I said I would post about what is motivating me to swim the channel one day.  One reason I have is that I like a challenge.  I like to push myself.  I like a goal to aim for.

Another reason is that I would like to raise money (as much as I can), for a cause very dear to my heart, which is Great Ormond St Hospital (GOSH).  If anyone who is a non-UK national is reading this, and hasn’t heard of GOSH, here is a short explanation:

GOSH is the foremost children’s hospital in the UK, and deals with many of the most rare, severe and acute childhood conditions from around the UK, as well as a good number from the rest of the world.  While much of its work is publically funded through the National Health Service (NHS), a large part of its work and facilities are paid for by donations from individuals and organisations.  GOSH was also featured in the Olympics Opening Ceremony a few days ago, which highlighted the work of the UK’s often maligned, but universally treasured, free-at-the-point-of-access Health Service.

While it is great to have such an brilliant institution 30 miles or so south of where you live, what you never want, and do not expect, is to one day be going there, in quite a hurry, with one of your children.  This, however, is precisely what happened to my wife Susie and I in the spring of 2008.  Our older son Tom had been for a scan at a local hospital due to some slight wonkiness in his neck, and some restricted movement.  In retrospect other signs were probably there, but it turned out that Tom had a massive brain tumour in the back of his head, and down his neck.  We knew it was especially serious when the consultant paediatrician told us that he was driving the scan results down to GOSH himself that very afternoon, that we should start anti-inflammatory medicines immediately, and report to GOSH first thing in the morning, with bags packed for a stay.

When we got to GOSH, they not only knew we were coming, but had already met as a team to review the scans, and put in place a plan.  The sense of relief when you realise that you are in the best possible place you could be, and that they know what they are doing, is amazing.  After a couple of days of observations, tests and anti-inflammatories, we were even sent home for the weekend, before coming back on Sunday evening ready for an operation on Monday morning.

Tom had surgery on his brain for 9 hours, to try and remove as much as possible of the brain tumour, part of which was in intimate contact with the brain stem.  He recovered amazingly well, despite looking pretty beaten up through having lain face down for 9 hours, and the sheer number of tubes exiting various parts of him.  It’s a cliche for sure, but you really wish that it could be you lying there in that bed, in place of your 3 year old little boy.

After recovering for a week, Tom had another 6 hours surgery the following Monday, trying to remove even more of the tumour.  Our fantastic surgeon, Mr Thompson, was able to remove far more of the tumour than he had thought possible at the outset.  Words cannot express our gratitude at the skills of this man and his team during the surgical phase of Tom’s treatment.  To concentrate for 15 hours on the highly delicate surgery involved in debulking a tumour in a three year old’s brain appears to me an almost superhuman feat.

Tom recovered well.  Though partially paralysed down one side, he suffered no other complications, and a few weeks later went into an 18 month course of chemotherapy strong and fat (a side-effect of the anti-inflammatory drugs is an insatiable appetite).  He would need every ounce of those reserves, as over the next 4 months he was reduced to a pale, bald, bird-like shadow of his former self.

The goal of the chemo was to try and stop the remainder of the tumour that was impossible to remove from regrowing, at least for as long as possible.  The path that Tom went down was a well-trodden one, so all of the complications were understood: loss of balance, susceptibility to infection  due to loss of immune response, loss of appetite, allergic reaction to chemo drugs to mention just a few.  We spent interminable days in isolation in Stevenage Hospital whenever Tom got an infection, watching him pumped full of iv antibiotics to stem an infection against which he had no longer had any defence.  The children’s facility in Stevenage should also be complimented on their brilliant work by the way, sharing the administration of chemo with GOSH, and providing the bulk of the aftercare.

Regular MRI scans monitored the size of his remaining tumour, which thankfully remained unchanged, and after a punishing 18 months, the chemo was finished, and Tom was able to slowly recover.  We are a couple of years now post-chemo; regular scans at GOSH, and consultations with our brilliant oncologist, Dr Brock, tell us that so far the tumour remains ‘dormant’.  We know it might start to grow again one day, but this sort of experience teaches you to take one day at a time, not to dwell too much on things you cannot control, and to put your faith in the wonderful professionals at GOSH and elsewhere.  If things change then we will deal with it with their help.

