Tuesday, 11 October 2016


It is 7 weeks to the day since my accident in Geneva, and I am finally able to walk around pain-free with a relatively strong and stable ankle. The abrupt failure to even start the swim and the frustrations of debility have left me feeling sad and demotivated at times, but the last two weeks have seen a rapid acceleration in the healing process in ways that have completely transformed my ability to get around and enabled me to begin rebuilding my lost fitness....including, at last, a return to the pool. 

I had always thought of physio as something you did after an injury had pretty much healed rather than to facilitate healing, and so when I first contacted Mark Wilkinson of Skipton’s Paragon Physiotherapy, I asked whether it was even worth coming in while the injury was still relatively new and angry or whether I should hold off for a bit. He was emphatic that I should start immediately and offered me an appointment for the next day. This, as it turns out, was one of the best decisions I have made and Mark has been pivotal to my recovery. He put me on an intensive regime of cold therapy, and kept me off the foot for longer than I would have if left to my own devices, but then two weeks ago, the pace of treatment changed and we went from resting, to simple strengthening exercises with a stretch band, to a wobbly cushion for proprioception, to today – a session of strength and proprioception tests that had me balancing on wobble boards, doing squats on a bosu ball, bouncing on an unstable trampoline whilst boxing or throwing and catching a ball, doing walking lunges carrying a 10kg weight and jumping two-footed over low hurdles whilst trying not to thud to a landing with the finesse of a sack of potatoes (apparently, we were aiming for balletic, but let’s face facts…).

It’s such a fascinating process to go through. Weaknesses I couldn’t even feel sprang to the surface as I tried to do various exercises….or more accurately, they ran through my body as it tried to respond to the demands I was placing on it. Occasionally, my right hand would start to shake violently mid-exercise; with all my focus and energy on my left foot, it was as if the embodied effort and tension of completing the task was pouring into my unattended opposite hand. And then there was the step – a stable platform, barely a foot high, which I had to jump up onto, two-footed, from standing. The first time Mark asked me to do it, I couldn’t even get my feet off the floor – it was as if my brain wouldn’t even let me consider jumping. Apparently this is a defence mechanism – the brain knows that all is not well and that the proprioception is damaged and stops you putting yourself at risk. But this isn’t a “mind over matter” affair – you can’t ‘think’ your way out of it. Instead, you have to take the time to restore the neural pathways before the jump even becomes thinkable. The body is never simply a matter of mechanics. 

And so….after all the balancing, hopping and jumping, I have finally been discharged from treatment with my foot strong and stable enough to move safely through everyday life without the immediate risk of going over on it again. I still need to be careful with it and to keep up with exercises to build on the progress already made, and it’s still a bit sore at the end of a busy day and needs to be iced, but it is a world apart from the day I hobbled home from Barcelona. I have started swim training again, and have Geneva II firmly in my (long-range) sights. 

And so, my advice to anyone who finds themselves in a similar position in the future is: find yourself an experienced, well-qualified sports physiotherapist as soon as possible and do whatever they tell you to do. I am hugely indebted to Mark for his expertise and care and learned a lot in the process.

But most of all, try not to fall down steps in the first place. It saves a lot of trouble later.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Cold feet and too much thinking time...

I've spent large parts of the last 10 days with my foot in this. It's a cryocuff - a wrap-around 'boot' that inflates with iced water run in through a valve from a cooler, providing compression and cold to aid healing. I take it off before I go to bed, and have to go to sleep with a woolly sock on or it's a bit like sleeping with a dead fish at the bottom of the bed until my foot warms up. The good news is that it's working, but oh....so....slowly. It's exactly a month today since the ridiculous, clumsy slip in Geneva that had such costly and enduring ramifications - the wasted year of hard training, the financial costs, and the ongoing problems of mobility that being on crutches and unable to drive are causing. My physiotherapist estimates that it will be another 2 months before the ligaments are fully repaired (or as repaired as they can be - he reckons about 70% recovery of strength is normal). It constantly amazes me that my body, like all bodies, can be incredibly robust while also being intensely vulnerable and fragile; it seems like a high price to pay for a 2-inch slip, but sometimes that's all it takes. 

Before I go any further I should say that I know that none of this, in the grand scale of things, is important or disastrous. Not being able to do a 42 mile swim - a leisure activity funded by my disposable income and enabled by my (generally) high levels of health and well-being - is the definition of a first world problem. Nothing terrible happened here. But having said that, you need to bear with me while I indulge in just a little self-pity. I had considered not being able to swim because of the weather (although this is unlikely in Geneva), or even having to cancel earlier because of acquired injury during training, but I was utterly unprepared for the possibility of not being able to start the swim because of an acute injury so close to the swim. Consequently, although the couple of weeks immediately after the injury were filled with the more pressing and occupying demands of the injury itself and coping with my work trip to Barcelona, I was really knocked for six when I got home. I wasn't expecting this, and didn't even really register how sad I was feeling for a while, but I slowly realised that I felt embarrassed by what had happened, and very down in the face of the rather exhausting work of the everyday and my newly acquired dependence on others to get around and look after myself. 

