Sunday, 27 April 2014


Song for the week is a bit like me: it's pretty old and extremely unfashionable, and check out his voice - definitely effeminate.  However, it is metaphorical and doesn't really appear to be what it is on the surface.  This second sentence does not apply to me.....I once met Al Stewart and did that thing when because I had no reference to him apart from songs I couldn't think of anything to say.  I think I managed, "You write songs" and he said "Yes", which was kind as he probably didn't need me to tell him what he did. I need to polish up my small talk.

      Dark and the Rolling Sea - Al Stewart (now I see why my dad used to moan about long hair.                                                                       It's just not right...)

It's been an early Saturday morning, same as always.  I went down to the local lake at Welwyn which has just opened up for swimming.  I had some guys from a well known news agency photographing a filming me.  They want to chart my progress and put a multi media presentation together of the whole event.  Today was to get to meet me and then test out some of their equipment.

It all got off to a poor start. We arrived at 6.30am on a dark, drizzly morning to find that I wasn't allowed to swim without a wetsuit. It's not the worst news I have ever had, but part of the training for the Channel is about acclimatising to cold water.  The fact that I may well use a wetsuit for the Arch to Arc means that I wasn't too bothered, but I prefer the freedom and masochism of natural swimming. Nothing breathes more life into the body than a cold water swim. I even have a weird affection for the pneumatic grip of the shivers that can loosen your fillings. Anyway, the guys were able to film and get me to do swimmy things which I wouldn't have been able to do had I been shivering my nether regions off in the cold.  Poor old Dave D who had come for one of his stupid fast swims hadn't got his suit and just hung around with the guys, whilst what should have been an hour long swim turned into a two hour Vogue wetsuit shoot (that is obviously not true).

Dave Dawson, High Priest of Umbrellas, patiently waits whilst Neil and Lee take pictures and I take pictures of them. I am in the lake at this moment.

But talking of masochism I guess it might be assumed that there is a darker side of my psyche that allows me to push myself to levels of pain that would appear to be self harming.  I understand that, apart from the fact that I am terrified of pain and in doing all these events do my damnedest to avoid hurting.  Sure, I go to some pretty dark places mentally, but the overall sensation of completing a big event is a sense of achievement and satisfaction that I find hard to describe.  And so, junky that I am, I keep going. I think I understand why I can keep going.

When I used to drink so destructively, I thought I was weak.  My friends and family reinforced this by saying stuff like "use your willpower - just stop after a couple", or "your problem is you have no willpower".  Both viewpoints, helpful as they were meant to be, were missing the reality of a life threatening situation.  Firstly, no amount of willpower will help a person deal with addiction. The less travelled road to recovery is down a completely different path where willpower serves no purpose. No human power can match up to an addiction.  Secondly, and here is the paradox of addiction, it was only when I got sober and talked to some very knowledgeable people that I discovered that part of my problem was that I had willpower in spades.  It takes a very determined, very committed person to stand at a bar at lunchtime and order a pint of strong lager when he is still reeling, suffering and nauseous from the night before.  But I could do that day after day after day.  Now that is willpower!

Nowadays I don't do that.  But it became part of my life to use that tremendous capacity, that strength of will,  to keep going in a more constructive, more satisfying way.  So now, when I am in those dark places 60 miles into a 78 mile run,  suffering, reeling I tap into that willpower.  I can take the suffering because the end game is worth it.  And I remind myself every single day of my life that no matter how hard an event is, it is nowhere near as hard as it was when I stood at those endless bars day after day exercising my willpower and sinking from sight.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Mallorca 2 Long Distance Swim Training and Jellyfish

I have had this idea.  I like to post my nautical based song once(ish) a week but I suspect that by the time anyone has read the meandering introduction to the song their tea will be ready and they will never have time to listen to it.  So my suggestion is that I get the song intro over with early in the post and then you can listen to the song whilst reading the rest of the post.

With that in mind I'm going for something a bit lateral, but a top quality song, should you be a middle aged man with an interest in indie music.  There, who said I don't believe in inclusion.  Great song by the Black Keys - "Little Black Submarines" - get it?: 

I've just had a week away in Mallorca on a Swim Trek Long Distance Training Camp.  Notice I use the word "camp" as in "boot camp" and not as in my mannerisms.  This is because too many people still refer to my Mallorcan "holiday". Let's get this straight, there was nothing remotely holidayish about this and it was seriously hard work.

I was with a group of 16 swimmers, almost all with a strong background in swimming.  There were people like me - Channel aspirants, as well as a few who had already soloed and also some strong long distance swimmers who just liked, well, swimming long distances.

The aim of the week was to build up confidence and stamina in cold water with a view to many of us completing a 6 hour sea swim on water below 16 degrees.  We were in luck (I use this word ironically, okay) the water was not much above 14 degrees.  To normal people that is the same as a really cold bath.  You know, the sort of bath you'd jump out of shouting "fuck, fuck, fuck" before turning on a scalding tap for ten minutes to guarantee a habitable temperature.

The first day was a 1 and 2 hour swim and I remember thinking I might die of exposure in the first hour. But, as is the way perseverance led to the temperature becoming acceptable. After getting out from both these swims we were all shivering and in some distress.  At that point the thought of completing a 6 hour swim in these conditions seemed beyond the realms of possibility.The following day was a 2 and 3 hour swim and the discomfort and distress was the same.  In the morning two hour swim I remember after 30 minutes that my feet had become numb and thinking that my body would shut down way before the two hours was up.  And yet, and this is where I become amazed by what our bodies are capable of: my internal heating systems continued to adapt to the cold and I finished the day feeling warmer than when I had started.  The body seems to adjust to its environment if you are prepared to let it and can mentally stand the initial shock of a hostile environment.  The natural response is to get out, but if you shut your mind down and persevere your body's thermostat works in your favour.  It is a sensitive organism too.  I was amazed by how my skin could sniff out warm currents and as we swam around the bays of Mallorca we got to know the warm areas and also the horrible flows of cold current that would chill us to the bone.

