Monday, 12 December 2011

Joining the club.... fantastic video

I love this new video, made by my friend, Jamie Goodhead, who has to go down as one of the unluckiest aspiring Channel swimmers out there - if you listen to the narrative about his different attempts, you'll see what I mean. Plus, he's put his finger perfectly on the splendid irrationality of Channel swimming, as well as the compulsive lure of it.


Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Sports Personality of the Year

So today, the shortlist of 10 candidates for the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year award was announced....shortly followed by a big media flurry about the news that there were no women on the list. Don't get me wrong - I think it's offensive and stupid that women's sport has been so egregiously excluded. But it's really not that surprising, and nor is it the worst offence against women in sport at the current time.

Firstly - let's think about how the shortlist is drawn sports journalists from publications including Zoo, Nuts and the Sun - all with excellent credentials for including women (as long as they don't have any clothes on at the time and are performing sexual availability to their predominantly male readerships). Secondly, let's look at sports reporting itself, only a tiny proportion of which covers women in sport (c. 5% according to the Women's Sport and Fitness Foundation). Just as an example, the Guardian was quick to join the debate about the shortlist, but a quick look at its sports pages shows that it includes a human interest story on Taekwondo world champion Sarah Stevenson (reflecting on the challenge of the upcoming London Olympics in the light of the recent tragic deaths of both her parents from cancer), and two further articles relating to the shortlist story (one using an image of Keri-Ann Payne, and the other showing Crissie Wellington). There are no stories on the webpage that actually report on women's sporting events and performances - not a single one that I could find. Is it any wonder, then, that the journalist "experts" that were invited to nominate sports people for the award could muster so few women for their nominations when women's sport is so far off their radar in the first place?

That a bunch of sexist editors excluded women from their nominations, then, is a news story, I suppose, but not a very interesting one; what's more important is what it signifies - that women's sport is consistently marginalised, not only in the media, but also in terms of the distribution of both public and commercial resources. For example, women's elite sport receives only 0.5% of the sponsorship market, making a professional sporting career impossible for many women in many sports which are awash with funding for men, especially if they are unwilling or unable to trade on their sexualisation within mainstream sporting and commercial culture. The effect of this to deter women and girls from engaging in sport because they are figured within the sporting world at best as visitors, and at worst as impostors.

The desperate attempts by the media today to demonstrate their outrage at the men-only shortlist through shocked opinion pieces and alternative women-only shortlists is all very well, but this fails to recognise the broader and more serious problem of the marginalisation of women and girls in sport at all levels - something which is much more serious, and depressing, than their exclusion from this particular popularity contest. There are some tremendous sportswomen out there, but there should be more, and we should hear about them more.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Sleeping like a swimmer....

I've never been a great sleeper, and my insomniac tendencies always get worse during the academic term when it becomes harder to contain teaching and writing responsibilities within a reasonable working day. Consequently, in spite of a carefully managed routine of hot drinks, light reading, herbal sleeping pills and a light that simulates the sunset in an attempt to trick my body into sleep, I am often awake in the early hours, my mind racing and my body fidgety and unsettled. As anyone who has trouble sleeping knows, it's a vicious cycle once it starts - feeling tired during the day makes you anxious about getting a good night's sleep, which makes it harder to get to sleep.

But then along came the distance swimming, which completely transformed the quality of my sleep. I've done other endurance sports - marathon, triathlon - but while I've found these exhausting, I've never really found them restful. But swimming....well, that's a different thing altogether. As my openwater training escalated in 2009, I noticed a distinct dropping off in my novel reading, going from reading several books a week in bed before sleep, to barely a few pages each night before falling asleep, often with book in hand. I knocked my sunset light off the bedside table accidentally one day and it broke, but I didn't replace it - I was no longer awake for long enough to even remember to switch it on. After long sea swims, I started to experience an utterly delicious, fully-body tiredness that made every surface look like I could curl up on it for a nap. Even in the middle of the intensifying pressures of work, I slept more profoundly than I could ever remember.

Fast-forward to the present. The stroke correction programme I've been following has been engaging and productive, but it's not "swimming" - not enough to produce the lovely easy sleep of long distance training. And I've been running, but only 3-4 miles a few times a week, and in any case, running just doesn't work in the same way for me. And so, as the stresses of term have intensified, my quality of sleep has declined; the herbal sleeping pills are back, and I had to buy a new sunset light. But then, last week, I decided that it was time to reintroduce swimming (as opposed to just drilling) into my training, and have started doing sets on top of my daily drills - only 2-3km at a time for now, and always trying to swim mindful of my stroke corrections, but swimming, nevertheless. And lo and swim-sleep has returned - something which has been aided by my fairly poor swim-specific fitness, meaning that I get nicely tired even at relatively low distances. Bad news for my hopes of keeping up with contemporary fiction; but great news for my general well-being. Here's to sleeping like a swimmer.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Farewell to Ian Smith

I was shocked to receive the terrible news this morning that Total Immersion swim coach, Ian Smith, passed away on Monday. As regular readers of the blog will know, I've been working with Ian over the past few months to improve the efficiency of my stroke. These most recent sessions continued a coaching relationship that extends back several years, over which Ian has helped me to tame my wayward stroke and maximise my skills as a swimmer. Ian was a consumate professional - focused and knowledgeable, with an incisive eye for efficiency-damaging swimming quirks and an armoury of drills and strategies to sort them out. Ian communicated a passion for the sport through his coaching, regardless of whether he was dealing with a speedy youngster with competitive ambitions, or a plodding long-distance swimmer like myself.

My heart goes out to his family, whose loss is unimaginable. For myself, I will miss him enormously.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Training toys

I've been oh-so-good about working on my wayward stroke out; for ten weeks now, I've been drilling, drilling, drilling 4 or 5 times a week, and foregoing the pleasures of the longer, absent-minded swim that I used to end my day with. And there are definitely signs of improvement - improved pace, less waggling in the head area, a less frenetic hurling of the left arm through the recovery. But I was getting bored, so I decided to buy myself some toys to keep me entertained.

The first of these is a swim snorkel that I've had for a couple of weeks now - mine is made by Finis, and is splendid...or at least it will be once I've finally got the hang of not inhaling large quantities of pool water up my nose. And yes - I know it doesn't make sense because I don't inhale underwater through my nose when I'm swimming without a snorkel. It's obviously just a co-ordination demand too far sometimes. But when I'm not snorting water, this is a fabulous little gadget for giving me time to think about particular elements of the stroke without the distraction of turning to breathe. I don't use it too much, since being able to turn to breathe seems pretty important, but a portion of the session with the snorkel on helps me to get the feel for those bits of the stroke cycle that I'm having trouble holding on to, making it easier to keep everything in place when I'm back to full stroke. Be warned, though - it is a spectacularly foolish-looking piece of kit, and you will be very hard to take seriously when wearing it.

The second new toy is these funky Finis PT paddles...or anti-paddles, really. Unlike conventional paddles, these are specifically designed to completely prevent any purchase on the water by the hands. This forces the swimmer to make full use of the forearm in the catch and pull phase of the stroke - a bit like fist gloves, except the hand is kept in a more natural swimming position. At first, they were really frustrating to swim in because of the lack of grip on the water, but after a while, you start to really feel for the water with the whole forearm. In turn, this has been really helpful in terms of getting my arms into a better, high-elbowed catch position. And, when you take them off, you feel like you are flying.
Anybody else got any good suggestions for training kit that you can't live without and that might keep me entertained in my drill sessions?