As the new teaching term has started to kick into gear, and as my foot (and therefore, my mobility) is slowly showing signs of improvement, I am feeling much better and much more positive, and I have a much better sense of perspective on the whole affair. It's a good learning experience about the vagaries of the swimming, the riskiness of big plans....and the fragility of ankles. 

And so...one consequence of the cryocuff and my immobility is that I've had far too much thinking time and that can only end up one way. On some level, I had hoped that I was sufficiently grown-up to be able to look back on the Geneva venture as a good idea that just didn't work out and then move on; I didn't want to feel compelled to go back and have another try. I think 'unfinished business' is a dangerous game to play, since it massively raises the stakes of the second time around in ways that probably aren't healthy emotionally and which risk leaching the fun out of the whole process of training and swimming. This, after all, is why I do it - because I love the swimming. But then again, I also came to realise that my desire to go back to Geneva was not so much (or at least not only) about redemption from this year's failures, but also about the very real desire to do the swim - to swim here: 

And here:

And here:

And here:

And here:

And so it's done - I'm booked in for August next year for Lake Geneva II. And this time, I will be wearing walking boots and wrapping myself in bubble wrap in the days leading up to the swim!

Friday, 16 September 2016

Are women 'quietly dominating' marathon swimming?

A recent article in New York magazine's "Science of Us" section, entitled "The obscure ultra-endurance sport women are quietly dominating" has recently been doing the rounds on social media and discussion forums. Many swimmers are relieved to see women's participation in the sport recognised (which I also share), and there has been much enthusiastic listing of other notable female swimmers not mentioned in the article but celebrated in the community. The article begins from the premise that unlike other ultra-endurance sports, women are 'dominating' in a way that is unlikely in, say, ultra-running, and this is ultimately attributed to the assumption (a) that women have more body fat than men, and (b) that that body fat provides a critical advantage that explains their success in the sport.

At the risk of being a killjoy in the face of an article that I know many find affirming and positive, I have a number of concerns about its claims. Firstly, what does it mean to 'dominate' a sport? In fields conventionally understood as masculine (e.g. business, politics), even a small number of successful women is quickly read as 'domination' -a marker of alarm at the disruption of business as usual. Although well-represented relative to many other sports, women are still vastly outnumbered by men in marathon swimming, and the fact that even the possibility of female parity in performance / participation warrants research articles and news stories shows how far we are from 'domination'. Although much more subtle than actively excluding women from those fields, the rush to cries of 'domination' is another means of constraining women's participation in public life by marking it as out of place.

Secondly, I am deeply uncomfortable with the rush to biological explanations. Women's high performance (in sport and other public domains) is often attributed to their bodies (high pain threshold, favourable fat distribution), but much of this is based on (unfounded) generalisations that can't be brought to bear on the very small numbers of marathon swimmers, about whose specific bodies we know very little. It is striking that the journalist (and the scientists researching this) don't stop to look at training regimes and preparation, for example. And I'm not saying that women necessarily train harder....my point is that there are other conclusions that could have been jumped to but which aren't. Consequently, we should be very wary about citing women's presumed body fat as a performance advantage. Firstly, it obscures the work of training and technique acquisition (a point made by Evan Morrison in the article); and secondly, in a social and cultural context where fat is constantly derided, this is a punch with a velvet glove. Indeed, the article cites a horribly fat-phobic encounter between Lynne Cox and a taxi driver who tells her that she is 'too fat' to be a Channel swimmer. The implied derision and unacceptability of fatness, and the freedom which this man felt to hurl what is undoubtedly intended as a casual and disciplining insult at a young girl, should make us all very wary of these seemingly celebratory explanations of women's biological advantageous body fat. 

The rush to biological explanations for women's relatively high participation in marathon swimming (particularly compared to other ultra-endurance sports) obscures a number of other social explanations. Swimming is conventionally understood as a sport appropriate for women (unlike something like boxing, for example, or rugby, which are far more rigidly masculinised and harder for women to break in to). Consequently, it is much more likely to be experienced by women as a potentially welcoming and safe sporting space already populated by other women. But secondly, the higher average performance of non-elite female swimmers in events such as MIMS may well reflect the fact that it is the stronger female swimmers who are more likely to identify themselves as participants for ambitious or high profile swims. Women are not taught to see their bodies as athletic or adventurous, and they also pay much higher social costs for standing out or pushing themselves forwards, especially if all doesn't go well. Consequently, women are much less likely to enter such an event without being particularly confident about their abilities. I suspect that the women who have traditionally taken part in MIMS (an event where you had to push yourself forwards aggressively to even be accepted) were already among the better swimmers, and it was this high performance that facilitated their self-identification as MIMS competitors and their successful swims....and not the fatness of their thighs. 

