Saturday, 25 August 2012

Much Ado About Nothing?

You'd have to be living in a cave not to have heard about Diana Nyad's "Xtreme Dream" swim attempt from Cuba to Florida this week. For those who haven't followed the story, or aren't familiar with the context, Nyad is a very controversial figure in the open water swimming world, with a reputation for audacious challenges, a very robust sense of self, and a vigorous (self-)publicity machine. This was her fourth attempt at the 103 mile swim - a challenge which involves highly unpredictable conditions and assorted aggressive / dangerous wildlife. And even in perfect conditions, it's hell of a long way, and I give her credit both for her ambition and her swimming abilities - I can only hope that I have as much energy and drive at 62. 

However, while the swim ended in a failure that is widely trumpeted as a gutsy, can-do success (not least by Nyad herself), within the wider open water swimming community, there is considerable disquiet and frustration, particularly with regard (a) to some of the unconventional practices during the swim; and (b) the very problematic representation of the swim both during and after. In the case of swimming practices, Nyad chose to adopt a number of practices that are widely viewed within the wider community as not in the spirit of the sport. For example, there is clear video footage of her holding on to the boat during feeds (an absolute no-no in Channel swimming). But perhaps the most egregious breach of customary practice is that she got out of the water during a particularly nasty squall, and then after a number of hours (details unclear), she got back in and resumed swimming (I understand that this was after returning to the GPS point where she exited the water). 

Now....I don't think that anyone would argue with the correctness of the decision to leave the water during the storm - this is a regular occurrence in open water swimming. This was demonstrated earlier this year in the English Channel when several swims were stopped after a bank of thick fog rolled in, with some swimmers just a few hundred metres from France. Safety first, however gutting. But...and this is a big conventional Channel swimming practice (and as applies to other big swims such as Catalina, the North Channel etc), this marks the end of the swim. There are some exceptions. The Manhattan Island Marathon Swim allows a brief suspension of swimming during a lightening storm before allowing the race to resume; swimmers of the Cook Straits are allowed to take a 10 minute 'shark break' following a close sighting to let it pass. (As an aside, I fully understand getting out under those conditions, but can't understand getting back in!). But Nyad's break was for multiple hours. By any standard measure, this marks the end of a solo, unassisted swim. 

In her position, and having invested a huge amount of time and money into the project, I would probably have done what she did; she turned it into a 'stage swim' - that is where a distance is covered in stages, returning each time to the point of stopping (for example, the next day). However, I would also have told people very clearly that that's what I'd done. No-one - and I mean, absolutely no-one - would have thought any less of her for this. It's still an impressively long swim under difficult conditions. But instead (and this is where we get to the issue of problematic representations), her blog has utterly obfuscated this point, including significant post-hoc revisions to the blog which make it even harder to see that there was a significant boat break in the middle. Instead, there is constant elision between the time taken for the whole venture, the time spent in the water, and the total swim time including the boat break; and yesterday, the total swim time was suddenly revised upwardly from just under 42 hours to just over 51 hours, without any explanation of such a massive miscount. 

So, it's all a bit of a rum do, and leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. I congratulate Nyad on her ambition, and on the long swim that she did before getting out of the water (30+ hours, I think). But there is absolutely no need to obfuscate, exaggerate or mislead, and it does nobody any favours in the long run. With more clarity and openness, I think that the swimming community could have got behind this swim, even if it didn't meet the stricter swim-rules that apply to English Channel swims (and similar). As it is, I think that Diana Nyad has discredited her attempt and achievements through a PR strategy of self-aggrandisement at the expense of transparency, and I would welcome her public clarification on the details of the swim. 

Ultimately, it's probably all much ado about nothing, and it will all fade quietly away; if the swim had succeeded, I think that there would have been much more glorifying press coverage and a much stronger need to challenge some of the claims about the swim, and some of its practices. I also think that it's important not to take Diana Nyad as seriously as she takes herself. There was something faintly ridiculous about the whole venture: the excited announcements of weird, warm-water dripping devices to fight off hypothermia, the flotilla of boats surrounding the swim, the magical post-hoc discovery of an additional 9+ hours of swimming. And I can't be the only one to enjoy the irony of Nyad literally blowing her own trumpet (well...bugle) to start her swim.

As a final aside in what has turned out to be a bit of a long post, I do think that at some point the wider swimming community should also discuss the ethics of this kind of swim (regardless of the rules under which it is conducted). I'm not entirely comfortable with the erasure of the terrible history of this stretch of water - the loss of thousands of lives of people trying to flee the Castro regime - that occurs when it is turned effectively into a leisure space for self-fulfillment. Is there a broader discussion to have about our political / social responsibilities in terms of where we swim? And secondly, I couldn't help but wonder about the use of shark spotters. As far as I could see, they were in the water alongside Nyad, and their job was to look out for wildlife (sharks and jellyfish primarily). Given that the diver in this film seems to be armed with a little stick, what is the risk to him? Elsewhere in the blog it also notes that one of the divers was stung by the very same jellyfish that Nyad describes as potentially lethal. So again, in terms of the bigger picture, rather than just about Nyad, is there a discussion to be had about the risks we might be willing to take on for ourselves versus the risks to which others are exposed?

I think that's enough from me for now. For those interested in reading more about the issues raised by Diana Nyad's swim, I suggest you visit, where there is a robust exchange of views that really gets you thinking. I particularly recommend this thread which opened with a debate about the underwater directional streamer that Nyad was using, and then was expanded to cover a range of issues around assistance, transparency and the definition of 'marathon swimming'. Another good one is the discussion around the anti-hypothermia device, which also expands into wider discussions about what 'unassisted' might mean in the context of long distance open water swimming. 

