Monday, 25 April 2016

Talking head video...

This is a piece of shameless self-promotion, but I recently made a short video at work as part of a  broader project to showcase the School of Sociology and Social Policy's research profile. Eventually it'll be posted up on the School's website, but for now, it's having its first outing on You Tube via social media.

I have to confess that I didn't really enjoy making it - this is definitely not my natural medium, and in spite of much encouragement from the cameraman, Steve, I found it a little disconcerting to gaze into the camera lens and chat about the research. I'd practiced what I wanted to say quite a bit beforehand, which helped, but I still look a little bit like I'm about to be executed, especially at the beginning. But nevertheless, I was happy with the end result, and think that we managed to capture the important points about the project and my book, Immersion (which has now gone to press and will be out in August).

I hope you like it.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Why wetsuits aren't biscuits....

I had a conversation last week with a prospective English Channel swimmer who wants to start getting some outdoor distance under her belt as soon as possible, but doesn't live close enough to an open water venue to make it worth what would inevitably be relatively short dips at first because of the early season cold. Her suggestion to some marathon swimming friends that she might use a wetsuit in the spring as part of her training had been met with derision, arguing that she needed to acclimatise, and that she risked becoming dependent on the wetsuit in ways that would damage her Channel swimming plans.

This latter is one of the core objections from within the marathon swimming community to the use of wetsuits - that they create a dependence both in terms of body position in the water and their insulating effects. This talk of the risks of over-reliance on wetsuits reminds me of the conversations that happen routinely among dieters - that some foods have to be avoided because we can't be trusted around them. The 'biscuit' (or cookie, for my US friends) is the conventional unit of risk in these discussions - that you can't afford to have biscuits in the house because of the risk that you won't be able to stop eating them.

But wetsuits aren't biscuits.

Sacrilegious though it may be to say so in marathon swimming circles, it is perfectly feasible, and, I would argue, sensible for a marathon swimmer in training for a non-wetsuit swim to use a wetsuit as part of their preparations. For example, for those (like me, and my friend above) who live too far away from open water venues to allow for short acclimatising dips, it makes perfect sense to use the wetsuit to get some distance in, in combination with acclimatising swims. So, for example, in the early season, I might do a 2 hour wetsuit swim, followed by a 15 minute non-wetsuit acclimatisation dip. Then next time, I shorten the wetsuit swim by 15 minutes and lengthen the non-wetsuit portion by the same...until eventually, both acclimatisation and the warmer weather join forces and allow full session non-wetsuit swimming of ever-increasing distances. In the mean time, in addition to ongoing pool training, I've managed both acclimatisation swims and done some good foundational distance work (and most importantly, got to enjoy being outdoors).

For those who don't want to engage with non-wetsuit swimming at all, for whatever reason, my advice is to ignore the anti-wetsuit harrumphing of some parts of the marathon swimming community and dive in anyway. Wetsuits add comfort and buoyancy, and allow many more people to enjoy the water than otherwise would. For those who would like to try non-wetsuit swimming but are nervous to do so, find an experienced ally who can support you to do it safely and who will help you to learn what they find pleasurable about non-wetsuit swimming - and if you don't like it, go back to the wetsuit if you enjoy that more. And for those who are training for a long, non-wetsuit marathon swim, don't be afraid of wetsuits - they can be an effective training aid like any other. I know there are plenty of people who wouldn't be seen dead in a wetsuit, and that's their choice; but the non-wetsuit rules of marathon swimming only apply to the swims themselves. It doesn't make you any less of a marathon swimmer to use a wetsuit as part of your training.

There are many paths to successful and enjoyable marathon swimming, and wetsuits aren't biscuits.

Thursday, 3 March 2016

While I was away....

While I was away from the blog, there's been a couple of notable happenings. The first is very much about swimming - my decision to sign on with the Lake Geneva Swimming Association to have a crack at swimming the length of Lake Geneva (from Bouveret to Geneva - all 69 km of it). US swimmer, Jaimie Monahan completed it last year in just under 33 hours, following in the footsteps of two Swiss swimmers -  Vedika Bolliger in 1999 (42.45) and Alan Charmey in 1986 (22.43). It's a bit of a monster swim, and I'm slightly frightened of it, but I'm curious to see what a swim of that magnitude feels like. I've never swum into and through a whole night, and I've never swum anything like that distance in fresh water, so it's a bit of leap into the dark. But go to the website and look at the scenery - it's jaw-droppingly beautiful.

The LGSA is a new organisation, and I think that quite a few people will be having a go at this newcomer to the swimming scene this summer. My swim's not until the end of August, so I'm planning to watch and learn from others. And I'll be swimming. A lot. Key training points include a trip to Lanzarote for some early long distance training in April, and then at the end of June, I'll be trying to do a double Windermere (21 miles) followed by a single Windermere the next day, which, if all goes well, should enable me to more than meet the LGSA qualifying criteria of a 7 hour swim followed by a 6 hour swim the next day. Many thanks to Mark Robson for offering to help with the piloting and logistics of this. Otherwise, I expect you'll be able to find me hanging out in the Lake District over the summer, churning out the miles in some of my favourite swim spots. Fingers crossed for a safe, injury-free run-up.

