Thursday 12 March 2020

The (global) politics of marathon swimming

We are living in very strange and scary times - climate catastrophe, a pandemic, US and UK leaders who are incompetent, lazy, sexist, malevolent ideologues void of empathy and compassion (it's my blog - I can say what I like). On a lesser scale, but another major stressor for me and many of my colleagues in Higher Education, is a our long-running disputes over working conditions and pensions, including most recently, nearly 4 weeks of strike action that's coming to an end (and without resolution) tomorrow. Against this bleak and uncertain context, I've been thinking about a couple of things in relation to marathon swimming (itself an uplifting practice in difficult times) where I think that positive changes can be made to make our lives just a little bit better. Not everyone will agree, but perhaps this can be a contribution to some conversations that I think we need to have as a community. In particular, I've been thinking about two things: (1) the responsibilities of the marathon swimming community in the context of climate change; and (2) the need for proactive trans-inclusivity.

Firstly, climate change. Given that many parts of the world have been / still are on fire, there is no (sensible) denying the urgency of climate change. It feels like such an insurmountable challenge that it's hard to feel like any direct action on an individual level is significant enough to make a difference. I'd also be the first to admit that I'm a little late to the party on some of this, so none of what follows is in the spirit of setting myself up as an eco-paragon. But along with other aspects of my life / consumption, I've been thinking a lot about marathon swimming and flying. Marathon swimming is a practice that involves a great deal of long-haul travel for many of those eager to complete the 'big' swims on the roster. This is exacerbated by challenges like the Oceans 7 or its ice-mile equivalents, with these latter in particular involving extensive travel to already-fragile ecosystems. I understand the desire to make these trips and I have done more than my share of long-haul flying for swimming (as well as work / leisure). But I wonder if this is the moment when we need to be rethinking what the travelling involved in marathon swimming might be costing those very aquatic environments that we travel to enjoy.

I recently attended a 'teach-out' talk here at Leeds that was being held as part of the strike action. Politics scholar, Jonathon Dean, gave an amazing lecture on the politics of bird(watch)ing, describing how he loved taking trips all around the world to observe unfamiliar birds in their natural habitats. It reminded me of the many swimming holidays and swim challenges that we all love. He told us that he had decided to no longer take those trips because he felt that he could no longer justify the environmental impacts of those flights, especially given his investment as a birder in those environments and their wildlife; he spoke about how sad this made him feel and what a loss it was, but that he was certain that it was the right thing to do. And I think that this might also be true about swimming - that while the world is literally on fire, we have to stop. And so, as a start (and this is by no means a definitive answer to a complex problem), I've decided to no longer sign up for any swims that would involve long-haul flying (and I'm also refusing long-haul flying for work). Like I said, I'm no paragon here - I've done lots of swim-related flying in the past, and am scheduled to fly to the Canary Islands in a few weeks for a writing retreat, where there will certainly also be some swimming (although COVID-19 may also put paid to all that). But I think that it's something that the marathon swimming community should be thinking and talking about. I know that many local swimming orgs are strongly invested in environmental protection (NYOW is an excellent example of this), and am inspired by the work that many people are doing to change their patterns of movement and consumption to minimise environmental harm (going vegan, reducing plastic, using public transport etc). Stopping marathon swim-related flying is just one small step, but I think it's worth considering. This feels like a time when things really need to change, not least before the aquatic environments where we love to swim are irrevocably damaged.

The second issue is one of trans-inclusivity. As I write this, the UK is caught up in a bonfire of transphobia. Mainstream newspapers are publishing opinion pieces with appalling regularity demonising trans people, creating a deeply unsafe environment for a group that is already multiply disadvantaged and discriminated against, and globally, trans people are finding themselves on the receiving end of discriminatory legislative interventions and hostile environments that make their everyday lives increasingly dangerous and difficult. Sport is something of a lightning rod for this, with high profile athletes like the swimmer, Sharron Davies, speaking out against trans inclusion in women's sport, relying on a transphobic ideology dressed up in unsustainably reductive biological accounts of what constitutes a 'woman' in order to facilitate that exclusion.

