Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Why I don't like motivational speaking...

Motivational speaking is a staple of contemporary society, especially in relation to extreme sports and including marathon swimming. In motivational speaking, Individuals who are positioned as having accomplished something laudable are granted a privileged platform from which they are tasked with inspiring and motivating others, both by example and through rhetoric. My problem is not the talks per se - I like a good story as much as the next person and love hearing about interesting adventures and hard-to-imagine lives, as I know others do. But it's the 'motivational' bit that I have trouble with. To offer to motivate people is to suggest that their lack of success or accomplishment in a particular field is down to a lack of motivation and that they have insufficient will and determination to succeed.

The problem with this is that, firstly, it completely overlooks structural constraints that cannot be overcome through the exercise of will and a positive attitude and which may well not be of the individual's making; secondly, and relatedly, it ignores the privileges that underpin the ability to engage in practices and challenges that are often associated with motivational speaking; and thirdly, it presumes a greatness to an act such as swimming a long way, or in very cold water, that I'm not convinced about. In short, I was able to swim the English Channel in part because I am a reasonable swimmer with a penchant for the long, slow plod, but also because I have the time, resources and physical well-being that facilitate my participation in the sport, not to mention a British passport which enables me to traverse international borders freely and for leisure. It is not true that anyone could swim the Channel, for example, if only they put their mind to it; poverty, ill-health, caring responsibilities, uncertain legal status....mind over matter has little to offer in these cases. And in the end,  it's only swimming. It's fun, splendid and I wouldn't ever want to be without it, but I don't think it's grand or heroic; I'm not sure that there are inspiring messages that lie within. It's swimming, in all its self-indulgent glory.

This matters because contemporary politics is governed by the conviction that individuals can and should pull themselves up by their bootstraps and that the welfare state simply encourages torpid, exploitative passivity. In short, a 'never give up' message completely misses the fact that sometimes giving up is exactly the right thing to do in the face of impossible obstacles that are not of your making and not within your remit to resolve. And the message that 'nothing is impossible' is self-evidently untrue. Individualised solutions of resilience and overcoming then obscure the need for social solutions to endemic structural problems. This is why I don't like motivational speaking.

I'm not suggesting, of course, that those engaging in motivational speaking harbour malicious intent or lack a commitment to social justice. Indeed, many are explicitly tied in with exhortations to collective action around environmental and other issues. But I am saying that the conventional rhetorics of motivational speaking, and especially those of mind-over-matter, rely upon a highly individualised model of entrepreneurial selfhood that negates collective responsibility for social inequalities. I think swimmers (and other adventurers) have interesting stories to tell - an insight, perhaps, into a way of being in the world that many would otherwise have no concept of and which is entertaining in its unimaginability. But I think it's important not to overstate the significance of those experiences. It's just swimming, after all, in all its leisurely splendour and wonder.

I'm going to finish this post with the words of Stella Young - a disability activist who died unexpectedly recently. Her Ted talk (one of the core archives of the motivational speaking genre) is the most impressive critique of the notion of 'inspiration' and of mind-over-matter exhortations I've ever heard. Watch it all the way through - it's worth it. Thank you, Stella, for wise words and sharp wit.

Friday, 21 November 2014

8 Bridges....

The pool saga rumbles on, but happily, much more fun things have been happening and  earlier this week I was lucky enough to be accepted onto the 8 Bridges swim. I haven't been sure whether or not to sign up for something so ambitious and I was originally hoping to wait until February to decide once I'd got back to training, but it started to fill up within days of the registration opening, so there was nothing for it but to jump in with both feet. Billed as the world's longest marathon swim, it's a 120 mile 7-stage swim down the Hudson River, starting in the Catskills and finishing at New York harbour's Verrazano Narrows. I'm one of 6 swimmers attempting all 7 stages, along with lots of others doing smaller combinations of stages, so it promises to be a hugely fun and exciting week.

I've had my eye on the 8 Bridges for a couple of years now. Everyone I know who's been on it can't speak highly enough about the swims, the atmosphere and the superb organisation, courtesy of Dave Barra and Rondi Davies - both extraordinary swimmers in their own right. And then there's the leaping. Every year, the swim's Facebook and blog pages fill up with joyous pics of swimmers leaping , hurling themselves off boats with the kind of abandon that you only find among people who love the water. I'm not at all sure that my exuberant leaping skills are anything like up to this standard, but I'm willing to give it a go.

But I'm also drawn to the relentlessness of the challenge; while I've always enjoyed the idea (and reality) of a singular 'big' swim, I love the idea of getting up day after day and doing it all over again. And it's an intriguing training challenge as well as rather intimidating prospect. To be absolutely frank, even with good conditions, favourable winds and all the good luck upon which marathon swimming relies, I'm not convinced that I have all 8 bridges in me. At best, it's at the very edges of my capacities as a swimmer, and if I complete them all, I will have been very lucky indeed. But it's good to try something difficult; if I learned nothing else in 2013 it's that swim failure isn't a disaster, and this time, if I have a bad day and things don't go well, there'll be a chance to muster my resources, recoup and get back out there for more the next day.

So there's heaps of work to be done, and me and the big blue clock have been working hard at getting my fitness back up to the point where I can train consistently and productively. At the moment, I'm doing just an hour a day in the EP mixing up technique work, threshold sessions and longer, steady sets to build endurance, but will start inching that upwards as my fitness returns. If nothing else, you have to love the irony of training for my longest swim to date by going absolutely nowhere for hours. I don't know yet what the limits of the EP are in terms of training and at what point (if any) you simply have to get into a full length pool, but the foreseeable future, the logistics of work and commuting plus the privilege of having the pool, mean that this is an entirely EP-based training programme for now.

If you need me, I'll be in the shed, swimming, and thinking about bridges....all 8 of them.

