Sunday, 2 August 2015

An ending...

It's been over 6 years since I started The Long Swim, during which time I've published 281 posts and the blog has been visited over 115,000 times. The blog documents the landmark swims that punctuate my marathon swimming history - Round Jersey, Jersey to France, the English Channel, the Catalina Channel, MIMS, the 8 Bridges - but it also includes a million small triumph and failures as I've bumbled my way through my unlikely and unexpected career as a marathon swimmer. I had never intended for it to go on as long as it has - I thought it would be a fun way of documenting my English Channel swim (hence, the long swim), and hadn't really anticipated getting so thoroughly drawn into the sport beyond that milestone. The blog has also been an important part of my research life, giving me a chance to document my swimming in a different register and to try out new ideas and thoughts. It has changed a lot, particularly over the last couple of years, when I've been writing much more about the world of marathon swimming rather than my own swimming, and I think I've got better at blogging as I've gone along, experimenting with different ways to talk about swimming (although I always tried not to over-edit or over-manicure the blog posts, so many of them are not as carefully crafted as they could have been). I'm very fond of The Long Swim, and have greatly enjoyed writing it.

But now, I've decided that it's time to move on and bring the blog to a close (although I plan to keep it online, and hope that it might be useful as a resource for those making their way into the sport). After 6 years, I'm not sure that I've got much that is new to add, and although I've toyed with the idea of keeping it going with just occasional posts when I do long swims every year or so, I don't like having it sitting there unkept and I don't want it to start feeling like an obligation. The 8 Bridges seems like a good note to end on, and with my book manuscript ("Immersion") going to press shortly ready for a spring 2016 release, this feels like another natural point of closure.

My final motivation for bringing the blog to an end now is that after years of studying and writing about swimming, I would like it back as a more private thing. Sharing it all has been enormous fun, but it has also had costs, especially as the readership has expanded, leading me increasingly to have to censor myself on particular topics that I feel strongly about in order to avoid some of the more intemperate backlash that thrives in the online world - something which inevitably takes some of the fun out of  blogging. So now feels like a good time to make my swimming less public and instead to savour it as the the closely held, personal joy that swimming is for me.

This is only an end to the blog, and most definitely not to my swimming, which I plan to continue enjoying to the full for as long as I am fit and able to do so. I'll also be keeping my Twitter account going for the time being (@thelongswim), and will continue my ongoing friendships with swimmers around the world over social media and wherever possible, in person.

Thanks to everyone who has visited the blog over the years, and for all the positive feedback - it's been a wonderful 6 years. Hope to see you all in the water soon.

Monday, 22 June 2015

A dangerous time of infinite possibilities...

There’s something that happens after a successful long swim…. a small vacuum opens up. The consuming intensity of training, organizing and swimming lingers as a pleasurable recollection, any fatigue or discomfort is conveniently forgotten, and a successful outcome gives rise to a deceptive self-confidence in future capacities. As you rest and recover and bask in the happiness of a good outcome, you find yourself with far more time than you had before now that you're no longer trying to squeeze several hours of training into the working day – time to think, to imagine, to plan without the immediate consequences of implementation. And so, since nature abhors a vacuum, you start to summon up future adventures, each more ambitious than the last. It’s an obvious response to the end of an exciting experience, and there should be a compulsory moratorium on concrete planning for a sustained period post-swim. But still….it doesn’t hurt to think about it… And it’s not just me. Everyone asks “What’s next?”

I have no plans yet, and I don’t know what’s next, although I’m surer now than I was before the 8 Bridges that there will be a ‘next’. Concerned about my latent shoulder injury, I saw the 8 Bridges as something of a test case , but having emerged unharmed, I feel dangerously liberated to plan and imagine in ways that I couldn’t so confidently do before. This liberation, combined with the dangerous post-swim period of infinite possibilities, means that it’s been impossible not to start thinking about what might come later.

