Saturday, 30 June 2012

Exuberant leaping...

Last year, I watched a documentary called The Big Celebrity Swim  (no longer available) about a relay swim across the Irish Channel organised by Richard Branson. The team involved a group of celebrities of varying degrees of starriness, and with varying degrees of swimming ability and experience, and a back-up team of top-notch marathon swimmers. Perhaps understandably, the documentary focused on the fears and struggles of the celebrities, showing only the occasional glimpse of the marathon swimmers. But one of the marked differences between the two groups was the (non)exuberance of their entry into the water. The celebrities lowered themselves nervously down over the sides of the rib, but the experienced swimmers could be seen hurling themselves exuberantly into the air before splashing, arms and legs splayed playfully, into the water. Of course, this is a product of experience and comfort with the surroundings, but I have often thought since then that rather than the endless (and for me, deeply tedious) debates about wetsuits and non-wetsuits, and who the 'real' swimmers are, this should be the test - given the opportunity to jump into deep water from a platform, with how much vigorous abandon is this performed?

I was reminded of this recently as I've been following the 8 Bridges Swim in New York, organised by Dave Barra - 120 miles down the Hudson River in 7 day-long stages. I've been compulsively following their Facebook posts, videos and pics (vicarious swimming is my second favourite sport), and all of the swimmers, by the 'vigorous abandon' jumping in test, score extremely highly. Take, for example, this excellent example of Dave Barra in 2011 during the inaugural 8 Bridges Swim:

Or this very exuberant leap during this year's event by (I think) Rondi Davies:

 But from the pics that have been posted so far, the queen of exuberant launches has to be Gracie van der Byl, who I was also lucky enough to meet in La Jolla last year, and who can leap and plunge with the best of well as being an amazing swimmer who is attempting to complete ALL of the stages.

Special marks for this dive bomb from the judges...

Well done to everyone swimming the 8 Bridges and to all those organising the swims - it looks fabulous. Now, if you could just organise it out of UK university term times...  

And as for me, well...I like to think that there's a certain amount of exuberance to be seen here in my leap into the water for the beginning of the Bridge to Bridge swim in San Francisco last year.

Happy leaping!

Sunday, 24 June 2012

And they're off...kind of...

Well, the Channel swimming season is going to kick off hopefully in the next couple of days, so good luck to everyone planning to get wet this summer. As a little pre-Channel season taster, we were treated this weekend to the excitement that is the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, which included a number of swimming friends, plus a host of 'names' who I've never had the privilege to meet, but whose reputation precedes them. It was, by all accounts, one hell of a day out on the water, with lots of lumps and bumps to deal with. Special congratulations go to the overall winner, 22 year old Abby Nunn, but massive plaudits all round. There was some fantastic swimming, resulting in a 100% completion rate. You can see the final results here.

Elsewhere, this was also the weekend for the Great North Swim, one of the biggest (the biggest?) mass participation swimming events in the world, involving thousands of people completing 1 or 2 miles swims in Lake Windermere. The Great Swims have been absolutely central to the rise of open water swimming in this country, offering an exciting, safe and well-run challenge in a beautiful location. But sadly, the weather had other ideas. As those in the UK don't need to be told, the weather here has been appalling for weeks, with howling gales, driving rain and plummeting temperatures. And so, as the GNS weekend arrived, so did some of the worst conditions the region has seen, with a month's worth of rain falling in a single day in some places, causing flooding and general misery. In response, the GNS team eventually had to concede and the races for Friday and Saturday both had to be cancelled, although today's events (Sunday) are going ahead as I type. I read a few fairly snotty responses online to the cancellations, but most took it on the chin for what it was - bad luck. While those conditions may have been okay for some of the more experienced swimmers, for many GNS swimmers, the mile swim takes them to the edge of their capabilities; the difficult conditions, then, constituted a significant safety risk...not least because of the problems of providing effective safety kayak cover in high winds. So, while it is deeply disappointing for everyone who trained for it (and worked to prepare delivering the event itself), safety always has to come first. Bad luck everyone...but it'll be there another day.

So, the season is up and running, albeit in a somewhat disrupted and stormy way. I know several relay teams and a couple of solos who are hoping to get across the Channel next week, and am thinking calm thoughts for the weather for all of them. Happy swimming everyone.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Some days are better than others...