Friday, 14 November 2014

The pool project III

We've had the pool for a few months now, and it's been something of a mixed bag. On the plus side, when it's all working properly, it's brilliant. It's amazing to be able to just pop down the garden to swim without having to deal with pool hours and unpredictably crowded lanes. And aside from the convenience of it all, my feeling is that it's a very productive training experience. Unlike in a regular swimming pool, 'distance' is a pretty useless metric when you're swimming on the spot, but instead, you have 'pace' plus 'time'. Unlike in a regular pool, you know immediately when your pace is slowing because you start to drift backwards, so it's a fantastic way to acquire an embodied sense of the different pace registers of swimming and to learn to hold those paces consistently.

Combined with the big blue clock, the predictable pacing of the pool can be structured around time intervals - for example, into ladder or pyramid sessions. If you build in a 10 sec rest between intervals, you have just enough time to switch the pace up or down a notch before starting again. I don't know how well the pace per minute readings on the pace clock correlate to actual open water swimming, but this doesn't really matter; the pace meter only needs to be internally consistent. I also combine these sessions with longer sets of steady swimming, usually in half hour chunks, after which the motor switches itself off. The lack of turns and glides at the pool ends means that it's a pretty consistent workout, and I find it very soothing and meditative to be in there with no distractions. So far, so delighted.

But sadly, the pool also sprang another leak a few weeks ago - this time on the wall of the liner and without any prior injury or knock. This is the third leak in three months, and unlike the other two which were slow dribbles, this one was quickly unmanageable, and within 2 hours, we'd used all of our towels and we were desperately mopping and stuffing duvets and sleeping bags around the edge to try and control the flow while we frantically tumble dried the towels. After a few hours, we gave up and emptied the pool using a sump pump we had bought after the last leak. I'm just grateful that we were there when it happened because it would have caused an enormous amount of expensive damage if left unchecked.

The pool company came to repair the leak a few days later, but after three leaks in three months, we no longer consider the integrity of the liner to be intact and want to have it replaced. We're nervous even to go away in case it goes again. Unfortunately, the pool company refuse to consider paying for a new liner, even though they offered us a 1 year guarantee for parts when we bought the second hand pool off them. We know that the liner was kept in storage in ways that are directly in contravention of Endless Pool's guidelines (it should be stored clean and dry, while ours arrived from storage dirty and with puddles of water sloshing about), although the pool company insist that this could not have damaged it. In a way, it doesn't really matter what's caused it; the fact is, as far as we're concerned, it's no longer viable. Endless Pool sold us a new one at a discounted rate, but the pool company are now refusing to even quote for the cost of dismantling the pool, replacing the liner and reinstating it. Because regional agent companies have a monopoly over a given area, we are not allowed to simply go to another EP agent company, and I'm now planning to petition Endless Pools to hopefully find a way around this impasse. It's all very frustrating and disappointing.

So this is where we are at the moment. The new liner won't arrive until around Christmas time, so the replacement work won't be possible until the new year. So for now, we've bought a repair kit just in case, and are keeping the pump to hand in. It remains to be seen who ends up doing the work; all I know is that it's going to cost us a lot of money.

So what have I learned so far? Having a pool is a fabulous, unimaginable luxury that is a dream for training. On this front, I have no regrets at all and it is an enormous privilege to be able to have one. But if I were to do this over again, and with all the benefit of hindsight, I would (a) buy a new liner from the outset; and (b) listen more carefully to the warning signs that were there in my early interactions with the local agent company and not allow myself to become such a hostage to fortune. I'm sure it will all be resolved eventually... hopefully before the next leak springs.

And in the mean time, me and the big blue clock will keep working away. And more importantly, I'm hoping I'll have an announcement soon about plans for next year.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

The things we don't discuss II ....

Over a year ago, I wrote a post called "The things we don't discuss...", where I talked about the ways in which menstruation is largely treated as unspeakable within swimming (and elsewhere), with the exception of whispered conversations between women about how to keep all evidence of menstruation hidden. This post follows up that earlier one by focusing on a second unmentionable - the menopause. Unlike periods, the menopause is quite commonly discussed in everyday society, although in very limited ways. It exists in popular discourse as the end to a woman's reproductive potential; the threatened end point of the presumed have-it-all postponement of reproduction. It's also commonly caricatured via common symptoms such as hot flushes, and women are exhorted to turn to hormonal therapies to keep them looking and feeling young (although we're also supposed to also negotiate the unknown risks of taking those hormones). It is widely represented in popular media, medicine etc as a disaster for women - the end of reproduction, and of desirable womanliness; it tends to be medicated as an illness, rather than as a natural part of a woman's life cycle.

In swimming, I've heard very little about the menopause. This in part reflects the relatively limited numbers of menopausal and post-menopausal women in the sport, but also the silence expected both within and outside of swimming about all things menstruation-related. When it is mentioned, comments usually refer to either (a) potential freedom from menstruation and its management and concealment; and (b) the imagined warming effects of hot flushes on cold tolerance. This latter in particular is misguided, since hot flushes are unpredictable momentary incidences rather than a consistent increase in core temperature. Furthermore, while medical science seems unsure of the precise mechanism, they are generally agreed to be a temporary disruption to thermoregulatory systems caused by falling oestrogen levels. As I head determinedly into the menopause now, one consequence of this that I have noticed is the increasing unpredictability of my response to water temps. This has made it hard to judge or predict my condition in the water, and I have had several experiences recently of suddenly becoming extremely cold at temps that have never been a problem for me in the past. The suddenness of the cold is also at odds with the much steadier fall in perceived body temperatures I have previously experienced. I don't know, of course, if my core body temperature is falling or whether I'm just 'feeling the cold', but it seems important to err on the side of caution, especially since I now do most of my outdoor swimming alone.

The many popular texts on managing the menopause love to advise women to swim - good for the joints, keeps your weight down, relieves stress, blah, blah, blah. This is all basic lifestyle advice - well-meaning, but rather bland, generic and presumptive. But I haven't been able to find much on the menopause and the more extreme end of endurance sport, except for the a few rather patronising news articles about older female athletes, the tone of which is primarily one of surprise that women don't sit down and start knitting as soon as they stop menstruating.