And so….I’ve been thinking with the summer of 2017 in mind – the next realistic opportunity for an adventure. The SantaBarbara Channel Swimming Association has some appealing swims, and Monterey Bayis also a possible. But at the moment, I’m more drawn to fresh water swims, since my current location lends itself to lake more than sea swimming. There are a few swims that have been on the bucket list for some time that are likely candidates in the next couple of years - SCAR and Lake Zurich spring most readily to mind, if they’ll have me. I’ve thought about Lake Tahoe, Loch Ness and Loch Lomond, but I was also hugely inspired in the last year by Elaine Howley’s pioneering length of Lake Pend Oreille (32.3 miles, 20 hours and 25 mins), and have been thinking for a while about whether I should try to find a long (l-o-n-g) lake swim to have a crack at. The longest I’ve ever swum for is 16 hours (for my EC swim), but I wonder if I could do more with the right preparation…  Several conversations while I was in New York about the Finger Lakes have fuelled this particular fire, but of course, none of this counts while I’m still in the dangerous post-swim zone of over-confidence in my imagined future capabilities.

So I don’t know what’s next, but the field of possibilities, however seductively unrealistic, is delicious. More prosaically, however, I walked / ran on a treadmill for 30 minutes yesterday and had to lie down for two hours afterwards - a blunt reminder of the legacy of fatigue of a week of long swimming, and a useful brake on my post-swim imaginings. 

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Looking back at the 8 Bridges....

I have just returned from one of the most intense, consuming, exhilarating, brutal weeks of swimming I have ever experienced. The 8 Bridges Hudson River Swim is an extraordinary gem in the marathon swimming canon - the longest marathon swim on the roster, passing 120 miles down the Hudson River from the Rip Van Winkle bridge in Catskill to the Verrazano Narrows bridge at the mouth of New York Harbour, swimming from bridge to bridge over 7 one-day stages.

At the end of the 2015 event, Lori King had successfully become the 4th person to complete all 7 stages in a single iteration, and I am humbled to be listed among a further 5 who have tackled every stage consecutively, but with one or more incomplete stages. As I described in a guest blog about the first 3 stages, I fell short by two miles on the second stage, unable to outpace the day's difficult conditions, but this disappointment was more than compensated for by the successful completion of the swim's toughest stage (stage 5) - a delightful surprise that exceeded all my expectations leading up to the swim. I was also lucky enough to have the chance to start stage 3 at the point where I had left the water the day before, adding a couple of extra miles to the day but enabling me to cover the entire 8 Bridges distance by the end of the week, even without completing all the stages. And so, with one DNF, 6 successful stage completions, and 120 miles and a grand total of 39 hours, 37 minutes and 22 seconds of swimming under my belt, I couldn't be happier.

Reflecting on the event, a few thoughts come to mind. Firstly, after my long struggle in 2013-14 to resolve my shoulder injury, I am over the moon that I didn't have a squeak of trouble from it throughout the swim. I had feared that my long swimming days were numbered, but the months of physio and the incisive stroke correction skills of Active Blu's Emma Brunning worked wonders. My rehab year, and the many months I spent drilling my way up and down the pool, paid dividends; without it, and with my old, perniciously ingrained stroke defects still intact, I don't believe I would have been able to tolerate the sustained stress on the body that an event like the 8 Bridges generates. For those struggling with injury, you have my deepest sympathy, but give it time and put in the work - not all problems and injuries can be so straightforwardly resolved, but for those that can be, patience is your friend.

Secondly, I know with certainty that the work of stroke improvement is far from over. Injury rehab and prevention was my top priority in this last round of stroke correction, but in changing my stroke, I have also witnessed a drop in my stroke rate - something that Emma had also pointed out to me but which I obviously didn't fully take to heart. I used to habitually swim at between 62-64 spm, but last week was sitting fairly steadily between 53-57. In part, this signals increased efficiency since there has been no parallel fall in pace, but in the coming year, I want to work more on my ability to sustain my improved stroke whilst pushing the stroke rate back up (as well as further working on efficiency). Hopefully, this will give me the greater turn of speed that I currently lack. As one of the slower swimmers at this year's 8 Bridges event, I feel that this is an area ripe for development. I'll never be the fastest or best of swimmers, but each event highlights a space for incremental improvements, and this will be my focus over the next year.

