Friday, 31 December 2010

Goodbye 2010...Hello 2011

We had the most glorious winter break in Tenerife over Christmas - bright sunshine, a relaxed pace and a gratifying absence of all things Christmassy. We celebrated with our traditional Christmas dinner of beans on toast and came back restored, well-sunned and refreshed. Just what we needed at the end of a really challenging term.

All charged up by our lovely holiday, I just got back from the pool, where I did my end of year long swim. This year, I decided to focus on the theme of "2010-2011", and did 20 x 200m, 10 x 100m, 20 x 200m, 11 x 100m (total: 10.1km) - all broken down into smaller segments, with lots of kick, pull and sprints to liven it up along the way. I was joined during the swim by various friends from the triathlon club, with special mention going to Penny, who arrived just when I was starting to flag and helped me to pick the pace back up. It was a really nice swim, but I have to confess that I really felt my lack of training recently. My times were dropping off towards the end, and I feel pretty tired and a bit sore now (but in a good way). Good motivation to get back down to training in earnest when the pool opens again next week.

It's been quite a year. I've been swimming in Jersey, Cork, Malta, the Lake District and, of course, Dover, as well as my regular local lakes, and have trained harder than I ever thought I could. I have swum from Jersey to France....and I swam the English Channel. Even several months later, it still makes me smile to say that out loud. I've also won funding for my "becoming a Channel swimmer" research project, and have already signed up for my next big swim - the Catalina Channel. A good year, I reckon, with hopefully another exciting swimming year to come.

Very best wishes for 2011 to everyone who visits the blog, and to my swimming friends around the world.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Exciting invitation...

A couple of posts ago, I mentioned the possibility of an exciting new opportunity in April...Well, my latest news is that I've been invited by Swimtrek to do a couple of weeks' work for them next Spring as a guide on two of their long distance training camps! I was genuinely very surprised (and flattered) to be asked, and am a little daunted by what seems like a lot of very grown-up responsibility, but what an amazing opportunity. The only condition is that I have to get a powerboat qualification! What fun!

Plus... Sally M-G in Jersey has invited me to go on their training camp at the beginning of June as a helper.

I would never have thought that the swimming would have brought so many new opportunities into my life.

A good day in the pool...

It's been such a unsettled term for me that the swimming just hasn't been going that great and I've found it difficult to get into a training rhythm. A combination of work-related stress, the strangeness of Peter and I having to live apart during the week (because he's working Bath Univ), having to leave the swimming club, and the fact that I've not been getting enough regular and hard training in to wear myself out have meant that I've been suffering bouts of chronic insomnia, which just makes it even harder to get out to the pool in the late evening. And to be honest, even when I did manage to go swimming, more often that not it was feeling like a real chore - a 90min commitment at the end of a 10 hour working day. Swimming has always been such a source of pleasure for me, and I really don't want it to be such a struggle.

And then, just when I was starting to lose faith, along came one of those glorious swims where everything just feels right. I did a 6km set at Henrys on Sunday afternoon, and for over an hour of this, I even had the pool to myself. And I felt great from start to finish - like I could swim forever. And when I got out, I was deliciously tired in that way that only swimming can produce. I felt so much better, and am positively excited about getting back in the pool tonight (although this probably also has a lot to do with term having ended!). I still don't know what the answer is to balancing work and training, but this boost came along just when I needed it.

The other change I made on Sunday was to reintroduce post-swim protein shakes. Even though I've been training on and off, I've not been using energy drinks or shakes....mostly because after the hard training of the summer, it didn't feel like I was doing enough to need them. I've been experiencing really restless legs in my insomniac nights, and hadn't even considered that this could be something to do with the exercising / recovery. But yesterday, I used energy drink rather than water, and had a protein shake afterwards, and then didn't have so much as a twitch all night. I can't say for sure that that's the reason, but I certainly felt better for it anyway, so I'm going to reinstate that part of my routine from now on.

So a positive, morale-boosting day in the pool at the end of a tough term...and a good reminder that there is nothing quite like that feeling of a good day in the water.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

time, time, time...

After my year on research leave, I had forgotten just how much the demands of term time swallow everything else. Consequently, I've been experiencing real problems in getting to the pool regularly, which is really frustrating, as well as making me a bit anxious about my preparations for next summer. I had been trying to get into a routine of eating between 6-7pm, and then going to the gym / pool from 8-10pm, but especially over the last couple of weeks, when essay marking was also added to the mix, I've been working through to 8 or 9pm and have ended up skipping more training sessions than I've made. I makes me realise just how much being on leave helped with my training last year - not that I didn't work while I was on leave, but I had much more control over my time, and could work more evenly across the year without the particular intensities of the academic term.

I love my job (although the current economic climate brings its own unwelcome pressures and concerns), but I love the swimming too....and I think that time spent swimming is an essential way of coping with the demands of work in terms of general health and wellbeing. One of the challenges of both academic work and swim training, though, is that neither of them have an obvious end point; it's hard to know how much is enough / too much, and it's easy to end up feeling like you're doing neither of them properly. I don't know what the answer is, but I could really do with a couple more hours in the day...

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Winter swimming

Many very experienced open water swimmer endorse regular immersion in very cold water throughout the Winter as a means of acclimatising to the cold. I have also met many first-time swimmers who incorporated not only cold water swimming into their winter training, but also took cold showers / baths, kept the heating down or off in the house, slept with the windows open etc. A lot of swimmers I have spoken to endorse these practices very strongly, arguing that they provide both psychological preparation as well as physical adaptation. Personally, I have never been convinced by this as an effective training strategy, not least because the body's reaction to water close to freezing and the reaction at 10+ degrees is so different. Consequently, in both seasons, I waited until May and then began the building up of time in the (gradually warming) water.

However, aside from the training side of things, there are, of course, many people who swim in very cold water throughout the winter for the pleasure of it. This, also, had always escaped me, and I had always felt very sceptical of the claims about the invigorating and health-giving properties of cold water swimming. But now I think I may have to think again, because yesterday, I had my first Winter swim and LOVED it.

I was arranging to meet Sarah Taylor (who swam the Channel this year too) for a research interview, and she suggested that we meet at Parliament Hill lido for a swim first. I agreed immediately, mostly because, having never swum in any of the lidos, I was assuming the PH lido was heated....why else would anyone suggest meeting for a swim there in December? And then I checked. Hmm. And as the day approached, Britain sank into an icy cold snap, just to add to my anxieties.

And so, yesterday morning, we met at the lido on the most wintery of days.

Just in case we didn't realise it was a cold day, the electronic sign at the entrance warned us what was to come....

Sarah is an old hand at this business and slipped in quickly (plus she'd cleverly brought an old pair of trainers for walking from the changing room to the pool steps - the mark of experience). I, on the other hand, picked my way barefoot through the snow and lingered tentatively until I realised that my feet were freezing anyway, and that the rest of me was soon to follow as a cold wind licked around me. I reassured myself with the thought that it might be like night swimming, where the water is warmer than the air, and therefore quite comforting . I went down the steps and walked in quickly up to my waste, gasping with the shock of sensation, and then off we went.

For those who do this kind of swimming regularly, this account will not seem the slightest bit remarkable, but as someone doing this for the first time, I was genuinely astonished by the experience. Firstly, it's quite painful to be in water so cold. My hands and feet went numb almost immediately, accompanied by sharp pains; my back prickled as if it were burning; it was hard to control my breathing. I kept my head up, although the water splashed onto my face, numbing my lips and chin. We swam across the width (25 metres) and back, and I was heading for the steps when Sarah suggested another two. Peer pressure won the day and off we went again. I was very chilled by now, but had recovered from the initial shock of immersion and enjoyed these two more. I noticed that small droplets of waters, splashed up by our swimming, were actually freezing in the air and colliding with other frozen droplets, making a soft tinkling sound; my body was experiencing a combination of numbness and intense sensation. When we finally got to the steps to get out, I realised that not only could I not feel my hands, but that I had no dexterity at all and could barely pick up my towel and bag; my hands felt like big, thick sausages. We scurried inside and stood under warm showers which quickly restored sensation to our extremities. It's not the same as the experience of warming up after a two hour swim in May when you get chilled to your core and you warm up slowly after a prolonged period of shivering. Instead, the recovery (like the immersion and physiological response to it) was much faster, and by the time we were out of the showers and dressed back up in our mountains of sweaters, hats, coats and scarves, I was perfectly fine...although I had the most bizarre tingling sensations down my back, arms and legs for several minutes afterwards.