Sometimes, it's just not your day. Unfortunately, I had to abandon my plans to go down to Dover this weekend for the Champion of Champions - when it's really windy, the van can only go at 45-50mph, making it a ridiculously long drive. Plus, I was stuck beneath a pile of marking that never shrank, so I decided to stay home instead and keep working. So...I went to Swan Pool this morning, hoping for a nice solid swim after a pretty intense and stress-filled week at work....En route, something in the van started flashing that shouldn't be flashing, and the temperature gauge was through the roof, but I made it there in one piece and decided to swim before sorting it out. So in I went, and felt fine at first, but then by the second 700m lap, I started to get REALLY cold. I tried swimming harder, but kept getting colder and colder - not in my hands and feet so much as in my core. By lap 4, I was getting the shivers in my torso, and I noticed on lap 5 that my stroke was really slowing down and decided to err on the side of caution and call it a day. After all the rain we've had, and the greyness of the day, it was definitely a bit on the chilly side, but I've swum much further in colder water than that, and it really did go straight to my core, rather than nibbling in from the peripheries, like it normally does. So, I don't know what was going on there....lack of acclimatisation resulting from my more inconsistent training this year? Sleep deficit? Stress? Hormones? Too distracted?

Then I had to sort out the van - Jeremy (who works with the safety team down at SP) had a look at it, thought at first that it just needed some water adding, but then reached in and pulled out this shredded belt from the engine innards. Now, I don't know much about cars, but even I knew that this probably wasn't good. But happily, this is why we pay all that money to the nice people at Direct Line, and they sent someone with a tow-truck to take me and my poor, debilitated van home.

So, both Bob the Campervan and I are clearly getting past our best.

Oh well...some days are just better than others. But to take a glass-half-full perspective on the morning, had I driven the 200+ miles to Dover this weekend, this would probably have happened on the motorway on the way home, which would have been an altogether different degree of not fun. Here's hoping for better next week.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Research update

Following on from my previous post - a swimming update - I thought I should also offer an update on my research project, which is sadly inching towards a close but which I know many people who visit this website have participated in. I completed the fieldwork in September 2011, and since then, have been analysing all of the data and starting the writing process. So far, I've had one article (on swimming and pleasure) accepted for publication by the academic journal Feminist Review, and a second paper, this time on swimming and body fat, is currently under review by the journal Body & Society. The Feminist Review paper should be out later this year, although copyright restrictions will mean that I can't make it publicly available here or on the research blog immediately; I will do my best to get copies to people who request them however until they can be made openly accessible (welcome to the world of academic publishing and the problems of open access materials!). On top of this, I'm writing a further paper on marathon swimming and identity, and then after that, I'm going to get started on the book. At the moment, I'm struggling to think of a decent title, so all suggestions welcome; at the moment, I keep referring to it as 'my swimming book', which I don't think will quite do the job.

I've also started giving some presentations of the research - again mostly in academic contexts for now, but I'm hoping to expand this to non-academic audiences over the next year. This includes 3 conference papers in the next month - one on swimming and food, on on swimming and body fat, and a third on swimming for charity. Podcasts of all of these will be posted on the research website (as well as being announced here). Most recently, I gave a paper at an event organised by the Centre for the Study of Women and Gender  on the topic of 'Gender and Sport'. The event included papers on 'walking out' programmes, parkour, sport in development programmes, and, of course, marathon swimming. If you would like to watch the talks, video podcasts are available on the event website, and I've also added the link to my talk to my research website. Scroll down the page to the section on 'presentations' and click on the title 'Man up!: marathon swimming and the gendered body'. When the page opens, select 'default lite' and open the player - this should take you to the video, including insets of the slides. I hope you find it interesting. It's all still a work in progress, but talks like this are a great chance to try out ideas and get feedback and questions.

The aspect of the research where I've made the least progress so far is in the presentation of the findings to people outside of academia. This is primarily because the publication demands of academic life, and of research funding, mean that it's necessary to prioritise academic publication in the first instance. However, I am also very keen to find as many different ways as possible to share the results of the research more widely and in a variety of ways outside of the conventional academic language and formats of my working environment. In the first instance, this will be done on the website via an electronic magazine-style publication, and through a series of 'Channel stories' - carefully edited start to finish accounts of training to swim the Channel that bring out key aspects of the research. I'm also going to be preparing policy papers to circulate to key policy-makers in the fields of swimming, sport more generally, and health, and am hoping to identify further speaking opportunities to interested non-academic audiences - I would welcome any suggestions you might have for this.

