Books for swimmers this Christmas

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I am late with recommendations. The dreaded Festive Flu struck me down and saw off all invitations to Christmas parties. And inclinations to bake and knead and fill the house with wonderful smells. Urg. If you’ve been hit you have my sympathies.

51tux2pnckl-_sx316_bo1204203200_Last time I did one of these round ups I got a message saying someone had read one of the books I’d talked about and it’d then made it into the kit bag of one of Team GB’s staff at Rio 2016. Who knows if  The Three-Year Swim Club helped our golden tally… like to think it might have!

I’m recommending 3 books:

Find A Way

Leap In (out in Jan)

The Outrun 

41uz8e9o16l-_sx309_bo1204203200_First up this time is Find A Way by American ultra endurance swimmer Diana Nyad. I have been somewhat mesmerised by this book and Diana’s quest. I started it, read of her first attempt to swim between Cuba and Florida when she was in her 30s, and then I got derailed in the chapters on the terrible, terrible abuse she suffered first at the hand of her father and then her coach. Gut wrenching. I went back, curious to see how she put her demons behind her, and to find out how a challenge which had defeated her as a 30 year old still held it in its powers 30 years later. Diana is an extraordinary woman. The distance from Cuba to Florida is a moveable feast as you’re utterly at the mercy of tides and currents – as you would be when attempting a Channel crossing – but we are talking over 100 miles. But unlike the ‘hop’ from France to England, she was also at the mercy of swarms of jellyfish and sharks and was forced to wear a strange garb to swim in overnight to keep her safe from all the life threatening stingers. When she undertook her crossings she also had to contend with waves, great big waves, that took her away from her support crew, and that meant she lost sight of her handler Bonnie. She swam through the night, and then another night, and started hallucinating. She swam for 53 hours. 53 hours. It took her 5 attempts until she conquered her quest aged 64.

At the back of the book is a list of all the swims she undertook and where. So 6 hours in a 50m pool or on 20.12.2012 10 hours in a 50m pool. TEN HOURS?!

After she completed her swim I remember reading of rumours that it wasn’t for real, that she’d spent time on her support boats or been somehow assisted – but I’m confident that on her 5th attempt her navigator read the tides right and they had some luck. This is the story of an incredible swimmer whose will would just not be broken.

51du-yaj74l-_ac_us160_I was itching to get my hands on a proof of Alexandra Heminsley’s Leap In (out on 12th Jan). I’m a big fan of her Run Like  A Girl which I discovered just as I was embarking on my own quest to learn to run. This new book is a searingly honest account of her determination to overcome a fear of the sea and to learn to swim well. She doesn’t stop at conquering the Pier to Pier challenge in Brighton but goes on to race – chalking up more firsts and more achievements with every swim. She is a very plucky swimmer, and when she sets her sights on something really goes for it – much as I’d love to improve my technique I’m not sure I’m quite game for swimming lessons and showing myself up to be not very good, as she does. I am lucky, my stroke technique sucks – the young super swimmer laughs at my meagre stroke length – but I  never struggled with breathing. She has to go right back and master her breathing before she can truly get going. There’s a section on technique – after reading it I tried out swimming long strokes with long leg kicks from the hips at Charlton Lido and I swear I did swim more powerfully. Alexandra goes on to race, which holds no allure for me. She tells you how it is – and reminds you that you don’t just get better, like with running you have to put the sessions in to improve. A highly recommended bedside poolside companion.

615dytwgzpl-_sx324_bo1204203200_Last up is my book of the year, The Outrun by Amy Liptrot. Oh how I adored, adored this book. I bought it on the strengths of the jacket and the fact it was piled up very high in the shop. It then sat by my bed for a time until at the lido conference a fellow swimmer started raving about it so I went home to get stuck in. I loved this book so much I got my husband to read it and caught him doing as I did – going back and reading sections, and phrases aloud. This book is so good, her turn of phrase so clever, she makes you stop and pause and reread. I galloped and galloped through its pages til I was forced to go back and eat it up again. Amy’s life in London derails and she finds herself back on Orkney, the Scottish island where she grew up. Gradually she rebuilds her life, swimming in the sea amongst the seaweed and the waves. Her prose reminded me of the three trips I’ve made to the Highlands and Islands; Eigg and Mull and the swims I had alone and with the family amongst jellyfish in the clearest, most life affirmingly chilled water. Need a morsel to tempt you in – try ‘We swim in windscreen-wipers-on-highest-setting rain when we rush to get into the water where it’s dryer’….

