Intermission – Swim, Swimmy Swim: 2Swim4Life Part 9

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By 2am, the person who was really struggling was Pip. He was down to forty minute miles, which only left him 20 minutes per hour for everything else, and although he was fine with the cold he was having problems with feeding. “Feeding” sounds like a bit of a joke to the uninitiated, but to marathon swimmers it’s deadly serious; there are whole seminars dedicated to it and people who are experts on the subject. If you’re going to do a marathon swim, you need to have your feeding regime sorted well in advance. People who train for Channel swims at Dover and Durley get advice and training on feeding as well as swimming as it can make the difference between a successful and an unsuccessful swim.

When you’re doing a really long-distance swim you have a number of feeding issues to contend with. Firstly, how do you feed? You’re never allowed to touch the boat, so you can’t hang onto the ladder. Most people have a bottle thrown to them on a string or a cup lowered down in a bucket; one successful swimmer was fed sandwiches via a child’s shrimping net. Whatever method you choose, you have to be able to feed quickly. On an eighteen hour swim, you might feed over thirty times, so if you take a minute a feed, that’s an extra half hour on your time, which might make the difference between making it across before the tide turns or having to swim for an extra six hours.

And then there’s what you eat. You need carbs to fuel you, so most people use Maxim or something similar, made with hot water to help with the cold. You might want some treats to keep your morale up; a lot of channel swimmers like things with bags of umami such as jelly babies or chocolate mini-rolls, as you can taste these despite the salt water and they’re soothing on sore mouths. If you’re sick, this will also affect not only what you can eat and keep down, but also what you want to eat. A successful marathon swimmer will have practised all this and will not only know it all themselves but will have a support team who also knows it and is familiar with the swimmer so that they can supply what’s needed promptly and appropriately for both the swimmer’s physical state and their state of mind.

More shortly.

Intermission – Swim, Swimmy Swim: 2Swim4Life Part 8

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And again, despite my gloomy expectations, it wasn’t bad at all. As most other people were either asleep or swimming or had headed off to do other things, I said I’d buddy Pip from midnight until 2am. As it got colder I layered up and joined the other buddies beside the pool, where a jolly kind of Dunkirk spirit prevailed. I was getting to know a few other people and saying howdy as we passed each other at the hot drink table or en route to the toilet; Caroline, whom I knew from previous swimming trips; a relay buddy of Pip’; the chap whose wife was doing a solo and hadn’t been able to train because of injury. She had decided that each mile over twelve would be a victory, so when I bumped into him as the night wore on we would exchange a few words and a thumbs up: “Still going?” “Still going!” “Excellent! Good stuff!!” They were little starbursts of positivity which made me smile.

To my delight, I wasn’t overtired either, or even particularly sleepy. On the advice of my chum Helen, a midwife with long experience of night shifts, I’d decided not to eat once I got past 11pm to avoid upsetting my stomach, and far from feeling hungry, sleepy or twitchy I felt relaxed and alert. Just the night to get though now, and two swims to go, and I was feeling fine. I was very pleased with myself.

And then there were the swimmers themselves, some people who like me were doing relays, but mainly the soloists, turning up hour after dogged hour, getting their clothes off and getting in again as the night got darker and colder. There was a bunch swimming on the hour in the same lane as Pip who would turn up, sort out their order with a grin and a couple of jokes “He’s first, then me, then you – no pushing in!”, settle their goggles and jump in. At our end the soloists were mainly doing thirty minute miles, extraordinary when you think they’d been swimming for eighteen hours or so and already had eighteen miles under their belts. At the far end there were quite a few swimmers cracking out twenty minute miles; as I was buddying Pip ploughing stoically up and down, I watched a couple of them flashing along under the floodlights, and it was beautiful to see.

More tomorrow.

Intermission – Swim, Swimmy Swim: 2Swim4Life Part 7

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As the day wore on and darkness fell, I thought about how to manage the long hours ahead. I had swum at 7 pm, and had swims at 11pm, 3am and then my last swim at 7am. Theoretically, I could have gone to bed after the 11pm swim, but then I’d have had to get up in the deep dark middle of the night, and I just couldn’t face it. I knew I’d feel grim, and the thought of having not only to wake up and get up, but to swim a mile in the cold…. No. I decided to stay awake until after the three am swim and then go to bed for a couple of hours. That would mean I’d be waking up at around 6, when I normally get up anyway, and I would only have my last swim to go, which would make things much easier psychologically. That was the plan.

So as the sun set and it got darker and colder, that’s what I did. Mandy had arrived to swim some legs for Richard’s relay team, and cheered me up no end; we discovered we had matching swimming costumes and that we were both swimming together at 3am, so we decided to wear our matching suits for it. I put aside my favourite suit, with a lion on the front, for the last swim. And then, the 11pm swim out of the way, I settled down to get through the next four hours as best I could. 