The second development relates to the decision I made last August to become a vegan - that is, to eliminate all food sources derived from animals (meat, fish, dairy, honey etc). In the first instance, this has been confined to my diet (I haven't decided yet whether to take this further (clothing, anti-chafing products like Desitin and Sudacrem etc)) and the decision comes after 30 years of vegetarianism. I think that my move to the countryside finally tipped me over the edge (sheep bleating all night for the lambs taken away etc), but I've been bothered for a while by the inconsistency of a vegetarian position based primarily on resistance to animal cruelty and exploitation (as mine was). It's not been an entirely easy transition - I found giving up cheese in particular very difficult, and lots of entrenched habits of eating left me feeling very lost at first. But as the weeks have progressed into months, I gradually adapted to my new diet. The trick, I was advised, is to crowd out dairy with new foods; I have expanded my previously quite limited culinary repertoire and have enjoyed exploring new ways to eat and get the nutrition that I need.

At first, I made a lot of mistakes, especially in relation to swimming and training. The only complete lapse came after a five and a half hour swim last summer, quite shortly after becoming vegan, when I didn't properly attend to my immediate post-swim nutrition (the recovery shake I always normally used, like most, has milk products in it) and I ended up waking up hungry and depleted and eating cheese on toast in the van at 3 in the morning. A learning experience! I've tried the specialist vegan recovery shakes but they're too sweet and sickly for me, so I've now switched to soya chocolate milk or a green protein shake made from spinach, bananas and vegan protein powder (rice and hemp proteins). I've also had to say goodbye to the jelly baby (gelatine - sob!), and will be experimenting over the summer with a range of in-swim nutrition options to supplement the carb drinks (vegan porridge, fruit bars etc) plus my usual standby - bananas. This will be an important part of my summer training - to recalibrate my in-swim and post-swim nutrition. I started off using the No Meat Athlete book and website for guidance, but have branched out since then. My approach is very simple  - I aim for as much unprocessed (or minimally processed) food as possible, with as wide a range as possible. I don't count anything - calories, or quantities of protein, carbs, fat or anything else - because life's too short. I work on the principle that a diverse range of plant-based foods will give me the nutrition I need. And so far,  it's working.

My decision to go vegan is all about animal welfare and the environmental implications of the exploitation of animals; I didn't set out with any health or weight goals. But incidentally, the health impacts have been noticeable - I am sleeping better, have much more energy and feel great. Collaterally, I have lost a fair amount of weight, but I don't consider this to be an independent health benefit and don't weigh myself so I have no idea how much my weight has changed - I decided many years ago that I never want the quality of my day to be determined by a number on the scale, and the conventional assumptions that weight loss is synonymous with improvements in health is highly problematic. I think that I lost a lot at the beginning because I didn't have the nutrition right, so I'm pleased that this has now tapered off, suggesting that I've reached a better state of stability and balance.

I'm probably going to be writing more about all this later on - I'm working at the moment on a journal article comparing vegan and low carb weight loss plans, focusing on the rhetorics that they use to recruit followers (both very similar in spite of their diametrically opposed dietary philosophies - science, primitivism, masculinity, anti-obesity, 'health'). I'm not at all interested in trying to arbitrate over which is healthier, sustainable or effective, but I'm really intrigued by their shared repudiation of the standard dietary recommendations and their appeal to new commercial weight loss markets (and particularly men). More to follow on this.

So that's my news - a big swim and a dietary change. And now I'm just waiting for the warmth of spring so that I can head outdoors where the fun swimming happens.

Friday, 26 February 2016

I changed my mind...

Back in August, I announced the end of The Long Swim, feeling that it had run its course. I've got a real soft spot for my little blog and its role in my swimming life, and I didn't want to let it just wither on the vine as I became less inclined to engage in such a public documentary and commentary practice. But recently, I've been missing it. I hadn't realised how much I had become accustomed to using the blog as a space for testing out ideas and writing more informally than I have to in my academic life. I'm currently starting a new book project, and it's a bit like wading through treacle - have really missed the chance to float ideas and think things through outside of the more stressful space of the 'manuscript'.

So, I've changed my mind and am resurrecting The Long Swim, albeit in amended form. Most significantly, I'm going to move away from an entirely swimming focused blog to cover a wider range of issues that I'm interested in. Consequently, some of my future posts may well not be of interest to readers who have come in search of swimming content, and as well as ongoing swimming blogs, I am anticipating future posts on issues of feminist body politics, fat politics and the politics of food and consumption. Some of these concerns intersect (at least for me) - for example, one of the key triggers to me restarting the blog has been the recent flourishing debates online about low carb diets and swimming. In another example, my current book project is about obesity surgery, and will inevitably draw me towards thinking about our attitudes to fat more generally - a key preoccupation in the marathon swimming community. Other topics are less obviously connected to the blog's previous swimming focus; my new research project on the menopause, for example, does not have obvious resonance with swimming... although the paucity of research of the experience of the menopause among swimmers would also suggest an interesting potential point of connection. I sometimes feel like swimming contains a little bit of everything; it is something useful for me to think with.

I had thought about setting up a new blog rather than risking changing the character of this one, but that feels too complicated, especially since I don't experience the different issues that (pre-)occupy me as distinct from each other, and I certainly I don't have the organisational skills or energy to sustain more than one blog at a time.

So, I changed my mind and The Long Swim is back.

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.