Friday, 26 August 2016


It's done. I finally made the decision yesterday to cancel my Lake Geneva swim. My foot and ankle are still very painful, swollen and bruised, and even though a big part of me just wants to just get out there and give it a go no matter what, the rest of me knows that 24+ hours of swimming is unlikely to improve an injury that I can hardly bear weight on even before we've started. It also risks exacerbating the injury with potential long term consequences, and I don't think any swim warrants that, no matter how much time and money has gone into it (and in this case, it's a lot of both). Even though, like most long distance swimmers, I don't really kick much, the habitual work of stabilisation in the water places constant demands on the ankle in ways that I hadn't really appreciated until now. I've tried swimming holding it still, but this puts new and assymetrical demands on different parts of my body to manage rotation etc - fine if that's how you've trained, but it's an invitation to further injury otherwise. 

And so, I decided to put an end to the uncertainty and to move on. There's nothing that I can do about it other than lick my wounds for a while and then turn my attention to ankle rehab and new (or old) goals.

Thanks to everyone who's sent encouraging messages over the last few days, and especially to the Lake Geneva Swimming Association, who've been very supportive in the face of my inability to make it even to the start line. I'm down but not out, and in this spirit, last night, we took an evening cruise from Lausanne to Geneva, saw the lake in all its glory and toasted the spectacular gap between my aspiration (to swim 42 miles) and my accomplishment (to fall 2 inches). If you're going to be injured and disappointed, there are worst places to do it. 

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

An unexpected turn of events....

Well...this wasn't how I expected things to go.

The story begins with the fact that Peter and I were walking out of a lakeside bar yesterday evening.... It was the end of a disappointing day. We were scheduled to start our Lake Geneva swim today (Weds), with perfect conditions forecast, but sadly, a mechanical problem with the boat put paid to that and on Tuesday afternoon, we heard that the swim would have to be postponed to either Thursday or Friday. It was frustrating, but it's just one of those things - an occupational hazard in a sport that has a lot of variables in play and lots of moving parts. It is also a million times better to identify a mechanical problem in advance rather than mid-swim. So, knowing that everyone was working hard to fix the problem, we brushed off our disappointment, headed off for a swim in a deliciously lovely 50m lakeside outdoor pool, and then sauntered along the shore, stopping at a bar for a beer and to watch the sun set behind the mountains. It was a lovely end to a disappointing day, and we decided to head back to our Airbmb flat to eat and prepare ourselves for the possibility of a Thursday swim. To be honest, I was feeling quite proud of myself for keeping my focus after the change of plan - I hate the lead-up to a swim, and am not good with spontaneity, so I felt pleased that I had been able to keep my positive focus (although it turns out that a bit more focus on my surroundings instead of the swim would have been more productive).

And then it happened...  I slipped off a small step at the edge of the decking - just a matter of a couple of inches in height - and wrenched my left ankle over. I knew immediately that I'd done something more than just tweak it and my heart sank. I was able to hobble home, but it was sore and swollen, and by morning, it was still no better, with bruising starting to come through and limited mobility. I decided to go for a morning swim in the hope that it would be fine in the water without my weight on it, but the stabilising work of the legs made my foot ache on every kick, however gentle. The pain rose over the 20 minute swim, and I soon came to the reluctant conclusion that I needed to face the possibility of having to cancel the swim. A 24+ hour swim is unlikely to be forgiving of such an injury.

So I currently find myself in the tense position of waiting to see if my ankle can recover sufficiently for me to swim on Saturday (the last possible day open to me). I'm sitting in the flat with my foot wrapped in a compression bandage and up on a cushion, dosing myself with ibuprofen and willing it with every ounce of my being to get better.

This is really not how I had expected this to go, and I am utterly mortified by my own spectacular oafishness.

Time will tell about what happens next. In the mean time, I'm just concentrating on trying to keep the rest of me in one piece.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Elbowed in...

As per my last post, I headed off to the Lakes this weekend for a couple of  'test out my elbow' swims, after which I was determined to make the decision about whether to postpone my Geneva swim or commit to it. I picked the beautiful Crummock Water as the setting for the swims - a long, thin lake, surrounded by monumental, relentless hills. It's stunningly beautiful, even when, as with this weekend, the weather is a bit grim. It was a grey couple of days, punctuated by high winds and apocalyptic bouts of rain, with air temps listed on the Met Office site as "12 degrees, feels like 10" (because of the cold winds). A bunch of wet-suited swimmers hanging around the beach told me that they'd measured the water temp at 15, which seems about right, although the wind made it cold across the shoulders, turning it into a bit of a slog at times.

