Sunday, 30 January 2011

No Swim Week/ No Goggles Swim

After nearly two weeks of no blog (well I have been in a sense but it's been in a notebook and pen in my bag, which for obvious reasons isn't publicly accessible) this is a big one, so I have decided to break it up into chapter type headings for easy reading. 

1.  Tuesday:-No Swim Week 
The beggining of the week has started with a concern as to when I would be able to swim next.  A slightly lost weekend had left me feeling empty and slightly removed from what I'm doing.  Because I am busy rehearsing Promising To Swim The Channel at Pilot Nights, Warwick Arts Centre tonight, (  I know , with some sense of irony, that I wouldn't be able to actually swim until Friday morning.  (The performance sees me demonstrate my best stroke with the aid of a few stools, some Vaseline, some salt, a stopwatch and a bowl of water-not really counting as swimming in my training regime but as good as it gets on dry land)

This frustration indicates a shift in how I feel about swimming- it has become less a compulsion to swim and more of need. I also feel a bit of a charlatan performing promising to Swim The Channel when I haven't had a swim for a week. On a day that I swim, I sleep and wake without remembering falling asleep, I'm easily up and enjoy the ache in my arm muscles (it lets me know I've been using them-a pleasant surprise for someone who in the past has avoided physical excersice). The nights that follow the days that I haven't swum, I'm not even sure that I sleep. The thoughts that I usually thrash out in swimming become half dreams and turning in the night. I try and cook up plans for swimming in Warwick (where the show is-I could swim in the university campus?) in Watford (where my mum lives and I am staying on the Wednesday evening?), but none of them work logistically.

I do like the idea of always having my swim suit with me ready to take to the pool (like superman but without saving anyone, or fighting crime, or anything useful, apart from being able to swim. Also constantly wearing a costume under my clothes is probably going to cause some sort of yeast infection eventually-but what's an infection in the name of art? Super Swimmer-I will swim, anytime, anywhere). There is something to this, though, like always having a mint, or a clean pair of pants, or a toothbrush, or a pen in my handbag. Always have a swimming costume or a towel, always ready to swim...

But I know that I cannot swim until Friday, and I feel a frustration ongoing murmuring in my head, a tendency to snap (usually at inanimate objects or unsuspecting, but rude, train attendants) , and surprising physical urge to move, to run, to walk. 

I spend the day mainly on my own, sticking my head in a bucket of water in a glass windowed conference room at Warwick arts centre- there is something deliciously risqué about taking my clothes off and rehearsing in a space that's not really for rehearsal, while have naked (there were curtains, I did close them). And there is this similarity ,for me,  in swimming and rehearsing. The solitary feeling when I have only me and my head for company, pushing myself to do something because I have to, because I should, when I'm really looking at the lovely big sofa's and wondering if I shouldn't just take a nap (that lost weekend creeping up on me).    

It's a good audience, as it always is at Pilot, big, responsive, communicative and mixed. I get asked afterwards if I am really going to swim the channel or if it's just a path to performance. 'Oh yeah' I say with the same determination I usually answer this question with, when, for the first time, I doubt myself and 2012 doesn't really seem that far away. And I remember hearing that people were booking up to swim in 2014. And I haven't booked anything. Or really begun to understand what it entails.  And it's all beginning to feel like a fallacy, my own myth creation. The person that asks likes the idea that perhaps I'm not really going to do it and that's the whole point. I think I'm more afraid of not doing it.  

I have also just promised to pay around 130 people £1 each if I don't attempt to swim the channel in September 2012 (it's part of the performance, a contract). If I carry on, it's going to be cheaper for me just to swim the channel. 

2. Friday:-No Goggles Swim

Left Bicep: 31.2 cm 
Right Bicep: 32 cm
Back: 106.5 cm  (a worrying slight decrease, it would seem) 
Song in head*: 'New England' by Billy Bragg / 'Dreams' by Gabrielle 

* An addition to the statistics is the song that happens to be going around my head at the time of swimming-I meant to start this last week after spending the majority of my swim with 'The Going Get's Tough' (Billy Ocean version, not, I hasten to add the Boyzone cover) so it seems to be once again about the Billy's as as New England went around my head-though really only two lines from it. Over and over again. It took me until about the 54th length to even consciously realise that Billy Brag was the theme tune to my swim. Which sporadically would morph into 'Dreams' by Gabrielle-try it, it's an easy switch 'I don't wanna change the world, I'm not making plans for tomorrow, just stay for tonight, put your arms around me...etc etc.. 

