I’ve signed up to swim the length of the English Channel 22 miles in aid of Aspire. Why?

So why have I signed up to swim the length of the English Channel, 22 miles, in 12 weeks?

It’s a new challenge – and I like challenges

This one really caught my eye. I LOVE SWIMMING.

Aspire is a very special charity – it helps people paralysed by spinal cord injury. It gives them practical assistance, advice and support from injury to independence. There is currently no cure for spinal injury.

And they even filmed part of their enticing video at Parliament Hill Lido.

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Parliament Hill Lido – where I’m hoping to swim much of my 22 miles

The Paralympics have just opened in Rio – and I’m being reminded how awesome our Paralympians are, and how many of the athletes have come back from terrible life changing injuries or paralysis and put their determination and talents to amazing use.

I’d like to achieve something big in the pool this year and have extra impetus to swim regularly through the winter

I will never, ever, swim the English Channel* 

I want to get into shape and look and feel on top form

I am a very lucky person, and sometimes that needs to be celebrated with a marker and a milestone – I can swim, I live close to London’s most beautiful shiny bottomed Parliament Hill Lido and a host of other pools, I am able bodied, I have the most motivating and supportive of husbands and 12 year old twins egging me on, and a flexible-ish work schedule – plus the desire to do this.

For my daddy – Some years ago my daddy was struck very low by a very serious illness. Part of his rehabilitation, which involved learning to walk again, also entailed water and access to special swimming sessions. So I am also doing this in recognition, and thanks, for the teams of medics at The Royal Berks Hospital intensive care unit who gave him back to us, the physios and carers at Linden Hill who run such brilliant water therapy sessions, and the lifeguards and staff at Wantage Rec Centre where he and mummy swam on Monday nights. This challenge from Aspire has reminded me how fortunate we were all those years ago.

*I have promised my 12 year old daughter I won’t. So I won’t. For now. And probably not for ever.

If you’d like to support Aspire and my challenge please may I ask you to head over to my Just Giving page. Or if you fancy taking on this quest to swim the English Channel in your local pool sign up here.

Thank you as ever for reading.

 

I’m into lido(swimming) not lipo (suction)

So far this week I’m swum outdoors once, and been followed by two different liposuction companies on twitter. When I glanced at twitter and saw that @southportlipo was a new follower I thought ‘brilliant, a new lido to add to my list to swim in next year.’ Then I looked again. ‘What? Is this a hint?’ I’m really not into liposuction. I’m all for #ThisGirlCan, whatever shape she is, and the idea of sucking stuff out just doesn’t appeal at all. If I was to emerge sylph like from a spot of liposuction perhaps I might not be able to swim so happily in colder water.

Later on today I noticed I’ve been followed by @Leeds_Lipo too. I think I’d better either get back in the pool quick, so I’m in less need of lipo, or gently explain I’m keener on swimming than surgical procedures.

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Just after the launch of the #ThisGirlCan campaign some research was published about women abandoning swimming. The figures were dramatic, with three times as many women as men giving up swimming in the previous year (you can read more here).  If you’re intrigued by #ThisGirlCan hop over to read more  – I hope there’ll be a second wave to the campaign next year, just as I hope the Amateur Swimming Association has more positive news to report on a year on in January. Is it body image or is it something else?

Other forms of exercise are that much more ‘get up and go’ aren’t they, bung your trainers on and off you trot / stumble / sprint, but swimming takes a bit more planning, and when you go first thing or after work the pool can be offputtingly busy. I’d love to swim more often but home / work / family / chauffeuring duties mean I’m a solid 3x a week at the moment. But when I do go I get to experience the joy of a giant pool, with no one’s bubbles to swim behind or collide with. On Friday I had a funny chat with a fellow swimmer. I was clad in costume, booties and gloves, wandering about purposely in the shallow end. He was on the side, looked across and said something. I replied ‘it’s fine’, “yes” he replied, “a solid 9”. I hope whatever you’re up to for the rest of the weekend you can rate it a solid 9 – and if you’re swimming outside it’s 9’C or over!

 

Conquering colder water swimming. No, I am not mad, I’ve just decided to make a success of this cold water business.

So I’m four full weeks into the challenge to keep on swimming outside as long as I’m enjoying it. I’ve I have swum under the London sky 14 times since 23 September. The experience has changed massively. When I started the water temperature at the lido was 14’C and now it’s hovering around 11-12’C. In wetsuit wearing days I thought there was a big gap between 15′ and 16’C, now I know there’s a chasm between 14′ and 11’C. But hey, it’s fine, and I’m now almost feeling like a bit of a pro.

I’ve come across some words of wisdom from the team at H2Open Magazine who say ‘plunging into cold water can give you an endorphin rush that can set you up nicely for the day’. Couldn’t agree more.