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Catalina Channel Swimming Federation banquet

Last Saturday was the awards banquet for the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation - a chance to celebrate the year's successes, plus the contributions of pilots, kayakers, crew, family members etc. It goes without saying that I would have loved to have been there, but time and money, plus the fact that I think I've already left a pretty hefty carbon footprint this year, meant that I had to watch from afar. From the reports and pics that I've seen, it looked like a fun affair.

It was nice to see the list of successful swims....although I have to say that I felt ever so slightly embarrassed at having taken quite such a long time, relative to the majority of swims. My poor crew!

Well done to all the swimmers, and to the CCSF and all those involved for another successful year of swims.

In the mean time, although I'm absolutely determined not to do another long swim next year, I'm starting to cook up some plans. That's what the winter's for - pool training and plan cooking.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Progress? last night I tried a little experiment at the pool.

I've been concentrating on drilling, drilling, drilling, with no sustained swimming. Even when I am doing full stroke, at the beginning of each length I select what I'm going to focus on, then stop at the end, choose the next thing to focus on, and off I go again, working my way through the different elements of the stroke (right breathing, right arm catch; right breathing, left arm catch....and so on). This has been going on for two months now, and it's starting to come together, sort of, although at the same time, my swimming fitness has gone through the floor because of the absence of sustained effort. Anyway, feeling a bit frustrated with all the drilling, and desperate to burn off some energy after a difficult day at work, I finally cracked last night and decided to have a bit of a swim, up and down, up and down, just to see whether I could sustain my new work-in-progress stroke. Not too bad, though I say it myself.

And then, right at the end, I decided to try a 100m sprint, just to see. Previously, I have always struggled to break 1.30, and have certainly struggled to do so consistently. Plus, on the occasions when I have dipped just below 1.30, it has been at full-welly, pass-me-a-bucket, spots-behind-the-eyes effort. So, how did I do? Well...I was amazed to hit the wall at 1.25....and that was without being anywhere near max effort. I realise that breaking 1.30 is hardly going to shake the swimming world and there's probably no need to alert the swimming authorities, but for me, this is a big moment - to break it so clearly, at a much lower intensity than previously, and at such a low level of swimming fitness surely bodes well for what I might be able to do after more drilling, rebuilding my swimming fitness and working at full effort.

I'm starting to think there's something to this technique business.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Small adjustments...

The work of stroke corrections continues - a slow, frustrating but absorbing process of abandoning deeply entrenched habits and learning new, more efficient technique. My body is annoyingly intractable at times, resisting the small but significant adjustments and quickly falling back into comfortable (comforting?) old habits of movement as soon as my attention wanders. But there are also moments when I hit it right, and suddenly, momentarily, I see what Ian's getting at. And then it goes again. But there is some progress, as you can see below, although evidenced only by the smallest adjustments in posture, position and movement, and not, as yet, by any increases in endurable speed.

The first problem that we are focusing on is my waggly head, which lifts out of the water on each breath, exposing virtually my whole face. To support this, my opposite arm drifts out sideways contributing very little, and forward propulsion is doubly interrupted by my drag-producing head and my drifting arm. It also tends to produce a rather "ballistic" (to use Ian's term) recovery, with my hand travelling above the elbow, and then crashing into the water on entry.

Still a work in progress, but here's a snap from my most recent session - note the head is much more in line with the body, with only one goggle lens exposed. Plus, I've managed to keep a higher elbow and a more relaxed recovery.

The second problem was my lack of an effective catch, with straight arms drifting out and down, especially on a breath, and not catching until my hand was almost directly below my shoulder.

But slowly...oh so straight arm is learning how to do this...a high elbowed catch that enables me to get a proper grip on the water.

In tandem with these changes, perhaps the biggest change I'm trying to make is to move from breathing every three to every two strokes. This is hard, firstly because I was very attached to the idea of breathing every three as a way of balancing out the strain on the body over a long swim. And secondly, the rhythm of threes has become really central to my strategies for keeping going...I like to count to four, but emphasising the breathing strokes, creating a nice syncopated rhythm - ONE two three FOUR one two THREE four one TWO three four...and so on. As I get back to longer swimming, I'm going to have to work on something to replace what for me is the core soundtrack of the long distance swim.

But I remember on our Channel relay in 2009, Marcy Macdonald (our official observer) advised me during a particularly hard-push bit of the swim to breathe every two, doing, say, 6 breaths on one side, then six on the other to achieve balance. It was too big a change to implement during the swim, and afterwards, I quickly settled back into my habitual threes, not wanting to do the hard work of changing those ingrained habits at the same time as training for the Jersey swims and the Channel. I think that I chose to ignore this piece of (expert) advice for the same reason that I never really did the speed work before my Channel swim that I had been advised to do....somehow, I thought those things only applied to the faster swimmers, and that as long as I could plod on forever, I'd be fine. But now I want to be a better swimmer too, so at last, I'm finally starting to take this advice seriously. An extra incentive to sort this out comes from Ian, who is absolutely adamant that breathing every three will create inefficiencies through oxygen debt, and that breathing more often, combined with a breathing technique that doesn't interrupt my stroke, will speed me up over distance. So, that too is on the daily list of things to work on.

I miss the solid effort of a good 5-6km training session, but for now, am determined to stick with the attentive swimming of the stroke correction process. And in the mean time, I'm still running...and equally incremental process, but satisfying in its unspectacular way. Inching up in quarter mile chunks, my longest run each week is now 2.75 miles. I don't think Paula Radcliffe is going to be losing sleep just yet, but when I complete each new increment in distance, I feel full of joy at my progress.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Florence Chadwick - What's My Line?

I saw this circulating on Facebook and couldn't resist. It's from a 1955 episode of "What's My Line", and features the wonderful open water swimmer, Florence Chadwick - a four times English Channel swimmer who broke Gertrude Ederle's world record in 1950, crossing in 13 hours and 20 minutes. I love the fact that the panelist eventually guesses based on her having "the beautiful wide shoulders of a wonderful swimmer", although they get distracted at first by the assumption that she must be famous because of who she married!

Florence Chadwick was a true pioneer and an inspirational woman in whose footsteps I am proud to tread (in my own far less impressive way). Today's women swimmers owe her, and the other early female swimmers, an enormous debt for the work they did in opening up new possibilities for women, both in and out of the water.


Friday, 21 October 2011

20,000+ blog views

Time to celebrate - my little blog has now had over 20,000 views since it started. Who'd have thought it! Thanks to everyone who stopped by.

Swimfit - when is weight loss talk not about weight loss?

So, further to my concerns about the Swimfit use of the "pinch an inch" image on the Shape Up and Tone section of their website, I wrote the following e-mail to their complaints address:

"I am writing to complain about the problematic image used to illustrate the 'Shape up and tone" section of your front page, and then again, for the "how does your sport compare?" box. The image shows a very slim torso, with the flesh being pinched =, presumably to evaluate fatness. The "pinch an inch" test has long been discredited as offering any meaningful information, especially when conducted by untrained individuals. It is healthy to have pinchable flesh on the body, and it is disappointing that the website is so flagrantly focusing on cosmetic issues while purporting to be promoting health and well-being.

I am an experience and passionately involved long distance open water swimmer (English Channel 2010, Catalina Channel 2011) as well as a sociologist researching long distance open water swimming and its relation to what constitutes the "fit body" (among other aspects). In my view, your website needs to be very clear that weight in itself (and especially having pinchable flesh around the torso) is in no way a predictable measure for health. This is an incredibly impoverished view of what swimming has to offer, and presents the view that less body fat is always better."