I have some sympathy with the journalist of the piece. As one of my favourite swimming journalists and writers, Elaine Howley, noted in a forum post on the article, the demands of publication are for spectacular headlines and short punchy claims within tight word limits, and there is little scope for nuanced analysis. As coverage of women and sport goes, this is an engaging and carefully written piece. But in my view, however inadvertently, articles like this end up reinforcing the egregious inequalities in our expectations of women's bodies rather than challenging them. 

As a feminist and a swimmer, I am first in line to celebrate the accomplishments of female swimmers and to encourage women's participation in the sport. But rather than treating marathon swimming's relatively high rates of female participation as a surprising, newsworthy anomaly that can only be explained through biology, a better question might be: What can we learn from marathon swimming about women's access to sport? How could marathon swimming facilitate even greater female participation? What social and structural barriers might be in place in other sports that are preventing women from participating and excelling?

Friday, 26 August 2016


It's done. I finally made the decision yesterday to cancel my Lake Geneva swim. My foot and ankle are still very painful, swollen and bruised, and even though a big part of me just wants to just get out there and give it a go no matter what, the rest of me knows that 24+ hours of swimming is unlikely to improve an injury that I can hardly bear weight on even before we've started. It also risks exacerbating the injury with potential long term consequences, and I don't think any swim warrants that, no matter how much time and money has gone into it (and in this case, it's a lot of both). Even though, like most long distance swimmers, I don't really kick much, the habitual work of stabilisation in the water places constant demands on the ankle in ways that I hadn't really appreciated until now. I've tried swimming holding it still, but this puts new and assymetrical demands on different parts of my body to manage rotation etc - fine if that's how you've trained, but it's an invitation to further injury otherwise. 

And so, I decided to put an end to the uncertainty and to move on. There's nothing that I can do about it other than lick my wounds for a while and then turn my attention to ankle rehab and new (or old) goals.

Thanks to everyone who's sent encouraging messages over the last few days, and especially to the Lake Geneva Swimming Association, who've been very supportive in the face of my inability to make it even to the start line. I'm down but not out, and in this spirit, last night, we took an evening cruise from Lausanne to Geneva, saw the lake in all its glory and toasted the spectacular gap between my aspiration (to swim 42 miles) and my accomplishment (to fall 2 inches). If you're going to be injured and disappointed, there are worst places to do it. 

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

An unexpected turn of events....

Well...this wasn't how I expected things to go.

The story begins with the fact that Peter and I were walking out of a lakeside bar yesterday evening.... It was the end of a disappointing day. We were scheduled to start our Lake Geneva swim today (Weds), with perfect conditions forecast, but sadly, a mechanical problem with the boat put paid to that and on Tuesday afternoon, we heard that the swim would have to be postponed to either Thursday or Friday. It was frustrating, but it's just one of those things - an occupational hazard in a sport that has a lot of variables in play and lots of moving parts. It is also a million times better to identify a mechanical problem in advance rather than mid-swim. So, knowing that everyone was working hard to fix the problem, we brushed off our disappointment, headed off for a swim in a deliciously lovely 50m lakeside outdoor pool, and then sauntered along the shore, stopping at a bar for a beer and to watch the sun set behind the mountains. It was a lovely end to a disappointing day, and we decided to head back to our Airbmb flat to eat and prepare ourselves for the possibility of a Thursday swim. To be honest, I was feeling quite proud of myself for keeping my focus after the change of plan - I hate the lead-up to a swim, and am not good with spontaneity, so I felt pleased that I had been able to keep my positive focus (although it turns out that a bit more focus on my surroundings instead of the swim would have been more productive).

And then it happened...  I slipped off a small step at the edge of the decking - just a matter of a couple of inches in height - and wrenched my left ankle over. I knew immediately that I'd done something more than just tweak it and my heart sank. I was able to hobble home, but it was sore and swollen, and by morning, it was still no better, with bruising starting to come through and limited mobility. I decided to go for a morning swim in the hope that it would be fine in the water without my weight on it, but the stabilising work of the legs made my foot ache on every kick, however gentle. The pain rose over the 20 minute swim, and I soon came to the reluctant conclusion that I needed to face the possibility of having to cancel the swim. A 24+ hour swim is unlikely to be forgiving of such an injury.

So I currently find myself in the tense position of waiting to see if my ankle can recover sufficiently for me to swim on Saturday (the last possible day open to me). I'm sitting in the flat with my foot wrapped in a compression bandage and up on a cushion, dosing myself with ibuprofen and willing it with every ounce of my being to get better.

This is really not how I had expected this to go, and I am utterly mortified by my own spectacular oafishness.

Time will tell about what happens next. In the mean time, I'm just concentrating on trying to keep the rest of me in one piece.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Elbowed in...