Approaching the water I know it’s all about thinking positive. I don’t have the words ‘ooooh it’s going to be freezing’ anywhere near my head, instead I firmly plant ‘I CAN do this, I LOVE doing this’ in there instead. For some reason one Friday I had Shirley Hughes’s words from her picture book about opposites ‘bathwater’s hot, seawater’s cold’ in my mind, I think the temperature gauge must have set me off, so I added another phrase ‘lido water’s not’.

bath temperature

I wade around in the shallow end, put my hat and goggles on, take my goggles off again and unsteam them, and then park all issues and problems and thoughts poolside and just get going. I pick a mantra to chant, perhaps ‘This Is Amazing’ or count stroke sets ‘1, 2, 3, 4’, until I reach the end of the first length. It’s all about getting through that transition phase from poolside to underwater at the end of the first length. By then it’s not remotely uncomfortable. I know if I stick at it, chipping away stroke by stroke, I’ll be fine. I stay in til I’ve done 1.32k = 22 lengths and completed my mission of the moment. It’s not a long way but this isn’t about distance, more mind over matter and gritty determination.

I think success so far has been all about choosing the right attitude. I once watched an amazing motivational video called Fish Philosophy about fishmongers in an American market, who could track their sales down to the experience they gave all of their customers. They knew if they chose to smile, crack a joke, juggle with a fish, and entertain their customers and possible customers they’d succeed in selling more fish to more people. It all boils down to you and the choice you make. So if I want this challenge of mine to work I’ve got to borrow their can do attitude and choose to make it work.

I can’t give up. I’ve embarked on this challenge and I’m not quitting!

#THISGIRLCAN … even if she might perhaps soon need to add boots, gloves and rash vest into the mix

Finally thought I’d share this infographic which the guys at H2Open Magazine have produced which is full of sensible advice  – NB note the mention of tea and cake

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New season, new challenge: trials of a trainee swimming gala official

Autumn is most definitely with us, rain and conkers have begun to fall, and most importantly the temperature gauge at the lido is on its way down fast. I had the most perfect end of summer swim at the weekend in the enormous 60m by 27m pool at Gospel Oak which I had all to myself. No one’s limbs but mine breaking the surface of the water, no one to avoid colliding with and no one but me gazing at the silver stainless steel lining on the bottom. Heaven can be the Gospel Oak lido. It was 16′ which is absolutely fine if you keep moving and are sporting a new festive swim cap like mine from Canada.

swim cap

I’m sure autumn’s a time for reinvention, why leave it all to January when you’re feeling bloated, depressed and cold? I’ve taken on new challenges, the first is very much in the spirit of #ThisGirlCan or perhaps #ThisMotherisGoingToTryTo and is to train for British Swimming’s Judge Level 1 qualification. This entails three classroom sessions: learning about time keeping, what’s a legal turn and what’s not, heaps more about correct strokes and watching videos when me the novice tries to spot what on earth the super slick swimmer could possibly be doing wrong.

Then there are the practise sessions poolside – 10+ of these – when the trainees are let loose sans L Plates or even P Plates to time and watch and judge at real galas featuring highly competitive swimmers. You might imagine adrenalin is all kept to the guys diving off the blocks and pounding up and down, but oh no, I was overflowing with the stuff as I stood there all in white (eek, yes, white polo shirt, white jeans, white flip flops and *tangerine toe nails*) clasping the stopwatch in one hand and the back up button in the other trying not to press STOP or LAP or START prematurely.

This first poolside practice was at Barnet Copthall, a pool I have travelled to many times for the Super Swimmer’s (now aged 11) galas. I normally fail to get a seat to watch, so squidge up with other parents on the damp concrete. But this time I got to perch on one of the Officials’ Only chairs. There’s a lot of leaping up and down – check out the rule manual:

‘On hearing the long whistle the Timekeepers must;

Stand up to indicate readiness to the Referee (in fact I didn’t want to sit down lest I missed something)

Listen / watch intently for the starting signal (YOU BET I WAS!)

When the starting signal is given Timekeepers must;

Start the watch

Sit down

Check that the watch is running’

But before all that for each race you have to check the swimmer’s in the correct event, correct lane, correct heat, what their name is, what stroke they’re doing and how many lengths. That is a lot of checking, whether you’re talking experienced masters swimmers or enthusiastic and perhaps very nervy young ones. They just thrust their entry card at you, or put it on your clipboard, and if you’re not very careful you end up with a wodge of cards not knowing who’s who. (NB note to tutor: I will get better at this!) I bet I’m not the only trainee who’s panicked at a ‘200m IM’ thinking is that 200m of each stroke, or 50m of 4??

Woe oh woes it went pear-shaped twice. Twice I pressed the wrong button. It’s mortifying as you have to flag down a Proper Qualified Official who takes over timing your lane.

But hey I am really enjoying this. I haven’t got a new qualification for so long, and this is fun, I’m learning rules, understanding systems and getting to grips with the world of competitive swimming which my daughter is so immersed in. The language of the rule book is quite particular, and takes some learning. My tutor was right, it was best to start with a Masters event (so adult swimmers) but I think you get wetter at them, try standing beside the blocks when a grown man dives in, whoosh down the legs goes half the pool water.