It has been a long week and when my alarm goes off at 7am, I'm so tired I want to cry. The open expanse of my 13.5 tog duvet beckons with excuses of 'it's has been a long week' 'you deserve a lie in' 'you can swim harder another day' which I very nearly succumb to sinking back into. But I've my swimming costume on, to the point of no return and like a girdle it holds me in a grip of guilt. I put on a hoodie that feels like a hug and take the 7 minute walk, 8 minute train journey, 4 minute walk to the pool. I really don't want to do this (this does seem to be a running theme of my morning swims, I'm waiting for it to get better.) 

As I push off the water slides around me, and I relish that moment of gliding, when its not your body that's propelling you forward but that moment of impact from the wall behind and it's like flying, and I feel graceful. A rare occurrence outside water. A surprise good beginning on a day when my arms ached with lethargy. 

Usually the first 10 lengths kill me. Actually the first 30. And the voice in my head says, you've got 100 more to do or quadruple what you've done,  to reach those two miles. But in unfathomable turn up, the water today is on my side. (I feel this sometimes, a ridiculous notion that should not really be applied to recycled, chlorinated stretches of water filled with the skin cells of other people, more relevant to those open out door stretches of water if I'm going to get romantic about it.) 

I've forgotten my goggles, and I wonder if that's the reason. Fellow swimmers are smudged shadows, flashes of skin, water colours. They don't really feel solid. And it's a lot nicer than looking up the crotch of some too tight shorts up ahead. I notice the high pitch murmuring in the water, and fantasise about swimming pool mermaids for a moment. 

It's quiet today, I am only sharing the wide lane with two men.  A man in a pink swim cap and a man in a yellow one. Sometimes they take turns to over take me, Mr Pink, is clearly the faster swimmer, but I sometimes get the better of Mr Yellow. What I notice about the male swimmer is that (with the exception of the man machine from a previous post) there tends to be a pull towards swimming the fastest they possibly can, causing a great splash, for maybe two lengths only to sink into the end pose of a Danny Dyer influenced arm stretch legs apart seat at the end of the pool. And they rest...they are not in it for the long haul, but the speed. (Of course this is not true of every man, but there is certainly a pattern in this). Women (outside of women only) tend to be in it for the distance, rarely a stop, rest technique to be seen there. 

I don't do 2 miles, I stop at 100 lengths, as I feel I could go on. And I'm planning on trying a three mile swim on Sunday morning (at the risk of thrill seekers, and non serious weekend swimmers). It was a good swim, an able swim, an enjoyable swim that swept away a slight unsettled feeling that had sat beside me through the week.  And I no longer felt the pull of tiredness. 

On the train on the way home I pick up the metro-
The metro 60 second interview today is Rosamund Pike (Blond, Pretty, intelligent) and they ask her:

I hear you're a fan of skinny dipping. Is that right?
I'm a fan of water in general. I can't go past a lake or a piece of water without getting into it. I'm not a nudist or an exhibitionist but if I haven't got a bikini, I'll go in without a bikini.

Note that the link is even sold on 'love a spot of skinny dipping'-she is a good looking girl. Of course, that's not why it caught my eye she's a 'super swimmer'-can't go past water without getting into it. Like I claim. Like I should be.

While I'm on the subject of news stories Redditch Council are thinking of using a local crematorium to heat the public swimming pool. A response from a friend was 'when you go (as in die) that's where you should go'.  

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Afternoon Swim/ What I Think About When I Think About Swimming

Left Bicep: 32.5 cm
Right: 33 cm
Shoulders/ Back : 107 cm

This may seem more than a little more than last time I measured-which will be down be my being unable to tell the difference between cm and inches while wrapping a measuring taped around my bicep-this is obviously not an accurate way of checking-I think I may need a hand. 

Tuesday Morning: A slightly restless night left me without the inclination to wake up at 6.45am and swim two miles. I spent an hour and forty minutes drifting out of guilt before finally rising to the challenge and deciding to head to the pool for my favourite of sessions - the lunch time swim.

During this time the lanes are wider, and the people packing into the pool happens in ebbs and waves. There are the familiar swimmers.  The steady swimmer, regular, rhythmical, never stopping. A machine of a man. With slap and kick of arms and legs. He appears slow in his concentration, but I always have to let him overtake me.