So this seems like the perfect opportunity to me for the marathon swimming community (and the open water swimming community more widely) to take a proactive stand and explicitly declare its inclusion of trans people as a matter of policy and practice. As an absolute minimum, this should include allowing swimmers to self-identify without question for the purposes of swim recording (and to make clear in the regulations that this is the case). But perhaps this is also a moment when we could think about moving away from the binary categorisation of men / women in marathon swim recording. Ultra-endurance sport is an arena where the performance gap between men and women is the least predictable and marked and I'm not convinced that there is any need for gender binary categorisations at all; to get rid of them would be to open up the sport proactively to those who are currently excluded by it (e.g. those identifying as non-binary) and enable us to blaze a trail in looking beyond a gender binary that is, for many, tyrannical and destructive in the way it is enforced socially. People could still self-identify in the records (male / female / trans / non-binary etc), but without forcing those identifications into the binary frame. Trans and non-binary people currently face enormous challenges in accessing sports like swimming, where the visibility of the uncovered body can make them very vulnerable to public scrutiny, hostility and violence. The overt opening up of marathon swimming to those people would send a significant message that transphobia is not acceptable and that all swimmers are welcome. Particularly in the UK (but also globally), it is not enough to wait until the situation arises or to just passively stand by with inclusive intent; I believe that we need to stand collectively and proactively in defence of trans-inclusion in policies and practices of the sport's organisations, communities and practices right now, leaving no doubt about the unacceptability of transphobia and its discriminatory effects.

So these are just thoughts - the kind of thinking that happens when you're on strike, the world is on fire in multiple ways and the only sustained public response is the panic-buying of toilet roll -  but serious thoughts nevertheless in serious times.

Friday 16 August 2019

Back in business....?

Last Tuesday, I swam the length of Windermere in 5 hours and 47 minutes.

In the world of marathon swimming, and particularly now that the swimming season is in full bloom, this is a fairly mundane accomplishment. In fact, there was a time just a few years ago when a 6-hour swim was just a bread-and-butter training day for me, often tied back-to-back with a swim of similar length the following day to get endurance miles in the shoulders. But not this year; not on Tuesday. Tuesday was the culmination of 2 years and 3 months of injury and rehab to my back, neck and shoulder; it was my longest swim since I was injured and it was the first time since May 2017 that I have felt solid and strong enough in the water to swim in a sustained way. And it felt amazing. That night, I sat in the van and cried with delighted relief. 

There have been a number of points since I was first injured that I have thought that I was okay, but each time, the recovery was too superficial and any effortful swimming soon broke the fragile truce I had reached with my body. I had started to think seriously about the possibility of not being able to return to swimming and had even begun some tentative ventures into running and cycling by way of a Plan B, just in case. But then, really only in the last 6 weeks, everything started to fall into place and I began to rediscover my swimming self, adding longer swims to my Lake District trips without the regression into pain and immobility that had happened previously. I swam the BLDSA Coniston event a couple of weeks ago by way of a test swim without any negative consequences (apart from some ferocious duck itch...occupational hazard) and finally committed in my mind to the Windermere swim that I had booked months ago in a fit of optimism. 

When the day came, I was as nervous as if I was doing a Channel swim and had spent the preceding week glued to the constantly changing weather forecast. I watched storms pass through dumping huge quantities of rain that ran into the lakes and rivers, lowering the water temperatures and threatening floods. But I was supremely lucky, and amidst a wet and windy couple of weeks, I landed an almost perfect swimming day. 

Photo courtesy of Pete Kelly

In spite of the rain, the water was still deliciously warm from the good weather in July, and there was just the gentlest of breezes for most of the swim, licking up just a little towards the end as we began to cross the lake in the final 3km of the swim into Waterhead. I was accompanied by Pete Kelly of Ambleside's Swim The Lakes, who provided navigation, safety cover and support from his canoe, and was a wonderfully calm presence, quietly paddling alongside, guiding me round hazards and protecting me from boat traffic. By hour 3, I started to feel like I was hitting my stride, and by hour 5, even though my lack of stamina from my long lay-off was starting to show, I had rediscovered the glorious feeling of belonging and comfort in the water that only comes (for me, at least) during long swimming. I was tired at the finish and relieved to be able to stop having achieved my goal, but I could have done more, and I finished feeling confident that with more training to build my endurance back up, I will be able to do more and go further (if I decide I want to). It feels unspeakably good to be back.