More tomorrow. 

Matching cossies at 3am 😊

Intermission – Swim, Swimmy Swim: 2Swim4Life Part 6

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For the rest of us, the day wasn’t too bad. When I wasn’t buddying Pip or swimming, I was back at the tent, lounging in the sun and chatting with whoever was around, at one point going into the tent to have a bit of a nap. I was foiled in this by a large group of swimmers who were camped just behind us and who seemed to have endless friends who kept arriving to be greeted with loud cries of delight. One particular girl with a distinctive Northern accent was so loud that it sounded as though she was in the tent with me; every time I dropped off I’d be woken by cries of “Hiya! Hiya! Ow yeh doin? It’s mad, this, ent it, eh?!?”  Sigh.  For Pip, though, it must have been a different story as he slogged his way onwards, mile after weary mile. 

More tomorrow.

Intermission intermission

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I’ve been doing some writing exercises this weekend; here’s a short story I created from four random prompts*.  It’s called:

Balloon

I loved the way she said “balloon”. She said it as if she were blowing bubbles.  “Balloon. Balloon! Ballooooon!!”  Reaching out towards those bright bobbing blobs of colour, wanting to grasp them.  If we bought her one, and we always did, we had to tie it to the pushchair so that it wouldn’t float away when her fat little fist inevitably let go of the string.  She would be left bereft, pointing as her treasure wavered away above our heads and crying “Balloon! Balloon!” as though we could magically pull it back down for her.  Once home the treasure had to be tied to the leg of her high chair so that it could bob above her head where she could see it.  As we passed we’d push it down gently and then let it go to bounce up again, making her laugh “Again! Again!”  In a few days the helium would have leaked out and it would be dragging on the floor, wrinkled and sad, a shiny foil shadow of its former self.

“There you go, making up lies again”. That’s what they told me.  They told me I never had a daughter, I’d never had a wife, we’d never taken her to the fair or bought her balloons or laughed when she cried “Balloon.  Balloon!”  All lies, all falsehoods, alternative facts created by a brain which had jumped the tracks and started to make its own reality.  So how come it seems so real, I asked them.  How come I can remember her saying it, “Balloon! Balloon!!”?  I can see the pushchair, with its blue flowered cushions and plastic rain hood, and I can see her high-chair with the apple green seat and the white plastic tray and the green straps to fasten her in and keep her safe.  I can see her black shiny hair and little fat fist grasping the balloon string.  I can remember how it felt to push that balloon down to make it bounce up and make her laugh.  I can see the beige and brown lino on our kitchen floor.  And although I can’t see my wife, I can remember meeting her, walking up to the bar and she was standing behind the counter, giving him this coke float kind of smile.  I can see him leaning on the bar, smiling back, and waggling his lager glass for her to give him another pint.  And I can remember thinking “Enjoy it while you can, my friend, because she’ll be smiling that smile for me before too long”.

But apparently that’s all lies.  Well, not all of it.  There was a Japanese student who worked behind the bar in my local in Aberystwyth, and she did have a boyfriend who used to hang out at the bar and make up to her when she was working.  My brother said that’s true, and that she’s still there, still working in the pub, although now she only works lunchtimes because she needs to be home in the evenings to look after her kids.  Her son and daughter.  Her daughter who is my daughter too.  I know.  I KNOW.  But I’m not her dad, apparently.  I’m not the man who fathered her and was there when she was born and cuddled her and sang songs to her and took her to the fair and bought her balloons, because apparently Hatsue didn’t marry me, she married the bloke who was chatting her up that first evening and he’s the father of her daughter and the man who bought her balloons. That’s the truth.  They keep telling me.  So why can I remember how that little girl’s hair smelt, and how soft her skin was when she snuggled into my neck when I took her upstairs to bed?

I can’t remember Hatsue, though.  I looked at the pictures of her on the internet and she looks like a stranger, or someone I knew slightly once a long time ago.  They tell me that’s because that’s what she is, but I think it’s because I’ve blanked her.  I’ve wiped her from my mind, because I love my daughter so much.  I can still remember her scream, the way she shrieked the day her mother slapped her face.  The sound of the slap on her soft skin, the shock on her face, the appalled look of betrayal, the distress, the tears.  The tears on my beautiful girl’s beautiful cheeks.  That’s when I decided to wipe Hatsue out.  To take her out of the picture.  To bring up my daughter alone, just us, so that no one would ever hit her again just because she cried for a balloon.  To take her away where she’d be safe, where it would just be her and me, where she could have all the balloons she wanted, and I would always push them down and let them go to make her laugh.  I just took the pushchair and wheeled it away, and by the time Hatsue noticed we’d gone we were lost in the crowd.  And even they agree with me, that that actually happened.  Just us, the two of us, my daughter and me.  That’s real.