I have been lent Huruki Murakami's 'What I Talk About When I Talk About Running'   (possibly on a no return basis, having lost the orginal copy with six rubber eggs on London Overground somewhere between Forest Hill and Canada Water) by someone who is to all intents and purposes a marathon runner.  Something which I , definitely, am not. (Before the new year I started trying to jog as a way to test different fitness levels, more about being able to run less than two minutes without throwing up at a different time.) There is a theory-I'm not sure who's, that you are either a runner or a swimmer; it is rare to find someone that finds an equal joy in both. But I could be wrong.

Murakami talks (writes) about running, why he runs, the need to run, why he started and the impact and similarities it has to/on his writing practice.

Early on in the book Murakami answers the question that people commonly ask him-

'What exactly do I think about when I think about running? I don't have a clue' (p20 vintage edition)

When asking the person that lent me the book the same question-there is a similar response. Something along the lines of 'Anything. Nothing. I'm not really sure'. That person's impulse to start running was a change in his life, a shifting of personal circumstances, a goal to aim for. I've started to take swimming seriously for the goal of the channel, as a project, something I can focus on.

My answer to what I think about when I swim is everything. Or rather, the small specific things. I tend to avoid the big topics. Fantasy conversations played out as I would have liked them to have gone. What I didn't say. What I should of said. What I couldn't say. Or conversations that never took place. Conversations that will never take place. Conversations that might happen. They slide in a scale of meaning and impact on my everyday life. Small acts and irritations that creep under my skin, powering around my head, up through my arms and shoulders, into speed and movement.

That is not to say that these stories that I tell myself do not occupy my time when I am not swimming; they knock constantly around my head in dead time-during my pay job, when travelling, in the middle of reading, while listening to music.

But in swimming while submerged up to my ears, in my eyes, over my mouth and nose they become nothing but that narrative. Filled by water as a vacuum, taste, breath, sound and sight all dulled by what surrounds. A list of wants, wishes and possibilities seem to speak louder when I am face down in the water. So often do I rant in my head that when emerging from monotony of lengths to adjust my goggles, or let the steady man overtake, I am surprised at the calmness of the pool above water. The kicking of legs, the lapping of chlorinated water on tiles, the (general) lack of chatter, the exaggerated breathing of others, the regulated splash. It can be a shock of light and sound. But often its a full stop, a change in paragraph for the shuttling around my head.

So often it can be these aggressions, these unsaid words that keep me moving in the pool, as if I can move away from them in the repetition of the swim. Swimming is a time I let myself talk these ridiculous situations and irritations that I cook up in my head. As I'm already doing something useful with my body, I just need something of equal impact to occupy my mind.

Often I start with the intention to use pool time to rehearse performances in my head. Measuring equal physical exertion with a mental test of ideas. Go over words and gestures in time with the swim.  As if the physical helps to press upon the memory. I even schedule it as rehearsal time. This often falls down quite quickly, like all the time I try to press into pockets and patterns. I tell myself that I will allow the first 20 lengths to be taken up with thinking about X or the situation with Y and so on, and by the 21st length I must begin thinking about something useful. Rehearsing. Knowing my words. Curtain up, the show begins. It is rare I get past the first page.

That is not to say these narratives are a bad thing ,sometimes I have so successfully wound myself up that I have beaten a previous personal best in time. I can be so occupied by the tales I tell that I barely notice physical exertion and feel I could carry on past the goal of distance that I have set myself. This is, a good swim. Other times,  I get distracted and that ranting to myself is transferred (somewhat unjustly) to those around me (as with the previous post). A constant monologue of silent seething similar to the daily commute.

No, no go on sweetheart, you are obviously desperate to go in front of me. 

Yes, why don't you stop right there. Right there. 

Can you not see the sign that says fast lane? Sculling in the fast lane. 

Flippers? Flippers? Really?

But these little comments sometimes please me, an act of self camaraderie. A talk to oneself.

Murakami talks about stopping, running and writing, when you know you know you could go on. So just for now. I'll stop.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Women only swimming

This week I wanted to swim four miles in two, two mile sessions, having completed an early morning two mile on Monday, I decided to try something new and opt for a women only evening session. I did this out of curiosity, a vaguely anthropological type research into different behaviour in pools at different times of the day. (Also based on my being unable to get out of bed early this morning due to a gloriously warm duvet someone has recently given me and that I spent the entire day tidying all the things I didn't tidy last year.)