If you met Tom on the street you would never realise what he has been through in his short life, more than half of which has been under the care of Great Ormond St Hospital.  He is a bright, funny, affectionate, football-loving boy who is treasured beyond measure.  He has been astonishingly uncomplaining and stoic throughout this whole story.  We never once had a ‘Woe Is Me!’ moment.  Nor did his little brother complain, despite being without his Mum or Dad, or occasionally both for various periods of time.

I woud now like in my own small way to put something back.  Channel swimming is an expensive business.  All expenses will come out of my pocket, so any donations/sponsorship I manage to get will go straight to GOSH, with whatever gift-aid the government put on top.  Once the Dart 10k is done I will post details of how people can help if they can, and I will propose a target to aim for.  Just how much is a channel swim worth?  More importantly, how much is the work done at GOSH worth?  What value can I place on the tireless dedication shown to our family by GOSH, The Lister Hospital in Stevenage, the community nurses, the physios, the occupation therapists to name but a few?

Finally, I raise a glass (!) to Tom’s wonderful family, first and foremost Susie who did the bulk of the caring after giving up work, but also his little brother Finn, both sets of grand-parents, Mike + Lou, plus all the friends of the family and our local community who have been there for us.

Here At Last

Well I guess the preamble took a lot longer than I had initially thought.  But where I am now is some fairly solid swimming in the pool (60 km in July), mostly indoors in the warm pool, but occasionally in the local Jesus Green Lido in Cambridge, where each length is 100 yards, in a wetsuit.  I wouldn’t say I am any kind of speed demon, but the times I am doing now for my typically 1 km sets have been creeping down with increased work, and improved bilateral breathing.  Currently my average is about 1 min 40 per 100 over 4 or 5, 1 km sets.  The back and the shoulders are also now feeling pretty strong.

My short term goal is for later in the summer when I take part in the annual OSS Dart 10K.

This happens in the River Dart in Devon, and is a (probably) tidally-assisted 10 kilometers downstream.  I say probably, as there are no guarantees, only that last year people said it felt more like 8-9 km.  Still it is something to train for and look forward to, and should provide a significant challenge for me.  Wetsuits are compulsory unless consent is given by the organisers, which is why I have been hitting the Lido to try and build up some miles with wetsuit on.  Up until now though, I have never swum further than 6 km in a single visit to the pool, or been in the water for longer than 2 hours.  I aim to have got a few 8-9 km swims under my belt before the big day…..

Once I have completed this event (I hesitate to call it a race), I will then be in a much better position to set my sights firmly on where I might go from there.  10 km Is by most people’s judgement a fair distance to be swimming, but there is a lure of ‘bigger things’ out there that has started to call me over the last 6 months.  And one of the biggest, and for sure the most iconic, is the English Channel.

In this age of YouTube, blogging and social media, there is a huge amount of material relating to swimming the channel that you can find with some simple keyword searches.  I don’t propose to reproduce any more of that than I need to: just go and look if you do not already know.  But you will not need long to discover that swimming the Channel is non-trivial.  You had better be trained up to the eyeballs, and preferably a little lucky with the weather and circumstances, otherwise you are going to get your backside firmly spanked in attempting it.

I am now pencilling in a date of about 2 years from now to be ready for this sort of challenge.  Coincidentally, about 2 years ahead of time is about what you need to book a pilot/boat, which is going to force my hand pretty soon.

Luckily, I have an awesome reason for doing it.  It would be wrong of me to say it is any better than anyone else’s awesome reason(s), but I will certainly not be lacking motivation in the long and cold months ahead.

Next time I will talk a little about my reason.

Still Getting To Here….

The first half of 2012 was, like the curate’s egg, good in parts.  On one hand, there were lots of improvements in the pool, but on the other, there were a couple of injuries which were worrisome.  The first was almost certainly my own fault.  As I started to boost the distances in training to 4 km, my right shoulder started to give me quite a lot of pain.  Probably a combination of overworking a shoulder not accustomed to such long shifts, and poor technique.  I have always been rather asymmetric in front crawl, only breathing to the left, and with a flat and swingy right arm.  I have always had to be careful not to deal out a right hook to swimmers passing innocently in the other direction!

My doctor listened to the various clicks going on in my shoulder and told me to “have a rest”.  Very sound advice.  I did as I was told, and stayed out of the pool for a full week.  I also told myself that I was going to teach myself to breathe bilaterally.  Maybe this would iron out the asymmetry, while making me a better, faster, and more versatile swimmer?  The week of rest seemed to help, and was easy to achieve.  Bilateral breathinig on the other hand has provided much more of a challenge.