But none of this tortuously slow return to swimming has happened by accident and it has taken a lot of work by a number of people to get me back to this point. In the first year of the injury, I worked with a local osteopath and a massage therapist, both of whom did a great job of relieving the trapped nerves and the most obviously rigid muscles that were impeding movement and causing pain. But while this treatment always helped, it never really got to the heart of the problem. It's hard, though, to stop a line of treatment with people you like and trust when it seems to be working, even if only very gradually, and in hindsight, I left it too long before looking for alternative solutions. It was only when I started working with Cumbria-based injury and rehab specialist, Adam Smith (@adamsmithrehab on Twitter) last year that things really started to move noticeably in the right direction. I've had two sustained courses of treatment with him - at the end of last summer, and throughout this summer - during which he has worked relentlessly through scar tissue and taut muscles, restoring movement in my thoracic spine (which turns out to be the heart of the problem) and shoulder (which often felt like it was the problem, but was really collateral damage). The damage was quite deep and long-standing and it's been a drawn-out (and often quite painful) job that has demanded a great deal of expertise, effort and tenacity from Adam. But quite recently, everything started to change and I noticed that swimming was relieving my back rather than aggravating it; the restored movement seemed to have set up a positive cycle where movement produced more movement rather than immobility, which Adam had been promising would eventually happen but I never quite believed him. Amazingly, when I saw Adam after the Windermere swim, he could barely find the band of scar tissue that he's been digging away at for all this time, and since the swim, I've had almost no symptoms at all. My recovery is still ongoing and I am diligently doing all of my rehab and mobility exercises to fend off even the hint of recurrence, but the state of my recovery is so markedly different from any of the previous times of the last couple of years when I thought that I was on the mend that I am feeling very confident that we have it properly on the run now and that I am (cautiously) back in business.

But what does it mean to say that I am back in business? At the moment, I'm not sure. Part of me - a big part of me - wants to set my sights on something long. I have a couple of swims in mind that I am keeping to myself for now, but in any case, I will need a very long and steady run-up to anything substantial. It took me two years to train for the Channel, and using this as a model, 2021 would be the absolutely earliest for anything really long, although I'm also thinking about interim, build-up goals for 2020. But I'm also not 100% certain that I'm going to go back to very long swimming. If it is a choice between being able to swim Windermere-length distances and below, but to swim regularly, often and consistently, and having a big blow-out swim that might leave me out of the water for an extended period again, I would undoubtedly choose the former. I've had a wonderful summer in the Lakes, swimming, paddle-boarding and enjoying the beauty of it all; I don't want to risk losing that again.

I'm also uncomfortably aware that when I was first injured in 2017 and in subsequent moments of optimism over the last couple of years, I ended up letting quite a lot of people down, having to cancel swims and inconvenience friends who had been generous enough to make arrangements to crew for me. I really don't want to be that person, and this makes me cautious about diving back into it all again. Time will tell.

But the most important thing for now is that swimming is back in my life. My working life has been very challenging over the last year and without swimming to blow of steam, get my head straight and wear myself out, by last spring, I was experiencing high levels of stress, anxiety and insomnia that were impacting on my mental and physical health in unacceptable and unsustainable ways. Swimming is not the answer to these problems, which are fundamentally structural in nature rather than a personal failure of self-care, but it certainly helps to keep me going while I focus on ways to find a better balance in my working life. I feel better going into the next academic year knowing that swimming is there to fall back on.