For a start the price in the evening goes up by 55p and I can already hear that there is a swimming lesson going on in one of the lanes. Pay more, less space grumbles my inner voice as I begin fantasising about complaining to the bored lifeguards. The changing room is too much leopard print and talk of new year diets. This might not be the right time for me.

Choosing a lane.
This, to me, is a strategic careful placing, you have to weigh up the pros and cons of fast and medium. In a mixed session my mind is usually made up by the amount of men swimming very loudly in the fast lane. I can only describe it as loudly. Look at me, I'm swimming, really fast, with both my legs and my arms.

A women only session with a lane used up for a lesson gives me only one option. Medium. I probably am a swim snob. A mediocre swimmer that thinks their something special because I like to put my face in the water. But I have come to swim two miles, not have a chat without getting my hair wet. The lanes are full, but wide so I follow the beautiful stroke of a women who is weaving in out of the chatting breast strokers. She is one of those swimmers that flips in a tumble turn when she comes the end of a length. Oh I have jealousy. Swim envy. Aqua aspiration. But I wouldn't need to turn quickly in the channel, there are only two sides; one that I leave and one that I aim for. Still I'm sure I used to be able to turn like that when I was younger.

There is a rhythm that is set by the first 10 lengths, as my brain starts to wonder and my ears fill with water. I try not to count the lengths ahead of me. You've done 20, another 110 to go. I tell my mind to hush, before the tiredness of this task reaches my arms, my legs. Enjoy the filled in muffle under water. The strange high pitch wirr that most pools possess and the driven feel of my arms pulling me along.


The fast lane has stopped its lesson and I can now move in comfort to the ranking I deserve. The tumble turn lady has already swept into my territory, and I watch her in fascination through the fog on my goggles. She seems to be swimming in strokes I haven't seen before, curving along in Dolphin arches. I wonder if she is practising immersion swimming, a swimming theory that teaches you to move with the water, not against it. (I've been given a book on this but have only skimmed through it so my wonder may be wrong).  Because the lanes are so wide, she refuses the arrows pointing clockwise, so I take one side, and she takes the other. After a little fit of anger and the putting down of panic that we are not swimming according to the rules (I am a stickler to pool rules-Sculling in the fast lane? someone should blow a whistle), I begin to enjoy the dance we do as we cross each others paths. She seems at home in the water and I contemplate asking her about her technique. And I relax into the motion, let my head begin to wonder underwater. Check the clock and think that this might be the premium time, when all the slow swimmers wonder home. A sharp thought interrupts me from the waters edge, when I think there will be a second wave.

I see a troop of legs in matching swimming costumes and swim caps atop the side, eyeing up our lane.  They look like a professional relay team, as if they are about to get serious.  Put a fear in me that I haven't felt since net ball teams and hockey teams and girls in matching pleated skirts. They gather at one end and begin to talk and listen to one who appears to have rank over the others (she has a slightly flashier swim cap).  They take up the end of the lane, leaving little room to push off. Lane rage is rising to my surface. They set off like a trail of ducks, breast stroke after breast stroke in. the. fast. lane. They stop and they chat again at the shallow end so I am swimming towards their matching v's of black material and white toned legs. They gather in a closed circle, like in play grounds and in whispers. They aren't a relay team. But an informal exercise group. Lead by that one in the hat. My mermaid partner has left the pool.

The pool isn't for chatting. I am a serious swimmer, I think. I'm actually training to swim the channel, I think. Again and again I get stuck behind their trails. Or they begin to snap at my heels as there doesn't seem to be enough water for this teacher and her pupils. Inconsiderate flashes in syllables to the stroke of my arm. I swim faster in my anger, playing a game with them they are not aware of.  I'm sure I hear whispers, as I stop to let them past. Its like commuting. Your voice of , indignace where morals, politeness and humanity turn into inner rants and fantasies of violence. Or at least a heated exchange.

Its probably my imagination, I get these silent spats when in swimming pools, sometimes it spurs me on. But with men in tiny trunks, you can let them past, you can let them splash, you can try to save their pride by being slower than them.

The group leave at some point and I get a lane to myself. I am smug at my 140 lengths, knowing they could only manage 40. Thank god they weren't a relay training team. That would have put me to shame.

Monday, 10 January 2011

(Or the story of how I might...)