So - my first Winter swim. I have to confess that I had been absolutely dreading it, but the reality of it was quite astounding - I hadn't anticipated the intensity of the sensation, and the rapidity of it. It was painful, but also extraordinary, exciting and enervating; afterwards, I felt full of beans. Perhaps it was because it was my first experience of it, but I found it quite thrilling and invigorating. I still am not convinced by its value as a training activity, although can see how it would have psychological value for those who are worried about the cold. But as an activity in itself, I thought it was fabulous (albeit in a slightly perverse way).

And in this spirit, have also signed up for the cold water swimming championships at Tooting Bec Lido in January (just the 30m freestyle....nothing too ambitious).

What fun.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Training news

Great news - I met up with Robin Leonard, who used to coach the Masters section at CCSC until earlier this year, when he very sensibly decided that there was more to life than getting up at 4.30 every Tuesday morning. Anyway, he's very generously agreed to help me get my new training regime underway by writing sets for me. This is fabulous, as it saves me from having to try and manufacture sessions all the time, and there's more chance this way that I will actually do that speed work that I promised myself I would do after the sobering lessons of the Channel swim. Robin is the master of fiendish sets of suffering, so I'm looking forward to a winter of quality training.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Catalina Channel

Exciting news - I've just signed my contract for a Catalina Channel swim on 20 July, 2011.

Life after club training...

It's been a strange week since making the decision to leave the club, but things are starting to come together.

The Masters section coach was palpably unconcerned by the fact that I no longer felt included within the club's activities, and my posting on my Facebook page that I had decided to leave because the focus on pool competition did not meet my training needs was met with a very snotty posting from someone who I had swum with for several years that two new international level swimmers had recently joined and how great it was. Add to this the fact that another non-competing, mostly open-water swimmer was told that because of "over-crowding" on Wednesdays and Fridays, she would no longer be able to use her once-a-week membership on those days (limiting her to days that her schedule wouldn't allow her to attend). The implementation of this concocted nonsense occurred while at the same time, new competing members are being actively recruited, giving the lie to the overcrowding excuse that was clearly designed those deemed to be of no value to the club. So, all of this convinces me that I have made the right decision and I am not interested in swimming in a club that has so little imagination about what swimming is / can be.

At the heart of the recent transformation in the club's ethos is the awarding of Beacon programme status last Spring - a move that has radically shifted the focus of the club towards competition. I did a bit of research about the programme, and for those who don't know, here's an explanatory extract from a paper by Nick Sellwood (ASA Talent and Development Manager):

"The business structure of the Beacon programme is a unit that is an evolving, integrated and vertically managed business unit that creates a quality assured environment for the delivery at all stages in the talent pathways, embracing lifelong participation".

All clear? No? Perhaps this will help...

"The Beacon programme will provide quality assured programmes of coaching and development and where appropriate competition at every stage of the talent pathway from Foundation to World Class Podium and encompassing lifelong participation in aquatics. This is achieved with an integrated programme where all aspects of the development process are effectively and efficiently interlinked".

Aside from the fabulous dissociation of words from meaning in this management nonsense, at the heart of the programme is the goal of focusing intensive competitive training on the country's relatively scarce 50m pools. In itself, I don't have a problem with trying to nurture top level talent; what is not clear is how Masters swimming fits into this, especially since, as the ASA acknowledges on the Masters section of its website, the majority of Masters swimmer don't compete.

Ultimately, I can see why the club might have chosen to go down the Beacon programme route, since it brings with it funds, coaches, pool access, land training and sports science support, and status. Plus, I know that many of my former club colleagues are really enjoying the competition-focused training sessions and weekend galas, which is great. What I regret is that as club members, we were never consulted about the Beacon programme and what its impact would be; and that so little regard is given to other forms of swimming which, with a little flexibility and imagination, could easily be included within even such a competitively oriented Masters swimming context.

So, while I think it's a shame and utterly unnecessary, me and my lifelong participation in aquatics are happy to go elsewhere.

And with that in mind, I'm hoping to have a new coaching arrangement in place shortly, and have transferred most of my training to a pool belonging to a local private school which offers some public memberships of its pool and gym facilities out of school hours. It's close to home, and has the advantage of being open late in the evening (until 10pm) and is always virtually empty after 8-ish. I'm really enjoying being back in the pool and getting back down to training.

More news to follow shortly about training, Catalina, plus a very exciting opportunity next April....

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Big decision...

The big news is that I have decided to leave the City of Coventry Swimming Club Masters section and to go solo. I feel quite sad about this as I've had some fantastic periods of training with the club, and I'm sure that overall my swimming has benefitted from it. However, the ethos of the club is changing significantly, moving increasingly towards a focus on pool competition, and away from what I felt used to be a more inclusive, participatory training environment that was focused on personal improvement, fitness and skill development rather than racing / winning. This, ultimately, is a question of personal preferences and inclinations, and although I regret that there wasn't more discussion with members about a shift that was more imposed than democratically agreed, I wish those continuing to train, swim and compete with the club every success.

As for me, I now need to sit down and work out a training plan that will enable me to build on the work of the last year in the most efficient and effective way possible over the winter so that I'm ready to hit the open water in May.

A big change, and an exciting challenge.

Friday, 12 November 2010

False start

Well, there I was, all fired up with excitement about my new swim challenge and ready to start building back into training when I got walloped by a weird viral chest infection - energy levels up and down; high fevers; generally feeling yuk. Finally, after over a week of just trying to straggle through the working day, I'm starting to feel better, and hit the pool last night for a gentle 1.5km. Hopefully, by next week, I'll be able to going again.

So, a bit of a false start, but there's no rush.

I did, however, have a meeting with the nice people at Elab at Warwick University - they're going to design a website for the research project. More about that when they've worked their magic.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

The next challenge...

Exciting news!!!

After a great deal of back and forth, I've decided that my next challenge is going to be the Catalina Channel. It's a similar length of swim to the English Channel - 21 miles from the island of Santa Catalina to the mainland to the south of Los Angeles at similar water temps to the EC, but with less tidal influence. A very exciting prospect, a tough swim, and a great chance to build on this year's swimming.

None of the details have been ironed out yet, but that will get done as and when. The important thing is that I've decided, and now I can start focusing on what needs to be done to make this happen.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Banning Channel swimming?

There was a programme on the magazine TV show Inside Out South East last night which included a segment on Channel swimming. The segment was about the contribution of Channel swimming to the Dover economy, but also included interviews with the English and French coastguards expressing concern about the possibility of an accident / collision, with the French coastguard calling for a ban. You can see the show here (for the next 6 days).

There's been a huge amount of media hype around this story, and I, and many other swimmers, were getting calls yesterday to comment (even though no-one had seen the full programme at that point, beyond what had been teased by the BBC - so, in my case, at least, I declined). I don't know what the reality of it is yet, but do know that while demand is rising from swimmers, the number of boats / attempted crossings has been relatively stable over the last few years, following agreements with coastguards limiting the number of boats etc. Plus, the pilots have considerable expertise (plus navigational and communications equipment) onboard, and safety is unquestionably the top priority... as is evidenced by the excellent safety record within the sport.

I'm sure that life would be easier for the coastguard and shipping if the Channel boats weren't there, but this seems a little melodramatic (plus these comments were prompted by a media interview with very leading questions, so it's not clear how strong the feeling actually is that it should be banned). It remains to be seen what happens with this, but for now, it seems like there's a lot of hype and a good news story...

As an aside, I was delighted to see my friend, and former Channel relay co-swimmer, Jamie Goodhead featured in the film. Unfortunately, his swim was aborted after one of the crew fell ill, but he looks great in the water, and I'm sure will be back next year.

And one final comment on the film - they say that David Walliams is responsible for the growth in Channel swimming, but I'm not sure that that's the least not on its own. The increased demand in Channel swimming is happening alongside the growth of other ultra-endurance sports (e.g. Ironman), so there's clearly something else happening too at the wider social level.

I, in the mean time, have been doing some thinking and making some decisions - more news to follow shortly.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Look what I got....

Look what I got today.....

The Sandwell Lifesaving and Channel Swimming Club (based at Swan Pool in Walsall) have an cup, awarded annually, for the longest swim by one of its members, and my 16 hours and 9 mins in the Channel took the prize this year! There is a pleasing symmetry to "the long swim" winning "the longest swim", and I couldn't be more delighted.

And well done to Ali Longman, who won the "swimmer of the year" award this year for her all-round fantastic performances and hard training.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Research podcast

I was interviewed about the swimming research last week for the online journal, Sociological Imagination, which is edited and managed by a group of post-graduates at Warwick University. You can find the podcast here.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Getting going again...

Two very different pics of objects, each of which are providing inspiration to get back to swimming / training as the darker days of winter approach.

Firstly, the jelly-baby necklace that Rachel made for me before my swim, and which I promised I would display in all its glory. Hilarious.