The allure of warm water aka my lido train trip & swim in Charlton Lido

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I have finished my Aspire swim challenge to swim the length of the English Channel. Team Aspire have been very generous with their encouragement and praise, I don’t think many of their swimmers continued their challenges in unheated waters into November… Due to a glitch on the system it’s not showing up as DONE, but hey I AM all done, and here I am feeling very happy after a final 6 lengths in Parliament Hill Lido. Water 6’C if you’re interested. Thank you to my very kind and generous sponsors.

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That’s me all done – final lengths accomplished in 6’C. I think I will be back in there before too long… 

So what to do next? I’ve had one indoor swim. That’s the only indoor one since April. Urgh. Started off ok but got derailed when half pool siphoned off for blessed 3pm adult swimming lessons. Argh. I was yearning to swim outside again under open skies breathing in fresh air.

Charlton is in south east London, on the edge of Blackheath. So not that local to north London. But hey today my family was busy and didn’t need me or the laundry service; the boys team were off to play football and then to go watch Brighton play grown up football, and one half of the girls team was having a post-sleepover-shop on Oxford Street (and discovering just how far her pocket money won’t stretch). Did I want to stay at home mouldering over said laundry, shopping and things or would I rather finally get to Charlton. It’s been on my list for 2 years.

I phoned Charlton Lido. ‘Are you open all day?’

“Yes” came the cheery reply.

‘Is the whole pool open?’

“Yes” responded the incredulous receptionist, as if to say “well of course we are!” (Cue hats off to leisure operator Better. Other lido operators close off lanes judiciously dependent on how many swimmers are in the water, which rather defeats the fun of a lido swim when I believe there should be scope to swim solo in a lane, as a reward for swimming outdoors come rain, sleet, snow and shine.)

How liberating I thought as I embarked on the walk – tube – train – bus journey. I had just a nifty little bag with me, no whopping great rucksack concealing my single duvet sized glorious Dry Robe. No need for that as Charlton’s lido is a 50 metre beauty kept at a balmy 25-27’C through the winter.

I was so excited to get there that I got into the water a tad too enthusiastically, ignoring many signs saying ‘Deep Water’ so sort of fell in. It was extraordinary. The water was properly warm, not noticeably chlorinated (of course it was, but none of that indoor-skin-stinging-sensation), and best of all the warmth made clouds of steam to swim through. I relaxed into my first proper swim for some time, when there was no need to focus on kidding my brain it wasn’t freezing I could just switch off and get on with creating a rhythm and making my legs as long as possible.

I got out on top of the world, right up on that familiar post swim high and full of a deep, deep contentment. Thank you Charlton for feeding my lido obsession. And thank you BETTER for ensuring your entire leisure portfolio subsidises the heating at Charlton. It was glorious.

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The beautiful and lovely long Charlton Lido
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One happy swimmer – standing next to the words DEEP WATER…. 

A mild dose of hypothermia? Into mile 21 of my outdoors and unheated @AspChannelSwim

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Today I messed up. Not big time, but big enough time. It was drizzling when I got to the lido. I clocked the temperature gauge and joked with the manager that I was trying to kid myself there’s not a big drop between 11’C and 9’C.

‘Yes there flipping is. It’s COLD today.’

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I respect the lido lifeguard team, if they’re on duty they swim, come rain, snow ice and sun. So if they say it’s cold, it is. I like the way they clock who’s at the pool, they know the regulars and they ask after faces they don’t recognise. They are true life savers.

In I went. Instead of stinging, the water had a sharp burn-like edge to it. It wasn’t properly painful – that joy comes when the mercury is a little lower. We’d worked out I can complete the 22 mile Aspire challenge to swim the length of the English Channel with just 3 more swims of 16 lengths. If you’d like to sponsor me, and I’d be very grateful if you did, pop along to Just Giving. So I set out to do 10 and see how I felt. At 12 lengths I thought I’d go for 14, so I did a real spurt, then stupidly I thought I’d stay for just 2 more lengths, that’s another 120m. As I turned into the final length I did a wobble, something wasn’t right, but instead of powering to the side I carried on. I got to the end, had more trouble than normal getting into my flipflops and enveloped myself in the blue lined duvet aka Dryrobe.

