Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Moving on...

This isn't really about swimming...although with only 5 weeks to go before I fly to New York for MIMS, and about 10 weeks before my Channel swim, pretty much everything is about swimming anyway.

But the big news is that I am going to be leaving my current job at Warwick University at the end of the summer to take up an exciting new post in the School of Sociology and Social Policy at Leeds University. There are many reasons for making this move now, both professionally and personally, but the most immediate positive is that Peter and I can finally look forward to abandoning our two-city working lives and consolidate our efforts into a more coherent life together. After 8 years of commuting between jobs, houses and cities, it's almost too good to be true for us both to have great jobs in the same city and institution.

And inevitably, this too is about the swimming, and I'm not ashamed to say that in my 'shall I / shan't I?' deliberations about whether to go for the job, 'will I be able to swim?' was one of the many factors we considered. And of course, the answer is a resounding yes... but also a (qualified) no. There is a reassuring plethora of lakes, rivers and pools with which to feed my habit, plus a robust community of swimmers to train with. So while this doesn't really resolve the problem of being a sea swimmer who lives nowhere near the sea, there are plenty of beautiful places to get my swimming fix. The qualified no is really about time and priorities - moving houses and jobs is disruptive and time-consuming, and while it's definitely a case of long-term gains all round, the reality of the next couple of years is that I need to focus on getting settled in my new job... plus the swimming book is still more unwritten than written. So, less time swimming, and more time writing about swimming.

So, I'm not going to stop swimming - how could I? - but after the Channel swim this summer, I'm retiring from the long swims for a while to focus on other important bits of my life.

And none of this changes the (slightly terrified) excitement of the next few months of long swimming. The lakes round here are opening, the weather's finally warming up and I'm ready to give it my all.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Facing up to cold...

I have to confess that in spite of being determined to move on from my unsuccessful Cabrera Channel swim, I've been struggling a bit with it. I can sometimes have a slightly unhelpful response to both success and failure - unchecked, success feels like I've 'got away with it', and failure can feel like I've been 'found out'. It's a very unproductive, all-or-nothing view that I try to step outside of, but which creeps in occasionally. But some quiet thinking about this, some advice from a sports psychologist, plus time and perspective, mean that I've been feeling much better and am now positively focused on MIMS.

But I also realised that I was experiencing a new 'fear' of the cold...or perhaps, fear of getting very cold in the wake of my run-in with hypothermia in Mallorca. The speed and potency of the cold on the Cabrera swim really took me by surprise, and I have found myself starting to bargain with the cold  - 'if it's over X degrees in the Channel, I'll be fine'; 'I can't swim MIMS unless it's Y degrees...' This is no good. When I was training for the Channel last time, I very deliberately avoided any talk of the 'If I had a good day, I could....' variety. You get what you get, and whether you make it or not, it doesn't help to be setting the conditions for failure in advance.

So, rather than let this newly gestating fear of cold take root, I decided that I needed to nip it in the bud by getting properly (but safely) shiveringly cold. So, off to Lake 32 I trundled this morning. It's a long drive from Coventry (about 90 mins), but it's the nearest swimming spot to me that is open this weekend, so off I went. I have to admit to having some doubts when I had to pause before setting off to let the ice on the windscreen defrost, and the Met Office weather forecast for morning air temps of 4 degrees (down to 1 degree in the wind) didn't fill me with enthusiasm. But if nothing else, I could be sure that my goal for the day - to get really cold - would be achieved.

