Sunday, 11 June 2017


It's not been the best week - on Monday, we had to put our lovely old cat, Oscar, to sleep; we discovered that our entire roof needs to come off and all the beams need to be replaced; and then came the messy upheaval of the election and its aftermath towards the end of the week. And throughout, I was trying desperately to remain optimistic about the intractable niggle in my left wrist. It had started a couple of weeks ago, becoming sore and swollen, with the tendons squeaking and rubbing together whenever I moved my wrist or thumb. It felt very sudden, but it probably wasn't; I'd done several long swims in the preceding two weeks which presumably stressed the tendons without me realising it. With the help of my physio, I treated it every way I knew how - rest, ice, taping, denial, optimism - and by the end of last week I had full and pain-free movement and no more squeaky tendons. At the same time, I had managed to postpone my planned Geneva qualification swims for another week; I was hoping that now my wrist was better, I could slowly build back up during the week ready for the swims and then I'd be good to go for the last run up to Geneva II. But sadly, a gentle test swim yesterday morning caused a mild, but unmistakeable, return of the symptoms and I was faced with an unavoidable truth: that if I couldn't do 30 minutes in the pool without triggering it, I was never going to be able to do 10 + 7 hour qualification swims without setting my injury so far back that I wouldn't be able to train between the qualification swim and Geneva. A session with my physio confirmed my suspicions; tendon injuries generally take longer than 2 weeks to heal properly, and although we'd tried really hard, it wasn't looking good. This was particularly true with "old" tendons, he told me. Thanks for that.

The inescapable fact of the matter is that there is simply not enough time for the injury to fully settle and to correct whatever stroke defect is causing it (my persistently wiggly thumb is the prime suspect) before the Geneva swim, never mind actually training for it. And so, in spite of my best efforts and determination for it to be otherwise, I have declared defeat and this summer's qualification swims and the Geneva swim have been cancelled.

In an extreme endurance sport, injury is an occupational hazard, where even the slightest problem is easily magnified to swim-stopping dimensions - whether that's stupidly slipping off a small step, or the imperceptible rubbing of two tiny tendons under the strain of a misplaced micro-movement. I don't know if I have just been unlucky, or perhaps I didn't work hard enough to take care of my body in my training, or maybe I have just over-reached in taking on such an ambitious swim. I feel bad for messing people about (LGSA, Chillswim, Janine and Kate who were coming over to crew) and am embarrassed that once again I've not managed to make it to the start line. At least the injury was swimming-related this time, so perhaps that's some kind of progress.

I'd like to say that I'm down but not out, but right now, I don't feel like that. I love swimming, and especially swimming a long way, but I'm not sure that I have the temperament for such a high-risk game. We'll see. But for now, back to physio and stroke correction I go.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Unfinished business...

My one reservation about going back to Geneva this year was that the lure of "unfinished business" would raise the stakes of the swim to the point where it would cease to be the enjoyable adventure that a swim like that deserves to be. In general, I think I've done a pretty good job of keeping it in proportion and not letting it gather too much import over the winter, but the start of the open water season saw my first major wobble. I spent two weeks in Lanzarote at the end of April, covering just over 90km in total and feeling really good in the water, but my return to the open water in the UK didn't go quite so well. It was COLD, and a combination of having lost a bit of weight and being a bit of a softy in the face of the cold, left me unable to get beyond a couple of hours for my first few outdoors swims before my stroke slowed dramatically and I had to get out. There was a lot of this:

It was very disheartening, and with my 10 hour + 7 hour qualification swims looming and the unfinished business of Geneva waiting in the wings, my confidence took a bit of a battering. Thankfully, several people I know and trust gave me a good talking to, and then right on cue, some long-awaited sunshine arrived and the lakes quickly tipped over the threshold from cold to perfectly swimmable (for me, this comes between 12/13 - 14/15).

And so, with the unfinished business back in its box and an almost unbelievable forecast of 25 degree sunshine for the Lake District, I heading off to the always-stunning Grasmere this weekend to get a bit of confidence-building distance under my belt:

I managed my first 6 hour swim of the season with no problems at all, and I followed that with a couple of hours the next day - I was hoping to do more and definitely would have been able to, but thunder, lightning and torrential rain of the kind that only the Lake District can truly deliver stopped play and I was forced to retreat to the van, where I feasted on beans on toast and read until I fell asleep. If this is what unfinished business is like, then I think I can deal with it! 

So the upshot of all this is that I had a bit of a wobble, but some sunshine and the gorgeous Lakes have set me straight. I've got a touch of niggly tendonitis in my left wrist which I'm getting sorted, but apart from that, I'm fit and well and feeling cautiously optimistic. 

And in other news, I recently heard that I've been awarded a Leverhulme Trust fellowship for my new research project on the social life of sugar. This is a huge privilege and a great opportunity, but aside from the work implications (research only for the next year, with no teaching or admin commitments) and the chance to focus on some interesting research, it also means that I'll have the time to train. I was going to take a year or two out of long swimming after Geneva II is over - a chance to let my body / finances recover. But this seems like too good an opportunity to waste. So I'm probably going to be on the market for an interesting swim. At the moment, the 40 Bridges, Zurich or Tahoe are on the 'possible' list, but all suggestions are gratefully received. 

But for now, I'm keeping my sights on (a) the qualification swims in a couple of weeks (2-way-Windermere + 1-way Windermere) and (b) Geneva II. And I'm watching my step very carefully. 