As per my last post, I headed off to the Lakes this weekend for a couple of  'test out my elbow' swims, after which I was determined to make the decision about whether to postpone my Geneva swim or commit to it. I picked the beautiful Crummock Water as the setting for the swims - a long, thin lake, surrounded by monumental, relentless hills. It's stunningly beautiful, even when, as with this weekend, the weather is a bit grim. It was a grey couple of days, punctuated by high winds and apocalyptic bouts of rain, with air temps listed on the Met Office site as "12 degrees, feels like 10" (because of the cold winds). A bunch of wet-suited swimmers hanging around the beach told me that they'd measured the water temp at 15, which seems about right, although the wind made it cold across the shoulders, turning it into a bit of a slog at times.

But whatever the weather, this was my last chance to test the elbow before deciding about Geneva, so I set myself the target of 2 x 10km swims (one each day) - basically a full circumferential lap of Crummock Water plus a bit extra to make up the distance. Like every Crummock Water swim, it was beautiful (if a little menacing at times with the clouds sinking low down the hillsides), and the poor weather meant I seemed to have the whole lake to myself. Such luxury. I used a tow-float with energy drink in it, and one big bottle got me round each time (although for a 6 hour swim, I find I need more regular feeds, so carry gels as well). (As an aside, the Chillswim bottle-holder float has an advantage over the dry-bag tow-floats in that it doesn't flip over in rough conditions, meaning that the strap never gets twisted. This makes it much more comfortable to swim with, although you lose the security of being able to carry a robe and shoes with you).

And the good news is that my elbow held up just fine, and so I have now committed fully to the task ahead. To be honest, I don't think the joint is quite 100%, but with more physio to come, and no noticeable problems during either swim, I'm feeling fairly confident. And realistically, even if I wait until next year, there's always going to be something niggling away, so now is the time.

The Geneva swim season is about to start shortly, and I heard today that the water is a glorious 21 degrees. Let the fun begin.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Elbowed out?

Things were going so well...It's been a struggle since January to get the hours in the pool that I need, but I've managed to keep going, finally hitting the open water in May and building to several 6 hours swims, including a couple of back-to-back sessions. Each time, I was tired, but left the water feeling good and without any aches or pains. I was feeling optimistic, and began my taper for my planned Windermere weekend (2-way, followed by a 1-way) when out of nowhere, three days before the Windermere swims, and during a very gentle hour in the pool, I got a slight niggle in my left elbow. It was nothing major, but it was new. The joint felt a bit stiff afterwards, but the next day it seemed okay, so in I went again, just for a gentle paddle, but back it came, more insistently this time. Damn.

I booked an emergency sports massage appointment, and later that day, the wonderful, relentless Christine massaged my left arm to within an inch of its life. Already, I could feel that a lot of the tightness that had caused the problem had gone, but sadly, it was too late to risk doing the Windermere swims and reluctantly decided to cancel. I felt terrible, especially since Mark Robson and Amanda Bell had generously set aside the time to crew for me, but given the residual post-massage soreness that lasted several days, I'm convinced that this was the right decision and that this will give me the best chance of getting to Geneva in one piece. But one of the undesirable consequences of inserting a long swim into the training cycle as a confidence-builder is that when that swim can't happen because of injury, it's a bit of a confidence-crusher and I am feeling full of self-doubt.

So now, I'm awash with indecision. The elbow is heaps better, but not quite 100% (yet?), but unfortunately time is not on my side and I can't wait around indefinitely to decide for all kinds of logistical and financial reasons. So I have to choose very soon whether to just commit, give it a bit more recovery time and then go for it, or to err on the side of caution and postpone until next year. There are many reasons why I don't want to pick the latter option - I've really had to work hard to get the training in this year, and I'm not sure I'm going to be able to repeat this next year, particularly since I have an even heavier workload in front of me; but also, after putting in all that work, I don't want to waste it. But then again....after all this time and money, I don't want to go into the swim without having done everything possible to succeed. With 7 weeks to go, and having already had time out to taper for the Windermere swims and then recover from the injury, there's not a lot of slack left in the training schedule. AAARGH. I just don't know.

Ultimately, I'm hoping that my elbow will make the choice for me, so I'm off to the Lakes this weekend to do a couple of long swims. If it feels okay, then I'll commit to going for it; if it doesn't, then I'll have to pull the plug for now and try to come back next year.

It's not how I hoped all this would go, but it's an occupational hazard for a sport like this, so I can only hope that the right decision becomes clear over the next few days.

And in the mean time, make sure you're following the 2016 8 Bridges swim, this year with the added ability to track the swimmers  (courtesy of Evan Morrison's new tracker app) as they progress down the river each day. You might as well give up on doing any work now and settle down to watch - it's easier that way.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016


It's finally here...the real life, hold-it-in-your-hand book. After all these years of work, and over a year since completing the manuscript, it scarcely seems true. But it is....there's a happy heap of copies on my office floor (although I haven't dared open any of them up yet in case I find typos!). It is 14 years since my last monograph, so this is probably slightly overdue, but still...I couldn't be more pleased. Plus at 48, who ever thought I would find myself on the cover of a book in a swimming costume, with my back smeared all over with a US nappy rash cream called "Butt Paste". Life is strange and wonderful.

