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.