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.


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.