The fat lady sings

25 10 2010

I was there at the first training session in Dover on May Day, getting the cold shock of my life with a hundred other swimmers in nine degree depths. And I was there at the last. Just me and the Channel General, the indomitable Freda Streeter on a Sunday in October, facing a three hour swim in a force six wind.

And here I am still, on dry ground. This week the sands of time have run dry on my Channel attempt. Due to a combination of bad weather and bad luck, it is now too cold to swim. The temperature has dropped so much you’d get hypothermia in a swimsuit without going anywhere near the water.

I haven’t thrown in the towel, but reluctantly I have to hang it up for now. But I’ll be back, armed with more experience and a greater respect for the Channel.

Going the distance

Even to get this far, I am indebted to everyone who has supported and sponsored me along the way. I may not have gone the distance, but I’ve certainly done the distance. On top of months of training, I’ve swum the equivalent of three Channels in Dover, since my swim date came and went.

After the initial disappointment, I feel strangely buoyant. In an earlier blog, I mentioned success or failure would be due in only a small part to my effort on the day. The destination is just part of the story.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned along the way:

• The sea is more unpredictable than betting on the stock market. Not that I do that, I work for a charity, remember.
• The sea is your friend. It is particularly useful to repeat this mantra when it is slapping you around the face and threatening to drown you.
• Leave your hang ups at home. In the event of hypothermia, being stripped off and dressed by volunteers is a lifesaver not embarrassing.
• Good technique will make you a stronger swimmer, but ‘the catch’ is pretty ineffective when your hands are frozen into a claw.
• Jellyfish stings help to remind you that you can still feel something.
• People you’ve just met are more generous than you can ever imagine.

Out of this world

Conducting my training sustainably has thrown up some surprising benefits and not just for saving money.

What I’ve traded in sleep, swapping my car for the long bus journey to Dover, I’ve gained in time. So much time, I’ve finished writing a novel, and started another. And gone through more books in six months, than I’ve read in the last two years, from trashy novels to theoretical physics.

And reading about parallel universes, I found it strangely comforting to think that in a different world I tried and failed to swim the Channel, and in another I succeeded. And in a further one still, I did the sensible thing and went on holiday instead.

And by the same measure, there’s a planet where we succeed in living in balance with nature. It’s just not this one, yet.


The waiting game

15 09 2010

I wasn’t far off the mark when I described my swim as a labour of sorts. I’m more than three weeks overdue and practically bursting with anticipation. Tide and time may wait for no man, but they will hold you to an uncertain vigil, checking the weather forecasts as often as you clock the time of day. After the coldest August in 17 years, the sea is testing my patience before my prowess.

I’m in a kind of channel swimming limbo, physically prepared and mentally ready, but as far as I’ve ever been from France.

What happens next?

Channel swimmers are booked in queues of four or five on the neap tides, which occur for around a week, every other week. This is when the tidal flow is at its weakest, and conditions are best to swim. But if you miss your slot due to inclement weather, you will likely swim on a spring tide instead. This is when the tidal force is at its strongest, making it a more challenging crossing (as if it wasn’t hard enough already). If you’ve ever been down to the beach to find you can wade out a hundred meters and still be just waist deep, this is a spring tide. All that extra water gets sucked into the channel to make havoc for swimmers like me.

There are benefits to swimming in September: the water is about as warm as it gets at 18C. And there are drawbacks. The air temperature is cooler, and the days are getting shorter. The longer I wait, the more likely it is that I will not only start my swim at night, but finish it in darkness.

But adorning myself with a couple of night lights, like a spartan Christmas tree, is the least of my worries. What I should really be concerned about is taking my mind off the interminable wait. So I am still making the long trips to Dover to train in the harbour most weekends. And although Oxford is about as far from the sea as anywhere in England, I’m grateful for the relative proximity. I’ve met several swimmers from overseas who’ve had to abandon their hopes this year and return home.

The waiting is not helped by the fact that I get asked at least ten times a day, when I’m going to swim. At first I gave really lengthy expos, like the second paragraph in this blog. Then, when I got sick of the sound of my own voice, it evolved into a practical ‘It’ll be another week or so’. And when I could tell people were getting sick of having to ask me, a resigned ‘who knows?’

And now no one has to ask me at all, they just venture a look and I shrug my shoulders.

Crocodile fears

One event that promised to provide a distraction was the news that a crocodile was spotted in the channel. Oh the irony of embarking on that mammoth swim, only to be met with the jaws of death instead of a welcome parade. But it would be hard to deny the crocodile its pickings, having completed an epic swim of its own, and being cold blooded, entirely unprepared for the chilly waters of the Channel.

