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.

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.