So I'm not sure yet what difference the menopause makes - maybe not much, maybe quite a lot. We'll see, but it is a conversation that female swimmers could usefully have with each other and in public settings. These bodies of ours are nothing to be ashamed of. As with menstruation, it would also be interesting to think about what difference swimming makes to the menopause as a process and experience. I wrote before that past long swims have had a profoundly positive effect on my hormone regulation for months post-swim, so there's no reason to think that it wouldn't also affect the menopause, although whether positively or negatively remains to be seen. I'm also exploring what changing nutritional and recovery needs I might need to address; I don't know whether it's ageing generally, or the menopause specifically, but I'm certainly noticing a slower recovery time these days.

It would be great to hear about other women's experiences. Everyone's body is different and there is no single truth to any of these experiences, but if we don't talk about it, we'll never learn more.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

The pool project II ....

In my last post about the pool, we had just accepted the inevitable and decided to take up the wooden floor of the summerhouse and have a new concrete pad laid rather than making do with the uneven (and very waterlogged) one we discovered under the wooden floor.

Well....this turned out to be a complete success, and we soon had a lovely flat floor to work with.

I then spent a VERY long weekend applying coat after coat of marine varnish to the entire inside to protect against the moisture....and which also ended up giving a lovely rich tone to the previously untreated wood. And finally, we laid a vinyl floor, the electrician put in lights and sockets and we were ready for the pool.


The installation team put up the metal frame and liner easily, even though it's a bit of a squeeze in there, then started to build the panelling around the edges. We had asked for this so that we could include a layer of insulation between the liner and the panels to maximise heat retention. 

The propulsion and filter units were fitted and we could finally start filling the pool while the rest of the work continued. All very exciting.

Frustratingly, this is where we hit a series of problems - not least the spectacular inefficiency and poor communication skills of the company fitting the pool. Endless Pools have regional agents who handle sales in a given area. Consequently, this agent company had a monopoly but offered a service that was spectacularly poor. It's not worth going into the details, but this included having given my electrician the completely wrong details and wiring diagram for the electrics requiring significant remedial work (and expense), and the team rarely worked more than a four hour day, dragging the job out over nearly two weeks. But 'the box' was where they really excelled themselves. Our purchase invoice included a "bespoke soundproof box"  - the motor for the propulsion unit is quite noisy and we don't want to disturb the neighbours. But what we got was a plastic storage box from Argos, lined with insulating foam to almost no useful effect.

This remains a work in progress. We have abandoned the pool company as a lost cause and are bringing in a professional soundproofing company to build a soundproof fence around it to deflect the sound away from the nearest neighbours. To be honest, it's not that noisy and no-one's complained, but we want to do everything we can. 

But the good news is that finally, after a frustrating couple of weeks, our pool was finally up and running. And it's just wonderful. As you can see, it pretty much fills the room - there's just enough space to run up and down the edges with a mop to wipe up the splashes - but it's quick and easy to use and it is an unimaginable luxury to be able to swim every day.  We keep it fairly cool - around 18 / 19 degrees - so it's perfect for OW training.

I'm still building up after my year of dealing with my shoulder, but am gradually working out how to train in this rather extraordinary environment. Expecting it to be boring, I tried listening to music while swimming, but I found it completely distracting and quickly realised that this kind of swimming is not simply a more impoverished version of a full sized pool, but is actually a lot closer to the open water - you just swim and swim. It's incredibly relaxing and the time passes in that rather fluid way that open water time passes. It's really very soothing and meditative. I'm still only swimming for relatively short periods (up to an hour), but the time flies. I just bought a pace clock so that I can introduce intervals into the mix, and I think that with some focus, there's no reason why the bulk of my training, especially in winter, can't be done in here. Time will tell. But for now, with a month of regular swimming already under my belt, I feel fitter and stronger for swimming than I have for over a year, my shoulder feels stable and pain free, and I'm starting to feel confident enough to make some plans...

Monday, 7 July 2014

Tour de France, Yorkshire style...

If we weren't sure about our decision to move to Yorkshire before this weekend, then we are certainly sure now. This weekend, the Grand Depart of the Tour de France came to Yorkshire, with the riders sweeping within easy striking distance of our new house on both days. I've always had a soft spot for the Tour, and we always follow it on TV every year, in spite of the twin stains on the event of the continued absence of a women's Tour, and the sport's well-established history of cheating. But to say that Yorkshire was excited about the Tour would be something of an understatement and I have never seen an event so widely and wholeheartedly embraced by an entire region, which by race-weekend was festooned with yellow bikes, bunting and chalked messages. 

Already impossibly excited at the prospect of seeing the Tour go by, the weekend was made even more special by the arrival of our lovely Californian friends, Scott, Debbie and Quinn, and by Friday evening, we had our plan of action drawn up and ready to go.

On Saturday, the Tour passed along the A65, just a five minute walk from the house, so we installed ourselves on the roadside with a clear view down the hill, as well as of a couple of approaching bends in the further distance. The caravan came through first, followed by dribbles of team cars, sponsor vehicles and UK and French police. Excitement mounted as helicopters began to pass overhead, and then the red lead cars arrived, closely followed by a breakaway group of three - an advanced party to whet our appetites:

Then just a couple of minutes behind, in the distance came the media helicopter hovering over the approaching peleton - a lithe snake of tightly packed cyclists.

And then, in a flash of colours, the mass of riders flew through:

It is hard to describe what it is like to be so close to such a tightly packed group of nearly 200 speeding cyclists - there is a deep buzz of tyres on tarmac, the whistling of the air moving around them, and the stunning sight of the bright colours and rapid movements across your field of vision. And then there's the atmosphere - wildly electric, with the air full of whoops, cheers and delighted laughter. It's over almost as soon as it starts, but we were buzzing for ages afterwards with the excitement. 

After a quick lunch at home, we walked the three miles into Skipton to watch the finish of the stage on the big screens they'd set up there, joining thousands of people in a collective groan of disappointment as Cavendish hit the tarmac, shoulder first, just hundreds of metres before the finish. We ate ice-cream in the sunshine, bought some Tour de France swag and then walked back in the sunshine to the house, our lust for the Tour temporarily sated. 