Out of the wind at the entry point, the water really didn't feel too bad, and off I paddled. Out of the shelter of the trees, however, I could feel the biting wind slewing across my back and shoulders and the water started to feel far icier than the 11-12 degrees recorded last week. I kept swimming, enjoying the crisp, clear water - still too cold for the weeds to have sprouted from the lake bed. Stupidly, I realised I'd left my rings on, but rather than going back and taking them off, I paused to take them off and thread them on to my watch strap -  a dexterous feat with stiff, clawed fingers. And on I swam, although the buoys on the lake seem to have proliferated over the winter and the official 750m circuit escaped me. I settled instead for a 1km loop achieved just by swimming towards the next orange thing and seeing where that took me. After my first lap, I felt like my body temp had settled; my skin felt like it was burning with cold, but unlike in Cabrera, where the cold got into my very core and seemed to be eating its way to the body's surface, the cold was moving from the outside, slowly spreading, but in slow, incremental nibbles from the surface, rather than gnawing away from the inside. Before Cabrera, this is what I understood as being cold in the water; it can be uncomfortable, and even painful, and you have to keep an eye on it, but it's okay. I still don't really understand why I got so centrally cold in Mallorca - probably because I was cold for much longer - but it felt great to supersede that memory, that fear, with this much more familiar, manageable cold, nibbling from the outside in, rather than the inside out.

I got out after an hour, chilled but satisfied, and got changed in the van, followed by a splendid display of some of my very best shivering and comedy coffee-drinking before retreating with pals Neil and Steph to the cafe for a delicious breakfast. Perfect.

It's hard not to let that memory of being so scarily cold and impaired in Mallorca dominate when I think about the cold and particularly for the next month of hard, but inevitably quite chilly, training, but perversely, having got properly, but safely, cold today has made me feel so much better about diving in to the OW training without getting knotted up in those fears.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

When the wheels come off...

Sooner or later in a sport like marathon swimming, something will go wrong and you won't be able to finish a swim. It's an occupational hazard. Even with the hardest and most meticulous training, this can happen; but with an early season swim in unseasonably low temperatures, the risks are increased. And so it was that my attempt to swim the Cabrera Channel on 10 April ended with me being hauled out mid-Channel, too cold to continue.

We set off from the port of Sa Rapita at 7am and motored over to the beautiful island of Cabrera - a closely protected nature reserve to the south of Mallorca. The journey was thankfully quick (bearing in mind my uselessness on boats), and after a few moments to settle my stomach, we started getting ready for the swim. I felt great - full of energy and optimism. The water in the sheltered bay was glassy and clear, and even though a thick mist hung low on the water, I was looking forward to some warming sunshine later on. Jumping in, I felt the usual rush of adrenalin - the mild shock of the water, plus the excitement of the swim to come. And off I paddled, feeling good, with the team from XTRM of Toni, Rafael and Laura on board the boat, along with Peter.

It's difficult for me to pin down exactly what happened in the hours that followed, but although the boat's thermometer was showing 15 degrees, it felt SO much colder - perhaps as a result of my lack of acclimatisation beforehand, or the weight I have lost over the winter, or windchill, or the sapping effects of the cool mist that hung low over the water for the first few hours of the swim. Or perhaps it was just cold. By hour two, I was heart-sinkingly cold; chilled right through to the core. And I just couldn't stop thinking about it. It was like being eaten by cold from the inside and my positive mood was being eroded with it.

Out of the shelter of the island, I started to have trouble staying with the boat. The winds were making it difficult for the boat (or me?) to keep a steady course, and even after a cycle of just 6 strokes, I would look up to sight the boat to find a large gap had opened up between us. As a result, I ended up making some eccentric loops in my efforts to get back to the boat, probably adding considerable distance. This explains in part my shockingly slow progress on the swim, averaging just a couple of km per hour (as the crow flies, but probably not as I swam), as well as my rather erratic pace - sometimes under 2km / hour, and at others, closer to the 3km/hour I was anticipating (and which I certainly do consistently in pool training).

