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 Unfortunately, I had an outdated instruction leaflet in the box, which had a different name for the software, which I then spent quite a while looking for online.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 I should say that some direct and very supportive contact with Finis rectified the problem of the outdated insert very quickly.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.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Learning to swim

There's a shocking study out today, conducted by the ASA, which shows that approximately a third of all primary school children leave school without being able to swim. I defy you not to cry at the heartbreaking account by the grandparents of an 8 year old boy who slipped into a canal and drowned because they'd never been able to afford swimming lessons for him and he hadn't received them at school.  Swimming is part of the curriculum, but isn't honoured because of a lack of resources and time in schools; it is really the only sport that can also save your life.

I was lucky enough to be the grandchild of a lifeguard and water polo player, and the daughter of his daughter - a competitive swimmer in her own right as a teenager. Learning to swim was a natural part of family life, and some of my fondest memories of my enormously loved grandfather are from the time I spent learning to swim with him. I went on to swim competitively (however unimpressively), qualified as a life-guard, dived for bricks in my pajamas, and had more fun than I can possibly say....and that's before even thinking about the Channel swimming.

As an aside, though, I would like to see much more of a break down of these figures, since it is highly probable that these non-swimming children are not evenly spread across the population. Swimming lessons, and regular pool visits are beyond the financial reach of many, and private schools and wealthier areas are much more likely to have access to pools and to build swimming into the curriculum. In the US, non-swimming is also racially divided, with far more black children dying from drowning than white children - a combination of the effects of poverty, and a lack of attention in school swimming lessons due to racist assumptions about black people not being able to swim because of higher average bone densities. I don't know whether this racial aspect also applies to the UK, and haven't been able to find any statistics, but the poverty dimension must surely apply.

But for now, the over-arching statistic - 200,000 children leaving primary school each year without being able to swim - has had considerable impact and a lot of press coverage. Let's hope that it leads to some positive changes, and that the government can divert some of the vast resources being poured in the great white elephant that is the 2012 Olympics into actually teaching children this useful and enormously pleasurable life skill.

Monday, 14 May 2012

It's that time of year...

It's that time of year again....the point in the swimming season when the non-swimming public is starting to break out its summer wardrobe, while swimmers are having to put on just about everything they own, post-swim. This is fine when the two worlds stay separate, but when you have to stop off at the supermarket on the way home after an hour-long dip in 12 degree lake water looking like this...

...then you're going to get stared at...especially if you're still shaking. And as happened tonight, you're probably going to be followed, discretely but determinedly, by the security guard. 

But it was worth it - a beautiful evening. It feels great to be back in the water.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Strenuous leisure

This is always a funny time of year for me. At work, it’s all marking and exams – a lot of tension among the students (quite understandably), and mountains of marking for the staff. This is compounded this year, since P and I are currently trying to orchestrate a major relocation, with all the uncertainties and decision-making that that entails. In the swimming world, there’s a different kind of tension – swim dates are starting to loom for those swimming this year, but it’s still premature to be cranking out the really big OW training swims….plus, in the UK, it’s still too cold for most to do so anyway, particularly given the atrocious weather we’ve had recently. So, all in all, there’s a bit of tension in the air. This has been evident not least in the recent outbreak in the online swimming forums of interactions that range from being vaguely tense to positively snippy – what counts as a legitimate question, whether or not to wear a watch, feeding, wetsuits (always the wetsuits!), authenticity. There is a lot of what a sociologist would call “boundary work” going on – where lines between experts and non-experts, authentic and inauthentic swimmers and swims are contested and drawn. It is the phoney war of the swimming calendar – a time of rising anxiety, questions and desire for action, especially from newcomers, but before everyone is too exhausted from training to have the energy for anything except eating, sleeping, swimming and spending whole days excitedly tracking swims instead of working.

Feeling out of sorts, and somewhat alienated by some of what’s going on online (and the fact that I’m not swimming much this year), I have been distracting myself by working through my research data on why people say they want(ed) to swim the Channel, and more importantly, what it means to them to have done it (or not done it). I’m not going to write about this in too much detail here – more to follow later when I’ve imposed some order on it all – but I wanted to make a couple of general points, and then to try and articulate what I think keeps me coming back to the sport.

Firstly, the “why” question is unexpectedly difficult for people to answer (or it was in my interviews, at least). For me, familiar statements such as “because it’s there”, or “for charity” only begin to answer the question, since they don’t tell us why the Channel (or other similar swims) specifically. After all, lots of things are “there” or can be done “for charity”. Many people (including myself) struggle to articulate a clearer reason, which is intriguing to me with my sociological hat on, and I still haven’t fully got my head round this yet. And secondly, and much more obviously, there is rarely a single reason; it’s more like a confluence of reasons that lead to the decision. And by extension to that, and particularly for those who continue in the sport, the reasons change over time and with experience. But for now, suffice to say that reasons for swimming the Channel (or trying to swim the Channel) include motivations as diverse as: seeking physical limits; wanting a new challenge; rebuilding a lost sense of self (e.g after motherhood, or unemployment); confirming identity (as a swimmer or endurance athlete more generally); celebrating a ‘big’ birthday; marking recovery from illness; memorializing a loved one; wanting an adventure; proving someone wrong; enjoying the structure of a life governed by training; the social life of swimming; a love of the water; a shared project; completing a swim grouping (Ocean Seven, Triple Crown); raising money or awareness for a cause. 

For me, I think that I started out in search of an adventure; I chose the Channel not so much because it’s there, but because I thought it was an out-of-the-ordinary thing that I might be able to do (in the way that I could not, for example, anticipate climbing a mountain). I have always been a swimmer, so it fitted well with what I could already do. I wanted the focused life of training; I fancied the intellectual challenge of working out what I needed to do to maximize my chances of success. As a middle aged woman who is a bit fat, and a bit peri-menopausal, I wanted to experience my body differently, more positively; plus I liked the idea of thwarting other people’s expectations of such a body. As time has gone on, I think that my motivations for keeping going are driven much more by the pleasures of swimming itself. I love being in the water for hours and hours; I love getting in and knowing that I won’t do anything that day except swim; and I love the deep, irresistible sleep of the swimmer-in-training. And on a very long swim, I love the weird, euphoric stuff that happens to your body to keep it going. This is the why of marathon swimming for me (I think).

A very shrewd and creative colleague of mine suggested a couple of years ago that it was so hard to explain the why because, in the nicest possible way, marathon swimming is pointless. I like this explanation a lot – there is something luxurious about spending all that time, money and effort on something that isn’t, in itself, directly productive. I know that some people might feel uncomfortable with idea that Channel swimming is pointless, but by this, I don’t mean that it has no meaning. It is enormously meaningful (whether successful or not), and people speak about it with tears of joy, or sadness, in their eyes when they recall the experience. I, too, think with pleasure every day about swimming the Channel; I have the charts displayed around the house; I wear a pendant to remind me of the swims; I have swim pictures as the screensavers on my computers. But there is also a glorious pointlessness to it; I think it’s so enjoyable and meaningful for me because it’s pointless. It is a privilege to be able to do this kind of swimming (financially, physically, socially) just because I want to; for all its extremity, it’s profoundly leisurely as a practice, even when it is intensely hard work. It is what I have come to think of as a highly valued, strenuously leisured aspect to my life.

This is what marathon swimming does for me: it brings strenuous leisure.