To their credit, they got back to me pretty quickly, but the reply was frankly baffling:

"Hi Karen,
The website shows this picture for the Shape Up & Tone programme, which is not any suggestion about weight. it is simply to tone your body whatever shape it may be. None of our programmes have mention of weight they are simply to encourage people into the water, get them swimming and enjoy themselves while following our programmes. The Shape Up & tone programme encourages strengthening of more muscle groups to tone the body but has no mention of loss of weight. Of course, if someone writes to us asking how to lose weight with swimming we can help them but that is not the aim of the programme".

If we set aside for a moment the ways in which words like "toning" and "shape up" are codes for weight loss, what's most striking about the reply is the extraordinary claim that none of the programmes mention weight / weight loss. Take, for example, this extract (my highlights added) from the front page of the Shape Up and Tone section of the website:

"Shape Up and Tone is for you if you are seeking to bring about some changes in the way you look or considering using swimming as part of a weight management programme.

This may be maintaining your current weight but achieving a more toned appearance or as part of a weight loss programme. And there are some great reasons why you should be swimming to achieve this.
Did you know even a gentle swim can burn over 200kcal in half an hour and a fast front crawl can burn as many calories as an 8mph run? True.
And the because water is about 800 times denser than air, you can work harder, and burn more calories, in a pool than out of it? Again true."

Not only does the text slip easily between mention of "toning" and direct reference to weight / weight management / weight loss, but also, the only "great reasons" that are offered for using swimming both concern calorie burning (an obvious reference to weight loss). If the strengthening of muscle groups is the goal of the programme (as the Swimfit representative suggests), then a "great reason" to do it would be evidence of improved muscle strength and its effects in people following such a programme. The number of calories presumed to be burned tells us nothing about this. I can only return to my original conclusion that the section is actually about weight management....which brings me back to the image as fundamentally, and problematically, about weight. It is frankly disingenuous to say that the programme doesn't mention or refer to weight, since it evidently does so, both implicitly and explicitly.

And while I'm on a roll....let's take a moment to think about the "Choosing the right swimwear" section (also in the Shape Up and Tone section. There's a section each for men and women, each with lists of body shapes and parts matched to style advice about what shape of costume to choose to distract the onlooker's eye from flaws and draw it towards more "appealing characteristics". I'll save my comparison of the male and female advice sections for another day, but suffice to say that the women are given more possible problems to worry about, and the advice is more elaborately oriented to very specific body parts, rather than "builds", as is the case predominantly for the men. But real objection is this....The section for "pear shape" women begins: "A pear shape has often been a plague for women, but it no longer needs to be." A plague? Really? Women are on the receiving end of plenty of devastating problems - domestic violence, lack of reproductive freedom, unequal pay, sexism - but plagued by a body shape? Only in the eyes of those who prioritise how women look over what they can do could this sentence make sense. As soon as you focus on "flaws", you make them matter; as soon as you offer advice about how to hide them, you make it difficult for women to feel anything other than ashamed of their bodies. If the Swimfit programme is about getting people into the water, rather then teaching women to surveille and discipline their bodies for public consumption, then why does this section not simply say, "It doesn't matter what you wear - as long as the costume is comfortable, you're good to go!"?

Phew. Glad I got that off my chest.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Pinch an inch?

I was browsing the British Gas Swimfit website today and was really frustrated to find this image, which is used to illustrate both the "shape up and tone" section of the site, and this box which takes stroke, intensity and duration and gives you the calorie expenditure estimated to be involved, plus a comparison with other activities such as walking or running.

I have so many problems with this. Firstly, the person pinching their flesh is very lean, but it is still not clear whether this is representing the identification of a problem or the demonstration of the "good" body. Either way, the "can you pinch an inch?" mode of body assessment is highly discredited, not least because healthy bodies are supposed to have flesh on them. Furthermore, the association of the image with calorie counts draws a straight line from calorie intake to targeted fat loss - a move that conveniently skips over the well-recognised complexity and unpredictability of energy balance and the impossibility of targeted body fat loss as a product of intake reduction.

And secondly, while I'm having a bit of a about how to suck the life out of swimming. I can't think of anything more impoverished than the measurement of swimming's benefits through the miserly counting of calories. Interestingly, while the other non-competitive sections of the Swimfit programme (Health and Fitness) offer evidence of tangible health benefits from swimming (e.g. reduced stress and depression, greater physical comfort while exercising for those with mobility difficulties or joint problems, improved range of motion), the Shape up and Tone section only offers estimated calorie usage with changes to body size and composition assumed. Where is the evidence of actual health-related improvements to support this aspect of the scheme? In this model, the increase in energy output is always presumed to be desirable because it is presumed to lead to weight loss (which is also deemed to be always desirable) - it's actual relation to health and well-being is unclear, and the "pinch an inch" picture sends a confusing and offensive message that health can be measured directly off body composition.

You only have to look at the average Channel swimmer to know that the relationships between health, fitness and body fat is far more complicated than that.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Waggly head and ballistic arm...

A couple of weeks ago, I went to see Ian Smith at Swim Shack as part of my project to revamp my swimming technique and speed up a bit, as well as trying to avoid any further injury problems with my shoulder and hand. There is nothing like being videoed from multiple angles in an endless pool and then having it played back to you immediately to bring home the vast gulf between how your swimming feels and how it looks in practice. In particular, the first thing that Ian homed in on was my waggly head, which lifts out of the water at an angle on each breath. Looking back at pictures from my Catalina swim, for example, you can see this very clearly:

One of the effects of this, especially when I breathe to the right (where the problem is more pronounced), is for my left arm to shoot out sideways in search of leverage to support my tilted head. It then tends to drift, straight-armed, downwards, not getting any real catch until it's well down my body. It's obviously something that's really slowing me down, because when I tried just swimming without taking a breath, with the flow of the endless pool at the same rate as before, I immediately smacked into the propulsion unit and the flow had to be increased quite considerably. Most notably, my arm doesn't drift and sink when I keep my head down. So, this is what I've been working on....breathing by keeping my head in line with my body, rather than tilting upwards. It sounds really easy, but like all embodied habits, it's a tough one to change and I can still only execute a breath properly for just a few cycles before my head pops back up again. Work in progress.

The second big issue was what Ian describes as my "ballistic" left arm. My arm tends to fly out of the back of the stroke and over my hip before hurtling forwards with the hand well above the elbow, and smacking into the water. I thought that it was connected to the breathing problem (which it probably is in the holistic sense), but I still do it when I swim without taking a breathe, so it's also an engrained habit in its own right. Ian reckoned that this is almost certainly what is causing my shoulder problem, and, rather ominously, remarked that we'd need a whole separate session to deal with that! So, I'm not concentrating on that for now and am trying to focus on my waggly head. I'm going back in two weeks, so hopefully I'll start to be less "ballistic" very soon.

I'm swimming three or four times a week, just for about 45 mins or so.... hopefully I'll be able to increase this a bit once the beginning-of-term dust has settled. Mind you, I have to say that I'm enjoying having a break from the hard swimming - I think a fallow period will do me good, and by next Spring, I'll be dying to get back to it.