I am grateful to so many people for sticking with me through this rather drawn-out palaver and helping me find a way through it. Adam has been amazing; Scarborough osteopath Neil Corcoran found bits of me to pop and crack that I didn't even know existed or were supposed to move; my local osteopath, Louise Judd, has been a steady influence throughout, helping to ease my body towards recovery; and Leeds massage therapist, Jim Mason kept me up and moving over the winter months. Skilled experts, one and all. Nevertheless, I have to confess to hoping that this is now the beginning of being able to focus my disposable income on something other than treatment... although I'm also very aware of the incredible privilege that comes with being able to engage with this kind of therapeutic expertise, and I'm very grateful that that option was available to me.

As we head into the dog-days of summer and as the beginning of the new academic year looms large, I'm looking forward to some final trips to the Lakes for swimming and paddling fun as I rediscover my love of swimming. We'll have to see what happens next, but for now, if you need me, I'll be in the water.

Sunday 10 February 2019


Since whining about injury has become a bit of a default setting for the blog recently, I thought I'd return to a bit of opinionated rambling by way of light relief.

So....recently on the Marathon Swimmers Forum, there was a discussion about the use of the term "bioprene" - a neologism that compounds biology and neoprene to describe body fat specifically in the context of swimming. As a concept, 'Bioprene' serves a number of functions. Firstly, it signals a form of 'natural' swim-enabling body composition (buoyancy / insulation) that stands in direct contrast to neoprene, whose 'artificial' assistive qualities remains a lightning rod for debates about what constitutes authentic marathon swimming. I'm not sure that the use of a term founded on that binary is particularly helpful in smoothing out those battle lines (and I'd make the same argument about the use of 'skins' to describe non-wetsuit swimming - an ugly term that defines swimming by the body's surface rather than its entirety, and makes me cringe every time I hear it). Second, it is a euphemistic attempt to distance swimmers from the social stigma of fatness / body fat by separating it from the embodied self; bioprene is something that can be gained or lost, put on or taken off, just as a wetsuit can, rather than being part of, and inseparable from, who the swimmer is. Third, and relatedly, bioprene operates as an alibi for fatness; as I've written about extensively elsewhere, bioprene is repeatedly articulated in terms of 'heroic fatness' (fatness for a higher purpose) in ways that render body fat forgivable by virtue of its connection to an status-bearing, extreme endurance sport. In a fat-phobic society, fatness and body fat always need to be accounted for, and calling fat bioprene distinguishes it from other, more easily discredited, forms of fatness. And fourth, variable amounts of body fat among swimmers, and the impossibility of reading performance off the fat body, is commonly cited as evidence of a community that is exempt from the fat-phobic prejudices that people with noticeable body fat encounter in as they move through the world. The water, we are told, is a great leveller, but this still leaves those negative assumptions intact outside of swimming; this swimming exceptionalism, while well-intended, does nothing to disrupt the negative assumptions and devastating discrimination that fat people face in their everyday lives (and also ignores the entrenched fat-phobia that is alive and well in the swimming community).

I've never really liked 'bioprene' as a term - it's too euphemistic, and too wedded to the idea that body fat is somehow not part of the body / self. But I also strongly dispute the idea that fat-phobia is rendered obsolete by the accustomed exposure among swimmers to bodies of all shapes and sizes and the awareness that size / composition is no predictor of performance. Every time you observe a fat swimmer and make judgements about their performance, you reproduce assumptions about the bodies of fat people; and every time you are proved wrong by being trounced by a fat swimmer, your surprise reflects those assumptions (and we could say the same about age, or about gender and the repeated (and slightly shocked) acknowledgements that women can out-swim men).  Marathon swimming is always part of the social world rather than an exception to it, and swimming becomes an alibi for fatness when framed as bioprene, rather than a site of fat's radical reframing. It is not enough to conclude that size and age are meaningless indicators of swimming performance without also maintaining the commitment to actively refusing those prejudices. Otherwise, the water is not a great leveller, but rather, a means of obscuring fat-phobia both in swimming and beyond it.

So each to her own, but I don't have bioprene, I have body fat, and I'm fine with that.

Opinionated rambling over....

Saturday 24 November 2018

45 minutes....

As we move into week 9 (of 11) of the teaching term, it's been a really tough one, mostly for reasons that I'm not going to discuss on here, but not helped by being much more inactive than in previous years. Over the last couple of months, I've continued working with Adam, and more recently, with his osteopath pal, Neil, and between them, they have massaged and crunched me slowly towards something closely approximating recovery.

