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. 

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Immersion...a work in progress

Some years ago, after reviewing the written half of a book on obesity surgery that I had been working on for some time, the reality of the fruits of months of labour was unavoidable: I had produced 50,000 words of insipid, cowardly prose that was riddled with my sense of being trapped between competing constituencies (surgeons, patients, fat activists), each of whom I both respected and disagreed with in various parts and none of whom I wanted to risk offending, however careful my critique. The text was apologetic, punctuated by volleys of qualification: "what I'm not saying is....". My attempts at revision were the writing equivalent of arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic;  defeated, I did the only thing possible and deleted the entire thing, including all drafts, from the hard drive, external storage and cloud repositories. It's gone. I wrote a couple of focused journal articles instead then took up swimming.

I'm relieved that I never pushed on with the book as it was, but it still niggles away at me - not so much that I deleted the book but rather that I wrote such a rubbish one in the first place because I was too cowardly to stand by my analysis and speak / write in the way that I wanted to. This is a long-standing problem, and I have always found writing for publication enormously difficult, holding out for (unattainable) perfection and struggling to write drafts until I am 100% certain what it is that I want to say and how I want to say it.

And so it has been with some trepidation that I have embarked on my current book project, Immersion.  It is a key output from the swimming project, and one about which I am hugely excited and nervous in fairly equal proportions. Especially in those moments when I find myself writing out of step with the more mainstream thinking within the swimming community - for example, around the issues of authenticity, or about gender - the ghost of the obesity surgery book looms large and my writing threatens to splutter to a tense halt, my finger hovering over the 'delete' button.

So I've taken steps... no deleting this time, just writing. And writing. And writing. I've embraced wholeheartedly the advice of writer Anne Lamott that the key to good writing is the 'shitty first draft' -  an unguarded outpouring from which you pick the juiciest, most effective sentences and passages for the later, better versions. It's incredibly liberating once you get over the horror of all those not-very-good pages; I keep them stored in a folder marked 'shitty first drafts' - a resource to be mined as I proceed.

And the good news is that I now have a very shitty first draft of approximately 75% of Immersion, laying out the key structure, and the substantive areas of each of the chapters and the data that I want to include, plus quite a bit of the analysis in rough form and most of the auto-ethnographic excerpts. There is still a huge amount of work to do on it; it is indeed a shitty first draft in the true spirit of the exercise, and it's not something that I would ever want anyone else to read in this state. But there's definitely a book in there somewhere, and my trigger finger is nowhere near the delete button. Progress indeed for this work-in-progress.

And the spirit of sharing, this is what I think Immersion might look like...

Chapter 1: Jumping In
Introductory narratives of different types and stages of 'becoming' within marathon swimming; a working definition ("swimming a long way slowly under tradition-oriented rules as a committed amateur"); a description of the research project; a chapter plan.


Part I: Becoming and Belonging
This section focuses on the social and bodily transformations that occur in the process of becoming a maarathon swimmer.

Chapter 2: Embodied becoming
Becker on becoming a marijuana user - acquiring the techniques, learning to appreciate their effects, learning to find those effects pleasurable; technique training; subculturally appropriate behaviours; learning to be cold; distinguishing different kinds of pain;  novel pleasures.

Chapter 3: Sensory transformations
Changes to the body's sensorium: sound, touch, kinaesthesia; swimming's (unexpected) pleasures - flow states, escaping modernity, freedom from social roles etc - and their specific relation to the aquatic environment.

Chapter 4: Authentic swimming
Debates around what 'counts' as authentic swimming: how that definitional work is done;  what is at stake in definitional boundary work; the slipperiness of boundaries; the irrationalities of rationalisation; how social world belonging is produced, maintained and resisted; the meaningfulness of belonging.

Chapter 5: Making swimming visible
This chapter is still unwritten - all I have at the moment is a list of things that will probably go in there: the principle of observation and documentation; swim memorialisation (video, blogs, self-published books, media, tattoos, pebbles); asking how a sport that occurs almost by definition out of public view is made visible (and to what ends).


Part II: The 'good' body
This section explores the ways in which marathon swimming both affirms and challenges what 'counts' as the 'good' body in contemporary society.

Chapter 6: Heroic fatness
Body fat as a (qualified) performance necessity in a wider social context which hates fatness; fat as part of the 'suffering' of swimming; fat as not 'real'; community hierarchies of fat; fat swimming as liberation.

Chapter 7: Gendering marathon swimming
Gender in a sport that resists the relevance of gender; gender and the swimming body (pain / fat / emotion); gender and the rhetorics of exceptionalism; domestic and reproductive labour; new modes of gendered embodiment.

Chapter 8: When bodies let you down
This chapter is still unwritten - it will focus on two kinds of embodied failure: unsuccessful swims and injury. This will include how those events change how we see / experience the swimming body, both individually and collectively, and  changing definitions of 'health' and the 'good' body.

Chapter 9: Swimming for...
Marathon swimming for charity, where suffering is traded for charitable donations; charitable bodies as 'good' bodies; alliances of suffering between rich / poor, north / south, healthy / sick; outward facing representations of the sport; motivation; opposition to 'swimming for...'.