Thirdly, almost two years since my last long swim, the 8 Bridges has utterly invigorated my love of the sport. I've often noted my love of the luxuriousness of doing nothing all day except swimming, but extended to a week filled with swimming (and its many associated tasks and demands), the intensity of the immersion takes on a forceful, seductive compulsion. For a week, I thought about, and did, little else but swim; everything else got pushed into the background. This is both a prodigious luxury and an extraordinary experience, with my usually sedentary but preoccupying work of reading and writing supplanted by an intense focus on the body and its movements and well-being. It was the most profound and complete break from work that I have ever had. And in its place came the opportunity to experience a broad spectrum of emotions and bodily sensations; to witness a beautiful river as it drifted through a panoply of moods and tones; and to meet a host of fellow swimmers, volunteers, pilots and kayakers brought together by a shared love of the sport and a communal desire for the best possible outcomes for all the swimmers involved.

And amidst the everyday work of swimming that characterises a long stage swim, there are also spectacular and pleasurably memorable moments. I leapt exuberantly from the bow of Launch 5:

I swam past the foot of the Statue of Liberty:

And I passed under monumental bridges - the punctuation marks in our swimming journey:

It was, in short, a splendid adventure. Tough, but splendid. 

Many thanks to Rondi and Dave for organising such an incredible event; it is a perfect blend of the very best the sport has to offer. 

Friday, 5 June 2015

Gone swimming....

The Long Swim is taking a vacation and I'm going to be guest-blogging about the 8 Bridges Hudson River Swim here over the next week, along with several other fellow swimmers. Check in to the blog to see how we're getting on.

Saturday, 2 May 2015

5 weeks to splash time....

Five weeks tomorrow I'll be jumping into the Hudson River for the first stage of the 8 Bridges Hudson River swim - 120 miles down the river, swimming from bridge to bridge each day until finally passing under the Verrazano Narrows Bridge in New York Harbour. It is a daunting undertaking, and I am quite terrified if I think about it too carefully, but the good news is that after being frozen over for a good part of the winter, water temps in the Hudson are now hitting seasonal averages, which definitely bodes well.  

Training has been going well, although as with any swim, it's impossible to say how much training is enough. As an extra level of uncertainty, except for about 40km of sea swimming during a recent trip to Lanzarote, all of my training since last September has been in our Fastlane Pool, so I'm spending a lot of time swimming on the spot... although I'm fairly confident that it's working as training. Plus, I reckon that the novelty of actually moving forwards when swimming and being able to see scenery going past, rather than the same bit of wall, will get me through any hard patches of the 8 Bridges.

It's been a struggle to find the time for training recently, and especially in the last couple of months when I've been flat out teaching and trying to finish my book manuscript. Happily, though, I just made my 30th April deadline, and Immersion is now in the hands of my publishers and heading out for review, leaving me to focus more time and attention on swim training. If nothing else, it's nice to finally have my weekends back and it's such a weight off my mind to not have to be thinking constantly about the book. And even though training time has been tight, the luxury of having the FP means that I have been able to train much more consistently than in previous years, doing around 8-12 hours most weeks since January. I'm hoping that what I'm lacking in bigger distances so far will be compensated for by this consistency. And I reckon that I've got a good few weeks of much harder training time now that the book is in, which will give me chance to push up the mileage a bit. I'm even hoping to get back outside for at least one weekend before I leave for NY, but at the moment, the water is too chilly to stay in for long periods, and given that we had more snow on the ground last week, I'm not holding my breath.