And secondly, the outstandingly stunning North Sydney Olympic Pool - a 50m, heated, salt-water pool overlooking Sydney harbour, and overlooked by Sydney bridge. What more could a swimmer ask for. I spent most of my last day in Sydney there, swimming, then sitting in the sun reading, then swimming some more, before walking back into Sydney across the bridge.

And so, back to the present. The good news is that I'm feeling heaps better physically and am starting to recover my enthusiasm for training. I've been going to the gym, or doing some gentle running, plus 2-3km swims every other day, and am starting to get back into it all. In some ways, I am the fittest I have ever been; in others, I am woefully unfit...especially when out running (which I really stopped doing around April). But you have to start from where you are, so I'm building up slowly, mixing up activities to get a good cross-training effect and avoid injury, and am generally taking it easy. Plus, Peter's now working in Bath during the week and has the car, and it's almost impossible to park the van at the university because of height barriers, so it's the perfect incentive to get on my bike. It's only 15 mins each way, but every little helps.

The really good news about all this is that where it used to take several hours of swimming to exhaust me, a 45 minute workout pretty much does the job now. This is great because, especially in term time, I tend to have trouble sleeping, especially if I don't exercise, but where it used to take a good 2-3 hours of swimming to do the job, my recent idleness means that a 45 min workout will have me out like a light at bedtime, so I get extra free time and a good night's sleep!

I'm still very unsure about what to do next, and depending on what I decide, how to train. Last year, I trained with the Masters section of the local swimming club, but this has become increasingly oriented to pool competition, which really isn't my thing at all. I don't mind the training, especially over the winter, but I really don't want to compete - something which there is a growing pressure to do. Consequently, I'm not sure how sustainable it is for me to keep going, or whether I should train on my own. This is something which I'm not sure I can be trusted to do - I'm very good at training regularly, but not so good at pushing myself in terms of pace outside of coached sessions. And, as I discovered in my Channel swim, these things matter.

I'm also now thinking quite seriously about having a go at Catalina next summer while I'm over there with the research. But I have two reservations which I still need to think through: firstly, that you have to get over to the island by boat over several hours, and with the likelihood of me being seasick, I'm not sure how I would cope with swimming after that; and secondly, the wildlife....and especially the kind that bites. I've been communicating with Jen Schumacher about this and she has suggested some good ways of managing what is essentially an irrational fear, given the extreme unlikelihood of an attack. But I need to think about it some more. At the end of the day, I don't want to pay all that money and then spend 12 hours in the water, all stressed out, thinking that every shadow is a shark. Mind you, as Jen pointed out (not exactly comfortingly), the ones you see are not your problem, since they've already seen you and decided you're not dinner. It's the ones you don't see... Hmmm.

But whatever I decide, the important thing is that I feel much more like my old swimming self. I feel great, and am starting to really want to get back into it, rather than just feeling like I should.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Back to swimming...?

Well, it's that time of year, and suddenly the university is bustling with students and the frantic final preparations for teaching are underway. In the midst of it all, I decided that a month post-swim was enough time to recover and that I should get back to training, but it turns out that I was being a little optimistic. I've been to two club sessions in the last four days, including the 5.30am session this morning, but I wasn't able to complete either session, and was horribly slow; even more worrying, just over those two sessions, I developed a nasty niggle in one shoulder, and some lower back pain, plus a partial recurrence of the wrist problem. But aside from the flurry of little injuries, I feel very fatigued....not in my everyday life, when I am full of beans, but while I was swimming. It felt as though fatigue had got right into my body; the only way I can describe the sensation is that my bones and joints felt sick when I was swimming. So, even though some of it is probably just from not having trained, I'm sure that my body is still dealing with the exertion of the swim (plus the jetlag etc), and it's probably better to rest up some more. So, my plan for now is to not go to the club sessions, but to stick with the local gym / pool for now, doing some more gentle maintenance-style fitness work. Not very exciting, but just what I need for a few more weeks, I think. Perhaps I'm just showing my age....

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Sexism and the Swimming Times

I've always quite enjoyed the Swimming Times - a bit over-focussed on the elite end of things for my taste, but a good mix of different aspects of swimming, reasonable coverage of open water swimming etc. Plus, unlike other specialist magazines such as those covering triathlon, there are high levels of coverage of female athletes. So, my heart sank when I opened the August 2010 issue to find this "centrefold" of synchronised swimmer, Jenna Randall.

[5/5/12: this picture has now been removed from this post. Following a dramatic spike in hits, I discovered that members of a football club fan site had linked to the picture as part of a thread about female athletes they'd like to have sex with. This sort of proves my point about sexualisation, but I've also taken the picture down so as not to contribute to that process.]

I wrote to ST, who subsequently published the letter, with a reply, both of which I have copied in full below:
"I was really disappointed to open my most recent copy of the Swimming Tiems to see that it included a highly sexualised centrefold spread of synchronised swimmer, Jenna Randall.

This picture has absolutely nothing to do with swimming, and simply perpetuatues the idea that women are there to be looked at. Why did we not see a picture of this athlete performing or training? All this picture does is tell young women that how they look is more important than what they can do."

Reply from editor:
"I disagree that the picture referred to has nothing to do with swimming. The whole point of us using it was to emphasise that Jenna is a swimmer and an athlete, and to show that in addition to how she is normally seen in the environment of her sport, she is also a glamorous young woman out of the pool - who could be attractive to model agencies and to sponsors. It was also something different for the magazine as we could always (as we have many times before) print action pictures (of Jenna) from synchro or other athletes from swimming or diving, but we wanted to show one of our athletes in a different light, and raise their profile slightly beyond the action in the pool.

And we are pleased to note that Jenna has recently received sponsorship from Kellogg's" first objection to this is that contrary to the editor's defence, the picture itself does not, in any way emphasise that she is a swimmer and an athlete (although the small text box on the next page does mention her sport....and the fact that she is curling her toes in the picture like they do when they swim to make their legs look longer). Secondly, the picture is highly sexualised in both clothing and posture, and consequently, highly out of place in the official magazine of the ASA. This is not an argument based on prudishness - more one of context. That she is pictured in a semi-recumbant, come-hither posture with her clothing sliding up her legs and down her shoulders would fit perfectly in a soft porn publication, but in a sports magazine engaged in the promotion of swimming, it's just gratuitous and offensive. Young women should not have to sexualise themselves, and be sexualised by others, in order to gain sponsorship or paid employment, and it's a shame to see ST endorsing this as a legitimate way to view female athletes. What a young girl can learn from this that it's great to be good at sport, but that to really get on, you also need to be sexualised and beautiful...and another generation of body-dissatisfied young women is born.

I realise that this is not necessarily a popular view in some quarters, but this stuff drives me nuts. Oh least that's a magazine to cross off the list.

Monday, 20 September 2010

The future of The Long Swim...

I really have no idea how many people even read this blog, but I've loved keeping it, and it's a nice record to have of the process of training for, and swimming, the Channel. But now that "the long swim" is over, I'm not sure what to do with the blog. Should I close it? Or redefine it?

Perhaps I'll decide when I've decided what, if anything, to do next....

Victoria Woods - Channel swimmer sketch

For the many people who have sent me this since my Channel swim... Victoria Woods is a genuis, and I love it:

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Becky Lewis record breaking swim

Here's the video from Becky Lewis' record-breaking swim this summer. Well done, Becky - you are amazing.

What's next?

Everybody asks "what's next?" - a fair question, I suppose, especially from those who (probably quite rightly) assume that I'm not done with the swimming yet ... but can't I just enjoy it for a bit longer first?

There's a lot of advice out there about Channel swimming, a lot of it very contradictory, and one of the ways I've been using to sort the wheat from the chaff is to try and identify those tips that get repeated across a variety of training contexts - don't look up for France; don't ask how long you've got to go; swim from feed to feed....all good examples. (Practise sprinting during long training swims - that's another one, but we won't dwell on that for the moment... Acting on good advice once you've identified it is a whole different story!). But everyone says that you shouldn't rush straight into making big "what's next?" decisions after your swim; that you should let it all percolate for a couple of months so that you don't end up biting off more than you can chew.

Of course, I'm thinking about what I might do next, but there's a lot to consider, so for now, I'm enjoying the fact that I completed my swim; that I'm not having to train; that I'll get to spend some time much-missed time with Peter at the weekends; that I can catch up on some long overdue reading, writing and research; and that the first thing I do when I wake up is no longer checking the wind forecast. These are all good things that, for now, are next.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Zurich swim video

Great video just out from the Lake Zurich swim this year. Lots of familiar faces - Neil, Julieann, Lisa, Gabor, Cliff, Sally. Well done everybody - looks like a fabulous event. Tempting...

Friday, 17 September 2010

Greetings from Sydney

Greetings from Sydney! What a gorgeous city this is. Honestly, if I could move here, I absolutely would...but Peter and I still haven't managed to get jobs in the same city in the UK, never mind pulling that off in Australia. Never mind...visiting is fun too.

