36 hours in Ponds Forge, Sheffield. Or perhaps a bit longer.

This week the English National Swimming Championships take place in Ponds Forge, Sheffield. Last year we battled through Sheffield Wednesday supporters to just about see my daughter’s friend get gold. We were both overwhelmed by the experience – the noise, the number of spectators, the commentary, just the whole size of the place. It was different to any gala we’d ever been to.

It’s been her goal for a year to get here, but I’d say it’s the culmination of 4 years. 4 years of training first 4 times, then 5, then 6 a week. Of dashing home from school to check her phone, do her homework, gobble evening meal 1, and go to the pool – to return home to check her phone, down a pint of milk, and gobble up evening meal 2. 4 years of turning down chances to go out with school friends, and probably turning down friendships there too, but 4 years of bonding with other swimmers at the club who just get what drives her. Toughest of all, so far, was jettisoning art GCSE as the other swimmers say ‘it’s never done… you don’t have the time to do the best you can’.

Last night I sat in the car, windows open, outside the house, listening to Springsteen’s Rocky Ground. I’d just been at our first ever community clean up at the lido. Donning rubber gloves, a vicious scourer and a lot of disinfectant I’d taken on the ladies’ changing cubicles whilst others got going with paint brushes. Come 8.30pm we finished our pizzas and took to the water. Heaven. A 60 x 26m lido available for free play – no lanes, no widths or lengths to swim, just lots of jumping in and floating and looking at the clouds above. And lots of thinking about my girl and her trip to Sheffield.

IMG_3270

 

IMG_3278

Driving up felt like a real adventure. I’m not sure which of us was more excited – particularly not as we get to stay in a hotel together – or more relieved to have got rid of the car. The boys are joining us on Friday – a 6am train for them with secret bars of chocolate hidden in a washbag to see them through the early start.

People think as my twitter handle is @loveswimming and I rant on about galas I must be a pro – I couldn’t be further from it. I might have an itch about and an obsession with swimming the Channel but I’ve not had a swimming lesson since the age of 13… I’ve not got the grim determination either that she has in bag fulls.

It’s going to be odd come Friday morning. For 4 years I’ve waited til she looked across at me on the level, gave a thumbs up and then got on with being on the blocks, and then more recently as she’s more serious, waited for her to glance over at me with my officials’ kit on, for the discrete ‘good luck’ nod. On Friday I’ll be up in the stands, far away from her, and out of focus. Far from her for the after race damp hug.

Sheffield itself is awash with long limbed teenagers striding around with their mums scuttling to keep up. Like locusts they descend upon hotel buffets (‘3 croissants for now plus 2 for later in case I get hungry’)… Wagamama, Pizza Express. There is some serious carb loading to be done.

I know I’m a bit of a loose part now. I’ve done the chauffeuring, I’ve paid for the hotel, I’ve bought the kit, I’ve stocked the mini bar with as much as I could cram in, and now all I’m needed for is moral support and to pick up the tab for meals. I’ve also popped to Sheffield Waterstones – as you do if you need a nice grounding experience…

It’s dangerous being holed up here with a tupperware of crispy, chewy and buttery flapjack…

IMG_3280

Real Channel Swimmers – have you come far? Taking on the @AspChannelSwim

I’ve been thinking about Real Channel Swimmers this week.

As I’ve completed miles 8 – 12 https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/clare-hall-craggs-2017-channel-swim-10728 (this is a sponsored swim and I’d love it if you’d sponsor me for a mile or two) for Aspire and my arms have started to feel the first twinges of cold. I’ve had such a display of colours – greys, blues and bright whites – to watch above and to my side as I’ve swum outside. Those shifting displays have kept me going (and outside rather than cooped up in an indoor pool).

But what spurs on the Real Channel Swimmer, out almost alone in the sea, with just a tiny pilot boat beside to guide them, when the white cliffs have disappeared, the sky has turned black and they can’t see France? For 6 or 7 miles in the middle you can, apparently, see nothing of either country.

I thought about the four ladies I know of who’ve done it – solo – and their determination of putting one arm in the water after the other has spurned me on and turned off the voice in my head that has suggested jumping out and heading to my nearest indoor pool.

 

You can catch one of these swimmers, the brilliant and always smiling Parliament Hill Lido regular Sally Goble on Saturday Live – and you can find out more about another,  Jessica Hepburn who ate 21 meals with 21 women and swam  21 miles across the channel to find out if motherhood makes you happy.

I love the exchanges you get to have in, on or around the water.

‘Have you come far?’, shouted the kayaker over the water at me one very balmy day in August when we piled all into The Thames at Pangbourne for a swim.

‘No, not really.’ I replied.

‘Have you come all the way from Henley?’ (NB several miles of swimming and a few locks and probably a couple of weirs away)

‘Er, no, just the car park up there!’