In the changing room I could feel all wasn’t well. My lips were swelling, and when I tried to talk to another lady the words came out in the wrong order. Everything slowed down, I decided to take a selfie (muppet? yes).

A Grade Gold Star Overchilled Swimmer
A Grade Gold Star Overchilled Swimmer

I did another wobble on my bike and then cycled home faster than I have ever done. I got home and luckily everyone was in, so I was bundled up onto the sofa with blankets, hot water bottle and tea and then the double duvet. After 20 minutes the shivering had stopped and all was well in the world.

Lesson learned. At 9’C quit when you’re ahead. 20 minutes is 5 full minutes too long in the water. No matter how good the kit is that you put on afterwards once the body reaches a certain level of chill it needs many layers and much warmth.

Next layer - a full double duvet
Next layer – a full double duvet

In the meantime we have no hot water or heating at home. The cheery gas engineers came yesterday to install a new meter and give our appliances the once over. Apparently the fire’s flame is too high and too yellow, so they summoned the National Grid engineer who shut off all our gas at 6pm on Friday night. You can’t mess with carbon monoxide, but it would have been good if they’d disconnected just the fire. I didn’t realise it should’ve been serviced annually, so please learn from my mistake before you end up in a cold house in November. In theory our Knight in Shining Armour aka gas engineer will be here at 7pm tonight to do a service and reconnect us.

The illustrations in the gas safely leaflet seem rather apt so I’ll sign off with them – I did a good demo of the dizziness one today.

Gas safety leaflet graphics
Gas safety leaflet graphics

 

Ultimate solution for my cold water swimming – a humungous Dryrobe

Me and the voluminous portable central heating system

Swimming in Crete the water was I think a steady 22’C. Back in reality in London the temperature at the lido is hovering around 11-12’C. Swimming in unheated waters under blue skies gives the biggest high, the rosiest glow and the most euphoric feelings, but it also heralds cold hands, even colder feet and the battle to get warm and get dressed as fast as possible. There comes a time when visits to the lido cease to be proper exercise and the value switches to a pure mental kick; I go there now solely endorphin rush. And because I can.

Sunday was a dull dank day. A post holiday in the sun kind of damp day with wispy bits of fog in the air. Not one of those glorious autumn days with sun streaming through the leaves. The water did not look enticing. Temperature was a steady 12’C. All the better then for trying out my new secret weapon against the cold – a giant Dryrobe. This is a piece of clothing, a hooded cloak, with a fleecey, wool-like lining which you put on the minute you get out.

I rolled the robe up and shoved it into a rucksack. A decent sized rucksack, so much so it looked a bit like I was embarking on a Duke of Edinburgh expedition, complete of course with thermos and mug.

There’s nothing discrete about this as an item of clothing, it’s enormous, big enough to keep on and change underneath. I felt a bit of a wuss as I walked past the 20 or so swimmers – none of whom were sporting wetsuits – clutching my enormous robe.

I did my 20 lengths, got out of the water, as ever a bit wobbly slipping my feet into flipflops and then oh golly, I put it on and was completely enveloped by it. I realised as I put my trousers on that my back and shoulders were warm. No more avoiding the man spreaders in the sauna, clearly all I need is my trusty new piece of kit to warm me up.

The difference between my last two lido swims – and the past half dozen – is that when I left the lido building I was warm. No need for a jog, and no sign of chattering teeth. I left with such a spring in my step I started thinking of swimming through to December, into the New Year and beyond, safe in the knowledge my waterproof duvet would be waiting to envelope me poolside…

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The scene at lunchtime today – taken whilst sporting my new kit

 

The DryRobe was given to me very kindly by Simply Swim UK. They’d spotted I’m doing the Aspire Channel Swim and offered me a piece of kit to test drive. I’m particularly grateful to them for it as I embark on the last few miles – and lengths – of my challenge.