Every day, I do my stretches and strengthening exercises, and my back, shoulder and neck are being slowly restored....even (hopefully) exceeding their previous state to enable me to continue swimming long into the future:

A month or so ago, I got the go-ahead to get back in the pool, albeit in a carefully controlled and modest way....every other day, only 30 mins at a time while we assessed my progress. The process was not with hiccups, especially psychologically, when I began to really appreciate the depths of my loss of fitness over the last year or so, and particularly over the last few months of non-swimming treatment. Feeling the stiffness in my shoulders the day after only a 30 minute swim felt very sobering and ageing. Being right back at the beginning is hard when I think back to the many fantastic years of long swimming I've been able to enjoy, but I'm trying to focus on starting from where I am, and am working on relishing the steady build-up to fitness rather than regretting what is lost (and without going mad and wrecking all that hard work); I do my drills diligently in the pool to try not to slip into old bad habits. To date, I'm at 45 mins of swimming in the endless pool, 4-5 times a week, without negative consequences to my neck / back, so that's progress indeed. I'm still doing Pilates at least once a week, and I've resumed running, following a beginner's 5km programme (on a treadmill primarily but hoping to venture outside once I've got my confidence / capacity up). I''ve also  introduced some cycling on the turbo, with a view to buying a mountain bike in the new year so that I can get out into the hills around our house, and I've rediscovered the joys of walking, with many trips to the Lake District, and up into the Yorkshire Dales - who knew that there are far more ways to enjoy the outdoors than from the water....?

If I've learned one thing this year it's that having all my eggs in one basket in exercise and activity terms is a mistake, so these are all good outcomes coming out of a difficult situation. 

But perhaps the greatest impact of my slow but steady recovery is the return of sleep. I've been suffering from terrible insomnia for the last few of months, mostly as the result of work-related stress, but compounded by not being able to exercise it off in the usual, water-based ways. Anyone who has suffered from the inability to sleep in a consistent and sustained way knows how awful and grinding it is, and how it only compounds the stress that you so desperately need to sleep off. The half-hour dips weren't doing it for me, but it turns out that a regular 45 minutes of swimming (plus a bit of running etc) is what it takes to break the sleep log-jam and I'm finally sleeping through most nights. This is a quality-of-life changing development, and as a result, I feel much better placed to manage some of the other challenges that life is throwing my way. If ever there was an incentive to keep up with my rehab and recovery, it's that 45 minutes....and there's hopefully more to come.

So, it's been a tricky few months, but in 21 days, I'm off to the Canary Islands for 2 weeks of sun, relaxation, recovery, and hopefully more swimming. And sleep. Lots of sleep. 

Friday 7 September 2018

On a scale of 1 to 10....

At the risk of this reading like episode 476 of my injury story., and since I have nothing exciting to tell by way of swimming adventures, I thought I'd offer up a quick update.

The long and the short of it is that I remain injured, but nowhere near as badly as this time last year. I've benefited from the significant expertise and care of my osteopath, Louise, at the Ilkely Osteopathic Practice, and Pilates instructor, Sarah Clough at Space: Fitness and Wellbeing, both of whom have helped me transition from constant pain and neck and shoulder immobility to an almost pain-free everyday existence. Over the year, I've cycled on an endless loop between being able to engage in modest swimming (3-5km at a time) and long periods of injury-imposed rest; each time I thought I had it on the run, back it would come once I passed the threshold of my body's tolerance, no matter how slowly and gently I approached it. I have been performing my prehab routines with religious diligence, do yoga and Pilates several times a week, and have generally been an obedient neoliberal subject trying to take responsibility for my body, but while everything that I have done has helped, nothing has managed to get to the bottom of it all, and the movement restriction and buzzing nerve aggravation in my neck / shoulder persisted. However much it receded into the background, it was always ready to jump to the fore when I got ahead of myself. More recently, this has also manifested itself in a shoulder impingement, just to add to the fun.

