Intermission – Swim, Swimmy Swim: 2Swim4Life Part 15

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So, a little late, where does that leave me? With a few reflections, I guess. First of all, that I have a tendency to expect that things will be worse than they actually turn out to be. I expected to find the swimming much harder than I did, the lack of sleep much tougher to deal with, the mental challenge more difficult. In the event, I was very well equal to all of it, and this has been the case with most of the swimming challenges I’ve dealt with in my time, with two notable exceptions. So I need to remember that in the future, and hope that I’m not facing a Channel relay or a Brownsea Island. On the upside, my worries did mean that I prepared very well, which clearly helped me in terms of how I dealt with the physical challenges.

Then there was my final mile swimming with Ruth.  I’m a competitive person, with a tendency to want to beat people, and in the past I might have tried to race Ruth and beat her to the finish. But in the event swimming next to her and loving our synchronisation, warming and supporting each other, and celebrating together at the end was so much more satisfying. Nor did it lack a sense of victory, as we shared our delight at having successfully completed the challenge. Beating people can be fun but it’s a momentary triumph whereas a sense of shared joy and satisfaction is not only better in the moment but lasts for far longer and strengthens the relationship between those who experience it. Something for me to take away into my daily life, I think. 

And that’s it! In the post-event euphoria a couple of us considered doing solos in next year’s event – no, not 2Swim4Life, but a different format where soloists must swim a kilometre an hour for twelve hours during the course of the day. I reckon I could do that, especially if I had my buddy swimming next to me! What do you think, Ruth?  😉

Intermission – Swim, Swimmy Swim: 2Swim4Life Part 14

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And finally, Pip. Our only SLSC soloist, still determinedly ploughing his lonely furrow on and on through the night and into the dawn. He was swimming on the half-hour, which meant that he was going in for his twenty-fourth and final mile at 8.30 am, after some of the faster swimmers who were going at the top of the hour had finished, which must have been tough. But he was still there and still plugging away, which amazed me, particularly as he was by that point clocking up pretty much forty-five minute miles. 

One of the things about marathons which is hard on the participants is that the slower people tend to get fewer cheers and plaudits that the faster people. Don’t get me wrong, it’s incredibly hard to, say, run a marathon in two hours twenty minutes and change, or even to run one in three hours forty minutes. But it seems to me that it’s even harder to run one in six, seven, eight hours, keeping on keeping on as the speedier people are basking in their success before changing, having a cup of tea and heading home for a hot shower and a nice sit down. On and on, as other competitors and their supporters gradually finish, pack up and start heading home and the organisers begin to take things down until finally you’re overtaken even by the bin lorry collecting the last bits of rubbish from the route. 

It takes a certain sort of mental toughness not just to not care that you’re so much slower than everyone else and to keep going in the face of all doubt as to whether or not you’ll finish at all, but to face a challenge that you know in advance will last three or four times as long as other people’s with precious few cheering crowds at the end. It’s a mental toughness I hugely admire and Pip has it in spades.

So it was that, as other competitors started to drift home and one by one the last swimmers came in to the end and stood up with huge smiles of relief, a small crowd formed at the shallow  end composed of SLSC members, organisers, and other swimmers who know a true hero when they see one. The only other remaining swimmer completed their last length and got out, leaving the pool, for the first time in nearly twenty-four hours, empty, save for one lone swimmer turning wearily for his final two lengths. Down to the other end, turning, and, at long last, back to the applause which started as he approached us, twenty-three and three-quarter hours after starting, having been swimming for more or less eighteen hours of those. You could do a Channel solo in less than that, and many have. Mr Pip Barry, 2Swim4Life 2017 soloist, legend.

More tomorrow.

Intermission – Swim, Swimmy Swim: 2Swim4Life Part 13

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And then all I had to do was to cheer everyone else home. On the far side of the pool, the faster soloists who’d been swimming twenty minute miles were heading towards the end of their own personal marathons. In the lane next to the edge one chap powered down his last length accompanied by a group of supporters running alongside waving flags and cheering. Other supporters had congratulatory notices and banners, or were simply applauding their swimmers in. 

None of this is unwarranted – doing Guildford as a solo is incredibly hard, even in the last two or three miles. Before my last swim I discovered there was actually a large heated changing tent on the other side of the pool, something of which I’d been completely unaware. When we went in the ground was covered with bags and bodies, including one woman asleep wrapped in a Dryrobe right in front of the big air blower who looked as though she’d been there for some time. 

Soloists were parked around the place with their buddies. One chap wrapped in a sleeping bag on two chairs was being given tea by his mates; he asked “How long have I got?” and on being told replied in panicky tones “Seven minutes?!?” “No, mate”, responded his buddy “Nine. Nine.” “Oh…” said the swimmer, relaxing back. The fact that, even right before your last mile, two minutes extra to rest and recover is so important just gives you an idea of how hard it is for the soloists. 

More tomorrow.

Intermission – Swim, Swimmy Swim: 2Swim4Life Part 12

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I’d been rather dreading my 6am wake-up call but as it happened it was, like most of the Guildford swim, a lot easier to get up than I’d anticipated. I wasn’t even particularly sleepy, and when I’d got myself dressed and down to the pool I found a very different atmosphere; things were buzzing, lots of people were up and watching the swimmers and there was a real sense of anticipation in the air as the end approached. 

Some of the soloists I’d seen at the beginning had dropped out, but astonishingly most were still there, including the lady whose husband I’d been chatting to. We met at the hot water when I was making myself a pre-swim tea and porridge and when I asked “Still going?”, he responded triumphantly “Still going!” and we exchanged huge grins and thumbs up. I think that was one of the things which stood out for me about that event; there were a lot of men swimming buddied by women, but there were equal numbers of women swimming buddied by men, who seemed incredibly proud and happy to be playing a supporting role in the lives of their amazing female athletes. Strike one for equality! 