I'm not going to be flogging the book mercilessly either on or offline, not least because it's a relatively expensive hardback which is aimed primarily at libraries at this stage (with a paperback to follow next year). But, please allow me this brief promotional post.... 

If you wish to buy a copy, you can purchase it from Manchester University Press. They are currently having a summer sale with 50% off all books, so the usual purchase price for my book of £70 is currently reduced to £35. (Still expensive I know, but better). To get the discount, click the "buy now" button and enter the discount code Summer16 in the 'promotion code' box. Unfortunately, the code only applies to UK / EU purchases at the current time (the US sales are being handled by Oxford University Press).

I'm very excited for the book to finally be making its way into the world, and of course, I am very grateful to everyone who helped with the research. Books, like marathon swims, are a team effort, even though only one name ends up on the cover. So big thanks all round.  

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Fats, carbs, meat and plants....

A warning….this post is not about swimming (although, as with most things, I came to it via swimming, where discussions about diet and nutrition are rife). As I explained when I re-launched the blog in February, as my research moves away from swimming, I want to start using this as a site for testing out new thoughts and ideas about a range of projects and issues, some of which are more obviously swimming-related than others. So if you’ve come to the blog looking for swimming posts, please browse away through past posts….or come back in a couple of weeks, by which time I’m sure more swimming will have appeared.


With my swimming book now at the printers (and out in August), I’ve been working on getting some new writing and research projects going. My primary goal is a long-abandoned but recently resurrected book about obesity surgery, but as a side project, I’ve been getting very interested in radical weight loss diets – those diets which conform to contemporary anti-obesity sentiment, but which stand in direct opposition to mainstream dietary advice. I started off by focusing on low carb – high fat diets (LCHF)  (e.g. the Real Meal Revolution) which have become very popular in the swimming community recently, and then extended this to plant-based weight loss plans (e.g. Forks Over Knives). The former rely heavily on animal products as a means of limiting carbs and increasing the consumption of fat, while the latter completely reject all animal products (including dairy). In spite of this very fundamental difference, I’ve been intrigued by how much they have in common, leading me to ask how the cases for each are made, what values they appeal to, and where their similarities and differences lie.

I need a couple of quick caveats here: as a recently converted vegan, and a vegetarian for 30 years before that, I have an obvious loyalty to plant-based eating and think that it is environmentally and ethically irresponsible to promote the greater consumption of animal products.  But this is not what this project is about, and I think that while the vegan critique of LCHF is personally important to me it is not particularly interesting sociologically. For this reason, I have excluded books guided by ethical veganism and am focusing specifically on plant-based weight loss plans. Nor is the project about adjudicating the health effects of one or other regimen, but rather, to think about how those claims to weight and health outcomes are made and to what social effects. There is one final caveat – and one which anyone familiar with my writing on marathon swimming and fat will recognise. I come from an academic tradition of feminist Fat Studies and as such, approach this topic with a well-worn suspicion of the easy equation of fatness and ill-health, and a resistance to the habitual and moralising assumptions about fatness that run through the contemporary attack on obesity - a starting point that not everyone will agree with. 

In dietary terms there is more common ground between the two dietary styles than you might expect, particularly in relation to the rejection of processed and refined foods, and both regimens have armies of acolytes for whom the prescribed dietary transformation has produced effects on the body that are experienced as both positive and meaningful (and I think it's important to take those experiences seriously). But the most interesting common ground for me lies in the programmes' self-presentations and justifications, many of which overlap strongly with mainstream anti-obesity interventions. Both share the caricatured and hysterical fear-mongering that is the hallmark of the ‘war on obesity', and both are sites of weight loss entrepreneurship, selling books and other products and plans, as well as engaging in research. Both marshall ‘science’ to shore up their arguments, as embodied in books and websites primarily through the figures of white, male doctors and scientists. Both exercise a rigorous critique of opposing scientific views but rarely extend that level of scrutiny to supporting studies or to the obesity science literature which feeds the ‘war on obesity’ more generally. ‘Science’, then, for both is usually good or bad, but rarely treated as inherently uncertain. Both rely on highly strategic and partial evolutionary accounts of what we are 'meant' to eat. Both caricature and generalise the diet of the ‘irresponsible poor’ whilst offering solutions which demand the social, cultural and economic capital of the (westernised) middle classes. Both treat weight loss as synonymous with, and a proxy for, health in ways that are fundamentally unreliable. And both rely on profoundly masculinised narratives of bodily mastery and athleticism as proof of positive health outcomes. 

My preliminary argument, then, is that while both LCHF and plant-based programmes identify strongly with their dissenting roles in relation to conventional dietary advice, they simultaneously reproduce many of the normative assumptions that underpin mainstream anti-obesity campaigns and which Fat Studies scholars have been critiquing for years.

