Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Part I: Injury...

After a three month break, I thought it was time to check in with The Long Swim and give a bit of an update. It's been a bit of a whirlwind of a term, trying to get my head around my new job and the endless uncertainties of house moving / selling; I also had to take some time offline to deal with the intensifying attentions of an online troll who graduated from rude to threatening, but who, after some direct confrontation seems to have retreated quietly. So, in short, all is well, although as you'll see from what follows, things on the swimming front have been a bit frustrating. In between everything, I've been working away on my book - Immersion - and in particular, I've been writing the auto-ethnographic sections that punctuate the discussion. These sections use my own experience of training and swimming as a jumping off point for exploring the broader sociological questions, and most recently, I have been writing about my experience of injury and rehab in light of my ongoing post-MIMS shoulder problems. Drawing directly from these auto-ethnographic segments from the book, this first post - one of three - describes the experience of acquiring the injury; the second installment focuses on the early stages of rehab; and the third updates to the present.


I knew that I had hurt myself. In spite of my determined denial, in the weeks running up to the MIMS Quiet Swim, there had been niggly bite to my left shoulder the morning after long training swims; nothing serious, but a sense of not-rightness that I was guarding cautiously. It would be fine, I had told myself; just the lingering effects of a hard season of training. But somewhere around the top of the Harlem River, my shoulder started to grumble. It was easy to ignore at first, then swelling in imperceptible increments into something sharper and deeper than the previous warning nips. I tried to focus on holding my stroke, keeping my hand below my elbow and my elbow below my shoulder at the front of the stroke before the catch. I suspected that the problem lay in the pernicious stroke defect into which I habitually fold as fatigue sets in - a sinking left elbow at the front of the stroke followed by the slightest sweep outwards with my left hand before the catch and pull. Holding my stroke as it is supposed to be helped, boosted by a couple of ibuprofen to take the sharp edges off the pain. By hour 7, flying down the Hudson in the clutch of a generous current, the pain was becoming hard to ignore, but the water was flat and calm, making it easier to maintain an effective stroke. I focused on keeping my head in line with my body, rotating only along the long axis, a single goggle-lens and a popeye-mouthed breath out of the water; this helped me to avoid my bad habit of levering myself up slightly on my left arm when I breathe to the right, cocking my head up out of the water and placing strain on the left shoulder. The subtle flaws in my stroke, repeated tens of thousands of times, were being sharply illuminated by the unfolding injury; I let the pain correct me, and took a quiet vow of a winter drilling to fix my faults. It felt manageable still, and I was buoyed by the growing certainty that I was going to finish the swim.

We hit rougher water half way down, the wind blowing against the tide and churning the river. The kayak danced in the waves and I heard Jeff (a whitewater kayaker at heart) whoop with delight at the ride. After the predictable comforts of flat-water swimming, I struggled for balance, my whole body now actively in play to stabilise me in the water. The work of getting hold of the water in that mobile environment sent grinding pain down my arm. Relax. Don't fight the water. At some point, my recovering left hand clipped the top of a wave and was smacked backwards, pulling my arm with it; my shoulder flashed with white, hollow pain. It had a different quality now - bigger, hotter; every stroke a hot breath of ache from shoulder to elbow. More drugs....only two hours since the last pills, but I didn't care. I visualised them killing the pain; literally. I tried to focus on my stroke, on the kayak, on the piers of Manhattan flying past as the swift tide carried me down towards the finish.

But I knew that this time I'd really 'done' something, and that to carry on swimming was to entrench the injury. It is always a choice; to stop and prevent further damage, or to carry on swimming and pay the consequences later. But with only an hour to go and the towers of lower Manhattan clearly in sight, sharp and shining in the late summer sunshine, there was no decision to make. I knew that I had a year without long swimming ahead of me - I would fix it then. For now, I would swim, happily trading the pain and the inevitable rehab for the longed-for completion of this swim on the most beautiful of blue-skied days.

** this post was edited to position it as one of a series of three, rather than two as originally planned. 

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