The Fat Studies conference at Macquarie was fabulous, especially once I'd done my presentation and could relax and enjoy myself. And after that, I started my intensive programme of sauntering about Sydney. A couple of days ago, I went out to Bondi and walked down the coastal path for a couple of hours - it was a beautiful day, and I was hoping for a swim at the Icebergs pool (below), but it was being filled. Fantastic setting, though.

I had fun watching the waves and surfers from the cliffs.

Unfortunately, but perhaps inevitably, the physical strains of swimming the Channel, then flying almost immediately out to Sydney, and then working for four days without really being able to catch up on lost sleep finally caught up with me. With my immune system in retreat, I came down with a cold, which last night deteriorated into a feverish, fluey thing, so I'm now temporarily holed up in the flat drinking Lemsips and hoping that it passes soon. With luck, and some good pharmaceuticals, I should be able to squeeze in at least one or two more play days before I fly home.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Channel swim video

I finally managed to upload the video, so enjoy (always remembering the important caveat that I have very limited creative skills...). Peter and Sam did a fantastic job with the filming though!

Channel swim - some reflections

It’s been 10 days now since I swam the Channel. Physically, I emerged from it better than I thought I would; mostly I just felt really hung over for several days – probably the result of dehydration, plus general metabolic chaos. I wasn’t particularly stiff or sore, but my energy levels were very erratic, and I was quite hyper from adrenalin and sugar for a couple of days post-swim. Consequently, I had trouble sleeping for more than a couple of hours at a time for several days. Still, I felt like the training had really paid off, and that I’d come out it pretty well, with no injuries to speak of. In psychological terms, it took a while for it to all sink in. I’d found the last four hours incredibly hard, distressing…even slightly violent in terms of the pressure that I’d had to put my body under. It was something I was very unaccustomed to and I wasn’t quite sure what to make of a swimming experience that was so far removed from anything I had ever done before. But as the days passed, I became more and more elated by the fact that I’d completed the swim, and started to get quite emotional every time I thought about those final moments of swimming in to the beach. I also learned that on that day, all but three boats had to turn back because of the difficult conditions and I began to realize how lucky I’d been to be able to get through it at all; and how lucky I’d been to have such a great crew and skilled pilot to get me through that. And because of that luck, their skill, plus all the training and preparation, and a bit of good old-fashioned determination towards the end, I was, at last, a Channel swimmer.

Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’ve learned from the experience…and what I think I perhaps got right, and what I would do differently.

In terms of preparations, I chose to train for two years, and did a lot of training camps and a lot of miles. I don’t think everyone needs to do this much (and not everyone has the time or financial resources to do this either, of course), but for someone as profoundly risk-averse as me, this was a huge and necessary confidence-builder. I also found the Round Jersey and Jersey to France swims invaluable in this process. As it turned out, given what happened on the swim, I don’t think I would have made it without the experience of these long swims and some of the more intensive periods of my training. Following manifold snippets of advice from various training sites and experienced individuals, I’d addressed in almost obsessive detail as many sometimes seemingly trivial aspects of the swim beforehand as I possibly could – feeding regimen and delivery system; what foods I can and can’t eat in the water; what make of goggles, caps, costumes, suncream etc I like… and so on. Getting all that stuff sorted out, with nothing new on the day and spares of everything, just in case, took a lot of the stress out of it all. I think I did reasonably well on the self-discipline front on the day too – swimming from feed to feed; not asking where I was (even though I REALLY wanted to); not looking up for France; doing as I was told. These are the things that I think worked well for me that I’d been able to learn through both trial and error, and from more experienced others.

But there are two things that I felt unprepared for…mostly, I should add, through a woeful failure of imagination on my part on both counts.

The first of these was the delay because of the weather. Of course, even though I knew that it was always a possibility, I think that deep down, I had assumed that being first on the tide in mid-August would mean that I would probably get a swim on that tide. It would probably have always been a difficult period, but I don’t think I’d anticipated how disruptive it would be, and how stressful…and also, the practical problems that it would cause in terms of losing support crew, or trying to maintain fitness whilst never quite knowing when I would get the call to go (if at all). A bit more realistic thought on this front beforehand would have been helpful, I think.

The second, and much more serious, mistake I made relates to the sprinting…and my lack of mental and physical preparation for it. I had always framed my swimming in terms of me as a plodder – slow but steady. Of course, I had heard lots of stories about people having to sprint, but I had somehow persuaded myself that that would be for the faster swimmers, and that I would be left to plod on. Consequently, although I’d done sprint training with the masters club over the winter, in the open water, I pretty much stuck to ingraining my habitual pace, cranking out the hours and habituating to temperature and distance, but holding a steady pace and stroke rate. This makes me a bit of an idiot because I had been advised on several occasions to do intervals during the long Dover swims, but somehow I had decided that this didn’t apply to me… probably because I really hate sprinting, and love plodding. Well…didn’t that just come back to bite me! I’m very grateful that I’d done all those gut-busting sprint sessions over the two winters, because at least that gave me something to draw on when the time came, but if I had my time again (or if I ever do another long swim…?), I’d definitely be adding interval training to my open water sessions.

So that’s it – from signing up nearly two years ago, to one amazing, unforgettable (in every sense) day in early September: my English Channel swim.

But the last thing that I have to do is to say some thank-you’s. These are not in any particular order, and I hope I’ve not left anyone out, but I really want to thank:
  • Paul Foreman and his crew for their skill, expertise and determination to get me across, no matter how long it took; Sam for coming on as crew quite late in the day, and for being so amazingly generous and positive throughout; and Jamie and Neil for offering to come on as crew in the earlier weeks and juggling their schedules accordingly.
  • All of the people involved in running the training camps I’ve been lucky enough to attend – everyone at Swimtrek, Sally, Charlie and the JLDSC, Ned Denison and the Sandy Cove mob.
  • All those who work tirelessly down on the beach in Dover – Freda, Barrie, Irene, Louise, Emma…. What can I say.
  • City of Coventry Masters Club….especially for the sprinting, even if I didn’t appreciate it at the time; 1485 Tri Club for putting up with me staying in until the very end of every sessions, even when everyone else had got out; Dan Earthquake and the SLCSC; Coventry Triathletes. Thanks for all the help with training.
  • Penny – my winter swim training partner.
  • The ESRC – for funding the research that has enabled me to travel around so much and meet so many interesting people during my training.
  • And finally…Peter – who has tolerated in good spirit my frequent absences; my appropriation of “our” campervan; the fact that most trips we’ve made together in the last two years have at some point involved him sitting in a kayak or a boat for hours; and my endless Channel talk. Plus, he was a complete hero on the day and I cannot imagine having done it without him there to support me.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Channel swim - Part II

At around the 11-12 hour mark, I was still feeling okay, and I felt pretty confident that I had plenty of plodding left in me; Sam and Peter had reassured me that my stroke count was still hovering steadily between 57-62, as it had from the start. But the fatigue was also starting to bite, and I found my mind increasingly wandering into speculations about how much longer it would be. I started to really want to know where I was; in my mind, I thought of all the swim charts that I’d poured over, trying to imagine my position and how far I still had to go. I had always accepted the oft-repeated rule that you shouldn’t ask where you are or how much longer you have to go; after all, you’re rarely going to get the answer that you want in that moment, and if it takes longer than you’ve been told, that’s going to be pretty devastating. But what I hadn’t anticipated was the absolute, burning desire to know, and I had to fight the (undoubtedly misleading) conviction that knowing would somehow make everything better, easier, more manageable. I didn’t ask, but instead, I began to focus increasing amounts of attention on what was happening on the boat, searching for signs especially the interaction between Paul, Peter and Sam.

Around that time, Paul came out of the wheelhouse to talk to Peter and Sam. They were in earnest conversation for several minutes. At one point, they all pointed towards the French coast, talking animatedly; then, confusingly, they all turned to face the opposite direction, pointing again. In my over-interpreting, slightly paranoid mind, I thought they were saying “well France is over there, but she’s not going to make it, so we’re going to have to go back that way”. At 12 hours, I asked if there was anything that I needed to know, and Paul told me to just get on with swimming, so I did…but I was starting to worry, as there was obvious some concern on board, although I didn’t know what it was, or whether it was serious.