In the mean time, I'm also pursuing my parallel project of adding in running and strength and conditioning training to my routines. The S&C is one of those things that it's hard to measure progress in, except that I'm slowly increasing reps and exercises. The running, however, gives a much greater sense of progress, however unimpressive in the context of the wider running world. After a month of preparatory walk-running, I've moved on to Hal Higdon's novice 5km programme, and am now comfortably running 1.5-1.75 miles four times a week at roughly 10min / mile pace. This is a distinct improvement from when I started this project when I couldn't run for more than a few consecutive minutes without turning bright scarlet. I sometimes feel quite frustrated by all this, and cross with myself for so thoroughly letting my running fitness go - only 7 years ago, I ran the Barcelona marathon in 4.20, which is not fast by any means, but was a decent performance for me at the time. But I have to keep reminding myself that you have to start from where you are, not where you wish you were. And I do have a good fitness base on my side from all of the swimming, so I'm sure that's helping. And if there's one thing that Channel swimming has taught me to make good use of, it's patience.

So there we go...incrementally advancing S&C and running and a work-in-progress stroke correction.

Plus, I'm now analysing the swimming data and am in the very early stages of planning out the writing phase of the research. More about this later when I have something to show for it.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

British to organise a dog's breakfast of a ticketing process

So... like many people who failed to get Olympics tickets for the swimming, I excitedly pre-registered myself for priority booking for the British Gas Swimming Championships, 2012 - the GB trials in the new aquatics centre. The fact that British Gas are involved, even only as sponsors, should have given me a heads up (anyone who's tried to deal with what they laughingly call "customer services" will know what I mean), but this was just a spectacular dog's breakfast from the outset. The ticketing website, accessible through an individualised link, was supposed to open at 9am today, and I was duly online at 9.05, ready to book my tickets before my morning of meetings. But wasn't up yet. I don't know what time it opened, but I checked briefly at 9.50 and it was working, but I had no time before my meeting, so I started again at just gone 11am....What a mess. The system was slow and clunky, repeatedly timing out. Eventually, I managed to reserve two sets of three seats for a session of finals, and for some heats. Result....or so I thought until I finally crawled my way to the checkout, only to have the site repeatedly crash, and then to time out, wiping off all of the tickets I had reserved. Aaargh.

Off to another meeting, then back to try again....except this time, most of the tickets had already gone. I give up.

I accept that not everyone can have the tickets that they want, and I think it's great that so many people are into swimming. But exclamations on the part of British Swimming that they had greater demand than anticipated ring pretty hollow, given that all they had to do was count up the number of people who had purposefully pre-registered - a pretty good indicator of how many people would try to buy tickets, I would have thought. And also, how can it be acceptable to have such a feeble system in place to manage that demand? All British Swimming had to say for themselves was to "keep trying", but this isn't good enough - I don't think it's too much to ask to have a system in place with enough capacity to process applications, or efficiently display non-availability. What a waste of time.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

The Longest Swim...

Today was the awards ceremony at Swan Pool for the Sandwell Lifesaving and Channel Swimming Club...and for the second year running, I won the trophy for "the longest swim". This was for the Catalina Swim - I may not be fast, but I can plod for hours with the best of them! Seriously, though, I love the fact that the club has a prize for this, and that more broadly, that it has found a good balance between recognising the amazing achievements of some of the scarily, impressively fast members alongside those of us who will never break records or win races, but who go for it in our own ways.

Many thanks to Dan Earthquake for running the Swan Pool sessions all summer... a quiet volunteerism that is hugely appreciated. I'm done for the year now, but will be back down there in May, ready for my early-season shivers.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Wetsuit or no wetsuit...?

There's been a bit of chat in the OW swimming world over the last few days following an article by Scott Zornig, President of the Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association, in which he (among other issues) sets out his own strongly held view that wetsuits have no place in marathon swimming (with some exceptions such as swimmers with disabilities). He is very clear in the article that these are his own views (although they are presented under the SBCSA logo) and while I don't fully agree with him, it's an issue around which there is a lot of controversy within the community and one worthy of discussion. So I thought I'd throw in my penny's worth.

I should start by saying that in many ways, I agree with Scott Zornig - I think that to say that you have swum the Catalina Channel or the English Channel is to say that you did it without a wetsuit and in accordance with the fairly standardised rules that the governing bodies of most marathon swim organisations use to regulate their swims. I also agree with him that most people, with sufficient attention to training, acclimatisation and body fat can eventually make themselves able to swim in open water without a wetsuit. Indeed, I often find myself encouraging people to abandon the neoprene, just because of what I think is the enhanced pleasure of non-wetsuit swimming. But I also feel that not everyone wants to do that for all kinds of reasons, and that this too is a legitimate choice - it's supposed to be a leisure activity, after all. Such a person will never swim the Channel (in the conventional, regulated sense), but they might swim it with a wetsuit on. This still is a fabulous achievement and one which only a tiny proportion of people could even contemplate attempting; it will require hard training, and will still probably be a massive and significant event in that person's life. Scott Zornig argues that the title "marathon swimmer" does not apply to this individual because it is not a "swim". Instead, he proposes describing it as a "Water Adventure" or a "Water Exhibition" in the hope that this will stop people "raining on the parade of true marathon swimming accomplishments."

And I think that it is here that I think we start to see the real source of tension between wetsuit swimmers and non-wetsuit swimmers - the problem of self-misrepresentation. It seems to me that the problem is not that people do these marathon swims in wetsuits, but that some people are not entirely straightforward and open about having done so. Without wanting to name any specifics here, we are all aware of high-profile, media hungry swims that have been extremely quiet about their use of wetsuits whilst at the same time presenting them in such a way that people will assume they are done without one. My reading of Scott Zornig's articles is that he feels that the label "marathon swim" facilitates this misrepresentation, and he wants to reclaim it for non-wetsuit swimming to protect the category. But I'm not so sure that this is the way to go. It seems to me that this title could easily be rehabilitated to include a wide range of impressive swimming achievements, if this occurred alongside the standardised inclusion of wetsuit / non-wetsuit status; I think that we should broaden the definition rather than narrow it. And perhaps the only way that this can be done is by being more accepting of wetsuit swimming as one part of our amazing sport; making people feel ashamed of swimming with a wetsuit (by likening it to illegal doping, for example) will only make it harder for people to be straightforward about the kind of swim they have chosen to do, and to celebrate those swims. Even with the wetsuit, a long swim is a long swim, and I am uncomfortable with the notion of a "true" form of marathon swimming to which everything else is subservient.

It's also worth noting that misrepresentation is not confined to the wetsuit issue. I know of plenty of people who list a Channel swim on their sporting CVs without also noting that it was a relay crossing; I also know of someone from this year who has told people that he completed the Channel when in fact he was pulled out 2 miles from the French coast. These are irritating moments, not least because lying is always irritating, but also because, in most cases, the misrepresentation is entirely unnecessary - the vast majority of the non-swimming (and swimming) population consider a Channel relay to be just as outlandishly difficult and impressive as a solo, or quite rightly consider a solo Channel swim that takes you so close to France to be an awesome achievement by any standards.

I don't know what the answer to all this is. To those who are misrepresenting their swims - either because of wetsuits, or whatever else - I would say, get a grip and be a grown-up. And to those who see wetsuit swims as a threat to non-wetsuit swims, I would ask what is at stake in maintaining that distinction so thoroughly, and what might the consequences of that be in terms of alienating potential new members from taking up the sport? I want more people in the water, not fewer, whatever they're wearing.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Back to basics

My return from my fantastic trip to California marked the end of this year's serious swimming challenges. It's been a splendid summer all round, but now it's time for a change of pace. I am taking the next year off from big swims in order to both recoup my dwindling finances and have a chance to do some other fun things - Peter and I are going on a surfing course in Lanzarote over Christmas (did I say recouping my finances...?), and have plans to do some walking, and maybe even some cycling. Plus, we've just bought a cottage in Bath (where Peter now works), and we want to spend some time getting to know the area and generally not having our leisure time governed so thoroughly by the demands of training.

