Sunday, 29 April 2012

Goggles review

The search for the perfect clear goggles continues. As regular readers may know, I have an abiding loyalty to the Blueseventy Element goggles for open water swimming, but while their heavily mirrored lenses are great for the bright daylight, they're not so good for pool swimming, duller conditions or early mornings, and are useless for night swimming. So, until they start making clear versions, the search for an alternative continues and I got a couple of candidates to try out.

First up is the Aquasphere Kaiman....and as an extra bonus, this review comes with a lesson in how not to test out new goggles. What you absolutely shouldn't do is excitedly grab your new goggles and head out at 6.30 am to your local lake, snap them quickly on, think that they feel 'about right', and then hop into 10 degree water for the first time this season. Because what happens next is they start to leak....not because they're not capable of forming a good seal, but because you didn't bother to make sure they were properly fitted before you started. And of course now you're freezing cold with fingers too sausage-like to adjust them properly; plus, every time you stop to empty them out and fiddle with them, the nice people doing safety cover on the bank who already think you're barking mad for going in without a wetsuit on think that you're in trouble and start reaching for torpedo buoys.

So after this rather inauspicious start, I took them to the pool, taking the time to get the tension just right. The adjustment mechanism is easy to use, and in no time at all, I had them fitting like a glove, with not so much as a dribble seeping in during an hour's session. The rubbery skirts that form the seal against the face are inordinately soft - so soft, in fact, that they've made up a new name for the material: Softeril. The point is, they're really comfortable. The goggles have a double head strap at the back - important especially for women (or men) with long hair, because the straps can sit easily each side of the knot under your cap, whilst still exerting even pressure on the goggles. The clear lens have no distortion and a good field of vision, with an excellent anti-fog. So, all in all, a success.

The second pair wasn't quite such a success for me: the Speedo Rift Pro Mask. I've never really swum in a mask, but thought it would be worth trying. I had the lightly mirrored one since these are mostly for outdoor swimming anyway, but there is also a clear-lensed version. On the positive side, they are easy to adjust and they fitted easily on the first go and then didn't budge, not letting a drop of water in; like the Kaiman's, it's got a double head strap, and it's also got a pretty wide field of vision too, although I experienced some distortion when I tested it in the pool (which was less significant in the open water, but was exaggerated by all the tiles and lines). I had two key problems with it: one which is perhaps of general interest, and one which is more about my own preferences. Firstly, I wasn't very impressed with the anti-fog, and had to keep stopping to wipe the inside of the lenses clear; this was helped eventually by a bit of lick and spit, but that shouldn't really be necessary on a brand new pair. But secondly, and the real drawback for me, was that the mask is just too big. Relative to other similar products, it is small and light, but like all masks, it sits on the forehead (rather than around the eye socket), and even loosely secured, I felt like the pressure would get to me on a long swim - like having a hat that's too tight. But also, even when you turn your head to breathe, you can feel the mask dragging slightly against the water. I can imagine that for someone who is not too confident in the water and wants good visibility combined with a mask that is not going to leak or come off easily, perhaps over a relatively short swim, this would be a good option; for me, it was too big and too 'on my face' for me to be able to get on with it.

So, the Aquasphere Kaiman is the winner for now, and has been promoted to 'clear goggles of choice' status in my kit bag.

Swimming books

As the rise and rise of open water swimming / outdoor swimming / wild swimming continues, there has been a parallel flurry of books on the subject - histories, biographies, autobiographies. I've recently read a couple of them and offer my views below:

Lynn Sherr (2012) Swim: Why We Love the Water New York: Public Affairs
Susie Parr (2011) The Story of Swimming: A Social History of Bathing in Britain Stockport: Dewilewis Media

Sherr's book is structured around a swim of the Hellespont, joining an annual event that I also took part in in 2008. (Incidentally, it was here that I encountered an extraordinary concentration of Channel swimmers, and within a month of returning from my trip, I was booking a pilot. So be careful.) Sherr's book is punctuated with an account of this swim, broken into broadly chronological fragments that are then related to the focus of each chapter. The book is extremely wide-ranging, covering cultural, historical and scientific themes, and ranging from Polar Bear swimming to elite competition.