Then at 12.5 hours, Paul came out to tell me that I needed to start sprinting in order to push as far in as possible before the tide turned, in order to maximize my chances of hitting Cap Griz Nez (a rocky promontory that is the ideal end point for a swim), rather than getting swept past it – an outcome which could extend the swim by several hours. I was grateful for the information, but also quickly realized why the tantalizing promise of information (that it will somehow make what’s left to be done more manageable) is a trap for the unwary, because it just generates more questions – how long will I have to sprint for? How likely am I to hit the Cap? I told myself that the tide would turn soon, hence the urgency from Paul, so I should just knuckle down to the task of full effort swimming for now. I lifted my stroke rate, tried to lengthen my stroke and increase my pull; I even started kicking – a bit of a shock to my usually lazy legs. Everything started to hurt – my arms, shoulders, back and groin muscles were burning; I felt nauseous; my lungs felt ready to burst. Peter and Sam were amazing – they were rooted to the spot on deck, clapping and cheering, punctuated by the occasional spontaneous, gloriously non-sensical YMCA arm gestures from Sam – a welcome burst of light relief.

At the next feed, they left me no space for doubt or questions, and as I forced down the maxim, I was showered with encouragement – that my stroke looked great, that I was flying, that I looked really strong. These were, I suspect, very generous assessments of my situation, but I took heart from them and pressed on….Surely the tide would turn soon… But no…and 2.5 hours after the original instruction to sprint, there was no sign of a change of direction, or permission to let up. By this time, I was running almost on empty, and a new doubt started to rise – what if, after all this effort, we got swept up past the Cap, but I’d used up all my energy and couldn’t manage the last few hours. Part of me wanted to just pull back and accept the fate of not hitting the Cap in order to give myself the chance to recover a bit; I also knew that after pushing so hard for so long, sailing past the Cap was going to be pretty crushing, and I wondered how I would cope with that. I was feeling pretty miserable by then; everything hurt, I didn’t know what was happening, and it felt to me like the swim was hanging in the balance. I tried to just stay in the moment, and concentrate on swimming as strongly as I could possibly manage; I thought that if I wasn’t going to make it, I wanted to have given it everything.

I found out later that, anomalously, the tide just never turned and we never got pushed back up towards the Cap. Instead, I was forcing my way across the tide, into a strong headwind, and we were now aiming for the coast below Cap Griz Nez. Paul came out at the next feed and told me that I was progressing at 1 mile an hour across the tide, and that I would be on the beach in an hour if I really pushed hard; he said that the further in we got, the weaker the tide’s effect would be. I drank down what I now know was an industrial strength maxim, courtesy of Sam, who was now super-charging my drinks to give me the much-needed energy to push through. I asked if they really thought that I could do it….meaning, whether it was really possible, or whether this was just a last ditch hope. I was rewarded for this with a stern “talking to” from Paul (see the video for this). I heard Peter say that I could definitely do it, that I was going to make it. I was sure he would never have said that if he didn’t believe it, and this gave me the resolve to commit everything I had left and strike out for the beach. Sam yelled “The Hour of Power” (a reference to when he and some of the other swimmers would pick up the pace during the 6 hour beach swims in order to push through the difficult fifth hour – something he’d told me about before the swim). Everyone laughed, giving me a much-needed boost in mood and confidence.

By this time, the sun was starting to set, and I could see the cliffs of Cap Griz Nez when I breathed to the left, starting to glow red. When I stopped for a feed half an hour later, I could see the beach we were aiming for, and individual houses. This was the first time since the sprinting had begun that I realized that I was going to make it; I wanted to cry, with relief, with exhaustion…but there was no time for that yet. By the next feed, I was feeling extremely sick from the hard effort and asked how far it was…the only time I ever asked, knowing that I was very close, and hoping that I was close enough to be able to skip the feed and just swim in. Sam said it was a length of the harbor, so I declinee the feed and started the final stretch. I’d done so many harbor laps that I knew I could knock one of those out, no matter how exhausted I was. Soon, I saw Sam and Peter getting changed, and then the boat stopped while I kept on swimming. Peter and Sam soon appeared to one side of me – I couldn’t believe it was nearly over.

I soon began to see rocks in the clear water below me, and then my hands started hitting the stones. I pulled myself in over them, until I was in very shallow water. Unlike Jersey to France, when I got to walk triumphantly up a gentle sandy beach, the rocks were too uneven to walk over easily, and I had to crawl up on my hands and knees until I found a patch flat enough to get to my feet. (This makes for some very elegant video footage of the finish!). I hauled myself upright, and lurched for a big, flat rock that was clear of the waterline. I could hear Peter and Sam shouting and cheering; I stood on the rock and raised my hands in the air. I’d finished. Then everything started to spin and I had to lower myself onto the rock, head in hands, unable to quite believe that it was over, and I’d done it. I heard the boat’s horn blow. We’d made it.

We hugged and celebrated; we collected pebbles and took pictures. I was starting to shiver now, and longed to get back in the water where it felt warmer, so crawled back in and swam out towards the boat with Peter and Sam in the gentle evening sunlight. Standing on deck, I looked at the beach in amazement; I’d swum to France!

Channel swim - Part I

The last 10 days have been insane - I swam the Channel, then flew to Australia, gave a seminar paper and a conference keynote, and attended two days of conference. The whole thing has been a complete whirlwind and I've got only the faintest grasp of what time of day it is, or what day it is, but I've had a great time....although it certainly would have been a bit easier if my swim hadn't been so close to the flight. But at least I got to do it before the trip...and it all came out good in the end.

But now that my work commitments have ended for a while, I've been able to take some time to start writing the experience up. There's a video too, but at the moment, I can't get it to go up on YouTube - I'll keep working on that. But for now.... here's Part I.

Channel swim – Part I
It was nearly 3am on Thursday 2 September, and I was standing on the rocking deck of Pace Arrow, under the watchful eye of pilot Paul Foreman and his crew, Jack, as well as my A-team crew of Peter and Sam. It was time to go. The shore was faintly illuminated by the lights of the several boats out that morning, but the water looked inky black. I did a quick last check to make sure I’d not forgotten anything that I might regret later – suncream, Vaseline, a few dobs of Channel grease on some particularly nasty chafing spots, clear goggles, head and tail lights on. I perched on the edge of the boat for a brief moment, and jumped in. It didn’t feel at all cold, and I swam in to the shore and hobbled out onto the stones, took a deep breath and raised my arm to signal that I was ready. I heard a shout to start, strode in, and dived forwards, taking several long strokes before sighting forwards, looking for the boat. And here came problem number one…which boat? There were two quite close together in front of me, and I wasn’t sure which was mine! I started to go for the one on my left, but then heard some shouting and headed for the other one. As I approached, I had to ask if it was the right boat! Not quite the calm, dignified start I’d been hoping for!

But once we’d established that I was actually swimming alongside my boat, things got better, and we quickly settled into a steady rhythm. I found it much easier to keep a steady distance from the boat than I had during the relay the year before, even though it was probably just as choppy – mostly because Paul has a spotlight pointing into the water, rather than directly at the swimmer, which makes it easier to maintain a sense of perspective. Mentally, though, I was bouncing all over the place for the first hour. I couldn’t stop thinking about how long it might take, whether I would make it, what the conditions would be like, whether the feeds etc would go okay, whether Peter and Sam would get seasick, or whether I would… on and on. I’m always very unsettled during the first bit of any swim, so just tried to calm down and try to find a quieter head space, waiting for it to pass. Peter and Sam were both wearing glow sticks on lanyards round their necks, and it was lovely to see the two vertical strips when I breathed; very reassuring. We were passed to our left by another boat, which dazzled me with its lights, and then left me sitting in a fog of its diesel fumes for a while, which I didn’t appreciate, but it soon passed.

After an hour, Paul flashed a spotlight at the back of the boat to signal feed time, and I swam in to grab my bottle, which I had tied rope wound around a spool from a gardening store (thanks for the tip, Cliff). It all worked perfectly, and to words of encouragement from Peter and Sam, I guzzled down my drink, threw the bottle to one side and paddled off as they reeled it back it. Clockwork – and one less thing to feel anxious about now we’d all seen how that was going to work.

Sometime during the second hour, I noticed that there was only one glow stick at the side of the boat, but couldn’t tell who it was (I should have bought different coloured ones). I started to worry that either Sam or Peter had got really sea sick, and I felt a bit guilty for inflicting this on them. During that hour, the sun started to come up, and I realized that it was Peter who was standing on deck, but no sign of Sam. On the other side of the boat, I could see a solid shape with a flapping jacket and two legs coming down from it; it looked like someone leaning over the railing to be sick. And the shape didn’t move from its spot. Poor Sam, I thought – he’s so ill that he can’t move (I’m like this when I’m very sea sick… talk about projecting). So then I felt really guilty…and also started to feel quite sick myself – I’m very suggestible where seasickness is concerned. However, about an hour later, Sam suddenly appeared, throwing his arms in the air in a gesture of triumph and cheering. I looked again at what I had thought was Sam, and it was still there – in what was now the full light of day, I could see that it was a life buoy in a cover, supported by a frame….Sam had just been catching up on some much-needed sleep. Time for me to stop flapping about everything and calm down.

