In 2008 the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami wrote a book called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, about his experiences as a marathon and ultramarathon runner. Before I go any further it should be noted that I am not one of world’s greatest living writers, nor have I actually read the book, although it is on my long list of Books I Would Like To Read And May One Day Even Get Around To Actually Reading.
Long, long, before then, in the late eighties, running, or, rather, “jogging”, was the sport du jour and everyone did it, including me. Around that time my mother had a hip replacement and one of her friends, a physiotherapist who was helping her with her recovery, instructed me to stop running and to avoid impact sports if I wanted to keep both of my own hips. It is probably thanks to her that I still have them in more or less full working order whilst my younger brother, who also inherited mum’s dodgy joints, had a hip replacement a couple of years ago due to being, on some occasions, in so much pain that he could not walk. Thus I became one of the country’s vast legions of “leisure swimmers”.
For the next twenty years or so, two or three times a week I would dutifully plod for half an hour up and down whichever pool I was swimming in at the time. I always swam Leisure Swimmer’s Breaststroke, and if I never got any fitter, at least I was not unfit. Every so often I would look over at the swimmers charging up and down the fast lane doing front crawl. Around the time Murakami published his book on running, I was averaging about 45 lengths a session, or just under a kilometre, and I wondered if I possibly ramp that up to 60 if I could manage to swim front crawl. Sometimes when the pool was quiet I would try a length of crawl, thrashing my way along and arriving at the end of the twenty metres so exhausted that I couldn’t begin to contemplate another go.
My sister at that time was a much better swimmer than me and one weekend when she was staying we went down to Tooting Lido. It was a lovely hot day in July and we lay on the grass and had a picnic. Cal went off for a swim while I watched our stuff, and came back saying how beautiful it was. Then it was my turn. Tooting is100 yards long and unheated; with hindsight I guess the water was probably around eighteen degrees and there were a fair number of people in it, mostly splashing and horsing around. I sat on the side and dangled my feet. To dip my toes in, it was refreshing; to get into, not so much. It felt horribly cold; I was nice and warm, it was far too cold for me to swim any distance, and for a while I sat there thinking that I probably wouldn’t bother. In the end, the only thing that got me in was thinking that I didn’t want to be, in my late forties, the sort of person who won’t go for a swim because it was too cold. So I got in. I breast-stroked up and down once, maybe twice. I can remember hanging onto the bar the deep end feeling intimidated by the people who were confidently swimming lengths, and then I got out and went back to lying on my towel thinking “Well, at least I did it”.
And then two things happened. More tomorrow.