The Proper Qualified Officials were so kind, one had laid on an enormous officials’ feast for lunch (I’m wondering what said feast etiquette is, is it an excuse for me to bake and take something along or would that be seen as currying favour at the start of my training?), and some of the swimmers said thank you. But I’m very sorry to the team who asked if ‘are we going over’ for not knowing what on earth that meant (it’s a reference to diving over the top of swimmers in previous race) and hey to the medley team who apparently did an illegal handover but I couldn’t disqualify as I was too busy fretting about timekeeping I do know that the key to being an official is giving the swimmer the benefit of the doubt.

I can’t really believe that I got to time Jane Asher. Not the cake impresario, as I thought of as I looked at the timesheet, but multi medal-winner and record holder – Jane Asher, who took up competitive swimming aged 40 and is an utter inspiration. Here she is starring this video alongside @LouiseMinchin

If you’re swimming this week have a good one – and if you’re officiating and you’re all qualified, good on you, I’ve a long way to go! You can catch me all in white on 19th September…

So #ThisGirlCan run and swim (now) and her kids can swim, run and play football. But no thanks to lacrosse at school.

Sport England’s #ThisGirlCan campaign has been everywhere over the last week or so. It’s polarised opinion; some feel it’s sexist, the women in the clips look too fit with too much cleavage on show, whilst others think it’s great – and I’m firmly in that camp. It’s got us talking about exercise and that’s a good thing, surely. I’ll write another time what the twins think of #ThisGirlCan film…

We are a sporty household, home to:

Me: swimmer, recently-returned-to-running runner

Supportive Husband: speedy cycler-to-work, kick around in the park footballer

11 year old daughter aka Speedy Swimmer: swimmer, footballer, sometime cross country runner, recently discovered handballer

1 1 year old son aka the Footballer: football, enthusiastic runner, cricketer

This means the house is full of kit and trainers and on a bad day the hall is a jumble of football boots, trainers, pool buoys, swimming bags, bikes and balls.

In between work, school, homework and sporting commitments there’s not much (woops, any?) time for culture and music. Some families juggle it all and do lots of trips to places but we don’t.

The #ThisGirlCan campaign got me thinking about what sport has meant to me in my life. I went to a girls’ boarding school where lacrosse dominated, the games mistress used to say we should be ‘masters of one sport’ rather than trying out lots. This didn’t work for me, or anyone who wasn’t in the school team. Weekends were spent sitting on wet grassy slopes, enrobed in enormous school cloaks, ‘watching’ the teams play whilst smuggling sweets into my mouth. Not great. My sister told me the only way to survive GSCE and A Level exam season was to make use of the offer of daily swimming, so every day during those summer terms I swam up and down the school pool. I tried running in the 6th form. This entailed going out on my own in the dark stumbling around the school grounds. Not great.

Exercise means a lot to me now. This diagram pretty much sums it up to me:

exercise chart best

I asked the children what it means to them and why they like it. Here’s what one said:

11 year old Speedy Swimmer

(swim trains 4x week + galas)

I’m good at it

I can talk with my friends (this is the post pool time when a parent chauffeur is waiting outside wondering where on earth she is)

I sleeper better afterwards

It makes me feel good

It’s nice away from school stuff

I like winning (when I said it wasn’t all about winning she said no, but that’s the best bit)

What she didn’t say was how her confidence has grown as her swimming has improved, hurray.

Next time it’ll be the turn of the Footballer.

When I was 40 a very good author friend introduced me to Couch to 5k. This running programme does exactly as it says, it gets you off the couch and able to run 5k. It’s a 9 week programme and it’s brilliant. So in 2013 (6 months after she told me about it) I downloaded the podcasts – not the NHS one she recommended but for some reason an American one starring a 40 year old runner called Robert Ullrey. It really does work. You simply do exactly as the voice on the podcast tells you to, 3 times a week. So thank you Robert for getting me running. I even earned a hand drawn ‘Well Done Mummy’ picture from the Speedy Swimmer, featuring a rather large and lumpen figure slumped on a couch, with an arrow to an unrealistically thin stick figure running off in the distance. I had to stop last spring when I had a stint off games, but I’ve started again and am managing to look after my back better this time round. If only such a running programme had been on offer at school!

At university I took to the water and took up rowing. This was good fun, and being a member of the college rowing club led me to hang out with other sporty people – mainly hockey players – on my course. But I couldn’t run, I was hopeless at land based training. Oh the memory of a ‘compulsory run’ for the college club, to which only 2 girls turned up. The other girl sped off with the boys and I was left stopping and starting miles behind, mortified. I could handle the ergo though, and loved pulling high scores for 2k pieces. By my third year I had somehow taught myself to run / pound the pavement for an hour.

And now of course my favourite sport is swimming. It’s brought me and the Speedy Swimmer closer together as she shares her swimming tips and every now and then gives me some coaching in the pool.

I have been helped and supported by so many people on my sporting journey to fitness and back to fitness. I have three cheerleaders at home, and was lucky to have many lovely friends and colleagues like Lauren (marathon runner) and Georgia (swimmer) making all the  right noises as I regaled them of my attempts to run and swim. Thanks guys!