By hour three, all was well. I felt really strong and increasingly confident; I enjoyed a beautiful sunrise. And here I was – swimming the Channel. How exciting is that – really the first time that day that I’d started to enjoy the crazy novelty of what I was doing. This was starting to be fun.

Hours three to six were uneventful. The feeds shifted to half hourly, and were slipping down with no problems. I was having the occasional bit of banana or a couple of jelly babies, but I didn’t feel much like food and generally stuck with the maxim. At hour six, I switched goggles from my clear ones, which I don’t really like, to my super-comfortable, utterly leak-proof mirrored Blue Seventy goggles. In my mind, I put the previous six hours behind me, and started afresh – but with none of the anxiety that I’d had at the start. I enjoyed this period of the swim enormously. I felt really good, and was having no physical problems in terms of injury or trouble keeping the feeds down. Peter and Sam had become impressively slick with the feeds, holding the bottle and spool up in the air, the rope taut between them, as a signal that it was feed time; both of them doing it if they also had a cup with a snack in it – it made me laugh every time. As I fed, they would call out the names of people who had sent text messages, and it was a huge boost to know that people were following me and encouraging me to keep going. As I was swimming, I could see them tucking into the food from their supplies, and chatting and laughing…and always keeping an eye on me. In all this time, I never really had a serious dip, or a painful patch; I was quite happy not knowing where I was and just trusting that we were inching towards where we needed to be. When we passed 9 hours, I noted that this was the longest time I had swum this year (passing my Jersey – France time), and was pleased that I still felt pretty good…although I was starting to notice some general aches and pains and asked for some ibuprofen at my 10 hour feed, just dampen that down. By my 11 hour feed, I was getting tired, but was excited that this was now my longest swim ever and I still felt strong and focused.

It felt like it was all going to plan….

Saturday, 4 September 2010

I made it!!

After all that waiting, I finally got the chance to swim, and made it across in a time of 16 hours and 9 minutes.

I'm going to write it up properly over the next couple of weeks, but have been in a bit of a befuddled daze since finishing and need a bit of time to digest it all first. Plus, I'm about to fly off to Sydney, and have a packed few days immediately after I arrive, so need to focus on that for now. But for now, I will just say that it was an extraordinary, brutal, intoxicating, frustrating, exciting, painful, exhilerating, exhausting day that I will never forget.

Thank you so much for all the e-mails, texts and tweets of support - it made a huge difference. And apologies to all those who we inadvertently kept in suspense by not sending the final tweet to say we'd made it!

Much more later...and in the mean time, I'm going to get back to the pressing business of eating and sleeping a lot.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

The swim is on!

Just got the call - the swim is on for tomorrow morning. We're meeting my pilot, Paul Foreman, at 2am!! So exciting....and terrifying. I'm not quite sure what to do with myself, but it's time to gather up my boxes and head south.

Hopefully, Peter will be tweeting from the boat, which you can follow either on the blog or on Twitter.

I don't have an individual tracker, but you can track the boat here - scroll down and select "Dover" in the dropdown box on the left hand side, then select the boat "Pace Arrow". Don't worry if it's not always there - it doesn't mean we've sunk. If you check later, hopefully, we'll have reappeared.

More news as and when.... but in the meantime, all positive thoughts gratefully received.

Monday, 30 August 2010

Update...and a sliver of hope...

As planned, I went down to Dover at the weekend to train. I did 4 hours on Saturday, then 3 on Sunday. I have to say that my heart wasn't really in it, but that doesn't really matter, as long as it gets done. But the good news is that by Sunday, there was a mood of cautious optimism sweeping the beach as we shared rumours of a high pressure front moving in bringing with it some deliciously swimmable weather. Of course, it remains to be seen if that happens, and how long it stays, but at the moment, it seems like there is every expectation that swimming will start up again tomorrow. I don't know where this will leave me yet in terms of whether I'll get a chance to swim before I go to Oz, but at least it's a positive start...and if nothing else, I'll get to see many of my swimming friends make their crossings, which will be a huge morale boost for me.

Watch this space - I'll post more news when I have it.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Hilarious video...

Fantastic (in a tragic sort of way) video posted by Australian swimmer, Mark Scanlon, who I met during the first week of waiting to swim. Sums it up better than words ever could...

A special kind of torture...

I'm starting to see that this Channel swimming business is less a sport than an exquisite form of torture. The slight chance that I would get to swim on Sunday / Monday is no longer a possibility, thanks to the continuing wind, rain and general rubbishness of the weather. However, it does seem like the wind is starting to drop, and according to my pilot, Paul Foreman, they are hoping to start getting some swims out on Tuesday / Wednesday...although of course, we've all thought this before, only for more rubbish weather to sweep in...but it's nice to have something positive to keep our collective, frustrated sights on. Anyway, now that a neap and spring tide have been and (almost) gone, I've slipped back down the queue, but Paul is speculating that he might be able to get me away Thursday - permitting, of course. Saturday is the absolute last day I can do it before my Australia trip, and after that, I'm back to focussing on late Sept.

I'm not very good at this....,the waiting. I like to plan and prepare; I like certainty and control. And I'm not enjoying this one little bit, but am working hard to hold my nerve and not to let too much doubt creep in. After almost three weeks of only swimming 1-2 hours a day, I feel quite unfit and ill-prepared for a Channel swim, but hopefully, there's enough in there still to get me across. And in the mean time, we all wait and think calm, windless thoughts...

Monday, 23 August 2010

Best laid plans...

This isn't really how I had imagined my return from Dover. I had imagined completing the swim and coming home sore and triumphant; I had imagined coming home having failed the swim, sore but not at all triumphant. But even though I knew in principle that I might not get a swim, I don't think I'd really imagined what that scenario would be like - frustrating, deflating, disheartening, as it turns out.
After a week of watching the weather forecasts dangle the hope of a swimmable day in a few days' time and then seeing those days slowly being nibbled away by high winds, like everyone, I had my sights set on what looked like a very promising gap in the weather on Sunday. But we woke up on Sunday morning to howling winds, followed by torrential rain. It was the straw that broke the camel's back, and along with several other swimmers, I decided to pack up and go home to continue waiting in more comfortable, and less intense, surroundings. Even as we were packing up, it started to hurl it down and we had to take shelter under the awning. Miserable...but at least it confirmed my decision to go.

Unpacking my boxes this morning was pretty depressing; the weather forecast for the week is even more so...although it is starting to look like there might be a window at the weekend (but I've seen that before).

In absolute terms, Sunday is the last day of the spring tide, and after there's a fully booked neap tide with four swims on it. I'm flying to Australia on 6 Sept, so even if it was a splendid swimming week next week, I'd be lucky to get a swim in after the other four swims have gone before I have to fly. So, it's not entirely out of the realm of possibility that I'll squeeze in a swim before I leave, either towards the end of this spring tide, or the end of the next neap tide, but it's not likely.

So... the alternative plan is to start more intensive training again - get some longer swims under my belt to build up my endurance after a long taper and a week of sitting about not doing much, taper down while I'm in Australia, and then trying to get in a swim at the end of Sept. The air temps are much lower then, and there's not as much daylight, but if I'm lucky with the conditions, it's plausible. Another problem is that I don't tend to travel very well and get incredibly jet lagged, but I'll cross that bridge when I come to it. If I'm not fit to swim, then I won't and will just have another go next year. But it's worth holding out for that last chance if I can.

So from now, I'm going to pick up the training this week, building towards (depending on the weather) either getting a crossing in towards the weekend, or going down to Dover to do a couple of long training swims in the harbour. I'll do long swims again the weekend after too, before heading to Australia. It's hard to muster the enthusiasm to get back into the hard training, but hopefully I'll be able to find it from somewhere once I get going.

Thanks to everyone who has sent messages of support, and especially to Peter who came down at the weekend to save me from going bananas. And my sympathies to all those swimmers who are kicking their heels and waiting for a chance to swim....

Thursday, 19 August 2010

And blowing....

Still no sign of the wind letting up...but at least the sun has come out!
It's unlikely that anyone will get to swim before the weekend, but there's some hope for Sunday... but the weather is constantly changing (although not in the right direction so far), so it's hard to say. I continue to wait (im)patiently.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

And the wind kept blowing....

It turns out that this is a very unlucky week for Channel swimming. The winds are howling, the seas are churning, and there are frustrated swimmers (and pilots) all over Dover, scrutinising the weather sites and exchanging gossip about the latest predictions. This, I suppose, is as much a part of Channel swimming as the training...or the swimming...but it's disappointing. My comfort at the moment is that I'm first in line, so I stand the best possible chance of a swim; I feel for those who are third or fourth.