Left Bicep Width: 11.95 cm
Right Bicep Width: 12.45 cm
Shoulder Width (armpit to armpit, not including the breasts) 41.6 cm 

Ever since I was little I've been trying to drown myself in water. Long to be consumed by it, swallowed whole by it entirely. Not on purpose or through a morbid fascination, but a kind of magnet that draws me into lakes and rivers and streams and ponds and puddles, city fountains, municipal swimming pools. Ultimately, it's the sea I seek.

In times of trouble I run to water, and I know I am not the only one, our coasts are lined with wearied souls who seek answers in horizons, in waves and changing tides. The sea makes my heart lurch like seeing an old lover, makes my stomach contract like meeting a new one. 

So in order to really get to know it, in order to spend some time with the sea, I have decided to Swim The Channel. In September 2012 (pencilled in) I will attempt to swim the channel.

This is early (very early) days for me, and I'll tell you now that I'm an artist. I'm doing this as a project, as it seems that considering the swim an art project was the only way I could motivate myself into regular exercise. It started last year as a joke with my housemate after the shock of swimming regularly for one day a week for four continuous weeks. Something along the lines of:

Me: 'I've done 70 lengths really easily, I reckon I could swim the channel.'

My housemate: (incidentally a black belt in Kung Fu and in training to run the London Marathan): 'I think you should'

Me: 'I think I will.'

She began telling people, I began telling people-(it became a party piece introduction), I began researching it, started taking swimming more seriously and started making small performances about it (*I Promise To Swim The Channel, where I demonstrate my best stroke in a washing up bowl of salty water and pledge £1 to the audience if I don't attempt it, shown at Chelsea Theatre and Scratch Interact at Soho Theatre at the end of this year). Then, as a January New Year 2011 shiny new thing decided to write this. Because the more I talk about, write about, tell people about it, the more I have to do it.

I'm an artist that makes performance, theatre type story telling stuff generally based on research, and visits and talking to people and collecting stories. I have been chosen to be part of Starting Blocks, run by Camden People's Theatre-a peer support group that offers space and time to work on a new project and create a work in progress outcome. This is my project, something that has run away with itself. 

So what this blog is, will be, is facts that I find and the stories that scatter the channel between this country and France. Little bits of information and tips for preparation that I have begun to collect in this (very slow) process of readying myself for the swim. The beginning of the story.

I will write about the training I have done and the training I will have to do (Swimming The Channel is 1,536.192 lengths of  the 22 metre  Arches Leisure Pool, Maze Hill but in temperatures of less than 14c) about the people that have swam before me, mind over matter and why people run to the sea. Why I run to the sea. It will also be about the trials and tails of swimming in public swimming pools in south London, the misinterpreted etiquette and foibles that can lead to lane rage.

What I will also be doing is finding out what happens to my body, measuring my arms to monitor the changes, taking pictures of myself to view the differences. (Yes, this might present a before and after story in the manner of 'Love It' magazine or Kerry Katona's new keep fit DVD, but this is in the name of art. Honest. Not a flat stomach. Never going to happen- I eat too much cheese. Also you have to put on weight to keep warm to swim the channel-more about that another time.)

I'm an average kind of women who verges on the large side. My brief career as an athlete ended in a false start in the 100 metre sprint at Leavesden Green Junior School sports day in about 1988. Swimming is the only sport I've ever been good at, water the only place I've felt graceful in.

So the statistics at the top of the page are the bits of my body that I will measure on a, lets say, weekly basis. My left tensed bicep, my right tensed bicep and my back. I'm pretty broad shouldered as it goes but I'm trying to get a fair reading of my back without the added appendages of my chest. I am already relatively disturbed as to how much bigger my right arm is than my left arm (this is my stronger stroke arm, and interestingly my right breast is also considerably larger), but this is the first measure, so inaccurate readings are likely. Any suggestions for where I should be measuring, or how to measure correctly are most welcome.

So if you are still with me at this stage, this is me back to swimming after the inevitable Christmas break. Before this I was swimming an average of 2 or 3 times a week, trying to get at least two miles in on one session, and a minimum of 80 lengths (just over a mile) in the others.

I was feeling pretty good, looking pretty good (apart from what I can only assume is a chlorine related rash on my face in the beard area). Christmas came along with all the excesses, and I didn't swim for 3 or so weeks. Last week I got back in the pool and did 100 lengths (64 lengths is a mile at a 25 metre pool) and it was painful, clumsy and slow. 

I set my alarm for 6.45am this morning and managed 2 miles before 9am. I then sat down with two sausage sandwiches and finally started writing this introduction to the blog...