My 50th-birthday swimming challenge: week two

Bottling that feeling

Earlier this week, a lady from the swimathon asked me what tips I might give to someone who was lacking the motivation to swim. I replied that I’ve never ever regretted having gone swimming, but that I’ve frequently regretted not going.

I’ve had a manically hard week at work, and it’s been a struggle to do all these swims. If you think that I’m jumping out of bed at 6am to energetically dash off to the next pool, you’d be wrong. Perhaps you think that I’m gleefully scurrying off to a pool in some far-flung corner of London after a hard day at work. Hmmm. Wrong again for the most part.

But – hey – there’s a surefire way to make yourself do something when you’re not certain that you have the willpower to do it … That is: tell everyone you know that you are going to do it. The more people you tell, the more you can’t wriggle out of it. The fact that I’ve told everyone I’m doing this thing has driven me on to get up when I haven’t felt like it, I can assure you.

And of course, once I have finished my swim for the day, I’ve felt amazing. Every time.

I wish I could bottle that feeling that you have once you’ve swum: relaxed but energised; strong and focused, positive and alive. Just happy. I wish I had a little bottle of “essence of post-swim” to keep by my bed or in my bag, which I could just open and take a deep breath of when I want to remind myself why I should get up or get off the sofa. Wouldn’t life be so much easier and happier?

Sunday 8 March: Putney Leisure Centre (33 metres)

I was in Dover on Saturday night for a Channel swimmers’ reunion dinner, and returning a hire car to Wimbledon, it seemed a great opportunity to swim somewhere a bit out of reach. So after a two-hour drive, weighed down by my overnight bag and a bit of a sore head, I headed, somewhat reluctantly, to Putney Leisure Centre. Putney! As soon as I arrived I realised that I’d been there before –about ten years previously for a swimming-related party. It’s a modern pool, built in 1960 and with an impressive concertina-type concrete ceiling and a diving pool with four diving boards. I was tired and a bit jangled after my drive, but swimming slowly up and down while watching the steady stream of kids and a handful of thrill-seeking adults joyfully hurling themselves off the boards made me smile. Gradually I unwound, length by length. And afterwards I mused that there is something about being in an unfamiliar neighbourhood but fitting right in within an environment where all rules are understood (no bombing! no diving! no petting!) that is deeply comforting.

Monday 9 March Camberwell Leisure Centre (25m)

Monday night I decided that Camberwell was in close enough proximity to dash to after work. I had swum at this pool before as well, about ten or so years ago, and remember it being quite scruffy. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it had been refurbished since then. The pool was bright and sparkling – all vaulted ceilings and wrought-iron balconies and gleaming whitewashed walls. It was really busy after work, and understandably so – it seemed a great place to be. Drove home late in the evening, happy and ever so slightly wired.

Tuesday 10 March Clissold Leisure Centre (25m)

I had to really force myself to get up and swim early because I knew that I had to work in the evening. Getting up at 6.15am was the thing I wanted to do least in the world – but I knew that I didn’t have a choice. I arrived early at Clissold as the early morning golden sun was streaming through the glass walls. The pool was clear and cool and relatively empty. I’d forgotten what a beautiful pool it is: a modern building that is not just a functional shed, architect-designed with wood and exposed concrete and a large deep pool. By the time I left it was 8.15am – and it seemed as if the whole of London had awoken and come alive while I was swimming. I felt like a secret ninja swimmer.

Wednesday 11 March Marshall Street Leisure Centre (30.5m)

I had swum in Marshall Street baths before it closed down in 1997, and haven’t been back since. After a long and successful campaign it was refurbished and reopened in 2010. It’s one of the most beautiful pools in London (it was previously rebuilt in 1931) and it still has an amazing pool lined with huge white Sicilian marble tiles – something truly stunning to watch as you swim along staring at the bottom. I’d arranged to meet two completely different swimming friends there for a pre-work dawn raid: Hilary, who swims with my swimming club, and Ian, a triathlete who I haven’t seen for eight years, but who gamely arranged to come and swim. They were both faster than me, and it sent me into a bit of a tail spin – the thought that my slow mile would keep them hanging around. I just tried to relax and enjoy the moment. Ian, hungover, swam a mile in solidarity, and then admitted that it was the longest continual swim he’d done since fatherhood distracted him from triathlon. I felt so touched that he’d come to swim with me and that he’d gamely completed the mile. By 8am we had finished swimming and were sitting animatedly in a cafe in Soho, drinking coffee and discussing swimming adventures in Norway and the role of women in the workplace. It was great of them to join me – and it made for a perfect, sociable start to the day.

Thursday 12 March Porchester Spa (30m)

Years ago, I travelled here to watch a lovely but mad aquatic ballet. I’d never swum here. I had a hectic two days at work and had been up at 6am on Thursday morning preparing for a presentation. After a long day I gritted my teeth, grabbed a peanut butter sandwich as a pre-swim snack, and raced off to Porchester Spa. It’s another well-preserved, beautiful building – and another lovely, eccentric 30m-long pool. It was quiet and dimly lit and I shared a lane with one other bloke. The solitude was just what I needed.

Friday 13 March Ironmonger Row Baths (30.5m)

I’m trying to leave all the pools that are close to me for “emergencies” – when I have no time to fit in a further “away” swim. Today was one of those days. I had to wait in early for a builder and was going out in the evening. When to swim? I hastily and stressfully swam at lunchtime, then dashed to work, and almost cried with all the mad to-ing and fro-ing. By the time I got to the end of the day, I just really wanted to stop. Lunchtime swims are not that much fun. Cramming them in just seems perfunctory and not relaxing at all. And oddly, after all the excitement of new and interesting pools, my local (and lovely) baths seemed anti-climactic. I found myself wondering why we always swim at the same pool if we have a choice.

Saturday 14 March Crystal Palace National Sports Centre (50m)

When I first moved to London 20 years ago, I think I remember someone saying that Crystal Palace was the only heated 50m pool in the capital. Now there are at least four that I know of – including the London Aquatics Centre, London Fields Lido and Charlton Lido. How spoiled we are to have these places. I swam at Crystal Palace a good number of years ago – perhaps 10? – and only remember it being a concrete bunker. So I was amazed when I turned up to see such great architecture: beautifully delicate concrete ribs in the lobby and an amazingly sunny and impressive 50m pool plus diving pool, teaching pool and spectators’ gallery.

Wendy, a friend from work who lives nearby, had arranged to come and swim with me. I arrived before her and was well underway by the time she arrived. It was great to see a friendly face and the pool was quiet. It’s a different feeling swimming in an impressive building of a certain scale, in a 50m pool. It makes you feel serious and businesslike, like a Proper Swimmer. It makes you up your game. These places are perfect cathedrals to swimming; they make the adrenalin course through your veins…

Afterwards we walked through Crystal Palace Park, and Wendy, a perfect hostess, told me all about the history of the Great Exhibition and of the park itself.

So the second week has been completed and I’m a quarter of the way through my challenge. I keep looking at my list of pools and my spreadsheet and worrying that there aren’t enough pools left. I seem to have done so many already!

Everything else in my life feels slightly on hold as I spend the time I’m not swimming poring over my timetable and spreadsheet, scrutinising pool schedules to work out best how each pool will fit in with my life, unpacking my swim bag, drying out my swimming things – and then re-packing ready for the next day. It feels a bit like I’m in the eye of a storm.

Now. Where’s that bottle of essence of post-swim…?

I am fundraising for the Royal Marsden Cancer Charity as I swim my way around London. You can sponsor me here

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