On Day 2, we walked the 2 miles to Bolton Bridge and managed to find the perfect spot on the inside of a sharp left hand bend, where we hoped to catch the riders moving slightly more slowly. The crowds were much bigger than our previous day's spot, but the atmosphere was superb as everyone waited in the intermittent sunshine. 

It was the same long build-up as the previous day - the caravan, then the sponsor and team cars, then passing helicopters, police motorcycles....and then the red cars followed by a small breakaway of 7 riders, with the peleton following 3 minutes behind. And the second time was easily just as exciting as the first...I even managed to snap a shot of the yellow jersey worn by the previous day's winner, Kittel.

Our hope that they might be slower on a sharp bend proved to be foolish, but it was all the more amazing for that - such speed, so close together. 

We had a post-race picnic in a nearby park and then walked back home across the fields between Bolton Bridge and our house in Draughton before all flopping down in front of the TV to watch the Tour finish and then the men's Wimbledon final. I don't watch a huge amount of sport, either live or on TV, but this was a hugely fun day very well spent with some of my very favourite people. A great weekend. 

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Olympic swimming...

I've been having a couple of days in London. Unhappily, I travelled to Essex at the beginning of the week to join family members to say a very sad farewell to the wonderful Brenda, who lived a very long and happy life, and was both loving and loved. And after some family time, I decided to stay in London rather than go back up to Leeds since I had a work meeting at the LSE later in the week. And so I found myself in Stratford - site of the 2012 London Olympics (and a former stomping ground of Peter and I from our East London days). And so what could I do but go for a swim at the Aquatic Centre?

I have always had a lot of reservations about the London Olympics - the militarisation of the whole area, restriction of the freedoms of speech and movement, the bewildering amount of money the project went over budget, the crass commercialisation and the flag-waving nationalism all turned my stomach, even at the same time as I knew that I would enjoy the spectacle of sport on display. My concerns weren't allayed when I arrived in Stratford (my first visit since before the Olympics) and while looking for my hotel, I got accidentally channelled into the Westfield Centre - a massive shopping mall that you have to pass through in order to get to the Olympic park and which is also directly connected to the Tube station. Once in, I couldn't find my way out. It was as if they had made the whole of Stratford indoors and then filled it with a fiendish whirlwind of commerce, noise and bright lights. I ended up begging a man selling fruit smoothies from a walkway stand to tell me where "outside" was. I know that Westfield has brought a lot of jobs to an area greatly in need of them, but it's hard to believe that this grizzly monstrosity is the answer.

So, not a good start. But the next morning, I headed out for the Olympic park. It was a beautiful, blue-skied morning, and the aquatic centre is the first structure you come to; it's absolutely stunning - all sweeping scoops, dips, curves and waves.

And you get the same effect in the light and airy inside:

The competition pool is 3m deep and 10 lanes wide, giving a luxurious feeling of space; this was greatly enhanced by the fact that there was hardly anyone there and for half an hour, I had a lane to myself! It's nice and cool, and isn't heavily chlorinated, so is a delight to swim in. While most pools only have viewing galleries on one side, the rows of seating on both sides gives the pool a stadium feel that is compounded by its recent Olympic origins. In the momentary absence of other swimmers to join my clockwise lane circuit, I treated myself to a sprint down the black line to the roar of the crowds as I raced to victory - one of Olympic history's big upsets as the middle aged woman with the duff shoulder snatches gold. 

Unfortunately, after half an hour and several golds, I was tapped on the head by a uniformed staff member and told that they were closing all but lanes 1-4 because they were going to be doing some filming. I moved over and 5 of us swam up and down the lane perfectly amicably, but it was still slightly annoying because the filming didn't actually start until over 45 minutes later. I felt like we could all have been left to enjoy our luxuriously solitary swimming a bit longer. 

But that aside, it was a fantastic experience. The pool and changing areas are roomy and spotlessly clean, and the facility is priced equivalently to the other pools in the London boroughs; my off-peak ticket cost £3.50. The training pools were packed with children having swimming lessons, and divers were being coached while doing improbable things off high boards. It had a sense of legacy that much of the remainder of the Olympics infrastructure doesn't at the moment, which was nice to see. I hope that it continues to be a success and to be accessible to as many local people as possible, if only to demonstrate the palpable demand for more public pools at a time when public leisure services are being brutalised. 

Sunday, 29 June 2014

The pool project...

We finally moved into our new house after an intense couple of months of decorating (by us) and building work (by people with not us). It's lovely, and we're very happy with our new life at the foot of the Yorkshire Dales - hills, sheep, tweeting birds. All the good stuff, with none of the wildly partying students we've been living alongside for the last 10 months. Plus, we're only 65 miles away from the Lake District, with all the swimming possibilities you could ever ask for.

But one consequence of moving out here is that we've added almost 2 hours a day of commuting to our days at the office, which makes it much more difficult to make lane-swimming pool sessions either at the university pool or at the local sports centre. But....the new house has a summerhouse in the garden that used to be an office space for the previous owners, and we are hoping that this will provide the answer.

Originally, I'd hoped to put in a regular Endless Pool, but the costs were prohibitive for us. However, the space is just big enough to house a Fastlane Pool, which has a slightly larger footprint but is less expensive, since it is basically a big bag of water in a frame with a Fastlane propulsion unit at one end. So this is what we've decided to go for. 

I can't quite believe that we're doing this, and it seems like an impossible luxury to have a training pool at home. But we managed to get hold of a pool second hand, complete with all the propulsion and heating units, and this now in storage, waiting until we're ready for installation. So far so good.

After knocking out the internal walls to the office space, our plan was to cut out the footprint of the pool so that it could stand on the concrete pad underneath, leaving the surrounding wood floor intact. Simple. But things didn't quite go to plan, and when we cut away the floor, we discovered large pools of standing water and a considerable amount of rot in the wooden floor beams. In short, the structure has been quite shoddily laid and has inadequate protection against rain water, which has been seeping underneath. Plus, the concrete pad underneath is far from level, so probably couldn't do the job anyway. 

