Monday, 22 June 2015

A dangerous time of infinite possibilities...

There’s something that happens after a successful long swim…. a small vacuum opens up. The consuming intensity of training, organizing and swimming lingers as a pleasurable recollection, any fatigue or discomfort is conveniently forgotten, and a successful outcome gives rise to a deceptive self-confidence in future capacities. As you rest and recover and bask in the happiness of a good outcome, you find yourself with far more time than you had before now that you're no longer trying to squeeze several hours of training into the working day – time to think, to imagine, to plan without the immediate consequences of implementation. And so, since nature abhors a vacuum, you start to summon up future adventures, each more ambitious than the last. It’s an obvious response to the end of an exciting experience, and there should be a compulsory moratorium on concrete planning for a sustained period post-swim. But still….it doesn’t hurt to think about it… And it’s not just me. Everyone asks “What’s next?”

I have no plans yet, and I don’t know what’s next, although I’m surer now than I was before the 8 Bridges that there will be a ‘next’. Concerned about my latent shoulder injury, I saw the 8 Bridges as something of a test case , but having emerged unharmed, I feel dangerously liberated to plan and imagine in ways that I couldn’t so confidently do before. This liberation, combined with the dangerous post-swim period of infinite possibilities, means that it’s been impossible not to start thinking about what might come later.

And so….I’ve been thinking with the summer of 2017 in mind – the next realistic opportunity for an adventure. The SantaBarbara Channel Swimming Association has some appealing swims, and Monterey Bayis also a possible. But at the moment, I’m more drawn to fresh water swims, since my current location lends itself to lake more than sea swimming. There are a few swims that have been on the bucket list for some time that are likely candidates in the next couple of years - SCAR and Lake Zurich spring most readily to mind, if they’ll have me. I’ve thought about Lake Tahoe, Loch Ness and Loch Lomond, but I was also hugely inspired in the last year by Elaine Howley’s pioneering length of Lake Pend Oreille (32.3 miles, 20 hours and 25 mins), and have been thinking for a while about whether I should try to find a long (l-o-n-g) lake swim to have a crack at. The longest I’ve ever swum for is 16 hours (for my EC swim), but I wonder if I could do more with the right preparation…  Several conversations while I was in New York about the Finger Lakes have fuelled this particular fire, but of course, none of this counts while I’m still in the dangerous post-swim zone of over-confidence in my imagined future capabilities.

So I don’t know what’s next, but the field of possibilities, however seductively unrealistic, is delicious. More prosaically, however, I walked / ran on a treadmill for 30 minutes yesterday and had to lie down for two hours afterwards - a blunt reminder of the legacy of fatigue of a week of long swimming, and a useful brake on my post-swim imaginings. 

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Looking back at the 8 Bridges....

I have just returned from one of the most intense, consuming, exhilarating, brutal weeks of swimming I have ever experienced. The 8 Bridges Hudson River Swim is an extraordinary gem in the marathon swimming canon - the longest marathon swim on the roster, passing 120 miles down the Hudson River from the Rip Van Winkle bridge in Catskill to the Verrazano Narrows bridge at the mouth of New York Harbour, swimming from bridge to bridge over 7 one-day stages.

At the end of the 2015 event, Lori King had successfully become the 4th person to complete all 7 stages in a single iteration, and I am humbled to be listed among a further 5 who have tackled every stage consecutively, but with one or more incomplete stages. As I described in a guest blog about the first 3 stages, I fell short by two miles on the second stage, unable to outpace the day's difficult conditions, but this disappointment was more than compensated for by the successful completion of the swim's toughest stage (stage 5) - a delightful surprise that exceeded all my expectations leading up to the swim. I was also lucky enough to have the chance to start stage 3 at the point where I had left the water the day before, adding a couple of extra miles to the day but enabling me to cover the entire 8 Bridges distance by the end of the week, even without completing all the stages. And so, with one DNF, 6 successful stage completions, and 120 miles and a grand total of 39 hours, 37 minutes and 22 seconds of swimming under my belt, I couldn't be happier.

Reflecting on the event, a few thoughts come to mind. Firstly, after my long struggle in 2013-14 to resolve my shoulder injury, I am over the moon that I didn't have a squeak of trouble from it throughout the swim. I had feared that my long swimming days were numbered, but the months of physio and the incisive stroke correction skills of Active Blu's Emma Brunning worked wonders. My rehab year, and the many months I spent drilling my way up and down the pool, paid dividends; without it, and with my old, perniciously ingrained stroke defects still intact, I don't believe I would have been able to tolerate the sustained stress on the body that an event like the 8 Bridges generates. For those struggling with injury, you have my deepest sympathy, but give it time and put in the work - not all problems and injuries can be so straightforwardly resolved, but for those that can be, patience is your friend.

Secondly, I know with certainty that the work of stroke improvement is far from over. Injury rehab and prevention was my top priority in this last round of stroke correction, but in changing my stroke, I have also witnessed a drop in my stroke rate - something that Emma had also pointed out to me but which I obviously didn't fully take to heart. I used to habitually swim at between 62-64 spm, but last week was sitting fairly steadily between 53-57. In part, this signals increased efficiency since there has been no parallel fall in pace, but in the coming year, I want to work more on my ability to sustain my improved stroke whilst pushing the stroke rate back up (as well as further working on efficiency). Hopefully, this will give me the greater turn of speed that I currently lack. As one of the slower swimmers at this year's 8 Bridges event, I feel that this is an area ripe for development. I'll never be the fastest or best of swimmers, but each event highlights a space for incremental improvements, and this will be my focus over the next year.

Thirdly, almost two years since my last long swim, the 8 Bridges has utterly invigorated my love of the sport. I've often noted my love of the luxuriousness of doing nothing all day except swimming, but extended to a week filled with swimming (and its many associated tasks and demands), the intensity of the immersion takes on a forceful, seductive compulsion. For a week, I thought about, and did, little else but swim; everything else got pushed into the background. This is both a prodigious luxury and an extraordinary experience, with my usually sedentary but preoccupying work of reading and writing supplanted by an intense focus on the body and its movements and well-being. It was the most profound and complete break from work that I have ever had. And in its place came the opportunity to experience a broad spectrum of emotions and bodily sensations; to witness a beautiful river as it drifted through a panoply of moods and tones; and to meet a host of fellow swimmers, volunteers, pilots and kayakers brought together by a shared love of the sport and a communal desire for the best possible outcomes for all the swimmers involved.

And amidst the everyday work of swimming that characterises a long stage swim, there are also spectacular and pleasurably memorable moments. I leapt exuberantly from the bow of Launch 5:

I swam past the foot of the Statue of Liberty:

And I passed under monumental bridges - the punctuation marks in our swimming journey:

It was, in short, a splendid adventure. Tough, but splendid. 

Many thanks to Rondi and Dave for organising such an incredible event; it is a perfect blend of the very best the sport has to offer. 

Friday, 5 June 2015

Gone swimming....

The Long Swim is taking a vacation and I'm going to be guest-blogging about the 8 Bridges Hudson River Swim here over the next week, along with several other fellow swimmers. Check in to the blog to see how we're getting on.