In short, I don’t think that they’re as radical as they appear to be at first glance, and can alternatively be seen as intensifications of existing ideologies rather than divergences from them. 

And this leads me to a further question (and one which is central to my obesity surgery book), which applies to both the general audience and to the feminist and Fat Studies communities for whom the failure of diets is a core element of their opposition: What if it works?  If one or other (or both) of these regimens were to be successful in safely producing sustained weight loss and improved ‘health’ (however that’s measured), what does that mean for the fat body? What new or intensified coercions might result? What gets overlooked in the relentless focus on obesity as the motivating problem to be solved? 

These are only my preliminary thoughts, and I’ve got heaps more work to do. But even if it doesn’t come to anything, at least it’s the kind of research where you pick up some great recipes and food ideas along the way (chocolate-banana ice-cream, anyone?).

Monday, 30 May 2016

6 hours...

The 6-hour swim is a marathon swimming staple. As many swimmers already know, it is the length of the qualification swim for the English Channel (and others), and long distance training camps routinely culminate in documented 6-hours swims, providing certificates for swimmers to dispatch to organising bodies as evidence. But as every experienced marathon swimmer knows, your qualification swim should just be one of many. To have completed the qualification swim is really just a starting rather than a finishing point in your training, and as your big swim approaches, the 6-hour swim, while always satisfying, should become relatively mundane. And while there is disagreement about how many long weekends are necessary leading up to a big swim, I would definitely say that you should be able to double up with relative comfort as the swim approaches, doing back-to-back 6-hour swims across two days. If you are completely wrecked at the end of 6 hours and can't recover well enough to swim again the next day, then you're probably not ready for 12, 15, 20 hours.

In the summer before my EC swim, I did 4-5 back-to-back weekends, plus I came to love the early season 6-hour swim at Swan Pool, which I did annually until I moved to North Yorkshire. I also did 6-hour swims with Swimtrek in Gozo, and on the Cork training camp. As a result, I learned to chop up a marathon swim into 6 hour chunks; in the EC, I changed my goggles at the end of the first 6 hours as the sun came up, and in my mind, I restarted the swim afresh. At the next 6 hours, I was rewarded with a black jelly baby to mark the start of the next 6-hour block. I did the same on both of my MIMS swims; the magic of the black jelly baby to reset the clock shouldn't be underestimated.

Times have changed in my training though, and when I stopped to think about it before writing this, I realised that I haven't done a 6-hour training swim since May 2013, in the run-up to my rather unsuccessful season of cancelled and aborted swims. I have swum over 6 hours since then - on both of my MIMS swims, and then the 8 Bridges swim last year, which involved 3 swims of 7+ hours; but it's been 3 years since I did any 6-hour training swims. This is partly because, since I got the Fastlane Pool, I tend to do longer, more regular pool swims more consistently than I was able to before. I am firmly convinced of the relative value of doing frequent 2-3 hours swims over my previous pattern (from necessity) of being relatively fallow during the week then hammering out long training swims at the weekend.

But with both Geneva and, more immediately, my 2-way / 1-way Windermere weekend approaching fast, it was time to get out there and get some distance in my shoulders... Plus, the weather forecast for the Bank Holiday weekend for the Lake District was for glorious sunshine. This doesn't happen very often, and the thought of all that water-warming sunshine inspired me to leap in the van and head to Grasmere to do my first 6-hour swim of the season - hopefully the first of many in my prep for Geneva. This was also the first 6-hour training swim I've done completely solo - just doing 2km laps of the lake with a tow-float carrying a drink bottle, plus a few gels down by the back of my costume, stopping in at the beach every 2 hours to restock. I was surprised how well it all went - I felt like I was swimming well, I didn't really get cold, and my energy levels stayed high. Over the winter, I've lost some of the habits of thought that long swimming demands, and I found my mind bouncing around problems with work for the first couple of hours. But by hour 4, I had settled down and started to find my marathon swimming-ness - an embodied disposition, a state of mind.

I've been more tired today than I had hoped, and obviously still have a  lot of work to do, but it felt SO good to be back at it in such a tangible, substantive way. It feels like a very solid contribution to training; a marker of progress in a long journey.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Talking head video...

This is a piece of shameless self-promotion, but I recently made a short video at work as part of a  broader project to showcase the School of Sociology and Social Policy's research profile. Eventually it'll be posted up on the School's website, but for now, it's having its first outing on You Tube via social media.

I have to confess that I didn't really enjoy making it - this is definitely not my natural medium, and in spite of much encouragement from the cameraman, Steve, I found it a little disconcerting to gaze into the camera lens and chat about the research. I'd practiced what I wanted to say quite a bit beforehand, which helped, but I still look a little bit like I'm about to be executed, especially at the beginning. But nevertheless, I was happy with the end result, and think that we managed to capture the important points about the project and my book, Immersion (which has now gone to press and will be out in August).