Amidst the frustration, I still had a fantastic summer. I kayaked for Patrick Smith in the BLDSA Coniston Vets swim, watching him swim with impressive consistency while being swamped with waves from behind in a howling gale and while I paddled frantically backwards, desperately trying not to be blown down the course away from him. Amazingly, unlike our adventure in Ullswater the year before, I even managed not to fall in, so I chalk this up as a total success. And I volunteered as a timekeeper for the BLDSA Windermere one-way swim last weekend - always a great chance to see some determined swimming in a beautiful setting. I did a bit of swimming myself too, including 4 full 9km laps of Crummock Water (separately) over the summer:

I also completed the BLDSA Champion of Champions event - a total of 9 miles across three separate swims, coming in just under the 5 hour mark - something that I was very pleased about after my appalling swimming performance over the last couple of years:

I enjoyed a glorious there-and-back swim of Buttermere with Amanda Bell too, since there are few ills that Buttermere won't cure:

And I bought an inflatable paddle board, which opened up all kinds of possibilities for bobbling about in beautiful places:

But while I have loved all of this during what has been a quite spectacular summer (who knew Cumbria could have a water shortage!?), it's not enough for me. I can't swim like I want to, and at the moment, I'm not ready to let go of long swimming.

And so, I have recently started working with sports therapist, Adam Smith, who I met through the prehab workshops organised by Active Blu's Emma Brunning, who has also been hugely helpful over the last few years in working on my stroke. After a thorough assessment, Adam agreed with my osteopath's view that this is not a vertebrae/ disc issue, but rather, is a question of tight soft tissue trapping the nerves and causing the problem. And the solution? If the problem is deep in the tissue, then the only way to resolve it is to get in there. It has to be said that this is not a pleasant process, and as a treatment experience, the more gentle approach of my osteopath / Pilates instructor is a far more pleasant way to spend an hour. As anyone who is familiar with deep tissue massage will tell you, it can be exquisitely painful, but the more you can endure, the quicker it goes in the long run. In my first session, Adam constantly asked me to rate the pain from 1-10, calibrating my tolerance for the process and tailoring it accordingly. At 3, I wondered what 10 might be like; in the brief moments that I hit double figures, I concentrated on breathing and thought about swimming. Sometimes, he announces that he's going to 'drop in' to this or that bit of my back / shoulder; it sounds so benign and friendly ('dropping in for tea'), but really isn't. Far worse than the pain, for me, is the occasional moments of what I have come to think of as 'twanging' - the easing into movement of taut muscles by strumming or peeling across them. It's not so much painful as, well..... just weird; it doesn't really hurt, but makes me feel really squeamish, like listening to someone crack their knuckles or scrape their fingernails down a blackboard. I've been trying to find the adjective to describe the whole process. I started off with 'violent', but that's not right at all since the whole experience is collaborative and consultative, as well as voluntary and temporary. Instead, I've settled on 'physical' - it's an intensely physical experience that digs to the heart of the mechanics and sensory mechanisms of the body. On a scale of 1-10, my desire to return to long swimming is about a 15, so it's all more than worth it, especially in the hands of someone who knows what's he's doing and shares my goals.

And the most important thing is that it seems to be working. Adam's theory is that while everything that I've been doing has helped, nothing has gone deep enough to cut to the core problem, and it's a persuasive thesis which is already being proven by the results - a massive increase in range of motion and flexibility, and far less pain and discomfort in my neck and shoulder. The treatment itself is leaving me quite sore and bruised, but this is of a very different quality to the injury pain and feels incredibly constructive. It also leaves me feeling completely whacked, and after each treatment I've slept as if I've done a 6 hour swim, which tells me that there's a lot more going on than I can directly perceive. Only 10 days after my first session, there's a world of difference that fills me with optimism. There are more sessions to come, to be followed by a rehab strength and conditioning programme, but hopefully, with all the necessary work, this is all preamble to a proper return to the water very soon.

So that's where things are. My long swimming days aren't over just yet.

Thursday 1 March 2018

Slow healing....