I'm very excited about all these plans, but at the same time, feel quite flat and demotivated - the inevitable consequence of the end of an exciting season, but also the loss of focus that having a swim booked for the next year provides. I've also been struggling with a niggly back injury - the result of that fall at the beginning of my Catalina swim - which has been a bit demoralising....although things are definitely improving on that front, slowly but surely.

So....what to do? I've decided that it's time to go back to basics.

Firstly, I've started a programme of Strength and Conditioning to try and improve my strength, stability and flexibility throughout my body. My shoulders, upper body are pretty good, and my core strength isn't bad, but particularly my lower body is not terribly stable, which can't be good in the long term. I'm steadily building a programme of exercises, starting slowly with foundational ones, and then, eventually, moving on to swimming specific ones. It feels like a long job and I'm frustrated with how hard (and unrewarding) I'm finding some of it, but I need to give it time....and if you'd seen me trying to do some of even the most basic exercises, you'd appreciate the need for some of this basic bodily work and general maintenance.

The second element of the back to basics is a cautious return to some running. I've been running on and off for years, but also have a touch of arthritis in my knees and am far from gazelle-like. However, I love running, and find it quite therapeutic and physically satisfying, even at my very modest level. But, in the interests of building up gently after a long period of not running (plus being wary about my back), I have returned to the very beginning and am following Hal Higdon's introductory 30/30 programme - 30 days of 30 minute sessions involving 1o mins of walking, 15 mins of walk / run, then 5 mins of walking. Then I'll move on to a 5km programme, with a hope of completing some kind of event by Christmas. As I said, back to basics, but the most important thing is that it has to be sustainable and I don't get injured. This, combined with the Strength and Conditioning, is pretty much all that I've been doing for the last week or so since I came back from the States.

And very shortly, I'll move on to the next step - back to swimming basics. I know that with a decent amount of training, I can do the long swims, but I am also locked in to a plod-pace and I think that I can be a better, faster swimmer if I spend some time now working on my technique - especially my weedy left arm catch, and whatever weird thing I'm doing with my right hand to cause the recurrent tendon problem in my right wrist. All my bad habits are thoroughly ingrained, so I'm about to start a programme of careful drilling to try and relearn that muscle memory. I'm going to have some video analysis to guide the process, and plan to work on the drills five times a week, for 30 mins each sessions through to Christmas. Then I'll re-evaluate, but hopefully, I'll be ready to start building in more sustained swimming by then to consolidate what I hope will be an improved technique. This is not simply about enabling me, for example, to do a faster Channel swim; it's more about that extra pace opening up new, and even more challenging, possibilities in terms of swims that I could attempt but which I wouldn't necessarily want to try at my current pace.

All of this, however modest and unspectacular, takes me some distance out of my comfort zone. I'm a very inattentive swimmer who simply loves swimming - this makes me very good at being in the water for a long time, but not great when it comes to developing my skills and increasing my speed and efficiency. I don't particularly enjoy the detailed work of breaking down a stroke and building it back up. But I'm hoping that, in the long term, this will be time well spent. Indeed, one of the most common practices shared by many of the most accomplished and enduring swimmers that I have met in the course of the research is their insistence on regular drilling, as well as strength and conditioning work.

So, those are my three key areas of focus for now: (1) foundational, and then, swimming specific strength and conditioning; (2) modest but regular running, building up to the 5km, and maybe 10km, mark for cross training and a change of pace; and (3) to work concentratedly on my technique in order to improve speed and efficiency in the water.

I'm still working on what comes next in terms of marathon swimming goals. I'm stewing on a few possible ideas but prefer to keep those to myself until I've got a firm plan of action in place. So for now, it's back to basics for me - a new challenge.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Radio interview

I did a little radio interview for BBC Radio Coventry and Warwickshire yesterday. I spoke to them before and after the Channel swim last year, and one of the producers has been following the blog and got in touch after the Catalina swim. They're really nice and friendly, and it's always a fun thing to do. You can listen to the interview here for the next few days....I'm on at 2.04.35.

Bridge to Bridge

I just got some photos back from the Bridge to Bridge swim - this time taken by Suzie Dods from the safety kayak. The brightness of the day comes through really beautifully in the pics, as well as the gorgeous SF skyline.

I don't know what the three of us were doing here...probably dawdling about looking at the view.

Happy memories of a lovely swim.

And now....back down to earth with a thump, and I'm back in Coventry in a fog of jetlag, with the beginning of term only a month away. But I'm also thinking about what to do over the next year and will start writing more about this over the next few weeks.

Swimming cupcakes

At the very end of my US trip, I popped back to Santa Barbara for a final evening with my friends, Scott and Debbie, and their daughter, Quinn. To say thank you for all their help with the Catalina swim, and their splendid hospitality, I ordered a special batch of swimming cupcakes from the wonderful Crushcakes Cupcakery. We liaised over the phone and by e-mail and I pretty much left them to their own creative imaginations....and look what they came up with!

Particular favourites were the octopus...

And the swimmer...

And they were delicious too.

Friday, 19 August 2011


The day after the B2B swim, I rejoined Leslie Thomas and a group of Swim-Art swimmers to swim from Alcatraz to Aquatic Park. Fantastically, this was the swim that I won in the raffle at the CS&PF dinner last year, and which Leslie had kindly donated, so it was an extra special treat.

The 15 Swim-Art swimmers were joined by 45 triathletes from a local club - they travelled out on a different boat, but we shared the corridor of safety kayaks and ribs that led us into through the entrance to the sheltered waters of Aquatic Park and the beach finish.

The jump-off at the start showed the differences between the two groups - we jumped in in an orderly manner, one at a time, before starting to swim, while the triathletes piled overboard, lemming-like, forming a churning mass of swimmers. But eventually we all straggled out anyway, paddling our way through the very rough conditions, aiming to the left of the cove mouth in order to account for the ebbing tide flowing out under the Golden Gate Bridge. I was quite relaxed for the first half of the swim, enjoying great views of the GG Bridge when I breathed to the right, and the Bay Bridge to my left. But at some point I found myself with a couple of swimmers around me who were obviously racing, and try as I might to ignore them, I ended up joining in and really pushing for the last 15 mins or so. It's not a long swim (about 1.5 miles), but it's iconic and fun.

Interesting fact of the day....according to my guide book, they used to make the prisoners have hot showers so that they would not be acclimatised to cold water and be tempted to swim for it.

And with that, my San Francisco trip comes to an end and it's back to the UK I go.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Bridge to Bridge - San Francisco

I have been having a fantastic time in San Francisco, meeting swimmers, doing lots of interviews, and generally (believe it or not) getting a lot of work done. But then again, all work and no play....So, on Saturday, I did the Bridge to Bridge swim, courtesy of Swim-Art and the wonderful Leslie Thomas. The swim is from the beautiful Golden Gate Bridge to the Bay Bridge - a distance of about 6 miles, but with a strong tidal push to help us along.

After a briefing, we boarded the "Lovely Martha" and motored out to our starting point - the Golden Gate Bridge. It's a stunning edifice, but I have to say, it looked a little bit moody in the early morning fog...

The water was looking a bit angry too, especially around the bridge pilons, and as the flotilla of safety kayakers make their way over to us, it all looked a bit grizzly....but still very exciting.