I've swum in the harbour every day, just for an hour or two, and am trying to concentrate on eating well, getting lots of rest, and not going bananas.

More updates when I know anything, but the general expectation for now is that Wednesday and Thursday are out due to strong winds, but we're living in hope for the weekend...

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Windy days

I'm here in Dover, with wind buffeting the sides of the campvan. The weather forecast is pretty dodgy, but despite having had a brief meltdown yesterday morning in the face of all this uncertainty (self-doubt, frustration, loss of focus, and a little bit of self-absorbed weeping... short and sweet, nothing to worry about), I'm managing to maintain a state of relative calm. I spoke to my pilot, Paul Foreman, today, and he said that there might be a possibility on Wednesday, but there's no saying for sure. Anyway, I was pleased to have made contact with him, and busied myself all afternoon preparing the campsite accommodation for the arrival of my crew and generally making sure everything's sorted. Paul said that it may well be that we get the go ahead at quite short notice, so it's good to have everything in order.... if only for my state of mind.

Looking at the positives, physically, I feel great, and had a lovely swim this morning - it was low tide, so the water was pretty "thick", but it was quite choppy, which made it a fun couple of hours.

So.... now there's nothing left to do but wait...

Thursday, 12 August 2010

The big green jelly baby

One of my favourite tricks for coping with difficult patches in the water is to visualise a big, green jellybaby. I turn it round in my head, visualising it from every angle - bottom of his feet, top of his head, little hands, belly button, nose....every detail. Then, in my mind, I blow or lick all the sugar off him, then start to eat him really slowly, imaging the energy from each body part going into the corresponding bit of my body. I bite off one leg, and imagine the green jelly inside, and the whiter outer core; I imagine those few calories of energy running into my own leg....and so on. I can pass a good half hour on this particular exercise and always feel better at the end of it.
On hearing about his, my friend and Warwick colleague (now sadly leaving us), Rachel, gave me a fabulous "good luck" package yesterday, including jelly babies, this jelly baby mug, and a packet of soaps in the shape of big green jelly babyies!!

There's also a truly hilarious necklace that she made of beads, letters and yes...a plastic green jelly baby, but for now, that's staying under wraps until I can work out a good way to photograph it... but I have promised her that if I make it I will post a picture wearing it.
So, whatever happens next week, may the force of the big green jelly baby be with me!

Off to Dover

I went on Woman's Hour on Wednesday, which was fun - a short piece on extreme sport and body image. You can listen to it here for the next week. I still haven't plucked up the nerve to listen to it yet, though. They were launching themselves on Twitter on Weds, so they took a photo of me with Jenni Murray to Tweet.

I was on in discussion with Catriona Morrison - winner of Lanzarote Ironman and all-round amazing athlete. We chatted about the impact of sport on our bodies. It's a bit weird to be talking about my big shoulders and body fat on national radio, but an interesting experience - good practice for thinking / talking about the research. AND I got to spend a day in London, which was fun - including a splendid lunch of Thai food, courtesy of my friend and former LSE colleague, Claire.

And today, I'm off to Dover for what I hope will be the last weekend before my swim (the window opens on Tuesday). I've been tapering - lots of sitting about and feeding up.... at last, the part of the training I'm properly qualified for - but am starting to feel really stressed and anxious about the whole thing. Part of me really wishes that I could just keep training and never do the swim - I've loved the training so much, but am not enjoying this bit very much to be honest. I remember feeling like this about my PhD - I loved the years I spent working really hard on it, but was horrified when I realised that I actually had to finish it and be examined on it.

But I've got my dream team of a crew all lined up ready to go - Peter, Jamie and Neil - and my boxes are packed, and I'm feeling in good shape. So, fingers crossed for calm seas.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010


Many congrats to Ali Longman, Donal Buckley and Jen Hurley - they all swam the Channel yesterday. By all accounts, the weather got really nasty in the afternoon, and Donal, in particular, had a long, tough day. In spite of my vow to stop following swims, I spent the entire day glued to the computer tracking their progress and willing them on.

Amazing swims all round.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Countdown to the Channel

Only two weeks to go now before the start of my tide for my Channel swim. I can't decide how I feel about it....after all this work, I can't believe it's finally here. I am obviously starting to get quite anxious about it because I've started to have dreams about it.... mostly where I turn up having forgotten various important items, or on the wrong day. It doesn't take psychoanalysis to interpret that!

Now I need to really get down to finalising my crew and generally getting my head straight.

In the mean time, several friends are either out or on their way out soon - Donal Buckley, Jen Hurley, Ali Longman... plus Julie Ryan on a two-person relay (it wasn't meant to be two, but she got horribly let down at the last minute...but I'm confident that she and Dave have got what it takes). Good luck everybody - despite my vow to stop following swims, I'll be watching online!

Congrats too to Nick Adams, who broke Ali Streeter's 1989 Round Jersey record a couple of days ago - well done.

Weekend in the Lakes

Off to the Lake District this weeklend for the BLDSA Derwentwater 5.25 mile race. Peter and I stayed at the delightfully relaxed Lanefoot Farm campsite ... including lots of lovely fat free-roaming chickens who are clearly used to being fed treats by campers (and also saw our awning tent as a good source of shelter from the driving rain).

The cockerel spent quite lot of time seriously contemplating getting into then van in search of tasty scraps. A beautiful creature, but being stared at like that really starts to creep me out after a while.

And the rain came down in sheets - proper Lake Distrct rain, all night. But happily, when we woke up it was only grey and drizzly, and we counted ourselves lucky (especially Peter, who was going to be in the kayak). Down at Derwentwater, we met Alice Hervey (over from Jersey), plus crew Cliff and Dan Martin; it was also nice to finally meet Mark Robson, whose blog I've been following for ages but had never crossed paths with in person before. We registered, and set about pumping up the kayak, much to the considerable interest of passers by. It feels a bit like doing a magic trick - out of the suitcase, lay it out flat, and in 10 minutes, it's up and ready to go. We got Peter all kitted out and launched him successfully, with all the swimmers getting in 5 mins later and lining up for the start.

My aim from the outset had never been to race it, but I was also hoping that I'd improved sufficiently with all this training to get below 2.30 (I did 2.40 for this race two years ago). The start was the usual jumble, and I got a bit tangled up with one swimmer who was going about the same pace as me, but not necessarily in a forward direction. After zig-zagging into me twice, from different directions each time, I decided to just clear out of the way and moved over to the far right of the pack out of the bustle. After that, Peter and I settled down into a pleasant rhythm as we headed up the lake. About half way up, the blue alpha flag (signalling that a swimmer is in the water) that we'd stuck to the back of Peter's life jacked with duck tape came loose and he had to stop to try and shove it down the back of the jacket. I stopped, not wanting to get too far ahead of me, but the safety crews yelled at me to carry on as they went over to help him. Clearly, we need to rethink the duck tape method of flag flying.

The rest of the race was uneventful - hourly feeds, and lots of great scenery to look at when taking a breath. I felt good, but a little fatigued towards the end - I hadn't gone flat out by any means, but had picked up the pace enough to get out of my comfort zone - something I'm out of practice with after all these weeks of dedicated plodding. I eventually crossed the line in 2.35, which was outside my target, but I was reaonsably pleased with it anyway. Alice did a storming 2.32, and Mark R came in just behind me....although would certainly have pipped me if Kelly's kayak hadn't capsized towards the end of the race, giving her an unexpected dunking and causing a short delay while she got back on board.
What I love most about the BLDSA events is their complete lack of snootiness about speed. The winner - William Bott - was enthusiastically applauded for his tremendous time of 1.47, but so was Andy Page, who completed the swim in 4.27 - an amazing endurance feat, especially when he was obviously really feeling the cold by the time he got out. At BLDSA events, the award ceremony doesn't happen until all of the swimmers are back, so it's completely inclusive, and most people stayed around to collect their certificates and applaud the other swimmers.
This, to me, is what sport should be. It's a far cry from the ASA Midlands Open Water Championships that I went to watch a couple of weeks ago, when slower swimmers were either pulled out of the water, or the prizes were awarded before everyone had even finished, while just a couple of timekeepers stood waiting with obvious impatience for the slower swimmers to get in, and only one or two friends and family waited to cheer them in at the end.
So, all in all, a great day out.
Peter and I then headed off to The Lakeland Pedlar , where we were able to stuff ourselves with top notch veggie food before going upstairs to the bike shop so that Peter could drool over all the beautiful he's decided to do the Etape next year, he's clearly eyeing an upgrade. Then we retired to the campsite for a sedate evening of books and DVDs (having passed through the mourning period following finishing all of the West Wing series, we've finally cracked open The Wire...I'm not convinced as yet, but will persevere for now).
And the rain came down all night, and into the morning. Although we'd been planning to stay until Monday, we decided to call it a day, and packed up our muddy, wet awning tent, loaded up the van, and drove back down to Keswick - the plan being to both have a swim, and then to drive home. By this time, the weather had cleared a bit, and we ended up having a lovely day. I swam first, doing a two hour loop around the lake, returning to the boat slips just as people were taking their post-lunch strolls, attracting an unexpected amount of attention. Then, after lunch, it was Peter's turn - a 1.5 hour loop in what was, by now, a beautifully flat, calm lake. It was nice to have the perspective from the kayak, and I drifted along looking at the fabulous ridges surrounding the lake while Peter swam. Then we packed up our kayak (to the entertainment of yet more curious onlookers).
All in all, in spite of the weather, a really good weekend...and a nice start to the beginning of my taper.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Jackie Cobell

Lots of newspaper coverage of Jackie's epic swim this morning. Plus a nice segment on BBC South East:


Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Dover weekend and an amazing swim...