This is the next instalment in what is becoming a series of annual posts where I chart the gulf between my swimming aspirations and  bodily realities. After last year's disappointments, I have been working hard to manage my injuries; in particular, my neck problem proved to be stubborn and intractable, but a combination of osteopathy and a diligently-followed prehab regimen slowly relieved the trapped nerve and associated muscle damage and by the end of January I was covering 25-30km a week in the pool quite happily and feeling very optimistic. I threw my hat in the ring for an ambitious and exciting swim and thought I was good to go.

But it's never so simple. I came out to the Canary Islands last week with the aim of spending a couple of weeks doing some very dull data coding, made easier by sunshine and swimming on tap. Unfortunately, a spell of stormy weather here made the swimming lumpy, and then later, impossible, but even in the modestly lumpy phase, the gap between the predictable flatness of the pool and the erratic movement of the waves exposed the weaknesses of my recovering neck, which soon started to feel stiff and sore post-swim. I stretched, pre-habbed and maintained a position somewhere between optimism and denial, but the next day the stiffness and immobility started to return even while I was still in the water being bounced around by the waves. A huge storm then hit the islands putting a stop to all swimming, but the niggle in my neck persisted, clicking and crunching when I woke up in the morning or turned my head quickly.

What to do? I could persist and hope that it would be relieved by more swimming; or that calmer waters later in the trip would reduce the strain and allow me to continue building up. Or I could pull the plug and go back to my modest pool-swimming, osteopathy and prehab regimen, which has undoubtedly been working...albeit not as quickly as I would have liked, as it turns out. I couldn't face (or afford) another late pull-out, so in the end, this morning I decided to pre-empt the issue and withdraw from the delicious swim I had been hoping to do (as well as a more low-key UK event that I'd signed up for a while back). I feel terrible that I seem to have become a serial withdrawer, in spite of my best intentions and genuine convictions that I was up to each challenge.

It is painful to have such a fantastic opportunity slip through  my fingers, and I have been torturing myself all day with the thought that maybe...just maybe...I would have been alright and could have done it. But in the end, I suspect that uncertainty about an injury is certainty enough when deciding about a very long swim; distance is pretty unforgiving of bodily weaknesses and injurious flaws.

This is very different to last year's crash and burn though. I hope that I've called a halt in time to stop the injury niggle in its track and to get quickly back to my slow.....slow....recovery. I haven't pushed on and aggravated the injury into something much more serious like I stupidly did last year, so perhaps I am learning and this too is some kind of progress in my swimming evolution (or possibly devolution, given that I started strongly with the EC years, but am becoming increasingly unimpressive and breakable).

The healing process is slow - perhaps because of my age, or maybe because this is just how bodies are sometimes - but I am still confident that I am healing, if not at the pace I thought I was. I'd like to think that I still have another long swim in me, but I wouldn't want to say with any confidence that I do. And I think you can only cook up exciting plans and then let people down so often before you have to rein in your ambitions with a dose of reality and the wisdom born of experience. But perhaps this is also a chance to learn other, gentler ways of being in the water too... an opportunity for a more leisurely summer of beautiful 2-3 hour swims in the Lake District rather than the 6-8 hour slogs I was anticipating; a chance to think about swimming rather than training, perhaps...

We'll see. But for now, it's back to slow healing.

To end on a positive note, even though it's ferociously windy, it's 23 degrees and sunny here in the Canary Islands, while the UK is blanketed in snow and ice. Plus we have kittens at home now, and life is always okay once there are kittens in your life.

Saturday 13 January 2018

Aquatic adventures....

When I think of the water, I always think about swimming; when I see a stretch of water, I wonder what it would be like to swim in it, across it or around it. But there's a whole world of other ways to interact with the water that I've never really explored....and as my 50th birthday rolled around this January, it was time to try something new. In the summer, I was feeling pretty fed-up about my pending big birthday - my various injuries made me feel decrepit, and I felt a bit defeated. But then I thought....well, sod it. So I decided to embrace it instead, and to that end, used my birthday trip to the Canary Islands to try two new water activities - scuba diving and stand-up paddle boarding (SUP).