It was windy and chilly on deck, and I wondered what kind of swim this was going to be...

We were given a 5 minute warning, and readied ourselves to jump off. I was cutting my usual glamorous and elegant figure.

And then it was time to jump...

And then we started swimming - I was paired with Graham, plus the wonderful Suzie Dods in the kayak, and we swam very happily and peacefully along the coastline at a well-matched pace throughout (plus we were later joined by Chelsea, who had outpaced her original group, and we all continued to swim on merrily together). And after about half an hour, joy of joys, the clouds lifted, the water flattened, and we were treated to a beautiful, sharply-defined view of the city.

I've been lucky enough to do a lot of fabulous swims, but this was one of the most exhilerating and enjoyable swims I've ever done - perfect conditions, great views, good swimming companions, and a nice distance - enough to know you've had a good swim, but not so much that you need to lie down in a dark room afterwards. I wanted to stay in forever.

But all too soon we had reached the Bay Bridge, passing through the shadow that it cast on the water, and hearing the rumble of traffic as went swam beneath...and then over to the boat. I retrieved my bottle and waterproof camera from Suzie, sticking the bottle in my mouth so that I could use both hands to shove the camera up the side of my costume before climbing up the ladder. Thanks to whoever it was on the boat who captured my triumphant (and once again, elegant) finish!

The mood on the boat was wonderful - lots of excited talk and awash with the satisfaction of a good morning's swimming in perfect conditions. All in all, an excellent day. Many thanks to Swim-Art for running such an excellent swim - I'd recommend them to anyone who fancies a dip in San Francisco Bay. And special thanks to Suzie Dods who kept us safe from the kayak.

We were lucky enough to have Karen Drinkwater, a professional photographer, on board, who took some beautiful photographs of the day. She took all of the photos shown here, except for the shot of me with the bottle in my mouth, and the picture of the kayakers in the fog. (I pilfered these off the Swim-Art Facebook page and don't know who the photographer is, but will happily credit them if they get in touch). Thanks for the beautiful pictures, Karen.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Goodbye La Jolla, Hello San Francisco

Yesterday, I finally had to prize myself away from gorgeous La Jolla and headed north to San Francisco to start the next (and final) phase of my trip. I felt a bit overwhelmed and confused by SF at first, but spent a productive few hours today walking around and getting my bearings. My key discoveries are that (a) the city is highly walkable in size, which is good news, given the somewhat congested nature of the public transport system....this is tourist season, after all; but (b) that San Francisco is really hilly. My legs don't know what has hit them after a day of tromping around the streets.

But the highlight of the day was meeting up with Suzie Dods for my first introduction to the Dolphin Club at Aquatic Park - a splendid wooden structure which is home to a boathouse, club rooms, and impressive changing facilities .... including a sauna! Anyone, like me, who has spent their summer weekends on the beach in Dover, shivering in the wind and trying to hold on to a towel (and a final scrap of modesty) whilst changing before rushing off to a car / cafe to warm up with a faint moustache of silt still clinging to your top lip will understand just how luxurious this sounds. And it is utterly spendid! These people really do swimming well.

We went for a shortish swim (just under a mile, I think), pausing at the mouth of the harbour mouth. Suddenly clear of the pier, right in front of me was Alcatraz, and off to the left, the Bridge, looking amazing in the late afternoon sunshine through the mist, hills in the background. I couldn't help but think how lucky I am to have had the chance to visit all these amazing swimming spots, and meet all of these fabulous, water-loving swimmers. Life is good.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Catalina Channel swim video

I've put together some bits of video and some stills from my Catalina Channel swim. Enjoy.

Swimming with the seals...

I went for another lovely swim today, this time with a group of regular morning swimmers. We did a gentle mile or so, pausing at the buoys to enjoy the scenary and to let any stragglers catch up. A gloriously social swim, punctuated by various wildlife sightings - first, a bat ray, gliding smoothly below us, and then, a playful harbour seal. It "bumped" a couple of swimmers, then frolicked quite happily around us. I put my head under to watch, and found myself face to face with it and couldn't help but laugh. As we swam back towards the beach, it was tailing me, nudging my feet.

Later on, I wandered along the sea front, looking at the piles of seals lazily sleeping on the rocks, stopping to take some pictures. Cute, cute, cute.

After the morning swim, I went for something to eat with a very long-standing member of the La Jolla Cove swimming community, Bob West, who gave me this beautiful, hand-made Gariboldi fish to hang in my car. Gorgeous, and it will make the perfect addition to Bob when I get home.

Everyone's been incredibly kind and hospitable, plus I've got several research interviews set up already, so it's all going really well.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Let's swim over to where the sharks are....

"Let's swim over to where the sharks are". This isn't a sentence that I ever thought I would be pleased to hear, especially while in the water, but by the time Anne Cleveland uttered it during my first dip in La Jolla Cove, I was feeling positively blase about the whole wildlife thing - after all, you have to trust local knowledge about what's safe and what's not...and how often do you get to see a nursery of (perfectly harmless, but still very sharky-looking) leopard sharks? We swam in to the shallows where they are known to hang out, and I was still trying to get my head around the warning not to put my feet down because there were stingrays on the sea floor when the figure of a leopard shark, probably about 4-5 ft long, drifted lazily along the sea floor below me. I have to confess that I felt a momentary jolt of fear when I saw it - I am of the generation for whom "Jaws" was the primary reference point for ocean swimming in the US after all - but it was also incredibly beautiful, and I suddenly found myself scouring around hoping to see more. Who would have thought it?

We then finished our swim by heading through some caves and arches, passing between two stone platforms, each with a slick pile of sea lions on them, barking and craning their necks upwards, trying to look impressive and intimidating to their competitors. Below the surface, bright gold gariboldi fish, about the size of a hand, bobbed about lazily among the weeds and rocks, along with a host of other less strikingly coloured, but equally numerous fish.

I am starting to see now why the local swimmers don't have that fear of aggressive wildlife that I arrived with - they know about the possibility, of course, but their everyday experience is of this fairly benign aquatic menagerie. For me, it was a revelation to be able to be around sea life without feeling afraid (albeit accompanied by knowledgeable and confident locals). An amazing swim.

Catalina Channel - Part II

And so...after a difficult few early morning hours, everything got better and I started to feel much more like my old self in the water. The feeds started to slip down more easily....

And the water flattened out beautifully, enabling me to swim peacefully alongside my two hardworking kayakers, Beth....

And Scott....

During Scott's kayak stint, I suddenly noticed that everyone was lined up along the side of the boat looking out to sea. Before the swim, I had asked everyone not to stand and point if they saw wildlife because I would be worried about what was heading my way. Instead, I asked them just to give me a thumbs up to let me know that it wasn't anything scary, and then to enjoy. Anyway, they were all amazing and once I'd got the okay signal from Scott, I felt absolutely fine about it as they discretely snapped away. I assumed that it was dolphins, but no...a blue whale. A BLUE WHALE!! It was a brief visit, and this is the best picture that we've got of it - the black stripe on the picture is its back arcing through the water. I know it's not a great image, but trust's a blue whale! How amazing is that. (I didn't see it, and to be honest, I'm glad that I didn't as I was happier not thinking too much about the wildlife....but I'm so glad it came to join us).