Back to the drawing board. Plan B...that probably should have been Plan A in the first place... is now to take up the entire wooden floor, line it and lay a new concrete pad on top to bring it up to the original floor level. And then our clever builder has come up with a remedial action plan to mitigate the seepage problem involving sills and channels around the outside of the structure. There's still lots of other work to do - it involves quite a lot of electrical work to make the building safe and with a sufficient supply, and we need to marine varnish the entire inside to protect the wood from the moisture from the pool. But I feel like we're making progress.

So in spite of the set-back, we're still hopeful that our Endless Pool project won't become an endless pool project.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Progress by degrees....

On Sunday I went back to see Active Blu's Emma Brunning for a follow-up coaching session. I last saw her in January (which you can read about here), and have been diligently practicing my drills on every pool visit. I am a firm believer in the value of expertise and taking advice; there is no point in paying someone for coaching and then not doing what they say. But then again, you can take things too far.

On a positive note, I have managed to make significant progress in several key areas. In January, we highlighted my dancing hands, sinking elbows and late catch, alongside some breath-holding and finger-splaying, as the key obstacles to progress. In particular, I wanted to focus on anything that has been putting unnecessary strain on my shoulder, with injury rehab and prevention at the top of the priority list; an increase in pace would be a bonus, but always a secondary one. Consequently, the first three in this list have been the focus of most of my pool work since January - lots of kicking on one side, lead arm out front; scull; dog paddle. And though I say it myself, I think the results speak for themselves in these before and after (January / May) shots, especially the first two of which literally measure my progress by degrees:

There's still plenty to work on, but as you can see, I've now managed to engage the body's useful "bending at the elbow" function to form a catch that happens at the front of the stroke and gives me a much better purchase on the water to move myself forwards. Similarly, in the bottom photo, you can see that my elbow isn't dropping quite so much, with shoulder, elbow and wrist in descending order, ready to start the catch phase of the stroke and removing the little dance my hands used to do as they swept upwards towards the surface before scooping back down again. 

But...and this is a significant but....every action has a reaction, and in the process of fixing these flaws, I developed a whole new one that I've never experienced before - a completely dead spot at the front of each stroke. This isn't really overgliding, so much as, well....just stopping. Emma had her eye on it even when I was warming up before my lesson had started, and the numbers set out the stark reality - my usual stroke rate of around 62 had fallen to 50! I can see exactly how this had happened - the upward drift of my hands had been so ingrained that particularly in January and February, I was having to be constantly vigilantly, glaring at my hands and actively willing them not to move from their carefully landed position in front of me. This, in turn, caused my legs to drop, and then my head to rotate to breathe slightly out of sync with the rest of the body's rotation. For a tiny fraction of a second in each stroke cycle, everything came slightly undone, then was snapped back into place by the next stroke. This is what I mean by having overdone it - I think I had become so focused on the 'problem' that I had lost touch with the bigger picture and then with the confidence to swim without overthinking. 

Thankfully, Emma had the cure in the form of a Finis Tempo Trainer.

  I have a precarious relationship with these things - I like the lap pace function (a discrete triple bleep at a set interval), but I find the bleeping on every stroke infuriating. But sometimes needs must, and a stroke rate ramp test soon revealed the unavoidable truth that at 50 stroke per min (spm), I was struggling and uncomfortable, and then at 64 spm, I felt more like my old swimming self than I had for months. At 66 spm it all started to collapse a bit, and I may or may not end up inching it up slightly once I've really swum all this in, but the upping of my stroke rate eliminated the pause and my pace shot up markedly as a result. Sometimes you just need the experienced eye of another to point out a retrospectively obvious but somehow inaccessible truth. 

There are other things to work on still - especially my habitual breath-holding and the splayed fingers, as well as the tendency to fall back into the S-shaped pull I learned as a child. But the priority now is to get my confidence back in my stroke and really settle in to my new technique for the summer; in short, my priority is to swim. 

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Why Speedo Sculpture suits do women no favours....

Swimwear company, Speedo, have launched a women's swimsuit line called "Sculpture". It's a product which, we are told, uses "exclusive body shaping fabrics and visual design tricks to smooth, shape and enhance your curves, so you feel confident and comfortable in your swimwear from the moment you're wearing it", not only in the water, but also in the changing room and poolside. The suits apparently use "optical illusions" to slim, lengthen and balance the body, as well as cleverly "distracting" from "the bits you're not so keen on".

These magical"camouflage" suits, we are told, will disguise lumps and bumps, minimise your hips, slim your body, narrow your waist and enhance a small bust.

My problem with these is, firstly, that they preach a message of body confidence for women while telling women that they can only feel confident when their 'flaws' are covered up; Speedo offer unambiguous confirmation that, yes, small boobs / thickened waist / lumps and bumps etc are flaws, and yes, disguising them will make everyone feel more comfortable. Encouraging women to cover up their bodies before they can be acceptable betrays a contempt for women and their bodies.

Secondly, the website assumes that women should consider themselves objects of surveillance by others; that they should need to worry about how they appear on the poolside (or in the changing rooms!!!) takes for granted that women should be aware at all times that they are objects of the gaze and should discipline their bodies accordingly.

Thirdly, the entire logic of the suits is to make women's bodies disappear. With the predictable exception of breasts, the suits are oriented towards making the body smaller, flatter and smoother. Women's bodies should be allowed to take up space, both in and out of the pool, and that should never be conditional on their size and shape.

And finally, who are they kidding? Unless these suits are hand-stitched by fairies, the body is the body and no amount of clever strips of fabric or neck-lines are going to change what it is. And why the hell should we?

I am not so naive that I don't know that for many women, the semi-nakedness of the pool is a very stressful environment, and I know that body confidence (whatever that is) cannot be brought into being simply by wishing. There are very real social costs to having a body that doesn't 'fit' and to seek to minimise that stigma is a rational choice. But for a company to play on these insecurities instead of shouting from the rooftops that swimming is amazing and there's room for any body makes me very sad.

Friday, 28 March 2014


(spoiler alert - this review includes comments in paragraph 3 that reveal the outcomes of the swims. Please feel free to click away and come back later if you prefer not to know in advance). 