I hope you like it.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Why wetsuits aren't biscuits....

I had a conversation last week with a prospective English Channel swimmer who wants to start getting some outdoor distance under her belt as soon as possible, but doesn't live close enough to an open water venue to make it worth what would inevitably be relatively short dips at first because of the early season cold. Her suggestion to some marathon swimming friends that she might use a wetsuit in the spring as part of her training had been met with derision, arguing that she needed to acclimatise, and that she risked becoming dependent on the wetsuit in ways that would damage her Channel swimming plans.

This latter is one of the core objections from within the marathon swimming community to the use of wetsuits - that they create a dependence both in terms of body position in the water and their insulating effects. This talk of the risks of over-reliance on wetsuits reminds me of the conversations that happen routinely among dieters - that some foods have to be avoided because we can't be trusted around them. The 'biscuit' (or cookie, for my US friends) is the conventional unit of risk in these discussions - that you can't afford to have biscuits in the house because of the risk that you won't be able to stop eating them.

But wetsuits aren't biscuits.

Sacrilegious though it may be to say so in marathon swimming circles, it is perfectly feasible, and, I would argue, sensible for a marathon swimmer in training for a non-wetsuit swim to use a wetsuit as part of their preparations. For example, for those (like me, and my friend above) who live too far away from open water venues to allow for short acclimatising dips, it makes perfect sense to use the wetsuit to get some distance in, in combination with acclimatising swims. So, for example, in the early season, I might do a 2 hour wetsuit swim, followed by a 15 minute non-wetsuit acclimatisation dip. Then next time, I shorten the wetsuit swim by 15 minutes and lengthen the non-wetsuit portion by the same...until eventually, both acclimatisation and the warmer weather join forces and allow full session non-wetsuit swimming of ever-increasing distances. In the mean time, in addition to ongoing pool training, I've managed both acclimatisation swims and done some good foundational distance work (and most importantly, got to enjoy being outdoors).

For those who don't want to engage with non-wetsuit swimming at all, for whatever reason, my advice is to ignore the anti-wetsuit harrumphing of some parts of the marathon swimming community and dive in anyway. Wetsuits add comfort and buoyancy, and allow many more people to enjoy the water than otherwise would. For those who would like to try non-wetsuit swimming but are nervous to do so, find an experienced ally who can support you to do it safely and who will help you to learn what they find pleasurable about non-wetsuit swimming - and if you don't like it, go back to the wetsuit if you enjoy that more. And for those who are training for a long, non-wetsuit marathon swim, don't be afraid of wetsuits - they can be an effective training aid like any other. I know there are plenty of people who wouldn't be seen dead in a wetsuit, and that's their choice; but the non-wetsuit rules of marathon swimming only apply to the swims themselves. It doesn't make you any less of a marathon swimmer to use a wetsuit as part of your training.

There are many paths to successful and enjoyable marathon swimming, and wetsuits aren't biscuits.

Thursday, 3 March 2016

While I was away....

While I was away from the blog, there's been a couple of notable happenings. The first is very much about swimming - my decision to sign on with the Lake Geneva Swimming Association to have a crack at swimming the length of Lake Geneva (from Bouveret to Geneva - all 69 km of it). US swimmer, Jaimie Monahan completed it last year in just under 33 hours, following in the footsteps of two Swiss swimmers -  Vedika Bolliger in 1999 (42.45) and Alan Charmey in 1986 (22.43). It's a bit of a monster swim, and I'm slightly frightened of it, but I'm curious to see what a swim of that magnitude feels like. I've never swum into and through a whole night, and I've never swum anything like that distance in fresh water, so it's a bit of leap into the dark. But go to the website and look at the scenery - it's jaw-droppingly beautiful.

The LGSA is a new organisation, and I think that quite a few people will be having a go at this newcomer to the swimming scene this summer. My swim's not until the end of August, so I'm planning to watch and learn from others. And I'll be swimming. A lot. Key training points include a trip to Lanzarote for some early long distance training in April, and then at the end of June, I'll be trying to do a double Windermere (21 miles) followed by a single Windermere the next day, which, if all goes well, should enable me to more than meet the LGSA qualifying criteria of a 7 hour swim followed by a 6 hour swim the next day. Many thanks to Mark Robson for offering to help with the piloting and logistics of this. Otherwise, I expect you'll be able to find me hanging out in the Lake District over the summer, churning out the miles in some of my favourite swim spots. Fingers crossed for a safe, injury-free run-up.