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Scores on the doors are heading South

 

A week in the sea – in Crete – with jammy dodgers for post swim breakfasts

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Oh the excitement of returning to a holiday destination. When the almost teenager says, ‘Ah I can feel the relaxation’ as she stands at the door of the aircraft, looking out across the runway, after we land. There’s none of the trepidation – will they like it, what’ll the food be like – instead the utter delight and anticipation of the return. At the hotel we are welcomed as friends by the all Greek staff. ‘How you have grown you teenagers! What can we get you? Some pasta, a pizza?’ It’s 11pm and they stay on til we are fed.

Looking out from our rooms at the dark sky studded with stars, and the darker sea beneath which we can hear gently lapping at the sandy shore. Oh thank you Hotel Ammos. Now at last the children have their oh so coveted Instagramable views…. and we have the foreign escape without cooking or washing up that we’ve been counting down to for the past year. And the breakfasts we have been dreaming of.

Homemade jammy dodgers and a slice of cucumber for breakfast, anyone?
Homemade jammy dodgers and a slice of cucumber for breakfast, anyone?

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One night we swam in the sunset. It was like no other swim. The village was backlit by the rapidly descending sun, and floating on our backs, toes to the orange orb of the sun, our feet were silhouetted amidst an almost oily sheen of deep orange and burnt pink. On the shore the wet slopes of sand were on fire, illuminated in a deep amber before each frothy wave wiped the surface clean again. No phones, no photos, instead a memory etched into our brains.

Here I swam for me and not my Aspire Challenge. No more was I swimming to clock up the metres and miles, in the quest to swim the distance across the English Channel in aid of the spinal injury charity Aspire. Having said I’d do my distance outside, it seemed a bit wimpish to finish it off in the warm waters of the Med rather than in the chilly depths of the lido.

There’s a rocky outcrop to the side of the bay, perhaps a 45 minute round trip, so twice I swam and swam and swam out to it and back for breakfast. Other days the sea was choppy and we decamped to another bay where we swam across its glassy surface.

I’ve escaped into books. Elizabeth Laird’s Welcome to Nowhere – so apt to be reading about an every day Syrian family whose lives were utterly transformed by the advent of fighting, to learn of prejudice and injustices, and hardships of refugee camps – and then to go into the local town and see migrants busking and selling toys and to wonder where they had travelled from and about the lives they’d left behind. And then to disappear into the depths of Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun. A book steeped at first in the buzz and furious pace of urban life and then in the wilds of the Orkneys, with snorkelling amongst seaweed, winds so strong caravans are tied down with concrete blocks, and enormous personal challenges. Lying on a beach in Crete it made me long for Mull, for Eigg and to return to our family’s, and my own, adventures there.

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As wave jumping replaced swimming, and the four of us played amidst the breakers in the warm drizzle, sometimes being swept up washing machine style in the waves, I realise we’re quitting Crete ahead. It has given us three magical half terms, dashing from the sea to the shower to the pool, spent in the water, stuck into books, sometimes into phones but also united around the table playing fiercely competitive games of cards. The bar’s been raised high as we start to look for another destination offering warmth, water, delicious food and a welcome as good as Hotel Ammos’s.

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As we departed from Crete we spotted a submarine in the waters beside the runway. Quite something eh.

Spot the submarine - soon to be joined by a tug
Spot the submarine – soon to be joined by a tug

19.5 miles on the milometer for my outdoors Aspire Channel Swim

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11’C down goes the temperature and up goes the distance I’ve swum. 19.5 miles! So that leaves a mere 2.5 miles to swim in the unheated waters of Parliament Hill Lido.

I have embraced a new technique:

  1. Swim
  2. 3 minute sauna (during which my face starts to swell, I suppose a classic reaction to being immersed in cold and then seriously hot environments, it’s a bit disconcerting as lips come back to life but it does the trick in just 3 minutes)
  3. Fumbling change and cup of tea in the changing room
  4. Stumble / jog up and down and around the Heath for 20 minutes

    Parliament Hill Lido on Thursday
    Parliament Hill Lido on Thursday

During the jog feeling returns to my feet. On Thursday this all went very smoothly, and I felt rather smug as I got home fully warm and ready for the next part of the day. Yesterday, Friday, the air temperature was 11’C, not 15′ as the day before, and I felt a brand new sensation as I started off on my jog. My teeth were chattering, chatter chatter plod plod chatter chatter plod plod. I was wearing FOUR long sleeved layers, my woolly hat and gloves. I didn’t take a single layer off til I got home.