Being more used to the kind of crocs you wear on the beach, the story caused barely a ripple amongst the waiting swimmers, despite making headlines. Although I did instigate a media blackout as far as my mother was concerned, who was already fretting over basking sharks in the channel, despite their preference for plankton over people.

But the crocodile turned out to be an especially menacing looking piece of driftwood. In this case, its bark really was worse than its bite. And front page news was relegated to the small print, the reserve of apologies and admissions and stories of razor-toothed reptiles which turn out to have a hollow ring.

And I can’t help but be reminded of the fanfare that greeted the Climategate scandal. Like the croc that never was, there was distinctly less appetite for a second serving after the science was vindicated.

The final countdown

28 07 2010


There’s nothing like a deadline to galvanize the mind. The final hurdle before attempting my channel crossing was the prospect of a marathon six hour qualifying swim. This presented two major challenges. Firstly, I’ve never spent more than two and a half hours in the sea. And even that was thanks to the steely determination of the Dover crew, who do not take ‘I’m so cold I can’t feel my limbs’ as a reasonable excuse to get out early.

Secondly, the swim must be completed in open water that’s less than 16C. Which meant I had little time to spare before the water would be too ‘warm’ to count. You might wonder if there’s an element of sadism to all these rules. After all, no one expects Everest aspirants to climb with the primitive equipment that Hillary used in 1953.

But the real reason you need to complete your qualifier in less than 16C is that if you don’t, you won’t have a hope lasting twice that time in water that’s only a degree or two warmer when you make your attempt.

Goosy gander

And this is where the fat comes in. Not the goose fat that’s lodged in the public consciousness. It’s what people ask about more than anything else. And they seem genuinely disappointed to find that boiling some unfortunate gander to a paste and smearing it all over your body is in fact an urban myth. Modern channel swimmers just use a bit of Vaseline, and that’s to stop the chafing. Greasing up does little to protect you from the cold, it’s the fat you have under your skin that helps.

In the world of channel swimming, portliness is next to godliness.

So as the deadline for my qualifier loomed, my diet became as important as doing lengths in the pool. To survive the insidious cold of the channel, you cannot be too vain to gain. At first I reveled in indulging in the kind of food I normally eat sparingly. But having your cake and eating it is not all it’s cracked up to be. Having a lot of what you fancy quickly wears thin. With pasta and pizza on the menu most nights, I find myself dreaming of salad.

But if you want an excuse to eat for two, without having a baby, then channel swimming could be your thing. Though there is a labor of sorts at the end.

‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better’

Despite all this carb loading, I failed my first attempt. So with my last chance in sight, I arrived at Dover Harbour to find the choppiest conditions of the season and the odds stacked against me.

I stepped into the water at 9am in torrential rain. Like a giant washing machine, the sea flipped me onto my back several times as I struggled to breathe. But somewhere in my mind I convinced myself this water torture was a game. And that lasted me until the first feed at two hours, and then three, and then four. At five hours you couldn’t have dragged me from the sea. I finally emerged just after 3pm, last out of the water, when normally I am first.

It seems I failed better than I ever expected.

Crunch times can bring out the best in us. But not every deadline should be ridden to the wire. Just as the oil spill in the Gulf is stemmed, it seems the cap is spinning off planned emission cuts. There may be just 77 months to save the world from an irreversible tipping point for CO2 levels and environmental disaster, but that’s more than the term of office of our political leaders.

Which gives you some indication of where it currently sits on the global agenda. And where it should sit on yours.

Baptism by ice

8 06 2010

Tempting fate is never a good idea. I was so busy gloating about how many lengths I could do that I didn’t see it coming. As Oxford’s finest were leaping off the Magdalene Bridge in a tradition that dates back to the dawn of alcopops, I was preparing to take a road trip. Though, not by road you see, because that wouldn’t be very eco. I took a train to the coast to dive into the depths of Dover harbour. And despair.

Swimming in the sea is nothing like swimming in a pool. I know that because I’ve read it several times since undertaking this challenge. And because I have swum in the sea plenty of times before. I was even in the sea last October. Surely May couldn’t throw any surprises?

Sometimes you are so wrong about things that your own stupidity hits you like a sledgehammer.

The sea is at its warmest at the beginning of September, when it can reach 19C. Which means that it is still fairly temperate in October, probably around 15C. This was my first mistake. Dover harbour on May Day was just 9C.