It is sprinkled with wonderful illustrations - woodcuts, photographs, advertising hoardings, paintings, postcards - that highlight the cultural significance of swimming, and of the water; plus, many of the illustrations are extremely incongruous to the contemporary eye. I particularly loved (in an appalled sort of way) the 1922 photo of the older man on a beach carefully measuring the distance from knee to the lower seam of the swimming costumes of female bathers to ensure that, in the interests of decency, that they hadn't exceeded a display of more than 6 inches of thigh. The inside of the book is decorated with a delightful series of cigarette cards from the 1930's illustrating the different swimming strokes, and little figures from the cards swim discretely along the bottom of each page. Adorable.

Sherr evidently loves swimming, and this leaps out of every page, but as a book, I also found the text a little frustrating. It is very journalistic in style (which is not surprising, since Sherr is a journalist), jumping around a lot across time periods and topics in order to weave an engaging, but in parts very superficial narrative. I always wanted to know a little bit more and found the jumping about a little frustrating. I was also very disappointed with her completely uncritical reproduction of the notion that women have to look good (defined entirely by slimness) before they can feel good. In a section on swimsuits, she states: "Want to see a grown woman - any woman - act like a victim in a horror film? Two words: bathing suit". Not "any woman", Lynn, I can assure you.  She then quotes playwright Nora Ephron, who says: "I think the day you go to buy a bathing suit is the day that even women who like to shop feel like committing suicide". Really? And you don't find that ever so slightly tasteless? The following page is a homily to the 'holding in' properties of spandex, endorsing the notion that it is only once women feel suitably compressed and constrained that they should feel free to swim. What sexist, self-loathing tosh and nonsense. And it's a shame, because the rest of the book is so much about the glorious sensations of swimming, and the freedom and joy of it. It's a small part of the book, but it spoiled it for me.

Susie Parr's book, on the other hand, is 191 big, fat pages of delight. It's literally a big book - hard-backed, square and heavy; it spreads out luxuriously in your lap. While Parr shares Lynn Sherr's passion for the water and her text includes a number of engaging autobiographical snippets, it is a chronologically ordered social history, during which she is able to give herself time to explore particular issues, trends and social moments more fully - the section on the Romantics is a perfect example of this, and is wonderfully done. The chronological narratives also provide a discrete structure to an incredibly wide-ranging text.

Visually, Parr's book is stunning (and I'm not just saying this because it has a picture of me in it...Page 167, since you ask...), combining historical artefacts with beautiful photographs taken by her non-swimming husband, Martin Parr. His position as a non-swimmer gives a fascinating on-shore perspective, combining shots of people and places (and people in places) with quirky oddities: a mermaid scarecrow; a graffitied swimming pool sign. Occasionally, Parr herself appears in the pics, sometimes standing facing the camera, arms by her sides in a holiday portrait pose, and in others, engaging actively with the water. In one glorious picture at the opening of the book, she stands, back to the camera and facing an expanse of water, arms stretched out in celebration and anticipation, embracing the scene.

I actually had a copy of this book for quite a while before I read the text, such was the distracting appeal of the images, but having greedily consumed the visual feast, I was finally able to appreciate the text itself, which is an additional joy. It's very carefully and precisely written, and engagingly presented. There is a lot of information here, with a very strong sense of changing social mores and how those in turn played out (and were infuenced by) swimming. This is a must-read for anyone interested in the social history of swimming, in all its richness.

