The final countdown

28 07 2010

copyright: freefoto.com


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.





Biodiversity: the Cinderella of the environmental agenda

4 12 2009

Training for my channel swim at Oxford University’s Rosenblatt pool, I am humbled by achievement, and that’s before I even enter the gates. The sports complex adjoins the running track where Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile barrier for the first time in 1954. I can almost picture him bracing for the line, surrounded by timekeepers and journalists in flat caps with wide open mouths. And the images are in black and white of course, because although the same year heralded another first, ironically for the color tv, techincolor didn’t catch on at the BBC until 1968.

It is a peculiar human condition to desire to be first at something. There is a whole bible, otherwise known as The Guinness Book of Records dedicated to the pursuit of being the first, the fastest, the fittest and even the fattest.

And I am no different when it comes to the competitive spirit: amongst the 1,000 people to have swum the channel, I am hopeful to lay claim to some obscure first. But scouring the list of swimmers and achievements, all the usual suspects have already been bagged. Yvetta Hlavacova has rather selfishly taken two titles, being the fastest woman, as well as the tallest at 6’5”. Knocks my modest 5’10” right into touch.

I’m not even the first person with my relatively uncommon surname to swim the channel. No, despite never having met another Chisholm who is not a close relative, someone has beaten me to that too.

So unless I’m going to set a new record for being the fastest (as unlikely as to be virtually statistically impossible), or perhaps the slowest (much better odds, place your bets now), it seems I’ll have to settle for second place. Or more accurately 1097th place. Taking on this challenge may set me apart from Joe public but amongst channel swimmers I am decidedly average.

But being first isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The human race is facing the dubious honor of being the first species responsible for the greatest mass extinction since a catastrophic event wiped out the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretacious.

For the planet’s biodiversity, we are the catastrophic event.

In Neolithic times, scientists estimate that just 20-30 species were becoming extinct every year. The population rocket first fuelled by the success of these early farmers and later by advances in industry, technology and medicine, has sent these numbers into the stratosphere. Today around 20,000-30,000 species are thought to die out each year. In 20 years time, this could be closer to 200-300,000, according to eminent ecologist Professor E O Wilson.

Put simply, the more of us there are, the less there is of everything else.

Darwin, whose Origin of the Species celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, would be turning in his grave. While he made it his life’s work to unravel the secrets of evolution, we threaten to send our fellow creatures on a one way ticket to oblivion.

Many of these species have yet to be documented, which leaves us in the unenviable position of killing things before we have even had a chance to discover them. And you may question the loss of plants and animals we don’t even know exist, but what will be the legacy of their disappearance on the delicate balance between the biodiversity of our planet and the ecosystems that support it?

When it comes to firsts, we fall at the feet of other species. Despite our technology and invention, we are still out paced by animals when it comes to running, swimming, flying and navigation. Even the human dynamo Usain Bolt, has nothing on the cheetah. But the world’s fastest mammal faces a race against extinction. And what of the animals without such good PR?

Take the saola, a species of Asian wild cattle. Never heard of it? Nor had anyone else until 1992. It may not have the poster boy good looks of the polar bear, but it’s no aye-aye either. This striking animal, more antelope than bovine in its features, is listed as critically endangered by the IUCN’s red list. It is being hunted to extinction in its remote habitat in the Annamite Mountains on the border of Lao PDR and Vietnam. At a push, we have just 20 years to save it.

Luckily for the saola, the IUCN has set up a working group to support its conservation. But its future and that of hundreds of thousands of other species, both documented and unknown, hangs in the balance. We face a devastating loss of biodiversity within the blink of an evolutionary eye.

2010 may be designated as its ‘year’, but biodiversity is the Cinderella of the environmental agenda, waiting in the wings as climate change holds the stage. And when the Copenhagen merry-go-round is over and Cinders finally takes her rightful place at the ball, let’s hope enough guests remain to witness her transformation.