But whatever the weather, this was my last chance to test the elbow before deciding about Geneva, so I set myself the target of 2 x 10km swims (one each day) - basically a full circumferential lap of Crummock Water plus a bit extra to make up the distance. Like every Crummock Water swim, it was beautiful (if a little menacing at times with the clouds sinking low down the hillsides), and the poor weather meant I seemed to have the whole lake to myself. Such luxury. I used a tow-float with energy drink in it, and one big bottle got me round each time (although for a 6 hour swim, I find I need more regular feeds, so carry gels as well). (As an aside, the Chillswim bottle-holder float has an advantage over the dry-bag tow-floats in that it doesn't flip over in rough conditions, meaning that the strap never gets twisted. This makes it much more comfortable to swim with, although you lose the security of being able to carry a robe and shoes with you).

And the good news is that my elbow held up just fine, and so I have now committed fully to the task ahead. To be honest, I don't think the joint is quite 100%, but with more physio to come, and no noticeable problems during either swim, I'm feeling fairly confident. And realistically, even if I wait until next year, there's always going to be something niggling away, so now is the time.

The Geneva swim season is about to start shortly, and I heard today that the water is a glorious 21 degrees. Let the fun begin.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Elbowed out?

Things were going so well...It's been a struggle since January to get the hours in the pool that I need, but I've managed to keep going, finally hitting the open water in May and building to several 6 hours swims, including a couple of back-to-back sessions. Each time, I was tired, but left the water feeling good and without any aches or pains. I was feeling optimistic, and began my taper for my planned Windermere weekend (2-way, followed by a 1-way) when out of nowhere, three days before the Windermere swims, and during a very gentle hour in the pool, I got a slight niggle in my left elbow. It was nothing major, but it was new. The joint felt a bit stiff afterwards, but the next day it seemed okay, so in I went again, just for a gentle paddle, but back it came, more insistently this time. Damn.

I booked an emergency sports massage appointment, and later that day, the wonderful, relentless Christine massaged my left arm to within an inch of its life. Already, I could feel that a lot of the tightness that had caused the problem had gone, but sadly, it was too late to risk doing the Windermere swims and reluctantly decided to cancel. I felt terrible, especially since Mark Robson and Amanda Bell had generously set aside the time to crew for me, but given the residual post-massage soreness that lasted several days, I'm convinced that this was the right decision and that this will give me the best chance of getting to Geneva in one piece. But one of the undesirable consequences of inserting a long swim into the training cycle as a confidence-builder is that when that swim can't happen because of injury, it's a bit of a confidence-crusher and I am feeling full of self-doubt.

So now, I'm awash with indecision. The elbow is heaps better, but not quite 100% (yet?), but unfortunately time is not on my side and I can't wait around indefinitely to decide for all kinds of logistical and financial reasons. So I have to choose very soon whether to just commit, give it a bit more recovery time and then go for it, or to err on the side of caution and postpone until next year. There are many reasons why I don't want to pick the latter option - I've really had to work hard to get the training in this year, and I'm not sure I'm going to be able to repeat this next year, particularly since I have an even heavier workload in front of me; but also, after putting in all that work, I don't want to waste it. But then again....after all this time and money, I don't want to go into the swim without having done everything possible to succeed. With 7 weeks to go, and having already had time out to taper for the Windermere swims and then recover from the injury, there's not a lot of slack left in the training schedule. AAARGH. I just don't know.

Ultimately, I'm hoping that my elbow will make the choice for me, so I'm off to the Lakes this weekend to do a couple of long swims. If it feels okay, then I'll commit to going for it; if it doesn't, then I'll have to pull the plug for now and try to come back next year.

It's not how I hoped all this would go, but it's an occupational hazard for a sport like this, so I can only hope that the right decision becomes clear over the next few days.

And in the mean time, make sure you're following the 2016 8 Bridges swim, this year with the added ability to track the swimmers  (courtesy of Evan Morrison's new tracker app) as they progress down the river each day. You might as well give up on doing any work now and settle down to watch - it's easier that way.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016


It's finally here...the real life, hold-it-in-your-hand book. After all these years of work, and over a year since completing the manuscript, it scarcely seems true. But it is....there's a happy heap of copies on my office floor (although I haven't dared open any of them up yet in case I find typos!). It is 14 years since my last monograph, so this is probably slightly overdue, but still...I couldn't be more pleased. Plus at 48, who ever thought I would find myself on the cover of a book in a swimming costume, with my back smeared all over with a US nappy rash cream called "Butt Paste". Life is strange and wonderful.