The second development relates to the decision I made last August to become a vegan - that is, to eliminate all food sources derived from animals (meat, fish, dairy, honey etc). In the first instance, this has been confined to my diet (I haven't decided yet whether to take this further (clothing, anti-chafing products like Desitin and Sudacrem etc)) and the decision comes after 30 years of vegetarianism. I think that my move to the countryside finally tipped me over the edge (sheep bleating all night for the lambs taken away etc), but I've been bothered for a while by the inconsistency of a vegetarian position based primarily on resistance to animal cruelty and exploitation (as mine was). It's not been an entirely easy transition - I found giving up cheese in particular very difficult, and lots of entrenched habits of eating left me feeling very lost at first. But as the weeks have progressed into months, I gradually adapted to my new diet. The trick, I was advised, is to crowd out dairy with new foods; I have expanded my previously quite limited culinary repertoire and have enjoyed exploring new ways to eat and get the nutrition that I need.

At first, I made a lot of mistakes, especially in relation to swimming and training. The only complete lapse came after a five and a half hour swim last summer, quite shortly after becoming vegan, when I didn't properly attend to my immediate post-swim nutrition (the recovery shake I always normally used, like most, has milk products in it) and I ended up waking up hungry and depleted and eating cheese on toast in the van at 3 in the morning. A learning experience! I've tried the specialist vegan recovery shakes but they're too sweet and sickly for me, so I've now switched to soya chocolate milk or a green protein shake made from spinach, bananas and vegan protein powder (rice and hemp proteins). I've also had to say goodbye to the jelly baby (gelatine - sob!), and will be experimenting over the summer with a range of in-swim nutrition options to supplement the carb drinks (vegan porridge, fruit bars etc) plus my usual standby - bananas. This will be an important part of my summer training - to recalibrate my in-swim and post-swim nutrition. I started off using the No Meat Athlete book and website for guidance, but have branched out since then. My approach is very simple  - I aim for as much unprocessed (or minimally processed) food as possible, with as wide a range as possible. I don't count anything - calories, or quantities of protein, carbs, fat or anything else - because life's too short. I work on the principle that a diverse range of plant-based foods will give me the nutrition I need. And so far,  it's working.

My decision to go vegan is all about animal welfare and the environmental implications of the exploitation of animals; I didn't set out with any health or weight goals. But incidentally, the health impacts have been noticeable - I am sleeping better, have much more energy and feel great. Collaterally, I have lost a fair amount of weight, but I don't consider this to be an independent health benefit and don't weigh myself so I have no idea how much my weight has changed - I decided many years ago that I never want the quality of my day to be determined by a number on the scale, and the conventional assumptions that weight loss is synonymous with improvements in health is highly problematic. I think that I lost a lot at the beginning because I didn't have the nutrition right, so I'm pleased that this has now tapered off, suggesting that I've reached a better state of stability and balance.

I'm probably going to be writing more about all this later on - I'm working at the moment on a journal article comparing vegan and low carb weight loss plans, focusing on the rhetorics that they use to recruit followers (both very similar in spite of their diametrically opposed dietary philosophies - science, primitivism, masculinity, anti-obesity, 'health'). I'm not at all interested in trying to arbitrate over which is healthier, sustainable or effective, but I'm really intrigued by their shared repudiation of the standard dietary recommendations and their appeal to new commercial weight loss markets (and particularly men). More to follow on this.

So that's my news - a big swim and a dietary change. And now I'm just waiting for the warmth of spring so that I can head outdoors where the fun swimming happens.

Friday, 26 February 2016

I changed my mind...

Back in August, I announced the end of The Long Swim, feeling that it had run its course. I've got a real soft spot for my little blog and its role in my swimming life, and I didn't want to let it just wither on the vine as I became less inclined to engage in such a public documentary and commentary practice. But recently, I've been missing it. I hadn't realised how much I had become accustomed to using the blog as a space for testing out ideas and writing more informally than I have to in my academic life. I'm currently starting a new book project, and it's a bit like wading through treacle - have really missed the chance to float ideas and think things through outside of the more stressful space of the 'manuscript'.

So, I've changed my mind and am resurrecting The Long Swim, albeit in amended form. Most significantly, I'm going to move away from an entirely swimming focused blog to cover a wider range of issues that I'm interested in. Consequently, some of my future posts may well not be of interest to readers who have come in search of swimming content, and as well as ongoing swimming blogs, I am anticipating future posts on issues of feminist body politics, fat politics and the politics of food and consumption. Some of these concerns intersect (at least for me) - for example, one of the key triggers to me restarting the blog has been the recent flourishing debates online about low carb diets and swimming. In another example, my current book project is about obesity surgery, and will inevitably draw me towards thinking about our attitudes to fat more generally - a key preoccupation in the marathon swimming community. Other topics are less obviously connected to the blog's previous swimming focus; my new research project on the menopause, for example, does not have obvious resonance with swimming... although the paucity of research of the experience of the menopause among swimmers would also suggest an interesting potential point of connection. I sometimes feel like swimming contains a little bit of everything; it is something useful for me to think with.

I had thought about setting up a new blog rather than risking changing the character of this one, but that feels too complicated, especially since I don't experience the different issues that (pre-)occupy me as distinct from each other, and I certainly I don't have the organisational skills or energy to sustain more than one blog at a time.

So, I changed my mind and The Long Swim is back.