42 years I spent breathing to one side only.  Trying to learn to breathe on both sides makes you empathise with non-swimmers trying to learn how to swim while adults.  Beginners usually complain of being out of breath while swimming front crawl: the reason for this is that their method of breathing is inefficient and therefore not enough oxygen gets through.  The same applied to me.  I was only able to swim a couple of lengths bilaterally before getting totally winded and reverting back to breathing every two strokes.  I got there gradually though, adding more and more bilateral breathing into my training.  The real breakthrough came though when I stuck a pullbuoy between my legs, allowed myself to forget about ‘the back end’, and concentrate on breathing smoothly to both sides, and thinking about technique.  All of a sudden it clicked, and I was able to go km after km bilaterally.  I am still weaning myself off th pullbuoy though, as I know it is a bit of a cheat…..

The second injury came out of the blue.  While climbing the stairs at work, my back suddenly siezed up, accompanied by immense pain.  I ended up being taken to hospital in an ambulance that day.  A few days on the prescription panikillers though and things got a lot better.  Another week out of the pool and all was well.  A couple of weeks after that I was taking part in my first ever open water event, The Great East Swim in June 2012.

This was only the second time I had ever been in a wetsuit, and the first time I had ever swum with the human salmon run that takes place at the start of these things.  This, and the chop, and being totally lousy at sighting/navigating, meant that I only managed a time of 1 h 1 minute for the 2 miles, which was disappointing.  I would have preferred to have been under an hour.

Next time I will try and get down where I am now, what I would like to achieve in swimming, and how I would like to set about doing it.

How I Got To Here 2

It took a few weeks ago to get over the ‘weak as a baby’ feeling, aided also by some helpful soul suggesting that maybe having a drink with me in the pool might be a good idea.  The temperature at the pool in which I train is in the high 20’s, which is fine to stop casual bathers getting cold too quickly, put pretty lousy for others swimming hard for any length of time.

I then spent the summer and autumn slowly increasing the length of my swims, 100 m at a time, cutting out the back- and breaststrokes (aka extended rests), until by Christmas I was able to knock out 120 lengths of the 25 m pool in about an hour including a couple of short rests.  This was pretty major stuff for me, and I was starting to feel fitter.  A couple of inches came off my waistline during this time, and muscle bulk in my upper body started to build.  The scales tipped at more like 108 kg now, and I was starting to get hooked.  At this point you find yourself wondering what you are actually capable of: how far, how fast?

Of course there are always bumps along the road, and we’ll meet a couple of those next time, but at that time, around Christmas 2011, I was feeling pretty good.

How I Got To Here

Their early forties are when men typically turn their minds to a mid-life crisis.  Rather than any of the ordinary and less well-advised ones I decided to get into the pool and swim.  As I turned 41 in March last year, I was dragging myself out of a very unpleasant 2 month bout of walking pneumonia, while feeling fatter and less fit than at any time before.  I am not exaggerating here, 115 kgs (18 stone in old money), and out of breath at the top of the stairs.  I had a couple of very tentative sessions in the gym at work, concerned about whether my lungs were going to play nicely at all, before starting swimming, and occasionally cycling the 17 undulating miles to work.

I had to admit to myself pretty early on that the 115 kgs were never going to be much of a help while cycling, unless a ride completely free of gradients could be found, so started to concentrate on the swimming instead.

I have a background in swimming from school days, but hadn’t actually done any in the intervening 22 years or so.  But the muscle memory was still there.  Unfortunately, memory was the key word, as I soon discovered.  After knocking out 30 lengths  or so in my first session, using a mixture of strokes (breaststroke and backstroke thrown in to give myself a break from tiring front crawl), I emerged from the pool and tried to get changed.  I was as weak as a baby, and could barely do my shoelaces up!

Anyway, one of my boys has got up now, and today I am not at work or swimming, so I will post some more later.  Kettle on!

Starting Out

This is not just the first post on this blog, but my first on any so very exciting.  This will hopefully serve as a diary, motivator and relationship-builder as I dip my toe (excuse the pun) into the water of serious swimming.  It will be here when even I get the message that my friends,colleagues and family are losing the will to live.  More later about where I am now, and where my ambitions might take me later….