray on children, is no good for multiple hours of open water swimming. Getting sun-burned is extremely unhealthy, plus it REALLY hurts when you get in the shower. Get some proper water-sports grade sunscreen - something thick and gloopy that won't come off for hours. I've found Aloegator gel really good, except that it's clear, so it's hard for whoever's applying it to see where they've already done, making it easy to miss bits. My personal favourite is Prosport 44 - slather it on thick well ahead of time, and you're sorted. Of course, it's not perfect, and I still have a lovely stripe across my forehead for most of the summer, but I don't get burned (any more....a hard lesson learned in my first season of swimming as I worked my way through the sunscreen shelves).

8. There are no emergencies in marathon swimming.
Of course, this isn't strictly true, since there are clearly moments when the crew has to act quickly to protect a swimmer from an unexpected hazard, or get an injured or ailing swimmer out of the water. What I mean is that, if you trust your crew to intervene in the real emergencies, from the swimmer's perspective, there's really nothing in marathon swimming that can't wait for half an hour. It is in the nature of marathon swimming to experience the occasional spirit-crushing low point, but no matter how lousy, exhausted, sick, sad or cross you're feeling, it's nothing that can't wait. The moment when you decide you want to get out is generally not the moment when you need to get out - give it 30 minutes, then review. These things are often cyclical, and the odds are that you'll feel better. And I refer you back to point 6 - remember the comfort of small things: ask for a favourite treat; allow yourself to hear your crew's encouraging shouts; repeat over and over in your head a word that makes you laugh (in my case, "discombobulation"). I'm not suggesting that getting out is some kind of mental failure to overcome suffering - sometimes, it's just not your day and getting out is absolutely the right thing to do. But it's also the case that the desire to get out is rarely an emergency - a lot can change in 30 mins.

9. It's only swimming.
Before my Channel swim in 2010, I was whittling on to a very understated, but accomplished swimmer who had crossed the Channel in the 1960's. The weather was vile and it looked for all the world like I might not get a chance to swim that season. She sympathised at my frustration and despair, and then said, "But it's okay - it's only swimming". And this has stuck with me ever since. This is the paradox of marathon swimming - to do it, it needs to be a fairly all-consuming project, and easily comes to feel like the most important thing in the world. But at the end of the day, it's still only swimming and it has to be kept in perspective. I take my swimming very seriously: I plan; I train; I save money to pay for swims; I think about it every day. And although I've been fortune enough to complete all of the long swims I've done, I would have been gutted to have not made any of them, or not had a chance to swim. But it's still only swimming, and the water waits if you want to have another go.

I wish I'd taken this on board at the beginning, when failing to complete a training swim or weekly distance goal felt like a blow to my Channel hopes - proof that this was a ridiculous goal for a person like me. I've seen it in others too, in Dover, or in Gozo, when having to get out early is experienced as a devastating sign of Channel failure; or of some kind of personal failure. I've seen people march off the beach in a distressed fury, going off on their own to beat themselves up. I understand the urge and have been known to sit in the van crying tears of frustration from time to time at my own limitations. But it's only swimming - go and get washed and changed, take care of your recovery by having something to eat and drink, and then get back down on the beach - talk to people about what went wrong and how to fix it, help out with feeds, encourage and congratulate the other swimmers. I guarantee you'll feel better.

10. It's an enormous amount of fun.
When I signed up to swim the Channel, I had expected to enjoy the challenge of it, the structured life of being in training, and the novelty of a physical challenge that is so at odds with my sedentary working life as an academic. I liked the out-of-the-ordinariness of the whole business - a welcome change of pace and focus at a time when I was feeling uncertain about where my professional life was heading. But I hadn't expected to enjoy the swimming so much. I hadn't expected that my first thought when heading home from even the coldest, most miserable swim would be when I could next go swimming; I hadn't expected to find the swimming peaceful, relaxing, at times, even euphoric. So many of the tales that swimmers tell each other, and to others, are tales of suffering - perhaps because those are the most memorable parts, and because they make the best stories. But it's so much more than that, and now, in the darkest, wintery depths of early February, I am desperate to get back in the open water, not because I have to train for something (which I don't this year), but because I want to. I spent a lot of time at the beginning, not unreasonably, panicking about the cold, about whether I was a good enough swimmer and so on; I wish I'd known at the beginning just how much fun I was going to have too.


  1. I absolutely love these two posts Karen!

  2. Inspirational stuff Karen
    Some of the best yet

  3. Thanks Mark....of course, I'm all talk and not very much action these days, but I'm working on it.

  4. Beautifully written and thoroughlly inspirational. Nice one.

  5. I'm bookmarking this list. Thanks.


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