IMG_8577
Favourite Thames swimming spot near Pangbourne – but not that near to Henley

Yesterday I bumped into a familiar face at the lido, and we launched into a chat about the temperature. How far I’d swum, how far she was planning to go, how good it was now the numbers in the water were thinning out  but where had all the balmy swims at 16’C gone?  The lido becomes more sociable the fewer swimmers there are. The families with their picnics and floats, the head up keeping special hair-dos out of the water breaststrokers, the teenage packs out to impress each other, all gradually depart leaving the hardier swimmers of all shapes and sizes who might be trying to ‘over winter’ or just swim as long as they can as the temperatures drop.

I’m wondering how many of them are Real Channel Swimmers. And if one day I might just be brave enough to join their gang.

 

IMG_8845
Very cheesy pic of me post mile today – apparently posting selfies will encourage people to donate??

A swimmer’s take on Chesterfield. Or, there’s more to Chesterfield than that crooked spire.

When you’re ploughing up and down, and down and up, trying to clock up mileage on the Aspire Channel Swim Challenge it’s good to have something to focus on. Sometimes I try and unpick a problem, but this week I’ve been thinking back over our summertime swims. Today took me back to a tip top one in Chesterfield.

We had a week in the Peak District with my sister and her Labrador (stars of our Chatsworth expedition) filled with walking, eating Bakewell Pudding & Pies and all kinds of other pies, and needed to drop her back to the station. Round and round the roundabout we careered in the car, failing to find the right exit for the station. They made their train with seconds to spare no thanks to an unscheduled diversion up the wrong road…

Such is my dedication to (or obsession with) swimming when going round this roundabout in Chesterfield I spied one of those brown signs to a swimming pool / leisure centre I immediately googled it. The 13 year old competitive swimmer needed to notch up some ‘sets’ indoors, and so we discovered Queen’s Park Sports Centre. 

The centre is newly built and very, very well designed. From the sparkling clean pool village to the showers (where a 70 year old offered me his shampoo when I *gently* cursed leaving ours in the car – don’t get that in London do you) to the chat at the lockers (another 70 year old odd man who grimaced when I admitted we came from London after a bit of a chat about his workout – 90 mins in gym then swim!) to the 25m pool itself.

Oh, what a marvel, we had a lane EACH and swam for half an hour uninterrupted by anyone. What bliss. It’s an 8 laner and the two of us were in our own private heavens. The doors at the end of the pool were open, so fresh not chlorine-laden air was circulating, and it felt cool not sweltering. Thank you to the pool manager whose small gesture in keeping the doors open makes such a difference to the swimmers (and presumably his life guards too).

When we’d done our laps the Super Swimmer offered up some training tips. At the end of 3 lengths of fly under her instruction I stood in the shallow end, wheezing away, ‘Mummy, you look absolutely knackered!’ Too blooming right.

We had fun in the play pool – just next door – where there were a series of play showers squirting water at various intensities into the pool. Ace.

Afterwards overflowing with happy endorphins, grinning from ear to ear (and wondering if it was selfish to get such immense pleasure from an individual sport and not a shared activity on a family holiday…), I spotted the king of bakeries and pie shops in the town centre, Jacksons the Bakers, so time for a supermarket-style-sweep of their pie and scone section… Broccoli and stilton, pork pie, raisin scones, cranberry scones… Pie Fest Ruled OK on Holiday.

IMG_8769

Today I swam at Parliament Hill Lido in London in skins in 18’C water – clocking up 26 lengths aka another mile on my Aspire Swim Challenge. So far I’ve done 6.13 miles. If you’re a fan of Chesterfield swimming pool, would like to support a charity which looks after people with spinal injuries, or like reading about pie-shopping trips, may I ask you to sponsor me please?

Thanks for joining me on my journey – and if you fancy finding out more about the church in Chesterfield with the crooked spire, photographed  by David Ross, visit Britain Express.

Chesterfield-2259

Kicking off the Aspire Challenge to swim the 22 miles across the Channel – outdoors in London

FullSizeRender (68)

Last summer I spotted a story on facebook about the Aspire Channel Swim which challenges swimmers to raise money for the spinal injury charity Aspire as they swim the distance of the Channel over a 12 week period. I’m very pleased to be joining in again this year, and to be attempting the 22 mile swim outside. This is very straightforward in early September, with a lovely 61 metre long lido on my doorstep to swim in as the summer swimmers head indoors. But by October the mercury’s started to dip, and the distance to cover will seem to stretch further every time. I’m doing it in skins – so without a wetsuit as I loathe my wetsuit (the yanking on, the wrenching off, the lugging home on my bike and the drying out).

