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.

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...