And last but not least, I'm organising an end-of-project one-day seminar on 11 September, 2012, provisionally titled 'Extreme / Endurance Sport' until I can think of something better - it will include research on running (fell, marathon, ultra), climbing and swimming....including two artists working on representing marathon swimming visually, and a fantastic film about marathon running. It would be great to have a wide range of people attending, so please get in touch if you would like to come.

I think that's everything for now. The project has been an enormous amount of fun to do - and not just because it meant that I got to go swimming A LOT in some amazing locations. If you're interested in the research, please take some time to browse through the research website  - if you have any suggestions for what you would like to see up there, or what's been most interesting / helpful, I'd love to hear from you.

And to all those who are gearing up for big swims this season, very best of luck. Writing up the research is fun, but I don't think anything will ever match the excitement of my Channel swim. Good luck - I'm looking forward to spending hours and hours watching trackers inching their way to France.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Training update - the pleasures of taking it easy

I think it would be fair to say that The Long Swim has been taking things fairly easy. The crew down in Dover knocked out their first brace of 6 hour swim this weekend, but I settled for two 6km swims instead - both at Lake 32 at the Cotswolds Water Park. This is a new venue for me this year (following our move to Bath, where we live for part of the time), and it's working out really well. The water's pretty shallow, so I imagine it'll become soupy-warm as soon as the sun comes out (remember the sun?), but for now, and especially following all the rain, it's a perfect temp and I've been enjoying my laps.

There is something extremely civilised about swimming for just a couple of hours a day, 5-6 times a week. It's enough to give me an appetite, ensure a sound night's sleep and generally leave me feeling fit and strong, but without wiping me out. And I have to say that although the Dover trips were always fun, and great training, I really don't miss the 5 hours each way on the motorway. So, the upshot is that although in distance swimming terms, I am a shadow of my former self, in every other way, this works really well for me and certainly gives me pause for thought about whether or not to do another big swim. (Although, having said that, I know that once I'm in training for a big swim, I really get into it, so I'm not writing that off yet).

But apart from the reduction in training time / distance this year, the biggest change has been that I have been working on swimming at a higher effort level. I know that I can plod away, but while I'll never be the speediest of swimmers, I"m trying to put some steady effort in (whilst holding on to my slightly improved stroke technique and efficiency). This is a work in progress, and I still don't have as much fitness as I would like, but there are signs of improvement; I've signed up for a couple of 10km swims later this summer to put this to the test. The Finis Hydro Tracker is a perfect, if slightly tyrannical, tool for this project - while I'm swimming, I'm not clock watching, but rather, concentrating on perceived effort and stroke rate / rhythm; then I can evaluate later based on the stats. It's hard not to let the Hydro Tracker become a bit of a slave-master - my heart always sinks if I've clocked a slower pace than I was aiming for. But it's an engaging project that stops me from slipping into two-hour plods that aren't really contributing anything...other than the simple pleasure of being in the water, which is also nothing to be sneezed at.

And next weekend, it's off to Dover for the BLDSA Champion of Champions - 5 mile, 3 mile and then 1 mile races in one day. I think it would be fair to say that I'm approaching this with some trepidation - my first sea swim of the year, a lower temp than I've become accustomed to in the lakes, and a distance far in excess of anything I've managed this year. But given that I've signed up to do the BLDSA Torbay event (8 miles) on July 7th, it's probably about time I ventured into the sea to get a bit of distance in. With luck, I'll get through the day in one piece....

Monday, 4 June 2012

Essential swim kit - new addition

A while back, I wrote a post detailing my cold water kit, and I continue to remain pretty loyal to this collection of kit and clothing. But recently I've made a new and useful addition - a key safe.

For some reason, it's taken me ages to come round to this, even though I know a lot of swimmers (and surfers etc) have been using them for ages. It just felt wrong to attach the key visibly to the outside of the van, but eventually logic prevailed, and I had to accept that either hiding the keys under the flap covering the petrol cap, or wrapping them in my socks in my kit bag (which was then left on the beach or lake side) was not exactly a theft-proof strategy either. It has a solid D-ring which hooks over the tow ring on the back of the van, and then a small space to store a key / credit card, which is locked / opened via a 4-digit combination lock. It's pretty solid, and although I'm sure that it wouldn't deter the most determined and well-equipped car thief, it certainly offers more resistance than the petrol cap.

When it was very cold, I had some trouble operating the combination lock with numb hands, but all in all, a complete success.