I finally had the chance to watch the recently released documentary, Driven - a film by Ben Pitterle and Brian Hall from Element 8 Productions about marathon swimming, focusing on swims by teenager Fiona Goh, novice swimmer, mother and insurance company worker, Cherie Edborg, and experienced marathon swimmer, blogger and co-founder of the Marathon Swimmers Forum, Evan Morrison. All of the swims are under the auspices of the Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association; both Goh and Edberg are taking on the 12.5 mile swim from Anacapa to Oxnard, and Morrison is attempting the 19 miles from Santa Cruz to Oxnard. The story of the three protagonists is told through a mix of documentary footage of training and the swims themselves, first person narration to camera by the swimmers and unseen narrator commentary, all punctuated by lengthy and engaging extracts of interviews with marathon swimming veterans Ned Denison, Scott Zornig, Steve Munatones and David Yudovin. The film is visually stunning, and I defy anyone not to want to pack up their stuff and move to southern California immediately to spend the rest of their lives swimming in the beautiful waters there. I spent most of the film plotting such an escape; every cell in my body wanted to go swimming while I was watching it (but then I am currently in a very advanced state of swim OW swim deprivation and am therefore easily provoked).

I have to confess that I have been putting off watching it. The trailer for the film tends to focus on the risk, isolation, challenge and hardship of swimming; it makes perfect sense in terms of attracting the attention of potential audiences, but it's not a representation of swimming that I necessarily enjoy. But the film itself is a different kettle of fish, capturing splendidly the swirling mix of pleasures, excitement, nervousness, discomfort and occasional outright misery of a long swim. Indeed, the reality of marathon swims is that they are usually long enough to experience many emotions and sensations, the fluctuating melange of which constitutes the experience of the sport rather than any single element. Capturing this is the film's greatest accomplishment in my view.

There were many striking moments for me: the sight of Morrison floundering confusedly in the churning darkness, and the palpable despair that he was projecting through the swimming body, is painful to watch, especially in such a supremely elegant and powerful swimmer; the delight of Edberg in her accomplishments and her radiating, somewhat surprised, love of the water; Goh's bravely accepting resignation after being pulled from the water having given everything that she had to give; the attentive concern of the crews and observers tasked with taking care of the swimmers and keeping them safe; the beautiful water, its wildlife and the stunning coastline and islands. I am sure that I'm not the only swimmer who saw her own experiences - good and bad - reflected in those of the swimmers in the film, and watching was an act of constant snaps of visceral recognition and bodily memories of the triumphs of finishing, the frustrations of a goal not achieved, the torture of knowing that you could just get out, and the unparalleled lusciousness of the water.

There are also some very situationally specific touches that make this less a film about marathon swimming per se, and more about marathon swimming in southern California (and I don't mean this as a criticism - I liked the specificity and focus). To northern European eyes, for example, or anyone whose marathon swimming experience comes primarily from the English Channel, they will have been drooling at the bright blue skies, glistening water and luxuriously sandy beaches; the use of accompanying kayaks is also a practice that is alien to English Channel swimming and which (from my experience at least) fundamentally changes the dynamics of a swim. I think it's a useful reminder that even where rules are standardised across marathon swims, the experience of each swim is always gloriously particular, influenced by locally accepted practices, environments and the manifold vagaries of what happens on the day.

I had a couple of small reservations. I would have liked to have seen some female swimmers among the veteran commentators - it is great to see female swimmers play such a major role in the film, but it would also have been nice to have a woman's voice among the experts to illustrate the depth and breadth of female expertise and experience that exists within the sport, especially since both of the women featured were relative novices. I would also have liked to have heard more from the crews, who have a unique perspective on swims that is easily overlooked; indeed, the responsibility that they take on, as well as their own sleep deprivation, seasickness, cold and other discomforts are as much a part of the sport as the aching shoulders and nauseated stomach of the swimmer.

But it is a really great watch that does a fantastic job of capturing the compelling pleasures and hardships that constitute marathon swimming. You can buy it here for just under $13; swimmers will eat it up, and non-swimmers might find in it clues to what draws their intoxicated, addicted friends and loved ones to the open water. And if that doesn't pique your interest, the beautiful shots of strings of salps, passing mola mola or scores of bat rays sailing gracefully below will.


Saturday, 15 March 2014

Why I don't like Sport Relief...

In this morning's Guardian, there's a long feature on Davina McCall, her recent Sport Relief antics and her troubled personal history. I've written before about the now infamous scenes of her being dragged, limp and cold from Windermere and the rather tasteless spectacle of people looking on and applauding and cheering as she is hauled ashore, but once she'd finished the 'challenge', everything went relatively quiet and that was that. But then, of course, along comes the inevitable BBC documentary - "Davina - Beyond Breaking Point for Sport Relief" - scheduled for 20 March, 2014, prompting a PR drive, including the article in the Guardian.

The article talks about how hard the challenge was, how she was persuaded to do it in the first place, and then dwells lengthily on her own troubled history and her difficulties in coping emotionally after the 'challenge'. There are a couple of things that really bother me about this in relation to Sport Relief. Firstly, I dislike the lack of care directed towards the 'celebrities' who are drawn into these ventures, and for whom withdrawing from a challenge becomes increasingly impossible as the PR intensifies and the money rolls in. In McCall's case, this includes lack of attention to her obvious emotional fragility as well her physical well-being - to undertake a swim like that without the appropriate training or capacity is just an unnecessary risk, and someone should have taken responsibility for this and put a stop to it before it even started. Sport Relief is no better than some of the worst reality TV shows in this regard, exploiting the fragilities of others for the sake of some good TV.

But the second thing that I dislike about Sport Relief is that idea that these celebrities have to see the suffering of others first hand to inspire personal suffering through voluntary physical activity which will in turn inspire donations. McCall tells us in the interview that to persuade her to undertake the challenge, they took her out to a project in "Africa"to see the suffering of women and children directly; talk about moral blackmail...and a rather offensively strategic use of the suffering of others. And in a photo on her Sport Relief pages, we see her empathetically observing a black mother and child "first-hand". The filename for the photo when you right click on it includes the word "motivation", but it's not clear whether this motivation is for McCall or the viewers. Whichever it is, it still seems spectacularly tasteless to use the individuals who are being 'visited' by McCall for motivation to undertake a voluntary physical challenge. The paralleling of the two very different kinds of suffering is crass and discomforting; it's an uncomfortably colonial image whereby the suffering of disadvantaged others is legitimised by the witnessing of a white women they have no reason to know or care about.