Pip too was still going, plugging along supported by a number of SLSC hangers-on. I hopped in for my last mile expecting it to be just like the previous ones, but about a third into it I realised that my chum Ruth was swimming in the next lane and matching me more or less stroke for stroke. After that we swam the rest of the mile side by side, turning end after end together and at the finish timing it so that we touched at exactly the same time and, standing up exchanged a huge hug and triumphant high fives. It was a wonderful moment, and a lovely way to end my own Guildford swim. 

More tomorrow. 

Me and Ruth, triumphant! 

Intermission – Swim, Swimmy Swim: 2Swim4Life Part 11

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So as Pip carried on grinding out the weary miles, I prepared for my 3am swim. Despite it being cold and dark and the middle of the night, I was actually feeling fine. I wasn’t cold, I wasn’t feeling too tired and I had bags of energy; in fact, I completed my 3am mile only three minutes more slowly than my first mile, which I was very pleased about. It helped a lot that Mandy was swimming at the same time – we changed together, whispering so as to avoid waking sleeping swimmers, wore matching costumes, and posed for pictures before our swims, grinning under the floodlights, all of which was very morale-boosting. 

Once my 3am swim was done, my spirits soared. I had only one more swim to go, at 7am which was a much more civilised time, and the prospect of a nap ahead. Never mind that it was only a couple of hours, it was still the chance to snuggle into a warm sleeping bag and relax. This is what makes it such a very different experience for soloists than for relayers. If you’re doing a solo, you have no time to relax and very little to warm up; every minute becomes precious. 

As for me, I changed into my last costume, put on all my other clothes and covered my sleeping bag with my Dryrobe before crawling into it. Even so I was still cold; the air was freezing and it felt as though it was all blowing down my back and stopping me getting warm. In the end I got back out, found my gloves and hat and put them on, then snuggled back down and finally dropped off to sleep, cosy at last.

More shortly.

Intermission – Swim, Swimmy Swim: 2Swim4Life Part 10

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So… I’m back! Apologies for the unwarranted long delay, caused partly by being lazy and partly by having been away on a lovely holiday. But now I’m back, and, in the heat enfolding London, casting my mind back to the chilly early morning of 23rd April, and Pip’s epic swim. 

By 2 in the morning, he really was struggling. He hadn’t trained sufficiently, so was slowing rather than swimming consistently. Furthermore, because he didn’t have a buddy, he was also having difficulty getting the support he needed in counting lengths and getting him fed in between miles. At one point he asked for a cup of hot sweet tea to get his energy levels back up urgently; due to a miscommunication he didn’t get it, and then had to push through the resulting energy crash, something which took additional  amounts of mental resilience. Had he been suffering with the cold as well he probably wouldn’t have made it, but fortunately he has amazing cold tolerance. 

Even so, I must admit, I doubted if he’d finish. You might think that 3 in the morning is a bright milestone for the solo swimmers, since it marks three-quarters of the way through, but in fact it’s a tough, low point for most of them. Cold and tiredness have really started to bite and swimmers know they’re going to get worse before they get better. They still have six or more hours to go, and they still have to swim six miles, which is a marathon in most people’s book and tough to do even when you’re warm and fresh. It’s the time when swimmers really need to dig deep into their mental reserves. Not for nothing is it considered good training for the Channel. 

More tomorrow! 

Intermission Intermission: Somewhere over the rainbow

Some unconnected thoughts in the light of the recent sad events in London and Manchester.

On Thursday last week I was in France, fortunate enough to be staying in an old chateau in the heart of the countryside outside Toulouse. In the middle of the night I woke up and looked out of the window; the night was still and dark, the crickets and frogs were going like billy-oh, but I could also hear a bird singing. Not the sleepy dubious tweets and peeps of London birds confused by the faux-daylight of sodium lamps, but a confident full-throated song, full of liquid trills and ripples. It was quite beautiful. It sounded like – could it be? – a nightingale. 

The next day I checked recordings on the internet and discovered that it was indeed a nightingale. I have never heard one before and the sound was every bit as lovely as legend has it. That night I listened again and there he was (it’s definitely a “he”, by the way; birds who sing in the night are young males looking for mates, so that glorious song actually translates as “Hello girls, fancy a shag?”). He was singing wonderfully clearly and loudly in a little thicket across the lawn from the terrace, so I recorded him. I had never heard a nightingale before and wanted to somehow hold onto the moment by capturing that wonderful lyrical sound.

On Sunday, after my return to the UK and in the aftermath of the London Bridge attacks, we gathered at the Lido for the presentation of the Bob Finch cup, presented by his son in the presence of the redoubtable Doreen, Bob’s widow. His son told a small but lovely story about his father, who, when he (the son) was learning guitar, had encouraged him with such gems as “You’ll never be as good as The Beatles”. The punchline was that his father had admitted that one song he learned was not half bad; they sang it together and recorded it. On Sunday morning he brought along his guitar and a lot of copies of the words.  He played and we all sang along, sixty voices raised in uncertain but surprisingly lovely harmony.

This was obviously before the Ariane Grande concert which she closed with just that song, but just as there it summed up the moment perfectly: wistful, a little sad, but also somehow hopeful. I expect the Germans have a word for it. Unlike the nightingale’s song I didn’t record it, but like that song it stayed in my heart.

“Someday I’ll wish upon a star/And wake up where the clouds are far/Behind me. Where troubles melt like lemon drops/High above the chimney tops/That’s where you’ll find me.”

Whatever dreams we hope to find there, may we all find our way over the rainbow one day. 💖

Engalin Nightingale

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 😊