So for now, I'm counting down to the 7th June and keeping my fingers crossed that I stay fit and well. With luck, I'll be in good enough shape to give each of the 7 stages my very best, and I'll be able to enjoy to the full what promises to be a fantastic week of swimming.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

"This girl can"....or why this woman won't....

Sport England recently launched the "This Girl Can" campaign, spearheaded by this video featuring 'real' women working out in a variety of settings.

The rationale for the campaign is that"fear of judgement is stopping many of us from taking part in exercise". The campaign, we are told, "is a celebration of active women up and down the country who are doing their thing, no matter how well they do it, how they look or even how red their face gets". "EVEN how red their face gets"? Is this really the worst fear that women face? 

I'm all for finding ways for anyone who wants to exercise to do so safely and comfortably, but I think that this campaign is hugely misguided. 

Firstly, why "girls"? The campaign is aimed at adult women, so what is to be gained from infantilising them? The fact is that for all the rhetoric of getting out there and doing our "thing", physical activity and womanhood are still such an uncomfortable pairing that women are only allowed to imagine themselves active as "girls".  I'm 47 years old and being a "girl" is far from an aspiration of mine. 

Secondly, the video is not about freedom, or enjoyment of our bodies; it's about sex....or more precisely, being sexy to others. As this smart commentary by Jessica Francombe-Webb and Simon Fullagar observes, the campaign is all about women's flesh and the objectification of women's bodies. The message is that exercising / sweating / moving can be sexy even though you might have feared before that it wasn't. All this does is reframe what might count as sexy, rather than reject the premise that being sexy to (presumably male) others should be the first concern of women. The textual message overlaying the images compound this objectification: "Sweating like a pig, feeling like a fox", reads one; another declares, "Damn right I'm hot". Being infantilised and sexualised is not my idea of empowerment.

My third objection is the individualised nature of the campaign. It urges women to not allow the fear of judgement to stop them from exercising; the implicit message is that it is silly self-consciousness that has stopped women becoming the best they could be. But women are right; they ARE being judged, and it can be very unpleasant. It is not the job of women to learn to ignore the intrusion and harassment that they routinely endure in public spaces, including when exercising; this requires a more wide-reaching, collective action against the judgement of women's bodies and threats to their right to take up space. I think that projects like "'Everyday Sexism" are doing a really good job of drawing attention to these issues, and it's important that campaigns like "This Girl Can" don't just end up coaching women on how to tolerate or defy public judgements and harassment. It's our space too. 

And my final concern relates to this poster from the campaign: 

Sport and physical activity have a moral status in contemporary society; they are seen as a 'good' thing to do, and those people who do them are socially rewarded. This is built into this ad; the cyclist is attributed a higher status than "everyone on the couch". This is a problem because, firstly, as a friend and colleague of mine pointed out, there are many reasons why someone might be on the couch rather than cycling - illness, depression, exhaustion from work, childcare responsibilities...or maybe they just don't like cycling. This points back to the individualised nature of the campaign, and ultimately divides more than it provides a collective feminist consciousness. And secondly, it reproduces the superiority of the sporting body unquestioningly. For some people, sport and physical activity will make them feel better, enable them to have fun, give them time to themselves....or with others... But it doesn't make them a better person than someone who doesn't do sport. 

I love (some) sport as much as the next person (although I can't think of anything I'd rather do less than a zumba class... horses for courses). And I want people who want to do sport but can't for any one of a number of reasons to be able to. But we need to accept that women's low participation in sport is not simply a question of individually getting over self-consciousness or low self-esteem; and nor should women have to endure being infantilised and sexualised in order to earn the right to get out there. 

I think this campaign is well-intended and I know that a lot of people have enjoyed watching it, but it's very wide of the mark, and constitutes a very conservative, regressive portrayal of women whilst masquerading as radical and progressive. It may be that "this girl can", but this woman won't be exercising to feel like a fox any time soon, thank you. 

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.