I am sure that McCall is a woman of compassion and that this was a terribly moving experience, but why do these celebrities need to go out there? Do they really lack the ability to imagine such suffering unless they can actually see it for themselves? How much money was spent achieving this act of compassionate spectatorship? So this is why I dislike Sport Relief - because it repeatedly insists on the suffering of others being narrated and witnessed by 'celebrities' who see it "first-hand" and then gain motivation from it to undertake some entirely voluntary (and status-building) suffering which is then exchanged for donations. What does it say about us that we need that middle step at all?  

The Guardian adds one final, disconcerting twist to its representation of the whole affair - these photos:

Both of these presumably are intended to evoke the Windermere incident. In the first, she looks beautiful but bedraggled, but in the second, she is depicted as drowning, or possibly even drowned, since she is staring ahead even while her face is largely submerged. Especially this latter is a horrible image which is not only extremely tasteless, but also exaggerates symbolically the suffering of the Windermere event. Horrible.

I don't think all charity is bad; nor do I think that McCall is a bad person to have been involved in this; and I'm sure that some good is done with the money that is raised from these ventures. But I think that this whole affair should give us pause for thought about Sport Relief's use of both the involuntary and voluntary suffering of others and the relationships between them that are produced and marketed to us as "motivation".

Monday, 3 March 2014

Never too old to learn...

6 weeks ago, I had a coaching session with Lancaster-based Swim Smooth coach, Emma Brunning from Active Blu. My goals were, most importantly, to eliminate whatever stroke flaw was causing my shoulder problem, and secondarily, to pick up a bit of speed. All of my stroke correction coaching to date has been with coaches working through Total Immersion, and in particular, I benefited enormously in the past from the expert advice of Ian Smith, who sadly died in 2011, but who was absolutely instrumental in laying down the foundations of my long-distance swimming in terms of body position and timing. A great deal is made within the swimming community about these two commercial training systems and the differences between them, with people tending to align themselves with one to the disparagement of the other. For me, they are two roads that lead in a very similar direction, and at the end of the day, it is the quality of the coaching that is the thing. And this is certainly what I got.

Like all experiences of being filmed, what swimming feels like and what it looks like are two very different things, and it's always a bit sobering to witness your own swimming reality. But that's the point of being filmed. We identified a couple of key problems that obviously connected to my shoulder injury. Firstly, there is the dropping of the elbow and the subsequent upwards swoop of the hand:

Walk like an Egyptian....

I sometimes add a further flourish by dipping my hand back down, then floating it back up again; my mysterious dancing hands. But dancing aside, it puts the brakes on forward movement, wastes quite a bit of time at the front end of the stroke and sets me up for problem number 2: the straight lowering of the arm followed by a late catch:

And just in case my flaws are not entirely clear, here's me next to Shelley Taylor Smith, showing us how it's done properly. Significantly, this shot is of my right arm, which isn't even injured...although more by luck than judgement if this is anything to go by.

This felt like great progress - we had identified a clear target for our corrective efforts, and Emma assigned a small number of drills, each with a clear learning point, to work on later.

This, of course, is all massively useful and I've been working away at my drills and enjoying lots of (painfree) swimming as a result. It's still a bit hit and miss, and the dancing hands still make the occasional appearance, but I'm already seeing distinct improvements.

But the most important thing that I've taken away from the whole experience is about how to drill, and this is what I mean by saying I'm never too old to learn. I'm not new to drilling (in this, and also while learning musical instruments, for example), but I realise now that I've been doing it wrong all these years. My approach has always been to do multiple laps / repetitions of drills, over and over, in order to get the 'feel' of it into the body. But in doing so, I've somehow been disconnecting drilling from swimming. Emma's advice was to do half a length of, say, a sculling drill, or dog paddle, and then swim the remainder to locate it within the stroke. Drill, swim, drill, swim. And I'll tell you, my stroke is never better than the first few strokes after switching from drill to swim; it is in those (sometimes fleeting) moments that you really learn what it's supposed to 'feel' like.

I'm sure many people reading this are banging their heads on the table in despair at my late arrival at what is probably an obvious point, and I honestly don't know why I never got this before now - I work in education and use many of the same principles of learning / implementing in my teaching, but had somehow failed to transfer this knowledge to my own practice.

Never too old to learn....

Monday, 24 February 2014

What is marathon swimming?

Following a discussion on the Marathon Swimmers Forum about how to define marathon swimming, I thought I'd post this extract from the introductory chapter of my book as my (rather long-winded) attempt to develop a contextualised working definition for those unfamiliar with the sport. 

It's a work in progress - all comments and suggestions gratefully received. 

Swimming a long way slowly
On 25 August, 1875, 27 year old merchant naval captain, Matthew Webb, completed the first successful solo crossing of the English Channel, swimming from England to France in 21 hours and 45 minutes. Less than two weeks after his first, unsuccessful attempt, Webb’s successful crossing, which he described in his book, The Art of Swimming, as “the event of my life” (Webb, 1999 [1876]: 22), rocketed him to fame. Heralded as front-page news, mobbed by crowds, showered with donations, and later, immortalized in A.E. Housman’s poem, A Shropshire Lad, as well as on matchboxes, street names, picture books and public statuary (Watson, 2000), Webb’s achievement gave him heroic status. The swim rendered him a national icon of triumphant masculinity, rebuffing concerns of the era about the enfeeblement of the middle-classes and the future of the empire (Watson, 2000: Ch. 7, see also, Wiltse, 2007: Ch.2). At a celebratory dinner in Dover, he was announced in the introductory address as the man who “had proved for one thing that the physical condition of Englishmen had not degenerated” (Watson, 2000: 158).