It’s not cold, it’s character building

To kick off our training, we did two swims, for just 15-20mins, two hours apart. You need that long to recover. During the first swim, I had to be pulled out of the water because all my limbs went numb. On the second swim, the wind picked up and choppy salt water sloshed round my mouth like it was a plughole in a gargantuan bath tub.

And then came the shivers, like being held by the shoulders and shaken violently. Apparently this is normal, you only need to worry when it doesn’t happen. I had to be helped to dress myself. Someone bought me a cup of tea and held it as I drank. In this indignity, I found comfort in the kindness of strangers.

It may have been a lonely journey doing lengths in the pool, but there are literally dozens of people willing to subject themselves to the vagaries of the sea in the name of channel swimming. And thankfully, a handful of volunteers who pick up the pieces when the sea spits you out.

Flirting with hypothermia

After the shakes came the wobble. The moment where I started to think that maybe I was a bit crazy to be doing this. Why didn’t I spend my summer lying on the beach like normal people, instead of flirting with hypothermia? But I felt a bit better when I read this on the website of the Outdoor Swimming Society:

“0-11 degrees: freezing. Jumping in likely to impair breathing in the uninitiated, as breath comes in big jolting grasps and it feels like someone has clamped on an ice neck brace. Water has bite, skin smarts and burns. Limbs soon become weak – 25 metres can be an achievement.”

And of all the people who recoiled on hearing of my water torture, I knew there would be one person who would ‘get it’. The kind of person who subjects themselves to extreme temperatures for professional curiosity. Lloyd is our Head of Global Field Safety at Earthwatch. He’s like a cross between Ray Mears and Colt Severs. He’s exactly the sort of person you would want to have around in a crisis. But there are no crises in Lloyd’s world, only situations. I imagine he’d be pretty handy in one of those too.

Hot is the new cold

You might wonder why I’m banging on about how cold it is, when 2010 is set to be the hottest year on record. The crucial factor is that this represents average global temperatures. So it will not be warmer everywhere. Believe it or not, where you live is not the centre of the universe, but you’d be surprised how many people think it is. Like here in the UK, where our unseasonably cold winter probably did as much to dent public confidence in global warming as Climategate.

So really I should revel in our cold sea, because soon it could be like bathing in the Riviera. Like exam standards and children’s behavior, in a few decades time, swimming the channel will not be the feat it once was. And while part of me would be a tiny bit grateful for the respite, it is cold comfort when you consider the devastating effect on sea levels and marine life.

And somehow, using a little less goose fat doesn’t seem like a good enough reason to do nothing about climate change.

The loneliness of the long distance swimmer

30 04 2010

You may think that because I work in PR, I am prone to exaggeration. But when I said I wasn’t much of a swimmer, I really wasn’t selling myself short. When I began my training last autumn, it was mostly of the dry kind. Going to the swimming pool is akin to having an Emperor’s New Clothes moment. And while I’m happy to go along with the illusion that it’s completely normal to be parading around in your under-garments, I’d rather be looking more Victoria’s Secret than Queen Victoria. And that was enough to send me scurrying to the gym before I so much as dipped a toe in the water.

So, apart from a bracing dip in the sea on an unseasonably sunny day in October, my swim training, pre-injury, never progressed beyond 30 lengths of the pool. Otherwise known as 750m, or just over 2% of the channel.

You’re probably starting to get the picture. And to wonder at the heading of this blog.

A love affair with chlorine

So after six weeks with my feet up, I began my slow crawl back to the pool, swallowing my pride and probably more chlorine than is safe. In my first session (in the slow lane) I managed only 10 lengths and was overtaken by a man in his 70s doing breast stroke. To be fair, he was very fit for a 70 year-old.

But stroke by stroke, I started to improve. I stopped holding my head high and dry like a periscope. I learned to breathe in the water. Ten lengths became 20, then 50, then 100. I did more lengths in the first week of March than I had swum the whole of February. The first week of April, I swam as far as I had in March. Last week I did 5km (200 lengths) in the time it took me to do 4km the week before. My fitness has crept up on me as insidiously as I lost it.

Now I’m not overtaken by anyone doing the breast stroke.

At last I’m emerging as a swimmer. And I have the hallmarks to prove it. I smell of chlorine all the time. I’ve worn out a whole swimsuit. I go to the pool on Friday night, while everyone else goes down the pub. I wear goggles for so long I look like I’ve had rhinoplasty.