I was quite terrified when I turned up for my try-dive lesson at a sea front dive centre near our holiday bungalow, and I had no idea how I would feel about being submersed and reliant on what seemed like a very complicated and cumbersome set of equipment. After a short period of dry-land instruction covering safety procedures and in-water communication, we kitted up and waddled under the weight of the gear down to the beach and into the water. One by one, the instructor submerged us, deflating our buoyancy vests and guiding us down a couple of metres to the sea floor. Rather disconcertingly, my instructor grabbed a couple of rocks from the sea floor and shoved them into mesh pockets on the side of my gear to prevent me from rising. It takes a particular kind of trust to relax enough to allow someone to sink you so thoroughly under water. Once we were all submerged, we paddled along the side of a rocky reef, flanked by our instructors, and soon found ourselves surrounded by a school of fish with large, rounded bodies and yellow stripes, completely unbothered by our presence. Later on we saw cuttle fish, and this beautiful octopus.

Once I'd relaxed into it, I was completely blown away by the experience of visiting this vibrant aquatic world which I thought I understood from swimming at the surface, but in reality had no clue about. It was hard to let go of being a swimmer though - I couldn't resist using my arms and hands to propel myself forwards, even though I was wearing huge fins that required only the slightest flick to move me through the water. Using my hands also proved to be quite destabilising, and I found myself constantly tipping from side to side and then having to correct.

I slowly came to understand that while swimming is about constant movement, diving is more about not moving - of being in the water rather than moving through it and using the fins as rudders rather than propellers. It's about enjoying the view and visiting another world. 

We were only in the water for about 30 minutes, but I loved every second and was so disappointed when the instructor started pulling the rocks out of my pockets and slowly guiding me to the surface. In fact, I loved it so much that I signed up for a second session the next day, this time in deeper water and entering from a boat rather than the beach (although still with the same level of instructor support as my first dive - this was a diving experience rather than structured training). I felt like Jacques Cousteau as I tipped rather anxiously backwards off the dive boat, but it was as easy as, well....falling off a boat; my instructor helped me to submerge, and off we went, exploring a reef and encountering huge shoals of long, thin trumpet fish. 

The whole experience made me want to get a PADI qualification and learn to dive more independently, but I can already see that it's a hobby that eats time and money....and I already have one of those. But was an amazing experience. 

And so....on to adventure number 2 - an SUP lesson. While I took to diving immediately, I think it's fair to say that this was not an opportunity for me to shine. It was quite windy, and although we had excellent instruction, the entire session was punctuated by the sound of me scrabbling up onto the board, staggering to a stand, yelping as I lost my balance and then falling back into the water with a percussive splash. At the end of the lesson, we signed up for a 3-hour coastal SUP tour a few days later where I reprised my scrabble - pause - shriek - splash soundtrack but I soon discovered that by staying kneeling, I could stay on the board and still enjoy the novel perspective of being on, but above, the water. We visited caves, paused to go snorkelling, and had a splendid time. Towards the end, I found my sea legs and managed to both stand up and paddle, so there is hope for me yet. Peter, on the other hand, took to it immediately, and was able to draw on his skateboarding past and a very good sense of balance to strike a relaxed and effortless pose as he paddled away with impressive aplomb.

So two successful aquatic adventures - one deep below the surface, and one on / above it. It turns out that there is far more to a life of aquatic leisure than swimming. 

But of course, there was swimming too, although not as much as in previous years. I ended up doing a fairly modest 40km over the two weeks we were there - after my long lay-off, I'm still building my fitness and don't want to risk overdoing it and falling back into injury again. My confidence took a bit of knock over the last year or so, but hopefully all of the work I've been doing on my stroke, plus the prehab regimen which I do diligently every day, will bear fruit and I'll be back to full swimming capacity soon.  Happily, I'll be back in the Canary Islands for more in February and then again in April - I have a great deal of data analysis to do for the sugar project, and see no reason why this should not be done in the sunshine and combined with swim training. 

And in the mean time, I had a wonderful trip and a splendid birthday. If this is what it's like to be 50, then count me in.