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.


  1. I've yet to encounter an online forum (or community of people generally) that isn't, on occasion, "vaguely tense" :) Indeed, if vague tension is the worst it gets, I'd say it's a model of harmony and equanimity! Thanks for being a member of ours. (And I agree, the boundary work in the marathon swimming community is fascinating.)

  2. Thanks Evan. I agree that "vague tension" isn't a's the other stuff drives me crazy. It's only swimming, and it's meant to be fun. (Although those training in the UK at the moment in the ridiculously unseasonal cold, wind and rain might think that's a bit too much to ask).

  3. I love your description of your reasons for marathon swimming, and I have to say that they all sound very much like mine/me...the thrill of using your body in such a strong, powerful way, the discipline and structure of training, the pure joy of experiencing raw, elemental nature, those trippy places you go in your brain on a long swim--I'm not sure if other folks can ever understand it.

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  5. Thanks, Eileen. I think it's easy for those who don't swim to imagine the pleasures of completing a swim, but the everyday pleasures of swimming are perhaps harder to imagine - particularly for those who are not comfortable in the water. But I think that as a community (or a cluster of communities), we don't do a great job of communicating those pleasures either. Fund-raising projects, for example, often focus on the struggle and risks of a swim in order to draw in sponsorship, but this is one of the most common ways that non-swimmers encounter marathon swimming. Similarly, official organisations, out of necessity, highlight the risks and difficulties involved in undertaking a swim in order to ensure that prospective swimmers know what they're taking on, but I think that something gets lost in there too.

    The other side of it - the things you listed - is an important part of it too and I think that those aspects need to be talked about more. If it weren't so full of pleasure, I wouldn't be sitting here at 8.30 in the morning, looking out at the sunshine and excitedly anticipating my lake swim this evening..

    1. Hi Karen

      I totally agree, i'm swimming the channel in July and know that feeling of vague tension waiting for the water to warm up, but when i was swimming in the lake last night all i really cared about was the feeling of really swimming in open water again, ok it was 13 degrees and i can now start training properly but that was not the important thing, it was the feel of it.
      Being 50 short & a bit fat the real pleasure i am getting out of my training is the amount of people i know who have taken up swimming, it will be worth it just for that.
      On the question of why i am swimming the channel as with most people, all of the above i think!!
      But does there always have to be a why, i get out of bed every morning there is no reason why i just do.


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