I spend most of my time staring into a watery void with occasional gasps for air. But the training’s going swimmingly.

This week, I’m on track to do 1,000 lengths. The distance would have been inconceivable to me just eight weeks ago. By the time I set off in three and a half month’s time, I should have completed over 15,000 lengths and much of that in open water.

But even a challenge the size of the channel is nothing compared with the efforts of your average swimmer. If you swim 40 lengths, three times a week, not exactly herculean by any standards, you’ll already have clocked up over two channel swims in the time I’ve been writing this blog for Treehugger. Chances are no one will congratulate you. Or ask you to write about it. You probably didn’t even notice yourself.

Earth day, every day

Take Earth Day, which recently celebrated its 40th anniversary. Some people did something special. Most people probably did nothing at all. But some people did what they’ve always done for the environment on the 14,040 other days that have passed since Earth Day began.

And this is the point. It’s not just about the big occasions or grand gestures: the most powerful statement you can make is by underwriting change into your daily life. If I succeed at my channel attempt in August, it will be down only in a small part to the 37,000 strokes I make on the day.

There is no glory attached to what you do for the environment, unseen, unsung, every day. There is no medal, no certificate, no pat on the back. But it amounts to a hell of a lot more than crossing an intemperate stretch of water between England and France.

Green your eats

31 03 2010


The journey to make my channel swim carbon neutral has an obvious starting point. And it’s not in the pool, but the kitchen. The fuel that powers the engine, otherwise known as the fragile human body, can have one of the biggest impacts on our carbon footprint.

We are preoccupied with food. From bite size to supersize, what we put in our mouths is an enduring obsession. And I am no exception. As someone who has never officially been on a diet, I still know the calorific value of everything. In my defense, this is partly because I am used to scanning ingredients for bits of animals masquerading as candy. And partly because I have a superhuman capacity for remembering useless information. On a recent first aid course, I was able to correctly guess the sugar content of a famous brand of tomato ketchup. I had no idea I knew this.

And everyone stared at me like I was some kind of Kim Peek for condiments.

Luckily I recall some of the useful stuff too. So, the fact that ketchup contains 23.7g of sugar per 100g, also makes it as good as a bar of chocolate if you’re having a hypo. And it doesn’t contain bits of animals masquerading as anything.

If you haven’t guessed already, I am vegetarian. Not a vegetarian. I don’t belong to a new race or social order. I don’t follow a religion or suffer from an eating disorder. I just don’t eat meat or fish, or the parts they try to hide in candy bars. So you might think that when I focus the carbon microscope on my diet, that I’m already doing enough. I should feel good about myself, right?

Maybe a little too self-satisfied, according to a new study which claimed that being green could make you mean. Ethical consumers are less likely to be kind and more likely to cheat and steal. It seems that there’s a moral trade off when you fill your locally sourced, ethically reared, seasonally produced shopping trolley. A sort of get out of jail free card for do-gooding.

This is not news to me. It is endemic across the green spectrum, from recyclers to raw food vegans. The trouble with vegetarians is that they give other vegetarians a bad name. There’s a tendency to be smug, superior, sanctimonious.

Meat is murder… to chew

So it’s really not enough that I’m already vegetarian. The truth is I find it easy: it’s a joy, not a life sentence. I love vegetables, we’ve come a long way together. I no longer require them to be diced within an inch of their lives before letting them near my plate.

I don’t miss meat at all because it’s so long since I ate it, that I really don’t know what I’m missing. It’s questionable whether I ever did. Thinking of the indigestible off-cuts we were served at school, all I remember is that meat is murder… to chew.

If I’d ever experienced a beautifully cooked steak in adulthood, I might find giving it up harder to swallow.

So I will try a dairy-free day alongside the increasing numbers of people who are going meat-free for 24 hours a week, including the town of Ghent and right on my doorstep, Exeter College, Oxford. Why not give it a go? You might find that veggie cooking is full of variety and flavor: think delicious, not denial.

Carbon pawprints

But it’s not just my diet that’s been under scrutiny. I have a confession to make. I’ve been secretly harboring a meat eater and encouraging his habit much in the same way that some people act as feeders for the morbidly obese. My dog has flirted with vegetarianism over the years but has of late been a resolute meat eater. And when I say meat, I mean the kind of animal parts that masquerade as dry dog biscuits.

This of course makes me a hypocrite. But hypocrisy is so hardwired in the human condition it’s a wonder we have a word for it at all. Or that we don’t have dozens, as the Inuits do for snow.