When I say "an amazing swim", I'm certainly not talking about one of my own, but rather, that of the awesome Jackie Cobell.

I went down to Dover this weekend, with a view to a getting a couple of decent length swims in before beginning my taper in earnest. On Saturday morning, Tom, Neil, Marty and Trevor were already in doing an 8 hour swim, and Jackie was off on her solo crossing, but I agreed with Freda that I would do a much more modest 5 hours. I had a lovely swim and felt really good when I got out - like I could have done much more (but glad I didn't have to!). Then I hung around waiting for the others to finish....something that took a little longer than I (and they) had anticipated because earlier in the day Freda had spotted them chatting by the wall instead of swimming while she was having breakfast, so she sent them out for an extra half hour! Freda knows everything. But great swims, guys.

By the evening, Jackie, whose swim had set off early in the morning, was still swimming. I woke up around midnight and checked online (these things get a bit compulsive) and she was still swimming. I have to confess that as I went back to sleep, I assumed that by the time I woke up, she would either have got out, or have got across. But no...when I woke up, she was still swimming.

As we prepared for our swim on Sunday morning, we were all completely awestruck by how long she'd been in the water - around 25 hours at that point. I felt faintly ashamed that I was only going in for 4 hours....and that I had a bit of a whinge when I got in because the water felt a bit chilly. The water was almost eerily flat when we started, but by hours three and four, it had picked up to quite a chop, especially at the harbour end. At the other end, we had to play dodge the kayak as scores of children with very poor attention spans and limited directional control ploughed about.

At our three hour feed, Barrie announced that Jackie had just completed her swim successfully - in 28 hour and 44 minutes. 28 HOURS!!!

The six hour swimmers were told on their 5 hour feed that they could get out 15 minutes early (no complaints about that) so that we could all go down to the marina to welcome Jackie back. We weren't at the marina long before the boat chugged into sight and everyone cheered and clapped as it pulled up alongside the pontoon. As Jackie was helped out of the boat, I have to confess that I was a little bit shocked by her condition - she was extremely pale, and her face and especially her lips were swollen from the salt water. She was very unsteady on her feet (who wouldn't be after that), but, clutching the huge bunch of balloons that the beach crew had given her (each with "happy birthday" on them - there's a limit to what you can get on a Sunday afternoon!), she made her way up the steps into the carpark, surrounded by well-wishers. It was an amazing sight, and I still can't really get my head around what she did. I don't know where will like that comes from. It's just phenomenal.

I was also pleased to meet Joe Bakel on Sunday, who also did a successful crossing this week, and Luke (from Swimtrek) was down on the beach on Sunday morning for a dip, looking in fine form. Well done to everyone who got across this week (and commiserations to those who didn't). And well done to all of those who did back-to-back 8 / 6 hour swims this weekend - great training.

As for me, I'm finding the swims completely compulsive, and am following them online to the point of obsession, but it's starting to give me the heeby-jeebies. I think that I'm going to have to hold off a bit for the next tide so that I can try and keep my focus and stay as positive as I can be.

J2F video

With my usual amount of tech / creative ineptitude, I've put together a little video from the J2F swim. In a supremely self-absorbed manner, I keep watching myself walking up the beach, trying to hold on to that feeling for the big swim....the tide starts THREE WEEKS TODAY!!

Thursday, 22 July 2010

A tough day in the water....

Bad luck to both Andy Williams and Steve Black, both of whom I've been lucky enough to train with. I met Steve on the Cork camp, and have trained with Andy in Malta, Cork and down at Dover over the last few months. Fine, determined, well-trained swimmers both, and when they're ready, I hope they'll be back for more. It's a sobering reminder that this is a very unpredictable business.

Lots more swimmers out right now on what looks like a really good day. Fingers crossed.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Guardian article

I'm in the Guardian today!! Local freelance feature writer, Chris Arnot, interviewed me a while back about the project and it came out today. I think he did a good job of getting the key points across, but it's very weird seeing it all in writing and to have my own body discussed in the national press.

Some of the comments people have sent in are pretty rude, as you'd expect, but there's some interesting thoughts about whether it's an "extreme sport" or not - I wonder what those out there swimming today think!

Gentle weekend in Dover... with jellyfish

I had a good, long rest after the J2F swim, not least because my right wrist was still feeling pretty sore - a touch of tendinitis, probably caused by my bad habit of entering thumb first with my right hand when I start getting tired. I've been icing it, and wrapping it up for a bit after swimming, and that seems to be doing the trick. It's nothing serious....I'm just getting increasingly paranoid about injury as the big day gets closer.

Anyway, I was gloriously idle last week, doing just one short pool swim, plus an hour at Bosworth last Thursday evening. It was nice to have a break, and I needed the recovery time, but by Friday (10 days, post J2F), I was feeling ready to start building back up again and regaining my focus. So, off to Dover I went, complete with a rejuvenated Bob, who had spent the week in the garage - it turns out that a persistent rattle and bubbling roar on acceleration aren't the sounds of a healthy van, but thankfully, it's nothing that a Visa card and a helpful mechanic couldn't fix.

Saturday was overcast and windy, andd it started to absolutely throw it down just as we were picking our way down the stones to the water. The tide was low and the water was very brown and uninviting; the rain and the dark clouds made the scene even more tinted goggles didn't make it seem any cheerier. I felt terrible for the beach crew - poor Irene got an unexpected soaking and had to go and buy new clothes. But happily, the weather cleared after an hour, and although it was pretty choppy, especially at the ferry wall, the sun started to poke through and lift our collective moods. The water was so low that you could stand up just about anywhere within the swimming area between the end of the groynes and the white marks on the harbour walls; I tried not to touch the sea floor though, as I'm a bit squeamish about what's down there.

But I did have my first major run-in with jellyfish. I've been stung before, but only little zaps in passing, and just into the second hour, I got a couple of small hits on my legs. But then I swam straight into one, drawing its tentacles right across my cheeks, mouth and chin, and then my arm and thigh (as I turned away to try and get away from it). I could feel the tentacles trailing across my face and felt completely freaked out by it. I was surprised by how upset I was - firstly because it hurt, especially on my lips, but secondly, because I got really freaked out by them being there but me not being able to see them. I started imagining them everywhere, and seriously contemplated getting out to escape what I was now imagining to be a sea thick with jellyfish. Drama queen? Me? Thankfully, the shame of getting out and having to tell the beach crew that I was too squeamish about jellyfish to stay in was too great, and I finished my planned two hour swim before gratefully exiting the water.

In spite of my jellyfish encounter, and the fact that my top lip was numb for several hours afterwards, I was pleased with my swim - just a short one, but a good start to the build-up, and a chance to stretch out my well-rested muscles. My wrist was a bit sore, but nothing to worry about. I hung about to help with the feeds and to catch up with fellow Swimtrekkers John, Sam and Julian - congrats to Julian who did his 6 hour qualification swim. We also bumped into Liam and Eddie (from the Cork camp), who were over for Liam's crossing (he's out there as I type - Go Liam!).

By Sunday, it was still windy, but it was a lovely bright day, and I told Freda that I would do 3 hours. I felt a bit guilty because the others were doing 6 hours, but I need to stick to my plan of a gentle build-up - I'm working on the basis that, once I've recovered fully from J2F, I'm ready to go, so just need to stay well and hold steady, rather than hammering out more really long swims. This was a lovely swim for me - it was a sunny day, and the harbour was a nice mix of choppy and calm (to stave of boredom). And three hours is a really nice length of swim - long enough to really settle down and enjoy the rhythm of swimming, but not so far that everything starts to hurt. I felt great.

So many people are down in Dover now ready to swim - including Andy Williams, who is hoping to go on Tuesday or Wednesday. It's so exciting following the swims and thinking that that might be me very soon. Just four weeks to go now!