51 years later, on 6 August, 1926, 20 year old American competitive swimmer and Olympian Gertrude Ederle, following an unsuccessful attempt in 1925, successfully swam from France to England in a record-breaking time of 14 hours and 39 minutes. Only the 6th person ever to swim the Channel, her record time was broken only three weeks later by German baker, Ernst Vierkoetter, who completed the swim in 12 hours and 42 minutes, but although several women completed crossings in the years after Ederle’s swim, her women’s record stood until 1950, when it fell to fellow American, Florence Chadwick. Like Webb, there was a nationalistic fervor to the public celebrations on Ederle's return to the US, including a ticker tape parade in New York, not least in amazement that a woman could achieve such a feat, although this was tempered slightly by the need to understate her German heritage in a nation still healing from World War I (Mortimer, 2008, Stout, 2009, Bier, 2011).

Both Webb and Ederle are touchstones for contemporary marathon swimming, and the English Channel remains metonymic of the wider sport. But it is also a sport about which very little is known outside of its own social world, except perhaps for the familiar images of swimmers slathering on layers of grease (a largely defunct practice) or via coverage of celebrity swims such as the successful 2006 English Channel swim by UK comedian, David Walliams - the centerpiece for the annual fundraising extravaganza, Sport Relief. However, any attempt to define marathon swimming is to venture into sticky territory, as discussed in the next chapter. So in these early stages of the book, I offer only the lightest touch definition, focusing on how I am using ‘marathon swimming’ in the framing of the book and its scope.

To summarise crudely, marathon swimming is the practice of swimming a long way slowly.

In the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the 10km marathon swim made its debut, broadly mirroring the running marathon in terms of elite completion times and providing an exciting spectacle with swimmers constantly in sight on the multi-lap, rowing lake course, accompanied by thrilling close-up media coverage. While these swims are impressive and not a little intimidating at the elite level for their ferocious pace, these are not the concern of this book. Instead, my interest here is on what might be described as the ultra domain of open water swimming – those swims that can take 10, and even 20+ hours to complete, traversing or circumnavigating predominantly naturally occurring stretches of water including channels, straits, lakes or islands (however marked by human intervention). The iconic marathon swim – the English Channel – provides a useful benchmark for the kind of swimming I am focusing on. It is 21 miles across at its narrowest point, with water temperatures of approximately 15-18°C (59-64°F) during the swimming season (usually late June – September). Individual swimmers are accompanied throughout by a dedicated support boat that navigates the swim, liaises with other water users, provides safety cover and serves as a platform from which the swimmer’s support crew can provide moral support, sustenance and equipment changes (e.g. fresh goggles or lights for night swimming).

In spite of its iconic status, the English Channel is just one among many in the proliferating roster of global marathon swims that are stored up on swimmers’ ‘bucket lists’ for future adventures, all presenting their own particular challenges in terms of distance, conditions, temperature and wildlife. Therefore, rather than arbitrarily demarcating a minimum distance or time, I’m defining marathon swimming as relating to swims on a sufficient scale of distance and/or time for that to be the only thing that you do that day; in many cases, literally. It is a kind of swimming that requires the capacity to swim at a steady, continuous pace for hours without meaningful rest; it is a distinct mode of being in the water that is fundamentally different from that of the 100m pool swimmer, or indeed, the 10km elite racer. However fast or slow that steady pace is, it is this steadiness that I refer to when I talk of swimming a long way slowly.

But this alone does not suffice as a definition in terms of the specific focus of this book, although this carries me into much more sensitive definitional territory. As mentioned, what ‘counts’ as a legitimate marathon swim is a topic of considerable debate within the marathon swimming social world (and among intersecting and sub- worlds), particularly in relation to wetsuits and other forms of ‘assistance’. For the purposes of this book, I’m focusing primarily on what is commonly referred to as ‘Channel rules’ marathon swimming. These rules nod nostalgically, although somewhat arbitrarily, to the conditions under which Ederle and Webb swam and are widely held within the marathon swimming community as the gold standard against which all swims can be measured[i]. The contemporary iteration of Channel rules swimming dictates that swimmers can wear only a regular swimming costume (non-buoyant, non-insulating), single cap and goggles and must swim continuously from shore to shore without purposefully touching either the accompanying boat or another person (for example, for support or assistance with propulsion) throughout. With some contextually specific adaptations[ii], ‘Channel rules’ have been widely adopted globally, and these demarcate the style of swimming primarily addressed in the book, although always in relation to other modes of swimming and the boundary disputes between them.

The final defining feature of marathon swimming for the purposes of this book is its primary location within the amateur domain. A very small number of elite swimmers from the professional open water racing circuit venture into ultra-distance solo marathon swimming from time to time, generally doing so in order to make an attempt at a record. Australian professional swimmer, Trent Grimsey, who broke the English Channel solo record in 2012 in an eye-wateringly fast 6.55, exemplifies this. These swimmers are highly respected within the marathon swimming community and their swimming feats – unimaginable for a plodding swimmer such as myself – are part of the lore of the sport. But my specific interest in this book is in the amateur swimmers for whom the sport is a form of “serious leisure” (Stebbins, 2007) and who make up the vast majority of its participants. For these individuals, bridging a range of capacities, paces and ambitions, swimming is not a source of income or a full-time occupation, but rather a passionately and often intensively pursued leisure activity that is balanced against a raft of other personal and professional commitments in an ongoing process of producing and maintaining the marathon swimming self.

When I refer to ‘marathon swimming’ throughout Immersion, then, this is how I am using the term: swimming a long way slowly under a particular set of traditionally-oriented rules as a committed amateur.

[i] This is, however, a contested point, and I have some reservations about these claims to primacy, as discussed in the next chapter. Nevertheless, Channel rules swimming defines the activities of all of the participants in this study (including my own) and as such is a useful demarcation for the concerns of the book.
[ii] The regulations for the Cook Straits swim in New Zealand allow for a 10 minute “shark break” following a close sighting, and the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim allows swimmers to be taken from the water during a lightning storm (or other temporarily dangerous conditions) and then to continue the swim once the danger has passed – an occurrence that would signal the end of an English Channel swim.