So, both of these books share a love of swimming, and intermingle autobiography with historical and social narrative. Both demonstrate a keen eye for some of the splendid ludicrousness of historical engagements with swimming (at least to our 21st century eyes); I don't think I will ever tire of looking at pictures of landbased swimming machines, or diagrammatic instructions for how to swim. For me, and aside from my irritation with Sherr's book about the 'you have to look good to feel good' issue, Parr's is the better book; it is more structured, informative and beautiful. But it's not a book you would keep in your bag to read on the train - it both requires and deserves an armchair. Sherr's book, on the other hand, is more a series of tasty snacks; I read it in a couple of hours on a cold wet afternoon, or you could imagine using it to liven up your daily commute.

Happy reading.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Time to get wet...

Tonight, I went to Swan Pool for the first time this year - not to swim, but to take my turn doing the register. After what has been a fairly oomph-less couple of months on the swimming front, I felt quite jealous watching every swim round in the rain. I surprised myself by itching to jump in, so perhaps it's all still in there somewhere. So, on Saturday, it's time to get wet.

But in the mean time, what's with the weather? Something a little more enticing would be nice.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Citizen, not subject

This is a very un-swimming post, but I thought I might as well get it out in the open now, since I'm probably going to get steadily crosser as the Queen's Jubilee approaches and it's best that you know why.

P and I divide our time between the two cities that we inhabit (Coventry and Bath), and we have now received invites in both locations to Jubilee Street parties. I don't want to offend anyone by putting up posters, or (as we have considered) putting republican postcards through neighbourhood doorways late at night. But good heavens.... let's stop with the fawning adoration of the public parasite-in-chief and her band of unmeritocratically over-privileged descendants.

So, now that street parties are going to be taking place near both our abodes, I see no alternative but to swim out into a suitably large stretch of water (see, it is partly about swimming) until it is all over.

In the mean time, in case it wasn't already obvious, I support a democratically elected head of state, and an end to the constitutional role of the monarchy. The monarchy is unaccountable, expensive, and relies on birthright as a means of accessing power and privilege. It just isn't good enough.

So, for the record, I am a....

And if you need me on Jubilee weekend, I'll be off swimming somewhere and most definitely not turning on my TV.

There, I feel better now that's off my chest. Normal service will be resumed shortly with some swimming book reviews and a summary of the research data on why people choose to swim the Channel.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Tempting... ... not two posts ago I was vowing to think seriously and carefully about whether or not I have the time to train for more long swims. The demands of work plus the complications of living in two places mean that I've been seriously reconsidering my plans to have a crack at MIMS  and / or have another go at the Channel. It's time, perhaps, to be sensible and not spread myself too thin; a good moment to concentrate on my career.  

But then this came along - the newly formed Xtrm Baleares Open Water Swim Services (XBOSS). In particular, they are providing support for the swim from Menorca to Majorca (the Menorca Channel), which looks very alluring indeed. 


Monday, 16 April 2012


This is a little sentimental, but I thought I'd share one of my favourite pictures, and also one of my earliest memories - paddling in the sea with my Dad. Dad couldn't swim and I can't imagine what he would have made of what I've been up to over the last few years. He died 24 years ago next week, and I feel sad that he didn't get to see just how great my life turned out and to share that with me. But I love the fact that we seem like we're having a lot of fun in this picture.

Plus, you've got to love that swimming costume I've got on!

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Time, time, time...

The good news is that after my recent swimming slump, my oomph is back and I'm itching to get outside and into the open water. I had another session with Keith at the Swim Shed yesterday, and there are some hopeful signs of progress. My left arm is no longer flailing wildly into the air, and I have managed to tame the downward and outward drift of my right arm into something approximating a catchy-looking catch. My two new points of focus are: (1) the tendency for my leading arm to move inwards towards the centre line when I breathe, which I then have to correct with a little outward sweep before catching, creating a little stopping point; and (2) my stiff little hands, which seem to be rigid with tension most of the time, rather than relaxed on recovery and entry, then gaining some tone into the catch and pull. Hard habits to break, but it's good to have something to work on.