Ch. 10: Conclusion
Not fully written yet... still haven't got to grips with the over-arching arguments, but this will return to the key themes: immersion (being a body in water / passionate involvement); social / bodily transformation; the social value of suffering; the 'good' body in contemporary society...


So that's it...or at least what it is for now. Did I miss anything?


5 years ago, we were in Barcelona and I found this postcard of the 1971 painting, BaƱista, at the Picasso Museum:

The project was in its very earliest stages, but Peter fished it out of the rack and declared: "Here's the cover to your swimming book". I keep it as the icon for the folder where all the book drafts live as a reminder. I doubt I'll ever be able to get (affordable) permissions to use the image but I'll try when the time comes. In the mean time, the picture is a reminder to keep going and to keep my hands firmly off the delete button. And back to the drafts I go.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Suffering for...?

I have just seen this disturbing video footage of UK TV celebrity, Davina McCall being dragged out of Windermere in a state of hypothermic, incapacitated exhaustion, unable to support her own weight or communicate:

This swim is part of a charity challenge by the annual fundraising megalith, Sports Relief, which each year selects a celebrity to perform an extreme endurance challenge. This year, McCall is doing a manufactured triathlon-style endurance challenge that involves travelling from Edinburgh to London primarily by bicycle, but stopping off to swim a width of Windermere, and ending with a full marathon into central London. There have been repeated references over the last couple of days to the harmful effects on McCall of the cold while cycling from Edinburgh, but the surprise seems a little disingenuous for a mid-February event in Scotland - not otherwise known for its mild and balmy winter conditions. But what really shocked me was the applause and cheering as McCall was dragged out of the water, as if this were anything other than a dangerous and shameful piece of pointless spectacle.

As a swimmer, obviously, the lack of preparation for the swim and the casual assumption that surviving cold water is simply a question of thinking positively and toughening up is infuriating. The swimming community is highly attentive to questions of safety, and this kind of nonsense just puts people at risk unnecessarily. But I'm also deeply disturbed by the escalation of suffering that is demanded for these charity challenges, which actively trade visible suffering for money. In 2012, comedian David Walliams swam the length of the Thames while violently ill from the pollution that had washed into the river during heavy rains; in 2013, another comedian, John Bishop, did a Paris-London 'triathlon', cycling from Paris to Calais, then rowing as part of a team across the Channel before completing 3 marathons in 3 days while suffering from a suspected stress fracture. These Sports Relief 'zero-to-hero' stories tell a story of spirited overcoming in the face of suffering, but rely on an annual escalation of spectacular suffering to maintain public interest (and their donations). I find myself wondering about a public that needs to see manufactured suffering on this scale before giving money to charity; I am nauseated by the celebration of spectacular, dangerous suffering that we see in the cheering and applause as McCall is hauled onto land. No-one should have been applauding when McCall was dragged out; to be hauled out in that condition is, in my view, a venture gone badly wrong and I find nothing to celebrate in it (other than that she is safe).

And this escalation is not just evident in the charity domain, which I think is toxically implicated in this trend but by no means alone. Within open water swimming, we are witnessing the rise of increasingly ambitious and demanding 'ultra' swims, and cold water challenges; the completion, for example of 'ice miles' in increasingly hostile and unforgiving environments is a good example of this. The difference between the Sports Relief ventures and those within the established swimming community are manifold, not least in the commitment to long-term training, acclimatisation and safety. But I also find myself wondering what is at stake in these celebrations of suffering and overcoming, and perhaps, what is lost. The constant pushing of boundaries undoubtedly brings its own satisfactions and rewards, and suffering is also relative - what to me might feel like an excessive risk is a manageable reality to others, just as my own modest swimming ventures may seem excessive and dangerous to some. But the escalation of suffering is also closely tied to the idea that suffering itself, especially when voluntarily undertaken, has moral value and that makes me uncomfortable - firstly because it silences the pleasures of endurance sport; and secondly, because I think that the logic of the escalation pushes us towards a very dangerous space indeed.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

I used to be a marathon swimmer...

I was talking to someone about the marathon swimming research recently and they asked me if I was a marathon swimmer. Without even thinking, I said, "I used to be". And then I was quite shocked to find myself thinking about it in the past tense.

I've been thinking about this quite a bit recently while working on my book. In the introduction, I talk about the different types and stages of 'becoming' that make up the process, and then reflect on the inevitable phases of 'unbecoming' - periods of illness, time out to focus on work or family life, or in my most recent case, injury. After 5 months of barely swimming, if I am still a marathon swimmer, I am certainly one who couldn't possibly do a marathon swim. Long lay-offs are very unforgiving and fitness melts away quickly, so after my long training break, and regardless of the injury, my swimming capacity is vastly diminished; even a couple of km sits rather uncomfortably in the shoulders and upper back.

One of the hardest things about training, I think, is that you have to start from where you are. So that's what I'm trying to do - start from where I am and build up steadily. The good news is that my shoulder is heaps better, and a recent session with Emma from Active Blu has given me a clear focus for what I need to be working on in my stroke to stop that happening again. But still, while I can recall and imagine the unique sensations of long swimming in tangibly 'real' ways, it seems an awfully long way off. And I miss it.