* If you’re interested the prompts were:

First line: “I loved the way she said “balloon”. She said it as if she were blowing bubbles.”, Non-sequitur (introduced after five minutes’ writing): “There you go, making up lies again”. That’s what they told me., second Non-sequitur (after a further five minutes) “She was standing behind the counter, giving him this coke float kind of smile.”, Last straw (after a further five minutes): “the day her mother slapped her face”, and then a further five minutes to finish.

Intermission – Swim, Swimmy Swim: 2Swim4Life Part 5

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And once we were off, weirdly, it wasn’t that bad. There was a buzzy atmosphere and the buddies for the soloists were all chummy and chatty as we stood at the end of our lanes and watched the swimmers clocking off their lengths, 34 lengths to a mile. Pip, our only soloist, hadn’t got a buddy, so for a fair bit of the morning I buddied him, sitting in the sunshine at the end of his lane and getting to know the other buddies  as we counted lengths. 

Ah, counting lengths! It’s an important job for all the swimmers, but for soloists it’s critical, as they can easily become too tired, too cold and too bored to keep count, and none of them wanted to swim either too many or, Heaven forfend, too few lengths of their challenge. There were all sorts of ways of counting in evidence. Our team had a plastic folder with laminated numbers which could be flipped over both to count and to show the swimmer the distance swum. Charlotte had an excellent spreadsheet, with a line for each mile and a column to tick off each length. The buddy standing next to me was doing it old school, with a small pad and pen to mark off the lengths. However, he did also have a stopwatch which he was using to time his swimmer’s miles so that he could see if she was slowing, an excellent way of keeping an eye on how the swimmer is doing.

In fact she was doing brilliantly, clocking off 29 minute miles with the regularity of a metronome. And our teams weren’t doing badly either. My first two miles, swum at a leisurely marathon pace, came in at 35 and 36 minutes, which delighted me, since two years ago I could barely manage a 35 minute mile swimming as hard as I could over the distance and drafting a faster swimmer. And Ruth was doing even better​, blithely knocking out personal bests of 35 minutes a mile with no problems at all. 

The exception was our sole soloist, Pip, who had by far the biggest task. He started slowly for him, which was not a concern in itself; what was concerning was the fact that he was slowing and, as the afternoon advanced, heading towards 40 minute miles. Slowness is a sign that the swimmer is tiring; and it’s a particular problem for soloists as every minute in the water cuts into their rest time. Every extra minute spent swimming meant less time to rest, get warm, eat and drink, and even go to the toilet before the next mile inexorably started. 

More tomorrow.

Intermission – Swim, Swimmy Swim: 2Swim4Life Part 4

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And then it was the day itself! Fortunately it was sunny, which lifted the spirit, and when we arrived at 8am the site was already bustling, as supporters of soloists and relay teams got themselves into key positions on the benches by the pool. The car park was rammed.  Supporters were sorting out free tea and biscuits while latecomers put up tents on remaining bits of grass, reminding me of the sad souls who arrive at Latitude on Friday night and yomp mornfully around in the dark desperately seeking a pitch amongst the mass of canvas. 

One chap had one of those enormous outdoor pillows which he’d positioned on the ground at the end of a bench next to the corner of the pool. He was already ensconsed in it, earbuds in, busy on his phone, when I arrived, and as far as I could tell he never moved for the entire twenty four hours except to get himself into a sleeping bag when night arrived and it got cold. God knows what his role was or why he was there; I certainly never found out.

As nine am approached there was a rising feeling of anticipation and muted excitement. People stopped stowing their bags and sorting their equipment and drifted towards the pool, where the soloists were readying themselves. The organisers got themselves microphones, and everyone pressed forwards towards the shallow end, where swimmers were casting off robes and settling their goggles. The organiser made an admirably short, sharp speech and then we all started the countdown. “Ten, nine….” all the way down to “three, two, ONE, GO!“, as, with a huge cheer, the first swimmers hit the water. The 2017 2Swim4Life had begun. Oooh errr!

More tomorrow.

The calm before the storm. Photo courtesy of Charlotte Simon

Intermission – Swim, Swimmy Swim: 2Swim4Life Part 4

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Of course, since I was worried about how tired I’d be swimming a mile every four hours for twenty four hours, I planned to get lots of sleep the night before. And of course, since this was real life, I failed. For a start, I’d been on a (wonderful and  a very enjoyable enjoyable​) SLSC day trip to Stratford on Thursday, from which I ‘d returned at two am, so I wasn’t exactly dew-fresh to start with.

Then there was the timing. You can pitch tents at Guildford Lido for the event, which is a good idea as it gives you a base where you can leave all your stuff, change in between swims, and have a nap if you’re able to. They allow you to pitch your tents between the hours of five and six pm the night before the swim, and I’d volunteered to go down and put up our tent, kindly loaned by Ian, along with Helen. 