The crew were fantastic - working hard to keep me and the boat together and on course, and offering relentless positivity on feeds. But in the water, by hour 5, the wheels were well and truly coming off. I knew I had to try and stop dwelling on the cold, and at each feed, tried to convince myself that I was just having a bad patch and that a feed would sort me out. But I think it was just too late - the cold had well and truly got me, and at the feeds, my hands were shaking with cold, and it was hard to swallow the liquid down. Even the big green jelly baby couldn't save me. I hacked on as best I could, but the crew were looking worried now too. Peter asked a couple of questions to check my mental state, and I was fine the first couple of times, but at 6.5 hours, he asked the name of our cat and I just stared back at him as I was being pulled further and further away from the boat (or the boat from me....I don't know which). It was such an odd moment - I knew exactly what he was asking, but couldn't quite formulate an answer. I wanted to tell him that I was busy and would answer in a minute. And then Peter made the hard, but utterly right, decision to pull the swim. If I'd been close to finishing, I think I would have fought to stay in (and perhaps they would have let me push on a bit more), but with probably another 5 hours to go, sea conditions worsening considerably, and with me succumbing progressively to the cold, there was no way I was going to make it.

I paddled round to the back of the boat, struggling to negotiate the rungs of the ladder in the bouncing sea. Then suddenly, hands grabbed hold and I was hauled swiftly out. Too cold and confused to participate actively, I was wrapped in layer upon layer of blankets and clothes; my cap and goggles were slipped off and replaced with my woollen hat; unable to find my socks quickly enough, Laura sacrificed her own and flurry of hands wrestled my numb feet into them. So there I was, bundled up in an eccentric heap of blankets and clothes, being tightly hugged by Peter and Toni as I began to shiver my way slowly back to warmth and the boat bounded its way back over the increasingly agitated waves back to Sa Rapita. 

One of life's odder moments, and certainly not what I'd been hoping for when I jumped in to the water that morning.   


The next day, I felt sore and a bit drained, but okay and none the worse for wear apart from a slight niggle from the back injury I picked up a few weeks ago, but which eased off with a few days of stretching. But I did find myself, rather self-indulgently, churning over and over what had happened, second-guessing everything I had done, and speculating about what I could / should have done differently. I felt a little embarrassed by how badly and quickly it had all gone wrong after so many people had put in so much effort to make it happen, and I was also quite shocked at having suffered so badly from the cold, since this has really never been a problem for me before. 

But after a few days of pottering around in the sunshine, I was able to get a better perspective on the whole thing. The core problem was the timing of it - I didn't go to Mallorca specifically to do the swim so early in the season, but did the swim because I was going to be on holiday in Mallorca that week. I think that it would have been a very different experience later in the season....or even if the spring weather hadn't been so poor. As it happens, the air temps in Mallorca shot up 5-6 degrees by the end of the week, and the forecast for next week is hot, sunny and calm. Such is life and this was the gamble I chose to take. The second aspect of the timing is that it limited my own preparations, not only because it meant that I wasn't able to get any substantial open water training before the swim, but also because of the unanticipated difficulties I've had this year balancing work obligations and training. Consequently, while training should really be about preparing for when things go wrong, my preparation was such that I was only really sufficiently prepared if things went right. Again, this was the risk I chose to take and I gave it my very best shot but it wasn't enough.

So to think about it more positively: It was a great training swim for what's coming next (thanks to Kevin Murphy for reminding me of that). I also got to meet some fantastic people (Toni, Rafael and Laura) - the failure of the swim is all on me; they were superb, both when it was all going well, but perhaps more importantly, when it all went wrong. I also think that there is some value in having had that experience with the cold. Bodily, it is a quite extraordinary thing to experience and adds another dimension to some of the things I've been writing about in the book about my own experience of swimming. And it's also a good learning point - a chance to think about developing new strategies for intervening early in situations like that to try and stop the cold getting such a tight grip. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, Mallorca is beautiful, and even an unsuccessful swim is an amazing adventure. 

Many thanks to Peter, Toni, Rafael and Laura - I'm sorry that it didn't work out as we'd hoped, but hopefully I'll be able to come back and have another crack at it...preferably when it's warmer!

Onwards now to Manhattan in June.