Didn't I used to be some kind of a swimmer? Wasn't I once focussed and hard working and driven? And fit? What happened to all of that?
Of course there was the Year After the Swim. Everyone deserves a year off after such intensity. Then there was the Year of Giving Back - training the kids English Channel relays with not much chance to do any real training myself. A really amazing and fun thing to do for one year.
I've always felt slightly dubious about those people who like to 'bag' the Channel. Tick it off. Add it to a list of endurance accomplishments. Ironman - tick. Kilimanjaro - tick. Marathon de Sable - tick. English Channel - tick. Done it, move on to something else.
Isn't it OK to move on, to feel satisfied and say enough is enough?
Of course a huge proportion of such a challenge is about something other than swimming - but it's also got to be about the love of swimming as well, hasn't it? And if it is about swimming, then why do people feel content to retire from it all, and to move on?
I've felt for a while now that it's almost impossible for me to retire, even if I want to. I am a distinctly average swimmer (in the pool, certainly) but when I swam the English Channel, I became defined by that, became less average. Became labelled A Channel Swimmer. Sometimes that's good and sometimes it's not. Because if you are defined as a Channel swimmer but you've stopped swimming, what are you then? You can't live for long on your past glories. Can you?
Saturday 2 May
I'm lying in bed, it's 6am, and I've just had some very odd dream involving Vernon Kay. Scared that I'm going to miss my alarm, I toss and turn for the next hour. What the hell am I doing, going through this all again, dragging myself down to Dover, I lie and wonder? Really angry with myself, I wonder if I'm doing the right thing committing to driving, swimming, swimming, driving, training, missing out on my weekends in London to immerse myself again in the grey green cloudy water of Dover harbour and the often grim watery solitude of long distance swimming. Quite frankly I'm pissed off and afraid of doing it but afraid of not doing it. Sally - if you dislike it so much, just don't do it!
Fortunately I'm getting a lift to Dover with solo Channel aspirant Christian, so I can't duck out. Christian has started training at the Cally, and has a solo slot booked for September this year. He picks me up at 8am and we head down to Dover for the first day of the season. Lots of chit chat in the car on the way down. I try to be helpful without seeming to be a know it all.
The weather is great when we leave London, but as we leave Folkstone and get towards the cliffs to the west of Dover, there is suddenly a really thick fog. Bizarre. We drive through it and thoughts of a blisteringly sunny day evaporate. The beach is crowded - swimmers milling around old and new. A good number of old faces are there, but there are many many new ones too. Lots of big strapping blokes, not as many women. Freda, Barrie, Irene and Cliff are all there. There must be nearly one hundred people on the beach. It's a bit like a factory production line. Queues of people line up in front of Freda and Irene to fill in pre-prepared forms with swimming experience and goals, and to get doled out hats.
We're told to line up as 'solos' and 'relays' - not sure which to stick myself in so plump for the solos. When I get to the start of the queue Freda says "What are YOU doing in the solos line?!". I tell her of my intention to swim the 10.55 miles of Irish Lough Earne this August (still not properly entered the race yet...) and she concedes and gives me the red hat of a solo swimmer. I have a joke with Barrie and then get changed quickly and greased up.
Freda and Cliff shout the orders: "35 minutes for solo swimmers and 25 for relays" and we head down to the water's edge. It's flat and relatively sunny. 35 minutes? She's got to be having a laugh. I'm concerned that the past few weeks I've been swimming in temperatures ranging from 12 to 14 or 15C, and think that the sea is going to be considerably colder. In fact I can't remember when I last swam in 10 or 11C. Bloody hell. 35 minutes will be a tough ask. Watch on, I jump in.
It's not that bad. It's really not that bad. I head down to the Hoverspeed wall, looking out for the signs I remember that concerned me when it was 10C and I was swimming in Parliament Hill, when I had a weird and unpleasant sensation that my neck was swelling up. It doesn't come. Phew. Must be warmer than 10C then. Good. I swim along to the Hoverspeed, enjoying looking up every now and again and seeing the other swimmers. To the Hoverspeed wall and back to the beach and a bit of dilly dallying and a bit of a chat and a wide curve out by the swimmers' beach and back in.
I meet Jane Murphy, near the beach and we have a quick chat. She says to me "Follow me, I want to show you something". I follow her, away from the beach, and then stop. "Where are we going?" "Five metres this way" she says. I wonder what she possibly could be showing me in the middle of the murky harbour, five metres from where we are? A slightly less murky bit of water? A rusty post? A seagull? It strikes me that it's one of those rouses to get me to swim down to the wall with her "Just another five metres and we'll be there... Just another five!". But she's pointing to a block of flats set back from the Promenade, where her and Kevin have put in an offer on a flat. We have a joke about her flinging feeds out to Kevin, her husband and King of the Channel, from the window as he trains in the harbour.
We head in to the beach at 35 minutes. I'm surprised that there are still many pairs of flip flops at the water's edge when I come in. Everyone's late and they'll get a telling off from Freda. Barrie throws my flip flops at me. He's enjoying that a bit too much. I'm grinning from ear to ear. That was great.
We dress and wander off for tea and snacks to warm up before our second swim. Meet up with Karl and Karl. Or Carl and Carl? From Tooting Bec, one of whom is doing a solo this year as well. Swap stories - they seem like nice guys. I try to introduce Christian to a few people. He amuses me by asking if people tumble turn at the harbour walls. What a good idea - except at low tide when your feet would be shredded by barnacles.
Second swim of the day, I've warmed up fine and am looking forward to getting back in to swim again. I reckon that Freda will say 45 minutes and she does. Christian said it was a bit wavy down at the Ferry wall so I head down that way. The tide is running down that way, along with the wind, so it takes no time at all to get down there. I even swim into a warmish bit! On the way back, it's lovely. Like visiting old friends. Trumpton is still there. I do some sprints between the lampposts, and really enjoy it. I feel fabulous. I swim for 50 minutes, bumping into Cliff this time right near the beach, and having a bit of a chat with him while treading water. How could I have possibly have thought that this wasn't going to be a good idea and that I should stay in the Cally doing medley sets, badly? Barrie chucks my flip flops at me and I walk up the beach feeling like this is my home.
I know that this is the easiest time of year - the water is cold yes, but the swims are short and easy to handle, not too boring, not too arduous.
The camaraderie is great, the sea and the outdoors are splendid. And I am free.
Saturday 2 May 2009, 11-12C, 35 mins and 50 mins swims
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