I'm not going to be flogging the book mercilessly either on or offline, not least because it's a relatively expensive hardback which is aimed primarily at libraries at this stage (with a paperback to follow next year). But, please allow me this brief promotional post.... 

If you wish to buy a copy, you can purchase it from Manchester University Press. They are currently having a summer sale with 50% off all books, so the usual purchase price for my book of £70 is currently reduced to £35. (Still expensive I know, but better). To get the discount, click the "buy now" button and enter the discount code Summer16 in the 'promotion code' box. Unfortunately, the code only applies to UK / EU purchases at the current time (the US sales are being handled by Oxford University Press).

I'm very excited for the book to finally be making its way into the world, and of course, I am very grateful to everyone who helped with the research. Books, like marathon swims, are a team effort, even though only one name ends up on the cover. So big thanks all round.  

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Fats, carbs, meat and plants....

A warning….this post is not about swimming (although, as with most things, I came to it via swimming, where discussions about diet and nutrition are rife). As I explained when I re-launched the blog in February, as my research moves away from swimming, I want to start using this as a site for testing out new thoughts and ideas about a range of projects and issues, some of which are more obviously swimming-related than others. So if you’ve come to the blog looking for swimming posts, please browse away through past posts….or come back in a couple of weeks, by which time I’m sure more swimming will have appeared.


With my swimming book now at the printers (and out in August), I’ve been working on getting some new writing and research projects going. My primary goal is a long-abandoned but recently resurrected book about obesity surgery, but as a side project, I’ve been getting very interested in radical weight loss diets – those diets which conform to contemporary anti-obesity sentiment, but which stand in direct opposition to mainstream dietary advice. I started off by focusing on low carb – high fat diets (LCHF)  (e.g. the Real Meal Revolution) which have become very popular in the swimming community recently, and then extended this to plant-based weight loss plans (e.g. Forks Over Knives). The former rely heavily on animal products as a means of limiting carbs and increasing the consumption of fat, while the latter completely reject all animal products (including dairy). In spite of this very fundamental difference, I’ve been intrigued by how much they have in common, leading me to ask how the cases for each are made, what values they appeal to, and where their similarities and differences lie.

I need a couple of quick caveats here: as a recently converted vegan, and a vegetarian for 30 years before that, I have an obvious loyalty to plant-based eating and think that it is environmentally and ethically irresponsible to promote the greater consumption of animal products.  But this is not what this project is about, and I think that while the vegan critique of LCHF is personally important to me it is not particularly interesting sociologically. For this reason, I have excluded books guided by ethical veganism and am focusing specifically on plant-based weight loss plans. Nor is the project about adjudicating the health effects of one or other regimen, but rather, to think about how those claims to weight and health outcomes are made and to what social effects. There is one final caveat – and one which anyone familiar with my writing on marathon swimming and fat will recognise. I come from an academic tradition of feminist Fat Studies and as such, approach this topic with a well-worn suspicion of the easy equation of fatness and ill-health, and a resistance to the habitual and moralising assumptions about fatness that run through the contemporary attack on obesity - a starting point that not everyone will agree with. 

In dietary terms there is more common ground between the two dietary styles than you might expect, particularly in relation to the rejection of processed and refined foods, and both regimens have armies of acolytes for whom the prescribed dietary transformation has produced effects on the body that are experienced as both positive and meaningful (and I think it's important to take those experiences seriously). But the most interesting common ground for me lies in the programmes' self-presentations and justifications, many of which overlap strongly with mainstream anti-obesity interventions. Both share the caricatured and hysterical fear-mongering that is the hallmark of the ‘war on obesity', and both are sites of weight loss entrepreneurship, selling books and other products and plans, as well as engaging in research. Both marshall ‘science’ to shore up their arguments, as embodied in books and websites primarily through the figures of white, male doctors and scientists. Both exercise a rigorous critique of opposing scientific views but rarely extend that level of scrutiny to supporting studies or to the obesity science literature which feeds the ‘war on obesity’ more generally. ‘Science’, then, for both is usually good or bad, but rarely treated as inherently uncertain. Both rely on highly strategic and partial evolutionary accounts of what we are 'meant' to eat. Both caricature and generalise the diet of the ‘irresponsible poor’ whilst offering solutions which demand the social, cultural and economic capital of the (westernised) middle classes. Both treat weight loss as synonymous with, and a proxy for, health in ways that are fundamentally unreliable. And both rely on profoundly masculinised narratives of bodily mastery and athleticism as proof of positive health outcomes. 