But in the mean time, there has been a slight blow to my best laid, and rather over-optimistic longer term plans. Ideally, I have been hoping to do the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim and another English Channel swim in 2013 (all assuming that I can get into MIMS, of course). However, this plan was also somewhat dependent on me getting one of the fellowships that I had applied for, which would have given me a year out of teaching to write my swimming book. Sadly, I just found that I failed to get either of them - missing by a mile for one fellowship and not even making the first cut, and missing by a whisker on the second, making the final shortlist but not the final cut. I'm disappointed because a year to work on the book would have been wonderful, but it would also have given me the flexibility in my working time to train for a summer of swims. Instead, I'm going to have a full teaching load, plus the book to write, and I'm just not sure that I can do the swim training as well, and still do everything to the standard that I would like. I don't have to decide yet, but it's definitely something that I need to think about very carefully.

This is a wonderful sport, but it's very time-hungry, especially when you live as far from the sea as I do.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Mind over matter?

One of the most commonly repeated 'facts' about marathon swimming is that it is 80% mental and 20% physical. Now, I understand that this is partly rhetorical - an attempt to stress the importance of psychological preparedness - but I've always been slightly uncomfortable with it.

Firstly, it relies on a separation of mind and body that doesn't really hold up - think, for example, about how tiredness affects your mood and cognitive function; how hunger does the same. Conversely, psychological stress manifests itself in profoundly physiological ways - loss of sleep, skin problems, blood pressure, digestive problems etc. It's the same with fear - the pumping of adrenalin, the prickling of the skin. So, thinking about it in sociological terms (as i'm bound to do...), a mind-body split is a quite impoverished way to think about the complexity of our embodied lives and activities.

Following on from this, the opposition of mind-body is never a division of equals, but rather, a hierarchically structured binary. In this case, "mind" traditionally holds the superior position. Philosophy and the social sciences have shown how this binary pair then maps on to a whole series of other binaries: science / nature; reason / emotion; black / white; man / woman. From this perspective, a reliance on a mind-body split relies upon a whole set of problematic social values and relations that limit how we think about particular bodies and the opportunities that are then made available to them. (Think, for example, how women are conventionally categorised as innately 'emotional', and therefore suited to some kinds of work, but not others).

And finally, the reliance upon mind over matter effectively minimises the very real physical and social constraints for some on action - whether that's training to swim the Channel, or a significant personal challenge like trying to get educational qualifications, or break an addiction. It's never simply a question of self-belief and commitment, as is suggested by the 80:20 division. The problem with this comes when an individual fails to complete whatever endeavour they are aiming for, which then becomes a failure primarily of will (the privileged aspect).

Of course, I recognise that there are times when a failure to complete a swim feels very much like a mental collapse; and similarly, I know from my own experience that at times of physical suffering or struggle during a swim, it certainly feels like you are marshalling psychological resources to get through it (mind over matter). But I still find it an uncomfortable way to think about what marathon swimming is. As a habit of thought, it has worrying implications both in terms of how we think about unsuccessful swims, and also, how wider society and its challenges are then conceptualised. It's simply not true that people can do anything if they really want to. I think this matters a lot at a time when, in the UK at least, people are being harried to pull themselves up by their bootstraps without any real understanding of the constraints they are living under.

So instead, I choose to follow the proposal of feminist scholar, Anne Fausto-Sterling. Writing about attempts within science to delineate between the relative contributions of genetics and environments (nature / nurture), she argues instead that it is better conceptualised as 100% of both. This works better for me both within and outside of swimming; I think it's kinder, less hierarchical, and most of all, completely captivates the embodied complexity - both struggles and pleasures - of a challenge like a Channel swim.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Dark and Lonely Water

Remember this public information film from 1973? I was only 5 when it came out, but it still sends shivers down my spine. But on the bright side, some splendidly over-exaggerated estuary accents from the "sensible" children, and some charming 1970's knitwear.