Luckily my dog, as most dogs that are not kept as accessories by the likes of Paris Hilton, eats almost anything. For the record, my dog is from a shelter. He is not a fashion accessory. But he is black, which means he just happens to go with everything.

Apparently dogs can have a carbon footprint equivalent to a 4×4, and it’s no surprise that one of the biggest culprits is diet. Or presumably their wardrobe in Tinkerbell’s case. Of course dogs aren’t a patch on cars for getting around, unless you have several of them, a sled and some snow. But they beat anything else for garbage disposal.

In fact I am in awe at the palate of an animal that takes equal delight in eating your best culinary efforts and eating shit.

So my dog is now vegetarian, or more accurately a freegan, given that he also benefits from my housemates’ leftovers. Which makes him officially greener than me. By rights, he should be on a fast track to a life of crime. But really he’s none the wiser.

Flog it

And somehow I’ve managed to come to the end of this flog (food blog) without once having mentioned the obvious health benefits of a meat-free lifestyle, or how it could help to save the planet. But you know that already.

I just couldn’t help the smugness creeping in.

Channel challenge: treading water

22 02 2010
Training in the channel, October 2009

Last week was a milestone: it is six months until my channel swim. If all goes well, I will be standing on Shakespeare beach near Dover in the early hours of 18 August with just 21 miles of sea between me and France’s nearest fingertip, Cap Gris-Nez. Of course the English weather, unlike the tides, is far from being an exact science. In reality I could be on call anytime that week: waiting for the phone to ring with my very own self-imposed emergency.

But in many ways I feel lucky to be faced with an insurmountable challenge. The New Year arrived with a bang, or rather twelve of them, when hazy with flu I took a shortcut down my stairs. It was a month before I could limp more than a few hundred meters and six weeks before I got back in the pool. In this case, I could walk before I could crawl.

Tongue in cheek

As an unwelcome souvenir I have a large hematoma, much like an extra butt cheek, jutting from my thigh. It appears my bones, if not my blood vessels are unbreakable. After the medical equivalent of ‘phone a friend’ my doctor found a scissor-happy surgeon willing to excise it – for cosmetic reasons. But given that it will eventually go away naturally, and an operation would further set back my training, it’s a no brainer.

On the plus side, maybe it will distract me from fixating on the rest of my butt.

After six weeks off, I should be very nervous about the challenge ahead. But to take on something this big, you need to have a sort of perverse attraction to hardship and adversity. And to a degree, I can fall back on my previous fitness. Having started training last autumn, I was already strong before my injury.

Muscles it seems have memory. Which is more than can be said of my brain cells after one too many glasses of merlot.

Speaking of which, now that I’m back in training I’m off the booze, apart from special occasions. I have yet to define exactly what that constitutes, but I’m guessing that it might legitimately include birthdays but probably not weekends.

A sobriety sorority

To keep me company, a handful of my female colleagues at Earthwatch have volunteered to sign up for a buddy month of sobriety. And after hundreds of hours worth of training, I’ll also need to spend the month before my swim in a carb loading, pasta eating frenzy to ensure I have enough insulation to keep the icy seas at bay.

I have no shortage of male volunteers to join me in that.

 Training over the months ahead will not only be about building stamina. With successful crossings taking an average of 14 hours, I will also need to raise the bar on my boredom threshold. In the time it will take me to swim the channel, you could fly from New York to Mumbai, take a train from Paris to Vienna, or drive from Denver to Las Vegas.

Under the carbon microscope

To ensure the challenge is as sustainable as possible, I’ll be viewing my lifestyle under a carbon microscope, from choosing the most ethically sourced swimwear to following the lowest footprint diet. Do feel free to offer me your tips on training and treehugging, and in return I’m happy to answer any queries you might have, such as why I go swimming in a blouse.

I’ll also be looking for a more reliable training partner/coach than my camera-shy canine. Despite his enthusiasm for swimming, he is very short on advice and swift to abandon me for anyone with a ball.

Milestone or millstone?

And for your entertainment and my reassurance, I’ll seek expert guidance from survival gurus, marine scientists and fellow adventurers in a bid to find answers to the critical issues of the day, such as: “How can I take a cold shower without screaming?”, “Can you die from jellyfish stings?” and “Do I really have to do a Paula Radcliffe when nature calls?”

Milestone or millstone, the time for backing out has passed. I have booked my crew and support boat: the Viking Princess. I only hope I can live up to her name.