My preliminary argument, then, is that while both LCHF and plant-based programmes identify strongly with their dissenting roles in relation to conventional dietary advice, they simultaneously reproduce many of the normative assumptions that underpin mainstream anti-obesity campaigns and which Fat Studies scholars have been critiquing for years.

In short, I don’t think that they’re as radical as they appear to be at first glance, and can alternatively be seen as intensifications of existing ideologies rather than divergences from them. 

And this leads me to a further question (and one which is central to my obesity surgery book), which applies to both the general audience and to the feminist and Fat Studies communities for whom the failure of diets is a core element of their opposition: What if it works?  If one or other (or both) of these regimens were to be successful in safely producing sustained weight loss and improved ‘health’ (however that’s measured), what does that mean for the fat body? What new or intensified coercions might result? What gets overlooked in the relentless focus on obesity as the motivating problem to be solved? 

These are only my preliminary thoughts, and I’ve got heaps more work to do. But even if it doesn’t come to anything, at least it’s the kind of research where you pick up some great recipes and food ideas along the way (chocolate-banana ice-cream, anyone?).

Monday, 30 May 2016

6 hours...

The 6-hour swim is a marathon swimming staple. As many swimmers already know, it is the length of the qualification swim for the English Channel (and others), and long distance training camps routinely culminate in documented 6-hours swims, providing certificates for swimmers to dispatch to organising bodies as evidence. But as every experienced marathon swimmer knows, your qualification swim should just be one of many. To have completed the qualification swim is really just a starting rather than a finishing point in your training, and as your big swim approaches, the 6-hour swim, while always satisfying, should become relatively mundane. And while there is disagreement about how many long weekends are necessary leading up to a big swim, I would definitely say that you should be able to double up with relative comfort as the swim approaches, doing back-to-back 6-hour swims across two days. If you are completely wrecked at the end of 6 hours and can't recover well enough to swim again the next day, then you're probably not ready for 12, 15, 20 hours.

In the summer before my EC swim, I did 4-5 back-to-back weekends, plus I came to love the early season 6-hour swim at Swan Pool, which I did annually until I moved to North Yorkshire. I also did 6-hour swims with Swimtrek in Gozo, and on the Cork training camp. As a result, I learned to chop up a marathon swim into 6 hour chunks; in the EC, I changed my goggles at the end of the first 6 hours as the sun came up, and in my mind, I restarted the swim afresh. At the next 6 hours, I was rewarded with a black jelly baby to mark the start of the next 6-hour block. I did the same on both of my MIMS swims; the magic of the black jelly baby to reset the clock shouldn't be underestimated.

Times have changed in my training though, and when I stopped to think about it before writing this, I realised that I haven't done a 6-hour training swim since May 2013, in the run-up to my rather unsuccessful season of cancelled and aborted swims. I have swum over 6 hours since then - on both of my MIMS swims, and then the 8 Bridges swim last year, which involved 3 swims of 7+ hours; but it's been 3 years since I did any 6-hour training swims. This is partly because, since I got the Fastlane Pool, I tend to do longer, more regular pool swims more consistently than I was able to before. I am firmly convinced of the relative value of doing frequent 2-3 hours swims over my previous pattern (from necessity) of being relatively fallow during the week then hammering out long training swims at the weekend.

But with both Geneva and, more immediately, my 2-way / 1-way Windermere weekend approaching fast, it was time to get out there and get some distance in my shoulders... Plus, the weather forecast for the Bank Holiday weekend for the Lake District was for glorious sunshine. This doesn't happen very often, and the thought of all that water-warming sunshine inspired me to leap in the van and head to Grasmere to do my first 6-hour swim of the season - hopefully the first of many in my prep for Geneva. This was also the first 6-hour training swim I've done completely solo - just doing 2km laps of the lake with a tow-float carrying a drink bottle, plus a few gels down by the back of my costume, stopping in at the beach every 2 hours to restock. I was surprised how well it all went - I felt like I was swimming well, I didn't really get cold, and my energy levels stayed high. Over the winter, I've lost some of the habits of thought that long swimming demands, and I found my mind bouncing around problems with work for the first couple of hours. But by hour 4, I had settled down and started to find my marathon swimming-ness - an embodied disposition, a state of mind.

I've been more tired today than I had hoped, and obviously still have a  lot of work to do, but it felt SO good to be back at it in such a tangible, substantive way. It feels like a very solid contribution to training; a marker of progress in a long journey.