And then, gradually, the coast came into sight and now feeling happy and strong, I upped my stroke rate a little to speed things along (from 58 in the first half of the swim, rising to 65 towards the end). I gave in to temptation and took a couple of naughty peeks at the coastline, and at one point protested to the crew that the land mass seemed to be reversing. But in spite of this, we gradually crept closer and closer to it, until I felt the distinctly colder waters of the coastline. In previous years, this has been in the 50's, but I was lucky, and it was only about 62 degrees, which I was more than comfortable I knew that it meant that I was getting close.

And suddenly, there was a flurry of activity on the boat as the swimmers on the boat (Ranie, Scott and Jen) got ready to swim in with me. Then I heard them swimming up behind me, and I felt a rush of elation as I knew that I had made it.

After a few more minutes, I could see the rocks below me, and then I was pulling myself over them into the shallows. I had made it....except for the final challenge of getting out and clear of the water. I managed this with an inelegant combination of crawling and staggering...

Until finally....I was there!

I could hear everyone cheering and clapping, andI was almost in tears with relief that, in spite of the difficult start, I had made it. And then I turned round to see this...

Completely unbeknown to me, Scott, Debbie and Quinn (who I'd been staying with) had been cooking up a surprise for me, and while Scott was on the boat with me, Debbie and Quinn drove down to San Pedro and were waiting on the beach with this beautiful banner (having recruited a passing stranger (the woman on the right) to help hold it up while Deb took photos). I couldn't believe it when I saw them - what a perfect surprise.

I plonked myself down on a rock and just took it all in - the beautiful cove, new and old friends all enjoying the moment with me, bright blue sky. Perfect.

And so it was done - I swam the Catalina Channel in 14 hours and 11 minutes. A good day on the water.

As with all long swims, the swimmer's name goes on the list, but behind them stand a whole host of people without whom the whole venture would be impossible. It was an amazing team effort, and I am enormously grateful to the many people who made it all happen:

  • Scott, Debbie and Quinn, who provided boundless hospitality, logistical and material support, and the most beautiful swim crate and congratulations banner any swimmer could hope for.

  • Ranie Pearce, Jen Schumacher and Denise Devereaux who, along with Scott, were my fantastic support crew on the boat. What a team.

  • Beth Barnes, who kayaked for hours.

  • The two official CCSF observers, Rob and Don, both of whom were enormously helpful and supportive throughout.

  • The captains and crew of Outrider, who got us all there safely.

  • All my training companions in Dover, Jersey and the Midlands, plus, of course, Freda Streeter and the whole beach crew down in Dover.

  • And Peter, who sadly wasn't able to come out for the swim, but who has been endlessly supportive and enthusiastic about this project and who I know was watching from afar.

Thanks for a great day everyone.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Catalina Channel - Part I

Well....believe it or not, I made it. On Wednesday 20th July, I swam the Catalina Channel in 14 hours and 11 minutes. As usual for me, it's a bit slower than the average crossing time, but I got across, and that's what matters.

Like my English Channel swim, this was very much a swim of two parts. However, while my Channel swim had a good start and a difficult finish, this was very much the reverse. And the reason for this... more problems with boats and seasickness. Anyone who reads this blog regular will know that I am rubbish on boats, and that all the drugs and wrist bands in the world can't fend off the inevitable. And so it was with this swim, which unfortunately began with a three hour boat ride through rolling waves over to Catalina Island. The rocking and dipping of the boat, combined with midnight tiredness left me overwhelmed with waves of nausea, even after the boat had pulled into Doctor's Cove - the starting point for our swim. I felt dreadful as I got ready, and if it hadn't involved a three hour boat ride, I could quite happily have called it a day right there and gone back to the mainland and to bed. But I had lots of help getting myself prepared, and could only hope that it would pass once I was in the water.

At least the concentration required to control the seasickness took my mind off my barely contained fears about sharks in the water - in fact, I hardly thought about it at all until, right before I jumped in, something lept out of the water and then splashed back below the surface, right in front of me. I asked what it was, and Don, one of the official observers, told me it was a seal, but then, seeing that that didn't make me feel much better, said that it was probably a flying fish, and I decided to settle on that as appropriately harmless. (In fact, I later learned that it was a seal chasing a flying fish, and that, having caught it, the seal actually tailed me for quite a way). And then I found myself standing on the edge of the deck, preparing to jump in to the inky black midnight water. I still felt seasick, but this was now combined with a momentary surge of fear at jumping in. The backs of my hands and neck prickled with tension and there was a long, quiet pause, which I eventually broke with a quick, quiet count to three and IN. I let myself go straight down deep before surfacing, enjoying the familiar feeling of being in the water. I was pleased to feel how warm it was (about 68 degrees), and suddenly felt much calmer and more confident, able to focus now on the immediate task of swimming in to the beach, guided by my kayaker, Beth Barnes, and with the cheers of my crew ringing in the background. I ducked under a buoy line and then staggered ineptly up the rocky beach, clear of the water. I waited for the signal, then hobbled back into the water....but not before toppling over gracelessly, whacking my side in the process. From my prostrate position, I slithered into the water, all hope of dignity and grace now lost anyway, and swam back alongside Beth to begin the swimming.

However, whereas in the past, being in the water has resolved the seasickness, this time, my innards were too churned up to recover. Soon into the swim, I took a small mouthful of salt water by accident, and that was it...I was soon coughing, heaving and puking prodigiously - a sight / sound which my poor crew had to sit quietly through, offering up the occasional word of encouragement as I puked some more. Not the best start to a swim. Once I'd stopped being sick, I went straight back to swimming, but it was here that I made a series of mistakes. What I should have done is taken some time to get myself together, had a drink of water, and perhaps some mouthwash, and then restarted, gradually building up the strength of the feeds until I was back to normal. But instead, I panicked firstly about the loss of time / rhythm so early in the swim, and secondly about the loss of nutrition. So instead, I pressed straight on in a bit of a flap, determined not to waste any more time. The consequence of this was that when it came to the 1 hour feed, I forced down my regular 300ml of Maxim, eager to refuel after the sickness. However, this did not sit well on an already churning stomach - a problem which was now compounded with a new problem - acid reflux. So, for the next 6 hours, I was burping up most of the feed I was taking in; plus, every feed brought a burning pain in my chest and throat from the acid reflux. It was a tough few hours in quite choppy conditions with a five foot swell in parts, and I was worried that if this problem didn't resolve, I wouldn't get enough energy to complete the swim. But I decided that the only thing to do was to press on, and I chose to ignore the problem instead, including not telling the crew and keeping up as positive a demeanour as I could muster. Sometimes, denial really does work...although for future swims, I will definitely make sure that I've got some antacid on board in my drug box.

So, it wasn't the best start to a swim, and the sickness early on had quite far-reaching effects in terms of my digestive system, and I really feel like it slowed me down quite a bit in those early hours. But nevertheless, it was nothing that couldn't be ridden out, and eventually things started to get better as the water flattened out, the sun came up, and my insides started to settle (helped along by a water-only feed that I should have asked for hours before). At 7.5 hours, I was told that I was over half way, and even though this was a slower time than I had been hoping for, this gave me a huge boost. It was time to put that difficult start to the swim out of my mind once and for all, knuckle down, swim hard and get myself to that beach.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Greetings from California

I'm finally here in California, hanging out with my lovely friends, Scott and Debbie, and their daughter, Quinn for a few days before we head down to LA on Tuesday evening for the swim. I had my first dip in the Pacific yesterday - a gentle hour along a line of buoys, set out for swimmers along a beautiful beach. I have to admit that I found the first half hour a bit challenging - there were long, dark strands of kelp reaching up to the surface and I was having trouble keeping my imagination in check...both when the kelp brshed againts me unexpectedly, and also when the dark shadows they cast under the water caught the corner of my eye. I was swimming with Scott, which really helped, and then he got out and I carried on for another 30 mins, by which time I was feeling much calmer and happier. Lovely.

