Tuning in to the Swimming Channel

One day I might want to know which day I tipped over from “Odd whim” to “Firm plan” about something big.

It is not yet this day, but it might be.

It was swimming in a new swimming pool that did it. The one attached to Ampleforth College. I imagined monks wringing out their habits in the changing rooms and noted the absence of “No Petting” signs among the usual ones urging users not to run, push, slip, wrestle or jump. There was a high white ceiling, white pipes without rust, natural light and tree tips just glimpsed through the high windows. Even better there was just me and one other woman in a 25 metre pool. Space, light, freedom to stretch out down the middle of the pool and still be a dot in the blue rectangle. I decided to alternate crawl and breast stroke and see how long I could do that for. It turned out that the length of breast stroke was also plenty enough to recover for the length of the crawl so even though two consecutive lengths of the crawl still felt like hard work, my overall speed must have been 50% higher than usual. I don’t usually bring numbers into swimming. I don’t count lengths or strokes or seconds. Just the ticking down of the clock to the end of the swim. I’m nearly always there in the last 45 minutes of any given swim session and end up recreating the “Can’t we stay in just five more minutes?” of childhood with myself in my head.

Out of curiosity though, I thought I’d note the difference between a length of crawl and a length of breaststroke. Crawls came in at about 33 seconds, breast strokes at between 55-65 seconds. I was impressed that I could go twice as fast as normal, without really pushing it. Though I’m still very new to building up any crawl stamina. I always feel like I could go on forever with breast stroke (an unchallenged assumption while I keep slipping in forty five minutes before the end of swim sessions) whereas I didn’t really do crawl at all until last summer. Last summer when I thought I might like to do more sea swimming. Last summer when I started looking up facts about channel swims and discovering that people mostly don’t do it by breast stroke alone (though the first man to cross did- which is partly why it took Captain Matthew Webb 21 hours 45 minutes back in 1875 before front crawl was a thing).

Unlike the pool nearer me in Thirsk, Ampleforth’s changing room is women only not unisex and the floor was dry, not wet and streaked with mud. I am very squeamish about changing rooms. Which makes it seem perverse that the swimming room I prefer most of all is the basic, down and dirty Helmsley. The outdoor pool which doesn’t open until June 14th and whose opening I’m counting down to as if I’m waiting for part of my life to begin. In such a way that I know I can’t yearn this much for something I can only have for three months of the year when Helmsley’s open (and not even that long because I’m usually performing in Edinburgh in August where last year I built up another yearning for the white, brightness of the Commonwealth Pool which was closed for refurbishments in August).

The closed pools say “Here is the light and space and freedom that you cannot have as you float”. The sea says I can have it any time. I just need to learn how to have it. Or be motivated enough to go further out of my way.

Last night, after the crawl/breaststroke experiment, I started reading about channel crossings again. Sally Goble’s articles and blog inspire me. She talks about being a very average swimmer who took on the unaverage feat of the channel. Not really out of bravado, but out of dogged persistence and sheer love of swimming: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/the-swimming-blog/2013/aug/09/how-i-swam-english-channel

I have applied my own dogged persistence to running- completing the Great North Run’s 13 miles three times even though I have no aptitude for running whatsoever and many people could probably walk it quicker than I managed. I do however have a bit more aptitude for swimming, despite my lack of crawl, my phobia of diving and tendency to arrive at sessions shortly before the end. I feel at home in water, like my body is supposed to be there. Swimming soothes me. Though maybe that’s because I don’t bring numbers into it.

Sally Goble isn’t slim and talks about how well she withstands the cold compared to svelter swimmers. Apart from darts, I can’t think of any other sport where being overweight is an advantage (well- I know it strictly speaking doesn’t help you chuck an arrow- but you stand out on the oche if you’re skinny). After over twenty years of trying to accept my curves maybe I should go for something more than acceptance. Something where spare fat is actually a strength.

Could I go on for the 21 miles of the channel which is frequently many more miles due to tides and winds? Could I afford the £3000 cost and the hours of training? Could I cope with the effort which is said to be 90% mental, 10% physical? Could I do it whilst doing a PhD? Couldn’t it be the perfect antidote? Mind and body in sync in soothing waters? Ah, see, I’m trying to talk myself into it. Write myself into it. There’s another thing. The writing. Already I’m thinking of symbolic journeys. Crossing the gap between England and France where my Mother died. Actually testing the theory I’ve always blithely believed that I had more than usual swimming stamina to make up for my less than usual running stamina. Something about unbreachable gaps being breachable. Uh-oh. Will I be going simile when I should be going swimmily? The puns could be worse than my Great North Run.

I’ve done my modern-day equivalent of testing the water. Started a Facebook thread, hinting at my thoughts. Saying that I’ve realised that more people climb Everest than swim the Channel. No one with the surname Fox has ever done it (There’s lists). Carina said, in response to me saying that it was a whim or an idea that it sounds like “a plan”. Amanda said “No, just no”. I’ve been warned of jellyfish and cold (apparently it’s really not as cold as you’d think- partly due to outflows from Dungeness Nuclear Plant which isn’t as reassuring a fact as you’d want but still…). Margie said she’d sponsor me and want to follow my journey and thinks others would too. We’ll see. Or sea.

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