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But I felt AMAZING ALL DAY LONG and hey that was worth half a length trying to conquer the loud chimp in my head shouting ‘OMG IT’S COLD OMG YOU’RE MAD OMG THIS IS YOUR LAST TIME’.

I’m definitely going to crack this, it’s going to take more trips swimming shorter distances and longer and faster jogs to warm up afterwards. It’s going to be more of a challenge as I’ve a break from the lido, and then a change in working patterns, but hey I’ve the whole of November and a week of December to nail this.

I’d you’d like to sponsor me, perhaps £11 to match the temperature I’d be so grateful. I’m taking part in the Aspire charity swim to swim the distance across the English Channel in support of the work they do to help stroke victims. Thank you very much.

Light sifting through the trees on the way to the top of Parliament Hill
Light sifting through the trees on the way to the top of Parliament Hill

Man spreading in the lido sauna, giggling and clocking up metres on my Aspire Channel Swim

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Tonight it is pouring, absolutely pouring with rain. But yesterday I went swimming with my friend. It’s the first time I’ve swum with a buddy at Parliament Hill during my Aspire Channel Swim and it was the best fun in ages. We were at uni together, where she played hockey to a very high standard and I rowed to a very low standard. Any swimming was confined to the City Baths, which were periodically flooded by the River Wear, or the pool at Durham School.

We arranged to meet at Parliament Hill Lido. She had travelled half way across London and I had 2 miles to cycle and was late (slow puncture + phone call + pedestrian speed cycling = poor excuses). I found her in the shower area, clad in swim suit, 2 swim hats, gazing up at the small radiant heater. Cue some giggling and a very quick change on my behalf, me thinking, it’s completely crazy to subject someone else to this but I can see we are going to have a very good morning.

She’d brought her wetsuit. So to suit-up or to ‘skins’ it? I lowered myself in, acknowledging and accepting and getting on with the cool temperature, and left her to make her own decision. In she got, out she got. Over she went to put her wetsuit on. Back she came, without wetsuit, and off we set together. We’d had a brief chat about it being a bit nippy, and agreed to get out if it started feeling warm. She is a Very Fit Athlete (ie hill running rather than pavement plodding). I am not. But I have added insulation, which she does not. We’d originally said we’d do a mile together, but with the water temperature at a notsohotso 12’C agreed we’d just see how we got on. We also agreed the swim would involve:

swim + sauna + cuppa tea in changing room + hot lunch in cafe

After a bit she said she was feeling a tad wobbly, so got out and went straight to the sauna. I swam a bit more, then started panicking about a) etiquette – is it ok to ditch your mate in the sauna whilst you swim, and not check they’re ok? b) distance still to be covered.

So I clocked up 16 lengths and jumped out and into the sauna. I have never set foot in the funny wooden structure by the water’s edge – more fool me eh. I opened the door and was met by a fine array of man spreaders, OMG, honestly! Much much worse than the tube I promise. And there right in the corner was my lovely friend. I took one look at her, another at the man spreaders, and started giggling, very loudly. She started talking, and giggling, about 19 to the dozen. I do not know what the man spreaders thought. I just thought they could have given us a bit more space so that my chilly thighs didn’t have to stick to her hot ones. After a lot more loud giggling I realised my neck was on fire, so we shot off to have our cuppa teas from my thermos.

If I’ve made you chortle at all please do think of donating – perhaps your #FirstFiver – to my challenge, thank you very much.

I’ve included the two short but very memorable swims at Clevedon Marine Lake and Portishead Lido in my Aspire Channel Swim total. Both of those involved giggling, mainly as we tried to execute some legs-in-the-air-like-we-don’t-care synchro swimming moves…

17.4 miles down – 4.6 to go!

Let me know if you know anyone doing their entire Aspire swim outdoors, so far I’ve discovered one lady who’s doing as much as she can outside

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Post swim reading on a sunny day last month with my 2 toning swim caps