But the most important bit of news is....look what I got! Waiting for me when I arrived was this swim crate, perfectly decorated by Quinn. How could I fail to get across!

Friday, 8 July 2011

Happiness is...

Happiness is....a bit of banana, a cup of Maxim and some long-awaited sunshine. Thanks to Nick Adams, who took this fun pic of me last weekend looking very pleased with my feed.

Feed-related pleasures aside, it was another successful weekend, with some wonderful, calm and sunny weather. I managed a couple more 6 hour swims....although one of those was split into two because it was the Dover Festival and we had to get out for a bit over lunch time while the lifeboat and rescue helicopter came to do a display. A good weekend.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

That's more like it

That's more like it. After the previous weekend's rubbish couple of days of swimming and generally feeling unwell, I returned to Dover last weekend to have another go at getting some decent distance done. Throughout the week, I'd been consuming super-nutritious foods, guzzling supplements and generally trying to bolster my struggling immune system, and happily, by Friday, I felt full of beans and ready to go. The weather forecast was pretty decent too....the only blot on the weekend's horizon was the large box of bright orange exam script booklets I'd had to bring with me - marking that had to be finished by Monday, and which I picked up from the office en route.

I woke up in the middle of Friday night to the sound of rain hammering on the roof of the van and I have to confess that my heart sank a little, but by the morning, it was a bit grey, dull and blowy, but not too bad. Down on the beach, I signed up for 6 hours, and headed down to the water's edge...not exactly keen, but at least determined. I felt like a different person compared to the previous week, and did the 6 without any real problems at all. Several of the others were doing 8 hours, and I was tempted to stay in, but I decided to err on the side of caution - both because I wasn't sure whether I was fully recovered from whatever bug I had, and also because I knew that I had several hours of marking to do that evening. So, back to the campsite I went, ate, marked until I could barely stay awake, and then slept like a log.

Sunday had been forecast to be an absolute scorcher, but I awoke to thick, thick fog. Like everyone, I expected it to burn off by mid-morning, and as I hobbled my way over the stones into the water, I was excited by the thought of a good, sunny swim, even though you could barely see the harbour walls, and the cliffs were completely shrouded. But it continued to roll, cold and heavy, over the water, making it a rather chilly and monotone swim. But then finally, at about 1pm, the sun finally won through and almost without me noticing, we were left with bright blue sky and lovely warming sunshine. The harbour was almost unrecognisable, compared to the Champion of Champions weekend.

The sea was so flat in the harbour that the swimming was almost boring, and I allowed myself to zone happily out and just enjoy being in the water. Lovely. And once I was out, I was able to enjoy a delicious post-swim ice-cream.

So, that was my weekend - two six hour swims without any real problems, and a good recovery each time. Plus, I got all my marking done, and squeezed in a research interview too. A good weekend.

Many congratulations to Dan Earthquake, Julie Ryan and co for their successful relay crossing on Sunday night, and to Marcy Macdonald, who swam the first successful solo crossing of the season on Sunday...most of in the thick fog. Well done to everyone - fantastic swimming.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Some weekends it's just not to be...

Off to Dover this weekend - my first trip of the year - for the BLDSA Champion of Champions, an annual set of three races (5 miles, 3 miles, 1 mile). This, it has to be said, was not my finest day in the water. I'd been under the weather all week with a stomach bug, plus have been working all hours recently, so felt quite exhausted by the time I arrived at the campsite at the end of what turned out to be a ridiculously slow 7 hour drive (I hate the M25). Not the best start.

Anyway, with forecasts of winds up to 40mph by lunchtime, we all pitched up ready to go first thing. There was a bit of a delay while the organisers adjusted the course to better accommodate the conditions (making a long, thin half-mile triangle course that gave us more shelter from the pier wall, rather than the usual 1 mile square), and we were finally ready to be counted into the water, instructed to do 10 laps. I felt fine for the first few laps, although not exactly full of beans, but as the swim progressed, I started to find it pretty hard going. This was partly the conditions - quite lumpy water, moving around all over the place - but partly just me being a bit out of sorts, I think. And then, as I finished my fifth lap, I looked at my watch - 1.39!! At my usual pace, I would have expected to be on around 1.20, so either I was being horrendously slow, or the course was long (which most people later agreed it was - probably 6+ miles in total). Anyway, I found this a bit soul-destroying, not least because it meant that the whole thing would take me about 3.20 to finish, which for me, is quite a long time to swim without nutrition. And then, to distract me, along came some of the most spectacular weather I've ever experienced in the water - a 10 minute hail storm that was so relentless that it flattened the water, and causing a band of white spray to rise off the water from the force of the hailstones. It looked absolutely extraordinary, and I couldn't help but just stop and look around me in wonder (also sparing a thought for the poor kayakers).

Anyway, I eventually floundered my way up to the finish boat in 3.17 and swam back in to shore, feeling pretty grotty but okay. I changed and then took myself off the van to refuel with a protein shake, soup and a bagel, but was struggling to find the energy to face the second swim. So, I have to admit to being slightly relieved when I heard the news that the 3 miles had been cancelled and that they were moving straight on to the 1 mile. This went off without a hitch, although I only managed to muster a rather mediocre 31.49. So, overall, I completed the event in about 3.49, coming 12th out of the 15 women who completed both events - not great, but I was pleased that I'd managed to finish.

Many thanks to the organisers of the event, and to the many volunteers who provided kayak and other safety boat support in some pretty gruesome weather. Thank you for keeping us safe and allowing the event to go ahead, even in such difficult conditions.

I went back to the campsite and decided to make the most of the evening to refuel, rest and get myself sorted for my planned 6 hour swim the following day, and happily, I woke up feeling quite refreshed after a good night's sleep and headed down to the beach full of optimism. However, it was not to be. I started to get a headache quite soon after starting, and pretty soon, my head was thumping. I decided to ask for ibuprofen at the 2 hour feed, but into the second hour, I starting to be hit by bouts of horrible dizziness where everything would spin about for a few minutes before settling down again. I'd had some problems with this the day before, but only when I got out of the water, so thought it was just the shift from horizontal to vertical. But it just got worse and worse, and in the end, I decided that even if I felt able to stay in (which I didn't) it probably wasn't safe to do so. I bumped into Thomas by the harbour wall and asked him to swim back with me to the beach (thanks for that, Thomas!), and got out. To be honest, I was relieved to be out of the water, but part of me felt gutted at not completing a swim so close to Catalina. I felt sorry for myself for a bit, but then went up to the campsite and ate and had a shower, then went back down to the beach to chat, help out with feeds and watch the others complete their swims - always inspiring, and especially since the wind was back up and the sea was looking pretty angry for the last couple of hours. And on a positive note, getting out early was also a really nice chance to catch up with old friends I haven't seen for ages, and to meet some new ones.

So, not my finest weekend of swimming, but just one of those things. I was worried that it's because I've not done as much training recently as I would like, but realistically, I think I'm just not 100% at the moment and wasn't up to it on the day. So now I'm concentrating on getting myself fit and healthy ready for next weekend, when I'll go back and get those 6 hour swims done - good training, plus it will hopefully restore my confidence for Catalina.

Well done to everyone in their swims this weekend - and let's keep everything crossed for some decent weather very soon (not least because the first swims of the season are due to go this week!).