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).