Our third day was a 6 hour swim.  At breakfast that morning we were all very quiet.  You could sense the nerves and anticipation. We were like a squadron of pilots who had flown one mission too many. But everyone took on this challenge and everyone who set out to complete it did so.  We were dropped off in a bay with double beaches and for 6 hours we just looped around and around.  I have no idea what the holidaymakers on the sands made of us.  Swimming for half an hour would look odd, but 6 hours must have seemed surreal.  We were good swimmers and I guess they thought we must be some troop of weird athletes out for the day. Each circuit was maybe 2k and afterwards we could all discuss every feature of the sea bottom, right down to the shiny tent peg near the large chain (don't worry, you had to be there).

Looking back, now, it was such a huge achievement for us all, but by then we were so focused and just got it done.  6 hours swimming is about 18k for me - (about 40 k for my mentor Dave, who is far too fast and I will write more about over the next weeks.)  That is by anyone's standards a long swim.  It was a step into the unknown for me, but my body coped well and it has given me huge confidence.

There was one more hurdle for us and it came in an unexpected form.  The following day kicked off with a trip on the ribs to a new cove for a 2 hour recovery swim (yeah, right, "recovery" swim?  Recovery is about sleeping in and shovelling loads of grub down me while I read a book).  Off the boat we got and into the water.  I remember feeling so strong and euphoric as I ploughed through the water. Then it happened: I felt like I'd been whipped across the face. I was confused thinking that I had swum into metal wire or something similar.  Being light on self preservation I continued and nearly jumped out of the water as something electrocuted my thigh.  As I write I still have a large angry mark from that, almost two weeks later on.  We had swum into a  swarm of jellyfish.  Now check this out for clever thinking, we all turned back to the boat, finished our circuit and the swam another circuit and, guess what, got stung again.  Brilliant!

That was enough to get 14 of the 16 of us back on the boat and I was happy to stay.  But it was "King of the Channel" Kevin Murphy who pricked my conscience and suggested that swimming near jellyfish was good training for swimming the Channel.  I am a very simple, quite stupid person - indeed someone who would probably by out-intellectualised by the said jellyfish, so I accepted this piece of advice and got back in and began to swim.  That swim became one of the most tense hours of my life.  If there had been an underwater tobacconist I would have popped in for 20 B&H. My ensuing hyper vigilance meant that I escaped any more stings but I have now broken my jelly fish virginity.  Hmmm, I mean getting stung by one and not having carnal knowledge of them.

But you have to hand it to jellyfish, they really know how to freak out their target market.  I know they can't speak or do very much for themselves, but to an over active imagination like mine they are like alien life forces that glide through the ocean zapping unsuspecting humans.  I can't help thinking that they know exactly what they are doing and even have a whole design team behind them that make them look sinister and silent.  They must be pissing themselves laughing at the effect they have on us back in Jellyfish Towers.

                                    A truly talented group of people. Swim Trek 2014

Jellyfish included, the whole week has done me a huge amount of good.  Ten years ago I could only swim an approximation of breaststroke.  I had never been taught to swim and learning front crawl has been my only conscious attempt to learn something new as an adult (apart from guitar and I am really crap at that).  I have come on well, but without a swim background I have had no ability to reference myself as a swimmer.  This week has allowed me to see that I am not the best (that is reserved for people like Dave), but I am a decent swimmer and I do have a chance at swimming the Channel.  It's gone from being a long shot to a medium shot.  My biggest boost was on the last day when I was assessed by Kevin Murphy, swimmer of the Channel 34 times and a living legend. His summary has done more to buoy me up than anything else to date.  Thanks Kevin, you don't know how much that means to me.

                                            Kevin Murphy - King of the Channel 

But only time will tell......

Thursday, 3 April 2014


A quick one today on the old blog.  I'm off to Mallorca tomorrow for a weeks long distant swimming coaching with Swim Trek. Well I say tomorrow, but only just.  I have to get up at 3.30am to catch a 6.00am flight, so with getting all my cosmetics through customs I need to allow plenty of time.

I'm a bit nervous too.  I am one of those crushingly insecure people who assumes that everyone is much better than them, so I am assuming that all the people there will be insanely good swimmers for whom crossing the Channel will be like doing 60 lengths in the public baths.  I have visions of long swims and all these shit hot people having to wait around the corners of coves, or whatever you get in Mallorca, for weak boy to catch up.  Just my default setting.

One of the guys who is training us is called Kevin Murphy and he has swam the Channel 34 times.  I bet I can teach him a thing or two.....When he gives advice I must remember to talk over him using my experience to illustrate why I disagree.  See how quickly I can become the most hated member of the swimming group.

The water temperature out there is not so high.  I have heard it's 13 or 14 degrees.  One of the aims of the week is to get a 6 hour sea swim in.  This is a pre-requisite of swimming the Channel. No boat will take me over unless I have done this, so it will build my confidence if I can do this without a wetsuit, even though I intend to swim the Channel wearing a wetsuit (and lipstick).

NO doubt you will be glued to your seats awaiting my update next week, but in the meantime it's time for the Friday swim song.  I'm still gutted about that Eels song that has been purged from the internet.

This week's little bit of naughtiness is very apt.  Frightened Rabbit are a Scottish Indie band that people my age haven't heard of, but should have done as this music will not threaten them. The song is Swim Until you Can't See Land. That's a tip I need to follow in September.

So for your delectation; Frightened Rabbit