What I think about when I think about swimming

Renowned Japanese author, Haruki Murakami, wrote a book entitled “What I talk about when I talk about running”, I read that book and thought the title was really clever, so I am going to paraphrase it here. Fortunately, there’s no rules about stealing and bastardising titles, particularly if one then goes on to acknowledge the theft, so on we go.

Recently, I returned to the practice of swimming. In my past life I occasionally swam. My father, as an Australian, was born in the sea (citation needed) and felt that his pommie bastard kids needed to learn to swim. Perhaps he felt that we should have known how to from birth, as he had, and this failure was just another source of bitter disappointment for him. Perhaps not.

As children we used to go with him to the pool, and I don’t remember not being able to swim. At my primary school we had swimming classes, and I remember one occasion when I attended a swimming gala with school. The event that sticks in my mind is having to swim one width of the pool. Not really understanding what was required, I swam my width under the water, only breaking the surface to touch the opposite wall. I touched first.

The high school I attended had its own outdoor pool where we were subjected to swimming lessons during the summer months. Of course, summer in England doesn’t mean warm, or even significantly warmer, so the time of year seemed arbitrary. My chief memory about visits to the school pool were of being whipped with wet towels by older boys, and breath catching plunges into icy water.

There was the obligatory school swimming gala at the end of the summer term. One year, when I was thirteen, I was the sucker nominated by the others in my form to swim the butterfly event. Rather than see this as acknowledgment of my superior swimming skills, I saw it for what it was, an attempt to drown the least popular boy in the form.

Having already completed the freestyle, and the breaststroke, my poor little lungs were not in great shape. Already affected by the ten or so cigarettes I regularly smoked per day, they were protesting. But recognising that there was no way I could refuse without losing face, a fate worse than any other, I lined up.

         Butterfly is a very technical stroke, requiring great co-ordination and upper body strength, as well as great fitness. It is fair to say that I lacked all of the requirements. The first few strokes went fairly well, then I started to ship water. By the halfway point I felt I wouldn’t make it to the finish.

My arms wouldn’t respond to commands, they refused to rise above the water. The wave movement of the body that allows the double-leg kick, and then permits the head to lift from the water, essential for breathing in Butterfly, abandoned me completely. Nearly drowning while the whole school looked on remains among the most humiliating experiences of my life. It is up there along with being recognised by an ex-schoolmate while begging for loose change on the high street of my home-town. Think about that for a moment.

With such an experience it is hardly surprising that I forgot about swimming as soon as I wasn’t compelled to do it regularly. Many years went by until, having travelled to Australia, I rediscovered the ability.

It happened by accident. My girlfriend at the time used to visit the local swimming pool. This pool happened to be situated in the park next to Sydney university, it was a beautiful 50 metre outdoor pool, which was surprisingly under-used. Having accompanied her there one day intent on smoking a little weed and lying in the sunshine, I decided to have a go.

Imagine my surprise when after only a little while it became apparent that I could actually swim. Before too long I had built up to swimming a reasonable distance at a reasonable pace, not like a competition swimmer, but not bad.

This led to regular swimming for the next few years, until I became somewhat side tracked by addiction to heroin, hence ending up begging for change on the streets. The twists and turns of life can be quite surprising

         All the preceding lead me to the title of this piece. They are all among thoughts which pass through my mind as I swim up and down the pool.

Upon returning to England and eventually getting clean from drugs, I attempted to swim in the local pools. These are not in the same league as the local pools in Australia. Claustrophobic, 25m indoor pools, the choking smell of chlorine burns your eyes as you struggle to get into your rhythm amid the crowds.

This was all a far cry from the Bondi Icebergs where I regularly swam in Sydney. The Icebergs is a swimming club situated on the cliffs overlooking Bondi Beach. The 50m seawater-filled pool was separated from the ocean by a mere concrete wall over which the breakers would curl when the tide was high, crashing into the pool and causing a tidal swell as I swam my lengths.

The Icebergs, has been completely remodelled since those days. This is to its detriment in my opinion, as is the way the rest of Sydney has been rethought.

After only a few attempts to swim indoors I gave it up and took up running instead. This is when I read the book which gave rise to the title of this piece. There followed a seven-year hiatus during which I ran many miles. When I check my Garmin history and review the training schedule, the number of miles I’d cover in the weeks and months, I am amazed. About as far from being a natural runner as you could be, I always struggled.

Weighing around 105kg, it was hard to move that much bulk around. Being largely muscle, there was nowhere I could lose weight from, so I just persevered. I completed many half-marathons, quite a few off-road marathons, and some ultra-distance events before the question finally defeated me.

Anyone who runs will know the question I mean. It’s the one on everyone’s lips when you tell them what you did last weekend. Particularly if what you did was attempt to cover 86 non-stop gruelling, rugged miles along The Ridgeway trail in under 24 hours, or something similar. They always say. “Why do you do it?”

         We runners always smile ruefully and enjoy that moment, but I was always stuck for an answer. Even when I asked myself I could find no good answer. Eventually the lack of a good reason became too much to ignore. Having always endured and never enjoyed, the best I could come up with was that I enjoyed when the running was over. I ran because I loved stopping running. I ran because I couldn’t bear swimming in England. So, I stopped running.

The withdrawals bothered me for a short time. The embarrassment at how many pairs of running shoes I owned, how many endurance backpacks, but once they were all boxed up in the garage it ceased to be a problem. The Ridgeway 86-mile Challenge will start without me this year and good luck to everyone taking part.*

Thoughts of running also come to me as my 105kg bulk slips through the water with very little drag. I often think of running as my knees don’t hurt after another swim. The endurance-running back pain that has never recurred in the pool. What about the question? Well, I swim because I like to swim. Whenever people ask me how quickly I cover 50m, I make a note to stop speaking to that person.

Having been introduced to outdoor swimming by my brother**, himself a one-time leading-light of the all-year-round outdoor swimming community, I now go to a couple of the outdoor pools around London***. In summer, the temperatures rise to a respectable and manageable low 20s degrees C, while in winter they often drop to low single figures.

While I have swum at 4 degrees, I’m a bit of a wimp and have retreated indoors when it drops that low. This year I am intending to try and swim into the winter. It will entail not running away when the water temperature drops into single figures as before, instead pushing through the pain barrier wherever it takes me.

Venturing onto a path that my brother has trodden before raises the spectre of competition. Happily, he progressed so far along that path I can have no illusions about competing with him. His achievements are too numerous and impressive for me to countenance. I must simply doff my cap to him and carry on.

It is my decision to not allow any competition or performance matters to break into my enjoyment of simply being in the water. I do it for me and that is all you need to know.

The title of this piece is a bit misleading. It’s not so much what I think about when I think about swimming, more what I think about when I am swimming. My aim is to achieve that no-thought state when I swim. To move through the water until everything disappears. The pressures of life, any disappointments, growing pains, all that stuff. And when it has gone there’s only the water and me.

I will often smile when that state emerges from the chaos of my thoughts. That’s when I know I am happy.

* I attempted the Ridgeway Challenge three times and never completed it. My best result was 61miles before I dropped out

** Acknowledgement to John Donald possibly the best brother a man could have, certainly the best ice swimmer I have ever met

*** Acknowledgment to Uxbridge Lido and Parliament Hill Lido for their superb outdoor swimming facilities.

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