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Inclusive swimming

I read today that the UK's Amateur Swimming Association (ASA) has issued a new swimwear guidance that allows for exceptions to the usual rules for competition swimwear on the grounds of religious belief or pre-existing medical condition. These changes are in response to a review requested by the Muslim Women's Sports Foundation (MWSF), who highlighted growing participation by Muslim women and girls in sport and the need to foster this interest by maximising the possibilities for access. The revised rules allow the use of textile full body suits that do not have the potential to enhance performance and which have been approved by officials in advance. This change to the rules will primarily benefit those women and girls whose religious beliefs mean that they would prefer to cover their body.

The ASA guidance includes these images of the kinds of suits that are included by the new guidance:

The guidance also includes examples of suits that the revised rules will continue to exclude: 

There has been some predictable grumbling on social media about the changed rules potentially serving as a back door to performance enhancing body suits, but this is clearly not the purpose or consequence of this ruling. It's also important to note that this is distinct from recent FINA changes to the rules about wetsuits in competitive open water swimming, which have also caused controversy in the open water / marathon swimming / triathlon communities. Instead, this new guidance is simply a way of enabling more women and girls to compete in swimming, and that has to be a good thing. 

BME communities are notoriously poorly represented in swimming (all kinds, all levels). This is due to a combination of factors including lack of access to affordable swimming lessons and facilities and the lack of perceived 'fit' with the sport (i.e. children being pointed towards other sports, or being told that 'black people can't swim' because of outdated and racist assumptions about bone density). This poor representation is particularly true for women and girls. There is also the legacy of the historical exclusion of non-white people from swimming facilities - for example, during segregation in the US (see Wiltse's 2007 book, Contested Waters, for a frank and disturbing account of this) - which has ongoing generational impacts in terms of facilities, expectations and a paucity of role models. 

So this small change in the swimwear guidance isn't going to solve the problem of the whiteness of swimming, but it is an important beginning, and signals the active valuing of participation and inclusion to those outside of the sport who might like to give it a try. 

And this got me thinking about other branches of the swimming world where strict costume rules apply, including marathon swimming. This is a sensitive and hotly contested area, but it seems to me that marathon swimming is in a position to be among the leaders in the field of amateur endurance sport by actively incorporating amendments of this kind to swimwear rules. Changes like this to the regulations by Channel / marathon swimming governing bodies are relatively costless, since they would not confer a performance advantage on swimmers wearing full body costumes, but would demonstrate an openness to the social diversity that is currently lacking. It's a small measure, but one that I think would speak volumes in welcoming new swimmers to the marathon swimming community. 

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Starting from where you are....

One of the hardest lessons of training is that you have to start from where you are, and not from where you think you should be at any given point in the training cycle. 

In my last post, optimistically entitled "Recovery", I was optimistic about having completed my functional recovery from the ankle injury and having been signed off from physiotherapy. But the reality was that this was just the beginning of a much longer, slower phase of recovery where my injured ankle inched with glacial slowness towards fuller, more reliable pain-free function. And inevitably, from time to time, I became impatient, or perhaps over-optimistic, and pushed too hard, causing it to swell and ache. Sometimes, even just wearing regular shoes to work rather than allowing myself the comfort and support of trainers, meant that evenings had to be spent with my foot up, wrapped in ice. Each setback made me feel old and useless and  I kept returning in my mind to the costly moment of inattention when I fell, wanting to take it back and have it all work out differently. 

But they're not kidding when they say that time heals, albeit with frustrating slowness. And since Christmas, I've enjoyed a step-change in my recovery and can swim, cycle and run without pain for the first time in months. I'm still proceeding cautiously, and am diligently nurturing my physio-acquired, ankle-stabilising skills of balancing on wobbly things, but at last, I feel like it's pretty much fixed and ready to really take on the work of training. Over Christmas, we escaped to the Canary Islands, and although a sustained weather pattern of lively winds made swimming difficult, I was able to taste the beginnings of the return of the comforts of being in the water....a necessary foundation for training for me. 

Since November, I've been doing short, 30 minute swims (with the occasional hour thrown in), mostly with a pull-buoy at first, then more recently on full stroke. I've also been walking on a treadmill and riding a stationary bike, although both at low intensity. So I still have some basic fitness, but nothing like what I am going to need this summer for Geneva 2, and the gap between my current swim fitness and where I'd like to be now in order to get where I want to be is quite daunting. have to start from where you are. So I have a training plan, running in the first instance through to mid-April, when I'll be going to the Canary Islands for two weeks of hard open water training (with the goal of 100+km during the trip). The next goal after that is to complete the qualifying swims of 10 hours, followed by 7 hours the next day....probably sometime around mid-June. My weeks are mapped out to incorporate gradually increasing volume, and even though I'm starting from only 4 hours per week at the moment, I have to trust that by starting from where I am rather than where I feel like I should be, I will be able to stay injury free and rediscover my long swim fitness. Happily, too, I'm on research leave now until September, which should mean that I can train with a consistency that usually escapes me during the teaching term. I've also been working over the past few months on improving the quality and quantity of my sleep, and I've tweaked my vegan diet slightly to focus even more on whole foods and to eliminate (almost) all processed food. Both of these efforts have been effective, although I'm also aware that these interventions were as much about making me feel purposeful in the face of my ankle frustrations as they were about improving my well-being (although both have). 

So that's where things stand....with 30 weeks to go, I'm starting from where I am and determined to do everything I can to get where I want to be. Money is being put down for the swim, and there's no going back now.