I’ve upped my game and used the challenge as impetus to push myself harder in the water. No more paltry 20 laps for me, heeding the wimpish voice that suggests I get out, but instead I’m ploughing on and am up to 36 lengths. In the last couple of weeks I’ve clicked I need to swim further to warm up (brain and body) and that if I do stick at it I’ll be rewarded with a surge of endorphins.

As I go I’ll be choosing to remember all the swims we’ve had this summer –

the river dips in the Derwent and Thames,

the lido tripping to lidos beginning with H Helmsley, Hathersage and Hinksey,

the sea pool swimming in Margate

the week swimming in the sea around Filey, Speeton and Bridlington

(not forgetting the indoor trips to Sheffield Ponds Forge, Chesterfield & Bridlington).

This list makes it look as if we’ve done nothing but swim all summer. True.

How lucky we’ve been to be able to enjoy all these places, the balmy, the bracing and the brilliant, how lucky to be unencumbered by injury or illness.

If you fancy coming along for the ride and banishing those Back to School and End of Summer Blues there’s still time to sign up, just, at Aspire – and if you’re tempted to sponsor me please do quickly nip on over to JustGiving.

 

IMG_8734

Swimming at Chatsworth. No we didn’t use their pool.

 

If someone suggests you *might* be able to swim in the river in front of Chatsworth House, do you shudder, keep your clothes on and stroll over to the entry gate with your credit card, or pack your kit and head far away from the front door?

The outdoor swimmer’s bible, Wild Swimming, suggested being ‘discreet’. So we parked and meandered across the stunning parkland in the August evening’s sunshine trying to look really discreet with our towels under our arms as everyone else drove away from the house.

What fun! It was squishy and squelchy underfoot but once swimming it was utterly glorious, decadent – and felt almost like a stolen swim. Whilst there were no ‘no swimming’ signs the fine owners of Chatsworth certainly don’t advertise river swimming as part of their attractions to the well-healed visitor.

So we frolicked and swam in the river and then frolicked some more. The best view, perversely was not towards the house but away from it, where we saw a fish jump in the water and a large herd of pale coloured, aristocratic deer. I’m not sure if we were spotted from the house, as it’s hard to be discreet when your party consists of 3 adults, an enthusiastic teenager and an even more enthusiastic black Labrador. It would have helped if we’d changed before we got there. We launched the duck thermometer, which read 15’C just before Labrador Grace dived in to retrieve it, crunch.  Actually it’s more fun not knowing the temperature, so perhaps it’s best as a fetch toy.

As for Chatsworth itself, that’s for another day. There is indeed a Chatsworth swimming pool, open to members, and housed in a rather attractive building elsewhere on the estate. Another challenge might be to swim in the lake to the side of the house…. which is so beautifully photographed on this page.

 

Competing for recognition. Teenage twins battle it out in the pool and on the track.

Early on our children realised, unconsciously or not, that it would be a good idea to do different sports from one another. One snowy Sunday aged 3 1/2 he decided to try out at her ballet class. Dressed in blue and white striped pyjamas he gave it a go. Disaster. It was no fun at all for her to have her class invaded by her pesky brother. After that she never went to ballet again, the teacher had spent too much time praising her twin, she just couldn’t go back with or without him. So years later she took up competitive swimming, and he football later adding athletics and cricket into the mix.

Today he is utterly fed up that she won’t recognise him for his successes on the track. After the first race she couldn’t hide how impressed she was, asking him about his times, his splits and for how long he led. But now she’s not quite so vocal.

She’s fed up because he no longer congratulates her on her victories in the pool.

I think this is nonsense, he’s swift to praise when she comes home clunking a medal or brandishing a new personal best and she’s quite good at patting him on the back. But it doesn’t matter what I think, or what we say, it’s what they think that counts.

Urgh, how to encourage both children to be generous. Normally they get on pretty well, but of course as siblings they’ve got the ability to really annoy and persecute one another. We can’t draw on much experience as parents as neither of us enjoyed many podium moments when we were growing up (but I did win my first event at Durham Regatta many decades ago and I did get a medal for my Aspire swim the length of the channel swim…).

I know we don’t get recognition for many things in life, but boy does it taste sweet when you do. Whether you’ve won a new piece of business, a project you’re involved in has made a mark, or you’ve scored a new job – when people comment and notice it makes you glow, doesn’t it. When you get a medal or a gong or something more it’s all the better. I am so proud of being able to wear my British Swimming lanyard at galas now when I officiate (what?! well it shows I’ve spent hours poolside enough time swotting over the rules to qualify as a junior judge).

IMG_5336

I fear social media makes us crave recognition, be it a like or a share or a retweet, all the more.

This post was gestated in the glorious steel lined tank of Parliament Hill Lido where the water’s up to 15’C now but no one else seems to have cottoned on that it’s warm enough to give you that #FridayFeeling

IMG_5335

Books for swimmers this Christmas

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’….