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

A wet weekend....and a medal

P and I headed off to the Lake District this weekend for the BLDSA Derwentwater swim, plus a bit of much-needed rest and relaxation. Well...that was the plan, but then the campervan overheated and ground to a halt (again), and we had to sit and wait anxiously while our local garage went to work. But £300 later, Bob the campervan was up and running again, having had various important innards replaced, and only a day later, we headed north.

And the rain came down. And then more rain. By the time we arrived at the lovely Dalebottom Farm campsite (relaxed, friendly, stunning location - I definitely recommend it), the rain had reached biblical proportions. We put the awning tent up, getting soaked in the process, then hunkered down in the van for the night, breaking cover only to run to the toilet block or wash the dishes. That night, we slept to the sound of yet more rain drumming on the van roof, and woke to cloud so thick that we couldn't see the hills. And the rain came down in sheets.

Not to be daunted, we breakfasted, packed up the kayak and swimming stuff and headed down to Keswick for the swim. We registered, caught up with a few old and new friends, inflated the kayak and generally got ready, buoyed by the slight lifting of the clouds. A 10 minute warning, then 5, and I slipped into the water, passing my shoes up to P in the kayak. It had stopped raining, the water was warm, and I was feeling very happy. I had a plan, of sorts, for the swim. This was my third time for this event, and I've never got under 2.30 - the closest I've been is 2.35. So part of me really wanted to go for it and break 2.30, but at the same time, I'm not particular swim-fit right now; plus, I don't enjoy hard swimming, and Derwentwater is just too beautiful to rush. So, P and I decided to wait and see. We agreed that if I was at 1.30 at the second buoy (with just over two miles or so to go), then I would go for it. Otherwise, we would just pootle back enjoying the scenery.

The first hour flew by, and the swim across the top of the lake was livened up by being REALLY cold - I think it must be fed from that end. At the buoy, P told me I was under 1.30, so it was time to bite the bullet and go for it. I swam as hard as I could, trying to hold on to the changes in stroke that I've been working on over the winter. I really felt my lack of fitness, especially with the new stroke, but with just a few hundred metres to go, I knew I must be close to making it because P had stopped gazing enchantedly at the mountains and was cheering and clapping me on. And finally, I passed the finish jetty, and was delighted to hear that I'd made it in 2.29.16. Only just, but who cares. And I'm pretty sure that if I'd pushed hard from the start, I could have made 2.25-ish, so a good day out for me.

And then, surprise of all surprises, it turned out that I'd come second in the senior women's race, and was awarded a silver medal for my efforts.

Now, I'm very aware that quite a few of the usual speedier swimmers weren't there this year, and that this is more a case of 'right place right time' than a great leap forward on my part, but still, with nearly 6 minutes off my previous time, I was chuffed. After all, I'm a 44 year old sociologist - there aren't many opportunities in my everyday life for medal-winning, and I'll take what I can get! Many thanks to the BLDSA and all the volunteers who make their events so fantastic.

We were also rewarded with several hours of sunshine - yes, actual sunshine - that afternoon, and after a few hours of hanging about with some friends, we went back to the campsite to dry out our sodden possessions, then sat in the sun with books, wine and olives. Life is good.

After another night of rain, we took advantage of a promised break in the weather to test out our newest toy. Our single solid-framed inflatable is fantastic for swim-supporting, but we wanted to be able to go out paddling together sometimes too and we can't afford a second high quality single like that. So we picked this up for £100, and although it's got a bit more of the 'airbed' about it than the other one, it did the job just perfectly and we paddled most of the way up the lake and back with no trouble.

Before the clouds closed in completely again, P decided to go for a swim, and I paddled alongside, attracting the usual stares from leisure boaters. P looked so happy in the water, and it was lovely being able to bob alongside looking at the mountains. Unfortunately, about 45 mins into the swim, it started to hurl it down again, and I was only wearing shorts and a windbreaker over my swimming costume, so got completely soaked and freezing and we eventually had to turn back. But it was a fabulous 1.30 swim for P, and the new kayak gets top 'cheap and cheerful' points. We dried off and got changed, then headed off to the glorious Lakeland Pedlar for a vegetarian feast. If you're ever in Keswick, go there....and make sure you have an empty stomach and enough room for pudding. You won't regret it.

By now, it was slewing with rain again, and we went back to the campsite and tried our best to hang our wet clothes to dry in the awning tent, but by now, both the van and the tent smelled faintly of wet dog, and with no promise of another decent break in the weather, we decided that we would quit while we were ahead, cut our trip short by a day and head home.

So...a good trip, a splendid swim, an unexpected medal, a great deal of rain, and a welcome break.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Somebody's not concentrating...

I'm very happy with my Finis Hydro Tracker, and I've now managed to iron out the kinks that I encountered early on with it. It gives basic pace info, post-swim, which is pretty useful for learning to match pace to the feeling of a particular pace. This is handy for a determined one-pace swimmer like myself who is trying to reform. 

But what is also becoming clear is that my attention does tend to wander, causing me to drift off in the wrong direction every so often, requiring a significant correction. The top pic is from this morning, at Lake 32 at the Cotswold Water Park - a momentary lapse on a beautiful day. The bottom one was Bosworth Water Park a month or so ago - I really wasn't firing on all cylinders on that day (but is it just me, or did I draw an owl's face?).