By the time I’d picked Helen up, driven to Guildford, pitched the tent next to Mick and his brother with their giant SLSC flag, had a chat and driven back, it was seven pm. I’d also volunteered to drive the next morning, which meant getting up at 5.30 to get everything ready and packed, pick up the others and be down at Guildford by eight ready for the start at nine. By the time I’d had supper and was en route to bed it was nine pm, not terribly late, but it would still mean that I’d have less than the ten hours sleep I’d wanted to get. (Could I really have gone to bed at 7.30 pm? I don’t know, but as a general rule I can sleep on a clothesline at any time of day or night, so I wouldn’t put it past me.) 

As it was, it was 9.30 when I put the light out, which meant eight hours sleep. Would I be too tired? How tired would I be? And how would it affect me? I suffer from restless legs, and driving back from Stratford at midnight on Thursday, my legs were like Cupid Stunts’s. Would I have restless legs at Guildford? The thought of feeling as though I’d been possessed by the vengeful spirit of Riverdance for hours on end was grim. And how would it affect my swimming? It’s bad enough trying to stay awake when you need to sleep, far worse when you have to force your soft, sleepy body, feeling as tender as if it’s short of a skin, into a chilly swimming pool to swim a mile. How bad would it be? Would I even be able to do it?

More tomorrow.

Intermission – Swim, Swimmy Swim: 2Swim4Life Part 3

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Whilst mooching moodily round Waitrose on the Friday before the event, looking mournfully at various food options and rejecting them, my eye happened to fall upon the wonder that is McSween’s vegetarian haggis. I’ve eaten this on a number of occasions, because not only does it substitute most admirably for actual haggis, should you be a vegetarian at a Burns night supper, it’s also an excellent vegetarian option if someone is cooking you a roast lunch and wondering what to do in place of meat (along with Auntie Bessie’s Vegetarian Toad in the Hole, which is another great vegetarian roast dinner dish). Aha!

The benefits of McS V H, to my mind, were several. It’s made of oats, lentils and beans, so great for slow energy release. It’s savoury, not sweet, so nom nom nom! And I know, because I have done it in the past when I’ve had left-overs, that it is very nice eaten cold (once it’s been cooked of course). Job done! 

I duly grabbed one, and headed for the Cup o’Soups, that reliable comforting warm standby when the only hot option available is something made with a kettle. And joy of joys! I discovered that Heinz have started producing some of their iconic soups in cup o’Soup format, amongst them Cream of Mushroom, my all time favourite. (Cream of Tomato? Blech!) A packet of Heinz Cream of Mushroom Cup o’Soup and a big bunch of bananas later, and I was sorted! 

At home I cooked the haggis with lots of chopped spinach and mushrooms and a few broad beans for luck, and stuck it in a big sandwich box in the fridge. With the addition of a couple of porridge pots and four tiny pots of Ambrosia Creamed Rice for luck, I was done. Now I only had to worry about staying awake for thirty-six hours. Oh, and swimming six miles. Ooh err! 

More tomorrow.

Intermission – Swim, Swimmy Swim: 2Swim4Life Part 2

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One of the things which was bothering me about the event was what to eat. I’d have to eat something, or somethings, which could be easily transported to and stored at the venue without refrigeration. With no cooking facilities the only option for warm food would be anything you could add hot water to, as there was a constant supply of hot water, thanks to the lovely volunteers. A number of friends were going for sandwiches, pies, pot noodles, pasta pots and instant porridge, all of which had a few drawbacks as far as I’m concerned.

For a start, I don’t eat meat, and recently, after years of being privately a bit scornful of people who claim to be “gluten-intolerant” when they’re nothing of the sort* I am now laughing on the other side of my face, having discovered that I’m “gluten intolerant” myself in that eating gluten makes me sleepy and upsets my digestion in ways which had been going on for so long that I’d assumed it was normal for me. (Don’t get me wrong, I still mainline toast – I just eat it in the evenings. Job done!) Given that I would be wanting to stay awake for twenty four hours and then drive home, anything with gluten was out. And while instant porridge would seem to be the obvious substitute, I’m not really a big fan of sweet stuff, and the thought of living for a whole day on plain porridge – well, I didn’t really want to end up Scottish. What, oh what to eat? 

*I should add that I don’t include in this people who are genuinely gluten intolerant, of which there are a few amongst my friends. These people genuinely can’t eat gluten and they don’t make a big fuss about it, they just don’t eat gluten. I mean the sort of person who has “given up gluten” because it makes them “bloated and sluggish” and then it becomes a really big deal every time there’s food in the offing. Just eat the bloody cake if you want it. Being a bit sleepy won’t kill you, unless you’re driving or operating heavy machinery, in which case, don’t eat the cake. Sheesh! 

More tomorrow.